The preponderance of “porn”

Today, I was just chilling on the internet and a friend pointed out that a trending subreddit was “things cut in half porn” (r/ThingsCutInHalfPorn). My mind instantly went to an old (2003) manga by Shintaro Kago: “The Desperate Sadness of a Cross-Section.” Yes, if you decide to look it up, you should know that Kago Shintaro is well known for his guro manga (guro = ero-guro = erotic grotesque, but guro also has a connotation of gore now in Western consumption of manga and anime and games) and it’s very absurdist and kinda freaky and okay so this one in particular involves a woman who is cut in half by some freak accident (space lasers?) and so no one loves her and she has to love herself. Yes, it’s porny.

Anyway. So this popped into my mind and I tried to find an appropriate image to reference and I thought about linking it to the aforementioned subreddit, only to find that they have an “NSFW posts are not allowed” rule. Which is kind of silly, if you think about it, because the subreddit title includes the word “porn.” It’s also part of a series of subreddits known as the “SFW Porn Network,” which presumably includes various high quality pictures of things that are safe for work. Because the internet is for porn, but apparently porn means “things that are nice to look at.”

But when did this happen? As is customary for English majors, even ex-English majors who are now in vaguely not-humanities fields (I’ll give you the humanities when you pry it from my cold dead hands), all roads lead to the OED. The OED has two definitions each for “porn” and “pornography,” and it is “porn” that I am interested in after all.

2. fig. As the second element in compounds: denoting written or visual material that emphasizes the sensuous or sensational aspects of a non-sexual subject, appealing to its audience in a manner likened to the titillating effect of pornography.

“porn, n.2.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2014. Web. 13 May 2014.

So. This usage dates back to 1973, apparently, when someone decided to use the phrasing “horror-porn” in the Journal of Popular Culture. “Pornography” itself only dates back to the early 19th century, and has, since the mid-20th, been used to indicate stimulating non-erotic material, though with a lower frequency than “porn.”

In my mind, I associate the full word “pornography” with a clinical or dismissive attitude, whereas “porn” connotes at least some sort of enthusiasm for the subject. I remember sharing the phrase “sky porn” with a friend like some sort of delicate chocolate; we still sometimes send each other pretty pictures of the sky. Still, something about that usage is vaguely titillating. As if we knew that the word was tainted by association, uncomfortably sensual.

I think I can’t be offended by the use of “porn” to describe things that are a treat to the senses. Even if it strikes me as funny when this usage explicitly excludes things that are often considered quintessentially pornographic.

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Random thoughts

Archives are a set of materialities whose practices are reproduced, negotiated, and reconstituted through everyday use—in sum, a technology. (In line with the Suchman definition of technology from “Working Relations of Technology Production and Use,” which I quoted in this post.)

Also—nothing is natural in the sense of emerging de novo—what is natural is the process of trying a thing, and continuing to adapt it until it fits the situation or context. In short, evolution is natural. The ways that people use technologies are natural. The inscription of certain practices as “the way things are” is not natural.

Nothing is what it was meant to be.

Scraps written in the back of Life on the Screen because I didn’t have a notebook on hand.

In which your author revises her opinion of Suchman

Technologies can be understood as materials whose stability relies upon the continuous reproduction of their meaning and usefulness in practice.

– Suchman (1993), “Working Relations of Technology Production and Use.”

I’ve had similar thoughts and read similar thoughts strewn over papers before but this is a perfect crystallization of the nature of technology. I think this has to go on my mythical quote board, to pull out whenever someone questions why I care about smashing up materiality and practice and context and performance into a great big ball of “research material.” It’s why, although I focus on games, I also look at literature and scanlation (lol yeah really) and “new media” in general.

But I’ll be honest, this works just as well to explain myths, or methods, or anything used by people to make meaning. Which makes me wonder: what if technologies are tools for meaning-making? As in, understand technology as anything that a person uses in order to add meaning? I know this is sloppy, but I feel like it kind of has to be in order to capture the human elements of this. I’m suggesting we look at myths and methods (just to be consistent here) as technologies in the production of meaning.

tl;dr: Suchman got this one right on the nose, and I’m grateful for it.

On friendship and technology; or, FRIEND COMPUTER!

I’ve been reading Nunberg’s edited volume, The Future of the Book, for class, and so have been wading through a fair bit of anti-techno-utopian rhetoric. Normally, that’s cool, because I’m no techno-utopian. But the way in which I am not techno-utopian is that I recognize the continuities and remediations (thanks, Bolter and Grusin) in new media forms. So I don’t like the rhetoric that relies on assuming that new media fundamentally alter the ways that we connect to one another.

So, that said. I appreciate when people put effort into exploring how people will be people through a variety of media forms. And recently, Maureen O’Connor, writing for NYMag’s The Cut blog, penned a great post about friendship in the digital age and group texting and dress rehearsing nudes.

I have to admit, I think The Cut does a consistently thorough and thoughtful treatment of elements of modern culture from the perspective of style and fashion. But this post in particular came at a good time for my mental universe, just as I was grappling with a rhetoric of rupture and social revolution. It’s about how a group of childhood (maybe young adulthood is better?) friends came together through texting. It’s about how two friends share their insecurities by texting pictures to one another. And it’s nothing utopian or too idealistic, but it shows how people manage to keep a sense of social interaction because that’s the point of all this.

My personal experiences certainly bear this argument out. I keep up with my best friend from college through a daily barrage (I mean this in the best way possible) of texts and gchats. Hell, I started my tumblr because I wanted to continue the casual ritual we had of sharing our outfits before going about our respective days (we had basically a suite situation with two separate rooms and a connecting bathroom). I know other people look at it now, occasionally, and I doubt she does so regularly, but she is still my audience for those posts. (Hi!)

I’ve had a blog of some sort or another since 2003. For me, writing on blogs is always a quasi-meditative task, with a nameless, faceless audience. I take pleasure in this distance, sometimes. I know that part of my process is just writing things out, and if people happen to comment and leave their thoughts on my writings, then I can incorporate those and be an even better writer. But this is different from friendship. Friendship requires a sense of reciprocity, or at least of mutual recognition. (Feel free to substitute any kind of positive human relationship for “friendship” there.) The faceless nonexistent audience that I imagine when writing a blog post, the echo chamber of my own metaphorical shower stall, that is emphatically not the kind of engagement that O’Connor is describing. And that’s kind of a great thing. All kinds of engagement are possible, we just have to make it so. Not our technologies, ourselves.

In closing, O’Connor offers an insightful (and hilarious) meditation on the freedoms of a child-like perspective:

Some may find the constant chatter and creep toward co-dependence childish — but the art of friendship has always been one that children perform more naturally than adults. (Other things children do better than adults: imagination, texting, wonderment, recovering from the shame of shitting in your pants.)

Maybe allowing ourselves to explore—new technologies, new forms, new social networks—brings us closer to that wonderment that makes magic happen.

Also, the “Friend computer” is a reference to Paranoia, a hilariously enjoyable role-playing game.

New journal of Porn Studies

Thanks to some people who I follow on Twitter, I found out that the first issue of Porn Studies is out now. This is a free, open-access, peer-reviewed journal devoted to porn studies, and just glancing at the titles, it seems like a comprehensive and interdisciplinary approach to porn (online, manga, whatever your fancy). There’s a roundtable discussion with contemporary porn actors including Stoya (who is fast-becoming my favorite porn star) and Courtney Trouble. There’s some book reviews, including one of the Feminist Porn Book, which I believe is related to the founding of this journal and to the feminist porn conference. Which leads me to a small, but important point: one of the articles includes a term that I would consider questionable in the title, and makes me slightly uncomfortable with recommending this issue outright.

The article in question (link here: title includes defamatory terms for trans* individuals) is an overview of trends in contemporary US adult film production, distribution, and consumption. Naturally, there are some trends that are highly exploitative, and rely on exploitative terminology to identify themselves. The author of this article, Tibbals, includes a footnote explaining her use of terminology, but I don’t think this is really enough to justify the use of slurs in the title, even if it is contextualized within the article. I get that there’s a fine line between using a term that may have been reclaimed by a community, and using a slur, and I commend the thought that clearly went into this decision, but I think it was a misplay to have a defamatory term in the title.

I also recognize that I am speaking from a position of privilege about this, and also a position of trust in the editorial staff for this issue. I’m assuming good faith here. You may decide that you don’t want to, and that’s totally fine.

Moving on: there are a few articles that feed into that thing I was talking about – the online porn and intimacy post from a few days ago. I think within the next few days I’ll read those articles and the book review (and maybe even have a look at the book in question) and try to contextualize those vis-a-vis that post. Maybe I’ll even feel inspired to draw up some design briefs! (Lol. Unlikely.)

On a contextual theory of communication

Normally people think of communication with a transmissive view, i.e. there is a sender, a signal, and a receiver, and each part of this process can be checked for success or failure. Carey talks about this as the predominant mode in American discourse on communication, and that hasn’t changed much since he wrote in 1989 (Communication as Culture). He also talks about an alternative view, the ritual view, wherein communication acts like reciting lines of a play or of a religious service, reinforcing a community’s ideals.

But both of these views depend on a receptive audience: in the transmission view, the audience receives a new belief, and in the ritual view, the audience enforces an existing belief. I think this can be limiting, especially when we think about actual vs. imagined audiences, and if we think about art that may not be intended to encode a message but just to show something.

So what if it’s more like, communication is that which affects an intellectual context and you can walk through that mind landscape and react to it how you will? What if we throw word bombs at each other’s mind palaces? And more importantly, what would it mean to begin to analyze language/communication/representation from this perspective?

I had to reread the first chapter of Communication as Culture before I let myself write this post, and in so doing I realized that Carey approached this idea himself. Reality, for Carey, is constructed through symbolic representation (aka, communication).

…communication is a symbolic process whereby reality is produced, maintained, repaired, and transformed” (Carey 1989, 23)

There’s another part of Carey’s argument about communication: it is social, public. It doesn’t necessarily presume an audience devoted to decoding, but it does presume an audience. Our communicative acts are visible. This is less symmetric than the transmission view of sender/signal/receiver, but more personable. More human.

Although, one important caveat about the similarity between my argument and Carey’s is that I believe this is what Carey refers to as the ritual mode, while I think it’s something other than that.


Two references which prompted me to consider the question of audience and art/communication (also more reason for me to read Dewey, I guess):