Marie-Luise Angerer, Martin Conrads, Lee Edelman, Frances Ferguson, Svenja Flasspöhler, Catharine A. Mackinnon, Olaf Möller, Jörg Schröder, Steven Shaviro, Marc Siegel and Barbara Vinken

Survey On Pornography


For quite some time now, an increase of explicit, obscene and drastic depictions of sexual practices can be observed in art, popular culture, fashion photography, literature and film - a boom that goes along with an accelerated dissemination of pornographic material through a segment of the visual industry operating in various media formats.

At the same time, pornography advanced to become a category for cultural analysis, occassionally for cultural critique. In reference to the term "pornographization" for instance structural parallels are being drawn between the pornographic production of affects and neo-liberal capitalism, or the television broadcast of 9/11 is being compared with the "effet du réel" of pornographic videos. Thus pornography is less regarded as a specific genre but as a cultural logic or political principle within the contemporary regime of visibility.

Since the early 90s feminist debates on pornography shifted from a focus on the antagonism between anti-censorship and anti-porn positions towards discussions of the subject-theoretical implications of pornography as a part of mainstream culture - which on an institutional level led to the introduction of "porn studies" at US-American universities. At the moment, pornography no longer appears as a genre that transgresses the limits of academic or non-academic cultural analysis, but as a phenomenon whose conventions and aesthetics can be both historicized and theorized as well as appropriated against the backdrop of identity politics. Especially in the current field of "post-porn politics", the performative potential of pornography is emphasized in order to challenge normative attributions of identity and technologies of power centered on sexuality by means of queer "body politics".

Against this background, the question needs to be raised what the different (programmatic) investments of feminist, (identity-)political and pop-cultural debates in pornography are.

How would you describe your approach to pornography? Do you agree with the thesis of an increasingly pornographic logic of social relations and political conditions? Has the critique of pornography become obsolete in the face of claims of its immanent emancipatory potential? Why Porn Now?

Frances Ferguson

In the work I have done on the topic of pornography, my effort has been to describe a cultural logic of display and to try to explain the workings of the differential character of that display in articulated social environments. If, I wondered, the world is always visible, why do we see certain aspects of it with what feels like emphasis?

This issue has frequently been framed in terms of a generalized politics of recognition, in which certain types of individuals-women, queers, servants, members of ethnic and racial minorities-are said to be treated unjustly because they are said to be visible but effectively unseen. In this intensely metaphysical version of empiricism, the claim on behalf of individual political actors or, more simply, persons takes the form of a claim for a justice of visibility. The reality of (some) visible existence is said to be obscured by ideology.

I found myself interested in Catharine MacKinnon's account of pornography because it seemed to me to raise the question of visibility in tandem with the question of domination and subordination. Yet though MacKinnon sometimes uses phrases like "a culture made by pornography," I came to think that she had too great a stake in evaluating individual cultural objects and to evaluating them in relation to what she took to be their explicit statements and, specifically, how they might be said to forward (masculine) domination and (female) subordination. Thus, while I see that she is not objecting to pornography on the old grounds of sexual morality and prudishness, I think that her approach-which makes significant claims to be a general theory of the domination of men and the subordination of women that distributes reality to men and a combination of compulsory exposure and invisibility to women-ultimately relies too heavily on local examples and the collection of many examples as if they all conduced to the same point. A reader's evaluation (hers) is for her, as in aesthetic claims, the last word.

Because I work in the field of literary studies, I recognize the appeal of pointing to a particular work and saying, "There it is. Everything I'm talking about-everything important in the world--is expressed in this work." Using texts and images as epitomes is a useful thing. But I also found myself thinking that the history of reception needed to be taken into account. In talking about the history of reception of literary works, I don't mean to accept the libertarian view that we can chart our progress along a path of sexual enlightenment and congratulate ourselves for being more advanced than the Victorians or other similarly sexually retrograde groups because we tolerate sexual explicitness that they would have pushed underground. Rather, I would argue that the varieties of accounts of texts and images suggests that identifying a stable, universal, and transhistorical meaning for individual texts and images is a chimerical project. The devil knows how to quote scripture, scripture knows how to quote the devil, and readers and viewers have very different views about which one is speaking when.

Yet the variation in understandings of texts and images by no means pushes us to a simple relativism in which anyone can plausibly say anything about anything at any time. And it was in the service of this point that I concluded my book on pornography with a brief discussion of Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho. In part, I was interested in the fact that in the space of only one decade the book had gone from being castigated to being praised (and by some of the same people). I thought that such a rapidly changing reaction was significant for helping us to understand the systematics of pornography and the way in which individual cases are taken up and discarded in reception. The words on the page hadn't changed in the decade in which American Psycho went from being treated as scurrilous to being treated as the work of a moralist (as Swift and Flaubert and Dostoevsky were moralists). So, I wondered, why was the reception so different in 1991 and 2001? Part of what I concluded was that American Psycho was the latest instance in a series of instances (going back to Sade's novels) in which what feels most shocking about a work is the feeling of intense contemporaneity it temporarily establishes-its making us feel as though we share the time and place of its represented world to such a degree that we feel as though our ability to achieve detachment is compromised. American Psycho intensely achieved that sense of contemporaneity for a time by presenting itself almost as if it were a narrativized advertising catalog, complete with pedantry about then-current brand names and then-current celebrities and extraordinary ignorance about anything happening more than a few miles and a few months from the world in which the novel's persons (and readers in 1991) move. In my work on pornography I tried to call attention to the ways in which the things that we treat as pornography represent a genre not simply because of their content-their sexual explicitness or their sadism-but also because they feel closer to us than other texts or images. And I tried to provide a fuller explanation for that feeling of proximity by talking about how a writing that uses the name pornography for itself appears at the end of the eighteenth century in western Europe (for the first time since late Roman antiquity) at just the moment at which utilitarianism is developing an account of how the interactions between an actor and an environment conduce to a new view of action, one in which individuals contribute actions within organized social groups and come to discover the value of those actions within those groups. Like Roland Barthes, I saw deep affinities between Sade and Fourier and their efforts to articulate environments that would capture and evaluate even small actions (and increasingly call out more extreme actions through the operation of their comparative logic). And seeing that conjunction between Sade and Fourier and their ways of thinking about closed environments also suggested to me an account of Benthamite utilitarian structures that represented a revision of Foucault's influential view of them. For utilitarian social structures are important for helping us to understand that there is more to the commodification of action than we capture in talking about the value of labor. They help us to understand why some actions-even minimal ones-can have enormous effects in a narrowly defined environment (and, hence, why one can plausibly make the argument that even the sight of a closed book might constitute a sexual threat). As I was trying to demonstrate the importance of utilitarian social structures (schools, workhouses, prisons in the early utilitarian phase; schools and workplaces today) in our understanding of how the value of persons and their actions have been registered in particular display technologies, I also came to appreciate the difference between an environment and a world. We live in a world, but an environment both works on us and contributes very significantly to the ways in which we work and the way in which we and other people register the value of our work. When Ellis's novel is clearly just part of the world (as it comes to seem historical and, indeed, to call out for footnotes that would identify some of the already archaic brand names), it has less weight for us than when it would if it could really constitute itself as an environment-which is merely to say that the sorts of deontological projects that Bentham was pursuing have an importance even for apparently untheoretical practices like pornography, because they help us to think about the degree of force that an environment exercises in relation to individual actors, actions, and objects and about what is necessary for an environment to function to add or extract value from them.

Lee Edelman

There's a paradox in the discourse on pornography that I want to emphasize at the outset. Pornography, in order to count as such, can have no redeeming or aesthetic value except insofar as it poses a challenge to the value of the aesthetic. But that challenge, to the extent that it weighs one measure of value against another, itself partakes of the aesthetic imperative that pornography disdains. This paradox has significant consequences for what I'm proposing here: that pornography, like queerness, implicitly gestures toward the advent of the posthuman and so to the end of the knowledge regime that promulgates normativity. For to read pornography as a challenge to the aesthetic principles of unity and coherence, and so as a challenge to the values essential to the concept of "the human", is to remain, by virtue of the privilege accorded to the possibility of reading, fully "within" the domain of "the human", fully committed to the epistemological mastery, to the wrestling of sense from substance, that pornography undoes. It's to reaffirm, intentionally or not, the logic of legibility that makes our formation as subjects always an aesthetic education, one that represents the universe as single-mindedly pedagogical, constantly enforcing the spiritual value of making matter mean. Pornography, it follows, can never, properly speaking, be "read" at all. The porneme, the essential unit of pornography, the fundamental element of its resistance to cultural law, is banished by interpretation, disappearing as soon as we try to elicit a cultural profit from it.

However widely available or frequently encountered it may be, then, pornography never operates as a normative cultural product. It refuses the "principle" of culture, the aesthetic imperative of growth and development, of maturation or ripening into wholeness. It refuses the totalization always implicit in "the human", a term that serves, in the framework of our aesthetic education, as the universal sign of the aesthetic as our universal value (the value, precisely, of conceptual unity, coherence and epistemological mastery). As an aesthetic category, "the human", moreover, gives rise to the inhumanity of excluding some people, those viewed as threats to its particular universality, from the ranks of "the human" itself. Pornography, by contrast, contributes to what I describe as the queer event: the event of "dehumanization" that resists the universal reproduction of value (and the universal value of reproduction), that insists on what Adorno often calls the non-identical, and that expresses itself in the anti-identitarian negativity of the death drive. This queer event puts an end to"the human" and the inhuman with a single blow. Borrowing the concept of a truth event from the work of Alain Badiou, I mean to claim that pornography, to the extent that it's faithful to the porneme, to the anti-social transgression at stake in pornography's basic unit, attests to what we're still unable to cognize or to recognize: the end of the era of the human.

But like every conservative battle cry, "the human" enjoys the advantage of affirming what we think we already know: the universal value of constructing ourselves through abstract universals endangered by the solicitations of the local, the transient, and the queer. Adverting us to this danger, "the human" survives on the pathos of its putative vulnerability. Any attempt to question it, let alone to deconstruct it, has the force of a violent assault upon its categorical integrity, eliciting, in turn, the pathos that "the human" always invokes. Paradoxically, then, interrogation of "the human" merely reinforces it, letting it draw new strength from the prospect of its possible dissolution. Its undoing thus always eludes us and its posthumous survival, after our "knowledge" of its death, turns us, the "posthumanous", into specters, aesthetic ideology's afterimages, ghosts who endlessly haunt ourselves and cling to our phantom identities with a ruthless sentimentality and a stubborn faith in the sublimations that "the human" as concept intends.

The porneme refuses such sentiment, offering in its place the mindless, machine-like pulsions of the drive - the drive whose automatism inverts the elevations of the sublime. Where the Kantian sublime grants tranquility in the face of a threatening infinitude, affirming the power of the subject to comprehend and so to master it, the drive strips the subject of mastery, depicting that subject, instead, in the steady grip of the drive's relentless force. Pornography contributes to the queer event by desublimating "the human". For what threatens most fully the universalizing ideal implicit in "the human" is the realization that there's nothing so extreme, so disgusting, so unthinkable that it can't serve to mobilize the libidinal drive of some from among our neighbors. The terror that realization provokes, as we see in Freud's "Civilization and its Discontents", responds to the radical particularity of each subject's encounter with jouissance, with the Real. And doesn't that radical particularity bespeak a universal queerness at odds with the "particular" universal enshrined in the normativity of "the human"? Pornography marks our subjection to the universal queerness of the drive, but promises no liberation from our bondage to "the human". What binds us to it more thoroughly than the fantasy of escaping it, the fantasy of attaining to freedom through the power of the mind? The posthuman, were it possible, would not be possible for "us", destined as we are to wander in the desert of "the human", destined to preserve, "posthumanously", a concept we've outlived. The queer event, the dehumanization pornography attests to, remains, therefore, unthinkable at the moment it's taking place. I described in my most recent book, "No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive", the "impossible project" of refusing the governing logic of futurity that constitutes the political field in heteronormative terms. The queer event, I'm suggesting here, moves beyond futurity toward a politics not determined by the subject of aesthetic value, a politics of dehumanized subjects that we, the "posthumanous", can no more make sense of than we can read or interpret the porneme that hopelessly heralds its approach.

Steven Shaviro

Why Porn Now? In fact, I don't believe that Now is the time. Of course, there's more stuff available these days than ever before: extreme porn, gonzo porn, DIY porn, and what have you. Explicit images are everywhere. No fetish, no kink is so obscure that you can't find a group devoted to it on the Net, complete with ready-to-download videos. But I find it hard to regard all this as a triumph of anything besides niche marketing. Today, in the era of globalization, electronic media and post-Fordist flexible accumulation, everything is a commodity. We have reached the point at which even the most impalpable and evanescent, or intimate and private, aspects of our lives - not just physical objects, but services and favors, affects and moods, styles and atmospheres, yearnings and fantasies, experiences and lifestyles - have all been quantified, digitized, and put up for sale. It's true, of course, that there are many social forces opposed to the proliferation of pornography, and more generally of sexual fantasies and possibilities. In the United States, voters routinely approve anti-homosexual ordinances, and politicians and preachers score points by demanding action to stem the flood of "obscenity". But really, isn't this hysterical moralism just the flip side of marketing? The main effect of these crusades is to give pornography, and more generally all forms of nonprocreative sex, the shiny allure of transgression and taboo. And that, in turn, only serves to stimulate the consumer demand for porn-as-commodity, and sex-as-commodity ...

In fact, there is nothing more banal than the spectacle of a right-wing politician who turns out to have a passion for teenage boys, or the minister of a fundamentalist megachurch who is discovered to be hiring rent boys on the side. (I cite only the two most recent of the incessant pseudo-scandals that make headlines in the American media.) It's no longer possible to understand these pathetic closet cases in terms of Freudian repression, or the Lacanian Symbolic, or any of the old categories of depth psychology. Rather, their logic is a commodity logic: fetishism in the Marxist sense, instead of the Freudian one. All our affects and passions are perfectly interchangeable, subject to the law of universal equivalence. That is to say, all of them are commodities, detached from the subjective circumstances of their affective production, and offered up for sale in the marketplace. Today our fantasies and desires - indeed, "our bodies, ourselves" - seem to be outside us, apart from us, beyond our power. And this is a very different situation from that of their being repressed, and buried deep within us. Commodities have a magical attraction - we find them irresistible and addictive - because they concretize and embody the "definite social relations" (as Marx puts it) that we cannot discover among ourselves. In the fetishism of commodities, Marx says, these social relations take on "the fantastic form of a relation between things". The secret sex life of the right-wing politician or preacher is thus a sort of desperate leap, an attempt to seek out those social relations that are only available in the marketplace, only expressible as "revealed preferences" in the endless negotiations of supply and demand. In short, such a secret life is nothing more (or less) than a way of getting relief by going shopping - which is something that we all do. This realization dampens down whatever "Schadenfreude" such incidents might otherwise afford me.

Therefore, I don't accept "the thesis of an increasingly pornographic logic of social relations and political conditions". To the contrary: there is nothing exceptional, central or privileged about pornography and the "pornographic" today. Pornography simply conforms to the same protocols and political conditions, the same commodity logic, as do all other forms of production, circulation and consumption. Porn today isn't the least bit different from cars, or mobile phones, or running shoes. It embodies a logic of indifferent equivalence, even as it holds out the thrilling promise of transgression and transcendence - a promise that, of course, it never actually fulfills. Is it possible to imagine a pornography freed from this logic? Perhaps some recent writings by Samuel R. Delany provide an alternative. In novels like "The Mad Man" and "Phallos", Delany envisions a sexuality pushed to the point of extremity and exhaustion. There are orgies of fucking and sucking, elaborate games of dominance and submission, and episodes of violence and destruction, together with enormous quantities of piss and shit and sweat and cum. Yet there's no sense of transgression in these texts. Instead, the meticulously naturalistic thick description places these episodes firmly in the realm of the everyday. Delany presents "extreme" sex as a form of civility and community, an adornment of life, a necessary part of the art of living well. Delany's is the only writing I know that answers Michel Foucault's call for an ethics/aesthetics of the body and its pleasures, freed from the dreary dialectics of sexuality and transgression. As such, it provides an alternative as well to the relentless commodification that permeates every corner of our postmodern existence.

Marc Siegel

You ask about my approach to pornography, about my investments in it. For starters: I like it. Let me specify ... For a number of years now, I have tended to prefer written over visual pornography. Ever since I got a high-speed internet connection, I've gravitated toward reading pornographic stories on-line and downloading them for future use. Typically, I choose those categorized as "Bisexual" - although I would never categorize my non-porn hours in that way - and subcategorized as either "Anal", "Fetish", "Loving Wives", or "Urination or Stories Where Raunch Is a Primary Plot Element". Within these sub-categories, the stories that turn me on the most tend not to be too literary. I'm not interested in long-drawn out reasons (historical, psychological etc.) for the sexual acts described in the stories. A simple set-up is usually sufficient. I treat the search for the good story as a kind of foreplay, as it were, so that when I finally find one that interests me, I'm so turned on that I want to get right down to the explicit sexual scenario and not wade through a long literary set-up. Since the onset of computer pornography, this foreplay to masturbation, which is of course an aspect of masturbation itself, incorporates and in the process eroticizes the technical apparatus of my computer: keyboard, mouse, screen, software program etc. When I used to masturbate while reading Boyd McDonald's "Straight to Hell" (STH) chapbooks of true homosexual experiences, my foreplay consisted of walking to my bookshelves, looking for the right "STH" volume, taking the book with me to a good place to sit or lie down, and flipping through the pages with one hand in order to find a particularly hot account of sex. This whole process of anticipating the hot story - be it "He Said He Preferred Women" or "Swills a Dozen Loads of Piss" - turned me on and set the stage for the masturbation that followed. In the internet age, however, my masturbatory foreplay consists primarily of stretching out my arm to reach for the mouse, then moving it around while watching the little black arrow click on the circle with the blue-green "N" in it; watching the circle turn black while the Netscape window opens up on the screen; typing in the address of the particular story web site I'm interested in (either or; and clicking and dragging my way through the stories to find the ones that appeal to me. I'll skip further technical details and just end this account of my approach to pornography with the observation that the internet has enhanced - though not radically altered - the ways in which I fulfill myself sexually and has thereby enriched my sex and fantasy life.

I'm trying to specify what kind of pornography I like at the moment. In doing so I hope also to make it clear that I consider as pornography sexually explicit material intended primarily for purposes of sexual arousal. I don't like to use the word pornography to describe a "logic of social relations and political conditions", as you put it in your question. I know that some theatermakers here in Berlin, for instance, are fond of doing exactly this. But, as their work attests, such hasty analogical uses of the word pornography often betray - or at least leave unquestioned - an assumption that pornography is a debased form of social relations. In a rush to analogy, I sense a "we all know what that is" perspective towards pornography. But I don't think "we all know" what pornography is, what it can be, and how it functions. (Which pornography are we talking about? Hetero? Gay? Lesbian? Bi? Tranny? Ethnic? SM? Scat? Written? Visual? Aural?) Thanks to some conferences, film festivals, workshops, books, occasional university courses and the emergence of what the French theorist Marie-Hélène Bourcier calls "post-porn", we are beginning to develop both a critical vocabulary for speaking about sexually explicit images and a critical practice of making them (better). But these scattered attempts to take pornography seriously as a cultural phenomenon hardly constitute a field. Porn studies is the optimistic title of a wonderful anthology by Linda Williams, but it is not - as far as I know - the name of a university department or program in the US. (If only it were.) Furthermore, post-porn, in Bourcier's useful formulation, does not describe a logic of our contemporary political situation, if by that we mean a logic that denies porn its specificity as sexually explicit and arousing or that situates porn beyond critique and analysis. To the contrary, as Bourcier sees it, post-porn describes those all too few cultural products - the film "Baise-moi" by Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh-Thi, the films of Bruce La Bruce and the work of Annie Sprinkle - that engage critically with pornography from a feminist perspective. Post-porn cultural work, so Bourcier, challenges the segregation of arousing depictions of explicit sexual acts from other modes of representation and at the same time reimagines gender and sexual difference. My take on pornography? Post-porNOW!