Pornography’s Many Faces

4 09 2009

Pornography is a complex issue, but it shouldn’t be. There are a few reasons

The least NSFW image i could find in Creative Commons

The least NSFW image i could find in Creative Commons

it’s complex. For Americans it can be divisive along the Freedom of Expression lines that have customarily guarded distasteful expression from the majority opinion. Pornography, if not really a minority form of speech, still represents a subject matter not commonly accepted as socially approved. The main reason that pornography is a complex beast*, however, is that there has traditionally been a lack of consensus about how Pornography is defined. In an exploration of this issue, and in preparation for an essay I’m about to write on the subject, I thought I would run through a few of the more common definitions of pornography that have held weight over the last century or so.

 The original meaning of the word ‘pornography’ comes from the Greek root word ‘Porne’, for prostitute. So the form of pornography was originally as a list of prostitutes and the services one could *ahem* *cough* obtain from said *cough* ladies. While the word has, obviously, moved on from this form of definition since its conception there is still some usefulness in this definition, which we’ll come to when we consider the aesthetic definition of Porn.

 Another common definition of pornography was based on its function. This is to say, pornography was whatever material designed for the purpose of arousing sexual desire in the reader/viewer through explicit descriptions of sexual acts. This definition is still pretty fundamental to the ‘genre’. One could, for instance remove whatever semblance of plot from a pornographic book and it would still be porn. Take the sex out of it though, and is it still pornography? No. it is a brief pamphlet composed mostly of adjoining scenes. From this functional definition comes the old maxim of porn being literature read with one hand. Appropriately or not this also implies a male oriented nature in pornography, which is relevant when we come to look at Feminist definitions.

 A liberal mind, open to sexual explicitness, might tend to say that sexual explicitness doth not the Porn Book make. In the wake of serious literature that contained within its content scenes of explicit description, a liberal definition of pornography might choose to draw a line between sexual literature and porn on Aesthetic grounds. Pornography, they might say, is not just the explicit depiction of sex; it is also badly written with no character development or plot to speak of, save what is absolutely necessary to move the reader from one sexual encounter to the next. This aesthetic definition tends to couple itself** with literary definitions which, similarly, seek to define pornography as a genre along aesthetic grounds. In this way Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence is not pornographic, as its detailed descriptions of sex come within a social and literary context.

 The aesthetic definition harks back to the original idea of pornography as a list of prostitutes’ services. The aesthetic idea considers porn to be no more than a list of sexual exchanges described in utilitarian*** detail.

 At about the same time that the Aesthetic/Literary definitions were gaining strength, the strength of moral definitions of pornography was waning. The moral definition is closely tied to obscenity law, where something is obscene is pornographic if it (more or less) has the effect of corrupting those into whose hands it is likely to fall. The moral definition of pornography as a sexually corruptive force tends to be focused on the effect that pornography has on the reader/viewer, rather than the aesthetic of technical components of the material. As such, it is seen as being corruptive because it promotes an unrealistic idea of sex in a vulnerable mind, a view based on male sexual fantasies rather than a fulfilling reality. This definition was traditionally adopted by conservative voices who sought to prevent the creation and dissemination of pornography through legal means. Strangely, though this definition fell out of favour, more or less, with the rise of the aesthetic definition, it was revitalised and re-adopted by a new, antithetical force:

 Feminist definitions of pornography are a mix of Moral and Functional definitions (which were always pretty similar to begin with) with their own social slant. In basic terms the feminist idea defines pornography in terms of its power relationships. Like the functional definition it sees pornography as material that aids lust, but more specifically as an aide to male masturbation. As such pornography is inherently a male artefact that uses women as the centre of male ‘sexual gaze’, turning women into sex objects subordinated for the purpose of satisfying male sexual desire. Like the moral definition it also seeks to define pornography by the social effects it has, which is generally seen as reinforcing a male subordination of women socially and sexually. Some more extreme views see pornography as being a contributing factor in rape and the abuse of women.

 While the feminist idea of porn I definitely driven by a social agenda rather than a desire for literary understanding, the truth of the power-relationships inherent in mainstream pornography is hard to deny. Interestingly, the definition doesn’t tend, in the abstract, to differentiate between pornography that is well written or pornography that isn’t, instead being concerned with whether or not it represents an anti-woman idea of sex. From this definition comes the divide between pornography and erotica, where erotica is seen as sexually focused material that presents a ‘realistic’ or ‘balanced’ idea of sex without subordination.

 I myself, while I recognise the inherent issues surrounding the politics of representation, am uneasy with a definition that has an agenda. I am attempting, in preparation for this essay, to organise my brain around a non-pejorative definition of pornography, so that pornography can be well written or badly written, masculine or feminine, and also change in line with social norms. What was pornographic for Victorian England is no longer pornography for us, so I see the need for a definition that takes changing contexts into account. It may end up being a definition based on the notion of authorial intent, but also coupled with a functional, response based evaluation.  

 Perhaps it should be material that, in social context, had the effect of being sexually explicit material with the aim of sexual arousal. This would need to differentiate between material that was not intended for this purpose but which might be adopted as an aid to masturbation. This would be a fringe, and aberrant form, however, and probably needs a definition of its own based on user re-appropriation rather than as a genre of intent. This non-pejorative definition, also, would need to allow for the existence of  pornographic ‘moments’ within a non-pornographic text.

 It will require some consideration.


 *          A complex beast of many backs.

**        So to speak.

***      One Handed


The Atheist Bus Ads Controversy

7 08 2009

I’m hesitant to bring up topics of religion here, if only because questions of belief are so contentious and amorphous that it’s impossible to say anything without bothering some devoted sect or social group. However a recent occurrence has provoked my interest because it allows me to talk about my current obsession, the nature of offensiveness and public controversy.

 Over at the terrifyingly popular Pharyngula blog, PZ Myers has commented on a story involving a local atheist group. The group Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers paid to have the following ad displayed on the side of some public buses.

Atheist bus ad - image stolen from the Pharyngula blog

Atheist bus ad - image stolen from the Pharyngula blog

  According to an article run in The Iowa Independent: “Gov. Chet Culver said he was “disturbed” by the ads.” Apparently the complaints started as soon as the ads were first displayed publically. Which means that people would have had to take immediate offense to the message.

 Now, apart from atheists being America’s number one hated legal social group*, I wonder where the offensiveness of the ads lies. The message itself isn’t an aggressive one. It isn’t even overtly promoting non-belief in god. For an answer we have to look at the meanings of the word ‘offense’.

 Offense, in one sense, is an attack. One ‘goes on the offense’ or ‘plays offense’ in a game. An ‘Offense’ is also a crime, or a transgression of a social or legal boundary. One ‘commits and offense’ or ‘displays offensive behaviour’.

 The understanding of people ‘taking offense’ to something like these atheist bus ads, then, is that the people who take offense feel like some social boundary or moral code is under attack by the statements/actions of another.

 But these ads weren’t’ attacking anyone. ‘Don’t believe in a god? You’re not alone.’ The ad is aimed at people who already are on the doubting side of the fence. Where I think the notion of offensiveness comes from is that some people equate the acceptance of atheism as a legitimate alternative to an attack on the legitimacy of their religious views.

 For a more vitriolic commentary I suggest reading PZ Myers’ comments on the subject. He, as ever, is eloquent in his outrage.


 * i.e. apart from terrorists, pedophiles, and mass murderers.

The Sydney Peace Prize

4 08 2009
John Pilger

John Pilger

Before yesterday I didn’t know that Sydney had its own ‘Peace Prize’. It seems a bit odd, a bit like Paris having its own ‘orbital hygiene mechanics’ prize; not totally out of the question, but somehow not quite what one associates with the image of the city. The Sydney Peace Prize. Well, why not? There have been no major wars here, or even minor ones. There have been no civil uprisings, military coups, or bombings. Except for an undercurrent of barely concealed racial tension Sydney is just about as peaceful as you could hope for. Who better to be giving out a peace prize than a city described by Clive James of having the air of a population permanently on holiday? There is a contention to be made, perhaps, that a nation like France, or Spain, or such, might be better suited to the distribution of accolades for peace. This is on the basis that a long and bloody history of civil and international conflicts really gives a nation an understanding of the value of peace. But I say phooey to them. Let the prizes come from a country that has rarely seen the need for an alternative.

 At this point the thinking person might put up their hand and say, ‘wait a minute,’ and they would be right. Sydney bears a darker legacy than that: the Unacknowledged War that came to the country when, in 17xx, the endeavour dropped anchor and started the process of colonisation. A war was fought, acknowledged or not, and involved the trading of land for lives as much as any named war. The failure to acknowledge the reality of the conflict has been seen by many, like writer Peter Cary in his book 20 Days in Sydney, as one of the country’s greatest failings.

 It makes me wonder where a country, or city, gains the right to make awards for peace. I don’t think that there’s a way to earn it. Neither lengthy suffering nor enduring political stability seems to confer the right. Indeed, it would seem as hypocritical for Switzerland to award a peace prize as it would seem, perhaps, self serving for modern Berlin to award one too. I don’t think it’s possible to qualify for the right, but if Sydney’s dark heart motivates it to foster the pursuit of peace in the world… then good. We should encourage it.

 In that vein the winner of the 2009 Sydney Peace Prize is John Pilger. Pilger is an Australian journalist, film-maker and author. The Jury citation for the prize awarded it to Pilger “for courage as a foreign and war correspondent in enabling the voices of the powerless to be heard. For commitment to peace with justice by exposing and holding governments to account for human rights abuses and for fearless challenges to censorship in any form.”

 Previous awardees include “Nobel recipients Professor Muhammad Yunus and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, as well as former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, Indian author and human rights campaigner Arundhati Roy and, last year, the Aboriginal leader and ‘father of reconciliation’ Patrick Dodson.”


 University of Sydney press release: Here.

Article from Pigler’s website: Here.

Image taken from: Here.

Australian ebooks starting to Crawl

22 06 2009
Stanza the Iphone ebook application

Stanza the Iphone ebook application

At the annual Australian Booksellers Association conference this weekend there was almost a venomous hiss against the name of electronic books, online sellers, and the technologies of reading that are emerging with such force in the US and UK.

Oh how conservative we are. But the tide of opinion seems to be slowly turning, as (it is no surprise) education increases on the subject. David Taylor, of Lightening Source, spoke about the latest technologies in print on demand. A sister company of the enormous US book distributor, Ingram, Lightening Source is now able to receive a single book order (from the customer) and have it printed, bound and returned to the seller within four hours. Gone are the days of fortune-telling print runs, inevitably ending in either a full warehouse of unsaleable stock or sold out titles with impatient customers demanding why several weeks are required to produce a book they have already seen in someone else’s hands.

This kind of technology goes hand in hand with the wave of ebooks, ereaders and smartphone reading technology that have, as yet, only reached our shores in a very limited way. Neelan Choksi, COO at Lexcycle, also spoke about how his team of three developed the Stanza application for the iphone which allows ebooks to be searched, bought, downloaded and read all from the comfort of that smart-little-phone screen. The implications of this application are revolutionary in the publishing world, for the first time providing the consumer with more control over the layout, font size, colour and – yes – even the preferred cover for their own personal version of the book. As the Kindle, Sony ereader, and host of other upcoming other ereader and smartphone technologies battle it out for the number one spot in this market one cannot help but realise that print publishing as we have known it in the 20th Century is going the way of cassette tapes and vinyls.

The most important lesson from all of this is that ebooks and a new method of print publishing have a future together, hand in hand. There are select titles that we will still want in print, Choksi gave the example of Obama’s book, which customers preferred to have on the physical bookshelf to mark an historical occasion. But the results of this changing industry will save a lot of time, money and paper.

It will also mean many more books that were previously not published can now go online into an ebook and be printed in only one or two copies for the people who want it. Those who claim that this denigrates the ‘culture’ of literature do so from a pedestal that upholds the publishers as an authority on what is ‘good’ writing. But at the end of the day a publisher wants to sell books, and who is to say that their guessing game of ‘what the people want’ is any better indicator of ‘good culture’ than if the consumer is allowed to decide for themselves what they want to see published and printed. If the claim is that publishers maintain a standard of grammar, spelling, literacy etc etc – a general style guide to language – which will be lost in this brave new world, than the answer might be that language, as much as any culture, is a growing organism. Hell, if Shakespeare needed a word, he made one up – if the method is good enough for him, why not us? It is an ethos that embraces many forms of language, for instance the globally diverse uses of English, and brings genuine democracy.

To the traditional booksellers and publishers (especially in Australia) do not be afraid – rumours of the book’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Stories will never die, our desire for new stories will never die, but our mode of receiving them, and expectations of them will change. And dammit, this is exciting!

The Image and the Futurists

25 05 2009

I’m going to start this out by admitting that I am a bit of a cannibal. I went into this last article (more a chapter really) by Marjorie Perloff knowing exactly what I wanted from it, and no more.  In the same way that a cannibal doesn’t really care whether or not his victim had a tremendous singing voice, I’ll admit to being a bit indifferent to the larger point that Perloff was making. What I’m going to do, then, is tell you just what I got out of it, and encourage you all to go and read the chapter yourselves. There, now that I’ve plead for clemency, let’s  begin.

The article I’ve just finished was ‘The Great War and the European Avant-Garde’ and can be found here. What I was looking for was some indication of the ways in which the various protrusions of the European avant-garde used and understood the visual image, in the various movements in general, and in poetry in particular.

The first movement to be examined in the lead up to the first of the great European wars was the Italian futurist movement. The futurists are a hard group to understand these days. Where we tend to idealise the past, the pre information revolution simplicity and ‘rustic simplicity’ of the early 1900s the futurists looked forwards to a future of exiting, fast and above all powerfully transformative technologies. One can imagine that an Italy, with its long memory of failed roman empires and its housing of the millennia Old Catholic religion, might look forwards to a transformative and purging technological revolution in a quest for new glories. Indeed, Perloff shows in her chapter how this is just what was being imagined.  At one point they referred to Italy as a nation of dealers ‘in second hand clothes’ and sought war as a way of reinvigorating society. In F. T. Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto  of 1909 he writes “We will glorify war – the world’s only hygiene – militarism, patriotism the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers…” and, at the beginning of the piece, he writes:

…we felt ourselves alone at that hour, alone, awake, and on our feet, like proud beacons or forward sentries against an army of hostile stars glaring down at us from their celestial encampments. Alone with stokers feeding the hellish fires of great ships, alone with black spectres who grope in the red-hot bellies of locomotives…

It’s clear that Marinetti pictured the avant-garde as a deliberately forward looking phenomenon. Like the military position that gives it its name he saw the avant-garde as deliberately forging forward, driving the machines of the culture behind it like great ships or the cars in an immense locomotive. The imagery is therefore similarly militaristic, conjuring up great metaphorical juggernauts against the dusty background of old empires.  Perloff writes:

…in futurist painting, stokers and railroad workers are depicted, not as ordinary men but as part of an exotic and colourful landscape.  The enemy, in this context, was the status quo: the timid and provincial nineteenth-century culture that had turned Italy into no more than a vast museum…

The futurists saw war as the great reviver of culture, bringing about a new and better type of world. Accordingly they saw themselves as part of that war, politics and aesthetics being one and the same.  Perloff points out that the futurists wouldn’t quite reach the point of reconciliation with the reality of their new Europe until 1916, and ‘the futurists could never quite reconcile their aesthetics to their actual political situation.’ The idealism of the Futurists never bore the fruit that they were expecting from it, and yet in their art we see repeated attempts to conjure their ideal Europe into existence. Their politics looked for a great future to be found in technology, motion and visual revolution, and so the images they depicted were full of energy portraying the power and strength of that technology.

Punctuation was to be eliminated so that poetry might be ‘an uninterrupted sequence of new images; – the ‘imagination without strings. … and further:  Marinetti advocated the destruction of ‘the I in literature; that is, all psychology’.

The images were there to offer a direct conduit to the experience of Futurism, an experience that would never quite make it into reality. Perhaps the intent was even to take poetry from the description of imagined objects into being an object in itself. It’s problematic to try to describe the intent of a movement, but to the extent that we can assign a general ideal to the movement we can say that they wanted to radically change the way that language was used in poetry. And in their optimism for a bright, technological future they found themselves attempting to narrow the gap between the reader and the physical embodiments of this future.

But the endless cataloguing of ‘analogous’ nouns, as in ‘noise + weight of the sun + orange odor of the sky + 20000 right angles,’ and onomatopoeic typographic units, capturing the sound and look of battle, as in Karazouc-zouc-zouc/Karazouc-zouc-zouc/nadI-NadI AAaaaaaaaa, is also tiresome in its simplification and reduction of experience.

Perloff is generally critical of the Italian Futurists, perhaps because they never achieved the strength of the Russian avant-garde, who’s aesthetic also featured the image strongly for its own sake.

Like Marinetti, they celebrated ;the whole brillian style of modern times – our trousers, jackets, shoes, trolleys, cars, airplanes, railways, grandiose steamships…

Like the Italians the Russians were experiencing modernism as a sudden rush of new technologies and comodities, and sought to put these things at the forefront of their aesthetic through the minimal filter of the image.

The Russian avant-garde was far more far-reaching than that of its Italian counterpart. Indeed, it remains central to poetics today: witness the so-called LANGUAGE movement that came into being in the US in the mid 1970s – a movement that has strenuously made the case for the primacy of the signifier rather than the referent.

The Russians however also glorified war as ‘magnificent’ and sought to exemplify it through images of gun-barrels and other mechanistic extensions of war. However, the outcropping of the Russian avant-garde managed to overcome the nationalism of their aesthetic in the early years of the second decade of the century, and head towards a more subtler form of presentation.  In this time the images take on less of a sense of flashes of nationalistic propaganda and become more hallucinatory.

In the civil war years of Russia’s early 20th century the extreme poverty of the people managed to cast a shadow over the optimism of the previous decade.  Russian poet Khlebnikov, who fought in the wars before wandering the torn country on his own  wrote a number of poems that are much more palatable to the modern conception of war, but retain the attempt to evoke the true nature of a situation through the presentation of concrete images. He wrote one poem that reads, in part:

Roast mouse.
Their son fixed it, went and
Caught them in the field.
They lie stretched out on the table,
Their long dark tails.
Today it’s a decent dinner,
A real good meal!
Just a while back the housewife would shudder
and holler, smash the pitcher to smithereens
if she found a mouse drowned in the cream.
But now, how silent and peaceful.
Dead mice for dinner
stretched out on the table,
dangling dark tails . . .

And Perloff writes: ‘again the lyric is depersonalised, documentary, imagistic, almost casual.’ In its maturity the Russian avant-garde managed what the Italians could not. They reconciled the aesthetic of their language with the reality of their situation. The politics and the situation was stark, and the imagism of the writing, the depersonalisation of the self, was exactly what the culture required.