- The Invention of Pornography. Obscenity and the Origins of Modernity, 1500–1800, and: Body and Text in the Eighteenth Century
“Body criticism” is on the rise, especially the study of those examined and imagined bodies that served as objects, metaphors, bearers, or even adversaries of the humanist, enlightened, and rationalist, in short, the modern mind. Like the marxist or psychoanalytic critique of the self-reflective subject, recent interdisciplinary approaches to eighteenth-century culture have discovered the irreducible complexity of physical human existence. Both collections of essays reviewed here participate in this attempt to rejuvenate the study of a period which has always been linked to the dominance of the intellect. If “there is no escaping the body” (Kelly/von Mücke 1), then it becomes most obvious in exactly those cultural (phantasmatic) productions which transformed the body, the flesh, the sex into the printed shadow of image and letter.
The proceedings of the conference “The Invention of Pornography,” held at the University of Pennsylvania in 1991, investigate the concurrence of the obscene and the modern. In her introduction, Lynn Hunt opens the yet-to-be-written history of pornography by looking at the social and political implications of the genre. Between 1500 and 1800 the explicit representation of sexuality criticized the social order and undermined political and religious authorities that ultimately led to establishing the “regulatory category” (12) pornography. Instead [End Page 112] of just arousing sexual desire in its (male) readership, pornography incorporated ideas of humanist, scientific, literary, philosophical, and political revolutions in Italy, France, and England. Whereas the intellectual “effort to theorize pleasure” (34) exemplified certain democratic tendencies (e.g., the interchangeability of bodies), it nevertheless gave way to modern gender differentiations. With its focus on female nudity and (imagined) sexuality, eighteenth-century pornography established patterns of heterosexuality and inscribed gender into the audience of pleasure. All of the following articles draw upon these ambiguities and establish a reading of pornography that questions the marginality of the genre and positions it instead at the center of modern culture.
Paula Findlen traces the origin of pornography back to the Italian Renaissance. At the “intersections of sexuality, politics and learning” (54), humanist eroticism met modern printing technologies. The emergence of a larger audience transformed the genre from a medium for private masturbation to one for sociopolitical critique (Beccadelli, Aretino). Investigating the origins of the politics of pornography in France (L’Ecole des Filles) and England (Poems on Affairs of State), Joan DeJean and Rachel Weil come to a similar conclusion: in the 1700s pornography became the ground for revolutionary as well as reactionary political battles. This analysis is echoed by Margaret C. Jacob, who shows how pornography participated in the discovery of the mechanization of nature. Like the metaphysical materialists, pornographers questioned the moral and political order in the name of (sexual) natural freedom. Looking at the etymologies of the obscene word in eighteenth-century pornography, Lucienne Frappier-Mazur points out that the pornographic use of language did not only appeal to the mimetic imagination but it functioned as a fetish or simulacrum because it replaced the referent it was supposed to represent.
The last four articles concentrate on eighteenth-century social politics of pornography. Kathryn Norberg and Randolph Trumbach look at the connection between libertinism, pornography, and enlightenment in France and England. Whereas the French prostitute as philosopher criticized the enlightened cult of new bourgeois womanhood (motherhood), English libertine men undermined modern family planning by justifying polygamy with reference to fertility cults. Wijnand W. Mijnhardt points out the special case of Dutch pornography, which did not have a distinct political, social, or philosophical function but was rather regarded as a category of bad books. Lynn Hunt concludes her excellent collection with an analysis of politically motivated pornography during the French Revolution, after which the genre began to lose all its subversive philosophies and politics.