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the eloquence of pornography by Laura Kipnis

Pornography grabs us and doesn't let go. Whether we're revolted or enticed, shocked or titillated, these are flip sides of the same response: an intense, visceral engagement with what pornography has to say. And pornography has quite a lot to say.

Pornography should interest us, because it's intensely and relentlessly about us. It involves the roots of our culture and the deepest corners of the self. It's not just friction and naked bodies: pornography has eloquence. It has meaning, it has ideas. It even has redeeming ideas. So why all the distress?


Laura Kipnis is a professor of media studies at Northwestern University. This is an edited excerpt from her book Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America (Duke Univ. Press).

Perhaps it's that buried under all the nervous stereotypes of pimply teenagers, furtive perverts in raincoats, and anti-social compulsively masturbating misfits, is a sneaking recognition that pornography isn't just an individual predilection: pornography is central to our culture. It's not just its immense popularity -- although estimates put its sales at over eleven billion dollars a year. It's that pornography is revealing. It exposes the culture to itself. Pornography, it might be argued, is the royal road to the cultural psyche (as for Freud, dreams were the route to the unconscious).

So the question is, if you put it on the couch and let it free-associate, what is it really saying? What are the inner tensions and unconscious conflicts that propel its narratives?

When writing about the pornography of the past, whether visual or literary, scholars and art historians routinely discover allegorical meanings within it, even political significance. Historians have made the case that modern pornography (up until around the 19th century) operated as a form of social criticism, a vehicle for attacking officialdom, which responded, predictably, by attempting to suppress it. Pornography was defined less by its content, than by the efforts of those in power to eliminate it and the social agendas it transported.

Despite knowing this, it's difficult to envision contemporary pornography as a form of culture or as a mode of politics. There's virtually no discussion of pornography as an expressive medium in the positive sense -- the only expressing it's presumed to do is of misogyny or social decay. That it might have more complicated social agendas, or that future historians of the genre might produce interesting insights about pornography's relation to this particular historical and social moment -- these are radically unthought thoughts.

I've proposed that pornography is best understood as a form of cultural expression. It is a fictional, fantastical, even allegorical realm; it neither reflects the real world, nor is it some hypnotizing call to action. The world of pornography is mythological and hyperbolic, peopled by fictional characters. It doesn't and never will exist. But what it does do is to insist on a sanctioned space for fantasy. And this is the basis of so much of the controversy it engenders, because pornography has a talent for making its particular fantasies look like dangerous, socially destabilizing things.

Like any other popular culture genre (like sci-fi, romance, mystery, true crime), pornography obeys certain rules, and its primary rule is transgression. Like your boorish cousin, its greatest pleasure is to locate each and every one of a society's taboos, prohibitions, and proprieties, and systematically transgress them, one by one.

Pornography manages to penetrate to the marrow of who we are as a culture and as psyches. As avant-garde artists knew, transgression is no simple thing: it's a precisely calculated intellectual endeavor. It means knowing the culture inside out, discerning its secret shames and grubby secrets, how to best humiliate it, knock it off its prim perch. A culture's pornography becomes, in effect, a precise map of that culture's borders: pornography begins at the edge of the culture's decorum. Carefully tracing that edge, like an anthropologist mapping a culture's system of taboos and myths, provides a detailed blueprint of the culture's anxieties, investments, contradictions. And a culture's borders, whether geographical or psychological, are inevitably political questions.

Pornography is thus a form of political theater. It's a medium for confronting audiences with exactly those contents that are exiled from sanctioned speech, mainstream culture and political discourse. And that encompasses more than sex.

. . . . . .

Like the artistic avant garde's, pornography's transgressions are first of all aesthetic. It confronts us with bodies that repulse us -- like those in fat porn -- or defies us with genders we find noxious. It induces us to look at what's conventionally banished from view. Pornography is chock full of these sorts of aesthetic shocks and surprises. Here's one: in a culture which so ferociously equates sexuality with youth, where else but within pornography will you find enthusiasm for sagging, aging bodies, or the permission to sexualize them? There is a subgenre of porn -- both gay and straight -- devoted to the geriatric. And to the extent that portraying the aging body as sexual might be described as a perversion (along with other "perversions" like preferring fat sex partners), it reveals to what extent "perversion" is a shifting and capricious social category, rather than a form of knowledge or science: a couple of hundred years ago, fat bodies were widely admired.

Is it not becoming clear that this watchfully dialectical relation pornography maintains to mainstream culture makes it nothing less than a form of cultural critique? It refuses to let us off the hook for our hypocrisies. Or our fascinations.

We don't choose the social codes we live by, they choose us. Pornography's very specific, very calculated violations of these strict codes (that have been pounded into all of us from the crib), make it the exciting and the nerve-wracking thing it is. These are the limits we yearn to defy and transcend -- some of us more than others. Taboos do function to stimulate the desire for the tabooed thing and for its prohibition simultaneously.

Pornography's allegories of transgression reveal, in the most visceral ways, not just our culture's edges, but also how intricately our own identities are bound up in all of these unspoken but relentless cultural dictates. And what the furor over pornography also reveals is just how deeply attached to the most pervasive feelings of shame and desire all these unspoken dictates are. Pornography's ultimate desire is to exactly engage our deepest embarrassments, to mock us for the anxious psychic balancing acts we daily perform, straddling between the anarchy of sexual desires and the straitjacket of social responsibilities.

Pornography, then, is clearly profoundly and paradoxically social, but even more than that, it's acutely historical. It's an archive of data about both our history as a culture, and our own individual histories -- our formations as selves. Pornography's favorite terrain is the tender spots where the individual psyche collides with the historical process of molding social subjects. Of course, neither the culture nor the individual have had their particular borders for very long; these aren't timeless universals. The line between childhood and adulthood, standards of privacy, bodily aesthetics, and proprieties, our ideas about who we should have sex with, and how to do it -- all the motifs that obsess pornography -- shift from culture to culture and throughout history.

. . . . . .

But why is there so much pornography? Why the sheer repetition? It may be that there's something inherent in human desire that defeats the capacity of anything to satisfy it. For Freud that's because any sexual object is always a poor substitute for the original one you couldn't have, with that unfulfillable wish taking the form of a succession of substitute objects. (Freud also related repetition to trauma, to the need to master psychic injury through the compulsive return to the scene of its origin.) It may also be that within consumer capitalism, our desires have to be endlessly activated to keep us tied to the treadmill of the production-consumption cycle: if we ceased having unfulfillable desires and stopped trying to quell them with a succession of consumer durables and unnecessary purchases, instant economic chaos would soon follow.

Or perhaps the abundance of pornography -- such an inherent aspect of the genre -- simply resonates with a primary desire for plenitude, for pleasure without social limits. Pornography proposes an economy of pleasure in which not only is there always enough, there's even more than you could possibly want. That has to have a certain grab to it, given the way that scarcity is the context, and the buried threat of most of our existences, whatever form it takes -- not enough love, sex, or money are favorite standbys.

Preserving an enclave for fantasy is an important political project for the following reason: pornography provides a forum to engage with a realm of contents and materials exiled from public view and from the dominant culture, and this may indeed encompass unacceptable, improper, transgressive contents, including, at times, violence, misogyny, and racism. But at the same time, within this realm of transgression, there's the freedom to indulge in a range of longings and desires without regard to the appropriateness and propriety of those desires, and without regard to social limits on resources, object-choices, perversity, or on the anarchy of the imagination.

Whatever the local expressions of longings for plenitude -- and perhaps longings for sex, love, and other kinds of human fulfillment aren't unrelated to more material issues like the social distribution of resources -- the freedom to fantasize different futures, and different possibilities for individual, bodily, and collective fulfillment, is a crucial political space. Perhaps when issues of pleasure, plenitude, and freedom are articulated more frequently in places other than fantasy genres like pornography, they won't need to find their expression only in these coded and pornographic forms.

What I've been arguing is that despite whatever chagrin it may induce, it's possible to reimagine the complicated questions porn raises as a form of social knowledge, despite the offense they cause to some sensibilities. These offenses have eloquence. They have social meaning. Besides, what's so terrible about being offended? About having all your presuppositions and the very core of your identity shaken up? (Well, maybe a lot.) But looking at pornography wouldn't be an issue worth bothering about unless there were more at stake than sexual pleasure. And while I hardly mean to malign sex, which has enough bricks thrown at it these days, it isn't the only reason pornographic fantasy is worth fighting for.

Of course, there are good reasons for the profound sense of injury so many do feel at pornography's hands: pornography is transgressive and socially unsettling. It assaults the idea that genders are handed down from God and nature. Its class aspirations are downwardly mobile in a society that fears and loathes downward mobility. It's so profoundly anti-aesthetic that it can even be, at times, viscerally upsetting. It dredges up long-repressed materials that we're much happier relegating to the trash heap of the unconscious. And it's far more gratifying to imagine its audience -- especially if you count yourself as not among its members -- as scuzzy, pustule-ridden perverts than as your friends, relatives, or spouse.

And yes, pornography is a business -- as is all our popular entertainment -- which attains popularity because it finds ways of articulating things its audiences care about. When it doesn't, we turn it off. Pornography may indeed be the sexuality of a consumer society. It may have a certain emptiness, a lack of interior, a disconnectedness -- as does so much of our popular culture. And our high culture. (As does much of what passes for political discourse these days, too.) But that doesn't mean that pornography isn't thoroughly astute about its audience and who we are underneath the social veneer, astute about the costs of cultural conformity, and the discontent at the core of routinized and civilized lives. Its audience is drawn to it because it provides opportunities -- perhaps in coded, sexualized forms, but opportunities nonetheless -- for a range of affects, pleasures, and desires: for the experience of transgression, utopian aspirations, sadness, optimism, loss, and even the most primary longings for love and plenitude.

If the materials that comprise pornography are this close to the fundamentals of selfhood, then pornography manages to penetrate to the marrow of who we are as a culture and as psyches. Who better than pornography understands that amalgam of complexes, repressions and identifications we call "me"?

It's this nakedness that may have something do with the contempt -- and perhaps the embarrassment -- with which pornography is so routinely regarded. And the ambivalence. However, I'd like to propose that we regard pornography more creatively and more discerningly -- as creatively and discerningly as it regards us. It may strike too close for comfort, but developing some kind of rapprochement with it is the only politic solution: pornography's not going away anytime soon. In the meantime, maybe we can try to learn a thing or two under its mentorship.

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