by Eric Schaefer
Cut, no. 41, May 1997, pp. 42-44
Two decades ago most of the furor surrounding pornography tended to center on sex's emergence from the bedroom and the private realm into public spaces. But in the ensuing years porn has moved off the streets, out of the theaters, and back into the homes of Americans via home video, the Internet and CD-ROMs. Porn's retreat into private spaces has failed to quell anti-porn activists. It is somewhat ironic then that as sexually explicit material has becomes less visible in public, it has inspired more articles and books about its cultural status. The pornography "debates" have, however, become largely formulaic-and in most instances they are as predictable as the form that porn's critics purport to examine. Camps at both poles, whether First Amendment absolutists or the rightwing Christian/ "MacDworkinite" cabal, tend to base appeals on emotionally-charged rhetoric, be it about the preservation of constitutional freedoms or the protection of vulnerable women and children. Lost in the din are questions about pornography's role in our culture-beyond its status as the spark for contentious debate.
Laura Kipnis' Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America attempts to reframe the discourse on porn. That she is able to accomplish this speaks to her ability to cut through much of the dissonance that attends pornography on both a formal or generic level, and as a site of social ferment. The author's willingness to challenge conventional ideas about, and approaches to, porn promises to reinvigorate the discourse of anti-censorship forces.
Kipnis opens Bound and Gagged by asserting that "the differences between pornography and other forms of culture are less meaningful than their similarities" (viii). Thus from the first pages she moves out of the typical stance toward porn in which it is seen as "low," "marginal," or unconnected to the culture at large. Rather than seeing porn as some sort of cultural barnacle, Kipnis asserts that it "is a form of cultural expression...an essential form of contemporary national culture" (viii). By asserting that porn is as complex as (and in some cases as empty as) other cultural forms, Kipnis opens the reader to the possibility that it can be profoundly political. By avoiding the typical defensive position on porn, Kipnis establishes a level playing field which enables her to construct an argument that avoids many of the terms on which the "debate" has hinged:
The author acknowledges those "dreary attempts" without dismissing them out of hand, but is anxious to move on to attempt to answer the question that drives the book.
Bound and Gagged opens with a long chapter on the status of "Fantasy in America." Kipnis details the facts in the case of Daniel DePew, a gay Washington, D.C. man into the SM subculture, who was snared through the Internet by San Jose police officers working with the FBI. In a long and expensive operation, law enforcement officials drew DePew and his "co-conspirator," Dean Lambey, into a fantasy scenario about making a child porn snuff film. Fantasy is the operative term, since law enforcement agencies had no intention of following through on the plan — but neither did Lambey or DePew. Kipnis details the important role that fantasies played in DePew's life, and his sex life in particular. From his standpoint, the come-on used by the cops was merely the catalyst in an elaborate seduction scene. But for DePew the seduction "scene" turned into a law enforcement trap.
DePew and the police continually misread each other's words and actions: DePew believing that he was headed for a consensual sexual encounter, the police convinced that their mark was intent on murder. Despite their misreadings, or perhaps because of them, DePew's fantasies and the "fantasies and ambitions of the two undercover cops playing the roles of tough-guy pornographers" depended on each other.
The chapter on the DePew case is a mix of incongruous elements. On the one hand, there is a comic quality to the childlike zeal of the cops and the FBI, which is only matched by their inept Keystone Kops efforts to manufacture a conspiracy that would justify the months of time and hundreds of thousands of dollars poured into the investigation. On the other hand, the relentless efforts of the government to entrap and prosecute DePew is as chilling as anything out of Kafka. Most disturbing is that in the final analysis there was no analysis. The law enforcement agencies, the prosecutor, the judge and jury, and the press, failed to look beyond the surface of DePew's fantasies. As Kipnis notes,
By taking his fantasies at face value, by failing to interpret them, the jury chose to jail a man for something that did not happen, nor was it intended to happen.
Kipnis argues that pornography, and fantasy, demand interpretation, asserting that our current cultural approach to porn has been "intellectually shriveled," and does not take into account the complexity of the form. As she notes, there is little serious attention paid to fantasy in our culture. Because it is, after all, just fantasy, it appears to lack the pressing quality of real world or everyday concerns. And yet most of us probably spend almost as much time engaged in fantasy as in any other pursuit, whether it involves sexual fantasies, dreams of exotic places, a new job, or striking it big in the lottery. Hours of interviews with DePew allow Kipnis to show how his fantasies operated in great detail — too much detail, some may argue. But the abundance of material requires the reader to engage in precisely the kind of careful interpretation that Kipnis wishes to see accorded to pornography on a more general level. DePew's SM scenarios, and his constantly shifting subject position within them, served as a mechanism for negotiating his own rather fragile sense of masculinity. Kipnis convincingly demonstrates that they were just fantasies — albeit important ones for him.
While DePew's sexual imagination was incompatible with social norms, if it posed a danger to anyone it was to himself through his own naiveté. Whatever staying power the anti-pornography position has rests largely on its equation of fantasy with intent. Kipnis exposes the danger of this fear in her analysis of the DePew case. She notes that none of the well-funded experimental research on pornography's effects explores what "fantasies of violence and fantasized sexual violence mean" (13). In this instance, one person's fantasy becomes another's offense warranting prosecution.
Chapters on "Clothes Make the Man" and "Life in the Fat Lane" examine other fringe forms of porn: transvestite porn and porn that takes the obese — men and women — as objects of desire. Her analysis of transvestite material, including both transvestites and transsexuals, shows how pornography and gender relations within it are far more complicated than most porn critics are willing or able to admit:
Kipnis explores the therapeutic discourse of transvestite porn, suggesting that its anxiety-alleviating properties have trickled down from mainstream women's culture. The core of the chapter is a comparison of photos in transvestite classified ads with the art of self-portraiture, in which both become "an aesthetic act of self-definition" (73). Using criteria from an essay on Cindy Sherman's self-portrait series, Untitled Film Stills, by art critic Arthur Danto, Kipnis suggests that the transvestite self-portraits in the classifieds are little different than the respected artist's work. Like Sherman's photos, the transvestite self-portraits are rich in meaning and "condense an entire drama" — in this case the drama of gender assignment. Kipnis argues that the "perversions" enacted in the transvestite pictures have an aesthetic and, conversely, that conventional aesthetics are often perverse. The only discernible differences become ones of sublimation and class:
This bolsters Kipnis claims that pornography demands the "same degree of critical, interpretive acumen" (86) that tends to be reserved for art.
That interpretive acumen applied to porn reveals an anti-aesthetic at work, one which
Such significance is demonstrated vis-à-vis gender roles with the analysis of transvestite porn, in terms of consumer culture, identity politics, victim status, and body image in "fat porn," and with regard to gender and class in Hustler magazine. Chapter Four, "Disgust and Desire: Hustler Magazine," is a revised and somewhat streamlined version of "(Male) Desire and (Female) Disgust: Reading Hustler" which originally appeared in Grossberg, Nelson, and Treichler's Cultural Studies (Routledge, 1992). Its inclusion in Bound and Gagged is very welcome since it is well integrated with the other chapters and furthers the overall aims of the book. The Hustler piece remains one of the most important essays on pornography and on the big three of cultural studies — race, class, and gender — to be published in the last ten years. It also stands as a model of applied cultural studies (i.e., an essay that actually does cultural studies rather than being simply another one about cultural studies). It stood out among dozens of articles in its previous venue, but here it finds a more meaningful context. Moreover, the essay does not strip Flynt or Hustler of their power to shock and offend in the way that THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT and the publisher's newfound status of talk show darling have tended to do. At the same time "Disgust and Desire: Hustler Magazine" offers a more compelling defense of Flynt than he has been able to muster in the face of charges that he is glamorized or heroized in Milos Forman's film.
The elegance and the power of Kipnis' book lies in the way she is able to shift her critique of pornographic discourse into broader social criticism via her discussion of the marginalized forms on which she focuses. By showing how pornography operates as a site for expressing a variety of cultural anxieties, she moves it squarely into the realm of political expression. This not only serves to make the advocacy of porn on First Amendment grounds even more crucial, but it adds a further dimension to the issue. Without stating it explicitly, Kipnis brings pornography into the realm of a human rights concern — one about the freedom to desire and love as one wants to, as long as it does not impinge on the rights of others. Those into fat-porn, transvestite material, and SM are presented as members of subcultures susceptible to persecution. Even the gross and often offensive words and images in Hustler are framed as working class attacks on elites. If such challenges can be countenanced in other forms, why not in porn, which is often far more blunt as it upsets the status quo?
Kipnis efforts to dislodge porn from its position as "low" culture and integrate it into the broader cultural environment is both her most audacious move and her greatest intellectual contribution to the discourse on the issue. Regrettably she avoids analyzing more mainstream porn — Hustler is the most "conventional" text discussed in the book. Even though she notes that Bound and Gagged does not offer an exhaustive survey, that it is a "strategic and selective one" (ix), the omission of straight forward "suck and fuck" material is significant. Certainly there is currently more academic cachet in dealing with the marginal, one from which I, too, have reaped benefits. However, locating the transgressive potential and attendant political possibilities among all those buffed, bouncing silicone starlets and wooden studs would offer a more complete assessment of the form and insulate Bound and Gagged from potential charges of parochialism.
In the final chapter of the book, "How to Look at Pornography," Kipnis summarizes arguments for viewing porn as part of the larger culture. She dismantles many of the positions of the anti-pornography contingent, drawing on a wildly varied cast of characters including Joycelyn Elders, Allan Bloom, Jeffrey Masson, and Catherine MacKinnon, to stage the effort. Here, she fuses the psychoanalytic and social theories balanced throughout the book.
Kipnis' reliance on psychoanalytic theory in Bound and Gagged is a curious one — she refers to it as a "dying lore" (8), and goes to some effort to show how readings of porn often contradict clinical literature, such as in her discussion of the transvestite material (69). She notes, however, that it remains the primary means by which our culture can grapple with fantasy. Her ambivalent relationship with psychoanalysis points up the continuing methodological challenge that it poses to critics=-it is often as much a problem as it is a solution. Her discussion of Masson amply illustrates this. That said, Kipnis uses psychoanalysis far more facilely and pointedly than most as she explores the roots porn's appeal, and finally to make crucial points about its centrality to social life:
Discourse on crucial social issues often takes place outside those forums that we like to think are reserved for carefully reasoned arguments. Indeed, as scholars have often demonstrated in recent years — and as the public has probably innately known all along — carnivals, comic books, exploitation films, and situation comedies can be the site of discussions about power, gender roles, and race that are treated gingerly, if at all, in officially sanctioned culture. With Bound and Gagged Kipnis reminds us that in pornography,
By going the trade book route, Kipnis has been able to shed much of the clotted language of the theoretical approaches she employs in favor of a relatively clear and direct style. She is able to condense the complex arguments of Freud, Mary Douglas, Bakhtin, and others without robbing them of their explanatory power. Bound and Gagged is both readable and laced with irreverent touches of humor — almost unheard of in books on the subject, but certainly a breath of fresh air. The book could be adopted in undergraduate classes on pornography, sexual representation, or gender issues. It could also be used as an excellent example of applied theory in graduate courses, an element that is all too often left out of the equation in graduate education. Like Linda Williams' Hard Core (University of California Press, 1989), Bound and Gagged promises to serve as a key text for historians and critics who work on pornography, as well for those who focus on issues of gender and marginalized cultures.