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How to Do Things with Pornography Review - How to Do Things with Pornography
by Nancy Bauer
Harvard University Press, 2015
Review by Georgios Tsagdis
Dec 22nd 2015 (Volume 19, Issue 52)

Pornography. A word commands immediate attention. It is a word of the base, the current, the influential: the significant and the insignificant. It is a word that cannot and yet must be overlooked, silenced. Pornography demarcates the locus of the abject, which academic philosophy must ignore, except at such designated liminal and often extra-liminal zones as feminism, gender theory and queer film studies. A pressing topicality announces itself in Nancy Bauer's title.

Yet Nelie Wiedland opens her review of the work, writing: "You might assume that this book is an entry into the philosophical debates about pornography, speech and silencing, and feminist views on the same. But that's not what it's doing at all." Another feminist philosopher, Mari Mikkola, presses on the equivocation: "the title does a disservice to the powerful message that the book puts forward." Yet what is this message, what is "the true focus of the book," in the words of the female pornographer Stoya? In her review, Karen Boyle articulates this focus and message accordingly: "Bauer uses pornography as a catalyst for thinking about philosophical thinking and its place in the world, rather than as a point of analysis in itself. Indeed, there is very little about pornography here."

One seems to have been warned by the efforts of Harvard University Press to replicate the vintage, under-designed cover of J. L. Austin's How to do Things with Words, the title of which is deployed by Bauer in keeping with Austinian witticism, to designate the theoretical suppositions of her undertaking. And yet, the grammar of the title and the power of the name of pornography construct an expectation that each review feels obliged to dissipate. This however is not enough to mark the function of the work. For, at first, in a strange twist, the subterfuge of pornography remains true to its letter. Bauer demonstrates perfomatively in publishing this book that one of the things one can do with pornography, is to expose the vicissitudes of academic philosophy (Chapters 7 and 8). Another is to argue against dominant interpretations of Austin's theory of language (Chapters 5 and 6).

Beyond this entrenched core, the book revolves around what emerges as its third objective and object: recasting the question of objectification. By examining the relevance of Beauvoir (Chapter 4), the irrelevance of Nussbaum (Chapter 3), hook-up culture (Chapter 1), the phenomenon Lady Gaga (Chapter 2), finally the film Lars and the Real Girl (Chapter 9), Bauer attempts to link the question of objectification to Austin's legacy and position this link within a proximal feminist discourse that runs from Catharine MacKinnon to Rae Langton.

The investment however of these chapters with the best of intentions fails to live up to them. The problem with "this book—which falls somewhere between a monograph and a collection of essays" (xii) is not simply the inelegance of "some overlap in the published material." (xiv) It is not even that its actual concerns hollow and parasitize the unhallowed name of pornography, which becomes their generous host. It is rather that its eclecticism employs a series of misrepresentations to reiterate what one has long known.

The series of responses to the thread of points that constitute Bauer's book would make a book in turn; an unnecessary book. There are deep differences in what needs to be expressed, differences that perhaps no single book could account for. Two salient aspects however cannot be ignored.

First, the specific way in which the thematization of pornography is elided is particularly significant. Bauer's Austinian reserve in the face of ready-made definitions (23-27) is a commendable beginning. Yet, a certain account of what the book will not talk about, is necessary, if the absent examination of pornography is to guide its actual themes. This is particularly important with regard to the question of objectification. What is pornography, the specter of which authorizes a discourse on objectification? Bauer's conception appears vague and narrow in equal measure. Stoya, in her review, shows how Bauer's own effort degenerates often in objectification by means of instrumentality (pornography is used as a tool for other concerns), fungibility (pornography is seen as a homogenous whole with interchangeable parts) and silencing (the writings of pornographers are ignored).

To this, three further instances of silencing are particularly important. i. Bauer ignores homoerotic -- gay or lesbian -- pornography and the challenge this poses to a heteronormative understanding to the phenomenon. ii. Heteronormativity is used to promote a limited feminist concern about the objectification of women, by neglecting the objectification of men that pornography effectuates (reduction to a body part, where man becomes a mere penis; silencing, since temptation makes a male 'no' impossible; and so on). The implication of this silence is that pornography operates exclusively at the expense of women. It is hard to imagine who might stand to benefit from this and who might accordingly bear the blame, except for men; men precisely as men. iii. Silencing of other pornographic tropes. Bauer does not pause to think about the graphein, the writing that constitutes the word, even as she talks about film and images as speech acts (equally absent is the potential relation of oral and written acts); Bauer fails to think thus of pornographic literature, as much as of painting and music, by concentrating on the photographic and filmic dimension of pornography, even when Lady Gaga is under examination. It is not Lady Gaga's music, but solely her visual presence, which is seen as pornographic threat.

It is precisely because Bauer thinks of pornography exclusively in filmic and photographic terms that she is exasperated about the failure of discourses on pornography to take into account the effects the rise of Internet has wrought. Karen Boyle puts this exasperation in context: "her lack of awareness of contemporary scholarship is jarring." Even more jarring however is the strange ambiguity of ignorance and ignoring. When for example Bauer rejects the Marxist tradition of thought on objectification as irrelevant to the concerns feminism has for the first time brought forth (28), Lukács and the Frankfurt School are precluded without mention. It remains unclear accordingly whether this constitutes a conscious strategic rejection.

Which prefigures the second aspect of my concern. Bauer speaks not only in the name of pornography, but also in the name of philosophy. Her criticism of the ivory tower of philosophy, where the logical rigour of propositional analysis has long become the rigor mortis of thought and the ensuing criticism of philosophy's loss of all actual relevance seems only possible upon the most thorough erasure of all traditions aside of analytical philosophy. This constitutes yet another instance of fungibility and silencing. At most, Bauer presents us with the contradiction of an invitation to reread Sartre and Beauvoir, while claiming that after the war and largely because of the Nazi involvement of philosophers such as Heidegger, 'philosophy' took an apolitical, detached turn, beginning with Carnap (138-143).

Indeed, the call for an engaged thought might appear radical to the philosophers of the most backwards -- and without doubt often the most prestigious -- institutions. Yet a passage through the past and present philosophic canon shows the evergreen currency of this call. From Plato, as Bauer knows, to Badiou and Agamben, as she seems to ignore, philosophy never failed to be engaged in the face of being and thought. Nor has philosophy ever been surprised by the power of words and the force of language. Philosophy has always known how to do things with words.


© 2015 Georgios Tsagdis


Georgios Tsagdis, Fellow at the Westminster Law & Theory Lab, works at theoretical and disciplinary intersections. His PhD The Archeology of Nothing, attempts to rethink through Heidegger the relation of presence and absence at the inception of Greek thought.  His new project examines the ontology of matter from Plato to New Materialisms. In other recent work he explores the question of animality in Derrida, Levinas and Agamben, the figure of the animal in the Platonic corpus, the revolutionary potential of parasitism in the work of Serres and the problem of love with reference to theological, political and feminist discourses. He teaches at Westminster and Surrey Universities and is the organizer at the Warburg Institute of an intercollegiate colloquium on Neoplatonism as well as editor and contributor of the Plotinus Archive, a virtual polyphonic commentary on the Enneads.




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