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.

Endnotes

[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.

Endnotes

[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.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan 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.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course 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 3]

Although I got out of the loop with this book, someone asked me some time ago to read and reply to it; I suspect I might just start over, especially since I have had such an oppositional attitude to much of what Tirres writes, which strikes me as curious, since often Tirres gets into terrain I remain sympathetic to. In any case, 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 here.

Before Going On

I want to add before continuing, my previous posts about this book may seem too harshly framed, and I apologise if it comes across that way. And as soon as (more or less) empowered representatives take it upon themselves to describe the “poor” or to speak on their behalf, the poor have a right to react cagily and circumspectly to such representations, even when meant in a “helpful” way—principally because the history of even well-meant representations have typically gone problematic. In this way, to take up talking about an “aesthetic turn” (even in the critical way Tirres does) while people starve to death can quickly and easily look ethically repugnant. An example, from a seemingly unrelated domain, will illustrate this.

Some time ago (more or less in 2002),[3] a sort of public debate took place over cosmopolitanism versus patriotism. A lot of hay got threshed about this by a number of academics; and then the lead organizer of the discussion offered her rebuttal. From my previous blog:

Earlier, I noted Putnam’s [2002][4] seeming lack of concern for the poor even as he employed them as an example, and especially his preface “I believe”; “I believe that we need to condemn the conditions that poor people everywhere daily experience as unjust” (96). Here, Nussbaum asks in a similar way:

May I give my daughter an expensive college education, while children all over the world re starving and effective relief agencies exist? May Americans enjoy their currently high standard of living, when there are reasons to think the globe as a whole could not sustain that level of consumption? These are hard questions, and there will and should be much debate about the proper answers (137).

Just as Putnam arrogates to himself an end of responsibility by proposing merely to pay lip service to condemning the poverty, here Nussbaum asserts that posing the question suffices. We may rest very assured that the answer to the tritely rhetorical questions Nussbaum proposes came as a resounding yes, all the more so when a supposedly cosmopolitan response fins sufficient to pose these “hard questions” and to insist that the course of action “will and should be much debate about the proper answers” (137).

Are you shitting me? The next section of her text begins, “As we pose these questions, we should value human diversity” (137)—Nussbaum has segued in matter of sentences from any kind of relevance into the depths of imperialist apologetics, illustrating Wallerstein’s (2002) warning that cosmopolitanism may as much abet as challenge privilege. Espousing a (justifiable) concern for hierarchy, Nussbaum insists that “some forms of diversity are clearly separable from hierarchy: most religious and ethnic differences” (138). Numerous wheels might get pitched at this, but I simply here want to underscore again—because Nussbaum’s effort of reply here keeps trying to get to the “basics” of human experience as a ground for her argument—that “religion” does not constitute a human universal, so long as one neglects to address atheism.[5] This point matters because Nussbaum cannot conceptualize matters outside of “the profound importance of religion, and respect for religious difference, in a just society” (137). The possibility that religion amounts to a socially destructive, and ultimately antisocial, superstition does not seem recognizable to Nussbaum as she characterizes her views here.

Not to take on the role of kill-joy, but when Nussbaum inserts as an intentionally humorous aside that “this does not mean that the world citizen cannot believe that the Bulls are better than all other teams. World citizens never deny was is self-evidently true” (138), this exemplifies the underlying falseness of Nussbaum’s view, just as surely as her trite rhetorical questions that we should debate how to address the question of world justice while children simultaneously starve for our benefit. In a pathetic footnote to this piece of cultural chauvinism by Nussbaum, where one hopes to find a proper measure of apology for this ridiculous incursion, instead she writes, “Marcus Aurelius did say that Stoicism required one not to be a partisan of the Green or Blue teams at the games—but he was speaking of a Roman context in which such rivalries gave rise to delight in the murder of human beings” (150).

In general, the supposed discussion conducted here amounts to little more than pious masturbation, a bunch of lip service paid to the right notions: that “there will and should be much debate about the proper answers” rather than any course of action right now to help people being destroyed at this very second. In one of the briefest replies in this discussion recorded by Nussbaum, brief perhaps because the respondent sees through this empty, academic twaddle, Wallerstein (1994)[6] bluntly remarked:

Those who are strong—strong politically, economically, socially—have the option of aggressive hostility toward the weak (xenophobia) or magnanimous comprehension of “difference” [largesse]. In either case, they remain privileged … ¶ In 1945, the United States become the hegemonic power in the world-system—by far the most powerful nation economically, militarily, politically, and even culturally. Its official ideological line was threefold: America is the world’s greatest country (narrow nationalism); America is the leader of the “free world” (the nationalism o the wealthy, White countries); America is the defender of universal values of individual liberty and freedom of opportunity (justified in terms of Kantian categorical imperatives). ¶ The United States government and moral spokesmen saw no difficulty in making all three assertions simultaneously. Most persons were unaware of the internal inconsistency of this triple stance (122–3).

In this kind of (imperial) context—the current one that we live in—it seems perfectly apposite (or at least reasonable) to demand some clear sign that any discussion (of liberation theology) serves first and foremost as a staging ground for some helpful action on behalf of those represented, rather than on the kind of self-serving “debate” Nussbaum finds so necessary (in order that she keep her job and that her daughter gets go to a fancy college denied to those that Nussbaum “represents”).

I recognise, and have defended, the necessity of having a proper or helpful frame on an issue as a prerequisite to moving forward, but very few circumstances have such critical stakes that we must stop all progressive action while we figure out what next needs doing. In other words, it seems perfectly reasonable to expect that any liberation theologian shows in his or her actions a material solidarity and activity with those represented. At the very least, this signals the authenticity of the concern for those represented, the poor. Certainly, almost all of the Latin American liberation theologians showed this; some were murdered or imprisoned as a sign of their material solidarity with those they represented.

At the beginning of this chapter, Tirres frames his concern that US Latino/a liberation theologians have too complacently converted the option for the poor into the option for culture, essentially making liberation theology into an academic problem one might make a career of proposing to solve, no doubt by the kind of “debate” (rather than action) Nussbaum proposes. I want to emphasize that this seems promising—and his exposure of Vatican arguments against Marxism also suggest a promising stance—but if in the final analysis the corrective that Tirres proposes lacks sufficient signs of material solidarity with those represented (and spoken for) by liberation theologians, then he will have legitimately earned scepticism of my earlier posts and he will have placed himself squarely in a comprador intellectual position, betraying his race not only locally (in the US) but internationally as well (in South America).

Chapter 3: Liberation in the Latino/a Americas

As something to note right off, although Tirres does not enclose the word liberation in quotation marks in this chapter’s title, for the headers on each page have the word as “liberation”. I doubt Tirres decided this, and the scare quotes undermine the chapter’s credibility by making it seem he denies any reality to liberation in the Latino/a Americas.[7] Definitely something to edit for the second edition.

He begins by showing how from the Eighties onward the dominant Vatican response to South American liberation theology consistently (if not deliberately) misread the movement as a mere reduction to politics. He also underscores the Vatican did not limit itself to talk but systematically replaced Latin American ecclesiastics who supported liberation theology with those who did not. Of course ,this all has an obnoxious or hypocritical element in it, since the Vatican clearly arrogates to itself the right to declare that this kind of politicking on its part represents an integral theology itself, rather than a reduction of theology to politics. Tirres lets this irony speak for itself and does not underscore it, but it still elides the fact that the Vatican both debated and acted (acting here providing the sign of no mere masturbatory twaddle in the debate involved). An obvious point, perhaps, but in a context of liberation theology, we see the Vatican understanding (or at least taking seriously) that the faced a “movement” (in the literal and figurative sense of the word) and not just a “debate”.

After this, Tirres first takes issue with García-Rivera’s (1999)[8] construction of the “beautiful”; he “utilizes [Charles Sanders] Peirce’s and [Josiah] Royce’s logic and their metaphysics of relations. Whereas Peirce’s study of signs speaks to a ‘community of the true’ and Royce’s idea of loyalty points to a ‘community of the good,’ García-Rivera sets out to construct a ‘community of the beautiful’” (56). For Tirres, “the question is not so much: how do aesthetic objects and practices point to a presumed universal quality of Beauty, but rather, how can and does aesthetic meaning emerge organically within everyday experience, and how may it be further shaped and refined through creative, human action?” (57).

To put this matter too bluntly, Tirres rejects García-Rivera’s thoughtful attempt here as academic twaddle, i.e., too divorced from actual human experience. And he further rejects the notion of a too narrowly imagined theological aesthetics (an object of García-Rivera’s work) in favour of a religious aesthetics. Or, again to put it more politically, a Catholic or Protestant aesthetics won’t cut it as necessarily hobbled (if not disingenuous in a way even). Rather, the starting point for religious aesthetics “has more to do with the way that we ascribe aesthetic and/or religious significance to human experience and practice than with any a priori idea of Beauty, the Sacred, or the Divine” (57), i.e., the undesirable a priori here meaning any specifically Catholic (or Protestant) construction of what Beauty, the Sacred, or the Divine already means. And while, in one respect, this question almost hopelessly involves nothing more than academic twaddle, Tirres at least stands up here for a broader understanding of aesthetics than anything compassed by theological aesthetics. And even more generally than this, Tirres would place the notion of aesthetics on a generally wider footing than perhaps most (academics) think of it these days.

Thus, an experience may be deemed aesthetic even if it has nothing formally to do with art. The same logic applies to Dewey’s theory of ‘the religious,’ which may be seen as an intensification of the aesthetic and which may apply to experiences that are not formally connected with institutional religion (58).

Here, I would defend his point against accusations of academic twaddle (although wrapping this point up in Dewey seems gratuitous), because what he points to involves a recognition that human beings have access to profound (aesthetic or religious) experiences not only potentially through any experience but also, and specifically, not only in the sanctioned or approved (established) religious channels. As a particular earthy example of the former, people (often women) in India will place a piece of cow dung outsider the house and worship this as an embodiment of Ganeṣa; as a case of the latter, the visions of Brother Klaus (or any number of other Christian mystics) offered an extremely heterodox version of Christ (one not recognised by an Orthodox interpretation), but his vision still consisted of Christ (a sanctioned religious symbol). Finding the face of Jesus in a piece of toast marks a case of the latter as well.

All of this points, implicitly, to the question: who gets to define what constitutes a valid (aesthetic or religious) experience, and Tirres here weighs in less to say “everyone can decide for herself” and more to question “why does the religious Authority (or the Vatican) get to act as the sole arbiter of this question?” And, of course, this question of who validates aesthetic or religious experiences opens up as well into the broader question of who gets to validate experience in general. Consequently, when an experience happens to you, who has the right (or simply the power) to declare, “Your experience doesn’t count or is wrong?” Under a theological aesthetics, which he rejects, the answer to the question comes down to, “The religious authority decides.”[9]

Still, having said this, to contrast theological and religious aesthetics gives us a false dichotomy, since either choice leaves us in the domain of “religion”. Nonetheless, Tirres still points in a historically useful footnote to a broader vision of aesthetics:

If this sounds like a radical departure from the way what we tend to think about aesthetics today, we would be well served to recall that the modern discipline of aesthetics, as initiated by Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten in the 1730s, began as the “science of sensory knowledge” of any and all experience. It was only later theorists, most notably Kant and Hegel, who approached aesthetics as a pure judgment of taste and who restricted Baumgarten’s inquiry to exceptional pieces of fine art. Although subsequent thinkers like the Romantics would revivify Baumgarten’s understand of the wide reach of aesthetics, as witnessed by their fascination with the beautiful and sublime features of nature and the human body, aesthetic theory since the late eighteenth century continues, unfortunately, to be premised on the more limited idea that aesthetics is a matter of art proper and that art is to be contemplated by a perceiver in a disinterested and detached way. See Tirres [2009],[10] “Aesthetics,” 1:6–11 (n42, 58).

This question of aesthetics, which indeed has transformed largely into a piece of masturbatory academic twaddle precisely to the degree that it gets taken as “a matter of art proper and that art is to be contemplated by a perceiver in a disinterested and detached way” (58), has served in that respect as a piece of political neutralisation, i.e., whatever Baumgarten hoped to accomplish with his science of sensory knowledge,[11] the sort of use it got put to in the exemplary cases of Kant, Hegel, and subsequent commentators lost touch with the radically transformative possibilities in aesthetic experience (and Art) that Schiller still saw for it near the end of the eighteenth century. It surprises me, in fact, that Tirres makes no mention of Schiller, who represents perhaps the most significant philosopher on the value of aesthetic education in history. Academia seems to have chosen to forget this.

The remainder of Tirres’ chapter digs deeper into the work of García-Rivera and R.S. Goizueta. He specifically finds Goizueta’s work to miss its mark of integrating the aesthetic and the ethical, and a couple of tendencies come out in this. First, Tirres exposes what I would call an authoritarian tendency in both of these authors; in other words, he shows the links between these authors’ criticisms of South American liberation theology and Vatican critiques, all of which boil down to anti-Marxist. In both a Vatican and a US context, an anti-Marxist stance certainly dovetails neatly with the prevailing capitalist discourse, but anti-Marxism itself serves as a mask for borrowing the authoritarianism of the Vatican in the first place. As Tirres makes clear, he shows how a certain stripe of US Latino/a critics of South American liberation theology either (1) resort to vulgar embodiments of Marxism, (2) ignore the broader tradition of Marxist analysis that avoid such vulgarity, or (3) selective read (or misread) certain “non-vulgar” Marxists. Hence, “While Goizueta’s critique of Marxism here may hold true in terms of more reductionistic, orthodox, and vulgar forms of Marxism, the critique does not hold in light of more nuanced, non-sectarian, and ‘open’ forms of Marxism, with which [one writer] himself associates” (66).

To represent by synecdoche Tirres’ point overall (particularly with respect to Goizueta’s work in this chapter), he interrogates the stark distinction between “praxis” and “poiesis”—or, specifically, operatio-poiesis in Goizueta’s use. This distinction hinges on the difference between praxis (as a doing that serves as an end in itself) versus a poiesis (as a making that serves some end other than the doing itself). To give a familiar example from the domain of aesthetics, the critic will note the difference between art as an end in itself versus art that serves some non-artistic end, and thus smacks more of propaganda.

So, even as this distinction may seem like academic twaddle, behind it we may discern the intention of the actor (the artist)—does she offer the work of art as a disinterested emblem of some universal human truth, which culture ostensibly hails as the most worthwhile thing of all, or does it serve the squalid, narrow end of “mere politics” (serving the interests of a single, narrow class, whether the rich or the poor). In this, you should detect again already the same complaint directed against Latin American liberation theology; it gets too involved in “vulgar and narrow politics” rather than remaining oriented toward universal (human) truth, as the most worthwhile thing of all. Thus, these aesthetic gestures either represent the author’s intended gesture of liberation (from narrow political milieus) or it represents an attempt to delimit and control people (into a narrow political milieu). This latter attempt might arrive in reactionary form or revolutionary form, but one of Tirres’ main objections to Goizueta points to the too stark distinction between praxis and poiesis, between “doing” and “making”. For him, “In pragmatism, human knowledge, imagination, and creativity are ‘instrumental to’ the qualitative enrichment of experience. One cannot life as an ‘end in itself’ without such means. Both the product and the process are integral to one another” (64).

A point lacking in Tirres’ analysis: while he readily digs out how García-Rivera and Goizueta rely upon vulgar Marxism (or cherry-pick less vulgar Marxist analyses), he has yet to acknowledge that pragmatism too must have its own vulgar pragmatists. Or somewhat more to the point, except in the case of ideological tools, presumably such “vulgar” Marxism rests on some specific desire the proponent of it felt needed making. A point that would apply to vulgar pragmatists as well.

Or to put the matter still another way, the historically ubiquitous contending between (for want of a better term) absolutist framings of issues in contention versus “shades of grey” framing begs the question why this contention recurs. Those of a fundamentalist or orthodox orientation deem those advocating “shades of grey” heretic, traitors, compromiser, ell-out, while those advocating an integral or moderate view see others as zealots, fanatics, narrow-minded, and the like. Hence, of course Goizueta might harp on vulgar Marists to make his point, while Tirres cries foul and objects one may find any number of sophists, excuse-makers, or simply cleverer or more obfuscating proponents (of Marxism) that the ones Goizueta focuses on. Similarly, then, we might expect Tirres to avoid citing any vulgar pragmatists in his own analyses, but we have no reason to believe simply on the face of it that this means their arguments can’t be disingenuous, &c.

Also, it becomes hard to ignore, as Tirres treats García-Rivera’s and Goizueta’s arguments, in a strictly right or wrong contrast how this runs at odds with his insistence, on multiple levels, to reject stark dichotomies and instead pursue “integral’ positions. One may locate occasional disclaimers that keep Tirres’ exposition from becoming what one might call ‘vulgar rejectionism,” but these disclaimers finally do little to forestall the impression that Goizueta has nothing to offer and that one need pay attention to his work. I’d like to think this amounts to an overstatement, but I doubt it does.

However, as a qualifier on this: Tirres starts by dismantling the Vatican critique of Latin American liberation theology. The unstated part of this—as also the unstated part of the Vatican critique—seems an a priori advocacy for or opposition to Marxism itself. Seeking to condemn or defend Marxism in general, it seems as if the lens of liberation theology (whether pro or con) serves as a distraction for that fact. The situation resembles Bakhtin hidden polemic, except that the object of the hidden polemic (Marxism) seems very poorly hidden. Hence, just as Goizueta (at least in Tirres’ construction of his argument) takes up the Vatican charge of “covertly” bashing Marxism, so Tires similarly sets out to dismantle Goizueta’ argument as a way to un-discredit Marxism. Accusing Goizueta of resorting to vulgar Marxism especially points to this.

And then deeper still, this rather indirect squabbling over the quality of one’s Marxism does act as a further distraction from the underlying dichotomy tires frames North and South American liberation theology in: namely, the categories of the ethical (political) and aesthetic (spiritual). One finds an authoritarianism invoked on all three sides of this debate: (1) the unabashed authoritarianism of the Vatican, (2) the authoritarianism of Goizueta in attempt to “stifle” the open-endedness at work in Latin American liberation theology but also to provide his own end-all/be-all answer, and (3) the authoritarianism of Tirres who starkly deploys an either/or (that one should essentially reject Goizueta’s work wholesale) rather than identifying work of Goizueta’s sort as part of a continuum, as Tirres advocates for other either/or dichotomies. One feels in the presence of Berlin’s “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” where he tries to work through why people seem averse to a genuine (political) plurality in daily life. As Aileen Kelly (1979),[12] in her Introduction, so ably summarises (perhaps better even than Berlin):

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 (Kelly, xv).

By this, we see Tirres advancing “a liberal outlook–according to which all extreme positions [like Goizueta’s] are distortions of true values and the key to social harmony and a moral life lies in moderation and the golden mean” (xv). Pluralism would have acknowledged an agonizing truth, that a circumstance like Goizueta’s stark dichotomy between “doing” and “being” might not have an establishable objective hierarchical relation between them. The two views, Tirres’ and Goizueta’s, might instead offer incompatible but equally desirable values.

Berlin discusses in part how it seems always easier to declare those who disagree with you simply wrong, rather than admitting their (baffling) point of view may have some merit after all. But—barring any sufficient evidence that Goizueta doesn’t simply play the part of a shill or a tool for himself, his career, or someone else, an accusation we might with equal irresponsibility at this point level at Tirres—then I have to say that Tirres’ dismantling looks like it accomplishes (by accident or deliberately) no “liberating” us from his own variety of critical monism—i.e., the insistence upon only one way of looking at things; the antithesis of what Berlin calls pluralism.

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[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] Nussbaum, MC, and Cohen, J (ed.) (2002). For love of country? (A New Democracy Forum On The Limits Of Patriotism)Boston: Beacon Press

[4] Putnam, H. (2002). Must we choose between patriotism and universal reason? in Nussbaum, MC, and Cohen, J (ed.) (2002). For love of country? (A New Democracy Forum On The Limits Of Patriotism), pp. 91–97.Boston: Beacon Press.

[5] The habit of treating atheists as a form of religious sometimes has merit, depending upon the atheist, but generally the move serves merely to misprision the atheist critique of theism.

[6] Wallerstein, I (2002). Neither patriotism or cosmopolitanism. In MC Nussbaum with respondents, J Cohen (ed.), For love of country? (A New Democracy Forum On The Limits Of Patriotism), pp. 122–4,Boston: Beacon Press

[7] Although, which “America” this might point to (North, South, or Central) remains ambiguous, of course.

[8] García-Rivera, A. (1999). The community of the beautiful: a theological aesthetics. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.

[9] Having encountered lately a bunch of “simple-minded” argumentation (excuse the judgmental tone please), I can only imagine that such folks would scoffingly declare that no one but the individual gets to decide on this matter. This self-congratulatory myth, of course, collapses as soon as (for example) you (1) become a heterodox Christian, bucking the authority and the community in your church, or (2) the police decide to arrest you and you get to offer excuses for your behavior to a judge who would sentence you to prison. &c. Both of these cases involve (I would say) a degree of an abuse of power, but the issue appears even in non-abusive cases. We only need admit that we sometimes get confused about our experiences so that an outsider might weigh in with a more apt description to get into this territory. Only if you believe you can never err in your interpretation of an experience could you possibly insist that you and only you can correctly describe that experience. This seems a piece of egregious entitlement (once again) characteristic of late-order capitalism.

[10] Tirres, CD (2009). “Aesthetics.” M. De La Torre (ed.) Hispanic American Religious Cultures, vol. 1, pp. 6–11. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO

[11] The topic may not have escaped the masturbatory in his work either.

[12] Kelley, A. (1979). Introduction: a complex vision. In I. Berlin Russian Thinkers. (eds. Henry Hardy and Aileen Kelly). New York: Pelican.

Summary (TLDR Version)

Nostalgia in publishing doesn’t make for convincing work.

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: F. Santoro’s (1995)[2] Storeyville

As usual lately, an acute awareness on my part of ad-text for a book upstages this graphic novel’s content.

Here, a work from 1995 gets bracketed by foreword and afterward both by different figures from the comics industry telling us in much gush how meaningful their experience of reading this text felt when it first came out.

But at least they also do, along the way, manage to make some claims about the graphic style of the work, but no shortage of it hinges on amazement over the use of a technique that by now—whether through Santoro’s influence or not—no longer seems striking.

Most of the back of the book gets similarly occupied with forms of nostalgia. Chris Ware’s confession about his first encounter with Storeyville gets repeated; Brian Chippendale assures us “Storeyville is … classic”; Seth begins by saying, “Of all the graphic narratives to appear in the last few decades …”; and Lauren Weinstein points not only to the bygone era of the Great Depression (where the book occurs) but also likens the art-style to the past of Matisse and Grosz. As a 2005 reprint, the book itself (now in a hard-bound cover) already reflects a retrospective look. And if an essential part of nostalgia involves homesickness for the place of one’s youth, then Weinstein’s expostulation, “Plus [Santoro] made it when he was just twenty-three” while the plot itself, the summary informs us, “follows the arc of a youthful adventure at the dawn of the twentieth century” both point to the past in that way that smacks of a desire to recapture one’s (lost) youthfulness.

We should do the artist the courtesy of assuming he means for the style to get blurry after a certain point, and not simply read it as laziness—though one might. Whatever else Ware reports from a long-time collaborator with Santoro about this change of style, it reads at its most obvious as the story (or narrative) becoming unclear for the protagonist. The key moment, Ware insists, occurs where the text reports, “I realize now that I, unsure of my own future, longed for the stability and camaraderie of their lives” (16). Ware claims the style radically changes after this, but that seems a hard sell to me. Things seem more consistently “unclear” or “blurry” more like twenty frames later after, “I was no longer sure in which direction my future lay” (17).

But whatever we might make of that, this blurriness does not linger. Soon enough, and without any clear development of narrative, the drawings have no more blurriness than at the outset. And Santoro then resorts to an abrupt point of view change, having the protagonist’s “saviour” (Rudy) appear gradually in four frames, intermixed with some drawings of birds, and in an otherwise empty page.

Ware remarks that “Will’s own relationship to the friend whom he’s chosen as his savior have been entirely subjective, if not illusory” (ii), which one could read as suggesting that the subsequent encounter between Rudy and Will happens only in his head. I don’t think Ware means this, but it at least makes artistic and narrative sense of the point of view break.

Yeah, you say: who cares about point of view violations? Besides that they seem to account for a very great number of cases where readers checkout-of or abandon a text? Besides that they most often read as simple errors? But seriously, if you simply want to insist that the text can have no errors, that it constitutes immortal genius worth of Matisse (forget Grosz), then why say anything at all?

An equal part awkward decision involves the reveal on the past disaster that befell Rudy and Will. The elliptical suggestions around this at the beginning do a nice job of seeming weird and unsettling and difficult for the main character. And if an author, having established this expectation, really can’t fail to make clear what did happen, it needn’t appear in a drunken reminisce by the main character. It would have come out more compellingly, I’d venture, if related to another person, even a stranger.

The main problem, however, comes out in the timing of the disclosure. To set up some of the dramatic irony in the text—and simply so we have some orientation for when Will and Rudy actually interact—this forces Santoro to plunk this narrative exposition down where he does. It comes after he has introduced us to Rudy (in the point of view break) and then has to happen before Will finds him—assuming, in fact, that we actually have to know the backstory. I doubt that, especially as it raises a number of logistical questions that seem to need answering, i.e., what prison or jail were Rudy and Will in that they escaped from, and why were they chained together at all. &c.

In a work so hemmed all about by nostalgia, a flashback like this at least makes a kind of formal sense (for the work generally), but flashbacks don’t move the story forward, they usually serve to clutter the narrative with exposition not at all necessarily necessary, and their “thematic” use in the text rarely comes out.

Santoro has already established Will remains haunted by the role Rudy had in his life; why actually doesn’t matter, not for the reader and not for the characters. The entire interaction between Will and Rudy consists most of all of Rudy saying, “You don’t need me anymore,” and only a little of Rudy implying, “Don’t talk to me now; I have to protect the secret of my/our past.” The specifics of their past interaction don’t bear on the scene, and finding out about it actually lessens, rather than exacerbates, the charge of the book.

Of course, ad-text can only misrepresent the book it plumps it seems. The striking thing involves less how relentlessly it lies as how the gesture persists. Maybe someone will read the book expecting “a perfect match of form and content” from Storeyville (as the ad-text claims); or maybe such a bold-faced lie functions to induces readers to read the book to prove such nonsense wrong. In advertising, whether an ad appeals or offends matters less than that you simply remember the product. Maybe something like that operates with book-text: whether it seduces you with outrageous claims or tweaks your nose in a way that makes you set out to prove it wrong, either way so long as you buy the book (never mind reading it), nothing else matters.

Endnotes

[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] Santoro, F. (2007). Storeyville, Brooklyn: PictureBox, pp. i–iii, 1–50.

Summary (TLDR Version)

Less a history and more a compendium of images from alchemical texts, this book warrants a look for the way that its imagery can activate the imagination.

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: A. Roob’s (1997)[2] Alchemy & Mysticism

This curious text on (the history of) alchemy has an even more curious blurb on the back of the book: “… a fast-food, high-energy fix on the topic at hand” (from the New York Times Book Review).

Whether apt or not, this hardly seems something you’d brag about on the back of your book. Meanwhile, Roob’s footprint in the book appears more as an editor and commentator. Supplying a brief introduction to summarise the 1,700 year history of European alchemy, with nods to Egyptian and Arabic moments, the book consists mostly of images from alchemical texts accompanied (presumably) by Roob’s remarks or quotations from (usually) unrelated alchemical texts. In several places, he “decodes” the alchemist’s deliberate obscurities: a reference to the application of “boy’s urine,” for instance (Roob tells us) “is a well-known code name for the mercurial water” (150).

But the main interest of the book consists simply in the visuals supplied on each page, which sometimes include images from Hindu, Jainist, and Tibetan traditions. Images include detailed sketches and full-on paintings, ranging over the whole history (sometimes anachronistically).

In an accidental way—since the material seems arranged thematically rather than in any order that the alchemists might have attempted to accomplish their Work—a basic sense of an “alchemical process” does manage come through; something that often remains thoroughly obscure, especially in books by alchemists themselves. Roob elects to include quotations that squarely centre this Work of alchemy on the development of inward, psychological processes, rather than any vulgar quest for literal gold. Having ploughed through Jung’s alchemical works, including his dense and appropriately mysterious (1956)[3] Mysterium Coniuntionis (see here), the inclusion of images from the texts Jung often referred to lends even more credence to his ground-breaking defence of the alchemical process as the process of psychological individuation. In particular, a series of images from a book by Robert Fludd in its circles and darknesses and emergences seems a virtually literal representation of the manifestation of material out of the Unconscious to the conscious mind.

But whatever support for Jung’s interpretation of alchemical texts these images entail, the main thing involves the way they themselves activate the imagination. Like mandalas, which Roob alludes to and which Jung stressed repeatedly, these images have the potential to elicit responses (or replies) from the Unconscious, to call up alien material.

In its own way, this may prove more valuable than reading the original alchemical texts, which made a fetish of obscurum per obscurius (“explaining the obscure with the more obscure”), or as Roob quotes, “Wherever we have spoken openly we have (actually) said nothing. But where we have written something in code and in pictures we have concealed the truth” (9).

If the goal of the alchemical process involves the transmutation of consciousness, the integration of “dross” thrown up (intentionally or accidentally) by the Unconscious, then the specific coded record of that by the alchemists, as a history of their individual experiences, may disclose less than to actually “plunge” into the process itself, but witnessing the “truth” of the images they have generated.

Endnotes

[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] Roob, A. (2005). Alchemy & Mysticism: The Hermetic Cabinet: Taschen, pp. 1–192.

[3] Jung, CG (1970). Mysterium coniunctionis: an inquiry into the separation and synthesis of psychic opposites in alchemy. (Vol. 14, Collected Works, 2nd ed., Trans. R.F.C. Hull) Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press

This, the fourth in a multipart post, reintroduces the theme of a public-collective rape fantasy centred on sexual assault in prisons and then surveys some of the elements typically included in that public rape-fantasy. See the first three parts of this study here, here., and here.

Introduction

In this paper, we analyse a public-collective rape fantasy centred on sexual assault in prison. We justify the use of the word fantasy for this in light of not only the wide disparity between an exaggerated public opinion regarding the actual frequency of sexual assault in prisons, even when presented with facts to the contrary, but also the public’s failure or reluctance to recognise both the actual character and typically consensual character of most inmate-on-inmate prison sex. The striking and awful fact that “society accepts inmate sexual assault as part of the price criminals pay for committing crimes” (Dumond & Dumond, 2002, pp. 74, emphasis added) points not simply to a prurience but perhaps also and actually vicious quality at work in cultural depictions of inmates in prison raping other inmates. Such depictions appear to serve in part to show raped human beings getting what, in the public’s imagination, they deserve.

This mismatch between recurrent narratives of prison rape in cultural productions—typically of white inmates, often white supremacists, sexually victimising weaker, non-protagonist, same-race inmates—runs explicitly contrary to the predominant state of sexual affairs and demographics in prisons. As a narrative that cultural discourse in the United States desires to repeat, its deviance from the facts of prison sexuality suggests something more akin to compulsive pornographic fantasy than to representational fiction per se. Leps (1992), surveying in considerable detail the interplay of literature’s “truth value” and the conceit of “objective knowledge” embodied in the popular press, demonstrates how (literary) fiction and ostensible non-fiction (in newspapers and other informational media) mutually reinforce one another and can swap places. Within a disciplinary society, then, a “fictional” depiction of prison rape becomes not only the “factual” basis for the public’s imagination about it but even provides a basis for academic studies and policy determinations about actual sexual assault in prison. As Leps notes, “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” (3).

We suggest that the carceral zone of prison, as one of the sites par excellence for the intersection of pleasure and danger, has become a place in the public imagination that positions us as either a “victim” or a “perpetrator” of prison rape, i.e., as either a consumer or producer of this variety of social pornography.[1] Moreover, we centre our analysis on male prison complexes and settings for three reasons. First, inasmuch as patriarchy frames rape (if not exclusively) as a male prerogative, then we should expect that culturally disseminated social pornography around rape in general will more permissively enable this narrative in a male setting; the vast number of cultural productions in this mode seems to bear this out. We may recognise, then, that the greater incidence of male prison rape fantasies arises not simply due to the greater number of male prisoners—facts in any case rarely dictate the course of a fantasy—but because such a setting better gratifies that fantasy, for reasons explored below. Second, the recurrent framing of the victim of sexual assault in prison as a “prison bitch” shines an especially illuminating spotlight on the several interconnecting issues of hierarchy, dominance, misogyny, violence, and racism that patriarchy thrives on. Social pornography, as something actively practiced in public view—in contrast to the private and generally hidden consumption of personal pornography—has an “in plain sight” aspect that we might readily overlook simply for being so obvious. Third, by analysing this strikingly “candid” representation of a collective rape fantasy in the (mostly) all-male setting of the prison, this then adds further to the tools and insights feminism brings both to efforts to dismantle patriarchy in general and to issues of sexual assault specifically. Moreover, by focusing on male prison rape in this way, we do not seek to re-centre perceived male-bodied individuals within a discourse rightly preoccupied with the more widespread cultural problem of sexual assault against perceived and actually female-bodied individuals; quite the contrary, we do in protest against a cultural discourse that fantasizes (both in its cultural productions and the public imagination) that male-on-male rape represents the most degrading form of punishment and is thus more heinous and serious than sexual assault against women.

Towards our goal to rupture the soap bubble of fantasy that surrounds cultural narratives of prison rape, we first summarise briefly in this paper a central tension between pleasure and danger that became especially acute during the “sex wars” and then introduce an analytic method for more fruitfully teasing out the contradictions and dilemmas that result from this pleasure/danger binary in the first place. Stated briefly in anticipation, a public (academic and narrative) discomfort over the intersection of pleasure and danger has engendered tangles in the public discourse about it that our analytic proposes to sort out. Next, by applying this analytic specifically to the historically troubling notion of personal (not collective) rape fantasies—as another site par excellence where pleasure and danger merge disturbingly—this helps to expose and de-scaffold the mythologies and discourses that inform the social pornography of collective prison rape fantasies in general. This not only portends to open a crack in the ostensibly monolithic and impenetrable walls of the carceral panopticon itself to disclose more factual narratives about prison sex generally, but also refocuses our attention, within the dominant narrative context of social pornography around prison rape itself, on the more prevalent perpetrator of such rape: the prison, not the inmates.

Possibilities for Prison Fantasies

At the heart of mass incarceration, most visibly in its opaque-walled prisons, we find the highest priority given to security and control (Simon, 2014). From Foucault (1977), we have the conceit of an omniscient panopticon that misses nothing in its gaze, while Alexander (2012) in The New Jim Crow notes of this carceral omnipotence that it falls these days preferentially upon people of colour, while embodying and articulating the most recent iteration of those systems of racial control that have vitiated US history from its beginning: first as the transatlantic slave trade, then as slavery per se, and then Jim Crow.

Despite this, even the merely demographic details of US prisons only rarely if ever with any accuracy appear in fictional productions about those sites (O’Sullivan, 2001). From the very outset, then, in our cultural imagining of prison narratives we see a divergence from the most elementary facts in several ways. Besides demographic inaccuracy, prison fictions permit us to see through the walls that otherwise block our view. They provide us a privileged, theoretically panoptic view of the space that actual panopticons themselves can only dream of achieving, especially in those scenes and settings given over to prison rape. And we see in those fictions a space often strikingly devoid of guards—suggesting a place where inmates alone inhabit and control the space.

This points to a key fictional lacuna. While Struckman-Johnson and Struckman-Johnson (2000) could report at the turn of the twenty-first century that 21% of inmates had experienced at least one incident of pressured or forced sexual contact, they found also that correctional staff accounted for 20% of these assaults. Following the tremendous acceleration of male incarceration with Reagan’s wide-scale implementation of the War on Drugs and the massive subsidies provided to seduce disinterested police precincts into pursuing it, populations within women’s prisons also later began to climb, and researchers there too reported sexual assaults by prison correctional staff (Alarid, 2000; Struckman‐Johnson & Struckman‐Johnson, 2002).

From the 1980s onward, then, a new urgency prompted research on sexual assault in prison (Anderson, 1982; Chonco, 1989; Dumond, 1992; Nacci & Kane, 1983; Porter, 1986), much of which ultimately contributed to the push for the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003. Almost always this research centred on inmate/inmate sexual assault, and if at times researchers took note of staff/inmate sexual assault, this factor has not entered as a dominant enough element in our culture’s collective prison rape fantasy to occur with any notable frequency. Notably, the reported occurrence of consensual inmate/staff sex (Smith, 2006) also goes unrepresented in fictions generally. It seems as if such narratives write authority and force of the prison itself largely if not entirely out of the picture.[2] Tellingly, correctional officers have been identified as perpetuating this myth: first-time inmates reported in interviews to Fleisher and Krienert (2006) “that staff said sexual violence was part of prison life [and that] sexual victimization was part of their punishment” (15); an assertion that echoes the public opinion cited by Dumond and Dumond (2002) above. One former inmate reported to me that staff told him, “the boys are going to love you” at the maximum security prison they were transferring him to (personal communication, 6 January 2002). The message in this and the narratives alike run the same: staff won’t protect you.

Perhaps from the beginning, the conjunction of sex and prison as a locus of pleasure and danger par excellence has been kinky. Fishman (1934) peered into the prison’s secret world with an eye on homosexuality, and years prior both Oscar Wilde’s warden, and later his biographer, went out of their way to note the smell of semen in their famous inmate’s cell (Ellmann, 2013). Wilde’s convicted sexual non-conformism may be wholly apposite here, since the public imagination knows unambiguously enough that prisons are overwhelming monosexual; so what, then, do all of those inmates do with that idle time on their hands? This question of sex or sexuality doesn’t bear only on the public imagination or the distant past of prison sex culture research (Fishman, 1934), but remains virtually a centrepiece of the field. Fleisher and Krienert (2006) conclude their survey of prison sex culture research by noting:

Since the 1930s prison research literature removed inmates’ conscious motivations for their choices of sexual behavior and replaced individual, conscious deliberation with unconscious forces compelled by sexual deprivation. Deprivation has its origin in the early 20th century as a psychological theory of homosexuality (Gay, 2002, p. 66). This concept diffused into prison research on homosexuality in the 1930s (see Footnotes 1 and 2). Nevertheless, deprivation still accounts for variation in inmates’ sexual behavior. Variation extends on a continuum from homosexuality to sexual violence to female surrogates (“queens”). If deprivation were removed from the calculus of prison homosexuality its absence would leave a hole in the theoretical landscape. The power of deprivation, researchers argue, imputes to prison culture power sufficient to cause straight inmates to become gay. However, without deprivation as a cause, what conditions compel men and women to homosexuality? What would cause straight inmates to become gay? (58, emphasis added).

Whatever prurient or titillating curiosity about homosexuality this reflects, while Alexander (2012) specifically identifies the incarcerated black male as the Other now most subjected to unqualified scorn and hatred, she generally elides that history of what Halpin (1989) calls a “scientific objectivity” that has at various times and in various ways identified black males as identical with children, animals, and women. Halpin (1989) critiques this “scientific objectivity” for the way it provides a “justification for the oppression and domination of ‘the other,’”(1), but for the collective fantasy of prison rape and the carceral spaces it stalks through, his point introduces additional dimensions of prurience or titillation as well. That is: as the place of confinement not only for the criminal homosexual, prisons serve also to quarantine those labelled as sexual deviants who would rape children, animals, or women as well, to say nothing of one another. This yoking together of child, woman, animal, and black in the criminal setting of the prison has important consequences, as will be shown further below.

First, in general, the data from Fleisher and Krienert (2006) demonstrates “that correctional, program, and administrative staff have a limited understanding of the cultural and social dynamics of inmate social [and sexual] life” (18). Thus, if those persons with the greatest daily access to people behind bars have an only limited understanding of their wards’ lived realities, then those without such access—unless they have the benefit of an informant who was previously incarcerated—will have an even more poorly informed sense of those realities, and likely one derived most from ill-informed cultural productions about prison. For people both in and out of prison—labouring under the impression that “the rates of actual victimization are less relevant than the fact [people] perceive the threat of violence to be widespread” (Eigenberg & Baro, 2003, p. 57), a most colloquial and brutal expression of this perceived threat of sexual violence emerges in the danger of being made “someone’s bitch”—a phrase that draws together not only a negative valuation of “animal” and “woman” simultaneously but may also co-opt in its use by white populations an orientalised sense of “bitch” from black slang.

We use the word “bitch” under protest and in solidarity with observations by Kleinman, Ezzell, and Frost (2009) about the social harms of it, even as the phrase “prison bitch” functions as a practically unavoidable and grievously applicable semiotic phrase from social discourse. Jarvis (2005), in his analysis of the socially ultra-pornographic TV series OZ, notes correctly that “the prison bitch is marginalized and yet occupies a central position in grounding the cult of masculinity” (1). In a policy studies on the adequacy of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, the authors casually mention the figure of the prison bitch while quoting song lyrics (DeBraux, 2006). Robertson (2002), in an otherwise dry law review, begins with nearly a full page of italicised and literal prison rape pornography depicting a man being made someone’s prison bitch —a seemingly unintended and complete vindication for what Wicke (1991) identifies as social pornography.

Once again, these examples seem to have their origin more in the discourse about sexual assault in prison—one source of which is the social pornography of prison rape itself—and less in direct interactions with prison realities. In their compendious listing of prison sexual slang gathered from inmates, Fleisher and Krienert (2006) do not actually list “prison bitch” as its own glossary item, but rather only “bitch,” which has “multiple meanings in a variety of contexts. Often used as an honorific term of reference or address to denote a trustworthy fag, or a man’s ‘wife’” (279). This positive sense might surprise laypeople and professional researchers alike. Moreover, while this honorific has no pejorative ring for homosexual inmates—its pejorative equivalent is “he-she”—those male inmates who identify as not homosexual will resist, sometimes violently, any designation as a “bitch.” Hence, the very existence of a non-pejorative use of this term already challenges the public stereotype of “prison bitch” as exclusively negative.[3]

When examining this place of maximum security and control as a quintessential locus for a social pornography around the intersection of pleasure and danger in prison, we might keep in mind the striking fact that, despite the racial demographics of actual prisons, one looks far and wide, and seemingly in vain, for cultural depictions of male prison rape involving people other than whites-on-whites. Studies devoted to analysing prison sexual violence specifically against blacks, by the same token, occur rarely as well (Rowell-Cunsolo, Harrison, & Haile, 2014). However, just as the current discourse within the United States insists on a colour-blind framing to persuade us that we now live in a post-racial milieu (Alexander, 2012), we should not overlook how decades of effort to identify black males as inherently criminal imparts the stigma branded upon black bodies to everyone confined to the space of prison. And just as blackface (Lott, 1992), jungle fever (Scott, 1994), King Kong (Dines, 1998), and a whole sub-industry of black-on-white sexual pornography points to an orientalising exoticisation of the black male without acknowledging it as such (Fanon, 2008), so also should we not permit ourselves to be deceived by the segregated, whites-only character of collective prison rape fantasies in general. In most prison rape narratives, it is typically nameless extras, often identified explicitly with neo-Nazism or white supremacy, who make a “bitch” of another white inmate. Typically, the victim himself is a side character not the protagonist; Kaye’s (1998) American History X provides a notable exception, as also in its more numerous incorporation of black people within the spaces of its depicted prison. Even in Beadle-Blair’s (2005) Bashment, written by a black English author and centred very much on the experiences of some black people in prison, a white side-character gets victimised by white-supremacist-identified extras.

Lockwood (1980) has specifically noted the frequent racial overtones of sexual aggression in prison—racial overtones that seem to vanish in white-on-white sexual assault, but which have only been displaced since the “prison bitch” thus victimised—as woman, child, animal, black—occupies in the discourse a bottom or inferior position both literally and narratively. Whether we consider either the plausibility of real inmate’s fears about sexual assault or the exaggerated inevitability of the experience in cultural depictions of it, the term “prison bitch” functions—like the term “welfare queen” in social pornography about poor black mothers—as a lightning rod that focuses the discourse. It operates like as a symbol in the Jungian sense that “stands for something which can be presented in no other way and whose meaning transcends all specifics and includes many seeming opposites” (Nichols, 1980, p. 7).

Symbols in this sense have a numinous and fascinating quality, which results precisely from the seeming irreconcilability of opposites they embody. Thus, as the image of the “welfare queen” simultaneously invokes images of abject poverty and aristocratic royalty in the same person, the figure of the “prison bitch” simultaneously yokes together the seemingly irreconcilable categories of male and female (or more precisely, male turned “female”), of straight and gay (or more precisely, tacitly straight turned involuntarily “gay”), of perpetrator and victim (or more precisely, a perpetrator turned victim), and of white and “black” (or more precisely, white made inferior by the exercise of inferiorization by white supremacists).

Moreover, we witness the appearance of this symbol the “prison bitch” in a place where what we should not be able to see has been made visible, in a setting where the “injustice” of the rape is negated by the justice of the victim getting what he deserves, and in a head-space where the narrative not only encourages us to identify with the perpetrator but also at a minimum to aesthetically enjoy rape if not simply enjoy it outright. As such, along every axis of a culturally normative white, heterosexual, and vanilla construction of sexuality, the figure of the “prison bitch” appears symbolically in its numinous and fascinating guise as a totally abject negation of those norms.

References

Alarid, L. F. (2000). Sexual assault and coercion among incarcerated women prisoners: Excerpts from prison letters. The Prison Journal, 80(4), 391-406.

Alexander, M. (2012). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness: The New Press.

Anderson, C. L. (1982). Males as sexual assault victims: Multiple levels of trauma. Journal of Homosexuality, 7(2-3), 145-162.

Beadle-Blair, R. (2005). Bashment: Oberon Books Limited.

Chonco, N. R. (1989). Sexual assaults among male inmates: A descriptive study. The Prison Journal, 69(1), 72-82.

DeBraux, J. L. (2006). Prison Rape: Have We Done Enough-A Deep Look into the Adequacy of the Prison Rape Elimination Act. Howard LJ, 50, 203.

Dines, G. (1998). King Kong and the white woman hustler magazine and the demonization of black masculinity. Violence Against Women, 4(3), 291-307.

Dumond, R. W. (1992). The sexual assault of male inmates in incarcerated settings. International Journal of the Sociology of Law, 20(2), 135-157.

Dumond, R. W., & Dumond, D. A. (2002). The treatment of sexual assault victims. Prison sex: Practice and policy, 67-87.

Eigenberg, H., & Baro, A. (2003). If you drop the soap in the shower you are on your own: Images of male rape in selected prison movies. Sexuality & Culture, 7(4), 56-89.

Ellmann, R. (2013). Oscar wilde: Random House LLC.

Fanon, F. (2008). Black skin, white masks: Grove press.

Fishman, J. F. (1934). Sex in prison. The Culture of Prison Sexual Violence, 27.

Fleisher, M. S., & Krienert, J. L. (2006). The culture of prison sexual violence. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice.

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1979). A History of Sexuality.

Halpin, Z. T. (1989). Scientific objectivity and the concept of “the other”. Paper presented at the Women’s Studies International Forum.

Jarvis, B. (2005). The violence of images: Inside the prison TV drama Oz. Captured by the Media, 154-171.

Kleinman, S., Ezzell, M., & Frost, C. (2009). Reclaiming critical analysis: The social harms of “bitch”. Sociological Analysis, 3(1), 46-68.

Leps, M.-C. (1992). Apprehending the criminal: The production of deviance in nineteenth-century discourse: Duke University Press.

Lockwood, D. (1980). Prison sexual violence: Elsevier North Holland New York.

Lott, E. (1992). Love and theft: The racial unconscious of blackface minstrelsy. Representations, 23-50.

McKenna, D., Dudley, A., & Kaye, T. (1998). American History X: New Line Cinema.

Nacci, P. L., & Kane, T. R. (1983). Incidence of Sex and Sexual Aggression in Federal Prisons, The. Fed. Probation, 47, 31.

O’Sullivan, S. (2001). Representations of prison in nineties Hollywood cinema: from Con Air to The Shawshank Redemption. The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, 40(4), 317-334.

Porter, E. (1986). Treating the Young Male Victim of Sexual Assault-Issues and Intervention: Syracuse, NY: Safer Society Press.

Robertson, J. E. (2002). Clean Heart and an Empty Head: The Supreme Court and Sexual Terrorism in Prison, A. NCL Rev., 81, 433.

Rowell-Cunsolo, T. L., Harrison, R. J., & Haile, R. (2014). Exposure to Prison Sexual Assault among Incarcerated Black Men. Journal of African American Studies, 18(1), 54-62.

Scott, D. (1994). Jungle Fever?: Black Gay Identity Politics, White Dick, and the Utopian Bedroom. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 1(3), 299-321.

Simon, J. (2014). Mass Incarceration on Trial: A Remarkable Court Decision and the Future of Prisons in America: The New Press.

Smith, B. V. (2006). Rethinking prison sex: Self-expression and safety. Colum. J. Gender & L., 15, 185.

Struckman-Johnson, C., & Struckman-Johnson, D. (2000). Sexual coercion rates in seven Midwestern prison facilities for men. The Prison Journal, 80(4), 379-390.

Struckman‐Johnson, C., & Struckman‐Johnson, D. (2002). Sexual coercion reported by women in three Midwestern prisons. Journal of Sex Research, 39(3), 217-227.

Wicke, J. (1991). Through a gaze darkly: pornography’s academic market. Transition, 54, 68-89.

Endnotes

[1] Throughout, we generally follow Wicke’s (1991) articulation of social pornography (discussed below), but this provides ultimately simply a staging ground for our definition of a public pornography that contrasts with the social variety.

[2] Often, the prison’s warden offers the only dramatization of an authority figure, and then principally in narratives where an innocent finds himself wrongly incarcerated; the warden then stands in as the evil, Power-abusing figure who maintains oppressive force on the inmate. Where episodes of prison rape occur, however, wardens seem never to figure. Even in the ultra-violent, ultra-melodramatic HBO TV series Oz, a prison drama that ran for 56 episodes, the relatively higher visibility and dramatization of correctional officer figures pales by comparison to the inmate-initiated mayhem.

[3] More precisely, use of the phrase “prison bitch” in a prison setting becomes gratuitous and incoherent. Since fantasy offers idealised representations of reality, rather than reality itself, we see how collective rape-fantasies that hinge on someone becoming an inmate’s “prison bitch” has no necessary correspondence with any prison actuality.

Summary (TLDR Version)

Such a waste of time, it might waste too much time even to reply to it.

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: R. French’s (2014)[2] Baby Bjornstrand

The more I wade through multiple books, the more often I find myself irked or scratching my head at the claims for those books found on dust jackets. I feel like I ought to get a Ph.D. in discourse analysis and take as my subject the disingenuous ad-text used to seduce readers into wasting their time on vacuities.

Having lately read three of Jim Woodring’s books (replied to here, here, and here), which one may certainly accuse often of seemingly aimless or random narrative and imagery even though Woodring (almost certainly) intends something extremely explicit in what he draws, my tolerance for actually impenetrable imagery—generosity makes me call it impenetrable; authorially non-intentional or vacuous might better express the matter—has dropped considerably, especially since the effort in the imagery also seems at a minimum. Put another way, few graphic novels over the past two years have made me feel so completely the sense of time wasted reading them.

Of course, splendid graphics or art (as a spectacle) can take the place of narrative interest. Dave McKean’s art often rescues Gaiman’s slack texts from themselves. Or Vaughn-James’ (1975)[3] The Cage, which seems to have as much narrative density as Woodring’s work but with much less hope of ever “deciphering” it, provides a world of mirrors, wires, knotted sheets, fences, and other objects to allow a reader/viewer to marvel at the visuals.

Not so here. The very short 21 chapters present very sparsely, both visually and narratively. So let’s consider the hyperbole on the book back. Warren Ellis, “author of Gun Machine, Red, Transmetropolitan” informs us of this graphic ‘novel’, “Like watching David Lynch and Samuel Beckett get mean-drunk: a demented comedy from one of the medium’s authentic geniuses.”

Presumably this means the David Lynch of Eraserhead (i.e., foggy black and white and strange imagery) and the particular imagining of a Samuel Beckett that never existed who gets taken by many talentless epigones as an excuse to deploy “meaninglessness” in a text. This imparts, supposedly, a sense of existential angst—you know: the notion that life “is” meaningless, hollow, empty. Rather like Derrida’s deconstruction, which made a kind of sense as an attack against the institutionally monolithic assertion of absolute meaning that French academia insisted upon at the time but which becomes not only incoherent but actually reactionary in a US setting where having multiple points of view (deconstruction as only one amongst them) turns out instead to politically neutralise rather than empower people, this reflexive transplantation of an imaginary Beckett to our current milieu not only fails in its project but simply represents a gesture of quietism and submission to the current social order.[4] If Beckett, at the time, challenged or wrote against a kind of monolithic culture of meaning (in theatre), his ironic gestures of negation no longer have the same meaning now, in a world where ironic gestures of negation have become the dominant norm. In a similar way, if you would think to accuse Eraserhead of meaning “nothing” (whatever Lynch did, does, or did not intend), then you might foolishly think to connect this book with that film-maker.[5]

Meanwhile, under Warren Ellis—who many might not know—a bigger name appears, Guillermo del Toro. He declares, “Baby Bjornstrand is both beautiful and brutal, warm and indifferent. Like all of Renee French’s art it hints at the innocent and the profane without missing a beat. A creature after my own heart.”

To arrive at “beautiful and brutal, warm and indifferent” would require narrative work within the book that French does not supply, accomplish, or even attempt, it seems. Random elements appear in the book instead: the characters wear masks and one has a small tail. And the situations lean so heavily on whatever “archetypal” significance they can get that the reader alone supplies all of the meaning. The reader supplies all of the art, in that sense.

Yes, yes—something of this happens in all texts, but it remains both naïve and wilfully ignorant to pretend that hundreds and hundreds of years of graphic composition studies have no bearing or import anymore on visual art. Rembrandt and other bozos like him did just flop paint on the canvass; a whole phenomenology of viewing came to bear when they painted, and even if most scribblers these days have little knowledge of, and even less ability to deploy that knowledge if known, those compositional rules and tricks, it remains the case that putting an image on a page cannot entirely excuse, erase, or disappear the scribbler’s presence. Pretending it all remains in the reader/viewer’s lap remains an untenable position, though it certainly helps to encourage readers to jack themselves off while giving the “artist” credit for their pleasure.

One can only imagine what del Toro would do with this book if he filmed it; he’d start by rewriting it, most likely.

I offer a challenge to someone. Determine in what way French has created an allegory of the 21 major arcana from the Tarot in the 21 chapters of this. The cover of the book represents chapter 0, card Zero, the Fool, of course.

Go.

Endnotes

[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] French, R. (2013). Baby Bjornstrand. Koyama Press, pp. 1–130.

[3] Vaughn-James, M. (2012). The cage. Toronto: Coach House Books

[4] What a long sentence.

[5] And, by the way, I say this as no great admirer of Lynch’s work. But at least one finds an indisputable effort and intention in Eraserhead; it seems hardly fair to such work to liken this book to it.

This, the third in a multipart post, reintroduces the theme of a public-collective rape fantasy centred on sexual assault in prisons and then examines the problems of conducting research on sex in prison. See the first two parts of this study here and here.

Introduction

In this paper, we analyse a public-collective rape fantasy centred on sexual assault in prison. We justify the use of the word fantasy for this in light of not only the wide disparity between an exaggerated public opinion regarding the actual frequency of sexual assault in prisons, even when presented with facts to the contrary, but also the public’s failure or reluctance to recognise both the actual character and typically consensual character of most inmate-on-inmate prison sex. The striking and awful fact that “society accepts inmate sexual assault as part of the price criminals pay for committing crimes” (Dumond & Dumond, 2002, pp. 74, emphasis added) points not simply to a prurience but perhaps also and actually vicious quality at work in cultural depictions of inmates in prison raping other inmates. Such depictions appear to serve in part to show raped human beings getting what, in the public’s imagination, they deserve.

This mismatch between recurrent narratives of prison rape in cultural productions—typically of white inmates, often white supremacists, sexually victimising weaker, non-protagonist, same-race inmates—runs explicitly contrary to the predominant state of sexual affairs and demographics in prisons. As a narrative that cultural discourse in the United States desires to repeat, its deviance from the facts of prison sexuality suggests something more akin to compulsive pornographic fantasy than to representational fiction per se. Leps (1992), surveying in considerable detail the interplay of literature’s “truth value” and the conceit of “objective knowledge” embodied in the popular press, demonstrates how (literary) fiction and ostensible non-fiction (in newspapers and other informational media) mutually reinforce one another and can swap places. Within a disciplinary society, then, a “fictional” depiction of prison rape becomes not only the “factual” basis for the public’s imagination about it but even provides a basis for academic studies and policy determinations about actual sexual assault in prison. As Leps notes, “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” (3).

We suggest that the carceral zone of prison, as one of the sites par excellence for the intersection of pleasure and danger, has become a place in the public imagination that positions us as either a “victim” or a “perpetrator” of prison rape, i.e., as either a consumer or producer of this variety of social pornography.[1] Moreover, we centre our analysis on male prison complexes and settings for three reasons. First, inasmuch as patriarchy frames rape (if not exclusively) as a male prerogative, then we should expect that culturally disseminated social pornography around rape in general will more permissively enable this narrative in a male setting; the vast number of cultural productions in this mode seems to bear this out. We may recognise, then, that the greater incidence of male prison rape fantasies arises not simply due to the greater number of male prisoners—facts in any case rarely dictate the course of a fantasy—but because such a setting better gratifies that fantasy, for reasons explored below. Second, the recurrent framing of the victim of sexual assault in prison as a “prison bitch” shines an especially illuminating spotlight on the several interconnecting issues of hierarchy, dominance, misogyny, violence, and racism that patriarchy thrives on. Social pornography, as something actively practiced in public view—in contrast to the private and generally hidden consumption of personal pornography—has an “in plain sight” aspect that we might readily overlook simply for being so obvious. Third, by analysing this strikingly “candid” representation of a collective rape fantasy in the (mostly) all-male setting of the prison, this then adds further to the tools and insights feminism brings both to efforts to dismantle patriarchy in general and to issues of sexual assault specifically. Moreover, by focusing on male prison rape in this way, we do not seek to re-centre perceived male-bodied individuals within a discourse rightly preoccupied with the more widespread cultural problem of sexual assault against perceived and actually female-bodied individuals; quite the contrary, we do in protest against a cultural discourse that fantasizes (both in its cultural productions and the public imagination) that male-on-male rape represents the most degrading form of punishment and is thus more heinous and serious than sexual assault against women.

Towards our goal to rupture the soap bubble of fantasy that surrounds cultural narratives of prison rape, we first summarise briefly in this paper a central tension between pleasure and danger that became especially acute during the “sex wars” and then introduce an analytic method for more fruitfully teasing out the contradictions and dilemmas that result from this pleasure/danger binary in the first place. Stated briefly in anticipation, a public (academic and narrative) discomfort over the intersection of pleasure and danger has engendered tangles in the public discourse about it that our analytic proposes to sort out. Next, by applying this analytic specifically to the historically troubling notion of personal (not collective) rape fantasies—as another site par excellence where pleasure and danger merge disturbingly—this helps to expose and de-scaffold the mythologies and discourses that inform the social pornography of collective prison rape fantasies in general. This not only portends to open a crack in the ostensibly monolithic and impenetrable walls of the carceral panopticon itself to disclose more factual narratives about prison sex generally, but also refocuses our attention, within the dominant narrative context of social pornography around prison rape itself, on the more prevalent perpetrator of such rape: the prison, not the inmates.

Impossibilities for Prison Actualities

Again, Leps (1992) notes:

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 products (3).

The socio-dynamic operations of this truth in a period manifests as discourse, while the term “truth” itself points not merely to whatever a given society in a period deems recognisable but also specifically to the regulatory or disciplinary structures that mediate that recognition. In the present case, this involves academic discourse around the subject and the culture industry’s production of prison rape narratives, visual and otherwise.

The generation and mediation of this “truth” rarely occurs flawlessly—for all that the panopticon claims omniscience, its subjects may find gaps, blind spots, and even silences to hide in; Eagleton (1976) specifically notes, citing Macherey’s (1970) Pour Une Théorie de la Production Littéraire, “It is in the significance silences of a text, in its gaps and absences, that the presence of ideology can be most positively felt” (34–5). To examine the “truth” of prison sex culture, then, will principally disclose only the discourse about it.

Since “power and knowledge directly imply one another” (Foucault, 1977, p. 27), we may then fairly speak of the myth or fantasy—or with less of an ironic whiff, the discourse—that resulted, consciously or not, from efforts by researchers to penetrate the concealing walls of the prison in their effort to know the “criminal”. Nonetheless, to generalise about more than eighty years of research into the actualities of sex culture in prisons permits admits of only two stably recurring, and noticeably obvious, loci of attention: homosexuality, or more simply homosexual sexual behaviour, and criminals, or more simply people accused of criminal behaviour. Notably, whether we consider the earliest studies in the United States by Fishman (1934) or Clemmer (1940) with their emphasis on homosexual behaviour per se or any of the vast wealth of more recent studies focussed expressly on sexual assault (Davis, 1968; Fleisher & Krienert, 2006; Lockwood, 1980), the trend overall is to make what the researchers view as deviant behaviour (criminality, homosexuality, sexual assault) the centre of attention. For the criminal, homosexual, and rapist alike, whether researchers took a compassionate view of their subject or not, investigations of prisons have subsequently generated a vast body of social pornography that now functions as a myth-discourse about sexual culture in prison, as our truth of the period.

Contrary to the sort of self-reflexivity pioneered by and now standard in the discipline of anthropology, as a methodological check when presuming to describe an Other (Watson, 1987), one finds little to none of this self-reflexivity in the bulk prison sex culture research, much of which remains rooted in the at-best dubiously scientific field of criminology (Leps, 1992). In much the same way as the voices or words of homosexuals in the early part of the twentieth century appeared as social pornography within the psychology journals of the day, surrounded entirely by an either condemning or compassionate commentary by some psychological expert (Brill, 1913; Ellis, 1915; Ferenczi & Jones, 1916), so also do the homosexual and criminal subjects of prison sex culture research similarly appear in this quoted, but selectively edited and circumscribed, form (Fleisher & Krienert, 2006).

If anthropology established as proper methodology, at least in principal, the setting aside of a researcher’s “mixture of fear and fascination confirmed by scientific conceptions” (Leps, 1992, p. 8) when gazing at the “native” Other, the history of much prison sex culture research seems unabashedly run aground on this fear/fascination shoal, another pleasure/danger itself. As “anthropologists have long recognized the importance of language as a means of controlling behaviour and expressing ideas” (Kuper, 1966, p. 5), a researcher’s mastery of the local dialect thus supplies a precondition for breaking through “the fence of noncommunication” (5) and entering into the actual and lived discourse of those gazed upon. Fleisher and Krienert (2006) make this an explicit aim of their ethnographic research; “This project was a cultural study that would yield prison inmates’ worldview, or their ways of interpreting, of prison sexual behavior and sexual violence” (59).

In addition to this problem of disciplinary framing, methodological challenges make data collection in prisons difficult (Jenness, Maxson, Sumner, & Matsuda, 2010). Not only must one obtain permission to gain access to people in prisons in the first place—usually in an only limited or highly circumscribed way—external criteria may apply as well. Researchers with a history of contact with the judicial system, however slight, may automatically be denied access by the prison authority. From this, we may understand that all prison sex culture research that has relied on access to inmates directly has done so to date with the tacit or grudging approval of the prison authority itself. Further threats to the validity of research arise also not only from the risk of self-selection on the part of inmates who would choose to participate in the research but also simply in any vetting by the prison administration of which inmates get approved for participation.

Fleisher and Krienert (2006) state in considerable detail how they secured participation from different prison sites:

Given the sensitivity of research on prison rape, the Principal Investigators and NIJ [National Institute of Justice] knew that without explicit consent from the American Correctional Association (ACA), state corrections directors would not likely respond positively to requests to conduct prison rape interviews. Therefore, NIJ and the advisory panel determined at the outset that research would proceed with consent of the ACA and the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA). An agreement of anonymity that applied to regions, states, institutions, and institution staff was achieved with input from both associations (69).

Not insignificantly, this study immediately makes clear that it did not have as a goal to “gather rape prevalence or incidence data” (59), but rather “to understand prison rape as a cultural concept, a culture artifact, which inmates may know something about even if they’d never been raped or threatened or intimidated by a physical or sexual threat” (59). This orientation, presumably already more agreeable to prison authorities as a topic of study, shows again a securing of the tacit approval of prison authorities for prison sex culture research. Methodologically, rather than asking, “Does this prison keep you safe,” the researchers would ask a question like, “Can an agency keep you safe” (81)? And both the ACA and ASCA played major roles in determining the actual methodology of the study, including ruling out several types of established research sampling while also placing limitations on who could be interviewed. The authors elected to draw participants only from the general prison population and state that “each institutional liaison [at a prison] provided researchers with an inmate general population roster” (85). They do not indicate, however, any method to confirm if this list actually reflected the entire general population. They do acknowledge, however, that the entire population of a prison does not consist only of general population inmates:

Special inmate populations including inmates in administrative detention; disciplinary segregation; hospitalized inmates; inmates in residential substance abuse units; inmates in mental heath [sic] residential units; protective custody; non-sentenced inmates; inmates in transit units; and INS detainees or deportees were not included (86).

In terms of data validity, one finds little methodological reason excluding special inmate populations from the study. It seems, rather, motivated a desire to avoid any inconvenience or security risk, real or imagined, for prison officials. Moreover, for this study, the validity risk of self-selection takes an interesting form:

Sampled inmates on call-out arrived at the interview location knowing they had been selected for a research project. Inmates refused to be interview about twice per institution. They refused when they heard the interview was about prison rape. Either they said they had not raped anyone on the street or in prison, or knew nothing about rape in either place. In any case, refusals didn’t want to be associated with the term rape. Some refused when they learned they wouldn’t receive a letter of cooperation to place in their file to help at parole time (87).

If a typical research project hazards the risk of self-selection by putting out a call to the general public for participants, the authors here give no sign if pressure from prison officials or if their own lack of consideration of such an approach ruled it out. It seems striking that inmates had no idea in advance what the study sought to do but that they were simply called-out to the interview office. Notably, even in the randomization of numbers used to pick inmate names from the general population roster, members of the prison staff were included; “A staff member was asked to pick a number …. This number was applied to the roster to find the first interviewee” (86). Whatever justification we might imagine for this inclusion of staff in even the very randomness of the process of selection, it points to the degree of intimacy with the surveillance mechanisms this research allowed—or required—with the prison system itself.

It is hard not to be struck by the considerable number of hoops the researchers are at pains to demonstrate they jumped through on the side of prison officials, despite being a Federally funded study. By contrast, and despite the fieldwork they did in advance with formerly incarcerated people in order to develop their interview instrument for use in the prison setting, the authors seem not to have foreseen the social consequences that inmates might imagine when “surprised” in the interview room by an announcement that the study they’d been selected for concerned rape. Imagine receiving an announcement in the mail and a mandatory requirement to appear for a study without being told anything about it in advance to get a sense of how imbalanced the ratio of “surveying power” and “the subject studied” seems in this setting. From the refusals by selected inmates, one readily discerns that participation would either pose a threat for the sense of their reputation amongst the general population or offer no meaningful benefit to them, e.g., as a letter in their file for the parole board.

The distortion of typical research protocols that arise from doing work in a prison setting comes out sharply in the handling of one of the most elementary gestures of humanistic research, the informed consent form:

The research team provided as much protection as possible for inmates and correctional agencies. We had to guarantee to corrections agencies, institutions, and inmates confidentially for their participation. To achieve confidentiality we did not give interviewed inmates a copy of the informed consent form. Once an informed consent form was in inmates’ possession we couldn’t control what happened to it, who saw it, how it might be used against inmates or corrections agencies, or in legal proceedings when inmates allege they were co-opted or forced to participate or threatened by officials that non-cooperation would end up in their parole file or that they would be given an incident report for failure to program or something similar. Further we didn’t want this study broadcast in the media, thus violating confidentiality, if an informed consent statement ended up in a newsroom or courtroom in a lawsuit against a specific correctional agency as identified by a released inmate (87–8, emphasis added).

We detail these methodological challenges to debunk not the basis of this research or research similarly situated but only the idea that researching a site like the prison can ever involve something less than a hyper-mediated construct. Unlike in other spaces within culture, here the discourse—or the myth or the fantasy—travels in much narrower channels. Discourse analysis, if not plain literary sense alone, for instance, can hardly overlook the nervous, ungrammatical logorrhoea of the astonishing run-on sentence from above:

Once an informed consent form was in inmates’ possession we couldn’t control what happened to it, who saw it, how it might be used against inmates or corrections agencies, or in legal proceedings when inmates allege they were co-opted or forced to participate or threatened by officials that non-cooperation would end up in their parole file or that they would be given an incident report for failure to program or something similar (88).

The “or something similar” at the end seems simultaneously not only an almost tragi-comically exhausted collapse but also an echo of the kind of verbally exhaustive language of the Law employed when attempting to list in concrete specifics every imaginable possibility.

The above should make clear that any talk of “truth” in any objective sense where research into prison sex culture occurs remains extremely problematic. Both the mediated character of social pornography generally and its even more hyper-mediated forms that arise when gazing into the site of the panopticon remove over the horizon any good prospect for a view of the actuality of prisons, but it does not end there. Like the previously pathological category of homosexual and the currently pathologised category of mentally ill, the very status of the term criminal and the perception of criminals as such, whether sympathetic or not, has shaped the interpretation of data drawn from the prison site both past and present (Carroll, 1977; Davis, 1968; Dawson, 2014; Gardner, 1975; Listwan, Daigle, Hartman, & Guastaferro, 2014; Moss, 1979).

While the State in its criminal proceedings often shows no hesitation whatsoever to use paid, criminal informants to secure prosecutions, the sort of legal bias against credibility directed at the testimony of prisoners for the defence can enter into interpretations of prisoner reports as well. That is, whatever the credibility of an inmate’s report or not, the dominant discourse readily allows the questioning of the validity of that report simply by virtue of the pejorative label criminal applied to the one giving the report (Cheung, 1990; Leps, 1992; Wexler, 2014). As simply the obverse of this tendency, a too-sympathetic researcher may credulously accept less ingenuous reports by inmates; more precisely, the dominant discourse permits a critic to suggest as much of a researcher. The mere fact of a person’s criminality, then, can serve to render his or her report open to no end of doubt.

Sometimes researchers invoke those demographic characteristics—long identified with the “criminal”—rather than criminality itself to disqualify or problematize statements by incarcerated people. Fleisher and Krienert (2006) reported that “Standard English vocabulary was sometimes too complex. Some questions exceeded inmates’ education level to give answers” (75).[2] Alarid (2000), studying women’s prisons, suggested that the low incidence of sexual assault among women studied resulted from those women failing to recognise what had happened to them as sexual assault in the first place. Even in Fleischer and Krienert’s (2006) shift away from collecting data on the prevalence or incidence of rape in prison to an exploration of inmate awareness about the cultural artefact of prison rape makes their findings legally hearsay, i.e., simply a rumour drawn from amongst a historically discredited class.

The extremity of the epistemological situation involved in trying to establish the “actuality” of prison sexual violence may explain why a meta-analysis of studies on the topic cites rates of incidence ranging from 1.9% to 41% of all inmates (Gaes & Goldberg, 2004). Researchers adduce factors such as an unwillingness to report sexual assaults (Fowler, Blackburn, Marquart, & Mullings, 2010), including “embarrassment, fear of harassment, and retaliation from the perpetrator” (Levan Miller, 2010, p. 1), institution-wide misogyny, transphobia, and homophobia (Erni, 2013; Kupers, 2010), the (perception of) disinclination on the part of prison officials to prosecute sexual assault in prison (Capers, 2011), and the perception of reporting as snitching to low-incidence numbers (Garland & Wilson, 2013), while a tendency to refer in studies to the “myth” of male or prison rape, even while acknowledging the occurrence of, seems positioned to deny the problem exists (Fleisher & Krienert, 2009; Saum, Surratt, Inciardi, & Bennett, 1995; Turchik & Edwards, 2012). Since this locution of “myth” has appeared more often following the Federal Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (Rowell-Cunsolo, Harrison, & Haile, 2014), attempts to minimize liability exposure or simply to reduce the presence of researchers in prison may inform this assertion of “myth”.

While Smith and Batiuk (1989) indulged in overstatement when they asserted that “the threat of sexual violence dominates the prison environment and structures much of the everyday interactions that goes on among the inmates” (30, emphasis added), they nevertheless concluded more in that spirit identified fourteen years later in Eigenberg and Baro (2003), who noted how the body of research on sexual assault in prison “contends that the rates of actual victimization are less relevant than the fact that inmates perceive the threat of violence to be widespread” (57). From the most extensive study to date, which relied explicitly on interviews and perceptions of inmates regarding sexual violence in prison, Fleisher and Krienert (2006) report that 21.3 present of men and 9.0 present of women “reported some worry or sense of threat caused by a potential rape” (12); more specifically, “inmates reported they did not fear imminent rape. However, they acknowledged that such behaviour may occur” (12). By the mid-1990s, as researchers began to explicitly consider the myths and realities of prison sex and sexual assault (Saum et al., 1995), Lockwood (1994) could write that inmates and researchers alike “have been perpetuating certain ideas about prison sexual violence that are not supported by systematic research on the topic” (98). In all of this, we see a subtle or overt shift away from any actuality of prison sexual assault and more toward the discourse around sexual assault in prisons.

Given all of this contradictory material, which seems to gain rather than lose in obscurity from widening the field of view to include women’s prisons and international settings (Alarid, 2000; Chen, Lai, & Lin, 2013; Kuo, Cuvelier, & Huang, 2014; Pardue, Arrigo, & Murphy, 2011; Richters et al., 2012; Schneider et al., 2011), rather than decry a methodological failure to establish any actual truth about prison sexual assault—or to continue to insist that we can, despite the difficulties, arrive at such a truth (Jenness et al., 2010)—we might better understand this confusion as an emergent property and authentic function of the prison itself. In other words, the prison embodies a site par excellence where discourse can emerge in its most disembodied form as a myth in the sense of a fiction or a falsehood, i.e., as a place that generates discourse least connected to any ostensible “facts” and thus most distantly removed from objective verification except in the most trivial of demographic details.[3] In this sense, as a hothouse for fantasy, the prison, perhaps uniquely, supplies a crucial element both in the production of and our understanding about the current collective-public rape fantasy set in it.

References

Alarid, L. F. (2000). Sexual assault and coercion among incarcerated women prisoners: Excerpts from prison letters. The Prison Journal, 80(4), 391-406.

Brill, A. A. (1913). The conception of homosexuality. Journal of the American Medical Association, 61(5), 335-340.

Capers, B. (2011). Real rape too. Cal. L. Rev., 99, 1259.

Carroll, L. (1977). Humanitarian reform and biracial sexual assault in a maximum security prison. Urban Life, 5(4), 417-437.

Chen, Y.-S., Lai, Y.-L., & Lin, C.-Y. (2013). The Impact of Prison Adjustment Among Women Offenders: A Taiwanese Perspective. The Prison Journal, 0032885513512083.

Cheung, F. M. (1990). People against the mentally ill: community opposition to residential treatment facilities. Community Mental Health Journal, 26(2), 205-212.

Clemmer, D. (1940). The prison community.

Davis, A. J. (1968). Sexual assaults in the Philadelphia prison system and sheriff’s vans. Society, 6(2), 8-17.

Dawson, M. (2014). The Prison Rape Elimination Act: A Treatment for the US Prison Sexual Assault Epidemic.

Dumond, R. W., & Dumond, D. A. (2002). The treatment of sexual assault victims. Prison sex: Practice and policy, 67-87.

Eagleton, T. (1976). Marxism and literary criticism. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Eigenberg, H., & Baro, A. (2003). If you drop the soap in the shower you are on your own: Images of male rape in selected prison movies. Sexuality & Culture, 7(4), 56-89.

Ellis, H. (1915). Sexual inversion (Vol. 2): FA Davis Company.

Erni, J. N. (2013). Legitimating Transphobia: The legal disavowal of transgender rights in prison. Cultural Studies, 27(1), 136-159.

Ferenczi, S., & Jones, E. T. (1916). On the Part played by Homosexuality in the Pathogenesis of Paranoia.

Fishman, J. F. (1934). Sex in prison. The Culture of Prison Sexual Violence, 27.

Fleisher, M. S., & Krienert, J. L. (2006). The culture of prison sexual violence. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice.

Fleisher, M. S., & Krienert, J. L. (2009). The myth of prison rape: Sexual culture in American prisons: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1979). A History of Sexuality.

Fowler, S. K., Blackburn, A. G., Marquart, J. W., & Mullings, J. L. (2010). Would they officially report an in-prison sexual assault? An examination of inmate perceptions. The Prison Journal, 90(2), 220-243.

Gaes, G. G., & Goldberg, A. L. (2004). Prison rape: A critical review of the literature: National Institute of Justice Washington, DC.

Gardner, M. R. (1975). Defense of Necessity and the Right to Escape from Prison–A Step Towards Incarceration Free from Sexual Assault, The. S. Cal. L. Rev., 49, 110.

Garland, B., & Wilson, G. (2013). Prison Inmates’ Views of Whether Reporting Rape Is the Same as Snitching An Exploratory Study and Research Agenda. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 28(6), 1201-1222.

Jenness, V., Maxson, C. L., Sumner, J. M., & Matsuda, K. N. (2010). Accomplishing the Difficult but Not Impossible Collecting Self-Report Data on Inmate-on-Inmate Sexual Assault in Prison. Criminal justice policy review, 21(1), 3-30.

Kuo, S.-Y., Cuvelier, S. J., & Huang, Y.-S. (2014). Identifying risk factors for victimization among male prisoners in Taiwan. International journal of offender therapy and comparative criminology, 58(2), 231-257.

Kuper, H. (1966). The Swazi: A South African Kingdom: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Kupers, T. A. (2010). Role of Misogyny and Homophobia in Prison Sexual Abuse. UCLA Women’s LJ, 18, 107.

Leps, M.-C. (1992). Apprehending the criminal: The production of deviance in nineteenth-century discourse: Duke University Press.

Levan Miller, K. (2010). The darkest figure of crime: perceptions of reasons for male inmates to not report sexual assault. Justice Quarterly, 27(5), 692-712.

Listwan, S. J., Daigle, L. E., Hartman, J. L., & Guastaferro, W. P. (2014). Poly-victimization risk in prison: The influence of individual and institutional factors. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 0886260513518435.

Lockwood, D. (1980). Prison sexual violence: Elsevier North Holland New York.

Lockwood, D. (1994). Issues of prison sexual violence. In M. C. Braswell, J. H. Reid H. & L. X. Lombardo (Eds.), Prison violence in America (Vol. 2, pp. 97-102). Cincinnati, OH: Anderson.

Macherey, P. (1970). Pour une théorie de la production littéraire. Paris.

Moss, C. S. (1979). Sexual assault in a prison. Psychological Reports, 44(3), 823-828.

Pardue, A., Arrigo, B. A., & Murphy, D. S. (2011). Sex and sexuality in women’s prisons: a preliminary typological investigation. The Prison Journal, 0032885511409869.

Richters, J., Butler, T., Schneider, K., Yap, L., Kirkwood, K., Grant, L., . . . Donovan, B. (2012). Consensual sex between men and sexual violence in Australian prisons. Archives of sexual behavior, 41(2), 517-524.

Rowell-Cunsolo, T. L., Harrison, R. J., & Haile, R. (2014). Exposure to Prison Sexual Assault among Incarcerated Black Men. Journal of African American Studies, 18(1), 54-62.

Saum, C. A., Surratt, H. L., Inciardi, J. A., & Bennett, R. E. (1995). Sex in prison: exploring the myths and realities. The Prison Journal, 75(4), 413-430.

Schneider, K., Richters, J., Butler, T., Yap, L., Richards, A., Grant, L., . . . Donovan, B. (2011). Psychological distress and experience of sexual and physical assault among Australian prisoners. Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health, 21(5), 333-349.

Smith, N. E., & Batiuk, M. E. (1989). Sexual victimization and inmate social interaction. The Prison Journal, 69(2), 29-38.

Turchik, J. A., & Edwards, K. M. (2012). Myths about male rape: A literature review. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 13(2), 211.

Watson, G. (1987). Make me reflexive, but not yet: Strategies for managing essential reflexivity in ethnographic discourse. Journal of Anthropological Research, 29-41.

Wexler, D. B. (2014). That’s What Friends Are For: Mentors, Lawyers Assistance Program (LAP) Lawyers, Therapeutic Jurisprudence, and Clients with Mental Illness Justice, Conflict and Wellbeing (pp. 177-193): Springer.

Wicke, J. (1991). Through a gaze darkly: pornography’s academic market. Transition, 54, 68-89.

Endnotes

[1] Throughout, we generally follow Wicke’s (1991) articulation of social pornography (discussed below), but this provides ultimately simply a staging ground for our definition of a public pornography that contrasts with the social variety.

[2] One might remember, as a context for this claim, that the researchers had worked on the streets with formerly incarcerated people in order to develop their interview instrument.

[3] While the mental asylum may share this distinction, the “wilful perversity” of inmates stands in contrast to the “helplessness” of the “insane”. This simultaneously makes the insane less recognizably “human” and thus subject to more pity, especially under the now dominant patronizing that marks psychiatric practice, while the “committed maliciousness” of the criminal also makes her or him not just a threat but an especially dangerous one.

Summary (TLDR Version)

Allegory as Fascism: if fascism means a system that maintains itself at the expense of its members, then allegory (as a narrative structure) maintains itself at the expense of its readers.

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: Jim Woodrings’s (2013)[2] Fran

NOTE: just for clarity in advance, I do not insist in the following that Woodring intends something fascist by his book; rather, the literary form of the allegory embodies a fascist form. Whether or not Woodring desires this remains a separate question not addressed here.

Having found Woodring’s (2011)[3] Congress of the Animals intriguing, it seemed worthwhile to explore more of his graphic novels, i.e., not only this, but his (2010)[4] Weathercraft as well. [5] And though Scott McCloud on the back of Weathercraft declares (with whatever authority he possesses) that “Jim Woodring may be the most important cartoonist of his generation,” while this may simply damn Woodring’s generation, we can also see in the arc from (2010)’s Weathercraft to (2011)’s Congress of the Animals to (2013)’s Fran, the waning of Woodring’s importance. Or simply the decline of the significance of his work.

To see this arc requires looking back at the two books before this. As noted previously, Weathercraft (as a total book, dust jacket and all) seems like a first attempt at a narrative structure that Woodring (or his publishers) got more right in Congress of Animals (and less right all over again with Fran); this, because Woodring (or his publishers) much more cleverly use the dust jacket of Congress to add and subtract meaning to and from the text (and try much less completely on the dust jacket of Fran). In Weathercraft, we have a series of more or less authoritative—or authoritatively evasive—gestures on the dust jacket so that the main impression one gets about how to read Weathercraft makes it merely an esoteric or hermetically sealed puzzle-allegory that one might, in theory, decipher. Congress seems far more shot-through with possibilities more suggestive than merely a one-to-one correspondence of allegory. And with Fran, we return merely to the “secret” allegory.

I do not mean by this that one can’t enjoy deciphering the allegory; the genre of the allegory since its first invention has thriven on its puzzle aspect, and has sometimes served as public, hidden messages to those “in the know” or functioned to protect certain messages or discourses from cultural elites in positions of Power who would attack or exterminate those message-senders; in Europe, a largest body of this type shows in the alchemists, and there certainly seem times in Woodring’s books where alchemy creeps in both visually and thematically.

But what allegory does mean not only boils the text down to a single meaning, it typically seems to assume that texts can only have a single meaning. In one of the most famous Occidental allegories, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, I doubt that he would have received well any alternative interpretation to any point of his “secret” (allegorical) depiction of the (Christian) progress of the soul toward salvation.

In this respect, allegory may provide—or at least give a sense to—an author a ground or guarantee that a reader will have no justification for alternatively reading the meaning of her text. Allegory presumes—some might even say it supports the argument for—any readers’ interpretations of the text that do not agree with the author’s intention count as misreadings.

Of course, the extent to which Power (or an author) can enforce this remains socially contested. If the biblical book of Revelations constitutes an allegory—i.e., a text in which every symbol and image corresponds, more or less, to a single, underlying narrative—then various forces over the years have found ways to decipher that code. Thus, William Miller could invent a means for deciphering Revelations to reveal when the Apocalypse would happen, thus giving birth to several end-times churches in the process.[6]

In this respect, allegory differs explicitly from symbols in a text. Again, whatever meaning the surface story presents, it corresponds, more or less in an explicitly one-to-one way, with an underlying narrative. Mind you, that underlying narrative might have as much ambiguity and potential interpretable contestation as any typical narrative; in Congress of the Animals, Woodring (or his publishers) offer as an interpretation of one image: “obstinate dubiousness personified.”

So the point doesn’t boil down that allegory must point to a simple or unambiguous underlying narrative; rather, it functions more like a software “skin”. Its defining aspect—at least at this point in the discussion—hinges on its unambiguous relationship between the surface story and the underlying one. At least on the face of things, one could object: why bother with all of the folderol of this “skin,” why not just tell the story as is. But if we think about why we would “skin” the appearance of an application, we see one answer boils down to “aesthetic delight”; it looks cool. One may certainly say that Woodring’s work often has this quality of aesthetic delight. But the more principal reason for allegory seems, again, for the sake of Power: either to hide a message from those in Power who might otherwise object to the message, or to hide in plain sight a secret of Power not intended for the masses: just as Jesus claims when he explains that he speaks in parables (riddles) because he has one message for the elite (his disciples) and another message for everyone else (the masses).

Symbols, by contrast—at least as Jung construes them—always have a contradictory or ambivalent character; they never boil down to this one-to-one correspondence that seems essential to allegory. Nichols (1980)[7] summarises it this way.

Jung often stressed the difference between a symbol and a sign. A sign, he said, denotes a specific object or idea which can be translated into words (e.g., a striped pole means barber shop; an X means railroad crossing). A symbol stands for something which can be presented in no other way and whose meaning transcends all specifics and includes many seeming opposites (7).

So the extra layer of “skinning” serves as a gatekeeper to narrative interpretation. Readers will tend to find “symbols” aplenty in the surface text of Woodring’s book(s), precisely because visually he does, in fact, seem to draw symbols in Jung’s sense. But your right, as a reader, to interpret them as you will—or, even more basically, in your confrontation with the literally contradictory aspect that symbols present—gets forestalled by the allegorical intent of the book. In general, you must guess (educated or not—education here consisting as much of general knowledge as of having read other books by Woodring) what a symbol means, and whether you get it right or not depends upon the authoritative sanction or confirmation of “those in the know” (probably, in this case, the author or his friends he has disclosed the whole Unifactor structure to).

Fascism especially means a (socio-political) system that maintains itself at the expense of its members. Allegory, then, crucially deploys and participates in a fascist structure, since the field of its interpretation maintains itself by discounting any non-authorized readings while seeming to reward any authorized readings. Those who read wrong get dismissed; those who read right get praised as members of the “cool kids” club. I say “seeming to reward” because the reward doesn’t go to the individual per se but to his or her willingness to perform a particular interpretive act (i.e., reading the book in a certain way or not). Perhaps they “stumbled across” a correct reading simply by being clever, in which case the “reward” of entering the inner circle of those in the know has a very personal feel to it, but one may also enter the inner circle simply by enacting the proper reading, whether you believe it or not.

So, whether you accidentally or deliberately read the book “correctly,” what remains at stake does not involve you or your intelligence in deciphering the book but, rather, your obedience to the demand of the book to read it in a given way. Of course, those who misread the book enact disobedience, and they may proudly and defiantly stand to the side, denouncing the conceits and presumption of Power, which insists that the books means this, but this gesture of disobedience simply marks the flip side of the obedient gesture.

As such, the identity of the individual (as an interpretive being) disappears from the picture and gets sacrificed to the demand of obedience (or its counter-gesture of disobedience, which the inner circle does not acknowledge as real). Thus, the system of the book (as an interpretive field) maintains itself at the expense of its readers.

Endnotes

[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] Woodring, J. (2013). Fran. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, pp. 1–100.

[3] Woodring, J. (2011). The congress of animals, Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, (replied to here, here, and here).

[4] Woodring, J. (2013). Fran. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books.

[5] Replied to here.

[6] Which continue, of course, to knock about, after those end-time predictions proved, more than once, wrong.

[7] Nichols, S. (1980). Jung and Tarot: an archetypal journey. New York: S. Weiser.

This, the second in a multipart post, reintroduces the theme of a public-collective rape fantasy centred on sexual assault in prison and then examines a problem of method in the use of binaries to analyze phenomena (like pleasure and danger). See the first part of this study here.

Introduction

In this paper, we analyse a public-collective rape fantasy centred on sexual assault in prison. We justify the use of the word fantasy for this in light of not only the wide disparity between an exaggerated public opinion regarding the actual frequency of sexual assault in prisons, even when presented with facts to the contrary, but also the public’s failure or reluctance to recognise both the actual character and typically consensual character of most inmate-on-inmate prison sex. The striking and awful fact that “society accepts inmate sexual assault as part of the price criminals pay for committing crimes” (Dumond & Dumond, 2002, pp. 74, emphasis added) points not simply to a prurience but perhaps also and actually vicious quality at work in cultural depictions of inmates in prison raping other inmates. Such depictions appear to serve in part to show raped human beings getting what, in the public’s imagination, they deserve.

This mismatch between recurrent narratives of prison rape in cultural productions—typically of white inmates, often white supremacists, sexually victimising weaker, non-protagonist, same-race inmates—runs explicitly contrary to the predominant state of sexual affairs and demographics in prisons. As a narrative that cultural discourse in the United States desires to repeat, its deviance from the facts of prison sexuality suggests something more akin to compulsive pornographic fantasy than to representational fiction per se. Leps (1992), surveying in considerable detail the interplay of literature’s “truth value” and the conceit of “objective knowledge” embodied in the popular press, demonstrates how (literary) fiction and ostensible non-fiction (in newspapers and other informational media) mutually reinforce one another and can swap places. Within a disciplinary society, then, a “fictional” depiction of prison rape becomes not only the “factual” basis for the public’s imagination about it but even provides a basis for academic studies and policy determinations about actual sexual assault in prison. As Leps notes, “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” (3).

We suggest that the carceral zone of prison, as one of the sites par excellence for the intersection of pleasure and danger, has become a place in the public imagination that positions us as either a “victim” or a “perpetrator” of prison rape, i.e., as either a consumer or producer of this variety of social pornography.[1] Moreover, we centre our analysis on male prison complexes and settings for three reasons. First, inasmuch as patriarchy frames rape (if not exclusively) as a male prerogative, then we should expect that culturally disseminated social pornography around rape in general will more permissively enable this narrative in a male setting; the vast number of cultural productions in this mode seems to bear this out. We may recognise, then, that the greater incidence of male prison rape fantasies arises not simply due to the greater number of male prisoners—facts in any case rarely dictate the course of a fantasy—but because such a setting better gratifies that fantasy, for reasons explored below. Second, the recurrent framing of the victim of sexual assault in prison as a “prison bitch” shines an especially illuminating spotlight on the several interconnecting issues of hierarchy, dominance, misogyny, violence, and racism that patriarchy thrives on. Social pornography, as something actively practiced in public view—in contrast to the private and generally hidden consumption of personal pornography—has an “in plain sight” aspect that we might readily overlook simply for being so obvious. Third, by analysing this strikingly “candid” representation of a collective rape fantasy in the (mostly) all-male setting of the prison, this then adds further to the tools and insights feminism brings both to efforts to dismantle patriarchy in general and to issues of sexual assault specifically. Moreover, by focusing on male prison rape in this way, we do not seek to re-centre perceived male-bodied individuals within a discourse rightly preoccupied with the more widespread cultural problem of sexual assault against perceived and actually female-bodied individuals; quite the contrary, we do in protest against a cultural discourse that fantasizes (both in its cultural productions and the public imagination) that male-on-male rape represents the most degrading form of punishment and is thus more heinous and serious than sexual assault against women.

Towards our goal to rupture the soap bubble of fantasy that surrounds cultural narratives of prison rape, we first summarise briefly in this paper a central tension between pleasure and danger that became especially acute during the “sex wars” and then introduce an analytic method for more fruitfully teasing out the contradictions and dilemmas that result from this pleasure/danger binary in the first place. Stated briefly in anticipation, a public (academic and narrative) discomfort over the intersection of pleasure and danger has engendered tangles in the public discourse about it that our analytic proposes to sort out. Next, by applying this analytic specifically to the historically troubling notion of personal (not collective) rape fantasies—as another site par excellence where pleasure and danger merge disturbingly—this helps to expose and de-scaffold the mythologies and discourses that inform the social pornography of collective prison rape fantasies in general. This not only portends to open a crack in the ostensibly monolithic and impenetrable walls of the carceral panopticon itself to disclose more factual narratives about prison sex generally, but also refocuses our attention, within the dominant narrative context of social pornography around prison rape itself, on the more prevalent perpetrator of such rape: the prison, not the inmates.

Gaping the Pleasure/Danger Binary

Contrary to standard assumptions and procedures, every dichotomous binary (like pleasure/danger) deploys four, not two, analytical categories.

For the pleasure/danger binary, this entails that in addition to the two “openly” defined and acknowledged categories of pleasure and danger, the binary also invokes two “unspoken” (sometimes “unspeakable”) categories as well: danger-pleasure (or the pleasure of danger) and pleasure-danger (or the danger of pleasure). To provide only a briefest example simply to make more clear what this means, even the most elementary dichotomous binary true/false includes in it the two unspoken categories of false-true and true-false, i.e., that which remains false even within truth, and that which is true even within what is taken as false, respectively.

To understand the analytical and political function of these unspoken categories becomes crucial and helpful for untangling some of the difficulties that the uncomfortable intersection of pleasure and danger have engendered in public discourse about it. This, because these unspoken categories point not only to the unspeakable per se, but also to those issues or people that the dominant discourse either would prefer not to have speak or participate in public discourse in the first place or, barring that, would frame (compassionately or not, patronisingly or not) as deviant, mentally ill, criminal, taboo, interdicted, marginal, non-real, unrecognisable, &c.

At times, these unspeakable categories persist as open secrets—as, for example, in the historical social norm that had plantation owners in the US south keeping an octaroon mistress as a necessary accoutrement of their wealth, or at that moment in Forster, Addica, and Rokos’ (2001) Monster’s Ball when Peter Boyle’s character offers a more contemporaneous iteration of this notion, telling his son that a man’s not really a (white) man until he’s had sex with a (black) woman . At other times, social knowledge in principal requires these unspeakable categories to remain silenced or unheard; cases include the expulsion of NAMBLA from national gay liberation efforts (Thorstad, 1991), the initially ungraceful receptions of lesbian BDSM practitioners by a then-dominant feminist discourse (Rubin, 1975), exclusion of transsexuals from women’s music festivals (Rowe, 2014), denunciations of mixed-race critics by proponents of “one-drop rule” politics (Byrd, 2007), and so forth. In general, where the dominant discourse cannot enforce the “limits of the sayable” (Leps, 1992) within public discourse through outright silencing or a marginalization equivalent to silencing, then the interdicted topic at issue may or will appear in discourse pre-eminently in the form of social pornography.[2]

Thus, in a discourse where “pleasure” and “danger” supply our categories for looking—and no one suggests by this that these must be the only two ways to look—we may readily expect, and even predict, that those who favourably avow fantasies about rape—as one of the unspeakable intersections of pleasure and danger—will find themselves either as targets for repression or marginalization or labelled in social pornography as deviant. In terms of the binary “pleasure” or “danger,” this unspeakable claim for a danger-pleasure leaves critics, with methodologically only two available categories to choose from , little choice but to stigmatise it as a “danger” precisely since the fantasists has troublingly named it a “pleasure.” Such an expression of desire, the dominating discourse will tend to insist, clearly cannot or must not be permitted to occupy or stake a claim in that that region of culture and discourse delimited as “pleasure”.

Of course, this stigmatisation need not always be ill-intentioned or moralistic. While some cultural commentators will indignantly dismiss rape fantasies as inherently deviant, nonetheless even a less bigoted critic, trying to engage the issue, will be faced with choosing—if they accept the pleasure/danger binary as legitimate in the first place—between either “pleasure” or “danger” as the category for making sense of a claim for the erotic validity in rape fantasies. Some will find naming it a “pleasure” simply untenable and so, by nothing more than a logical consequence of the binary whether they desire it or not, the commentator must then file away this erotic claim as a “danger”. In this way, under a pleasure/danger binary, the dominant discourse enforces a sort of tacit or pseudo-consensus that must either ignore/marginalize or problematize/pathologise this kind of danger-pleasure and others like it. This latter pathologising gesture, of course, opens up those who espouse such pleasures of danger as vulnerable to calls by the dominating discourse to quarantine them, whether in the prison for the criminal, in the mental asylum for the deviant, at the margin for the unrecognisable or taboo or interdicted, or within the social pornography of academic discourse as a problem-issue.

The above makes clear that rape fantasies, as well as other forms of sexual non-conformism,[3] will not fit properly into only the category of “pleasure” or “danger” alone but require, even presuppose, a hybridity of these otherwise treated-as-separate categories. As such, to espouse out loud the unspeakable category of danger-pleasure entails that the unsettling or disturbing quality of this utterance in public discourse prompts the dominating discourse to respond to it as a “danger”, i.e., (1) as an open secret, (2) as something requiring repression, marginalisation, or silencing, or, barring that, (3) a reframing as social pornography subject to mass-cultural dissemination and public discussion, often in opposition to it (Wicke, 1991). And while the public face of this labelling employs the category of “danger” to interdict it, in fact the gesture involves the other unspeakable category, pleasure-danger.

In identifying danger-pleasures as dangerous pleasures that require hemming in and enclosure, if not actual confinement to an institution, this gesture not only runs contrary to whatever justification or (largely unexamined) rationale given that underlies all of the socially sanctioned varieties of “pleasure”—why, for instance, heteronormativity could warrant normative status in the first place—but also to the premise of sexual license in general. That is, acknowledging that the expression of sexuality has often, in human cultures, provided a site of at times radical or violent contestation, nonetheless in the individualist milieu that has accreted with the rise of industrial capitalism, any attempted limitation of freedom in its broadest or most generic sense now gets typically viewed askance as an illegitimate imposition. In sexual terms, this appears in the slogan: “if it’s not hurting anyone, how is it any of your business” or “who cares what goes on behind closed doors” and the like. Given that 31 to 57 per cent of women studied report having rape fantasies, with 9 to 17 per cent reporting them as frequent or their favourite variety (Critelli & Bivona, 2008), then a rather tortured analytical apparatus seems required to argue that a rape fantasy harms anyone (c.f., Barker, 2014; Corne, Briere, & Esses, 1992; Kanin, 1982; Malamuth, 1981). Moreover, summarising research on the topic, Critelli and Bivona (2008) examine theories that “explain rape fantasies in terms of masochism, sexual blame avoidance, openness to sexuality, sexual desirability, male rape culture, biological predisposition to surrender, sympathetic physiological activation, and adversary transformation” (1), little of which speaks “positively” to this behavioural fantasy.

As such, this attempt to interdict a fantasy as deviant falls within the unspeakable category of a pleasure-danger itself, since such a gesture represents a blatant exception to and suspension of an otherwise official broad-mindedness about—or perhaps simply a helplessness in the face of the logistical difficulty of policing—what goes on behind closed doors, much less inside of someone’s head. In other words, while this gesture rationalises the fantasy as a “danger” and encloses it within an official field of social pornography, if it discusses the topic at all, it does so on the basis of a position that technically and culturally we disallow, i.e., opposition to certain kinds of harmless pleasures construed as dangerous. Again, though, to be clear: it is not that forces in culture can never contest or condemn varieties of (sexual) pleasure, but that this particular form of pleasure, a fantasy, does not fall under the typical behavioural prohibitions that more frequently act as moral constraints on individuals within culture.

In a culture that officially valorises freedom—especially freedom of thought—to make an exception for the freedom of thought to have rape fantasies, or fantasies about other interdicted danger-pleasures, makes for a striking gesture at the very least. Given the context of Power and sexuality involved, it takes little effort to imagine this gesture of prohibition as bad, deviant, perverted, depraved, and so forth as dovetailing neatly, if not completely, with the act of rape itself. Thus, just as pornography in general induces and presupposes a sexual release, social pornography then similarly induces and presupposes some kind of social discharge about the topic at hand.

To provide a specific, concrete example of the operation of dichotomous binaries, we examine the love/fear binary deployed messily and extensively in psychoanalytic discourse. Here, “love” (as a variety of attraction) represents one form of “pleasure” while “fear” (as variety of repulsion) represents one of the form of “danger”. Along with love and fear, then, the binary invokes love-fear (or a fear of love) and fear-love (or a love of fear) as well. And while the former has more than its fair share of commentators (Nykänen, 2014), we would focus here on the latter, which has an even more extensive literature via the topic of masochism, often referred to explicitly in terms of a love of fear, though never in any positive sense (Besdine, 1969; Nykänen, 2014; Tridon, 1922). Characteristically, this locution fear of love appears in the discourse labelled as a paradox, something confusing; speaking of erotic rape fantasies, Critelli and Bivona (2008) state bluntly, “Erotic rape fantasies are paradoxical: they do not appear to make sense” (1). In this way, we see how social pornography within the dominating discourse can at times at least partially acknowledge the inadequacy of its binary categories; i.e., it may take note of a phenomena like an apparent “love of fear” but not without retaining the socially pornographic designation of that phenomena as a “problem” or “issue.”

The “love” of “fear” seemingly courted by masochism—the claim by its practitioners to find a pleasure in danger—presents to psychiatric discourse as an anomalous and contradictory datum in light of its love/fear binary. Confronted by the dilemma of having to decide if masochism constituted an expression of “love” or “fear,” since such “deviant” behaviour when first studied was at the time unspeakable as mentally healthy, much less socially desirable, psychiatric discourse therefore had little choice—if also no inclination—but to categorise this anomalous datum as inherently neurotic and thus some form of unhealthy “fear,” a part of the death instinct (Benjamin, 2013; Maleson, 1984).[4] In this, we see not only how experiential reports by sexually non-conformist Others were normalised but also how even self-descriptions of their experiences become dismissed, labelled, or diagnosed as deviant: as a self-destructive impulse (Nykänen, 2014), a perversion of surrender (Ghent, 1990), or “a perversion that originates in early traumatic events involving a mixture of prohibition, seduction, and reassurance” (Loewenstein, 1957, p. 1), and so forth. The very construction—in this case of masochism—as a “problem” or “issue” entails that even when the dominating discourse half-acknowledges the inadequacy of its binaries—in this case the “paradoxical” or “insensible” phenomenon of a “love of fear”—it still shunts the framing of this problem to the “fear” side of the binary, not the “love” side.

To gain access to a less “confused” or “paradoxical” official framing of any such fear-love—sticking still with this binary for the time being—then we might simply consult the self-reports of people who identify their experience of the intersection of pleasure and danger in positive terms in order to get a better description of the head-space that their desires and experience occupy. However, even then we will only most often find the most socially validated forms of these reports—those truths of the period that correspond “to the sets of information … legitimized by institutions” (Leps, 1992, p. 3)— in social pornography.[5]

For instance, Baumeister (2014), while re-approaching the topic of masochism through a lens of selfhood, nevertheless still describes it as a contradiction, as a denial of self and “paradoxical behaviour pattern” (x) within a framework that privileges selfhood ; “masochism thus emerged as an escapist response to the problematic nature of selfhood” (v, emphasis added). Whatever the intentional or unintentional resonance Baumeister means here in the pejorative term ‘escapist’ that makes selfhood ‘problematic’ for the masochist, one may already imagine masochists objecting to the description.[6]

In his declaration of method and summary of findings, we may see also that partial acknowledgment of categorical inadequacy that social pornography sometimes exhibits in his finding of a second element that can accompany masochism’s denial of self: namely, that masochism not only can “take the self apart but also, to some extent, puts together a new set of meanings in place of the deconstructed one” (x, emphasis added). It may seem an overstatement at this point to call the admission in “to some extent” grudging, but similar forms of hedging appear elsewhere. While summarising the possible audience for his book, Baumeister ends with, “Finally, this book may offer some reassurance and self-insight to actual masochists. Past psychological works have generally taken a dismal or alarmist view of the masochist, probably unfairly” (x, emphasis added). What reassurance a masochist should take from a researcher who signals his unwillingness or inability to dismiss fully all previous dismal and alarmist views of masochism remains unclear. This hedging appears methodologically as well:

Given my background in empirical research, I felt it necessary not only to propose theories but to examine all possible sources of evidence about them. This book integrates past research evidence, current findings, cross-cultural and historical comparisons, and some original data on the masochistic imagination as evidenced in anonymous scripts of fantasies and favorite experiences written by a large sample of masochists (and some of their partners) (x, emphasis added).

Discourse analysis in general suggests that we may take seriously how someone says something as much as what they say (Bakhtin, 1981; Williams, 2014; Wodak & Fairclough, 2004), so we would pause briefly to consider the curiously laboured phrase “and some original data on the masochistic imagination as evidenced in anonymous scripts of fantasies and favorite experiences written by a large sample of masochists (and some of their partners)” as pointing to the kind of hesitation sometimes present when social pornography attempts to negotiate its categorical inadequacies.

For one, we note the curious juxtaposition of only “some original data” from amongst “a large sample”; a some/many contrast that seems echoed in contrast of the de-personalized anonymity of the fantasy-producers who nevertheless (at least in some cases) are humanly non-anonymous enough to have partners. The anonymity of the fantasies itself—besides a standard requirement in this kind of research—nevertheless seems perverse in a study that makes selfhood central. And in fact, rather than people having fantasies, Baumeister refers instead to “the masochistic imagination.” If he undertook any interviews with actual masochists, he neglects to mention those here. Instead, the inclusion of “some original data on the masochistic imagination” by actual masochists—albeit in the mediated form of written fantasies—occurs within a larger methodological context that includes past research, current findings, and even some rather gratuitous “cross-cultural and historical comparisons,” so that the presence or footprint of actual masochists appears only in a heavily mediate form. The degree of this mediation goes so far that at times we “see” masochists only through the lens of another, i.e., their partners.

As such, one all but overlooks that Baumeister methodologically offers “original data on the masochistic imagination” through fantasies, rather than direct self-reports about the experience of masochism. If we have dwelt in some detail on this example, it nonetheless well characterises a similar kind of pattern of ironies or avoidances that also emerge when researchers attempt to study the problematic category of “criminal” within prisons as well, with or without the added element of sexual assault. Specifically, the study by Fleisher and Krienert (2006), at the time the most extensive study of sexual assault in prison, explicitly did not solicit any reports from inmates about their experiences of sexual assault, but focused only on inmate perceptions of the issue; while the data collected here did not arise in the sort of mediated form found in Baumeister’s study, we indulge no inaccuracy to say that Fleisher and Krienert supply only some original data on the criminal imagination of prison rape, rather than an direct self-reports of the experience of it.

All of the foregoing considers the pleasure/danger binary principally from the position of authorized Power. In other words, it demonstrates how dichotomous binaries like pleasure/danger allow cultural commentators to obscure, shunt aside, or otherwise account for unwanted or anomalous cultural data, and in particular to miscategorise or shoehorn such anomalous data—like rape fantasies—into one or the other category of the two openly acknowledged ones in a binary. Consequently, whatever validity for masochism or rape fantasies that someone asserts, a (psychological or cultural) commentator remains at liberty to dismiss it not as a “pleasure” but a “danger” (whether for the one having the fantasy/experience, or for society generally, or both). From this label of “danger,” further articulations of such desires as mentally unhealthy, deviant, criminal, and so forth may then proceed apace. Thus, not only lived experience of the masochist but even the fantasy life of the rape-fantasist within a context of pleasure-danger gets converted by social pornography into an unqualified “danger” (conceived sympathetically or not). By this, we see then how the general non-acknowledgment of unspoken categories in any binary permits and thus analogises precisely with those gestures of Power that manifest socially as marginalization, otherization, orientalising, demonization, displacement, and the like.

However, we may also examine how such binaries function from a practitioner’s point of view. By this, we do not suggest or insist that anyone must assent to the binary; in principal, at least, one remains at liberty to assent to and take up a binary or not. Situationally, however, this remains contentious. Because we arise in a patriarchally organised milieu, where any difference from the straight-white-male norm unintentionally lays a groundwork for deviance if someone enthusiastically, perversely as it seems, takes up any negative valence of non-straight, non-white, or non-male from the dominating discourse. This “taking up,” however, does not always happen willingly or deliberately. Thus, the delightful abjection one might experience in masochism, rape fantasies, or BDSM may remain awful, degrading, or anything but delightful when not willed or chosen.

Whatever a specific individual’s experience, outside the locus of social pornography’s official framing and control, the unspeakable category of a love of fear (as one of the pleasures of danger) can point positively to those erotopias (i.e., those idealized sexual spaces) that court danger for the sake of arousal: i.e., the eros of risky sexual behaviour of all sorts, of sex in public, exhibitionism, taboo-breaking in general, and activities that risk or involve physical or psychological harm. While we may feel quick to decry as public dangers any actual acting out of these desires, their erotic authenticity within the realm of sexual fantasy remains closed to critique, no matter how much such a fantasy disturbs us or not.

Similarly, the other unspoken category, a fear of love—in official discourse often taken in an off-hand way as unwillingness on someone’s part to accept intimacy (Knox, 2007; Rokach, 1989)—in its more radical guise points to a rejection, and therefore a critique, of the forms of love, sexual expression, and identity available or acknowledged as valid by a given culture. This kind of critique might centre on number (i.e., polyamory or promiscuity), on who or what constitutes a valid subject or object of sexual desire (i.e., so-called paraphilias of all sorts), on who or what constitutes a valid centre for sexual identity (i.e., various sexualities both now recognized or condemned), and above all on who or what constitutes an authority for framing the discourse on these matters in the first place.

To pick a garish and perhaps too difficult example: when conservatives attacked the notion of marriage equality by claiming that if same-sex people could marry, then others would next want to marry their dogs. Since a consequence of dichotomous binaries involves reframing the negative or interdicted half of a given binary in the form of social pornography—as mass-culturally disseminated public conversation generally for the sake of anti-pornography (Wicke, 1991)—then this conservative framing of sexual desire along the lines of a human/animal binary made visible a social pornography for at least the idea bestiality, i.e., a desire for sexual congress with animals.

In contrast to the overt and intentional labelling of bestiality as deviant and something eminently worthy of public mockery, we may instead read out the unspoken category of human desire for animals in the human/animal binary as a critique of anthropocentric assumptions about what constitutes a valid subject or centre for one’s sexual desires or identity in the first place. While assertions of a pathologising diagnosis of a fear of love at the root of bestiality exist—Jenkins and Thomas (2004) resort to hyperbole to describe it as an “act of extreme deviance” (1, emphasis added)—we may just as well understand any such fear of love as a radical critique of current social sexual norms that deny any validity to an attraction for non-human sexual contact; the currently emergent distinction between the term bestiality as an extreme deviance or unequivocal grounds for criminal prosecution (Beirne, 1997) and the term zoophilia, then, acknowledges albeit still within a socially pornographic context the zoophile’s claim that “an emotional bond to the animal plays a key role besides the sexual aspect” (Beetz & Podberscek, 2005, p. 1).

Once again, however unnerved or revolted we might feel that anyone would actually and socially practice any such sexual non-conformism or identity within the precincts of our culture, the erotic authenticity of those fantasies as fantasies must remain closed to critique. We may see, then, that any desire to interdict or marginalize as a sign of deviance certain forms of non-conformist sexual fantasies thus permits cultural or psychological commentators to misconstrue or misread the potentially radical critique raised by a fear of love, as something occurring the public discourse (viewed as a danger of a pleasure) that requires repression, marginalization, or reframing as social pornography by the dominating discourse. Social pornography then not only targets non-conformists to “study” them but also serves to channel and neutralise critiques that the unspeakable categories propose.

The history of the sex wars seems marked at times precisely by gestures of this type , where naming the “dangers” of certain “pleasures” served not only to declare as pathological various sexual non-conformists who questioned the then-prevailing socio-sexual norms but also to bracket out who and what kind of sexual contact could or should be treated as speakable or unspeakable, especially in light of patriarchal norms. This resembles, perhaps perfectly, the normalising and disciplinary mechanism that Leps (1992), by way of Foucault (1977), identifies in the advent of the discourse of popular press and literature from the eighteenth century onward—or more broadly still, the straight-white-bourgeois-male public sphere at its most general (Eagleton, 1984). In a word, we may identify knotted intersection of gender, race, sexuality, and class simply as “polite” society.

None of the above presupposes an aetiology or mechanism to explain the origins of sexual desire. We regard as non sequitur for the purposes of this paper, for example, whether cultural taboos drive or inhibit a fixing of sexual desire. Our discussion of the pleasure/danger binary, rather, aims more to illuminate the dynamics of discourse that have and still surround the intersection of pleasure and danger. Specifically, we would point to a tension and hesitation in all social pornography—especially more in its patronising than condemnatory modes. For our culture’s collective prison rape fantasies in particular, while the dominant discourse will at times generate cultural academic products depicting prison rape, ostensibly in order to oppose or condemn it (Wicke, 1991), these gestures issue from context of discourse that can only acknowledge that depiction as either a “pleasure” or “danger”.

Just as the discourse of the sex wars often seemed to turn on the question whether one should experience, much less could enjoy, rape fantasies or other interdicted desires, while in the same breath trying to explain or explain away as undesirable how they might come about in the first place, so too in the case of collective prison rape fantasies might we become similarly mired in examining whether such fantasies constitute a social “pleasure” or a “danger” in themselves, while in the same breath trying to explain or explain away as undesirable how they originate. Rejecting any (hegemonic) framing of (collective) rape fantasies as merely (socially) neurotic, we proceed instead by listening to the voice of the unspeakable category of the pleasure in danger to disclose any socio-erotic necessity for this collective fantasy as it informs the functioning of patriarchy.

References

Bakhtin, M. (1981). The dialogic imagination, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 69.

Barker, M. (2014). The ‘problem’of sexual fantasies. Porn Studies, 1(1-2), 143-160.

Baumeister, R. F. (2014). Masochism and the self: Psychology Press.

Beetz, A. M., & Podberscek, A. (2005). New insights into bestiality and zoophilia. Bestiality and zoophilia: sexual relations with animals, 98-119.

Beirne, P. (1997). Rethinking bestiality: Towards a concept of interspecies sexual assault. Theoretical Criminology, 1(3), 317-340.

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Endnotes

[1] Throughout, we generally follow Wicke’s (1991) articulation of social pornography (discussed below), but this provides ultimately simply a staging ground for our definition of a public pornography that contrasts with the social variety.

[2] Or, as we will demonstrate further, openly unmediated public pornography. However, a consequence of this circumstance in general entails that authorized bodies have privileged access to such interdicted material. Robertson (2002) opens his law review of the topic with nearly a page of unmitigated homosexual prison rape pornography. Safe (i.e., non-illegal) access to child pornography becomes available to researchers and other variously authorized bodies—though sometimes these, whether a police officer (Rizzi, 2014), a District Attorney (“Ex-Prosecutor Indicted On Pornography Charges,” 1997), or a prosecutor’s son (Pack, 2014), get caught as interdicted consumers themselves—while formal work on the topic may serve as potential erotica for those reading about such research (Carr, 2003; Ost, 2009; Taylor & Quayle, 2003), simply the discussion of the matter having an erotic or titillating aspect. Our point of emphasis here does not involve any outrage or surprise that empowered individuals would abuse that power for sexually interdicted purposes but simply to note that social spaces exist where legal, but qualified, access to interdicted material exists; such spaces denote and delimit zones of social pornography, as Wicke (1991) identifies it.

[3] We use the term non-conformism here and elsewhere to point to those practices by individuals that fall outside of any ostensible consensus about cultural behaviour. We specifically do not mean to suggest by this that all non-conformists wilfully, deliberately, or perversely flout cultural norms, though some of course do. In other words, this use of non-conformism takes the framework of a dominating culture that insists on seeing some given behaviour as impermissible. We take this view, which in one sense gives too much authority to Power, because a great deal of human liberatory work has proceeded by engaging a dominating discourse that perceived people as non-conformists in order to change that discourse (e.g., an emphasis on the humanity of women, people of colour, homosexuals, &c).

[4] If this seems too much to oversimplify the volumes of psychoanalytic discourse that attended this question, the persistence of the psychiatric label “masochism” in its discourse already points to a basic non-recognition of the validity of claims to a pleasure of danger in the first place.

[5] In an age of the Internet, we have far more extensive access to self-reports and fantasies, but these documents lack the imprimatur—more precisely, are generally refused the imprimatur—of official knowledge for not passing through the validating institutions that (Leps, 1992) points to.

[6] One may also imagine masochists who agreed with or who even offered the locution ‘escapist’ or ‘escape from selfhood’ initially. Just as in prison rape studies, where researchers could find inmates who would affirm implausibly high incidence numbers for sexual assault, one may always find human beings willing for different reasons—including sometimes telling the truth—to confirm a researcher’s premises. And while research into human experience itself remains fraught with doubt at every turn, the negative construction of masochism as a denial of self (considered paradoxically or not) has ample contradiction in the wide wealth of self-generated fantasies an narratives about masochism we now have available. If Baumeister narrowed his claim—to describe only a particular type of masochist—this threat to validity might evaporate.

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