copyright 2009, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 51, spring 2009

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pornography seriously — critics like Andrea Dworkin, Catherine McKinnon, and Susanne Kappeler — has by and large been superceded by critics footed in queer theory as well as feminism.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).

Less convincing is Jake Gerli’s essay about homosexual director Chuck Vincent, who made pornographic movies for a heterosexual audience.[20] 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.

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] 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 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.


[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.

[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.

[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.

[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.

[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.

[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.

[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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