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Journal of the History of Sexuality 11.4 (2002) 695-696

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Governing Pleasures: Pornography and Social Change in England, 1815-1914. By Lisa Z. Sigel. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2002. Pp. 248. $60.00 (cloth); $24.00 (paper).

Lisa Sigel approaches pornography in Foucauldian terms, as a contingent cultural category whose significance varies with time and place. For instance, a classical painting may be art when it is in a gallery but pornography when a copy circulates as a postcard among the lower classes. A simple image of a white woman may be intolerable when it is available to black men in South Africa. Yet pornography was not an insubstantial category in Britain in the nineteenth century. It had distinctive modes of production and distribution and was recognized by consumers, campaigners, and law enforcement officers. Collectors, fortunately for the historian, collected it, affording valuable material to the historian.

The four main chapters of Governing Pleasures are organized in a sequence that is historical as well as thematic. In her treatment of the 1820s Sigel shows that pornography was produced mainly by an artisanal, cottage industry, often alongside other kinds of publishing. In the vein of Lynn Hunt's work on revolutionary France, Sigel links pornography with radical thought in the persons of prominent publishers. It undermined the legitimacy of monarchy, the church, and the state by validating the figure of the libertine and by alleging the hypocrisy of the powerful. However, it was scarcely available to the working class, few of whom could read or afford it.

Pornography operated quite differently in midcentury, when some eminent Victorians organized themselves into the Cannibal Club, an inner circle of the Anthropological Society of London. Their collecting of pornography, Sigel shows, was continuous with their "scientific" cataloging of sexuality and gender around the globe as part of the imperial enterprise. This was the milieu of Richard Burton, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Richard Monckton Milnes, Simeon Solomon, The Pearl, and Teleny. These men exploited their privileged position. For instance, Frederick Hankey, whose father had been a general and whose uncle was a politician and a director of the Bank of England, smuggled in works from Paris by placing them on the person of his servants and in the diplomatic bag of a friend. Their materials were expensive and privately printed; they had no interest in widening opportunities for other people.

The predilection we think of as especially Victorian, after racist exploitation, is flagellation. Here Sigel shows that, despite copious production, these men were not prepared to trace such practices to an erotics of domination and submission. Thus they could not see how their sexuality had been formed by social conditions and could not associate it with any kind of social critique. [End Page 695]

In the 1880s pornographic materials became more formulaic and merchants more market oriented. Mail order became a common mode of distribution, especially when police attention forced traders to set up new headquarters in Paris. The mode of production changed decisively in the 1890s with the arrival of the postcard. This was within the reach of most people, and sexual pictures were often sold by news agents alongside scenic views. Generally they retailed familiar Victorian attitudes to social, gender, and racial hierarchy. Yet comic cards might ridicule the pretensions of privilege, and disorder in sexuality might effect some social leveling.

Sigel connects her historical research to abiding themes in gender and sexuality. From time to time she ponders whether certain pornographic representations were subversive or exploitative. For instance, she suggests that the presentation of women early in the period as subjects and actors was progressive in comparison with later texts in which they are shown as receptive. This proposition seems at odds with statements elsewhere, indicating that pornography is typically double-edged, exploiting one feature of its situation while subverting another.

Defining pornography is another difficult topic. Sigel says several times that it is about the possibilities rather than the realities of sex. However, this formulation depends on privileging certain kinds of sexual practice...