Book Review – Disposable Passions: Vintage Pornography and the Material Legacies of Adult Cinema

Review of Disposable Passions: Vintage Pornography and the Material Legacies of Adult Cinema by David Church. Bloomsbury. 2016. (HB, PB, eBook). 296pp.

review by Desirae Embree, Texas A&M University, US

Building upon his previous work on nostalgia, genre cinema, and taste cultures, David Church’s new book, Disposable Passions: Vintage Pornography and the Material Legacies of Adult Cinema, is a timely study of the emergence of ‘vintage pornography’ as a conceptual category. Weaving together media industry history, archival theory, interviews and fan discourses surrounding the reclamation of vintage heterosexual hardcore and sexploitation film, Church ultimately argues that vintage pornography remains alluring not in spite of its age but precisely because of it. Invoking the poetics of striptease, in which the desirable body is covered precisely so that it can be uncovered, Church tracks the means by which pornographic texts fall out of circulation and into various states of cultural neglect, thereby necessitating discovery and preservation by later generations of fans.

For connoisseurs of vintage pornography, the primary erotic draw of these texts is not the sex that they show but the materiality of the media itself. Markers of cultural neglect, such as degraded image quality or visible print damage, foreground the temporal distance between historical and contemporary audiences. At the same time, on-screen sex acts that may seem quaint by today’s sexual standards still manage to turn us on, foreclosing that temporal distance and providing viewers with a tangible connection (vis-à-vis autoeroticism) to the sex and flesh of bygone eras. In their materiality, vintage pornographic texts facilitate a variety of fantasies about sex, about the past, about the kind of sex that (we imagine) was had in the past, all of which stand in contrast to the contemporary high-definition, highly virtual porno media landscape.

Perhaps more importantly, these texts facilitate fantasies that we have about ourselves as consumers of media, in general, and sex media, specifically. Markers of cultural neglect that serve to eroticise the materiality of the text itself also serve to distinguish it from more contemporary products, thereby conferring subcultural capital upon consumers who claim these ‘fleeting textual/temporal signifiers of historical marginality […] as “oppositional” points of pride’ (3). In making this argument, Church likens the vintage porn fan to the cinephile – whose identity as a media consumer is likewise predicated on elitist reading strategies – rather than to the contemporary porn fan. This produces an interesting theoretical problem, as the reclamation of vintage pornographic texts often retroactively imbues them with taste politics that, Church argues, transform them from lowbrow sex media to contemporary objects of art/cult fascination.

Church is attentive to the political stakes of this process of forgetting, retrieval and remediation without being overly alarmist or essentialising about them. As, he notes, the reclamation of vintage pornographic texts runs the risk of naturalising sexual desire. This is an especially thorny issue as marketing discourses emphasise the supposed trans-historical nature of gendered sexual dynamics in more or less problematic ways, such as when vintage pornography is advertised as a documentary glimpse into a less inhibited, pre-feminist sexual past. ‘After all’, Church writes, ‘if so many of these early films were made for a presumed white, hetero-male viewership, then whose heritage is really being upheld [by their retrieval and preservation] and what are the larger implications of an attendant nostalgia for such texts?’ (12).

However, Church also notes that the contemporary retrieval of films that once screened in all-male environments allows them to be seen and appropriated by audiences, primarily women, that historically would not have been able to do so. Furthermore, as the window for what ‘counts’ as vintage pornography grows larger, it will begin to admit more diverse industry actors and representational content. This latter point is particularly salient, for as Linda Williams, Chuck Kleinhans and Peter Alilunas have all previously argued, it wasn’t until video technology provided a lowered cost of entry into pornographic media production that previously-marginalised figures were able to take control of the means of production and challenge the hegemony of white, male-driven content. [1] Presumably, as more pro-female, dyke and queer porn comes under the aegis of ‘vintage pornography’, these dynamics will shift, rending old problems moot and introducing new ones in their stead.

Ultimately, Disposable Passions’ greatest strength is that it offers an incredibly supple framework for understanding not only our historical connection to erotic media but also our erotic connections to historic media. While Church’s focus is on pornography, which does provide a remarkably useful test case for what are, ultimately, much larger theoretical questions, his work provides insight into the various affective dimensions of a variety of media consumer behaviours, including (importantly) academic ones. As such, Disposable Passions will no doubt become a foundational text in a number of disciplines, including affect theory, pornography studies, media studies, fan studies and archive studies. It is, on all accounts, a highly stimulating and nimbly argued book that deserves the critical attention it is sure to garner.

Note

[1] See Linda Williams. 1999. Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and the Frenzy of the Visible. University of California Press; Chuck Kleinhans. 2006. The Change from Film to Video Pornography: Implications for Analysis. In Peter Lehman, ed. Pornography: Film and Culture. Rutgers University Press; Peter Alilunas. 2016. Smutty Little Movies. University of California Press.

Contributor

Desirae Embree is a PhD candidate in English at Texas A&M University. Her dissertation research is on lesbian-produced pornographic texts in the late 20thcentury, with a focus on this ‘dyke porn’ movement’s relationship to larger structural trends in both pornographic media production and lesbian history. She was previously Associate Film Editor for the pop culture web magazine PopMatters, and she continues to publish on lesbian culture and representation in both academic and popular venues.

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