Monday, April 14, 2008

Voices and Violence

I'm really tired, but I feel like I need to do this right now, while I still feel really uncomfortable.  But first:

Oral exams are June 4th, so I'll know by then at the latest if I'm a complete wasto!

So, some of the pertinent info that's on my mind is here:

I'm worried about my ability to communicate.  I entered the above thread in the interest of expanding my vocabulary, to better understand my position as someone striving to be a feminist in a late-capitalist patriarchy.   What does being entail, and how can I minimize the violence essential to my existence.  I am, after all, privileged, par excellence, and will be received that way.  When I look, I gaze, and I need to learn (it will be my project for life to learn) how to mitigate that gaze, to make it positive rather than possessive.

Porn is an obvious site of exploration.  Without the gaze, there is no porn.  Regrettably, studying music theory and being interested specifically in how feminism works there has steered my reading away from the visual and into the areas of cultural production and music.  Representation is key, as is subjectivity.  Understanding various theories of ontology and epistemology has taken a great deal of my time, and, I hope, allowed me better to understand the degree of my complicity in the reinscription of a phallogocentric economy.

But maybe not.  Maybe the sound of my voice, the intrusion of my name, is enough to prevent me from not being the father.  My identity as a heterosexual male seems to be enough to align me with the phallocracy, to pin me as a porn-mongering apologist.

Recent experience outside of the web has taught me that it doesn't do any good to blame the reader for misreading.  If that were the case, there would be no motion outside the dominant, no room for dissenting voices.  It seems to me the only wiggle room is found in a multi-vocal approach to reading that is inquisitive rather than accusing.

But this doesn't get around the problem of speaking.  I have a voice: it's part of being privileged.  How can I find a mode of discourse that invites multi-vocal reading?  Some speech (and some topics) automatically restrict response choices (I do not think this is necessarily one of those places, but I have personal reasons for wanting to theorize this moment).  My position of power as a pretty good-sized straight white male means that I'm in that position a lot (I even had a young girl run down the street one night because she saw me walking home).  I try to be sensitive and sensible of the sometimes silencing effect of my body, but that is not enough, even when I'm successful.  Is there a way for me to be, to speak, to touch, etc., that always leaves open every avenue of response?

It should be pretty clear that I don't have an answer to this.  If I did, I'd already have a job.

The question of porn is a particular instance.  I will rule out immediately porn of the violent stripe, and porn involving coercion (economic, sexual, narcotic, etc.): those are clearly negative, both in their treatment of the cast and in their construction of culture.  But suppose in a fantasy land there is a recording of people enjoying a sexual exchange, filmed, packaged, sold and viewed with the intent of arousing the viewer (let's be self-indulgent and pragmatic and assume, as is often done tacitly, that the viewer is a heterosexual male), perhaps even for masturbatory purposes.  Is their violence there?  (and please, these questions are of course rhetorical, but not meant to imply a specific answer, but rather to leave them open)

This is a problem, as always, of representation.  What porn does that seems most violent (in Butler's sense of the word) is construct sexual ideals.  The very act of recording and marketing the sexual image of a person is an endorsement of that image as preferred, and the success of the image reifies it as an ideal.  Then if your boobs aren't big enough, you're not sexy enough, because you don't meet the ideal (e.g.).  But of course, that's not just porn (excepting absurdly broad definitions of the term): movies, advertisements, books, religion, the state, philosophy... all these things are in the business of constructing ideals up to which no one will ever measure.  If representation is the problem, then if we can't watch porn, we also can't engage in most modes of cultural production (including classical music, according to McClary--and I buy this part of her argument).

But there is a difference.  Cultural production that participates in the construction of ideals is ubiquitous: we call it patriarchy, but it goes by any number of names (see Oh God, below).  Porn is unique, though, in it's portrayal of sex.  When I go to bed with a woman, she is almost always completely physically vulnerable to me.  Because porn does not exist in isolation, but rather interacts with everything else, the idealization of a sexual body, combined with a culture of rape, recodes my body as dangerous, rather than only sensual (and by rape culture I mean Western culture--see Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will [which I've not yet finished], or for a shorter article, Ruth Solie, "What Do Feminist Want? A Reply to Pieter van den Toorn," The Journal of Musicology 9, No. 4, 1991, 399-410).  The interaction between a culture of physical violence against women and an industry predicated on the construction of an impossible sexual ideal breeds both violence and the expectation thereof.  While I cannot do much to change my cultural membership or my body, I can control my relationship to porn.  In the hope that this small change will make she whom I love (still I speak in ideals--both love and she at the present) safer.

Most of this reasoning is happening in real-time.  I'm beginning to think it would have been more effective to talk to myself than to try to enter a stream in which, in retrospect, I was clearly not welcome.

I'm very bitter about this last.  I love Twisty's work, and will continue to read her blog, but I'm quite scandalized by the ease with which I was presumed guilty even while I expressed my interest and openness.

Politics is impossible, and always happens anyway.  I've often heard people claim that feminists hate porn because they're all a bunch of fat lesbians and it makes them feel bad (or that they're lesbians because they're fat and men don't want them--Freud gets pretty close to exactly that claim.  Freud was a pretty horrible person).  I'd like to pretend this is just a caricature of conservatism, but I'm sure we all know better.  I obviously don't share this view of feminism: if I did I wouldn't have asked for a reason, believing instead that I already held it.  What caught me off guard was that I was instantly caricatured in an equally unflattering way.  I wanted to know the reasons behind a position, and I was therefore opposed to the position, and entrenched in my love for, need of, porn.  But we went over this a bit above.  I'm recursing, this time with more frustration in my voice, and I will move on.

I was going to end by repeating my resolution to take mearl at his/her word, but now that I've had the time to work through the argument on my own (spurred on, admittedly, by a recent and distressing revelation I shan't recount), I need not (though I will anyway).

It is pretty clear at this point that the differentiation between gay and straight porn, between violent and non-violent porn, etc., is unnecessary.  I began this inquiry from a selfish point of view, wanting to know how I might better conduct myself to minimize my complicity.   Since I don't participate sexually in the gay community, nuances of that genre are not relevant.  Since it is unlikely that the quality of my porn will affect its reception by a third party, this latter is irrelevant as well.

So while I'll certainly keep thinking about this, and reading (Dworkin here I come, once those general exams are done), I'll go ahead and make this my official renunciation of porn statement.  I know this will ring hollow for most of you, since you've no idea whether or not I'm lying.  Do I even know?  

I'm not sure the title seems as relevant now as it was, but I think it still is.  After all, this is the sort of thing that might not be easily discussed, even between intimate partners.  How do you tell the person you love that there is a physical threat, and it's him?

PS, thoughts, comments, tirades, criticism, expansion, etc., are all extremely welcome and solicited.  Especially if you're pissed at me still.


Megan said...

I think you weren't given a fair shake over there. True, she does bill the blog as "Advanced Patriarchy-Blaming" so if your rhetorical chops aren't quite up to snuff, you'll get called on it. I certainly have.

But I think any heterosexual male who questions these things with is walking the right path. You might still have some gaps in your understanding now, but who doesn't, when initially confronting and exploring such huge issues?

(And this: "After all, this is the sort of thing that might not be easily discussed, even between intimate partners. How do you tell the person you love that there is a physical threat, and it's him?" really struck home. I have to deal with this one.)

That you have this burgeoning awareness is great, but it's also not enough. My own awareness is high, but it too is not enough. In some ways, due to the magnitude of what we're confronting, it never will be.

Please don't give up on reading Twisty. What I've learned from reading her work there is huge, and it's scary reading, but necessary.

Madrigal said...

Well, ThePeat, I'm going to take you at your word that you truly wish to hear some advice about what happened at Twisty's blog. I'm sorry that you feel bitter but you seem to think that you expressed "interest and openness" in your posts. Unfortunately, I have to tell you that, as a long time reader of Twisty's blog, you did not come across that way at all to me. In fact, you came across as rather didactic and opinionated, particularly for a first-time poster.

I don't mean this harshly but yes, IMO, you do have a bit of a communication problem. You came onto an advanced patriarchy-blaming blog asking novice questions but instead of listening you were much more concerned with what seemed to me to be pontificating to the feminists on the blog about your thoughts on the subject. And, forgive me, you sound like quite a young man, while many of the women on Twisty's blog are quite mature. We are also very used to male heterosexuals coming onto the blog and trying to tell us what feminism is all about and what we should believe, so I think you might just excuse us for being prickly when you roll up and the first thing out of your mouth is "This is extremely naive" to an erudite anti-porn post by our beloved Twisty.

So my advice would be: talk less, listen more, keep reading Twisty and try again a little later. Good luck!

Anony said...

To be honest, my advice would be, not necessarily to stop reading IBTP, but to choose a different forum for engaging in the more academic/critical side of feminist discussion. While theory does come up at Twisty's occasionally (mainly in articles) it doesn't really come into play too much in the comments. A lot of the feminist blogosphere (and the various commentariats thereof) isn't too deeply based in feminist theory. I'm sure there are other feminist blogs more interested in the philosophy of feminism where you could explore theory and try to tease practice out of same. I think in some of the more passionate spaces like IBTP, the detachment necessary for theoretical discussion is read as lack of investment or sincerity.

pisaquari said...

" But suppose in a fantasy land there is a recording of people enjoying a sexual exchange, filmed, packaged, sold and viewed with the intent of arousing the viewer (let's be self-indulgent and pragmatic and assume, as is often done tacitly, that the viewer is a heterosexual male), perhaps even for masturbatory purposes."

Here is a question Peat: without gender, power structures, or any type of standard on attractiveness do you truly believe this content would still be arousing?

sandy said...

Pete, I used to be a regular reader of Twisty, but I honestly find the level of "advanced" feminist discourse depressingly conservative, and limited. Contrary to didactic and opinionated, your posts in my opinion at least, were sound, and seemed mostly interested in expanding the ideological and moralistic discussion beyond bianaries of good/bad.

No doubt some readers will jump on my less than favourable assessment of IBTP, and radical feminism as a whole. For the record, I'm an "elitist welfare mom" with an undergraduate and graduate degree in women's studies, hoping to complete my phd in women's studies.

If your looking to get a better understanding of the radical feminist debate on pornography, the most logical place to start is Katherine MacKinnon and Dworkin. Your a lawyer correct? MacKinnon's background is law as well. I can't believe I'm going to reccomend Harvard lawyer Janet Halley, but her book Split Decisions, offers both a profound respect for the work of MacKinnon, but also mounts a serious challange against MacKinnon and other radical, as well as liberal feminists concerning the dogmatic anti-pornography debate. I am always struck by how much these seemingly oppositional camps actually have in common. Radical feminism, in my opinion at least, seems utterly blind to it's paternalism.

While I agree with pisquari's assertion that IBTP might not be the best blog to "tease out" issues, or tackle feminist epistemology, Twisty herself pronouces the blog to be "Advanced Patriarchy Blaming" So gosh, I'll forgive you at least, for assuming that the blog might be open to a complex discussion of the issues at hand. "Teasing out" certainly doesn't have to be incomprehensible theory re: bell hook, Stuart Mill.

In reading through the posts, both you and redbirch(?), offered some of the more interesting/challenging insigths. You communicated fine, they just didn't like what you had to say. As a passionate, dedicated feminist, with a solid background both in theory, and community, I can honestly say that I feel no less welcome at that site than you.


"If I can't dance then it's not a revolution!"
-emma goldman

sandy said...

ah silly me, your not a lawyer, or a Pete.

eoferr said...

I agree with the above commenters on a couple of levels. For one, Twisty's blog and the comments are pretty much a place to tease out a certain form of radical feminism. Not much deviation from that is allowed. The basic theory's already worked out, it's just a matter of applying that.

On the other hand, as a SWM myself, I think that it's easy to get caught up in a certain sort of poststructuralist limbo and never go anywhere. Don't get me wrong, when I'm playing fast and loose with my academic identity (which I do frequently), I identify as a poststructuralist. It's just that sometimes, we have to remember that both violence and disruption/subversion can happen in very simple ways. Why is porn generally violent? There's definitely the sort of larger discursive effects that you talk about there, but there's also the simple fact that most actresses in pornographic films are abused in a number of ways (actors, too, especially in gay porn). There's a lot of info out there about this, and it's not just coming from radical feminists. You can look around for some sex workers activism sites if you're interested.

Finally, it's really easy to slip into academic lingo, because it seems like a really useful tool. It is. It makes papers that would be two hundred pages long only twenty. However, you need to remember that the language you use can be silencing and intimidating. It can also just be pompous. It seems like you weren't really trying to be any of those things, but unfortunately, we both know that we don't get to choose what our words mean. That's something that causes me some trouble, as well. I rarely comment on posts because, most of the time, I'd end up doing what you did, and peppering my comments with citations and giving the impression that I thought I was at a poststructuralist conference. That doesn't mean that you should be demeaning or assume that other people can't understand what you say. It just means that how you say it (which, of course, is deeply tied to the what) is just as important as the fact that you're a white male and that your body is coded as threatening.

Sorry that this is more than a little sloppy. I'm riding out a fever that's kept me from sleep. Oh, and Getting Off (I think the subtitle is Pornography and the End of Masculinity) is a nice, short, and contemporary radfem work that comes out of Dworkin. Also, this won't necessarily help you, as much of my feelings about discourse come from conversations with my peers, but I feel like María Lugones and Lorraine Code are good authors to look at to try to approach things like silencing discourses on a more "practical" level.

Celular said...
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