Pornography and its critical reception: toward a theory of masturbation

by Magnus Ullén

Pornography was long considered a subject unworthy of academic attention. As a sub-category of the obscene, it was reckoned morally and/or intellectually unfit for interpretation almost by definition. To the extent that arts and humanities scholars dealt with it at all, they looked upon it as a species of “anti-literature, anti-art,” on the grounds that “the kind of form that art or literature must by nature take […] is noxious to the idea of pornography.”[1] [open endnotes in new window] Over the last three decades, however, academics have successfully challenged the notion that pornography and scholarly inquiry are incompatible. Not only has a growing body of increasingly sophisticated studies on the topic appeared, but the largely condemnatory stance of the first group of critics to take pornography seriously — critics like Andrea Dworkin, Catherine McKinnon, and Susanne Kappeler — has by and large been superceded by critics footed in queer theory as well as feminism. For these newer critics, pornography is simply a cultural discourse among others, and Laura Kipnis expresses an attitude typical among them:

“Pornography requires our interpretation, and in return […] yields surprising eloquence.”[2]

The merit of these recent works is beyond question, yet they too arguably misrepresent their subject. If earlier critics had too little trust in pornography's eloquence of, the critics of the last three decades are making it speak rather too much. To put it succinctly, recent criticism tends ignore that while one certainly can interpret pornography, it by no means needs be interpreted to be enjoyed. As Laurence O'Toole perceptively remarks in Pornocopia,

“Beyond the arguments, perhaps it is really straightforward. You watch it, you get off, watch it again and get off; again, get off. What if, after all the bickering, it’s as simple as that?”[3]

In one sense O’Toole is surely right: from a consumer's perspective, pornography does not carry much significance over and above itself. People most commonly use pornography as an aid for masturbation (or as an aid for sexual interaction with a partner), neither more nor less. It triggers a set of actions that we engage in while partaking of the discourse, and afterwards it is usually quickly forgotten. However, unlike O'Toole, I do not believe that the issue of pornography is at heart an uncomplicated one. On the contrary: the very fact that people enjoy pornography sans interpretation in itself presents a circumstance that calls for interpretation.[4]

I will be arguing in this essay that if one looks closely at the matter, porn's specificity is not that it departs contentwise from other genres. Many novels contain explicit sex without being branded pornography while, for instance, transsexual pornography rarely involves explicit sex but is labeled “porn” all the same. What makes pornography into porn, then, does not entail some specific content as much as on a recurrent mode of reception, one radically different from, say, a novel or a drama. While critics have valuably demonstrated that pornography has cultural significance, they have failed to emphasize one of its most important features. It is not so much pornography per se that needs analysis, but the way pornography is read. In other words: What are the essential characteristics of the mode of reading that pornography typically generates? What are the hermeneutical aspects of masturbation?

As it happens, we can easily delineate the essential characteristics of masturbation as a form of interpretation. Usually when we read, we ascribe significance to the text: the office of the reader is to produce the text's meaning — at least, that is how reading is usually taught in an academic discipline like comparative literature. This aesthetical mode of reading approaches the artwork as a means towards its own end, rather than as a means of satisfying our personal interest. Theoretically, it finds its justification in Kant who stresses the importance of disinterest for aesthetical contemplation.[5]

In contrast to Kant's aesthetic ideal, the masturbating reader — the reader of pornography, regardless of whether it's a book, picture, or film — is anything but disinterested. On the contrary, this reader does not have as a goal establishing the text's meaning through disinterested contemplation, but rather reducing the text's significatory potential to the pleasure of his or her own body. While critics and scholars may perform a hermeneutical interpretation of a sequence of pornographic images, they use a mode of reading intrinsically at odds with the aim of the masturbating person. That is, as soon as critics start to contemplate a given image's potential meaning, they also start to translate their physical reactions into an intellectual process, putting their mind in the way of the body, as it were. Masturbation blocks that kind of translation of the physical into the mental, or even reverses it. Although people can find mental activity during masturbation quite intense, it also almost invariably involves performing certain movements with one’s hands; such a process combining fantasy with physical activity is suggestive of how masturbation channels sexual imagery into one’s body. Far from producing meaning, using pornography entails a mode of reading in which meaning is consumed. Masturbation can thus be said to be tantamount to a destruction of meaning, a veritable hermeneutical potlatch in which meaning is excessively consumed for the sole sake of consumption.[6]

If seen from the perspective of the masturbatory response it is designed to elicit, pornography thus seems much less a peripheral aspect of modernity than the allegorical seal of consumer culture as a whole. From such a perspective, pornography's masturbatory pleasures do not seem that dissimilar from, say, shopping's pleasures, which largely consist of rummaging through department stores and shopping malls while moving from one potential object of desire to the other. In order to understand pornography's cultural dimension, we thus first need to consider the way the consumptive mode of reading which pornography generates transforms this dimension into a symbolic register in which it can be freely consumed. The phenomenon's generality will emerge only if we allow for the singularity of the consumer's experience of the pornographic discourse.[6a]

Or so I will suggest. As I have indicated above, recent studies in pornography tend to proceed from the opposite assumption, namely that scholars can best understand pornography's general significance by downplaying rather than emphasizing the singularity of the pornographic experience. To demonstrate that this is the case, I would point to one major text: Porn Studies, a recent contribution to the field edited by Linda Williams. Apparently gathered to confirm the notion that pornography is a cultural phenomenon of general interest, individual contributions in the book convincingly demonstrate how much intellectual energy can be drawn from confronting rather than circumventing pornography, by “talking sex” as Williams puts it in her introduction.[7]

At the same time, however, the volume as a whole makes evident that no matter how eloquently one insists that pornography carries cultural implications of a general nature, the commendable effort to turn pornography into a cultural discourse of general significance founders in part upon an under-theorization of the investigation’s very point of departure. By insisting that pornography is a genre amongst others, critics have inadvertently cemented the notion that pornography essentially refers to a particular kind of content, which can be read and interpreted like the content of other genres. In opposition to this view, I hold that the essential characteristic of pornography is not some trait of the discourse itself but, as I have suggested above, the way it is habitually read. This is not to deny that the battle over identity politics and intersectional issues should involve pornography, too. Rather I would suggest that critics who have tried to view pornography in an historical context often counteract a genuine historicization of that phenomenon, as some of the articles in Porn Studies make plain. I conclude by suggesting why theorizing masturbation as a mode of reading is an essential first step towards historicizing pornography.

Porn goes to academia

No one book has been more important for altering the perception of pornography in academia than Linda Williams’s study of the pornographic movie and its history, Hard Core.[8] It appeared at a time when the theoretical discourse about pornography was characterized by impassioned rhetoric rather than well-founded reflections, and it constituted an important first step toward a less judgmental attitude to porn. At the time the book came out, the contemporary debate was concerned with the question of whether or not pornography more or less automatically translated into violation of women. In the face of such assertions, Williams quietly pointed out that the pornographic film can be seen as a genre just like the action movie or the musical, a genre that comes with a history to be studied. The pornographic movie thus can be interpreted and discussed much as any other cultural discourse.

With this book the academic study of pornography was, if not born, then at least established as a field of investigation in its own right. There had been important books prior to Williams’s study, of course, but they were all rather defensive about the nature of their interest in the subject, tacitly accepting the academic preconception of pornography as a somewhat peripheral phenomenon, of merely tangential interest to the study of art, literature, and society.[9] Williams’s book much more successfully positions pornography as one cultural discourse amongst others.

In Hard Core Williams describes cinematic pornography as the joint product of technological innovations and historical contingencies. While the anti-pornography camp of critics like Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon may have a point in stressing that pornography in general tends to express a view of women which is both stereotypical and misogynistic, this adverse social effect does not derive from the nature of porn, Williams insists, but from its historical context. Like other cultural discourses, to a considerable extent pornography reflects its time. Furthermore, like other genres the pornographic movie has a history. And if we consider the films produced for and screened in cinemas during the 1970s in the light of that history, pornography might seem less and not more misogynistic the closer we come to our own present. From this perspective Williams largely defends pornography, arguing not to dismiss films like Deep Throat and The Opening of Misty Beethoven as misogynistic. In her reading, even though these films proceed from gender stereotypes, they also clearly revolve around the problem of female pleasure, and hence contain a utopian dimension almost in spite of themselves. Drawing on Fredric Jameson’s suggestion that a narrative genre may contain an attempt to provide an imaginary resolution to a real social conflict, Williams approaches hardcore as a genre enacting “the solution to the problem of sex through the performance of sex” (147).[10]

While hailed as a pioneering work, Williams’s book has also received important critiques. As Peter Lehman points out in a well-informed article, Williams overemphasizes the importance of narrative in the pornographic film and hereby tacitly elides other important aspects of it.[11] Profiting from the critique, Williams has subsequently revised her original position in a number of articles.[12] She has revised her original argument that pornography is likely to develop into a genre among other genres within mainstream cinema. Rather than being the “classical” era of cinematic pornography, that period between 1972 and 1985 in which pornography was made for full-blown cinematic screening, perhaps better serves as

“a short blip in an otherwise fairly consistent history of more ‘interactive’ engagements between bodies of spectators and machineries or networks of vision — whether the whirring projectors of the stag party, the remote controls of the VCRs, or the ‘mouse’ of interactive games.”[13]

These modifications notwithstanding, her general point of departure remains intact: pornography is a genre like other genres, and can be read and interpreted as such.

This is also very much the central notion of Porn Studies, a hefty volume of some 500 pages which amply demonstrates Williams’s importance to the research in the field. Constance Penley points out in her contribution to the volume,

“If Linda Williams’ breakthrough was to get us to think of pornographic film as film, that is, as a genre that can be compared to other popular genres like the western, the science fiction film, the gangster film, or the musical (porn’s closest kin, she says) and studied with the same analytical tools we take to the study of other films, the next logical step, it seems, would be to consider pornographic film as popular culture” (315).[14]

The essays in the book seem intent upon living up to this proposition. The opening section presents contemporary pornography of different kinds, from the Starr Report on President Clinton to porn on the web; the second applies a queer perspective from a gay and lesbian point of view; the third puts porn in relation to race and class; the fourth — and most sprawling — brings together three rather disparate essays under the heading “Soft Core, Hard Core, and the Pornographic Sublime”; and the last section, finally, relates porn to the avant-garde through readings of Andy Warhol’s Blow Job, and Scott Stark’s NOEMA, a video collage which rhythmically repeats the fleeting moments of unsexiness which are to be found in well-nigh every pornographic film — for instance when the actors change positions — accompanied by Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for strings.”

The essays illustrate the notion that pornography is a multifaceted phenomenon. More debatable is whether the questions raised and the themes discussed show in what way pornography constitutes an inherent part of a larger system of cultural discourse. Particularly problematic is the authors' apparent unwillingness to define the heart of the matter: What is pornography? Given that the answer may seem too obvious to require an explicit formulation — we all judge ourselves capable of recognizing pornography upon seeing it — it is perhaps not surprising that Williams chooses not to confront this question in her introduction.

In practice, however, it has proven surprisingly difficult to come up with a satisfactory definition of the concept of pornography.[15] Where are we to draw the line, for instance, between the pornographic and the erotic? Is there a way of telling sexually explicit art from pornography proper? And are we to date the birth of pornography from the nineteenth-century when the concept as used today came into practice; to the seventeenth-century, when the first books that would seem to meet our own criteria for hardcore porn were published; or to antiquity, from which the term derives?[16] Instead of addressing issues like these, Williams opts for a common sense conception of pornography: pornography is whatever we tend to refer to as pornographic in everyday life. She thus implicitly comes to accept not only the vulgar equation between pornography and explicit sex, but more problematically, the concomitant notion that pornography is a marginal rather than central aspect of our culture: a phenomenon that can be studied as a field of its own, without more than tangentially relating it to society in general.

Williams’s shadow for good and ill weighs heavily upon a number of the essays, as is but to be expected as many of them were originally written for courses Williams taught in 1998 and 2001. Maria St. John’s reading of Kenneth Starr's official report on President Clinton’s sexual liaisons with Monica Lewinsky, for instance, is little but an extended version of Williams’s suggestion that this incident could be viewed as a symptom of pornography having gone from being obscene to being everywhere present, “on/scene” as Williams somewhat labouredly puts it in the second edition of Hard Core.[17] Similarly, Minette Hillyer’s reading of Pamela Anderson’s and Tommy Lee’s notorious home-taped “porn-flick” is in principle a sheer extension of Williams’s view that the very raison d’etre of the pornographic film is its attempt to capture the incontestable “truth” of sexuality.[18]

The second section of the book seeks to question in different ways the widely held notion of pornography as a stereotypically gendered discourse. Film historian Tomas Waugh implicitly criticizes Williams’s thesis that the so called “stag” films — short, sexually explicit films the length of a reel, produced between 1915 and 1968, and shown to private gatherings of men — attempt to show the truth of sexuality by displaying female anatomy and female sexual excitement in as great a detail as possible.[19] These films, Waugh claims, really tell us more about the homosocial relations which form the basis of the image of masculinity which pervades American society (and Western society in general). Waugh convincingly queers this material by relating it to the so called “physiques” which predate gay porn flicks. In the late 1940s, short films started to be made for a growing home-movie market. One category of films focused principally upon young, well-built, male athletes who performed sports, showed off their muscles, or even wrestled with some other similarly handsome young man in tights. On the face of it, these films would seem simply to be portraying the ideal male image of the times, but they rest somewhat too emphatically on the bodies represented.

“The opposition between stags and physiques is neat, set by the glue of transgression: on the one hand, illicit films about licit desire and, on the other, licit films about illicit desire” (138).

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