Linda Williams, Introduction: “Screening Sex”


“Much has been written about the way we lose ourselves or identify with those glorious, magnified images of human bodies in movement on the ‘silver’ screen; much less has ben written about the ways we reencounter our own bodies, and our own sensuality, in that process… Sex in movies… distances us from the immediate, proximate experience of touching and feeling with our own bodies, while at the same time bringing us back to feelings in those same bodies” 2-3. Williams claims that while the novel began to describe sex explicitly in the 1920s and on (she cites mostly white male authors – Joyce, Lawrence, Miller, Updike, Roth, McEwan – though Toni Morrison is there), the “American movie experienced what I will call… a long adolescence… carnal facts of life were carefully – often absurdly – elided, but also, as a result, much wondered about 2. “Today, we epect that to know what sex a person likes to screen is a clue to the kind of lover he or she might want or might want to be” 2. Williams explains that this hinges on the use of “to screen as both revelation and concealment” 2. “We must keep the stress on imagination. This story is never a matter of a teleological progression toward a final, clear view of ‘it,’ as if it preexisted and only needed to be laid bare… not a stable truth… a constructed, mediated, performed act and every revelation is also a concealment that leaves something to the imagination” 2.

Williams begins by comparing two 2005 films – Pride and Prejudice and Pirates. In the first, the last scene (interestingly only in the American version, which Williams does not note!) shows the couple at leisure sharing an intimate kiss in their nightclothes, and nothing else. In the second, “the most expensive porn ever made,” the only elisions are made as the figures rearrange themselves – the sex is prolonged and staged for maximum visibility 4. “How did movies arrive at this juncture, not only of these two, conveniently opposed, examples of concealing and revealing sex, but of art house, mainstream, adult, simulated, and graphic instances of sex screened today on big and little screens?” 5. (Think about how Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley does both!) Williams is concerned with the “gratuitous” in moving image culture – that which has come nonetheless to define narratives (whether a character achieves orgasm) and ruin videotapes and DVDs (from overplaying specific parts) 7. (This would be interesting to compare to Foucault, given his concern with the proliferating discourses of sex.)

“Acts once considered ob-scene (literally off scene) because they had the capacity to arouse have come “on/scene.” I have coined the term on/scene to describe the way in which discussions and representations once deemed obscene… have insistently cropped up, and not only in the realm of pornography. In the face of the pervasive and nearly ubiquitous presence of many different kinds of visible and audible sexual acts and sexual scenes we should cease futile arguments about the definition of the obscene. We should consider, rather, the dialectic between revelation and concealment that operates at any given moment in the history of moving-image sex… It is a waste of time to blame the increased sexualization of all aspects of American life on the rise of pornography. The now pervasive influence of pornography needs to be viewed, rather, as part of a much larger proliferation of all manners of screening sex, from chaste kisses to the most graphic and frenetic of penetrations… a social and cultural history of sex ” 7.

Williams ties the sexual revolution of the 60s to previous developments in cultural and technological change, an “antiwar, antiracist, anticapitalist… antipatriarchal activity,” and work in psychology and social studies by Alfred Kinsey, Wilhelm Reich, and William Masters & Virginia Johnson 8. Williams points out that the kinetoscope and Edison’s early film of the kiss (1896) indeed functioned to displace the idea of sexuality as primarily reproductive and replace it as potentially pleasurable. It was not, however, a fullblown revolution of the kind that took place between the mid-60s and the mid-70s, when the majority of Americans shifted to no longer condemning premarital sex 9. In the feminist debates on pornography in the 70s, Williams points out the need to quote and detail sexual positions, acts, and images 10. This forms speaking sex, Williams’ idea that “speaking about sex presumes a stable object of invesigation; speaking sex implies that the very speaking forms part of sex’s discursive construction, and discourses of sexuality proliferated exponentially in the midst of intensifying sex wars and pornography debates” 10. The book is interested “not so much in how behaviors changed but in how movies did” 10. (Again, how does this jive with Foucault’s notion in the 80s that the sexual revolution did not exactly effect such large changes?)

The line between private and public was constantly renegotiated (homosexuality became a “private” concern while spousal abuse became a “public” one) 11. There is “a dynamic tension between the two categories that prove essential to the analysis of this book: revelation, on one hand, and a newly discovered right to concealment, on the other” 11. Part of this has to do with the feminist critique of the possibilities of sexuality for women. “The story told here will thus not be that of a triumphant march toward unfettered sexual freedom. For with sexual revolution came a new increase in sexual discipline – a greater control over and monitoring of the sexual body as we came to expect to see, hear, and know more about it” 11. A history of screening sex is not “a simple rise of explicitness,” for what is “viscerally strange and intractable about sex” are “the  many ways in which it does not submit itself to visual and aural explicitness, its incoherence, its troubling enigmas” 11. What is going all the way? How do we know sex when we see it now?

“Sex screened since the sixties has become more graphic in some ways, but it has also become more heterogenous and theoretically elusive” 12.

“Foucault understands sexuality not as a force of libido to be repressed or liberated, but as a discursive form of entwined power, knowledge, and pleasure. His proposed history of sexuality, never actually written as outlined in this first volume, was to have been a history of proliferating discourses of sexuality centered on historically emerging figures: the hysterical woman, the masturbating child, the Malthusian couple, and the homosexual. The force of Foucault’s thesis is to minimize the existence of sex as a preexisting thing – say as the repressed drive of psychoanalytic theory – and to see instead how apparatuses of sexuality wrap around the body and its sexual organs to produce different kinds of pleasures and relations of alliance” 12.

His challenge to Freud’s ‘repressive hypothesis’ “deflated the understanding of the sexual revolution as liberation… we flatter ourselves if we think that by speaking sex, we overcome its prohibitions and therefore liberate it” 12-13. “We cling to the notion of sex as repressed” to believe in its utopian potential 13.

“We need to think of the more slippery relations between a power that does not come from on high to repress but comes from below to conjoin discourses of knowledge and pleasure… It is in the spirit of this putting-into-discourse of an intertwined power-knowledge-pleasure that I hope to relate the history of screening sex. The rise of sexual explicitness in the movies cannot be viewed as a transgressive exception to the rules of previous repression, but as the continuation, in Foucault’s sense, of a larger discursive explosion of perverse sexualities… Fellatio, prolonged and multiple female orgasm, sadomasochistic excitement, and homosexual relations – all have clear moments of emergence in the mainstream and the marginal history of screening sex and all will be traced in this study, not as liberating transgressions, but as the two-edged swords of liberation and further disciplinary control” 13.

Williams does not abandon psychoanalysis completely for Foucault, however. Her notion of the “long adolescence” of film concerns the “latent sexual knowledge in which movies seemed to simultaneously know and not know about the existence of sex” 14. Williams lingers on Freud’s own hesitation about “perversions,”  where Freud admits as normal those forms of lingering which serve to build necessary tension for the ultimate act. Williams would like to use this “for analyzing the activation of new cinematic erogenous zones” 13. “Bataille explains the erotic in terms of the tension between continuity and discontinuity, rather than between individual and society or between nature and culture, as Freud does” 15. “The truly successful erotic transgression is one that maintains the emotional force of the prohibition” 15.

“How are our bodies engaged through vision and sound in a kind of vicarious touch, taste, smell?” 15. This accessibility of the once-intimate act hearkens back to Benjamin’s “Work of Art in the Age of Technical Reproducibility,” representing “profound changes in apperception that have severed earlier practices of auratic and distanced contemplation such as painting. Yet when it comes to the reception of sexual contents, culture critics and legal scholars often fail to invoke the lessons of theorists like Benjamin and Taussig and confuse contact with literal touch” 16. Williams points out that some scholars hold that highly or perfectly mimetic porn should not be protected under the First Amendment because it is essentially a sex aid, even a sex act 16. Williams insists on the “medium that necessarily distances the viewer” 16. “Schauer thus ginores what Benjamin appreiciates: we do not simply imitate what we see, we play with it too. Getting hold of something by means of its reproduced likeness is not the same as getting hold of the thing itself” 17. While many scholars read Benjamin’s piece as defending the way the shock of cinema is an antidote to the shocks of modern life (and this runs the risk of an endless cycle of one-upping shock values), Miriam Hansen holds on the idea of innervation, edited out of Benjamin’s third and final draft 17.

For Hansen, we are less concerned with the energy output of ourselves than the input from the outside world. This concept “allows us to see mimesis as a two-way process, one taking in, but also reconverting ‘psychic energy through motoric stimulation’ to extend back out toward the world… our bodies both take in sensation and then reverse the energy of that reception to move back out to the outside world… instead of just absorbing shock, in this case the shock of eros, the body is energized as what Hansen calls a ‘porous interface betweent the organism and the world'” 18.

“In Foucault’s terms we are disciplined into new forms of socialized arousal in the company of others, but in (Hansen’s understanding of) Benjamin’s terms we are more than just disciplined; we may also learn to play at sex the way a child might play at being a windmill or a train by incorporating more subtle forms of psychic energy through motoric stimulation…a way of habituating our bodies to a newly sexualized world in which vicarious forms of sexual pleasure are now on/scene. The mimetic faculty is a kind of tactile training that habituates viewers to adapt to changing environments. What is lost in the decay of the aura is potentially gained, then, in the scope of play – a play that is, as Benjamin puts it, ‘widest in film'” 18.

What if we consider Deep Throat as a perfect example of mimetic sexuality, which in 1972 had the same power to shock as Edison’s kiss in 1896?  We play with all kinds of sexual experiences, and imagination is as much a part of viewing porn as viewing Pride & Prejudice: “even if movies do seem to invite us to crudely mimic the acts they show, our bodies are not quite the mechanistic mimics that Schauer imagines” 19. Consider Sobchack’s mode of reading cinema as a series of “embodiment relations” 19. Sobchack “conceives embodied viewing as an intentional arc that originates not with the world but with the spectator… her body’s intentional trajectory ‘will reverse its direction to locate its partially frustrated sensual grasp on something more literally accessible,’ which is her own ‘subjectively felt lived body'” 20. This is neither an identification with the male gaze or a Cartesian distancing from the object 21.

“Our entire sensorium is activated synesthetically, all the more so… when the moving image shows two (or more) beings touching, tasting, smelling, and rubbing up against one another… With Benjamin and Hansen’s innervation, then, we have a model for taking in energy through motoric stimulation that extends back toward the world, and with Sobchack’s rebound we have a model for taking energy from the image back into the self… screened sex has always been and is now even more central to our culture; whether it leads to Sobchack’s commuted, diffuse encounter with one’s own flesh, or to Hansen’s Benjaminian notion of one’s body as a ‘porous interface’ extending back toward the world” 20-21.

The book will begin with the kiss, a section on thirteen kisses from Edison’s in 1896 to Warhol’s in 1963. The second chapter moves to the possible, even requisite sex scenes of later films, beginning with The Graduate. The third chapter considers Last Tango In Paris and Deep Throat. The fourth addresses Jane Fonda as a woman whose “orgasms mattered” in film. The fifth chapter focuses on In the Realm of the Senses, a fusion of hard-core and erotica. The sixth addresses Blue Velvet and Brokeback Mountain as primal scenes, stagings of the taboo in America’s heartland. The seventh chapter reads contemporary hard-core art film. In her conclusion, Williams will consider the small screen and the interactivity of the spectator and cyberporn.

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