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


19 07 2009


Reading Lolita is like being possessed by a daemon, where the possessive act is in fact it’s own exorcism.  It is, in fact, exactly like having a pervert in your head for 309 pages. I read Lolita in preparation for a Literary Controversies subject I hope to be taking over the next few months, and it’s easy to tell why Lolita would be considered controversial.

‘Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta…’

I mean, the book is about paedophilia. There is no disgust (initially) in the narrator, no disguise. Only his desire, his “pederosis”, driving the narrative on as he covets, obtains and molests the young Lolita over the course of her pre and post pubescence.

The controversy is obvious, and a student doesn’t have to look too far to figure out why. Written in 1953, in a country that made it illegal to use the word ‘toilet’ on television, a novel, a graphically sexual novel, from the point of view of a manipulative paedophile wasn’t likely to find much comfort in the opinions of the censors. To find a publisher Nabokov was forced to go to Paris, the city in which the novel begins its narrative.

The statement made by critics, that the book was ‘pure pornography’, however, was a bit misleading.  While the sex scenes are there they are much less direct in the description of physical acts than even earlier works, such as the also controversial ‘Lady Chatterly’s Lover’. The descriptions of sex in Lolita, in fact, are often strangely coy, as in this scene from midway through the book, where the Self-aggrandising Humbert Humbert already has the girl Lolita well under his control:

… and all was very quiet and there was another girl with a very naked, porcelain-white neck and wonderful platinum hair, who sat in front reading too, absolutely lost to the world and interminably winding a soft curl around one finger, and I sat beside Dolly just behind that neck and that hair, and unbuttoned my overcoat and for sixty-five cents plus the permission to participate in the school play, had Dolly put her inky, chalky, red-knuckled hand under the desk.

Perhaps ‘coy’ isn’t the right word. But ‘indirect’ certainly applies, and this sequence can be said to represent a pattern of objectification and manipulation that characterises the novel. Humbert Humbert fails to recognise the real humanity of the child he abuses, instead only able to describe her in terms of how she conforms to his own obsessive desires and lusts. He describes her in intricate detail as she plays tennis, solely because her form at the sport arouses him so. He criticises her choices of magazine and music, because they do not conform to the idea of the ideal ‘Nymphet’ that he wants her to be.  In fact for all the intimacy he imagines between himself and Lolita, he cannot help revealing this intimacy to be a sham. He cannot hold a normal conversation with her, and at one point remarks to himself how truly ignorant he was/is of the workings inside her mind.

So while the sexual descriptions in the novel are less direct than they might be, their context lends them a terrible power that makes them quite hard to read. Indeed, the true discomfort from reading Lolita (and it is very uncomfortable, at many parts) comes directly from the writer’s point of view. The novel is meant to be the now arrested Humbert Humbert’s confession from prison and as such everything that occurs is couched within his own opinions. The novel is as much about self-deception and self-rationalisation as it is about the crimes themselves.

From the very beginning we are encouraged by the writer to sympathise with his story. He tells us of an early love never truly consummated, frustrated by circumstance and then ended by the death of the girl. When he first encounters Lolita and attempts to enjoy her from afar we are encouraged by the influence of his perspective to see his long-distance lechery as harmless self gratification, un-invasive and almost innocent. At this point the thin film of protection that is Lolita’s mother still separates her from the eager Humbert, and it is not until the mother’s death, and Humbert manages to manipulate himself into possession of the child, that the real efforts towards self justification begin. Young girls, we are told, and habitually married to older men in certain eastern nations. In the bible many of the characters were married at an age even younger than the 12 year old Lolita. Indeed, in the context of a new and sexually radical American youth, the assumption that Lolita is completely innocent may, and indeed did, turn out to be unfounded.

So skilfully, in fact, does Nabokov draw us in to the mind of his protagonist that it’s easy to forget what he is and be carried along on the voyage of his actions and wants. In this way Nabokov plays tricks on his readers. Long passages of self-justification and twisted moral philosophy are suddenly curtailed by a single phrase that snaps the reader out of the author’s mind just enough to encourage a radical re-think of the entire previous experience.  For example:

And so we rolled east,  more devastated than braced with the satisfaction of my passion, and she glowing with health, her bi-lilac garland still as brief as a lads, although she had added two inches to her stature and eight pounds to her weight. We had been everywhere. We had really seen nothing. And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night –every night, every night –the moment I feigned sleep.

It gets to a point where the reader tries to hold two narratives in their head simultaneously. The first is the one of the protagonist, where you follow his moods, his desires and point of view as they are presented, and the second is the dual interpretation of everything that is going on from a more reasonable, human perspective. Humbert continually describes Lolita as a wilful, spoilt and vulgar child who is partner to his ‘passions’ and whom he takes pains to care for. It takes a lot of concentration to read this and simultaneously read the truth, which is that Lolita is a victim, practically imprisoned by the lecherous Humbert, and completely manipulated in thought and deed.

It is interesting to note that all the self-conscious regrets or self loathing that snap us back into sympathy with Lolita are a product of the writer’s hind-sight. He never felt these things at the time while he had her under his control, only later and in prison does her start to see the ‘trail of slime’ he left.

Lolita is a very complex book, quite difficult going at times, but ultimately rewarding. There is far too much to discuss properly here. There are plots, and sub-plots that I have not even touched on yet. There is the marriage to Lolita’s mother, and her death. There is Lolita’s escape from Humbert and his many years of searching the hotels of America for some trace of her. There is even, leading up to her escape, and after, a joust with a shadowy other figure across the states of America and at home in Ramsdale that exists entirely within the suggested sub-plots of the story but which eventually becomes its most crucial element. The work is intricate, and so finely structured, that I wouldn’t want to attempt to disassemble it here. I encourage you to read it however, but to be prepared for discomfort when you do.

the literary socialist?

24 05 2009

the literary socialist?

We come in many breeds, the book snobs.
Some profess that agéd books are best,
giving precious time only
to those pages who lie
with the canon’s comfy down.
Every breed has its pros and cons
– draw a list, or take a quiz to suit yourself –
this former species flaw is an
often unwillingness to question
who chose titles to ask into bed
and once a collection was started
did that not define the rules for the rest?
Just what was wrong with Grace Anguilar (1816-47)
and Harriet Martineau (1802-76)?
Who made the value judgments (that worked so favourably
for Middlemarch and Pride and Prejudice)?
But now I rattle on.
There is the breed of book snob who takes
a similar notion, that prizes and accolades
– evidence that some group of people somewhere
value something that some book they have been
shown or found either does or has –
will indicate a good book.
And indeed it will be to that reader if
that reader agrees with those values that
the judges of this prize have designed or
taken as their own.
I just sound cynical now.
Indeed and I have only really discussed the first
two and most obvious types of book snobs.
There are romance book snobs, fantasy book snobs,
non-fiction book snobs, theory – and academic – book snobs (these are
by far the most dangerous breed as they are most likely to
pissingly patronise all over you whilst believing to ‘do good’ by educating).
I, of course, have at one time or another been partially one or all of the above.
But I attempt now to reform.
I attempt to discover the literary socialist.

the screws on my thumbs are tightened only by the narrowness of my mind.
i aspire to accept that language is organic.
there is no good vs bad. how fundamentalist, how religious, it has been of me.
i attempt to think in terms of fluidity.
wish me luck.