The last time I was in our neighborhood supermarket, I narrowly avoided buying the latest special issue of Good Housekeeping, full of recipes for the Mediterranean diet. Although I was tempted, $13.99 was non-trivial, and I reminded myself that if I want to eat something new, I could always unpack more of my mom’s cookbook collection.
Later I realized that my interest in the magazine had been visual – everything looked so delicious! Even things I would never actually want to eat, like cooked tuna. If that was the magazine’s real appeal, many of my mom’s cookbooks would work equally well, including those already on my shelves. I don’t actually need fresh “food porn.”
This metaphoric use of the word “porn” has been around for more than 40 years. Wikipedia says it originally drew on the “excitement” and “unattainable” themes in conventional pornography, but now it just means food that’s been beautifully photographed. (Along with whatever gratification your imagination can supply… like real porn, I suppose).
I’m also a big fan of “landscape porn.” My Windows screensaver is a collection of photos I’ve found online, and whenever my laptop’s sat idle for 10 minutes, I find myself enjoying a world tour of beauty. Most of my favorites show water and forest together, like this picture of the coast of British Columbia:
Or this one of Lake Tahoe:
But some are forests full of wildflowers, like these bluebells:
And then there’s my other favorite, “competence porn.” Although I’ve never watched it, my understanding is that MacGyver is the classic example. But my Perry Mason rewatch also qualifies. Everyone is always on top of their game: Perry, Della, Paul Drake. Even Lt. Tragg. Yesterday I was watching the episode where a glamorous novelist played by Beverly Garland (who later became the new mom on My Three Sons) had a secretary (a lovely young Louise Fletcher, more familiar to us from her subsequent roles of villainy on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine). One or both of these women was being framed for murder, with a scarf left in a coffee can. Perry made the case that when he’d taken the scarf, he wasn’t removing evidence. As he told the judge, the police had examined the murder scene, and they knew how to do their jobs. If the scarf had been there then, they would have found it.
The Murderbot Diaries, a series of novellas by Martha Wells, also qualifies as competence porn. Our protagonist is a humanoid artificial intelligence with enough low-quality human tissue to provide it (its preferred pronoun) with emotion. This person (who ironically calls itself “Murderbot” but whom everyone else calls SecUnit, for “security unit”) is extremely socially anxious, constantly self-soothing by internally streaming its favorite episodes of soap operas (and I would love to get to see The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon). But it is also extremely competent. The best.
The gratification one gets from competence porn isn’t the same as looking at a luscious bowl of berries, but it’s still there. It’s about confirming our faith in people (human or otherwise) – they CAN get things right.
(Also, competence porn doesn’t mean mistakes are never made. It means people learn and try harder to get things right – that’s competence too.)
So, food porn, landscape porn, and even competence porn are about relaxation, unwinding, engaging the imagination in ways that restore the spirit. Taking a few minutes out of daily life for a brief reset. That’s great!
But this all brings me to a strange and iffy new type of “porn.” Last week on Nova, they had an episode about Arctic sinkholes – the results of underground explosions of methane, a dangerous greenhouse gas. I wanted to watch it to learn more about this problem, but I confess that I wanted to watch it even more because of the amazing and horrifying images I’d seen in the trailer. And I wanted to see it on my moderately large TV screen, not on my laptop, to get the full effect. And yet I feel guilty about that reaction (thrilled by disaster?), so it’s still sitting there on my DVR, unwatched.
Food porn, landscape porn, competence porn, and of course real porn are all about pleasure. But I’m afraid that we’re now seeing “porn” that targets a different emotional experience, the sublime.
In everyday language, “sublime” is often used to mean overwhelmingly lovely, but it also has a more technical meaning. That is, in philosophy, the word refers to an experience that’s torn between amazement and terror. When what you’re seeing is “just” art, the sublime can be enjoyable. But when you know it’s real – like if you’re watching footage of the Twin Towers collapsing – then it may be a “sublime” experience but it surely isn’t emotionally healthy.
So… I guess we now have climate porn. This is not an original thought. I found a 2006 Guardian article on sensationalizing climate change using this very expression, but the article was referring to examples that people would have to imagine, not actual video.
Climate porn is not about relaxing and gratification – it’s very much the opposite.
The problem is that people respond to visuals and stories, far more than to facts and figures. Some people will be inspired to make real changes in the world by seeing visually dramatic works like the Nova episode, and we need that to happen. Most of us can’t do much about it, though, beyond being aware and supporting the politicians and policies that can help. And for many, that’s leading to a new phenomenon, which I’ve been giving a lot of thought to lately: eco-anxiety. People are experiencing a lot of stress about their not just their lifestyle choices, but their entire futures, whether to have kids, whether they’ll live to be old. And realizing that even if they live their lives perfectly in tune with the planet, that’s not enough to fix things. I’ll have more to say about this in a future post.
And I can see that before I finish this essay, I’d better actually watch the show. Ethics, you know.
Okay, did that. This “Arctic Sinkholes” episode of Nova is quite interesting, carefully documented, generally not “over the top” – yet still alarming, as one would expect. And I learned new things, like the difference between “permafrost methane” and “fossil methane.” But since I was watching it from a critical perspective, I also noticed some of the techniques they used to make it compelling – emphasizing novelty and surprise and mystery, and of course with dramatic music and occasional graphics of what a gigantic methane explosion might look like. And I realized that it ties in closely with the paper for which I just wrote a full first draft – the many different ways that media messages can capture our attention – so I’ll be posting more about that soon as well.
The bottom line is – communicating science is very tricky. If you make it interesting enough to attract the viewers who aren’t already committed to learning all they can about a topic, sometimes it can feed into eco-anxiety (or pandemic anxiety, or thermonuclear war anxiety, or whatever) that the viewer cannot personally do a lot about. Then they’re left hanging, and stressed – and people who are stressed are less likely to think creatively or to make positive changes.
It’s important to be informed, but if you can’t do anything about it? Stress, and maybe eco-anxiety too – which can mean shutting down and giving up. Or worse – denying it’s real.
How DO you inform people about something that’s inherently dramatic and important, but also systemic, so their individual actions may not much matter? That’s the Big Question.
So for now, I guess it’s back to de-stressing with gorgeous food photos. Join me in checking out some vegan Thai?