Liaisons Dangereux: Pornography, Modernity, Power

Tomasz Sikora

Pedagogical University of Cracow


Caught up in the operations of biopower on the one hand, and intimately linked to the development of contemporary mass media on the other, pornography is alternately cast as a serious threat to modern bodies politic, or as a viable road to cultural transgression and liberation. Both approaches, apparently so different, share the belief in the enormous disruptive potential of pornography. This essay considers the paradoxical status of pornography as both marginal and possibly "revolutionary," in relation to some of the opportunities opened up by new media technologies. Pornography, I argue, is primarily a mode of perception and, as such, part of contemporary regimes of seeing and knowing, rooted in the Enlightenment paradigm that aims to "lay bare" the materiality of the world. Even though the knowledge that pornography produces is customarily disavowed and denied any political meaning, arguably it threatens to uncover the very workings of modern (bio)power and its claims to the regulation of social and individual life, its production and control of "bare life." The pornographic body is still regulated and disciplined, but it also plays with the mechanisms of its disciplining and regulation, it tests the limits of regulation and discipline as such, it constantly creates alternative circuits of desire, beyond (though never completely outside) the state and the market. If pornography can be claimed to be political at all, it is not through a "message" that it conveys, but through the cultural work it does, an alternative knowledge it opens up, an alternative sense of the corporeal and, indeed, the "human."


"I know it when I see it": this is how US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously (or infamously) "defined" pornography in 1964 (Jacobellis v. Ohio). While acknowledging the ultimate inability to define pornography in strict legal terms, the comment does not preclude the judge's right to pass a shamelessly arbitrary judgment on any material as "pornographic." Despite, or perhaps because of, this undefinability, a judgment is called for. The subsequent adoption of the Miller (or "Three Prong") test for obscenity (developed in the 1973 case Miller v. California, and cited more recently in the Supreme Court Decision regarding the 1996 Communications Decency Act)1 seems to have provided a way of ascertaining whether given material is obscene or not, but in fact the debate is far from concluded. For one thing, the obscene is not synonymous with pornography (i.e. pornographic material may be argued to have "serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value" and thus exempt from state regulation), for another the Miller test continues to be criticized for its vagueness and arbitrariness (cf. Huston, 2005). But Stewart's phrase also points to another interesting aspect of pornography's status: it is primarily a mode of perception, and it develops into a "genre" only secondarily. To be pornographic, a text or image must be seen as pornographic ("I see it when I know it," let us paraphrase). Actually, it must be seen in the first place, it must be brought "onstage," into print (or other media) and into the high spectacle of a court trial.2 The Enlightenment brought into the light of public discourse that which—from the point of view of that very discourse—had been an obscure, uncharted territory, managed, in a rather unsystematic manner, by custom and ecclesial jurisdiction.

Contemporary regimes of seeing, which have also produced pornography as we know and see it, developed in conjunction with new media, such as print, photography, film, and the Internet. Pre-Enlightenment folk cultures (mostly oral) with their "bawdy" jokes and tales remained largely outside of the state's regulative interventions. However, as soon as sexually explicit material appeared in print, the state's functionaries began to perceive it as a threat to the population's morality. One telling example comes from Britain at the end of the 18th century: disgusted by Matthew Lewis's Gothic novel Monk (1796), the Queen's treasurer and librarian Thomas James Mathias appealed in his satirical work The Pursuits of Literature to the state to "supply the laws" that would "restrain" obscene literature:

Why sleep the ministers of truth and law?
Has the State no control, no decent awe,
While each with each in madd'ning orgies vie,
Panders to lust, and licens'd blasphemy?
Can Senates hear without a kindred rage?3 (1801, pp. 365-7)

The series of rhetorical questions leave no doubt that the state does indeed have adequate tools, let alone the right, to regulate obscenity on the grounds that, if unchecked, it must lead to anarchy (Mathias, 1801, p. 368). In a footnote Matthias goes as far as to threaten Lewis personally with Common Law indictment for obscenity (p. 245), not least because the Gothic author was also a Member of Parliament, and thus a high-ranking representative of the state and a law-maker himself. Clearly, the 18th century, probably even more than the previous one, realized the power of print: after all, a single pamphlet could bring an empire to a crisis (Thomas Paine's Common Sense). No wonder, then, that modern states have gone to great pains to maintain as much control over potentially dangerous political writings as possible; one could even hypothesize that censorship of one sort or another has always been, and continues to be, essential to modern polity. As evidenced by the Supreme Court judicature, obscenity marks the absolute limit of free speech, beyond which there expands a dark realm of irredeemable negativity, the banished "evil" that demarcates the boundaries of the (desirable) body politic. But why have modern states invested so heavily into the control of representations of sexual acts and nudity? What are the liaisons dangereux between pornography and power? Why is pornography perceived as such a threat?

In Thomas Jefferson's political philosophy the state's prerogative to guard the population's morality is one of the key tenets. In a famous passage, imbued with corporeal metaphors, he states that "[i]t is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigor. A degeneracy in these is a canker which soon eats to the heart of its laws and constitution" (1781-1884, para. 2). His main objection here is to the "bad manners" of the working classes (which should therefore remain in Europe, lest they pollute the American people), of which sexual manners are no doubt an important part. Jefferson's ideas would  ring down the centuries, more audibly at times of large-scale "moral panics," when the strongest enemy to the nation was envisioned not as an external force, but as a moral corruption "eating to the heart" of America's laws and constitution. (This argument is used in the opening scene of the movie The Notorious Betty Page, which tells the story of the cult porn model at the time of the Cold War. "Communism will never defeat America. No, it's something from within," says a priest testifying to the corrupting impact of comic books and pornography on American youth.)4

Arguably, moral panics—as common to modern polity as periodic crises to the capitalistic economic order—are governed by an underlying fear of variously defined "dirt" which gets out of place (to invoke Mary Douglas's classic formulation) and out of control; as such, it is likely to become contagious, deadly and, ultimately, apocalyptic. One of the key factors, then, is the spread of dirt, its easy availability. This is where mass media become intimately combined with moral panics: print culture, and later other media, made all sorts of "dangerous" material relatively easy to distribute and obtain. Scientific and technological progress has always triggered anxiety, as exemplified by the modern myth of a "mad scientist" (beginning with Dr Frankenstein) who crosses moral boundaries and precipitates a disaster. Unsurprisingly, the intersection of technophobia and sexophobia has become one of the most fertile grounds for moral panics, with the Internet as the most recent example (cf. Marwick, 2008). The history of moral panics goes back to the 18th century, at least (cf. Binhammer, 1996), but there have been certain shifts of focus over time. As could be seen in the examples mentioned above, "classical" moral panics were mostly about the protection of a republic from the perils of anarchy. The moral panic of the late 1940s/early 1950s was still very much about the integrity of the republic in the face of an evil enemy, yet the focus shifted significantly in the direction of "youth" as the most vulnerable group. This trend continued, with the child becoming the last bastion of conservatism, the mainstay of civilization, the embodiment of what Lee Edelman (2004) calls society's "reproductive futurity." (In 1859 French poet Charles Baudelaire was clearly abhorred at some high-born ladies who looked unflinchingly at pornographic photos, but unconcerned about "children on their way back from school who took pleasure in these follies") (1955, p. 229). A more recent development, resulting from the expansion of the neoliberal worldview and its "privatization" of nearly all spheres of life, has made moral panics much more focused on individuals: nowadays it is less about the "common good," and more about the psychological well-being and the "correct development" of a child.

Whereas the beginnings of the pornographic "genre" were demonstrably bound up with an overtly political project,5 most of contemporary porn (with the notable exception of some "artistic porn" created by the likes of Annie Sprinkle or Bruce LaBruce) seems to have shed any political ambitions. But even the apparently apolitical pornography can still be seen as a thoroughly political question (in a sense markedly different from the one invoked in recurrent moral panics), although its relationship with power remains rather ambivalent. By promising a utopian sexual heaven, it may be said to divert people's attention from political issues; its anti-transcendentalist insistence on the physicality of the body, however, seems to threaten the purity of the modern body politic. With its emphasis on alternative (often "forbidden") kinds of knowledge and carnal practices, it promises a transgression; but at the same time it seems to legitimize power, in the same way as God's ban on the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was an assertion of his power and a test of Adam and Eve's obedience.6 By exposing material bodies, pornography exposes the bottom line of power's domain, bare life; by foregrounding the filth of the obscene, it makes it possible for sanitized public space to emerge and serve as the stage on which power may "present itself," while retaining the right to regulate visibility itself. The body politic must never be an overtly sexual body, a body driven by desire, as sexuality remains strongly associated with losing control, going animalistically "wild" and being stripped of dignitas. The modern state's regulation of bodies and sexualities—both repressive and productive, as we have learnt from Foucault—serves to keep the sexual safely "in its place" (the private, the marital, the reproductive), so that the state itself may appear as nobly desexualized. Yet on closer scrutiny we discover, just as Joseph K. does in Franz Kafka's The Trial, that what we have been taking for respectable law-books is, in fact, nothing but cheap pornography (2009, p. 42).

Much is at stake when it comes to presenting the sexual realm in general, and pornography in particular, as inherently dangerous. It was not incidentally, as we know from Foucault's History of Sexuality (1998) that modern sexuality was invented in and through the normative discourses of medicine, psychiatry and criminology. The "danger" factor legitimizes the state's grip on the citizens' sex lives, particularly through the regulation of the representations of sexual practices. Zygmunt Bauman confirms what to many may sound like common sense knowledge: "the production of 'official fear' is the key to the power's effectiveness" (2004, p. 49). In its easy-going celebration of sexuality, pornography dangerously disengages sexual practices from any imaginable danger. Where the state's functionaries preach: "Be afraid of your sexuality and turn it into the security of state-regulated family life," pornography proposes the dangerous knowledge about the body's (allegedly) unlimited potential for pleasure beyond any social structures and contracts.

"I know it when I see it." What kind of knowledge does Justice Stewart invoke here? What body of knowledge and what knowledge of body? It is "visceral" knowledge, a knowledge that can do without a self-conscious legitimization of its own foundations, a knowledge one would believe unmediated, simply "natural." This is the knowledge before all knowledge, the untold prehistory of the modern articulations of the sexual and the carnal. How, for example, do we know we are naked? How did Adam and Eve know? It is clothes that make us naked, no doubt. The distinction between a naked body and a clothed body is not only central in the cultural make-up of the West, it is also intertwined with our possibilities of knowing, knowing something when we see it. Like language, clothes mark our subjection to a "universal law," a law which requires an altered awareness of our bodies. Clothes do not simply protect one's body from cold or snow; they protect one's good name. In many cultures stripping is a gesture of shaming (as the Abu Ghraib prison scandal reminded us not so long ago). Bruckner and Finkielkraut observe that "to merit being called dirty, it is necessary to be twice stripped: once of clothing, and then of transcendence" (quoted in Arcand, 1993, p. 29). The scandal of pornographic bodies is that they are shameless bodies, bodies exposed and made public; yet by being shameless, the displayed bodies clearly play with the viewer's sense of shame (which itself becomes a source of excitement). Shame presupposes "primal" knowledge, apparently situated in the body itself; it is a "natural" reaction, akin to the physical repulsion aroused by the abject excretions of the body. It is not the knowledge that a modern subject has; constitutive of subjectivity itself, it is the knowledge that the subject is.

In an interesting essay Paul Willemen discusses the (lamentable) modern separation of "the sensory from the intellectual" (2004, p. 10). In his view "the regulators of representations of sex are not really bothered about sex at all; it is a cover, or, if you prefer, a metaphor, for their concern to control ways of understanding" (p. 11). If the original impulse of the Enlightenment was to wed the sexual to the cognitive and to use "representations of sex as tools for thought" (p. 22), the project was later aborted as a compromise with the old regime; "the radical egalitarianism of pornography" was thus marginalized "in favor of dramas of lineage and social reproduction couched in the very vocabulary of the absolutist regime" (p. 17). That is how dominant Western discourses came to narrativize sex as "the very antithesis of knowing" (p. 12) and its critical, anti-authoritarian dimension was lost. In Willemen's account pornography is guilty of complying with the dominant mode of separating the sexual from the cognitive; while "sex is extremely good 'to think with'" (p. 12), most porn simply adheres to the anti-intellectual agenda ascribed to it by the modern structures of knowledge and power.7

But has pornography not developed its own (abject) body of knowledge, as well as its own mode of aesthetics? The common argument—and indeed, the very criterion for a representation to be classified as pornographic—is that porn has no "added value," artistic, aesthetic, cognitive, or other (cf. the Miller test, summarized in note 3). The body itself, with its functions, reactions and "symptoms," is usually posited as a site of non-knowledge which needs to be anatomically and physiologically mapped, not unlike the exotic lands "in need" of Western cartography. It is not simply, as Willemen (2004) argues, that we need to put thinking and sex back together; it is also, crucially, about seeing the cognitive potential already at work in pornography. What do we know when we see it, and what do we see when we know it? What can we know, what kind of knowledge can porn generate? It could well be that under the present regimes of knowledge we are not quite able to read the articulations of another knowledge. Instead, our bodies are handed over to the rule of the law and expert knowledges, regulated and aestheticized, while excess corporeality is abandoned to pornography, where bodies are condemned to being stripped of self-knowledge and aesthetic value. Like much of popular culture (of which it may be considered a special case), pornography moves between compliance and resistance. Incorporated into the capitalistic logic of demand and supply, shaped by the pressures of the market and the state, it still tests the limits of our epistemological and social regimes.

Through what can be seen as a reduction of the dignified "human being" to the level of sheer animality, through a radical denial of any transcendence that defines the human as human, pornography seems to turn away from history (and story), displaying an imaginary, ahistorical space of unfailing and incessant pleasure, with orgasm as the only possible climax. Porn cannot be historical or political, not in the way we usually think the "historical" and the "political"; whenever it makes conscious and meaningful references to politics or history (in a context different from a campy enactment of an erotic fantasy), it ceases to be pornographic. Thus pornography heralds the end of history, of historical tasks, grand projects, master narratives, heroic romances. If it can be claimed to be political at all, it is not through a "message" that it conveys, but through the cultural work it does, an alternative knowledge field that it opens up, an alternative sense of the corporeal and, indeed, the "human." The lesson could very well be that history has been displaced from its proper material site, the body, and moved to the level of some national or imperialist discourse. Arguably, the feeling body is where history is present most intensely, where history is first written (with shame and pleasure, pain and repulsion). The body may be thought of as "living history," with the Lacanian symptom as a trace, a letter, a story. "The symptom," says Janet Thormann, "is a product of a particular history that inscribes itself upon the body" (1999, para. 4). Sexual behavior is acting out the script of one's most personal, and at the same time most common, history.

Agamben, Titian, and Pornography

One of the most celebrated contemporary philosophers Giorgio Agamben may be inadvertently pointing at pornography when he describes the erotically charged painting Nymph and Shepherd by the 16th-century Venetian painter Titian:

To be sure, in their fulfillment the lovers [in Titian's painting] learn something of each other that they should not have known—they have lost their mystery—and yet have not become any less impenetrable. But in this mutual disenchantment from their secret, they enter . . . a new and more blessed life, one that is neither animal nor human. It is not nature that is reached in their fulfillment, but rather . . . a higher stage beyond both nature and knowledge, beyond concealment and disconcealment. These lovers have initiated each other into their own lack of mystery as their most intimate secret; they mutually forgive each other and expose their vanitas. Bare or clothed, they are no longer either concealed or unconcealed—but rather, inapparent {inapparenti}. . . . In their fulfillment, the lovers who have lost their mystery contemplate a human nature rendered perfectly inoperative—the inactivity {inoperosità} and desoeuvrement of the human and of the animal as the supreme and unsavable figure of life. (2004, p. 87)

nymph and shepherd
Titian, Nymph and Shepherd, c.1570 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

Arguably, much of pornography does the cultural work that Agamben sees in Titian's painting: it neutralizes the "mystery" of sex and points to "a higher stage beyond both nature and knowledge." If we agree with Agamben's proposition that determining the border between "man" and "animal" is "a fundamental metaphysico-political operation in which alone something like 'man' can be decided upon and produced" (2004, p. 21), then pornography, which displays the uneasy proximity of "human" and "animal," seems to be an ideal site for the philosophical investigation of "the anthropological machine of the moderns" (2004, p. 37). And not just investigation: porn may be a starting point for the "dismantling" of the machine, an opening of a different thinking space. In Agamben's words, "To render inoperative the machine that governs our conception of man will therefore mean no longer to seek new—more effective or more authentic—articulations, but rather to show the central emptiness, the hiatus that—within man—separates man and animal, and to risk ourselves in this emptiness" (2004, p. 92). Dominant discourses never tire of emphasizing the ultimate emptiness of pornography (no plot, no moral content, no artistic value etc.); it would be fruitful, I think, to see that apparent "emptiness" as indicative of the "hiatus that separates man and animal."

Pornography is not so much a legitimate child of modernity, but its unforeseen bastard, kept in a secret cell, disinherited and denied. On the one hand, it reflects the episteme which determines the paradoxical place of "the body" and "sexuality" in modern times (paradoxical because the "repression" and regulation of bodies is matched by the compulsion to continually express, expose and experiment with the sexual / the corporeal). On the other hand, however, pornography threatens to uncover the very workings of modern (bio)power, its claims to the regulation of social and individual life, its production and control of "bare life." Indeed, pornography could be seen as a representation of "bare life" itself. Agamben credits Marquis de Sade, arguably the first modern pornographer, with staging the theatrum politicum as "a theater of bare life, in which the very physiological life of bodies appears, through sexuality, as the pure political element" (1998, p. 134). Even if, as Paul Willemen (2004) claims, the philosophical potential of early pornography has never been fully realized, it has not completely dematerialized, either: it remains latent in representations of nude bodies and sexual practices. Pornography can thus be seen as a site where the "bare life" usurped (or, indeed, produced) by modern biopower is laid bare. The emperor is naked, so to speak.

"[T]he first foundation of political life is a life that may be killed, which is politicized through its very capacity to be killed," says Agamben insightfully (1998, p. 89), placing the body at the very center of the political realm. If so, any attempt to rethink the political should start from a rethinking of the body. What can one do with the body of an other? Kill and violate it, suggests Agamben. Make it work for you, says Hegel in his famous analysis of the master-slave dialectic. But one can also explore the body's potential for pleasure, which is where an alternative politics could find a grounding. What we need is, as Foucault would have it, "a different economy of bodies and pleasures" (1998, p. 159), and pornography could provide a few insights towards that end. True enough,

[l]ike the concepts of sex and sexuality, the concept of the "body" too is always already caught in a deployment of power. The "body" is always already a biopolitical body and bare life, and nothing in it or the economy of its pleasure seems to allow us to find solid ground on which to oppose the demands of sovereign power. (Agamben, 1998, p. 187)

But why should we seek any "solid ground" at all? We cannot start thinking "the new" from outside; if thinking "the new" is possible at all, it is through a reconfiguration of our present coordinates of thinking; in order to rethink our concepts, we can only start from existing concepts. In other words, even if "sexuality" is a discursive invention of modern times (and pornography is its best representation), its meanings can be challenged and used creatively. We can pursue a knowledge that never claims any final grounding (not even "the body", however conceived), but this does not mean that "the body," with its "animal" functions, cannot become a notion around which a new political awareness could be envisaged. Agamben's own formula is too vague to offer any "solid ground," either:

Every attempt to rethink the political space of the West must begin with the clear awareness that we no longer know anything of the classical distinction between zoe and bios, between private life and political existence, between man as a simple living being at home in the house and man's political existence in the city. (1998, p. 187)

We no longer know anything of the body and sexuality, for sure; but without thinking the body and thinking sexuality, how can we possibly rethink "the political space of the West"? Pornography does not present us with the body "as it really is," simply material, prediscursive or undisciplined by biopower, something that could become a springboard for transgressive or "revolutionary" action. The pornographic body is still regulated and disciplined, but it clearly plays with the mechanisms of its disciplining and regulation, it tests the limits of regulation and discipline; it is playful and creative. Pornography does not propose a definitive concept of the body; instead, the body remains inevitably fluid and infinitely able to reinvent itself and its capacity for pleasure.

The body is not only "always already caught in a deployment of power," but also—in more Lacanian terms—bound up with the symbolic order, which structures any deployment of power. In social existence the body becomes a figure, a letter of an alphabet, a function of a cultural grammar. It is the material signifier of an "I," which must be erased for "perfect," noiseless communication to take place. However, I do not take this to mean that the body is ultimately deprived of any agency at all. The scandal of pornography is that it often shows bodies as empty signifiers, it challenges a stable identity and threatens the "good name" of anybody involved in it (quite a few careers collapsed due to some kind of involvement in pornography).8 In pornographic representations the body is, as it were, dis-figured; it ceases to be figural and figurative. No pre-existing body is "liberated," but through pornographic abjection the Lacanian "Real" flashes through, pointing to a moment of crisis, a communication breakdown, a shameless parade of material signifiers released temporarily from the usual structures of meaning and social contracts.

A study of pornography reveals the tension between the dignified, public face and the genitals. It could be said, for the sake of simplicity, that if the exposure of the face makes us recognizable as "human," the exposure of genitals brings us closer to "animal." The face, so intensely invested with cultural meanings, stands metonymically for the whole person, body and soul; to lose face is to lose one's good name. Exposed genitals pose a threat to the integrity of the subject; group, anonymous sex is one of the more common sexual fantasies and pornographic motifs. So often used for masturbatory practices, porn not only exposes the subject's fundamental fascination with his/her own body (a kind of narcissism relegated to the realm of "infantile" behavior), it also brings the subject to the verge of abjection. Our sexual fantasy lives (played out in countless pornographic scenarios) test the very limits of our identity construction: a feminist may fantasize about rape, a heterosexual man may fantasize about being penetrated. According to Lynne Segal,

Psychoanalytical readings suggest a way of understanding the bizarrely 'pornographic' nature of our fantasy life: where excitement and danger, pleasure and pain, adoration and disgust, powerlessness and power, male and female, even life and death, smoothly fuse and separate out again without damage or distress—except perhaps to our internal psychic censors troubled by the incompatibilities, not with 'real life', but with internalized moral values. (2004, p. 67)

It could be further postulated that all fantasy is ultimately memory, the body's forgotten knowledge. Part of that knowledge is the realization that human sexuality is always mediated (through fantasy, image, memory, staging, and so on), and so is the body itself. Jean Baudrillard misses the point when he says pornography marks the end "of the imaginary and of phantasy" because in it "sex . . . merges with its own representation" (1990, p. 29). Fantasy is the very stuff pornography is made of, and if sex merges with its own representation, then one part of the modern project—crucially bound up with questions of political and aesthetic representation—loses its ground. In its denial of "proper perspective" porn problematizes both the positionality of the modern subject—with its centralized, perspectival perception—and the body as an "object" (well-defined for medical, legal or aesthetic purposes). Pornography does not present a uniform Euclidean space (which became the blueprint for the imaginings of "public space" in the modern state), governed by universal laws; it is a space dense with erotic innuendoes and pheromones, a space of touch and friction.

Much critical attention has been paid over the last few decades to the subversive potential of S/M practices and representations. Anne McClintock, for example, states that "S/M publicly performs the failure of the Enlightenment idea of individual autonomy, staging the dynamics of power and interdependency for personal pleasure" (2004, p. 249). In a world which disciplines bodies into "lawful" positions and practices, S/M "borrows directly from the juridical model, while radically disarranging the right-to-punish" (p. 248). McClintock sees S/M's subversive effect in the enjoyment of a punishment without having first committed a crime, which disrupts "the modern penal economy" (p. 248). S/M pornography can be read as reenacting the very mechanism through which pleasures are produced, in relation to power, pain, fetish, etc. Here is play of power before it comes to be fixed into stable social roles; before it becomes coercive, reified, and institutionalized. Even when it borrows from the grammar of violence, sex in pornographic representations remains irredeemably playful. Much of its allure comes from the fact that it shows a world without the law: the only raison d'être of a police(wo)man or a soldier in this world is the fetish quality of his/her dress and his/her affinity with power. Any figure appropriated from the "ordinary" world loses its "real" meaning and becomes a prop, a "false signifier" pointing not to fixed social positions, but to the pleasurable playfulness behind social existence.

With its underlying vision of radical egalitarianism, pornography has been pushed to the very margins of modern polity, heavily regulated and depoliticized. Simultaneously, it has proliferated and permeated modern societies due to the ever expanding possibilities of mass media. Yet porn has not been simply adopting and adapting new tools of representation and distribution; arguably, it was the media that followed a "drive for pornography," i.e. the development of new media was fuelled by the urge to further "pornographize" regimes of seeing. In the 19th century Baudelaire remarked on the "natural affinity" between photography (which to him had no artistic value whatsoever) and pornography: "The love of pornography, which is no less deep-rooted in the natural heart of man than the love of himself, was not to let slip so fine an opportunity of self-satisfaction" (1955, p. 229). Early film theorist Siegfried Kracauer saw the essence of film as an "unveiling" of the material world (Kracauer 1997), while his friend Walter Benjamin argued that through an uncanny closeness and an excess of detail photography and film strip physical objects of an "aura" (Benjamin, n.d.).9 Frederick Jameson goes so far as to claim that "the visual is essentially pornographic" and pornographic films are only "the potentiation of films in general, which ask us to stare at the world as though it were a naked body" (1992, p. 1). Arguably, behind this pornographic drive to see the material world "laid bare" there lies a more fundamental scientific (and, ultimately, Judeo-Christian) impulse to lift "the veil of nature" and discover an apocalyptic "truth" (apocalypsis means "unveiling"), as epitomized by Louis-Ernest Barrias's late 19th-century sculpture Nature Unveiling Herself Before Science:

Nature Unveiling Herself Before Science.jpg
Louis-Ernest Barrias, Nature Unveiling Herself Before Science, c. 1899 (Boston Museum of Fine Arts)


If photography (and later film) was one turning point in the history of pornography, the Internet is certainly another, if for different reasons. The Internet does not reveal; it primarily connects and opens up channels of exchange. It is legitimate to claim that it takes us further away from the sheer materiality of the world and puts our notions of "realness" into question (cf. Russo, 2007), but on the other hand it continues the tradition originated in film by Georges Méliès, i.e. it makes use of the "dreamy" and illusionistic potential of the medium. Cyberspace is often understood as a collective fantasy world ("a consensual hallucination," to employ William Gibson's original definition; Gibson 1984, p. 51), or else a materialization of personal and communal fantasies. As such, cyberspace again parallels pornography's recognition of fantasy as essential to sexual (as well as social) arousal and satisfaction. Yet beyond any structural features of the medium and its more or less problematic relationship with "reality," the medium's potential depends, crucially, on what kind of uses it is put to and how it is regulated by the law as well as an array of intersecting social normativities. On top of that, omnivorous capitalism is quick to colonize and commercialize any medium, any site of potential resistance, any alternative practice (see, for example, Cramer 2007 on the commercialization of "indie porn"). None the less, the growing number of cybersex communities seems to problematize the "commercial" aspect of much of today's porn. In cyberspace "sexual adventures and amateur porn exchanges create complex social and ethical communication codes alongside the profit-oriented goals of the porn industry" (Jacobs, 2004, p. 80). What hits at the core of capitalistic logic is the idea of non-profit, consensual sharing of one's body and sex images. Even though the Internet is largely based on individuals' withdrawal into the private space of one's room and personal computer, at the same time it evidences, somewhat paradoxically, a craving for the social and for "going public." Adam Arvidsson asserts that "the erotic has historically proven to be an important example of how the media can enhance the capacity to imagine social relations, and how this enhanced capacity can subsequently have real, transformative effects" (2007, p. 73). Netporn—the porn that creatively uses the capacities inherent in the medium of the Internet—does not promise a revolutionary liberation of desire or a radical site of resistance, but it remains an open field for sexual experimentation, self-exposure, productive use of shame, alternative circuits of desire, etc. – all this beyond (though never completely outside) the state and the market. Possibly it allows us to reimagine the social as mediated / creative / malleable / phantasmal / connective / networked / cross-boundary / hybridic / playful / interactive / sexual / queer / corporeal.

Yes, in many ways pornography is dangerous, but for reasons very different from those cited in mainstream discourses. Posited as dangerous to the subjects/citizens, it may become dangerous to the political order, and to society as we know it. Pornography provokes a visceral response, be it revulsion or sexual arousal (or both), and it clearly "calls for action," whatever the "proper" course of action is taken to be. As Laura Kipnis concludes, "it might appear that the interest of the state in regulating pornography is that it meets the criteria for 'disturbatory art' . . . which seeks 'charged artistic enactments' and sets up 'perturbations across a social field'" (2004, p. 211). If porn is "too potent for art" (p. 211) because of its (anti)aesthetics, it could also prove too potent for modern constructions of subjectivity and forms of politics. Pornography is the Frankensteinian outcome of modern aesthetics: it is a monster produced inadvertently by the rules of representation enforced by the modern regimes. Baudrillard may be right: "our entire body culture, with its concern for the 'expression of the body's 'desires' . . . is a culture of irredeemable monstrosity and obscenity" (1990, p. 33). Contemporary culture has repeatedly been described as "pornographic," and one can hardly fail to notice the growing fascination with the obscene and the abject. This may be an illustration of how that which is disavowed at the moment of "birth," becomes in fact the underlying principle of the system from which it is banned, which is one more reason why pornography could and should be placed at the centre of a critique of the post-Enlightenment world. As a shameless celebration of non-procreative sexuality and sex beyond all social contracts (albeit not beyond all kinds of social normativity), pornography is a menace to the heteronormative aspects of national ideologies. In an attempt to maximize the "use" of bare life, the modern state expects its female citizens to increase the sheer biomass of the nation through birth-giving, and its male citizens to be disposable in the time of war. Making sex (or masturbating)10 will not prevent war, but in a Bataillean "general economy," which includes our bodies and pleasures, a more or less obvious link exists between excess (libidinal) energy and war.

I do not think that pornography should be uncritically celebrated as an inherently transgressive, liberatory practice, without regard to the material conditions of its production or possibly negative social consequences. To some it seems to promise a simple liberation of bodies and pleasures, but in the view of many others (including a group of feminist critics) it is intricately bound up with violence, exploitation and crime. In its (unimaginably diverse) entirety, pornography is a site of intense contestations, indicative of the profound anxieties that underlie our constructions of subjectivity and sociality, particularly the anxieties about borders and limits (animal/human, moral/immoral, aesthetic/abject, private/public, artistic/obscene, legal/illegal, clean/dirty). Once we learn to "unearth" and recognize its cognitive potential, porn may help us to (constantly) reinvent our bodies and pleasures. More: even if it is too "involved" in the anthropological machine (to use Agamben's term again), it may help us reveal the operating principle of that machine and open up a space from which we can start to rethink "life" and "politics" at large. What does pornography tell us about the allegedly universal condition called "humanity"? About bare life? About sociality? About our political existence? But also: who owns and controls our bodies? Who metes out our pleasures? Who invents them? How is our sexuality mediated through our notions of "humanity" and "animality"? These are some of the questions that pornography may help us start answering. 

Notes and References


1. "A work may be subject to state regulation where that work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest in sex; portrays, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and, taken as a whole, does not have serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value" (Miller v. California, 1973)

2. The obscene itself may be defined as that which becomes "seeable" because the law declares it must not be seen. Since it potentially hides everywhere, one should always be alert to see it. This explains why prudes are always ready to scan and re-scan art museums and galleries in search of ancient or recent obscenity.

3. On the historical connections between gothic and pornography as genres largely defined in/by legal texts and practices, see Gamer, 1999.

4. Richard Nixon expressed a similar opinion, actually suggesting a direct cause-and-effect link between "debauchery" and communism: "the relaxation of sexual mores leads inexorably to every kind of debauchery, until in the end it brings about the redistribution of wealth and the equal sharing of property" (Arcand, 1993, p. 118).

5. Following on the ground-breaking work of Lynn Hunt (1993), authors such as Robert Darnton (2000) and Paul Willemen (2004) point to the overtly political and philosophical nature of much of 18th-century pornographic literature in France. Those so-called "philosophical books" were "vehicles of social criticism" and often served to bash "aristocrats, clergymen and the monarchy" (Darnton, 2000, p. 91).

6. In its mythical origin, pornography began when Adam and Eve ate the fruit of knowledge and saw their bodies qua bodies, in all their undignified, obscene nakedness. This could lead to the conclusion that pornography is a continual reenactment of the foundational Judeo-Christian myth: nakedness and corporeality are rediscovered, and as a result we are "banished" into the misery of socio-political existence. See also note 9.

7. What pornography shares with the original impulse of the Enlightenment, one could add, is its battle against secrecy, against experiential carnal knowledge as esoteric or forbidden knowledge (which battle was continued, notably, in William Blake's grandiose oeuvre).

8. Gamer makes an interesting observation: Coleridge, who privately admired Matthew Lewis's work, was appalled at the possibility of being associated with his name, by having his poem published in an anthology which also contained a work by Lewis (1051).

9. Benjamin's notion of the "aura" is not far, I think, from Agamben's (2010) analysis of grace as that which covered Adam and Eve's nakedness in Paradise, before it was lost. The loss of the aura is, for Benjamin, tantamount with a loss of distance, which parallels Baudrillard's point that through an excess of detail and close-up pornography abolishes distance, and thus renders the work of seduction impossible (1990).

10. One thinks here of the classic hippie motto "make love, not war," or the more recent initiative "Masturbate for Peace" ( 


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Tomasz Sikora teaches at the English Department of the Pedagogical University of Cracow. He received his MA from Adam Mickiewicz University (1996) and a PhD in English from the University of Silesia (2001). In 2003 he published Virtually Wild: Wilderness, Technology and the Ecology of Mediation and over the past several years he has co-edited (with Dominika Ferens and Tomasz Basiuk) three volumes of essays on queer studies; he is also a co-editor of the online journal of queer studies InterAlia ( His interests include American and Canadian Studies, gender and queer theory, and many others.


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