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Book Reviews Aesthetics of Obscenity Allison Pease. Modernism, Mass Culture, and the Aesthetics of Obscenity . New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. xvi + 244 pp. $54.95 THIS is an impressive book—elegantly conceived and suffused with intelligence. It looks at the history of pornographic and aesthetic discourses in Britain since the eighteenth century and seeks to explain why early-twentieth-century canonical writers were able to represent sexuality explicitly when only a few years earlier the Victorians considered such lusty representations patently pornographic. Allison Pease builds her study around the traditional opposition, championed by theorists like Shaftesbury and Kant, between aesthetics and pornography. She argues with sophistication that these ostensibly polar categories became over the next two hundred years not mutually exclusive entities, but a "mutually generative dialectic between sense and reason" that quite literally changed the way high culture dealt with graphic sexuality , in addition to altering traditional conceptions of the aesthetic. The book is meticulously researched and exceptionally well-documented, with clear, eloquently chiseled argumentation unusually strong in its logic and relatively free of obfuscating jargon. Pease's engaging first chapter outlines the high-cultural shift in Britain from the tradition of Shaftesbury and Kant, which held aesthetic "taste" to be a "disinterested" and "disembodied" universal understanding among elite individuals, to a modernist aesthetic, which incorporated the pornographic "embodied response" even as it affirmed the art object's autonomous value. In the chapters that follow—which use Swinburne , Beardsley, Joyce, Lawrence, T. S. Eliot, F. R. Leavis, and I.A. Richards as exempla—Pease traces the development of what she calls the "aesthetics of the obscene," the "culmination of the mutually generative dialectic of the pornographic and the aesthetic." In defining the aesthetic experience as "a sensus communis, a shared public sense," the ruling order had developed a strategy for countering the sensuous luxury and "uncontrolled consumption" of quasi-pornographic literature, a "solipsistic engagement with the senses" that the aesthetic tradition branded socially irresponsible. The boom of mass-cultural media in the later nineteenth century, which catered to the newly educated working 71 ELT 46 : 1 2003 classes and the petit bourgeois, and included cheap erotica-rich illustrated weeklies, acted to erode the Kantian cultural consensus and exacerbated middle-class fears of cultural contagion and deterioration. The middle class began to conceive of the working "masses"—so often associated with disease, bestiality, and indiscriminate consumption—as a collective , "unrestrained" sexual body that incited cross-class desire and threatened the privileges and institutions of the ruling culture. Increasingly over the course of the nineteenth century—as the philosophies of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud affirmed the impossibility of disinterested speculation—pornography became a mass-cultural product cutting across class lines and provoking the urge to subjugate art "to the bestial, sexualized body." Soon the possible existence of self-policing, workingclass moral pride became a focus in pornography, as the middle classes "exposed, decoded, and recoded" the working-class body for their own needs, in the process making it possible for high-culture artists to legitimately incorporate "pornographic" elements. Pease presents Swinburne as one of the first artists to violate the "ideological separation between disinterested aesthetic apprehension and a provocation of the senses." She provides an insightful reading of how the "pornographic" elements of his poetry were made aesthetically palatable, not only within the poetry itself but also by critics on both sides of the Swinburne-as-pornographer debate. By the late nineteenth and early twentieth century "disinterested" form emerged as a rubric through which to purge the sexual body of its gross and threatening materiality . Pease argues that Beardsley and Joyce, "foremost masters" of this distancing formalism, appeared to cater to the masses' sensuous tastes, yet successfully established themselves within the artistic aristocracy by employing high-cultural parody and irony to shift the focus from the bodies themselves to how those bodies were portrayed. Fin-desi ècle sexology and psychology had scientifically recodified what was once subversive about the sexual body by integrating the previously separate categories of mind and body. As a consequence, Lawrence found the carnal body to be in touch with "a truth forever perverted by mind and culture" and postulated sexual union as "a utopie time...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 71-75
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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