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Issue 12: Opening Peter Greenaway's Tulse Luper Suitcases

Porn Studies

Author: Jan Baetens
Published: August 2005

Linda Williams (ed.), Porn Studies
Durham , NC , and London , UK , Duke University Press, 2004, 516 P. ISBN 0-8223-3312-0 (pbk)

 

Since -and thanks to- the 1988 publication of Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the "Frenzy" of the Visible , Linda Williams' groundbreaking study on (cinematographic) pornography, a discursive paradigm shift is taking place in this Janus-like field, as scarcely examined in academic publications as it is overwhelmingly present in everyday life (including that of academics, of course). Not only has it become possible to make room for pornography in the academic curriculum (more precisely in the classroom, not just in the publications lists of the professors), but the very way of talking about pornography has undergone a dramatic shift. Escaping the moralizing approach of both right-wing and lift-wing (mostly feminist) critiques on the subject, Hard Core has proven able to make us see what porn is: a filmic genre, i.e. a visual language with a logic and a history of its own and an internal and contextual diversity that differs in nothing from that of other cultural phenomena. Linking the porn movie with the Western tendency to visualize (and thereby control and manipulate) the supposedly hidden truth of the subject, Linda Williams' book managed to both depoliticize and repoliticize pornography, the first by freeing it from the censorship versus anti-censorship discussions of the seventies and the eighties, the latter by using it as a tool for the disclosure of power relations whose impact hits far beyond the more spectacles on screen.

 

Bringing together a broad set of essays that emerged from Williams's own teaching, Porn Studies makes an important new step in the new discourse on the subject, since the collection considers pornography not just, as did Hard Core , a cinematographic genre, but a cultural practice (in the way cultural studies tackles media not just as objects or forms but as an opportunity to examine how media are structuring the experiences they are themselves being structured by). Thetitle of the book reflects the straightforward, no-nonsense approach of Williams's line of thinking, wonderfully enhanced by the exemplary coherence of the 17 (long) articles gathered in this collection, which should convince every unbiased reader, male as well as female, that pornography should be a key item in all those who want to better understand postmodern culture. Pornography is no longer, in the etymological sense of the word, "obscene", i.e. out of sight, marginalized, excluded from the sight: pornography is everywhere for everybody, although in an uncanny way, a situation that Williams happily coins as "On/Scene".

 

Given the institutional context that gave birth to these essays, it can only be welcomed that the editor focuses in her introduction on her own experiences as a porn scholar and on the didactic framework gradually invented in order to be able to do what she and other colleagues have been doing since more than a decade. The careful reading of these introductory pages cannot be recommended enough, since they display not only a perfect balance of intellectual courage and psychological caution, but also a great example of how teaching and researching can or should be intertwined. Emphasizing the failures and the limits of her first attempts of studying porn in the classroom, Williams' story should be compulsory reading for all those eager to teach confronting material (and porn is certainly not the first and last example to be given).

 

The collection itself is very clearly structured in five major chapters: one on "contemporary pornographies" (foregrounding mostly the presence of straight porn in today's mass culture, from the mediatization of the Clinton/Lewinsky affair to the stolen videotape of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee's amateur honeymoon souvenirs, for instance); one on "gay, lesbian, and homosocial pornographies" (continuing Hard Core 's refusal to reduce porn to the mere province of straight porn); one on "race and class" (where the important thing is of course the rediscovery of class, which is making a timely come back on the cultural studies scene); one on "soft core, hard core, and the pornographic sublime" (with essays having a strong historical dimension); and finally one on the relationships between pornography and the "avant-garde". A selective bibliography and a survey of archives and commercial sites offering pornographic material closes the book.

 

In all essays, the previous work by Linda Williams is very present. Yet it would be regrettable to explain the great scholarly and stylistic merits of most of the essays to the sole influence of Williams' work and voice. Although the main insights of Williams' work are present throughout the book (the global scope of the essays is that of a historicization and contextualization of pornography in its plurality, and that of the attempt to replace the moralistic policy by a more distanced, but no less committed and politicized reading method), many contributors -most of them graduate students or doctoral candidates- manage to foreground very personal and often innovative ideas and analyses of a wide range of works. The most interesting articles are those that give a hands-on close reading of their material, the best one being Ara Osterwell's analysis of Warhol's 1963 Blow Job , which is at the same time a very subtle reading of this very ambivalent work (a short silent movie that shows nothing else than the face a man being given, or maybe not, a blow job), a thorough reading of the historical complexities of this movie oscillating between avant-garde and pornography, art and commodity, and an intelligent reexamination of the critical discourse engendered by the film. Much more than the philosophical speculations on technology and culture one finds in some other articles, it is the intertwining of historical background information and visual close-reading that makes the strength of contributions such as that by Osterwell and by many others in this book.

 
 
 
   
 

 

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