Compulsive viewing

Milly Getachew on our strange fascination with images of war and disaster

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. Dis aster 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. "They rush through crowded corridors, leaping over stretchers, dashing to film the agony before it passes. They hold bedside vigils to record the moment of death." The audience is exploited, too: instant stimulation causes desensitisation and "compassion fatigue".

It would be easy, but unedifying, to dole out condemnation. Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky have shown, in Manufacturing Consent, that there is a complex relationship between audience, media, markets and money. Playing a blame game could take a long time and leave us little wiser. More interesting is to see if anything good can come from the new pornography. Engagement with pornography is an expression of desire. In the case of the old pornography the desire is sexual; in the case of the new pornography, the desire seems to be a mixture of compassion, concern, a desire to know and a desire to take the right action. These are all valuable impulses worth encouraging.

So how do we transform the new pornography into a healthy and rewarding relationship? The philosopher Bernard Williams said that a happy life involves having commitment to one's projects: integrity is seeing something through. Perhaps giving attention to a piece of the new pornography is not, in itself, a bad thing; perhaps what matters most is what we choose to do about it when we get to the end of the piece.

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, High-street robbery