On pornographic cinema:
the body's shadow realm

by Gertrude Koch
translated by Jan-Christopher Horak

from Jump Cut, no. 35, April 1990, pp. 17-29
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1990, 2006

This essay is a translation of Gertrud Koch's contribution to an anthology of criticism about pornographic cinema, LUST UND ELEND: DAS EROTISCHE KINO, eds. Karola Gramann, Gertrud Koch, Heide Schlüpman, Mona Winter, Bernhard Pleschinger, and Karsten Witte, "Report Film" Series (Munich: Bücher, CJ Verlag, 1981).

History of pornographic film:
cinema in brothels, brothels in cinema, cinema instead of brothels

Film history also chronicles cinema's limitations, supervision, regimentation, judicial constraint, and channeling of norms. Looking over chronologies in film history, we clearly see the censor's "danger signals" which would classify, catalogue and direct cinematographic production into acceptable and forbidden zones:

"According to a police directive, censorship cards will be instituted and censorship jurisdiction will be transferred to the police president for Berlin's respective police precincts (May 20, 1908)." (Fraenkel, p.380)

"The Seventh Criminal Court screened a film which has caused public offense at Berlin Police Headquarters. All members of the tribunal are present; it's the first judicial examination of a film in Germany (Dec. 12, 1909). "

"In New York the Peoples Institute of New York and Dr. Charles Sprague establish the 'National Board of Censorship' as a film examination board (1909)." (Fraenkel, p. 382)

"In Sweden film censorship is instituted in accordance with the expressed wishes of the film industry (1911). "

"According to a German city ordinance, every film must be presented to the responsible precinct 24 hours before public screening (1911). " (Fraenkel, p. 385)

"Through the founding of the Hays Organization's code, 'Motion Picture and Distribution of America,' the American film industry is subjugated to a form of voluntary self-control (1922)." (Fraenkel, p. 408)

Although these historians do not describe the exact regulation in effect at the time — i.e., what was considered offensive — we know from another source that the censorship authorities collected pornographic films:

"The supervising authorities, the police, know the most about that genre of films, which is destined to lead a secret, humble existence. We define pornographic films as the cinematographic depiction of all proceedings pertaining to sex in an obscene form; they include pretty much everything human fantasy can possibly invent in the area of sexuality. They pass directly from the producer to the consumer without the censor having seen them, and with good reason. Still, the archives of the police authorities are filled with films, such as change and vigilance have sent their way." (Moreck, p.173)

Despite the short time lag between the invention of cinema and the institutionalization of censorship, pornographic films had enough time to secure a broad base. In the absence of censorship pornography bloomed as early as 1904. Pornographic films developed technically from still photography to stereoscopes and mutascopes, so that by 1904 these films consisted of four acts and ran twenty minutes. Early blue movies thus kept abreast with most of the medium's technological developments.

What kind of aesthetic development occurred in this genre? Can we in fact even speak of a genre? And what defines its aesthetic? In order to answer this question, we must consider those few sources describing early pornographic films and their organizational forms:

"In most cases, these sotadic films were screened in private societies or especially in men's clubs founded for this purpose. Tickets in Germany cost between 10 and 30 marks. The distribution of tickets was handled by prostitutes, pimps, cafe waiters, barbers and other persons in contact with the clientele, and they earned a tidy profit through scalping. Since vendors usually knew their clientele and its inclinations, they seldom came into conflict with the police." (Moreck, p. 175)

Pornographic films were above all bought and screened by brothels, which hoped to entice their customers with filmic offerings while earning money from services rendered through selling tickets for the screening. At first, it was expensive to buy pornographic pleasure. It was reserved for well-to-do customers, who frequented such establishments in every European metropolis from Paris to Moscow. Abroad, both Buenos Aires and Cairo offered international tourists a chance to visit pornographic cinemas. In "Die Schaubuhne," Kurt Tucholsky describes such a film experience in Berlin:

"No one spoke loudly, since all were a bit anxious; they only murmured. The screen turned white, a broken, silver-white lit up, trembling. It began. But everyone laughed, myself included. We had expected something unheard of and extravagant. We saw a meow-kitty and woof-doggie romping on the screen. Maybe the importer had added the scene to fake out the police. Who knows? Monotonously rattling, the film ran without music; it was gloomy and not very pleasant…" 

"Things remained gemütlich [easy, pleasant] in the cinema. We didn't imagine that even Tristan and Isolde would seem ridiculous, that Romeo and Juliet, viewed from another planet objectively and soberly, i.e., independently, would seem a comic and stiff-laced affair."

"No nothing of the sort among the viewers. The only reason they didn't play cards was because it was too dark; otherwise, a rather stout and massive pleasure pervaded. They always had to say mendacious things here. Here people knew…"

"When it was over, it was such a gloomy ending. Everyone thought more was coming. It became evident that sexuality is a tricky matter. The men hung around and were embarrassed emphasizing the lack of higher values in general…And then we shuffled into a neighborhood establishment where the music was loud and shrill, and everyone was strangely quiet and excited. I later heard that the proprietor ordered twenty call girls." (Moreck, pp. 179-80)

The Berlin event had an atmosphere of male-bonded, laborious harmony, embarrassingly hidden arousal, and awkward mirth. It was apparently no special case. Norbert Jacques gives us another description in Buenos Aires, enriching the steamy, Berliner beer feeling with sadomasochistic, exotic stereotypes, exuding lurking danger and destruction:

"One night I reached a point beyond the criminal quarter of Caracas, walking along the harbor where large flat Platte River steamers slept. An odd and at the same time eye-catching scaffolding stopped me … While looking up at its fantastic height, I saw a boat under me with a light, tied to the harbor wall. The man in the boat yelled something at me. This man and I were well alone. He came up to me and pointed across the harbor, saying: 'Isla Maciel,' then in internationalese, 'Cinematografo. Niña, deitsch, françes, englishmen, amor, dirty cinematographico' … A large arc lamp radiated above violently and vulgarly on the other side."

"The man rowed me over to a sinister shed between ships … I crossed a lonely track and 100 meters in front of me the unambiguous lamp lit up the sky … To the left of me ran a hedge; to the right, the impenetrable darkness of sheds and corners; and on both sides, the breath of quick, raw, silent crimes … I arrived at the house with the arc light. A large inscription was written on it: 'Cinematografo para hombres solo.' The scene at its best! Before I went in, two gendarmes at the door searched my pockets. It was like a scene in a detective yarn …"

"The screening was in progress. It was a large hall with a gallery running around the sides. A screen hung from the ceiling. On it the cinematographic theater played out its scenes … While dull pricks chased each other above, women roamed among the guests. Mostly Germans. The dregs of the world's brothels …"

"It was so stupid, so immeasurably dull and absurd: the idiotic, tired and insolent wenches and the artificial vices on the screen above, which were to encourage lust. It was so irrational, so unconnectedly aberrant. A modern technical invention, lighting up the faces of men staring up out of the darkness, acted as a pacemaker for the cathouse, shortening the agitated and nervous trail into the chambers. Men and hookers disappeared noisily and quickly up the dark steps." (Moreck, pp. 180-82)

It seems as if viewing pornographic films has to do with a specific kind of bashfulness. But this bashfulness first has nothing to do with the legal or moral condemnation of pornography, and second, it is not connected to pornographic films' obvious purpose in a brothel. Even today, when the presentation of pornographic films in public theaters is detached from brothel operations, such feelings of shame still visibly exist and can only be insufficiently explained by the last remaining moral taboos. The same atmosphere of uneasiness and shame, excitement and repulsion which comes across in historical documents, is described in more recent reports. Gunter Kunert, for example, describes a visit to a porn house as follows:

"Silent men in darkness. No women between them. No throat-clearing. No coughing. Even the proverbial pin drop can't be heard. An assembly of the seemingly dead, so it seems, sitting on folding chairs, always two around a table, the greasy table top with a list of drinks illuminated from below and a call bell…"

"A trailer advertises next week's films: a fat, aging 'Herr Robert,' whose voice trails out of sync, snaps his fingers out of sync, followed by quick cuts of more or less naked girls parading in more or less seductive poses across the screen, presenting disproportionate bodies and faces, which radiate an aura of stupidity."

"Now a brandy. No one orders. No one smokes. No one breathes louder or heavier. The celluloid nymphs twist and turn and appear more alive than the live audience, which later after the feature — a Danish production on the complications and peculiarity of sex — leaves the cinema as quietly as they had occupied it: without a laugh, without audible consent or rejection."

"A kind of erotic phantom dissolves quickly and quietly, only compulsively to simulate physical life again, once a bell announces the next performance." (Kunert, pp.123-24)

If the porn cinema clientele is made up of human beings who act like zombies, voyeuristic pleasure in these cinemas must result from a situation involving the peeping tom's sense of secrecy. The voyeur likes to see but not to be seen. A lack of lust in porno cinemas apparently results from the aversion against being seen, while seeing. When the connection "cinema and brothel" still exists, when a modern technical invention [functions] as a "pacemaker for cat houses," then the lack of lust and concomitant shame gets channeled into "stout and massive pleasure," into erotic transactions. Even today pornographic films fulfill this function. They promote not only a masturbatory "family cinema" but also are used as a part of prostitution and brothels. Besides this type though, a kind of blue movie has quite apparently developed which has no other purpose and goal other than that of satisfying the voyeur. While pornography's historical forms were at least partially integrated into the context of foreplay, this special way of viewing becomes abstracted to pure, completely self-consuming, voyeuristic lust.

Only by supposing such a specialized way of viewing can we explain the immense success of public pornographic movie houses, in spite of the displeasure they inflict on the zombie-like voyeur. In our age of visual culture, the active subjugating eye wins out in the world over the passive receptive sense organs, like our ears. We also see such a dominance of the visual demonstrated in the recently completed break between cinema and brothel. And pornography and prostitution are becoming fitting metaphors for aspects of our entire visual culture. When jobs demand nothing more of the body than keeping a watchful eye on the control board, then a one-man-cell peep show, possibly offering other services, becomes an adequate leisure area. Maybe in the history of pornographic cinema the films themselves have not changed as much as the organization of the senses. It is possible that the social environments in which the films are seen determine their effect more than the films' form and content. That is, the organization of the audience's sexuality defines the mode of the product's appropriation.

Although it is not certain whether pornographic films for heterosexuals and homosexuals are, aesthetically speaking, better or worse, they obviously encompass different modes of reception and appropriation. Tucholsky described audience response in the heterosexual porn film business when it was still connected to prostitution:

"Shouts, consoling voices, grunts, applause and encouraging cheers were heard. Somebody calls out comparable private experiences. Many made noise and yelled." (Moreck, p. 179)

Brendan Gill, writing about New York in the 1970s, describes a connection between homosexual porn theaters and an erotic practice that hardly exists in public heterosexual porn houses:

"For the homosexual, it is the accepted thing that the theater is there to be cruised in; this is one of the advantages he has purchased with his expensive ticket of admission…Far from sitting slumped motionless in one's chair, one moves about at will, sizing up possibilities. Often there will be found standing at the back of the theatre two or three young men, any of whom, for a fee, will accompany one to seats well down front and there practice upon one the same arts that are being practiced upon others on screen." (Gill, p. 11)

We also see that in the course of time, environments, stereotypes and characters change even in pornographic cinema in order to conform to newer fashions, especially about what is considered sexy. Early pornography, for example, attempted to please its well-to-do clientele by presenting erotic scenes involving servant girls and masters, thus capturing an everyday erotic fantasy. Newer pornographic films depict other service trades. Newer films produced for public screening and sale also differ from older ones in that they more strictly follow the letter of the law and avoid certain specific erotic combinations which were shown in earlier, always illegal, films. According to Curt Moreck's description of pornography in the Weimar Republic and before, individual films differed according to country of origin and their supposed audiences:

"Pornographic films inform us about different erotic attitudes in individual countries. Thus French pornography surprisingly often presents excretory acts and indulges in lengthy depictions of foreplay, while intercourse itself often does not occur at all or is shifted behind the scenes. England, which produces such films mainly for South Africa and India, prefers flagellation scenes and the sadistic abuse of Blacks…Italy, whose southern region already belongs to the realm of Oriental [sic] sexuality cultivates the depiction of sodomy acts as a specialty while scenes of the sexual union of humans and animals were also popular. One says that in Germany sin is without grace, and indeed German pornographic films follow the rule. Without exception they show well-executed realistic coitus scenes; erotic animal scenes are on the other hand foreign to them. In order to broaden the proceedings, slightly kinkier sex is interjected once in a while." (Moreck, p. 183)

Apparently early pornographic films were divided into films which were set in a quasi-realistic milieu, thus referring to the customer's everyday life, and those films which were set in either a fantasy world or at least in an environment considered at the time to be a place of "secret" eroticism or foreign imperialist eroticism. While realistic films depicted masters and servants in bourgeois surroundings, fantasies often took place in harems and cloisters, etc. This dichotomy has apparently changed little, considering the HOUSEWIFE REPORTS, on the one hand, and such racist excursions into such exotic domains as Thailand in EMANUELLE, on the other. [Trans. note: HOUSEWIFE REPORTS are pornographic serials dealing with "typical" housewife affairs with the postman, gasman, etc.]

The blue movie genre has meanwhile become obviously more professional, so that the previous unintentional comic relief and unbelievable plots have given way to a routinely crafted presentation. Cinematography has become more skillful, the dramatic arousal curve more sophisticated. Cutting and other formal operations give the simple images more screen life. Even if we take into consideration that various ironic observations were used by historical commentators as defense mechanisms against their own shame and arousal, we can still conclude that early porn films were awkward amateur films made with little thought to the effects they could achieve cinematically:

"Now came SCENES IN A HAREM. One had to imagine the scene of the action taking place around a red light district because the empty mom's wall paper as well as curtains and rug fit the image. Fatima danced. The depraved girl slipped out of her pompous underwear and danced, i.e., she turned around comfortably while everyone admired her and she danced in front of her sultan, who lazily and idly lolled about in other concubines' laps. He was a bon vivant. The women fanned him with large Japanese paper fans, and on the table in front stood a glass for Bavarian beer…"

"NUNNERY SECRETS and ANNA'S SIDELINE followed: Two perverse beauties rolled around on a carpet. One of them was a certain Emmy Raschke, as I discovered, who continuously laughed, probably because she thought the whole thing a bit funny. Well, they had all been hired to depict (cooly and very businesslike, with chiding remarks coming from the cameraman) those things which border on the heavenly, if one is to believe the audience…"

"Upstairs, THE COLONEL'S WIFE was in progress. It was photography come to life. While the honorable officer cheated on his wife with the lieutenant's wife, his wife made good use of the time with the colonel's orderly. They were, however, caught in the act, leading to slapped faces. One can say what one wants, the film was honest. However, the life of French soldiers does seem a little strange: the situations happened so quickly. Still there were two or three moments where the actors played their roles to the hilt. And even that was acted." (13)

Kurt Tucholsky describes here the realm of porn films which abstain from so-called perversions by limiting themselves to that which Curt Moreck considered typical for German blue movies: "well-executed realistic coitus scenes" and "sin without grace." (Moreck, pp. 17879)

Comical moments, described by Tucholsky as unintentional, occur often in the genre. We cannot assume that these comical aspects of old porn are merely a product of historical distance. Even today, numerous sex films pass as farce, dirty jokes, and witty commentary. So too in popular older forms comical moments played a significant role:

"Comic elements naturally play an important role in pornographic films because people use a humorous approach to various sexual procedures more than a serious or pathetic one. Films make use of this fact by showing people in sticky situations, how they are interrupted or embarrassed while taking care of bodily needs, or how they caught in awkward positions during intercourse." (Moreck, p. 183)

A "humorous approach to various sexual procedures" probably originates in sexual repression and carnal fear; laughter and vexed giggles are often a product of broken taboos. Still it seems as if comedy's continued existence within pornography is connected to the carnal pleasure of looking, of voyeurism itself. We laugh at the secret exposure of others. It is the same comic form in which TV producers and viewers consider "candid camera" funny.

Looking, cognition, pleasure. Glances and the pleasure of looking.
On the autonomy of our senses.

What's new in pornographic cinema is obviously its establishment and existence as a voyeuristic amusement park. It promises nothing more or less than it advertises: the carnal pleasure of looking without a social connection to erotic action. This can be observed not only in the large industrial metropoli, but also in the provinces and in the daily changing programs of boring motels. Whoever, with good and honorable intentions, reproaches blue movies for dishonestly manipulating the poor consumer — because these films deny him true and real sexuality and short change him with illusory gratification — is literally pinning the donkey's tail on the wrong end. Such a critic assumes the primacy of genital lust over those archaic inclinations such as voyeurism, looking, and what the Germans call Schaulust. [Schaulust must be translated as the pleasure of looking, as in satisfying one's curiosity like a "tourist," but the word also carries erotic connotations, involving the "lust to see" and carnal pleasure — JCH.]

The heterosexual consumer who buys his ticket at the door doesn't expect and probably doesn't even want to experience sexual gratification through another person. Like Mr. Chance in Hal Ashby's film comedy, BEING THERE (1980), the porn film patron especially wants "to watch." The criticism of pornography thus misses the mark when it assumes that something else is expected, that the goods were paid for but not delivered. Customer fraud hardly explains blue movies' success.

While having improved over heavy and awkward predecessors, the quality of today's porn films explains this success even less, since these films in no way match the formal standards of other genres. The latest attempts to make porn "serious" by providing the genre with stars, festivals, and directors should probably be seen as a self-conscious guild's legitimizing efforts, rather than just as snares to capture a wider audience. For the blue movie trend continues to expand even without all the hype.

The trend toward pornography, in my opinion, relates to a broader development of how our society organizes the senses. Porn houses are not the motor but the chassis. There is a likely explanation for the expansion of pornographic cinema and its function within the context of ruling-class sexual organization. For example in "Die Schaubuhne" (1913), Walter Serner, overwhelmed by the new invention of cinema, commented:

"However, all that fails to explain the unprecedented victory march the cinema experiences everywhere. What is going on must lie deeper than we ever expected. And if we look in the direction of where the money is coming from, into those strangely flickering eyes that reach far back into human history, suddenly we see it as obvious: "Schaulust." Not only the harmless kind, involving movement, color or both, but that kind which entails a terrible lust, as violent as the deepest. It is the kind that makes blood boil and heads spin until that unfathomably powerful excitement common to all lust races through the flesh…"

This ghastly pleasure in seeing atrocities, fighting, and death lies dormant in us all. It makes us rush into the morgue, to the scene of the crime, behind every chase, to every street fight It pays good money to cruise around sodomy. That is what draws the masses into the cinemas as if they were possessed. [Cinema] here offers the masses that which expanding civilization continues daily to rob from them, that which neither the magic of the stage, nor the tired sensations of a circus, music hail or cabaret performance can attempt to replace. Here the masses get it all in all its old glory: Schaulust." (Semer, pp.53-54)

Serner prophetically anticipates that cinema's attraction lies in a New-like pleasure: being able to participate from the bleachers in an epoch's atrocities. Such Schaulust ferments the popular mixture of what critics call "sex and crime." While societies have long permitted the depiction of brutal violence, hate, war, crime, destruction, and death, many have not permitted the presentation of naked bodies and sex. Now it is no wonder that with the breakdown of sexual taboos, cinema has now seized upon sex as a subject to satisfy the urge to look. Up until now it was possible to see every imaginable kind of killing. Now 99 or 150 or x ways of making love will appear on the screen. "Schaulust" Serner describes as a violent, eruptive lust, finally able to desecrate culture. But Schaulust is not an isolated, primordial phenomenon but rather is a developed and structured way of perceiving and feeling and occurs through the process of creating a highly rationalized and thoroughly organized society. Porn houses' current success is a product of this cultural-historical imprint rather than a product of primordial lust:

"The eye is an organ constantly under stress, working, concentrating, always unequivocally interpreting. The ear, on the other hand, is more diffuse and passive. Unlike an eye, you don't have to open it first." (Adorno and Eisler, p. 43)

"The eye has adapted to bourgeois rationality and ultimately to a highly industrial order, by accustoming itself to interpreting reality, a priori, as a world of objects, really as a world of commodities; the ear has achieved nothing similar." (Adorno and Eisler, p. 41)

"Such a division of labor between the receptive capabilities of human beings, a specialization of the senses, was necessary for a particular stage of capitalist production, i.e., the stage referred to in the context of the production process as 'Taylorism.'" (Negt and Kluge, p.237)

Taylor invented the systematic categorization of the work process, and this shaped industrial design and the rationalizing of work. In the age of Taylorism, a sudden and drastic rise in pornography became obvious in Victorian England. In fact this interest did not directly result from the great Victorian taboo on sexuality in a so-called pressure cooker effect. The dissemination of pornography is rather connected to specific social aspects of modernization efforts, as well as to changes developing in a parallel way in perceptual apparatuses and psychic mechanisms. In a certain respect pornographic cinema both symptomizes this development and expresses it. Training the eye means socially adapting the senses of sight to strategies of rationalization and modernization. This also occurs at the level of the organization of sexual urges and thus corresponds to an expansion of voyeurism. Sexuality becomes aligned with this social/perceptual development.

The connection between power, control and sex can only be made via changes in sexuality itself. Pornography may be a porous membrane through which power penetrates into the inner regions of sexuality while sexuality flows outwardly, becoming an element of power. Michel Foucault analyzes the way power and sex dovetail in the first volume of The History of Sexuality without, however, viewing the matter in a simple active/passive repression equation:

"The appearance of diverse perversions isn't sexuality's malicious revenge on power, which in turn imposes the suppression of excess…The appearance of perversion is an instrumental effect: by isolating, intensifying and strengthening peripheral sex, power's relationship to sex and pleasure is fragmented and increased, traversing the body and penetrating behavior. And the advancement of power brings with it the establishment of diverse sexualities, which fasten themselves to an age, a place, a style, a type of practice. Reproducing sexuality by expending power; this chain of incalculable economic profit had been ensured since the 19th century, and is derived simultaneously from an analytic multiplication of lust and an increase in its controlling power, thanks to the mediation of medicine, psychiatry, prostitution and pornography. Lust and power neither cancel themselves out, nor do they conflict, rather they overlap, chasing and propelling each other. They enmesh by virtue of complex and positive mechanisms of arousal and stimulation." (Foucault, pp. 64-65)

Contemporary sexuality, according to Foucault, is influenced by the "drive for knowledge" or power. Pornography thus becomes nothing more than the "drive for knowledge," the night school for sex education, so to speak. A discourse on power takes place by means of voyeurism; it is also a cognitive urge. In fact, numerous studies on the social history of pornography indicate that pornography producers have always perceived themselves as contributing to sex research. Indeed the whole current pornography film wave in Germany began with films which advertised sex education (e.g., the Dr. Kolle series), which perceived themselves as practical self-help guides and as providers of knowledge. The taxonomy and classification of forms of knowledge stilt clings to an unending series of "Reports," often presenting sexual behavior according to various occupations. Even the earliest porn attempted lexicographic forays, as an eyewitness noticed:

"The true life presentation of every imaginable perversion constitutes a particular spice in obscene films. Although life itself very often offers the connoisseur a view of simple vice, the chance to enjoy real perversity as a spectator is much rarer; in this case, film tries to fill the gap. Films exist in this genre, which seem to have been created with Krafft-Ebing's book, Psychopathia sexualis, in hand, constituting a manual of abnormal sexual operations for civilized man." (Moreck, p. 182)

"Every sin of man flickered on [the screen]. The 150 ways of loving, as illustrated in old treatises, were demonstrated, with interruptions for lesbian, pederastic and masturbatory jokes. All that was harmless. Sadists and masochists waved their instruments: sodomy was practiced, coprophagous acts were on display. Nothing was held back, everything occurred in an inane reality, which became provokingly vulgar through the artificial reproduction of mechanics." (Moreck, p. 181)

The drive for knowledge activates the eye, turning its attention to sex. "Schaulust" as a cognitive instrument, cognition as "Schaulust." Pornography discovers its social role. Psychoanalytic theory supports the concept of a connection between curiosity, cognition and voyeurism in individual development — even before pornography revealed this connection by becoming a significant and typical product of our society. The optical organization of reality implies control — whether from the hunter's vigilant eye or "the great eye of the government" (Foucault). Jean-Paul Sartre notes in L'Etre et le néant:

"…the idea of discovery, of revelation, includes an idea of appropriative enjoyment What is seen is possessed; to see is to deflower…More than this, knowledge is a hunt Bacon called it the hunt of Pan. The scientist is the hunter who surprises a white nudity and who violates by looking at it. Thus the totality of these images reveals something which we shall call the Acteon complex…A person hunts for the sake of eating. Curiosity in an animal is either sexual or alimentary. To know is to devour with the eyes." (Sartre, p. 578)

Let us assume the correctness of Foucault's thesis, that the history of sex is based on a drive for knowledge and concede that pornography is a nexus in this transfer of sex and power. If we also consider another point made by Sartre, we might be able to explain why the pornographic cinema today is a medium for conveying knowledge (in Foucault's sense) rather than a medium for aesthetic experience. Sartre assumes a difference between art and cognition, implying different relationships to appropriation. Art works resist possession.

"The mind is continually creating it [art], and yet it stands alone and indifferent to that creation." (Sartre, p.578)

Cognition, on the other hand, consists of an appropriation act, thus incorporating the object of cognition and assimilating it:

"Knowledge is at one and the same time a penetration and a superficial caress, a digestion, and the contemplation from afar of an object which will never lose its form." (Sartre, pp. 579-80)

Sartre analyzes cognition as assimilation, its limit being reached when desire destroys it object, instead of preserving it through appropriation: You can't have your cake and eat it too! It seems to me that Sartre's analysis of cognition as penetration and aloof observation also characterizes the appropriation process in pornographic films. If the viewer allows her/himself to be carried away by the desire to possess, thus relinquishing the position of an aloof observer, then s/he must sacrifice her/his Schaulust in order to make a specific moment or a certain image his/her own while the next image and sensation on the screen has already appeared. The observer is thus caught between these two modes of appropriating, perception and cognition. It's like Buridan's hungry ass of old caught between two tasty piles of hay:

"When looking at a porn magazine, I'm not bothered by the subject's visualization, even if the men and women are ugly or something else is not quite right. In my fantasies they exist in a way that excites me. Besides, I can always calmly choose what I want to see, put it aside or turn it to a certain page…The blue movie patron always remains alienated from the situation he's observing, because he has to keep his clothes on." (Kockner, p. 17)

In the relation between voyeurism and masturbation, obviously the print media and cinemas differ in degree of privacy offered for masturbation. Biologically orgasm is tied to the genitalia, but even when the orgasm functions physically, here its psychic organization is determined by the peeping eye. Whether male viewers masturbate or not in a porn theater, their pleasure is organized around looking at coitus. The famous English psychoanalyst, Michael Balint, wrote about perversions in relation to the physical fact of genital orgasm. Thus if men or women masturbate during or after the film, or not at all, it is only a question of degree. The stimulus is in the looking.

Symptoms for this theoretical observation can be observed in pornographic amateur films. Robert van Acken collected amateur films in German showing vacations, private life, and sexual activity. He called his denunciatory compilation PRIVATE GERMANY (1980). The films, formally far inferior to the standards achieved by today's blue movies, nevertheless feed on the latter for their fantasies.

Pornographic ideas and mise-en-scene become naturalistically documented by a super-8 camera in fact, it seems that, in contrast to more elegant professional porn, the acts are being executed only for the camera. A distressed woman lolls about on a coffee table, another models erotic underwear. Pleasure seems minimal; the liveliest part of these bodies comes from their eager gaze into the camera. The documenting camera creates the show; it's like how Mr. Chance thinks he can turn of reality's unpleasant programming by using his TV remote control. The assimilation of filmic, pornographic fantasies once again becomes alienated from erotic practice. These films do not depict erotic practice but rather how people have assimilated the depiction of sex. Pornographic movies beget pornographic movies.

Shadows and fright, deficiency and abundance — pornography's realm

A widespread system of pornographic cinemas emerged in most western countries after the great liberalization; it came as a result of sex being permeated by societal power. Furthermore, in pornographic cinema, instrumental rationality cuts sensuality down to its size. Male vision, as found in porn films, shows the body as an instrument for experiencing and maximizing pleasure. Human beings seem monadistic individuals (strictly according to bourgeois ideology) whose actions are guided by the principle of experiencing as much pleasure as possible.

Lust's perpetual motion, as produced by pornographic cinema, originates in this arena. Everything becomes an instrument for sensual pleasure: the body, hairbrushes, dildos, or bananas. Every situation leads to sex-car breakdowns, the beach, the carwash, or the office party. Bodies are connected according to mathematical equations; orgies are played out like dominos. What Horkheimer and Adorno write about de Sade can also be applied to blue movies.

"That which Kant establishes transcendentally, namely the affinity of cognition and planning, stamping every aspect of bourgeois existence with the seal of inescapable functionalism (even the thoroughly rationalized coffee breaks) — de Sade describes empirically more than 100 years before the invention of sports. Modern sports, played according to exact rules, so that no individual team member is left in doubt as to his role, every player having a reserve on the bench, finds its objective correlative in Juliette's sexual team where not a single moment is inactive, no bodily orifice neglected, no bodily function left untried." (Horkheimer and Adomo, p. 108)

In fact, newer pornographic films demonstrate great advances, especially in the area of gymnastic-artistic formations. Technical presentations have evolved from "perverse beauties rolling around on a carpet" to group orgies, and the combinations call attention to themselves through athletic self-control and simultaneous sexual achievement. The aesthetic forms of blue movie rely on a fundamental metaphor of the body as a machine. Cuts are utilized in order to exchange tired bodies with freshly pounding ones or those which have been refurbished in the interim. Cuts also create movement artificially when sexual athletes have exhausted themselves.

The performers' interchangeability and anonymity function as a material correlative to their expressed ideology. There is no room anymore for the old fashioned clumsiness of a giggling Emmy Raschke because heavy duty professionals are now at work, producing through a taylorized procedure body components for the final product while maintenance brigades with spare parts take care of breakdowns. These production maneuvers are of no interest to the viewer; the rapid reality of aroused penises, wide-open mouths, spread-eagled thighs, and stretched vulvas is hardly perceived. It is just like the wig changes of female performers who appear one moment as blonde equestrians in a family circus and then as red-headed lesbians the next.

The most sophisticated porno films are structured in a way that builds the keyhole perspective of the voyeur right into the film. A number of "fucks" thereby become dramatically organized through parallel montage, thus counteracting battle fatigue which invariably sets in when the camera presents an entire coition without interruption. The latter usually leaves the impression of being hard work rather than pleasure. Pornographic cinema lies at the end of a development in society involving specialization and compartmentalization. Pornography itself is a part of this specialization through the increasing autonomy of Schaulust.

All this operates in accordance with a further compartmentalization of pornography as a commodity, since producers speculate on the consumer's presumed or actual taboos and needs. Homosexuality does not turn up in heterosexual porno houses and vice versa. In heterosexual porn, anal eroticism only arises between men and women, and the only way a man gets close to another man is when a woman, who gets it both ways, lies sandwiched between them. Lesbian sex is also finally invisible, because when women touch each other, it is only because they are waiting for a man or performing for a male voyeur. Besides, they usually use dildos and suck cock, thus remaining within the limits of phallically oriented sexuality.

However, criticism of pornography's new forms, especially its filmic forms, remains uncomfortable. Despite porn film's already routinely executed, socialized sex, something still clings to pornographic cinema which Siegfried Kracauer in Theory of Film called "phenomena overwhelming consciousness":

Elemental catastrophes, the atrocities of war, acts of violence and terror, sexual debauchery, and death are events which tend to overwhelm consciousness. In any case, they call forth excitements and agonies bound to thwart detached observation. No one witnessing such an event, let alone playing an active part in it, should therefore be expected accurately to account for what s/he has seen. Since these manifestations of crude nature, human or otherwise, fall into the area of physical reality, they comprise all the more cinematic subjects. Only the camera is able to represent them without distortion…"

"The cinema, then, aims at transforming the agitated witness into a conscious observer. Nothing could be more legitimate than its lack of inhibition in picturing spectacles which upset the mind. Thus it keeps us from shutting our eyes to the 'blind drive of things.'" (Kracauer, pp. 5758)

Kracauer points to the possibility that only through the image's distance is a reconciliation with such objects imaginable, recuperating them from mere functionalism. There is a one dimensionality of the optical possession of the world. This flatness is reflected in and enacted by pornographic cinema, making it even more scintillating and enticing than any warranted and proven ideological criticism of it has been able to deal with.

"One must learn to read between the gaping flesh and vulvas, against the grain, in other words, like a code of prohibition and carnal denial…But the total iconography of unlived life, of anti-eroticism in capitalist systems discloses its presence to the person who remains sensitive to pornography's debasement, dirtiness, vulgarity and brutality, who has seen its brazen grin…" (Gorsen, p. 1104)

Whoever learns to read pornographic films against the grain, like Peter Gorsen above, will not only find such "a code of prohibitions and carnal denial." In the sense that the cinema effects what reality denies, he/she will also recognize the wounds which "the code of prohibition and carnal denial" has inflicted on desire. Those wounds exist not outside of but inside pornography's iconography, which expresses them rather than covers them up. Even in the machine-like availability and exchangabiity of bodies in their crude naturalism in blue movies lies a wish for a realm beyond sacrifice, one where milk and honey flows. Steven Marcus traces the historical context of this imagery back to economics in his key study on sex and pornography in Victorian England:

"The fantasies that are at work here have to do with economics; the body is regarded as a productive system with only a limited amount of material at its disposal. And the model on which the notion of semen is formed is clearly that of money…"

"Furthermore, the economy envisaged in this idea is based on scarcity and has as its aim the accumulation of its own product. And the fantasy of pornography, as we shall have ample opportunity to observe, is this idea's complement, for the world of pornography is a world of plenty. In it all men are infinitely rich in substance, all men are limitlessly endowed with that universal fluid currency which can be spent without loss. Just as in the myth Zeus descends upon Danae in a shower of gold, so in pornography the world is bathed, floated, flooded, inundated in this magical produce of the body." (Marcus, p. 22)

While pornographic fantasies of abundance in English Victorianism are correlated to the objective overtly within England, which was still in the process of acquiring mercantile riches, the endless flow of semen and the bodies of women covered with and rubbed in sperm point to pornographic cinema's one deficiency: the body itself. In pornographic fantasy everyone is perceived within a world of machines, of meshed systems and cogs. But the fantasy always shows the body's subjugation. The body suffers from deficiency while paced in a sea of material plenty.

Today pornographic film no longer refers to meanings lying outside its own subject matter; it refers primarily to itself through visual system, to that which can be seen on the screen: bodies and their carnal pleasure. From this perspective, the problem raised in Part II must be addressed again. What is seen? What form of sexuality can be visualized? I will attempt to answer this question in the next section, which deals with the iconography of visible penises and invisible vaginas in gender-specific pornographic imagery. However, first I will attempt to elucidate the distance between observer and observed phenomena, the distance created by the camera.

Kracauer believes distance is necessary in order to ease the fear that would arise should phenomena overwhelm the spectator. Pornography obviously plays off of a certain fear of crudity, coarseness, and sex — a fear which it does not dissemble or sublimate. The observer can confront that which frightens him/her only through the image. It is a process akin to an individual's dreams with the camera becoming a medium for creating distance and harmless voyeurism:

"I observe, but am not involved, like a camera. At a narrow spot in a dark cave I look through the camera and film a scene. I see a large scorpion, while somebody outside tries to kill it. It's four or five feet long. The guy outside throws sand into the cave with hand and feet, moving it back and forth — so sexually. He hurls a cold, poisoned lobster's tail as bait, so the scorpion won't bite him. Jesus, what a dream! I filmed the battle of the two clowns. It's dangerous and unpleasant." (Altman, p. 121)

This dream, as related by a patient to his psychiatrist, reflects quite well the camera and voyeurism's mechanism for exculpation; it is interpreted by the psychoanalyst as fear of sex. (The camera played a role not only in the dreams of his patient, but also in his erotic everyday reality. He took pictures of his girlfriend during their mischievous sex games.) Correspondences with the procedures of pornographic voyeurism can thus be found at the level of individual psychology. Such everyday examples demonstrate just how deeply imbedded such organizational forms of the perceptual apparatus are. Thus it is hardly possible to talk about this "influence" originating in the simple content of pornographic cinema in the way conservatives would like to in order to defend censorship.[1][open notes in new window]

Looking, as a form of sexual curiosity probing an undiscovered sexuality, requires distance in order to ease the fear of the unknown. Some literary works utilize shadow metaphors to create the necessary distance between observer and observed. This need has a common base. We can see in the following literary example, written by Peter Weiss, from another point of view, the sexual observer's wish for distance:

"The shadow of the housekeeper's legs, as she lay with her back on the table, rose with bended knees above the coachman's creeping shadow, and the shadow of the coachman, resting on his knees, rose above the shadow of the housekeeper's stomach. The shadow of the coachman's hands reached under the shadow of the housekeeper's skirts, the shadow of the skirt slipped down and the shadow of the coachman's abdomen burrowed into the shadow of the housekeeper's exposed thighs. The shadow of the coachman's arm dug into the shadow of his crotch and pulled out a pole-like shadow, which in form and length matched his tool; he thrust this protruding shadow into the heavy, well-rounded shadow of the housekeeper's groin; alter the shadow of the housekeeper's legs had lifted themselves onto the shadow of the coachman's shoulders." (Weiss, pp. 98-99)

Here Peter Weiss presents the schematic, the stereotypical, and the projection of persons and identities within body movements. He offers a voyeuristic experience through the literary form of an endless genitive flowing action. The same schematization remains a mindless characteristic in pornographic films, where it is reproduced blindly. The transformation of persons into facsimiles based on previously existing patterns refers even in pornographic cinema to the yearning for a sex life. But it does not postulate a union of "mature personality" and "genital sex":

"It's a bit of sexual utopia not to be oneself, also not to love only one mistress: to negate self. It undermines that invariable aspect of bourgeois society, in the widest sense, which has always been geared towards integration, the call for identity…"

"With the growing social acknowledgment of genitalia, the repression of special drives and their representatives increases in genital relations. What remains is cultivated as socialized voyeurism or anticipation. It exchanges the unification with one person for the observation of all, and thus it expresses sexuality's tendency to socialization, in itself an aspect of its deadly integration." (Adorno, pp. 105-105)

The constant change of environments so predominant in the pornographic movie scene and the masks and costumes belonging to the paraphernalia of anonymous lust are possibly the last signs of a search for non-identity in sex. The proletarian captain of a riverboat in a blue movie promises a certain aggressive ingredient involving "a strong hand"; the "duchess of porn" in a black evening gown offers a touch of French decadence; and the cloistered student is surrounded with the scent of sadomasochistic flagellation orgies at the confession pew. The secret codes of environments hide lust's special drives and the specificity of those drives finally disappears in the close-up depiction of genitalia's "straight-to-the-point" gymnastic primacy.

Continued on page 2