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The Pornographic

Epistemological Impoverishment

One way of looking at pornography, so to speak, is to see it as epistemologically impoverished, as a medium that despite its obvious sexual explicitness provides very little information. Of course this isn’t true of all pornographic films, but if we accept that the genre’s purpose is to show not tell, to get straight to the point rather than beat around the bush, then once it gets there it doesn’t have much else to offer.

We can notice the difference between the informationally rich and the informationally undernourished by showing a clip from a Jean-Claude Brisseau erotic film, Choses Secretes, and contrast it with a fairly typical piece of pornographic cinema, Italian Lovers. In Brisseau’s film we watch a woman lying naked (Coralie Revel) on her back in the background while the foreground is hard to make out. Is it a woman shrouded in gauze holding a bird? The film cuts to show us that it is indeed a woman with a hawk perched on her arm, shrouded by a curtain, as the camera then moves in on the woman lying on the bed. Revel then gets up, puts on the high heels that are by the bed, and starts to move across the frame, and across what looks like a stage, while we hear the bird as if it is fluttering off. As the camera crosses the space in one shot we see Revel sit on a chair, and the film cuts back to the woman behind the curtain, the bird still on her arm. The film cuts back to the woman as she gets off the chair and provocatively keeps moving across the stage, completely naked. As she sits on the floor we see out of the top right hand corner of the frame someone seated smoking a cigarette, while Revel gyrates sexually on the floor. The film then keeps moving, leaving the naked woman to show us a crowd looking on, before concluding finally on what will become the film’s central character, Sandrine (Sabrina Seyvecou) – who tells us who she in voice-over. “I’m the new girl. As you can see I work behind the bar.”

In contrast a scene from the unequivocally pornographic Italian Lovers is a series of sexual positions with Christophe Clark and Tabatha Cash: fellatio, girl-on-top, doggy-style and ejaculation in the mouth. It doesn’t so much have a story to tell, a space it wants to explore, but a checklist it abides by. As Linda Williams shows in Hardcore, porn is quite literally by the numbers as she looks at Stephen Ziplow’s checklist, evident in his 1977 Film Maker’s Guide to Pornography. Ziplow includes a list of the various scenes that need to be included in a pornographic film. As Williams says: “this extremely functional guide to the would-be-pornographer is useful because it also goes to the heart of the genre’s conventionality.” The essentials are masturbation, straight sex, lesbianism, oral, menage a trois, orgies and anal sex. Ziplow was writing his book in the seventies when a story was still seen as of some importance. Williams wrote her book in 1990 where it is “now common place for critics and viewers to ridicule narrative genres that seem to be only flimsy excuses for something else – musicals and pornography in particular are often singled out as being really about song or dance or sex.” The story was always a poor premise to mask the fundamental desire to show the sexual act, as if what it gained in explicitness it had to lose in the implicit.

The erotic cinema might be sexually revelatory, but it isn’t in this sense explicit. In other words it can show the woman completely naked, but it does not move towards the logic of porn which, as Williams says, resides in the money shot, the male orgasm as the conclusion of the sexual act. Of course this doesn’t apply to lesbian porn, even if now there are attempts to show female pleasure (in both lesbian films and heterosexual ones) where the woman releases a flood of liquid as evidence of her orgasm. Perhaps what is important to acknowledge is not so much the sexual but the epistemological. Instead of seeing pornography as a terrible thing, morally debased and sexually exploitative (which it might well be), we instead view it as informationally weak: the epistemological impoverishment the lack of knowledge seeking as it gives us a very predictable series of actions. Williams is absolutely right to point up not the genre’s radical sexual revelations, but its cognitive conservatism.

Why does such informational under-loading not result in boredom? For the simple reason that the material is usually there to support an action beyond the perceptual. As Magnus Ullen says: “A theory of pornography must thus be a theory of the mode of reading which the consumption of pornography habitually involves, which is to say that it needs to be a theory of masturbation.” (‘Pornography and Its Critical Reception’) Or, as porn filmmaker John B. Root proposes, you watch it, “with one hand on the remote control, and the other one where it shouldn’t be”. (Guardian) Understimulation of the brain is compensated for by the stimulation of another organ, even if Root, more than most, wants porn with a bit of meaning thrown in. According to Cahiers du Cinema, Root’s films “have a rare presence… They are not just there to excite the spectator but to lead him or her into a world where desire exists, where the real, even in a highly disguised form, can burst through at any moment.”

Though ostensibly pornography is a medium of reality, a documentary in very fundamental form, that isn’t quite the same thing as saying that it usually it pursues knowledge. One doesn’t watch a pornographic film the way one watches a nature documentary, though both might show a species copulating. The point isn’t really to find out anything new, but to be stimulated with mild variations of the already familiar; yet from angles that would be impossible to witness during one’s own sexual activities. Jean Baudrillard reckons: “you have never seen it function so close-up…it is all too real, too close up to be real.” (Revenge of the Crystal)

This of course creates a paradox: the epistemologically anorexic with the sexually graphic, but a paradox resolved, as Ullen notes, by the autoerotic. “If seen from the perspective of the masturbatory response it is designed to elicit, pornography thus seems much less a peripheral aspect of modernity than the allegorical seal of consumer culture as a whole.” It is culture ‘reduced’ to the senses: a basic gratification quite at odds with Kant’s notion of art as disinterested. We are very interested indeed, though how many continue their curiosity after sexual satisfaction has been met? When Stanley Cavell says that one “ought to be impressed by the absolute attention. The common awe, when all holds are un-barred. An artist must envy that power,” (The World Viewed) a scientifically minded commentator might be inclined to invoke the limbic. “A 2014 study in the journal JAMA Psychiatry found… men who regularly consumed porn had smaller brain volume and fewer connections in the striatum, a brain region tied to reward processing, compared with those who didn’t view porn.” “That means it activates ancient parts of the brain such as the limbic system.” (LiveScience) We needn’t be absolutist here, but there does seem to be a difference between the aloof yet attentive curiosity we offer an art work, and the narrow concentration demanded of the pornographic.

The sort of attention we give to the opening scene in Choses Secretes may well resemble the observational acuity we offer to the well-known, one-take shot at the beginning of Boogie Nights. Both end with the close up of the bar person looking as if they want a bit more excitement in their life, and both explore a particular space allowing the viewer to glean little pieces of information along the way. Yet sometimes we can see interesting parallels between the pornographic and the aesthetic too, with the filmmaker using high-art film to hint at low-minded impulses. In Jean-Luc Godard’s Slow Motion, the sex scene isn’t too far removed from the sort of sexual action in Beyond the Green Door. Both suggest the mechanical means involved in the sexual act. However, where the Mitchell Bros. film offers the moment as an example of sexual desire, Godard is more inclined to show it as the very corruption of the desirable. It is as if, Godard proposes, for a certain mindset there can be no pleasure unless it passes through an industrial model. The pornographic as a version of Fordism: production line pleasure. Indeed, as Martin Amis notes, in a Guardian article called ‘Rough Trade’, pornography is big business, and getting much bigger. “In 1975 the total retail value of all the hard-core porno in America was estimated at $5-10 million. Last year [2000] Americans spent $8 billion on mediated sex.” If the car industry was one of the great moneymakers of the 20th century, pornography is surely becoming rather more important in the 21st. We have no need any more it seems for phallic symbolism: the phallus is very much on show in unsublimated form.

Indeed, the sexual becomes ever more explicit; sublimation increasingly the sign of the coy. In his essay on porn and masturbation, Ullen acknowledges the immense importance of Williams’ book, a properly groundbreaking study, and respects her attempt to see porn as a genre partly to escape the moralism surrounding analysis of the works. Yet he wonders now whether it might be pertinent to look at it not as a subject to be interpreted, but a tool to satisfy repetitive impulses. Though it is useful to understand the aesthetics of pornography (if for no better reason than to try and differentiate it from the erotic – to see there is a big difference between Choses Secretes and Italian Lovers) perhaps no less significant is to see just how little pleasure porn offers when removed from the self-stimulus that gives it its raison d’etre. To study porn without attending to the subject who is watching it, would be a bit like concentrating on the food the Pavlovian dog salivates over without attending to the dog’s very impulses – the basis after all of Pavlov’s experiment. What mattered in Pavlov’s research was the ability to generate stimulation out of repetition, and can we not more or less say the same of pornography? What counts is stimulus and response.

This has very little to do with Kant’s disinterest, that asks us to respond to an art work that is at one remove from the sensual, but is instead almost all about the senses. This is again, perhaps, central to the difference between the pornographic and the erotic. In pornography one watches to wank; in the erotic one views with at least one eye on epistemological developments, to see what happens next, to feel that curiosity is a manifold thing rather than a singular one: to have a hint of the real as Cahiers defines it. The pleasure principle in the latter is still held a little in abeyance.

©Tony McKibbin