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Porn Yesterday

THE SECRET MUSEUM
Pornography in Modern Culture
By Walter Kendrick
Viking

Two interwoven arguments carry The Secret Museum to one overriding conclusion: that the censorship of sexually explicit materials is dangerous, foolish, fruitless, or at least ill-conceived. So Walter Kendrick seems to intend, anyway. The decisive evidence of what he thinks he's brought off here comes in his next-to-last sentence, when he sums up the two arguments with a brevity that's both remarkable and typical of his exhaustively researched 239-page text: "`Pornography' is not eternal, nor are its dangers self-evident."

Before you ask what else is new, give the man room for the tone and context half a sentence can't convey. Since the planet itself isn't eternal, that word may look overblown, but for as long as Andrea Dworkin et al. trumpet Hustler and The 120 Days of Sodom as the root of all suffering, it will pass for what I'll call an implicit attribution; the anti-porners attribute such cosmic power to smut that they're really responsible for the word, even if it doesn't quite call for the quotation marks festooning "`pornography.'" Kendrick proves beyond a doubt that the term dates only to the mid-19th century, and makes a strong if not absolutely convincing case that the cultural phenomenon it's come to signify isn't much older. If The Secret Museum accomplished nothing else, this would be an essential contribution to a controversy that definitely ain't over yet. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for "nor are its dangers self-evident," self-evident though it may appear. That's because it's a real argument, not just a sharp piece of research. Or rather, it ought to be an argument and isn't. Kendrick isn't good at arguing. Though he's a critic by profession, his narratives persuade more powerfully than his analyses: the surface of his abstract writing achieves a remarkable clarity, but exactly where it's going is often hard to figure out.

One problem is that The Secret Museum affords none of the customary discursive amenities: it begins at the lexicographical beginning, and after a chapter of backtracking proceeds to the present with never a preface, introduction, conclusion, or the-story-so-far. Compounding the confusion is its subtitle, Pornography in Modern Culture. Given Kendrick's long-standing fascination with Victoriana, it's no surprise that by "modern" he means twixt preindustrial and postmodern, bit it is a disappointment; two-thirds of the way through he's still tarrying with Anthony Comstock, and he doesn't reach Ulysses until page 182. Nor does he pay anywhere near as much attention to pornography per se as to its suppression. In substance, The Secret Museum is a history of scholars, sexual social crusaders, and jurists who are described and interpreted in more detail than any of the works that happened to excite their interest. The past 20 years, which most would describe as pornography's high-water mark if not golden age, are for Kendrick "the post-pornographic era"--except for Hustler, immortalized by the tireless PR of the aforementioned Dworkin, not a single title is cited.

In fact, although he never says so, Kendrick's subject seems to be a cultural tendency, not a genre comprising individual, well, works of art, however formulaic and manipulative they may be. This tendency manifests itself as both sensibility and production. The sensibility evolves from pale 17th century imitations of such masters of scurrilous obscenity as Martial, Juvenal, and the incomparable Catullus to a fascination with the lascivious that Kendrick traces to the cataloguing of certain frescoes and statues unearthed at Pompeii. Before the 19th century, he tells us, sexual imagery was almost always the servant of invective, intended to insult rather than arouse, to exploit as metaphor rather than render as fact. But as realism became a byword, more and more ruling-class men joined the tiny market that had long existed for prurient sexual representations. Supply rose to meet demand. And as pornography's audience expanded and democratized along with every other reading public, censors emerged from closets everywhere.

For Kendrick, the keyword in this scenario seems to be "representation." I hear tell this term made its highbrow move during the film-theory debate that filled the pages of Screen in the '70s, a debate I've avoided like the collected works of Enver Hoxha, but if that's where Kendrick picked it up he never lets on. He just uses it like a normal English word, related to such formulations as "an apparently unstoppable drive toward the total availability of total detail" and "The real problem--though no one recognized this--was publicity itself, the permeation of culture by images." In other words, or so I gather, the growth of pornography was simply one more instance of the proliferation of what Foucalt (cited by Kendrick from a polite distance) calls discourse, and the content of pornography was of little if any moment; as McLuhan (ditto) put it, "The medium is the message," and hence: "The Mysteries of Verbena House and The Little Flowers of St. Francis are more alike than they are different. Both are printed books and hence influence their readers' perceptual organization in precisely the same way; that one praises flagellation, the other sanctity, is irrelevant."

Immediately Kendrick adds: "No one, perhaps, would be willing to adopt this proposition in its baldest form." But this sop to common sense is too little ("perhaps" my foot) and too late: once such a thesis has pranced across the page with its clothes off, its protestations of modesty aren't going to convince anybody. In a sense, Kendrick proposes to defend dirty books (and feelthy pictures, whose increasingly disproportionate prominence in the bluenose imagination he acknowledges but never engages) with the arsenal of structuralism/poststructuralism's cross-disciplinary formalism. Oh, not really, I suppose. He must suspect that his descriptions or archcensor Comstock's insane shenanigans--cribbed from the kind of sources only scholars should read and spun into the kind of good yarn few scholars have the gift for--are every bit as instructive as his repeated denial that representation affects behavior. After all, if "history provides no proof" that life imitates art, history also offers no proof that the course of human events has been changed by right reason, this book included. For the stringent empiricist, in fact, history offers no proof of anything, because proof requires experimental controls that life messy life just won't sit still for. Which I'm afraid throws us back on the common sense enlisted by such anti-porners as Richard Nixon and Edwin Meese et al. after science let them down. Common sense tells us that Kendrick is right to disparage the "simple-minded" superstition that "representations direct our lives in ways we cannot govern or even understand." But common sense also tells us that perceived representations feed into the tangle of factors that determine human action.

Astutely, Kendrick traces the censorship debate back to Plato, who saw art as "poison . . . accumulating in the system," and Aristotle, whose concept of catharsis suggested that art was more like "homeopathic medicine, to be taken as needed and put back on the shelf." But rather than suggesting that maybe these two possibilities cancel each other out, Kendrick relegates both to the scrap heap of history--as far as he's concerned, art neither misleads nor ennobles. What it does do, apparently, is provide diversion, amusement, pleasure, or perhaps something like Clive Bell's "aesthetic emotion." While Kendrick takes care to remove himself from the myth of "literature," and also from the myth of the alienated genius (which he believes arose "in tandem with" pornography), he often uses the word "art" as if he knows what it means, usually in connection with high craft. Such workmanship and formal sophistication he finds sadly lacking in most pornography, which he labels "tawdry," "of the lowest quality," "trash," even "vile drivel." And like so much else in Kendrick's impressive, useful, deeply frustrating book, this can only make the attentive reader wonder what the fuck he's driving at. I mean, if all representations are equal, then what induced Kendrick to write a book about sexual representations? Was it just solidarity with the young and the poor, whose desires he believes (astutely once again) are what really terrify the censors? Or does the stuff just give him a hard-on sometimes? And if so, is a hard-on behavior?

Kendrick's failure to say is typical of the maddening reticence of this book, and I hope it doesn't seem like name-calling to suggest that this failure has an academic look. Academics, after all, are responsible for most of the work that achieves the sweep and authority to which The Secret Museum aspires, not only because few other writers enjoy enough institutional support to undertake such projects, but also because academia remains this culture's chief repository for the grander intellectual virtues. Anyway, Kendrick isn't merely an academic--not to be coy about it, he was my colleague long before he took a leave from Fordham to help edit this newspaper's book section. His journalistic proclivities deliver him from the overkill that afflicts so many professors who can write--the habit of insuring accuracy by adding words and details until the whole sinks under the sum of its parts. Yet the dry distance of Kendrick's tone is distinctly professorial, and in tandem with his reluctance to underline his points clearly is sure to bewilder anyone naive enough to crave some sense of the author behind the text. You'd think that in the so-called postmodernist era academia would have banished irony, certainly the most cliched of modernist devices, but in writers like Kendrick it almost seems that irony has instead been elevated into a working assumption, a natural way of dealing with the world.

At its most innocent, Kendrick's irony takes the form of the implicit attribution responsible for the "eternal" in his summary sentence. Slipping into the voice of whomever he's targeting, he sounds almost but not quite as if he himself regards Sade as "dangerous," doesn't like "gross references to low characters and comic scenes," and believes that to thrust Rochester's poems "before a public composed of all classes and degrees of sophistication is in fact to make them more pernicious than their author ever designed." On the other hand, maybe he views one or more of these judgments with sympathy--I'm honestly not sure. And although his solidarity with the young and the poor would appear sincere enough, if only because he mocks those who fear them so stalwartly, that doesn't stop him from sounding superior again and again--to a fascination with "the mechanics and hydraulics of sex" or a 19th century public that's "infantile and barbaric," to Margaret Sanger's ignorance of etymology or Judge Woolsey's pretensions to literary expertise. Writing about a wealthy 19th century abortionist hounded to her suicide by Comstock, he says: "a modern observer can hardly help pitying Madame Restell, however vulgar and venal she may have been." Us moderns are so big-hearted.

I'd like to hope that a bigger book could swallow up these tonal deficiencies, that in fact Kendrick's journalistic terseness is his undoing here. I'd like to hope that if he'd taken the space to outline and fill in his argument and pain unabashed critical tribute to the pornographic works I can only assume got him interested (as he says of early prostitution scholar William Acton, "the very fact that a writer had chosen obscenity as a subject . . . would impugn him"), the reader wouldn't have to scratch around for clues to his intentions. But it doesn't seem likely that I'll ever find out. Maybe that's because Kendrick doesn't think a book is obliged to perform such quotidian feats. Maybe it's because he'd really rather I didn't know what his intentions are. Or maybe it's because he doesn't know himself.

Village Voice, Apr. 28, 1987