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The Senses of Reading Badly: The Example of Antebellum “Obscene Reading”
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Louis Jules Duboscq-Soleil, Seated Female Nude with Mirror and Newspaper, c. 1852. From a stereo daguerreotype with color dyes, glass mount, 6.6 × 5.6 cm.

By permission of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 2005.

Reading or viewing pornography is often an experience of extreme contrasts. Privacy collides with publicity, the personal with the impersonal. Bodies are presented in palpable detail and distinction but remain interchangeable. Readers and viewers are rendered as abstract, disembodied voyeurs even as they are encouraged to participate in the most embodied ways. The genre’s characters lack any interiority but the genre itself charges fantasy life. Pornography is about intensifying sensory response while also vacant of what is usually called feeling. It is about identification and alienation. It is exciting yet boring.

The delineation of these contradictory experiences will require more detailing, but if such experience is one of the main subjects and aims of the pornographic, then what sense of it might we make? What is the meaning behind the genre’s production of cycles of excitement and boredom, identification and alienation, disembodiment and embodiment in its consumers? I suspect there are a number of helpful frameworks for approaching this question—psychoanalytic, physiological, gender-focused, to name several—but here I am interested in the double experience in the context of the public sphere. I will argue that pornography often reflects some central antinomies of the modern public-sphere idea and experience. I will also make the more ambitious claim that pornography often enables a public to reflect critically on the values and protocols of its public sphere.

I make these arguments in order to investigate further the implications of the affective turn in public-sphere theory. Over the last decade a number of critics have challenged the traditional, classical model of the public sphere as founded on “rational-critical” debate.1 Michael Warner, Lauren Berlant, Glenn Hendler, and others have suggested that we consider the affective dimension of the public sphere.2 Much of this previous work has focused on the sentimental, and here I expand on it by taking up some emotional structures—most specifically the special kind of boredom that pornography produces—that are usually considered rather more abject than the sentimental and therefore frequently granted little value, even as they are ubiquitous. But more particularly, I am interested in the ways affective response can be understood as a form of reflection and even as something akin to critical thinking. This function of criticality is often assumed in public-sphere theory’s turn to affect, but it is in need of more explicit delineation.3 This further explication can be achieved by bringing to the affective public-sphere conversation (1) some recent work on affect that has developed out of cognitive science; and (2) a case study of affect in motion.

I take up this set of concerns by focusing on an important moment in the American history of the public sphere and pornography: the genre’s unfolding as a popular, even mass-cultural, form in the thirty or so years before the Civil War. It was during these years that pornography became easily available to the public and an issue of public concern that led to obscenity arrests and legislation. No one moment in the pornographic archive can be representative of the entire genre, but the antebellum period’s “obscene reading” and “obscene literature”—to use the vocabulary of the news accounts and court documents of the era—offer a revealing view into the genre’s emergence and development in relation to the public sphere.4 The antebellum genre’s structures are repeated throughout the twentieth century in easily recognizable respects. This is to say that many of the characteristics of modernity’s version of obscene reading are in place by this moment in the mid–nineteenth century.

I approach the archive by focusing on the way its texts construct a specific form of reading—that is, a specific relationship between text, reader, and public sphere. But before turning to these intricacies, I will provide a brief overview of the rise of obscene publication during the antebellum period, as well as an introduction...


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