Back to the Golden Age

by Thomas Waugh

The exchange between Hanich and Ullén on porn is not as much of a wrestling match as Hanich would like, but rather a productive encounter of two complementary and valid—both illuminating in their own way—takes on the proliferating field (the Swede gets it on with the German—sounds like a 1960s softcore exploitation fantasy!)

One of the interesting questions raised by this conversation is about the now-recognized field of porn studies, in particular its genealogy, its gaps and its future. The Ullén article, Hanich neglects to mention, is part of one of those legendary Jump Cut special sections on porn or sexual representation or sexual identity media that have dotted the career of the magazine over the last thirty-four years. There have been at least six of these, if you count the “sexuality identity” special sections in 1977 (No. 16) and 1981 (No. 24/25) respectively. Hard on the heels of these two pioneering collections came “Women and Pornography” [three articles plus bibliography] #26 (1981); “Sexual Representation”  [six articles] #30 (1985); “Sexual Representation” [five articles] #35 (1990); and finally perhaps the best of them all, 2009’s six-item “Porn” #51. Almost all are still cutting-edge and eagerly cited after all these years. Had Hanich considered the five other superb pieces in the 2009 collection, he might have softened his critique of the “a-historicity” and “de-contextualizing” “essentialization” in Ullén’s provocative study.

For Jump Cut’s approach to our favorite fraught subject has always been one of collective wisdom and exchange, in which articles complement and balance each other. And the historicizing and contextualizing materialism of JC contributors’ cultural analysis, always present amid the special section voices, has continuously constituted its major achievement. In particular the continuity in the various “introductions” offered to the sections over the years by editors Lesage and Kleinhans, notable for their support of a spectrum of experiences, voices and angles of study, always hooking up with the immediacy of politics at ground level, whether of “rape culture” or state censorship yet still maintaining an almost Kinsey-esque “non-judgmental” neutrality, is remarkable. And it is significant that porn studies was finally so well established in 2009 that that year’s special section needed no special introduction to pave the way and calm the horses.

Pursuing this genealogical discourse somewhat further, I would like to fine tune our two authors’ but especially Ullén’s gloss on the foundational moments of porn studies. Ullén contends about the porn studies field:

“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.”

This is absolutely true, if we take the term “book” literally—but this word hides the whole point I would like to make. Hard Core was without a doubt a paradigmatic money-shot, but we must prevent the erasure from history of the seminal contributions to the field not from books but from periodicals like Jump Cut and elder siblings Screen and Cineaste, and also from non-film magazines. These contributions came at a time when the academic and trade publishers, even progressive ones from Williams’s University of California Press to St. Martin’s Press, were still too chickenshit to touch explicit imagery and subversive, positive or even neutral ideas about porn. This founding literature, without which HardCore would not have been possible, originated in the seventies and picked up steam at the dawn of the Reagan-era backlash. Alongside Fag Rag, The Body Politic, Gay Left, and Straight to Hell, was the legendary “bad girl” issue of Heresies (1981),[1] [open endnotes in new window] which really turned things around and led to the post-Dworkin, Williams-presided chapter of porn studies.

Ullén’s further comments about the scholarly context of Hard Core are equally short-sighted: 

“It appeared at a time when the theoretical discourse about pornography was characterized by impassioned rhetoric rather than well-founded reflections.”

“[Earlier books] 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.”

In fact none of the above ran alt-scholarly “non-judgmental” reflections on porn and its centrality, which, alongside Jump Cut’s editorial voice emerging from and maintaining its Marxist-feminist sobriety, very well-founded indeed thank you, answer’s to Ullén’s description and could certainly not have been admitted to the academy at the time.

(If my Straight to Hell raises your eyebrows, I admit that Boyd McDonald’s famous chapbook and its successor volumes aren’t exactly known for their theoretical discourse, but would still maintain that the forms of auto-ethnographic meta-porn they developed beginning in the 1970s more than fully fill the bill. It wasn’t called the Archives of the American Academy of Homosexual Research and The Manhattan Review of Unnatural Acts for nothing.)

As my graduate student Shawna Plischke Culleton has discovered, porn studies is perhaps the only field in the academy where practitioners routinely overlook the existing literature and insist on reinventing the wheel. While this is not wholly true of the selective Hanich, and not at all true of Ullén, the temptation toward overreaching generalizations in both scholar’s work corroborates her point.
Coming back to unnatural acts, Ullén is to be commended for considering the whole sexually diverse range of porn in his call for a focus on masturbation. In contrast, Hanich has read Capino and Delany (but apparently not Dyer, Fung, Escoffier, the queer contributors to Porn Studies and, er, Waugh). And his curious bracketing and footnoting of gay porn has a counterproductive, even anachronistic effect (Hard Core got away with this intellectual apartheid in 1989, but Williams soon thought better of it). Is it in fact even possible these days to provide a text on “heterosexual porn,” as Hanich aspires to do, when the old binaries he is relying on are increasingly queered, and the boundaries bleeding more than ever?

(Let’s think about whether it might even be possible to claim that the concept “heterosexual porn” was a relatively late invention in the historical trajectory of our object of study, in the manner that the concept of heterosexuality followed the invention of that of homosexuality by many a moon at the turn of the twentieth century [Katz, 1995]).

Since Delany has made such an impression on Hanich, let’s come back to auto-ethnography. For he is right to value the self-narrating methodology of hetero Scott MacDonald alongside that of homo Delany and of self-declared one-hander Jean-Jacques Rousseau (though neither Hanich or Ullén acknowledge in their extensive discussions of Williams the crucial role the “I” word” plays in her work on porn). Which leads me in conclusion to wonder whether both pieces might themselves have benefited from a little more self-narration, self-reflection and self-referencing. It is not that I have fantasies of Swedes or Germans masturbating after their wrestling bouts à la Old Reliable,[2] and Ullén describes his method as theoretical not empirical, and it may well be that the personal is not the political in northern European scholarship as it is in the Anglo-Saxon world. All the same Ullén is right that we know everything and next to nothing about “the masturbatory mode of reading” as the essential act of “pornographicity,” so there’s only one place to start, with thick description and insider narrative.

As for Hanich, his reliance for evidence on feature fiction films like Taxi Driver, Boogie Nights, Annie Hall, The Departed, The Kids Are All Right and The Piano Teacher is a wee bit curious in this phenomenological tract. But even curiouser is the central role of what he calls “anecdotal evidence,” provided by “a couple of porn users I have talked to,” and the intense passage that follows through to the end of his article, a mix of speculative description of the keyboard behavior of the generic “porn consumer” buoyed up by a few rare citations. At this point it was hard to keep my eyeballs from rolling, so strong was the echo of early researchers disguising their heavy breathing with the pretense of scientific objectivity. He writes,

“Today the viewer can not only swiftly switch between an almost endless number of clips, but also drastically shorten the moments of frustration and easily repeat and thus prolong the moment of satisfaction.”

Do such words in fact really mean “this is how I do it,” as it would have in the primitive pre-history of porn studies in the years before and during what Hanich calls “the golden age,” according to the unspoken contract between wanking “scientist” and winking “reader”? Perhaps Hanich’s key concept of shame is not only the object of his study but has also unconsciously informed his methodology. In this respect, Hanich might well consider fluffing up his sources on the theory of shame and disgust (Sartre, leisure scholar Phil Hubbard and psychologist Paul Rozin) by recourse to the bountiful literature on shame within queer studies/theory of the last decade. This missed opportunity in any case is a conspicuous example of how Hanich’s heterocentric presumption-by-default, so reminiscent of the celluloid era, has unnecessarily limited his take on digital porn in the era of clips, clicks and climax.


2. The legendary West Coast artisanal porn studio of the 1980s that specialized in oiled-up hustlers and street men wrestling and then jerking off for the camera.

To topPrint versionJC 53 Jump Cut home

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