‘2 Girls, 1 Cup’ and a 10-year anniversary

2017 marks the tenth anniversary of the viral shock porn video, ‘2 Girls 1 Cup’, and the journal Porn Studies is dedicating a forum to exploring the phenomenon. The forum is forthcoming later in the year but here’s my introductory essay contextualising the video within the affective online attention economy.

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Time to celebrate the most disgusting video online

There is little doubt as to the tenth anniversary of Pornhub (est. 2007) to be the most widely remembered of the online porn birthday celebrations due this year. The site has, since its humble beginnings as an amateur porn site emulating the platform principle of YouTube (est. 2005), grown symbolic of the era of video aggregator sites, the fall of pay porn and the ever-increasing, unprecedented centralisation of porn distribution: the company MindGeek (previously Manwin) owns not only Pornhub but also other key tube sites with the exception of for XVideos (est. 2007) and xHamster (est. 2007).

cg1zaoqugaai36iTen years ago, it was nevertheless not Pornhub but the viral shock porn video, ‘2 Girls 1 Cup’, that more visibly captured the attention of myriad groups of internet users, and continued to do so for some time to come. While the video’s tenth anniversary is unlikely to be a celebrated affair, it is one that these following three forum pieces focus on. In addition to this introductory text contextualising the video within the attention economy of social media, Steve Jones explores the its capacities as shock porn while Daniel Cardoso looks into young Portuguese people’s experiences of the clip. But why would this particular one-minute video, by now markedly stale in its novelty appeal, be relevant in terms of online pornography, social media or the field of porn studies? This is what I set out to outline.

The classics of viral shock porn

For the record: 2 Girls 1 Cup is a trailer for a Brazilian scat fetish porn film titled Hungry Bitches, produced by MFX Media, that features two female performers, Karla and Latifa, a cup, and one compact minute of coprophilic play (see Declercq 2017). The narrative is as follows: the two women kiss and fondle each other; one of them defecates in a cup; the other eats the faeces and then vomits in the first woman’s mouth. Lacking dialogue, the video is accompanied by the unabashedly romantic ‘Lover’s Theme’ by Hervé Roy, also known as composer of Emmanuelle’s theme song in 1974. Shared through links to the now defunct domain, 2girls1cup.com, ‘2 Girls 1 Cup’ was connected with so-called proto-trolling practices (Phillips 2015, 19) where users were led to open a link of shock porn when suspecting to encounter content of the humorous and titillating sort.

The overall aim was to drive users to diverse states of surprise, disgust, amusement, and embarrassment and, in some instances, the recipients were asked to document their reaction on camera for future sharing. The reputation of ‘2 Girls 1 Cup’ was largely built on YouTube reaction videos showing the clip’s content making people grimace, gag, whimper, hold their noses, cover their eyes and turn away from the screen. Accumulating over the years, these affectively animated reaction videos fed interest toward the original clip while remaining a source of entertainment in themselves and their pronounced, and often markedly exaggerated performances disgust. Fascination, let alone arousal displayed vis-à-vis scat porn – independent if the substance was scat, or chocolate fudge as some have claimed – would have no room in such publicly shared displays of affect.

2-girls-one-cup-reactionAlthough only a decade old, ‘2 Girls 1 Cup’ represents a stage now already past in the development of online attention economy and meme culture based on pranks. Around the new millennium, links to a website ending in ‘nimp.org’ were circulated through email. The link opened up a blinking image alternating between a rainbow flag and gay pornography on the user’s desktop, accompanied by a three-second clip of a male voice amped up high in volume, shouting, ‘Hey everybody I’m looking at gay porno!’ The nimp would routinely freeze and crash the user’s computer by opening up new pop-up windows with the same content much faster than these could be closed, and the sound card could keep on playing the file if no windows were no longer open. The prank’s effect relied firmly on the social embarrassment caused by loudly calling attention to the (accidental) consumption pornography – and not just any pornography, but that of the male homosexual kind during a time when online access took place via desktop computers, rather than with the current range of smart personal devices, often in spaces of work involving their own realms and forms of sociability.

The 2005 ‘Meatspin’, a short loop set to the 1985 Dead or Alive song, ‘You Spin Me Around’, involved a clip from the transgender porn film, TSBitches featuring anal penetration while the partner on top spins their penis round and round in circles in a perpetual, endless loop. As ‘Meatspin’ plays, a counter marks the spins made and, after 45 of them, a text appears stating, ‘YOU ARE OFFICIALLY GAY : – )’. As was the case with ‘2 Girls 1 Cup’ website, links to nimp.org and meatspin.com were circulated for the effect of shock, amusement and social embarrassment. The framing of gayness in these two instances came rife with homophobic overtones meshed with the overall frame of grossness that helped to cut off the content from sexual titillation while also demarcating the boundaries of bodies, desires and sexual acts deemed desirable. At the same time when grossness allows for a safe barrier of distance and humour, it in no way automatically forecloses or excludes a broader range of titillations, homosexual ones included (see Ward 2015).

So-called shock porn used in proto-trolling drew its appeal from bodies, acts and desires deviating from the white straight norm in terms of their age, sexual orientation, ethnicity or race. In addition to nimping and videos, trolling made us of still images, as with ‘Goatse’ (1999), ‘Tubgirl’ (2001) and ‘Lemon Party’ (2002) – all examples of viral pornography predating social media shared similarly to domain names specifically dedicated to the images in question. ‘Lemon Party’ featured three senior men engaging in oral sex while Goatse showed a man stretching his anus and revealing a broad expanse of his rectum. The sole character of ‘Tubgirl’ was a young Japanese woman squirting an orange enema onto her face in a bathtub. (See Paasonen 2011, 222–223.) As was the case with ‘2 Girls 1 Cup’, the two latter images involved the blurring of the boundaries between the insides and outsides of bodies, while ‘Lemon Party’ displayed elderly gay men’s sexual practices for the purposes of humour and shock, ‘rendering the (homo)sexualized, elderly, or overweight body in terms of disgust and amusement’ (Jones 2010, 128).

220px-hungry_bitchesThe aim of circulating the images and videos in question revolved around the affective registers of amusement and disgust. As that which sticks to things seen as morally objectionable, disgust is linked to both figurative and material filth, such as bodily emissions (Cohen 2005, viii, xi). Viral porn content videos brought these forms of disgust together by depicting acts deemed as somehow shocking in their kinkiness, and hence figuratively filthy, as well as by revelling in things deemed materially filthy, such as faeces and rectums. If ‘2 Girls I Cup’ was crowned as the most disgusting of these all, this was due to its display of excrement turned into nourishment – or even into a delicacy of sorts. Writing on disgust, the historian William Ian Miller (1997, 118) identifies eating faeces as an act so vile that it is hardly imaginable: ‘People do not eat feces as a joke, even as a sick joke; what they do is talk about eating it or ridicule people who do eat it’. Jack Sargeant (2006) points out that sexual coprophilia is practiced in secrecy due to its perceived extremity: ‘Even the few that confess enjoying “brown showers” do not admit to eating raw shit, either their own or that of somebody else. The practice is considered to be too dangerous, too unhealthy, and too disgusting. Even amongst the radical sexual communities many find that it stinks of excess, as if desires and fantasies had limits.’ ‘2 Girls 1 Cup’ then clearly owed its appeal – and its degrees of continuous infamy – to the hyperbolic transgression of such limits, as its performers do not merely eat shit, but enjoy it when vomited.

Porn and the attention economy of social media

Contextualising the video, its production history and fame, journalist Marie Declercq (2017) dismisses the theory of the shit being fudge and argues that ‘The horror of watching actual human feces being consumed by actual humans forever changed the internet, and gave us the classic reaction video genre.’ The websites dedicated to ‘2 Girls 1 Cup’, ‘Meatspin’, ‘Lemon Party’ or ‘Goatse’ may have grown defunct, or given way to other domain names, and links to them have long ceased their intense circulation. It is further noteworthy that, with the exception of shock porn connected to trolling, pornographic online imagery has, despite its broad volume and perennial popularity, fairly seldom grown viral as such. The appeal of porn among users of all kinds is obvious, yet its public visibility has – independent of recurrent claims over its saturated presence across the media and contemporary culture more generally – been curbed to specific platforms dedicated for the purpose.

This curbing, or fencing off, of porn has grown ever more pronounced during the past decade marked by the rise of social media, initially discussed as Web 2.0. The community standard of some social media services, such as Twitter and Tumblr, allow sexually explicit or NSFW (‘Not Safe for Work’) content whereas many others, from the current market leader Facebook to YouTube, Instagram or Pinterest, do not, and actively try to weed porn and other revealing bodily displays out from the data streams that users generate. (Paasonen et al. forthcoming.)

9e6The content likely to attract extensive attention on contemporary social media platforms revolves in the registers of humour that can intermesh with cuteness, be offbeat, vitriolic, heavy with sexist and racist overtones, nostalgic or absurd (Phillips 2015, 96–97; Highfield 2016, 17–18). Independent of its particular edge or resonance, humour plays a key role in how online content catches attention, spreads and prospers. Pornography fits uncomfortably together with laughter, as it is not routine to laugh at that which turns us on. At the same time, the sexual bents of others may be a source of great amusement, especially when they clearly differ from the normative palate of straight vanilla – as in the viral porn examples discussed above.

Writing on affect and social media, Jodi Dean (2010) argues that a search for intensities drives the movements of users across platforms. From the perspective of the platforms in question, content that grabs attention through the intensities that it affords is valuable in its stickiness that makes users pay attention and engage. The visual economy of social media is elaborate, finely tuned, operates at expansive scales and speeds and revolves around the imperative of capturing and optimising user attention. As the mantra, ‘if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead’ (Jenkins et al. 2013, 1) has come to orient the operating logics of online advertising and social media services, content deemed obscene or offensive has taken backseat from cat videos, Doge memes and reaction GIFs. Much of the meme production that has characterized platforms such as 4chan – the home of not only Anonymous but also Pedobear and myriad other strands of controversial humour – fit ill in the social media landscape as advertisers, as the key source of revenue, are likely to veer away from such content.

The anniversary of ‘2 Girls 1 Cup’ then reminds us of that links to content published in order to bemuse and shock have been shared via email and discussion forums throughout the history of the Web, also in ways unlikely to occur today. Memes, in general, live off their participatory possibilities of sharing, remix and modification and their appeal is centrally dependent on their ability to amuse (Shifman 2013). If the content in question cannot be shared without automated filtering or peer flagging intervening in the process, the viral circuits will obviously be severed, to the degree that they can even come about. In addition to giving rise to the now ubiquitous format of a reaction video, as Declercq suggest, ‘2 Girls 1 Cup’ helps in mapping out the recent Web history in terms of its shift to social media platforms and their strategies of content management, as well as the move of online access from desktop computers to personal devices allowing for the consumption of all kinds of content without the risk of social exposure. Shock content continues to live on in decapitation videos, shots of animal torture and forms of porn considered extreme even as growing armies of commercial content moderators are deployed to identify and remove it (see Roberts 2016). Like all viral content losing the stickiness that keeps it in circulation, ‘2 Girls 1 Cup’ has moved to regions of online ephemera as oddities that linger on in both data archives and the embodied memories of users: as such, it is unlikely to completely rest in peace.

References:

Cohen, William A. 2005. ‘Introduction: Locating Filth.’ In Filth: Dirt, Disgust, and Modern Life, edited by William A. Cohen and Ryan Johnson, vii–xxxviii. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Dean, Jodi. 2010. Blog Theory: Feedback and Capture in the Circuits of Drive. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Declercq, Marie. 2017. ‘Ten Years of “2 Girls 1 Cup,” the Most Memorable Brazilian Shit on the Internet’. Vice, June 9, 2017.

Highfield, Tim. 2016. Social Media and Everyday Politics. Cambridge: Polity.

Jenkins, Henry, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green. 2013. Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. New York: New York University Press.

Jones, Steven. 2010. ‘Horrorporn/Pornhorror: The Problematic Communities and Contexts of Online Shock Imagery’. In Porn.com: Making Sense of Online Pornography, edited by Feona Attwood, 123–137. New York: Peter Lang.

Miller, William Ian. 1997. The Anatomy of Disgust. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Paasonen, Susanna. 2011. Carnal Resonance: Affect and Online Pornography. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Paasonen, Susanna, Kylie Jarrett and Ben Light. Forthcoming. Not Safe for Work: Sex, Humor, and Risk in Social Media. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Phillips, Whitney. 2015. This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship Between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Roberts, Sarah T. 2016. ‘Commercial Content Moderation: Digital Laborers’ Dirty Work’. In The Intersectional Internet: Race, Sex, Class, and Culture Online, edited by Safiya Umoja Noble and Brendesha M. Tynes, 147–160. New York: Peter Lang.

Sargeant, Jack. 2006. ‘Filth and Sexual Excess: Some Brief Reflections on Popular Scatology’. M/C Journal 9 (5): http://www.journal.media-culture.org.au/0610/03-sargeant.php.

Shifman, Limor. 2013. Memes in Digital Culture. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Ward, Jane. 2015. Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men. New York: New York University Press.

 

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new anthologies on sex and media

9781138777217The Autumn book season is on – and behold, even 2018 titles are already out! These include The Routledge Companion to Media, Sex and Sexuality, edited by Clarissa Smith, Feona Attwood and Brian McNair, as well as Sex in the Digital Age, edited by Paul Dixon and Isabel Düsterhoft (also for Routledge). Much interesting scholarship just there! By means of self-promotion: the former has a text of mine on user-generated pornography and the elusive notion of authenticity, the latter a chapter on the affective and affectless bodies of monster toon porn.

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sexuality and play in media culture

giphy

Happy day! The Academy of Finland just gave us funding for a four-year research project, “Sexuality and Play in Media Culture”. Focused on how theories of play can advance feminist and queer research on sexuality and open up novel ways of understanding the formation of pleasures and identifications in media culture, the project spans from activism to pop and smut. Very exciting.

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learning to play

comingofage_leadingstill_jansoldatMy short text, “Learning to Play,” for the Screening Sex blog run by Darren Kerr and Donna Peberdy is just out this very minute. Looking at one scene in Jan Soldat’s short documentary film, Coming of Age (2016), the text makes some proposals toward thinking about sex through the notion of play. This would be my current pet project, so more is to follow.

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affective politics of social media symposium

legoCFP is now out for the Affective Politics of Social Media Symposium held at University of Turku, Finland, October 12-13 2017. Welcome, you all!

Confirmed keynote speakers: Crystal Abidin (Jönköping University / Curtin University), Kath Albury (Swinburne University of Technology), Nancy Baym (Microsoft Research New England), Ken Hillis (UNC Chapel Hill), Ben Light (University of Salford) and Jenny Sundén (Södertörn University).

From clickbaits to fake news, heated Facebook exchanges, viral Twitter messages and Tinder swipes, the landscape of social media is rife with affective intensities of varying speeds and lengths. Affect, as the capacity to relate, impress and be impressed, creates dynamic connections between human and nonhuman bodies. Zooming in on these connections, their intensities, rhythms, and trajectories in the context of networked communications, Affective Politics of Social Media asks how affect circulates, generates value, fuels political action, feeds conflict and reconfigures the categories of gender, sexuality and race through and across social media platforms.

Multiple analytical avenues have already been laid out for doing this, from Jodi Dean’s examination of affect and drive to Tarleton Gillespie’s analysis of the politics of platforms, Adi Kuntsman’s examination of “webs of hate” and Zizi Papacharissi’s discussion of affective publics as contagious articulations of feeling that bring forth more or less temporary sense of community and connection. Building on a growing body of work on “networked affect”, this two-day symposium features keynotes exploring the affective labour of social media influencers, the automation and quantification of the intimate, the netiquette of hook-up apps and the dynamics of music stardom and fandom, and invites contributions connected to affect and social media in relation to

• collective action and political activism
• sexual cultures and practices
• harassment, hate and resistance
• affective rhythms, intensities and investments
• popular culture and everyday life

In order to facilitate participation, the symposium has no registration fee but pre-registrations are required. To propose a paper, please send a 300-word abstract and short bio (max. 100 words) to affective@utu.fi by June 9, 2017. Registrations will be made available in August 2017.

Organized by Department of Media Studies, IIPC, the International Institute for Popular Culture & DIGIN, Research Network on Digital Interaction at University of Turku and the Department of Gender Studies at Åbo Akademi University

Conference website: https://affectivesome.wordpress.com/

Organizing group: Susanna Paasonen, Kaisu Hynnä, Katariina Kyrölä, Mari Lehto, Mari Pajala & Valo Vähäpassi

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conference season

Late spring turns out to be full of interesting conferences, from The Public Spheres of Resonance: Constellations of Affect and Language in Berlin, April 27-29 to The Digital Everyday: Exploration or Alienation? in London, May 6 and Sexualities and Digital Culture in Europe in Athens, May 26-27. See you there, there and there, perhaps, plus at the Click Festival  in Elsinore, May 20.

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writing on porn

People teaching porn tend to write about teaching porn, as I have. Now I also seem to write about writing on porn. What next? This short article, here in its non-proofread form, is forthcoming in Porn Studies:

Elusive intensities, fleeting seductions, affective voices

Scholarship on pornography involves gradations of proximity and distance towards the phenomena studied. Underpinned by disciplinary notions of appropriate expression, language is the medium through which these labours are crafted and played out. Even if this may not always be obvious to readers struggling with convoluted sentence structures and densely layered ideas, scholarly writing is basically a communicative act. Consequently, most guidelines on good academic writing emphasize clarity and precision of expression over stylistic experimentation with the general intention of communicating one’s argument as lucidly as possible. The notion of good writing is nevertheless slippery while the criteria used for evaluating it go well beyond aspects such as grammar and syntax toward affective and aesthetic characteristics such as the flow, feel and pleasure of text. Writing may aim to seduce the reader or to firmly hold her at an arm’s length; it may strive to evoke sharp affective shivers or manage to bore its readers into distraction. The author’s voice in all this may be markedly present or seemingly effaced.

In what follows, I explore the affective and political underpinnings of the modes of writing about pornography in the framework of feminist cultural studies. More specifically, I examine the role and function of proximities where the intensities of text set the bodies of readers and writers into motion. Such proximities may be painstakingly designed or emerge as fleeting and unintended seductions. Through that which Melissa Gregg (2006) identifies as the writer’s affective voice, such encounters break against the norm of sober, detached reader engagement with scholarly prose.

The matter of writing

Writing is under constant scrutiny during peer-review and editorial processes, from corrections to remove all sorts of grammatical slips and slides to propositions for a different tone or style of expression. Given the political passions connected to the pornography in institutional and activist settings, the appropriateness of the stylistic decisions can be more acute a concern in porn studies than in other fields of cultural inquiry. Suggestions for the preferred feel, touch and distance of text propose desirable points of entrance to the topic examined, preferred modes for articulating one’s arguments, views and experiences, as well as the promotion of certain forms of reader engagement over others.

To illustrate the issue with examples from my own work on pornography, some peer reviewers have proposed the use of humorous turns of phrases for a lighter feel. An ample reservoir of puns and innuendos – from the diverse uses of the verb ‘penetrate’ to all kinds of play with the stiffness or lubrication of things – is certainly available for such an enterprise, yet resorting to them implies degrees of discomfort with the topic at hand that require ironic detachment and distancing laughter. Other reviewers have found my exercises in personal writing and accounts of bodily affectations involved in the research process unnecessary in the proximities they address, and something best removed. While this latter critique is methodological in its focus, its key point concerns the manner of writing. As different as these responses are in their proposals for textual release and distance, they both point to the affective weight of writing and reading about porn.

The gradations of proximity involved or allowed vis-à-vis the materials studied vary according to publishing platforms and their preferred, discipline-based styles of communication. Stylistic preferences, or indeed norms of writing are firmly rooted in scholarly traditions and their respective notions of objectivity and authorial agency. While an art studies scholar may be encouraged to develop poetic expression in aesthetic analyses of pornography, experimental styles of writing are less likely to be fostered in behavioural sciences. The matter of writing therefore broadens into epistemological concerns over the role and performative force of language in knowledge creation. Language can be perceived as an instrumental medium for unpacking the research process, analysing the data and presenting the findings, and authors may even wish to distance their investigation from the very notion of pornography – for example, by resorting to euphemisms such as ‘sexually explicit materials’ (SEMs) or ‘sexual stimuli’ (SS), instead (e.g. Hald et al. 2015; Tseng et al. 2016; Prause and Pfaus 2015). In stark contrast, other strands of academic prose may aim to move the reader and, by doing so, to communicate how the author herself has been moved by that which she studies (Gregg 2006, 13). Here, language plays a key role in conveying the specific textures, rhythms and hues of the materials examined and the sensations they evoke.

Gregg (2006, 6) situates the particularity of cultural studies inquiry in its ‘distinctive combination of an affective address and critical rigour’. By breaking against the conventions of disengaged academic prose, cultural studies has created ‘the possibility of a mobilising and contagious discourse, one which sustains existing intellectual peers but also spreads the insights of scholarly work to new audiences’ (Gregg 2006, 6). All this revolves around what Gregg identifies as the affective voice, namely a particularly located, identifiable performative authorial style. Following the literary scholar Roland Barthes, affective voice can be understood as a specific grain, ‘the materiality of the body speaking its mother tongue’ (Barthes 1977, 182). In the grain of a textual voice, the author’s characteristic style of writing meets the dynamics and intensities of the phenomena studied and facilitates affective encounters with readers. Textual voices may have less immediacy than spoken ones, yet they are no less material in their reverberations.

Affective voice then entails ‘a distinct manner in the tone’ of the writer; an inflection to voice that lends urgency to her vocation and ‘aspires to touch the reader with words’ (Gregg 2006, 7, 8); ‘the particular timbre and cadence of a writer’s voice’ that can ‘stimulate, arouse and thrill’ (Gregg 2006, 11). This is a question of the craft of writing but equally one of political and intellectual investments. In foregrounding the formations and conjunctures of gender, race, class and sexuality, cultural studies aims at social engagement – and social justice – through mobilizing and contagious forms of address. In the context of pornography, the political investments have long revolved around the material dynamics of gender and sexuality, the norms, hierarchies and relations of power and forms of labour that they tap into and fuel. Authorial voice, always resonating from a particularly located speaking body, can be a means of making evident the different avenues and implications that encounters with and experiences of pornography entail. If pornography involves depictions of bodies moving the bodies of its audiences, then it matters as to which are the bodies moving and being moved, and in what kinds of ways (see Paasonen 2011, 2–3; 193).

In order to account for such affectations, cultural theory, and feminist scholarship in particular, has experimented with forms of personal writing that aim to remain open to surprises and uncertainties in processes of knowledge creation (e.g. Miller 1991, Sedgwick 1999; also Gregg 2006, 23–25). Rather than resorting to positions of objective exteriority, such approaches call for inventiveness and enjoyment in academic writing (also Massumi 2002, 12–13). Feminist scholarship informed by the epistemological stances of ‘thinking through the body’ (Rich 1995; Gallop 1988) and ‘situated knowledges’ (Haraway 1988) involves sensing, self-reflexive and autobiographical authorial bodies. It builds on an understanding of the performativity of academic language and acts of writing: how to write ‘is to make oneself the center of the action of the speech, it is to effect writing by affecting oneself, to make action and affection coincide’ (Barthes 1989, 18). While refuted in some disciplines, the first person emerges as a strategic position where the agent of writing is accountable for the knowledge she generates and the arguments she poses.

Getting up close

For Barthes, reading and criticism are animated by different dynamics of desire: ‘to read is to desire the work, to want to be the work, to refuse to echo the work using any discourse other than that of the work’ (Barthes 2007, 40). Reading, for Barthes, is an intimate relationship where the reader attaches herself to the text and surrenders to its rhythms and styles. In the case of pornography, close forms of reading, watching and listening would be oriented by a desire for bodily affectation. Doing scholarship within such modes of affectation means carefully describing and mediating the particularities of the materials studied: the textual outcome may even approximate their style and feel. Writing on pornography with close proximity is therefore to agree also an act of writing pornography, no matter how modest the end results may be in the titillations they have to offer.

Following Barthes (2007, 40), pastiche is the only response that a so-called ‘pure reader’ might produce, being too embedded in the text’s reverberations to take distance from them. In criticism, the writer is not in love with the texts she studies – in fact she can be notably disenchanted – inasmuch as attached to the pleasures that surface in acts of writing. As tends to be the case with academic work, it is the latter of the two, namely the critic’s point of entry that tends to dominate in porn studies. The reader’s approach, animated by the specific dynamics of text, may involve disturbing closeness that threatens to suture the sense of distance deemed necessary for critical practice. It should nevertheless be noted that even stronger hues of viscera do not foreclose conceptualisation or critique, and that careful analysis of representational forms need not efface a sense of their fleshy force, should the platform of publication so allow. In practice, the two approaches, or interests of writing identified by Barthes can be uncoupled only with difficulty in work closely examining images, sounds, texts or combinations thereof. In other words, they are far from mutually exclusive.

Extensive close analysis that tries to capture and mediate the essential of that which it describes by no means necessitates love or desire for the object. The contrary can well be the case, as in anti-pornography writing detailing pornographic representation and women’s experiences of sexual violence in painstaking detail. This has been an influential strategy of writing ever since Andrea Dworkin’s multi-page summaries of pornographic images and texts in Pornography (see Dworkin 1989). Dworkin’s affective voice is blunt, passionate and angry. By zooming in on the violence and discomfort of pornographic imageries, it aims to account for and verify their harmful social impact. Her affective voice amplifies some of the materials’ affective register in order to animate the readers into disgust, alarm, fury, rage and feminist activism.

Scholarly projects addressing the affective underpinnings of porn vary greatly in their aims and stakes, from hermeneutic tendencies to strident critique. Despite their possibly mutually opposing motivations, such projects are united precisely in their attempts to mediate some of the contagious affective intensity that the genre entails. My own investigations into pornography have been driven by an interest in how its images, sounds and texts work in and through bodies and media technologies and, by doing so, to theorize its carnal force and appeal. Rather than aiming to engage the reader for general arguments either for or against the genre, my key pursuit has been to unpack some of its intensities, as registered in my own body, in order to conceptualize pornography in more general terms.

Bodily intensities do not generally prosper in academic prose, yet grasping some of their hue is elementary in unpacking the embodied forms of address through which pornography operates. Since studies of image and sound unfold through language, they involve translations between the modes and modalities of expression connected to the five senses. A gap always remains between different forms of sensing and making sense, one that is further amplified by attempts to capture some of the intensity of pornographic scenes in order to convey them to the reader. Close description aims to retain some of the pornography’s resonance, yet textual production unavoidably transforms the objects it addresses: that which emerges is a different sort of beast.

Individual research projects may involve movement closer to and further away from the materials examined in ways that correspond with analytical attempts to retain a tangibly somatic sense of pornographic images and sounds, as well as to contextualise them in broader frameworks of genre, cultures of production, distribution and consumption, local and global flows of technologies and capital (Paasonen 2011; Schaschek 2013). Such ‘discomforting commute’ (Pearce 1997, 23) between positions and strategies of interpretation involves acknowledging the particularities of different forms of knowledge production, yet it does not necessitate foregrounding one form or position over another. With different approaches come different affordances, different forms of writing and, hopefully, different insights into the phenomena studied.

Unruly readers

Independent of the specific project’s agenda or stylistic choices, there are no guarantees as to how the readers will grasp, interpret and apply its outcomes. As readers, we are unruly creatures and the reverberations that the texts evoke are impossible for those composing them to control, master or foresee. This became evident when a reader responded to a report summarising the findings of our porn memory-work project with a dick pic accompanied by a note on his sexual arousal. I found this form of feedback surprising, given the matter-of-fact descriptive tone of the report that made markedly little effort to affectively engage the reader. Considering the issue more closely, it should not have been too surprising as in the memory work-material reported, people reported being turned on by select passages from the Bible, narrative fiction and feminist literature available through the public library (Paasonen et al. 2015). As one respondent further explained: ‘These books weren’t porn but my way of reading was that of a porn consumer. I was looking for sexual arousal’ (female, born 1975).

Readers orient themselves towards texts with certain interests in mind while shifts in the orientations and modes of reading invite varying somatic intensities, ways of sensing and making sense. Readers set out to discover sources of sexual arousal in texts coined with clearly distinct purposes in mind, and the one and the same reader can engage with the same text for the goals of critique, diversion and masturbation alike. In addition to intentional reading oriented by libidinal intensities, affectations of the sexual kind occur unsuspected as something resonates and possibly grabs us. Images, texts and sounds can seduce us in passing but we may also position ourselves as willing to be seduced. As readers, we touch texts but are also touched by them in return – in ways that can be titillating, disturbing, surprising and ambivalent.

Constantly evaluated and uncertain in its outcomes and resonances, scholarly writing is regularly an awkward practice – and hardly only for those of us practicing it in other languages than our first. The affective voice or grain through which an author aims to mediate some of the intensities felt may just as well come across as pretentious or precious: scholarly communication, after all, does not necessarily work. The centrality of finding one’s voice as scholar, as highlighted in career mentoring workshops, should not be understood as a form of academic self-branding but as arriving at a style of expression that fits and, optimally, renders the labour of writing an occasional source of enjoyment. The appeal that an affective voice holds, or fails to hold, bears no direct relationship to the processes of writing, with their joys and pains: an effortless, compelling flow may well emerge from weeks of intricate crafting. But if a text fails to communicate any interest or passion, it may not hold much fascination for its readers. An affectless voice sets the stage for encounters void of intensity. While these may at times be desirable and necessary, scholarly detachment comes with a certain cost.

Writing, as the means of mediating political investments, intellectual discoveries and processes of thought, involves its own pleasures and passions that are much too seldom acknowledged in academic life. An affective voice, or textual grain, communicates such investments, animates processes of knowledge production and exchange. Writing on and with affect means being invested in and infected by the worlds studied. It aims to infect the readers towards engaging with these worlds in productive ways.

References:

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