Thursday, 25 June 2009

From one flea to another

Having read, and really enjoyed, Lisa Z. Sigel, Governing Pleasures: Pornography and Social Change in England, 1815-1914 (Rutgers University Press, 2002), I was delighted to happen across an essay of hers on Cultronix: The Autobiography of a Flea. The essay is about her experiences as a female scholar conducting research on the History of Sexuality.** What caught my attention in particular was her peroration:

So if you're wondering if pornography turns me on, here's my answer. I am not the object of study, so it's none of your business.

Sigel demonstrates remarkable self-restraint. I would have added a few expletives between the last two words.

As Sigel explains "People thinking of my research, unselfconsciously, slip into questioning me. The assumption that I am open to questions is implicit" (and unwelcome). "The leap from my study of sex to the study of me studying sex is automatic and reflexive"; consequently, her "intellectual work gets positioned where it doesn't belong—on my body." Such people seem to exist in a binary universe: "I can either be deviant or I can be against deviance. I cannot just think about the process or the performance of deviance." More often than not, they "assume that because I study pornography I am deviant"; and that Sigel's "understanding of [women in pornography] can only happen on my back. OR. As a woman, I can only be outraged by sexuality. If I am not, I need to go back to re-learn the process of outrage or internalize the association and learn shame."

As a male studying erotic material the assumptions made and the questions asked are different. And, for the most part, my experiences have been more positive than those recounted by Sigel. Nevertheless, like Sigel, I find it troubling when my intellectual work gets positioned where it doesn't belong, when people confuse an interest in the history of erotica, with an interest in erotic narratives per se. For this reason I tend to discourage any curiosity concerning the narratives in the material that I am researching by focussing on other aspects of my research or by explaining that eighteenth century erotica is not at all erotic by modern standards (meaning, not arousing to anyone). On the few occasions that I felt that I must actually explain my lack of personal interest in the material I have resisted because, like Sigel, I don't accept that I should be the object of study.

Another point that Sigel makes, which I found very persuasive, relates to one of my favourite ways of explaining to others how I think about the erotic material that I study.

For me, pornography is an artifact which tells me a lot about the culture from which it came. A Grecian urn is a similar object. However, pornography in many ways is more telling a cultural artifact.

In my formulation of this I use the example of a pot shard. It seems that in every episode of Time Team, John Gater digs up a such a shard (indistinguishable from a lump of dirt to almost every viewer), proudly holds it up for the camera (and Tony Robinson) and explains that the shapeless fragment in question establishes the date of the dig, identifies the inhabitants of the area, their occupation and social standing: in short the entire history of human settlement in Britain can be extrapolated from a clot of muck.

Any printed artefact, therefore, will tell us a great deal about the society that printed it, and the more reviled the artefact, the more passionate a response it elicited, then and since, the more we may learn from it. That is the theory anyway, and you can see why I might like this analogy. I am an archaeologist among books. But, as Sigel goes on to explain:

Since the nineteenth century, most writers, publishers, photographers, distributors, readers and collectors of pornography have been middle and upper class men. Men have written, published, photographed, distributed, read and collected representations of women, the young, and the powerless … However, female scholars looking at sexuality invert the process. They look at how those with power position those who don't. Pornography, then, is not Grecian urn. Important power relations implicit in it get spelled out in a variety of ways which are still applicable.

To "women, the young, and the powerless," therefore, certain printed artefacts are not simply interesting or informative. And, although, like Sigel, I do not stand anywhere near the top of the many hierarchies of power, I realise I am close enough to the "writers, publishers, photographers, distributors, readers and collectors" to benefit from—unlike her—a periodic reminder of this fact. Such is her essay.

* * * * *

** Wikipedia explains, badly, that The Autobiography of a Flea is an anonymous erotic novel published in 1887. The flea tells the tale of a beautiful young girl named Bella, an orphan who lives with her uncle and aunt, who is debauched by a priest. The flea both narrates and judges the action. As Sigel comments, even as Bella and Julia "submit to the bodies and the will of the priests, they submit to the prurience and moralism of the flea". Nevertheless, Sigel would like to adopt the position of the flea in this narrative (the observer), thus the title of her essay.

1 comment:

Doc-in-Boots said...

These kinds of issues effect other areas of study - there is a tension in the area of children's literature that revolves around the assumption that the scholars themselves are either 'childish' or have children or were teachers of children. Some attempt to very overtly distance themselves from such assumptions, but this seems defeatist. I appreciate the distinctions you discuss here.