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Reviewed by:
  • Governing Pleasures: Pornography & Social Change in England, 1851–1914
  • Kevin White
Governing Pleasures: Pornography & Social Change in England, 1851–1914. By Lisa Z Sigel (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002. ix plus 227 pp.).

In this genuinely groundbreaking book, Lisa Sigel seeks not only to bring pornography from out of the historical closet, but to center it in the very heart of the historical project. For Sigel, contemporary discourse in pornography, including the work of Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon, has sought to stipulate “a universal definition of pornography”. But, in doing so, “in order to create a strong argument for the present, the anti-pornography feminists flatten pornography into a monolithic history of the oppression of women” (p. 6). If present discourse on pornography ignores history, so also there is little history to draw on, which has seriously distorted the contemporary debate.

Scholars such as Francoise Barret-Ducrocq, Judith Walkowitz, Jeffrey Weeks and Michael Mason have carefully examined sexual prescription and behaviour in Victorian England. Thus we have now got substantive insight into “the operation of sexuality” (p. 2). Yet we still cannot know about what Sigel calls “the social imagery of sexuality”(p. 2) without studying pornography in history, for it is pornography that “elaborates the possibilities of sex” (p. 2) and in doing so sheds light on the Victorian (masculine) mind no less. Sigel quotes a bawdy verse in which Prime Minister Gladstone “buggers” a Turk in a “grand demonstration” of his “prick” (p. 1) to illustrate this point.

Equally the celebrated work of Steven Marcus in The Other Victorians from forty years ago revealed much of the synchronic meanings of sexuality in individual imagination. What is needed is a diachronic view that stresses the social imagination. (p. 250)1 Too, Marcus, together with Kellow Chesney, developed the view that pornography was part of an “other”, an “underworld” that was separate from the mainstream.2 Sigel rails against this view. She sees pornography as absolutely mainstream, as central to our understanding of the Victorians because it both reflects and affects their imagination. Granted that this is the case, what history we have is sorely inadequate and cannot yet counter the historicity of both sides in the contemporary culture wars.

Sigel’s goal, therefore, is to ground pornography in historical context. She claims in her conclusion to have done this, of course, via the insights of Michael Foucault. She quotes a marvellous piece of Foucaultian pomposity in her conclusion: “The object, in short, is to define the regime of power-knowledge-pleasure that sustain the discourse on human sexuality in our part of the world. The central issue...(is) to account for the fact that it is spoken about, to discover who does the speaking, the positions and viewpoints from which they speak, the institutions which prompt people to speak about it and which store and distribute the things which are said.”3 (p. 157) As a self-confessed feminist, she is interested therefore in the uncovering and exposure of power and how knowledge [End Page 1119] and pleasure are used to shore up power by means of discourse. Her discoveries here are fascinating. She exposes the changing meanings of pornography in the myriad of class, gender and racial dilemmas that both vitalised and afflicted the Victorians. Each situation, each context had its own pornography.

Thus the middle class could observe high art nudity in museums that when distributed to the working classes in postcard form at the end of the century became pornographic. Representations of Africans could be of scientific interest, be meant to amuse, be educational, as well as be erotic. But should Africans view pictures of naked white people this social danger was cause for a sex panic.

Equally, she notes the established history of sexual regulation of onanism, prostitution and venereal disease, but argues that it threw up a counter discourse of “longing for pricks and cunts, for combinations more complex than the affectionate couple, for the Turk, and for the Turk’s garden of fleshy delights.” (p. 12) Brilliantly she compares the “development of licit and illicit desires in pornography” to a “tango—the smooth evolution interrupted by twists and turns...