Monday, 30 January 2012

Pornography the Fantasy of the Real


This essay aims to discuss the theories of the postmodern with particular reference to pornography as an example of contemporary visual culture.  Starting with the rise of postmodernism and the controversy surrounding its theories.  In particular I am going to look at Jean Baudrillard’s theory of Simulation and the creation of a false reality through the three orders of simulacra, tracing the rise of pornography through each to determine if indeed we can distinguish the real from the hyperreal.  Within these I will be referring to art by Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons to demonstrate the blurring of the lines between high art and mass culture (pornography) and examining the effect of pornography on body image.  The key texts within this essay have been the writings of Jean Baudrillard for explanations and applications of his theories and Pornified by Pamela Paul for facts and figures relating to the pornography industry.     

Pornography the Fantasy of the Real
Unlike Modernism; which is agreed to have started in the late 19th Century as a rejection of the values of tradition and religion, catalyzed by the industrial revolution: Postmodernism is a disputed term with its beginnings placed variously from the end of the horrors of World War II to the 1970’s.  The theories used to define it are equally disputed and many of the things that have been ascribed to it can equally be thought of as modern.  It is perhaps easier to grapple with postmodernism by what is is not rather than what it is.  Frederick Jameson, literary critic, political theorist and university professor writes in his book The Cultural Turn ‘So now at last the fetishism of the New, the narrative obsession of the future, the infeodation of art theory itself, can be definitely abandoned.’ (Jameson, 1999:119)  Jameson points out the break of ideals that to him signify the division between the postmodern and the modern.  If modernism was driven by the avant-garde and the discovery of the new, postmodernism is defined by the pastiche, the copy and the reinvention of the old.  If modernism was the search for a truth and a utopia, postmodernism is an abandonment, a disillusionment with those ideals.  If modernism was an exploration for the real, postmodernism is a world where we have lost all ability to distinguish between the artificial and nature.

It is the last of these theories, reality, which is synonymous with French sociologist, philosopher, social theorist and photographer Jean Baudrillard.  Sean Cubitt (2001:6) in his book Simulation and Social Theory introduces this postmodern idea. ‘The Moderns (modern philosophers Kant, Hegel and Marx) thought history would conclude with the realisation of truth: for simulation theory, it has already ended in the mass illusions of the consumer society’.  What seems to stand out is the dystopian idea that truth can no longer be found not because it does not exist but because it has been usurped.  In the world of the internet, 24 hour television, billboard advertising and sensationalist newspaper reporting we have become saturated with images and the truth has become shrouded in layers of media illusions, creating a false reality. 

The layering of the truth with illusion is central to Baudrillards’ theory of simulacra and simulacrum (Sean Cubitt (Cubitt, 2001:1) defines the term as ‘a copy without source, an imitation that has lost its original.’) and he lays the blame squarely at the door of the media ‘One must think of the media as if they were, in outer orbit, a kind of genetic code that directs the mutation of the real into the hyperreal.’ (Baudrillard, 1994:30).  According to Baudrillard this mutation takes place in three stages or orders.  In the first order the image is the reflection of a profound reality and is recognised as just an illusion.  In the second order the image masks and denatures a profound reality, the distinction between the reality and the image start to blur as it becomes reproduced (for example a world summit that is staged especially for television).  In the third order the image masks the absence of a profound reality, it has no reality to any reality whatsoever: it is its own pure simulacrum.  He uses ‘reality’ television as an example of this third order, it can never be real because there are cameras there, what you are seeing is a frisson of the real, an excessive transparency, more real than real, hyperreality. (Baudrillard, 1994:6,28,121).   

Baudrillard refers to pornography throughout his theories both as a metaphor for this excessive transparency between the viewer and the viewed, particularly within advertising, and as a product of the hyperreal.  In his book Seduction he states ‘if there is a fantasy in pornography, it is not of sex, but of the real.’  (Baudrillard, 1990:29) The conclusion that can be drawn from this is that for Baudrillard the hyperreal of pornography is not the sex but the viewers desire for it to be true.  Using the theories of the three orders of simulacra we can examine this further.

 In the first Order of Simulacra the image (in this case pornography) is clearly differentiated from the real (sex with a partner).  In the 1950’s, in the days before internet access, pornography was only accessed through ‘top shelf’ magazines such as Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler and it was only after the invention of betamax in the 1980’s that pornography could be viewed in videos obtained through these magazines or through adult sex shops and adult movie theatres.  Pornography was rejected in art because it went against the classical rules of aesthetics ‘The principle of pure aesthetics was applied not only to exclude the actual body sensations of oral or erotic practices but also to criticize the literal and visual representations which tended to cancel the required distance to the object and thus desubliminate the pure experience into an impure and sensual one.’ (Falk, 1997:192)  Pornography in provoking desire and the urge to realize this desire with impure action removed any distance between the viewer and the representation.  It was viewed in private and was generally seen as smutty, something to be embarrassed about and separate from the reality of sex with a partner.  There was a clear line between soft core and hard core porn and between pornography and art. 

The second Order of Simulacra sees the blurring of the lines between pornography and reality.  Talking about the blurring of those lines Pasi Faulk states ‘The link between the beautiful – or more broadly that representing ‘good taste’ – and the aesthetic was fundamentally problematized in the traditions of literary and visual arts.  The classic principles emphasising the close relations between the beautiful and the order were inverted: art begins with the transgression of taboos and norms.’ (Falk, 1997:197)  The problematization of which he speaks was caused by the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, the introduction of the contraceptive pill for women, the advent of mass production Pop art followed by the aesthetic permissiveness of the feminist ‘happenings’ in the 1970’s freed art and society from the old order.  In pushing taboos and discussing sexuality pornography became a tool to shock.  Carolee Schneemann used this in her performance work Interior Scroll (1975) in which she undressed, painted her body and produced a scroll from her vagina which she read to the audience. Austrian artist Valie Export  performed Action Pants: Genital Panic (1968) in which she walked unannounced into an art film (pornographic) theatre in Munich wearing crotchless pants, challenging people to look at the real thing instead of passively consuming pictures of women. 
Key figures in the pop art movement David Hockney and Andy Warhol also began to explore their sexuality in art through pictures such as Queer (1960) David Hockney and Andy Warhol’s Sex Parts (1978).
Fig. 1 Sex Parts

It is for this reason that it can be argued the 1970’s were the beginnings of postmodernity for if as Frederick Jameson theorizes, ‘Postmodernity ‘is the effacement of some key boundaries or seperations, most notably the erosion of the older destinction between high culture and so called mass or popular culture.’ (Jameson, 1999:1), the Pop Art and feminist movements were the first to use pornography as high culture and the pornographic image originally seen as shocking and immoral came to be seen as acceptable and commonplace.         

To enter Baudrillard’s third order of Simulacra, pornography would need to mask the absence of a profound reality, it would need to be more real than real.  Indeed pornography has blended seamlessly into popular culture.  With the advent of the internet and the saturation of our social space with images, pornography and all its fetishes are only a click away.  Life imitates art, in his ironic billboard for The Whitney Museum, Jeff Koons portrays himself as a porn star in a fake advert for a film featuring himself and the famous Italian porn star Cicciolina, whom he later married.

Fig. 2 Made In Heaven

Pop stars emulate pornographic moves, celebrities date porn stars, glamour models such as Jordan and porn star Jenna Jameson are the new role models, men’s lifestyle magazines such as Loaded have content that once would have been classed as softcore and Cosmopolitan gives advice on how to replicate porn star moves in the bedroom to spice up your sex life.  But have we lost sight of the real?  In her book Pornified, Pamela Paul commissioned a large survey (the Pornified/Harris survey) of a representative spectrum of American men and women to find out what effect if any pornography has had on our lives.   Women, particularily teenage girls, are feeling the pressure of conforming to the unrealistic images presented to and consumed by their peers ‘the number of 18 year olds who got breast implant surgery nearly tripled from 2,872 in 2002 to 11,326 in 2003 – a far greater increase than the 12 percent rise in such surgery among adults overall, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic surgery.’ (Paul, 2005:184).  It is not only breast surgery but genital surgery that is increasing both in America and the United Kingdom, one in particular is solely aesthetically oriented: a labiaplasty reduces the labia by removing fatty tissue around the vagina, giving the area a neater more childlike appearance.  These statistics seem to show that women have lost sight of the distinction between pornography and real life.  In trying to emulate that which could never exist naturally, large breasted prepubescent women, we enter the hyperreal.

For men as well there is a sense of loss, in Pornified the effect of these images on men’s perception of ordinary women is described by Donovan, 55, CEO of a large corporation ‘You don’t see the reality, just the ways in which that human being doesn’t live up to the ideal.’ (Paul, 2005:228).  Further proof that pornography has entered the hyperreal is its fascination with the ‘money shot’, ejaculation.  We are fascinated by the real as a lost referent, Sean Cubitt in his book Simulation and Social Theory uses the words of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacon to desribe this fascination ‘This is because the true object of desire is neither Imaginary nor Symbolic…it is Real.  The Real is the impossible.’ (Cubitt, 2001:14)   This desire to repeatedly produce the ultimate proof of the reality of the sex, the reality of the pleasure is integral to Baudrillard’s theory.  ‘It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle’. (Baudrillard, 1994:12).    

Postmodernism is difficult to define, its beginnings are disputed and so are its theories.  By looking at what postmodernism is not it is easier to isolate key attributes such as pastiche, recycling of the old, disillusionment with utopian ideals and hyperreal experiences more intense and exciting than everyday life.  Jean Baudrillard, French social theorist and philosopher uses his theory of Simulation to explain the loss of the real and the manipulation caused by the simulacra of the hyperreal.  Exploring this theory in relation to pornography as an example of contemporary visual culture has led us through the three orders of simulacra and Baudrillard’s assertion that ‘if there is a fantasy in pornography, it is not of sex, but of the real.’  (Baudrillard, 1990:29).  Pornography has travelled from the marginalised smut of the early 20th Century, through the high modernist artistic and sexual revolution of the 1960’s, breaking the boundaries between high art, mass culture and classical aesthetic purity.  In 21st Century society it has changed from acceptance to prevalence with the arrival of the internet and the ‘pornification’ of mass culture and, in influencing women to reinvent ourselves as unnatural, entered the realm of the hyperreal.  Pornography’s own obsession with the lost referent of the real, repeatedly asserting the reality of the sex through the proof of ejaculation, leads me to conclude that Baudrillard’s statement is indeed true.               


Fig. 1 Warhol Andy (1978) Sex Parts [Screenprint on HMP paper] At: (Accessed on: 3.12.11)  

Fig. 2 Koons Jeff (1989) Made In Heaven [lithograph on paper on canvas 314.50cm x 691cm]  At: (Accessed on: 3.12.11)


Baudrillard, J. (1990) Seduction. London: Macmillan

Baudrillard, J. (1994) Simulacra and Simulation – Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. USA: The University of Michigan

Cubitt, S. (2001) Simulation and Social Theory. London: Sage Publications Ltd

Dwyer, S. (1995) The Problem of Pornography.  USA: Wadsworth Publishing Company

Gibson, P, C. (2004) More Dirty Looks – Gender, Pornography and Power. (2nd ed.)  London: British Film Institute

Jameson, J. (1999) The Cultural Turn - Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983-1998. London: Verso

Jobling, P. (1999) Fashion Spreads – Word and Image in Fashion Photography since 1980. Oxford: Berg

Paul, P. (2005) Pornified – How Pornography is Transforming our Lives, our Relationships, and our Families. New York: Times Books

Zurbrugg, N. (1993) The Parameters of Postmodernism. London: Routledge