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Modernism/Modernity 8.3 (2001) 527-529

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Book Review

Modernism, Mass Culture, and the Aesthetics of Obscenity

Modernism, Mass Culture, and the Aesthetics of Obscenity . Allison Pease. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp. xvi + 244. $54.95.

Allison Pease attempts to trace the emergence of modern notions of obscenity and pornography in Britain from the eighteenth century to the twentieth in Modernism, Mass Culture, and the Aesthetics of Obscenity. Pornography, as she argues persuasively, developed dialectically with eighteenth-century ideas of the "aesthetic," especially as these categories had been formulated by the third Earl of Shaftesbury and Immanuel Kant. The difference between these two terms was that the "aesthetic" appealed to the rational and reflective faculties (an appeal that [End Page 527] furnished the notion of "disinterest"), whereas pornography attempted to provoke a purely sensual (or "interested") response. In the modern era, she contends, this distinction between the aesthetic and the obscene began to collapse as artists such as Charles Algernon Swinburne, Aubrey Beardsley, James Joyce, and D. H. Lawrence appropriated pornographic discourses to create an "aesthetic of the obscene," which transformed what had once been regarded as low cultural elements into a new kind of "high art" (34). Indeed it was in part obscenity's very lowness that made the modern aesthetic of the obscene look high. The triumph of this new aesthetic was then secured, Pease suggests, by modernist critics such as I. A. Richards, F. R. Leavis, and T. S. Eliot, whose notions of "embodied response" transform Kantian aesthetic philosophy by granting a central role to the once despised concept of sensation (xv).

As this study makes clear, pornography and obscenity have never been purely aesthetic (or anti-aesthetic) terms; such categories, from their inception, carried considerable ideological weight. Enlightenment notions of taste and "disinterest," as elaborated by "the Shaftesbury tradition," helped to enforce a middle-class social and political ideology that became increasingly dominant from the eighteenth century onward (11). Pornography seemed to threaten this ideology because, in demanding sensuous responses, it disallowed the concept of aesthetic disinterest, and "insisted that selfish interest and material gain were at the heart of any individual act" (5). Following the lead of Lynn Hunt and others, Pease suggests that the ideological menace posed by pornography was exacerbated by the ways in which pornography hinted at intimate connections between the body erotic and the body politic. Pornography, in other words, was laden with political implications that the bourgeoisie wished to repress--in particular, the simultaneous (though by no means identical) possibilities of "cross-class desire" and "a leveling of the classes"--and that became ever more threatening with the nineteenth-century growth of mass literacy (57). Modern artists sought to turn this threat to their advantage, and to make pornography "safe for the middle classes," by "idealizing its materialist urges through a formalist structure" (xv). This was an inherently reactionary maneuver as it meant neutralizing the potentially subversive body, especially the working-class body, to which earlier pornographers had granted generous representational space. In their swerve toward formalism, Swinburne, Beardsley, and Joyce were all more or less guilty of this tendency, in Pease's view, and the critical tradition spawned by Eliot's famous essay on Ulysses perpetuated it. While Lawrence satirized such practices in Lady Chatterley's Lover, and championed "not merely the body, but the body politic, the body of the masses," he too is finally charged with "reify[ing] the very class divisions that one would have expected to be erased by the collapse of certain elements of the pornographic into the aesthetic" (138, xiv). Indeed, Lawrence's appropriations of the pornographic tropes and discourses of mass culture were reappropriated, in turn, by mass culture: Lawrence's "wholistic method of sexual representation has been embraced by the entirety of twentieth-century mass culture, from romance novels to Hollywood films" (ibid.). In what is presumably a chilling irony (although Pease does not spell it out fully), the effect of such reappropriation is the neutralizing of Lawrence's own potentially subversive political energies.

In emphasizing the role of class...


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