Punk, Disco, PornThe Deuce ’77—Part 3
Matthew Tchepikova-Treon / The University of Minnesota


The Deuce Season 2 Cover Image

The Deuce Season 2 Cover Image

Porn. “What am I watching? What the fuck are we doing here? Come on, so now we’re making art?” Rip-and-run porn producer Harvey Wasserman, in the lap of a churning 16mm Steenbeck, examines the climax sequence from Candy’s latest film: close-up images of a woman and two men with cutaways to a ceiling fan, wild life, juiced fruit, etc. Candy responds: “It’s cut the way an orgasm feels… So some of it’s in her head. Some of it’s real. Some of it’s somewhere in between.” Harvey responds with a string of sardonicisms, applauding the “ethereal Warholian fashion” with which Candy has attempted to visually represent “the female mind for the final stampede to nirvana.” In a way it’s a genuine, if still patronizingly veiled, recognition of aesthetic ingenuity. Nonetheless, Harvey cedes to an industrial imperative—“Keep the focus on the fucking”—that demands phallic fantasy production. Candy responds with a dissatisfied summation: “Porn.”

Candy's Film Clip from Season 2

Candy’s laborious rough cut and Harvey’s I can’t sell this reaction, expressing hard-core cinema’s historical straddling of art, exploitation, and commerce.

Aural Pleasure & Acousmatic Women

Concerning sexual penetration, “proof” of orgasm, and conventional filmic displays of female pleasure, this scene practically stages Linda Williams’ well-worn dictum that hard-core pornography “seeks maximum visibility in its representation but encounters the limits of visibility of its particular form.”[ (( Linda Williams, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 94.))] In mainstream heterosexual porn production, where the industry-standard “money shot” serves as visual confirmation of male satisfaction, conversely, women’s overdubbed voices do the work of sonically signifying orgasmic bliss, becoming “aural fetishes of the female pleasure we cannot see,”[ ((ibid, 123.))] while also further revealing “the inability of a phallic visual economy to imagine female pleasure as anything but insufficiency or excess.”[ ((ibid,109.))] Additionally, Eithne Johnson argues that, “at the site of the female body,” this disembodied sonic excess is “displaced onto the ‘body’ of the film, where it functions as surplus semiotic material.”[ ((Eithne Johnson, “Excess and Ecstasy: Constructing Female Pleasure in Porn Movies,” Velvet Light Trap, 1993, 31. ))] As an immediate example, listen to the overdubbed vocal work of a female performer added by Candy after recutting the aforementioned climax sequence and how The Deuce crosscuts Candy examining her film with a sex scene of its own:

Crosscutting Overdubbed Sounds from Matthew Tchepikova-Treon on Vimeo.

Given HBO’s own scopophilic tendencies concerning the objectification of women in many of the network’s premier shows,[ ((For a keen take on “the evolution of prostitution and the birth of large-scale porn production in a medium—on a specific network, even—that’s been criticized for its gratuitous and sometimes violent sexual content,” as well as an interview with season one pilot director, Michelle MacLaren, about the ways she and the show’s production team worked to address this, see: Alison Herman, “How Michelle MacLaren Brought The Deuce to Life,” The Ringer, September 6, 2017.))] as with punk and disco, we again find an attempt at both sonic historiography and immanent critique in The Deuce’s aesthetic engagement with female vocal performers’ affective labor.

We hear the electric hum of Candy’s 16mm projector running film, its monophonic speaker emitting the thin sound of a woman moaning, her voice unmoored from any image, from any sense of corporeal verisimilitude,[ ((Such an effect often resulted from technical limitations as well as recording techniques that sacrificed spatial realism for a sense of aural presence.))] then the far more convincing sex sounds of Abby and Vincent in bed with heavy breathing and Abby’s own voice coming out in arhythmic fits of pleasure. Then back, the overdubbed voice in Candy’s film becoming almost laughable while also sounding more like ecstatic whimpering or even cries of pain.[ ((For more on this aural slippage between pain and pleasure, see: Clarice Butkis, “Depraved Desire: Sadomasochism, Sexuality and Sound in mid-1970s Cinema,” Earogenous Zones: Sound, Sexuality and Cinema, ed. Bruce Johnson (Sheffield: Equinox) 2010, 66-88.))] Comparatively, Abby and Vincent finish, yet with a notable lack of spectacularized pomp or circumstance, but then Abby intones a deep “mmhmmm” between breaths, suggesting satisfaction. The film likewise finishes and we hear the sound of leader tape slapping the take-up reel as it spins out, clicking rhythmically with every pass as Candy lights a cigarette—we’ve just seen Vincent reach for his—then exhales. Notably, her own satisfaction seems uncertain.

Red Hot Clip from Season 2

Lori Madison and Larry Brown starring in Candy’s first feature-length porn production Red Hot, an X-rated retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood” shot mostly on the Deuce.

Invoking a lineage of women filmmakers from Doris Wishman to Candida Royalle,[ ((See: Elena Gorfinkel, “Sex and the Materiality of Adult Media,” Feminist Media Histories, Vol. 5 No. 2, Spring 2019: 1-18.))] in season two of The Deuce, Candy works to make alternative filmic representations of sex available.[ ((Beyond the aesthetic economy of mainstream heterosexual porn production, for a fantastic analysis of the political potential of sound and the voice in gay male pornography, as well as particular techno-erotic affiliations with the phone sex industry during the 1980s, see John Paul Stadler’s recent article “Vocalizing Queer Desire: Phone Sex, Radio Smut, and the AIDS Epidemic,” Feminist Media Histories 5, no. 2 (2019): 181-210. And for more on the phone sex industry, listen to Sexing History’s podcast episode “Sex Over the Phone.”))] Nevertheless, as her opening exchange with Harvey attests, we are reminded again and again that she finds herself doing so within a restrictive audiovisual regime of erotic cultural production, a regime shot through with regulatory powers that extend far beyond porn.

Within a simultaneously emergent audio culture outside the production of moving-image pornography, the female voice as a fetishized sonic object flows between myriad forms of media while repeatedly servicing the same phallic order of hard-core porn’s visual economy. In the broader context of Seventies sexology, Jacob Smith demonstrates how erotic LPs marketed as “instructional” records routinely featured women vocalizing orgasms in order to “sonically index” particular sex practices while also arousing listeners.[ ((Jacob Smith, “33 1/3 Sexual Revolutions Per Minute,” Sex Scene: Media and the Sexual Revolution, ed. Eric Schaefer (Durham: Duke University Press), 2014, 179-206.))] Likewise, John Corbett and Terri Kapsalis track technologically mediated acousmatic women through a multitude of pop songs that further work to reproduce these “aural codes of sexuality.”[ ((John Corbett and Terri Kapsalis, “Aural Sex: The Female Orgasm in Popular Sound,” TDR 40, no. 3 (1996): 102-11.))] “Do it to me again and again,” Donna Summer moans on her disco classic “Love to Love You, Baby.” In Moroder’s extended mix, she performs a “marathon of 22 orgasms”—a writer at Time magazine apparently counted them back in 1975.

As evidenced here, I am inclined to follow Eric Schaefer’s argument that, throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, “a rapidly and radically sexualized media accounts for what we now think of as the sexual revolution.”[ ((Eric Schaefer, Sex Scene: Media and the Sexual Revolution, 3.))] However, this media revolution was likewise accompanied by a censorious scientism that, as if attempting to re-suture the audible excess of female pleasure back onto women’s bodies, worked to reinforce staid representations of ‘tasteful’ sexuality.

Exposed Legs & the Legibility of Excess

In my previous column on The Deuce and disco, I gestured toward the fact that, throughout the 1970s, urban sound, acoustic research, and the politics of cultural production converged within a revised discourse of noise pollution where familiar sexist visual tropes of female promiscuity emerged in politically motivated projects aimed at ‘cleaning up’ U.S. cities in the name of sexual sanitization. Recall the acoustician who cited a New York discotheque as the loudest source of noise in the city, writing that “the miracle of electronics allowed performers to create a sound level as astonishingly elevated as the dancers’ hemlines.” And while analogizing short skirts and noise during this time was by no means exceptional, as with The Deuce’s second season, we can move from New York to LA to find a most extreme instance.

Dr. Knudsen & 10 Women

Newspaper rendering of physicist Vern O. Knudsen measuring reverberation from the sound of a .22 caliber pistol.

“Dr. Knudsen fired a pistol in a room with 10 miniskirted girls,” reads an account of this famed acoustician discharging a blank cartridge in a UCLA physics department’s reverberation chamber along with ten women in short skirts to measure the level of sound reflection off their exposed legs.[ ((Popular Science, October 1969: 20.))] Using an acoustical unit of measurement for sound absorption, Knudsen recorded a sabine count of 2.5 that he compared to a test conducted back in 1964 with more thoroughly clothed subjects where reverberations from the gunshot had registered 4.6 sabines.[ ((These details were publicized in the University of California’s University Bulletin, Volume 18, January 12, 1970.))] In conclusion: Knudsen used his gun to prove (an already well established fact, mind you) that “as skirts go up, sound absorption goes down.” Associated Press science writer Ralph Dighton’s descriptions of the “experiment” received notable traction in trade journals and city newspapers, with headlines ranging from the pedantic, “Acoustical Test Shows Miniskirts Affect Sound,”[ ((ibid.))] and the epigrammatic, “Miniskirted Girls Long On Sound,”[ ((Tucson Daily Citizen, October 30, 1969: 14.))] to the prolix, “Honey, Your Miniskirt Looks Great, But It Sounds Awful,”[ ((The Miami News, October 29, 1969: 2.))] and the prognostic, “Miniskirts Bound To Be On Way Out.”[ (( In this last article, one Clayton Rand of The Jackson Sun foretold of the miniskirt’s imminent falling out of fashion, then claimed, “There are also stock market experts who believe that lengthening skirts usually herald a depressed economy.” He cites no evidence. November 30, 1969: 4.))]

While Knudsen’s ostensible concern involved modern methods of concert hall design utilizing sound-absorption coefficients that accounted for heavily clothed audiences—coefficients reportedly threatened by women’s skin—my reason for comparing his “experiment” (and the rhetorical trope of the miniskirt at large) with that of moving-image pornography’s aural fetishization of female pleasure is to highlight a certain epistemological affinity between ways of seeing and ways of hearing where shared vectors of power, difference, and knowledge converge through science, aesthetics, and cultural politics alike. “Modern fashions are fine for rock and roll concerts,” Knudsen claimed, “people who go to them like loud noise.”[ ((Quoted in “Honey, Your Miniskirt Looks Great, But It Sounds Awful.”))] But for classical music, he suggested “seat cushions so absorptive it doesn’t matter what the audience wears. With the trend to nudity, audiences will welcome additional padding anyway.”[ ((There are two unmistakable ironies: First, the unit of measurement used by Knudsen takes its name from physicist Wallace Sabine who, as Emily Thompson’s work shows us, once threw out thousands of measurements while evaluating the duration of residual sound “after determining that the clothing worn by the observer (himself) had a small but measurable effect upon the outcome of his experiments.”Second, as early as 1900, Sabine had developed a quantitative analysis of various absorption powers with precise focus on seat cushions as a remedy to unwanted sound reflection. Knudsen, undoubtedly aware of this, proved nothing. For more on Wallace Sabine, see: Emily Thompson, The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933 (Cambridge: MIT Press), 2002, 36.))] Thus, in Knudsen’s spectacularized stunt, exposed legs became both source and synecdoche of unwanted sound when acoustical engineering attempted to take an aurally perceived (and culturally determined) excess and make it visibly legible on women’s bodies.

Muybridge and Candy

Photographs of nude women by Eadweard Muybridge and a porn production sequence from season one of The Deuce with Candy and Harvey.

Accordingly, where Linda Williams recognizes in the protocinematic photography of Muybridge a “scientific impulse to record the ‘truth’ of the body”’ that constructed “women as the objects rather than subjects of vision,”[ ((Linda Williams, Hard Core, 38-45.))] by attending to sound as a culturally contested mode of knowledge production concerning human bodies, convergent bodies of knowledge, and the sonic production of social space, we find a similarly motived acoustical discourse where old prurient fears of an unruly eros have been quite literally re-envisioned in sonic terms. And from the porn industry’s frenzy of the audible to an industrious scientism that sought to elide undesirable sounds, in the 1970s, as the tagline for The Deuce Season Two tells us, “pleasure was a business, and business was booming.”

Image Credits:
1. The Deuce Season Two Poster Art (color altered by author).
2. Shots from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 1, “Our Raison d’Etre” (transferred to GIF format by author).
3. Sound from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 1, “Our Raison d’Etre” (excerpted as audio by author).
4. Shots from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 9, “Inside the Pretend” (transferred to GIF format by author).
5. Newspaper clipping from The Joplin Globe, October 29, 1969, front page.
6. Eadweard Muybridge photographs taken from the cover of Linda Williams’ 1999 edition of Hard Core and a still image from The Deuce, Season One, Episode 8, “My Name Is Ruby.”

Please feel free to comment.




Preserving Pornographic Media
Desirae Embree / Texas A&M University

Convening Question:

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?

Panelists and Links to Position Papers:

Devin McGeehan Muchmore, Harvard University
*Desirae Embree, Texas A&M University
John Paul Stadler, Duke University
Peter Alilunas, University of Oregon
Joe Rubin, Film archivist/independent scholar

*denotes panel convener

Reflections

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.





Pass the Remote: Catch and Release

by: Chris Terry and Cory Maclauchlin

Fishing
Catch and Release

Welcome to Flow’s latest experiment in academic discourse, Pass the Remote. Over the course of each bi-weekly issue of Flow, three or more scholars will exchange open letters on a topic of shared interest. Check back to see the discussion’s progress, and feel free to comment below. If you are interested in contributing to Pass the Remote contact Christopher Lucas at clucas@mail.utexas.edu.

Dear Cate and Cory,

Away from my graduate studies and my radio career, I still manage to cobble together a bit of a personal life and one of my favorite “free time” activities is to go fishing. Living in Wisconsin, fishing season is only a few months long, so I pass the winter months by watching lots of fishing shows on the cable networks.

I find these shows fascinating despite their poor production value, obvious staging and cheesy dialogue. I’m a self-confessed news junkie, but throw in some edited hot fishing action by a guy who is as, if not more, overweight than me, and each episode is like a half-hour of pure mindless ecstasy. I often wish I could be that guy on the screen, living his full-size pickup truck dreams.

I’ve never quite been able to figure out why I am drawn to such low-brow entertainment. After all the characters in these shows are little more than caricatures. However, after some late night, third-shift thinking, I have come to the conclusion that fishing shows are just like pornography.

Think about it. Both porn and fishing shows portray something I’d rather be doing myself, done to a remarkable standard, by professionals in a staged setting. Both feature a “you are there” approach to the camera work that gets a viewer close enough to the action to appreciate what’s happening. And just for good measure, they both add in some barely audible grunts and a touch of bad theme music. In the end, you just have a matching pair of male-dominated fantasies. If you wanted to get down to the base level, one could even throw in a joke or two about “rods” or “mounting trophies.”

Therefore I’m compelled to pose the question, are fishing shows really just a form of clean pornography? Do these shows, by appealing to a masculine fantasy, serve as some sort of proxy testosterone? Are these shows appealing because they are simply about subjects/hobbies that men enjoy? Or is there something else about this programming that draws me in week after week?

Chris Terry
University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee


Dear Chris and Cory,

Wow, I did not see that topic coming…
Well, I don’t watch porn and I don’t watch fishing shows. So, where does that leave me to respond to your argument?

Part of me shrugs my shoulders and says, “Okay, I guess.” And it ends there.

Part of me wants to look past my immediate reader response shrug and put on my theoretical Lacanian lens and ask, “What is the objet petit a that we ­ meaning you ­ search for, desire in these shows?” But I think that is pretty obvious ­ we desire what we can’t ever have

Part of me wants to say, “Well, if you are going to compare those two, then you need to continue on and make that same observation of any sort of visual entertainment.” As a reader already astutely commented in her post, we watch, not just makeover shows, cooking shows, and painting shows, but The OC and everything else.

I am here in NYC for a few days and in my social rounds yesterday, I asked a variety of gentlemen what they thought about your post, Chris, and asked (pleaded) for suggestions for possible responses. I got no suggestions and two responses. One: “You’re not going to find many guys in Manhattan who watch fishing shows.” The other, from a gentleman who resides in Vermont: “A friend who is a professional fly fisherman just gave me a fly fishing tape to watch. He called it ‘salmon porn.'” So, at least I had some verification of your argument there.

Now, I guess I will ask you, Cory: what about the people who don’t watch any of these shows? Are they living a fuller, richer life than the rest of us? Are they out there doing it, painting it, fishing it, sexing it while we are inside, sitting on our sofas, dreaming about it? ­ Chris watching yet another hour of Bass Fishing with Phil, me watching back-to-back episodes of Ambush Makeover?

Warmly,
Cate


Dear Chris and Cate,

I am convinced that most people, especially those who spend their days cultivating their minds, have their moments of decompression, when the intellect takes a break. I know English professors who confess (only after a few drinks) to having a substantial collection of Harlequin novels; a fellow student recently admitted to me he was addicted to Dr. Phil; and my brother, while getting his PhD, regularly retreated to Fear Factor. For me, I need my regular dose of XMC, on SpikeTV, especially during exams. For those of you who don’t know XMC, it is an old Japanese game show where contestants undergo physical challenges that usually result in painful falls. The American version has comical English overdubs, reminiscent of Mystery Science Theatre 2000.

Much like Chris with his fishing shows, I usually watch it alone with much enjoyment. When my fiancée joins me she shakes her head in confusion as I laugh so hard I cry. I suppose I could use the same Freudian steps to analyze my attraction to the show. Perhaps it provides me with a masochistic outlet. But then what? What do we do with sexual undertones or overtones that we identify in media, other than calling them sexual? Does it enrich the experience? Does it detract from the experience? Does it ever lead us to meaning?

In answer to your question Cate, I’m not sure how to identify full or rich lives. We who watch television shows certainly want to indulge in a fantasy. And I suppose I would qualify fantasy as a factor in a full or rich life. From fishing to exercising, activities look better on television. But this holds true in other forms of entertainment: books, theatre, film, even our own imaginations.

I suppose the danger in every fantasy is actually construing it as a reality: the Don Quixote complex. If one accepts the experience of watching as doing then deficiencies take hold. Chris, if you completely stopped fishing so you could stay inside to watch your fishing shows that would indeed be sad. But whether you find it erotically titillating or blissfully mindless it seems it serves the same function. I pose a broader question in terms of television and fantasy: does the array of media output lead Americans to the Don Quixote condition? As a culture inundated with information and images, are the lines between fantasy and reality becoming blurred in the minds of Americans?

Best,
Cory


Dear Cory and Cate,

I apologize for my tardy response. Cory’s response has taken this discussion to a new level from its tongue in cheek approach.

In media, I believe the concept of reality itself is suspect. I have never quite understood this term “reality television.” If a bunch of backbiting, oversexed teenagers engaging in fiery challenges of physical skill is reality, I must have missed the train at some point.

Perhaps my questions about reality television are quite similar to my original comparison. The programming, be it fishing, pornography, or scantily dressed 20 somethings eating road kill, offers an escape that allows us to live beyond our abilities. At its most basic level, isn’t this what fantasy is?

As a long time radio producer, I find reality comes in two forms. The first is the public face; the one seen heard or read by the public. In my specific case, this involves a conservative talk radio station whose hosts represent the archetype of kool-aid drinking true believers. The other side of reality is the one I see that happens behind the microphone, the one where the loudmouth afternoon drivetime host is geeky, quiet and introverted.

But, I digress from the issue Cory passed to me. Has the line between reality and fantasy become blurred? I would argue, at least in the case of the media, there is no line to blur. Everything is a fantasy. Programs which are presented as reality are scripted and edited; even shows like Cops are cut to fit a mold. I myself haven’t abandoned reality for fantasy; I still go fishing as much as I can. But if Cory is right, and the line is blurring, two questions come to mind. Is the blurring of the fantasy and reality a bad thing? And if so, what do we need to do about it?

Chris Terry


Dear Chris and Cory,

What can we do about it? Well, for one thing, I think we can do what we are doing here – talk, critique, question. And while we, ensconced in our graduate programs, can easily and willingly realize the blurring of the lines in visual entertainment between reality, staged reality, and fantasy, I think of my high school students that cannot and will not. Again, what can we do? Specifically, what can I do? As I move from my graduate programs at the university and into the high school classroom, I can introduce to this next generation of scholars to theory and to concepts of critical studies. I can show my students that popular culture is worthy of analysis and deconstruction. I can, in fact, introduce them to forums like this one as a model and mimic its format in class discussion and writings.

In Clueless in Academe (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2003), Gerald Graff notes that college and high school students (and perhaps some readers of this particular post) will voice reluctance when asked to critique popular culture: “Hey, it’s just a movie.” (Or, more to the point, “Hey, it’s just a fishing show.”) Graff elaborates: “The view that popular culture products either have no meaning or none that is worth discussing is pervasive among academics as well as journalists, who periodically issue derisive editorials whenever an academic is caught attributing gender attitudes, say, to a performance of […] Madonna or an episode of […] Friends. To be sure, the elaborate allegories academic critics claim to find in popular or high culture do sometimes stretch the reasonable limits of credibility.

Nevertheless, analysts of popular culture seem to me right that such works influence our beliefs and behavior all the more powerfully because they come embedded in seemingly innocuous entertainment that is not thought worthy of close scrutiny” (51).

Again, I think we continue to do what we are doing here; we take another look at that “seemingly innocuous entertainment” and we discuss, analyze, and write angry letters to John Stossel. (Yes, I’ve done that. You haven’t?)

Yours truly,

Cate


I agree with you Cate.

As a society I think we have an obligation to discuss, question, and critique the facets of our culture, be it opera or fishing shows. But while I agree that popular culture is a valuable topic to discuss, I hesitate to give it too much credence. How much cultural value do we place on the latest television shows? Coming from a literary perspective I despair at the corporate shadow that looms over most of the creative work that most Americans consume. They tend to impose a formula of sound bytes or plot twists regurgitated until the consumer gets bored. Does every episode of the OC have to include a posh soiree where someone publicly humiliates themselves? You bet it does!

I question at what point does media output become a part of our cultural fabric? Because the Fox Network executive decides to air a show does it become a cultural artifact? Or does the moment that we start discussing it make it a cultural artifact?

On this last posting I should not pose so many questions, but I can’t say I’m ready to offer answers either. Hopefully, as you point out Cate, discussion will make us more active as discriminating consumers. I think once we start questioning cultural value we start identifying the things we actually do value. Whether it is Porno fishing or Pavarotti, a questioning of “why do we like it” seems a beneficial exercise for the entire culture. But I say this hoping that we might not dwell too long on analyzing the sexual undertones or overtones of the hundreds of 30-minute cable shows currently airing. If anything, I think this questioning should be an exercise for tackling the more prevalent cultural artifacts, those that will last. However, maybe “Sport Fishing on the Fly” will prove one of our lasting cultural gems.

Cory Maclauchlin


The Remote Passed:
April 1-15, 2005 Carnivale
April 15-29, 2005 Adult Swim

Image Credits:
1. Catch and Release

Please feel free to comment.




Where’s the Beef?

by: Daniel Bernardi / Arizona State University

Cyborg

Cyborg

In an article published in 2002, “Cyborgs in Cyberspace: White Pride, Pedophilic Pornography, and Donna Haraway’s Manifesto,” I simultaneously embraced and critiqued Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.”[1] Like many other poststructurally-leaning scholars, Haraway and her work greatly informed my thinking about both the possibilities and the limits of critical theory in addressing the power of mediating technologies. “Her cyborg is a poetic vision and socialist plan for action,” I wrote, “a manifesto of the highest signifying order.” Yet I critiqued this paradigm-breaking theorist’s “blasphemous” and “ironic” metaphor as strikingly naïve and implicitly binary: it relies subtly on a notion of gender that gives the mothers of cyborgs the benefit of the doubt, condemns their fathers en masse for structuralizing the past, and neglects the myriad ways in which all people, at least in the United States, are represented by and live under the hegemony of whiteness.

Under the blasphemous notion of “hate,” “Cyborgs in Cyberspace” associated Jeff Black’s neo-Nazi website, Stormfront.org, with racialized, quasi-pedophilic pornography linked to Persiankitty.com. I saw in these sites the persistence of a perverse form of whiteness that rests comfortably but tenaciously on the violent degradation of people of color, adults and children alike. “Hollywood films and television, not to mention the more disturbing texts of the pornography industry,” I continued, “are claiming cyberspace as their own and bringing with them a history that still requires rigorous critical confrontation despite new paradigms.” My point was not to call for the rejection of the cyborg metaphor — an imaginative tool for critical activism, to be sure — but to suggest that models for critiquing systems of oppression such as racism in the media often fail for lack of textual, historical, and ideological specificity. There is a history to the articulation of race online, and this history requires the commitment to a persistent critical intervention that refuses belligerently to take the side of a particular gender, theoretical possibility, or established line of scholarly debate.

Criticizing pornography for perpetuating “hate speech” is a blasphemous act for a scholar against censorship. Calling a text “hateful” can be read easily as closing it off to alternative or resistant interpretations, for it can oversimplify the way audiences direct the meaning-making process. Yet the fact remains that pornography, like cinema and television (“money shots” and “meat shots” notwithstanding), engages in articulations of race easily described as hateful.

Nevertheless, “radical sex” scholars — paradigm-breakers, to be sure — often ignore the problem of race in pornography. They are against censorship as much as they are against racism, misogyny, and child pornography. With telling insight these scholars open up for analysis the complexity, imagination, and subversive dimensions of pornography. Making comparisons to classical Hollywood musicals, for example, Linda Williams argues persuasively that men and women share in the pleasure and sexual liberation offered by pornography. For Williams, men in pornography are not always already involved in the exploitation and degradation of women. Instead, pornography subverts Victorian notions of sex by facilitating complex forms of pleasure. She shows us that pornography is not strictly about or for men in the same way that melodrama is not strictly for or about women. Williams does not see pornography as a form of hate speech and as such does not call for its censorship.

Although I agree with many aspects of the radical sex position on pornography, specifically its resistance to censorship in favor for a more nuanced understanding of the genre, I also find problematic the fact that its arguments about the genre’s progressive and subversive elements come at the expense of its regressive and hegemonic articulations. One can critique the racist, misogynist, and homophobic aspects of pornography and call for media literacy without advocating censorship or aligning oneself with moral zealots. The radical sex analysis of pornography’s complexities and pleasures neglects the ideological dimensions of complexity and pleasure. Complex texts can include stereotypes and myths that work diligently against resistant or enlightened readings. Pleasure can be motivated by and lead to troubling ideologies.

Assuming pornography cannot escape the prevalence of racism in American society — even (especially) in the absence of colorful bodies and interracial stories — we might rightly ask: what is it about this genre, critical theory, or scholarly interest that facilitates this degree of oversight? What is it about race that complicates or undermines the application of various principles of critical theory to the study of pornography? In a world fraught with media complexity and otherwise expansive paradigms why can’t we call a spade a bloody shovel?

Notes
Daniel Bernardi, “Cyborgs in Cyberspace: White Pride, Pedophilic Pornography, and Donna Haraway’s Manifesto,” in James Freidman, ed., Reality Squared: Television Discourse on the Real. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers UP, 2002;
Donna Haraway, Semians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Re-invention of Nature. London: Free Association, 1991.
For a provocative case study of the intersection of sex, race and cold war anxiety in comics positioned as pornographic, see Andrea Friedman, “Sadists and Sissies: Anti-pornography Campaigns in Cold War America,” Gender & History, vol. 15, no. 2 (August 2003): 201-227.
As Williams explains: “In both cases I have resisted some of the more gendered reactions to both, especially the assumption that melodrama is an inherently feminine form designed for women and that pornography is an inherently masculine form designed for men. While initially useful, neither of these views is adequate or productive of deeper understanding of these forms. Indeed, conventional attitude toward both have contributed to my own sense of distances form orthodox feminist film and media study.” Linda Williams, “Why I Did Not Want to Write This Essay,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 30.1 (2004): 1269.

Image Credits:
1. Cyborg

Links
Cyborgs and Postmodern Bodies
Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto
The Cyberspace and Critical Theory Overview

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