New York

Carnival Knowledge, “The Second Coming”

Franklin Furnace

Despite its seeming exoticism, pornography as a genre is distinguished by repetitiveness, by a limited range of characterization and narrative, and by a deadly seriousness. Since it is geared to prescribed expectations, it cannot describe what is outside the motor that thrusts toward sexual arousal. That in the Western tradition it privileges male phantasy over female is as important an issue, for what it reveals of the historical suppression, or even disavowal, of women’s phantasy life, as the more common debate on pornography’s reification and “violation” of the female body. “Could there be a Feminist pornography?” Carnival Knowledge, a collective of feminist writers and artists, framed the question through an exhibition of “hot” books, bizarre artifacts, and a series of performances which attempted to provide an alternative to the proscriptive stance of the antipornography lobby.

While conventional male pornography addresses the voyeur’s demand for the objectification (“possession”) of the imaginary Other, it also incorporates his narcissistic identification. There seems to be no easy equation between the power of the viewer’s “look” and actual violence. Pornography resides in the domain of phantasy. It pivots around the specular, the voyeuristic gaze whose pleasure lies in the space between the subject and the object of his excitation. In this distance from the real, there is no obligation to engage in a physicality that demands a relinquishment of control, a dissipation of the sense of self. And if voyeurism is not synonymous with psychopathic aggression, the protestation about pornography’s inciting effect may be a symptom of a deeper fear.

The antipornography argument is problematic because it bears the mark of what contributed to sexploitation in the first place—the puritanical abnegation of pleasure, primarily as it was encoded in sexuality, which was in turn articulated as a virtual pathology and thus a matter for restraint and regulation (an issue discussed by Michel Foucault). The corn-modification of sex, from the seemingly innocuous to that which is designated as transgressive, surely stems from its particular form of institutionalization. Perhaps what is transgressive about pornography, aside from its poverty of imagination, is not its subject matter per se, but what sex signifies in terms of the potential anarchy of the self, the expression of the individual’s phantasy life, which is in constant conflict with the demands of socialization. It is this momentary irruption of anarchy that aligns the pleasure of sex with that of carnival.

Carnival Knowledge rightly asserted that the objectors to pornography take too narrow a view, and by proposing alternative pornographies sought to redeem the genre in a show whose work confused critique and attempted seduction. In their care to avoid anything “demeaning to men, women or children,” the group presented a selection of art that, with a few exceptions, deflected the voyeuristic look from the fetishized body to its substitutes, with an emphasis on the fantastic. The problem here is that private phantasies and fetishes, like dreams, are of interest only to the one who experiences them; unless they transcend their particularity, they do not illuminate how we as subjects are written into the pornographic text. This obfuscation was reflected in an excess of decorative clichés so overwrought as to neutralize any erotic intent. The carnival/sex theme was too frequently interpreted through curiously Victorian faux naïf peep show boxes and other novelties festooned with tacky sentimental memorabilia, white satin or lace, and pink ribbon—conventional signifiers of the feminine and the infantile. Why does pornography persistently represent female sexuality as infantile and narcissistic? Some work avoided this obvious fetishism: Alida Walsh’s Fat Mirror, a poignant reference to the way most of us fall short of culture’s ideal of the body; Ame Gilbert’s Erotic Living Room, 1984, whose surfaces, inscribed with a text that howled for the artist’s right to assert her own sexuality, were a violation of the asexual facade of the domestic scene; and Annie Sprinkle’s My First 29 Years, 1984, which depicts the duality of Sprinkle’s identity as “ordinary” girl and “sex star” with a directness and sense of humor which both tease and deflate the voyeuristic look. In general, however, the books succeeded where the artifacts failed, maybe because their intimate mode of address is more appropriate to the essentially private nature of pornographic engagement. They confirmed, nevertheless, the traditional view that women have a better grasp of the eroticized word than of the visual.

If there is a feminist pornography I hope this vampiric tomb presided over by the ghost of Miss Havisham was not it. For while sex shares with carnival a release from constraint, what surfaced in this exhibition was less a consequent ecstatic flight with the forces of desire than a descent into deathliness. With conventional pornography a similar relationship exists, for the closer the camera focuses in on genital sex the further it moves toward the dispassionate illustration of clinical pathology—a veritable emptying out of eroticism and a laying bare of an image of mortality. As Susan Sontag has already pointed out in reference to pornographic literature, pornography is about not sex but death: the fear of, and the desire for, the dissolution of the self.

Jean Fisher