Digital Pornography and the Space of History: Six Preliminary Propositions

(part 1 of a 2-part posting, both co-authored by me and Richard Cante)

In the years between 2001 and 2004—the period immediately preceding the explosion of “Web 2.0”—we together published a series of three essays on all-male pornography. At the heart of our argument was this claim: whereas the model that Linda Williams developed largely from heterosexual film pornography could unproblematically presume a certain fixity in the demarcation of public and private spaces, “all-male” pornography—in contrast and out of necessity— automatically had to position itself in relation to a public. Thus, all-male pornography made clear that it is less the "figures" (or bodies) produced through pornography that warrants critical attention than it is the"ground" beneath and between these figures. This is why spatial questions become crucial. How does pornography function in and upon space, as well as with space? This immediately confers upon all-male porn especially a political (and geopolitical) mandate, precisely in the sense that queer theorists of the time were talking about queer “world-making” as a political project.

It seems to us, however, that the emergence of the web 2.0 as the primary (though certainly not the only) mode of dissemination, archiving, and viewing of porn demands a reconsideration of porn’s relationships to space, publics, world-building, and ultimately “the historical.”  And while our work continues to focus on all-male porn, it remains our assumption that it is possible to here discern crucial aspects of the function of all pornography in the U.S since the 1960s—which in turn can provide further vantage points on the issue of digital porn’s relation to physical spaces.

Before addressing these larger questions, however, we want to detail some of the ways in which the formal system of (all-male) porn has changed as it has assumed its current, partly digital and web-based modalities. Of course, we realize that contemporary pornography exists in a wide variety of formats, ranging from those associated with major studios and sites (Falcon, Belami), to smaller niche operations (machofucker), to user-generated (xtube), to aggregator sites that collect samples (“legally” or pirated) from all of the above. Nevertheless, we feel that the following generalizations about the “look and feel” of recent pornography, are critical:

a. increasing autonomization of porn “units.” Studios sell their “feature-length” porn by the numbers (in the sense Linda Williams developed with this term); user-generated porn often presents us with even smaller “minimal units,” such as stripping off shirt or pants, dancing (or “twerking”) in various states of undress, quick money shots, exhibition without money shots, acts of pure gesture such as “components” of what may be masturbation or urination, etc.

b. partly as a result of the above, increasing flatness of mise-en-scene. The mise-en-scene becomes the barest kind of “genre” template: “home” (bedroom, living room, kitchen, bathroom, etc.); car (stationary or moving); park; pool; etc.

c. attenuation of the gaze as organizing principle. By this we mean that the elaborate system of looks that structured the scene of cruising in feature-length porn is weakened in online porn. Of course, it persists in some feature-length digital productions. But insofar as the webcam and/or cell camera replaces the older apparatus, and insofar as these are deployed quite literally as mirrors (reflecting the performer back to himself on his computer screen or phone), the gaze is occluded.

d. weakened boundary between live enactment and the recorded act, and thus between process and product.

e. a move from a structuring logic of stardom and celebrity to one of a new sort of run-of-the-mill anonymity

f.  in the all-male case, a move further into a “gay for pay” ethos; i.e., further movement from identity into acts as the structuring logic of pornography

(tomorrow we will present our preliminary propositions re: the above.)

Photo Credit: vaticanus via Compfight cc

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