Linda Williams – Hard Core


Linda Williams, Hard Core, U of California Press, 1989.

Why is pornography regarded as a dangerous and suppressive matter for somebody, and why is it thought as a site of liberation, or at least a site of struggle for freedom? How can it be at once oppressive and emancipatory? In what condition pornography works for the liberation of pleasure of both male and female, and in what condition it can be read as brutally coercive and oppressive? And most of all, why is pornography is so much polemic and why is this specific genre of visual representation of body and sexuality a subject of politics?

These questions imply and presuppose that more external components are involved in pornographic images than what they seem to show us superficially. Pornography is located at the sensitive site where sex, power, and pleasure overlap and contend with each other. While she refers quite a lot to Foucault’s discussion in The History of Sexuality, Williams examines diverse discourses and issues historically constructed around visual hard-core pornography.  

What is essential to understand the nature of pornography is the view point from which we – whether reader, spectator, or even author – decide how to see and read it. Is it just a pleasure of looking, or does it own something unveiled and thus let us will to know about our sexuality through it? Given that hard-core pornography is not simple object of speculation, but physically moving, to read and to examine this genre with indifferent attitude  – or, in disinterested contemplation – might be impossible, or at least, difficult. So it seems not an object of aesthetic judgment. The most clear different attitudes on pornography might be found between anti-pornography feminists and anti-censorship feminists. What determines their preoccupied position is the way they see pornography. Although they share the progressive feminist stance, the crucial difference between them lies in their different understanding on the position of power, according to which they elaborate corresponding strategies. While anti-pornography feminists think that pornography is the extreme case of patriarchal power which fixates male violence on vulnerable and passive women, anti-censorship feminists “focus on a continuous pornographic tradition that runs throughout dominant culture”(29). The latter’s argument might be justified by lots of examples – especially yellow journalism which is politically conservative (principally apolitical) but at the same time advanced in disseminating semi-pornographic images. In the world where the machines of the spectacle already occupies and dominates, what does it mean to protect the repressed women by censorship? Is what oppresses us the state power or the male power?

From that point, Williams turns her attention to the origin of pornography – invention and proliferation of optical machines – from which the “frenzy of the visible” began. How those machines could give the spectators a visual pleasure and how they developed this visual pleasure in the form of pornographic movie? Williams this time contrasts Freud, Mulvey, Muybridge, and Foucault, while explaining them in terms of fetishization of the female body. Mulvey and other psychoanalytic theorists of cinema (screen theorists), based on Freudian and thus Lacanian psychoanalysis, see the pleasure of cinema – whether pornography or not – comes basically from fetishism and voyeurism, assuming that “the desire for these visual pleasure is already inscribed in the subject”(44). However, Muybridge’s motion studies stands on somewhat different understanding of fetishism. The female body was used to fill up the lack of technological mastery of narrative. And Foucault’s scientia sexualis is focused on a “conjunction of power and knowledge” that “governs bodies and their pleasure”(34). Thus there is no one master apparatus which dominates the visual pleasure: “all three of these apparatuses – social, psychic, and technological – are working together to channel the scientific discovery of bodily motion into new forms of knowledge and pleasure”(45). But we still have to find how visual pleasure can reconcile and coalesce with the matter of social and political liberation.


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