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sex in fiction (notes)

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Lightnessw_original

From Michael Hofmann’s rather brilliant piece on Kundera in the new LRB (paywalled, I think). Here, he’s talking about Kundera’s characters and sex.

Kundera has an old – and I would say, a dated – trust in sex. Sex as the expression of or the stand-in for or the earthly (or heavenly) representative of personality or inner life. […] Whoever they are, sex tests them and keeps the score. Do they use rude words or not? Do they prefer darkness or do they like to leave the lights on? Do they shut their eyes or keep them open? Are they thinking of the person they’re with, or of someone else? Kundera is touchingly interested and trusting in what he finds out: they are about the only stage directions you get in his books. Where other observers might contend our species is at its most generic in bed, and any differences we might display there are either faddish or not interesting, that, for example, the way we like to shop is altogether more expressive and revelatory, Kundera takes another view. He deserves the label ‘erotic politician’ more than Jim Morrison ever did.

I’m in the very early stages of trying to write something about the representation of sex in contemporary (and relatively contemporary) novels. One question that I’m asking myself – and asking the works that I will talk about – is a relatively obvious one: how has the representation of sex changed since the arrival of ubiquitous internet pornography. I’m hoping that the answer isn’t as obvious as the question. But Hofmann’s paragraph above expresses perfectly part of what I am thinking – the part that we have left behind.

We no longer believe, or at least have begun to doubt, that sex is personally-revelatory, a pathway to the demonstration of some sort of personal (or interpersonal) quiddity. Perhaps pornography has something to do with this – what at first can seem intriguingly distinct comes to seem something else entirely when it dawns on you that there are hundreds of thousands of these totally unique things. (Every snowflake is different, yes, but the fact that there are so goddamned many of them, each a unique shape of their own, might start to make you wonder whether it matters that each one is different. That is to say, difference become less and less interesting the more that you realise everyone is different, but in an utterly random, meaningless way.)

Fiction, since its modern prose forms arose, has always been tantalised by sex. The romance suppresses it in sublimating it (or maybe it’s the other way around). But maybe now, with everything all out in the open, or at least nearly everything, fiction faces a bit of a problem. And instead of Kundera’s epiphanically-revelatory sexuality, we have the grim grinding of Houellebecq’s (and other’s) characters – grinding aimed at a sort of transcendence, still, but we can’t help but know that the joke, as it was on Emma Bovary, is always on them.

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June 26, 2015 at 9:20 am

Posted in fiction, porn, sex

porn and democracy

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From Hannah Dawson’s review (paywalled) of Margret Grebowicz’s Why Internet Porn Matters in the current issue of the TLS

Grebowicz […] argues that despite its theoretical potential, internet pornography tends to oppress rather than emancipate. The “free speech” that it embodies still belongs in large part to men, objectifying and subjugating other human beings. The many testimonies of self-empowerment from the “victims” of the industry are matched by first-person reports of misogyny, degradation, rape and incarceration. Rather than opening up an egalitarian space for self-construction, the file-sharing, file-ranking chatrooming online realm is creating communities all the more powerfully by normalizing discourses that preclude our saying anything new or real. “Internet pornography”, writes Grebowicz, “emerges as the perfect manifestation of the babbling political body, the speechless mass, in which every subject is interchangeable for every other, exercising its rights and expressing, more and more, telling us what we already know, climaxing, climaxing, always recognizable and predictable.”

The final sentence of the paragraph rings a bit oddly against what precedes it. While “speechless” sounds ominous, the “babbling” of the “political body” sounds like an only slight pejorative rendition of democracy. Interchangeability is ambiguous too, as it is both the result of capitalism’s reduction of us labourers to replaceable parts and, again, a quality of democratic equality. The exercise of rights, in particular the right to expression, too is of course a staple of the democratic diet. But the point of the paragraph seems to be that porn is underwritten by and a source of profitable reenforcement to the powers that be, in particular, men.

So there’s complexity at play here: internet pornography presents an ambiguous vision of freedom that is subtended by a business apparatus that depends upon the very opposite of freedom. In this, it stands (like so many other cultural products, but  more intensely and viscerally) as an uncannily accurate aesthetic mirror – a reflection more than a representation – of the political and economic conditions that obtain today in the world. On the aggregation sites, it seems, everyone has a voice, the cascading streams of thumbnails suggest a world in which all are represented, all represent themselves, and all are of course taking great pleasure in this rhythm of representing and being represented. And the consumer in turn sifts her or his pleasure out of this capacious pot of pleasure-taking and freedom-having. Everyone is equal, ostensibly, in their interchangeability – one’s acts are as free and pleasurable as those of the next. It can start to sound almost utopian, when described this way. But, of course, in the end and as in the world itself, almost all of this performance is stage-managed by those who profit from the exploitation of others. *

Given all this, a few questions to start. First, a quiet aesthetic question posed by internet pornography, perhaps, is what we do with its banality – the fact that it is constantly “telling us what we want to know” – in view that we incessantly come back to taste the banality again. There further is another quiet question, this time politico-aesthetic, about what this banality has to do with the conditions of its production and the means of its distribution.

But beyond these two, there’s an age old matter of ethics – and the ethics of the aesthetic – at play, one that queries the relationship between exploitation and representation, empathy and what we might call “forced performance” which has troubled the better sort of critic and writer since the very beginnings of literature itself, and which manifests itself at certain vividly aporetic moments as history moves forward. (One relatively recent example – Ruskin’s implication that the gothic cathedral is actually more beautiful than the pyramids because of the freedom of the workers who made them. But can that be right? Does free trade coffee actually taste better than that which is more exploitatively sourced?)

How much relieved sexual dissatisfaction is the suffering of a single human being worth? What am I to make of my enjoyment of the fruits of other’s struggles? Does it matter whether I am aware of the mechanics of production of that which I enjoy? How are we to understand the nexus of volition and exploitation, of willed self-exploitation and exploited wilfulness, that underwrites not only pornography but the increasingly illiberal world-space of “liberal capitalism”?

I have a sense that this perpetually recoded algorithm of suffering and enjoyment, repression and representation, is one of the matters that it has always been and still is essentially worthwhile for us to take up. Further, it is a question that has everything to do with the issues at play in the article by J.M. Coetzee that I discuss in this post. But more on that, I promise, soon…. A continuation of this is already in the works…

* Please note that I am – for the sake of starting up a line of thought – side-stepping for the moment several very important issues here. They include the very non-representative nature of porn (obviously not anything like “everyone” is represented there, no matter how many hundreds of thousands of videos exist to be viewed) as well as the extremely complex issues of exploitation and agency in the production of porn. These need to be addressed… but for now, let me just juggle a bit with the terms of the argument and description of the situation as presented in the review I have started from…

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January 6, 2014 at 1:30 pm

“new possibilities emerging from riots and abandoned construction sites”

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It’s hard for me to understand how anybody reads this sort of thing as anything other than a strange form of ad copy, a surreptitious pro-bono for the forces of gentrification themselves:

But after the cameras have gone, as the recession grinds on and the Eurozone spirals further into meltdown how will the Lea Valley look in 2013? 2013 is Year Zero, it signifies the beginning of new spaces opening up, of new possibilities emerging from riots and abandoned construction sites. The Masterplan will be eroded by the persistence of nature and the desire of the young to take back territory from the overarching boredom of the Westfield aesthetic . . . I imagine stalled housing projects, empty flats in yuppiedromes across the capital reactivated. I envisage stadia and velodromes covered in ivy, occupied and surrounded by transient and nomadic architecture, like Constant’s New Babylon, moving cities, interlinking, nomadic structures. I think this new ‘park’, the result of a corporate land grab, will, after the two weeks of televized spectacle, return to the physical reality of the wilderness.

It’s the same effect as Ballard – although I rather think that Ballard was far more fully aware of the dialectical perversity of his work than Ford is. A block of posh condos, a new megamall of the periphery, the traffic-locked Westway – all of these things become more interesting when someone encourages us to imagine them as anteriorly or futuraly haunted by outbursts of primal sex, violent agitation, or eroticised Michael Bay-type fireballs. Did you think Ballard was critiquing these things, given how appealing you find them in their gory transfigured forms? No more than marketing firms are critiquing the products they shill. Cars are more interesting – and thus more salable – when their utilitarian functionality receives, via the ad campaign, some Bukkake shots of sex and death, when they’re rolling you around the end of the world scenes of late capitalism.

Think about it: what if Ballard wrote a novel about what really goes on in the up-market high rise? And what if those who are selling the condos and buy-to-lets couldn’t rely on the residual grime as both an edgy selling point, a marker of victorious progress, and a feigned tell that the punter is going to get a very good deal indeed. The logic of the paragraph above is the very logic of gentrification – the edgy is valued as authentic but also as a good investment. The fact that the Lea Valley was first encountered by the artist “through the rave scene of the early 90s” is a consumer testimonial, might as well be a part of a branding operation.

In truth, the reality will be, I imagine, much more boring than in the quotation above. Flats will fill Stratford, the mall will continue to expand, the fringe areas nearby will be swallowed, until school catchments and distance from the transport hubs put a cap on the encroachment. There won’t be squatters – no more than there are in Canary Wharf. But in our flats – after all, “we” are the demographic who are meant to occupy these things, right? – paintings of the previous inhabitants, wasted ravers, decorative drunks at a shitty bar, post-coital squatters in dirty bedrooms, empty bottles and over-flowing ashtrays, will hang on each and every reception room wall.

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August 17, 2012 at 2:19 pm

nora barnacle’s bum and virtual shotguns

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Maybe I’m just being silly, but I find this video strangely fascinating…

For one thing, I could see these videos dragging Stephen Joyce into his most insane legal action yet. But beyond that I have this vague sense that I’d love to write something that somehow was the exact fictional equivalent of these videos. Not sure what that would mean, exactly. But here we have attention-in-distraction (is he actually playing while he reads these?) plus porn (excellently – porn in epistolary form captured in a streaming video – brilliant!) plus the asynchronous “plot arcs” of the letters and the games (on one of the later video you get JJ abruptly cutting off the letter because he purportedly just uh-oh’d himself in the course of writing it) plus virtual sociality (the erotics at a distance of the letters crossed with the fascination of the girl gamer with the letters, and perhaps, we might imagine, the guy who is reading the letters) plus the stupidity of imitative pastiche (the guy who keeps resaying lines from the letters – quite accurately, as if he’s writing them down – in a sort of movie-announcer-cum-Halo-guy voice….)

I could keep going. Sometimes I really miss the US PhD seminars that I ran. I’d totally throw this in for us to kick around at the end of one of the three hour blocks….

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November 9, 2010 at 10:56 am

playbovary

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Just in case you missed it:

Exciting stuff there on the lower right, no?

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October 26, 2010 at 9:39 am

Posted in flaubert, porn

porn, fast-forwarding, modernism, new aesthetics

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From a very smart Guardian piece by Jane Graham on the Saw series of ultrahorror films. In particular, this paragraph caught my eye:

When pushed, Burg cites the importance of context in justifying the extreme violence in his films – Jigsaw is punishing those he regards as immoral, thus the torture is not presented with the sadistic glee manifest in the likes of Hostel. What is questionable, though, is how much kids on YouTube care, or even think, about context. The prevalence of home-made YouTube montages simply comprising torture scenes from the Saw films on the site illustrates that, for some viewers, context is just an irritation to be got round, just like the establishing storyline in the Emmanuelle videos was for young boys in the 1980s. “Is it wierd [sic] that I just got an erection after watching that?” asks a fan posting on Facebook after viewing the brutal trailer for Saw VI. “I wish it could turn my stomach but some of the footage in the films are like stuff I do to my friends in my dreams!!!” confides another on Bebo.

Ah Bebo confessor, data-point in a reader-response theory just around the corner but somehow already staring us in the face! But more importantly, Emmanuelle!  Not just for young boys in the eighties, but the early nineties as well! The VHS tape dubbed off of Cinemax, and yes – the pacing of the films, always  a strange stroll through some baroque bienale of transnational decadent not fully post-colonial seventiesness… Like Duras in the ‘Nam but after the end of Bretton Woods…

Of course, Graham’s exactly right: my early-adolescent self didn’t actually watch any of that stuff, not if the FF button could do anything about it. Ahem. But the thing is, still to this day, when I’m teaching or writing about narrative and its rhythms (which is basically what I teach or write when I teach or write) the Emmanuelle movies are never far from my mind. The strange relationship between the heightened moments of revelation or affectual intensity and all of the stuff that moves the characters around the board, shows you the sites, establishes the patter of the everyday that goes on around the climactic bits. In a certain sense, I learned to read the way that I read by watching these soft-core films. And it was the very soft-coreness of them that was determinative on this score. If I’d grown up now, with the porn sites and their menus of contextless acts for the viewing, I’d read differently – or perhaps, who knows, I wouldn’t read at all.

Of course, I’m not alone in this sort of thing, even if the specific media involved have changed with time. Here’s Roland Barthes, for instance, in The Pleasure of the Text returning to his own favorite allegorical materialization of reading:

[W]e boldly skip (no one is watching) descriptions, explanations, analyses, conversations; doing so, we resemble a spectator in a nightclub who climbs on to the stage and speeds up the dancer’s striptease, tearing off her clothing, but in the same order, that is: on the one hand respecting and on the other hastening the episodes of the ritual.

The fascination of what Barthes is noticing about the reading of novels runs parallel to the question that today’s porn clips beg about the feature-length films of the past: why have the filler material at all? What is the point, besides evading the censors or fulfilling the aesthetic ambitions of the directors, of the plot and the setting, the conversations and the dramatic angling, when clearly everyone watching the film is watching it for only one thing? *

There are easy and hard answers to this question… I’m going to reserve offering my own ideas for a little bit. (Especially since I’m going to acquire a bunch of these movies with an eye toward writing something about them soon but later… On here of course but perhaps in fuller form too…) Just a hint for now: some sort of interesting and perhaps new definition of the aesthetic itself lurks within those scenes that bathe the porn actress, fully clothed if scantily, if scenery and conversations and transportation. If the models that we’re used to for the aesthetic, ranging from vehicle of pleasure and beauty to device for estrangement and on to statement of impossible autonomy, are worn out, these fill-scenes suggest (at least to me) other modalities of the aesthetic ranging from filter to alibi, dilutive solution to perverse advertisement, negative affectual space to the sort of thing where we take a little rest before doing it all again.

So more of that to come, one way or another. But it occurs to be that what the novelistic romance, or the romance that persists within all novels, was to those in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who were busy with the invention of modernism, I am starting to think porn is – or should be – for us today. It is that popular form, so circumscribed and rote, so unreflectively ideological, so bestial that we might resist, and in resisting discover that we can’t quite fully extricate ourselves from. Modernism attempts to purge literature of romance – but the problem is it simply can’t stop purging itself of romance, and thus the backwash of the young man carbuncular and the girl on the strand, the passante and the strange copulation of Clarissa and Septimus. We might think would it would mean to begin a similarly violent romance, the sort of maddeningly intense affair that refuses to name itself as such, with the legacy of the most popular, titanically popular, aesthetic form of our own time.

* Of course I understand that I’m deploying a reductive and perhaps rather masculinist notion of the way that porn is consumed / enjoyed. Of course I’m aware of the fem-porn industry, and some of the difference involved in that (often themselves organized by essentialised notions of female preference for the emotional over the physical, talkiness vs. dirtiness….) If anyone wants to provide an alternative version of any of the above, by all means the comment box is yours!

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October 23, 2009 at 11:18 pm

Posted in aesthetics, modernism, porn

agamben again

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I’ve been a bad amateur theorist for the past several years. * Attribute it to all-too-close-contact with a whole coterie of noxious lacanians, lording it over peasants like me with late-night phonecalls and backchatter and tenure threats. Whatever. But somehow I missed the fact that Agamben has gotten back to the interesting question (rather than the boring one, the s/o/e and all that schmittian jive). See No Useless Leniency for more information. I just ordered the book.

Agamben argues that he is not condemning pornography per se, but rather the neutralisation of the possibility of allowing erotic behaviours to idle, their profanation. What is reprehensible is to be captured by power, not the behaviour in the first place. This kind of idling can be found in the the indifferent gaze of Chloe des Lysses – a lack of complicity with the spectator, and a refusal of the brazen.

But this kind of profanation appears only temporarily, as the “solitary and desperate consumption of the pornographic image” (!) (“In Praise” 91) blocks this kind of possibility of profanation. The disgrace, according to Agamben, lies not in pornography itself, but in the apparatus of the fashion show or the pornographic shoot, that turns the sphere of pure means into a separated site of pure consumption.

“The unprofanable of pornography – everything that is unprofanable – is founded on the arrest and diversion of an authentically profanatory intention. For this reason, we must always wrest from the apparatuses – from all apparatuses – the possibility of use that they have captured. The profanation of the unprofanable is the political task of the coming generation.” (“In Praise” 92)

Ah, that’s just the sort of thing that gave this blog its Agamben-inspired name! Maybe I’ll rename the site profanatory intention.

* Really, I can’t even fake the pose. Those who know me know that I am Just-Another-Sweater-Bedecked English Professor Lecturer, far too gnomic and literary even to simulate it. Still, I am a JASBEL (interesting!) who appreciates a properly dialectical question when a properly dialectical question is raised….

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December 2, 2008 at 1:10 am

Posted in agamben, porn, theory