tagReviews & EssaysPostmodern Porn

Postmodern Porn

byDmanisi©

(Note:The following essay was meant as a curiosity, or even a joke. Certainly, I've yet to come across anything comparable that's been written. The reader should be forewarned that there is nothing the least bit erotic below, aside from the excerpts from "Friday Night"; if anything, in fact, these pages are likely to lessen your enjoyment of erotic stories. I believe my arguments are sound. At any rate, if you actually read through the entire thing, you are perfectly free to consider it a pretentious load of crap.)

Erotic stories—and, indeed, pornographic material in general—have received far too little critical attention. If the number of Literotica readers and writers is any indication, however, this is a genre that deserves to be analyzed, if not for its artistic merits, then at least for its societal impact. Seeing the field of criticism laying fallow, I have decided to take on this burden myself. I will narrow my focus to a single story, "Friday Night," by Ravynsloft, to enable a more in-depth reading of a single text. Obviously this story cannot function as an embodiment of all the elements found in the genre, but it raises more than enough issues to be worth the effort of interpretation.

A few words on my methodology are in order. Stuart Hall, in "The Work of Representation," distinguishes three theories of representation that in turn can become modes of literary criticism: the "reflective approach," in which "meaning is thought to lie in the object, person, idea or event in the real world, and language functions like a mirror, to reflect the true meaning as it already exists in the world"; the "intentional approach," which "holds that it is the speaker, the author, who imposes his or her unique meaning on the world through language"; and the "constructionist approach," in which "it is social actors who use the conceptual systems of their culture and the linguistic and other representational systems to construct meaning, to make the world meaningful and to communicate about that world meaningfully to others." It is this last approach that I use: rather than use Rayvnsloft's text to illuminate the "real world" or attempt to guess what he intended his text to mean as he wrote it, I will look at the mechanisms that the story constructs its meaning in relation to the reader—in other words, not why the story is the way it is, but how it does what it does.

Somewhat as a prefatory aside I must mention some questions raised by the story as a whole regarding the conditions of representability itself. If we are to believe his profile, Ravynsloft is male, aged "41 to 50." Yet "Friday Night" is told from the first person viewpoint of a teenage girl; indeed, the only male presences in the story are Brad, Jackie's boyfriend known only through Jackie's words, and Michelle's dad, who appears only briefly during the breakfast scene. (From a psychoanalytic perspective it would be interesting to consider how these figures may function as surrogates for male readers, or for the author himself—but these considerations fall outside the boundaries of my analysis.) The relationship between the author and the character must, therefore, be one of empathy, not identification; whether this empathy is an example of inappropriate intrusion or of insight is a moral question that I cannot answer. The paradox of the middle age man speaking as the teenage woman implicitly calls into question, by its very prominence, the basic assumption of fiction itself: the ability of the author to take on the psyche and experiences of the "other." In the case of "Friday Night," we are presented with a sort of second-degree representation: first, the author is representing the story to the reader, but he must also have gleaned the elements from which he constructed the story from another representation (unless one assumes that Ravynsloft has the uncanny ability to imagine sexual acts he has never seen, heard or read about). In all likelihood, he made use of other erotic stories as sources, since he shares many of the same linguistic tropes used by other stories. The whole of Literotica, in fact, might be considered a self-reinforcing social construction (even though, of course, it does not exist in physical space); each story makes use of the available erotic discourse and, in turn, contributes to it. It would make a fascinating project to trace the origins of Literotica, its early years and influences, to see how this construction came into existence—a project, unfortunately, beyond my abilities.

I have above allowed myself to stray far from the text of "Friday Night" itself. I wish now, by contrast, the focus specifically on the ways the story constructs the identities of the two main characters. To begin with, "Friday Night" makes use of the narrative archetype of innocence and experience. Almost from her first appearance Jackie is shown to belong to the second category:

"She was supposed to be on a date with Brad, her boyfriend for the last few months. She was dressed to kill, with a satiny red miniskirt so short she didn't dare bend over. The side was cut open almost to her waist and held together with three taut strings. The only panties you could wear with it was a thong, unless you wanted them to show thought the slit. I certainly wouldn't have the guts to wear a thong with a skirt that short and tight." (p. 1)

Michelle, as Jackie's necessary antitype, is shown as the inexperienced and somewhat shy best friend—a figure common in all types of erotic stories but doubly so in those with a lesbian theme:

"I was still a virgin, but I got to live out some pretty wild fantasies though her stories. She always told me what happened on her dates, with all the juicy details. When she left I would masturbate while thinking about her beautiful naked body writhing underneath her latest muscular hunk." (p. 1)

Using the innocent friend as the foil to the "slut" enables a narrative of initiation into pleasure, and thus introduces a dramatic tension that might be lacking if both characters were sexually experienced. And, as is made especially clear above, it allows the reader to enjoy both the excitement of this initiation and the more immediate satisfaction that comes with the description of the experienced character's sexual escapades. Yet there is also, throughout "Friday Night," a tone of innocence in the representations of both Michelle and Julia. The most important element in this effect is their youth: "Jackie is my best friend. Our birthdays were only 11 days apart and four weeks ago we had a combined party to celebrate turning 18," Michelle is made to narrate. This plays on another fantasy, the ideal of pure, young love, without the complications brought by age. True, "Friday Night" does not make quite so idealized an impression. At the heart of the narrative, after all, is Jackie's (unseen) relationship (and breakup) with Brad. But Michelle and Brad's playful attitude to sex—and, indeed, their insatiable sexual appetites—construct an image of youthful vigor. Depending on the reader, of course, one may either identify with their experience or contrast it to one's own as an unattainable ideal. (To a large extent, after all, the erotic story functions as an impossible fantasy—doubly impossible in cases when the sexuality of the protagonist's differs from that of the reader, as when a man reads a lesbian story).

Contained within the narrative of innocence, experience and youth is also the concept of discovery. Michelle and Jackie, never having made love to women before, are necessarily discovering new techniques as they go along. Consider the following passage:


"The sight of this artificial penis moving in and out of Jackie's pussy mesmerized me. Her eyes were closed and her breathing was heavy and erratic. Her pussy lips seemed to cling to it as I retracted the dildo. Then I remembered something I had read in a magazine once about a woman's G spot. I tilted the base down slightly so that the head would rub up against the roof of her vagina, right where the G spot was supposed to be.

"Oh...Oh!...Oohhhhh!" Jackie cried out as an orgasm raced through her. Her head was thrashing from side to side and her white knuckled hands were clenching the bed covers. When she began to calm down, I slowed down the motion of the dildo.

"Where did you learn that trick?" Jackie asked breathlessly. "I've never had a guy hit my spot like that before. That was amazing." (p. 4)

Here, clearly, is a moment of discovery. But the discovery must be mediated in some way if Michelle is to retain her innocence—hence the phrase "something I had read in a magazine." The means of discovery, therefore, must be through another text; if Michelle had discovered Jackie's "G spot" completely by accident the episode would have jeopardized both Jackie's character and the comprehensibility of the story. Using the term "G spot" allows the (presumably well-informed) reader to make an immediate association between the action described in the story and a previously known sexual practice. To reclaim the "G spot" as the unique property of the narrative—in other words, to prevent it from becoming a colorless cliché—Ravynsloft must introduce a superlative statement ("I've never had a guy. . .") that, as it were, transcends the threat of clinical sterility.

There is yet another side to the concept of discovery, however. In a narrative such as "Friday Night" the reader empathizes with the characters in the act of discovery. However, there is also clearly a way that the reader is made to feel superior to the characters through his or her understanding of the story's structure. The reader, in other words, is given a kind of omniscience that is evident even in the first-person narrative of "Friday Night." This is conveyed most directly in characters' incomprehension of their own feelings:

"I watched as my hands took on life of their own. They rose as if lifted by invisible spirits and softly cupped Jackie's breasts. The flesh was warm and smooth. Jackie groaned and arched her back, pushing her tits into my palms. Wait, what was I doing? How had I let things go this far? Why was I turned on by this scene? My mind was filled with confusion, but my hands were filled with the soft, supple flesh of Jackie's rounded tits. I struggled to find myself while my fingers rolled her nipples. I wanted so badly to stand up and flee, and at the same time lean down and kiss her beautiful breasts. Paralyzed, I did neither." (p. 1)

The reader, of course, knows exactly why Michelle feels the way she feels: she is filled with an unacknowledged desire for Jackie's body. The very fact that the narrative is framed as an erotic story under the "lesbian" category prepares us precisely for what is to come, if not in the finer details, then in general outline. This knowledge constitutes a form of power over Michelle's body and mind: the reader knows her better than she knows herself.

The passage quoted above is interesting in another sense because it appears to document Michelle's discovery of a new form of desire that already existed within her:

"Was I gay? Why did Jackie playing with herself affect me like this? Why on earth did I grab her tits? I knew part of the answer. Because she asked me to. A second reason floated in my thoughts I almost sobbed out loud. I also did it because I wanted to. I started to tremble and shake with the realization that I had feelings for Jackie that went way beyond being her best friend. I had always idolized her, but now I knew that was just a mask for a deeper longing." (p.1)

Michelle's "deeper longing" would seem to indicate she sees her sexuality as a reflection of a pre-discursive reality that exits independent of conscious thought. Even so, however, it is significant that it is only through running these thoughts through her mind—that is, through words—that this reality becomes visible. Ravynsloft, however, emphatically disavows identification with a specifically defined identity group:

"All of my worries vanished. This was what it was. There was no point in over analyzing it. Why should I put her or myself into that box or this one. It didn't matter if I was bi or gay, or straight. I was Michelle and she was Jackie, and that's all I needed to know. I accepted the situation for what it was." (p. 2)

Direct emotional experience, in this case, is promoted above rational thought—a common trope, one might add, in erotic stories. Jackie herself makes a similar point slightly later in the story, saying "I hate those labels. It's like being lesbian or bi says more about you that how you treat people, or how smart you are, or anything else." Ravynsloft seems to be hinting at a point made by, among others, the lesbian theorist Judith Butler: that the conflation of the self with the identity category may be overly simplistic and, potentially, may serve to reinforce oppressive regulatory regimes. In Butler's words, "a Foucauldian perspective might argue that the affirmation of 'homosexuality' is itself an extension of homophobic discourse." There remains, on the other hand, the opposite possibility: that the erasure of the lesbian identity serves to contain "abnormal" sexualities within the dominant (heterosexist) regime. Thus the reader, especially the male reader, may wish to retain the physical aspects of lesbianism as objects of arousal while eliminating the identity category "lesbian" due to its political danger.

Nothing I have written above is intended as a value judgment. If appraisals of "quality" are to be made at all, they will take place in the mind of each individual reader. I selected "Friday Night" not because I wish to condemn it, nor necessarily because I enjoy it (though, as it happens, I do), but because it provides a way to discuss many issues brought up by the erotic stories within a single, relatively compact work. Even so, I have hardly exhausted the critical possibilities of the story—I never even mentioned, for example, the ways the story constructs the idea of lesbian love, or its incorporation of exhibitionism, or its implicit generational relationships. I have also tried to avoid broad generalizations or sweeping statements on the nature of all erotic stories; rather, I have attempted to draw out certain points from Ravynsloft's work without making the unverifiable assumption that these points necessarily refer to the genre as a whole. The reader must judge for him or herself to what extent my points are valid, for "Friday Night" or any other of the stories on Literotica.

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