AJ Logo an ARTSJOURNAL weblog | ArtsJournal Home | AJ Blog Central

« I Mean Really.... | Main | Apr├Ęs les derniers intellectuels »

November 17, 2007

"Shaving Biscuits"?

Having discovered Steven Marcus's The Other Victorians at an impressionable age, I'm easily persuaded of the possible value of historicizing pornography. So a point made at Infinite Thought seems interesting:

Contemporary pornography has more categories than there are dirty thoughts in the world, and yet it fails in one crucial respect - it can no longer surprise. You can be into women who look like cats who specialise in shaving biscuits whilst bouncing up and down on trampolines, and there'd probably be a website that could cater to your needs, but once you've seen a couple of cat-women shaving biscuits whilst bouncing on trampolines surely you've seen them all. The excessive taxonomical drive of contemporary pornography is merely one element of its quest to bore us all to death and remind us that everything is merely a form of work, including, or even most especially, pleasure.

Well, yes and no. The capitalist superego was at work in Victorian porn, too. At the height of pleasure, a character would announce, "I spend!"

By all means go check out the IT entry, which includes a photo of two naked Edwardian babes cavorting with an enormous snail.

I am not making that up. Nor, indeed, could I.

Posted by smclemee at November 17, 2007 6:45 PM


There is, of course, a lot to the 'capitalist superego' point you make - I have made similar points myself before with regard to the insistence of the money shot which turns up right at the beginning of filmed pornography, telling us something all too familiar about the need for the visual confirmation of pleasure...

I suppose what I'm trying to get at in the post you link to is the lack of categorisation at the genre of the porn itself - cinematic and photographic - in the early 20th c. You frequently get mixed stuff in the films that today would be segregated into gay/real lesbian/lesbian for guys/straight sex/etc. Same for sex acts. And as for the snail - well, where you put it? Fantasmatic bestiality? Surrealist porn? Erotic whimsy? It's just weird!

Posted by: infinite thought at November 17, 2007 7:41 PM

Sure, I do see your point about the contrast. That was the most striking thing about The Pearl, a British pornographic magazine of the Victorian era somebody reprinted as an anthology that I read as a teenager and willing to read just about anything on the topic. (Probably still available, since there would be no royalties to pay.) It was really polymorphous. Every combination of genders, plus birchings. A lot of birchings, if memory serves. Many long, terrible poems about birchings. The day of hardcore poetry is also over, seems like,

As I recall, Marcus characterizes the space of "pornotopia" (the utopia figured in such writings) as being one where all prohibitions are suspended.

Back then,pornotopia existed within a single text or image, as you say. Now it's a whole sector of the culture, but each sub-section is pretty specific. I don't think Lukacs would be surprised by that one bit. (Or maybe he would, come to think of it; but in principle, at least, he shouldn't be.)

Posted by: Scott McLemee at November 17, 2007 10:12 PM

Absolutely! In fact, I'm giving a paper tomorrow precisely about the 'polymorphous' nature of early cinematic pornography. The Marcus book is still marvellous as a lucid, clever discussion of pornography. Lynn Hunt is also excellent on the ways in which porn was intimately tied up with political critique and philosophical materialism between 1500-1800.

One of the most interesting things about the way so-called 'vintage erotica' is sold these days is that, despite its frequent hardcore content, it has no rating, as if no one could any longer be aroused by such images (because black-and-white? Because the 'stars' are all dead?). It's as if we can only find what's contemporary exciting...

Posted by: infinite thought at November 18, 2007 6:30 AM

That is a terrific photo, though was it really intended to be erotic? It seems very innocent!

Anyway, this point about pleasure-work has been made before, about pre-Victorian pornography. Before you get to any racy bits in Adorno and Horkheimer's excursus on the Marquis de Sade, you have to wade through paragraphs about the Enlightenment fetish for categorization: "Reason contributes only the idea of systematic unity, the formal elements of fixed conceptual coherence." A&H compare modern sports teams -- also working, not playing -- to the "sexual teams" of Sade's "Juliette," who "employ every moment usefully, neglect no human orifice, and carry out every function.... These arrangements amount not so much to pleasure as to its regimented pursuit -- organization...."

Posted by: Josh Glenn at November 18, 2007 8:02 AM

Very good, point, Josh. I was thinking about Sade too when describing The Pearl. With the latter, I have the impression that each issue was written by two or three people, at most. It's an interesting question whether the polymorphous range was a matter of their tastes or of their market -- wanting to offer "something for everybody" among their readers.

With Sade, of course, you have a strong, clear sense of somebody trying to cover every single permutation on principle -- an almost manic effort to exhaust the range of combinations. And everyone stops every so often for a bit of philosophy; sometimes, a great deal of it. This serves not just to give everybody time to recharge for another round, but also to explain why reason permits and even commands that every possibility in the matrix be carried out.

So in the hundred years or so between Sade and The Pearl, pornography jettisons philosophy while continuing the urge to be almost programmatically various. Then over the next century, the variousness becomes a function of what's on offer in the market for porn, while the images or texts themselves seem to hail specific tastes or micro-niches. Which I guess is what happens to philosophy too, come to think of it.

So...what happens next?

Posted by: Scott McLemee at November 18, 2007 8:41 AM

The Sade point is always worth repeating. I think the best way to understand what happens in the history of porn is to think of it as a series of tendencies, which rise and fall in their relation to society and economy as a whole. Permit me to quote from the paper I'm just writing!:

'Rather the history of pornography should be understood diachronically - the murals at Pompeii depicting the atomisation of sex acts (one room for fellatio, one room for men together, one room for women together, one for men and women, etc.) has more in common with the current segregation of fetishes/kinks than the rather more bacchanalian free-for-all of some of the early porn films. Similarly, the taxonomy of de Sade, as many have pointed out, tells us much about the utilitarian tendency of modern society and the shaping of the combinatorial contemporary mind, yet he is writing two-hundred years before Reich's attempt to liberate repressed sexuality.'

The simultaneous atomisation of porn and philosophy is a good one though...hmm...

Posted by: infinite thought at November 18, 2007 10:48 AM

As for what happens next, who knows? I'd like to see a return to the physical frailties and comedy of early cinematic porn, but I doubt that's going to happen any time soon...Come the revolution, though, I'm sure we could make all kinds of new and exciting stuff! Ahem...

Posted by: infinite thought at November 18, 2007 10:59 AM

As I just mentioned at Crooked Timber, there another really rewarding discussion of this topic in an earlier posting at Infinite Thought. Check it out if you haven't already.

Posted by: Scott McLemee at November 18, 2007 1:11 PM

"One Day Tom Brokaw Will Seem Like Walter Lippmann and Then I'll Really Have Something to Complain About"

You discussed this at CT. The same thing. Personal choice, individualism and atomization. Isn't that what economics is about? When you're not worrying about it you defend it. You people should make up your minds.

So why do klub kids dressed up in different costumes nonetheless all look alike? The same question applies for academics and porn stars.

You all think you're rebels but you're all so predictable. And the one thing you're afraid of is determinism.

Posted by: seth edenbaum at November 18, 2007 3:48 PM

That is so true. I will often wake up in the middle of the night, thinking, "Man, determinism is really starting to worry me. That and the atomization, of course, which I don't know whether to denounce or to celebrate. And what if my indecision is itself detemined? That seems like it would be even more worrying!"

It's a wonder that I ever get back to sleep. Though some nights, to be honest, I never do.

Posted by: Scott McLemee at November 18, 2007 4:16 PM

The two post at CT are on the same subject- mass markets and choice, one concerning pornography, the other on the press in general. It's the dumbing down of news, the numbing down of sex, and the thinning out of community and communication.

As I put it at Mclellan's blog:

Is it the rational choice to give the people what they want? I always thought it was rational to have one's own opinion. But now opinions aren't allowed [opinions are "subjective"] which means the definition of opinion is "whatever the majority seems not to think" In the name of objectivity and neutrality: stay with the crowd.

And what is the result? The crowd gets smaller and smaller
The Culture of Onanism.

Maybe you don't read the more academic posts at CT, on sociology or economics; or the posts on comic books.

Posted by: s.e. at November 18, 2007 5:13 PM

I can't say that I read the stuff on comic books very often. I do read the social-scientific material there, but am almost always at a disadvantage given that my formation came under the influence of thinkers such as Lukacs, Adorno, and Lasch, not to mention Trotsky. The tools of analysis available in most social science never seem to contain any negativity. (What is, just is; and must be measured as it is.) As with liberalism itself, this has for me the slight allure of seeming like an exotic and improbable way of thinking, so I try to listen to it and learn from it, but am often puzzled.

My two posts have nothing to do with choice. The subject of choice, rational or otherwise, does not interest me as such. That said, my choice is now to consider this strand of the conversation completely exhausted. I hope that contributors to the discussion will from now on stick with the actual topic in question: the historical dialectics subsuming the process and form of various modes of representation of gettin' it on.

Posted by: Scott McLemee at November 18, 2007 5:32 PM

I think Seth has a question to his own answer:

> And the one thing you're afraid of is determinism.

> Isn't that what economics is about?

Posted by: Shane Taylor at November 18, 2007 5:52 PM

No other comment on that score will be published here. Don't make me get out the birches, people.

Posted by: Scott McLemee at November 18, 2007 5:57 PM

Back to porn. In the late 70s, early 80s, there was a cultural moment in which porn almost went mainstream. I was in college & had a job as the projectionist at the Apple Theater (get it?) in Seattle, which showed hardcore porn in a "nice" atmosphere that supposedly might attract couples. I hadn't paid much attention to porn before I got the job & I wasn't prepared for the highly programmatic & regimented formalism. In films like Deep Throat & Behind the Green Door, along with countless knockoff of these, a fictional situation was established & then permutations . . . were enjoyed. The gesture toward narrative never seemed sincere.

By the way, I have a longish poem in my book Magical Thinking (2001) titled "Pornography," which has Gilgamesh & Enkidu's wrestling match set outside the Apple Theater.

Posted by: joseph duemer at November 19, 2007 7:12 AM

"The gesture toward narrative never seemed sincere" -- well, yes, those films (like many of the stories in The Pearl for that matter) established a premise for the sex (or established an excuse, as many would see it), and sometimes the "premise for pleasure" was truly flimsy or weirdly off-the-wall: A clitoris in the throat??

Miss Jones, as I recall, in The Devil in Miss Jones commits suicide in the opening scenes and dies a virgin. So she convinces Satan to let her go back and really deserve getting sent to hell. Talk about guilty pleasures. While watching it even then, I wondered if the creators actually thought, first, that the suicide scene was a turn-on somehow (when does the fun start? is this the fun?) and, second, did they really think they could appeal to a Puritan market segment who'd feel her damnation was fully deserved -- after they first enjoyed all that led to it?

But there are larger narrative needs and then there are more immediate narrative needs. Infinite Thought, for instance, cites the early implementation of the scene-ending "money shot," as the "visual confirmation of pleasure."

Well, yes, of course. But consider this from the filmmaker's POV. Having established the flimsy premise, the sex has begun -- and can now go on until all possible variations (and performers) are exhausted, as Sade would wish -- then what? How do you stop the scene? Marcus believes, if I remember correctly, that part of the appeal of pornotopia isn't just the sexualization of everything but that it CAN go on forever -- infinite desire, no physical limits. But, um, you don't have the budget for that kind of filmstock.

In other words, John Barth was hardly the first or only person to note the similarity between sexual intercourse and the standard narrative "arc" to a climax and denouement. I'm not arguing for the NEED for money shots, but imagine a sex scene that didn't end with one: Both (or all) partners groan and sigh -- and then light up Salems. Or cook a little pasta together, debate Lacan. Whatever. 'Real-life' sex, of course, often 'ends' in ways other than orgasm, but in terms of cinematic narratives, such conclusions often mean, well, something anti-climactic. Or what the market would shelve under the label "soft porn."

If I remember correctly, in the "classic" late '70s porn narratives (Deep Throat, Miss Jones, etc.), if a sex scene ended "prematurely," it was meant as comic or farcical. Otherwise, all sex scenes end with orgasm -- that would also seem to be one of the basic selling points of pornotopia. And, in fact, in a rather neat anticipation of my argument, Miss Jones ends with a Dantesque porno-damnation: She gets to watch other people having sex (or something, I don't remember exactly), but is denied satisfaction herself. Sort of Jean-Paul Sartre's No Orgasm: "Hell is other people... having sex."

Posted by: book/daddy at November 19, 2007 2:14 PM

>Which I guess is what happens to philosophy too, come to think of it.

I love that comment, Scott! So yeah, what comes next?

Posted by: Josh Glenn at November 19, 2007 7:05 PM

What was weird for an English major like me was the disjunction between the narrative arc of each of the sex acts (ending as you say with the money shot as, literally, punctuation) and the weirdly nonsensical narrative setups demanded by porn's move from five minutes for a quarter peep shows into the realm of "movies," with their aspiration to the status of art. This was very big during my brief career in porn.

Posted by: joseph duemer at November 19, 2007 7:05 PM

At the risk of making it sound like I've read an awful lot on the subject (when in fact this reference will pretty much exhaust my knowledge of the literature) let me respond to Prof. Duemer's comment by mentioning a volume by Linda Williams called Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the "Frenzy of the Visible". I seem to recall reading it while working in a used bookstore in the late 1980s or early '90s, around the time it appeared.

Williams makes the case that the films she had seen in the 1970s and '80s followed a cinematic grammar akin to that of the classic musicals. There can be something a little jarring (to my taste anyway) about the shifts between "normal" narrative and musical numbers. But if you know the laws of the genre, it seems, the numbers resolve contradictions or conflicts defined in the main body of the story.

Williams applied the term "numbers" to the sex passages in "golden age" American porn, and suggested that they had the same effect, or structural role, or something like that.

It seemed like a clever approach. But her timing was such that, of course, the whole point soon became moot. Once the shift from celluloid to video was made, narrative went right out the window, along with everybody's clothes.

Posted by: Scott McLemee at November 19, 2007 8:17 PM

Hey, I remember that now, too. Having reviewed musicals for 10 years, I think it's a brilliant observation. It will certainly keep me alert during yet another endlessly repetitive, schmaltzy Andrew Lloyd Webber dance number, thinking about how everyone onstage is basically having sex. Especially the chorus boys.

It also makes sense on two other levels (which, I suspect, Williams is smart enough to point out). First, a great deal of dance -- at least in musical comedies -- is basically choreographed courtship and sex, anyway.

Secondly, the one type of dance interlude that isn't obviously as sexual as a duet is a big chorus number. Which makes for a rather regimented orgy, if your mind goes that way. But one of the purposes of a big chorus number is to kick energy into a show -- they're the big "wowza!" bring-the-house-down moments that everyone remembers. The classic examples are the famous "11-o'clock numbers" like "Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat," from Guys and Dolls. It's called an 11-o'clock number because, obviously, it comes late in the show when the narrative is just about to wind down but the audience is getting drowsy, so you throw in a stand-up-and-cheer gospel chorus like "Sit Down" and jolt everyone awake.

Think of it as a collective lap dance. Or a communal orgasm. Everyone feels refreshed and energized afterwards (except the men, of course, who fall back asleep), and we can finish the show on a high note.

Porn films, in a way, do the same thing: They save the big butt-wriggling, taboo-violating, all-hands-on-deck effort that is, in its way, like the wedding send-offf at the end of a conventionial romantic comedy.

A happy blessing from the gods -- either Hymen or Priapus. Or Ron Jeremy.

Posted by: book/daddy at November 20, 2007 1:21 AM

Thanks, Scott, for the Linda Williams reference. When I get to writing my memoir on my "porn years" I'll check it out to refresh my memory. I'm also grateful to book/daddy for the analogy to musicals & especially for the phrase "11-o'clock number," which seems to have broad potential use for talking about all forms of narrative art.

Posted by: joseph duemer at November 20, 2007 7:13 AM

The term 'money shot' derives from early classification by censors.

A visible cum shot was verboten, and thus the sine qua non of what made the product desirable.

Posted by: Virtue Incarnate at November 24, 2007 11:30 PM