[1] Stephen Marcus, The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England 2nd ed. New York: New American Library 1974, 195-196. [return to page 1 of essay]

[2] Laura Kipnis, Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America New York: Grove Press 1996, 62.

[3] Laurence O’Toole, Pornocopia: Porn, Sex, Technology and Desire London: Serpent’s Tail 1999, 313.

[4] My point will be familiar to readers of Fredric Jameson; see “Metacommentary,” in The Ideologies of Theory: Essays 1971-1986. Volume 1 Situations of Theory London: Routledge 1988, 3-16 and 190-91: “the absence of any need for interpretation is itself a fact that calls out for interpretation” (8).

[5] There is in this respect a surprizing consonance between the attitude of Kant and someone like Barthes, who, for all his espousal of the erotic dimension of the text, remains at heart faithful to the tenet of the philosopher in stressing the importance of distance in order to enjoy the text erotically. Barthes’s notion harks back to the Tel Quel group’s view of the text, aptly summarized by Jameson “as a self-generating mechanism, as a perpetual process of textual production;” see Fredric Jameson, The Prison-House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism Princeton: Princeton UP 1972, 182.

[6a] While I am confident that empirical investigations would confirm much of my argument in this article, I must stress that I am not making an empirical argument, but a theoretical one. I am not primarily dealing with the responses to porn by empirical readers, which will inevitably be multifaceted and diverse; see for instance, Clarissa Smith, One for the Girls: The Pleasures and Practices of Reading Women’s Porn (Intellect: Bristol, 2007). Rather, I am dealing with the reader insofar as s/he must be posited as a function of the text. This function is an important aspect of actual consumers’ experience of porn, but it does not tell the whole story. My claim in this article is simply that unless we take this particular aspect of the reader’s experience of porn into account, we are not really talking about pornography at all.

[6] The conception of the potlatch as excessive consumption derives from Georges Bataille, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, edited and with an introduction by Allan Stoekl; translated by Allan Stoekl with Carl R. Lovitts and Donald M. Leslie, Jr Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P 1985. I invoke it for its suggestiveness, fully aware that it has struck anthropologists as questionable.

[7] Linda Williams, “Porn Studies: Proliferating Pornographies On/Scene: An Introduction”, Porn Studies, 1–23, in Linda Williams (ed.), Porn Studies Durham: Duke UP 2004. All references in the text are to this volume.

[8] Linda Williams, Hardcore: Power, Pleasure and the Frenzy of the Visible Berkeley: University of California Press 1989.

[9] Foremost amongst earlier studies of pornography is Marcus’s close readings of Victorian pornography, The Other Victorians, originally published in 1966. Walter Kendrick’s The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture New York: Viking 1987, which traces the origins of the concept of pornography to mid-nineteenth century, came out at roughly the same time as Williams’s study.

[10] A given narrative genre, in Jameson’s phrasing, is not so much “a mere reflex or reduplication of its situational context,” but rather “the imaginary resolution of the objective contradictions to which it... constitutes an active response;” see The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act Ithaca: Cornell UP 1981, 118.

[11] Peter Lehman, “Revelations about Pornography”, Film Criticism 20:1-2 (1995): 3–16.

[12] See in particular the epilogue to the expanded paperback edition of Hard Core Berkeley: University of California Press 1999, 280-316; but also “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess”, Film Quarterly; 44:4 (1991): 2–13; “Pornographies On/scene, or 'Diff'rent Strokes for Diff'rent folks”, in Lynne Segal, and Mary McIntosh (reds.), Sex Exposed: Sexuality and the Pornography Debate London: Virago 1992; “Second Thoughts on Hard Core: American Obscenity Law and the Scapegoating of Deviance”, in Pamela Church Gibson and Roma Gibson (reds.), Dirty Looks: Women, Pornography, Power London: BFI Publishing 1993; “Sisters Under the Skin: Video and Blockbuster Erotic Thrillers”, in Pam Cook and Philip Dodd (reds.); Women and Film: A Sight and Sound Reader Philadelphia: Temple UP 1993, 105–14; and “Corporealized Observers: Visual Pornographies and the ’Carnal Density of Vision’”, in Patrice Petro (ed.), Fugitive Images: From Photography to Video Bloomington: Indiana UP 1995, 3–41.

[13] Hard Core, expanded edition, 300.

[14] Constance Penley, “Crackers and Whackers: The White Trashing of Porn”, Porn Studies, 309–331.

[15] Even though at least six governmental commissions within the English speaking countries have been devoted to the question of the legal status of pornography, no satisfactory answer has emerged. The reports in question are known as The Lockhart Commission, or the Surgeon General’s Workshop (US, 1970); the Williams Committee, or the British Inquiry into Obscenity and Film Censorship (UK, 1979); the Fraser Committee Report, or the Canadian Justice Department’s Commission (Canada, 1984); the Meese Commission, or the Attorney General’s Commission (US, 1986); and the Joint Select Committee on Video Material (Australia, 1988). For discussions of these, see Marcia Pally, Sex and Sensibility: Reflections on Forbidden Mirrors and the Will to Censor Hopewell: Ecco Press 1994, 57–61; Bernard Arcand, The Jaguar and the Anteater: Pornography Degree Zero, tr. Wayne Grady London: Verso 1993; Gordon Hawkins, and Franklin E. Zimring, Pornography in a Free Society Cambridge: Cambridge UP 1988.

[16] On the history of pornography, see David Foxon, Libertine Literature in England 1660-1745 New York: University Books 1965; Ian Frederick Moulton, Before Pornography: Erotic Writing in Early Modern England Oxford: Oxford UP 2000; and Kendrick, The Secret Museum.

[17] Maria St John, “How to Do Things with the Starr Report: Pornography, Performance, and the President’s Penis”, Porn Studies, 27–49.

[18] Minette Hillyer, “Sex in the Suburban: Porn, Home Movies, and the Live Action Performance of Love in Pam and Tommy Lee: Hardcore and Uncensored”, Porn Studies, 50–76.

[19] Thomas Waugh, “Homosociality in the Classical American Stag Film: Off-Screen, On-Screen”, Porn Studies, 127–141.

[20] Jake Gerli, “The Gay Sex Clerk: Chuck Vincent’s Straight Pornography”, Porn Studies, 198–220. [return to page 2]

[21] Kipnis, Bound and Gagged.

[22] Rich Cante and Angelo Restivo, “The Cultural-Aesthetic Specificities of All-male Moving-Image Pornography”, Porn Studies, 142–166.

[23] See for instance Andrea Dworkin, Pornography: Men Possessing Women London: Women’s Press 1979; and Catharine A. MacKinnon, Only Words Cambridge: Harvard UP 1993.

[24] Constance Penley, “Crackers and Whackers.”

[25] Lynn Hunt, “Introduction: Obscenity and the Origins of Modernity, 1500-1800”, in Lynn Hunt (ed.), The Invention of Pornography: Obscenity and the Origins of Modernity, 1500-1800 New York: Zone Books 1993, 9–45, and 341–45, 10.

[26] Lynn Hunt, “Pornography and the French Revolution”, in Hunt, The Invention of Pornography, 301–339, and 394–400, 305. Lisa Z. Sigel, Governing Pleasures: Pornography and Social Change in England, 1815-1914 New Brunswick: Rutgers UP 2002, argues to the contrary, if unconvincingly to my view, that pornography did not lose its political edge in the nineteenth century.

[27] Robert Darnton, The Forbidden Bestsellers of Pre-Revolutionary France. New York: Norton, 1995, 196-97.

[28] Heather Butler, “What Do You Call a Lesbian with Long Fingers? The Development of Lesbian and Dyke Pornography”, Porn Studies, 167–197.

[29] Viktor Shklovsky, “The Parody Novel: Sterne’s Tristram Shandy,” tr. Richard Sheldon, The Review of Contemporary Fiction 1 (1981): 190-21; originally in O Teorii Prozy (Moscow, 1929).

[30] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Confessions, 1, “ces dangereux livres qu'une belle dame de par le monde trouve incommodes, en ce qu'on ne peut les lire que d'une main.”

[31] Franklin Melendez, “Video Pornography, Visual Pleasure, and the Return of the Sublime”, Porn Studies, 401–427. [return to page 2]

[32] Zabet Patterson, “Going On-line: Consuming Pornography in the Digital Era”, Porn Studies, 104–123.

[33] For an outline of this process, see Magnus Ullén, “‘Namnet för detta är ondska’: Konsumtionssamhället och det pornografiska berättandet” [“‘The Name for This is Evil’: Consumer Society and the Pornographic Mode of Narration”], Böygen. Litteraert tidskrift 17: 4 (2005): 20–35; available online at:

[34] For masturbation as a process, see Rüdiger Lautmann and Michael Schetsche, Das pornographierte Begehren Frankfurt am Main: Campus 1990.

[35] In actual fact the truth of pornography is rhetorical through and through, a circumstance I have highlighted elsewhere; see Magnus Ullén, “Andrea Dworkin och den pornografiska sanningen” [“Andrea Dworkin and the Truth of Pornography”], Tidskrift för litteraturvetenskap 3 (2005): 42–66; and “Dream-Come-Truth: Postmodern Narrativity and Hardcore Porn”, in Literature and Visual Culture, ed. Dagný Kristjánsdóttir Reykjavik: University of Iceland Press 2005, 394–408.

[36] Williams, Hardcore, 32.

[37] Colin Campbell, The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism Oxford: Blackwell 1987.

[38] John Berger, Ways of Seeing London: Penguin 1972, 153.

[39] See for instance Symbolic Exchange and Death, tr. Iain Hamilton London: Sage Publications 1993 (1976).

[40] That Barthes himself was aware of this is evident from his later writings; see for instance “Change the Object Itself: Mythology Today”, in Image—Music—Text tr. Stephen Heath New York: Hill and Wang 1977 (originally in Esprit, 1971), 165–169.

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