Tag Archives: pornography

On Needing Imaginary People and the James Deen Scandal

There are regional variations. Styles you might call them; vernaculars. I’m talking of course about how people watch television.

Not what they watch, but how they watch. The certain carriage of the body on the sofa or around the confines of the space; the degree and volume of commentary provided. In all cases what the TV provides is a pivot point of intimacy; I remember many passing acquaintances long since passed, passed at least from my purview, and I remember them most clearly in how they would watch TV when company was over.

I had a roommate. I knew little of her past. Walking in I would find her, most nights, watching movies about wronged women dating trashy losers and, with the help of quirky friends, eventually ditching the loser and frequently raising a child with the implied help of the community. Maybe there was more to these movies and I merely walked in at the right five minutes on each separate occasion. It seems like such a specific set of genre parameters. In one particular film three women, two of whom I recognized as Keri Russell and Cheryl Hines, both refined women from the northeast, speaking to each other in something absurdly…southern? can I even call the accent southern? is there a poverty minstrel inverse to the mid-Atlantic accent, an inflection not of any particular region but that simply denotes generic (archetypal?) hillbilly as seen from the outside? a dialect that denotes a town with a prominently positioned Waffle House…in any instance it was somewhat embarrassing to watch. Hines is married into the Kennedy family. Surely actual poor white people with exaggerated accents could’ve been procured, but that’s not the point is it? The point is that the actors weren’t actually poor, the actors didn’t actually speak like that, but they were deigning to speak like that. The process by which the broad commercial cinema/TV “humanizes” is a process of condescension but a process of condescension that in certain quarters is desired.

And so it would seem, though technically I couldn’t “intrude” in the living room that was as much my living area as hers, that I was bursting a bubble. To walk in towards the end of a movie someone is very intent on watching feels like the inverse of accidentally walking in on someone jerking off; like that Philip K. Dick novel where in the future your legal responsibility if you hit someone with your car is to back up to make sure they’re dead instead of calling an ambulance, so the standard when you walk in on someone intently fixated on a maudlin film, though the vibe can be similar to walking in on someone stroking it, the…uh…, the social expectation is that you don’t disturb them and finish. I took a seat on the couch and played with the cats. As the film that day reached its denouement, as Keri Russell said proudly from the hospital bed “Ahh kin raise this chile wit’out yew Earl! Yer nair gone know thee-is bayy-bee!!” and the muzak swelled as the bearded, presumably trashy baby daddy’s voice was drowned out and the camera pulled away from the action, her face took on a look of indecent gratification.

The woman in the film is supposed to be all women the same way the first rule of being a copyright/patent attorney is “phrase anything as vaguely as possible.” The rights to “water” are more valuable than the rights to “sugar water” and so on. To be “humanized” is not the opposite of being archetypal; the two things work in a continuum that may be a dialectic. Much of what’s recognized as good or bad in the movies by the viewer is not dissimilar to what they’re looking for in pornography; to see themselves without squinting too hard, to see their antagonisms worked out in the most gratifying possible terms. The mind will more than meet the movies half-way and in fact the broadness that characterizes popular cinema suggests that the mind wants to meet the cinematic fantasy half-way. It’s frequently suggested that people don’t watch TV or films very closely. And it’s rarely discussed what occupies that territory between the eye’s innatention and the image, or what its functional purpose might be.

So what does this all have to do with the rape and sexual assault accusations leveled by Stoya and others at porn performer James Deen?

As for the accusations and accounts, they seem numerous enough to seem very credible and hopefully some sort of legal action is taken. I should preface before the rest of this piece that it’s a piece about the relationship between the actual, archetypal and news coverage, not a piece directly about the James Deen scandal.

The most fascinating element of the James Deen phenomena is that before the scandal he was hyped in many articles as either a feminist or the gateway drug for women into watching porn. Deen himself never actually called himself a feminist and what were called, until the scandal, “boy-next-door good looks” seem to correspond heavily toward his looking non-threateningly white and middle class as opposed to the largely “ethnic” qualities of other male porn performers. This is not my original observation; many articles have been published since the scandal broke highlighting the irony of the “feminist” image in contrast to the alleged behavior that went on behind the scenes and was the frame of Stoya’s tweet that initiated the controversy.

What’s fascinating in this is not the irony/hypocrisy. Irony and hypocrisy are rarely interesting. What’s fascinating is how a mid-sized industry could be created out of what mostly amounted to physiognomy. Deen could project certain qualities without trying to. His own personal communications with the larger world amounted to a blog mostly talking about women’s buttholes and a video blog where he ate things. That all sounds much more frat than feminist. But his face didn’t look frat and he ended up around the right people to snowball his way into an unusual marketing niche.

At the same time, many of the articles surrounding the controversy have centered around the archetype of the “male feminist”. The “male feminist”, like the “bro”, or “the hipster”, or most other broad cultural categories is a media creation looking for a model specimen to take shape. Like the meme, these archetypal identities of the present work on a new physiognomy, a picture of a face that looks so much like an implied backstory that the parameters of this archetype are explored in minute variations that can be nearly endless if the picture goes viral.

The place of the celebrity is fleeting because the celebrity- especially the celebrity whose celebrity seems to be self-sustaining as such-the famous-for-being-famous-are in fact endlessly auditioning and reclaiming the place of some far off distant archetype that enough people want to exist; a fog of rumor surrounds the greats to protect them from growing too tangible to be projected onto; a cottage industry of poorly researched or outright fictional secondary literature on Marilyn Monroe, on the Kennedys, on James Dean with an “a” exists to preserve the primary cultural function they serve as icons; somewhere there existed a desire for a “male feminist” porn actor, and now there exists a temporary pop-up market for articles on how the people who perhaps wrote the earlier articles creating the archetype of “the male feminist” to say how their creation has betrayed them in the form of Deen’s alleged sexual assaults.

But why was the image created in the first place?

The celebrity exists to be projected upon, chewed up and spit out by the culture at large. They’re the changing forms of identities embraced and eventually rejected with the aging of the wearer. When children first start to grow up they tend to make a big deal about disliking the music or other products they consumed; we distance ourselves from our former selves by distancing ourselves from the items we identified with at the time.

Part of the “correct” or normative performance of every job from server to parent is to allow the client or customer more easily see the laborer as part of a continuous mass that doesn’t have jagged edges or differentiation; to approach a platonic uniform ideal of what constitutes their role in society. Romantic fantasies about the idealized “perfect” servant pop up all over the place from advertising imagery to TV sitcoms and dramas to literature to films like The Budapest Hotel; the servant who entirely embodies their role is held up as a figure of admiration, always positioned, of course, in the past. This goes back to the early 20th century craze for sheet music for songs about garishly sentimentalized dead or absent mothers, continues through to the Jeeves’s and stretches on to the verbally demeaned female or gay male secretary archetype.

The entertainer exists for the sake of society; to maintain the idealized hope of the perfect server or the perfect self. There’s a case study that opens James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. He describes a society where the jester was infrequnetly allowed to be the provisional king ,but only for five days. He would have access to all the king’s provisions, all the king’s servants, all the king’s quarters, and all the king’s concubines. At the end of five days, the jester would be killed.

Frazer doesn’t mention whether the larger population in this society would fantasize about attaining this outcome or take it as a cautionary example.


Escape into the Missing Self

The vernacular discourse of what constitutes “American values” and the way someone will say they believe in ghosts or spirits have too much in common for them to be entirely separated in good conscience. The person who claims they saw a ghost will say “I don’t care what you say! I know it was there! I saw it.” The American sentimentalist will produce no end of fall narratives for when the country “went off course.” When questioned, they’ll say “I know this! I just feel it.”

We think ourselves engaged in battles of the factual when we’re in fact fighting over the supposedly slain ghosts of our desires. The strict epistemology of the betrayed ghost’s wishes mask the desires of the one evoking the ghost and their compounded desire to never get what they actually desired; the point of acknowledged appeasement is the beginning of painful isolation; the thing that can only eat must continue to eat or face the prospect of eating itself. The identity of the consumer, the even greater specter haunting the American present than capitalism though spawned from it, is this desire to eat faced with the possibility that the great questions of the future don’t revolve around what to eat next but when we consider ourselves full. The contradictions of capital resolve themselves in the vengeful reemergence of old mythologies when they can’t resolve themselves comfortably in the space of the real.

The marketer is the shaman who evokes new ghosts that appear to the marketed as the specter of their past disappointments, dressed up to the appearance of nobility or, even better, relatability.

Says Wikipedia: “The bald eagle is an opportunistic feeder…Bald eagles also regularly exploit water turbines which produce battered, stunned or dead fish easily consumed.”

So I ask one uncomfortable question in three formulations:

What haunts America?

What is America’s self?

What does America want?


As the justifications to what constitutes unambiguous quality in the arts collapses into the theoretical subjectivity of pop culture studies in which this blog is complicit/a valuable contributor and the commercial subjectivity of market research, two trends that distinctly co-exist and intermingle in the varied fields of media studies, media psychology etc., the question of whether the canon is simply the valorized self reflected back becomes extremely uncomfortable for anyone looking for anything besides the validation of their self from the “gatekeepers”. The line between emotional and physical pornography, neither delivered “physically” in any strict sense is similarly blurred. The media criticism of the left exists in large part to draw the borders between “propaganda” and “art” and in this project finds itself commingled more with the critiques of the disillusioned bourgeoisie of the Horkheimers and Adornos than the desires of the “pure” oppressed who exist in the worker and the actor whose lack of free time has left them with little recourse to engage with “junk culture” by means of subverting it into reflections of self.

However, the market can tolerate and cheer this process on. The market wants identification with the product; symbolic artifacts of “feminism” expand the frontiers of consumption aggressively into territories of moral obligation. What was once the subversive reversal of roles that came from the unconscious expressed repression of the taboo desires of “the other”, the semiotic democracy that gave some semblance of liberation theology in these popular texts, has instead become the disturbingly commodified need for the society as a whole to pat itself on the back for its own consumption.

I recently finished watching many many episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer; it was entertaining but ultimately stands with much of the rest of the US TV canon as emotional pornography. Reassuring stories heard many times before were told once again but with the genders reversed. Its innovation was in opening up new avenues of emotional pornography to social groups which had, until now, not had access to the hard stuff so they could mainline it. In some sense this is progress; but the process that humanizes “the other” sneaks in the trojan horse of legitimizing the sins of the larger culture. The largely empty symbolic of the TV genre courts the skewed reading of the powerful who have access to the megaphones. The act of conscious reading itself is largely outsourced. To engage, even critically, is to legitimize. This is a conundrum.

The function of pornography for the viewer/reader is to create a bridge toward their insertion of their imagined self into the suggested power dynamics of the image and in doing so create the capacity for the ultimate power fantasy of their desired surrounding and relation. Narrative ambiguities are circumscribed into set, flattering parameters. Emotional pornography works similarly but goes less detected for its lack of straightforward qualities. It draws the viewer into a safe, non-judgmental space wherein they can project their fantasy selves without consequence.

In drafting this essay, I hesitated for a moment to use the word pornography; “pornography” is a word that haunts. It less describes a thing than lays itself over it,  a word that reads events all on its own. Like “terrorism”, a categorical. It holds the charge of the zeitgeist and exists to shift things into the realm of the wrong. It creates the cloud of absolute moral judgment and in its evocation pushes itself closer toward a specific definition or emptiness that neuters its usefulness. Part of the hidden but universally known intifada of pornographic materials brought about as the consequence of the internet that cannot be spoken of without carefully being separated discursively from the “legitimate” streams of the internet. Like the culture at large, the whole enterprise loses much of its ideological justification if it might be exposed as an elaborate way to justify sexual release. Would this be to expose it for what it is?