Unreal Nature

May 22, 2018

Slippery Signification

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:41 am

… Discussions about pornography were and are still shaped by and embedded in fantasies about the destruction of the social body …

This is from ‘History, Pornography and the Social Body’ by Carolyn J. Dean found in Surrealism: Desire Unbound edited by Jennifer Mundy (2001):

… In the 1950s and 1960s when many histories of pornography were first published, they tended to be stories about great writers from Gustave Flaubert to James Joyce, who had been ignobly persecuted by uncomprehending judges, juries, and moralists. In other words, they tended not to be about pornography but about works that had been mistaken for pornography.

[line break added] In a more recent effort to account for the seeming versatility of the concept, one historian claimed that pornography is virtually anything elites believe threatens their power at a given time and place. Others have spoken not of pornography but of a ‘pornographic imagination’ that expresses the self-shattering experience associated with works that seem pornographic but on closer examination are sophisticated pieces of literature — the French writer Georges Bataille’s work in particular, but surrealist eroticism as well.

[line break added] Most of these accounts, all struggling to validate and preserve in different ways the formidable, perhaps subversive and often discomfiting feats of imagination that emerge in unexpected places, indicate that we cannot ever assume that we know what pornography is. And yet they also insist that pornography is distinct from great literature and from the psychic soaring, expansion, and longing we attribute to the imagination. Although undoubtedly we can draw formal distinctions between what we think pornography is and other work — indeed, film and literary theorists have done just that — we cannot explain the radically contingent, oddly empty and thus slippery signification of the term.

… [In an inter-World-War about-face] Over and over, a vast array of critics, writers, youth leaders, sexologists, and others throughout Western Europe and the United States no longer associated the open expression of sexuality with the destruction of the body politic but with its renewal, so that critics now conceived material once deemed pornographic as signs of a healthy, vital, renewed, and integral masculine social body.

… Some writers thus believed pornography was so omnipresent that they sought not to contain but to appropriate its energies in the interest of purifying the social body. Yet no matter how purified pornography was, it could never be sufficiently cleansed, and no matter how colonized by the expansion of the non-obscene, it could never be sufficiently conquered.

[line break added] For as pornography became or was perceived to be increasingly pervasive, it also became increasingly intangible, protean, and promiscuous and traversed the boundary between private and public often undetected. According to different writers, commentators, and even religious figures, pornography was present in the magazine that made its way into the sanctity of the domestic sphere and surprised the innocent family, and was ‘trash’ that masqueraded as decent and even advertised itself as a moral guide.

[line break added] Most often, as one French lawyer put it, pornography enters homes under ‘benign appearance,’ and he noted that in contrast to the last century, now ‘pornography is everywhere, and no place, however sacred it is, remains completely closed, because [pornography] is a supple, rich, intelligent enemy who hesitates at nothing.’

… Antipornography laws thus became increasingly expansive at a historical moment when pornography was becoming more difficult to define with any precision. While nineteenth-century prosecution proceeded with confidence in the solidity of the pornography concept, twentieth-century legislators, scholars, critics, and others instead presumed its conceptual indeterminacy even as they seemed to know what they were pursuing.

[line break added] This dogged pursuit of something that no one can quite define suggests that pornography is not intrinsically empty, as so many of its proponents insisted, but rather allegorized the pervasive body-shattering, sadomasochistic and homosexual eroticism that appeared in so many guises that its meaning was hard to pin down and necessarily exceeded all efforts to contain or eliminate it.

[line break added] In other words, pornography expressed and still expresses violent eroticism as a potentially permanent dimension of the social body, so palpably and yet so intangibly (and imprecisely) that the United States Supreme Court judge Stewart Potter was forced to conclude in 1964 that he knew pornography when he saw it, implying that he could otherwise provide no substantive definition of its meaning.

… Discussions about pornography were and are still shaped by and embedded in fantasies about the destruction of the social body, a concept that identified a generalized threat to the fantasmic integral male body after which social order was fashioned. This recent meaning of the pornographic explains why, for example, surrealism and other modernist and postmodernist art forms have a pornographic dimension — are believed, metaphorically, to violate the dignified and impermeable, ideally masculine social body — since they not only depict eroticism in an often explicit fashion, but also enact, mobilize (and often deflect) that body-violating desire in their formal innovations.

[line break added] Surrealism arguably internalized the dramatic cultural paradox of the interwar period: it renewed, purified, and reinvigorated the body by giving free rein to eroticism, and yet in so doing manifested the social body’s potential permeability — that which can never be entirely cleanses or eliminated. For cultural and aesthetic conservatives, surrealism represented a destructive, dignity-sapping link between sexuality and violence no matter what its explicit content. … Pornography, in this view, would now be a symptom of repressed anxiety about our capacity for violence that we are still working through.

My most recent previous post from this book is here.

-Julie

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