twitter
facebook twitter tumblr newsletter
 

Theory Porn

By

“You could be raped a thousand times and you could still be a virgin.” So begins an essay on women and slaves written by 16-year-old Myra, the narrator of Tamara Faith Berger’s new novel, Maidenhead. The line echoes throughout the book like a chorus, a startling thesis that fails to gain meaning with repetition. In the paper, Myra is analyzing Korean sex slaves through the lens of the books her boyfriend Aaron lends her, written by Agamben, Bataille, and Hegel. The essay is a joint one for Myra’s history and English classes, so clearly she knows at least a little about synthesizing, about seeing events from both an aesthetic and a sociopolitical perspective.

Armed with theory, Myra begins her task by “expanding the definition of slave to suggest that there was such a thing as being enslaved and being free” — in other words, even slaves can find freedom from subjugation and shame. There are multiple drafts of the essay. The first is called “Sex Slaves: The Modern, the Foreign, the Free.” A later version is renamed “The Pornography Liberation Narrative and Sex Slaves: A Synthesis.” Myra’s titles make good use of the appositional colon, but the essay itself remains “serpentine, inconclusive: What if slaves were not kept apart from each other? What if slaves could take pleasure while enslaved?” Each draft poses new questions that never resolve into answers, leaving Myra’s conclusions as tenuous as her opening hypothesis.

Maidenhead begins on a beach in Key West during spring break, where Myra is approached by an older man from Tanzania. The man, Elijah, takes out his flute and places it on the crease at the top of Myra’s thighs. “Come for a walk,” he says, and Myra does, all the way to his motel room. What happens there falls into that notoriously ambiguous zone between seduction and harassment. Backed into a corner and crouched on the ground, Myra feels “sharp wet heat” fall on her from above. Ducking Elijah’s piss, she rushes out of the room, but not before hearing “Come back, little bitch.” Later that evening, Myra will masturbate for the first time to replays of this call. Convinced that Elijah is the answer to all her desires, Myra returns to him again and again, up until the moment he and Gayl — a video artist, and Elijah’s partner in business and sex — are jailed. The final scene of Maidenhead shows Myra herself filming her friends as she tells them about the imprisoned partners: “Gayl filmed girls being fucked for the first time. White virgins, Western virgins seduced by a beautiful and perverted Tanzanian musician. Then, for this totally spectacular ending, Gayl filmed the girls getting beat up by her.” Like Elijah, Gayl is black. Myra is one of the virgins.This gossip appears in TNI for Vol., available now – subscribe for $2

The resonances between Maidenhead and Bataille’s pornographic novel L’histoire de l’oeil (about another 16-year-old girl, Marcelle) are apparent from the start — though Berger in many ways inverts Bataille, choosing to frame Maidenhead through Myra’s perspective, whereas l’oeil was told through that of a young man’s. In Bataille, a young girl finally hangs herself after playing the sex games dictated by prurient others. In Berger, the girl survives.

Periodically, brief exchanges between Gayl and Lee, Myra’s anarchist friend, interrupt Myra’s story:

LEE: Everyone was once a virgin, you know.

GAYL: you mean a version of a virgin. you could be raped a thousand times and still be a virgin.

Though Gayl and Lee never meet in Maidenhead’s narrative proper, they loom over its events like two conspiring voyeurs. Both are adult black women, and they add a political and emotional omniscience to Myra’s experience that the white 16-yearold narrator lacks. Their dialogues — punctuating and commenting on Myra’s tale — draw the story’s action into a zone of temporal uncertainty, possibly even fantasy.

For every girl becoming a woman, sex lies in her future. This is, at least, what novels have shown us. Most narratives swirl around a center of erotic possibility, their arcs tracing a path of sexual awakening. For the young girl about to arrive, you’d think her whole world beat in time to the fact of sex: The question lies only in when and how she’ll meet this fact head-on. Some girls seek it out, but for others, it seems to find them. In Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady, Samuel Richardson’s eponymous heroine is ensnared by Lovelace, who eventually rapes her. It’s a slow but persistent decline for Clarissa from there on out. While sex shapes and determines Clarissa’s social existence right up until her death, the writing obscures the act itself, not just out of 18th century propriety, but because, for Richardson, sex is secondary to spiritual life. Clarissa conceals sex (and rape) in a haze of metaphors not simply to repress it, but to critique the idea of sex as a psychological and social determinant. For women perhaps especially, sex is never finally just sex.

Maidenhead may resemble the explicitly pornographic L’histoire de l’oeil and Story of O more than Clarissa, but Berger’s novel continues Richardson’s fundamental concerns about the political, philosophical, and narrative consequences of heterosexual sex. While Richardson approaches sex by underplaying it (Lovelace describes the culminating act as merely “a vapour, a bubble”), Berger might be said to overplay it. What was a spreading blush for Richardson is now, for Berger, an open mouth “ringed with lipstick and spit” or a hymen being stretched. That Berger has a history in writing porn can be gleaned from Maidenhead, and, indeed, this book, like her previous two — Lie With Me (2003) and The Way of the Whore (2005) — uses porn to stimulate the reader into risky zones of thought and feeling. If Myra’s erotic coming of age seems especially intense, we might question whether this intensity is a result of the events of the protagonist’s life or of the author’s choice to make sex explicit. Maidenhead makes little distinction between sex and pornography. This blurring is not intended to dissipate their differences but to question what constitutes them. Like any trope or convention, porn enters literature as a genre — one that adds to the form, if it isn’t intrinsic to it.

It remains difficult to discuss pornography in literary terms. In her 1969 essay on the role of porn in art, Susan Sontag describes the  conventional views on pornography that remain today:

Of course, no one denies that pornography constitutes a branch of literature in the sense that it appears in the form of printed books of fiction. But beyond that trivial connection, no more is allowed… It is more plausible just to emphasize that pornography still possesses only one “intention,” while any genuinely valuable work of literature has many.

The essay considers the well-rehearsed argument that literature is seen to address the reader cerebrally, through narrative and character, while porn seeks to arouse the reader viscerally — down to her very body — by way of stark images. This likely contributes to why porn is most readily associated with the more immediate medium of video instead of language. The bifurcation keeps literary pursuits too clean of eroticism and arousal, Sontag argues: “An uprooting of some of these tenacious clichés is long overdue.”

Pornography — so apparently antithetical to literary conventions — may also be a vital challenge to them. If pornography’s first aim is to arouse its audience, it might readily seek to do so at the cost of political consciousness or erudition. It’s doubtful that Andrea Dworkin would agree with much of what I (or Berger) write, but Dworkin’s questions remain consequential to any discussion of porn: That is, what gets evaded or evacuated in the moment of orgasm? In the drive toward climax (which Myra considers a form of self-loss cum self-knowledge), do we sometimes ignore or forget the cost of achieving such pleasure? “Experiences aren’t pornographic,” writes Sontag, “only images and representations — structures of the imagination — are.” Maidenhead wants mental and sexual stimulation to finally coexist. And yet to merge pornography with the literary imagination is to unleash a process anarchic to both porn and literature, to pleasure and intellect alike.

Perhaps it is not language, however, that plays a debased role in Berger’s pornographic novel so much as the other forms of exploitation that the pornography veils in turn: a white teenage girl’s physical pleasure at the foot of a commanding black man. To tussle with this situation — which is necessarily inflected by ongoing histories of racism and sexism — is to generate enough mental stimulation for anyone to get off on.

Beyond making the reader countenance the rituals of sex, pornography in literature introduces the question of violence—systemic, bodily, and otherwise. What’s more, Maidenhead confronts its characters and readers with the possibility that they might find this violence, regardless of context, erotic. To see Myra perpetually return to Elijah and Gayl — after being slapped, fucked, videotaped, and beaten — is to see her actively pursue depravity and shame. Lee warns Myra: “It’s like you’re still operating within a pattern of systemic degradation.” And readers might agree. Just because Myra’s ending is not Marcelle’s or Clarissa’s — that is, with her death as the only logical conclusion — does not mean that she escapes this cycle of sexual and sexist abasement.

A simple argument in favor of Berger’s incorporation of pornography into her novel is the fact that readers are compelled to care for Myra’s development. Not a scenario that begins and ends with the sexual encounter, played out by actors versed in its moves, Maidenhead is grounded in Myra’s stumbling Bildung. We don’t want to be her, though we might, like Lee, want to warn her to be careful. For all the arousal that pornography promises us, readers will likely be more turned off than turned on by Myra’s absorption in sex. If Myra’s impulse toward self-degradation renders her, like Marcelle, sometimes hysterical, it’s a hysteria in which we are nonetheless invested.

After Elijah pees on her, Myra returns to his motel, intent this time on losing her virginity. What she gets, instead, is a view of Elijah’s back as he eats out Gayl. As seen through Myra’s voyeuristic, still unseasoned eyes, the scene is almost exaggeratedly pornographic: “The woman started to cry these amazing sex sounds. I couldn’t believe she was feeling so much.” Myra might be reiterating the tropes and poses of cheap video porn, but her relations to these tropes are as real as the reader’s relation to Myra. That is, very much and very vividly so. Myra’s attachment to pornography’s clichés as truth receive no external redress, least of all from the hovering readers who consume Myra’s interiority as so much realness. If Myra can be moved by porn tropes, perhaps readers should question their being moved by Berger’s novelistic rendering of Myra as a character. Pornography isn’t real, but can’t the same be said of fiction?This gossip appears in TNI for Vol., available now – subscribe for $2

Stationed at the Filmore Hotel, Myra and Elijah have sex for the first time, as Gayl looms above them with her camera. With Gayl’s lens on her, Myra thinks, “Somehow, right then … I knew the whole script of virginity.” Being videotaped as Elijah rocks her “up and down like a doll” doesn’t seem to scare or diminish Myra. If anything, her knowledge of the pornographic script seems to afford Gayl’s “hot little actress” control in the scene. “Pornography is a theatre of types,” writes Sontag, “never individuals.” Does anyone know just how much a 16-year-old girl can work to calculate her own abjection? Linda Williams explains violence “as the most objectionable essence of pornography,” but for both Myra and Gayl, the violence becomes a source of self-control, and perhaps even self-liberation —e vidence that, as Myra argues in her essay, there is “such a thing as being enslaved and being free.”

Myra believes this fervently. Readers may not, much as we might want to. And yet Myra’s aggressive self-degradation or embrace of violence finally proves less uncomfortable than her attempt to theorize these impulses away. Theory becomes a way for Myra to understand her desires, and, as Foucault has observed, this desire is not merely for pleasure, but for “the knowledge of pleasure” as well. Myra’s first autoerotic act ignites a desire to masturbate not just literally, but literarily as well.

The self-described serpentine inconclusiveness of her essay comes in part from an inability to detach sexual pleasures from those pleasures found in reasoning them (and perhaps even reasoning them away from her body and self). When not learning the art of fucking from Elijah, Myra reads theorists recommended by Aaron — herself unaware that these two educations might finally be more similar than not. A man’s sexual dominance and his intellectual influence can draw alliances in the most insidious forms, and perhaps the greatest consequence of Myra’s inability to connect the two results is her failure to see how the various forms and articulations of patriarchy place women in impossibly tangled ideological positions. (I learned that from Dick Hebdige.)Send your thoughts to letters@thenewinquiry.com

What Myra’s theorizing does help with is a consciousness of herself as simultaneously gendered and raced in the world. The day after she meets Elijah, she attends a museum exhibition about slave ships that landed in Key West near the end of the American slave trade. Seeing slavery represented in the medium of lifesized murals —so attentively detailed and realistic — Myra seethes: “I hated this museum. Who thought that this exhibition was a good idea? It was exploitative. I wanted to stencil that on the walls: Slavery Is Fucking Exploitation!” But Myra’s developing sensitivity to racism grows dangerously myopic. At times, her desire to become Elijah’s sex slave appears to stem from not knowing what to do with her frustration at her own white privilege — “the fucking passivity and privilege and girlishness” epitomized by her peers. In being a white girl having sex with traveling black sex workers Gayl and Elijah, Myra thinks: “I’d be a master and a slave.” To be Elijah’s sex slave, however, doesn’t make Myra any less racist.

Hegel gives Myra the vocabulary to understand her relationship with Elijah: The paradoxes of their power imbalance get mapped onto the master-slave dialectic. But if Myra has begun seeing everything in terms of sublimation and contracts, she never touches on, for instance, Frantz Fanon’s articulation of what Hegel’s dialectics might mean from a black man’s perspective. Borrowing from Hegel’s “Lordship and Bondage” chapter, Fanon argues that in the “reciprocal recognitions” between black men and white male colonialists, the former will always be othered in order to elevate the latter. (Fanon, of course, was his own kind of patriarch, writing in Black Skin, White Masks: “Those who grant our conclusions on the psychosexuality of the white woman may ask what we have to say about the woman of color. I know nothing about her.”) As Robert young explained, Hegel’s dialectic is an inadequate frame through which to examine master-slave relations, if only because it is modeled upon a Western Enlightenment history, which

articulates a philosophical structure which uncannily simulates the project of nineteenth-century imperialism; the construction of knowledges which all operate through forms of expropriation and incorporation of the other mimics at a conceptual level the geographic and economic absorption of the non-European world by the west.

Hegel, like Aaron’s Agamben and Bataille, fit into a lineage of white philosophers, the founding fathers of a particular intellectual tradition. “Aaron said that communal writing was the way of the future” — but only for certain communities, of course. When Aaron discovers Myra’s relations with Elijah, he rips into her: “Some fucking Rasta? That’s just fucked up. It’s baffling. I mean, I was the first one to find you.”

The colonialist sentiment behind Aaron’s claim to possession is overtly gendered and raced, and further pronounces the dissonance between Myra’s theoretical and lived existence. Hegel’s theories are founded by and grounded in a Western European intellectual tradition that believed in transcendental idealism. When Myra wants to sublate herself to Elijah, when she wants “to be consumed by him and elevated by him and preserved in the process,” she isn’t escaping her position in the world, historical or otherwise. Instead, Myra seems only to implicate herself more intimately within a systemic cycle of racism and sexism, as exemplified in Maidenhead by Aaron — the white (arguably supremacist) boyfriend she has returned to by the end. Diana Fuss, writing about Fanon, identifies some of the paradoxes native to Myra’s political becoming: “If the mimicry of subjugation can provide unexpected opportunities for resistance and disruption, the mimicry of subversion can find itself reinforcing conventional power relations rather than eroding them.” very simply, “the same mimetic act can be disruptive and reversionary at once.”

The shock of the sadomasochistic pornography that Myra encounters, even the jolt of her own willing subjection to older men, is not enough to liberate Myra from her sheltered and pacified subjectivity. The shock wears off; violence sets in. Myra seems to live in a world that wants women to feel like willing degradation is the only way to show one’s will. I suggested as much to Berger in an email, and the author’s response underlines how difficult it is to negotiate the power relations surrounding and situating a girl like Myra in the world: “I fucking hope not! But sometimes these things need to be played out in a book so we can all see it.” To read Maidenhead is to see, painfully, how female liberation in one position (political, intellectual, or sexual) often means a more thorough entrapment in another (political, intellectual, sexual). That Myra does not see this at the novel’s end makes her opening thesis all the more hopelessly nihilistic and, as Fuss might suggest, reversionary. You could be raped a thousand times and you could still be a virgin.

“I would be smart if you fucked me!” Myra pleads to Elijah, “Please fuck me and I’ll know everything I need to.” Myra’s most honest, if also most distressing, moments are those of urgency, need, and desperation. These appeals are for support and community while disavowing the possibility of such a network ever emerging. They stand as instances of magical thinking, wishes to be answered and not to be understood. For if we were to begin to try to comprehend the overwhelming oppression and injustice that comprises our world, there wouldn’t be enough fucking to escape ourselves. “I couldn’t conclude my essay,” writes Myra near the novel’s end. For someone in a position as impossible as Myra’s — sexually submissive, but privileged in terms of both race and class — there might not be a way to synthesize or plot the master-slave dialectic onto the lives of real women, whether they be slaves or sluts.

* all fields required

Previously by