Monday, September 12, 2022

Kathleen Lubey's "What Pornography Knows"

Kathleen Lubey is Professor of English at St. John's University. She is the author of Excitable Imaginations: Eroticism and Reading in Britain, 1660-1760 (2012).

Lubey applied the Page 99 Test to her new book, What Pornography Knows: Sex and Social Protest since the Eighteenth Century, and reported the following:
On page 99, I’m unpacking a description of erotic dancers from a 1749 pornographic novel called The History of the Human Heart. The passage contains sexual action in the main text, plus a lengthy footnote supposedly added by an erudite “editor”:
The pornographic description is complete without reference to men’s bodies or their capacity to penetrate.

In this original edition, the posture-girl episode is textually overrun by a footnote offering feminist speculations on the action in the main text. In the note, the editor questions a passing remark made by the author that the posture girls possess a natural feminine attribute, defining the concept instead as a longstanding cultural invention. Disputing common consensus, the editor claims that social fictions are devised to impose strict codes of conduct on English women, curbing their knowledge and ambition. He goes on to imagine the chaos of a culture without modesty in which the sexes encounter each other without cultural interference—that is, without clothing.
I was gobsmacked to see that on page 99, I’m discussing the passage that quite literally launched this entire book project. The point I’m making there is that in the midst of a sexual spectacle that titillates its reader by objectifying women, this little-known text turns our attention primarily to a feminist analysis of moral categories that are oppressive to women in eighteenth-century Britain. This philosophical move flies in the face of what we typically think pornography does—encourages masturbation, shuts down its users’ intellect, stokes misogyny. That pornography advances a far more complex, feminist project is the central argument of my book—so the Page 99 Test is apt indeed, bringing the reader straight to my most persuasive evidence.

When I first closely read Human Heart in the British Library over a decade ago, I was amazed to find that a description of women dancers masturbating is reduced to two lines per page, edged out by a massive footnote that tells the reader modesty is an invention of moral philosophers designed to reduce women’s autonomy. The collision of genital action with philosophical argumentation was an absolute revelation, and I thereafter undertook years of a research seeking feminist content in early pornography. I found loads of it, resulting in this book. My research took me into later periods as well—the Victorian period and countercultural era—where, amazingly, I discovered that pornographic editors reprinted these eighteenth-century texts and edited out, as though with a scalpel, its feminist content. In addition to proving a feminist past to pornography, What Pornography Knows also shows how pornographers actively and intentionally purged the genre of its social conscience, and I conclude by asking how we might approach pornography today with an openness to its critical insights.
Follow Kathleen Lubey on Twitter.

--Marshal Zeringue