JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Less convincing is Jake Gerli’s essay about homosexual director Chuck Vincent, who made pornographic movies for a heterosexual audience.[20][open endnotes in new window] As an example of how Vincent allegedly introduces queer elements into the heterosexual pornographic discourse, Gerli analyzes a scene from In Love (1983) in which a man and woman are having sex on a mink coat. According to Gerli, this scene

“is queer in the sense that it puts the conventional straight sex act into proximity with the erotic life of things, making those things part of the performance” (210).

Of course, things regularly carry sexual connotations not only within the pornographic discourses but in social discourse at large, yet the concept of fetishism is not so much as mentioned in the context.

But if some of the essays in Porn Studies fail to convince, the great majority vividly demonstrate that pornography is a much more complex phenomenon than generally granted. At the same time, they often show the difficulty of circumventing the ideological dilemma the study of pornography entails. Cultural studies in general faces the same dilemma. As a disciplinary approach, it proceeds from the notion that canonizing certain works and certain forms of cultural practice relies on evaluation. Since that evaluation does not reflect any qualities objectively present in the texts studied, cultural studies tends to dismiss the valorizing process as a purely ideological instrument. That is, from this perspective of ideological analysis, cultural phenomena have become valorized less as a way of saying something significant about the texts studied than as a strategy for excluding certain phenomena and certain experiences that certain sectors of society do not wish to engage.

This critique of the standards behind the cultural canon has undoubtedly opened up new areas to cultural study. In practice, however, it has proved difficult to motivate the study of mass cultural phenomena without more or less explicitly declaring that they are worthy of being studied because they harbor precisely those positive qualities which are dismissed as ideological when advanced as evidence of the superiority of canonized culture. Complexity is one such common evaluative word — but within the field of porn studies, the most frequent contention is probably that pornography is somehow subversive in relation to the rest of culture. While Williams does not hesitate to point out that pornography often trades in a stereotypical and sometimes downright misogynistic image of femininity, she nevertheless tends to ascribe a radical potential to pornography, treasuring it, much as Laura Kipnis does, as a discourse which is at least potentially an agent of social change.[21] In an essay about the ways in which some pornographic films exploit a desire to transcend racial taboos still very much in evidence in the United States, Williams demonstrates that such exploitation comes with a positive side-effect of making the desire visible, which in the long run might lead to the break-up of the taboo.

Subversiveness of porn

Williams is far from alone in advocating the subversivity of pornography. In Porn Studies, Rich Cante and Angelo Restivo, for instance, make a case for the specificity of gay male porn by maintaining that it has political implications lacking in heterosexual porn.[22] In this they are partly right, but only partly.

According to Cante and Restivo, gay male porn is different from its heterosexual equivalent in that it contains a utopian dimension lacking in the latter. Gay male porn not only displays a utopian fantasy about a world in which male homosexual desire is given free reign, but these fantasies come to influence actual society — so that real physical places can be transformed into meeting places for homosexual relations:

“In its continual reinscription of all the spaces surrounding us, all-male pornography at some point also become the field for the (utopian) reinvention of the world eternally promised by identity politics” (143).

It is not apparent how this differs from heterosexual porn. In fact, Williams argues that heterosexual pornography is likewise subversive in that it flaunts taboos, and that this phantasmatic transgression eventually also will likely spill over into historical reality.

Incidentally, it is worth noting how closely this figure of thought resembles that of anti-porn activists like Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon, whose sharp rejection of pornography is based on the very same notion, namely that pornography will somehow automatically transform itself into reality.[23] In contrast to Dworkin and MacKinnon, it is true, Williams and the other contributors to Porn Studies stress that this transformation of fantasy into reality takes place gradually over time. Furthermore, they make clear that pornography is only one of a whole set of discourses which jointly have the effect of making us reconsider our view of reality. But in principle this argument that pornography has a positive effect upon society is not markedly different from the anti-porn argument that it has negative effects. And such a parallel suggests that from a theoretical point of view Williams’s practice is not so far from that of the anti-porn camp as one might imagine.

Pornography's alleged subversivity is even more explicitly thematized by Constance Penley, who argues that pornography expresses a “white trash” mentality, which manifests itself as a conscious distancing from whatever is deemed politically correct.[24] Pornography, Penley claims, strikes from a cultural position which is not even recognized as cultural — hence the very crude and very bad jokes which pervade so much of the genre. Since the jokes much more often are made at the expense of men than at women, they cannot be dismissed as misogynistic.

“What’s in the hearts of men according to porn? A utopian desire for a world where women are not socially required to say and believe that they do not like sex as much as men do. A utopian desire whose necessary critical edge, sharpened by trash tastes and ideas, is more often than not turned against the man rather than the woman” (325).

Implicitly, then, Penley suggests that we should see porn as expressing a utopian dream of a society in which women have the same right to acknowledge their sexual desires as do men. That seems an overly tendentious way of looking at the matter. Pornographic discourses portray women who celebrate sexuality, for sure, but it does not take much to see that it is not so much their own sexuality these women celebrate so much as the male viewer’s. Pornography as a rule depicts female desire as universal, intended for whatever and whomever, as if women were incapable of focusing their desire upon any specific object, barring of course, the phallus, which is itself merely another universal.

Like many other commentators, Penley would seem to overlook that much like any other discourse, non-normative pornography is subversive by definition to the extent that it challenges an established ideological order. Hence homosexual porn, gay as well as lesbian, may seem subversive today, just as pornography generally can be said to have fulfilled a subversive function during the first 150 or so years of its existence, starting from its earliest manifestations in mid-seventeenth century. It becomes political already by turning the established order upside down. But one should be careful to note that this political effect derives from the historical context, not from some political radicality inherent within pornography as such. Pornography's subversivity is almost completely formulaic. Time and time again it repeats its simplistic strategy of unveiling the existence of a hidden pornographic wantonness behind a mask of respectability and morality: the greatest moralist inevitably harbors the greatest libertine. In a repressive climate, such a strategy cannot fail to be subversive, but it lacks the mark of a genuinely critical approach: the willingness to acknowledge the reality of cultural differences. At closer inspection, the pornographic version of ideological subversivity testifies solely to the pornographic imagination's megalomanic point of departure: Only I am real, and since the rest of the world exists only to feed my personal pleasure, it cannot be radically different from myself. When eighteenth century pornography exposes, say, the Catholic priest as a libertine, the exposure is thus founded on the same denial of difference that in contemporary hardcore film dictates that women must crave the spectacle of the cum-shot as much as men.

Pornography's subversivity, then, derives not from its discourse but from the historical situation embedding it. Early pornography, as Lynn Hunt and others have shown, was not the purely instrumental genre it has become today, but it was

“almost always an adjunct to something else until the middle or end of the eighteenth century. In early modern Europe, that is, between 1500 and 1800, pornography was most often a vehicle for using the shock of sex to criticize religious and political authorities.”[25]

At first sight it may seem somewhat paradoxical that pornography seemingly lost its anti-authoritarian stamp at the very moment when the critique it expressed turned into concrete action in the form of the French Revolution.[26] It is, however, far from evident that it was the specifically pornographic elements that made eighteenth century erotic literature subversive. As book historian Robert Darnton has pointed out, the radical effect of the books censured by l’ancien regime did not principally derive from their content, but from the very fact that the regime attempted to prune the freedom of the printed word. So-called “philosophical books,” livres philosophiques — a category which included works by philosophers like Voltaire, Diderot, and d’Holbach, as well as pornographic books like Monsieur Nicolas, Thérèse philosophe, and L’École des filles — had been singled out as unfit by the monarchy, and this fact alone was sufficient to implement their radicalism:

"Everyone read the same books, including the same livres philosophiques. The authors of those books had pried literature loose from its attachment to the state. They had separated culture from power, or rather, they had directed a new cultural power against the orthodoxies of the old. So a contradiction opened up, separating an orthodox value system grounded in the absolutist state from a contestatory ethos rooted in literature. This contradiction defined the situation of the reader, whatever his or her social status. It demonstrated to everyone that times were out of joint, that cultural life no longer synchronized with political power. The Louis Quatorzean synthesis had come apart; and literature, which had done so much to legitimize absolutism in the seventeenth century, now became the principal agent of its delegitimation."[27]

Under such circumstances pornography was subversive just by being read, as it belonged to an alternative mode of discursivity outlawed by the monarchy. The kind of subversivity that we can perhaps attribute to homosexual pornography today presents a similar case. Its subversivity will dissolve as soon as homosexuality ceases to appear aberrant in itself, just as heterosexual pornography lost its political (if not its moral) radicality when the French Revolution supplanted an aristocratic ideology with that of the bourgeoisie.

Historicizing porn

The decidedly utopian tone that often characterizes essays by porn's defenders thus may derive from their insufficient historicization of the phenomenon. Heather Butler, to name but one example in Porn Studies, tellingly concludes her exposé of lesbian pornographic film with a call for a more genuine mode of pornography:

“How much longer should we continue to fake it? How much longer will we watch as other females fake it? When will the very idea of faking it cease to be acceptable to women?” (192).[28]

Instead of pornography's simulation, Butler longs for a sexuality that rejects the very notion that sexual desire could be counterfeited. In other words, pornography must become true. Regardless of whether we sympathize with that wish or find it ill-founded, we cannot fail to notice that Butler’s position marks a remarkable displacement of the anti-pornographic view of critics like Dworkin and MacKinnon. They condemned pornography because they held it to be true; Butler is critical of it on the grounds that it is not true enough.

It would appear, then, that the recent academization of pornography into porn studies, through its very insistence that pornography is a cultural discourse among others, risks making us blind to porn's wider cultural significance. Taking the link between pornography and the discursive treatment of sex for granted, critics to this day remain committed to the notion that pornography is above all a specific kind of content. However, it would be much more productive to see it as a certain kind of form structuring the relation between reader and discourse. Indeed, the state of pornography studies today could well be compared to that of literary studies in the early twentieth century — when the discipline was still dominated by different forms of source-centered perspectives, most of which looked to literature primarily as a container of sorts filled with a biographical or thematical content, which the critic needed to account for. The result was a literary criticism that explained what literature meant, but could not account for the specificity of literature’s way of meaning.

In reaction to this form of criticism, blind to the individuality of literature, the Russian Formalists insisted upon the importance of focusing the literarity of literature, and in the process effectively put the notion of literature as a container of some thematical content on its head. For these critics, the content of a given work was not to be seen as the ultimate cause of the literary work, but merely as a motivation of the literary device. That is, a writer did not decide on the form of his or her story in order to express a given content, but made use of whatever content lent itself to literary treatment. This is what allowed Viktor Shklovsky, one of the leading Formalists, to argue that Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, far from being an exceptional novel, is in fact the most typical novel of all, as it shows what is true of all literature, namely that it is a game played primarily for its own sake.[29]

As regards pornography, it is no exaggeration to say that the general critical perspective is still of a pre-Formalist order. Slanderers and defenders of the genre alike look to pornography primarily as the carrier of a specific content: sexually explicit words or images, which are seen as tantamount either to misogyny or pleasure, depending upon the point of view of the individual critic. As a result of this fixation with the contents of pornography, the fundamental question is persistently evaded: Wherein lies the specificity of pornography? What makes pornography’s depiction of sexuality into something different from, say, that of medical, literary, or commercial discourse? Wherein lies, in short, the pornographicity of porn?

Here there is much to gain by following the steps of the theoretical development that literary studies has undergone during the last century. While the Formalist perspective is important, we need to remember that it quickly proved difficult to specify how to define literarity as such. The Formalists tried to advance different definitions; seeing literature as a kind of estrangement of ordinary language was perhaps their most productive notion. But literary criticism still did not have a real breakthrough until critics in the poststructuralist phase (to which we arguably still belong) pointed out that the category of the literary cannot be restricted to works we have traditionally consigned to that order. Rather, texts of a seemingly very different kind — works of philosophy, scientific reports, juridical texts, news reports, etc. — may also be read as if they were literature. Literarity in other words is not restricted to literature as such but is a property which we can observe in well nigh any discourse. Literarity, then, is not primarily a product of properties objectively present in the text, but rather a consequence of a certain mode of reading.

This brings me to the principal methodological thesis of this article. Just as literature's content can productively be seen as a strategic pretext for devoting oneself to literarity, sex in pornography is best seen as pretext for producing pornographicity. Such a point of departure immediately suggests a decisive consequence. Just as the literarity that is most prominent in literature cannot be confined to literature as such, the pornographicity of porn cannot be confined to pornography alone. In neither case — literarity and pornographicity respectively — is the phenomena in question a property of the discourse as such, but an effect of the way the discourse in question is read.

A theory of pornography must thus be a theory of the mode of reading which the consumption of pornography habitually involves, which is to say that it needs to be a theory of masturbation. Such a theory could do worse than start from Rousseau’s confession of his early penchant for “ces livres qu’on ne lit que d’une main” — the books that can be read with only one hand.[30] While jocular, Rousseau’s circumlocution brings out an aspect of pornography that is easily overlooked but that applies to the genre as a whole, regardless of medium — book, photography, or video. To enjoy pornography, mere intellectual processing of the discourse is not enough: it calls for a mode of reading which involves the physical activity of one’s body as well. In that sense, pornography is quite literally an interactive discourse. This discourse, much like the virtual reality of computer games, requires that the reader/consumer abolish the cognitive distance between the discursive and the historical present. The reader starts to act as if the two orders' separate temporalities were one.

Go to page 3


To topPrint versionJC 51 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.