We know representations of this order as pornography, but they have only been known as such for some 150 years.

Food porn, anyone? The extended use of the concept of porn is one of the aspects that make its historical nature evident.


The excess of porn:
response to Julian Hanich

by Magnus Ullén

Historicizing pornography is a tricky business, in part simply because of the difficulties of defining what we are talking about. The term “pornography” may designate a genre, a mode of reading, or an evaluative register. If in practice these distinctions habitually blur, we should not underestimate the usefulness of making them. In singling out masturbation (pornography as a mode of reading) as the key to a proper understanding of the concept, I did not mean to suggest that masturbation is the be-all and end-all of pornography; I was simply arguing that we stand a better chance of understanding how the different components of the concept of porn are interrelated if we begin by acknowledging the masturbatory response it invites and often elicits.

As programmatic as my article on porn studies may seem, it presents comments “Toward a Theory of Masturbation.” I was never under the delusion of having provided the finished thing. Julian Hanich’s discussion of the remediation of porn seems to me a welcome contribution to the articulation of such a theory, but in many ways it remains in the grips of the academic approach to porn I critique. Once again, pornography is locked to a generic definition, and a media specific one to boot.

I agree with Hanich that the recent remediation of moving-image pornography very likely has

“both facilitated and intensified masturbation due to a double tendency toward privatization and individualization.”[1][open endnotes in new window]

I disagree with him (and others) only in that I do not see the differences between these media as changing the core pornographic experience, but precisely as intensifying or bringing out more clearly the essential features of that experience. “Masturbating alone at home vis-à-vis a series of YouPorn clips downloaded on a PC,” Hanich muses, “is unlike sitting in an adult theater with other co-viewers watching a feature film like Behind the Green Door (1972).” Certainly; but then, taking a poop in an American public toilet, with its thin, low walls which someone could peek over any minute should they want to, is, phenomenologically speaking, likewise a very different experience from doing so in, say, a Swedish one, which almost invariably allows you to lock yourself into a room of your own for a few minutes; and yet the core experience is the same. That is all I claim for pornography: that regardless of medium, the core experience remains the same.

Hanich, I am glad to observe, does not dispute my contention that there is a core pornographic experience and that this is made up of masturbation. His discussion of the practice of masturbation, however, ignores practically all of the major points I make in the interest of a theory which sees masturbation not merely as a physical practice but as a mode of reading. I do not hold “that pornography means masturbation regardless of the medium” (my emphasis), as he claims, I simply suggest that pornography tends to entail masturbation regardless of what medium it appears in. While this means that, for me, pornography is a form of sex, as Hanich correctly notes, I do not define “pornography as nothing more and nothing less than” masturbation. My point is in fact the very opposite, namely that precisely because this particular form of sex is also a mode of reading it is a great deal more than merely a form of sex.

In other words, the interesting thing about masturbation to me is less that it is an activity that encompasses sexual self-stimulation, than that such self-stimulation allows us to translate psychic stimuli in the form of words or pictures (or both) into an exclusively physical sensation. Since all reading is prone to elicit physical sensations, this suggests that masturbation is not as different from reading in general as one might first assume. Still, as no other practice as clearly voids the text read of other dimensions than the purely sensational than does masturbation, we are more likely to understand the particularity of the sensational aspect of reading if we approach the reading process in general through the lens of masturbation rather than the inverse.

Since it is as a mode of reading rather than an actual practice that masturbation matters, the fact that MacDonald, for instance, did not masturbate while watching porn in theatres in no way invalidates my point, as he was still watching them in order to masturbate. To me, MacDonald’s behavior falls squarely into the preparatory phase of masturbation which may not entail actual self-stimulation of the genitals but involves cognitive stimulation in which such physical stimulation is as it were always already implied, and therefore rules out a more distanced way of reading the pornographic text. For that reason, although I find Hanich’s notes on the temporality of on-line porn consumption important, I would speak of it in terms of the “presentization-of-the-future-moment” rather than those of “the future-of-the-present-moment,” and I would argue that it is a general feature of porn consumption and not one that is restricted to on-line porn consumption. 

Precisely because the relevance of a theory of masturbation goes well beyond the actual practice of masturbation, historicizing the practice of masturbation in relation to moving image porn, as Hanich usefully does in his article, to me is not sufficient for historicizing pornography. I would take this opportunity to add what for reasons of space I only implied in my article, namely that while I insist a theory of pornography must also be a theory of masturbation, an adequate theory of masturbation must also comprise a history of the concept of pornography in all its peculiar inflections. Needless to say, that history cannot be provided here, but even a very short sketch will illustrate why masturbation (pornography as a mode of reading) is the key to a proper understanding of pornography as a genre and as an evaluative register as well.

It should be noted, to begin with, that the practice of castigating masturbation as the vice par excellence of the solitary modern self precedes the articulation of pornography as a specific phenomenon by almost 150 years. When pornography does emerge as a concept in the 1850s – some two centuries after the emergence of the first literary artifacts we today recognize as pornographic – it does not mean, as it does for us, only “graphic sexual representation devoid of social significance,” but was used in a much wider sense:

All literature and art treating sexually explicit subjects were simply called pornography.”[2]

(In parenthesis, we might want to observe that the concept of pornography was invented specifically for visual pornography: apparently, the term comes into practice only when the private experience of enjoying sexually explicit materials threatens to become part of the public social sphere by being exhibited in museums.)

Reactions against such an indiscriminate use of the concept entailed that its extension was gradually retracted. By the 1920s pornography signified texts that represented sex in a morally reprehensible manner; by the 1960s it had come to denote texts that were little if anything but sexually explicit. But while the generic understanding of pornography has become more and more specific, the use of the term as a metaphor for an aesthetical, or rather, anti-aesthetical register has steadily expanded. Notwithstanding their very different connotations neologisms such as “pornography of death,” “torture porn,” or “food porn” (in reference to Gourmet Magazine) all bespeak the tendency to identify pornography with an excess so radical that it cannot be contained within the limits of rational discourse.[3] The use of the term pornography in this extended sense obviously is not directly related to the practice of masturbation, but it derives from the conception of pornography as an excessive representation of sexuality, which in turn is linked to the view of masturbation as an anti-social form of sexuality.

In sum: first there is a practice, a mode of reading (masturbation), then there is a genre, the peculiar characteristics of which finally give birth to that range of associations and ready-made preconceptions that inform the everyday understanding of pornography as an evaluative register. Indeed, the increasingly frequent habit of referring to our favorite pass-times as this or that form of porn (“Don’t you just love the emotional porn of Oprah?” or “The West Wing is my favorite show by far – totally rhetorical porn”) suggests that the excess of porn is no longer necessarily coded as something negative, but is beginning to be embraced as the possibly worthless yet still highly enjoyable surplus-value of consumer culture.

The remediation of pornography of course has something to do with fluctuations of this order, too, and deserves our continued interest. Still, I think we do well to broaden the scope of the discussion, and look for the pornographicity of our own historical situation not only in pornography but in social discourses at large.

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