Porn Studies

Porn Studies

by Linda Williams
     
 

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In her pioneering book Hard Core, Linda Williams put moving-image pornography on the map of contemporary scholarship with her analysis of the most popular and enduring of all film and video genres. Now, fifteen years later, she showcases the next generation of critical thinking about pornography and signals new directions for study and teaching. Porn StudiesSee more details below

Overview

In her pioneering book Hard Core, Linda Williams put moving-image pornography on the map of contemporary scholarship with her analysis of the most popular and enduring of all film and video genres. Now, fifteen years later, she showcases the next generation of critical thinking about pornography and signals new directions for study and teaching. Porn Studies resists the tendency to situate pornography as the outer limit of what can be studied and discussed. With revenues totaling between ten and fourteen billion dollars annually—more than the combined revenues of professional football, basketball, and baseball—visual, hard-core pornography is a central feature of American popular culture. It is time, Williams contends, for scholars to recognize this and give pornography a serious and extended analysis.

The essays in this volume move beyond feminist debates and distinctions between a “good” erotica and a “bad” hard core. Contributors examine varieties of pornography from the tradition of the soft-core pin-up through the contemporary hard-core tradition of straight, gay, and lesbian videos and dvds to the burgeoning phenomenon of pornography on the Internet. They explore, as examples of the genre, individual works as divergent as The Starr Report, the pirated Tommy Lee/Pamela Anderson honeymoon video, and explicit Japanese “ladies’ comics” consumed by women. They also probe difficult issues such as the sexualization of race and class and the relationship of pornography to the avant-garde. To take pornography seriously as an object of analysis also means teaching it. Porn Studies thus includes a useful annotated bibliography of readings and archival sources important to the study of pornography as a cultural form.

Contributors. Heather Butler, Rich Cante, Jake Gerli, Minette Hillyer, Nguyen Tan Hoang, Despina Kakoudaki, Franklin Melendez, Ara Osterweil, Zabet Patterson, Constance Penley, Angelo Restivo, Eric Schaefer, Michael Sicinski, Deborah Shamoon, Maria St. John, Tom Waugh, Linda Williams

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“For more than a decade now, Linda Williams has been taking porn seriously. Her latest—Porn Studies—does not disappoint. She succeeds, once again, in legitimizing porn as an essential topic for academic study and provides a guide for teaching about it. For all those who want to know more about the place of porn in American culture, this is refreshingly unabashed scholarship.”—-Susie Bright, author of Mommy's Little Girl: On Sex, Motherhood, Porn, and Cherry Pie

“Thank God for Linda Williams! She is absolutely brilliant. I have learned an enormous amount from her over the years. She boldly goes where few academics dare. Porn Studies is a smart, much needed, fascinating book, which paves the way and sets the tone for future porn studies. This book boggles and blows my mind.”—Annie Sprinkle, postmodern pornographer and sexologist

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780822385844
Publisher:
Duke University Press
Publication date:
06/01/2012
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
528
Sales rank:
978,792
File size:
3 MB

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Porn Studies


By Linda Williams

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2004 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8584-4



CHAPTER 1

part 1

Contemporary Pornographies


How to Do Things with the Starr Report: Pornography, Performance, and the President's Penis


MARIA ST. JOHN

To say something is to do something. —J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words

The ... investigation, the ... report... may have the over-all and apparent objective of saying no to all wayward or unproductive sexualities, but the fact is that they function as mechanisms with a double impetus: pleasure and power. —Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality

The highest and the lowest are always closest to each other in the sphere of sexuality. —Sigmund Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality


* The insistent presence of sex in the American public domain came clearly into focus during the highly publicized investigation into then president Clinton's "physically intimate" encounters with Monica Lewinsky. Anyone in the nation—or the world, for that matter—who read a newspaper, listened to the radio, or watched television was privy to the details of the furtive sexual encounters between the U.S. president and the White House intern. The mainstream news media dealt in sex explicitly and relentlessly for the duration of the grand jury hearings. As Sasha Torres notes in her analysis of television news coverage of the proceedings, "television news organizations responded to the potentially contaminating proximity of their traffic in graphic images to an illicit commerce in graphic sex by focusing on their own moral embarrassment, constantly calling the scandal's details 'salacious,' 'lurid,' 'explicit,' 'sensitive,' 'embarrassing,' 'delicate,' 'sordid,' 'vivid,' and 'disturbing'" (2001, 107).

Rather than functioning to distance reporters from the material they professed to find so distasteful, however, such protestation served to implicate them in the intrigue. In the course of CBS coverage of an exchange between Clinton and Lewinsky, for example, Bob Scheiffer slipped wildly from the third to the first person, saying, "And again, they had sex of a kind. Once again, he stopped her before he was finished and said he didn't know me well enough, didn't trust me enough yet." Scheiffer stammered and complained to Dan Rather, "Dan, ... it's very strong stuff" (Torres 2001, 108).

This "stuff" peddled by the news media was, in CBS correspondent Sharyl Attkisson's opinion, "not quite X-rated, but not G-rated either," yet ABC'S Peter Jennings repeatedly referred to the Starr Report as "the hard report" (Torres 2001, III). Hard core or soft? Titillating or tiresome? Salacious or silly? Consensus regarding the rating or characterization of the Starr Report would indeed prove difficult to reach. It is clearly more than just a document of Clinton and Lewinsky's grand jury testimony. It is also a record of our contemporary national relationship to material that would historically have been deemed pornographic.

In the introduction to this volume, Linda Williams posits the term on/scenity to describe "the gesture by which a culture brings on to its public arena the very organs, acts, 'bodies and pleasures' that have heretofore been designated ob/scene and kept literally off-scene" (4). This essay examines the products of Kenneth Starr's multimillion-dollar project to make a national spectacle of the president's penis. The American public became an audience as the illicit scenes that no one had actually observed (through keyhole, lens, or any other aperture) were spun into a "story" (or, as I will argue, a multitude of partial stories). What is the nature of this spectacle of spin, what kind of spectators did it make the nation into, and via what theoretical frameworks might it best be analyzed?


The Polymorphous Report

"The" Report attributed to Kenneth Starr is actually not a single, bound document, but a multimedia, mutating text, the boundaries of which are infinitely variable. It constitutes a polymorphous text/event. It exists in live, material, electronic, digital, print, and visual formats that occupy various temporalities, engage multiple audiences, and conform simultaneously, though imperfectly, to the representational conventions of a wide range of cultural forms, some classically designated as pornographic, others not. The Report includes transcripts of the grand jury proceedings, as well as the exhibits entered in this trial: a stained blue dress and the DNA kit linking it to Clinton, for example; a copy of Leaves of Grass given Lewinsky by Clinton; a letter opener given Clinton by Lewinsky; recovered deleted computer files; audiotaped telephone conversations (illegally obtained but entered nevertheless); White House records; photographs; thank-you notes; and other items of memorabilia.

The American public had been well aware of the Report's compilation, and in 1998 it watched on television a scene described by Fedwa Malti-Douglas: "The awaited Report finally came into the world with much fanfare as Americans were shown two vans delivering thirty-six boxes of materials from Kenneth Starr's office." After all that, Malti-Douglas continues, "the printed version of Judge Starr's documentation, prepared by the House of Representatives, takes up less than two feet on a library shelf. And much of the material included, like excerpts from periodicals, is of dubious legal relevance" (2000, 2).

Nevertheless, the Government Printing Office promptly bound and reproduced this document for sale. It was also printed in any newspaper that would have it. At the same time, the House released a copy of the videotape of Clinton's grand jury testimony, and it aired on all major television networks. A number of servers made the report available on the Internet, and Simon and Schuster simultaneously published two versions of the material: an "extensive selection" and a shorter (559-page) "reader friendly" excerpt. Both books include the transcripts of the grand jury testimonies given by Clinton and Lewinsky.

Starr's Report "reports" on this grand jury testimony of Clinton and Lewinsky, in the course of which they were obliged to report the details of their sexual exchanges. Clinton and Lewinsky's reports were induced in an elaborate scene of confession. Michel Foucault has suggested that "confession ... remains the general standard governing the production of the true discourse on sex" (1978, 63). He elaborates, "We have ... become a singularly confessing society ... one confesses one's crimes, one's sins, one's thoughts and desires, one's illnesses and troubles ... one confesses—or is forced to confess" (61). Foucault suggests that such force in fact constitutes a key element of confession: "The confession is a ritual that unfolds within a power relationship, for one does not confess without the presence ... of a partner who is not simply the interlocutor but the authority who requires the confession, prescribes and appreciates it, and intervenes in order to judge" (61). Starr was thus a key player in the scene of confession he orchestrated, as were the members of Congress who participated in the interrogation.

The Starr Report encompasses this (staged) live scene of confession, its unprecedented video documentation, and the television broadcasting of this footage, as well as the print and on-line versions of the transcripts from the hearings, and, in short, anything else Starr was inclined to toss into the thirty-six boxes marked "evidence" that he so theatrically delivered to Congress in anticipation of the hearings. Clearly, no singular theoretical framework would be adequate to the task of interpreting such an unwieldy cultural object. But one interdisciplinary field of study is practiced in the art of analyzing aesthetic objects as complex and multilayered, involving scripts and props, live encounters and video documentation, bodily exchanges and divergent speech acts. Such daunting collections of elements are the standard purview of performance studies.


Starr Performances

Andrew Parker and Eve Sedgwick have observed that as a result of the convergence in recent decades of various disciplinary tributaries, the field of performance studies has expanded "to embrace a myriad of performance practices, ranging from stage to festival and everything in between: film, photography, television, computer simulation, music, 'performance art,' political demonstrations, health care, cooking, fashion, shamanistic ritual" (1995, 2). In her forthcoming book, Shannon Jackson delineates the "disciplinary connections ... between theatre studies and contemporary theories of performativity" that are in part responsible for this proliferation. Both angles on the performance nexus—that is, spectacle-based (theater studies) and language-based (performativity) frameworks of analysis—are helpful in reading the Starr Report.

Neither Clinton nor Lewinsky auditioned for the roles in which Starr attempted to cast them. Neither one is a performer in the classical sense of the term; they have both spent their lives otherwise. And their speech in the context of the grand jury trials was coerced, not offered. Still, they comported themselves like pros (although Lewinsky, as I discuss below, played the ingenue), their performances on the stand were the subject of much scrutiny, and the liveness of the proceedings—their in-the-flesh quality—was something that Starr was at pains to capture, both through the video documentation of the event and through his inclusion of every stammer, cough, and hiccup in the transcript he disseminated.

William Jefferson Clinton was impeached. Confusion about this fact persists because in popular usage the term impeachment encompasses the impeachment trial and tends to be associated with removal from office, but as Black's Law Dictionary defines it, the verb to impeach means "to charge with a crime," and "impeaching a federal official, such as the President... requires that a majority of the U.S. House of Representatives vote to return at least one article of... impeachment to the U.S. Senate." This occurred in October of 1998. However, "even if an official is impeached," the definition continues, "removal from office does not occur unless two-thirds of the senators vote for conviction." Although the Senate vote in February of 1999 failed to produce even a simple majority in favor of convicting Clinton and removing him from office, the fact remains that, technically, he was impeached by virtue of being charged.

J. L. Austin has posited a term for speech acts (like impeaching) that do things (like impeach); he designates them "performative utterances." In his classic example of a performative utterance, he writes, "to utter the sentence ... is not ... to state that I am doing it: it is to do it.... When I say, before the registrar or altar, etc. 'I do,' I am not reporting on a marriage: I am indulging in it" (1962, 6). A good deal of Austin's analytic efforts is devoted to instances of performative utterances that fail to do what they ostensibly can. These he refers to as "unhappy" or "infelicitous" performatives.

The performative impeachment of Clinton prompted by Starr may technically have been successful, happy, and felicitous (Starr certainly got lucky with the president's semen); Clinton was impeached. But in the popular register, the project floundered. According to a December 1998 NBC poll, 70 percent of Americans opposed impeachment and removal from office. In this sense, the impeachment was a flop.

The popular failure of the performative impeachment resulted in part from the success of the performances of both the president and the intern. They played it in very different ways—Clinton through withholding and Lewinsky through delivering—and it is impossible to know to what extent either was making conscious use of the rhetorical or presentational strategies they deployed. But their combined testimony held the nation spellbound, and ultimately, rather than being rejected as grotesques, the two figures inspired in many Americans a new sense of the carnivalesque.

It became clear throughout the interrogation that Clinton knew it to be a showdown, with words used as lethal weapons. His orations during the interrogation offer a model of phallic economy and monism. He repeats incessantly, "I revert to my former statement." When he is pressed to say whether his lawyer's statement that there "is absolutely no sex of any kind in any manner, shape or form" (Report, 366) between Clinton and Lewinsky, Clinton responds, "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is" (Report, 387). Torres observes that certain commentators "seemed to find Clinton's formulation risible because of the ostensible obviousness of the meaning of 'is.'" In fact, Torres, suggests,

the reason this phrase received so much air time was that the structure of Clinton's formulation ... both proves and disproves his point. In [this] sentence ... "is" actually means two things, working as a noun and a verb. Yet the sentence must depend on the putative stability of commonsense understanding in order to mean anything at all. Such dependence—the decision to strategically stabilize the meanings of words—constitutes the linguistic positivism of legal discourse, a positivism Clinton here simultaneously undermines and exploits. (2001, 106)


In another instance, Clinton resists being skewered by calling attention to the rhetorical context, rather than allowing it to remain naturalized and invisible. He says, "There's a videotape being made of this, allegedly because only one member of the grand jury is absent. This is highly unusual. And, in addition to that, I have sustained a breathtaking number of leaks of grand jury proceedings. And so, I think I am right to answer all the questions about perjury, but not to say things which will be forever in the historic annals of the United States because of this unprecedented videotape and may be leaked at any time" (Report, 435). Obviously, if he is going to "not ... say things which will be forever in the historic annals of the United States" while the "unprecedented videotape" is rolling, he'll have to not say "things" at all. And to a remarkable extent, he manages this. The investigators bait him, but he doesn't bite. He submits to the interrogation, but withholds a sound bite.

If Clinton equivocates, Lewinsky blabs. I will discuss the effusive quality of Lewinsky's orality and some of its effects presently. But I would like here to suggest that her inappropriate chatter in the context of the sanctified, masculinized space of the grand jury trial was reminiscent of certain performance projects of the Life/Art movement of the 1970s, and in particular the interventions of certain feminist innovators. In Living Art Situations (1975), for example, Linda Montano challenged high/low, private/public, and aesthetic/nonaesthetic dividing lines by publicizing as a performance project a period of time during which she stayed home and documented her activity with neighborhood people. In Feed Me (1973), Barbara Smith created a boudoir environment in the San Francisco Museum of Conceptual Art and invited individuals to enter and interact with her. Many moments during Lewinsky's testimony echo aspects of such performance projects. Lewinsky complies energetically with the investigators' requests for copious accounts of the pedestrian movements and mundane details of personal lives. She takes seriously—and proceeds as though the investigators are inquiring in good faith about—the feminized realms of gossip, intrigue, and intimacy.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Porn Studies by Linda Williams. Copyright © 2004 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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