Preserving Pornographic Media
Desirae Embree / Texas A&M University
Much has been said of the need for archival preservation of pornographic media texts which, because of their specific cultural function and means of circulation, tend toward ephemerality. However, as Frances Ferguson and David Squires have argued, the very process of archivization, in its sequestration of sexual materials from the world of erotic life, may render these materials un-pornographic. Yet, as scholars such as David Church and Whitney Strub have argued, the archive itself is not an erotically neutral space, as both historiography and preservation efforts are motivated by a passionate attachment to and investment in pornography’s ephemerality. These issues are compounded when one considers pornography’s move online and the proliferation of new media technologies, which, as Tim Dean notes, seem to produce “more porn archives than we know what to do with.” How ought the field balance the ongoing need for pornographic film and video preservation while also attending to the shifting media landscape and to the need for new tools to study it? What strategies are needed to archive, organize, and preserve new media pornography? Are there specific kinds of pornographic media texts (for example, public access cable shows) that are currently being overlooked by archival efforts? What theoretical frameworks are needed to facilitate work on pornography that is missing from the archive and is potentially lost? Is there a way to either avoid or account for the effects that institutional legitimation has on erotic texts? Would this require new archival practices?
*denotes panel convener
When I initially wrote the question that convened the panel on “Preserving Pornographic Media,” I had perhaps naively assumed that pornography scholars were, more or less, working on the same objects and encountering the same kinds of problems in their respective research. However, what struck me most about the submitted responses was how different our textual objects, and by extension, our preservational concerns were. This is, of course, the difficulty of working on a loose category of media texts that really have only one thing in common (sex) and sometimes not even that. While all of the panelists did share a common problem—namely, pornography’s status as a “bad object”—we found throughout our discussion that our respective objects of study came from distinctly different contexts of production, distribution, and consumption. As a result, different approaches to archivization and preservation were required in order to better facilitate current and future research in our areas. That some of our concerns about preservation overlapped and others did not just emphasized the need for ongoing, rigorous contextualization of all generalizations about pornography, as well as its precarity, which is unevenly distributed across production communities and canons.
This was, in fact, the major impetus for my own position paper on the little-known and short-lived “dyke porn” movement in the late 20th century, in which lesbians and other queer women made, for the first time, a relatively expansive sex media culture that reflected their desires and sexual practices. In my research, I found that these texts were often missing from archives known for holding large quantities of queer pornography. I also found that because these texts were produced by queer women working under the pressures exerted by multiple levels of social and economic marginalization, they entailed unique research questions and problems that required new strategies for collection, archivization, preservation, and explanation.
This sentiment was echoed by both Peter Alilunas and John Paul Stadler in their comments on what is an approaching crisis in pornography and sexuality studies—namely, the complete lack of protocols for preserving digital, internet-based texts. As both noted, much of the pre-history of contemporary sexual culture has been irretrievably lost, as early pornographic websites and forums have lapsed into non-existence. Alilunas, in particular, noted that even if there were an investment and concerted effort to preserve this important moment in adult media history (there isn’t), we currently lack the necessary tools to do so. Stadler echoed this point, noting that in his study of early “cyberporn,” he had to rely not on the texts themselves, which had vanished into the ether, but on their various, remediated incarnations in media forms more likely to attract archival attention and, as a result, preservation.
In his comments, Devin McGeehan Muchmore discouraged a pessimistic attitude about the preservation of sex materials, noting that ephemerality and the threat of loss is endemic to all historical study. Muchmore urged us to use methods similar to those employed by Stadler, noting that, however incomplete, existing archival collections could be used in the study of otherwise unavailable texts and communities. However, Joe Rubin cautioned against the dangers of seeing sex media as purely historical objects, noting that the current utilitarian approach to their preservation renders the urgency of preserving original negatives and best existing prints irrelevant; as long as the sex content is visible then the preservation is good enough. Instead, Rubin urged scholars to approach pornographic media preservation in the same way that we might any other cinematic object—with an eye to its intrinsic aesthetic value and a commitment to preserving it in its best possible form.
I think that my fellow panelists would agree with me when I say that the most productive, exciting part of this conversation was the involvement of Rubin, who is actively doing the work of preserving and re-releasing important sex films, as well as archivists and librarians in the audience whose presence and engagement sparked a much-needed interdisciplinary dialogue about these issues. Clearly, pornographic media poses very particular challenges for both researchers and archivists. In order to adequately address them, we will need to maintain and expand this conversation by actively working to bring archivists, curators, librarians, and computer/information scientists into our disciplinary spaces, as well as taking our research to theirs. The interdisciplinary conversation that happened at FLOW was an important step in that direction, and I look forward to seeing it continue in the coming years.