Pleasure and Pornography: Initial Encounters with the Unknown

This blog entry is the first in a series by Namita Malhotra on her CIS-RAW project that is about pornography, Internet, sexuality, law, new media and technology. She aims for this to be a multi media and research project/journey which is able to cite and draw on various sources including legal studies, film studies and philosophy, academic and historical work on sexuality, art, film and pornography itself.

There are few dilemmas that one is faced with when working on the vague and over extended category of pornography. The first is the very familiar feminist dilemma over pornography, and the position of radical feminists such as Andrea Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon--pornography is violence or sexually explicit subordination of women. This is more popularly encapsulated in Robin Morgan’s words--pornography is the theory and rape is the practice. Even if this can be collapsed into the positions of pro-sex and anti-sex feminists, it does initially haunt any research agenda on pornography, especially for a guilty quasi-feminist like myself.

However, some of my previous writings have attempted to deal with the position of the women’s movement, specifically in India, on pornography (the details are given below) and here I hope to move beyond either the moral or feminist positions on pornography, to examine what the pervasive phenomenon does. One of the strands that I hope to continue to explore is the relation of body to film. Though film studies is mostly focused on the visual sense, few scholars have looked on film as a bodily experience and attempted to understand the mimetic relation between the body of the 'viewer' and the body of the film. A more tactile understanding of the experience of film and media would be a useful place to start exploring pornography.

The second has arisen from many conversations that I have had – when I say I’m working on pornography, the response is either a withdrawal or over-enthusiasm bordering on insistence to share personal collections of erotica and pornography. Though these conversations are often insightful, I have now realized that it is hard for me to actually examine pornography in all its totality – from spliced moments in mainstream films in shady theatres to specificities of hentaii and tentacle porn. Personal tastes, preferences, and access make it hard to be able to be interested in everything. Which is precisely my fascination with pornography – that it is in fact an intensely personal relation or rather a space in which different people have kept very varied and specific material, words, and media--that it also is not entirely about the media/words themselves, but also about how and in what setting they are consumed, how they are bought, downloaded or searched for. 

The third is the legal conundrum posed by pornography – that it is not recognized in Indian law as a specific category but that there exist, nonetheless, stringent conditions for obscenity. Obscenity is determined on the basis of the Hicklin test, which originated in England in 1868 and has continued as an integral part of Indian law though it has been discredited in English common law and American law. Here, the legal scholarship of Nussbaum is an interesting starting point as it sets up a useful framework that refuses to look at the law as a rational system of rules that is devoid of emotions. Nussbaum analyses the cognitive content of emotions that work within law – in the case of determining obscenity, she points to how emotions of disgust and revulsion play a significant role (the other emotions that she examines in detail are shame, fear and anger in the law). In Nussbaum’s analysis of the cognitive content of disgust, she remarks that in most cultures, disgust is about discomfort humans have with 'our own bodies and decaying selves', and concludes that disgust is an unreliable indicator for obscenity. She refers to McKinnon’s and Dworkin’s work to state that the indicator should be harm done by the material, rather than disgust. I would disagree with Nussbaum on whether harm can be a useful indicator to determine whether something is obscene, but before that it is necessary to examine whether Indian case law actually relies on the notion of disgust. Within Indian law, there seem to be other factors at work including notions of cultural purity vis-à-vis contamination from Western culture. An interesting and rather progressive judgment to look at is the recent High Court judgment on Hussain’s painting of nude Mother India that held that the painting is not obscene.

These are a few of the scattered aspects of this project and some of the strands that it will explore. I would also like to share two comics on internet pornography. The first is from the famou xkcd comic series and the second from the relatively new comic series Brown Girls. Both capture how lusty desires will find their objects anywhere – in the explosion of the polymorphous perverse on the internet or presidential debates on television.


Previous material
The World Wide Web of Desire: Content Regulation on the Internet
This article attempts to understand the dynamics of pushing the child pornography question to the forefront of any debate around censorship and pornography, especially in contexts of internet regulation, both nationally and in international forums such as the Internet Governance Forum. This is often done at the expense of a more nuanced understanding that would be possible if the focus were on issues related to gender, the prevalence of draconian censorship regimes in most countries in Asia and concerns related to free speech.

Do Not Look at Porn
This is a short video titled "Do not look at porn" which is a remix video or a collage of different materials taken from television and other videos, famous art works, photographs and books. The video is almost boringly pedagogic in its attempt to illustrate the slippery-slope argument which is that obscenity laws generally lead to the ban of progressive material rather than only offensive material. The video features Sarah Jones' song 'Your revolution will not happen between these thighs', and the popular Warcraft character based machinema video 'The internet is for porn'.

Search History: Examining Pornography on the Internet
This article explores some of the dilemmas of the women's movement in India when faced with the question of pornography. It also is a very basic historical look at the category of pornography itself, as it emerged to describe the array of objects and artefacts discovered in the ancient city of Pompeii. These finds were kept at the Secret Museum; only men of a certain upper class were allowed and ‘trusted’ to have access to these objects, and not the ‘easily corruptible rabble or women’. Such distinctions would often arise in the case of pornography and be the reasoning behind censorship and regulation of many media in the next few centuries. Whether it was the birth of photography, cinema, video, and in recent times the internet and new media (CD,VCD, DVD), each technology has been greeted with suspicion of its possible harm to society.




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Namita A. Malhotra

A media practitioner, sometimes poster-maker, occasional designer and comic book fan, mostly online, ex-porn and cyber sex-er, legally trained and L word buff