Picture source: Edward Steichen, (American, born Luxembourg, 1879-1973), The Little Round Mirror, 1901, printed 1905, Gum bichromate over platinum print, 48.3 x 33.2 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Alfred, Stieglitz Collection, 1933 (33.43.32).
The erotic image touches us with the wings of a bird; the pornographic has wings of heavy, suffocating leather which pin us down much the same as a protagonist in a porn video.The erotic holds within it’s embrace a creative imaginanion, the pornographic is heavy and banal, it’s narratives repetitive and inane. Susan Sontag said that pornography, finally, is about death.
“Tamed as it may be, sexuality remains one of the demonic forces in human consciousness – pushing us at intervals close to taboo and dangerous desires, which range from the impulse to commit sudden arbitrary violence upon another person to the voluptuous yearning for the extinction of one’s consciousness, for death itself.” –Susan Sontag in the Pornographic Imagination via Styles of Radical Will p. 57, Picador USA
A”yearning for the extinction of one’s consciousness, for death itself” is a disquieting notion. Berdyaev writes of “the phantasm” as anti-life. The erotic is life-affirming; the pornographic reduces us to ashes. Watching the actors in a porn video one is immediately struck by the odd detachment, the isolation of the participants from eachother in the sexual act (feigned or real). It quickly becomes boring, annoying even. The encounter is masturbatory: in the narrow gamut of scenarios that porn offers us, there is depletion, a sort of temporary and unsatisfactory satiety. There is the suggestion posed (by the absent pornographer) that this sexual encounter will somehow incorporate the viewer (the virtual voyeur) in an ecstatic and orgasmic transformative moment: but this turns out to be a much-repeated, perpetual lie. The unfulfilled addict must return for his fix, deluded, aware at some level of his delusion, yet paradoxically a willing victim of the fiction that enslaves him.
Death – the desire for death – lies at the heart of the pornographic.
Berdyaev recognized in man the need for oblivion, that at some level he finds consciousness a burden and seeks to escape it. Perhaps pornography (falsely) promises man an apparent means of escape – albeit to an endless chain of identical prisons.
What are we to make of the erotic image?
What are the boundaries of erotica and pornography,
the acceptable and the obscene, perversion and art?
Why is there a sense of transgression connected with images of the body, and with viewing such images? What is it exactly that is transgressed? If we take the dictionary definition of transgress as “to go beyond a boundary or limit” and “to violate a command or law” then we might ask, what boundary? What limit? Set by whom? Whose command? What law?
A very unvictorian victorian
The British Soldier, diplomat, explorer, translator, arabist and author Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821 to 1890) founded “The Kama Shastra Society” to publish and circulate books which were considered pornographic at the time.
“Burton had long had an interest in sexuality and some erotic literature. the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 had resulted in many jail sentences for publishers with prosecutions being brought by the Society for the Suppression of Vice” (Source: Wikipedia).
We know the distinction between the erotic and the pornographic was even narrower in 19th century England; Burton and Forster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot’s translation of the Kama Sutra was considered pornographic. Decency and morality are slippery things. After Burton’s death, his wife Isabel destroyed many of his papers perhaps conscious of the danger posed by a moralistic Victorian society to the Burton name and estate.
“Erotica is any depiction (visual, tactile, aural, olfactory, etc.) that elicits – or is intended to elicit – sexual response. Of course intention is in the mind of the perceiver; thus, what is banal to one person (eg a sculpture of a mermaid) may elicit sexual response in others. Generally, the more suggestive and explicit the stimulus the greater the possibility of the material being perceived either as erotic (stimulating and in good taste) or pornographic (crude, dirty, immoral, or obscene). In reality, this distinction is unhelpful and inaccurate, as extremely explicit descriptions and depictions can be at the same time both erotic and pornographic, or perhaps neither, despite the artist’s intentions. I suggest we take a page from Oscar Wilde: to wit, there is no such thing as an erotic-pornography continuum, there is only excellently rendered versus poorly rendered sexually stimulating material. We might then reserve pornographic for an entirely different category of material, that which is intended to gratuitously celebrate suffering and humiliation, such as the early 20th century photographs of white families picnicking with charred, hung black men in the background. These were often sent through the mail in the form of “humorous” postcards. In the event, both the materials themselves and their distribution were pornographic.- William Todd-Mancillas, Chico California.
Drawing: nude by Scott Harrison
What Distinguishes Erotica from Pornography?
“…what is one individual’s erotica may well be another’s pornography . . . and vice versa. And what is beckoning or exciting to one person-for it appears to dynamically illustrate the ethos of Eros, or the Life Force-may yet be offensive, obscene, and repugnant to another.” © 2011 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D
References, further reading and source material:
The Pornographic Imagination (1967) – Susan Sontag:
1)“No one should undertake a discussion of pornography before acknowledging the pornographies—there are at least three—and before pledging to take them on one at a time” Sontag
(Styles of Radical Will, p.35).
2) Susan Sontag on Georges Bataille:
“One reason that Histoire de l’Oeil and Madame Edwarda make such a strong and unsettling impression is that Bataille understood more clearly than any other writer I know of that what pornography is really about, ultimately, isn’t sex but death. I am not suggesting that every pornographic work speaks, either overtly or covertly, of death. Only works dealing with that specific and sharpest inflection of the themes of lust, “the obscene,” do. It’s toward the gratifications of death, succeeding and surpassing those of eros, that every truly obscene quest tends. “ -Susan Sontag in the Pornographic Imagination via Styles of Radical Will p. 60, Picador USA
3) “Nicholas Urfé argues that: Susan Sontag, in her seminal essay on assessing pornography critically, “The Pornographic Imagination” (1967, collected in Styles of Radical Will), likens pornography to science fiction—not because both are paraliterary genres (genres that have proven themselves more than capable of creating lasting works of breathtaking art which, nonetheless, have yet to be taken seriously by academia, keepers of the literary canon) (though yes, her argument does make that point about both—ancillarily), but because both take place in a heightened or hyper-reality.” Nicholas Urfé (pseudonym) 2001 via http://www.asstr.org/~nickurfe/ift/01/09/00.html
4) “Human sexuality is … a highly questionable phenomenon” Sontag
“Human sexuality is, quite apart from Christian repressions, a highly questionable phenomenon, and belongs, at least potentially, among the extreme rather than the ordinary experiences of humanity. Tamed as it may be, sexuality remains one of the demonic forces in human consciousness – pushing us at intervals close to taboo and dangerous desires, which range from the impulse to commit sudden arbitrary violence upon another person to the voluptuous yearning for the extinction of one’s consciousness, for death itself.” Sontag in the Pornographic Imagination via Styles of Radical Will p. 57, Picador USA
“In her essay (and apology for) ‘The Pornographic Imagination’, Susan Sontag acknowledged at least three types of pornography, one being ‘a minor but interesting modality or convention within the arts’.2 Forty years later, an update or reconsideration of the pornographic imaginary is in order. Today, we are immersed in a culture where (what once passed for) pornography has become the dominant form of imagery exchanged in western culture.” From “Her Pornographic Imagination” by Monika Szewczyk
“Recent work on the concept of disgust helps us understand hard-core pornography. Disgust about material objects and moral behavior can be easily distinguished: in its primary sense disgust relates to “animals (including humans), their parts, waste products, or objects that resemble any of these, or are disgusting by virtue of their association with any of them.” We speak about moral disgust in a secondary or metaphorical sense. When talking about disgust, these two senses were not always distinguished. While both will help us to understand pornography, previous debates were fueled primarily by moral disgust. By reflecting on hard-core pornography that provokes moral disgust alone, we will provide a way to understand pornography in the context of material disgust. The burden of this paper is to offer a clear demarcation between erotic art and hard-core pornography. Only the latter elicits material disgust.
“Pornography” and “pornographic” are relatively new terms that were introduced in the second half of the nineteenth century to replace “obscenity” and “obscene.” Reference to aversion, repulsion or disgust assimilates “pornography” and “pornographic” to the older terms. Contrary to holders of fundamentalist or sectarian religious views, we must not rely on references to nudity or explicit sexual content, since both are displayed in some great artworks, and we would reject the claim that they are pornographic. Many artworks have been used as pornography, and some have been called pornographic. While skepticism is warranted about claims that an object is both art and pornography, it would be dogmatic and unwise to suggest here that art cannot be pornography or vice versa.
Attraction and repulsion
Pornography is driven by curiosity, which is fueled by our desire to learn about the lives of others regardless of whether we encounter them in our own world or in the imaginary world of realist art or literature. Without such curiosity we could not be drawn to a work that could be pornographic. In experiencing that work and in reflecting on our own experience we become aware of our delight, disgust, or both delight and disgust. The mixed reactions of attraction and aversion are somewhere between pure delight and pure disgust. Excluding cases of our rejection of works purporting to be art from lack of interest or dissatisfaction with the ways they satisfy our curiosity, we are accustomed to responding in the context of art or literature not only to what it is about, but also to how its subject matter is presented. Since each of us must decide whether a work is or is not pornographic, it is possible that some will decide that no work is both art and pornography, while others will hold that some works can be both.” – From Pornography and Disgust By Laurent Stern
Prudery and Prurience in Modern America
” To understand the culture of death, we must understand how pornography has hijacked our basic categories of what it means to be a person, what it means to have a body, and why we should care about either one. If death is a cult, consider pornography its liturgy.”
Samuel D. James:
Assorted thoughts on life, faith, and culture
Ilona Zakowicz: Transgression
A Postmodern Thanatic Triad:
Crisis, Pornography and Renaissance of Death.
Pornography and Censorship:
First published Wed May 5, 2004; substantive revision Mon Oct 1, 2012
“Paraphilia (also known as sexual perversion and sexual deviation) is the experience of intense sexual arousal to atypical objects, fetishes, situations, fantasies, behaviors, or individuals. No consensus has been found for any precise border between unusual sexual interests and paraphilic ones.There is debate over which, if any, of the paraphilias should be listed in diagnostic manuals, such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) or the International Classification of Diseases(ICD)”–(wiki)
“… sexuality also serves both a psychological and spiritual purpose. Sex is a way of lessening our alienation, isolation and aloneness by physically connecting with, penetrating or being penetrated by another person at the most primal level of existence. Sex substantiates, humanizes and incarnates existence. It produces joy, love, comfort, affection, and sometimes, ecstasy. Ecstasy is not only a physical, but a psychological and sometimes spiritual experience. The etymology of the word ecstasy is ex-stasis: The temporary transcendence of time, ego and our shared human fate of existential separateness. Sex connects us not only with another being, but with our own being and humanity. Sex, like eros, from which it draws its profound psychological and spiritual power, is daimonic: it reminds us of our intrinsic capacity to be involuntarily taken over at the moment of orgasm; to be possessed by passion; to surrender control. Both lust and falling in love are examples of being possessed by sex or eros.This capacity to experience the daimonic quality of sex or eros is an essential and centering part of being human. It reminds us that we are, first and foremost, as Freud pointed out, passionate creatures, motivated and driven by primitive, irrational forces operating just below the surface of civilization and rationality far more powerful than our puny little egos.” SOURCE: Stephen A. Diamond Ph.D. The Psychology of Sexuality