Roland Barthes and the generosity of pornography

A couple of evenings ago Tomas Weber tweeted: “roland barthes said there was no genorosity in pornography. discuss” and I indicated (on only two large glasses of red wine) that I’d like to ‘discuss’ – a suggestion warmly welcomed by Tomas. Think I need to make a couple of things clear before we proceed:

  • Roland Barthes was French and wore a black leather jacket. A lot;
  • Tomas Weber is one of those annoyingly but outrageously talented poets that we ought to be very grateful for;
  • pornography is a movable feast;
  • Barthes was writing about photography and makes a distinction (being French) between the “‘heavy’ desire of pornography and the ‘light’ (good) desire of desire of eroticism”

Now, the temptation is enormous in this discussion to try my hand at some distinctly Gallic meanderings in consideration of porn and literature but instead I’m going to get personal. I think first of all we need to mark some distance between pornography and material (in whatever format) that disturbs. I’m accepting here the entirely sensible OED definition of pornography which is:

The explicit description or exhibition of sexual subjects or activity in literature, painting, films, etc., in a manner intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic feelings; printed or visual material containing this.

Of course, here we have the moveable feast- did Joyce intend only to stimulate aesthetic feelings, can aesthetic feelings also be erotic feelings, what (exactly) is an erotic feeling?

If I understand the reactionary position on porn correctly, it is that this material causes its users to become in some way depraved or defective. In the UK recent murder trials have increasingly featured the accused’s use of ‘violent’ porn as conclusive proof of his inherent badness. I therefore worry about Barthes’ bracketed ‘good’ as quoted above.

For me, there’s a line between that which arouses me and that which disturbs me. Given my professional background, there isn’t much of human behaviour that disturbs me but there are two passages of prose that I haven’t been able to remove from my head. Thirty or so years ago I read something by John McVicar (reformed bank robber) describing a riot at Durham prison where he and others got access to the files on Ian Brady (moors murderer, subject of ongoing moral panic etc etc) that contained transcripts of the tapes that Brady had made whilst torturing his victims, who were all children. The only specific aspect of this that was described has disturbed and upset me ever since. The other disturbance is much more recent and occurs in Bolano’s 2066- one aspect of one of the very many serial murders that he describes has had an equivalent effect.

I don’t think that I’ve been depraved by either of these, I don’t want to carry out these acts and I can accept that others would not be disturbed whilst a very (very) small minority might be aroused hence the ‘moveable feast.

All of the above is reasonably standard ‘enlightened’, middle ground, Guardian-imbibing stuff, I even feel a surge of reasonableness welling up within me as I type and then we come to the Jonny Liron problem.

Before we get to this particular point I must digress to the fact that Barthes was writing with specific reference to one of Robert Mapplethorpe’s early photographs:

This boy with his arm outstretched, his radiant smile, though his beauty is in no way classical or academic, and though he is half out of the photograph, shifted to the extreme left of the frame, incarnates a kind of blissful eroticism; the photograph leads me to distinguish the “heavy” desire of pornography from the “light” (good) desire of eroticism; after all, perhaps this is a question of “luck”: the photographer has caught the boy’s hand (the boy is Mapplethorpe himself, I believe) at just the right degree of openness, the right density of abandonment: a few millimetres more or less and the divined body would no longer have been offered with benevolence (the pornographic
body shows itself, it does not give itself, there is no generosity in it): the photographer has found the right moment, the kairos of desire.

I’m of the view that the shows/gives juxtaposition says much more about the author than it does about the subject and that any assertion of generosity (or otherwise) is more than a little spurious because it misses the ‘point’. I’m going to try and open up this point with the honourable example of J Liron:

            unforgetting skin banner boys in
            oh, you fell and broke your leg so
            your polychild made up the last
            wake up poem ain't attacked to any
            menopause / touched to the scum
            hilt of infernal chauvinism like it's
            not an issue because . universe .

Enter warchild; war child is naked and dirty, covered in flesh and old blood
and oil, soil and some of Leonardo Di Caprio's bone fragments. A ragged fore-
skin hangs out of his mouth, he is fucking himself with the severed head of
Leonardo De Caprio, he has already tied up war girl and is making her kiss the
dead head of Leonardo Di Caprio. She cums into a cup which war child drinks
before fucking her and then squatting and taking a shit while war girl tries to
fuck the head of Leonardo De Caprio, she unties herself and starts to smear her
cunt with the fresh faeces of war child who masturbates as she does this. War
child is tied up and then fucked by war girl, the faeces on her cunt mingling
with his smeared small cock when they both cum.

           language and theories de cauterize
           and un captivate the attention of a 
           child bent fixed hell for leather of
           fucking like a pretend dog, this should
           be what you stand for, not the press 
           or forgetting.

I have a bit of a history with the above, I wrote one piece condemning this as (and I paraphrase) as a highly mannered piece of attention seeking – then I read more of Liron’s work in ‘Better than Language’ and recanted because I had arrived at the view of his strategic importance in whatever the future of English poetry might be. There are many people who would consider the prose paragraph as pornography in that it is explicit and depicts some activities that could be considered as depraved. I’m of the view that (as with Joyce and Bataille) these things do need to be viewed in context and read with authorial intention in mind.

Just realised that I’ve neatly glided over the ‘generosity’ problem- I am tempted to appreciate the Gallic paradox: the more you reveal the less generous you become but this assumes that generosity is a quality that can or should be applied. It isn’t. Discuss.


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