Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Compulsive Viewing: Milly Getachew on Our Strange Fascination with Images of War and Disaster

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Compulsive Viewing: Milly Getachew on Our Strange Fascination with Images of War and Disaster

Article excerpt

A new form of pornography is on the rise in public life, characterised by a fascination with the spectacular, the terrible and the traumatic. An early version of this new pornography is war porn. In his 1974 novella The Vietnam Project, J M Coetzee writes that with "the orgasm of explosion ... nothing has done more to sell the war to America than televised napalm strikes". The Iraq "Shock and Awe" campaign comes to mind.

Then we have disaster porn: 11 September 2001, bird flu, the Madeleine McCann case, and the spectre of everlasting global recession. Disaster porn also includes Africa porn, whose popularity has been highlighted by the Pulitzer Fellow Gbemisola Olujobi (the 1984 Ethiopia famine may be a helpful model here). More recently, a UK think tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research, has warned against "climate porn"; the tendency to describe climate change in alarmist language that is "secretly thrilling".

This new pornography shares with the old pornography a certain compulsiveness. Pornography is essentially repetitive and likes to return to its favourite sensational thoughts and images. The irony is, that although pornography creates the appearance of intimacy, intimacy is precisely what it destroys. It turns us into voyeurs by offering us something so compelling that we forget we can be more than passive onlookers. And suitable icons can be hard to find. "Somali doctors and nurses have expressed shock at the conduct of film crews in hospitals," report Rakiya Omaar and Alex de Waal of African Rights. …

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