Wednesday, March 25, 2009

On Discourse and Foucault and all things Obscene

Discourses, the “socially constructed knowledges of some aspect of reality,” (van Leeuwen, 2005:94) are inescapable. Their nature is such that they pervade all aspects of text, whether written, visual or aural. Further, a discourse is one perception of a particular subject which is expounded in a text, and to this extent it is produced entirely by social context. This definition of discourse is in itself a discourse, for other definitions arise in other contexts, for example, it might also mean a conversation or debate.

One such topic which contains numerous, diverse discourses is ‘obscenity’; a term used to describe what is commonly felt to be opposed to the current standards of morality or decency, often encompassing pornography, drug use, profanity, and for some, homosexuality. Why I have selected obscenity is because again, in everyday society the definition itself is a discourse. Obscenity is commonly seen as repulsive or repugnant, and though my personal opinion challenges this I would like to investigate those of others. Also, I will seek to understand today’s socially accepted discourses and how they are able co-exist successfully, if at all.

To begin, the “Report of the Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship” says of obscenity, and particularly of pornography, that it is “trash: ugly, shallow, and obvious...[it] is not only offensive, but deeply offensive” (Williams, et al, 1979:96). Here, straightforward language explicitly identifies the discourse of obscenity as deeply offensive. The text is saturated with words of negative connotation and high modality. It does not suggest or seek to prove its ideas, but rather posits them as ‘truth’. While it does raise the question of whether pornography can be seen as art, it proposes that “the nature of pornography [is] that it is bound to be worthless” and that “it is simply not worth anyone’s while, at least in the modern world, to make pornography more artistically interesting than it is” (Williams, et al, 1979:105). Thereby it dismisses the concept of art in pornography outright.

Form itself is useful in maintaining an authority on the subject of obscenity because it is a government commissioned text and thus is assumed to be objective. Only through analysis of the language does one discover a specific agenda is being pursued; to rebuff all doubt that the current laws on film censorship need altering. The committee presented their findings in this report to the parliament where their recommendations would certainly hold power of persuasion, and thus power to influence law making.

This relates directly to Foucault’s concept of knowledge and power. In this sense, knowledge can never be neutral as it has great power of influence and simultaneously when power is given to an individual, in this case a group of academics and professionals, the knowledge which is produced encapsulates the specific shared ‘truths’ which are formed by contextual circumstances. The authors’ context is transparent through the text; most committee members are involved in occupations directly related to conservative protection or guidance; a headmistress, a youth worker, psychotherapist and bishop are just some examples.

In direct antagonism of the discourse of obscenity as offensive is the interview “Just like Jesse Jane Part 2” (Vive Cool City 2009). This short video presents a supplementary characteristic of discourse, that in some circumstances, more than one truth is presented in a text. In this instance, obscenity, again with a focus on pornography, is presented as a vocation, as entertainment and as art.

The Vive Cool City website is often found to portray obscenity or other ‘undesirables’ as deemed by society, to be entertainment, and is marketed towards generation Y, a quite liberal assemblage of technologically focused youths. The informal style of the interview shown by a hand held camera, conversational style questions, editing to include candid and imperfect moments, marks this as a relaxed, open topic which pursues entertainment over conveying judgements. Vive Cool City uses their content to their advantage, as it is difficult to find such interviews as they film elsewhere and thus claim almost the entire market.

A further discourse represented is obscenity as an occupation, expressed predominantly by the interviewee, Jesse Jane who uses her body as a commodity and does so by exciting arousal. Provocative dress, mainly to expose her breasts and legs, and open, sexual body language; pouted lips, and partly lowered eyelids, are just some way in which this is achieved. Additionally, product advertising is utilised to some extent, where her upcoming film and purchasable moulds of her anus and vagina are presented to the audience to implicitly influence them to consume.

Finally, the discourse presented of obscenity as art. This is revealed by the dialogue “that’s sexual poetry” (Vive Cool City, 2009) as a response to Jane’s ‘dirty talk’. While this ‘dirty talk’ uses commonly thought indecent and profane language, such as ‘fuck’, ‘cock’, ‘tits’ and ‘pussy’ they are combined in a flowing, rhythmic style and employs imagery and sensory material to engage the listener.

Following on from the theme of obscenity as art and moving away from pornography is William S Burroughs’ novel Naked Lunch. The book contains numerous ‘routines’ on authority, control, drug addiction, sex (homosexual and heterosexual) and murder. Naked Lunch was the focus of an Obscenity Trial in 1957, initially being banned but then acknowledged as having some value. In this text Burroughs draws from his own drug addiction experiences and homosexuality, more specifically his time in Tangiers in the 1940s, and entrenching throughout his hedonistic perspectives. Thus the text also displays a discourse of obscenity as a way of life. The novel was also a reaction to the common naturalistic style utilised at the time.

The sentence construction used does not follow the usual conventions of tense and plurals, “whores stagger out through dust and shit and litter of dead kittens, carrying bales of aborted foetuses” (Burroughs, 2003:64), and he creates intensely descriptive and inventive phrases, shown by “I have a place where I can slip my needle right into a vein, it stays open like a red festering mouth, swollen and obscene” (Burroughs, 2003:55) and “Johnny’s cock swells, great rank buds burst out. A long tuber root creeps from Mary’s cunt, feels for the earth” (Burroughs, 2003:84) while creating shocking images, “She tears off great hunks of cheek... now she lunches on his prick...she looks up from Jonny’s half eaten genitals, her face covered with blood, eyes phosphorescent” (Burroughs, 2003:82) and “beat her brains out, then I hump her for kicks” (Burroughs, 2003: 100), all to push the boundaries of literature.

While some critics viewed it as offensive to the ears others understood the significance of Burroughs’ intention, seeing it as a “rush of pure sensation through the brain” and that “from its opening words we are aware that a unique world- comic, paranoid, visionary, delirious- is being revealed to us” (Ballard, Cited in Naked Lunch: The Restored Text, 2003).

The repressive hypothesis states that for the past 300 years sexuality outside the context of a marriage, if for pleasure and not reproduction, has been repressed (Egan 2009). Foucault argues this believing that while it has often been taboo, sexual discourses have actually increased which is then proven by the two previous texts. These discourses, which Foucault refers to as that of the sexually ‘perverse’, indeed show sexual activity for pleasure, in the context of pornography and homosexuality. Foucault also explains that in the 18th Century confessionals were commonly used to express sexual desires and similarly the articulation of Burroughs’ and Jane’s cravings are made through a confessional format; a novel and interview.

A final text which contains an obscenity discourse is Antonin Artuad’s poem The Pursuit of Fecality. While obscenity is used here as art, is it also used with the intention to cause shock and disgust. “When Artaud opens his mouth words pour out, words that declaim, exhort, upbraid, accuse, insult, incite. “ (Stern, 2002:75). His writing is heretic, “he doesn’t describe God, he summons him to existence and tries to obliterate his presence by shitting on him” (Stern, 2002:78) which is seen through “Is God a being? If he is one, he is shit. If he is not one he does not exist” (Artaud, 1947). In this defiance of god he draws a relationship between the mouth and the anus; they perform each others’ acts of speaking and emptying the bowel (Stern, 2002).

For Artuad, the offensiveness is necessary in showing that “All Writing is Pigshit” (Artaud, 1965:38). It is also paradoxical; for that in claiming writing is substandard he must use writing to claim this, and in doing so intentionally proves his belief. Such an example is “there where it smells of shit it smells of being. Man could just as well not have shat, not have opened the anal pouch, but he chose to shit” (Artaud, 1947).

While the texts I have examined do at times present various or even opposite discourses on obscenity, it is possible for them to exist in harmony with one another, and even to allow for other discourses to be created. If such discourses of obscenity as offensive did not exist, using obscenity to shock and disgust would not be possible, for no one would feel anything intrinsically wrong about it. If obscenity had not been viewed as artistically worthless, texts such as Naked Lunch would not have had the opportunity, or pleasure to challenge this. Finally, through the creation of obscene texts which are proven to have value, obscenity is used as entertainment. The biggest question raised is not in fact, how can they co-exist, but, why is it that sex, pornography, recreational drug use, profane language and metaphors of faecal matter are in fact so morally offensive to common society at all?

(It's not letting me put my proper bibliography up, but if you're curious as to what texts i used just ask! Oh and ps this was for my Language and Discourse subject)

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