Pornography Sergio Rubira

In the Dictionary of the Spanish Royal Academy of Language—the institution that has normalized and regulated the use of language in Spain since that century of enlightenment which produced so many shadows—the word “pornography” in its first (and today its main) meaning, defining rather than being defined, is given as the “obscene element in literary and artistic works.” This meaning moves it away from the original Greek nouns that formed it: πορη (pornē) and γραφία (graphía), “prostitution” and “writing, drawing, or treatise,” relegating them now to third place (bringing them close to disuse) to shift it nearer to a Latin adjective—obscenus, “obscene”—of mysterious etymology. Obscenus, as a compound of obs and caenum, “toward the dirt, fallen in the mud, filthy,” or obscenus as the union of ob and scena, “against the scene, off-scene, that which does not allow itself to be seen on the stage.” Obscene, ultimately, as that which is so filthy it cannot be taken on stage, that which cannot be represented because it is immodest, clumsy, offensive to decency.

Sex, as well as death, was what was hiding behind the scenes in the classical tragedies, those of Racine and Corneille, which still triumphed in the Parisian theaters of the 18th century despite being written almost a hundred years earlier and which helped to build the enlightened “imaginary” left in the penumbra of the candles of the proscenium arch, right out in front, not behind the stage. Sex, and almost always death as well, was the protagonist of books by the Marquis de Sade (1740–1814), aristocrat first, citizen second, who finally became stage director—outside, ob scena—of a group of madmen from the Charenton asylum during Napoleon’s reign. As obscene—“immodest, clumsy, offensive to decency”—as the sodomite Dolmancé, who acts as master, and not only of ceremonies, in La Philosophie dans le boudoir, ou Les instituteurs inmoraux (1795), in a dialogue in which the narrative arc—exhibition, development, resolution—is respected, as are the three unities of classical theater—space, time, and action—but of the fellatios, the cunnilingus, anilingus, vaginal penetrations, sodomizations, and ejaculations that are staged in almost mathematical combinations, first with three elements, then with four, then with five, and later with six and seven, making it impossible to produce. The dialogue takes place in a boudoir—that of Madame de Saint-Ange—in the course of one afternoon (maybe in the year in which the Terror became the Directoire, the year of transition in which that body fragmented by the guillotine began to recover)—in a boudoir where an initiation takes place, that of Eugénie, one of those young ladies to whom the text is addressed, as indicated by the subtitle, Dialogues destinés à la éducation des jeunes demoiselles. The different variations of union between the sexes and sexual acts follow each other in an increasingly geometrical progression, which only appears to end when the mother of Eugénie, Madame de Mistival—violated, sewn up, and infected with syphilis—leaves the stage, slapped and shoved by kicks from her own daughter, the last stage in the training of the girl who has been an accomplice in the ordeal. Philosophy—φιλοσοφία, philo and sophia, “love of knowledge”—overlays the velvet surface of the chaise longue of the boudoir that gives the book its title and that is repeated in three of the four illustrations in the original edition to represent what cannot be represented, what should not be seen, what must remain offstage. Just as unrepresentable in a theater, just as “obscene,” would be the political libel read in the middle of the performance by the Chevalier de Mirval, the young and incestuous brother of Madame de Saint‑Ange and one of the participants of this peculiar orgy. It is called Français, encore un effort si vous voulez être républicains, a monologue as excessive as the scene in which Madame de Mistival is humiliated, a discourse that is an excursus which, due to its length—measured not in inches (the penises of the two male protagonists provide length enough) but in pages—almost at the end (comme une conclusion avant la conclusion) breaks with narrative convention to summarize the “philosophy” (φιλοσοφία, “love of knowledge”) that Dolmancé (maybe the citizen Marquis himself) wants to put into practice (in reality an improbable practice really) in Madame de Saint-Ange’s antechamber (an antechamber which has become the space of a sticky utopia, the imagined and imaginary territory of presumed equality and supposed radical liberty flooded—too muddy for some, very dirty, excessively obscene—with saliva, sweat, sperm, vaginal secretions, excrement, and blood, a dangerous terrain of quicksand in which many of the taboos established by the society of the era, a society in (re)construction, could be carried away by that overflowing current of fluids).

A work for theater that was impossible to stage and whose only option remained to pass itself off as a novel akin to those the 18th century described as “philosophical”: romans (novels) where there was hardly any space for love—for romance, which at that very moment was becoming the definition of gender—only for the love of knowledge called philosophy. Philosophy was considered by some interested parties to be yet another perversion of the kind described in the pages of many—though not all—of those books that came to be prohibited and persecuted, condemned to be written, printed, and sold clandestinely because, in their limitless union of sex, philosophy, and politics, in their pornutopian condition, they attacked the established regimes of whatever stripe: the corrupt old, the bloody new, the disappointing middle which would be victorious in the end. The regimen of the “golden mean” would, due to their excesses, shut these books away under lock and key in those sections of libraries called hell, the hidden shelves to which only a few—the scholarly and privileged—could have access and always under the strict supervision of the librarian (it was about control, the control of knowledge, which gave, or at least did not take away, power, just as in the Gabinetto Segreto del Museo Archeologico Nazionale of Naples one could not enter without permission the room housing the Greco-Latin Ars amatoria, art that with the passing of time has been transformed into a scientia sexualis, such was the will to knowledge). This new science normalized through language and regulated desire; by naming, by giving a name, it normativized and regulated desiring bodies, punishing with jail or confinement in an asylum (as happened to the obscene stage director, Citizen Marquis de Sade) those who did not adapt to the norm and the rule, expelling to the free territory of the brothel (bordellos with much of the boudoir) those who seemed to be escaping from the discourse, a discourse of “double standards”—even though only one standard, that of the white heterosexual middle-class male, which is to say, misogynist, racist, homophobic, and classicist, meant to be uniform, which silenced while at the same time forcing the articulation of desire, turning sex into something “normal”—a “normality” emptying sex of individuality and leveling its expression, making it something that one could—and should—learn to be articulate about.

It was the images of the sexual act, the unrepresentable, the invisible, that seemed (only seemed) to escape this discourse of power whose conception was based only on the spoken and written language, forgetting the visual, that other dominant discourse—why not call it so?—of visuality, because one could also learn—and it was taught—to look, despite being in the territory (not as free as had been thought) of the brothel, one of the places of initiation, of education, of young gentlemen, or those not quite so, not of young ladies; (the hell of) the libraries and (the secret cabinets of) the museums were too exclusive and excluding. First there were the discrete photographs, then the series prepared for every new type of photographic apparatus, and after that the cinematographic sequence. These were films with no story, or almost no story, simple certificates testifying that what was being viewed had been done, that the encounter had taken place, within that realistic vocation, a simulacrum of reality, which characterizes almost all pornographic images. The penetrations and fellatios followed each other without resolution, or without what was later seen as a conclusion. The proof, circumstantial yet again, was that orgasm had been reached, that pleasure had been created, the pleasure of ejaculation. Spectators had to remain unsatisfied lest the goal of the film go unachieved: to titillate them to a desire to consume—and to consummate—what they had viewed (because many of those early films had the function of advertisements), to show the merchandise and the services on offer in the bordellos, just as the original photographs had something of the catalog and something of the souvenir about them. Little by little, however, first disguised as documentary and then dressed up as science fiction, these films left the underground to install themselves in the public sphere, from the house of pleasure to the auditorium of the cinema—just as photographs left the office desk to be installed in kiosks, becoming symbols of a freedom that all tried to access though it was not entirely understood. In fact, both the most conservative and those who considered themselves to be progressive agreed that the recently acquired freedom should be eliminated; there arose a new question of control and power as the repetition of stereotypes and formulas that had been fixed by the dominant normative regime during the 19th and 20th centuries and determined as gender had not only taught people to talk about sex, but also to observe it. This was so evident to the producer Stephen Ziplow that in his The Film Maker’s Guide to Pornography (1977) he claims that in order to be successful, the script of every pornographic film should include the following: masturbation (feminine), vaginal penetration, lesbianism, oral sex (cunnilingus and fellatio), ménage à trios, orgy (optional due to its high cost), anal penetration (feminine), sadomasochism (optional), and, necessarily, at least ten ejaculations, without which there would be no film. Again, images of coitus interruptus, representations of dissatisfaction, aspirations encouraged though impossible to attain ultimately have nothing in common with Sadean pornutopias, nor with modern utopias, though they have been kept close to an advertising culture that has shifted from the commercialization of products to the sale of behavior and lifestyles. The story line became ever less important, the narrative more condensed, the fragmentation even greater. It seemed like a step back, and growing specialization has allowed many who had been considered outside the norm to enter—although it was not in innocence. It was a matter of audience maintenance; the market had to be widened, more targets had to be considered, more niches opened, which have a lot in common with archive classification, the encyclopedia entry, another habit—yet another trap—of knowledge.

Representations of explicit sex, above all normative ones, have come out from behind the curtains and remained on the stage. From offscenity they have passed to onscenity, as they have even stopped being pornography to become something new best not to name, best kept undefined. If the nature of pornography has changed, maybe its definition, that which makes it descriptive, should as well and begin to qualify what remains obscene, what still cannot be represented today, what still has to be kept invisible.


Joanne Bernstein, Martin Kemp, Marina Wallace, Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now, Barbican Art Gallery and Merrell, London and New York 2007.

Pamela Church Gibson, Roma Gibson, Dirty Looks: Women, Pornography, Power, British Film Institute, London 1993.

Pamela Church Gibson, More Dirty Looks, British Film Institute, London 2004.

Robert Darnton, The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, W.W. Norton & Company, New York 1996.

Michel Foucault, Histoire de la sexualité I: la Volonté de savoir, Gallimard, Paris 1994.

Lynn Hunt, The Invention of Pornography: Obscenity and the Origins of Modernity, Zone Books, New York 1993.

Walter Kendrick, The Secret Museum, Pornography in Modern Culture, Viking, New York 1987.

Peter Lehman, Pornography: Film and Culture, Rutgers University Press, Piscatawa 2006.

Marquis de Sade, La Philosophie dans le boudoir, ou Les instituteurs inmoreaux, Flammarion, Paris 2007.

Linda Williams, Hard Core, Power, Pleasure, and “The Frenzy of the Visible,” University of California Press, Los Angeles and London 1999.

Linda Williams, Porn Studies, Duke University Press, Durham 2004.