If you are in London on Monday, October 22, please come and join the fun: the book launch for Many Splendored Things: Thinking Sex and Play is on! The event is co-hosted by the Goldsmiths Press and the Centre for Feminist Research, and there is talk of wine.
Category Archives: cultural studies
Together with the fabulous Sanna Spišák, we coined this short invited contribution for the 20th anniversary issue of Sexualities on a topic close to our hearts. And here’s the manuscript version:
Malleable identities, leaky taxonomies: The matter of sexual flexibility
In a survey conducted by Sanna Spišák on Finnish adolescents’ approaches to and relations with pornography, the 98 research participants were given the task of defining their own sexual identifications rather than ticking an existing box of one’s choice. The open-ended answers resulted in nine different categorizations: heterosexual, homosexual, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, demisexual, asexual, polysexual and non-defined. Despite the care that some respondents took in defining their orientations, they did not necessarily express much affective attachment to the sexual markers used:
I’m straight, or at least I have been so far! (‘Anna’, 15)
I can’t really tell so I keep my options open. I might consider both women and men attractive but I don’t count myself as bisexual. (‘Nora’, 17)
I haven’t actually defined my sexual identity yet, but I guess the most fitting term would be pansexual. (‘Julia’, 13)
I think I’m demisexual. (‘Maria’, 16)
Setting aside the possible interpretation that such a range of definitions owes to the fact that these young people are still in the midst of their identity formation, and hence ‘works in progress’, we would like to take seriously the openness and diversity that they suggest. In what follows, we ask what such a multifaceted range of sexual self-identifications implies about the role and force of sexual norms in the lives of young people, as well as how this flexibility could be accounted for. Rather than presuming for their self-definitions to become at some point fixed along the binary categories of straight versus lesbian/gay/queer, we suggest that the openness evident in the responses disrupts the sense of identity categories that scholars and educators operate with.
Given both its small sample and cultural specificity, the survey affords no generalization. Yet similar findings have recently emerged also elsewhere. In the 2017 nationally representative Finnish school health survey, over 10 per cent of sixth form and vocational school students identified as other than heterosexual (from the available choices of ‘bi,’ ‘gay or lesbian’ and ‘none of the above fits to describe me’). The figures were systematically higher in urban areas and among respondents identifying as female – although closer to 5 per cent identified as non-binary (National Institute for Health and Welfare, 2017). In a 2015 American trend forecast 48 percent of the respondents aged 14 to 20 identified themselves as exclusively heterosexual, compared to the 65 percent in the age group of 21 to 34 (e.g., the ‘Millennials’). Summing up the survey results, journalist Zing Tsjeng (2016) points out that, ‘On a scale of zero to six, where zero signified “completely straight” and six meant “completely homosexual,” more than a third of the young demographic chose a number between one and five’.
Flexibility in perceiving one’s sexual identity and the acts that one may enjoy engaging in has been explored within sex research already for some time. In her extensive analysis of sexual fluidity among women, Lisa M. Diamond (2009) argues that common understandings of sexual identity based on fixity are derived from considerations of male sexuality whereas female sexuality is characterized by fluidity in terms of sexual desires, partners and identifications. It can nevertheless be asked whether the gender binary through which Diamond’s study operates speaks less of what people identifying as men and women do than of how they disclose and describe their sexual acts and attachments. For, as Jane Ward (2015: 7) points out, ‘white straight-identifying men manufacture opportunities for sexual contact with other men in a remarkably wide range of setting’. Such exchanges would be defined as ‘experimentation’, ‘accident’, ‘joke’ and ‘game’, rather than issues of identity (Ward, 2015: 27). Furthermore, as Mark McCormack (2018: 13) points out in his introduction to the recent Sexualities special issue on ‘mostly straights’ and heteroflexibility, ‘heterosexuality is changing, particularly in youth cultures, new ways are needed to understand the diversification of heterosexuality and sexuality more broadly’.
There would be nothing particularly novel to the flexibility of sexual practices or interests as such, yet there seems to be newness to how younger people approach and disclose their non-binary palates outside the framings of either humour or shame (also Ward, 2015: 10–12). What might then be the cause for young people in different Western countries defining their sexual selves in diverse ways, and by emphasizing contingency and openness in how their preferences may evolve or play out in the future? It would hardly be apt to claim that heteronormativity has suddenly lost its firm grip as an organizing principle of intimacies and social arrangements, yet it seems that its coercive appeal as the default choice that young people should accommodate to is not altogether overpowering. In other words, the young people responding to the surveys addressed above did not seem to coherently register heterosexuality – or normative heterosexuality in particular (Rossi, 2011) – as the compulsory framework for their ways of being and engaging with other people.
Possible reasons for this are multiple, and open to speculation. There have clearly been notable transformations in sexual publics, namely in the general increased visibility of all kinds of sexual orientations, attachments and cultures, as well as in the broad availability of media narratives covering them. Queer and trans YouTube vloggers, sexually experimental Instagram celebrities and confessional autobiographers all expand the sexual mediasphere in the images that they show and the stories they tell (Duguay, 2015; Hall, 2016; McAlister, 2017; Raun, 2016). Online pornography, catered in carefully indexed subcategories and with a plethora of tags indicating distinctions between different preferences and styles, would be only one example of the easily available resources, albeit a vast one, for testing out the possible range of sexual tastes and interests.
Feona Attwood (2011: 86–87) identifies the contemporary flexibility and playfulnesss of sexual identities with how sex as such is increasingly framed as a leisure activity and an arena of consumption accommodating ‘hedonistic lads and ladettes, bi-curious girls and just-gay-enough boys, characterised by “heteroflexibility” … and “metrosexuality”, a term coined by Mark Simpson … to describe the emergence of a figure for whom sexual identity is forged, not through sex acts or sexual orientation, but through mediation, consumerism and the development of lifestyle.’ These leisure markets figure sex in terms of taste cultures, which, similarly to taste more generally, develop and vary across people’s lifespans (Attwood, 2007). Figured in terms of constant accumulation of experiences, commodities and pleasures, sexuality, like any other taste or preference, entails the perpetual promise of novel sensations and experiences. One’s horizons of possibility in terms of sexual likes and bents remain perpetually open, as one can always feel like shopping for something different. (Attwood and Smith, 2013: 326.)
An understanding of the sexual self as a work in progress that may be fickle or even unpredictable in its desires implies something of a profound shift in the notion of identity. Rather than figuring sexual identity as a firm sense of who one is that people come to understand and know as they age, the survey responses point to identity categories as working definitions that are descriptive of the present moment, and possibly something of the recent past, yet remain detached from the aim of pinning or closing down the possibilities that tomorrow may bring. Such malleable understanding of the sexual self is at odds with the framing of identity through mutually exclusive or opposing categories, given the default space left for figuring things out in an alternative way. It would equally be at odds with identity politics that allow for personal trajectories of desire and attachment to be ‘wedded to the public construction of a group identity and to a political strategy for social change’ (Epstein, 1994: 192).
Yet rather than eroding the premises of LGBTQI activism as such, the redefinition that the survey responses gesture toward would primarily seem to involve an unravelling of heterosexuality as a clear orientation excluding other attachments. For some young people, heterosexuality is something that one may do exclusively, or then not, move in and out from, and perform with all sorts of trimmings and flexibilities. This may be seen as one more example of the privileges that heteronormativity allows for subjects considered appropriately straight to negotiate its boundaries while nevertheless reaping the benefits of their privileged location within the sexual hierarchy. Those whose preferences are situated at the hierarchy’s outer edges may find more purpose in sticking to, and articulating their specific identifications for political ends. In other words, the malleability and flexibility of the sexual self across pre-given categories is connected to the operations of the sexual norm as that which does not need to define itself, and that therefore offers the privilege of accommodating degrees of unruliness without becoming ruptured or undone.
Considered from yet another angle, the issue of malleability can be connected to conceptualizing sexuality less as differences in kind than those in degree – that is, as variations, or as diverse patterns within a broader fabric (Bergson, 2007: 299). When conceptualizing differences in kind in the realm of sexuality, the task becomes one of charting out taxonomies, be these binary ones, such as queer versus straight; broad ones, such as those separating the heterosexual from the homosexual, bisexual or asexual; or much more nuanced ones, such as the categories of abrosexuality based on fluidity, ceterosexuality involving attraction to nonbinary people, placiosexuality centred on performing rather than being the recipient of sexual acts or quoisexuality averse to any extant labels. As a strategy of classification, sexual taxonomy functions through distinctions drawn between separate categories. Alternatively, if one approaches the spectrum of sexual fantasies, desires and orientations in terms of differences in degree, the issue is one of intensities and gradations that necessitate no pigeonholes to separate them, to turn towards or away from. Contra the taxonomical principles of sexual normativity, desire, as fields of variation, remains resistant to such forms of capture.
What, then, follows from all this? One obvious implication is a need to allow for openness in how both gender and sexual identities are mapped out, not least when working with young people. If the familiar and ubiquitous binary framing of sexuality fails to capture the experiences and self-understandings of young people, then scholars and educators should not start from such models, operate within them, or try to mould people’s sexual selves into fitting them. A focus on variation – on differences in degree – makes it possible to consider how individual sexual tastes shift and alter, as well as to conceptualize sexuality less in terms of taxonomies than becomings through which bodies and selves move from one state to another and become altered in the process.
Attwood F (2007) No money shot? Commerce, pornography and new sex taste cultures. Sexualities 10 (4): 441–456.
Attwood, F (2011) Sex and the citizens: Erotic play and the new leisure culture. In:
Bramham, P and Wagg, S (eds) The New Politics of Leisure and Pleasure. Berlin: Springer, pp. 82–96.
Attwood, F and Smith C (2013) More sex! Better sex! Sex is fucking brilliant! Sex, sex, Sex, SEX. In: Blackshaw T (ed) Routledge Handbook of Leisure Studies. London: Routledge, pp. 325–342.
Bergson, H (2007). Matter and Memory. Palmer. New York: Cosimo.
Diamond, L M (2009) Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Duguay, S (2016) Lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer visibility through selfies: Comparing platform mediators across Ruby Rose’s Instagram and Vine presence. Social Media + Society 2(2): 1–12. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/2056305116641975.
Epstein, S (1994) A queer encounter: Sociology and the study of sexuality. Sociological Theory 12 (2): 188–202.
Hall, K (2016) Selfies and self-writing: Cue card confessions as social media technologies of the self. Television & New Media 17(3): 228–242.
McAlister, J (2017) True tales of the first time: Sexual storytelling in the virginity loss confessional genre. Sexualities 20 (1–2): 105–120.
McCormack, M (2018) Mostly straights and the study of sexuality: An introduction to special issue. Sexualities 21 (1–2): 3–15.
National Institute for Health and Welfare. 2017. Kouluterveyskyselyn tulokset nuorilla (‘Results of the school health survey among young people’), https://sampo.thl.fi/pivot/prod/fi/ktk/ktk1/summary_perustulokset.
Raun, T (2016) Out Online: Trans Self-Representation and Community Building on YouTube. London: Routledge.
Rossi, L-M (2011) ‘Happy’ and ‘unhappy’ performatives: Images and norms of heterosexuality. Australian Feminist Studies 26 (67): 9–23.
Tsjeng, Z (2016) Teens these days are queer AF, new study says. Broadly, March 10, https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/kb4dvz/teens-these-days-are-queer-af-new-study-says.
Ward, J (2015) Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men. New York: New York University Press.
My book, Many Splendored Things: Thinking Sex and Play, with Goldsmiths Press, has the due-date of October 1. Hardcover, yet pretty affordable thanks to the publisher’s policy of avoiding “the exploitation of authors as well as readers, creators as well as users“. I remain in awe of the cover design and since this is a pet project if there ever was one, it’s all much more exciting than academic publishing tends to be.
For most of the past week spent at the MAGIS FilmForum Spring School (section: Porn Studies – Pornography. Margins and Extremes) I have, besides learning new things and meeting excellent people, spent marvelling at this cover design for my book, Many Splendored Things, forthcoming from Goldsmiths Press next Autumn. The final subtitle is Thinking Sex and Play, I am doing the very last fixes and this, indeed, is the cover. A friend said that it looks like subspace feels, which I figure is the highest of compliments to pay a designer asked to translate some of the intensity and fleshy pleasure of sexual play into visual format. As someone who all too keenly judges books by their covers, I find this very gratifying.
Anyone around in Toronto in March? If so, I’m lucky enough to contribute to the MsUnderstanding Media: The Extensions of Woman talk series at University of Toronto’s McLuhan Centre for Culture and Technology on Monday the 19th. And what’s more, it’s a double feature with the fabulous Wendy Chun discussing sexuality, gendered online shaming and much more, under the title, “Shame, shame, shame (refresh)”. The series sets out to “foreground how a feminist focus on ‘the extensions of woman’ renews McLuhan’s concern with the politics of pace, pattern and scale in our everyday technological objects”. Faithful to the theme, my contribution explores dick pics as extensions of man, building on the #NSFW book project I’m currently finishing together with Kylie Jarrett and Ben Light for MIT Press.
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.
My 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.
CFP 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 email@example.com 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
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.
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.
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.
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