Rethinking Susan Sontag’s “The Pornographic Imagination”

by Eric Shorey

In “The Pornographic Imagination”, a groundbreaking essay which attempted to define and understand the genre of pornography, Susan Sontag isolates the vignette structure as the de facto narratological gesture of porn in writing:

“The books generally called pornographic are those whose primary, exclusive, and overriding preoccupation is with the depiction of sexual ‘intentions’ and ‘activities.’ […] Pornography uses a small crude vocabulary of feeling, all relating to the prospects of action: feeling one would like to act (lust); feeling one would not like to act (shame, fear, aversion). There are no gratuitous or non-functioning feelings; no musings, whether speculative or imagistic, which are irrelevant to the buisiness at hand. Thus, the pornographic imagination inhabits a universe that is, however, repetitive the incidents occurring within it, incomparably economical. The strictest possible criterion of relevance applies: everything must bear upon the erotic situation.” (Styles of Radical Will, 66)

To what extent is this true anymore? With filmic, television, and digital narratives vastly changing forms over the past few decades since the publication of Styles of Radical Will was written, how on-point are Sontag’s observations in our contemporary cultural setting?

With the advent of narratologically, confounding genres and media formats like reality television or the interactive storytelling of video games, it seems impossible that the pornographic could simply be constrained by the confinements of the vignette format. Alongside these changes in style, the media formats by which pornography are now disseminated have vastly changed. In what ways are these changes related?

Even a cursory glance at sites like Pornhub.com, xtube.com, or youporn.com places the amateur and the professional on a similar axis of accessibility, not to mention the micro-blogging platform Tumblr’s perpetual infatuation with animated gifs of varying quality, which practically obliterates the necessity of narrative in porn altogether. Amateur pornography, now easily created on readily available software like iMovie, often doesn’t utilize complex editing and (by it’s very nature) includes close to no narrative structure; the professional pornography produced on and for these sites ranges vastly in complexity and competence. While contemporary scholars like Linda Williams, Jenn Hyland, and Juniper Alcorn all study the semiotics of these new methods of interface, a closer look at the story structures of these short films might prove interesting.

Despite the ubiquity of amateur pornography, higher end companies like Cocky Boys are continually pumping out (no pun intended) high definition, erotically and complexly shot, story-driven content alongside their more traditional vignette-oriented numbers. Mimicking (but never too-cheaply) and copying the structures of genres like horror, melodrama, and even reality television, it is interesting to see a new focus on prolonged narrative within a genre so routinely defined by short-form.  Yes, within these longer narratives are pornographic “numbers” (as Williams calls them), but form a more coherent story arc as the videos progress. Citing influences that range from Tennyson to Kubrick, these pornographies certainly keep the erotic goal in mind, but elevate the tonalities of that goal throughout.

While high-minded erotica is nothing new, perhaps most perplexing are the confessional scenes (a la The Real World or Real Housewives) in some of these films. These cutaways seem to serve a dual function: with increased suspicion of the pornography industry’s ethics, the confessionals allow the performers to re-assure their audience of the enthusiasm of their consent.

Secondly, the confessionals remind younger viewers of more innocuous media-formats and narratives which they are probably more accustomed to, having become less oriented or attenuated to the pizza-boy-at-the-door story-lines of 70s and 80s porno. These scenes alone prove the obsolescence of Sontag’s theories: they are not necessarily erotically focused (performers are often fully clothed in these cutaways), they do not exist with the sole function of titillation.

Interestingly enough, these reality television tropes do not go over as well in mainstream media. Historic flops like MTV’s attempt at a Real World film or the critical failure of the Jackass movies are cursory evidence of this. While combinations of found-footage, improvisation, and scripted or acted scenarios still prove interesting in the most experimental of formats (Under The SkinToad Road), the trick has already become stale in the mainstream (Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity, The Blair Witch Project).

If pornography is beginning to mimic reality television, while long-form cinema seems to fail at converting reality-based narratives into it’s format, then what does that say about the future of screen narratives or the nature of narratological change throughout history?

It would do us well to remember Deleuze and Gutarri’s point about culture as modular or nodal. While we tend to think too linearly about the progression of history (zoetropes gave rise to silent film gave rise to talkies gave rise to video games), culture more accurately functions rhizomatically, with an infinite amount of critical points at which motifs, narratives, symbols, and meanings are exchanged and transformed in countless ways. If we buy this thesis, which feels almost Darwinian in it’s randomness, then the exchanges between genres and styles makes a little bit more sense. These transmutations of story-structures might not “say” anything about the “state” of “the media” but instead only hint at it’s inevitable decline into even more chaotic intertextual entropy.

Ultimately, perhaps Sontag’s definition of pornography proves useful for understanding the core of pornography as a genre, albeit less and less so. As (accessibility to) technological change necessitates changes in popular (and unpopular) media, we can only expect interesting permutations of narrative forms across all platforms.
 

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