Pornography remediated

Happily, the two most interesting essays in Porn Studies put the question of the epistemological status of porn behind them by explicitly focusing upon the relation between the pornographic text and its consumer. Somewhat symptomatically, perhaps, both take as their point of departure an examination of pornography in relation to new media, more precisely the VCR and the Internet. In these cases, our familiarity with the media has not yet petrified into any clear cut notions about how they provide access to the discourse, and hence we are forced to pay greater attention to what we actually do when we read. In “Video Pornography, Visual Pleasure, and the Return of the Sublime,” Franklin Melendez sets pornography in relation to postmodern theory in an effort to take into account not only the pornographic discourse as such, but also the interaction between the viewer and this discourse.[31][open endnotes in new window] With Baudrillard and Jameson, Melendez argues that the experience of video and television is not structured primarily in accordance with a narrative logic, but that in narrative terms these media take on the aspect of an ever repeated Present that seeks to win our attention by stressing its own intensity. Thus these media seek to construct

“a particular type of viewing subject, one who becomes an extension of the material basis of the medium, a receptor interpolated via his or her own pleasure into the flattened temporality of video” (410).

Rather than a visual experience, Melendez argues with Baudrillard (who in turn developed an idea suggested by Marshall McLuhan) that television viewing is better characterized as a tactile experience, since television's primary aim is not to transmit a message to a receiver, but rather to perform a kind of cognitive massage which replaces intellectual content with sensual abandon: we relax watching television.

The argument has a good deal going for it, but it also shows traces of the technological determinism we have already seen in Williams. Like her, Melendez seems to assume that it is the emergence of new media as such which determines the way we relate to pornography. There is of course every reason to highlight the extent to which new media such as film, video, or the Internet, contribute to shaping our consumption of pornography; but one must be careful not to slip into arguing that these media are the cause of the particular form which pornographic consumption tends to take. After all, as we have noted above, the interactive aspect of pornography is arguably implied already in Rousseau’s playful definition of the genre. Rather than transforming pornography, TV and video must be said to intensify traits which are characteristic of pornography even in its literary form.

Equally productively, Zabet Patterson focuses on pornography on the Internet, and begins by pointing out that

“the encounter with pornography, and the encounter with technology, may not allow for an easy, distanced critical spectatorship” (105).[32]

Like many others, Patterson too makes a point of arguing that the medium as such provides an important key to the nature of the pornographic discourse:

“the physical apparatus of the computer, and the material habits it requires, places the viewer in a relationship with the images in Internet pornography that differs significantly from the viewer’s relationship to other types of pornography” (108).

Consuming pornographic images on the Internet inevitably involves a great deal of waiting for the images to download. This waiting may seem tedious, but as Patterson helpfully argues, it should be looked upon rather as an essential aspect of the pleasure of consuming porn on the Internet. By constantly offering an abundance of links that lead on toward new images, cyberporn exploits the anticipatory pleasure which derives from the fact that the viewer’s access to the images is constantly delayed. Thus it is possible, to

"see the satisfaction as taking place in the deferral of satisfaction itself. Seen in this light, the goal exists in part to allow the subject, or a portion of the subject, to rationalize the pleasure of surfing. To imagine the goal, then, is to project into a moment of perfect satisfaction — and the obtaining of a perfect image, one completely adequate to the subject’s desire. But in comparison to this imagined perfect image, every image will always remain inadequate, and so the ‘search’ continues. […] The subject is faced with a choice — will this be the last image? Even if the viewer knows he or she is unlikely to find one better, he will often continue on, foregoing the pleasures of the known for the pleasures (often through frustration) of the unknown. The user constantly shifts on to new images — and in this process, new delays — in an endless slippage of desire in which part of the pleasure derives from habitual repetition and habitual deferral." (109-110)

In an analysis of a pay-site where the members get the opportunity to watch the models doing non-sexual things in different everyday situations, Patterson goes on to show how pornography exploits the reader’s or viewer’s sense of lack by portraying it as its own, that is by pretending that the viewer’s lack — or, to spell it out, his sexual desire — is needed in order to consummate the discourse:

“in Web-based, amateur pornography, viewers are witnessing the abolition of the spectacular itself through a collapse of subject and object and of the poles of activity and passivity. It is no longer a question of watching but of a hallucinatory ‘being there’ while knowing that one is not ‘there’ and that, in fact, there is no ‘there’ there (i.e. no reality apart from its mediation)” (114).

This acute observation indicates that there is a deep inner resemblance between pornography and the increasingly simulated status of social space, which many critics hold to be one of the most characteristic traits of postmodern society. Even so, Patterson’s conclusion is far from self-evident:

“Pornography changes once it is positioned on the computer; the attraction of cyberporn becomes in part the attraction and fascination with what we perceive as the vastly new possibilities for subjectivity that technology seems to offer” (120).

Does pornography really change when it is mediated by new media? Is it not rather the case that such remediations bring us closer to an understanding of what has since its inception constituted the pull of pornography: its ability to engage us not through the temporal structure of a narrative, but through the immediate presence of narrating?[33]

In her attempt to highlight the interaction between the pornographic discourse and its consumer, Patterson undoubtedly takes an important step in the right direction, but by suggesting that the medium as such causes the effects she identifies, she nevertheless ends up repeating the mistake of Williams’s first book. By failing to consider other forms of pornography than the cinematic, Williams implicitly ratifies the widely held view that the effect of the pornography is media specific, that is, that its significance varies from medium to medium. She thus comes to neglect the fact that the most important factor is not the medium as such, but rather the way we relate to it: it is not the medium that accounts for the specificity of pornography, but the way pornography is read. The fact that the original Josephine Mutzenbacher — commonly attributed to Felix Salten, the author of Bambi — is a book while Debbie Does Dallas is a film certainly affects the way we relate to these pornographic discourses. But the difference is insignificant compared to the fact that the typical consumer of these discourses is too busy masturbating to ask what they mean as narratives. To understand how pornography works, in short, one has to take into account the masturbatory mode of response it habitually triggers, which could arguably be classified as an alternative, anti-hermeneutical mode of reading.

Masturbation as a mode of reading

Masturbation, as we noted earlier, is not a purely physical reading — to masturbate is not exclusively, or even primarily, to touch your own body. For this kind of self-stimulation to become pleasurable, we need to work ourselves up into a state of excitement. This is usually done by making a psychological or physical entity the object of our actions: while stimulating our sexual organs or some other erogenous zone of our body, we play at doing something to someone else. Like a traditional hermeneutic mode of reading, then, masturbation is primarily a psychological phenomenon. Masturbation distinguishes itself from a hermeneutical mode of reading, however, by translating the psychological process involved into a set of physical actions. The translation need not be immediate.

Masturbation often comprises a preparatory phase, which may involve daydreaming but also selecting and arranging the materials to be used: flipping through porno-mags or searching the Internet for the most exciting images, potentially, as Patterson suggests, for hours on end.[34] While this often entails deferring the moment of orgasm, such a mode of reading provides a sense of pleasure by allowing the reader an immediate sense of fulfillment. Whereas the process of reading normally involves translating the psychological registration of a sign or object into another psycholinguistic sign by taking it to signify this or that, in masturbation the psycholinguistic register which forms the basis of our actions is always ultimately transformed into physical pleasure. Instead of producing the significance of the discourse in the manner of a person standing in a hermeneutical relation to a discourse, the reader who engages in such a masturbatory mode of reading consumes the signifying potential of the discourse.

From a rhetorical perspective, one could thus say that the act of masturbation which accompanies the consumption of pornography provides ample evidence of how successfully porn effects the ultimate goal of every rhetorical exposition: to be persuasive enough to immediately call forth from its audience a certain mode of action. Pornography's persuasive element is thus highly conspicuous — photographic pornography, indeed, comes with an inherent graphicality so forceful it would seem well-nigh impossible to doubt the truth of what it depicts.[35] The ideological nature of this truth, it is important to observe, does not derive from some hidden meaning located in the pornographic discourse. Instead, it is a product of porn’s ability to persuade us that it can annul its own fictivity: that it can become a reality which is literally lived through by the reader, in that s/he consumes the reality made available by the discourse the very moment s/he experiences it. Pornography automates the persuasivity of rhetoric. To read pornography the way it asks to be read is to convince oneself of the reality of the discourse; it is to give in to its incontestable sense of presence, if but for the moment in which we experience it.

From such a perspective, Williams’s claim in the introduction to Porn Studies that pornography testifies to “the modern compulsion to speak incessantly about sex” (2) is a reductive simplification, which might well make us blind to the most important facet of the phenomenon. For pornography does not only talk about sex, it is a form of sex: masturbation. Williams’s perspective, be it noted, has the strategic advantage of making the study of pornography academically decent. For if it is really the case that pornography can be said to establish a mode of knowledge — as Williams, inspired by Foucault, claims in her first book — it also means that it can be seen as yet another text to be interpreted and hence easily incorporated by academic discourse. While the strategic advantages of looking at pornography as a genre amongst others are considerable, there are also considerable theoretical drawbacks with thus normalizing the pornographic discourse.

Indeed, Williams’s Hard Core in itself provides an instructive example of a way of approaching cultural discourses that I am wary of. In accordance with postmodern propriety, Williams carefully places “truth” between inverted commas. She thus signals that she is fully aware that truth is always a constructed truth, that is, a mediated image of the real rather than the real as such. She accordingly stresses that pornography consistently fails in its attempt to depict the incontestable “truth” of sexual pleasure, that — in truth — cinematographic pornography “is no less rhetorical in operation” than the literary pornography which precedes it.[36] Williams thus wants to argue that pornography claims to unveil the truth of sexual pleasure, a claim which she in turn claims to expose by unveiling the constructed nature of pornographic “truth.”

She fails to develop a much more interesting possibility, namely that the pornographic discourse makes no secret of the constructed nature of its “truth,” and that its consumers are likewise quite clear on its essentially rhetorical nature, but that this does not detract from its persuasive efficiency. She thus misses out on the opportunity to recognize in pornography a form of discursivity which through its very intentionality predates the cognitive structures which pervade contemporary society. For rather than marked by a will to represent an incontestable truth, pornography is a form of discursivity which from the very outset has abandoned the claim to represent reality. It seeks instead to establish a truth which is applicable only within the parameters of its own discourse. If this is seen, it immediately becomes apparent how deep are the parallels between the desire founded by the pornographic discourse, and the desire founded by consumer society.

Pornographicity of consumer society

Modern consumption, as sociologist Colin Campbell points out, is characterized by its endless nature. The consumption of one commodity does not lead to fulfilment, but marks rather the well-nigh immediate birth of a desire for yet another commodity.[37] Consumerism thus breeds a desire which is in many ways remarkably similar to that fostered by pornography. Left wing intellectuals have in general tended to denounce this craving for commodities as an instance of false consciousness. John Berger, for instance, argues that advertising in effect serves to deflect people’s attention from the political realm of the here and now, to a fantasized realm of a utopian future, which, while endlessly deferred, abolishes the possibility of acting to change society:

“Publicity, situated in a future continually deferred, excludes the present and so eliminates all becoming, all development. Experience is impossible within it. All that happens, happens outside it.”[38]

While I would agree with Berger that what he calls “publicity” (advertising) tends to steer our attention away from political space, I would argue that advertising does this not by postponing the moment in which desire is fulfilled, but on the contrary by making this moment constantly available to us. Like pornographic discourses, advertising promises not only that desire can always be fulfilled, but that I personally can fulfill it, regardless of the will of other people. We delude ourselves if we dismiss advertising's contentions as a lie, for advertising like pornography is fully capable of making good on this promise. All it asks in return is that we agree to suspend our relation to the rest of the world — or more specifically, that we suspend our relation to the Real dimension of society, for the benefit of enjoying Imaginary pleasures. The lie promulgated by, say, an ad for a particular brand of sneakers is not that purchasing them will make us happier, for the brand may have sufficient symbolic force to make us elated with such a purchase. The lie is that those sneakers' reality is to be sought solely in the product itself, when in truth it also involves the working conditions of the factory workers who produced them — just as the lie of pornography is not that it brings satisfaction, but that it pretends to provide it at no cost for anyone else but ourselves.

My point, which for reasons of space can here only be sketched, is the following: the desire forged by commercial media discourses could well be of the same order as that generated by the pornographic discourses. Like pornography, this media discourse often sets out to represent actual events, claiming rather unsubtly to be real, to depict actuality. At a closer look, however, this claim to reality turns out as dubious as that of porn. The actors in porn flicks certainly do have sex, but rarely or never in a way that people outside porn have sex. Similarly, the articles that fill the tabloids may be about things that have really happened, but many of these reports or presentations do not deal with real social events, but with pseudo-incidents directly tied to stagings of a simulated reality: reality shows, news reports, talk shows, etcetera. In that sense, the commercial media discourse itself could be characterized as pornographic. Just as in pornography as such, the truth figuring in, say, the tabloids often does not strive to say something about reality but to implement our desire for a discursive reality that substitutes for the real thing. This is of course not a new insight — the notion that we live in a hyperreality wherein simulation encapsulates everything has been propagated by Jean Baudrillard since the mid 1970s, and today it is so widely diffused that it sometimes seems an empty phrase of postmodern theory.[39] To stop at pointing out the constructed nature of social space would thus be tantamount to committing the same fault I find in Williams' work: to present the unveiling of the constructed nature of reality as a truth in its own right, whereas this circumstance really abolishes the possibility of understanding the world in terms of true and false.

My present critique is thus not directed so much at the media discourse itself as at the critical academic discourse which despite nominally declaring that it is quite aware that reality is never available to us apart from the way it is discursively mediated, in practice proceeds as if there were a truth behind the discourse to reveal. The realization that there are at least two fundamentally different modes of reading may usefully correct this misunderstanding. For while the ideological nature of a stereotyping discourse like pornography may seem apparent from the point of view of a hermeneutic mode of reading, the matter will seem very different from the perspective of a masturbatory mode of reading. Where the interpreter can see nothing but ideology, ideology becomes all but invisible for the reader who instead of interpreting the discourse (or, as Barthes puts it, produces it), chooses to enjoy it, to consume its inherent signifying potential. I would not want to imply that there is an absolute difference between the two ways of relating to discourses here under discussion — they cannot, thus, be construed as an ascetical, academic way of reading, versus a hedonistic one; on the contrary, what is at stake are two diverging ways of relating to pleasure as such. The hermeneutic mode of reading makes it possible for us to take pleasure in unraveling the discourse, by tracing the way it is constituted, allowing us to understand its mechanics, that is, how it produces its effects. The masturbatory reading, in contrast, provides a pleasure which is dependent upon our failure to understand the discourse, since that allows us to return to it ever anew with the same sense of fascination.

It is thus a mistake, if a common one, to play the two modes of reading against one another, in order to suggest that the interpretive reading discloses the ideological foundations of the consuming mode of reading. We find such a contrastive reading not only within academia but even more frequently within media discourse itself — as the tabloid placards promising to reveal the truth behind the scenes of reality shows like Big Brother continuously remind us. That this gesture of "understanding ideology" is so common today in itself is a clear indication of how incomplete our present understanding of the masturbatory mode of reading remains. Instead of theorizing the specificity of the masturbatory mode of reading, the main trend in Cultural Studies in the wake of a pioneer like Roland Barthes (in whose writings the tension between these two modes of reading is particularly intense) is rather to pretend that discourses which habitually generate a masturbatory mode of response can be made the object of a hermeneutical mode of reading, without detriment to the analysis.

Such, as we have seen, is very much the case with Williams’s own work. The lasting achievement of her pioneering study may well be its acculturation of pornography, its way of making it acceptable as an academic subject, and thus available for the hermeneutical pleasure which was previously restricted to high cultural genres and artifacts. Insofar as she has accomplished this, her feat is parallel to that whereby advertising, newspapers, and a whole range of other cultural discourses were made available to academic study by Barthes and other semiotically inspired researchers during the 1960s and 70s. Naturally, this acculturation is of great importance in itself — yet to make mass culture academically decent is not tantamount to demystifying its ideology.[40] On the contrary, such a transposition of a mode of reading typical of mass cultural discourses into a mode of reading typical of academia fails to take into account the ideological implications which derive not from the discourse, but from the act of reading as such, regardless of whether that is primarily hermeneutical or primarily masturbatory. Making this distinction between two different modes of relating to society's discursivity does not solve the dilemma, yet it is likely an essential first step toward a genuinely dialectic suspension of the question of the relation between fiction and reality.

At any rate, it likely resolves the problem of how to analyze pornography's specificity without diminishing its cultural centrality. I have argued that the way pornography is habitually read is not a contingent element extrinsically levied upon the pornographic discourse, but rather a necessary prerequisite for experiencing the pornographic discourse as pornographic. Once this is understoond, pornography need no longer be viewed as a peripheral phenomenon within society but can be seen rather as a central aspect of modernity, a phenomenon intimately related to the emergence of consumer society as such. From such a perspective, the emergence of pornography in the seventeenth century does not signify the birth of a new genre as much as the emergence of a new kind of cognitive space, one which allows the individual to be at least momentarily insulated from social relations, or, which amounts to the same thing, from history.

Pornography brings out into the open, even if cannot be said to create, a cognitive space marked by a supreme sense of presence, of transcendence within rather than beyond materiality, in which the individual will appear free from all external ideological determinants. Needless to say, this appearance is largely illusory; yet, as volumes such as Porn Studies make evident, it is not wholly so. There is a utopian dimension to pornography, but like that of other cultural discourses, its utopian dimension depends less on the shape of the discourse itself as upon the way we make use of it.

Pornography will likely long remain a contestatory ground for identity politics as well as a rich source for intersectional analysis. Whether it can fullfil its liberating potential depends largely upon whether we can resist the temptation to give in to its utopian promise of transcendence. For that promise is at one with the promise of consumer society as such. Rather than reifying pornography into a field of its own, therefore, in cultural studies we should devote our energies to studying the pornographicity of everyday life.

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