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Habits of Living Thinkathon — Day 4 Live Blog: Namita A Malhotra on Amateur Pornography

Posted by Jadine Lannon at Sep 30, 2012 07:30 PM |
The Habits of Living Thinkathon (Thinking Marathon) is being hosted by the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, India, from September 26 to 29, 2012. The event brings together a range of multi-disciplinary scholars and practitioners. The aim of the workshop is to generate a dialogue on the notion of surrogate structures that have become visible landmarks of contemporary life, and to produce new conceptual frameworks to help us understand networks and the ways in which they inform our everyday practice and thought.

We found Namita Malhotra’s presentation on amateur video porn to be particularly stimulating. However, she begins her discussion not with porn but with the Sumeet Mixie, the first mixie made for Indian food. At the time that the Sumeet Mixie had its heyday, it was largely inaccessible to most Indians, even those in the mid-level middle class. The mixie, Namita claimed, was a representation of a crisis of the middle class in India in the 1980s, a representation of the progress that was promised to them through Nehru’s development programs that was still largely out of reach for the average Indian. Namita draws parallels between a picture of her father, a young engineer, with Nehru and the famous picture of Nehru with the Santhali tribal girl, who, at some point after the famous shot of her inaugurating a dam, placed a garland around Nehru and was subsequently ostracized from her village on the grounds that she had become married to him. Namita’s father’s life was also heavily influenced by Nehru and his call for engineers, as he was pressured to become an engineer when he had little interest in doing so.

Both the lives of her father and the Santhali girl were changed by the actions that they were asked to perform for the good of the country. Indians across the country were pushed to change their life, their dreams, and their habits in return for progress, for development, especially that of the Western kind. The reward was liberalization and a move towards consumerism, a duty that was placed upon the middle class as an activity of their earned progression but remained largely impossible. This struggle between the expectation to consume as a function of their hard-earned middle class status and their inability to do so was just one of many crises of the 1980s Indian middle class. Namita describes this period using two iconic phrases: “Life was hard and slow” and “a long afternoon of underdevelopment.”

Moving on from discussions of Nehru and the middle class, Namita presents to us her work, jointly titled: Nehru’s Technologically Enabled Future or It Could Be Me. She enters into the discussion of amateur porn in India by showing us a 2-3 minutes video clip of the women’s section of a bus. The women are standing or sitting, and their activity barely changes over the period of the video. The eroticism, she suggests, could be in the suggestion of activities that could take place. It is the seemingly non-erotic images in India that have become some of the most defining features of amateur porn in India, both currently and in the past.

In past decades, the consumption of porn largely took place in communal male spaces. However, the event of a somewhat non-erotic clip of a teenage couple negotiating the terms of oral sex being auctioned on a website led to what Namita calls a “moment of sexual eureka”: the realization that amateur clips could be shared online. This led to a flood of amateur porn being circulated and shared through online networks. This eventually prompted a response from the state, though the response was largely one of confusion towards who or what was really responsible—the individual, the network or the technology? The state, of course, is not afraid of the content of the clips but the networks and connections that they cannot see nor trace.

Namita then moves on to a discussion of content of much amateur Indian porn. Much of the media that is created and consumed on mobile phones is grainy and low resolution, and even higher-resolution image clips tend to be highly un-staged with little to no focus on performance. There is a creation of anonymity through the way many clips are filmed, with one participant holding the camera and focuses being placed on body parts instead of faces. Where, then, does the eroticism come from? Namita argues that the familiarity and ability to relate and be present as a viewer in these amateur videos creates its own eroticism. The same can be said about the realness of videos whose purpose is not performance of sexual acts by ideal bodies.

This creation of eroticism indicates possible discussion of surrogacy. Erotica stands in for sex, masturbation stands in for sex, etc. Surrogacy may be useful in completing this conversation about eroticism and Indian amateur porn.

Participants were unsure about the connection between Nehru’s paradigms and amateur porn, and felt that it needed a bit more fleshing out.  Discussion then moved towards ideas of transgressive epistemologies, and whether or not the culture and networks situated around amateur porn where sites of transgressive practices. There was debate around what the purpose of the transgression is—recovering ground in visual culture? Gaining control over one’s corporeality? Ultimately, Namita was wary of invoking a transgressive framework around these cultures, and put forth pleasure as a more interesting and useful frame, as there is always a sexual layer involved. She felt that a transfessive framework may be limiting in the exploration of these cultures.

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