Book Review – Beyond Speech: Pornography and Analytic Feminist Philosophy

Review of Beyond Speech: Pornography and Analytic Feminist Philosophy, edited by Mari Mikkola. Oxford University Press. 2017. (HB £74.00 and PB £22.99). 275pp.

review by Martin Fradley, University of Brighton.

In their introduction to Beyond Speech, Hilkje Charlotte Hänel and Mari Mikkola state that this new collection of essays has two core aims: firstly, to take stock of extant feminist debates on pornography and, secondly, to ‘examine some newer lines of inquiry and investigate what they can tell us about still-unsettled conceptual and political questions’ (11). The ‘speech’ of the book’s title refers to Catharine MacKinnon’s (1987) famous legal argument that pornography should be understood as a series of violent ‘speech acts’, which ultimately serve to silence, subordinate and harm all women. Tellingly, the writers here almost all begin with the premise that pornography can be ‘harmful’, and Beyond Speech contains a dozen original essays that subsequently defend, challenge and re-evaluate some of the most important feminist interventions in what was once (rather quaintly) referred to as ‘the pornography debate’.

Beyond Speech is split into three sections organised around the book’s core themes: ‘harm’, ‘epistemology’ and ‘aesthetics’. The most anachronistic material returns compulsively to the 1980s anti-pornography movement’s primal scene; anyone familiar with the basic tenets of Andrea Dworkin’s Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1981) or MacKinnon’s Feminism Unmodified (1987) will find little new here. Conversely, the most rewarding contributions are those that discuss pornography itself rather than simply working through feminist-philosophical historical debates. For example, several chapters engage ambivalently with the possibility of feminist (or ‘egalitarian’) pornography. Both A.W. Eaton and Hans Maes discuss the politics of erotic habitus and sexual ‘taste’. Maes points to the inclusive possibilities of pornographic representation in which non-normative bodies (the disabled and elderly are the default examples) are imbued with liberating erotic affect. Eaton, meanwhile, endorses pornography that emphasises women’s agency, erotic subjectivity and sexual pleasure. Elsewhere, Petra Van Brabandt points approvingly to pornography’s ‘wet aesthetics’ (235) and its emphasis on unruly physicality as a counterpoint to neoliberal sexual culture’s prevalent body fascism. Brabandt’s essay is amongst the strongest work here, although her argument is undermined by illustrative references to the ‘extreme’ euro-art cinema of Claire Denis, Catherine Breillat and Gaspar Noé at the expense of engagement with pornographic material per se.

This latent nervousness about engaging directly with pornography is symptomatic of Beyond Speech as a whole. For example, while Robin Zheng’s lively and critically sophisticated essay on race and pornography is undoubtedly the highlight of the collection, much of her textual analysis is borrowed wholesale from the work of other scholars, namely Celine Parreñas Shimizu’s The Hypersexuality of Race: Performing Asian/American Women on Screen and Scene (2007) and Mireille Miller-Young’s A Taste for Brown Sugar: Black Women in Pornography (2014). Talia Mae Bettcher’s contribution, meanwhile, is single-note polemic masquerading as trans-feminist methodology. The polemic is fine in itself, but, given that the essay fails to mention pornography until the concluding paragraphs, it almost certainly belongs in another book entirely. Beyond Speech reaches something of a nadir with Lina Papadaki’s context-free statement that ‘[p]ornography produces the knowledge that women are less than human, that they are objects to be used by men’ (154). Needless to say, Papadaki neglects to refer to a single pornographic image before coming to her boldly sweeping conclusion.

If it is not already apparent, then let me be clear that this collection of essays is in many ways a deeply quixotic affair. The key problem with Beyond Speech is not its methodological approach to pornography but rather its blinkered refusal to engage with more recent work in the field. Not one scholar here makes reference to the ground-breaking and highly influential work of leading porn scholar Linda Williams, for example. [1] Indeed, this glaring absence is symptomatic of the collection’s wholesale critical elision of the hugely important body of scholarly work on pornography produced over the last 20 years. This includes the specialist journal Porn Studies (which has been published quarterly since 2014) and the diverse range of innovative scholarship on pornography, media and 21st century sexual cultures produced by (to name but a few) Brian McNair, Susanna Paasonen, Peter Lehman, Feona Attwood, Karen Boyle and Clarissa Smith. [2] I have no argument with revisiting and re-evaluating earlier iconoclastic debates; indeed, it would be disingenuous not to do so given the omnipresence of sexually explicit material in the digital age. The problem is that Beyond Speech simply refuses to acknowledge the pivotal developments in the field since Linda Williams published Hard Core in 1989. This anthology is, to all intents and purposes, wholly structured upon this absence. ‘Pornography is typically discussed within two philosophical camps’, (113) muses Mikkola in her contribution, carefully circling the critically circumscribed waggons of analytic feminist philosophy as she does so. An old-fashioned strategy, for sure, but the marauding savages from film and media studies departments are unlikely to give up and go away just yet.

Notes

[1]  See Williams. 1989. Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and the Frenzy of the Visible. University of California Press; 2008. Screening Sex. Duke University Press; ed. 2004. Porn Studies. Duke University Press.

[2] See, for example: Feona Attwood. 2017. Sex Media. Polity Press; Attwood, ed. 2009. Porn.com: Making Sense of Online Pornography. Peter Lang; Attwood. 2009. Mainstreaming Sex: The Sexualisation of Western Culture. I.B. Tauris; Karen Boyle, ed. 2010. Everyday Pornography. Routledge; Peter Lehman, ed. 2006. Pornography: Film and Culture. Rutgers University Press; Brian McNair. 2002. Striptease Culture: Sex, Media and the Democratisation of Desire. Routledge; McNair. 2012. Porno? Chic! How Pornography Changed the World and Made It a Better Place. Routledge; Susanna Paasonen. 2011. Carnal Resonance: Affect and Online Pornography. MIT Press; Clarissa Smith. 2012. One for the Girls! The Pleasures and Practices of Reading Women’s Porn. Intellect. 

Contributor

Martin Fradley is Lecturer at the University of Brighton and has taught widely across the UK university sector. He is a regular contributor to Film Quarterly and his work has also appeared in ScreenJournal of British Cinema and Television and Film Criticism. He is co-editor of Shane Meadows: Critical Essays (2013) and has published work in Post-Feminism and Contemporary American Cinema (2013) and Directory of World Cinema: American Independent 3 (2016).

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