Stanley Fish, “Interpreting the Variorum”


As the self-proclaimed “inventor” of reader response theory, Stanley Fish remains a controversial figure. One of many critics to overturn the centrality of the text to New Criticism, Fish nevertheless ruffled feathers even in his own community of thinkers (Wolfgang Iser wonders how Fish’s refusal to acknowledge subjectivist readerly tendencies can account for different readings of the same text). Nonetheless, his ideas remain highly influential; I am particularly interested in how a focus on the reader can help us understand the way that viewer assimilates new knowledge over time, especially in a long-form text that the reader enters and exits, and which is so clearly imbricated in the period of life they spend consuming it. It is worth comparing Fish’s “interpretive communities” to Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities,” a term Lauren Berlant uses in The Female Complaint. 

Fish uses the Milton variorum, with its “surveying of the critical history of a work in order to find disputes that rested upon a base of agreement with the experience of a work, and argued that formalist criticism, because it is spatial rather than temporal in its emphases, either ignored or suppressed what is really happening in the act of reading” 2071.

“The facts that I cite as ones ignored by a formalist criticism (premature conclusions, double syntax, misidentification of speakers) are not discovered but created by the criticism I was myself practicing… that a bad (because spatial) model had suppressed what has really happening – loses its force because of my realization that the notion ‘really happening’ is just one more interpretation… the problem of accounting for the agreement readers often reach and for the principled ways in which they disagree” 2071.

“It was at this point that I elaborated the notion of interpretive communities as an explanation both for the difference we see – and by seeing make – and for the fact that those differences are not random or idiosyncratic but systemic and conventional” 2071.

“What if the [readerly] controversy is itself regarded as evidence, not of an ambiguity that must be removed, but of an ambiguity that readers have always experienced?” 2073.

“In other words, it is the structure of the reader’s experience rather than any structures available on the page that should be the object of description” 2074.

“In a matter of seconds, then, line 7 has led four experiential lives, one as we anticipate it, another as that anticipation is revised, a third when we retroactively identify its speaker, and a fourth when that speaker disclaims it. What changes in each of these lives is the status of the poet’s murmurings – they are alternately expressed, rejected, reinstated, and qualified – and as the sequence ends, the reader is without a firm perspective on the question of record” 2078 [uncertainty]

“This, then, is the structure of the reader’s experience – the transferring of a moral label from a thing to those who appropriate it. It is an experience that depends on a reader for whom the name Bacchus has precise and immediate associations; another reader, a reader for whom those associations are less precise will not have that experience because he will not have rushed to a conclusion in relation to which the word ‘misused’ will stand as a challenge… the action of the mind which its possession makes possible for one reader and impossible for the other… [to] realize at the end of ti that he has been asked to take a position on one side of a continuing controversy” 2080.

“It would be possible to continue with this profile of the optimal reader, but I would not get very far before someone would point out that what I am really describing is the intended reader, the reader whose education, opinions, concerns, linguistic competences, and so on make him capable of having the experience the author wished to provide… it seems obvious that the efforts of readers are always efforts to discern and therefore to realize (in the sense of becoming) the author’s intention. I would only object if that realization were conceived narrowly, as the single act of comprehending an author’s purpose, rather than (as I would conceive it) as the succession of acts readers perform in the continuing assumption that they are dealing with intentional beings” 2080.

“It would appear that I am open to two objections… the procedure is a circular one. I describe the experience of a reader who in his strategies is answerable to an author’s intention, and I specify the author’s intention by pointing to the strategies employed by that same reader. But this objection would have force only if it were possible to specify one independently of the other. What is being specified… are the conditions of utterance, or what could have been understood to have been meant by what was said… The second objection is another version of the first” if the content of the reader’s experience is the succession of acts he performs in search of an author’s intentions, and if he performs those acts at the bidding of the text, does not the text then produce or contain everything… have I not compromised my antiformalist position? This objection will have force only if the formal patterns of the text are assumed to exist independently of the reader’s experience… they are in the text before the reader comes to it …[but this is] the spectacle of an assertion supporting itself” 2081.

“It is my thesis that the reader is always making sense (I intend ‘making’ to have its literal force), and in the case of these lines the sense he makes will involve the assumption (and therefore the creation) of a completed assertion” 2081. [faceting, facere]

“How easy it is to surrender to the bias of our critical language and begin to talk as if poems, not readers or interpreters, did things. Words like ‘encourage’ and ‘disallow’… imply agents, and it is only ‘natural’ to assign agency first to an author’s intentions and then to the forms that assumedly embody them. What really happens, I think, is something quite different: rather than intention and its formal realization producing interpretation… interpretation creates intention and its formal realization by creating the conditions in which it becomes possible to pick them out” 2082.

“What I am suggesting is that formal units are always a function of the interpretive model one brings to bear; they are not ‘in’ the text, and I would make the same argument for intentions” 2083.

“The form of the reader’s experience, formal units, and the structure of intention are one, that they come into view simultaneously, and that therefore the questions of priority and independence do not arise… what produces them?… if intention, form, and the shape of the reader’s experience are simply different ways of referring to… the same interpretive act, what is that act an interpretation of? I cannot answer that question, but neither… can anyone else, although formalists try to answer it by pointing to patterns and claiming that they are available independently of (prior to) interpretation… I would argue that they do not lie innocently in the world but are themselves constituted by an interpretive act, even if, as is often the case, that act is unacknowledged” 2083.

“What is noticed is what has been made noticeable, not by a clear and undistorting glass, but by an interpretive strategy… the choice is never between objectivity and interpretation but between interpretation that is unacknowledged as such and an interpretation that is at least aware of itself… I must give up the claims implicitly made in the first part of this essay… that a bad… model had suppressed what was really happening… just one more interpretation” 2085.

“The price one pays for denying the priority of either forms or intentions is an inability to say how it is that one ever begins… why isn’t it the case that readers are always performing the same acts or a sequence of random acts, and therefore creating the same…? … both the stability of interpretation among readers and the variety of interpretation in the career of a single reader would seem to argue for the existence of something independent of and prior to interpretive acts, something which produces them” 2085.

“The notions of the ‘same’ or ‘different’ texts are fictions. If I read Lycidas & The Waste Land differently (in fact I do not), it will not be because the formal structures of the two poems (to term them such is also an interpretive decision) call forth different interpretive strategies but because my predisposition to execute different interpretive strategies will produce different formal structures. That is, the two poems are different because I have decided that they will be” 2086.

Augustine advocates the opposite, in a tradition of Christian exegesis: that every reading conform to the scripture and the love of God.

“Why should two or more readers ever agree…? …Interpretive communities are made up of those who share interpretive strategies not for reading (in the conventional sense) but for writing texts, for constituting their properties and assigning their intentions. In other words, these strategies exist prior to the act of reading and therefore determine the shape of what is read rather than, as is usually assumed, the other way around” 2088. (think Marxist critics, often)

“This, then, is the explanation both for the stability of interpretation among different readers (they belong to the same community) and for the regularity with which a single reader will employ different interpretive strategies and thus make different texts (he belongs to different communities). It also explains why there are disagreements and why they can be debated in a principled way: not because of a stability in texts, but because of a stability in the makeup of interpretive communities and therefore in the opposing positions they make possible” 2088 (Althusser/ ISAs).

“The ideal is of perfect agreement and it would require texts to have a status independent of interpretation. The fear is of interpretive anarchy, but it would only be realized if interpretation (text making) were completely random. It is the fragile but real consolidation of interpretive communities that allows us to talk to one another, but with no hope or fear of ever being able to stop” 2088.

“Interpretive strategies are not natural or universal, but learned… How can any one of us know whether or not he is a member of the same interpretive community as any other of us?… The only ‘proof’ of membership is fellowship, the nod of recognition from someone in the same community, someone who says to you what neither of us could ever prove to a third party: ‘we know.’ I say it to you now, knowing full well that you will agree with me (that is, understand) only if you already agree with me” 2089.



Mikhail Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel”


In “Epic and Novel,” Bakhtin argues that the novel flourishes on diversity, making it uniquely suited to post-industrial society. The novel can “swallow” and ape other genres without losing the integrity of its form (unlike the epic, for example). In “Discourse in the Novel,” Bakhtin introduces his idea of heteroglossia, based on “extralinguistic” features common across languages, like perspective, evaluation, and ideology, so that language cannot be fully neutralized because it is always defined by context. The focus of this essay is the insistence that literary study must neither be “formal” nor “ideological,” but that form and content are unified in discourse. The fixation on style, cut off from the sociality of discourse, is flat and abstract and the two must be put in conversation. “The novel as a whole is a phenomenon multiform in style and variform in speech and voice” 1192. Its “structured artistic system” is made up of direct narration, stylized narration, stylized everyday forms like the letter or diary, other literary but extra-artistic forms like scientific or journalistic texts, and stylized individual speech of characters 1192. They form together “a higher stylistic unity of the work as a whole, a unity that cannot be identified with any single one of the unities subordinated to it” 1192.

“The stylistic uniqueness of the novel as a genre consists precisely in the combination of these subordinated, yet still relatively autonomous, unities (even at times comprised of different languages) into the higher unity of the work as a whole… the language of a novel is the system of its ‘languages'” 1192.

“The novel orchestrates all its themes, the totality of the world of objects and ideas depicted and expressed in it, by means of the social diversity of speech types and by the differing individual voices that flourish under such conditions” 1192.

Because of this, critics often treat style or genre, not both, which the novel requires – the novel is often treated as ‘epic,’ and is therefore undervalued. (I wonder if James Wood’s idea of the novel isn’t as outdated as calling it an epic… the contemporary novel still adheres to most of Bakhtin’s aesthetic categories, just differently so.)

“At the time when poetry was accomplishing the task of cultural, national and political centralization of the verbal-ideological world… on the lower levels, on the stages of local fairs and at buffoon spectacles, the heteroglossia of the clown sounded forth, ridiculing all ‘languages’ and dialects… all ‘languages’ were masks and where no language could claim to be an authentic, incontestable face” 1200.

(It’s interesting to consider that he uses the word ‘face’ – also what about The Waste Land?) The problem with readings of the novel, for Bakhtin, is that they seek the same unity in diversity that languages themselves show, rather than dialogism between the text and outside world.

“No living word relates to its object in a singular way: between the word and its object, between the word and the speaking subject, there exists an elastic environment of other, alien words about the same object, the same theme, and this is an environment that is often difficult to penetrate… The word, directed toward its object, enters a dialogically agitated and tension-filled environment of alien words, value judgments and accents, weaves in and out of complex interrelationships… this may crucially shape discourse, may leave a trace” 1202.

“A word forms a concept of its own object in a dialogic way… It encounters an alien word not only in the object itself: every word is directed toward an answer and cannot escape the profound influence of the answering word that it anticipates… oriented toward the listener and his answer” 1205.

For Bakhtin, poetic discourse is closed off to alien languages, indisputable, whereas novelistic discourse is open to them, variable.

“At any given moment of its historical existence, language is heteroglot from top to bottom: it represents the coexistence of socio-ideological contradictions between the present and the past, between differing epochs of the past, between different socio-ideological groups in the present, between tendencies, schools, circles, and so forth, all given a bodily form… each… requires a methodology very different from the others” 1214.

(I wonder if you could consider The Wire as attempting to do this televisually.)

“The poet strips the word of others’ intentions, he uses only such words and forms (and only in such a way) that they lose their link with concrete intentional levels of language and their connection with specific contexts… Everything that enters the work must immerse itself in Lethe, and forget its previous life in any other contexts: language may remember only its life in poetic contexts” 1217.

This seems like a sort of “poetic suture” for Bakhtin. I think it is overstated, to be sure, especially given the existence of Eliot, but it is interesting to think about how this could be compared with the especially heteroglot, object-oriented worlds of the contemporary novel or TV series, which take Bakhtin’s and Kristeva’s ideas about heteroglossia to their most fecund point.

“When heteroglossia enters the novel it becomes subject to an artistic reworking. The social and historical voices populating language, all its words and all its forms, which provide language with its particular concrete conceptualizations, are organized in the novel into a structured stylistic system that expresses the differentiated socio-ideological position of the author amid the heteroglossia of his epoch” 1220.


Guy Debord, “Society of the Spectacle”


Debord’s assertion that “all that once was directly lived has become mere representation” is central to his neo-Marxist arrival at the failures of image culture (reminds me of Jameson and Adorno) – “the historical moment at which the commodity completes its colonization of social life.” The most Jamesonian moment is perhaps the assertion of a failure of history in the spectacle, which obfuscates the past and fuses it with a future to create a neverending present. The waves of ecstasy and obsessive product trends also parallel religious fervor of ages past.

One might also think of the spectacle – which Debord argues arises in the 1920s as the confluence of mass media, advanced capitalism, and governments – as parallel to Benjamin’s concern with mass culture and fascism in “Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility,” though Benjamin seems to have more faith in film…

In the “society of the spectacle,” we see “the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing,” so that “passive identification with the spectacle supplants genuine activity.” Debord takes Marx’s idea of the social relation between objects, rather than subjects, as an origin point:  “The spectacle is not a collection of images. Rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.”

Debord’s situationism proposes to wake up ideologically drugged spectators by using spectacular images to disrupt the flow of spectacle (detournement) – to interrupt suture, as it were (Oudart).

Linda Williams: Chapters 6 & Conclusion, “Screening Sex”



Williams focuses on Blue Velvet and Brokeback Mountain as “primal scenes” in American cinema. “Lynch’s sex scenes are audacious, less for their explicitness than for the unsettling feelings they generate” 223. For young viewers in the 90s, Williams argues, Lynch’s film was a kind of parallel to the European avant-garde films she herself encountered ‘not exactly at the right time.’ She turns to Freud’s focus on the “primal fantasies” of “the child watching parental coitus… the child’s seduction by a parent (usually the son by the mother); and the scene of the threat of castration (usually… the son by the father)… as a kind of prehistoric ‘phylogenetic’ truth (the individual’s ontologenic memory of the species) that underlay psychic reality” 225. “The origin of desire is the enigma around which our Blue Velvet examples circle” 226. “Lynch’s multiple variations on the primal fantasies of the origin of sexuality are a tour de force of a new perverse sexual ritualism introduced into mainstream American cinema” 235 (think of American Psycho).

“Jameson identifies Blue Velvet’s violence and sadomasochism as the postmodern debasement of an earlier 1960s-style transgression… its postmodern play with an evil… that is merely a simulacrum and no longer really scary… a parable of the end of the sixties, ‘a parable of the end of theories of transgression as well, which so fascinated that whole period and its intellectuals.’ In a sense, Jameson is right… films that usher in violent originary fantasies in the late eighties are not politically transgressive in a 1960s, modernist way. But does that mean, as Jameson seems to say, that their sex is therefore pseudotransgressive in a postmodernist way that is historically inauthentic, unimportant, basically not sexy?… In place of Jameson’s dismissal of such films as mere symptoms of the loss of the sixties, we do better to take the primal scene seriously as the popular staging of a new kind of sex scene for a generation no longer aligned with the high-culture Marquis de Sade or with an idea of sexual liberation suited to the antirepressive ideologies of the 1960s. When Foucault writes that ‘modern society is perverse, not in spite of its Puritanism… in actual fact, and directly, perverse,’ he describes a general tedency to isolate, intensify, incite, consolidate, and implant ‘peripheral sexualities’… Sadomasochistic perversions and sexual fantasies that partake of originary fantasies of seduction, castration, and the primal scene begin to become ‘stuck’ in the eighties American popular culture through these films… a new understanding of sex as a desubjectified scene… the injunction to the audience in a film which… forbade a more direct look at sex” 236.

Turning to Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, Williams states: “If sadomasochistic pleasures in American movies are now recognized as pleasures, however complicated they may be with pain, anal sex between men has previously been recognized, if at all, as only pain and humiliation, especially to the one penetrated” 237. The film became “something very much like a primal scene’s first witnessing of a sex act initially understood by the inexperienced child as pain and only later as pleasure” 237. Williams cites D.A. Miller’s complaint that the film focuses on scenes of spying by the women as “vitrified” by “views of ‘the Homosexual’ viewed by another character through glass” 238. Perhaps Miller would “prefer this ‘gay love story’ to come more overtly out of a self-recognized gay culture rather than at least partly out of Proulx’s heterosexual female imagination of sexual desires that do not, at their point of emergence, acknowledge themselves as gay” 238. Miller explicitly finds the film far less radical, for example, than European cinema. “I argue, to the contrary, that by staging a mythical primal scene in which homosexual desire emerges from something that does not preexist, and in also staging the threat of castration against which it emerges, that this Hollywood film precisely does not reduce homosexuality to a minoritized problem but makes it a fear, and a desire, sympathetically, and even melodramatically, felt by all” 238. It is, for Williams, about how Americans “paid attention to themselves watching it” 239. (Think of the melodramatic implications of Jack Twist dying because he is more “out,” while Ennis Del Mar lives in a closeted way.)

Williams turns to the 2003 Lawrence vs. Texas case (based on the Bowers v. Hardwick case of 1986), which asserted privacy as a right over the illegality of sodomy. It is interesting that the call of the wilderness in this American film parallels a call to sexuality (my idea: the space is normally free of women – adventure-land of homosociality, versus homosexuality) 242. Their initial seduction involves the masculine tropes of not looking, of not speaking, finally of wrestling and “facing off” that ends in Ennis’ violent taking charge – we hear more than we see of this union 246. In Proulx’s story and the film what Ennis “wants none of” is passivity – he makes himself the “male” in the act accordingly. Daniel Mendelsohn argues that the uniqueness of the film is to highlight the self-hatred in this barrier-crossing that does not occur in films that pose “familial or ethnic impediments” to sexual union 247. Castration figures literally here, not only in the internalized fears of homosexual killings and beatings, but in fact the act of castrating cattle. Proulx writes that Ennis’ shirt is “one inside the other, two in one” in Jack’s in the final trailer scene 249 (also an interesting parallel of the penetrative act). Unlike the fetish of blue velvet, however, these will not stimulate Ennis sexually: “We might call it a fetish that works in the service of melodrama to evoke the acute sense of loss… an avowal of love that is both too little and too late” 251. When Ennis switches the shirts, it acts as a sort of “outing” for Williams, serving as a juxtaposition of Jack embracing Ennis as he breaks down, versus a previously unseen tender scene of Ennis embracing Jack from behind 252.

While critic Daniel Mendelsohn found the marketing unseemly in its avoidance of publicizing the homosexuality in the film, producer James Shamus insisted “that the film is both a love story and a gay story, and that it solicits every audience member’s identification with the film’s central gay characters” 254 (think about Toni Morrison’s similar move?). “In their debate, Mendelsohn and Shamus occupy the two binary positions laid out by Eve Sedgwick’s influential study, The Epistemology of the Closet, the always inadequate either-or of a minoritizing gay desire particular to a specific group of actual homosexuals (Mendelsohn’s claim) and a universalizing view that sees homosexual desire in relation to that of other sexualities (Shamus’ claim)… Shamus’ claim… of ‘shattering the ‘epistemology of the closet”” 254. However, “the closet constitutes a place of deep contradiction not easily shattered,” so if the film is “about the epistemology of the closet, then it cannot be about a proud proclaiming of gay love, a definitive emergence from the closet into the bright light of day. If the film is the product of a postcloset world, it is looking back on an era of the closet… Ultimately, this movie’s depiction of the closet concerns some rather small rearrangements of what hangs inside… important… that it does not aim to show us a bold image of illicit desire, but instead the tension between desire and the fear that inhibits but also eroticizes it” 255. (Me: In other words, it inducts gay love into the same tradition of taboo that heterosexual love has celebrated?) “We do not know how gay desire suddenly becomes speakable or representable in a culture… Human sexuality… seems always to be caught between the too early and the too late occurrence of the event” 257.


Since porn is “now consigned to a space of supposed privacy and is not acknowledged as part of the cultural mainstream, it has become a kind of elephant in the room… treated as unofficial knowledge” 300. The private space of the home has become more public as it is connected to home viewing, the internet, etc. and “Conversely, what was once considered public (the movie theater) can now be brought into the home… a world of many small screens” that are mobile as well 300. Williams returns to Edison’s 1896 film, which received little attention “in the small peephole device of the Kinetoscope” but far more attention when projected on the big screen. If the big-screen movie depends on the “gulf” between viewer and screen necessary to take in the image, what of the small screen’s affordances? “Film-makers love to vilify the small screen experience… solitary, obsessed men become even more antisocial through their absorption into the small television screen” 303 (recall the argument that it is vaginal!). Williams considers how shows like SEx and the City & The L-Word have remade sex on the screen, focusing on TV’s soft-core sex is similar to coitus interruptus. The “hard-core” sex of Tell Me that You Love Me” is “new” – where would we place Girls?

“The onetime ‘vice’ of ‘onanism’ no longer carries the stigma of self-pollution that Thomas Laqueur tells us it quite suddenly acquired in the early eighteenth century… However, event he more recent rehabilitation of solitary sex has been an uneven process,” emphasizing masturbating women, not men 305. TV’s situation in the home invites masturbation, as does, perhaps, its more ‘life-size’ depictions 305. The fear that the internet “user” will replace cyberporn with real intimacy peaked in 1995 in a Time article depicting a man embracing (penetrating?) a glowing computer monitor, whose “lips” seem enormous (SURFACES). “Home screens have grown larger, movie theaters have grown smaller, and mobile screens and now touch screens of laptops, cell phones, and iPods complicate the whole issue by bringing the once private, small screen out into a public space that is simultaneously more privatized” 309 (think about TOUCH/TACT here!).

Williams turns to Sobchack, who “asserts that the only thing that holds identity together in this regime [of the digital] is the ongoing affirmation of our connections to these media themselves. In this flattened, superficial space lacking both temporal thickness and bodily investment, the dominant ‘techno-logic’ or the electronic leaves us diffused and disembodied” 310. However, Williams points out, “we become habituated to this screening and to our sympathetic relations to the sex of others as a kind of carnal knowledge felt in our own bodies. The techniques of cinema have led us to an embodied relation to movies that allows us to play with these moving images even while sitting immobile in our theater seats or holding an image on a mobile device in our laps. My irreducible bodily basis of experience has thus been conditioned by the technical dimension of movies. ‘Mixed reality’ is [Mark] Hansen’s term for the fact that there is no escape ‘into’ the virtual, no leaving the body behind, no complete going through the virtual window – only increased awareness of imaging, and of active relations to images, as an originary element of our organism’s very being” 311 (SURFACES).

Interestingly, in the cyberporn with Jenna Jameson that Williams explores, the Innocent/Nasty buttons seem to denote nothing more than the difference between descriptive (“That feels good”) and prescriptive (“Jam your fingers in”) – in other words, “just polite” and “just a woman who bluntly commands what she wants”) 317. This is free of the linear narrative of porn, but also of Sobchack’s “gravity” of “moral and physical… real-world consequences” 317. (Is this also bizarre in the extent to which it makes a woman purely manipulable, endlessly inexhausible?) Like other porn, it ends on a money shot (click ORG) with CGI’s impossible proportions 318. “It is tempting to agree with Baudrillard and all the other harbingers of the condition of the post-human that such a  patently fake sexual effect mixing real body and CGI cannot be good for real human sex” 320. It is at least true that phallic pleasures continue to dominate on/scene, but free amateur porn is changing this.

For Williams, Benjamin “is the scholar who has most eloquently articulated how closeness and reproducibility work against qualities of uniqueness and aura” 321. Going back to Schauer’s argument, which Williams defended film against, is it true of new media? Are they nothing more than sex aids encouraging mimicry? No, for Williams – the viewer and object are closer, but the divide never closes. “Utopian faith in the possibilities of virtual reality sometimes suggests that a break with the culture of the screen is imminent as once passive, immobile spectators become active and mobile… Whatever mimesis occurs in our bodies is never the kind of slavish imitation Schauer imagines. What we see in that same or other time and distant (but now closer) space may rebound back upon our own bodies in the more solipsistic and masturbatory way Sobchack describes, or it may, as Benjamin held out, offer an imaginative form of play that can lead us back into the world” 324. Williams ends by arguing that

“The publication of sex… has never been a making public of that which properly belongs to the private… Publicity is not necessarily the exposure of something that is more properly private…[it] is promiscuous, it exposes us to, it involves us with, others, even and perhaps especially others who are not physically present to us there with us in the same time and space. The carnal knowledge that we gain from screening sex is, finally, not a matter of seeing ‘it.’ … arriving at an ultimate degree… we cannot cure the dishonesty and bad faith about sex with more explicitness. And however much I would root for the sight of a few more convulsing clitorises to answer the seeming ubiquity of money shots, I do not really believe that more realistic depictions of female pleasure are the answer… the very act of screening has become an intimate part of our sexuality. The point, therefore, should not be to discover that screening sex brings us so much closer, spatially or temporally, to ‘real sex.’ Rather, it should be to discover that viewers, and now users, have become habituated to these new forms of mimetic play with, and through, screens… an opportunity to see and to know what has not previously been seen so closely. This carnal knowledge never fully reveals the scratch we imagine ‘it’ to be, but the itch that keeps us screening” 325.

I love this ending’s play on embodiment, the prolongation of the itch, the Foucauldian implications of proliferating discourse, the never-quite-arrival (comparable to affects like paranoia and the language arts), and also the idea that there is always something we haven’t seen (here’s where Girls & Mad Men seem particularly interesting – one for showing sex now that we haven’t seen, one for imposing – perhaps even problematically – on history a sexual intensity heretofore dissociated with our screened visions of the past.)

Linda Williams, Chapter 2: “Screening Sex”



Williams begins by describing sex in foreign films: Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1959) and Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women (1960) both “portrayed gang rapes of young virgins” 69. “To screen a dramatic simulation of (coerced) genital sex was a very different thing from reading about that, or any kind of sex, in a novel. The power of impression derived not only from the vividness of seeing real bodies in acts and positions that were still unspeakable in polite American society, but also from seeing them magnified several times over” 69-70. The images lost focus in Wiliams’ mind, “to suggest the girl’s own loss of consciousness, even an ultimate loss of self, at the still unseen moment of genital penetration,” though in reality, they remained clear, “penetrating the initial distance between the camera and the girl… simulat[ing] a kind of rape” 70. Williams attributes this melting to the shameful awareness of her own bodily response to the films at the time.

The “carnal knowledge” film offers, however, is not immediate – it “does not necessarily come as a unique identification with any one body on the screen, but as a series of mediated exchangeds between our bodies, what Vivian Sobchack calls ‘the film’s body,’ and the bodies on the screen” 75. “Images of bodies taking sensual pleasures in one another invoke both our more distant senses of sight and hearing and our more proximate senses of touch, taste, and smell” 75. Williams wants to focus as much on sound as sight to explore the way American movies began to toe the line between showing it all and still concealing “it” by being “visually reticent” 75, 78. For years, Hollywood cinema remained more comfortable speaking the language of sex than showing it – with words like vagina, orgy, and virgin 77. (Her examples include Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, & Carnal Knowledge).

In The Graduate, “instead of showing the quality and kind of sexual relations that Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson enjoy, the film thus chooses to extend and thematize the initial war between illumination and darkness… to concentrate on the before preparations and the after dressing and departures, never the during of sex” 80. In Christian Metz’s terms, this is “a bracket syntagma: ‘Brief scenes given as typical examples of a certain order of reality but without temporal sequence, often organized around a concept'” 80. (Versus Chantal Ackerman.) “It is precisely in these lyrical montages – montages in which music amps up and narrative slows down – that a palatable form of carnal knowledge first found its way into mainstream American film” 83. Music and sex become inextricably linked (“Hollywood’s new practice… would be to situate the spectacle of sex as an affectively controlled interlude distanced by the effect of editing and music” 84) and when music is removed to allow the sounds of sex to be heard, it is another definite shift in screening sex 83. (See also Midnight Cowboy, 1969, on male prostitution and threatened masculinity).

Williams goes on to describe exploitation films (“any low-budget movie with a topical bent aimed at social problems not treated in the mainstream”) and the development of sexploitation films (“homegrown soft-core American sex films… to exploit so-called adult situations, and, above all, to expose more female flesh than could be seen in a mainstream film”) 88-9. “Sexploitation producers were so terrified of resembling hard-core pornography – and they did constantly skirt prosecution for obscenity in their vulnerable position outside the Code – that they would frequently displace the energy of genital coupling into a more generalized orgasmic abandon of the whole female body… jiggling breasts… verge on the clinically hysterical” 91. Finally, blaxploitation films cropped up in response to the Code’s prohibition of miscegenation on screen: “Taboos of interracial sex grew out of an American history that has covertly permitted white men sexual access to black women and violently forbidden black and brown men access to white women… generated taboo sexual fantasies with an important purchase on the American sexual imagination” 92. For example, Sydney Poitier and the fame of other famous black actors “seemed to have been purchased at the very price of his sexuality” 92. “Blaxploitation – the overt exploitation of racialized sex and violence – would prove the next logical step… launched its initial cycle through the sexploitation of supervirile black male bodies” 93. “Sweetback primes our anticipation of the vestigially taboo act of interracial intercourse while playing peekaboo with the male organ that would enact it” 97. “While white critics tended to begrudgingly admire the crowd-pleasing fabulation of the black man’s revenge on ‘whitey,’ while simultaneously wincing at its crass overstatement, for once the more important critical commentary occurred within the black community,” including Huey Newton, who admired its radicalism 99. In response, Lerone Bennet Jr. wrote in Ebony that it in fact simply created a counter-stereotype to Uncle Tom. This is “the phobic stereotype of the black rapist who cannot control his slavering desire for white women and the counterphobic one of the kind, gentle, and asexual Uncle Tom” 101. “The less fiercely independent Blaxploitation films to follow the trail blazed by Sweetback would make a point of delivering something a little more like ‘the black tradition of spontaneous sexuality’… ‘the lushness, the beauty, and the incredible variety of black flesh'” 103.

“The final location for the depiction of carnal knowledge outside the mainstream of American film in the sixties is the avant-garde” 104. “A remarkable number of the films discussed in this chapter depict sex performed for audiences within the film narrative,” including a camera in Warhol’s 1968  Blue Movie 105.

“The temporal flow of this sex, although not without an occasional ellipses at the seemingly arbitrary end of each roll of film, differs radically in duration and explicitness from any other… If it were possible to have a degree zero of sex in movies, this is it. No edited montages, no superimpositions, no musical interludes attempt to stand in for the always elusive orgasmic moments of pleasure. Nor does the scene build to a dramatic climax of money shots. Yet Warhol does take his cue aesthetically from the blunt and often matter-of-fact older blue movies he so much admired. These films are often so haphazard in their orchestration of unfaked sex acts that they, too, neglect to offer dramatic climaxes and thus, screened today, often have an uncanny realism. As we saw him do with kisses, Warhol simply shows the act with an unblinking, unprobing, unprurient eye although without maximally visible close-ups… The real payoff of his film turns out to be the postcoital and emphatically domestic intimacy…” 110

The chapter ends with the wonderful observation that Benjamin nearly eludes Mrs. Robinson’s advances in The Graduate with the question, “Would you like to go to the movies?” 110.

Linda Williams, Chapter 1: “Screening Sex”



Kisses “no longer carry the burden – or the enormous electrical charge – of being the whole of sex that can be seen. The movie kisses of the era before the 1960s sexual revolution were both more infantile and more adolescent than the kisses of today – infantile in their orality and adolescent in their way of being permanently poised on the brink of carnal knowledge” 26.

“What is its role as textual punctuation – as period, comma, question mark, and, most important, as the dot, dot, dot of ellipsis?” 27. Edison’s 1896 film is the first recorded kiss, and Williams describes its necessary theatricality, in which the actors are torn “between the necessary close contact between bodies and the requirement to make that contact visible” 29. It is also like later sex in that it could be called ‘gratuitous’ 29. “What seems to be at stake is a visceral attraction or repulsion on the part of viewers. Fragmentation, repetition, and magnification make possible an anatomization that turns the kiss of The Widow Jones stage play into a culturally new combination of prurience and pedagogy… a new kind of sexual voyeurism unleashed by moving pictures” 30.

Williams goes on to describe “What Happened in the Tunnel,” a screened kiss between a man and a black maid (he thinks he’s kissing her mistress) in the darkened interval of a train going through a tunnel 31. This is an example of a kiss deemed “obscene,” since interracial kisses would not come “on/scene” until much later (think of the threat of the interracial kisses in Birth of a Nation) 31.

Williams next considers the era of the Hollywood Production Code, from 1934 (“when the code began actually to be enforced) to 1966 (when the ratings system took hold) 33. “Eroticism, as George Bataille teaches, can be surprisingly complicit with the law, or the morals, that prohibit it” 34. In the case of Casablanca, the film’s famous song emphasizes that “a kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh,” and the film does not aid its viewer in imagining the sexual act that might follow or accompany the kiss 35. Because of the 3-point lighting system so famous in Hollywood cinema, “all white women in Hollywood films glow with a light that works to purify the darker lusts their kisses may evoke” 37. Williams calls the constant interruption of such kisses osculum interruptum, with similar connotations to coitus interruptus 38. If “ellipsis is a rhetorical figure of speech in which a word or words required by strict grammatical rules are omitted… the missing words are implied by the context… Ellipses are especially frequent and felt as ellipses – noticed as dot, dot, dot – when they elide sex acts” 39-40.

“Sexual desire ultimately exists in this, and many other Code-era films so that it may be sublimated to a more purified, ideological and aesthetic ‘good’ – whether the good of the family or, in this case, the good of the American and European struggle against fascism. Desire and sexual pleasure as positive values in themselves have no legitimate, acknowledged place in the era of the Code, though they certainly sneak in around the edges… the special, perverse pleasure of watching sex in movies of this period: sex can never be indulged in for itself, and for this reason it must remain exquisitely ambiguous…” 41.

For Williams, much of the erotic tension comes from the “internal resistance” of the male hero to the kiss in question, such as the one Jimmy Stewart succumbs to in It’s A Wonderful Life 42. Williams draws attention to how the mouth’s function to suck is highlighted in the silent eros of Garbo in Flesh and the Devil 45. The focus on the kiss is a sort of ironic lingering in the phase of the Freudian perversion to avoid showing the obscene, which is actually, for Freud, the normal aim of any erotic encounter 47.

The eros of the kiss lies at least partly in the fact that “unlike so many other se acts that depend on penetration – one convex organ fitting into another concave one – the kiss is a contact in which one can touch the other with the same body parts – lips, tongue, mucous membrane – with which one is touched oneself” 49. (Interestingly, this suggests the fascination with lesbian scissoring in porn.) Williams, in fact, claims that “one reason why women are the great connoisseurs of romantic kisses” may be “not, as has sometimes been suggested, because of an innate female predilection for soft-core, soft-focus romanticism, but because kisses are so potentially egalitarian. There are few other (equipmentless) sexual acts in which a woman can be both penetrator and penetrated” 49. A kiss is a sexual act, but also alludes to one.

Hitchcock seems to “get away” with screening bigger, longer, and more frequent kisses than other Code-era directors 56. Williams points to the scene in Proust when Marcel is dismayed to see Albertine break down into fragments as he approaches her, which is different, she argues, from the cinematic kiss, where the viewer never suffers the intimate fragmentation that the actual kisser would 57. This translates as a “diffuse sensuality” in us, rather than an actual mimic of the kiss 57 (“viewers have responded viscerally, though not necessarily imitatively, to what they see 63). Warhol’s 1963 Kiss was the first of his films to be projected in a theater 58. It consists of 13 kisses, each longer than the last, adding up to 58 minutes total (slowed to a ritardando 16 frames per second). All the kisses are in progress when the camera begins filming, and all but one continue after the camera stops. Warhol wrote that “se is more exciting on the screen and between the pages than between the sheets anyway” 61. (I like this between the sheets pun.) The film, overall, explores the limits of the kiss, but also disrupts the Hollywood tradition, showing more active and diverse kinds of kissers.

In the end, as the code faded, violence flourished and became a fully American expression, while sex often seemed like “an import item” 64. While violence was always fake, sex could be hardcore (unsimulated) or softcore (faked) 64. “A certain spectacle of violence revealing the aggression to or penetration of one body by another – in the form of various kinds of fights, along with displays of blood, wounds, and even inner organs – has become a normal part of the movies. However, the mainstream has not as easily absorbed a similar spectacle of sex – also often a penetration of bodies – even though in its own exclusive form, cordoned off as the separate genre of pornography, it is arguable the most enduring and popular of all moving-image forms” 64-5. (Interesting to think of Lolita & American Psycho here.) The “ecstatic body ‘beside itself'” is also mirrored in both acts – why should one be simulated and the other not? For Bazin, at least, art must remain in the realm of the imaginary, and sex can unfold in the cinema rather than theater precisely because it is a sort of imaginary space 66. Why, too, should the novel “tell all” if the cinema cannot “show all”?

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.