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Zizek on Porn

Gummy Bear Fornication

Why is porn afraid of good narrative? Cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek took up this question at a talk he gave to the employees of Google (around 34:34 on the video). According to Zizek, it’s because you can’t have your cake and eat it too. He maintains that we can’t handle both fully revealed sexual acts and the intimacy that comes via story.

However, Zizek fails to recognize that there is a narrative present in porn. He cites adult “gonzo” films where the camera and cameraman/woman are part of the action in order to illustrate the complete lack of story within such films. But rather than illustrating a lack of narrative, the inclusion of the camera is a clue as to the type of narrative being constructed–a narrative that says “this is actually happening (somewhere it is possible).”

What is happening? Enter a story about the degradation of women and the glorification of the phallus, instrument of pleasure/death. Enter a story about the possibility of transgressing the taboo. Enter a story about sterilized sex–sex without awkwardness, tenderness, or pubic hair. Porn is bursting with narrative.

Why care? We should care because, according to a Time article, the adult film industry earns between $520 Million and $10 Billion annually (depending on whom you ask). So, there are quite a few people out there who are exposed to porn narratives, and a narrative is a powerful cultural force. This requires a more thorough thinking of the stories people imbibe behind closed doors. Your thoughts?

12 Comments

  1. Depending on the day I vascilate between believing that art guides (culturally forces) society or that it is an oracle of both the current and future zeitgeists of human thought and emotion. Six out of 7 days I tend toward the latter.

    That being said, I think that sex and story are the equivalent of what and why. We want the what without looking at the why. Why do I want to have sex with a milf, why do I want my boss to spank me, why do I want to have sex with three people at once? If we thought about that what would happen?

    We live in a society that rarely asks why and only looks at the what. So it makes sense that porn is currently following that trend. Porn directors and writers are showing us exactly what we are ready for right now.

    That and porn is rarely made by women. :)

  2. Pebble, I like your distinction between “what” and “why.” Why would I want my boss to spank me (be gentle, Tony)? From a biological point of view sexual desire seems fairly straightforward, but from a social/psychological view it gets opaque. I am curious if you have any guesses as to a general “why” when it comes to porn, or if you think it is different in every case.

  3. Here’s a stab in the dark (no pun intended). I think that porn is primarily about two narratives: domination and loneliness. You’re in control, literally. Pause, play, rewind. The naked people who are having orgasms are looking you right in the eye (through the camera). That makes it easy to participate in taboo without having to participate. “Vice without the vice,” to quote Zizek.

    That said, we’re creatures that are wired for sex. It stands to reason that we would like to see beautiful people naked.

  4. I believe that you are over complicating the matter. The porn industry sells sex, the more sex in the movie the more sales they believe they will have. Story line only serves to reduce the amount of sell able product. The industry, rightly or wrongly, believes that they would not gain any audience by providing a storyline and would lose a portion of their audience by the reduction in the amount and consistency of sex.

  5. I don’t think I complicated the matter enough. In one sense, pornographic movies are not sex, they are just movies. If I watch a documentary about the Amazon that is not equal to going to the Amazon. Also, I am using the term “story” in a broad sense to include ideologies. This means that stories are everywhere.

    Take Obama’s inauguration, you could classify this as “news” or a “political event,” as opposed to a story. But, in fact, it was full of story. The setting: we live in hard and uncertain times. The heroes: the American people who are willing to make sacrifices for their country. The villains: terrorists and irresponsible politicians. The plot: a people draws upon their history, ingenuity, and the American dream to overcome dark times. You get my point. My contention is that porn has just as much embedded ideology as a political event.

    That said, things actually deserve a little bit more of a nuanced analysis when it comes to porn and sex. I don’t think you can make a clear distinction between porn films and what we think of as sex. And it is in this way that I think you are right when you say that porn sells sex. Not the physical act of sex, but certain ideas of sex.

  6. I disagree with you Kelyon. I am willing to bet that your under 38 yrs old. As a man matures he learns about many things. This includes what women like and how to improve your ability to bring physical pleasure to a women. You notice the word “physical”- this is often only done when you have given consideration to her thoughts and unspoken disires.
    I would love to find a porn movie where the woman gives a narration of her thoughts!

  7. Interesting comment Claritydoc. I wonder what Zizek would say about such a movie. What form would the woman’s inner monologue have? Would it be written by a woman? Would it be what she might be thinking during sex off-camera, or exactly what she would be thinking while being filmed?

    Didn’t Mel Gibson do a movie like that? 😆

  8. Clearly, I think we’re using story in a couple of different senses. On the one hand, most porn is without a… coherent contextualizing narrative, in the way that we’ve come to expect from movies. And Porn are movies at the end of the day. Even when porn was more likely to include “plot lines” that the characters could participate in and that setup and guided the presentation of sex, I think Zizek’s criticism holds up, albeit reformulated. Why can’t we tell good/meaningful/significant stories/plots that include graphic depictions of sex?

    With the trends in the porn industry towards more niche markets, and more amateurish films where you see the camera, or you hear the director/camera guy talking, and so forth, I think the ideological stuff is much more apparent. It’s way easier to see all of the little narratives that underpin porn (and other) stories–which are interesting–but don’t really run counter to the question that Zizek asks.

  9. I appreciate the distinction you draw between “coherent contextualizing narratives” and “ideological stuff.” Porn does not try to situate its scenes within an overarching plot, nor does it tell stories that most would consider “good/meaningful/significant.” In that sense, Zizek has a valid point. Indeed, I find it hard to believe that Zizek would disagree with the idea that there is ideology at work in porn. So I suppose my post should read “Zizek fails to explicitly mention,” rather than “Zizek fails to recognize.”

    However, we mustn’t make the mistake of underestimating the power of porn by assuming it does not send a message (a story). In the same way, we must not underestimate the power of our “stories” by assuming they don’t have a message (an ideology). Furthermore, we should question the assumption that (explicit) sex and story never come together. This is where I think Zizek would benefit from watching Showtime and HBO.

    It seems that shows like Californication, Weeds, True Blood, Dexter, Rome, and the Tudors combine both sex and story. True, they aren’t porn. But it almost seems like they could push a little more in that direction without losing the integrity of the narrative (not that I am suggesting they should). The book series Song of Ice and Fire, by George RR Martin, is a perfect example of this.

    Zizek is right to prompt us to question the relationship between narrative and sex. How we “handle” sex (movies) as a culture is a vital issue. However, his gloss should be balanced with a reminder that porn sends a powerful message even though it may not come in pretty packaging.

  10. Hey,

    We need to curb the intellectualizing of the content. The simplified narrative that shapes most porno is based on market trends and demands. There are two important consumer behaviors you need to keep in mind: 1) Men jerk-off to this stuff. 2) You can get it for free – so you can watch multiple clips in the time allotted.

    The habit of viewing porn is not so dissimilar to flicking channels on the TV. Elaborate narratives simply waste time.

  11. Karl,

    I appreciate you calling attention to the economic factors involved. I agree that market trends and demands do shape porn content, but this observation just defers the question. Why do men jerk-off to this stuff? And why is less narrative better for jerking-off?

    I don’t think that we can answer this by appealing to “libido” or “sex drive,” without unpacking what that actually means. What does staring at multiple clips of digital information, which re-presents staged sex-acts have to do with the drive to reproduce?

    Neither do I think this issue is solved by appealing to chemical or psychological highs associated with sex. Again, I have to ask, why is this type of material (which, is not “just sex”) most effective in producing these highs (if that is even the case)?

    It is often the things that seem the most obvious that deserve the most careful “intellectualizing.”

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