People preferring short blog-posts these days, I therefore offer this nearly book-length essay on the history of the word “pornography,” as well as the several falsities maintained about it over the centuries. If I can persuade WordPress not to butcher individual sections or aggrieve me overmuch with its tediousness, I will break this up into a series of (much) shorter posts. Meanwhile, the intrepid and curious can wander through the entire labyrinth as is.


In the early nineteenth century, authorities at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples with the blessing of the future king elected to strictly deny to “women, children, and non-elite men” (Clarke, 2013) any access whatsoever to the Gabinetto Segreto (the “secret cabinet” or “secret museum”), a special collection of objects deemed “obscene” or “pornographic” that the authorities had sequestered out of public view. This disqualification of access, as well as the procedural ordeal of qualification that educated males had to undergo in order to obtain access to the Secret Cabinet, illustrates a more pervasive principal of exclusion, enforcement of disciplinary boundaries, and demand for qualifications that we find in academia generally and perhaps never so ferociously as within Classical scholarship.

This ferocity appears to result partly from the sheer wealth of historical material and the inertia that generates, but also from the recurrence of scandals like amateur archaeology or the tediously never-ending waves of self-elected autodidacts advancing their latest implausible or mistaken exegesis of some religious text, often with a conspiratorial note of having finally uncovered the truth that no one wants you to know.

Nevertheless, as a central bastion of cultural Power and self-identification, any merely academic defence of Classics as a discipline against such incursions by unqualified adventurers or barbarians at the gates remains never quite merely or academic. We find this especially in the architecture of fortification around word-meanings and dictionaries. Gold (2011), for example, tells us triumphantly that a 138-year-old feud about the origin of a piece of British slang at last “is possibly solved” (p. 1, emphasis added)—only possibly; and Jameson (1974) reminds us:

Etymology, as it is used in daily life, is to be considered not so much a scientific fact as a rhetorical form, the illicit use of historical causality to support the drawing of logical consequences (“the word itself tells us so: etymology, etumos logos, authentic meaning. Thus etymology advertises itself, and sends us back to itself as its own first principle”) [(p. 6), paraphrasing and quoting Paulhan (1953, p. 12)].

Why such defence around words? In part because etymology, hinging as it does on that most fraught question of origins itself, becomes implicated in and shows itself as an integral component of that very question as we encounter it in its more-than-typically anxious form across post-Reformation Euroamerican history: i.e., not only in the quest for some legitimate Protestant authority over-against Catholic authority along with the justifications at stake in rise and aspirations of bourgeois industrialism, but also around the very mission and emergence of the nation-state in its current form and the “modern” view of human identity that accompanied and enabled it.

What this sociological and psychological project of Euroamerican self-identity in its most capacious sense involves hinges exactly on definition, so that it becomes almost logical that this project of seeking an origin—an etumos logos and authentic meaning—through its fabrication of ideas about ancient Greece (Bernal, 1987) would also for the first time since the sixteenth century radically revisit and reinvent its Greek lexicon as well (Schneider, 1798). In this way, we might detect in the career of a word the career of the civilisation that carries it, so that to interrogate the justness and the basis of that word—to seek its etymon and thus its “authentic meaning”—interrogates also then the justness and the basis of the civilisation that its storied and complex career occurs within. Hence, then, the need for fortifications around the meanings of words.

Classical scholarship in particular holds dominion over these meanings of words when dictionaries trace them to Latin or Greek, so that to seek out a word’s roots—much less such an anxiety-ridden word like ‘pornography’—in any more detail than already provided by such authorised sources consequently involves tramping in comically heavy galoshes through a densely interlocking and self-protective articulation of mechanisms and traps designed deliberately, it seems, to open fatal argumentative pitfalls across the path of the unwary or unqualified adventurer. One must have the skills of Indiana Jones—an archaeologist and scholar of the classics himself we should note—to recognise, defuse, and not fall prey to anyone one of the countless snares as one creeps naively through the interior spaces of the Secret Cabinet where ‘pornography’ has been sequestered.

If this seems a sort of poetic over-statement, I will say in advance—at the risk of springing a trap on myself right here at the mere doorway of the Secret Cabinet of ‘pornography’—that nowhere in Greek literature will you find the word ‘pornography’. No claim for its authority in Greek has merit, and anyone doing so either lies or merely repeats some other equally unmerited authority. Ancient Greece—or more precisely, a Greek living in the Roman empire during the Second Sophistic era circa 192 CE—gives us “pornographers” not “pornography.”

I see now more clearly how a scholar’s humble offerings of disclaimers at the outset of a work serve not simply to admit graciously in advance an inevitable human frailty or even to highlight (slyly, self-deprecatingly) the several garish new scars on their body as someone recently returned from another foray into the disciplinary lethality of pornography’s Secret Cabinet. When stumbling through that echo-chamber, one may hope only that the traps have several times over killed you—like in a video game, and hopefully to everyone’s amusement—so that your corpse, exactly like one of the desiccated carcasses of some hapless previous adventurer one stumbles across in a corridor, will serve less as a sign of a fatal error of judgment and a warning and more as a signpost pointing to the very path one must forge ahead along. In other words, while errors normally comprise bits of data that disciplinary knowledge normally expels as foreign and worthless, for the secret cabinet of ‘pornography’ errors come to comprise a necessary and indispensible feature of disciplinary knowledge.

Why? If over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries even simply to admit the existence of ‘pornography’ could come to redound too much on a person’s character and thus threaten one’s public reputation with an irremediable moral stain, then any sort of public or publicised discussion of ‘pornography’ must necessarily proceed by misdirection, ellipses, coded allusions, and plausible deniability in general.

This made for high stakes. By the middle of the nineteenth century, things had reached such a fevered pitch of moral propriety that in 1849 the museum authorities in Naples physically bricked over the entrance to the Secret Cabinet and prohibited access to everyone, even elite males, without exception. I find this remarkable. And it underscores how various errors of scholarship around the word ‘pornography’ itself do not comprise mistakes or a negative knowledge that disciplinary practice must eject from its body but rather some of its integral “truths,” its positive knowledge that secretly winks at the correct way to go.


For what use of all these names, you grammarian,

more to wear down rather than to make moderate your listeners?[1]

Athenæus, The Deipnosophistae


The value of this essay lies rather less often in any specific claims or discoveries, however interesting, true, or false, around the linguistic history of the word ‘pornography’—especially in the way that such claims must often depend on unavoidably ungroundable assumptions, for example, in the fact of no clear answer not only to what the word ‘pornography’ might have meant when first coined circa 192 CE by Athenæus but also whether or not it was even the word ‘pornography’ he coined—and rather more often first in its depiction of and analysis of the dynamics around that linguistic history, and second in how, in all of the close analysis here around apparent types of errors by scholars and lexicographers alike who have engaged the term ‘pornography,’ the essay itself runs the risk of and exposes itself to reproducing those same types of errors.

In other words, this essay explores in local instances the disciplinary practice around the word ‘pornography’ (with implications for words in general) and as such—despite the unavoidable necessity of having to slog through an often wearying amount of detail in long-forgotten textual nooks and crannies over variants of phrases or translation, hair-splitting precision about differences of words, and sometimes having even whole branches of argument hang on the difference of a single letter—the essay nonetheless represents in itself an example of that disciplinary practice.

Thus, when things get especially grinding in the details, it will help to remember—while writing, it helped me to remember—this central point of the essay so that the text as you have it before your eyes reads—even right now—not only as a part of that practice, but as part of a practice designed to generate errors. In other words, while disciplinary research in general rests on that especially eighteenth and nineteenth century assumption, so crucial to the rise of our present disciplinary society, of the cumulative character of knowledge (Foucault, 1977; Leps, 1992), the practice around the handling of ‘pornography’ makes scholarly rectitude—just as surely as the moral hyper-rectitude in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that conflated the scholarly and the moral—an impossible ideal to reach, much less to maintain. More precisely, while insisting that errors of practice result from individual “sin”—morally, academically, or both—the practice of handling ‘pornography’ appears rather to require these “sins”.

It seems merely easy psychologising to ascribe this kind of hair-splitting propriety around the handling of ‘pornography’ to the social problematics of sexuality in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And indeed, while it seems on one hand reasonable to detect little more than purely classist and patriarchal male license in the creation of the so-called Secret Cabinet—a closed collection of duly identified and sequestered pornographic objects at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples from 1819, which women, children, and non-elite, i.e., uneducated or working-class, males were denied permission to view—on the other hand, that authorities thirty years later physically bricked over the doorway and refused admission to everyone, even elite males—or so the story goes—suggests a much more visceral turn. Personally, that authorities deemed it necessary to brick up these objects I find utterly fantastic: having had these “pornographic” objects brought out of the ground and back into the light of day at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, their sequestration in the Secret Cabinet ultimately proved insufficient for the imaginations of the day, and so authorities felt themselves moved to re-entomb them.

One sees in this gesture its similitude to the gesture of the prison, the mental hospital, the hôpital in its original sense, the concentration camp, present-day mass incarceration, Guantanamo Bay, and the like—each of these embodying a crucial disciplinary articulation of social anxiety (Foucault, 1977)—so that the psychologising may seem less cheap after all, especially given that the issue here of ‘pornography’ specifically involves sexuality and its theoretically proper, non-pornographic, practice.

As such, the notion of a Secret Cabinet itself becomes an analytical term for this essay; it points to a controlled site of sequestered objects and knowledge that only duly qualified people have access to. Part of this control includes also defences against interlopers built into it. In the binary distinction between error and fact—i.e., given more or less actually defensible knowledge, which typically goes by the name ‘fact’ and the converse of that as ‘error’—then this means there exist also ‘errors of fact’ that the discipline will admit no correction of—the word ‘admit’ seems particularly apt in the context of a Secret Cabinet—but also ‘facts of error’ the discipline similarly will not or cannot acknowledge, on whatever less or more reasonable grounds.

We may see one example of a ‘fact of error’ in the illegitimacy of the word πορνογράφος (“pornográphos”) itself, which we will see later the current body of knowledge of ancient Greek nowhere provides any record for that actual word; only the word πορνογράφον occurs. And we may see an example of an ‘error of fact’ in the disparity between on the one hand a grammatically plausible etymology of πορνογράφος from both πόρνη and/or πóρνος—i.e., both female and/or male sexual partners (Robertson, 1676), whether or not for money as prostitutes, and whether or not purchased as slaves—and the long-dominant etymology that only includes πόρνη, i.e., “harlot, prostitute” (“πόρνη”, 2014), in the word.

Because the current truth of our period (Leps, 1992) acknowledges only two categories—fact or error—when disciplinary knowledge gets into the space occupied by these awkward ‘errors of fact’ and ‘facts of errors’ it becomes necessary to “correct” and shoehorn such awkwardnesses into some one of the already established channels of ‘fact’ or ‘error’. For example, the ‘error of fact’ that no attestation exists for the word πορνογράφος even though we can find it in several dictionaries finds its warrant on the ground that grammatically it must or should exist and that , moreover, if it did it, then it would in all likelihood take the form πορνογράφος. As such, to note the non-occurrence of πορνογράφος becomes an ‘error’ simply because standard disciplinary practice accepts as ‘fact’ this kind of legitimating argument for non-occurring words. As for the ‘fact of error’ that etymologies for πορνογράφος elide that the words πόρνη and/or πóρνος both supply plausible roots for the word finds its justification either in the claim that such an admission would make no difference or that the error actually lies with any investigator who assumes that ‘harlots’ in the translation of πορνογράφος as “writing of harlots” must necessarily or could only refer to female harlots. (This sounds less reasonable when remembering that etymologies of πορνογράφος never conventionally use any word but πόρνη). As such, to question the editorial decision to exclude πóρνος in the etymology of πορνογράφος becomes an ‘error’ (of judgment) either because the judgment of authority simply states the etymology as a ‘fact’ or acknowledges the ‘fact’ but declares it as not making any difference.

While these examples anticipate later material, here they serve simply to show how Secret Cabinets have built-in defences, particularly in the way they allow the manipulation of ambiguities around ‘fact’ and ‘error’ to avoid certain conclusions. Whether this arises as a feature of disciplinary knowledge generally or as a consequence of its handling of the fraught material of ‘pornography’ must remain an open question. So that, in tracking the career of the word ‘pornography’ into English, the narrowest purpose of this essay involves disentangling the three points outlined above, examining in parts 1–3 below the kinds of underpinning ambiguities that licensed various ‘errors of fact’ in students, professors, and researchers alike (Clarke, 2003, 2013; Lundgren, 2014; K. O. Müller, 1830, 1835, 1847, 1848, 1852), which themselves rest and rely upon that one occurrence of πορνογράφον, examined in part 5, from Athenæus’ Deipnosophists where tradition and dictionaries alike say the word ‘pornography’ originates (Perseus Digital Library, 2014 [1854]). In part 4, which serves rather like removing the doors of a Secret Cabinet from its hinges, a close textual reading of the book that Clarke (2013) says we have to thank for the introduction of the term ‘pornography’ into English throws light on the specific techniques, architecture, and resorts that went into its construction as a linguistic secret cabinet itself.

As a secret cabinet, then, one can hardly accuse me of nit-picking the subsequent authors who have engaged directly or indirectly with it since any such engagement seems, by design, to generate errors. If my intuition proves correct—that ‘errors’ around ‘pornography’ serve in eighteenth and nineteenth century scholarship as a kind of positive knowledge rather than mistakes—then whether or not some erroneous claim has crept into the record or if anyone has hastened to correct it seems far less relevant and interesting than how such disciplinary knowledge generates those errors of necessity; we assume the why here as a reaction-formation against the substance of ‘pornography’ itself.

On the other hand, if errors did in fact matter most of all, then we should have to start by taking to task those most respected and cited authorities in Greek-English lexicography for switching their definition of πορνογράφος from “painting harlots” (H. G. Liddell, Passow, Scott, & Drisler, 1848) to “writing of harlots” (H. G. Liddell, Scott, & Drisler, 1889) in the first place. On whatever grounds they justified this change, previous scholarship had expressly acknowledged, correctly one would say on linguistic grounds, that πορνογράφος encompassed both painting and writing (Estienne, 1572; Passow, Schneider, Ideler, & Schultze, 1828; Robertson, 1676; Schneider, 1798) and never only one or the other sense as English lexicons then and now have had it: “A. writing of harlots, Ath. 13.567b.” (“πορνογράφος”, 2015).

If dictionaries go about in the world with an air of providing an objective, or at least best scholarly estimate, of the meaning of a word while muting the fact that an editorial process has intervened to construct that word—lexicographers know and assume this, of course (Zgusta, 2006)—so that it must seem we have only ourselves to blame for trusting their authority, still it seems a nasty article of bad faith when one of those editorial decisions steers folks astray and generates in someone’s work the kind of elementary error we see in Lundgren (2014) via Clarke (2013) about the origin of ‘pornography.’

In fact, one may find Wornum (1842)—a decade before the second English edition of Müller (1852) and still five years before the first English edition (K. O. Müller, 1847)— mentioning merely in passing “thus rhyparography (ῥυπαρογραφία), pornography, and all the lower classes of art, attained the ascendancy and became the characteristic styles of the period,” and then just below that explicitly naming “pornography, or obscene painting, which, in the time of the Romans, was practised with the greatest licence … prevailed especially at no particular period in Greece, but was apparently tolerated to a considerable extent at all times” (p. 694).

One can hardly appreciate, at this point in this essay, the remarkableness of finding the actual word ‘pornography’ and not some more or less overt or covert substitution of “pornographers” from ancient Greek, in Greek script or not, i.e., πορνογράφος, πορνογράφοɩ, pornográphos, pornographein. And while one might argue that none of this hair-splitting matters, since the main arguments advanced by Lundgren (2014) and Clarke (2013) do not necessarily hang on the specific sense of ‘pornography’ they invoke, Müller’s (1830) work, in fact, does seem to turn exactly on what we might call just such an illegitimate substitution or invocation of “pornography” from the word “pornographers.” Whatever credit Clarke (2003, 2013) intends to distribute, Müller in English and German never supplies the word ‘pornography’ but only references “obscene” works and “pornographers.” Meanwhile, Lundgren’s (2014) exposition and credibility suffers needlessly from the ambiguity or confusion around the term ‘pornography.’ So the issue matters at least that much.

However, were the matter of a word’s definition really only mere semantics, then we would have to explain not only the feuds—sometimes about the most apparently banal words (Gold, 2011)—that have occurred around who determines their definition but also the sheer fact of the proliferation of dictionaries. If we should trust a dictionary for what a word means, then which one; or if we should not, then how and who do we consult to find that meaning? This essay illustrates, in part, the ultimately and absurdly tortured path that may result when trying to answer such apparently simple questions, at least about ‘pornography,’ and we shall find those troubles confirmed, not assuaged, by the historians of lexicography as well; Dolezal (2006), introducing such work by Zgusta (2006), tells us:

“Contemporary dictionaries are quickly turned into historical sources.”

The notions of ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ sources are challenged by lexicographic texts: primary sources (‘literature’ in its broadest sense) have “unique importance” and “overwhelming value” but they nevertheless are subject to parsing, excerption, and other linguistic and textual formulations that serve to always remove context; primary sources thus removed, or excerpted, are re-situated as pieces of evidence that taken together, according to various lexicographic procedures, comprise a dictionary (Dolezal, 2006, p. ix).

Or, as Zgusta (2006) himself says:

It would seem that in lexicography all the so-called factual information should pertain to the domain of God’s Truth, whereas all the explanations are ripe candidates for Hocus Pocus status, even if they attempt to acquire, or pretend that they bear, the hallmark of God’s Truth (qtd. in Dolezal, 2006, p. ix).

Particularly around the word ‘pornography’ then—coming as it did into Euroamerican discourse as an argument and technique for handling sexuality and obscenity—we find an especially torturous path accompanying its historical deployment. Its trap-filled, perilous career that passes through deliberately placed pitfalls and misdirection—see especially Pape’s (1875) student dictionary discussed briefly in part 5—signals evidence of this as do the eighteenth and nineteenth century verbal-linguistic secret cabinets built to house ‘pornography’ as well.

As a means for safely ‘handling pornography’ without picking up its stain or being suspected of such by others, the “paranoia” of this seems gradually to have to become endemic and thus adds another note to the tone of “conspiracy” that may enter in when one wanders without permission through this Secret Cabinet. And while we live now in more licentious or generally indifferent times about pornography per se, the resorts and displacements built in to the labyrinthine architecture of these Secret Cabinets—having long-since turned merely to reflex, merely to the routine of the discipline—nevertheless remain solidly in place, even though the original anxiety-formation that fashioned them has fallen largely to the wayside.


As Lundgren (2014) and Clarke (2013) both emphasise, Euroamerican archaeologists and art historians took up the term ‘pornography’ to designate a class of otherwise “obscene” objects, some of which were subsequently housed in special collections, whether physical or verbal/linguistic, but always within the dominating discourse in such a way that only certain vetted or qualified individuals ideally could then obtain permission to view them. Physically, this meant that even elite males would have to obtain permission to view objects in Secret Cabinets in Naples or elsewhere; linguistically, this meant having a mastery of not only classical Greek and Latin but also the discourse of scholarship expressed in and about those languages. Whether one calls this accidental or deliberate, this requirement effectively excluded access to women, children, and non-elite males (Clarke, 2013), remembering that “non-elite” might mean someone theoretically elite but still not sufficiently educated. Or to state this positively rather than negatively, this requirement permits access only to those duly authorised.

Quite apart from whatever prurient titillation these private collection of privates in print or in person might have generated, one already begins to see how the word ‘pornography’ itself served as—i.e., could be put to use as—a gatekeeper then. As Foucault (1977) demonstrates the intimate intertwining of power, knowledge, access to information, and control, we may see already how anxiety-formations around appropriate or inappropriate sexuality might generate and enable a discourse not only of a class of those “in the know” distinct from everyone else but also how that discourse could go on functioning in plain sight without anyone but those “in the know” seeing it. Physically, we see this in the open but impenetrable secret of the Secret Cabinet in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, which anyone could stroll by the door of; linguistically, we see this in the open but (in principal not as) impenetrable secret of the body of disciplinary knowledge in print about ‘pornography’.

Nonetheless, no one—not Karl Otfried Müller in his original German (1830) edition or the posthumous English (1852) edition of his work that Clarke (2013) cites, not any of the Greek lexicographers, when they manage to include the word πορνογράφος (“pornográphos”) at all, and not even the Greek author Athenæus of Naucratis (c. 192 CE) who specialists cite in book 13 of his Deipnosophistae as using the term ‘pornography’—none of them, I repeat, actually use the word ‘pornography’. They all refer rather—ultimately with that circularity of disciplinary tautology—to ‘pornographers’ however they then go on to conflate ‘pornography’ with that word.

If I seem throughout this essay to insist belligerently upon this point, I do so because exactly at that moment of yet another illegitimate or groundless substitution of ‘pornography’ for πορνογράφος do we see the magician’s sleight-of-hand, the snake-oil salesman’s bait-and-switch, exposed. One may agree in principal that pornographers produce pornography, whether written or painted, but since that issue here involves, in its very narrowest sense, the question of the introduction of the word ‘pornography’ (not “pornographer”) into English and, in its very broadest sense, how post-Enlightenment Euroamerican discourse aspired to categorise certain of works of art as ‘pornography,’ then the use of an ad hominem about ‘pornographers’ to prove the existence of some class of art as ‘pornography’ we may then lock up in secret cabinets should already seem illegitimate enough but it also begs the question. Properly speaking, if we would some designate ‘pornography’ as a thing—not so easy of a task as one would think (Kendrick, 1996; United States Supreme Court, 1964)—then we would need to have examples of ‘pornography’ by ‘pornographers’ to make such a case. And yet, we have the greatest portion—if not sometimes the only portion—of the catalogue of works by the so-called pornographers—by Aristides of Thebes, Pausias (or Pausanias, as discussed below), Nicophanes, and Chærephanes, to name the most cited—only in second- or third-hand descriptions of those paintings. In a court of law, a judge would throw out such testimony as hearsay.

If it seems this forgets that absence of evidence offers no evidence of absence, I do not of course deny that Euroamerican discourse encountered archaeological objects it deemed obscene and that some human being at some point in the past would have made that object whatever its purpose and, moreover, that ancient Greeks and Romans could also have designated some of those objects as “obscene.” We can disregard for now the apt objection that any attempt to equate an eighteenth or nineteenth Euroamerican sense of “obscene” to whatever prevailed at some time in ancient Rome or Greece requires proof not assertion. Because if it will not suffice simply to say that all cultures seem eventually to turn up some Calvin eager to morally condemn something, Boehringer (2014) provides us, for the Greek case at least, with the not very euphonious word ἀναισχυντογράφος (“‘anaischuntográphos”), which the standard Greek-English lexicon translates—on the authority of Polybius in book 12, chapter 13 of his Hisotriae, where he himself cites Timaeus (Perseus Digital Library, 2015)—as an “obscene writer” (“ἀναισχυντογράφος”, 2014). Sticking more closely to the actual root of the word—since ἀναίσχυντος connotes to “shameless, impudent” or “of things, shameful, abominable” (“ἀναισχυντοσ”, 2015)—Boehringer (2014) translates the term as “somebody who writes about shameless things” (p. 375). Or again, as yet one more term of aesthetic abuse, in a footnote in K. O. Müller (1852), we find his posthumous editor F.G. Welcker grinding his teeth to deny any imputation of sordidness or dirtiness around the term ῥῠπᾰρογράφος (“rhyparográphos”)—an uphill climb given that the Greek lexicon assures us this sort of thing involved “painting sordid subjects” (“ῥῠπᾰρογράφος”, 2015) and that the root ῥυπαρός in the word connotes to “filthy, dirty” (“ῥῠπᾰρός”, 2015).

All three of these cumbersome and aesthetically moralising terms of abuse— πορνογράφος, ἀναισχυντογράφος, and ῥῠπᾰρογράφος—each occur only once in the ancient Greek record, so how they might align, if at all, in any of their Greek senses of “dirty” or “shameful” or “pornographic” with some post-Enlightenment Euroamerican sense of the “obscene” must remain an open question. Whatever those Greek senses entailed—and, of course, we needn’t conceive of them in some ahistorical or monolithic sense—we can at least say that three denizens closer to that era felt at one time compelled to make a remark, rather in the same way that the future King of Naples, during his tour of the National Archaeological Museum when he encountered “art” that raised his eyebrows, felt compelled to order them sequestered, or when US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, noting that defining hard-core pornography might prove impossible, nonetheless declared he would know it when he saw it.

I have emphasised a recurrent part of this essay as an alertness to the groundlessness of those moments when someone—particularly someone duly authorised—translates πορνογράφος to ‘pornography’. This linguistic gambit that πορνογράφος means ‘pornography’ as a matter of course helps to obscure or make invisible the human agency, the lexicographical process of editorialising (Zgusta, 2006), involved in such an equation. In this way, πορνογράφος never means ‘pornography’ but becomes a means to ‘pornography’. Putting this in symbols, instead of πορνογράφος = ‘pornography,’ we could express this as πορνογράφος à ‘pornography’—so also ἀναισχυντογράφος à ‘anaischuntography’ and ῥῠπᾰρογράφος à ‘rhyparography’—simply to keep in view the act of translation, the “carrying across,” involved.

More exactly, the notion that πορνογράφος means ‘pornography’ on the basis of ancient Greek or Latin authority leaves out an intervening step, i.e., that πορνογράφος (“pornographer”) necessarily implies πορνογραφία (“pornography”), therefore we have the grounds to editorially translate πορνογράφος à ‘pornography’. As far as the record goes, I find no attestation for the –ία class-forms in Greek, i.e., πορνογραφία (‘pornography’), ἀναισχυντογραφία (‘anaischuntography’), or ῥῠπᾰρογραφία (‘rhyparography’). While such a lack of evidence can mean nothing absolute in itself, one may nonetheless compare the situation of these words with the very widely attested ζώγραφος (zoögráphos), or “one who paints from life” (“ζωγράφος”, 2014), with its accompanying class-designation ζωγραφία (zoögraphía), i.e., “painting” (“ζωγραφία”, 2015), and a verb form as well ζωγραφέω, i.e., “paint from life, paint” (“ζωγραφέω”, 2015). As such, while an editorial translation from Greek to English ζώγραφος à ‘zoögraphy’ would remain illegitimate, at least the middle term for that translation has an actual attestation.

One may either say it makes no sense that ancient Greek would not or did not conceptualise a class (of paintings) from a class (of painters) or invoke more general and nebulous philosophical assertions along the lines of “well, but pornographers produce pornography” and the like. One might insist—rather incoherently—that a Greek noun always grammatically embodies a concrete instance of some member of the more general class that that noun belongs to. Or to put this more simply, one would feel much more confident locating ‘pornography’ in ancient Greek if only we could find the word πορνογραφία.

As it is, for the words πορνογράφος and ἀναισχυντογράφος, context supplies an unambiguous case of referring to people (“pornographers”, “obscene writers”) not to genres (“pornography”, “obscene writing”) so that we may confidently resist the ad hominem that sees an argument for existence of genres as already proven or completed simply by labelling as pornographers or anaischuntographers the people who supposedly produced those genres. With the word ῥυπαρογράφος (“rhyparographers”), however, we have a less unambiguous situation, since the Greek-English lexicon offers this on Pliny’s Latin authority as something more like a verb, “painting sordid pictures” (“ῥῠπᾰρογράφος”, 2015), i.e., the act of such painting, rather than the painter of such paintings.

This seems unlikely. The word apparently originates in a single occurrence as a Greek coinage amidst the Latin of Pliny’s Natural History, “ob haec cognominatus rhyparographos” (Perseus Digital Library, 2015 [1906]). There, it reports a nickname or epithet for one Piræicus, a nickname that Bostock and Riley (1857) translate as “painter of low subjects” (p. 269n22) and Rackham, Jones, and Eicholz (1949-1954) put in single scare-quotes as “painter of sordid subjects” (¶37), both on the etymological grounds of ῥῠπᾰρός as “filthy, dirty” (“ῥῠπᾰρός”, 2015). Moreover, in the same passage Pliny coins or reports another nickname/epithet, Anthrographos (“painter of men”), derived from the exclusive choice of subject matter painted by the otherwise little-known painter Dionysius, so his designation for Piræicus as ‘rhyparographos’ seem unambiguously a noun. Whether as a nickname or a painter—of low or sordid subjects or not—none of these sources, ancient or more recent, would seem to support the sense of a verb that H. Liddell, Scott, Jones, and McKenzie (2011) offer, even as they themselves cite Pliny as their source. Taken together, then, the weight of evidence here gives us once again the producer of a painting (“rhyparographer”, “anthrographer”) and not some class of painting they might have produced (“rhyparography” or “anthrography”).

Still more, we see in this case not simply a single instance of a word—rhyparográphos, anthrográphos—but a single instance of a painter. That later commentators would construe these nicknames as classes of painting could not make the ad hominem I’ve described more explicit or literal. Fault for this translation of producer into genre doesn’t fall on Pliny. In listing several works by Antiphilus, he writes, “On the other hand, again, he painted a figure in a ridiculous costume, known jocosely as the Gryllus; and hence it is that pictures of this class are generally known as ‘Grylli’” (Bostock & Riley, 1857, pp. 269-270); his original reads, “idem iocosis nomine gryllum deridiculi habitus pinxit, unde id genus picturae grylli vocantur” (Perseus Digital Library, 2015 [1906]). Must we really assume, then, that when Antiphilus, or any other painter, produced a Grylli that at that moment she or he became a gryllographer or produced gryllography?

Whatever one might establish about any ancient Greek sense of aesthetic reaction or reactions in general around the “obscene”—whether as dirty, shameful, pornographically wanton, and so on—it seems that these days we more readily acknowledge a kind of incommensurability or impossibility of “translating” the realities of ancient or other cultures into our own, so that we generally know in advance that the “truth” of any such work can only manifest inside of quotation marks.

If, on the one hand, it seems that these embedded-rather-than-objective and connotative-rather-than-denotative qualities of knowledge have come to comprise a more integral, if not front-and-centre, part of our current “truth of the period” (Leps, 1992)—visible especially in the rise of knowledge as model that Jameson (1974) cites Structuralism as most fully articulating for the first time—then for scholarship in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, its faith in the establishability of Truth not only framed any tentativeness of conclusion as simply the signal of an as-yet incomplete investigation but also licensed in full an enthusiasm for overlaying its post-Enlightenment sensibility on what it observed, thereby changing it. Or if, on the other hand, this seems simply too pat of a contrast, then we may say that a tension between “truth” and Truth persists in disciplinary practice at all times, then as now, such that sometimes the observing knowledge of “now” does not simply change but actively distorts the observed “then”. And while disciplinary assumptions and the praxis that follows from them have changed considerably from previous eras’, the monuments upon which that praxis works have changed nowhere nearly so radically.

For example, while Liddell et al.’s “obscene writer” for the word ἀναισχυντογράφος has remained unchanged from 1846 to the present (“ἀναισχυντογράφος”, 2014; H. G. Liddell, Scott, Passow, & Drisler, 1846, p. 104), we see in Boehringer’s (2014) “somebody who writes about shameless things” (p. 375) not only a closer adherence to the roots of the word—whether for better or worse—but also no assumption of “shameful” as “obscene”. And while we may never have any settled idea what some Greek notion of “shameful” entails, we can at least note that in English it makes for an editorial intervention to conflate the shameful and the obscene. This insistence on “obscene writer,” moreover, seems perverse, since multiple terms around ἀναισχυντογράφος all invoke riffs on shameful. Thus, at any point since 1846, the standard Greek-English lexicon’s editors might have corrected their editorialising in favour of the more plausible sense that Boehringer (2014) offers.

Like pornográphos, then, ‘anaischuntográphos and rhyparográphos refer to a class of artists and not to a class of art (pornography, anaischuntography, rhyparography). All three words occur only once—even if rhyparographos only turns up in a Latin writer’s coinage—so that their general lack of wider attestation or context seems more readily to have paved the way for the fabrication by later European commentators of genres from producers.

While all three words share this past, anaischuntography—alas—has failed to catch on and has enjoyed none of the wide usage that pornography and rhyparography went on to. By the turn of the twentieth century, for instance, ‘rhyparography’ had an already well-established sense of moral judgment coupled with contempt (Whitney & Smith, 1903, p. 5161); in reviewing Stephen Crane’s George’s Mother, for instance, Henry Thurston Peck in 1896 could throw the word around:

We are not going to object to the narrative of a squalid debauch, but we do assert that if a writer forces it upon our notice, he shall justify himself by limning it with some power and artistic sense, as Zola drew, in L’Assommoir, that Rabelaisian revel at which Coupeau and Lantier met and opened up the way for the final débâcle. Rhyparography is the lowest form of art, but at least it should be good of its kind. Mr. Crane’s rhyparography is in this book incongruous, formless, and deadly dull” (qtd. in Monteiro, 2009, p. 81, italics in original)

If ‘pornography,’ as an argument, consigns objects to the oblivion of a secret cabinet, this summary judgment by Peck similarly proposes to consign Crane’s novel to the dustbin of literature on the ground of rhyparography.

In light of this similarity of function, we leave the trail of ‘pornography’ momentarily to follow rhyparography instead. While this involves, as for ‘pornography’ generally, laboriously sifting through a tiring precision of details, the quest yields the reward not simply of further insights about ‘pornography’ but, in one sense, ‘pornography’ itself.

To begin, then, we should compare the tone of Peck’s passage above to the one in Pliny where describes Piræicus, that prototypical rhyparographer and supposed producer of this “lowest form of art” (Peck, 1896):

For it is proper to append the artists famous with the brush in a minor style of painting. Among these was Piraeicus, to be ranked below few painters in skill; it is possible that he won distinction by his choice of subjects, inasmuch as although adopting a humble line he attained in that field the height of glory. He painted barbers’ shops and cobblers’ stalls, asses, viands and the like, consequently receiving a Greek name meaning ‘painter of sordid subjects’; in these however he gives exquisite pleasure, and indeed they fetched bigger prices than the largest works of many masters (Rackham et al., 1949-1954, ¶37).

As a painter “ranked below few … in skill” who “attained in that field the height of glory” with work that “gives exquisite pleasure” and “fetched bigger prices than the largest works of many masters,” we have here a judgment rather antithetical to Peck’s. One could hardly widen the gap more between whatever Pliny might mean by a rhyparográphos, if we construed it as a class of painters, and the smear-job Peck does on Crane under the same term turned to a literary usage. We would hear (and see) this difference of tone also in Rackham et al.’s inserted phrase “painter of sordid subjects” in place of Pliny’s “rhyparographos”; it stands out like a sore thumb, even without the single quotation-marks bracketing it out in a kind of tiny secret cabinet of punctuation. But however we might construe this transformation of moral judgment from Pliny’s rhyparographos to Peck’s rhyparography, it mirrors almost exactly the transformation of pornográphos to pornography—we say almost only because, at this point, only for the word ‘rhyparography’ can we note unambiguously the nearly completely inverted sense of the later era’s word compared to its ostensibly “Greek” original.

Moreover, the moralising, if not arm’s-length disgust, in Peck’s use of rhyparography doesn’t seem idiosyncratic. In a footnote by Müller’s (1852) posthumous editor Friedrich Gottleib Welcker, he seems at great pains to defuse any sense of rhyparography as dirty pictures, a defence made challenging by the presence of ῥῠπᾰρός, “filthy, dirty” (“ῥῠπᾰρός”, 2015) in the word. Nonetheless, Welcker leverages a disciplinary ambiguity between rhyparography and ῥωπογράφος (“rhopography”)—a genre that “denotes the representation of restricted scenes in nature” (K. O. Müller, 1852, p. 139) or a person who “paints petty scenes” (“ῥωπογράφος”, 2015)—in order to declaim, rather stridently, that “fruits and flowers … are not dirty, even shops, laden asses, the class generally are not conceived by a healthy sense under the aspect of dirt adhering to them; the name would not be trivial but a disgusting term of reproach; it cannot be a Greek artistic expression” (K. O. Müller, 1852, p. 139, §163n5, emphasis added).

The elevated insertion of “disgusting term of reproach” into the text, along with the declamatory incontrovertibility of “it cannot be a Greek artistic expression” both strikingly signal apparently high stakes here. Welcker then goes on to invoke alternative etymologies for rhyparography, claims his remarks remain in the spirit of the dead author’s original, points out that rhyparographos occurs only once in a corrupted passage anyway, and that previous lexicographers have rejected the term. Whatever the merits of this argument, a furiousness of demonstration and elevated tone occurs here that seems likely unmatched by other editorial remarks by him throughout the book.

This apparent hyper-vigilance about the term rhyparography results in a comic, almost pathetic, coda. When Müller again uses the word later in his book, Welcker emends it with the innocent and innocuous term rhopography in square brackets after it (K. O. Müller, 1852, p. 203, §210n6)—a “correction” he adds only after the death of the book’s author, since one will not find this in the German second edition revised by Müller himself (K. O. Müller, 1835, p. 239, §210n6), but only in the third German edition posthumously edited by Welcker (K. O. Müller, 1848, p. 249, §210n6).[2]

The finest irony in all of this arises from the fact that Welcker may have had to make these posthumous interventions into Müller’s text in order to mute, transmute, or defuse the term rhyparography only because Müller cites his name to bring it into the text in the first place. Müller states, “On the pieces of rhyparography [rhopography] Welcker ad. Philostr. p. 397” (1852, p. 203). Since he earlier refers to this work as by Jacobs and Welcker (1852, p. 9, §25n1), we may find that at least one English source that tells us from a rather plagiarised German passage (c.f., Tafel, Osiander, & Schwab, 1832, p. 714) that in Leipzig in 1825 Friedrich Jacobs and F.G. Welcker brought out an edition of Philostratus the Elder’s Εἰκόνων (“Icons”), “or descriptions of 64 paintings which were in a portico in Neapolis by the sea-shore” (Long, 1840, p. 96), except that this work in fact belongs to Friedrich Jacobs and Friedrich Theophilus Welcker, even as the text in question has copious notes by F.G. Welcker (Jacobs & Welcker, 1825).

But in fact, the specific page that Müller cites from Jacobs and Welcker (1825) falls within a three-page note by F.G. Welcker, where he details much more extensively than his précis in Müller’s book the many reasons to deny the corrupted form rhyparography in favour of rhopography. There, he goes so far in this as to actually substitute rhopographos for rhyparographos when supplying his quotation from Pliny. He does so, presumably, on the thesis that rhyparographos already supplies a corruption, a “sin” not of the copyists but of scholars themselves—”non librariorum magis erroribus quam criticorum peccatis scantenibus” (Jacobs & Welcker, 1825, p. 396)—but this obviously assumes the conclusion.

While this may seem so much needless hair-splitting—on my part or Welcker’s—the highly charged quality of his passage in Müller and the even more precise and laborious demonstration of the bogusness of ‘rhyparography’ warrants more attention than that. If nothing else, it demonstrates how, at times, what words specifically mean can matter a great deal. It becomes tempting to explain this heightened scholarly touchiness and polemic by Welcker, in Müller’s text at least, by the proximity of its footnote to another just above where the topic, though not the word ‘pornography,’ occurs. However, Welcker’s extended demonstration in Jacobs and Welcker (1825) anticipates Müller original publication by five years, so that it seems the word ‘rhyparography’ already has a loaded enough, at least in his mind.

Importantly, while the word ‘pornography,’ as a designation of a class of pictures, nowhere appears in the different editions of Müller’s book—but only always the term ‘pornographers’ in Greek script or German—the German word “Rhyparographie”, as a designation of a class of pictures, does appear, more than once, and from the earliest edition (K. O. Müller, 1830, p. 239, 210n6). The illegitimacy of the derivation of the word rhyparography from Pliny notwithstanding, I suggest that we may see—not only in Peck’s bile but even more so in the shrillness of a statement like Welcker’s “the name would not be trivial but a disgusting term of reproach”—precisely that sort of moral revulsion we would expect around ‘pornography’ itself; the main difference being that the word rhyparography exists independently, in German, English, and other languages, apart from its Greek letters or spelling.

As such, rhyparography not only seems at times similar in meaning to ‘pornography’ but actually identical to it. And if these days it seems unconvincing to imagine anyone becoming so agitated about the painting of barbers’ shops or cobblers’ stalls, much less simply the genre of the still life, which rhyparography regularly gets associated with (Whitney & Smith, 1903), then Welcker’s polemics, he gives something away when he insists that “fruits and flowers are not dirty, … are not conceived by a healthy sense under the aspect of dirt adhering to them.” Here, he affects a Tolstoyan irony in order to pretend that any criticism of rhyparography as “dirty pictures”—even if we grant it reality as a genre—signals not only a naïve or ignorant misunderstanding of such pictures as having “dirt adhering to them” but also that only an unhealthy sensibility could do so. We have here that hair being split that Paglia (1990) so relishes skewering when she insists upon not bracketing out any erotic content in works of art and that Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man so unconvincingly spells out when he tries to distinguish reactions to art as only aesthetic and never erotic. In effect, Welcker here proposes that only dirty minds see dirty pictures where no smut inheres.

The social problem of not seeing “dirty pictures” in acknowledged works of art—most immediately around nudes—has long served as cover for or has played with or has been manipulated by discourse. A policing can occur that scolds “childish” sniggering over depictions of naked bodies with “That’s art,” whether this actually transforms the gaze, as Stephen Dedalus and other likeminded aestheticians hoped or claimed, or simply drives it underground to remain the unspoken but obvious fact that Paglia (1990) delights in bringing out. Thus, when Mosher (1988) conventionally defines ‘pornography’ as “a commercial product in the form of fictional drama designed to elicit or enhance sexual arousal” (p. 1), we may understand “a commercial product in the form of fictional drama” as meaning simply “any public depiction” since the key part of the definition involves “designed to elicit or enhance sexual arousal.” In these terms, we will not misconstrue Raphael’s David as pornographic—much less paedophilic, contrary to Paglia’s (1990) insistence—simply because Raphael, presumably, did not design his statue to elicit or enhance sexual arousal; only those with an “unhealthy sensibility” would view it as such.

To ascribe to ‘pornography’ as we do nowadays belying an intent or design to elicit or enhance sexual arousal represents simply one more ad hominem directed at its producer; or, more precisely, the term ‘pornography’ permits an authorised cultural commentator—whether F.G. Welcker, K.O. Müller, H.T. Peck, Supreme Court Justice Stewart Potter, or the future king of Naples—identify and locate any “unhealthy sensibility” with respect to a given cultural production. For those pieces deemed in need of sequestration and preservation, then only the unhealthy sensibility of a pornographer or rhyparographer could have produced it such that judgment may pass upon the work and not the viewer of it. Conversely, for pieces deemed not in need of such sequestration, then only an unhealthy sensibility could have discerned dirtiness where no dirt adheres so that judgment may pass upon the viewer of it and not the work.

Given rhyparography’s association, fairly or not, with dirtiness, then we may only allude to the utterly enormous human record of preoccupation around purity and filth, ritual cleanliness and pollution, pure-bred lineages and miscegenation, and all the rest—issues still more exaggerated and exacerbated with the rise of the middle class—to propose some reason for the virtually neurotic degree of reaction that Welcker and others like him cluster around the notion of rhyparography. In Peck as well, we hear also a clear class-scorn directed against everything sordid and poor, the two merging as synonyms. And if it seems unlikely that such a degree of class-scorn and disgust would still accrue to the established nouveau riche of today, I would say this grossly underestimates the arrogance, fear, and loathing that the well-off have for the poor.

Whether this still somehow links to ‘dirtiness’, there remains in any case that ambiguity that erotically halos the word ‘dirty’ with either an attractive kinkiness or a repulsive grossness, if not both at once. And while the accusation stands—that only an unhealthy sensibility can discern dirtiness where none inheres—I shall risk the charge to suggest that rhyparography must, at least some of the time, have a sexual sense. From the notes in Jacobs and Welcker (1825), Welcker’s disavowal of rhyparography opens his discussion of Philostratus’ description of “Xenia,” which reads:

It is a good thing to gather figs and also not to pass over in silence the figs in this picture. Purple figs dripping with juice are heaped on vine-leaves; and they are depicted with breaks in the skin, some just cracking open to disgorge their honey, some split apart, they are so ripe. Near them lies a branch, not bare, by Zeus, or empty of fruit, but under the shade of its leaves are figs, some still green and “untimely,” some with wrinkled skin over-ripe, and some about to turn, disclosing the shining juice, while on the tip of the branch a sparrow buries its bill in what seems the very sweetest of the figs. All the ground is strewn with chestnuts, some of which are rubbed free of the burr, others lie quite shut up, and others how the burr breaking at the lines of division. See, too, the pears on pears, apples on apples, both heaps of them and piles of ten, all fragrant and golden. You will say that their redness has not been put on from outside, but has bloomed from within. Here are gifts of the cherry tree, here is fruit in clusters heaped in a basket, and the basket is woven, not from alien twigs, but from branches of the plant itself. And if you look at the vine-sprays woven together and at the clusters hanging from them and how the grapes stand out one by one, you will certainly hymn Dionysus and speak of the vine as “Queenly giver of grapes.” You would say that even the grapes in the painting are good to eat and full of winey juice. And the most charming point of all this is: on a leafy branch is yellow honey already within the comb and ripe to stream forth if the comb is pressed; and on another leaf is cheese new curdled and quivering; and there are bowls of milk not merely white but gleaming, for the cream floating upon it makes it seem to gleam (Fairbanks, 2015 [1931], §1.31)

While it must take not too much effort to turn the above into something (perhaps comically) salacious—simply the “queenly giver of grapes” in its scare-quotes can turn almost automatically into an appropriately campy and anachronistic wink of homoeroticism—it still seems rather a lot to accept this description as eliciting the extent of effort seen, in Welcker at least, to obliterate rhyparography as a genre.[3] Minimally, just as ‘pornography’ represents an argument, rather than a thing—and one without the Greek authority claimed for it—Welcker’s polemic directs itself at the post-Enlightenment’s construction of rhyparography as yet another argument, similar in kind if not sometimes identical to ‘pornography’ and one equally without a Greek grounding for it as well. As ‘pornography’ allows a judge either to blame the work (and thus the producer) as prurient while holding the viewer (the judge) innocent or to blame the viewer (as prurient) while holding the work (and thus its producer—ultimately, not simply the person but the civilisation of that person by extension—innocent), rhyparography serves as a similar argument but Welcker seeks to de-authorise it, whatever his reason.

As we will see in the subsequent sections, a moral volatility around terms like ‘pornography’ or rhyparography—the guilt by mere association that may arise for a scholar expressing any knowledge of, much less an “interest” in, such things—will sometimes, if not conventionally, make necessary taking on an air of handling such material at arm’s length. If this seems overstated, imagine someone these days who does research on child pornography; how long does it take before someone asks them, “You research that? What kind of person even wants to look at that stuff?” Amongst themselves with other researchers they may casually discuss the affects and effects of such pornography in the bluntest and most unguarded of ways—after all, they study it in part precisely in order to do so—but when addressing the public, especially in publications, this would seem almost inevitably to generate a form of speaking about, and thus a discourse around, the topic that allows researchers to maintain a plausible deniability about the character of their “interest” and to protect themselves against charges of immoral or prurient impulses. At a minimum, we may at least observe how the structures currently in place to sequester and preserve child pornography still exhibit the main gesture of a secret cabinet; namely, they condemn, circumscribe, and limit access to material only officially available to certain duly authorised individuals entrusted to handle it, i.e., apparatchiks of the judiciary in charge of prosecuting that other type that acquires and gazes at it via secret networks of possessors and producers.

More prosaically, this plausible deniability manifests also through simple opacity and misdirection.

Publishing in Latin illustrates this opacity, since it not only makes a text unintelligible to the general public but also necessitates, or at least has subsequently resulted in, an additional, further opacifying, layer of discourse intended to simplify scholarly findings in order to popularise them, e.g., Long’s (1840) Penny Cyclopaedia, published by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, or Knight’s (1857) English Cyclopaedia: A New Dictionary of Universal Knowledge. These digests, which regurgitate specialist material for popular consumption—rather like a beneficent parental bird bringing food to helpless chicks still in the nest—not only render the Latin texts more distant and opaque (as the only form available for those who do not read Latin) but also display those several markers now too familiar and notorious from currently popularising discourse, especially in science discourse, i.e., a simplified dissemination of an otherwise impenetrable and specialised Arcanum of actual scientific papers, often with errors of fact and almost always with errors of emphasis. One remembers, then, that such errors parade around under headings like “Useful Knowledge” and “Universal Knowledge”.

If it begins to seem bizarre and gratuitous, in light of claims made in the nineteenth century and presently about the usefulness of disseminating knowledge, that Jacobs and Welcker (1825), and F.G. Welcker within their text, would write in Latin, then we may file this away as one of the gestures of the maintenance of Power, no matter how much the discourse itself claims such language as unavoidable and indispensible—think again here of the language of scientific papers. By design or by accident then—whether a “conspiracy” or simply a “cock-up”—the requirement of overlaying a popularising discourse on top of scholarly work not only makes it more opaque but also provides ample opportunities for the generation of errors, even around that most elementary of scholarly facts: a text’s authorship.

In 1832, for example, the authors of yet another German edition of Philostratus incorrectly cite “Fr. Jacobs und F.G. [Friedrich Gottleib] Welcker Leipz. 1825” (Tafel et al., 1832, p. 714) as the authors of Jacobs and [Friedrich Theophilus] Welcker (1825). Eight years later, the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (1840) describe the same text as “commentary by F. Jacobs, and notes by F. G. Welcker” (p. 96), which, while technically correct, at the same time neglects to mention the second author of the book entirely. And still seventeen years later, Knight’s (1857) New Dictionary of Universal Knowledge can still insist on “F. Jacobs, and F.G. Welcker, Leipzig, 8vo. 1825” (1857, p. 815).

Call this an example of accidental, negligent, or deliberate misdirection as we will, certainly if we understand this tiny error of fact as enabling a disciplinary will for opacity, then the function of this error in the popularising context of the two English works makes the phrases “Useful Knowledge” and “Universal Knowledge” ring with an esoteric and nasty bite. But more precisely, since the error seems unintentional sloppiness in the German case and sloppiness and/or plagiarism in the English cases, the misdirection involved here seems merely accidental even as it at the same time succeeds in making more difficult any search for the correct text and thus, however indeliberately, makes access to that material in question more difficult as well.

The vastly increased speed of the current information age as well as the advent of the Internet makes spotting and “correcting” these errors vastly easier and almost breathtakingly faster. And, of course, one may insist upon this error as either harmless or irrelevant, since on one hand no one in the general English-reading public encountering these errors might likely ever go searching out Jacobs and Welcker (1825) in the first place, whether by Friedrich Gottleib, Friedrich Theophilus, or any other Friedrich for that matter, while on the other hand every scholar working in the field likely already knows well enough that F. Th. Welcker co-wrote the book with notes by Friedrich Gottleib. I use this example, valuable precisely in its apparently trivial or negligible aspect, to draw attention to the consequence of the error—the increased difficulty, however slightly, of accessing the text—not the merit of it as a fact.

Enslin (2015) recently noted one operation of Power as making as boring as possible those things it prefers were not looked at, e.g., city council meetings, congressional and public hearings, meetings around budget decisions, court proceedings, or simply the drudgery of ruling in general, &c. In the public chamber then, as opposed to the secret cabinet, the very opposite of “sexual titillation” prevails so that the public manifestations of Power—whether seriously meant or simply as a dog-and-pony show of spectacle—might go on unmolested, uninterrupted. The sheer drudgery of detail helps to inhibit participation, in the same way as medical services in prisons will often articulate a Kafkaesque degree of bureaucracy in order to discourage inmate demands for access to those services, which typically prove inadequate even once delivered (von Zielbauer, 2007).

So the sheer logistics in the nineteenth century of even getting the German original to England or traveling from England to the German original already makes any quest for the book that much slower and more difficult. Some poor amateur in England, intrigued by the possibility of new edition of Philostratus by Jacobs and F.G. Welcker, sends off a letter or telegram to somewhere in Leipzig to request a copy by those wrong authors, so that only the perspicacity or the good luck of some small but greater effort by a clerk to decode that erroneous request will cause the actual book to arrive—otherwise, a letter or telegram answers, “No such book.” And, of course, this comparatively laborious and slow pace of things informs any correction that disciplinary knowledge might make for itself, when actually inclined to do so. The persistence of this error at least from 1832 to 1857—if not arguably into the present day by digitised reproductions of the error—results at least in part from this slow pace.

We have to decide if published discourse actually counts as knowledge or not; or, to anticipate the point I would make here, the argument of ‘pornography’ or rhyparography that allows an empowered to authority to locate “blame” ad and post hoc either in the viewer or the object as the argument requires, echoes in the present context as well, as that form of argument that assigns or withholds significance ad and post hoc about whether a piece (an object) of knowledge actually constitutes knowledge.

Specifically, in K. O. Müller (1830), while we may read “Welcker ad. Philostr. p. 397” and feel—contextually, both from his earlier reference to Jacobs and Welcker and to the relevance of that page both for his own work and the polemic Welcker generates in light of it—confident in having tracked down Müller’s intended reference, that he refers to “ad Philostr” apparently as the title of “Welcker’s” work muddles the picture. Or, more simply, we may ask whether a disciplinary authority will assign “blame” here to my ignorance (as a viewer) for having failed in some way to correctly understand Müller’s abbreviated title as actually referring to the book in question or to Müller’s actually wrongly abbreviated title (as a piece of knowledge). In other words, did I correctly identify Müller’ reference despite the error of my knowledge or did the error of Müller’s abbreviated title serve as knowledge nonetheless to the correct source?

We see in this again that what constitutes “fact” or “error” becomes problematic and confusing. Since disciplinary judgment—as also judgments both about ‘pornography’ and generally around matters of law—by default occur preferentially, if not exclusively, on a principled case-by-case basis (and not on a class basis), then the ad hoc “I know it when I see it” comes into focus as not just an unfortunate recourse that judgment must exercise but actually an integral, definitive, and defining aspect of such judgments. Thus, if Müller has in fact somehow misabbreviated the title, then disciplinary judgment may declare this “error of fact” a harmless one, even though it factually leads its viewers to nowhere; or conversely, the “fact of error” visible in that ignorance of mine that prevented me from recognising in Müller’s “ad Philostr.” the title of Jacob and Welcker’s (1825) Imagines et Callistrati Statuae represents a blame-worthy fault on my part, which fortunately I managed to correct in order to locate the actually correct reference.

The issue here less involves where “blame” actually lies but that someone assigns it, because in that assignment ex post facto the assignment of what counts as knowledge occurs as well. Again, we woul have to ask on what grounds—beyond sheer fiat—must those “errors of fact” in the popularising discouse Jacob and Weckler’s book that misidentify its authorship lose their status as knowledge if other “errors of fact”—e.g., that possibly incorrect abbreviation on Müller’s part or the disciplinary denial of African and Phoenician influences on the formation of ancient Greece—can retain their status as knowledge.

We may most flippantly dismiss this disingenuous distinction as simply a hypocritical exercise of Power, authorising on the one hand that which it finds in its self-interest to do so and dismissing on the other as inessential or poppycock what it doesn’t. But such a judgment itself merely reprises this gesture, since what remains unsaid behind this this amounts to asking “fact for whom” and “error for whom”. Or, as we stated at the beginning, ‘pornography’ as an argument supplies one of the most visible examples of this judgment’s mechanism, and if the gesture remains implicated in the handling of definitions in dictionaries, here we see it extended out into the whole of discourse itself insofar as it extends o withholds the imprimatur of “knowledge” to objects (facts, scholars, texts) in discourse.

If this seems merely obvious, we must still explain why disciplinary knowledge, as also all claims (social and personal) about some objective reality, relentlessly either ignore this or continuously enounce it as mere semantics. And in one sense, from the spooky characterisation of Power that Foucault (1977) describes, “for whom” doesn’t seem to matter because Power goes on operating above and beyond our wanting and desiring.

Or at least that offers on politically disabling way of describing it, one usefully accurate way to describe how Power renders its operations opaque by disallowing its practitioners. But we may see more immediate example of such misdirection—as a technique or gesture that helps to keep interdicted material in a space of plausible deniability for scholars—in where and how Welcker positions his three-page assault on the illegitimacy of rhyparography. His polemic begins with his opening commentary on Philostratus’ description of Xenia, but this painting in particular follows immediately upon a description of a painting of Pelops—famous, amongst other things, for serving as Poseidon’s catamite. Previously, we noted how in Müller the polemic against rhyparography in Welcker’s footnote occurs proximately to the one devoted to pornographers (πόρνη-graphos); here, his much longer polemic against rhyparography occurs proximately to a painted, graphic πóρνος as he appears in Philostratus’ description.

To note this does not imply any psychological anxiety-formation about homosexuality, Greek pederasty, or sodomy on Welcker’s part—even if we could still ask the man, that still might not settle the issue anyway; it shows, simply, how this proximity-without-any-explicit-connection allows a plausible deniability. Just—as Welcker insists—only an ignorant or unhealthy sensibility could find an immaculate painting maculate, so also, let us assume, could only an ignorant or unhealthy sensibility see any significance in the proximity of ‘rhyparography’ to some πόρνη-graphos or a graphic πóρνος.

One needn’t devolve any anxiety-formation discerned here always or merely to some personal or psychosexual sense—to a reactive sublimation by scholars against the press of a secret or repressed private desire—but simply, perhaps pre-eminently, to a public and sociosexual sense—to a proactive anticipation by scholars around how such obscene material might affect their open and expressed sense of reputation, especially in the press.

The ambiguity that can result from opacity and misdirection, then, enables not only the face-saving gesture of plausible deniability for scholars with respect the obscene material of ‘pornography,’ but also licenses the judgment of ‘pornography’ as well as an argument. In this respect, rhyparography itself may illustrate an example of that opacity and misdirection. In the curiously contentious disciplinary ambiguity of it, which drives Welcker’s polemic to either invalidate it or turn it into the harmless category of rhopography, it itself supplies a plausible deniability around obscene material within its ambiguous connotations that ‘pornography’ ultimately too openly fails to provide.

We should remember that ‘pornography’—as the writing or painting of harlots or prostitutes, conventionally imagined as female only, not male—already suspends some ambiguities within itself. Nonetheless, if rhyparography in its day seems to have taken up the class-banner of “low subjects” such that its “dirtiness” involves that matrix of pejoratives about the poor as dirty—an emphasis that appears to no longer need the word since we now valorise “low-brow”—by contrast, we have drawn out an explicitly sexual content in ‘pornography’ and in that form have kept the word round.

For the scholars of Müller’s and Welcker’s era, it seems this had not yet so clearly established itself. It looks as if Welcker responds to ‘rhyparography’—as a “disgusting term of reproach” that could not possibly embody a Greek aesthetic term—as something more like we would expect for ‘pornography,’ while the word ‘pornography’ itself had as yet barely crept out of its supposedly Greek closet. In 1843, English scholarship had brought out its own flagship Greek-English lexicon in both full and abridged (i.e., popular) forms one year after Wornum supplied “pornography” to English, and by 1848, Welcker felt compelled to revisit his polemic against rhyparography from two decades earlier as a new addition to Müller’s text. It becomes tempting, then, to see a coincidence of these revised articulations around obscene material with those tensions in Europe that erupted abortively in 1848. In any case soon after, in Naples in 1849, authorities would physically brick over the entrance to the Secret Cabinet and barred access to everyone. ‘Pornography’ had, perhaps, forcefully come into its own.


In Lundgren’s (2014) thesis we read about the word ‘pornography’ as used by an early-nineteenth century German scholar Karl Otfried Müller, who “borrowed from the Greek and coined the word pornographein, which means to ‘to write about prostitutes’” (p. 5). While one readily finds grounds to reject this claim (Sternke, 2012)—including a dubious legitimacy for the word ‘pornographein’ itself that has yet to prevent it from circulating and to which we will have to return—I nonetheless appreciate Lundgren’s observation of an ambiguity in this borrowed or coined word pornographein, however it comes about. And before continuing, it will help to sketch in briefly the problems in the claim “borrowed from the Greek and coined the word pornographein, which means to ‘to write about prostitutes’” prior to discussing them in detail below.

First, one cannot quite “borrow and coin” a term. For another, the specific word pornographein used has multiple anomalies discussion of which I hold off for some time. Third, we will also see several ambiguities in “to write about prostitutes,” not only in the actual roots of the word but also in warrant for this phrase itself. Most importantly, however, while all of the discussion below turns on definitions of ‘pornography,’ the word in question cannot mean ‘pornography’ based on the word cited from Athenæus. There, πορνογράφον occurs grammatically in the accusative case, and lexicographers have subsequently supplied the unattested but grammatically defensible πορνογράφος for their dictionaries. Whatever the merit or justification of this, for the words πορνογράφον and πορνογράφος alike, either connote to a “pornographer”—i.e., one who produces ‘pornography’—and not ‘pornography’ itself. We have here again simply the illegitimate πορνογράφον à ‘pornography’ substitution. In the following, if I seem to accept this illegitimate swap of ‘pornography’ for πορνογράφος—no one refers to the word πορνογράφον—I do so only because Lundgren (2014) assumes it for the argument.

As such, when Lundgren (2014) declares ‘pornography’ as “to write about prostitutes” we may note how πορνογράφον as the noun of a producer of ostensible ‘pornography’ has transformed into a verb as the action of that producer (“to write about”). This seems to result as an artefact the word pornographein that Lundgren invokes, since it already more resembles a verb (“pornographise”) than the noun it defines (‘pornography’). We see a case similar in ζώγραφος (zoögráphos), “one who paints from life” (“ζωγράφος”, 2014), and the verb ζωγραφέω, i.e., “paint from life, paint” (“ζωγραφέω”, 2015), except that the ancient Greek record widely attests zoögraphein while pornographein has no attestation.

Precisely such analogies with words like ζώγραφος motivate attempts to etymologise a one-time occurring word like πορνογράφον. Any etymology of ‘pornography’ must account, along known grammatical lines, for the “porn-” and “graph-” portions of the word, whether as a noun-noun, noun-verb, or some other variety of compound—assuming no errors of transcription over the centuries or any intentional grammatical innovation or pun by Athenæus when he made up the word. Etymologies that plausibly assume a noun-verb compound will yield texts like “from πόρνη (pórnē, ‘prostitute’) + γράφω (gráphō, ‘I write’)” (“pornography”, 2015a, italics in original) or

from porne “prostitute,” originally “bought, purchased” (with an original notion, probably of “female slave sold for prostitution”), related to pernanai “to sell,” from PIE root *per- (5) “to traffic in, to sell” (see price (n.)) + graphein “to write” (see -graphy) (“pornography”, 2015b, italics in original)

I cite these etymologies not to affirm or deny their authority and less to depict how the problem of trying to find an adequate verbal fit from another language can yield a misleading word and more simply how unexceptional it seems. As such, rather than providing the desired and warranted argument—that pornographein discloses the Greek “source” for ‘pornography’—it simply serves as cover for the fiat of declaring ‘pornography’ as having authoritative Greek roots; a point exacerbated, of course, by the fact that Lundgren gets pornographein by citing another authority. Of course, why anyone would insist upon such Greek origins remains a separate question; to prove such origins these days seems much less immediately pressing for our current era than for previous. If that post-Enlightenment Euroamerican project of establishing its origins in Greece had a compulsive quality (Bernal, 1987, 1991, 2006), enough time seems to have passed that its entrenchment as doxa now requires summoning its defenders only when frontally attacked (M. Lefkowitz, 2008; M. R. Lefkowitz & Rogers, 1996; Quiroga, 2008).

Besides this unintentional noun/verb ambiguity, Lundgren also intentionally draws attention to an explicit ambiguity in ‘pornography’. Noting that the word referred to writing about “the lowest class of women” (Glazebrook & Henry, 2011), i.e., common prostitutes, it also referred as well, or perhaps subsequently came to refer in Greek literature (Clarke, 2003), to a tradition of Greek “authors who recorded the behavior and practices of the reputable hetaira, [i.e.,] upper-class courtesans who entertained guests at drinking parties with music and dance, as well as sex” (Lundgren, 2014, p. 5).

I specifically do not dispute that any such literary tradition existed, but only that I’ve found no reason to attach the term πορνογράφον to that tradition. Boehringer (2014) reminds us, “Antiquity has left us few works by women … Yet there is an exception, one field where women’s names are more numerous and visible than men’s, and that is in the field of treatises and manuals of an erotic or pornographic character (in the modern sense of the term)” (p. 374). Of these names, the best-known of such women authors—or at least the name “most often mentioned” (Ibid)—belongs to Philaenis, so that we may say from circa “the middle of the fourth century BCE … there existed, during antiquity, a field of discourse attributed for the most part to women, in which, furthermore, the most famous name is a woman’s. This fact deserves to be emphasized” (Boehringer, 2014, p. 374). Here we see then—whatever we might call it—both a discourse as a genre as well as reference to several producers of that discourse, with Philaenis as the most famous. If we can assume that this points, more or less, to the tradition Lundgren (2014) identifies, ‘pornography’ nonetheless supplies the wrong term for it. Boehringer (2014) states specifically:

The modern term “pornography” is a “false friend”: a πορνογράφος does not write texts with content that is erotic and/or considered obscene, but writes about prostitutes and courtesans. The ancient equivalent of our ‘pornographic author’ was rather, even if the term was rarely used, an ἀναισχυντογράφος, somebody who writes about shameless things. … What characterizes, in antiquity, the works that we moderns consider pornographic is not so much the content (sex and eroticism are not enough to define the pornographic genre) as its similarity to other technical genres and its didactic dimension: an ars amatoria (or a περὶ ἀφροδισίων) contains advice and presents itself as addressed to a public that wants to be instructed one erotic matters by an expert (pp. 375-376).

I would add here, for the sake of clarity, that while Boehringer (2014) indicates a πορνογράφος would write texts about prostitutes and courtesans, she does not equate the discourse of writing by women she highlights in Greek tradition as πορνογραφία (“pornographía”); Nor did the Greeks it seems; “the term is not found in the abstract as pornographiaHenry (2000, p. 508). Moreover—and without losing sight of the fact that having the word πορνογράφον in only one occurrence from Athenæus makes it become an echo-chamber for projection—while Boehringer (2014) rhetorically includes both prostitutes and courtesans under the term πορνογράφος in her remark, the root involved typically refers only to “common prostitutes” (Glazebrook & Henry, 2011) and not to “upper-class courtesans” or ἑταῖραι (“ἑταίρα”, 2015; Lundgren, 2014). Thus, in addition to a possible ‘pornography’ as “writings by common prostitutes,” then, we might also hope to discover in the ancient Greek record something like an ἑταɩρογραφία (“hetaerographía” or “hetaerography”), i.e., the writings of courtesans, as corresponding to the tradition Boehringer (2014) identifies, but the record appears to offer no such word specifically. Instead, scholars refer with a later word of our own invention to prosopographies to name a kind of biography or catalogue alluded to by Athenæus; thus, “In addition to his identification with the comic buffoon, [the figure of Myrtilus the grammarian from Athenæus’ Deipnosophistae] also evokes the Alexandrian lexicographers who developed prosopographies [i.e., reconstructed or fictional biographies] of famous Athenian courtesans … The main activity of Myrtilus consists of glossing the names of hetaeras … his speech is repeatedly characterized as a catalogue” (McClure, 2003, p. 50).

I do not suggest here of course that Boehringer (2014) imagines “prostitute” and “courtesan” as equivalent; the distinction, in any case, seems fruitfully in flux and under renewed investigation (Glazebrook & Henry, 2011; Henry, 2000; McClure, 2003). But whether an anachronistic or chauvinistic tradition has conflated the terms or more recent work seeks to clarify their distinction, the word πόρνη (“pórne”)—in its most conventionally attested root in the word ‘pornography’ as “harlot, prostitute” (“πόρνη”, 2014)—already contains a conflation, since one hardly must conceive of “harlots” and “prostitutes” as equivalent. Thus, while Lundgren (2014) tells us ‘pornography’ means “to write about prostitutes” (p. 5), we might see it as alternatively or at least also connoting to “writing of harlots”; and, in fact, we find that meaning currently attested in the standard Greek-English lexicon (“πορνογράφος”, 2014). Moreover, though it runs the risk of a false generalisation to say, over the centuries in the major lexicons the sense of πόρνη as “harlot” seems to have predominated over “prostitute” at least when applied to definitions of ‘pornography’ (Estienne, 1572; Passow et al., 1828; Robertson, 1676; Schneider, 1798).

We may want to say that “to write about prostitutes” or “to write about harlots” makes no difference, but this renders suspect or pointless the whole enterprise of dictionaries. Or one might say, with a certain kind of justification, that this makes no material difference to Lundgren’s argument but only, in part, because the current discourse already generally conflates “harlot” and “prostitute.” Nonetheless, as this essay more concerns the how of arguments less than their what, that these anthimeric paraphrases and substitutions—this “rhetorical … use of one part of speech (or word class) in place of another” [4]—attracts no attention and, in fact, constitutes proper procedures becomes telling. Admittedly, where etymology would occur at all, ultimately one must find something of a substitution as a translation—a “carrying across”—otherwise one could only propose “a graph- of porn-” as an etymology for πορνογράφον. All the same, to expect the parts of speech in the target and source languages to match, where the grammar allows, seems at least a reasonable, if not a necessary, condition.

Even around this conventionally proposed root of πόρνη, however, we find still further ambiguity, when at least one lexicographer proposes both πόρνη and πόρνος as roots of πορνογράφος (Robertson, 1676). This additional word πόρνος, meaning “fornicator” and/or “catamite” (“πόρνος”, 2014), captures the grammatically if not also the actually masculine form of the noun πόρνη. This elision of πόρνος, whatever the justness of Robertson’s (1676) proposal, echoes Henry’s (2000) observation that censorship around erotica in a later era manifested “in a manner that was predictably prejudiced against homoerotic material” (p. 507). We might imagine some reason other than a similar prejudice for the disappearance of πόρνος from etymologies of πορνογράφον, but the greater public inadmissibility of catamites, sodomites, and the like in post-Enlightenment discourse remains a very compelling explanatory element.

But here again, we confront an ambiguity for ‘pornography’ in whatever similarity or difference prevails between a “fornicator” and a “catamite”: i.e., “the junior partner in a pederastic relationship”(“catamite”, 2015), or a “‘boy used in pederasty,’ 1590s, from Latin Catamitus, corruption of Ganymedes, the name of the beloved cup-bearer of Jupiter (see Ganymede). Cicero used it as a contemptuous insult against Antonius” (Harper, 2015a, italics in original). From these terms, we might have two more possibility for what ‘pornography’ might described, i.e., “writing of fornicators” or “writing of catamites.” And while most of what Myrtilus the Grammarian speaks of in his rambling attestation of “courtesans” concerns women, he at least also takes a turn at the recurrent debate over the sexual merits of boys compared to women.

In fact, the ambiguities continue to multiply. Since one clearly need not automatically or tacitly assume the four terms harlot, prostitute, fornicator, and catamite invoked in etymologies of πορνογράφον as synonymous or interchangeable, if we employ “porn-” as nothing more than a verbal marker to refer to all four at once, then this highlights the additional ambiguity between “writing about porn-” and “writing by porn-”. These eight possible pornographies double once more since, perhaps from an arguable shortage of context, those who compiled lexicons over the centuries declined to decide if Athenæus meant a painter or a writer or both with hi πορνογράφον (Estienne, 1572; Estienne & Hase, 1847; Passow et al., 1828; Robertson, 1676; Schneider, 1798). Generally, authorities listed both possibilities.

What seems striking here less involves any state of confusion these many possible pornographies appear to signal and more the habitual reduction of this variety of sixteen to two (“writing and/or painting porn-”), and then even later to one. For while the French and German traditions prior to the mid-nineteenth century could at least retain a sense of ‘pornography’ as both the writing or painting of porn-, with the inauguration of the English tradition, this narrowed further first to “painting harlots” (H. G. Liddell et al., 1846) only to change later to “writing of harlots” (H. G. Liddell et al., 1889), where it remains to this day.

From this definition, one may appreciate any confusion around noun or verb, since “writing of harlots” rather artfully straddles both senses, if you don’t know the original as not only a noun but specifically ‘pornographer’ not ‘pornographising’. The same ambiguity prevails with “painting harlots,” of course, so the mystery involves why the change from graphic to literary depiction. But whatever rationale we imagine or discover for this, I suggest we might understand this “narrowing” gesture—especially in the silences of the most-consulted lexicons around ‘pornography’ as “writing by porn-” or the sense of porn- as πόρνος—less as a reduction of definitions and more putting in place a limitation on the “public” face of the meaning of a word while sequestering the remainder of its meanings like an object in a Secret Cabinet.

In other words, whatever the “public” face of the definition—whether “painting harlots” or “writing of harlots”—the remaining senses of the word remain available, but only for those who have access to see them. After all, one might locate a copy of Robertson (1676), where he proposes both πόρνη and πόρνος for ‘pornography,’ but even without this obscure text, both words πόρνη and πόρνος remain openly available, at least in the non-abridged versions of the Greek-English lexicon, for anyone who can infer or suspect the grammatical likelihood of the one from the presence of the other; i.e., who can realise that if ‘pornography’ derives “from πόρνη (pórnē, ‘prostitute’) + γράφω (gráphō, ‘I write’)” (“pornography”, 2015a, italics in original), then it might also derive from πόρνος (pórnos, “catamite”) as well.

In her excellent introduction to Berlin’s (1979) Russian Thinkers, Kelly (1979) notes that:

pluralism, in the sense in which [Berlin] uses the word, is not to be confused with that which is commonly defined as a liberal outlook–according to which all extreme positions are distortions of true values and the key to social harmony and a moral life lies in moderation and the golden mean. True pluralism, as Berlin understands it, is much more tough-minded and intellectually bold: it rejects the view that all conflicts of values can be finally resolved by synthesis and that all desirable goals may be reconciled. It recognizes that human nature is such that it generates values which, though equally sacred, equally ultimate, exclude one another, without there being any possibility of establishing an objective hierarchical relation between them. Moral conduct therefore may involve making agonizing choices, without the help of universal criteria, between incompatible but equally desirable values (p. xv).

The invocation of human nature to ground Berlin’s argument here means that we can only have before us an especially ideological construct, one which in this case takes no account of those human histories precisely where more pluralistic social norms prevailed. In the same way, the argument offers a normalisation of those historical conflicts that it does take account of in which people with monistic, or non-pluralistic, views failed (or simply had no will to find) a way in the absence of “objective hierarchical relation between them” to live proximately to those who thought, believed, and acted differently than they did. War and annihilation outright represents one outcome of failure or lack of will; sequestration in prisons, asylums, hospitals, &c., represents another.

A given word will have an acknowledged plurality of uses and meanings in dictionary because the corpus or archive available presents a record of that plurality of meaning. The record (so much as chance and history supply it) presents a kind of incontestable fact—the data of the world that any semantic “theory” or dictionary about it must account for, however fully or not. And while we needn’t imagine lexicographers as monistic fascists, in the case of ‘pornography’—especially when we see it changed around that fraught period of the middle of the nineteenth century from a very long-standing if still impoverished dualism of meaning as writing and painting in the French and German tradition to a monism of meaning in the English tradition—then the will to limit the public face of the definition of the word, while sequestering the rest in difficult to access spaces of the discourse, more shows its license than its logic, it seems. As a word that only occurs once, ‘pornography’ (as also rhyparography on the same grounds) permits this gesture of sequestration more easily, since no vast wealth of attestation in the record—as we have it—demands a more pluralistic accounting of that meaning.

As the final point about Lundgren’s deployment of ‘pornography,’ we note one final ambiguity in pointing to Müller’s pornographein as either borrowed from Greek or coined. If borrowed, then some ancient authority must supply it—which in Müller’s case would come from Athenæus, of course, though again we find there the accusative singular πορνογράφον (“pornographer”) not pornographein or ‘pornography’ or πορνογραφία or even πορνογράφος.

On the other hand, if Müller coined the term, one might hope he would define it—or at least include it—in the German original (K. O. Müller, 1830) or some subsequent English translation (K. O. Müller, 1847, 1852), but this does not seem the case. Instead, one finds the German term “Pornographen” (K. O. Müller, 1830, p. 602), i.e., “pornographers,” along with his extrapolation of the plural “πορνογράφοɩ” (Ibid, , p. 144) or “pornographers” from the singular “πορνογράφος,” which he would have found in the latest Greek-German lexicon at the time (Schneider, 1798, p. 398), if not otherwise from common usage within the industry at the time. And whether we take this as borrowed or coined, Müller supplies the plural word “pornographers” in German and Greek, not ‘pornography.’ Here again, then, we see that characteristic grammatical substitution for rhetorical effect—i.e., an enallage or anthimeria, depending upon how a rhetorician would parse it—that enables ‘pornography’ from πορνογράφος. In any case, Lundgren’s (2014) claim for pornographein would seem to come directly from Clarke (2003), who bluntly states that Müller, “like any good academician … delved in his Greek dictionary and found a likely word, pornographein, meaning ‘to write about prostitutes’” (Clarke, 2003, p. 11). Sternke (2012, p. 329) flatly refutes this.

While Lundgren (2014) also refers to pornographein as a “constructcreated by the German archaeologist” (p. 5), this means simply to emphasise how Müller—or the industry he worked in—recognised a need at the time within the field of archaeology to create a class of objects to distinguish “obscene” ones, which excavators had until then simply destroyed upon discovery, from “pornographic” ones, which excavators might instead preserve as works of art.

In two articles that Lundgren cites, Clarke (2003, 2013) traces the very actual and consequential effects this distinction had on subsequent work; effects tracked also by Kendrick (1996) as “the accelerating incitement to control all things, especially the forbidden, by making them subjects of discourse” (p. 33). In the creation of these special, secret collections of ‘pornographic’ art that only certain qualified individuals were permitted access to, this generated (at least) two major strands of discourse: an exoteric and an esoteric one. In the former, a “public” or “exoteric” version of discourse around art history, archaeology, and the “nature” of art in general gets constructed either without taking into account any of the contents of those secret collections, because it doesn’t even know they exist or obtained no permission to view them, or can only address or incorporate those secret collections second-hand through the mediation of others who were permitted access. By contrast, a parallel, esoteric discourse gets constructed by the inclusion of material otherwise deemed pornographic, though still art. We may readily imagine the seriousness of difference between these exoteric and esoteric discourses by imagining in the differences of versions of history resulting if everyone, not just governmental specialists, had access not only to the public records of events but to all of the classified documents as well. In this respect, the designation ‘pornography’ functions exactly the same as ‘classified’ and largely for the same reason.

Again, while I generally agree with Lundgren (2014) and Clarke (2013) on this point, at the same time, if K. O. Müller (1830) borrows from the Greek on the authority of Athenæus, then he must borrow the word ‘pornographers,’ not ‘pornography.’ But whether Müller—as simply the “face” in these arguments for the practice of the industry generally—borrowed or coined or simply and flagrantly lied outright that πορνογράφον licenses some sense of “pornography,” this nonetheless illustrates precisely how a word itself may function as a gatekeeper, either letting in or keeping out. Here, the word ‘pornography’—whether as the German Pornographen or the still-Greek πορνογράφοɩ—permits Müller access to a previously “forbidden” argument: namely, that archaeologists should stop destroying “obscene” Classical artefacts.

But let us accept the \factually shaky premise that Müller fabricated in good faith this word pornographein that Lundgren claims for him; this would point to a need for an argument and the belief at having found its justification in an offhand remark by a recognised authority. As a gambit of intellectual assertion, one finds innumerable examples of this all over academic and informal discourse, of course, but we should not overlook the form this takes simply because we so readily recognise it, i.e., that Müller—or someone like him earlier—felt obliged to resort to Classical authority to justify this gambit. In the same way, of course, Lundgren (2014) also needed an argument for a merely tangential part of the thesis and seems to have concatenated Clarke (2003, 2013) along with others, as academic authorities, in order to assert that Müller “borrowed from the Greek and coined [in German] the word pornographein, which means to ‘to write about prostitutes’” (p. 5).

Whatever claims one might make about the merits or necessity of citing authority at all, what we would emphasise here turns on recognising the warrants underlying Müller’s or Lundgren’s gambit, where by warrant, I mean the type of evidence culturally recognised as valid for an argument. A warrant for one’s arrest, for instance, otherwise presents as nothing but a piece of paper, except that another person recognises its form as authorizing, in fact demanding, certain actions in light of it. Control and contestation around what constitutes a warrant, of course, comprises a key node in the maintenance of Power.

If we would not uncharitably describe as incorrect the way that Lundgren (2014) yokes together evidence from Clarke (2003, 2013) and elsewhere, then we might more justly seek the source of any confusion in the articles cited. For instance, Clarke (2013) plainly states, “We have the German scholar, Karl Otfried Müller, to thank for the term ‘pornography’” (p. 141), although a decade earlier, he had noted, “early social scientists before Müller had, in fact, also borrowed the word ‘pornography’” (Clarke, 2003). Again, in all fairness, we understand this claim as merely asserting that Müller’s work inaugurated or popularised a sense of ‘pornography’ not only as the one we now conventionally understand, but also as distinct from its previous use by earlier sociologists, for whom “the word had the same meaning as it did in ancient Greece: writing about prostitutes” (Clarke, 2003, p. 11).

Nonetheless, we must still pause to repeat that unless some authoritative source exists to link a Greek tradition of “writing about prostitutes” to the term πορνογράφον, then Clarke’s (2013) point becomes muddy. If we might thank Müller for fabricating a particular word built out of Greek roots that then came into English, then none of this requires Athenæus at all, since the dictionaries then provide any warrant for the introduction of the term; nonetheless, Clarke (2013) states explicitly that “Müller borrowed the word and changed its sense, inventing the German word, Pornographie, meaning ‘obscene’ objects” (p. 141). If Müller actually describes any methodological difference in his approach to these “obscene” objects, it remains unclear from Clarke (2013) where this shows up in his writings; the main challenge for this claim, I think, involves crediting Müller specifically with such a methodological turn rather than framing it as more of an evolving industry practice during the early nineteenth century.

In any case, the ambiguity of the claim—that Müller borrowed and invented—would seem to lead Lundgren’s (2014) argument astray, where we see a conflation of a supposed introduction of the word ‘pornography’ into English along with Müller’s original recognition that archaeology needed a distinction between the “obscene” and the “pornographic” in the first place. Thus Lundgren (2014) can write, “The word was created by the German archaeologist Karl Otfried Müller in 1850” (pp. 5, emphasis added), not only in the face of the fact that he would have already created or borrowed or simply used the word at least two decades earlier with the original publication in German of his book (K. O. Müller, 1830, p. 602), but also that by 1850 he had been dead ten years.


Clarke (2013) declares, “It was in the English translation of his posthumously published book, Ancient Art and Its Remains: or, A Manual of the Archaeology of Art that the word [pornography] first appears in English with its modern sense (Müller, 1852: 619)” (p. 141). Actually, the first English edition of Müller’s book came out in 1847, not 1852 (K. O. Müller, 1847), though the differences trumpeted by that later book’s editor Friedrich Gottleib Welcker make themselves more readily apparent in the material in footnotes added after Müller’s death than in the text itself (K. O. Müller, 1852). In addition, that third 1852 edition of the book differs little from its second edition (K. O. Müller, 1850), but none of them actually have ‘pornography’ in them, only “pornographers”.

Instead, in R.N. Wornum’s (1842) article on “Painting” included as part of William Smith’s (1842) Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities we do find the actual term ‘pornography’, not one of its Greek variants, a decade earlier:

Pornography, or obscene painting, which, in the time of the Romans, was practised with the grossest licence (Propert. ii. 6 ; Sueton. Tib. 43 ; and Vit. Hor.), prevailed especially at no particular period in Greece, but was apparently tolerated to a considerable extent at all times. Parrhasius, Aristides, Pausanias, Nicophanes, Chærephanes, Arellius, and a few other πορνογράφοɩ are mentioned as having made themselves notorious for this species of license (Athen. xiii. p.567. b ; Plut. de aud. Pöet. 3 ; Plin. xxxv, 37.) (p. 694).

With respect to the narrowest goal of this essay, we would want to resolve this disparity between Clarke’s (2013) claim and the fact that W. Smith (1842) anticipates that claim by ten years. A path of least resistance would suggest Clarke (2013) simply has his facts wrong but how that error came about seems worth pursuing. If his work, or a misreading of it, led Lundgren (2014) astray, who or what did him a similar discourtesy?

Of course, this fact of error does not automatically or necessarily vitiate the value of Clarke’s (2013) work; one may claim the statement has little or no direct bearing on his argument in general. As such, I can only repeat that the interest here involves noting the perpetuation of an ambiguity in disciplinary knowledge that can assign the date of the entrance of the word ‘pornography’ into English simultaneously to 1842 and 1852. And perhaps this sort of thing crops up rather more than less frequently—though that makes it no less notable for that fact—or perhaps this happens as an artefact of the scholarly contortions that have arisen around the discourse of the word ‘pornography.’ Either way, and though Wornum (1842) does seem to supply the earliest use of the actual term ‘pornography’ in English print, Henry (2000) can still state:

Even though Kendrick [(1996)] knows that the first appearance of the word pornography in English was in a medical dictionary and the word was defined as ‘a description of prostitutes or of prostitution, as a matter of public hygiene’, he does not see that this usage could not have come from Athenaeus (Henry, 2000, p. 508).

Since Wornum (1842) gives us nothing resembling a medical dictionary, we might simply dismiss this as also getting its facts wrong, except that the second edition Oxford English Dictionary (OED) confirms it: “1857 Dunglison Med. Dict., Pornography, a description of prostitutes or of prostitution, as a matter of public hygiene” (OED 2nd Online, 2015b). And while ‘pornography’ does not appear in the twelve previous editions of Robley Dunglison’s Medical Lexicon: a Dictionary of Medical Science first published in 1833, it does indeed show up for the first time in the “revised and very greatly enlarged” edition of 1857, where we may read, echoing de La Bretonne (1769) or at least a French tradition for the word: “PORNOG’RAPHY, Pornograph’ia; from πορνη, ‘a prostitute,’ and γραφω, ‘I describe.’ A description of prostitutes or of prostitution, as a matter of public hygiene” (Dunglison, 1857, p. 745). And while this gives us a third possible origin for ‘pornography’ in print English, let must leave that aside to first examine three anomalies of this definition.

For one, as a medical dictionary, we might imagine that offers a medical definition of ‘pornography’ apart from some other use. Yet, if this explains how both Smith and Dunglison can supply origins for the word ‘pornography’, it does not yet explain why the second edition OED notes only Dunglison.

For another—and most substantially—while the phrase “as a matter of public hygiene” may seem unexpected in a context of “prostitutes”—much less ‘pornography’—the phrase connects directly to the sort of study of and policy proposals around the management of male sexuality initiated in Europe first in France by de La Bretonne (1769) precisely through the lens of the prostitute and the word ‘pornographe’. Henry (2000) widens the net of this, however, and draws attention to a remark, found only in the “pornographers” chapter of Athenæus, that at one point the wise Solon established brothels as a matter of public hygiene: as a means to “relieve the sexual tensions of the youth without endangering their patrimony or subjecting the lads to the reputational or financial dangers of adultery” (p. 505). Since Athenæus’ text in fact offers little reason to accept this assertion about Solon as historical, then not simply “for no sound reason [has] this factoid … found its way into various histories of sexuality in classical antiquity” (Ibid), but also for no sound reason does the passage authorise any modern arguments in favour of either prostitution or pornography.

This exposes the argument of ‘pornography’ both then as now as a rhetorical form to license the management of male sexuality through the objectification of women, both physical and periodical. Whatever the merit of provisioning these sexually arousing and relieving materials or persons, such a “solution” assumes males as the template for and main beneficiaries of it; it does not include any such release and relief for women but instead requires an industry—whether we deem it exploitive or not—that objectifies women and certain kinds of males as well.

As a patriarchal arrangement, this also establishes a ground for making some women complicit in it. In cultures with formalised brothel structures, e.g., the massage parlours in Việt Nam that provide a front and plausible deniability for extramarital sexual release, such structures contributes to the stability domestic life—bourgeois or not—by managing male sexuality, albeit at the cost of requiring or maintaining an exploitive madam/masseuse structure with its pejorative labels for women working there; married women may thus look down upon these women Others as “whores.” On this, Lerner (1986) sheds light on the social effects that can arise when wives—those positioned as “good women” within a patriarchal structure—fail to recognise a solidarity with other women they defame as “whores,” i.e., “bad women.” Meanwhile, the Internet these days provides virtual brothels that make such “bad women” downloadable or otherwise immediately available, but we may still see in domestic partners who object to the use of pornography during a relationship as a form of cheating the same failure to recognise how that pornography contributes to domestic stability. Saying this does not offer my “defence” of pornography but only illuminates both then and now how ‘pornography’ can argue as a matter of public hygiene, particularly in its means for managing male sexuality and the part that “whores,” real or otherwise, would play in that project.

As the third, and last, point regarding the anomalies of Dunglison’s definition, these appear more thematically and typographically. For while one might imagine the errant apostrophes from his definition in PORNOG’RAPHY and Pornograph’ia as artefacts of scanning, in fact they persist across different editions. And if the apostrophe in Pornograph’ia intends to suggest the diacritic proper to what would spell the ancient Greek word πορνογραφία, if it existed, the same explanation cannot apply to PORNOG’RAPHY, which simply makes no sense. Rather, they appear to mark the pronunciation accents of the words, although for a U.S. English speaker, we would expect “porno’graphy” not “pornog’raphy”. And in fact, precisely this difference prevails between the U.S. and British pronunciations of the word (“pornography”, 2015a), so that we may discern Dunglison the U.S. resident plagiarising some otherwise unnamed and ultimately British-originating source; that, or our current pronunciation of the word diverged at some point after 1857 from the British pronunciation. Perhaps so, since in the celebrated Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia by Whitney and Smith (1903), published in the United States and much cited subsequently by the editors of the early OED, we still see the same indication for the pronunciation:

pornography (pōr-nog’-ra-fi), n., [= F. pornographie; LGr. as if *πορνογραφɩα, < πορνογραφος, writing of prostitutes, painting prostitutes, < Gr. πόρνη, a prostitute, + γράφεɩν, write.] A description of or treatise on prostitutes or prostitution; hence, obscene writing (p. 4627)

I quote this in detail also to demonstrate the various feints around πορνογραφον described throughout this essay, here all concentrated in one place: the use of πορνογραφος rather than the attested πορνογραφον, and more importantly, the “as if” in front of the non-word πορνογραφɩα, a rare admission; also, a retention of the ambiguity whether πορνογραφον points to writing or painting, but, and again more importantly, that unjustified move from treatises on prostitutes or prostitution to “hence, obscene writing”. Also, as a case of the cart before the horse, Whitney and Smith (1903) derive the word pornographer as “pornograph-y + er”, with the Greek pornográphos supplying an etymology previously for “pornograph” or “an obscene picture or writing,” i.e., a piece of pornography. Thus, while πορνογράφος supplies “pornographer” from Late Greek, from which later scholarship dubiously derived ‘pornography’, here the Greek word appears first in pornograph and pornography in order to provide a derivation for the word pornographer.

To return to Dunglison’s entry, if his “I describe” as the translation for -γραφω in πορνογράφον seems rather too diffuse, in his “thoroughly revised and very greatly modified and augmented” edition of 1865, he leaves this phrase untouched but modifies “πορνη, ‘a prostitute’” to “πορνεια, ‘prostitution’” (Dunglison, 1865, p. 783). Given that the page count from the 1857 edition to this “very greatly augmented” edition from eight years later increases by only 55 pages, we might already detect something more like marketing hyperbole at work, even after we ignored both Dunglison’s general habit of typically bringing out a new edition of his lexicon every year or the addition of 32 pages of medical publication advertisements at the back of the book—nearly as many pages as added to the “very greatly augmented” text proper. In other words, whatever scholarly justification one could find for the change of etymology from “πορνη, ‘a prostitute’” to “πορνεια, ‘prostitution,’” it seems more as if the exigencies of marketing something as new and improved motivated this change.

So what? Besides that it seems entirely appropriate to expect—above all in the case of a dictionary or where the meaning of words come into play—that any emendation should occur as improvement on a past error and not for some non-linguistic reason? Lexicographers—like scientists—know very well that their works do not propound “truth,” but the marketing insists otherwise; thus, the second edition OED on its dust-jacket graciously reprises a journalist’s description of it as “in all probability, the greatest continuing work of scholarship that this century has produced” (OED, 1989, dust-flap).

But even if we accept the lexicographers’ “corrected” sense of a dictionary as never the “truth”—”Contemporary dictionaries are quickly turned into historical sources” (Dolezal, 2006, p. ix)—it still seems consumers have grounds for expecting any motivation for some a change would arise at least from some good reason, and not simply from market profile considerations, from any extra-lexicographical criterion whatsoever, or worse still—to borrow for this context what Müller says holds for his own work at times—from some “a subjective, sometimes by a momentary feeling” (K. O. Müller, 1847, p. viii). Let us call such an expectation hopelessly naïve given the context of a consumerist culture, this merely exposes the pretence and bad faith of dictionaries all over again and insists that we accept marketability or whim as one of the good reasons for modifying them. I will accept that as a reason, but not a good one.

Setting all of that aside, however, we should note also that however badly motivated or amateurish Dunglison’s (1865) substitution of “πορνεια, ‘prostitution’” for “πορνη, ‘a prostitute’” seems—so much so that when citing him, the OED omits that portion of his entry—it nonetheless exemplifies that now-familiar ad hominem—or, more precisely, an ad mulierem in this case—that insists upon the existence of a class of activity (i.e., “prostitution”) from the existence of the producer of that activity (“prostitutes”); in other words, it reprises that illegitimate move that wants to infer a ‘pornography’ from a πορνογράφον.

The appearance of ‘pornography’ in a medical dictionary in 1857 already seems to point to a sea-change in culture—to a further reification that shifts the gaze of discourse from a concern about individual prostitutes to the class of prostitution itself that seems very much in line with a Zeitgeist discernible in the second half of the nineteenth century. For example, McGrath (2002) notes how “the woman’s body that had come into view in the early nineteenth century disappeared by the end of it” (p. 59). We see this repeated as well in the supposedly scholarly shift of English definition for πορνογράφος from “painting harlots” (H. G. Liddell et al., 1846) to “writing of harlots” (H. G. Liddell et al., 1889)—the visual body of the painted woman disappears into a textual-only version. This shift from the visual to the verbal in general anticipates that ascension of the master-metaphor of language in the twentieth century that would come to dominate Euroamerican discourse generally (Jameson, 1974).

In one somewhat limited sense, then, Dunglison (1857) does “introduce” ‘pornography’ into English not simply because it appears for the first time as a medical term, but because that usage points to the radically changed context for the word that occurred in 1857, with the promulgation of the Obscene Publications Act in England. Previously, laws had

stopped short of giving the courts the power to destroy obscene material (see Scott 1945: 53-54). It was not until the passing of the Obscene Publications Act in 1857 that material could be ‘forfeited’ and destroyed if it was judged to be obscene (see Robertson 1989: 180). The Obscene Publications Act initiated two new ideas: first, it declared that obscenity was self-evident and established that ‘obscenity as a ground for suppression could stand alone’ (Scott 1945: 84); second, it held that obscenity could be separated from authors or motives. A prosecution could now succeed when there was no author’ or publisher’s name on the offending article, a development that indicated a shift away from the crime of authorship to the crime of ownership and acknowledged the fact that, from the nineteenth century onwards, the author, especially when mass-produce material was in question, had become a mere functionary … [This] censorship failed. As Robertson points out, from mid-century onwards, pornography thrived as never before (Robertson 1989: 181) (McGrath, 2002, pp. 58-59).

This change of emphasis from the crime of authorship to the crime of possession finally severs the ad hominem that ‘pornography’ results from ‘pornographers’, though this change arises in its legal context from a desire to punish possessors without having to argue over the work’s pornographic “authorial intention”—always a difficult task. The analogue of this change of emphasis thus also involves the harassment of prostitutes, as somehow the possessors of a pornography within the secret cabinet of their body, while holding more or less harmless any of the qualified men who temporarily entered it. Part of the rationale for this expansion of legal measures against ‘pornography’—as well as the massive expansion in the numbers of prostitutes—resulted from a class-anxious strategy that wanted

to hide pornography from everyone except those already in the know, or those whose wealth (and purchasing power) allowed them to join those already in the know. The purveyors and keepers of both pornography and medicine created ‘secret’ museums of uncatalogued holdings. … Price was also seen as a check on the availability of materials; … one author described the Society for the Suppression of Vice as ‘a society for suppressing the vices of persons whose income did not exceed £500 a year’” (ibid, p. 60).

All of this notwithstanding, as a documented first appearance of ‘pornography’ in English, Dunglison (1857) still lags by more than a decade behind Wornum (1842), so that we must ultimately locate this “error of fact” about the first print English usage of ‘pornography’ in the second edition of Oxford English Dictionary (OED) itself, since it supplies the authority—if not the authority—for it. We say “error of fact” here because the authority of the OED actually transforms this error into a fact of the period (Leps, 1992), as the several citations of it below attest

Thus, Clarke (2013, p. 141) can note that “it is only in 1909 that the Oxford English Dictionary first used the term” ‘pornography’; Kendrick (1996) reports, “The OED’s first meaning is medical: ‘A description of prostitutes or of prostitution, as a matter of public hygiene’ (p. 17). It quickly become difficult, however, to determine if the proliferation of this error of fact throughout the body of disciplinary knowledge depends either upon citations of citations—e.g., Henry (2000, p. 508); (McGrath, 2002, p. 59) who both specifically engage Kendrick’s (1996) text, or Morris (1998, p. 186), who clearly alludes to it—or to direct citations of the OED itself (e.g., Lane, 2001, p. xix; Rutherford, 2007, p. 26; Sherk, 2004, pp. 227-228).

Before going further, however, while the analysis that follows depends obviously on existing references to the printed second edition of the OED (OED, 1989), that work’s editors have nonetheless continued since March 2000 to work on revisions for a third edition and have made some of those on-going results accessible online through either an expensive personal subscription or some form of subsidised public access like a library; hence, “so far we have revised everything from M to R, as well as small but significant ranges elsewhere in the alphabet” (OED, 2015, ¶1). From sometime in 2006, then, these revisions have included corrections to previously incorrect citations for the first English print occurrence of the words pornography and pornographer. But because access to those corrections requires a subscription, the links in this essay’s bibliography may not work; you will have to trust me that the two entries, past and present, run as follows—at least at the time I last accessed them:

For pornography:

1857 Dunglison Med. Dict., Pornography, a description of prostitutes or of prostitution, as a matter of public hygiene (OED 2nd Online, 2015b)

1842 W. Smith Dict. Greek & Rom. Antiq. 694/1    Rhyparography, pornography, and all the lower classes of art (OED 3rd Online, 2015b).

For pornographer:

1850 J. Leitch tr. C. O. Müller’s Anc. Art §429 (ed. 2) 619   The pornographers of the later times (OED 2nd Online, 2015a)

1847 J. Leitch tr. K. O. Müller Ancient Art §429/5. 511   On the Pornographers of the later times (OED 3rd Online, 2015a).

These revised entries address every objection one might have made about the errors of fact ensconced for decades in the second edition OED, and I invite you to compare them and soak in their often miniscule differences.[5] These welcome corrections notwithstanding, if we reprise such objections about the original entries below, this aims more to explore how errors of citation authorise and persist as errors in other work than to browbeat the OED for things its editors have since corrected. For some of the authors considered, e.g., for Kendrick (1996), writing before the revisions were made, we can hardly fault them for failing to consult any corrected or updated citation that the OED had yet to supply; nonetheless, that error of fact now infects such work with an error as well such that subsequent work, e.g., Henry (2000), responds to that error. For other authors, e.g., Rutherford (2007), writing after the revisions were available, we might find more fault in neglecting for some reason to consult the OED to check if the long-standing citation for ‘pornography’ had changed.

Of course, most people (and everyone without access to the Internet) will still encounter these errors in the printed second editions of the OED housed in libraries all over the world, and this discloses how the truth of a period can reflect an authoritative ambiguity—i.e., something logically both true and false simultaneously—at least around a fraught term like ‘pornography’. Again, I have distinguished this apart from either “error” or “fact” as an “error of fact” and tracking this kind of error of fact illustrates the sometimes drastic changes that result when an authority shifts. All of the authors considered below, whether through direct or indirect citation, trace their arguments around the origin of the word ‘pornography’—trivial or otherwise—to the second edition OED (OED, 1989), by which time the OED may have already moved on, or by which time as we encounter that work it has become error-ridden. We must wind up wondering if, for instance, whether Lundgren (2014) incorrectly or correctly cites Kendrick (1996) as part of an argument about the origin of the word ‘pornography.’ What status of authority does his work still or no longer possess?

That this issue and these examples hinge on the utter trivia of when ‘pornography’ first appeared in print in English merely shows the scale at which this problem of shifting authority manifests; it should make no difference, and yet it does. At a far less trivial scale, as we saw in the example of wise Solon establishing public brothels to manage male sexuality, let someone show—or let us claim that Henry (2000) has already shown—that Athenæus supplies us an error of fact about Solon, then every public policy that has rhetorically leaned on the authority of that statement just went out the window. It doesn’t matter if citing Athenæus’ invocation of Solon already amounts for the most part to a rhetorical pretext; the quality of the argument matters less than the fact that anyone can ever make it in this form. We must note the curiosity, then, that when an author takes up the term ‘pornography’ she or he often feels obliged—or compelled?—to report its Greek origins from Athenæus on the authority of some dictionary.

When something taken as true becomes false, it always has repercussions—if only to generate a variety of “that doesn’t make any difference, it’s still true anyway” arguments. In other words, the “scandal” of exposing Athenæus as spurious—whether about Solon or πορνογράφον—would almost certainly result in some new casting about to find another suitable authority to rest on. This suggests that one’s argument for some reason stands on riskier ground simply to assert, “Public brothels give us a way to manage male sexuality” or “I want to condemn certain graphic content as obscene.” Whether factually or not, arguments appear often to yearn for the appeal of the authority of another in order to make themselves get taken seriously, whether it cites Athenæus or Kendrick (1996)—a statement so obvious it should not bear mentioning, except for how it points again back to ‘pornography’ as an argument, not a thing. Hence, while ‘pornography’ may more frequently provide the pretext or an argument for sequestering “obscene” material, it also serves to provide a “distancing” quality. It permits one to say of the obscene object, “That is not me, so put it away.”

In this, we see a sort of assignment of authorization to the object itself: i.e., having such and such qualities the object demands, even forces us, to act in a certain way, i.e., to sequester it. This resembles the invocation of authority generally, i.e., that Athenæus or Kendrick (1996) exhibits such and such qualities that it demands, even force us, to act in a certain way, i.e., to conclude no-wise except as the argument demands. And while this gesture of invoking authority pre-dates anything we might cite, its embodiment in ‘pornography’ particularly brings with it also an implicit barrier to access for those not permitted entrance into the Secret Cabinet. In other words, ‘pornography’ serves as a mystification—one again familiar from, if not integral to, every invocation of the mysteries of Scripture by those empowered castes who would limit interpretive access only to qualified individuals.

Moreover, while the statement “public brothels give us a way to manage male sexuality” apparently stands on shakier ground without the genius of Solon to dignify it, we might still extract some variety will-to-power behind it, whether in a Foucauldian bio-political sense or simply because some fellow needs a public health policy in order to justify—if only in his mind—his craving for extra- or pre-marital sex. Embarrassed by its own desire, so to speak, the statement ennobles itself with the wisdom of Solon and asks us to accept the wink-wink of it without batting an eyelash ourselves. Comprehensible as we might make this—that the arguer will find a way to push for the desire behind it come Hell or high water—it becomes murkier when we imagine what statement somehow stands on shakier ground without authority of the word πορνογράφον to dignify it. By this, I do not mean that we cannot imagine someone wanting to use ‘pornography’ as an argument, whether in a Foucauldian bio-political sense or simply because she or he wants access to obscene material for whatever reason; I mean, rather, the bizarre circumstance we see if we contrast the apparent logic of:

A: We need public brothels to manage male sexuality.

B: On what authority?

A: Solon.

with the non sequitur of

A: We need to do something about these obscene objects.

B: On what authority?

A: Πορνογράφον.[6]

From this, it seems one must conclude not that the second example has no legitimacy compared to the first—i.e., that we should accept the former as an argument but not the latter—but rather that the word “Solon” functions just as much only as a word, not a person or historical fact, as πορνογράφον does. On these grounds, one might as well cite the dictionary as an authority for public policy, and this, it would seem, characterises precisely how one gets the word ‘pornography’ in the first place, whether articulated for the study of prostitutes in de La Bretonne (1769), or when Clarke (2003) describes how Müller “like any good academician … delved in his Greek dictionary and found a likely word, pornographein, meaning ‘to write about prostitutes’” (Clarke, 2003, p. 11). And while this obviously reprises how “‘pornography’ names an argument, not a thing” (Kendrick, 1996, p. 31), we see then a similar status not only for (the word) “Solon” but for the discoursifying of all “things” generally.

Pragmatically speaking, we might also simply insist that Lundgren (2014) and others could have or should have checked the updated OED. But this presumes an accessibility to the relevant source that reflects back on the question of who has, or can have, access in the first place. For the present case, we shouldn’t let the relative ease of access to the online OED for people in the Occident deceive us into imagining that that framework for understanding access to the OED can stand in for all cases, since even in the Occident vast numbers of texts, archives, objects, and presuppositions that one should or could access for scholarly work may remain still exceptionally difficult to access. Moreover, that scholars habituated to trekking to their university’s library to consult the print OED—if they don’t own one themselves—would suddenly have a “wrong” habit simply because the OED revised its text in a still-virtual format seems an unsatisfactory assertion. All the more so as currently it remains unlikely that the third edition OED will ever come out in print.

We can insist of course that oldsters should keep up with the times, but this only discloses once again that what constitutes being “in the know” about disciplinary knowledge itself becomes a requisite, self-reflexive disciplinary knowledge as well. But lastly on this point—and consider as stipulated here all the due allowances one might make for the on-going accumulation of disciplinary knowledge—for a socially anxiety-ridden word like ‘pornography’ the ambiguity that results when a shift of authority removes the underpinnings of a scholar’s established argument also illustrates yet one more architectural feature of secret cabinets.[7] In other words, one commits a blunder to take the error in Kendrick (1996) as grounds for disregarding his work, since the error actually and faithfully points you quite in the right direction. Or, in other words, one cannot afford to become spooked by the ghosts of the dead that litter the ruins of classical scholarship.

Thus, we stand currently at an awkward and strange pass, since only every quarter or so does the OED upload further revisions to its third edition. Overnight, then, today’s fact might tomorrow become an error, and fault for that error falls more on the scholar who fails to update her work than to the OED for not notifying everyone affected by the change. Logistically, it may make more sense that each separate author should remain responsible for adjusting work accordingly, but the article of bad faith here originates in the claim—fatuous or not—that the authority of the OED counts for something in the first place. Or, to put it another way, if a scholar now looks “stupid” on the authority of the OED for having gotten her facts wrong, she only does so because the OED got their facts wrong first without somehow seeming “stupid” itself. The embarrassment seems only to go to the scholar, as if somehow scholars did not compile the OED.

For now, the third edition OED’s citation for the first occurrence of ‘pornography’ in print English gets it as right as one could hope[8]—at least until the discovery of the next more prior occurrence at least. And while it correctly cites Smith’s (1842) Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities as the book where ‘pornography’ first occurs in English print, one may note that Ralph Nicholson Wornum supplied the extensive article on “Painting” in that book—some eight pages of small, tightly two-columned text—where the word ‘pornography’ actually first occurs. If I have persisted in citing Wornum (1842) when referring to the first English print occurrence, I do so more to acknowledge that authorship and less to argue with the OED’s authority about what text to cite.

Nonetheless, as the handling of material around the word ‘pornography’ in the nineteenth century makes clear over and over—in the fact, for instance, that πορνογράφον along with all of the words around it vanish entirely from a new edition of the standard Greek thesaurus in England (Estienne, 1824) only to reappear more than twenty years later in a French edition (Estienne & Hase, 1847) or that a student edition of a Greek dictionary apparently fabricates words where πορνογράφον or almost every word that would start with πορν- should appear (Pape et al., 1875)—this circumspect handling of such obscene material seems to have typically required authors to put ‘pornography’ at one level of remove, at some distance from themselves. Thus, that the author and editor William Smith leaves the task of handling ‘pornography’ to R.N. Wornum already well-illustrates this sense of distance.

Smith’s deferral to Wornum’s expertise seems two-fold, then. Not only does the latter know his stuff, but he also knows how to handle ‘pornography’—i.e., he has previously shown himself capable of handling it, along with rhyparography as well—at least when it shows up in the world of painting from the relatively more recent ancient world of Greece and Rome. Only at the end of the article do we find “[R.N.W.]” appended to the text by Smith in order to ensure that credit or moral infamy about having knowledge of the topic should go to the correct person (W. Smith, 1842, p. 697); the U.S. edition of the book omits this delicate point (William Smith & Anthon, 1843, p. 715), and would allow Smith’s reputation to bear the whole brunt and burden of such pornographic knowledge, except that an ambiguity on the title page of that book would have left open to question for U.S. readers who did not have the original whether Smith or Anthon authored the passage on ‘pornography’ (Harper, 2015b).

Besides this exemplary piece of moral propriety—which we by no means must imagine Smith doing with full malice aforethought, since the gesture can occur conventionally simply as a necessary feature of the discourse of ‘pornography’ itself—the ambiguity it reflects points also to the problem of “text” in general. Thus, while Smith edits and writes some of the “book” and has to attach his name to the whole, Wornum supplies the “article” where ‘pornography’ actually first occurs. Which constitutes the “text” then? However we might decide that question, the “text” that the OED can and does cite then as the first English print occurrence of ‘pornography’ already and elegantly embodies the sort of ambiguity that ‘pornography’ seems to thrive on disciplinary, if not to actually require. And then all the more so again when that ambiguity redoubles in the U.S. edition to blur the authority of authorship between Anthon and Smith.

So if we may now all consult Wornum (1842) to imbibe that first occurrence of ‘pornography’ in print English, the ruins and remains of that second edition mis-citation still litter the linguistic-archaeological landscape of scholarship like stumbling blocks. In these now-strange remnants—now made false but once authoritatively true and still cited as true—we may see displayed specimens crucified between the oversimplified categories of “true” and “false”: specimens that display both the falseness of the true, e.g., Kendrick (1996) when he cited Dunglison (1857), and the trueness of the false, e.g., when Lundgren (2014) cites Kendrick (1996).

Keeping in mind these notions of awkwardly neither true nor false—or simply remembering the illegitimacy of a binary distinction of true/false that attempts to obscure the distinctions of the true of the false and the false of the true that arise along with that binary’s assertion in the first place—this may add some vertigo to the following, but it at least exhibits the non-stability of authority, the always floating or multiplicity of authorities, that persists in disciplinary knowledge, at least around the term ‘pornography’. In what follows, then, I wilfully adopt a pre-March 2000 framework that only the 1989 edition exists authoritatively for the authors considered, even in cases where revisions had already started. Thus, whatever the actual state of affairs at the OED, for the authors below the truth of the period they found authorised them to cite Dunglison (1857) as the first print occurrence in English of the word ‘pornography’.

It becomes difficult to fault anyone for reiterating that second edition error of fact from “the publication … that has given the British the reputation for dictionaries that the Swiss have for watches” (OED, 1989, dust-flap); or as it says of itself:

The OED is not just a very large dictionary: it is also a historical dictionary, the most complete record of the English language ever assembled. It traces a word from its beginnings (which may be in Old or Middle English) to the present, showing the varied and changing ways in which it has been used and illustrating the changes with quotations which add to the historical and linguistic record. This can mean that the first sense shown is long obsolete, and that the modern use falls much later in the entry (OED, 2015, ¶1).

That one might have to error-check a dictionary once again seems to negate a most basic purpose of them unless they serve actually as nothing more than warehouses of gratuitous information when not actual misinformation. Even so, while one may find highly praised dictionaries with what look like extremely bizarre, even deliberate instances of misinformation (Pape et al., 1875), it will still seem precipitous at a minimum to throw the entire OED under the bus for these errors of fact. After all, they must have culled their citation from some seemingly accurate authority themselves. And to suggest that some variety scholarly indifference or negligence about either “pornographer” or ‘pornography’ enabled the errors of fact also sits poorly with that overly pitched diligence and depth of research found elsewhere in the OED that makes it “in all probability, the greatest continuing work of scholarship that this century has produced” (OED, 1989, dust-flap). The hyperbole of this advertising text notwithstanding, I would suggest—as so often seems the case where ‘pornography’ appears—that the integrally error-generating function of this word in discourse enabled, if did not actually guarantee, its own mis-citation even in the most authoritative dictionary of English.[9]

I propose no conspiracy in this; no doubt the compilers of the OED—at least in 1989; I would reserve judgment on the compilers of the first edition as regards the word ‘pornography’—would have rather had a historically accurate citation for the word [as the third edition correction attests] but apparently even the most authorised source as of 1989 could hit one of those several dead-ends that ‘pornography’ builds in to its secret cabinetry; an ironic reiteration, this time in verbal rather than terms, of that bricked-over entryway in 1849 that meant to keep everyone out. Once again like Indiana Jones—in the spirit of the Underground Man, who insists, “No doubt I shall never be able to break through such a stone wall with my forehead, if I really do not possess the strength to do it, but I shall not reconcile myself to it just because I have to deal with a stone wall and haven’t the strength to knock it down” (Dostoevsky, 1968, p. 272)—apparently one must either naively or belligerently not accept these dead-ends and instead knock through that bricked-over wall with your head. Happily, the greater availability of information now both generally and via the Internet shows these otherwise seemingly impenetrable dead-ends as actually long-crumbling walls full of holes.

Whatever kind of doubt this sort of error of fact in the second edition OED might cast on its value, we cannot take the presence of that error in a scholar’s work as automatically or fatally compromising it—sometimes yes, sometimes no. And this seems to depend on whether or not any given argument depends integrally or incidentally on the error of fact. For Henry (2000) and McGrath (2002), for instance, nothing depends integrally on when or where ‘pornography’ actually first appeared in print in English, but other authors do not fare so well, since the cogency of their argument does hinge on and explicitly requires the truth of this error.

Dictionaries supply the most obvious case of this, so that in offering a sort of popular dictionary of words, when Sherk claims that ‘pornography’ “popped up seven years later in Robley Dunglison’s [1857] Medical Dictionary” (Sherk, 2004, pp. 227-228), if this offers no claim about a first appearance, then it remains true but also non sequitur, since obviously the word has “popped up seven years later” in thousands of other books as well and will continue to do so into the future. The OED does lead Sherk astray when he asserts that it “assigns John Leitch the honour of first using pornographer in print, which he did in 1850” (p. 227, italics in original). In fact, he did not; for while the OED does assign him that honour to 1850, he actually used “pornographers” (not “pornographer”) three years earlier (K. O. Müller, 1847).[10]

Now, I certainly do not pretend that insisting on 1847 instead of 1850—even more so, that Leitch used “pornographers” not “pornographer”—presents a demand for a degree of precision that may exceed all bounds of reasonableness and practicability. But at the same time, not only does this error of fact involve an incontrovertibly and easily resolved question—merely consult K. O. Müller (1847, p. 511) for what he wrote—for the case of a dictionary that has as its mission little else beyond the provision of factual information about words, this kind of error of fact thus loses its otherwise utterly trivial character and takes on the features of the most flagrant and elementary kind of mistake.

I say so on the authority of the dignity accorded the OED. On the dust-flap of the second edition OED, for instance, one may read the descriptions of it as “in all probability, the greatest continuing work of scholarship that this century has produced”; that “it is a remarkable work of scholarship, and must rank high among the wonders of the world of learning”; “the publication … that has given the British the reputation for dictionaries that the Swiss have for watches” (OED, 1989, dust-flap) and so on. We might say that, as the opinions of journalists what do they know about quality in lexicography, but the suggestion of Swiss precision and accuracy at the very least points to what one might call a reasonable expectation around precision and accuracy in “the greatest work in dictionary making ever undertaken.” Subtracting nothing from all of this advertising text, we must conclude then that errors—especially errors in the categories of errors of fact and facts of error—comprise an integral part of such scholarship.

If this seems merely obvious, then I have failed to state it clearly enough. Disciplinary knowledge pays a kind of lip-service to the notion that by truth it actually and always really means something more like the state of our best effort to understand. And while seemingly entirely reasonable—one dares say true—the slippery elision from that kind of tentative or non-stable quality of knowledge to “truth” itself represents one of the greater duplicities of human effort generally, though admittedly one gets fewer grants by floating a proposal on such epistemological candour rather than on this kind of disingenuous “truth”.

Nonetheless, what prevails as the truth of a period operates seamlessly and without errors—only when someone discovers an error does that “era” end immediately and usher in a new one literally a moment later. Like those paradoxes of time and space that acknowledge us as forever “here” and “now” so that we somehow must never cross to any “then” or “there”, so also do we apparently go from “truth” to “truth” without ever crossing the intervening “gap” of error. Error, like “then” or “there,” appears like a retrospective “then” or as predictively anticipated “there”. The fact that we may now retrospectively see the second edition OED’s wrong citation as an error in fact should not trick us into reading the third edition citations as true, then—facts of the period, yes, but not true. Predictively, we may already anticipate the day when the exquisite precision of “1847 J. Leitch tr. K. O. Müller Ancient Art §429/5. 511   On the Pornographers of the later times” (OED 3rd Online, 2015a) becomes as inexplicably off-the-mark as the previous citation.

To say this specifically does not claim that “truth” proceeds by such corrections. Precisely what the state of our best effort to understand reflects never amounts to “truth” but at best to the truth of our period, as authorised by duly vetted or self-appointed authorities and enforced, when necessary, by violence. This truth of the period supplies the framework so that, if you want people to perceive you as right, then you must now cite W. Smith (1842) as the first print occurrence of ‘pornography’ in English, just as at one time you had to cite Dunglison (1857) instead. And if this seems a trivial or merely semantic point, then try walking around and insisting that people treat your “truth” merely as a “working definition” and see if you remain happy and socially effective.

As a truth of the period, this kind of error of fact—the citation of 1850 rather than 1847—generates real consequences; it leads Lundgren (2014), whether directly or through a cited source, to assert that ‘pornography’ “was created by the German archaeologist Karl Otfried Müller in 1850” (pp. 5, emphasis added), ten years after his death. And before we laugh this off, we should entertain whether the anxiety-ridden word ‘pornography’—among all such words—might actually pull off such a “trick” of being created by someone already dead.

Certainly the several emendations of Müller’s work by his posthumous editor permit his text to begin making assertions from beyond the grave that the original author did not, or would not have made, when alive—especially at the point where Welcker negates Müller’s use of rhyparography by appending “[rhopography]” after it. We may simply dismiss this as an abuse of Welcker’s function as an editor. The fact that he did not slip the change into the revised German second edition Müller actually worked on (K. O. Müller, 1835) but only the third edition produced after Müller’s death (K. O. Müller, 1848) certainly makes this “correction” suspect, especially since Welcker had already shown himself extremely invested in distinguishing rhyparography from rhopography, if not erasing the term rhyparography entirely from scholarly usage (Jacobs & Welcker, 1825). Perhaps it especially pained him to find that term in K. O. Müller (1830). Not only had Welcker taught him as a student, but Müller had subsequently taken over the chair at Göttingen University Welcker vacated when he moved on to another post (Gooch, 1913). In any case, that we have three German and three English translations of Müller’s work reiterates the storied question of what constitutes a “text” and its authority, and may explain how Clarke (2003, 2013) can necromantically distil ‘pornography’ from Müller’s corpse. Or even more generally, how Occidental scholarship could alchemically decoct ‘pornography’ from the spirit of Athenæus’ πορνογράφος.

Meanwhile, Rutherford (2007) supplies an even more curious origin for ‘pornography,’ declaring that it “first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1857, where it referenced ‘a description of prostitutes or of prostitution, as a matter of public hygiene’” (p. 26). Of course, with enough background knowledge one may decipher this as meaning to say that the OED noted the first attestation of the word ‘pornography’ in English in 1857, but not only will a word in principal never appear in print for the first time in a dictionary—because it will have appeared elsewhere in the publication that the dictionary cites as its source—the claim here invents an OED in 1857 that had yet to exist.[11] Once again, I would make clear that I poke no fun at Rutherford for this—to repeat, with enough background knowledge, one may recover what he means, or should mean—given that however well or poorly he paraphrases the material he found in the OED, that material already embodies an error of fact. His culpability may seem the greater since by 2007 the editors of the OED would have uploaded the corrected citation to the third edition online but this begs the question of what obligation any scholar has to confirm the delegitimation or supersession of some previously authoritative source. In other words, to fault someone as making some error of critical thinking for trusting the OED seems disingenuous. If an authority will position itself as truthful, it does not do to insist, after a non-truth has come out, that “truth” consists actually only of our best understanding at the time, &c.

One might go on hunting down more examples that result from this entrenched fact of error in the second edition OED. And since—to repeat: the value of this essay lies rather less often in any specific claims or discoveries, however interesting, true, or false, around the linguistic history of the word ‘pornography’ and rather more often in its depiction of and analysis of the dynamics around that linguistic history—then that the OED should or why the OED has yet to correct this error [or that the OED has already done so] less warrants our attention than the reflexive or matter-of-fact re-inscription of this error of fact over and over into the discourse of ‘pornography’ as a fact in multiple places. We see in this how a prevailing truth of a period becomes grounded.

Of course, of the authors mis-citing Dunglison (1857) as the first print occurrence of the word ‘pornography’ in English, the OED stands foremost amongst them. In their entry, they do him the courtesy of correcting his idiosyncratic use of apostrophes but they also omit his etymology. While an ellipsis would seem an appropriate addition to indicate this omission, it seems inadvertently candid as well that the editors decided a definition did not require an etymology, whether simply on general principal, because it contradicted their own etymology, because they deemed it inadequate, or simply because the fact of a word’s first appearance turns on the occurrence of it and not on the material that surrounds that occurrence.

For the OED’s citation for “pornographer,” the errors seem more interesting and apposite. Since it specifically cites the second edition, p. 619, this correctly refers to the 1850 version, but we find in that book “On the pornographers of the later times” (p. 619), not “The pornographers of the later times” as the OED gives us. Since one may say that the missing “on” makes no difference, then on those grounds one certainly finds no cause to remove it. [If this seems an insufferably small-minded point, I would note that the citation in the third edition restores the “on”.]

But the principal error here, of course, involves citing the wrong edition of the book as the first; in 1847, the phrase reads, “On the Pornographers of the later times” (p. 511), with the idiosyncratic capitalisation or typo of the “P” as a moot point as far as the first usage goes. [Very much to its credit, the third edition OED does not correct this capitalisation, typo or not.] One wonders if a lack of publicity made Müller’s 1847 edition less broadly known than the ones from 1850 or 1852; all the same, the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica took notice of the first English translation of the book; “the study of ancient art was promoted by his Handbuch der Archäologie der Kunst (1830; Eng. trans., J. Leitch, 1847)” (The Wikisource 1911 Encyclopedia Project, 2015, ¶2). Whatever relevance this could or could not have had for the first edition OED, first published completely in 1928, general knowledge of the text could certainly have supplied a correction for the second edition in 1989.

At this point, presumably no one will call this needless niggling on my part, since perhaps nowhere else than in dictionary making does fidelity to the letter matter at least as much as the spirit. The 1847 and 1850 edition do in fact differ in more than simply the capitalisation of that “P”. As a minor example, the 1850 translation incorporates and corrects the errata listed in the earlier one (K. O. Müller, 1847, p. xvi); hence, in 1850 the phrase “Scalpture (the art of cutting stones and dies)” (1850, p. 10, §27n5) has replaced the previous “Sculpture (the art of cutting stones and dies)” (1847, p. 10, §27n5)—not actually a small change at all, since Müller specifically proposes a distinction between sculpture and sculpture (Leitch, 1850). The major difference between the editions arises in the fact that the 1847 translation uses the second German edition (K. O. Müller, 1835), edited by Müller himself, while the 1850 and 1852 translations use the third German edition (K. O. Müller, 1848), posthumously edited by F.G. Welcker. And while all three English editions came out posthumously, the identifiable differences between the 1850 and 1852 editions, besides a change of publisher, remain very slight; both editions have the same number of pages, and the errata listed at the end in 1850 remain listed and uncorrected in 1852.

For the very narrowest purpose of this essay, one may argue that no meaningful difference exists between K. O. Müller (1847) and K. O. Müller (1850), since only the capitalisation of the word “pornographer” changes and the word ‘pornography’ doesn’t appear in either text. Rather, as part of the broader purpose of this essay, what differences do in fact exist illustrate how texts can embody an ambiguous multiplicity of authority to supply yet one more form or articulation of verbal secret cabinetry. Hence, while the German second edition (1835), which Müller oversaw, provides the text’s first English translation (1847) overall, and the German third edition (1848), which Welcker oversaw, supplies the second and third English translations (K. O. Müller, 1850, 1852), the original (K. O. Müller, 1830) remains still untranslated to date. Moreover, in the 1847 translation, we have edits that originate with the author, most often in the footnotes, while with the 1850 edition, we have the posthumous editor’s input, both expanding and at least in one case negating the sense of Müller’s original, where Welcker “corrects” rhyparography with rhopography.

In general, then, this makes the text overdetermined if not unlocatable. Müller, being dead, did not authorise the third edition that bears his name; a fate experienced by many writers, of course, but this fact does not any less settle what we should understand as comprising his actual “text,” which remains abundantly available to this day, if inexplicably expensive, at in at least twenty-seven scanned knock-off editions; one of them written by “Friedrich Müller” and more than one written by Friedrich Gottleib Welcker and Karl Otfried Müller (in that order), which may accidentally capture an accurate a sense of the state of affairs after all.

But simply to stick with that most glaring and succinct example of this problem of authority—one already mentioned—in Müller in order to illustrate the point: having used the by-then entirely German term “rhyparography” in his original (K. O. Müller, 1830), only in K. O. Müller (1848), after his death, does Welcker permit himself to add “[rhopography]” as an implied correction. This change, as also like the correction of “sculpture” for “scalpture,” does not offer a merely semantic difference. Both words signal a difference in the worldview of the book. In the case of “sculpture,” something exists (in Müller’s view) that others had not distinguished; in the case of “rhopography” for “rhyparography,” Welcker attempts to obliterate the existence of a kind of art, or at least the prevalent moral stain that sticks to it.

It hardly seems that the second edition OED’s deletion of the word “on” from “On the pornographers of the later times” must signal such a difference of worldview, but the fact that such changes of a words intended context can indeed hang on extremely minor differences, then we can ask if this contradiction of Müller’s intention that Welcker inserted adds to, subtracts from, or substitutes for the text? Moreover, does this gesture count as error or fact; should we treat it as knowledge or not? Does the OED’s omission of “on” count as error or fact; should we treat it as knowledge or not? [Does our answer change if we learn from the third edition OED that the second edition OED had it wrong?] Or finally, how does Welcker’s addition, motivated by a rejection of the text-as-written, differ if at all from the OED’s decision to omit Dunglison’s etymology in his definition for ‘pornography’?

The missing element here involves time. Although “truth” seems something that would hold everywhere and always—such that both lexicography and everything that takes up the conceit of a science proceeds by peeling back “untruth” to discover the evermore foundational bedrock of “truth” beneath—in fact Müller’s use of rhyparography differs not only now/today compared to how anyone understood it in 1830 but also now/today depending upon which version of his book one encounters. In 1835 in German, one finds rhyparography unmolested but in 1848 with [rhopography] appended; a difference reprised for English readers between the 1847 and 1850 editions.

Again, the point here does not involve some “gotcha” in catching out disciplinary knowledge in an error, much less pretending that we must impugn Müller’s work as worthless because some term like rhyparography seems ambiguous. Rather, I use the seemingly trivial aspect of the example—and I use rhyparography because ‘pornography’ never occurs in Müller—to again show the scale at which this issue of authoritative multiplicity can manifest. For our present day, just to give the most cursory sample, the Nabu Press by itself—professing to have brought the book “back into print as part of our continuing commitment to the preservation of printed works worldwide”—offers no less than twelve scanned versions of the book (at more than $40.00 apiece paperback, though you can get a Kindle version for $0.99):

  • one of 664 pages by F.G. Welcker and K.O. Müller
  • one of 664 pages by K.O. Müller and F.G. Welcker
  • one of 662 pages by F.G. Welcker, John Leitch, and K.O. Müller
  • one of 662 pages by K.O. Müller
  • two editions of 660 pages by F.G. Welcker and K.O. Müller
  • one of 660 pages by K.O. Müller, John Leitch, and F.G. Welcker
  • three editions of 654 pages by F.G. Welcker, K.O. Müller, and John Leitch
  • one of 626 pages by C.O. Müller
  • one of 558 pages by K.O. Müller[12]

Since the truth of a period does not involve the clearest perception of a primary reality but rather that discourse constructed and validated by persons and institutions (Leps, 1992), then we may understand the second edition OED pointing to K. O. Müller (1850) as simply the disciplinarily normalised truth of the period at that point, just as its citation of Dunglison (1857), despite Wornum (1842), validates and authorises for the period a medicalised discourse and sense for the word ‘pornography’ and prostitution over against a previous moral/aesthetic sense and discourse around obscene painting or writing. This promotion of the sort of medicalised discourse found in Dunglison may occur more simply as a sign of the times than some deliberate demotion of the moral and aesthetic sense of ‘pornography’ in Wornum. Thus, over against the moral/aesthetic background in Wornum, with its still-more burgeoning Romantic emphasis on freewill, creativity, and a virtually existential sense of accountability for one’s actions, with the kind of medicalised discourse found in Dunglison, Power asserts and insists upon a reactionary biologism that denies freewill in the face of instinctual impulses, pathologises creativity as unnatural (i.e., construes sexual intercourse for money an illegitimate use of sexuality), and removes culpability for one’s instincts, but mostly so that authorities may then step in to manage or control those who cannot control themselves.

As far as the narrowest purpose of this essay goes, then, we see disciplinary knowledge holding in suspension within its discourse an at-least three-fold explanation for the entry of the word ‘pornography’ into English print, e.g., Harper (2015b) arguing for Anthon (1843),[13] the OED arguing for Dunglison (1857), and Clarke (2013) arguing for K. O. Müller (1852) [with Harper coming closest to what the third edition OED now authoritatively declares as the actual text in W. Smith (1842), if not Wornum (1842)]. This points again to the error-generating tendency that ‘pornography’ seems to require if not also yet another case of allegorical repletion (Paglia, 1990). But in the following, if I examine the various texts in German and English by Müller (1830, 1835, 1847, 1848, 1852) specifically for the word ‘pornography,’ I do so less because any claim that Müller gives us the term ‘pornography’ has the least ground to stand on and more because the profusion of his texts displays for us one of the richest entanglements of the discourse around obscene material—however anyone borrowed, coined, or utterly fabricated some variation of the word πορνογράφον in order to surround, cover, or/and sequester that obscene material in the verbal τέμενος of ‘pornography’. In other words, if Wornum (1842) and Dunglison (1857) do at least actually supply the word ‘pornography’ in English print, K. O. Müller (1830) supplies an example of what it looks like to handle ‘pornography’; while others may supply the word of ‘pornography’ he shows us the technique, or the argument, of ‘pornography’ as it works. In this sense, Clarke (2013) correctly notes how the form of the translated text by K. O. Müller (1852) exhibits ‘pornography’ as a secret cabinet, as a disciplinary technique into print English for handling ‘pornography’—whether for the first time or not seems less essential.

Thus, in both English translations, as well as in the three editions of the German original (K. O. Müller, 1830), one finds two principal references to “pornographers”. In K. O. Müller (1847), we read, “On the Pornographers of the later times §163, 4” (p. 511), which only differs as already noted from K. O. Müller (1852) in, “On the pornographers of later times §. 163, 4” (p. 619). Earlier in the book, a footnote tells us that “Polemon in Athen. xiii. p. 567 mentions Aristides (probably him of the 116th Olympiad) together with Nicophanes and Pausanias as πορνογράφοɩ” (K. O. Müller, 1847, p. 122). Here again, since this refers to people, πορνογράφοɩ must mean “pornographers” not “pornography”. (The passage in the 1852 version remains unchanged.)

This absence of the word ‘pornography’ doesn’t come about as an artefact of translation. In the German, K. O. Müller (1830) simply writes, “Von den Pornographen §.139, 2 ex. 163, 4” (§429n2, p. 602), supplying the word ‘pornographers’ in plural German. Earlier, he concatenates a German article and more non-translated Greek, “Die πορνογράφοɩ” (§163n4, p. 144), this time supplying an imaginary plural Greek form for ‘pornographers’ albeit one with lexicographical authority (Passow et al., 1828; Schneider, 1798).

In both German and English, then, we see an only slight density of reference to pornographers. Consequently, whatever characterises a pornographer also remains obscure on its face. The various allusions to classical passage Müller supplies, however, signal a richer sense of what being “pornographer” might mean. This inclusion-by-reference that only qualified men “in the know” might recognise functions as a central part of secret cabinetry. Like a public code, it permits the discourse to operate in plain sight—and obviously about Classical matters of all sorts, not just ‘pornography,’ but it proves especially helpful for adding the necessary plausible deniability to any handling of ‘pornography.’

The text itself nevertheless supplies some clues. At §139, Müller describes the rise of a “school of Sicyon,” which distinguished itself with “scientific cultivation, artistic knowledge, and the greatest accuracy and ease in drawing” (K. O. Müller, 1847, p. 101; 1852, p. 115). This contrasts, during the same period, with the “encaustic painting … cultivated by Aristides of Thebes and Pausias of Sicyon” (Ibid); here, this mention of the name Aristides of Thebes refers to the first of the of the painters mentioned by Athenæus as a πορνογράφον. At §163, which gets to the meatiest part of the matter, Müller refers to “pictures which ministered to a low sensuality” (K. O. Müller, 1847, p. 121; 1852, p. 138). Here, in the revision he made for the second German edition of his book, he adds an explicit reference to the pornographers of Athenæus—i.e., Aristides, Nicophanes, and Pausanias—in order to collectively lump them together as πορνογράφοɩ with another painter Chærephanes. (K. O. Müller, 1835).

Thus, something of a picture of a “pornographer” begins to emerge. But just as Lundgren (2014) may have concatenated ambiguous material to arrive at confusion, the English translator and/or editor of K. O. Müller (1830) may have met a similar fate. In his first English translation, he admits the problem:

The most learned of my readers will be most ready to make allowance for the difficulties of my task, which were greatly increased, at least in the notes, by the author’s desire to express his ideas in the briefest possible manner. By the perhaps too unsparing use of ellipsis he has frequently rendered his meaning obscure or ambiguous (Leitch, 1847, pp. v, emphasis added).

Importantly, his address to the most learned of his readers—those most in the know—suggests, if it does not signal, what constitutes a most qualified reader of the secret cabinet he translates. Moreover, as we will see as we wade below into an even more laborious wealth of detail, it becomes remarkably difficult to determine, from the several versions of Müller’s texts, who precisely Müller means to brand as πορνογράφοɩ, and perhaps that happens by design. He states in his Preface:

I cannot flatter myself that I have always hit the proper medium between scantiness and superfluity of materials. Those who possess a knowledge of the subject will readily discover the principles which I laid down for myself as to the facts and monuments which the work should embrace; but in many cases, however, I might be guided by a subjective, sometimes by a momentary feeling (K. O. Müller, 1847, pp. viii, emphasis added).

Thus, if his posthumous English translator makes some questionable judgment calls—relying himself, as he states, on personal recollection, referring to the author’s sources, or in consultation with another expert to work out the obscurities (Leitch, 1847, p. vi)—one understands how such confusion arose, even if, for the most learned of the translator’s readers or those who possess a knowledge of the subject, these obscurities might appear crystal clear.

None of this assumes or requires a conspiracy necessarily. The problem for Müller, for his translator, and for the whole of Euroamerican archaeology at the time, involved the considerable “embarrassment” (Clarke, 2013) of encountering simultaneously valued and de-valued objects—i.e., simultaneously Classical/historical and obscene—and the then subsequent difficulty involved whenever speaking publicly about these objects. One had to find a way to appreciatively describe them without seeming at the same time to prescribe them (or appreciate them too much). Thus Müller builds into his text—or claims to build into his text—principles that can only appear perfectly obvious to those who possess a knowledge of the subject yet at the same time might also remain wholly obscure because they invoke or rely upon a subjective or—quite remarkable as a scholarly claim—a momentary feeling. Similarly, his translator, making all the necessary gestures of a translator, admits of having potentially distorted the text with his own personal recollections.

This positive incorporation of unmarked non-authorial additions by the translator and a not merely subjective but perhaps transient whimsy by the author—to say nothing yet of the considerable posthumous emendation by Müller’s editor—formally positions the text as indecipherable, even for those in the know. It always leaves leeway for doubt and plausible deniability.

And while this may, in fact, do nothing more than supply an open “wink” to those in the know, it points also to the way that certain elements within the field of archaeology—obscene objects in particular—called for, or generated, this circumspection of reference. That fleeting subjective reactions—non-meaningful precisely for their fleeting quality—or the quality of a translator’s knowledge as it impinges upon a translation must both leave their trace on virtually every intellectual work, these “necessities” becomes “tools” that help to better distance one’s perception (as an author or reader) faced by the handling of socially problematic material, like art objects deemed obscene.

Writing from the context of the feminist “sex wars,” Wicke (1991) articulated the notion of social pornography, which points to those forms of publicised, usually professional or academic, discourses centred on culturally taboo or interdicted subject matter that the author makes a point of being distanced from. Writing in 1991, Wicke suggests that “the past decade’s fascination with explicit and imaginary child sexual abuse is the best example” (p. 54) of social pornography; for Colebrook (2009), social pornography “is intrinsically tied to its publicity and moral rectitude” (p. 45), very frequently in the form of a stand, or at least a pose, of moral indignation or pity toward the subject matter. Earlier and more recent academic research on forms of “sexual deviance” and “paraphilias” offer scores of examples of such social pornography. And if, in our more theoretically licentious era, the forms of social pornography we produce—especially around issues of sexuality—permit a more frank presentation of the material itself, in Müller’s era its forms of social pornography required far more circumspection.

In our own current social pornography, if we surround the sexual self-reports of “perverts” with a mass of patronising, condemnatory, or sympathetic commentary as “interpretation”—formal theorising about “masochism” has long been fraught with this (c.f., Baumeister, 2014; Ghent, 1990; Loewenstein, 1957; Maleson, 1984)—in Müller’s era, by contrast, one could or perhaps had to proceed less directly and instead rely on allusions to the already amassed body of Classical Euroamerican knowledge to avoid actually including the problematic material. Thus, simply to mention “Aristides of Thebes” signals the “pornographers” passage in Athenæus and thus points to the theme of “obscene material” without needing to say so explicitly.

I say here specifically “obscene” not “pornographic” material because, contrary to the claim that Clarke (2013) makes, when Müller does finally get around, essentially only at the end of his book, to referring explicitly to the sorts of problematic art objects from the ancient world that Clark invokes, Müller still uses the adjective “obscene” not “pornographic” to describe them; “We must here by way of appendix refer to the great number of obscene representations […]” (K. O. Müller, 1847, p. 511; 1852, p. 619)—in German, “Anhangsweise muß hier auch der großen Anzahl obscöner Vorstellung … gedacht werden” (K. O. Müller, 1830, pp. 602, §429n2). Wornum (1842) later expressly defines the word ‘pornography’ in English as “obscene paintings” (Wornum, 1842, p. 694).

Clarke’s (2013) point suggests that the type of work done by Müller from or originates in an on-going attempt to frame a conceptual category (“pornography”) that would make an exception for certain kinds of “obscene” objects, so that excavators might preserve rather than destroy them. A tension arises then, between those who would preserve obscene objects as pleasurable in some way (e.g., academically, sexually, aesthetically) and those who would sequester such objects as dangerous; ‘pornography’ ambiguously gets marshalled to both tasks, as also one could hear echoed during the feminist “sex wars” where pleasure and danger often collided head-on.

Thus, the social pornography in Müller’s time—the phrase “social pornography” sounds anachronistic in the present context—had perhaps not yet carved out a sufficient space of moral distancing and rectitude for public (i.e., German, not Greek or Latin) discussion around such culturally interdicted material. So that Müller, at the eleventh hour of his book, would resort to couching its invocation of obscene material in a statement merely as an aside within a footnote—”We must here by way of appendix”—in order to acknowledge the actually “great number” of extant Classical objects.

We might call this merely a stripe of hopeless prudery, but as the notion of social pornography makes clear, the necessary public appearance of a moral rectitude that positions the author apart from some cultural subject matter in order to talk about it persists as much these days as it did then. Thus the discourse can generate ambiguous or Janus-faced texts that claim a complete obviousness for those in the know on the one hand while at the same time threatening to remain indecipherable even for those in the know due mistaken recollections by a translator or the fleeting, whimsical subjectivity of an author. Hence, while McGrath (2002) notes the will to exclude certain kinds of peoples from witnessing, much less participating, in the discourse of ‘pornography’ by making deciphering that discourse well-nigh impossible— a will already ably embodied in its rare or expensive texts composed gratuitously in Latin (e.g., Jacobs & Welcker, 1825; C. Müller & Müller, 1849)—even a scholar must also both save face and his reputation amongst those for whom the discourse would not remain insuperably indecipherable, his peers. On top of everything, a taste for a certain elegance in writing mediates against anything so crass as stating the obvious in a text, such that anyone in the know must also follow the graceful elisions of information and oblique constructions. And for ‘pornography,” which seems to have demanded a degree of circumspection even to admit knowledge of it, this allusiveness makes direct reference more elusive; a habit of writing can move to the centre as a strategy for guarding against too openly seeming to embrace one’s (problematic) subject.

The blunt assertion of a doxa always assures its indecipherability to outsiders, but Müller’s text amply shows a further range and detail of these esoteric and exoteric “hidings.” It manifests even in the typography. Even without translating the German, for instance, we may see this at work in the terms “Veneris figurae” and “lasciva numismata,” which also happen to conveniently and no doubt accidentally distort all the more thanks to line breaks.


(K. O. Müller, 1830, pp. 602, §429n2).

The convention of not translating or re-scripting passages in languages foreign to the work at hand constitutes a long-standing, and sometimes unintentionally comic, gesture within the many histories of intercultural transmission generally. In the passage above, the use of Roman script in place of German Fraktur must certainly do less to reduce legibility than a Greek script would (as we will see), but the retention of the Latin language itself helps to render the text less decipherable to those not in the know.[14] Müller’s book—like countless others then and now—supplies many instances of this, of course, usually more often in Greek; thus, we read in all of his editions that the notorious painter Chærephanes on the authority of Plutarch (Perseus Digital Library, 2014b) painted “ἀkολάστους ὁμιλίας γυναιkῶν πρὸς ἄνδρας” (K. O. Müller, 1830, p. 144; 1847, p. 122; 1852, p. 139).

More striking than the conventional use of this venerable tradition, the actual structure of Müller’s sentence demonstrates an articulation of social pornography itself. Having begun by admitting that “we must here by way of appendix,”[15] Müller then literally brackets out and contains the obscene material within a set of parentheses: we must here by way of appendix refer to the great number of obscene representations (perhaps Veneris figurae, pictures, gems, coins, lasciva numismata Martial 8, 78). In this, we have nothing secret about the cabinet, but only a display of the gesture to contain this material.

Thus, just as the Secret Cabinet within the National Archaeological Museum of Naples (Meyerowitz, 1992) permitted specialists to tuck away the “obscene” objects that archaeology unearthed and reserve the viewing of them only for the educated elite (Clarke, 2013), Müller here deploys a grammatical equivalent as best as the printed word permits, populating his parenthetical cabinet here with obscure Latin objects (i.e., Veneris figurae and lasciva numismata) and objects that only someone in the know could attach the phrase “obscene representations” to as a description, i.e., pictures, gems, coins, and a passage in Martial’s Epigrams, VIII.78, which refers to a “lasciva nomismata” (Perseus Digital Library, 2014a, line 9) that themselves, perhaps contrary to much of martial, actually seem not to intend anything particularly racy.[16]

Significantly, as a grammatical “secret cabinet”—itself tucked within the larger structural “secret cabinet” of a footnote to the main text—the structure “(perhaps Veneris figurae, pictures, gems, coins, lasciva numismata Martial 8, 78)” has a striking redundancy. Thus, “Veneris figurae” already denote pictures so that also mentioning “pictures” seems gratuitous, while the “numismata” of lasciva numismata also at least by convention already denote “coins”.[17] Even the reference to Martial supplied by Müller redundantly underscores the “lasciva numismata,” since that phrase only occurs there. Inasmuch as this marks the only point in Müller’s text where he catalogues together, as a class, these “obscene representations”—elsewhere, he catalogues the supposed producers of obscene representations, the “pornographers,” but not their works—the redundancy may arise simply from a desire to pack the secret cabinet with the entire and full range of problematic objects in question, as much to ensure the completeness of the collection perhaps as to guarantee also that nothing remains unlocked outside of it.

Between the physically actual Secret Cabinet in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples and the sort of grammatical secret cabinet Müller consciously or unconsciously constructs here, the latter dwells (at least in principal) in view of the public; one need only buy or borrow the book. Whatever controls the curators of the physical Secret Cabinet might have exercised over who could obtain access to its obscene objects, with the sort of social pornography Müller articulates here, anyone with the time and money could at least get past the front door of the cover, whether or not anything else after that made sense. As such, additional gestures of obscuring seem necessary in a text, if not simply to keep the rabble out but at least to keep up appearances and maintain plausible deniability with one’s peers.

Certainly, with no illustrations and an all but hermetically sealed network of cross-references, a novice may well go right past the Veneris figurae and lasciva numismata without a blush or a clue; they might even not stop to read the contents of the parenthesis at all, since parenthesis can rhetorically signal non-essential material in the first place. A major strength of this sort of articulation of social pornography, then, consists in the fact that one may practice it, more or less, in full view of everyone not “in the know” without getting caught at it. More precisely, the very category of social pornography itself presupposes the required articulations of text-discourse that permit the public discussion of interdicted material.

The critical and integral relation of this to Power seems grossly obvious.


As regards the narrowest aim of this essay, if the last section took up the groundlessness of the claim that K. O. Müller (1852) somehow introduces ‘pornography’ into print English, we may still examine his work in more detail at the places where he addresses “pornographers” in order to examine further the architecture of a verbal secret cabinet.

Since secret cabinetry involves a controlled site where only duly authorised individuals may enter, to construct such a cabinet in plain view—i.e., in print—requires additional resorts. Gratuitously composing texts in Latin, for instance, since this automatically excludes those without a general access to the education necessary to read such texts. Thus, while “women, children, and non-elite men” (Clarke, 2013) remain permanently barred from physical secret cabinets in Naples or elsewhere, an ambiguity opens up around young men, depending upon at what age their education in Greek and Latin begins, if ever. After all, the elite sons of elite men begin with a societal predisposition that would permit them, in theory at least, to enter a Secret Cabinet. Consequently, the education system must at some point decide how to let such young elite men in on the secret.

Another resort involves a kind of imprecise redundancy. Rather like the Lady and the Tiger, one must pick which one of the three doors to go through, even though death (i.e., a fatal scholarly error) lurks behind some of those choices. We see a most obvious version of this kind of imprecise redundancy in differing definitions for the same word, whether found in simultaneously extant dictionaries or in different editions of the same dictionary. Hence, in the earliest editions of the Greek-English lexicon, the editors defined ‘pornography’ as “painting harlots” (H. G. Liddell et al., 1848, p. 1225) but four decades later, it meant “writing of harlots” (H. G. Liddell et al., 1889, p. 1256). A market analysis might expose the motivation for this change but this says nothing about the multiplicity of definition that results. Or, as in Müller’s case, we have three German versions of his book and three English translations, some which do not reflect Müller’s distinction between “scalpture” and “sculpture” and some that do.

Furthermore, just as one might physically pass an entryway to the Secret Cabinet without recognising it as such, some of the textual arrangement in Müller’s book(s) permits a similar circumstance. Thus, in K. O. Müller (1830), the cross-references in the notes to paragraphs §163 and §429 referring to painters that Müller notes as “pornographers” occur only after the reader has already earlier perused those names at §139. In other words, the text introduces the reader to “pornographers” without telling them so—although someone sufficiently in the know will of course already have recognised the allusion to the “pornographers” passage from Athenæus simply from the mention of the name Aristides of Thebes at §139. Thus, like the naïve museum walker who passes right by the door to the Secret Cabinet without recognising it, the naïve reader will similarly pass by the list of painters with Aristides of Thebes and other pornographers at §139 without recognising this as such.[18] Only after the fact does Müller direct the reader back to that paragraph with some circumspectly presented knowledge that one reads of “pornographers”. In what follows, then, I explicitly map the network of structures that the cross-references at §163 and §429 deploy. These structures supply us with an example of the architecture of Müller’s verbal secret cabinet, and thus a blueprint for other possible secret cabinets.

To take the later cross-reference from §429 in English first, one first notes that it occurs virtually at the end of the book—a reader might well have given up even before ever reaching this point; exhausting your reader certainly serves as one way to keep them from stumbling across material—but the passage also occurs in a section devoted to the wholesome topic of married life. There, a seemingly innocuous remark in the main text, “Roman sarcophagi represent marriage in a similar manner, by Juno Pronuba uniting the spouses” (K. O. Müller, 1847, p. 510; 1852, p. 618) triggers the footnote that will then point back to the “pornographers” footnote at §163.

While a novice might miss taking “uniting the spouses” in a prurient sense—or would see it only in a merely prurient sense and not pursue the point any further—a proper scholar of the Classics knows that Juno Pronuba refers to that Roman custom pronuba whereby an already married female friend of a new bride prepares and delivers her to the marriage bed; Roman mythology confers this sacred task to Juno. After four lengthy notes following the main text, we then finally read in note 5, “We must here by way of appendix refer to the great number of obscene representations […]” (K. O. Müller, 1847, p. 511; 1852, p. 619), at the end of which finally follows the only native German reference to “pornographers” in Müller’s book, along with its cross-reference back to §163, note 4.

In fact, between the first and second German editions of Müller’s (1830, 1835), he considerably expands the content here; the sentence about Roman sarcophagi, for instance, does not appear at this point in the original, so the footnote of material about Juno Pronuba itself represents a further gloss on an addition. Even Müller’s (1830) maximally terse, “Von den Pornographen” (p. 602) in German gets rather inexplicably expanded in the English to, “On the Pornographers of the later times” (K. O. Müller, 1847, p. 511).

Regarding this added material, while much of it originates with Müller, in a passage appended to the translator’s preface for the second English translation of 1850, Leitch declares that “this edition is nearly a fourth larger than the last” (Leitch, 1850, p. vi). This inadvertently creates yet another ambiguity, since the first English translation (K. O. Müller, 1847) derives from the second German edition (K. O. Müller, 1835), revised by Müller himself, while the second English translation (K. O. Müller, 1850) derives from the third German edition (K. O. Müller, 1848), further posthumously revised by F.G. Welcker. So it seems this one-fourth expansion originates with Welcker, not Müller.

From earlier notes about some of Welcker’s changes, one might suspect some intellectual malfeasance in this. At a minimum, we can note how the secret cabinet that Müller originally constructed (1830, 1835)—in which he offered, among other gestures, those parentheses crammed with redundancies and references to Martial all tucked within a footnote—subsequently become a space where yet more editions could house yet more additions of other obscene objects, at least by reference and placed there by Müller’s posthumous editor if not his translator as well. While I have already much mentioned Welcker’s spurious addition/correction of [rhopography] for Müller rhyparography, this time I would simply draw attention to the necessity of brackets around Welcker’s addition and its family resemblance to Müller’s use of parentheses.

All of this brings to mind the figure of Wilde’s character Dorian Gray. Just as no matter how obscene and corrupt the inward part of him became, his outward part never failed to maintain its attractiveness and respectability. So also the Secret Cabinet in Naples, which specialists could add anything they wanted to without the public façade of the place ever changing in the least, maintained its outward attractiveness and respectability no matter the obscenity within its interior. And so also for Müller’s text—and texts like it; subsequent hands could place new additions within it without its outward respectability changing, though the caveat still holds that the publicly accessible character of a book mandated circumspection around such additions, i.e., in footnotes, in allusions, &c.

This distinguishes itself from what we see in Russian literature’s tradition of “æsopic language,” which aimed at slipping material past Tsarist censors (Erlich, 1980; Morson, 1983), or that type of homosexual signalling exemplified by Wilde’s reference in one of his fairy tales to the “Bythynian slave of Hadrian,” which thus makes the love that dare not speak its name actually speak its name in code in public (Bartlett, 1988; Duffy, 2001). Rather, this kind of “secret cabinetry” seems more like those public code keys from the intelligence community (Mao, 2001), i.e., “secret messages” decipherable only (or preferentially) by those not simply in the know but also with the technology or technique to do the decoding. In other words, Wilde’s allusion remains vulnerable to de-coding by anyone who learns that Hadrian’s slave had a penis. By contrast, without the requisite technologies, even to possess the public key and the coded message may still not permit the message’s decipherment. To learn that Aristides of Thebes represents one of the “pornographers” still requires more technique to unpack more fully what that means.

Another difference, in the cases of aesopic language and Wilde-type allusions, those ones “in the know” of such messages constitute a class of people seeking to avoid the controls of Power, while in the latter case of secret cabinet builders, those “in the know” constitute the figures of that Power. And finally, if the Dorian Gray character of the National Museum serves as an apt symbol for the state of Occidental culture at the time, then the carrying capacity of that figure (as a character, as a museum, as a work of archaeology) to absorb new obscene material without becoming corrupted or tainted by its contents reprises that masculinist conceit of work and exposure to the evils of the world that work involved that underpinned the developing bourgeois ideology of the separation of the spheres then also current (Ellis, 1989). This insisted that women ought to remain home within the domestic sphere, while only men would go out into the fallen world of work, &c.

At §429, and with the phrase “Von den Pornographen,” Müller redirects his readers both to §139, note 2 and §163, note 4.

To address §139 first, while Müller implies in the main text of this paragraph an unfavourable comparison between the celebrated school of Sicyon and the emergence of encaustic painting as practiced by the pornographer Aristides of Thebes, the greater bulk of footnote 2 describes not “den Pornographen,” but rather, the “celebrated painters of the period” (K. O. Müller, 1847, p. 101), with Aristides of Thebes included on that list along with some thirty-one other painters called by no one, at least on record, a “pornographer.” Here again, if we might hypothesize an at least implied distinction between painters and paintings, Athenæus—the supposed authority on Aristides, along with Pausias/Pausanias and Nicophanes—does not seem to supply such a distinction himself.

At the same time, an almost tragic-comic degree of coyness occurs here, since just above Müller’s lengthy list of celebrated painters, he prefaces it with the cumbersomely punctuated, “The Sicyonic painters as a class, Athen. v. p. 196 c. Polemon (§35, 3) wrote on the poecile at Sicyon, built about Ol. 120. Athen. vi, 253 b., xiii, 577 c.” (K. O. Müller, 1847, p. 101). Here, we might remember the complaint by Müller’s translator:

The most learned of my readers will be most ready to make allowance for the difficulties of my task, which were greatly increased, at least in the notes, by the author’s desire to express his ideas in the briefest possible manner. By the perhaps too unsparing use of ellipsis he has frequently rendered his meaning obscure or ambiguous (Leitch, 1847, p. v).

More than this, however, since the Perseus Digital Library (2014 [1854]) for Athenæus’ Deipnosophistae tabulates the pornographers passage to XIII.567b—not the XIII.577c that Müller supplies—we might wonder if Müller has deliberately listed the wrong cross-reference as an error or dodge, whether the wrong numbering occurs as a result of some difference of edition over the centuries, or whether he actually intends to refer to XIII.577c, despite it having little, if not nothing, to do with the subject of the cross-reference, i.e., “pornographers”.

In fact, the particular cluster of references that Müller offers here recurs on a page in Volume 3 of C. Müller and Th. Müller’s (1849) Fragmenta Historicum Graecorum (p. 120), where we may also in fact find the pornographers passage from Athen. xiii, 567b, despite that Müller’s list of references makes no mention of it. Since this still-consulted Fragmenta Historicum Graecorum of 1849 came out after Müller’s death in 1840, one obviously errs to imagine the Fragmenta as the source for Müller’s list of references—rather, it seems the other way around: Müller’s book occasions the Fragmenta’s particular assemblage of Classical passages.

For clarity, the Fragmenta Historicum Graecorum assembles passages from Greek antiquity along with Latin translations of those passages. And despite appearances otherwise, the C. Müller who authored it along with Th. Müller bears no relation to the K. Müller this essay considers.

Wherever Müller collected his references for this passage—either through his own researches in disparate sources or from some still-earlier compendium—the Fragmenta’s compilation supplies the actual wording of the passages that Müller only alludes to by reference. In this way, the Fragmenta serves as both a clearinghouse for and also an expansion upon an otherwise obscure list of allusions by Müller.

Since the Fragmenta exists exclusively in Latin and Greek—even offering Latin, rather than German, translations of Greek passages as well—this text ideally functions as a public “secret cabinet” that only the educated elite can access. It could have sat on a prominent podium in any library and remained as inaccessible to those not in the know as the Secret Cabinet’s entrance.

In this gesture of collecting together in textually expanded form what Müller only mentions in passing we also see a handsome, if conventional, example of the normalisation of disciplinary knowledge. Henceforward, whether one reads Müller’s text or not, the particular configuration of information and argument he makes, which the Fragmenta duly reproduces and fills out with actual texts, takes on the status of a warrant of “truth” in Leps’ (1992) Foucauldian sense: “the truth of a period corresponds not to the closest perception of a primary reality, but rather to the sets of information which, having been legitimized by institutions, organize the mode of being, the social arrangement, [and] the historic reality of people and product” (p. 3).

As an entry in the Fragmenta, this “page,” perhaps more than any of the editions of Müller’s book, would likely have more securely established that disciplinary sense of ‘pornography’ that Clarke (2013) wants to credit to Müller. In other words, this page in the Fragmenta presents one of the more complete arguments for/by ‘pornography.’ In that light, it seems crucial to repeat that Müller does not include a reference to the “pornographers” passage in Athenæus XIII.567b at his §139, and yet the Fragmenta not only reproduces Athenæus’ passage but actually appends Müller’s name and work to it: “Müller, Archæol., § 163, 3” (C. Müller & Müller, 1849, p. 120). Notice especially that the Fragmenta’s cross-reference directs a reader back not to §139, the paragraph that occasions the list of reproduced Classical passages here, but rather to a different paragraph in Müller, i.e., §163, note 3, where the word “πορνογράφοɩ” appears prominently.

Thus, while the Fragmenta in a sense “connects the dots” one might otherwise miss—and does so within a “safe” context of exclusively Latin and Greek text that only the educated elite might understand—we may still see in this move that kind of discrete distancing of public responsibility for content, in this case where it comes to mentioning “pornographers”.

In other words, while Müller makes no reference at §139 to either Athenæus XIII.567b or to pornographers, like Supreme Court Justice Potter, the authors of the Fragmenta know “pornographers” when they see it, and they append Athenæus XIII.567b to the page. However, just as “I know it when I see it” as an argument for ‘pornography’ shifts “blame” for it onto the “pornographer”—if not onto the thing itself in the manner one sees from the Obscene Materials Act of 1857—C. Müller detection of “pornographers” here must similarly shift the blame for his “prurient reading” of Müller’s passage by appending Müller’s name to the passage from Athenæus; and conveniently so, since the author in question had died and could no longer object. The fact that both scholars here share the name Karl Müller and that one gets mistaken for the other at times only sweetens the irony of detail here.

In a private, i.e., non-public, setting, all of these allusive connections, to say nothing of one’s interest in obscene objects itself, might require none of these fussy and elaborate mechanisms of distancing and plausible deniability. In public, however, the sort of torturously attenuated network of reference visible here provides an almost fantastic spectacle of the desire for disciplinary control. Here, a text has to route itself through an obscure passage in a book little known except to a narrow group of specialists that even then exists only in languages that expressly exclude exactly that same triumvirate of people denied permission to enter the Secret Cabinet itself, i.e., “women, children, and non-elite men” (Clarke, 2013, p. 142). Such a seemingly excessive resort at the very least begins to expose the intensity of sentiment, if not the rationale, behind the eventual physical bricking over of the entrance to the Secret cabinet in Naples.

Although one may certainly piece together Müller’s general argument about “pornographers”—especially after he filled out his own highly abbreviated initial text with less circumspect material in his later German editions—when one passes through the assemblage of text-objects within the Secret Cabinet of the Fragmenta, one literally sees and reads the wider context of Müller’s argument just as surely as one could have understood the fuller range of objects hidden away within the physical Secret Cabinet itself by walking amongst them as well.

An obvious detail in this—too obvious not to overlook—comes across in how this fuller context in the Fragmenta remains explicitly detached spatially and cordoned off from Müller’s source-texts. By contrast, commentaries on religious texts—though often still in specialist languages—will tend to remain explicitly linked to, on, or around the text they comment upon. Here we see the opposite; disciplinary knowledge has separated the text (as reference) from commentary (as original passage). This differs from the usual resort of reference. If I say, “So and so provides support for this argument,” to actually follow that reference to the relevant passage will more tend to confirm (or disconfirm) the claim than to actually provide the entire substance of my argument. Here, Müller’s references provide no argument whatsoever, so to speak; it appears, rather, nine years after his death in the Fragmenta, and only there actually includes the entirely germane “pornographers” passage from Athenæus. We might imagine further how, in any post-1849 edition of Müller’s work, its text could have helpfully—even self-congratulatorily, self-aggrandizingly—added yet one more note directing a reader to the whole complement of texts neatly compiled within the Fragmenta, but no one ever added this helpful redirection.

Whatever this accomplishes for “pornographers,” it remains utterly obscure with respect to ‘pornography.’ While it seems that a “typical” reading of the re-direction by §429 to note 2 of §139 might most likely leave a novice wondering “are all of the celebrated painters pornographers” or “but which of these ‘celebrated’ painters are pornographers, then?” Even the statement here, “The Sicyonic painters as a class, Athen. v. p. 196” (emphasis added) points to the class of painters, not any class of paintings.

As a final note on this cross-reference before proceeding to the next, while the translator offered reasons for at times expanding Müller’s text, especially in the notes, due to an excess of brevity, here in K. O. Müller (1847) he seems to reduce the text of the footnote by deleting an entire sentence: “Daher Sicyon Helladica, welcher Ausdruck später Schriftsteller wohl nur aus der Sprache der Kunstlehrten abgeleitet werden kann” (K. O. Müller, 1830, p. 123). Curiously, this sentence reappears in K. O. Müller (1852), but along with a confusing remark added by the editor, “[In the first Ed. followed, ‘Hence Sicyon Helladica, which expression of later writers can only perhaps be derived from the language of earlier connoisseurs.’ …]” (pp. 115-116).

Indubitably, I begin to tax even my own curiosity and patience for detail, but I ask you to bear with me a moment longer on this point, as it does come to something. To summarise: in German, Müller’s first edition came out in 1830, then a second edition, with the sentence in question stricken for some reason, though presumably by Müller himself (K. O. Müller, 1835, p. 135), and then finally, in the third edition of 1848, Welcker restored the sentence by remarking, “[In the first Ed. followed, ‘Hence Sicyon Helladica, which …” In the English translations, then, Leitch produced his first edition (K. O. Müller, 1847) using the second German edition—which has the sentence in question stricken—and later produced the second English edition that Clarke (2013) cites from the edited third German edition (K. O. Müller, 1852), which has the sentence restored rather confusingly by the editor. Why Leitch didn’t simply clarify, “In the first German Ed. followed, …” remains unclear.

The triviality of this hides that both Welcker and Müller felt the deletion and restoration of the sentence mattered. But as simply one example of the fortunes of one sentence in one book in multiple editions, it metonymically suggests all of the other curious deletions, insertions, emendations, and so forth between the several versions here and in documentary knowledge generally. For the English editions at least, both of which issued posthumously, the earlier one reflected the original author’s revised intentions—whatever it means that Müller struck the sentence—while the later version in places reflects an editorial presence contrary to those original intentions.

Whatever version remains more faithful, these kinds of ambiguities permit the space of the book to articulate further the architecture of and to operate like a Secret Cabinet, with the objects placed undecidably in accordance with or contrary to its the original design. It claims too much to suggest earnestly that Welcker parasitically used the host of Müller’s corpus to house some obscene objects he might otherwise not have dared personally “own” in his professional works, but the possibility that one might do so exhibits yet another resort of social pornography and secret cabinetry. Recalling that Clarke (2013) cites embarrassment—not just in Müller presumably, but across the whole field of art history and archaeology—as a reason to articulate the notion of pornography in the face of unearthed, obscene objects, the ambivalence visible in a public posture of moral indignation towards such objects coupled with a legitimate, spurious, prurient, or merely fiduciary interest in such objects captures exactly the topos of social pornography.

The gay male hustler’s quip, “today’s trade is tomorrow’s competition” (Duberman, 1997, p. 96) points to the guilt-by-implication that sometimes attaches even simply to admitting a concern about certain socially taboo or interdicted topics. Contemporary researchers who study child pornography must doubtless often offer tortured-sounding explanations for the importance of their research and not that it “interests” them. This sort of circumspection echoes also both the negative silences and the positive distancings expected publicly—if not also privately—of women with regard to sexual matters that accompanied the rise of the middle class, a demand that made prudence “the ark of female virtue” (Tompkins, 1932). But we still find this circumspection and distancing everywhere in social pornography; those who offer studies on topics like bestiality (Beetz & Podberscek, 2005; Beirne, 1997; Jenkins & Thomas, 2004), voraphilia (Bell, 2011; Klein, 2012; Lykins & Cantor, 2014), or masochistic rape fantasies (Baumeister, 2014; Baumeister & Sommer, 1997; Bivona, Critelli, & Clark, 2012) take pains methodologically—when not simply disgusted outright—to place themselves at arm’s length from their subject matter.

But this very distancing may also serve not only as a cover for one’s more personal interests in the topic, but also as a host or space for intellectual parasitism. Nabokov’s Pale Fire provides an exquisite fictional example of this parasitism (Boyd, 2001), and if Welcker does not indeed sneak some obscene artefacts of his own into Müller’s Secret Cabinet, we may still see the form of that gesture in social pornographies themselves, just as the sexual predators unit of a local police department or the hidden torture chambers of national security organs provide places of gainful employment for unreconstructed rapists and sadists.

At §429, Müller also directs his reader to §163, where we first learn how the “tendencies which were peculiar to this period gave birth to pictures which ministered to a low sensuality” (K. O. Müller, 1847, p. 121; 1852, p. 138). At note 4 in the German first edition, we encounter the only occurrence of πορνογράφοɩ (“pornographers”). At this point, Müller also deploys that sort of compressed brevity that bothered his translator and in such a hybrid format that I would rather provide an image from the book than try to transcribe or describe it:

Muller pornographoi

Again, one must emphasise that this passage offers the first technically overt occurrence in the book of the word “pornographers”—”technically” only, since Müller leaves it untranslated and in Greek script per venerable tradition. And while a reader, of course, will have likely at least glanced at this note long before arriving at the explicit declaration, “Von den Pornographen” at §429, those not “in the know” about Greek “πορνογράφοɩ” will likely blow right past it. Even for those in the know, however, the cross-reference that directs to §139 (“find oben §. 139”) only makes more obscure who, precisely, constitutes these πορνογράφοɩ. In other words, the fact that Müller almost instantaneously redirects his reader away to an ambiguous list, a mere three syllables after writing the obscene word πορνογράφοɩ, seems essential to the structure of the passage here.

Comparing this first German version (K. O. Müller, 1830) to the third English translation (K. O. Müller, 1852) also offers some illuminating details:

Muller pornographoi

Müller (1830):

muller 3

Müller (1852), third English translation:

A most immediate visual difference—besides the difference in footnote numbering resulting from differences of edition—involves the changed position, decreasing font size, and tighter spacing of the letters of the word πορνογράφοɩ from 1830 to 1852. Not only does the word shift from its unmistakable prominence at the beginning of the German footnote to practically an afterthought at the end of the English one, but also the Greek script in English (as also for long phrase “ἀkολάστους ὁμιλίας γυναιkῶν πρὸς ἄνδρας” that Müller includes) becomes almost illegibly smaller than the surrounding text. German typography employs sperren, or extra space between letters, to express emphasis—and does so here with the words πορνογράφοɩ and Gryllos; the English, perhaps by accident, cramps and shrinks these words instead resulting in the opposite of emphasis.

A brief glance at the German original and English translation makes evident that quite a bit of revision has occurred, so it helps also to examine a more similar German edition its English counterpart. Such a comparison illustrates not only the filling up of Müller’s original secret cabinet (by himself and others), but also some of the interior rearrangements that can occur during translation, including how typography itself can become an architectural feature of secret cabinets.

Müller (1848), third German edition:

Muller 2

Muller (1847), first English edition, based on the second German edition (1835)

muller 3

While the original and translation here resemble one another in many ways, only the German maintains the inaugurating emphasis of the word πορνογράφοɩ as having the central place and sounding the dominant note within the semantic and structural logic of the note, even after Müller expanded it. If the later German edition seems distinctly tidier, with less unintentional messiness due to too much variation in typeface size so that the word πορνογράφοɩ doesn’t stand out and thus sound out quite so stridently, the English version of the passage (above) remains muted by comparison.[19]

If the narrowest purpose of this essay aims to question—or refute rather—that Müller did not, in any of the versions of this text, introduce the word ‘pornography’ into English as Clarke (2013) suggests, in a slightly broader sense, it asks also what it even means to make such a claim. Thus, in Müller’s text when it actually enters English via translation, we see a shift from a German emphasis on “Die π ο ρ ν ο γ ρ ά φ ο ɩ find oben §. 139” (K. O. Müller, 1830) to a textual arrangement that actually mutes that emphasis: “Polemon in Athen. xiii. p. 567 mentions Aristides (probably him of the 116th Olympiad) together with Nicophanes and Pausanias as πορνογράφοɩ” (K. O. Müller, 1847).

So much here seems to hinge on how well the word πορνογράφοɩ functions as jargon. Does it succeed in hiding “pornographers” in plain sight; or does Müller—or, perhaps more pertinently, does Euroamerican archaeology—want to hide the “pornographers” in plain sight at all? It does seem—with its loss of pride of place and literally shrinking typeface in the English—as if πορνογράφοɩ receives a de-emphasis. This might arise from a matter of taste, propriety, or changing fortunes around the discourse of obscene objects. From the period that begins in 1819, when the National Archaeological Museum of Naples established the Secret Cabinet until 1849, when the Secret cabinet gets walled in and even the elite get denied access, we might see in this that kind of evolution of a new paradigm that Jameson (1974) describes, whereby a new paradigm or organisational idea prompts a great deal of enthusiasm and empirical work at first but then gradually grinds down into little more than sterile exercises and the mechanical reproduction of false problems, all the while awaiting the next paradigmatic mutation within the discipline.

Thus, in 1830 and 1835 for Müller, the reclassification of obscene objects had not yet turned twenty years old and perhaps still had some of the ebullience an excitement of a youthful idea about it—and youth, with all of its irresponsible charm and audacious naiveté, does sometimes come socially with its own kind of protective plausible deniability; one can no more account for it than taste. By contrast, by the time of the first English publication of Müller’s book in 1847, the Secret Cabinet stood only two years from getting walled in, and Ralph Nicholson Wornum, in 1842, had already resolutely sounded the actual word ‘pornography’ itself in English ears. With this social shift from empirical enthusiasm to institutional solidification, with the slow dawning awareness within the public itself perhaps of the ‘pornography’ that some of its esteemed archaeologists and public intellectuals were having truck with, to spare Müller’s English reception any smirch, it may have seemed wiser, more circumspect, to retreat from his earlier emphasis or reliance upon the functional “invisibility” of πορνογράφοɩ as jargon and to play it down semantically and typographically as much as possible, while emphasising instead, per the venerable tradition, the esoteric allusion to Athenæus. Whatever the case, one purpose of providing a translation aims to make a text available to some language-speakers who otherwise cannot access it. And while Clarke’s (2013) claim that Müller gives us the term ‘pornography’ remains chronologically impossible, the publication of his text in English does provide at least to the specialists within his readership the form of the secret cabinet he elaborated in text as a way for presenting obscene material in public discourse.

At the same time, Müller’s “die πορνογράφοɩ” as a grammatically plural form offers another proposed or hypothetical Greek word.[20] We may remember that while the passage in Athenæus supplies “πορνογράφον” (in the singular accusative), H. G. Liddell et al. (1848) originally and in subsequent editions of their canonical Greek-English lexicon offer a hypothetical singular form, πορνογράφος, which to dates still occurs nowhere in Greek literature; the Perseus Digital Library of Classical texts supplies no instance, and H. Liddell et al. (2011) itself cites Athenæus as the only source for πορνογράφον. More precisely, they seem to grandfather in the definition of πορνογράφος grandfathered in from still earlier lexicographers.

In 1572, completing work begun by his father, Henry Estienne published the Thesaurus Graecae Lingua, “which served up to the nineteenth century as the basis of Greek lexicography” (“Thesaurus Graecae Lingua”, 2014). Having only subsequent editions of this work to consult, I have not learned how Estienne created an entry for πορνογράφον or how he defined it. However, in the founding modern Greek lexicon by Schneider (1798), he defines πορνογράφος as “der von Huren schreibt od. Huren malt” (Schneider, 1798, p. 388), i.e., “writing of whores or the painting of whores”; his immediate successor maintains this distinction, “von Hurren schreibend. 2) Huren malend” (Passow et al., 1828, p. 522). By contrast, H. G. Liddell et al. (1848) narrowed the meaning in English only to “painting harlots” (p. 1225) until they modified the definition to “writing of harlots” four decades later (H. G. Liddell et al., 1889, p. 1256).

Again, I do suggest that proposing πορνογράφος as the nominative singular for πορνογράφον must introduce an error, but would simply like to remember that since no one but Athenæus gives us an example of πορνογράφον, we should not complacently assume that πορνογράφος has all of the properties of an actual word, no matter how reasonable the proposal grammatically seems. Nonetheless, by the first third of the nineteenth century at least, lexicographers were officially including the plural form of this hypothetical πορνογράφος, offering the reasonably formed πορνογράφοɩ in their dictionaries (Riemer, 1820, p. 515; Schmidt, 1829, p. 632; Schneider, 1798). In this reification of a term, we see how disciplinary knowledge scaffolds itself on hidden assumptions.

That the current understanding of ancient Greek as we have it might have countless similar other cases does not rationalise this move, but rather makes it even more suspect. Moreover, the “philosophical” assertion that if a word “exists” in one grammatical case it must exist in all of them obviously lacks support. For one, the domain of philosophy does not automatically supply valid linguistic justifications, of course. But second, with only the one example, πορνογράφος supplies at best a statistical guess and can’t cover the possibility of an irregular form. Let the lexicographers admit this or insist it makes for a harmless error, still the potential shakiness of this word points to the potential shakiness of so much disciplinary knowledge in general. If this means we can move only in a field of probabilities rather than certainties—and this certainly, or probably, seems the case—then discourse might bother to reflect that fact. That Zgusta (2006) can bluntly and charmingly and playfully admit:

It would seem that in lexicography all the so-called factual information should pertain to the domain of God’s Truth, whereas all the explanations are ripe candidates for Hocus Pocus status, even if they attempt to acquire, or pretend that they bear, the hallmark of God’s Truth (qtd. in Dolezal, 2006, p. ix).

then, merely shows us the disingenuous form of such admissions.

Imagine πορνογράφον as a coinage in Athenæus’ text as a deliberate piece of wit or punning contrary to grammar; now we’ve lost that forever thanks to a normative assumption about its grammar. Certainly the fate of humanity doesn’t go off the rails that we’ve cheated ourselves of this verbal wordplay—one assumes—still, we do have grounds for accusing Athenæus of wit; in the paragraph above πορνογράφον, he writes, “But you, you sophist, spend your time in cookshops, not with your friends (ἑταίρων), but with prostitutes (ἑταιρῶν)” (Yonge, 1854). We may be glad for intact texts, since the omission of a single diacritic here would wipe out a delightful piece of wordplay in the passage—whether by Athenæus or one of his subsequent copyist. So then again, these texts have experienced collation and correction that we might even doubt the fidelity of πορνογράφον itself, so even a best-faith hypothesis from H. Liddell et al. (2011) remains subject to the text preparation of their predecessors, and most immediately in this case, Schneider’s (1798) and Passow’s (1828) work.

Regardless, once the fact of this linguistic assumption of πορνογράφος for πορνογράφον disappears over the horizon of awareness, all subsequent intellectual work that assumes πορνογράφος grandfathers in its built-in assumptions, including its grammatical forms. Wherever Müller looked for the word πορνογράφοɩ, his casual use of it has an explicit grammatical and lexicographic authority that differs from previous authority on the matter. Over the centuries, we variously have “Πορνογράφος, ὁ” (Estienne & Hase, 1847, p. 1496); presumably faithful to Estienne’s (1572) original, this, in any case, provides the earliest subsequent edition of the Thesaurus I could view that has πορνογράφος in it. Meanwhile, we have also Schneider’s (1798) “–νογράφος, ὁ, ἡ” (p. 388) and Liddell et. al.’s “πορνο-γράφος [α^], ον” (“πορνογράφος”, 2015).

Of the dictionaries available to me, it seems in Schneider (1798) that he first explicitly identifies πορνογράφοɩ as the plural form. I do not mean that previous scholarship assumed otherwise, or that Greek grammar could support any other conclusion. I mean only that in 1798, as I’ve seen it, did the gatekeepers of the truth of the period explicitly make the plural form of the unattested Greek word πορνογράφος πορνογράφοɩ.

Whatever new research or discovery motivated this change, if any—hopefully something lexicographical and not market-driven—the point here questions whether anyone had these possible differences or assumption in mind when deploying the word, especially when their argument rested upon the actuality of a Greek precedent.

One might wonder if Clarke (2013) and Lundgren (2014) intend to point to πορνογράφοɩ as the moment when Müller “coins” or “borrows” from the Greek, except that Lundgren specifically cites “pornographein” as the word. We will see a similar case of a (grammatically plausible but) incorrect substitution below in Yonge (1854) at the spot where he encounters πορνογράφον while translating Athenæus.[21]

As a last note about §163, in the German version, the wider spacing of the letters in πορνογράφοɩ generates a number of textual effects. Intending emphasis, as all (German) readers “in the know” would know, the messiness of the passage in Müller’s original publication seems largely an indeliberate result of mixing German Fraktur with Greek (and Roman) typefaces. This said, the result nonetheless embodies—elegantly, accidentally—a fine representation of the anxiety and attention typically encoded by social pornography, specifically in this case around ‘pornography’. It bears looking at again.

Muller pornographoi

On the one hand, while the added spacing and somewhat enlarged script relative to the surrounding Fraktur has the effect of even more dramatically, almost stridently, drawing attention to the word as befits the intended emphasis, at the same time, the widened space between the letters reduces its legibility, so that one may have to literally piece the letters back together; this too increases its emphasis by slowing down the attention of the reader.

The rhetorical effect of this reads like, “I write about p o r n o g r a p h y” so that typographical spacing of π ο ρ ν ο γ ρ ά φ ο ɩ thus beautifully captures the ambivalence of discourse around it. It recalls that specifically adult, specifically parental, gesture of openly spelling a problematic word aloud in the presence of a child who hasn’t learned her or his letters yet. It resembles also another linguistic practice that a colleague alerted me to where, within a circle of highly homophobic and religiously fundamentalist family members, her gay friends’ relatives would compulsively mispronounce the word “homosexual” by exaggeratedly separating and sounding the phonemes: hoe, moe, sek, chwül. This linguistic performance around what they viewed as a condemned, obscene practice seems a verbal analogue for adding separating space between letters. Both these verbal and textual performances point then to means or gestures that literally create distance, that distance a speaker/writer from the material spoken/written—a gesture, again, that forms an integral part of the articulation of social pornography and thus the secret cabinetry that contains it.

As the last point to address in order to bring this section to a close, I do not dispute that by contrasting a celebrated school of Sicyon on the one hand with a variety of encaustic painting on the other hand that “ministered to a low sensuality” (p. 121) that K. O. Müller (1847) intended not only to unfavourably contrast the latter with the former but also to assert that its πορνογράφοɩ painted problematic material, whether they actually historically did so or not. Granted, this still refers to pornographers not ‘pornography’. By the letter, the precedent of Wornum’s article on “Painting” in William Smith’s (1842) A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities makes no text of Müller the origin of ‘pornography’ in print English. If Wornum (1842) took some cue from Müller’s (1830) original publication, knew of that work through public or private correspondence, or simply comprised one of those “earlier sociologists” for whom the word pornography “had the same meaning as it did in ancient Greece: writing about prostitutes” (Clarke, 2003, p. 11),[22] the unmistakable fact of priority to Wornum over Müller for a first English usage seems finally less relevant finally than Wornum’s bland assumption of familiarity on the part of his readers that the word ‘pornography’ would mean “obscene painting.”

In other words, we note here how the very categories of “obscene” and “pornographic” that

As such, rather than proposing a class of ‘pornographic’ objects distinct in some generic sense from ‘obscene’ objects, we see instead the articulation of a socially pornographic use of the term ‘pornography’ itself, whether in a misprision under the term “pornographers,” i.e., πορνογράφος, πορνογράφον, or πορνογράφοɩ, or in its ostensibly more attested direct uses in Müller, i.e., pornographein (Lundgren, 2014, p. 5), Pornographie (Clarke, 2013, p. 141), or Pornographen (K. O. Müller, 1830, p. 602). This heavily reinforces the notion that “‘pornography’ names an argument, not a thing” (Kendrick, 1996, p. 31), so that this profusion of terms signals a necessity for multiple versions of this argument—multiple ways to argue it—if not also another case of that anxiety or obsessiveness that Paglia (1990) termed allegorical repletion, i.e., “a redundant proliferation of homologous identities in a matrix of sexual ambiguity” (p. 157).

As Lundgren (2014) acknowledges, obscene objects “from Pompeii and Herculaneum were recognised as art” (p. 6). Moreover, museum curators had openly displayed the ‘obscene’ objects eventually removed to the Secret Cabinet (Beard, 2012). Thus ‘pornography,’ whether as Wornum’s (1842) “obscene paintings” or Müller’s “‘obscene’ objects” (Clarke, 2013, p. 141), serves more as a pretext for controlling the circulation of and access to condemned material as part of the emerging disciplinary society around it (Foucault, 1977). This issue became so acute that “the Secret Cabinet was closed and walled up for 11 years [in 1849] without any access being approved” (Lundgren, 2014, p. 6) even for the educated elite.

In this way, not only the Secret Cabinet and the social pornography around obscene materials, but also the very word ‘pornography’ itself, take on the quality of a τέμενος (“témenos”): a strictly bounded area that denotes the space of a god, a king, a demon, a magical object (“τέμενος”, 2014); in others words, a place that contains some powerful, but also for that very reason, potentially world-destroying, supernatural or terrestrial force embodied in the figures contained (Bergquist, 1967; Paglia, 1990); a place that Leps (1992) describes as an “unsayable [that requires] the entire social edifice to contain its frightening, threatening possibilities” (pp. 222-223).

Such figures bound by a τέμενος may originate intraculturally, e.g., traditions around certain African kings requiring elaborate protocols of interaction (Du Chaillu, 1861; Herskovits, 1938) or extraculturally, e.g., the tsantsa harvested by the Jivaro people from their neighbours (Canetti, 1962; Sauvageau, Kremer, Brochu, Julien, & Racette, 2009). In either case, these bounded and delimited figures or forces remain shrouded in social ambivalence, both celebrated and feared, revered and avoided at the same time.[23] For just as Canetti (1962), Du Chaillu (1861), Herskovits (1938), and Sauvageau et al. (2009) each, albeit in very different registers, reflect the orientalist-disciplinary-liberal project of naming and containing (Foucault, 1977; Jameson, 1974; Said, 1995), they still comprise local instances of the category of social pornography more generally; a gesture that the word ‘pornography’ itself it seems to provide the founding gesture for, if not also its authority.

More than a century after the walling up of the Secret Cabinet, as US Supreme Court Justice Stewart Potter admitted that attempting to characterise what exactly hard-core pornography would consist of might involve trying to “define what may be indefinable,” his equally certain insistence “I know it when I see it” (United States Supreme Court, 1964) exemplifies the pornographic argument. Here again we see not only the same inability, or lack of interest in, specifying what exactly ‘pornography’ might consist of—preferring instead to proceed under the aegis of ad hominem attacks directed against the “pornographers” or post hoc condemnations of obscenity itself—thus also an immovable commitment to retain the prerogative, once we know it when we see it, to consign obscene materials (and people) to secret cabinets and prisons and mental asylums and schools when deemed necessary.

To summarise so far, then, let it suffice to say that the standard construction for the etymology of pornography has vacillated over the centuries, sometimes emphasising it as obscene painting (Wornum, 1842), obscene writing (H. Liddell et al., 2011; H. G. Liddell et al., 1848), or more usually both (Estienne, 1572; Passow et al., 1828; Robertson, 1676; Schneider, 1798). If we would place a priority of the visual over the written, then we could point to the platitude that obscene representations in pictures must precede writing, as also within cognition itself (Fox, 2008; Levens, 2001). We could insist that a written text itself embodies a visual representation anyway (M. Bakhtin, 1981; Woal & Corn, 1987), or we might point to the fact that the Greek basis for the word occurs in a coinage made in order to liken a licentious writer to certain painters (Perseus Digital Library, 2014 [1854]; Yonge, 1854) long-accused of producing “pictures which ministered to a low sensuality” (K. O. Müller, 1847, p. 121).

Whatever priority we assign, with respect to the gesture of pornography as a sequestration—as an attempt to regulate, control, or discipline a pleasurable but dangerous thing—the fact that visual pornography doesn’t require verbal literacy may add to the threat-value of visual pornography specifically, and that only with the rise of a wide-spread popular press would written pornography like de Sade’s require locking up, like de Sade himself. Inasmuch as du Bois (1899) defines crime as “misdirected intelligence” (p. 254), this acknowledges a problematic enactment, i.e., a “misdirected” one, of something otherwise socially valorised, “intelligence.” A determination of pornography then represents a similar judgment—a misdirection of appropriately channelled sexuality—in the same way that public discourse sometimes extols or at least acknowledges the “virtues of criminals” (Kooistra & Mahoney, 1999, p. 53) while at the same time sequestering them in secure, inaccessible institutions that only certain qualified individuals may obtain to access (Fleisher & Krienert, 2006).

But in making this gesture of sequestering, we must note also that it pre-empts or excludes destruction or execution outright. de Sade’s son, for instance, did not hesitate to burn all of his father’s unpublished work, doubtless with all of the punishing and/or purifying implications that fire brings with it (Prothero, 2001). Similarly, excavators at Pompeii, Herculaneum, and elsewhere presumably did not begin sparing everything they dug up; judgments about immediate destruction or preservation in confinement no doubt continued.

However, if security and control denote the most basic aim of confinement, with prison as simply the most visible sign of this will (Simon, 2014), then the destruction of objects—human or otherwise—seems a more rational and secure policy than any kind of confinement or containment. Friedman (1999) may make a virtue of inefficient punishment, and we might say that a well-meaning middle class that took pains to replace a repugnant and garishly aristocratic spectacle of execution with confinement (Foucault, 1977) could hardly go on with burning at the stake while keeping its moral conceits intact. But in this hesitation to destroy, this preference for containment over destruction, we seem justified in discerning something more than ex post facto justifications for sequestration in its form as confinement and preservation.

In one sense, “confinement” represents the only option, whether we confine objects—human or otherwise—to prisons and secret cabinets or to unmarked graves and anonymous landfills. We may see both the prison and museum, originally hewn out of stone, as an analogue of the grave of the Earth itself—fire, again, being the only certain and absolute destroyer of materiality.

But neither death nor destruction provide any surety against memory. If human consciousness around death finds itself continuously haunted—whether literally or figuratively—then destruction has the fatal disadvantage of releasing the “spirit” of the thing destroyed into that unreachable domain where hauntings occur. In view of the anxiety-formations around the obscene people and objects that require the sequestering judgment of Power, to “release” those obscene objects via death or destruction unleashes its force in an uncontrollable way, if only in memory. To avoid such haunting—in effect, to prevent the object of fear from turning into an objectless or only remembered anxiety—this requires sequestration and preservation, to at least a minimum degree. The compulsive inmate-counts in prisons that specifically require correctional officers to visually confirm the presence of each inmate—all of their practical justifications for the habit notwithstanding—shows how sequestration and preservation allows a confirmation, and thus a reassuring relief: yes, it’s still here.

This founding anxiety of observation, which gradually or quickly turns to a boredom and inconvenience of surveillance—as every correctional officer and inmate working through the fourth count in a day understands—may have a higher social or psychic priority than any sort of ambivalent fascination directed toward the pornographic object—human or otherwise. Whether disgust, pity, or compassion informs the sentencing judge’s confinement of a human being to a prison or hospital or other place of confinement, these socially transactive sentiments differ in their qualities and justifications from the motivation to confine (visually) obscene objects. Although a human being constitutes the pornographic object encountered in the cases of slaves, criminals, the made, terrorists, &c., many pre-existing social structures work to remove the intersociability of that humanity, precisely so that such judgment may proceed unmolested. By contrast, the pornographic object per se touches upon or reaches toward sexuality, which—even in an era as hyper-moral in its conceits as the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—has fewer pre-existing social mechanisms to dissociate sexuality from identity as completely as we see for dissociating human intersociability. All of which means simply that a greater variety of attitudes towards the thing confined might prevail, especially amongst those who enforce and perform the gesture of confinement.

Pornography, then, does not constitute a generically definable class of objects but rather a gesture of sequestration motivated by an ex post facto recognition, whether favourably or unfavourably. In “negative” cases, from that recognition ‘pornography’ serves as the warrant for arresting (“stopping the object in its tracks”) and judging the object as obscene, and then passing sentence on it to justify its sequestration and preservation by those vetted as qualified to keep watch over it. The human analogues of this seem striking—e.g., criminologists know criminals when they see them (Leps, 1992), and judges know superpredators when they see them (Herivel, 2007); the rise of the term with disciplinary society that places such an emphasis on this naming and sequestering seems rather inevitable then.

Thus, when for the first time or not Wornum (1842) matter-of-factly offered ‘pornography’ to English-listening ears, on the one hand he simply gave voice in the then-contemporary idiom to the sort of historically ubiquitous τέμενος that seems always to circumscribe regions of culture where anxiety and attraction about warranted forms of sexuality lurk. But we may also, on the other hand, see in this utterance a moment that leverages disciplinary culture itself in order name a gateway through the labyrinthine walls of that sequestering enclosure that the word ‘pornography’—abracadabra—could open and close.


At this point, it would seem we’ve exhausted the narrowest purpose of this essay: to settle the earliest occurrence in print English of ‘pornography,’ which the online third edition of the OED would also settle, but without raising the manifold issues of authority, validation, disciplinary knowledge, and its variances into the foreground. Thus, we might stop here, especially since the urge that wants to find an authority in ancient Greek for the word ‘pornography’ now seems largely empty pretence, if still less from any necessarily base or human viciousness, then more from the fact that the lone use of πορνογράφον allows that word to become an echo-chamber of projection for whatever the Euroamerican identity-quest wished and still wishes to find—one word, of course, amongst many such. The will to trace everything ultimately back to Greece remains a significant and compulsive part of Euroamerican culture and identity.

Moreover, whatever ‘pornography’ means for current Euroamerican discourse—whether “a commercial product in the form of fictional drama designed to elicit or enhance sexual arousal” (Mosher, 1988, p. 1) or some variety of de la Bretonne’s (1769) emphasis on prostitutes and prostitution—that discourse would seem to depend very little on any contested “original” meaning of the word.

Still, people sometimes do appreciate learning that someone has misled them, especially when it smacks of conspiracy. As the final piece of linguistic archaeology, then, it seems worthwhile to explore the Greek source that ultimately, however incorrectly, indirectly, or torturously, yields the argument of ‘pornography.’

Conventionally, the word πορνογράφον (“pornographers”) dates to circa the late-second century of the common era in book 13 of Athenæus’ festive Deipnosophistae, a text brimming with descriptions of Mediterranean life dedicated very often to food (Perseus Digital Library, 2014 [1854]), which in book 13 means also women for sale. The word appears nowhere else if we would trust one of the most, if not the most, extensive online collection of classical texts available, the Perseus Digital Library (2014 [1854]), which itself has the authority of a “truth of the period” in Leps’ (1992) sense; Herz (2005) and McClure (2003) also confirm the origin of the word in nowhere but Athenæus.

As an apparently only once-occurring word, this formally makes it an ἅπαξ λεγόμενον (“hápaks legómenon,” or “(something) said only once”). Herdan (1959) questions the validity of any such notion, since any count of a word’s occurrence in a work or an archive—whether once, fifteen times, or never—depends entirely on the range of texts both available and accessible for that search. We may see this warning in Hirsch’s (2006) ill-advised aspiration to establish some theoretically standard knowledge content for education that all students should know, when that quest ran afoul of the word-frequency count in an historical archive at Brown University, compiled in the 1950s; that archive yielded the result that US students ought to know the name Nikita Khrushchev more intimately than George Washington (Nelson & Kucera, 1982).[24] Disregarding Herdan’s (1959) long-standing caveat and the methodological perils that arise when analyzing hapax legomena, one nonetheless finds no shortage of research chewing on such words, very often in religious/exegetical contexts (Botha, 2012; Clark, 2014; Gold, 2011; Shapira, 2012). Why?

Hapax legomena in ancient texts are usually difficult to decipher, since it is easier to infer meaning from multiple contexts than from just one” (Hapax Legomenon, 2015). Thus, their absence of context also makes them susceptible to providing an echo-chamber for intellectual projection, as we’ve seen with ‘pornography’ above. Arguments that then depend consequentially on a given interpretation or best guess of a term become not simply tentative, but if any further work builds on that interpretation or best guess, then the flimsiness or hypothetical base upon which all of that subsequent argumentation rests disappears from view. As simply one example, since H. G. Liddell et al. (1848) have been offering—whether on Passow’s (1828) authority or their own—the unattested noun πορνογράφος as the singular form for Athenæus’ πορνογράφον at least since 1848, this supplies an authoritative ground subsequent researchers duly and grammatically correctly pluralising this unattested noun—e.g., πορνογράφοɩ in K. O. Müller (1830). This itself has lexicographical authority as well, since at least Schneider (1798) indicates πορνογράφοɩ as the plural for πορνογράφος. Consequently, we now we have two words that at most might possibly have occurred in ancient Greek that both serious scholars and casual dabblers will cite as the root meaning(s) of the word ‘pornography’.

Here again, I feel obliged to repeat: I do not dispute at all the conventionality of assuming the unattested masculine nominative singular πορνογράφος from the attested accusative singular πορνογράφον in Athenæus. But just because one follows proper procedure after the assumption of an incorrect premise does not yield tenable results, only logically consistent ones. Some notation about the spuriousness of the word πορνογράφος seems in order, even if that means as much for all of the other post hoc and hypothesized words. To whatever extent the “existence” of ‘pornography’—as an argument, not a thing (Kendrick, 1996)—depends on πορνογράφος, then clearly the assumed character of that word makes any such dependency shaky at best, not the least in the fact that virtually everyone referring to πορνογράφος has no knowledge of this shakiness. When Clarke (2003) claims, apparently incorrectly, that Müller “like any good academician … delved in his Greek dictionary and found a likely word, pornographein, meaning ‘to write about prostitutes’” (Clarke, 2003, p. 11), we might fancy this refers to Müller’s deployment of the (grammatically correct) plural πορνογράφοɩ. If so, we might call this a piece of dubious research on Clarke’s (2003) part, but it shows the dependency of his argument on a merely assumed part of Müller’s work.

He doesn’t fall prey to this alone, of course. Younger (2005) tells us plainly and with an unfortunate use of capitals, “Painters (PORNOGRAPHOI, Athenæus 13.567b) painted PROSTITUTES as goddesses” (p. 30). Whether these painters painted PROSTITUTES as goddesses or not, Athenæus refers to the painters in question as τοὺς ζωγράφους, i.e., as “zoögraphers” or those “who paint from life,” (“ζωγράφος”, 2014) and not to pornographers at all. Why Younger conflates or mistakes ζωγράφους for πορνογράφος may remain an open question.

This type of automatic, or casual, but nonetheless still dubious citation has all the force of a doxa, it seems—something that “goes without saying because it comes without saying” (Bourdieu, 1977, p. 168, emphasis in original). In any case, for Müller as a German who died in 1840, he would not have consulted the first Greek-English lexicon of 1843 for πορνογράφος, which work itself in any case already seems to grandfather in the various previous grandfatherings of the term πορνογράφος from Passow et al. (1828) and by extension then also works like Schneider (1798), Robertson (1676), Estienne (1572), and whatever variant editions of these or others everyone consulted along the way.

To say this points again to the methodological problem of the ἅπαξ λεγόμενον. Once some authority supplies a truth of the period and ostensibly establishes a term, all subsequent work proceeds from that point until error, error-checking, ideology of some sort, or a return to the sources all over again changes it. For disciplinary knowledge in general, then, the presence of context-dependency helps to serve as a check on echo-chamber projections of research, no matter how reasonable those projections might seem, i.e., πορνογράφος for πορνογράφον. If, for instance, only a single instance of the word ‘deer’ had ever occurred in English, “I shot the deer,” one cannot deny the accusative case of this, and we even have the ground for assuming—at least in current English—that ‘deer’ would supply the form the word would take if we used it in the nominative case. Without further context, which this example explicitly excludes, however, nothing gives us any justification yet for declaring this noun either singular or plural, and I obviously chose this example because the singular and plural forms of ‘deer’ look identical.

The very trivialness of this increases, rather diminishes, the importance of the point. Simply because very little of our general knowledge would undergo some revelation of sense from the discovery of evidence that ‘deer’ occurs only in the plural and that ‘deir’ actually represents the authentic singular form doesn’t argue for this point’s irrelevance, since this kind of threat or possibility could also come into play with words that would have wide-ranging consequences. Imagine were someone to establish unambiguously that agape supports a sexual meaning; whole edifices of Christian theology would fall apart. Or from ancient Greek, while the feminine noun ἑταίρα, which means “companion” first and “courtesan” second, carries an emphatic sexual connotation in Euroamerican scholarship about the word (partly because ancient Greek supplies one as well), the masculine form of the noun ἑταῖρος does not receive such emphasis in Euroamerican scholarship (and insists on arguing or denying that ancient Greek supplied one). These wide-ranging consequences would, foremost and principally, affect and effect arguments within classical scholarship that depend on changes to the assumed meanings; discovering some supposedly more “true” meaning of πορνογράφον would likely not much affect our current discourse around ‘pornography,’ but we really won’t know, unless we find something of that more “real” meaning. In fat, what changes would entail from learning that πορνογράφον refers to writing or painting of harlots, female and male?

All of this demonstrates how the ἅπαξ λεγόμενον—the once-occurring word in a corpus—provides a unique opportunity for grounding and building arguments that one could not otherwise make, provided that that original research makes every due obeisance and allowance for the tentative nature of the work—that kind of disingenuous wink candidly noted in, for instance, in the hocus-pocus of Zgusta (2006). Once that research gets taken up by the authority of a dictionary or something similar, then the tentative character of that work and word drops out of sight, and we may proceed confidently off the cliff, never knowing the ground has disappeared underneath. The history of the lacuna between πορνογράφον and ‘pornography’ illustrates displays this. Across this gap, Lundgren (2014)—citing other authorities—builds an apparently false bridge between πορνογράφος, as a Greek tradition of writing about harlots, that Boehringer (2014) disambiguates in both ἀναισχυντογράφος (“someone who writes of shameful things”) and an actual discourse by women—not “harlots”—in Greek literary tradition. Across this gap, Clarke (2003, 2013)—citing other authorities—also builds an apparently false bridge between πορνογράφος, as a German tradition of writing about painters and paintings, and the word ‘pornography’ in English, which Sternke (2012) refutes. We might call this simply the misstep of a student or someone not enough of, or not careful enough as, as specialist, except that across the same gap, K. O. Müller (1830) contributes to the disciplinary building of a false bridge between πορνογράφον and some hypothetical category of obscene art (or painting) in ancient Greece. And in fact, rather than tearing down this false bridge—which Müller certainly did not build alone—the later C. Müller and Müller (1849) add to it by supplying in their resource-book the allusion to Athenæus that Müller excludes at §139.

Nor does this somehow only involve people in the nineteenth century named Müller. Improbable as it seems to me, in an 1824 edition of Estienne’s (1572) Thesaurus Graecae Linguae published in London, the word πορνογράφος (and everything around it beginning with πορν) seems simply gone, omitted; a French edition—one can hear the quips here about the licentiousness of the French—from two decades later does not blush to include the word (Estienne & Hase, 1847, p. 1496)

It seems that Zgusta (2006) refers to these two editions: the former English edition “furnished more undigested material but had no particular value [while the latter French edition] is a valuable tool to this day” (Zgusta, 2006). Partly on this authority, then, but also partly because the wording of the passage in the French edition so closely matches Robertson’s (1676) “qui meretrices depingit vel describit; qui de meretricibus librum conscribit” (p. 856)—the apparent plagiarising of this phrase proceeds under the same title as Estienne’s work as well—I assume that this French edition of 1847 supplies us a faithful continuation or reprise of Estienne’s (1572) original, which I have yet to access personally; in the French edition, then, we can read:

Πορνογράφος, ὁ, Qui meretrices depingit, describit, de meretricibus librum conscribit, ὁ συγγεγραφώς περὶ τῶν ἑταιρίδων, Athen. 13, [p. 567, B], ubi etiam hoc compositio πορνογράφος utitur.

Here, where Estienne and Hase (1847) refer to Athen. 13, someone has offered a modification of the passage in Athenæus. Presumably for the sake of sense, the edit inserts a meaningful change into the original “πάντων τούτων συγγεγραφότων περὶ τῶν Ἀθήνησι Ἑταιρίδων” (Perseus Digital Library, 2014 [1887]). Specifically, note the change of text and capitalisation in τῶν ἑταιρίδων above compared to the original τῶν Ἀθήνησι Ἑταιρίδων.

We need to wade through all of this and what follows because to understand what the root πόρν- in πορνογράφον means requires distinguishing it from other forms of sexually active females or males, particularly the Athenian Hetaerai Athenæus invokes. However, while the point here turns on the career of the hypothetical word πορνογράφον in dictionaries in general, it also becomes mired in the problem of translation—or more specifically, those anachronistic bowdlerisations we find by generations of men in eighteenth and nineteenth century concerned with definitions of female sexuality. This, because if we must resort to those men’s translations in order to illustrate the issues at hand for the passage in Athenæus, then this begs or reproduces the problem itself. For instance, how should one refer to the term ἑταίρα (“hetaerai”) in English: as courtesan, prostitute, as something else still or left in the Greek original? Apologies in advance, then, if the following seems especially pedantic.

Simply because Lundgren (2014) refers specifically to ‘hetaerai’ and Boehringer (2014) throws light on an authorial discourse in ancient Greece written by respected and sexually active women, then for now let “Hetaerai” with a capital H serve as the word to describe such women.

In that light, we see that the modification to Athenæus supplied in Estienne and Hase (1847) replaces the phrase “of the Hetaerai of Athens” with the phrase “of the hetaerai.” In the original, not only the specific designation of the city of Athens but also the capitalisation of the word suggests the sort of specific and honoured character of these Athenian Hetaerai.. We see the same rhetorical effect in the difference between, “I met with the president today” and “I met with the President today.” Gulick (1927-1941) sidesteps this issue by construing the phrase in question as the title of an ancient, but no longer anywhere available Greek treatise.

In any case, the dictionaries acknowledge a distinction of ἑταίρα (the singular of ‘hetaerai’) as opposed to “πόρνη (a common prostitute)” (“ἑταίρα”, 2015). In France, where Bretonne’s (1769) book about prostitutes caught the public eye, a brimming tradition of sometimes extremely wealthy, powerful, and/or famous courtesans certainly supported or made socially obvious the distinction caught here in the Greek between ἑταίρα and πόρνη. In English, we might propose “courtesan” versus “hooker” but too much pejorative still sticks to “courtesan” in English to work as convincingly. Consequently, or in any case, Yonge (1854) translates this “Athenian Hetaerai” in Athenæus as “prostitutes of Athens,” and this simply and obviously puts across entirely not the right ring at all. To convert ἑταίρα (capitalised or not) into πόρνη simply will not do, except to exhibit a prejudice against sexually active women.

Nonetheless, Euroamerican usage tends to conflate ἑταίρα and πόρνη under ‘prostitute’ in a way that seems neither innocuous nor innocent; we may see precisely this in Reichenbach’s (1818) German-Greek pocket school-dictionary, where one may proceed from German to Greek rather than the usual other way around and look up the German “Hure”—though not ‘Pornographen’—to find both ἑταίρα and πόρνη offered as translations. One hardly needs to dwell much on the fact that eighteenth and nineteenth century Euroamerican culture spent vast amounts of energy insisting, pretending, and enforcing a non-existence of female sexuality (Ellis, 1989) to come up with a more compelling thesis than linguistic ambiguity in the original to explain this conflation. I would only add that the sense of the feminine noun ἑταίρα noted here as something like “courtesan” already denotes the second attested meaning of the word, its first being “companion.” And also that the frequency of the noun in feminine form seems outnumbered by the greater and more varied denotations and usages for the masculine form of the word ἑταῖρος, which also first and foremost means “companion”. It may have little bearing for the present context, but if one imagines the word “companion” in English meaning “comrade” when speaking of males and “courtesans” when speaking of females, then perhaps less disingenuous “reading” of these two usages would recognise either a sexual implication for the “comrades” of one’s male companions or a non-sexual, much less a non-pejorative, sense for the companion of one’s female “courtesans”. It seems plausible to suspect a will on the part of eighteenth and nineteenth century Occidental civilisation to obscure or deny the possibility of a sexual implication in ἑταῖρος; the often dogged insistence on the “Platonic” or “spiritual” character of “friendship” between two men being the most common case. Sometimes, of course, no amount of tortured argumentation can erase the homosexual implications.

For the present example, however, the Ἀθήνησι Ἑταιρίδων seem distinctly honoured female Hetaerai, whatever rôle(s) and gender(s) that might entail, and English translations have obscured this or both facts by using a decidedly pejorative ‘prostitute’ as the translation.

In another example with broader implications, H. Liddell et al. (2011) inform us that πορνογράφος means “writing of harlots”; something that would make Wornum’s (1842) matter-of-fact equation of “pornography” with “obscene painting” seem idiosyncratic, polemic, or simply wrong, except that not only does the whole of Müller’s discussion of πορνογράφοɩ make the same equation of obscenity and painters—and that on the authority of Athenæus who seems also to make the same point—but also, remarkably enough, so do H. G. Liddell et al. (1848) themselves, at least in 1848, when they defined πορνογράφος as “painting harlots” (p. 1225).

Whatever fashion or decision later prompted them to redefine πορνογράφος as “writing of harlots” remains unclear—likely changes in the market of some sort—but the change seems to have occurred with the 1889 edition (H. G. Liddell et al., 1889, p. 1256) and has stuck since. Nor does the point merely niggle, since changes like this create disciplinary consequences; one hardly imagines that Lundgren (2014), via Clarke (2003, 2013) or not, would link the earlier definition of ‘pornography’ as “painting harlots” to any tradition of writing about or by courtesans or prostitutes, whether high- or low-class—not even to that genre of ἀναισχυντογράφος Boehringer (2014) mentions—without the specific definition of πορνογράφος as “writing about prostitutes.”

One might continually come up against the doubt whether Athenæus really gives us the first occurrence of πορνογράφον. Words that appear in texts typically have prior usage in speech, but not always. Athenæus might have expressed prevailing usage here or he might have coined a term. In any case, if an occurrence does exist in some not typically attested Classical text or ha some usage in Athenæus’ time that we can no longer detect, this tidily illuminates a piece of secret cabinetry in itself. If we cannot discount entirely the idea of some lost occurrence of the word, neither can we discount entirely some occurrence of the word as “locked” up. For example, in part because it runs to over 1,700 pages, publishers have offered the Liddell-Scott Greek-English lexicon since its debut in variously abridged and semi-abridged forms, yet only in the full version of the dictionary—as also now the version online—does one find always find the word πορνογράφος. As we have seen with editions of Estienne’s (1824; 1847) Thesaurus, the word may disappear in London only to turn up later in France, like Oscar Wilde. Thus, in the same way that one had to have special qualifications to gain access to the ‘pornography’ housed within the National Archaeological Museum of Naples’ Secret Cabinet (Clarke, 2013), here a gatekeeping mechanism built around certain protected or interdicted knowledge-cum-vocabularies also required, at least prior to the advent of the Internet, a seeker to have the qualifications that permit gaining access to a full copy of the lexicon—whether by purchasing the more expensive full version, knowing someone who did, or obtaining access through some university library that possesses it.

Nonetheless, in Herz’s (2005) German dissertation, which I suspect anticipates or makes some of the points made in this essay—I could confirm that if I read German fluently—we see confidently stated,

Athenaios’ „Pornographen‟ sind das einzige erhaltene altgriechische Kompositum aus porne „Hure‟ und graphein „einritzen, zeichnen, schreiben‟. Die ubiquitär aufgestellte Behauptung, dass das Wort „Pornographie‟ aus dem Altgriechischen käme, ist schlichtweg falsch, wovon man sich durch einen einzigen Blick ins Wörterbuch überzeugen kann

[Athenæus’ [πορνογράφον] is the only surviving ancient Greek composite of porne “Hure” and graphein “carve, draw, write.” The ubiquitous assertion that the word “pornography” came from ancient Greek is simply wrong, as a moment’s glance in the dictionary may convince one] (p. 29, my translation).

In a footnote, Herz further directs us to Pape’s (1914) Griechisch-Deutsches Handwörterbuch, noting that in that student dictionary one finds no entry for the word. Acknowledging that an absence of evidence makes for no evidence of absence, it seems unsurprising that the German biopolitics of the day would elect to spare students the concept of ‘pornography’ however anciently attested or not. In any case, the term had certainly gone missing by the mid-nineteenth century (Pape, 1850, p. 324).[25] What we do find there bears mentioning.

If the authority of Zgusta (2006) suffices to assure us that consulting an earlier pressing of the third edition of Pape’s dictionary—”compiled to be used in school [and] reprinted into our day” (p. 268)—will confirm Herz’s claim that the 1914 edition omits πορνογράφος, then we may see that of the four words found where words beginning with πορν should occur—i.e., Πóρνα, Πορναπίδης, Πορνάχη, Πορνοπίων (reproduced below)—only two of those words (πóρνα, πορνοπίων), in this form at least, even occur in H. Liddell et al. (2011) at all. (Apologies for the blurriness.)


Pape et al. (1875, p. 1236).

Many details here would seem to benefit from more ferretting out, but the point most of all involves exhibiting the range of weirdness that the word ‘pornography’ generates in discourse and dictionaries. Here, it will have to suffice simply to say that if circumspection has already made itself manifestly apparent around the word πορνογράφος—sometimes literally around the word, as when an entire section of words in the vicinity of πορν goes missing (Estienne, 1824)—then we might expect this circumspection to increase in intensity where a student edition of a dictionary occurs. Because, although authorities by fiat excluded children from accessing the Secret Cabinet in Naples, this prohibition becomes more difficult not simply in the sheer publication of a book with the word in it but also in the face of having to educate whatever future elite males might in principal at least someday warrant permission to enter a Secret Cabinet, physical or otherwise. In other words, at some point, certain young men must or will prove themselves qualified to be let in on the secret, at least in part.

If Müller (1835) resorted simply to rattling off the barest of detail necessary in some of his references and leaving the rest, by intention or not, for someone else to fill in, as C. Müller and Th. Müller’s (1849) Fragmenta Historicum Graecorum does so well (p. 120), then we have in Pape’s example above an almost literal version of a museum display behind glass, a you can look but not touch construction that discloses almost nothing despite being on display. It recalls the fictional, sometimes utterly artificial, quality of museum dioramas, where one witnesses zoologically impossible confrontations between taxidermied or wholly fabricated creatures from mutually exclusive eras.

This may seem overstated, but for Pape’s student-dictionary above, it seems as if we have a case not of simply passing over in silence certain awkward material around πορν-, as in Estienne (1824), but rather a very deliberate heap of misinformation.

As the mildest case of this, we acknowledge that Pape’s dictionary includes an “onomasticon of proper names … [which, though] antiquated, … still is the most general compilation of names” (Zgusta, 2006, p. 268) available. This means we will find proper names, not just words, included in the dictionary. Nonetheless, to include the word Πóρνα (supposedly a name meaning “Buhle” or “paramour” or “lover”) while excluding from the dictionary the far more common form of the word πóρνη (“harlot, prostitute”) or its male version πóρνος (“catamite”) seems aimed by design to create a misleading impression.

With the word Πορναπίδης, however, we encounter a far more ridiculous case, since Pape offers the following farrago as a definition: “[perhaps] = Πορνοπίδης, also Heuschrecker, Tzetz. Ch. 13, 633” (Pape et al., 1875). Let me put this in a sort of English: “Pornapidis: perhaps Pornopidis, also ‘grasshopper’, Tzetz. Ch. 13, 633.”

While I cannot determine what page 633 in chapter 13 of any work by Joannes Tzetzes this might refer to, the only place one finds a word that resembles what Pape offers here come from the fictional work of Tzetzes, a twelfth-century CE Byzantine author and notably unreliable scholar; there, we find the name Προναπίδης (“Pronapides”)—note the reversed ρ and ο—that occurs several times but does not match either Pape’s dictionary entry “Πορναπίδης” (“Pornapides”) or his “perhaps” alternative “Πορνοπίδης” (“Pornopides”) (c.f., Stratonicensis, Tzetzes, & Hermann, 1812, pp. 14, 17; Tzetzes, Boissonade, & Psellus, 1851, p. 6, l.68). Meanwhile, how or why “also Heuschrecker” (“thus grasshopper” or perhaps “thus locust”) gets into the definition remains completely obscure.

Uncharitably, one might say Pape simply makes up a word, in lieu of supplying any real Greek word with a πορν- root in it, and then makes up a spurious alternative for it while pointing to an entirely irrelevant work of fiction from an irrelevant era, where the word in any case does not even actually occur. As scholarship, this seems well beyond bad, but as a locksmith test for potential future young male elites, it may function beautifully. Even without chasing down the details, a perspicacious student might not only note the discrepancies—after all, nowhere in a Greek dictionary does one find “grasshopper” or “locust” as πορναπίδης or anything like it—but might also feel led to ask a teacher about those anomalies. And if not female or working class, the student might then find the door to the secret cabinet pulled open slightly in his presence. And so forth. It seems implausible to imagine Pape having precisely this kind of mechanism in mind as a motivation for the bizarre substitutions he supplies for words in the vicinity of πορν-, but those substitutions nonetheless illustrate how errors around ‘pornography’ could serve at the time as positive and generative knowledge rather than mistakes that one had to expunge from the record.

However, if we may finally set aside no end of ancient editions of dictionaries to consider the originating text for πορνογράφον itself, the phrase in Greek from Athenæus, along with Yonge’s (1854) translation, runs:

οὐκ ἂν ἁμάρτοι δέ τίς σε καὶ πορνογράφον καλῶν, ὡς Ἀριστείδην καὶ Παυσίαν ἔτι τε Νικοφάνη τοὺς ζωγράφους

And a man will not be much out who calls you a πορνογράφος, just as they call Aristides and Pausanias and Nicophanes ζωγράφοι

A first thing to note in Yonge’s translation involves that he does not translate the Greek terms πορνογράφον and ζωγράφους—another classic example of a secret cabinet fixture—and also that he substitutes different Greek terms for the actual ones (presumably for the sake of English grammar). Hence, he swaps the accusative singular πορνογράφον for the nominative singular πορνογράφος, and also the plural accusative ζωγράφους for the well-attested plural ζωγράφοι. The curiousness of this merely involves how the Greek stop inflecting, even though it remains or appears to remain in Greek, when used in English. In other words, while we might say, “ζωγράφοι painted pictures,” we should then also say, “Pictures were painted by ζωγράφους,” though this only because we, for some reason, can’t bring ourselves to say, “Zoögraphers painted pictures” and “Pictures were painted by zoögraphers.” Small point that this likely involves, it still shows how even faithfulness in translation comes with an (ineradicable) portion of betrayal.

Assuredly, while any English-only reader of Yonge’s translation will meet a brick wall with this Greek just as surely as any English-only reader of the French in either Poe’s stories or Jameson’s (1974) Prison-House of Language will stop cold, still coyness on Yonge’s part here to not translate the words involves something other than a desire not to have to write something like “writers of harlots” for this passage. This whole section of Athenæus brims with courtesans, harlots, and prostitutes in Yonge’s translation, so the problem for him seems more technical than moral. In other words, in encountering hapax legómenon of πορνογράφον, he has to fall back on his own resources—or the Greek-English lexicon—to translate this word. As we see, he declined to do so.

Of course, one might imagine some prudishness or excess of prudence in this on Yonge’s part and simply consult a different English translation for the sake of a contrast, but realistically speaking, to obtain access to other versions of Athenæus’ text presents some interesting challenges. For instance, the Loeb Classical Library, online and otherwise, still controls access to the previous standard seven-volume edition by Gulick (1927-1941) as well as to the recently overhauled eight-volume edition by S. Douglas Olson (2010); the access fee online for this Library for individual users runs $195 for the first year and $65 thereafter—one gets access to the entire library for this fee of course—or one might simply purchase hard-copies of these multi-volume works: Olson’s costs $241.16 in the United States with shipping; Gulick’s varies according to whatever individuals charge for individual used volumes.

The discussion here involves the problem of obtaining access to Athenæus’ text, and the “pornographers” passage specifically. Thus, while it seems that Loeb has completely superseded Gulick’s version online with its new one so that the old edition has since become unavailable, Thayer (2015) has undertaken to reproduce it from scratch it. Unfortunately, the entire work has yet to become available, and the relevant portion of book 13 has yet to go public. As a partial resort, one may hope to find the passage quoted in someone else’s work (Gulick [Online], 1937; Herz, 2005, p. 29, note 57).[26] But if not, one either will most likely wind up acquiring something like the single-volume edition of Yonge available for $26 plus shipping (used or otherwise), if not simply consulting the freely available version of Yonge’s edition online at Perseus (Perseus Digital Library, 2014 [1854]).

The notable feature of all of this: if “most widely or readily available” equals “the standard edition,” then despite the updates by Gulick and Olson, we still have as the standard edition of Athenæus the one translated with all of its mid-nineteenth-century prejudices intact. Whatever market forces and other factors motivated the production of Gulick’s edition, at the very least it represented a re-embodiment of the text in more twentieth-century prejudices at the very least, and yet we can feel very certain that nearly ever casual reader of Athenæus these days will have read Yonge’s text. Assuredly, those more in the know will have read Gulick’s through the Classical library—and those even more in the know, will have read Olson’s—but the most readily available version remains Yonge’s.

Simply for the sake of comparing translations, it becomes challenging to find Gulick’s passage, so that we have something similar to what happens to disciplinary knowledge in the disjunction between the second and third editions of the OED’s citations for the first print occurrences of “pornographer” and “pornography”. Just as those partially in the know, and thus in a sense factually misinformed, assert Dunglison (1857) as the first English print occurrence of ‘pornography,” those partially in the know who reference English translations of Athenæus reflect whatever misinformation Yonge reflects.

As a concrete example of this, Yonge (1854) translated, “And a man will not be much out who calls you a πορνογράφος, just as they call Aristides and Pausanias and Nicophanes ζωγράφοι“ (emphasis added), whereas Gulick [Online] (1937) offers, “One would make no mistake in calling you a pornographer also, like the painters Aristeides and Pausias and again Nicophanes” (emphasis added). It bears on nothing here whether Yonge or Gulick got the Greek name Παυσίαν in Athenæus correct with Pausanias or Pausias—Yonge has it wrong—but simply that a divergence occurs at all. Thus, as with the mis-citation of Dunglison in the second edition OED, the general state of disciplinary knowledge about Athenæus’ text guarantees that most readers encountering it will come away with the (wrong) idea that Pausanias, whoever that might be, gives us one of the exemplary cases of a pornographer.

Slander to Pausanias or dodged bullet for the reputation of Pausias notwithstanding, Gulick at least does not shy away from translating the terms that Yonge left in the Greek. This may results simply from timing, since Leitch’s (1847) translation supplies “pornographers” in English for the first time, and Yonge might not have known of that text yet, whereas by Gulick’s era, the word would have had wider usage. Thus, I suspect Yonge failed to translate the term, less from prudishness and more because he simply could find or think of no adequate English word for πορνογράφον. He simply didn’t have the cultural license yet, as Gulick later did, to render the word—with the necessary grammatical adjustments—straight into English.

Gulick does offer—details of translation aside—one major change of sense in this passage compared to Yonge. In Athenæus, we see, “πάντων τούτων συγγεγραφότων περὶ τῶν Ἀθήνησι Ἑταιρίδων” (Perseus Digital Library, 2014 [1887])—note the capitalisation of τῶν Ἀθήνησι Ἑταιρίδων. Yonge (1854) translates this “who have all written about the prostitutes at Athens” (p. 907) and thus incorrectly conflates ἑταίρα and πόρνη as equivalent under the English word “prostitute”, while Gulick [Online] (1937) maintains this conflation but also turns the phrase into the title of a treatise, i.e., “all these have written treatises On the Prostitutes at Athens” (p. ¶23). This subtly shifts the “blame” for the conflation onto the author of the treatise, if she or he ever existed. In any case, if ἑταίρα and πόρνη were both in some sense “prostitutes” in Greece, we lose in English what distinguishes them when we allow the word “prostitute” to cover for both.

Disappointingly, Olson (2010) does not necessarily improve on this. Without any clear textual justification, he expands “πάντων τούτων συγγεγραφότων περὶ τῶν Ἀθήνησι Ἑταιρίδων” (Perseus Digital Library, 2014 [1887]) to “all of whom produced treatises on the subject of the prostitutes in Athens” (pp. 286-287, emphasis added). This seems like an attempt to find a mid-ground between Yonge’s blunt disregard of the capitalisation with “prostitutes of Athens” and Gulick’s attempt to transcribe the passage in italics as a title. Certainly, the record has nothing of The Prostitutes of Athens, and Olson can only remark in a footnote that much of what follows in Athenæus’ text likely originates in the actual treatises he names as texts about τῶν Ἀθήνησι Ἑταιρίδων. But Olson knows we have no such treatise as Gulick proposes, and so he drops the pretence of supplying a title and speaks instead of those who produced treatises on the subject of the prostitutes in Athens. In other words, we see a perfectly serviceable rendering of the phrase as “All of whom wrote about the Athenian Hetairai”.

As for the “pornographer” passage itself, Olson offers, “Nor would it be a mistake to refer to you as a pornographer, like the painters Aristides and Pausias, as well as Nicophanes” (p. 287). Certainly, this offers very little of anything new as a translation; as for Müller, the differences rather appear in the footnotes. For the standard triumvirate of pornographers, for instance, Olson (2010) informs us, hopefully in light of the most up-to-date disciplinary knowledge:

There were two painters named Aristides and both date to the mid- to late 4th century BCE; cf. Plin. Nat. 35.98-100, 108, 110. Pausias of Sicyon dates to the mid-4th century; cf. Paus. 2.27.4; Plin. Nat. 35.123–7. Nicophanes is otherwise unknown (p. 287, note 117).

Inasmuch as we have seen a will and a tendency to insist on ‘pornography’ in works from the existence of painters accused as “pornographers,” the ambiguities that Olson notes—which of the two Aristides pornographised, for instance, and what if Nicophanes never actually existed—undermine those tendencies to reify as pornographic a class of paintings these possibly unreal people never painted. This does not constitute anything like a new revelation; those “in the know” have long known this or certainly could have pieced it together from disparate an scattered fragments. If it seems striking now, then this comes only more from how plainly it shows the historically monumental solidity of the pornographers triumvirate as a rather desiccated quarter-truth at best. One might also return to Pliny to notice that whatever sense of obscenity our ears hear in “pornographer” finds very little, if no support, in his remarks on Pausias and Aristides (relevant to the “pornographer” Aristides or not).

Second, the footnote triggered by the word that Olson translates as “pornographer” has some interesting features. Of πορνογράφον, he notes this as “literally, ‘someone who produces pictures of whores (pornai)” (p. 287, note 116). Notwithstanding that these days, H. Liddell et al. (2011) assure us that πορνογράφος means “writing of harlots,” I assume that Olson gives us his best sense of what Athenæus might have meant by the coinage, so that in context πορνογράφον refers to painting only, and not to both writing and painting as it did or might.

The anomaly of this footnote, rather, comes in with his insistence that pornai means “whores” (and not “prostitutes” or “harlot” or any of the other terms variously used throughout the chronology of dictionaries to translate this term). The word “whore” seems excessively loaded with connotation; we might compare Glazebrook and Henry (2011), who translate pornai as referring to “the lowest class of women” (Glazebrook & Henry, 2011), i.e., common prostitutes, but without adding the note of moral judgment that ‘whore’ does, even as this term distinguishes these women from “reputable hetaira, [i.e.,] upper-class courtesans who entertained guests at drinking parties with music and dance, as well as sex” (Lundgren, 2014, p. 5). Mind you, I don’t pretend that lexicographers cannot or have never translated pornai as “whores”; rather, I wonder at Olson’s decision to use this word, in contrast to other translations.

Before we entertain the notion that perhaps Athenæus did mean “someone who produces pictures of whores” by πορνογράφον, I must first also note Olson’s seemingly loose use of the term “whores”. In the translation just noted, he unambiguously equates ‘pornai’ and ‘whores’. And in an earlier passage, where Athenæus supplies the witty remark—”not with your friends (ἑταίρων [hetairoi]), but with prostitutes (ἑταιρῶν [hetairai])” (Yonge, 1854, p. 907)—Olson (2010) insists there on translating ‘hetairai’ as ‘whores’ as well (p. 285). On the one hand, this seems simply to reprise that untenable Euroamerican conflation of ἑταίρα and πόρνη already noted, but in this instance we have an added level of textual detail, because—as opposed to a word in a dictionary or in some work that builds an argument on the word πορνογράφον—we must here confront the question of the specific or intended meaning of the word in its actual context. In others words, while the conflation here does indeed sound no different from the habitual Euroamerican reflex that identifies ἑταίρα as πόρνη and vice versa—whether under the term “whore” or “prostitute” or anything else that erases the distinction maintained by the Greek terminology—we may still ask if the speakers in Athenæus’ text intend this conflation. While we might find the conflation regrettable, narrow-minded, ignorant, poorly informed, or whatnot, we may still try to understand the text as it presents itself without blaming the translator for remaining faithful to that narrow-mindedness, ignorance, or what not.

This matters particularly for the discourse of ‘pornography’ since Athenæus’ text browbeats one of its speakers precisely as a πορνογράφον (“pornographer”), not something like an ἑταɩραγράφος (“heteraiographer”).

Although this threatens to get into depthless morass of trying to determine the intended meaning of Athenæus’ text—a problem that again echoes that change of emphasis from the crime of authorship to the crime of possession that the Obscene Publications Act in England deployed—in the present case of the Deipnosophistae we have some good help within the text itself. This, because for the passages in question where hetairoi/hetairai and πορνογράφον occur, the same speaker Cynulcus utters the words, and they occur, moreover, in a diatribe specifically intended to contrast ἑταίρα and πόρνη. In other words, the spokesperson Athenæus depicts does not conflate the terms, but expressly distinguishes them. From this alone, we may say that Olson’s translation of ‘hetairai’ as ‘whores’ and the ‘pornai’ of πορνογράφον as ‘whores’ does indeed do a disservice to the sense of this diatribe by collapsing the terms under a single English term, much less one as connotatively unpleasant as ‘whores’.

This does not mean that Athenæus, or the character he penned, must or even does rigorously, exactly, and never with any sloppiness precisely stick to a sharp distinction of ἑταίρα and πόρνη. Rhetorical elegance itself will often militate against an exact repetition of a word if some synonymous substitutions will seem more euphonious or at least offer some variation into the text—also, Athenæus does not seem the most exacting of writers; one of the more compendious, perhaps, but not necessarily philosophically rigorous in his use of terms.

Nonetheless, as the dominant note of the diatribe involves specifically contrasting ἑταίρα and πόρνη, we may take that as a significant clue that conflating the terms goes wide of Athenæus’ intention. We might imagine that Athenæus intends to mock the character of Cynulcus by making his usage inconsistent, but we would have to first convincingly make this case in order to justify translating ἑταίρα and πόρνη both as whore. We would have to determine the cases where Athenæus specifically intervenes into an otherwise non-ironic depiction of Cynulcus’ discourse in order to make the blurring of ἑταίρα and πόρνη textually valid. Notwithstanding the tremendous difficulties of doing so, this far removed from the original, the argument for this blurring remains dubious, given the truly gargantuan scale of Myrtilus’ reply to Cynulcus, which just as decisively accepts a sharp distinction between ἑταίρα and πόρνη in order to make his own case for ἑταίρα.

And, again, this matters crucially for the discourse of ‘pornography’ since Athenæus’ text supplies us with πορνογράφον (“pornographer”) and not something like ἑταɩραγράφος (“heteraiographer”).

Considering simply the text itself, we see Athenæus depicting a dispute between two interlocutors who accept a meaningful distinction between ἑταίρα and πόρνη, even as they disagree about the qualities involved in that distinction. Presiding over this debate, i.e., authoring it, we might wonder about Athenæus’ stake in it, and whether he also accepts the distinction in some sense or actually positions himself above or beyond it. For this further context:

Although the heyday of courtesans belonged to a specific literary and cultural matrix, classical Athens in the fourth century B.C.E., our fullest account paradoxically come from a much later period and context, fictional and scholarly work composed by Greek sophists living in the Roman Empire in the second century C.E. … Book 13 [of the Deipnosophistae] contains an extensive collection of quotations relating to ancient conceptions of women, gender, and sexuality. The section mentions, at least in passing and sometimes at great length, almost all of the major extant accounts of hetaeras from all periods of Greek literature. (McClure, 2003, pp. 1-2).

By the Second Sophistic period, the hetaera fashioned by multiple literary discourses is thus not a historical entity, but a cultural sign; she achieves the same cultural status as an art object of literary works. In her capacity as a fetish, the hetaera serves as the medium for the male subject’s projections … Greek courtesans, whether deployed as fictional characters, as in Alciphron or Lucian, or in Athenæus’ literary museum, engender narratives that in turn substitute a context of perpetual consumption for its context of origin (Stewart, S. 1993: 135). Dislocated from her original context, the hetaera in Athenæus serves as a metonymical construction, an object of substitution and a vehicle of nostalgia that both recalls the original loss and yet simultaneously distances the subject from that for which it longs (McClure, 2003, pp. 5-6).

As such, Athenæus as both a person and a text, a “literary museum,” already embodies a secret cabinet—not so much a historical entity, but a cultural sign with the status of an art object, subject to male Euroamerican projections, an object of substitution and a vehicle of nostalgia (i.e., the Euroamerican “origins” in Greece), dislocated from its original context both culturally (as appropriated by later Occidental culture) but at the time as well, as a Greek sophist living within the Roman empire some six centuries after the fact.

In this light, we may rightly suspect as ahistorical the distinction between ἑταίρα and πόρνη as Athenæus constructs it— “a vehicle of nostalgia that both recalls the original loss and yet simultaneously distances the subject from that for which it longs”—but this does not negate or erase that he makes a distinction. This colours the intention of his discourse, then, but does not supply any new or good reason to conflate the terms. Thus, despite that I have made up a term ἑταɩραγράφος (“heteraiographer”)—and probably misspelled it into the bargain—we may still properly speak of a distinction that Athenæus might have made between it and a πορνογράφον (“pornographer”), noting as well that he did not have Cynulcus utter the former term. To understand what Cynulcus means by a πορνογράφον, then, we must grapple with his diatribe. McClure (2003) helps immensely with this.

“Although Cynulcus [the philosopher] accuses Myrtilus [the grammarian] of being a pornographos, the philosopher actually constructs the most visual tableau of brothel whores in the book with his invective against high-priced courtesans” (McClure, 2003, p. 110).

According to Cynulcus, the extent to which a prostitute’s body could be seen depended on whether she worked the streets or stood before the brothel door; at least, this distinction forms the heart of his discourse against high-paid courtesans [hetaeras] and his encomium of the porne (McClure, 2003, p. 110).

McClure (2003) characterises Cynulcus as “excoriating hetaeras and praising whores” (p. 111).[27] “The open nakedness of brothel prostitutes not only advertises their availability, it also signifies, for Cynulcus at least, a lack of deception normally associated with hetaeras” (McClure, 2003, p. 113); or again, “central to Cynulcus’ discourse is the equation of the brothel worker with truth and the hetaera with deception” (McClure, 2003, p. 113). The bluntness of a pornographic magazine like Hustler compared to the pretence to respectable culture that Playboy and even Penthouse continues to encode this kind of distinction, as even the titles of the magazines suggest.

Throughout his invective, Cynulcus links high-priced courtesans with scholarly sophistication, indeed with Attic [education] and lexicographical exegesis; by de-glamorizing Attic hetaeras, the philosopher in effect exposes the educated discourse of his interlocutor [the pornográphos] as morally and intellectually bankrupt (McClure, 2003, p. 48).

Whatever else we might draw out of this Athenæus, surprise would seem in order after discovering that Cynulcus uses the favourable part of his distinction, pornai, to construct the word he seems to abuse Myrtilus with. If we ought to expect deception and a lack of truth from a hetaerographer, a pornographer at least would not indulge in such morally and intellectually bankrupt shenanigans.

In Athenæus’ text, he gives Myrtilus an obscenely lengthy reply, which textually suggests more sympathy on Athenæus’ part for Myrtilus’ point of view, if only because he too as an author also has assembled a vast and gigantic heap of material, much of it about food. Cynulcus’ objection to Myrtilus, however, less has to do with presenting mere lists and catalogues of material, engaging in pointless displays of erudition and knowledge, or even logically baseless rhetoric, but that the subject matter Myrtilus has learned so well—in this case, about ἑταίρα—itself has little merit. Thus, not only does Myrtilus, as the target of the term pornográphos, have “low class origins” (McClure, 2003, p. 49), so does his knowledge.

In Cynulcus’ view, Myrtilus’ knowledge originates in the rankest sector of the city, in the taverns and public houses, venues associated only with the lowest social class, since “not even a slave would dare to eat or drink in a tavern” (566f). For this reason, the grammarian is concerned with low (bömolocheuesthai) rather than high (semnunesthai) literary genres. Playing on the semantic ambiguities of the term hetaera in the genitive plural case … Cynulcus draws a connection between moral and intellectual depravity. Myrtilus not only consorts with hetaeras and their madams, but even studies them by reading courtesan treatises and viewing erotic paintings by painters such as Pausias, Aristides, and Nicophanes. These activities earn him the title pornográphos (567b), the first use of this word in ancient Greek (McClure, 2003, p. 49)

Cynulcus complains that while Myrtilus can rattle off a vast range of information about ἑταίρα, he nonetheless knows nothing of more elevated subjects. Thus, while Athenæus provides textual elements that identify Myrtilus with the comic buffoon of Greek literary tradition, he gets linked also with those “Alexandrian lexicographers who developed prosopographies [imaginary or reconstructed biographies] of famous Athenian courtesans … The main activity of Myrtilus consists of glossing the names of hetaeras … his speech is repeatedly characterized as a catalogue” (McClure, 2003, p. 50). Cynulcus, showing off his own contrasting knowledge base with citations, browbeats Myrtilus:

‘πουλυμαθημοσύνης, τῆς οὐ κενεώτερον οὐδέν,’ Ἵππων ἔφη ὁ ἄθεος ἀλλὰ καὶ Ἡράκλειτος ὁ θεῖός φησι: ‘πουλυμαθίη νόον ἔχειν οὐ διδάσκει.’ καὶ ὁ Τίμων δὲ ἔφη: ἐν δὲ πλατυσμὸς πουλυμαθημοσύνης, τῆς οὐ κενεώτερον ἄλλο. τί γὰρ ὄφελος τῶν τοσούτων ὀνομάτων, ὦ γραμματικέ, πάντων ἐπιτρῖψαι μᾶλλον ἢ σωφρονίσαι δυναμένων τοὺς ἀκούοντας

“Erudition—there is nothing more empty than this,” said Hippon the atheist. But even the godlike Heracleitus says, “Erudition does not teach common sense.” And Timon also said, “There is nothing more empty than boasting of erudition.” For what use of all these names, you grammarian, more to wear down rather than to make moderate your listeners?[28]

It may remain difficult, if not impossible, to determine exactly to what extent Athenæus identifies or distances himself from Myrtilus as this kind of compendium-supplying scholar, given that the final jab by Cynulcus centres on social class: Myrtilus, as someone not born to an elevated station in life, apparently can only possess, or has only managed to come into possession of, non-elevated knowledge. Nonetheless, Cynulcus’ unfavourable comparison of high-class ἑταίρα to not-high-class πόρνη keeps the exact quality of insult intended by his epithet pornographos uncertain. On the one hand, it seems to capture that sort of laughing abuse-praise like best liar that M. M. Bakhtin (1984) identifies as so essential in Rabelais. And if so, it makes the Occidental habit of taking “pornographer” in an exclusively pejorative and scurrilous sense itself scurrilous.

On the other hand, Cynulcus may have to resort to pornographos simply to remain consistent with his characterisation of Myrtilus as lower class—or, more precisely, that favoured conceit of the discourse of Power that maintains everything not elevated links with everything lower class. While he may admire the greater forthrightness or lack of deception encountered amongst pornai, they too remain a feature of the lower classes of society. In general, when offering a critique or griping, one may proceed by directly condemning the thing itself or one may imply a critique by making an unfavourable comparison with something else. If a part of the post-Enlightenment discourse of Euroamerican cultures might prise the merits of nature outright as distinct from the artificiality of Civilisation, one may also impute a barbarousness to Civilisation that Nature shows itself a more gentle exponent of. The thrust of argument in Cynulcus—or Athenæus—then asserts a greater moral bankruptcy from the duplicity of ἑταίρα by highlighting the honesty of pornai; while society may denounce pornai as “whores,” the hetairai rather—the argument runs—embody the “real” whores. Similarly, then, society will denounce those (like Larry Flynt) who produce obscene material condemned explicitly as pornographic while at the same time praising others who write obscenely about such material, and thus show us the face our “real” pornographers.

However, as “the hetaera fashioned by multiple literary discourses is thus not a historical entity, but a cultural sign” (McClure, 2003, p. 5), then so also the pornai, so that it remains ambiguous why Athenæus resorted to the term πορνογράφον rather than an alternative. In a most banal guess, we may still imagine some prior occurrence, but this would only explain why Athenæus chose the word without necessarily illuminating his intended sense. A more educated guess might seek to cull his work for a sense of how and when and why he coins terms; this supplies an opportunity for future work by someone else, if anyone would find value in it. At present, perhaps only the immediate context of the word gives us our best to work from.

Sticking with Olson’s translation, just to keep up-to-date, we will have little to work with, “Nor would it be a mistake to refer to you as a pornographer, like the painters Aristides and Pausias, as well as Nicophanes.” What we might immediately notice comes out in noticing that the simile runs in the wrong direction here; a point I’ve so far found no one remarking upon. In other words, Myrtilus constitutes a pornographer, like Aristides, Pausias, and Nicophanes, the zoögraphers. One cannot reverse similes; if my love simulates a red, red rose, not all red, red roses simulate my love. Rather, Aristides, Pausias, and Nicophanes seem assimilated to the category of “pornographer” (whatever that might mean), rather than giving us examples in order to define “pornographer”. One might hear an acknowledgment in this in the “also” that Gulick [Online] (1937) includes, “One would make no mistake in calling you a pornographer also” (, ¶23).

Duplicitously—or perhaps because our species seeks out patterns—we then try to infer the characteristics of a pornographer from the scant or contradictory data about these painters, which qualities bear no rehearsal in this context, but this only classically begs the question. If Euroamerican usage has long illegitimately insisted on ‘pornography’ from some category of “pornographer,” now we see a further contradiction even in the attempt to form the category pornographer.

One link, however, hinges on that issue Cynulcus makes such a fuss about: deception. Whatever else one may say about Aristides, Pausias, and Nicophanes—celebrated, scurrilous, or both—Athenæus refers to them with the widely attested and no-wise pejorative term zoögrapher, one who “paints from life”; a notion so deeply ingrained in the word that it suffices to refer to painting generally, and thus belies an implied value in painting, i.e., that truthful painting shows life in its actuality, just as the pornai of Cynulcus with their nudity show you just what they offer. In this respect, Cynulcus’ criticism of make-up specifically, though not ornamentation, further illuminates at least the background of the word zoögraphers when he and Athenæus use it.

Certainly, of the painters mentioned, Athenæus immediately adds, “And Polemo mentions them, as painting the subjects which they did paint exceedingly well, in his treatise on the Pictures at Sicyon.” In other words, and as also evident in K. O. Müller (1830), no one particularly denies the talent of these painters, which in Greek terms at least implies their fidelity to life; rather, while the nineteenth century finds fault with these talented painters for producing work “which ministered to a low sensuality” (K. O. Müller, 1847, p. 121; 1852, p. 138), it remains less clear if that parallel that Athenæus or Cynulcus constructs by argumentatively linking pornographer with zoögrapher would or should therefore construe a pornographer as someone who, perhaps talented, nevertheless unfortunately writes from life, but not about sufficiently elevated subject matter.

While this seems to link up with the construction of Cynulcus’ argument above, this nonetheless already has the simile going in the wrong direction again. If Cynulcus’ point turns on showing high culture as scurrilous by construing it as morally inferior to low culture, then referring to celebrated painters makes hash of his comparison. It seems as if mere celebrity suffices to place Aristides, Pausias, and Nicophanes into the category of dubious, so that they may provide the evidence for or the qualities of pornographers, but then it becomes merely logically incoherent to cite any celebrity in favour of one’s case, as Cynulcus does.

In part, we may see behind this the gesture or argument of ‘pornography’ itself. If Cynulcus can invent the category of pornographer simply from his own recognition of whatever qualities that strike him as obscene or warranting the designation, then we must remember that the argument of pornography also serves to hold harmless other protected objects as well, by placing “blame” for seeing obscenity on the observer, not the object. So, if Cynulcus knows the celebrities and celebrated painters Aristides, Pausias, and Nicophanes as pornographers when he sees them, then he similarly knows that only someone with the kind of defective sense that Welcker invokes about rhyparography could accuse the celebrities and celebrated personages of Hippon the atheist, the godlike Heracleitus, and Timon also as pornographers. In a sweet piece of seemingly unintentional irony, then, he caps this list of celebrities by saying, “For what use of all these names, you grammarian, more to wear down rather than to make moderate your listeners?”

Again, then, while Athenæus supplies no ground for the word ‘pornography’ at all, rather like Müller’s secret cabinet, which exhibited to English an instance for how to handle ‘pornography’, the passage at least exhibits an example of the argument of ‘pornography.’ Doubtless, the kind of argument ‘pornography’ embodies—the “I know it when I see it, and that is, or is not, it” kind of gesture that serves as the warrant for the sequestering of “obscene” objects and people—pre-existed Athenæus use, but his coinage self-reflexively makes visible that argument under the name πορνογράφον, perhaps in print for the first time. Or if not in the case of Athenæus himself, then his passage has supplied a pretext for naming such an “argument” in those terms for Euroamerican disciplinary discourse.

We may rather blithely say, then, that just as πορνογράφον provides no ground whatsoever for ‘pornography,’ on its own internal merits (or lack of them), it cannot provide any ground even for what πορνογράφον would mean for Athenæus. Having already recognised morally dubious persons in Aristides, Pausias, and Nicophanes (one whatever grounds or not), this then supplies him the license, imaginary or not, for conflating Myrtilus into their camp as a pornographer as well. In this light, I would point out that the scant and questionable historical value of any painterly qualities in Aristides, Pausias, an Nicophanes makes this projection and conflation easier. Like a ἅπαξ λεγόμενον, whose lack of context makes less plausible or logical definitions arguable (true or not)—or also as in a court of law, where prosecutors may more readily get convictions amongst those with poorer legal representation with less, rather than more, evidence in a case—for Athenæus or Cynulcus to make his case, too much actual, historical, contextual detail about these painters would have made the “I know a pornographer when I see it” gesture more difficult, if not untenable. The single occurrence of πορνογράφον similarly aids those empowered to assert the truth of a period. At root, a word like πορνογράφον hides the fiat of Power behind an ostensible claim for some rationale, just as the jury that convicts a young black male of murder on scant evidence permits them to justify their implicit racism via the dog-and-pony show of a supposedly judicious judicial procedure.

The sleight-of-hand we may see at work in this argument of ‘pornography’ notwithstanding, it need not have seemed apparent to Cynulcus or Athenæus. I think this comes out most of all in how Euroamerican discourse has permitted itself to take the simile backwards and read the supposedly “obscene” qualities of Aristides, Pausias, Nicophanes, Chærephanes, &c., as a ground for locating the root of word ‘pornography’ in a Greek source, In other words, Athenæus would have had to read more like, “You, Myrtilus, are a [coinage], like those pornographers Aristides, Pausias, and Nicophanes” and not, “You, Myrtilus, are a pornographer, like those zoögraphers Aristides, Pausias, and Nicophanes.” But even in Athenæus itself, there seems some slippery terminology.

While πορνογράφος has, from the beginning of Euroamerican attention to it, included writing and/or painting in its sense of kinds of obscene depiction, the context of the passage here leans more towards writing or a writer. The text links Myrtilus to writers, not only in his choice of material—he goes about with various treatises on ἑταίρα just as he disports with ἑταίρα generally—but also contextually by the immediate references to various treatises that Athenæus or Cynulcus list. This non-parallel ambiguity, which explicitly but obscurely links practices of writing (in Myrtilus and other authors) with practices of painting (in the zoögraphers), remained faithfully reflected in lexicographic tradition up until the Greek-English lexicon disambiguated the word, first in terms of painting and later in terms of writing up to the present.

On one hand, this helps to explicitly confirm again the notion that the sense and use of ‘pornography’ has little to do with any media, but rather embodies a (social) medium, i.e., an argument. Moreover, since an “I know it when I see it argument” more or less by definition precludes any notion of reflective observation in advance of the knowing, it may turn out that fiats of this sort always involve a kind of invisibility for the one asserting it—hence neither Cynulcus nor Athenæus (or nineteenth-century Euroamerican discourse) engage in any irony whatsoever, respectively, by citing celebrated authorities to denounce Myrtilus’ citation of celebrated authorities, or by construing certain zoögraphers qualitatively as members of a class that does not exist.

All the same, if Athenæus didn’t simply hit upon this theme by more or less random chance, then we may still try to see how πορνογράφον would emerge in this form—or more precisely, how a diatribe on the distinction between ἑταίρα and πόρνη could compel Athenæus or the language to coin a new term. Significantly, one would think, although Athenæus πορνογράφον—once again, etymologised conventionally from πόρνη, i.e., “harlot, prostitute,” and γράφος, i.e., “scratch, graze” hence also “paint” and “write,” (“γράφω”, 2014; “πόρνη”, 2014)—no form of the term πόρνη occurs in the immediate passage, but only varieties of ἑταίρα. Moreover, inasmuch as πόρνη may further link to:

“prostitute,” originally “bought, purchased” (with an original notion, probably of “female slave sold for prostitution”), related to pernanai “to sell,” from PIE root *per- (5) “to traffic in, to sell” (see price (n.) (Online Etymology Dictionary, 2015)

πόρν-η, ἡ, harlot, prostitute, Archil.142, Ar.Ach.527, etc. (Prob. from πέρνημι, because Greek prostitutes were commonly bought slaves.) (“πόρνη”, 2015)

then πορνογράφον may also imply not (voluntary) prostitutes or painters or writers but (purchased) slaves to do that work. That Robertson (1676) proposes both πόρνη and πóρνος, i.e., “catamite” or “sodomite” (“πόρνος”, 2014) does not contradict this possibility, and may also point to a dim background in the argument between Cynulcus and Myrtilus, since the exposition by Myrtilus that Cynulcus breaks into abruptly consists of a broadside against philosophers like Cynulcus who take males as lovers.

Meanwhile, the “real” scandal of the pornographer turns on the fact of doing it for money, as the still current scorn in English for those who “prostitute themselves” or “whore themselves out” attests—or, even more precisely still (and echoing Cynulcus’ assertion): we see the worst of the worst in those who do it for the money but try to hide that fact with some other more ennobling motivation. If on the one hand the shameless ones make no secret of their financial motivation, then this reflects the candour of the pornai that Cynulcus praises, while on the other he lambastes that greater bulk of proper society that pretends they do their work for the love of it, make art for art’s sake, do social work out of a philanthropic impulse, and so forth. One might imagine Cynulcus even less disapproving of those who simply heartlessly follow their self-interest than those who pursue money while claiming loftier aims. Motivated by merely base coin, and like Myrtilus whose scholarship similarly ambits in low material, those who do work in the social world merely for the low aim of money thereby exhibit themselves as worthy of the term pornographer.

As such, if Athenæus resorts to pornographer rather than hetaerographer or something similar, he may have to for the same reason that English supplies no high-brow version of the insult for those who sell themselves. The ugly class-conceit of this notwithstanding, English simply borrows the “lower-class” terms “whore” and “prostitute” for its invective directed against the “whores” and “prostitutes” (mostly male) of Wall Street, the art world, or higher culture generally. And since the terms “whore” and “prostitute” carry at this point an overwhelmingly female connotation, while at the same time obscuring those other realties around sex trade between males, we see how the general disappearance of πóρνος from the etymology of ‘pornography’ reflects this hidden reality as well, but and further allows a misogynist slur against the male “whores” and “prostitutes” of higher culture.

As with all secret cabinets, these obscured realities do not disappear entirely, but merely remain hidden from sight—tucked away in the prison, the asylum, the private collection, the dictionary, &c—although anyone “in the know” can discern them. Thus, the misogynist insult of ‘pornography’ discloses the reality of homosexual prostitution, but only if one knows how to navigate through its secret cabinet deftly enough. Having this knowledge involves indirectly and seemingly gratuitously digressing back through the supposed roots of “pornographer” by way Robertson’s (1676) etymology, in the same way that understanding Müller’s (1852) in full involves also a seemingly unnecessary and gratuitous digression through C. Müller and Müller (1849).

It would as yet claim too much to insist that the exchange between Cynulcus and Myrtilus depends or hinges sexual politics, initiated by Myrtilus with a homosexual slur slung at Cynulcus, and the philosopher’s consequent rejoinder of desiccated decadence on the grammarian’s part for consorting with ἑταίρα. Nonetheless, the issue seems perhaps more heated than elsewhere in the text, and Myrtilus begins his reply to Cynulcus’ tirade in a telling way:

Although Cynulcus desired to say a great deal more, and Ulpian wanted to rebuke him in vindication of Myrtilus, the latter anticipated him (for he thoroughly hated the Syrian) and said, quoting Callimachus: “Our hopes have not sunk so far in wretchedness that we should summon help from our enemies.” Are we not, in fact, able to defend ourselves alone, Cynulcus? “How stupid you are, and boorish, and given to foul language; ah! you carry your tongue on the left side of your mouth,” as Ephippus says in Philyra. It seems to me that you are one of those “whom the Muses have taught left-handed letters,” as one of the parodists has said. (Gulick [Online], 1937, ¶28).

Both Gulick and Yonge assure us that Myrtilus “hated the Syrian [Cynulcus],” and the grammarian uses the metaphor of an ‘enemy’ to speak of him; Cynulcus, in his final piece of advice, has referred to Myrtilus as a “friend.” This creates a dramatic irony—since only the reader gets told in a parenthetical remark that Myrtilus hates Cynulcus—and we must watch Cynulcus go on, labouring under an illusion of friendship. We might hazard he meant an irony in his use of the word friend, but in general his address, if cranky, seems less ironic than Myrtilus’ and certainly not as pointedly nasty as the way that the grammarian goes after the philosopher. Having opened with much indignation and ad hominem, Myrtilus then—clutching his pearls—specifically defends both his sexual choices and his discourse on love and beauty as above reproach.

I have not discussed courtesans after the manner of Metagenes’ Breezes, or The Blockhead of Aristagoras: “I told you first of beautiful dancing prostitutes, and now I do not speak to you of flute-girls just beginning to be ripe, who have very quickly, and for a price, undermined the strength of sailors aboard the freighters;” no, I have spoken of the real “companions,” that is, those who are capable of preserving strictly a friendship without trickery, and whom Cynulcus insolently reviles, although they are the only women in all the world who are addressed by the title of “friendly” (Gulick [Online], 1937, ¶28).

Whether the discussion here has become more heated than usual for The Learned Banqueters, the fact of sexual preference and politics bracketing this portion of the book supplies an appropriate sub-text for the term ‘pornography’ in general—however illegitimately derived by way of πορνογράφον or not. In general, ancient Greek discourse has historically supplied Euroamerican discourse with the secret cabinet where a sexual preference for males over females could find public expression unhindered by the confusions and profusions of rather diffuse terminology around sodomy, buggery, bestiality, and the like (Bray, 1982).

The class element involved here—that only the elite officially had access to these expressions—plays an integral a part. For while same-sex sexual behaviour, to say nothing of all manner of other officially interdicted forms of sex, can happen everywhere and at all times among any class of folk, numerous cultural constraints typically work to make such expressions something that only the elite can readily afford; just as abortion has always been legal, i.e., obtainable, for those sufficiently in the know. Thus, we may recall again how “one author described the Society for the Suppression of Vice [in England] as ‘a society for suppressing the vices of persons whose income did not exceed £500 a year’” (McGrath, 2002, p. 60). Moreover, whatever cultural status might prevail between the analogues of high-class ἑταίρα and not-high-class πόρνη in post-Enlightenment Euroamerican cultures, this focus on the “producer” of prostitution puts in shadow its higher- and lower-class “consumers.” That ‘pornography’ affects this misdirection seems simply one more expression of its crucial function and usefulness for masculinised Power.

As such, perhaps Cynulcus’ most serious offense, and the one that earns him the hatred of Myrtilus and the knee-jerk desire by Ulpian to leap in on Myrtilus’ behalf to defend him, involves exposing this license of Power.


Having finally returned with something like loot from our adventure into the secret cabinet of ‘pornography’—intact but having supplied plenty of hearty laughter along the way for all of the traps sprung as errors made—three most striking facts from this linguistic temple raiding expedition remain: (1) the groundlessness of any claim to locate the origin of the word ‘pornography’ in the actual Greek language itself; (2) that Athenæus’ text provides and exhibits less a cogent basis for πορνογράφον and more an example of the argument of ‘pornography’ itself; and (3) that ‘pornography’ has anything to do with—ever had anything to do with—people offering sex for money. Point (1) discloses ‘pornography’ as an archaeological hoax or forgery outright; point (2) illustrates that pretext for disciplinary gestures that, on the one hand, will either recognise and condemn an object or person as obscene in order to sequester and preserve that person or object, or that will, on the other hand, condemn as obscene a person’s recognising in order to protect a given object or person from sequestration; while point (3) exhibits that opaqueness, misdirection, and allusiveness that get built into the secret cabinets of ‘pornography’ as a necessary or taken-as-necessary part of handling such socially charged or problematic people and objects.

Thus, one key way the word ‘pornography’ attempts this involves its misdirection our attention away from its commercial aspect to focus instead on its sexuality or morality, in part because morality and sexuality—or sexuality at least—can so viscerally and immediately capture people’s attentions, positively or negatively.

The generally “behind closed doors” aspect of sexuality, and its roots within the secret cabinets of our heads, readily makes it a likely or apt force for distracting us from what ‘pornography’ also conceals behind the doors of its secret cabinet: the “buying” signalled in the root of πορν- in ‘pornography’. At the same time, sociability in general requires to some degree a publicity for its secrets. Or, more precisely: for something not intended as an absolute secret—the Hell’s Angel joke runs that three people can keep a secret, if two of them are dead—its deployment in public requires, as we saw in Müller, various gestures, tropes, and means for carrying on in public without those not in the know recognising it as such. The middle-class decorum and preciousness around sexuality—e.g., in things like it’s not that good girls don’t do it; it’s that good girls don’t talk about it, &c—makes sexuality an excellent cover for the commerce of ‘pornography’. If Cynulcus committed an offense by throwing open the secret cabinet’s doors, subsequent articulations by Power have built up an elaborate architecture and repertoire for making ‘pornography’ itself simply one of the most open secrets of all.

Let us not mistake “money” for commerce, however. “Money” distracts us from Power. The religion and deity of money—the Almighty dollar—has so permeated our discourse at this point that high and low alike enthusiastically use it as hermeneutic to analyse the entirety of human existence and culture, as if the means to an end can suffice as an explanatory end itself. Thus, within the argument of ‘pornography’ we mistake the fact of money changing hands for the root of the transaction, when in actuality we should locate the root not even in eros per se, but attachment to that desire. In other words, we come to mistake the need met by the means of money as the need itself.

Not that a historically materialist analysis will always or automatically miss this; I would understand as authentic only any such analysis that did not, e.g., a return to that root of political economy that reckons with how we all live rather than only or merely the means by which that such living happens. An economic analysis of ‘pornography’ discloses a great deal, yes, and since the Internet has so thoroughly externalised the operating costs of ‘pornography’ for users, it becomes more than naïve, albeit eminently convenient, to stop there in the analysis of a political economy and thus its Power. More bluntly, following the money can never analyse our way out of the status quo, since it not only reifies means as ends but also fails for that reason to recognise any alternatives for those means.

If we understand the social, not merely economic, aspect of ‘pornography’ as it relates to the commercial exchange of sex, this throws further light on its secret cabinet. To repeat, to reduce ‘pornography’ only to “prostitutes” as de La Bretonne (1769) does, this does not merely remove half of the equation but erases the realised actuality of the event itself. It makes invisible, for instance, the two preliminary exchanges—the come-on, and the handing over of the cash—that make the third exchange of fluids ever come about.

With the come-on, this may originate from either the producer or the consumer. She or he may solicit passers-by via the charms of temptation or he (or she) may with malice-aforethought have already ventured down to the red-light district, the street corner, or the upscale brothel to stick a hand out with money in it. And however this starts getting off the ground, the translation of cash from one hand to the next that follows signals the close of the deal and the opening of the legs or mouth or opportunity.

I say translation because this seems an essential, if unremarked upon, aspect of ‘pornography’ and its secret cabinetry in general. The future king of Naples may have known it when he saw it, but this alone could not sequester the pieces condemned as obscene; someone—almost certainly not the future king—had to translate those pieces into the secret cabinet itself, just as he had to translate the pieces as obscene in the first place. But someone has to do that moving, that translation. Similarly, when the judge sentences the criminal, when the psychiatrist diagnoses the patient, when the vice principal labels the troublemaker, when the church authority denounces the heretic, when the social order brands the non-conformist—this gesture of Power requires the backing of violence in order to then translate the ones pronounced upon to their places of sequestration and preservation.

For an archaeologist like Müller, this sentencing takes literal form as a book, but the translations of that book into English even more strongly show translation at work, as further objects get moved into the interior of the secret cabinet he built. Under the guise of translation, moreover, πορνογράφον gets moved into English as pornographer, for all the world seemingly unchanged except for its script and still apparently genealogically Greek—even when we ignore the duplicity of inventing a nominative singular form for it in the dictionaries. Or again, the coinage in Athenæus exhibits a translation of his own “prurient” looking that knew ‘pornography’ in Aristides and Pausias, and also Nicophanes when he saw it. It doesn’t matter if he leaned on the authority of his forebears—perhaps Pliny most of all—to arrive at that conclusion; his own looking and recognising moved him to translate that recognition into the previously non-word πορνογράφον.

One simply cannot afford to lose sight of what this involves. One view will take a sort of scientifically taxonomic view of the matter; that Athenæus—whether of his own accord or simply as a recorder or an incidental spokesperson of the discourse of his day—looked out into the world and found a phenomenon that he then labelled πορνογράφον. This taxonomic view would insist that anyone with sufficient observational skills would have noted the phenomenon as well, however he or she then chose to brand it.[29] But in the first place, not only did no one else in the classical or second sophistic Greek world notice this phenomenon, that it specifically involves a moral judgment removes every ground for pretending such a labelling or branding occurs neutrally or has an objective character. All statements, even the supposedly driest and most objective ones from science, already have the colouration of the speaker’s embodiment, or the record of multiple speakers’ embodiments in the discourse in question. That we can treat different samples of inert or inanimate material as identical and still achieve some desired (scientific) end luckily, fortuitously, permits us to ignore the actual presence of the speaker’s embodiment in such instances. But this ignoring falls apart completely both workably and as a conceit, of course, when we face living and animate matter, and particularly human social matter.

So Athenæus did not “merely” note a phenomenon he sentenced as πορνογράφον, but his pronouncement issued out of a desire—an attachment to a desire, more precisely—however well or poorly he recognised his own impulses. Because an “I know it when I see it” gesture presupposes a lack of reflection in advance, Justice Potter said it well when he admitted that defining hard-core pornography likely proposes an impossible task. But this lack of advanced reflection also leaves more leeway for post hoc recognition and sentencing. If one explicitly defined hard-core pornography, then producers could use that definition to circumvent prosecution and persecution by the Law.

As such, and against any taxonomic view, the translation by Athenæus into πορνογράφον issues out of a desire, out of a post hoc “I knew it when I saw it” that itself can offer little justification except its own authority. Of course, Athenæus had all the contextualised power needed as he held the quill to the page, and while we likely have no way to identify what attachment to desire drove Athenæus translation of πορνογράφον, we may still say he desired it. In verses 62 and 63 in chapter 2 of the Bhāgavad-Gītā, Kṛṣṇa offers a detailed analysis of the role attachment plays.

While contemplating the objects of the senses, attachment develops; from attachment desires are born; from desire arises anger; from anger delusion occurs, from delusion bewilderment of memory from bewilderment of memory the loss of spiritual intelligence and from the loss spiritual intelligence one perishes

Importantly, attachment proceeds desires—not the other way around, as we might tend to imagine; a reversal as crucial and paradigm-shifting as existence precedes essence—while attachment itself comes from the contemplation of objects of the senses. In these brief verses, then, we see in précis an anatomy of the argument of ‘pornography’. Hence, with enough biographical material, we might work backward from the future King of Naples’ anger to identify the desires and attachments born from his contemplation of objects of the senses in the museum that he would one day preside over. And we might then construe further what delusion, consequent bewilderment of memory, and loss of spiritual intelligence—both personal and public—resulted from his command to sequester the sense object that moved him. One may rest assured that he, and the museum’s curator, no doubt concocted every manner of post hoc reason for sequestering those objects, and we might even sympathise with some of those motives, but none of those “reasons” have any objective character; they proceed, rather, from some attachment to desire on the future king of Naples’ part—most obviously in the fact that the objects had dwelt unmolested for some time in museum prior to the future king’s anger.

Similarly, with enough biographical material—very little, if any, of which exists—we might recover the attachment to desire depicted in Cynulcus by Athenæus when the philosopher denounces the grammarian as a πορνογράφον. That the background radiation of homosexual versus heterosexual buggery gets into the picture between Cynulcus and Myrtilus certainly seems to add glow to the heat, in the same way as that distinction seems to have served elementally as an equally non-foregrounded issue during the feminist Sex Wars. For Athenæus himself, not only his depiction of ἑταίρα but even his text itself then becomes “an object of substitution and a vehicle of nostalgia that both recalls the original loss and yet simultaneously distances the subject from that for which it longs (McClure, 2003, p. 6)—nostalgia being one of the more painful forms of attachment. In this light, while the crassness, the low-brow quality of Myrtilus’ understanding, may seem all the more wretched to Cynulcus in light of some hypothetical more golden previous age when erudition—contra Hippon, Heraclitus, and Timon—meant something better than empty boasting, a lack of common sense, or had actual merit, nonetheless Myrtilus himself much more completely constructs a nostalgia for that heyday and golden age of the ἑταίρα.

We cannot hope to do much better than guesswork to uncover the attachment to desire at work in Athenæus or the translations by Yonge, Gulick, and Olson. But we may infer, in the abstract at least, that each new curator of the Deipnosophistae sets out to catalogue and rearrange the material as best served their own attachments to desire. Certain heretics of translation—e.g., Nabokov both seriously in his literal translation of Eugene Onegin (1990) and satirically in his (1962) Pale Fire—more candidly than usual expose the fingerprints of the translator all over the work of the translation. In Pale Fire, we have the crown jewels of a fallen kingdom smuggled into a poem as a (literal) treasure, while in Müller’s we see the opposite gesture: a pilfering of the word rhyparography out of it, with Welcker leaving behind, in brackets, rhopography instead. We see a similar bait-and-switch in Yonge’s translation as well, where his uncertainty in the face of πορνογράφον makes him merely swap it out for πορνογράφος, untranslated.

Just as lexicographers know they have no truck with Truth but only hocus-pocus even as the marketing of dictionaries behaves otherwise, the decorum of translators similarly consists in many apologies for their errors but little acknowledgment of the illegitimacy of their task. Just as Athenæus concocted πορνογράφον out of a backwards simile because he wanted to—i.e., out of an attachment to a desire—so does the translator, in the final analysis, sentence a passage in this way out of a similar desire, whatever their royal or kingly post hoc justifications for doing so afterward. And (again), that we might sympathise wholly with those justifications does not thereby validate the justification.

We see, then, that the misdirection so frequent, if not inherent, to the argument of ‘pornography’ functions to highlight these post hoc justifications in order to obscure or push out of sight not only a subjective bias—similar to that one that Müller in his introduction had the “bad taste” to draw attention to—but also and even more so whatever desire undergirds that bias that wants things to take this or that form of translation.[30] If we have at last begun to move past the genital phase of Freud and a Freudianism that construes libido in fundamentally sexual terms to recognise, as Jung long did, libido as psychic energy per se, then we may further understand the argument of ‘pornography’ everywhere as the fiat of a desire-libido-eros pronouncing sentence and only afterward offering justifications for it.

As a note, we should remain cautious about conflating the terms libido and eros. While two entities proceed Eros out of Chaos in Hesiod’s Theogony, so that Occidental discourse may find in this a pretext for making desire (Eros) embody a most, if not the most, fundamental force in that imagined mythos and phenomenological psychology, the Bhāgavad-Gītā reminds us of two constructive phases prior to desire, and thus further and more articulately identifies and frames these psychic and phenomenological forces for us. In other words, the verses of the Bhāgavad-Gītā cited frame desire as already a consequence of a prior conditioning; in the Occidental mythology of the Theogony, by contrast, Eros marks the spot where one stops tracking backward to begin an analysis—to continue backward through Gaia and Tarteros receives far less emphasis (Marcuse, 1974). At a minimum, a historical materialist may more appreciate the Bhāgavad-Gītā’s acknowledgment of the constructed and formed/framed quality of desire (Eros), as distinct from an argument that makes Eros a sui generis force issuing out of Chaos as the Greek mythographer frames it for us.[31]

It seems then already a significant part of the will of the discourse of Occidental Power to pretend that Eros, desire itself, rather than attachment to desire, gets to the authentic root of things, so that an analysis of the authentic root of things need go no further back than the desire itself. We would remember again that Justice Potter claims positively an extreme difficulty, if not impossibility, in trying to define in advance the qualities of hard-core pornography; his desire to sequester what he knows when he sees it—or to hold harmless from sequestration what he knows when he sees it, as he actually ruled in the case in question—demarcates the beginning and the end of the issue for him. He entertains as little sense of necessity to question how or why he knows what he recognises as Athenæus when he or Cynulcus sentences Myrtilus as a πορνογράφον. Or again, this recalls the justly notorious judgmentality so often complained of in Freudianism, which by placing desire as sexuality at the root can only implicate itself in those fiats of Power that hide its executions of desire and desires to execute behind post hoc justifications or (disingenuous) claims to better know the patient, the criminal, the student, the slave, the Other, better than they know themselves. These blandishments of Power, as a matter of Power, refuse to recognise—in public at least, or only rarely in public at best—the attachment to desire underlying its desire, and not just a sexual desire, but a desire also for Power, for social significance, even for freedom from determination, that manifests perversely in the sequestration, incarceration, institutionalisation, walling off, or containment and preservation of others.

This, then, makes more clear the stakes involved in translation. And translation, of course, constitutes the very bread and butter of dictionaries, where, with all the force of scholarship or not, lexicographers juxtapose two incommensurable domains of human experience expressed by language and then pretend to translate words across that incommensurable gap—to sentence and institutionalise that word in the prison-house of another language. To say this simply points to words as simply the very narrowest aperture through which translation passes, so that the style of apologetics for translators of whole texts changes compared to translators of words; one encounters more scholarly presence and petitions for allowances by text-translators than from translators of single words. Thus, both Leitch (1847, 1850) in the preface to his English translations of Muller’s (1835, 1848) book and even K. O. Müller (1835) himself candidly ask allowances of their readers for a subjectivity, even a whimsy, in their work[32] without analysing or explaining how such desires for subjectivity or whimsy got in the text in the first place—a conventionalised and sentimentalised “subjectivity” as well as candour about it that, to repeat, Nabokov satirises and exposes the conceits of in both fiction and non-fiction. Amongst lexicographers proper, we have instead the candour of Zgusta (2006), who does not ask for allowances but simply discloses—charmingly, disarmingly—dubiousness of lexicographic work in general,[33] though still without interrogating why anyone should hold such dubious conceits as desirable or how they became framed as such in the first place. If earnestly in Leitch and Müller and satirically in Nabokov’s fiction and non-fiction we can hear an affective emphasis and appeal to readers around the difficulty or impossibility of the task undertaken, this contrasts with the blunt fiat pointed out by Zgusta, which operates, in his words, through an attempt to acquire or simply to pretend outright to bear the hallmarks of Truth. Thus we see formed not only a disingenuous Truth as actually only a truth of the period (Leps, 1992), but also a more than family resemblance of such Truth to etymology:

Etymology, as it is used in daily life, is to be considered not so much a scientific fact as a rhetorical form, the illicit use of historical causality to support the drawing of logical consequences (“the word itself tells us so: etymology, etumos logos, authentic meaning. Thus etymology advertises itself, and sends us back to itself as its own first principle”) [(p. 6), paraphrasing and quoting Paulhan (1953, p. 12)].

As a form of rhetoric, then, etymology necessarily constitutes an embodied and argued for desire, on which grounds its appeal to historical causality gets exposed as illicit. But since etymology operates integrally with dictionaries—as a historically materialist matter of choice and desire; nothing compels anyone to include etymologies in dictionaries—it seems the fiat of desire in play in such work can no longer afford to ask any allowances of its readers, but must rather—simply charmingly, disarmingly—admit the groundless of its work while going on cheerfully with that work. This reprises the manner of Power itself with, again, all of its ex post facto justifications for doing so.

Saying this may seem to make translation a dirty business, and perhaps so, if you morally condemn commercial exchanges of a somewhat embarrassing and shameful character an apt metaphor for prostitution. One may recall the very shrill indignation and ad hominem that Myrtilus hurls immediately back at Cynulcus for so crassly exposing as an empty conceit the grammarian’s dalliances with high-class prostitutes as morally superior to any dalliances with pornai—all the more that Cynulcus[34] draws an unfavourable comparison for that difference. But more than this, Cynulcus draws a sense of moral bankruptcy as well out of the grammarian’s libidinous preference for books, words, and fiddling around with texts. One might as well imagine Humbert Humbert’s lewd humming that accompanies his gaze at Lolita as akin to any humming of Myrtilus as he gazes at some dictionary. And the sheer size of Myrtilus’ reply—or Athenæus’ Deipnosophistae, for that matter, or this essay—has its own priapic implications; some people very much enjoy holding and thumbing a big, thick dictionary. We may similarly, easily, imagine the solitary pleasure and delectation of gazing at our dictionaries and texts, with a slight sweat of exertion on our brows and an anticipatory quiver of the pen in our hand, in terms recognisably masturbatory, and so forth. Run all the further with the double entendre and metaphor as you like, it doesn’t reduce only to the sexual, of course, but the eros of it, the libido of it, come through viscerally when viewed, if comically, through that lens.

At root, Cynulcus identifies that kind of recognisable creepiness that goes with obsession, whether intellectual or sexual. The solitary research, hair dishevelled from an intense bout, emerges from the library sweaty and panting and declaring to have discovered (at last!) an instance of from grammatical form hitherto suspected but never seen, or whatnot. We read this creepiness of obsession in sexual terms if only because that phenomenon occurs most familiarly in the social world, but still the creepiness, not the metaphor of sexuality, remains the point of emphasis. Besides that Myrtilus wastes the seed of his erudition on a worthless subject, ἑταίρα, Cynulcus also reacts viscerally to Myrtilus as a bookworm, which subtly and elegantly conflates the intellectual and the sexual in an insult. The term aptly exhibits the appeal of the erotic as sensual, not only sexual, but its lingusitic form, as bookworm, nonetheless still points fetchingly, adorably, toward a (diminiutivised) phallic. On this ground, at lest in part, Cynulcus declares Myrtilus a πορνογράφος, so that we might, if too archly, propose to translate it as bookworm.

The historical emphasis on prostitutes in πορνογράφον—or, still more precisely, the on-going focus on prostitutes in the term ‘pornography’ that detaches them from the wider social context of the transaction they participate in, willingly, of necessity, or not—continues to obscure the translation/transaction involved in it. For moralistically inclined people, the dirtiness of the transaction consists in the sex itself; for less judgmental people, the dirtiness of the transaction consists in such freely given pleasure coming only with a price. Moral indignation around sexuality, then, spares the moralists from seeing the filthy lucre of money, and no surprise, since the most typical moralisers against prostitution came from those sectors of the Power structure most invested in middle-class work ethics.

But even a sex-positive feminist emphasis on the money-making potential of prostitution keeps the emphasis of the social derivations of πορνογράφος too much on the purveyor. One might still proactively see a dirty business in the exchange of filthy lucre, but only by not eliding the presence and fact of the transaction itself. More than this, however, while some large number of sex-workers may operate entrepreneurially as sole proprietors, vast numbers of women around the world have had to accept possibly untenable but generally disempowered compromises precisely as “workers” in relation to some manger/pimp, either on the street or in brothels.

In other words, in the metaphor of translation—or ‘pornography’—that enacts a crossing over—of a word or a text from one language to another, or in the transfer of semen from one body to another—then the translator also embodies the figure of a pimp. Considerable overlap results here. The future king of Naples, as a judge not a pimp (unless we imagine him as simply a pimp of Power itself), directed others to carry out his order for the sequestration of obscene objects, just as our elected judges rely on other violences to dispose of sentenced bodies. Similarly, the pimp—like a translator—opens a bridge, a line of connection, that the john then crosses under his own power, while the translator simultaneously opens and then husbands across some word or text into its new cell, its new room in the cat-house of language or literature. And whatever career a newly moved word or text might then eke out for itself—per the claims of the language-positive feminists—an emphasis on that work and success not only has bourgeois fingerprints all over it, but it also obscures the process by which that word or text ever wound up in such a position at all. It obscures and deemphasises a prevailing trafficking in words and texts with valorising self-publication.

All of this—this half-tongue-in-cheek literalisation of the use of the word ‘pornography’ that has linked historically to the phenomenon of prostitutes—exhibits yet one more time the misdirection at work in the argument of ‘pornography’. This misdirection recurs when we take ‘pornography’ literally. In other words, the issue of pornography itself, especially as it played out during the feminist Sex wars—which I would propose we more aptly describe in terms of an attempted occupation or gentrification of spaces of non-conformist identity and sexuality by white, middle-class, heteronormative, and vanilla social colonisers/gentrifiers—reprises what I have noted above, but I have no intention to enter into that debate here. I would only say that the three levels of analysis proposed above to look at ‘pornography’ when concerned elementally with ‘prostitutes’—i.e., its rejection by moral indignation, its bourgeois defence under sex-positive terms, and a historically materialist critique of the structural forces involved in the production of the whole social phenomenon of prostitution—reprise in toto when redirected at the pornography industry itself.

To draw upon the many studies around the role and rise of both prostitution and pornographic materials from 1848 onward would further illuminate the history of the word ‘pornography’ as an argument, as would an effort to centre what seems a turn in the issue that occurred around the middle of the nineteenth century. But rather than prod forward more toward our own era, the last point to make goes in fact to the most distant past.

For all of the historical variants and uses around ‘pornography’, they all share one feature in common: they all reify the etymology of the word out of Greek, even though Greek itself—whether the archaic, classical, or Second Sophistic era variety employed by Athenæus—has earlier linguistic antecedents. Simply to remember, the πορν- in πορνογράφον goes to:

“prostitute,” originally “bought, purchased” (with an original notion, probably of “female slave sold for prostitution”), related to pernanai “to sell,” from PIE root *per- (5) “to traffic in, to sell” (see price (n.) (Online Etymology Dictionary, 2015).

This etymology—apart from how well or poorly one might defend it—aptly exhibits this reification. Although the etymology acknowledges the prior element of *per from a PIE root, we have nothing of the whole language that that root occurs in—or would, were the root not simply hypothesised—so that if cultures prior to “Greek” only linguistically managed fragments of words, with Greek we see actual flowering of actual concepts and words, actual language.

This would seem a kind of gross overstatement except that imaginatively and for political reasons that Bernal makes uncontroversially clear (in his first volume), Euroamerican history stops going further back at Greece, in a manner similar to how Hesiod stops going backward mythologically with eros. While Hesiod cannot avoid making some kind of tacit acknowledgement of that which precedes Eros, both Tarteros and Gaia represent only the inert “ground” (almost literally) out of which the world-protagonist concept and figure of Eros springs. So also Euroamerican history, which at least since the middle of the eighteenth-century began the project of rigorously ignoring those antecedents of Greek history that hundreds of subsequent generations had acknowledged.

A conventional strategy for erasing such prior history and antecedents involves reducing those elements to nothing. In Hesiod’s Theogony, he makes the prior condition of the universe into the literal emptiness of a “gap” (the word “chaos” means “gap”); in the book of Genesis, the curious opening locution of “the world was without form and void” cannot but acknowledge a “world” as a prior condition even while at the same time attempting to negate it.[35] But even the “in” of “in the beginning” implies a pre-occupied space. Compare the opening gesture from a poem of creation in the Rg-Veda: “existence then was not, nor nonexistence”. In Greek historiography in general, a convenient “dark ages” precedes its sui generis eruption in the form of the cradle of Euroamerican civilisation; precisely into that “gap” Bernal launches his proposals that garnered the most shrieking reaction from official scholarship. Or again, philosophically, the Euroamerican imagination insists most frequently in going back no more than 2,500 years, to take Aristotle and Plato—forever and always now more often Aristotle—as the starting point for countless conceptual discussions, as if the older civilisations of Egypt, India, and China had nothing to say on such matters.

Clarke (2013) points exactly to this when he says that Müller “like any good academician … delved in his Greek dictionary and found a likely word, pornographein, meaning ‘to write about prostitutes’” (p. 11). That Müller neologises rather than borrows only shows the tendency more clearly, for if we really wanted to get more to the roots of those linguistic roots, we could or would at least mine a Sanskrit dictionary for material.[36] The fact that we call the region between the Tigris and Euphrates “Mesopotamia” (a Greek word) rather than the indigenous names of the region attaches echoes that similar historical gesture in the United States and elsewhere that erases indigenous place names and substitutes our own (e.g., renaming the sacred mountain Tahoma in Washington state Mount Rainier, after one of the regions colonisers). The anachronism of “Mesopotamia” as a place name, since the civilisations of Sumer, &c pre-existed “Greece” by at least a millennium, literally permits the thought—literally sets the tone—that no history could have occurred prior to that naming, just as the very historically late revision to the book of Genesis no earlier than 400 BCE creates an anachronistic sense of history in its region as well. Anachronisms making claims like “Herodotus is the father of history” only further exacerbate this. And course, how can one argue: whatever the Egyptian, Chinese, and Sumerian dynasties (to mention only three major ones) made of their “history” it could not have been “history” because the word “history” originates in Greek as well.

So the fact that we conventionally derive ‘pornography’ from Greek when Greek doesn’t even supply us the word shows how compulsively this force pulls the gravity of Euroamerican imagination back to a Greece stripped of all African, Phoenician, and every other geographically historical antecedent. Some 1,500 years of steeping in Latin and Greek, along with the direct and incidental presence of those languages as alien colonisations of indigenous languages, has left indelible marks all over our linguistic practices. Like ‘pornography,’ the word “Greek” serves as an argument as well. The anachronism of this becomes clear in the unremarked upon fact that obscene objects from Roman ruins prompted Euroamerican archaeologists to find an argument in Greek to address those objects. As a term, the argument of ‘pornography’ again shows the centrality of misdirection—as if the template Greek culture would somehow suffice to explain Roman culture, never mind the temporal mismatch of eras this involves—but also error, in that any presumption of Greekness in those the objects unearthed precisely begs the question. The word ‘pornography’—like the word ‘Mesopotamia’ or ‘shaman’ or ‘mana’ or ‘history’—goes on to become the justification itself for applying how the observer wants to view phenomena—artwork, history, culture—rather than attempting as much as possible to “hear” the phenomenon in its own terms.

Anthropology teaches us the difficulty, if not impossibility, of this, but a huge gap opens up between an observing consciousness that self-reflectively keeps as much as possible in the foreground the template and presuppositions of that looking and an observing consciousness that claims to know it when they see it. If anthropology can mire in an infinite regress of self-consciousness, while still offering tentative an bracket findings, then this shows no reason to accept the fit of Power that “I know it when I see it” rests on, simply because Justice Potter assures us that defining the phenomenon known may prove difficult, if not impossible. If all we can arrive at involves partial understandings, then justifying the fiats of Power because we cannot attain “perfect knowledge” shows itself as simply a bogus attempt at the exercise of Power.

At root, this discloses language itself as a kind of secret cabinet and the most open secret of all. If an emphasis on the art of rhetoric now—or perhaps always—has limited education around it only to the elite, this merely reiterates the gesture of access granted to those in the know and denied or overlooked by those not. As an argument, ‘pornography’ operates most of all for those with the Power to enforce it. To some extent or another, we all have the capacity to “know it when we see it,” whatever that “it” comprises, so that we then would weigh in: either to insist upon the cordoning off of something we find objectionable or to insist upon defending as unobjectionable something that someone else has attempted to condemn.

But even as we all, in limited capacities or circumstances, have access to this gesture—made on the basis of our desiring and wanting—the stakes get much higher the more formally a person has attached to structural elements of Power: to those structures particularly dedicated to labelling people, structures that traffic in meaning or simply direct the traffic of meaning in courts, hospitals, religious or political institutions, and so forth, but dictionaries as well, as the very ground of meaning-establishment.


[1] Translation quoted in McClure (2003, p. 50).

[2] Because of these differences of German edition and the fact that the second (K. O. Müller, 1835) and third German editions (K. O. Müller, 1848) provided the basis for the first (K. O. Müller, 1847) and second (K. O. Müller, 1852) English translations, respectively, one finds this “correction” only in the second English translation (K. O. Müller, 1852, p. 203, §210n6) and not in the first (K. O. Müller, 1847, p. 178, §210n6).

[3] The length of this essay could fall under the same accusation, of course. One could say the ad I grind sharpens at least sometimes on a poorly grounded invocation of a “conspiracy” by some cabal of Occidental Illuminati—so that the very extent and any “heat” in this essay devolves finally just to exposing those self-serving, comprador apologists of Power lingering like pimps around the misappropriated monuments of “Western civilization”—more resembling one of those noisome beasts invented and plopped down by the actual gods to forever guard some divine chunk of trivial detritus against incursions by any enterprising Gilgamesh or Argonaut. Against this accusation, one might just as well insist “it’s more cock-up than conspiracy,” but this wouldn’t much change the orientation of this work, in the same way that the condemnation of a work as ‘pornographic’ doesn’t depend ultimately on proving the esoteric intention of its producer. In that case, the extent and “heat” of this essay devolves just to exposing the very often startling shoddiness of scholarship—rather like when one hires a contractor to renovate a house only to discover the previous timber swapped out for a rotten replacement, an inexcusable bric-a-brac of material that nonetheless leaves gaping holes in the foundations and the walls, and the whole basement flooded to cover this “workmanship”. Of course, we will hear how we cannot understand the difficulty of the work, that they did their best with what shortage and poverty of means and materials were available. Power, of course, sings the same song, especially after some scandal of incompetence pulls back the curtain on its operation. All the same: we all have that issue we can hardly let go by without comment; ‘rhyparography’ might exactly by the thing that works Welcker’s nerve. For my part, beyond any desire to demonstrate the narrowest thesis of this essay—that the word ‘pornography’ does not enter English via Müller or, more generally, how it did enter English usage—the broadest issue involves displaying the architecture and function of secret cabinets. In that case, the extent of this essay devolves to the sheer number of them and the “heat” involves—not unlike the attitude toward ‘pornography’ by the secret cabinetrists—a simultaneous fascination and indignation over the apparent necessity of their construction.

[4] anthimeria: “A rhetorical term for the use of one part of speech (or word class) in place of another” ; perhaps enallage gets at this as well or better: “a figure of speech used to refer to the misuse of grammar for rhetorical effect”

[5] While on the one hand it represents almost literally the tiniest of details, the utterly trivial quality of the fact that the editors of the OED somehow felt compelled to omit the word “on” in their 1850 citation makes it also fascinatingly inexplicable. In other words, while K. O. Müller (1850) supplies the wrong citation for the first English print occurrence of the word ‘pornographer’, the original also actually reads, “On the pornographers of the later times” (p. 619). Additionally, just as lexicographers supplied the Greek-English lexicon with an unattested nominative case πορνογράφος from an actual accusative case πορνογράφον in Athenæus, here we have an attestation in the plural (“pornographers”) supplying a citation for ‘pornographer’ in the singular. Mind you, just as I do not quibble over the grammatical plausibility of deriving πορνογράφος from πορνογράφον—though one could—the issue here does not involve any question about the justification for inferring “pornographer” from “pornographers”. Rather, I state simply that any citation of K. O. Müller (1847, 1850, 1852) in English does not in fact supply the first occurrence in print English of the word “pornographer” but only “pornographers”. If you have stuck with me this far, you will at least not accuse me of a new low (or high) of fussiness in insisting upon the exactness of this point, much less than the point cannot matter, since one may do so only at the expense of the value and pretence of dictionaries generally. The question, in any case, simply involves why the first citation of a word in English doesn’t actually contain that word but only a word very similar to it. Doubtless, one may find whatever text actually says “pornographer” and one certainly needn’t pretend that a noun may only ever enter a language first in its singular nominative form. If “pornographers” precedes “pornographer” in print English, so mote it be. Also, if your eye has grown more attentive at this point, the OED has the capitalisation of “Pornographers” in K. O. Müller (1847) exactly correct; “On the Pornographers of the later times” (K. O. Müller, 1847, p. 511). I applaud whoever did not “correct” the text and can offer no good reason why Leitch capitalised the word in the first place. Perhaps his lack of familiarity with it in its German form (“Pornographen”) persuaded him to err on the side of caution and leave it capitalised in English as well. In any case, he changed his mind in the subsequent English editions. And lastly, if all of this seems too minor to take seriously, I cite that the editors of the OED saw fit to correct their error as reason enough to take the matter as non-trivial.

[6] One cannot really take seriously any proposal that Athenæus embodies the authority invoked here; the fiction of the text makes this untenable, its non-logic notwithstanding. Rather, merely the Greekness of Athenæus—or the halo of a particular kind of Greekness conferred on him by Euroamerican tradition—can hardly suffice rationalize any such authority, even if we ignore the off-hand way he coins the term. At least with Solon, one can pretend some human intention and will lurks behind the claimed wisdom of public brothels; even if we could assume Athenæus as an authority in that sense, he does nothing but supply a word, not a policy.

[7] Harper (2015b) wrongly cites Anthon (1843) as the first English usage of ‘pornography’ in print, but I like to imagine that his misattribution—as an improvement over the OED’s at the time—may have motivated the OED to revisit its citation. In any case, one may understand the misattribution. The text Harper cites points to a printing of Smith’s (1842) book in the United States, and the text on the title page might well lead one to think that Anthon composed it with Smith editing. Anthon, however, only supplied supplemental materials about “the botany, mineralogy and zoology of the ancients” to Smith’s original. And while the various errors and pitfalls of scholarship described so far in this essay have arisen out of the older exigencies of publication and information distribution, a profusion of digitized versions of books now online with their own possibilities for errors of scanning an mislabelling adds a newer ambiguity that secret cabinet builders—or simply the discourse of ‘pornography’ itself, if it speaks us (Foucault, 1977)—might leverage. Thus, an incompletely scanned copy of a third edition of William Smith and Anthon (1845) can create the misleading impression that it came out in the same year as the first edition (William Smith & Anthon, 1843). We may be glad then that Smith’s (1842) book proceeds both of these texts or the word ‘pornography’ might have given us a surreal and appropriately twisted case such that its first appearance in print occurred in the third edition of a book even before the first. I mention in passing that no second edition of this text seems recorded or available anywhere.

[8] While true for ‘pornography’, see footnote 5 above for a discussion of an objection to the current citation for “pornographer”.

[9] For all that this essay assumes to concern it with, the publication history of the OED does not constitute one such. Whether the editors cited Dunglison in the first edition and didn’t update it for the second, or whatever else happened, for this essay it suffices simply that Dunglison became the authoritative citation at all.

[10] In saying that the OED “assigns John Leitch the honour of first using pornographer in print,” Sherk does seem simply to reprise the OED’s authority; his own error of assertion comes from taking the OED’s 1850 attestation as grounds for saying, “which he did in 1850”. However, while pointing out this kind of error, I feel an obligation to make clear I do not intend to lambaste Sherk for it. I can imagine him saying—if he’d even bother at all—that his phrase “which he did in 1850” also simply reprises more of the OED’s (incorrect) authority, i.e., that his phrase means something like: “which the OED says he did in 1850.” All the same, the phrase easily if unfortunately reads as Sherk’s own inference from the attestation, and thus makes it seem as if he asserts a blatant, easily repudiated error of fact. It hardly matters that it amounts to one of the most trivial errors in the history of the world; who wants to look in public like they have an utterly simple fact wrong? Whether Sherk actually and only reprises the OED’s authority here or has made an inference and assertion, the error of citation in the second edition OED has set him up to appear misinformed. And that kind of stain on one’s scholarly or public reputation can prove as damaging as getting called out in the nineteenth century as just a wee bit too fond of that obscene material designated as ‘pornography.’

[11] Since work on what we now know as the OED did in fact begin in 1857, though nowhere near the letter ‘P’, I cannot tell if this invocation of 1857 refers to that fact or the coincidence of the year of publication for Dunglison’s book. The coincidence remains charmingly ambiguous in any case.

[12] While one may guess that the editions approximately 665 pages long supply the 1850 or 1852 version of the text, and the 558 page version offers the 1847 version, no version of 626 pages can correctly give you one of Müller’s texts. While I would guess that someone simply mistyped the number of pages of this edition as 626 rather than 662, I would nonetheless relish seeing an actual 626 page version of Müller’s text. Just as consumers must feel in their rights to expect factually correct information from their dictionaries, so might they also blatantly assume that a book offered by a publisher constitutes the actual whole of the book.

[13] As already noted, Harper (2015b) wrongly cites Anthon (1843); see note 7 above.

[14] In any case, exactly anyone should understand these “lasciva numismata” mentioned by Martial remains open to debate.

[15] The fact that the German language makes a listener have to wait for the verb only adds to the charm and aptness of this sentence as a piece of social pornography

[16] An attentive reader will note the difference in spelling between Müller’s lasciva numismata and Martial’s lasciva nomismata. Without imputing anything about right or wrong in this—i.e., that Müller mistranscribed Martial, that Martial’s Latinized Greek errs grammatically in some way, that documentary history has emended an error into Martial’s text, that it remains unclear what exactly Martial means by his coinage in the first place, or that some stripe of scholarship simply asserts no actual difference between these two words, &c—it suffices to point out that the difference of spelling makes running down Müller’s cross-reference more difficult and that even once one has, the difference in phrases raises questions about its exact meaning. This ambiguity, again, seem integral to material around ‘pornography,’ but let someone demonstrate—more or less definitively—that Müller supplies us nothing ambiguous whatsoever, and that the difference with the spelling in Martial boils down to this or that feature of rhetoric, grammar, or documentary history, &c., this would just as completely demonstrate how the indirectness and allusions of disciplinary knowledge can exclude those not sufficiently in the know. It may seem this amounts simply to the lack of education on the part of the one who discerns an ambiguity rather than something perfectly obvious to those in the know; after all, someone looking at Hebrew for the first time may not even know enough to scan the alien letters from right to left. But the failure to understand here does not result from a deliberate will to obscurity on the part of Hebrew. On the other hand, one will find no compelling scholarly reason either to leave the phrase from Martial untranslated—unless simply to admit little certainty about its actual meaning—or similarly, just as πορνογραφον will become variously πορνογραφος or πορνογραφοɩ depending upon the scholar’s need, a research declines a noun differently from the (non-Greek or non-Latin) context of their own work. Frankly, it does not seem that the difference of spelling in Müller’s lasciva numismata and Martial’s lasciva nomismata results from some detail of grammar. But the point, in any case: whatever the “innocent” or perfectly reasonable explanation for this difference, it nevertheless generates uncertainty around the exactness of reference that someone sufficiently “in the know” might breezily blow past without a shrug of concern while someone less “in the know” might stop and go no further. Less intricately, if some less educated student of the material sought to look up “numismata, lasciva” in some compendium, he would have found no entry, the correct one being under “nomismata, lasciva”. And in that moment of non-location, we would see a flawless operation of the secret cabinet of ‘pornography.’

[17] One might also construe the word nomismata in Martial as referring to ‘medals’, but not only would an exact distinction between “medals” and “coins” in ancient times prove difficult to establish, the word also in any case derives from the Greek νόμισμα (“nómisma”), where it means both “anything sanctioned by usage, a custom, institution” and also “the current coin of a state” (“νόμισμα”, 2014, italics in original).

[18] A reader knowledgeable of Müller’s work might object that §139 does not list only painters historically accused as pornographers, but this seems less yet one more articulation of social pornography on Müller’s part and more part of a genuinely duplicitous attempt—not only by Müller, of course—to create a category of pornographers in Greek painting in the first place. One may consult the relevant passage in Pliny’ Natural History, to which all allusions seem ultimately to lead anyway, to read not only about the qualities of variously later cited painters without any reference to pornographic intent on their part (Perseus Digital Library, 2015 [1906]) but also the other similarly later impugned painters, including Piræicus Rhyparographos, the namesake for rhyparography or what Peck (1896) bluntly dismisses as “the lowest form of art” (qtd. in Monteiro, 2009, p. 81); a painter otherwise much praised by Pliny. In any case, one sees an attempt to conflate a few select, but celebrated, painters to the category “pornographer” even though the lists supplied by ancient writers give no clue about such pornographic intent. This attempt actually crosses genres, since the painting and painters of §139 do not work in the same field or genre as the painters in §163, but the cross-references supplied do not keep this distinction clearly in the foreground. I mean simply that when one reads of Aristides, Pausias, and Nicophanes in (citations of) Athanæus as the Ur-πορνογράφοη themselves, one has no way to recognise—except by being exquisitely in the know—that these painters worked in different genres, places, and times. More simply, their simply grouping suggests they comprise an actual group, but just because I concatenate Hefner, Joyce, and Ginsberg as “pornographers” this at best obscures as least as much as it purports to disclose. Rather, it seems to do little more than construe celebrity as a justification for inclusion in the category, in this case “pornographer”. Whether Aristides, Pausias, or Nicophanes—or for that matter Hefner, Joyce, or Ginsberg—ever produced obscene material, clearly someone has said so, and apparently this connotes the only authentic argument for them as “pornographers” rather than any of the work itself. Müller’s conflating deployment of cross-references in different painting genres thus similarly stands in place of any actual demonstration.

[19] An especially attentive reader will note the square brackets in the German version here, and the absence of them in the English translation. This exhibits the disparity that the second German edition (1835) supplied the first English translation (1847), while the third German edition (1848) supplied the second English translation (1850), as well as the third English edition (1852), though beyond a change of publisher, the differences seem very slight to negligible.

[20] If one wanted to quibble about this, the plurality of Müller’s chimeric phrase comes out not just in the German article but also in the fact that Müller directs the reader to a list of painters in the plural at §139.

[21] And also, by way of an appendix, we might also say here, tongue in cheek, that in one sense Müller’s translation does (though still belatedly) introduce into English the word pornography. Ignoring its proposed meaning of “pornographers,” the word πορνογράφοɩ gives us a homophone for ‘pornography.’

[22] The attempt here, awkward on my part, to account for Clarke’s assertion of priority to Müller makes my own argument silly. Wornum uses ‘pornography’ to mean “obscene painting” and not like one of the previous sociologist, and even less the Greeks (in the plural), who used it to refer to writing of prostitutes. However he came to express the word in English at all seems unlikely, finally, to find any trace in Müller whatsoever.

[23] This statement applies with just as much force to the orientalism one may detect in the sources just cited now to illustrate these examples of a τέμενος.

[24] That Hirsch (2011) says this approach “did not yield altogether accurate or intelligent results” (p. 32) thoroughly exposes the major flaw in his premise, not only in light of Herdan’s (1959) point that any such word-frequency count must always yield context-dependent results, but also his assumption that students of that era would, in fact, have far more urgent reasons to know the name of the leader of the world’s Communist threat to their way of life more intimately than some two-centuries-dead-and-gone president. The most telling flaw in Hirsch here, however, involves his refusal to recognize the accuracy and intelligence of these results, in that he then went on to try to determine some other approach that would give him the results he chose to get beforehand. This amounts to the opposite of hypothesis testing.

[25] I have not found as yet had access to a way to personally, visually, confirm either Herz’s claim that Pape’s 1914 student-dictionary has no entry for πορνογράφος or that more recent editions of the dictionary do in fact contain it.

[26] The passage reads:

all these have written treatises On the Prostitutes at Athens. Ah, that beautiful erudition of yours! How true it is that you are not in the least like Theomander of Cyrene, of whom Theophrastus says, in his book On Happiness, that he went about professing to teach happiness, you teacher of lust! So you differ in no respect from Amasis of Elis, who, Theophrastus tells us in his essay On Love, was an adept in love affairs. One would make no mistake in calling you a pornographer also, like the painters Aristeides and Pausias and again Nicophanes. They are mentioned as good painters of these subjects by Polemon in his work On the Painted Tablets of Sicyon (Gulick [Online], 1937, p. ¶23)

[27] The reappearance of the word ‘whore’ here for pornai does not argue for Olson’s conflation, since McClure maintains the distinction of whores and hetaeras. That we sometimes translate pornai as “whore” rather than “prostitute” or some other term points to the problem of translation rather than the justness of the term. Inasmuch as Cynulcus speaks more favourably of porne than hetaeras, that McClure uses such a connotatively pejorative term may read too misleadingly, but it does not negate her point or erase the distinction between the words; “this distinction forms the heart of his discourse against high-paid courtesans [hetaeras] and his encomium of the porne” (McClure, 2003, p. 110).

[28] Translation quoted in McClure (2003, p. 50).

[29] This blithe indifference to the name chosen offers a telling self-critique of the view.

[30] This, whether we construe that wanting in entirely psychological terms or as the unconscious or reflexive product of some social discourse that inhabits us.

[31] Obviously, both the Bhāgavad-Gītā and the Theogony represent attempts at authoritative textuality. It may seem then that I suggest Hesiod constructed his text simply because he desired to, without any awareness on his part how or why he came to have such framing desires, and that author of the Bhāgavad-Gītā doesn’t fall prey to such “mere” desiring. One should say, rather, that both authors—corporate or otherwise—desired different things, and that the author(s) of the Bhāgavad-Gītā include a framework that places the framing of desires into view in a way that the Theogony does not, or at least nowhere near so readily. What should one make of that which precedes Eros, for instance. Both Gaia and Tarteros seem little more than locations, placeholders—imaginatively necessary invocations of spaces wherein Eros might physically/materially appear. It seems consistent with Hesiod’s misogynist imagination—that crassly reduces the female principal of Creation to its literally narrowest conception as the (vaginal) “gap” of “Chaos”—to similarly make negligible the very ground (Gaia) and world-stage upon which the first-most and original player Eros appears and puts on such a play and display and show for that world. Whatever problems of asserted authority the Bhāgavad-Gītā enacts, by contrast, it at least does not make desire (Eros) the protagonist of the world-play, but rather its antagonist.

[32] As translated from the second German edition, K. O. Müller (1847) states:

I cannot flatter myself that I have always hit the proper medium between scantiness and superfluity of materials. Those who possess a knowledge of the subject will readily discover the principles which I laid down for myself as to the facts and monuments which the work should embrace; but in many cases, however, I might be guided by a subjective, sometimes by a momentary feeling (p. viii).

Leitch (1847) similarly pleads:

The most learned of my readers will be most ready to make allowance for the difficulties of my task, which were greatly increased, at least in the notes, by the author’s desire to express his ideas in the briefest possible manner. By the perhaps too unsparing use of ellipsis he has frequently rendered his meaning obscure or ambiguous (p. v).

[33] Zgusta (2006) tells us:

It would seem that in lexicography all the so-called factual information should pertain to the domain of God’s Truth, whereas all the explanations are ripe candidates for Hocus Pocus status, even if they attempt to acquire, or pretend that they bear, the hallmark of God’s Truth (qtd. in Dolezal, 2006, p. ix).

[34] For the record, the specific sexual politics remain obscure in all of this. We do not have to believe that when Myrtilus imputes pederasty to Cynulcus that he describes Cynulcus’ actual tastes, behaviour, or sexuality. The contrast of preference between females or males supplies an already much debated ground for slinging insults. Just as you may call someone a “fag” whether it fits or not, Myrtilus simply takes up from the discourse what weapon he finds immediately to hand in order to counter Cynulcus’ tirade.

[35] The tension here seems to arise from the existence of two versions of the Torah, with the newer one concatenating other creation myths in light of the humiliation of exile suffered by the loss of the Northern Kingdom. The previous creation myth claimed, by contrast, only that Yahweh provided the garden of Eden within an already extant world—a place specifically provisioned for those he deemed chosen. The loss of that world exiled those chosen people into the broader world of people. But whereas the earlier version of the Torah embodied a principal of tolerance or apathy towards the non-chosen around them, the humiliation of having lost the Northern Kingdom seems to have prompted a vengefulness on the part of the returning cultists—much to the chagrin of those who still possessed the original version of the Torah and still lived in the conquered region of the northern Kingdom—so that in their intolerant monotheism they took a much more polemic and destructive attitude toward the then-existing world and cultural mythologies available in Canaan. Hence, where the original Torah remains content simply to assert the existence of a specially designated zone within a wider world, the later Torah insists, destructively, upon erasing and denigrating that pre-existing world the cultists returned to in order to exact a cultural revenge for their humiliation but also to posit an exclusive, and intolerant, space for its own existence.

[36] We might imagine cutting the nineteenth century some slack, on the mistaken notion that it lacked the historical materials to track such word roots to sources earlier than Greek. In fact, the nineteenth century showed some of the most compendious work in this regard, but such work still only shows up in the fragmented form of the etymology shown above. In general, one finds a very piecemeal, though frequently accurate, derivation of words that come from other sources, though both Latin and Greek lead back to “Indo” sources.


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The Need of Attachment

Just as we do not need food to meet the need of hunger if we can identify or invent some other means to meet that need, then also we do not need suffering if we can identify or invent some other means to meet the need of attachment. Moreover, inasmuch as needless attachment leads to suffering, we may read in a different light what Thầy Nhất Hạnh says:

Understanding [needless attachment] always brings compassion. If we don’t understand [needless attachment], we don’t understand happiness. If we know how to take good care of [needless attachment], we will know how to take good care of happiness. We need [needless attachment] to grow happiness.

The fact is that [needless attachment] and happiness always go together. When we understand [needless attachment], we will understand happiness. If we know how to handle [needless attachment], we will know how to handle happiness and produce happiness (31).

Perhaps the appeal to “suffering” in Thầy Nhất Hạnh’s book—rather than an appeal to “needless attachment”—as the source of unpleasantness in human experiences arises from an attempt to reach a certain kind of ear in our Occidental culture. For a very long time now, Thầy Nhất Hạnh has sought to speak to Occidental ears, from his earliest appeals to people in the United States to stop destroying the people of and the world of his homeland to all of his subsequent work for peace worldwide.

Moreover, he stresses over and over that one may neither communicate nor achieve communication where listening cannot or has not occurred. Out of the howling suffering that we live in within our Occidental culture—a howling plastered over by thick layers of materialism, anaesthesia, and a partial knowledge of human experience—perhaps it must seem too abstract to approach the root of “attachment” all at once.

If “understanding suffering always brings compassion,” then a part of what such compassion entails would involve a person’s realisation of the attachment underlying that suffering. Otherwise, such compassion has an only a limited, therapeutic benefit, albeit still a desirable one. No wonder that non-attachment in Buddhism so often reads in Occidental ears as, “Oh, so I’m just not supposed to care about anything?” A focus on feeling or affect (on the sensual experience of suffering) that does not track back to the source of that affect (one born of desire arising from attachment) shifts us only from a disagreeable state of attachment to a seemingly more agreeable one.

The use to which the phrase “we need suffering” gets put acknowledges that suffering serves as a means to an end, and in this way discloses the misleading use of the word “need.” In fact, do not need suffering, although it suffices as a prevalent or prevailing means for meeting the need of attachment. To realise this clearly cuts off at the knees any apathetic or sadistic attempt to justify cruel behaviour or the suffering of others under the banner of “we need suffering”. It debunks every claim both of doing harm for the good of another of doing nothing for another’s harm because we all must deal with our own problems.

We do not need suffering. One would instead have to argue that we have no alternative to suffering as a means for meeting the need of attachment, except that we do have other means both to work against attachment and to work for non-attachment that make such a claim hollow, self-serving, or maliciously intended.

The Need to Suffer

Since a need refers to that condition that must be met so that the present state of affairs might continue, we must ask then whether suffering names an actual need or if it embodies rather a present or prevailing means for meeting an as yet, still unnamed need. In the same way, just as the necessity of food as the most prevalent means for satisfying the need of hunger implies further that we might meet that need of hunger through means other than food, then the necessity of suffering as the most prevalent means for satisfying whatever as-yet unnamed need it meets implies as well that we might meet that unnamed need through means other than suffering as well.

Here, we may return to the Bhāgavad-Gītā for a clue what might constitute this unnamed need. There, we see:

while contemplating the objects of the senses, attachment develops; from attachment desires are born; from desire arises anger; from anger delusion occurs, from delusion bewilderment of memory; from bewilderment of memory the loss of spiritual intelligence; and from the loss spiritual intelligence one perishes

The root of this cascade that ends in one’s disintegration begins from developed attachment while contemplating the objects of the senses, attachment develops. Contemplation of the objects of the senses itself does not inevitably play out in the cascade, but the attachment to those sense objects contemplated. From that, desires arise; desires that circumstances then either frustrate (leading to anger that the desire failed to be gratified) or gratify (leading to anger that the desire proved non-permanent and transitory).

How we understand the downstream consequences of the desires arising from attachment, not only does attachment itself begin this cascade, we may note that attachment precedes desire. Hence in Buddhism one hears again and again of the necessity of non-attachment as a solution to the problems both of frustrate desire and the perils of karmic rebirth, rather than an initial emphasis on desires themselves. Attachments to desires not desires themselves prove the trap; not affect or feeling itself, but the ground of them, attachment to them.

This already suggests that suffering, understood as an affect or a feeling, does not get to the root; we might simply say that attachment to suffering identifies a prior condition or problem that requires our address. Thus, if we “need” suffering, this hols only because “attachment to suffering” occurs so pervasively, so automatically, so unconsciously, that it already provides the framework or the ground by which we might move towards happiness or peace and away from or out of suffering.

And yet, the understanding disclosed by the Bhāgavad-Gītā shows that by awareness of the issue—by seeing that attachment to desires, not desires themselves—exhibits the root of the problem, we may proceed from that point, and not from the condition of being already trapped within our attachments. This alone shows suffering not as a need but as the prevailing means by which we address the now-no-longer-unnamed need of attachment.

The Bhāgavad-Gītā, Buddhism, and many similar traditions, in fact, insist that suffering results from needless attachment, from attachments that we assuredly resorted to but that it did not have to go that way.

The strangeness or weirdness, the difficulty of trying to come to terms with the notion of non-attachment, so prevalent in Buddhism, arises out of this critique. Even to say, “One might not be attached” seems attached to the notion of non-attachment. But nothing paradoxical hides in this. Just as our best approximation of “objective reality” can only arise from a collectively intersubjective collation of subjective impressions—the Jains would remind us, “No, not even then”—so also must every engagement with the notion of “non-attachment” find expression through our embodied and attached human beingness. We can never talk it, but can only talk about it, but even that talking about it serves, or can serve, to orient one’s attention in the right direction.

But however helpful or unhelpful the elaborations, we see that suffering supplies merely the most prevalent means for meeting the need of attachment.

We may speak of a need of attachment even in Buddhist terms, in that everything manifest being necessarily both transient and limited, then we see attachment to that limitation and transiency as the condition that must be met if the state of affairs of our individual embodiment will continue. Since much Eastern philosophy and religion sees this sort of persistence over lifetimes as a problem needing a solution, its solutions then properly go to the very root of the need that generates the ground of that persistence: attachment.

Just as I cease to exist as a self-aware living individual if the need of separation (apartness, isolation, &c) no longer gets met by some necessity (whether friendship, community, togetherness, &c), so also do we cease to exist as a self-aware living individual if the need for attachment gets no longer met by some necessity as well. That suffering embodies simply the prevalent or prevailing means by which the need of attachment gets met, this means we might meet that need by other means as well.

As such, we do not need suffering.


Let Us Not Promote Suffering

Against the notion of this defence of Thầy Nhất Hạnh’s insistence that “we need suffering,” to say we need suffering also resonates terribly in English. If we would say that we need suffering, then this means we should also do all that we can to ensure that we and others suffer, so that they may grow, or at least move finally toward that end of happiness or peace that suffering lays the groundwork for.

A very great deal of political quietism and apathy may hide under this notion, even if someone does not have enough strength of character to inflict deliberate suffering in others that they might grow toward happiness. They can at least stand aside and declare the suffering of others none of their affair but certain something good and necessary.

However, as we also know the Vedic injunction—mā hiṁsyāt sarvā bhūtāni : never commit violence to anyone—one might think that this alone should stop any such understanding of suffering—deliberately or perversely inflicted or not—in its tracks. The injunction should already rule out any apathy by people toward suffering, much less any insistence on inflicting or promoting suffering in others through violence due to the necessity and benefit of suffering. However, it does not always work out that way. In his study of the Śrī Vedānta-Sūtra, Adhyāyas III & IV, for instance, David Bruce Hughes summarises the argument around Sūtra 3.1.26:

The Vedas order:

agnisomīyaṁ paśum ālabheta

“One should sacrifice an animal in an agnisomiya-yajña.”

Because piety and impiety is known only from the Vedas’ statements, the Vedas’ orders to commit violence must be understood to be actually kind and pious. Therefore the orders of the Vedas are never impure. The prohibitions “Never commit violence to anyone,” and “Violence is a sin,” are the general rules decreed by the Vedas; and the statement, “one should sacrifice an animal in an agnisomiya-yajña,” is an exception to that general rule. A general rule and a specific exception to that rule need not contradict each other. There is scope for each (29, underlining added).

One may readily anticipate a reading of “the Vedas’ orders to commit violence must be understood to be actually kind and pious” as simply the Orwellian doublespeak of Power.

I will not engage the manifold apologetics, both disingenuous and sincere, that exist for this exception to the general rule of mā hiṁsyāt sarvā bhūtāni : never commit violence to anyone. I raise the point only to make clear the destructive use that some may and have put the phrase “we need suffering” to use, whether to do harm to others for their own good or to do nothing about harm to others for their own good. I do not read that Thầy Nhất Hạnh intends the phrase to stand on its own, and he provides much more text by which to contextualise his intended meaning, as I hear it. Yet I still hear him saying, “we need suffering” out of a sense of his own experience of suffering as it contributed to his growth toward peace and happiness.

If we seek out the “lesson” in the suffering that befalls us, this occurs only retrospectively. Experiences befall us, and those we experience and name as suffering we may then engage in whatever way we do, even to learn something from that experience. We will see, then: one may only recognise suffering, we re-cognise it; one cannot inflict it, not even the sadist, who may know another human being well enough in advance to know that certain kinds of physical, psychological, or social violence done will instantiate in that person as suffering, that they will experience and name those actions as inflicting suffering. Nonetheless, such a cruel person inflicts only violence, and we may see then in every claim to do harm to another “for their own good” only violence and a violation of the injunction mā hiṁsyāt sarvā bhūtāni : never commit violence to anyone.

In life, if we will less often meet sadists—those sufferers who spread the agony of their experience deliberately to others—and more often those sufferers whose own suffering makes reaching out compassionately to others too onerous or difficult, still the burdensome of this experience does not mean we must overlook the self-serving character of our attempts to solace ourselves by blunting or deflecting or ennobling the evident suffering of others—especially suffering that arises from social injustice and privilege—under the banner of “we need suffering”. Perhaps I decide I need a suffering, that does not license me to decide that you need suffering in general, and even less so any one or more specific suffering: that cancer, sexual assault, the death of your child, a war, your failure to get into college.

Whatever need of suffering we might recognise individually in retrospect, to prevail over the violence that wrought it argues not for the necessity of such violence but rather to the resilience of the human spirit in the face of an inhuman fate.


The Suffering of Need

In English, we have an unfortunate relationship with the word need. We may often hear something referred to as needed, when the thing described rather embodies only the present or prevailing means by which we meet an actual, often unnamed, need.

A need, rather, names only that condition that must be met so that the present state of affairs might continue. The notion of biological needs, the biology of living beings, gives us our most familiar examples. We call food a need, for instance, but food embodies only the most prevailing means by which we meet the need of hunger. In other words, we may understand hunger as a need, i.e., that condition that must be met so that a given living being may continue to persist as a living being. That food embodies simply the most prevalent means for satisfying the need of hunger means further that we might meet that need of hunger with other means than food. Biologically—for mammals at least, including ourselves—we may name also the needs of thirst, environmental exposure, and fatigue also, which we generally meet with the prevailing means of water, clothing and shelter, and sleep. By referring to these biological needs of hunger, thirst, exposure, and exhaustion, I do not intend to offer an exhaustive list.

Since we experience these biological needs of hunger, thirst, exposure, and exhaustion as unpleasant, as something we wish to avoid, but must continue to experience them in order to persist as living beings, then we may say that we need the suffering they entail. Without them, we would cease to exist as living beings. In this light, we may understand how Thầy Nhất Hạnh insists, “We need suffering” (30). We may see how our embodiment in this life, which seems to require this kind of biological suffering in order to persist, makes suffering a prerequisite for the condition opposite of suffering, which we might call happiness or peace.

Being > Biology

For human beings, as one species amongst the many within the counsels of species, what constitutes our human lifedoes not arise from our biology. Experiencing everything through our perceptions, our perceptions define what we deem reality. A living being without self-awareness will have no body, no brain, not even any world or environment in the sense that we experience it. For us to speak specifically of biological needs, then, already emanates not from any physical reality of the world but from our way of conceptualising our experience of it.

Since a need denotes that condition that must be met so that the present state of affairs might continue, inour human experience we not only name under a category of biology such needs as hunger, thirst, exposure, and exhaustion, but also many other needs; Thầy Nhất Hạnh specifically combines the biological and the non-biological when he writes, “Love, respect, and friendship all need food to survive” (9).

One will find few who would object to the notion that human beings—if not all sovereign, living beings—need love, respect, and friendship. But again, we see love, respect, and friendship not as needs but rather the present or prevailing means by which we meet some actual, as yet still unnamed, need. I notice that it does not clarify thinking to imagine food as the opposite of hunger; rather, food embodies a prevailing means by which the need of hunger gets met. So just as the necessity of food meets the need of hunger, then we might ask as well what the necessities of love, respect, and friendship meet the needs of.

To address only one example, we may see that friendship meets a need of separation. Since we cannot have the experience of existing as individuals if we do not experience some reality of apartness or distinction that sets us apart from all other people and living beings, then separation or apartness describes a condition that be met so that the present state of affairs might continue. If we ceased to exist in our separateness, then we as a living being would no longer exist. However, as also with hunger, the unpleasantness of this experience of separation or apartness—this absolute isolation from all others—along with our desire to avoid the on-going state of the experience of that, makes friendship (or togetherness or community) a present or prevailing means by which that need of separation, isolation, apartness gets met.

One might elaborate a long list of non-biological human things—for example, love, respect, friendship, fairness, cooperation, compassion, recognition, &c—that we would incorrectly call needs, since these things embody rather the present or prevailing means for meeting some as yet still unnamed need. But in all cases, however one builds such a list, the experience of the unpleasantness of those needs and our desires to avoid experiencing the state of them points again to the sense of Thầy Nhất Hạnh’s insistence, “We need suffering” (30) if we would attain its opposite: happiness or peace.

However, I would further emphasise that any so-called “biological” needs do not differ in kind at all from these otherwise “non-biological” needs.

A living system self-aware or not that fails to meet the need of hunger disintegrates; the organisation of its life as an organism falls apart and it ceases to have being. Conventionally, we say it dies. In the same way, for self-aware living beings, if one fails to meet the need of separation, the organisation of its life as a living being also falls apart and it ceases to have existence. We sometimes metaphorically say people die of loneliness, but sometimes this happens literally as well.

Moreover, whatever importance I accord my conceptualisation of my biology, that conceptualisation itself already represents a “non-biological” value. Thus, when someone gives me food to eat—when someone meets my need of hunger with the necessity of food—I say we might more clearly understand this not in terms of biology but, rather non-biologically, as meeting the need of separation with friendship.

Someone might object, “Why only the need of separation? Why not also the need of hunger?”

I intend to erase here the false distinction of the biological as somehow prior to human existence or simply more important. Instead of “one does not live by bread alone,” I would say, “one does not live by bread at all; one only persists.”

But further, that I should cease to have being “biologically” does not end my life—it ends only my experience of that life. Whatever role our human imagining of biology plays in the shaping of our lives—and it plays a considerable role, one assumes—it describes neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for understanding the character or experience of self-aware life. When I die, my life continues in the lives of other living beings; the framework of “biology” cannot explain this aspect of human experience, an experience shared by other living beings who express grief over the death of another, for instance.

For the experience of a self-aware life, then, the qualities of difference one may identify between different needs (like hunger or separation) have felt consequences, but do not finally rise to a difference in kind. In other words, one perhaps may not ultimately find a satisfying distinction of difference between the so-called “biological” and “non-biological” needs of self-aware living beings.

To make this more starkly dramatic, rather than speaking of a need for hunger, one might describe the need for starvation in human experience. It seems no accident or coincidence that one of the riders of the Apocalypse has the name Famine, not Hunger. Or again, people in prison and in poverty and in alienating workplaces may receive food and yet feel (correctly) that they have ceased to live. Or yet again, like those on hunger strikes who specifically refuse to meet the need of hunger with food, they may yet feel (correctly) that their life, perhaps for the first time, has at last attained significance and meaning. At the end of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, Sydney Carton reflects on his impending (and voluntary) execution as giving for the first time a weight and significance to his otherwise wasted life.

In all of this, we may understand all human needs as the needs of self-aware living beings, and refuse to misleadingly distinguish between biological and non-biological needs and the means that meet those needs. Such a view remains resonant with Thầy Nhất Hạnh’s insistence, “We need suffering” (30)—we need the human experience of hunger and separation, thirst and loneliness, &c. In the case of all such human needs, the unpleasantness of the experience of those needs as well as our desire to avoid those experiences, points to the (human) need of suffering Thầy Nhất Hạnh identifies; an experience we then either meet with the present and prevailing means that meet that need or fail too and experience the disintegration of the organisation of our lives, i.e., we die or cease to exist.

In the same way that if we cease to experience hunger this in all likelihood means that we have died, then more generally if we cease to suffer, then this in all likelihood means we have stopped humanly living.


Summary (TLDR Version)

A collection that really benefits from appearing as a collection; a collection that successfully turns into a graphic novel.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve already read this section this year, you can skip it; if you’ve read the previous years, I’ve updated it. Either way, it describes the aim of these book replies.

Three years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day and then write a book reply (not a review) for each one I finished (or gave up on).[1] These replies don’t amount to Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, &c., unless that struck me as somehow necessary. Rather, a book reply—as distinct from a reaction (review) or a response—focuses on what in these pieces I could not have said (or would not have known to say) except that the encounter of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I must at times necessarily say poorly informed stuff, &c. And while some people in the world may expect public speakers to possess omniscience so that they won’t bother to engage in a dialogue to uncover how to make the world a better place, then to the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or figure out what else we might do as part of that attempt to make our world better for us and everyone.

And someone won’t bother to take up their end of that bargain, that points blatantly to a central part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Morrison, Truog, Hazelwood, Grummet, Cullins, Montano, McKenna, & Farmer’s (2013)[2] Animal Man (omnibus edition)

I have a memory of reading something that very disimpressed me by Morrison (the Invisibles), and only the sheer length of this tempted me back. Good for that.

While obviously replete with some patently silly stuff, the moment significant part of this issue involve the way the writer publicly implicates himself in the relevance, or irrelevance, of the genre he works in. this appears most of all in the breaking of the fourth wall at the end, when the character of Animal man confronts his then-lifewriter, but it shows up more subtly in the way Morrison tried to integrate his real-world issues about animal rights (an vegetarianism) into the issues. This appears also in his attempt to make sense of the discontinuity that results from him taking over someone else’s writing project for the character.

This obviously embodies the sort of critique of form that Moore’s Watchmen so thoroughly proposed, but Morrison seems simultaneously more inside and outside of that issue. In other words, if Moore represents purely an artist, a figure who would have cropped up as a major writer in whatever form the culture had available at the time, with Morrison it seems more that he would only have appeared as a writer of comics. If Moore can take the genre as a genre less seriously, whether to critique it or to leverage it to whatever project he wants to work on, for Morrison—at least in this run—he seems more obliged to accept it at a kind of face value, even when he turns it inside out at the end.

Put another way, that Morrison appears in his own issues puts a more personal slant on things than Watchmen. You might not know where Moore stands at some point—especially about the character Rorschach—but with Animal Man, one already knows where the author’s identity tends to reside, even before he bifurcates into his own representation in order to speak with his creation.

Perhaps because this “self-conscious” element remains so thoroughly a part of the various texts it makes the turn at the end seem less contrived and very well-integrated into the whole thing. It certainly represents an appropriate closure. And the frame-busting episode, thanks to the Psychic Pirate, makes not only an impress tour de force but also, again, a logically motivated episode in the whole arc of the thing. Thus, the soul-searching at the end of the run hearkens back to the “soul-searching” of the run itself as Morrison tries to work out the incoherence between previous version of Animal Man and his own incarnation of him.

Of course, the thrill of reading each next edition has its own charm, but collecting all of these issues together helps put the whole arc together in a way it deserves. This means a few issues could get left out without going missed, but this in order to strengthen the arc overall. In other words, while this represents a collected series, it does for the most part represent an actual novel.

This and Hines Duncan the Wonder Dog (part 1) supply some serious grist for animal rights activism. I could say more, but more simply I’d recommend reading it. You have to winnow through some patches, but this collection doesn’t waste your time usually.


[1] I planned also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests. I haven’t followed through on this yet.

[2] Morrison, G, Truog, C., Hazelwood, D., Grummet, T., Cullins, P., Montano, S., McKenna, M., & M. Farmer’s (2013)[2] Animal Man (omnibus edition), pp. 1–708.

mā hiṁsyāt sarvā bhūtāni – never commit violence to anyone

नमस्ते. Namasté. “I bow to the divine within you, and am grateful for your presence.”

In The Art of Communicating, Zen teacher Thích Nhất Hạnh says that “when we listen to someone with the intention of helping that person suffer less, this is deep listening” (42). One must “take the time to look and see the suffering in the other person” (44), and to say to yourself as you listen, “I am listening to this person with only one purpose: to give this person a chance to suffer less” (44).

I honour to remember this as I comment on what he has written about suffering. And I remember also verses 62 and 63 in chapter 2 of the Bhāgavad-Gītā, where Kṛṣṇa offers a detailed description of the origin of suffering. I give this below with the hope that you may as well savour the beauty of the original Sanskrit script, the strangeness—for those, like myself, who cannot read Sanskrit—of an encounter with its transliteration into the Roman alphabet, and also the insight offered by one of its translations into English of the sequence Kṛṣṇa identifies as the source of suffering, how it comes about:



dhyāyato viṣayān puṁsah saṅgas teṣūpajāyate
saṅgāt sañjāyate kāmaḥ kāmāt krodho ‘bhijāyate
krodhād bhavati saṁmohaḥ saṁmohāt smṛti-vibhramaḥ
smṛti-bhraṁśād buddhi-nāśo buddhi-nāśāt praṇaśati

While contemplating the objects of the senses, attachment develops;
from attachment desires are born; from desire arises anger;
from anger delusion occurs, from delusion bewilderment of memory
from bewilderment of memory the loss of spiritual intelligence
and from the loss spiritual intelligence one perishes

Thầy Nhất Hạnh—the word thầy suggests an honoured teacher in Vietnamese—writes that “we need suffering” (30, emphasis in original), and adds further:

Understanding suffering always brings compassion. If we don’t understand suffering, we don’t understand happiness. If we know how to take good care of suffering, we will know how to take good care of happiness. We need suffering to grow happiness. The fact is that suffering and happiness always go together. When we understand suffering, we will understand happiness. If we know how to handle suffering, we will know how to handle happiness and produce happiness (31).

The purpose of my commentary in this essay aims to respond to the points made here by Thầy Nhất Hạnh, endeavouring as I do to remember to listen for the suffering in his writing, that I might make him suffer less.


Summary (TLDR Version)

Does this answer the quest for a “female hero”; I don’t know. As a redemption narrative, it falls flat.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve already read this section this year, you can skip it; if you’ve read the previous years, I’ve updated it. Either way, it describes the aim of these book replies.

Three years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day and then write a book reply (not a review) for each one I finished (or gave up on).[1] These replies don’t amount to Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, &c., unless that struck me as somehow necessary. Rather, a book reply—as distinct from a reaction (review) or a response—focuses on what in these pieces I could not have said (or would not have known to say) except that the encounter of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I must at times necessarily say poorly informed stuff, &c. And while some people in the world may expect public speakers to possess omniscience so that they won’t bother to engage in a dialogue to uncover how to make the world a better place, then to the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or figure out what else we might do as part of that attempt to make our world better for us and everyone.

And someone won’t bother to take up their end of that bargain, that points blatantly to a central part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Keatinge, Campbell, Hamilton, Bergin III, Gieni, Solis, & Sherwood’s (2014)[2] Glory (the Complete Saga)

If I wanted to get really deep into this, I might try to decipher why some reviewers rave about this book. Amongst the people giving it low marks, this includes both males and females—only two seemingly female reviewers gave it four stars on a five star scale; the rest were between one to three. But not that many males gave it a four anyway.

The major complaint involves shifts of art style (Glory gets bigger and smaller) and perhaps also just sheer incoherence of story. One certainly gets some juicy splatterfest, but indeed, the storytelling has some really glaring lapses. This often comes about with unconvincing jokes, usually from the “mere mortal” in the story, who seems like she should have died about a billion times over before ever getting past page fifty.

However, I want to chew on only two issues.

From my reading, it seems that Glory obtains permission to visit the land of the dead—to see the people her actions have killed but also to reunite, if briefly, with her lover—but only on the condition that when she actually dies she will not go to the world of the dead herself. Of course, like a stoic hero, she never divulge this fact to those she visits, even when they tell her that the world of the dead rocks and they all look forward to her arrival once she actually dies. The narrative plays this element so close to its chest, I actually cannot tell if I read it correctly. I mean, perhaps Gloriana will go to the land of the dead once she dies, contrary to the earlier prophecy. It seems that we should have some moment when glory completely breaks down, because she knows all of this talk about “we can’t wait to see you; it will be so great!” will never happen. The reader needs some signal of this, not only to confirm it as the case, but also to drive up the pathos of the encounter. In other words, the authors should do some of the work to actually write the dramatic irony, and not leave it entirely up to the reader. Especially since delicacy or subtlety hardly marks this narrative otherwise.

More generally, vast portions of the narrative remain unmotivated. The text makes a great fuss about Glory’s parents having had another child, and that sister and Glory apparently have to try to kill each other every time they meet. Except, rather than being some sort of titanic “let’s finally settle this” confrontation, it turns out as something that just happens, and the text even makes jokes about “we don’t even have to do this, I guess.” A lot of the bloodbaths have a similar gratuitous quality. Having recently read Grant Morrison’s omnibus Animal Man, he supplies a much smarter example of how to handle the comic book “we need a fight sequence here; things are getting dull” issue—from which obviously the movie of the Hobbit learned nothing as well.

Beyond this, the author(s) commit the grotesque gaffe of deflating all sense of the epic. This shows up in stupid insertions of jokes. One cannot just throw in the sort of wise-cracking asides of a sidekick. You can see it handled with some deftness sometimes by Tarantino; you can see it very deftly deployed in Cabin in the Woods (and sometimes by Whedon generally, when the narrative has not already become utterly exhausted with itself). But not here. Gods fixing waffles devolves to stupid kitsch and simply makes the epic depictions later seem dumber, rather than more epic, by comparison. Mere banality of family sits poorly; at least the Sandman and his sister never seem like suburban boobs, &c.

So this cheese-corn makes the whole redemption arc of Glory cheaper. The redemption of a divine force and the redemption of a mere mortal don’t equate. And this then brings up whether or not this redemption narrative changes with the redeemed figure as female.

I tend to dislike redemption narratives. Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant gives you an idea of one I find brilliant; Moorcock’s Warhound and the World’s Pain seems adequate as well.

The most recurrent problem involves proportion; 95% of the narrative consists of the jackass behaving badly, with 5% devoted to the redemption itself, usually in very maudlin terms, i.e., out of love for some otherwise narratively meaningless love interest, sometimes a person’s offspring. In a world where men can get away with murder, 95% of raping, pillaging, and plundering, marked by a sudden change of heart—again, on grossly sentimental grounds already extremely familiar to patriarchal culture—reads to me more as an apologetics for the shitty behaviour. Remender, Moore, Opeña, & Hawthorne’s (2014)[3] Fear Agent (Volume 2) supplies a really gross case of this.

The problem turns not simply on the arrogant practice of male license by the character, which comes off as sanctioned by the author—that’s the most important part—but that the redemption merely turns on the flipside of that arrogance: being touched by a female self-sacrifice, or by some “touching” sentiment of fatherhood suddenly. Underneath it all, it seems—boys will be boys—the jackass simply embodies a hurt little boy (never a hurt little girl; this matters) inside. And on those grounds, the author expects us to forgive him. We understand his awful behaviour as simply a yearning for love.

Moore spares us such stupidity in the Comedian, for instance.

Given how integral gender remains for such redemption narratives, it seems tweaked in a context with a female hero. Irrationally in the first place, Gloriana’s parents create her not only to provide a pretext for peace between their two warring factions, they also train her so that she will enforce that peace through unstoppable violence. In other words, her parents create a super-weapon, but whatever sense this makes, the authors can’t stop re-creating more children (i.e., two more sisters). We have a theme of a failure of parenting, when Glory wilfully runs off to hang out on earth just because, but it begs the question of what her narrative redeems her from.

In general, the problem that Glory poses turns on her demonic nature, not her divine nature. She gets into a bloated fit of rage, and then destroys everything, eventually even one of her friends deliberately. So, if males need redemption from hurt little boy feelings, which we at least theoretically may understand or sympathise with, what Glory requires redemption from involves demonic irrationality. She needs redeeming from her “nature” which certainly makes for a problematic assertion. Not all men will come to the point of requiring redemption, so long as they don’t become assholes; for female characters, they would all require redemption. In fact, all of civilization must rise up—the mother and father alike eventually coming to realise they need to work together to undo what they have made.

But let me stop. The narrative nowhere has sufficient coherence to bear close analysis. And even if Glory starts as female, like the Valkyries upon which she seems more based than anything Greek, she ultimately starts to seem like a male figure with a female skin on top. Specifically, at the height of her rage, she kills Riley—or Riley sacrifices herself, in one of those typical “eye-opening” gestures that redemption narratives love so much. It always involves that moment when you “go too far”—just as we have to hear about those haunting moments for heartless soldiers who suddenly can’t forgive themselves for deliberately killing a child.

Whatever tortured lie you tell yourself to justify your shittiness, that doesn’t make it any less obviously shitty to everyone else. Thus, the soldier who can’t forgive himself for killing the child still believes he did nothing wrong in killing women and men. I don’t count that as redemption. So also Glory: if she ultimately feels she went too far in killing her friends, she shows no compunction whatsoever for everything else she has destroyed. Once again, that doesn’t constitute a redemption.

In our culture, that shows up in discourse form as: one should never rape a child, but to rape a woman, well: shit sometimes happens.

Ultimately, the reviewers (male and female alike) of this book correctly point to the disjointed, incoherent sloppiness of the narrative. If we get spared many of the usual grotesque blandishments of masculine excess in the narrative, because Glory likely won’t run around raping people, for instance, this does not ultimately detach the narrative, in this case, from the unconvincing tropes that ground redemption narratives.

A friend of mine notes our culture’s desire for comeuppance. This presupposes, of course, some range of activity warranting that punishment, but when we have an anti-hero who seems too safely tucked between some quotation marks, so that by “anti-hero” we really understand (wink-wink) someone we should more admire than not admire, then we see an article of bad faith around the notion of comeuppance. In other words, Glory acts badly, and has to come to a more or less bad end—for the sake of comeuppance—but the authors don’t really believe she constitutes the “problem” that the narrative calls her. Or tries to.

This always comes across more clearly in sloppy redemption narratives with males. A print run will come to an end, so you kill the guy off supposedly to atone for his many sins. To really sell that, the redemption would have to come at the beginning, because the effect of redemption should show in the future consequences of it. When the State executes a serial killer, nothing of the future of that “justice” comes into the picture; the whole cases consists of nothing more than a litany of horrors by the “hero” (hero in the eyes of the psychopath, centre of the story or protagonist from the public point of view), so that somehow the throwing of the switch, the comeuppance, should settle the whole matter. If he goes out with a sardonic smirk at his executioners, that differs little than if he breaks down at the end, begs forgiveness and apologises—except that the latter confirms the whole of the patriarchal structure that he himself so (perversely) embodied in his life and crimes.


[1] I planned also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests. I haven’t followed through on this yet.

[2] J. Keatinge, J., Campbell, R., Hamilton, S., Bergin III, J., Gieni, O., Solis, C., & Sherwood’s, D.E.(2014)[2] Glory (the Complete Saga). Berkeley, CA: Image Comics, 1–352.

[3] Remender, R, Moore, T, Opeña, J, Hawthorne, M (2014). Fear agent, vol. 2. Milwaukee, OR: Dark Horse, pp. 1–520.

Summary (TLDR Version)

The original ran six pages, apparently; it could have stayed that long.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve already read this section this year, you can skip it; if you’ve read the previous years, I’ve updated it. Either way, it describes the aim of these book replies.

Three years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day and then write a book reply (not a review) for each one I finished (or gave up on).[1] These replies don’t amount to Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, &c., unless that struck me as somehow necessary. Rather, a book reply—as distinct from a reaction (review) or a response—focuses on what in these pieces I could not have said (or would not have known to say) except that the encounter of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I must at times necessarily say poorly informed stuff, &c. And while some people in the world may expect public speakers to possess omniscience so that they won’t bother to engage in a dialogue to uncover how to make the world a better place, then to the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or figure out what else we might do as part of that attempt to make our world better for us and everyone.

And someone won’t bother to take up their end of that bargain, that points blatantly to a central part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Richard McGuire’s (2014)[2] Here

I have been reading books but not writing replies and more and more feel pressed to “catch up”. This makes me want to have less to say than I might. All the same, of this book, the publisher tells us:

Richard McGuire’s Here is the story of a corner of a room and the events that happened in that space while moving forward and backward in time. The book experiments with formal properties of comics, using multiple panels to convey the different moments in time. Hundreds of thousands of years become interwoven. A dinosaur from 100,000,000 BCE lumbers by, while a child is playing with a plastic toy that resembles the same dinosaur in the year 1999. Conversations appear to be happening between two people who are centuries apart. Someone asking, “Anyone seen my car keys?” can be “answered” by someone at a future archaeology dig. Cycles of glaciers transform into marshes, then into forests, then into farmland. A city develops and grows into a suburban sprawl. Future climate changes cause the land to submerge, if only temporarily, for the long view reveals the transient nature of all things. Meanwhile, the attention is focused on the most ordinary moments and appreciating them as the most transcendent.

More ad-text assures us that readers have waited twenty-five years for the expansion of the original piece (now fifty times longer), which supposedly exploded the comic form by depicting the events over time that all happen in the same place.

This “joke,” which doubtless seems striking, and remains striking in the first couple of pages of the present version—and by “joke” I mean that in the most favourable sense of the word—quickly loses its traction however, and it seems instructive to wonder why.

From the publisher’s blurb, while “A dinosaur from 100,000,000 BCE lumbers by, while a child is playing with a plastic toy that resembles the same dinosaur in the year 1999” makes a possibly compelling image, that sort of significance does not, and in fact cannot, continue to resonate in the same way over a 300-page text. Everything depends in this book upon the various ironies of co-occurrence. One might imagine the human lives that all intersect at a given street corner over the course of a century, but if person A and person B have some sort of ironic or poignant connection, and so do person C and person D, what does the first couple have to do with the second?

Ultimately, any sense of the “history” of the place becomes nothing but a jumble of unrelated events, and this becomes very clear when pseudo-realistic depictions of the planet in some of its earlier eras linger in the background. This does not succeed in making human life tiny but, rather, simply detaches the sense of a place, a here, from the story. I doubt very much McGuire intends this.

I suspect that, ultimately, the very brevity of the original not only forced McGuire to more carefully integrate all of his material into something more like a single narrative, however spread out in time, but even if not, it certainly allowed the reader to make more of a single narrative of it. The expansion of the idea kills that possibility, essentially—like a full-blooded short-story tortured on a narrative wrack into an anaemic novel, or what we saw happen to the latest Hobbit movie.

Also—memory being treacherous at this point—it would appear that in the billion or so years of this room, the only sex that ever occurred here involved the rape of a Native American woman by a Native American male. That seems trashy and gratuitous, and it especially points out—since that narrative has no follow-up—how selective the book gets about what narratives it depicts at some length. The last gesture of the book, providing a kind of tidy tie-up, answers a woman’s question posed much earlier; she can’t remember why she has come into the room, looking for something, and at the end she remembers.

So McGuire implies, accidentally or not, that the book concerns memory, but this does not seem convincing. The only “history” of the place truly constructed comes from the reader (of the book). Only the reader has any access to the event-depth of the place, so that perhaps McGuire expects us to make something of the fact that a rape occurred and now the house stands on Native American burial grounds, or at least the site of a Native American culture depicted in only the most cursory of ways. One might call this invisibility deliberate or apposite—an official history that only takes note of what it choose to take note of (wandering dinosaurs, the Cainozoic era, &c). I certainly don’t find myself moved to a thoughtful consideration of “real” U.S. history by the only representation of Native American culture in this corner of the world as a rape. &c. He supplies nowhere near enough compositional intelligence to make such a reading likely, however much one could torture one out.

Also, the lack of an equal depth of field into the future seems a mistake. Apparently, the “act of imagining” required to supply images of the past represents a different faculty in the artist’s intentions. We do see some of the future, but only the extremely relatively near future—I think we get 10,000 years into the future at most, while the past goes back billions of years.


[1] I planned also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests. I haven’t followed through on this yet.

[2] McGuire, R. (2014). Here. New York, Pantheon, pp. 1–300.

Summary (TLDR Version)

Pragmatism made exciting, almost!

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve already read this section this year, you can skip it; if you’ve read the previous years, I’ve updated it. Either way, it describes the aim of these book replies.

Three years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day and then write a book reply (not a review) for each one I finished (or gave up on).[1] These replies don’t amount to Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, &c., unless that struck me as somehow necessary. Rather, a book reply—as distinct from a reaction (review) or a response—focuses on what in these pieces I could not have said (or would not have known to say) except that the encounter of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I must at times necessarily say poorly informed stuff, &c. And while some people in the world may expect public speakers to possess omniscience so that they won’t bother to engage in a dialogue to uncover how to make the world a better place, then to the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or figure out what else we might do as part of that attempt to make our world better for us and everyone.

And someone won’t bother to take up their end of that bargain, that points blatantly to a central part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: C.D. Tirres’ (2014)[2] The Aesthetics and Ethics of Faith: A Dialogue Between Liberationist and Pragmatic Thought [Part 5a]

Someone asked me to read and reply to this book. And so, since this needs something more “formal” than my typical replies, the following provides the second part of a longer, more point by point reflection on the book. You may read part 1 and part 2 and here.

Chapter 5: Integrating Experience and Epistemology: Ivone Gebara’s Pragmatic Ecofeminism

This is an out-of-sequence reply to this book, which has fallen by the wayside over the past few months through no fault of its own.

In building upon Gebara’s pragmatic ecofeminism, as he describes it, Tirres offers a construction of pragmatism that makes it compelling. For instance:

Pragmatism stresses that human beings interact with and in nature and are not inherently set over-and-against it. As such, knowledge is less something that a “subjective” self applies to an “objective” or “outer” world, and more a mode of interaction that is part-and-parcel of the continual and close-knit interplay between the human organism and its environment (125–6).

One may read this as merely “holistic,” but it also rests on an iterative process that takes art as its model.

In all cases, the process both begins with the question of quality and ends with it. It begins with a quality that is aesthetically “felt” or “given” before it is rationalistically “known.” The process of reflective inquiry reshapes and reconstructs this immediately “given” quality in such a way that it becomes a meaningful, “reconstructed” quality. In one sense, we could consider this reconstructed quality to be a new “end.” However, just as soon as we reach this point, the “end” becomes a potential new “means” for the reconstruction of further qualitative ends (127–8).

And so:

If, within the basic structure of experience, the dynamic growth of the organism–environment transaction yields immediate and qualitative moments of “fulfilment” and “consummation,” then, so too does consummation happen within the context of reflective inquiry. Consummation becomes “meaning.” In short, pragmatists like Dewey have no reason to turn to a priori or transcendental accounts of experience, since experience, as it is actually “had,” already supplies us with its own rich standards of value (126–7).

The attraction and strategic value of avoiding transcendental categories—or at least seeming too—spares the philosopher having to somehow ground those categories; a necessity that belligerent scepticism shall no doubt find a way to undermine, as it always does. At the same time, however, appealing to the self-evidence of experience—not, mind you, how it might come into being but the absolutely undeniable occurrence of the presence of the experience in consciousness itself—radically detaches all human beings from one another. Or, more precisely, it begs the question how or why experience for you in any way resembles experience for me.

Again, in claiming that experience “already supplies us with its own rich standards of value,” this does not point to how any such values “got into” that experience, i.e., where they come from, &c., but simply to the fact that the person having the experience will consult precisely the content of that experience—here claimed as having its own rich standards—in order to make their next lived iteration in the world. Of course, an observer may readily connect part of the content of that experience back to the environment/culture surrounding the one having the experience but, again, these does not constitute any of the “rich standards of value” locatable in the experience. Why? Because that content provides a negatively subjective part of the experience—by negative, I mean non-social or merely personal.

In saying this, I have made no effort to try to understand what the “rich standards of value” might legitimately consist of in this immediately given experience Tirres refers to. At the risk of the perils accompanying the distinction, I could locate those rich standards in the “form” of experience itself, not the “content”. Any values, if they would warrant the term and actually constitute values sharable between human beings and thus a part of the basis of any human culture or society, would have to reside not in the content of experiences per se but in the fact of having experiences at all, wherein the structure of experiences becomes (or seems) the shared element.

This may sound hopelessly abstract, but we often experience this. If a friend claims to have seen a ghost, and we don’t believe in such things, we may generous not simply laugh in our friend’s face for making such a ridiculous claim and say something instead like, “I believe you believe you had that experience.” The point of connection between the two people here occurs not in any consensus about the content of the experience but rather in the recognition (by the disbeliever) that experiences feel “real”. This recognition proceeds from the disbeliever’s own experience of experiences as well, and not from any specific “content” of those experiences. She can recognise times when she experienced something non-credible, for instance, but cannot in the same breath deny that she had the experience.

Behind this point lurks the observation that “knowledge is less something that a ‘subjective’ self applies to an ‘objective’ or ‘outer’ world.” Occidental philosophy often runs aground on the subjective/objective dichotomy, because in its main professions it fails (or refuses) to acknowledge the subjectivity of the objective as well as the objectivity of the subjective. The more usual sceptical complaint points out—again and again—that subjective perception can claim to hoist itself by its own petard; subjective judgments get taken as validation for claims about objective “facts”.

But what seems truly self-evident about experience hinges on its self-evidence. We feel we look “out” into a world and thus overlook that our consciousness has constructed something out of disparate neural firings. We say that our nerves experience impingement from energy sources “outside” of those nerves, but we do so on judgments from within those conscious constructions, &c. But even on these grounds, scientific studies demonstrate that the supposed “inputs” don’t correlate to (much less match) the “outputs”. Colour, for instance, constitutes no property of Nature but arises as an artefact of our mental functioning. And whether any one-to-one correspondence prevails between “inputs” and “outputs,” we have no external third point to make that judgment from.

At the same time, whatever presents to us in consciousness—ostensibly in some “subjective” way—has nothing subjective about it. Look around. Nothing you see has anything to do with your “subjective” desiring or wanting. If you see these words, you have no say in that. You choice exists solely in no longer reading, but this does not negate the “objectivity” of experience. And in fact, all of the markers we ascribe to supposedly “objective” reality actually better describe our experience of perception. Quantum mechanics assures us that “reality” in no way resembles, even a little, how we think it does; “objective reality,” then, denotes more our projection of our perception of experience; or, as Piaget (1972)[3] put it: the individual emerges as an object within a universe of objects experienced as external to itself. The “as” here (not “as if”) matters crucially; we experience the world “as” external to ourselves, rather than experience a world external to ourselves.

This happens objectively, not subjectively. And since my consciousness and your consciousness remain incommensurable, if we get into a dispute about the external world either of us experience, we have to negotiate that difference, often by making insistences about how the world “is”. We accuse one another of “subjectivity” then but both do so from an unswervably, innegatably objective experience of that external world. If I persuade you to my view (or you to mine), this does not involve making your previous experience into something else, except in the sense that you reinterpret it in a different way. You abandon your previous view, or modify it, but even then, the operations you perform on the “clay” of that experience can only start from and work with that specific clay.

So, indeed, as Tirres notes, experience never proceeds by a “subjective” imposition upon an “objective” or “outer” world. Rather, the structure of experience itself seems equivalent to any objective world. Again, the fact that we differ (or that anyone could differ) in experience does not “disclose” a subjectivity at work. Whatever consensus or sheer numbers I drum up to support “my” contention about “the world” can rest only on one of the more familiar logical fallacies as an argument for the truth of my contention. At the same time, the authority Copernicus cited against the ad populam of the general public also didn’t make his claim “true”; it only made it more adequately fit for explaining the disparate, phenomenal experiences of human beings.

And thus, to understand science as simply one of several forms of reflective inquiry, to contextualize science as one, not the only, form of reflective inquiry makes for a valuable reminder as well.

Nonetheless, what lingers in all of this involves a resistance to the word “pragmatism” and the crass unimaginativeness it invokes; a crassness Tirres acknowledges, even while trying to save the word from its current degradation. One wonders why? It would seem smarter to re-name the term more intelligently; not to do so has an air of secretly co-signing the frameworks and projects of the crass exponents.


[1] I planned also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests. I haven’t followed through on this yet.

[2] Tirres, C. D. (2014). The Aesthetics and Ethics of Faith: A Dialogue Between Liberationist and Pragmatic Thought. Oxford University Press, i–xi, 1–223.

[3] Piaget, J. (1972). The principles of genetic epistemology. New York, NY: Viking.


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