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19 TeachingVictorian Pornography: Hermeneutics and Sexuality D ona ld E. H a ll • What do we do with pornography in the classroom? We are hardly going to discuss at any length the extent to which it achieves its generic purpose—sexual arousal—even though that often constitutes part of the discussion of other genres (the structural successes of a poetic text, for example). Yet there are many other pedagogically productive uses to which we can put porn. In this brief overview, I will discuss a text and theory frame that I find particularly useful in the classroom. Following the overview is an annotated bibliography by Andrew Urban that offers a wide variety of other theoretical approaches.Yet, however much they may seem to differ, common to all of these perspectives is the belief that porn challenges us in unique and compelling ways to test our worldviews against its version of reality and to test its reality against an ideal of ethical and interpersonal responsibility. I have taught with and about pornography in Victorian cultural studies classes for almost two decades now, and have regularly assigned selections from The Pearl,The Oyster, and other widely reprinted underground periodical works to supplement more canonical works in explorations of gender, nation, and class ideologies during the era. However, I turn most often to My Secret Life as an especially useful text. Not only is it lengthy and rich in incident, but it is, most likely, a factual or semi-factual memoir, one that I discuss in class as a work of much more than wild imagination—it is, to some extent, a work of social, cultural, and philosophical revelation. And what it reveals meshes particularly well with the body of theory that I introduce into the classroom as my pedagogical frame: philosophical hermeneutics. My Secret Life offers a rich terrain for a discussion of human interrelationship and evolving senses of selfhood and ethical responsibility (and lack thereof). Its worldview tests and challenges ours and makes for an intense and unsettling reading experience. Indeed, it is a reading experience of a reading experience—a hermeneutic bonanza of sorts. Philosophical hermeneutics, originating in the work of Hans-Georg Gadamer, suggests that we live in a process of dialogue with all that surrounds us: the literal voices of other individuals, as well as the culturally embedded voices of“tradition” and“prejudice” (Truth and Method 276–77). Gadamer urges us toward ethical responsibility in telling us to embrace that victorian review • Volume 34 Number 2 20 dialogic existence, to acknowledge our own partiality of perspective, and to throw ourselves forthrightly into a critical “reading” of others’ perspectives, while at the same time allowing our perspectives to be read and unsettled by our interlocutors (see Gadamer’s Truth and Method, especially part 2, and the introduction to Palmer’s Gadamer in Conversation for helpful overviews). Gadamerian theory allows us then to focus on the narrator of My Secret Life—specifically his attempt to read and respond to the traditions of his era and read his own incorporation of those traditions—as he struggles to put an alternate, neo-libertine sexual philosophy into action.Walter repeatedly asks variants of the following questions: Why may a man and a woman handle each other’s privates, and yet it be wrong for a man to feel another’s prick, or a woman to feel another’s cunt? Every one in each sex has at one period of their lives done so, and why should not any society of association of people indulge in these innocent, tho sensual, amusements if they like in private? What is there in their doing so that is disgraceful? It is prejudice of education alone which teaches it is. (248) In musing in this way, Walter is engaging in the very skeptical hermeneutic inquiry that Gadamer calls for—questioning prejudice and attempting to sort out prejudice’s effects. His bodily failure at times to “put into practice” what he believes (most memorably when he attempts anal intercourse with another man but cannot sustain an erection) allows for sustained reflection in the text on the power of “prejudice” to determine even our physical responses. At his most intellectually...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 19-25
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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