BMCR 1992.05.14

Pornography and representation in Greece and Rome

, Pornography and representation in Greece and Rome. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. xxiii, 317 pages. ISBN 9780195067224 $18.95.

Disclaimer: I thought it only fair to preface my review by clearly stating my partisan position on the pornography question as a gay anti-censorship advocate. While I completely agree that the heterosexual pornography industries for the most part vilify and degrade women, and often form part of the system of sex-based oppression, I find the analyses of these facts and the political responses to them undertaken by anti-pornography activists to be dangerously simplistic. Theories of sexual representation which assume women are ineluctably the objects/victims—never subjects/agents—of sexuality reproduce the messages of the most virulently misogynist pornographers. Such theories also fail to account for sexual diversity, basing reified dichotomies of sexual dynamics on heterosexually derived stereotypes completely inadequate for rethinking gender and sexuality. The insistence on sexual dimorphism as the central totalizing difference for feminist politics also reflects a systemic inattention to race, class, and ethnicity, which has tragically limited the radical edge of white middle-class feminisms.

By forming one-issue, reactionary coalitions with right-wing conservatives, anti-pornography feminists provide these hate mongers another moralistic smokescreen through which they can work toward the abolition of reproductive and sexual freedoms—now not only for “the Family” and “Decency” but in the guise of a progressive initiative for “women’s rights.” In their unnuanced stance on sexual representation, Women Against Pornography and their adherents abet the redomestication of women; in their contribution to the suppression of crucially needed safer sex materials in the age of AIDS, they also abet the decimation of gay men. On the other hand, I do not automatically disregard feminists who write from anti-pornography positions. I respect Catherine MacKinnon as a scholar and a writer whose work is intellectually stimulating and politically valuable in many regards, although I regret some of the conclusions she draws from her analyses, and deplore the concrete social effects her work has had (the virtual obliteration of safer sex graphics in Canada, for example). Andrea Dworkin and Suzanne Kappeler, on the other hand, are vehemently opposed to dialogue, subtlety, or even informed dissent, and in effect trivialize the sexual oppression of women they purport to champion.

Amy Richlin’s description of the undertaking that resulted in this book is very promising. Scholars of widely divergent specialities came together to attempt a “large-scale application of feminist theory to Greco-Roman antiquity,” an effort which they conceive of as “part of an ongoing transformation of our field” (xi). As a longtime “maverick” in East Asian Studies, I can empathize with classicists who feel the weight of a sedimented legacy, and who seek to reconceptualize their discipline despite institutional intransigence. I also appreciate the need for feminists within Classics to interrogate the masculinist ideologies operative not only within cultural texts of Greek and Roman antiquity, but within the modern traditions which have valorized those texts and essentialized those histories. Furthermore, as someone whose intellectual life and critical practices have been immeasurably enriched by and deeply indebted to feminist theory, I enthusiastically endorse the stated intention of the joint project. Several of the essays are thoughtful and critically coherent realizations of these goals, notably S. R. Joshel’s analysis of the representation of the female body in Livy, H. E. Elsom’s reader-text dynamics model for the Greek romance, and M. Myerowitz’s reading of Ovid against the erotic imagery in Roman homes. In general, however, I find the implicit definitions of “feminism” severely impoverished, and the ways in which the authors individually and collectively (or fail to) situate themselves within current critical pornography debates confusing and confused.

Many of the writers discard what we have learned (mostly from other scholars in their own field) about the historical contingencies and constructions of sexual identities based on object choice, often assuming an unproblematic equation of the contemporary categories of heterosexual and homosexual with the practices of the Greeks and Romans. This alone blunts the critical force and significance of many of their arguments. In recent years some of the most intriguing and stimulating rethinking of social constructions of sexuality and gender has emerged from a group of “radical” classicists, among them Ann Bergren, Page DuBois, David M. Halperin, Martha Nussbaum, John J. Winkler. Apart from scattered and cursory references, their work is conspicuously absent, which is particularly puzzling in a collection self-described as part of “an on-going transformation of the field”. In her introduction, Richlin in fact dismisses her predecessors in a passage as reductive as it is ominous: “they follow Foucault in positing a sexual experience in the cultures of Greece and Rome radically different from that of our own culture. Though the methodological assumptions of our collection are similar to theirs [ Not! ] in an emphasis on cultural context, our political framework and goals differ from theirs … and we focus on sameness rather than difference” (xiv). Sameness of what to what? Greece and Rome? Modern and ancient periods? Sexuality across time? Pornography and representation? Critical analysis and free association? Unfortunately, the answer seems to be yes to all of the above. Richlin’s group decided to reinvent the wheel, but this time make it square.

Rather than a “different political framework,” there is no political framework here. The group identification as “feminist” is stated as if its meaning were self-evident, and “feminism” is treated instrumentally—an “application” like a software program or a facial pac. The aleatory relation to “feminism” is reflected in the group’s decision to select one contemporary feminist analysis of pornography as a common reference, chosen not out of any apparent prior conviction or engagement, but as a convenience, its function resembling that of a club song or decoder ring. They chose Suzanne Kappeler’s The Pornography of Representation, possibly the most egregious one-stop shopping error since Igor grabbed the maniac’s brain for the Frankenstein monster.

Kappeler opens her book by arguing that the material conditions, histories, and modes of circulation of all representations require feminist analysis, as much as pornography does, which seems perfectly reasonable. She contends, however, that, since representations are actual objects, “they are more ‘real’ than the reality they … represent” (Kappeler 3). To me this is a disempowering confusion of materiality with reality, and one which is at least insulting to a survivor of “real” rape, whose situation is thereby levelled to that of a staged film rape. Such a reduction also elevates symbolic political gestures to guerrilla warfare, which might be one of the factors why actions against bookstores and magazine stands appeal to white middleclass feminists.

Not only are all representations real, they all partake in the sexualized victimization of women that Kappeler finds epitomized in explicit violent pornography. She illustrates this thesis with a murder case in Namibia, in which a white man had a black man tortured to death while he photographed the ordeal. Kappeler considers this evidence that all representation—photography, art, etc. is as much a criminal act as was the murder enacted before the camera (Kappeler 5-10). This is like saying that since ice cream sales and drownings increase at exactly the same time, anyone eating ice cream is implicated in aquatic murder (instead of assuming these are two unrelated phenomena that have different causal relations to the heat of summer). For Richlin and company to portray Kappeler in this collection as a leading feminist thinker is a libelous misrepresentation of feminism; to suggest that Kappeler’s dogmatism offers any critical apparatus for crosscultural analyses is an act of intellectual misfeasance. Kappeler’s status in the collection is dependent upon the lack of background in feminist theory that Richlin continually projects onto her readership in her introduction. Given the dual audience the collection is meant to address (classicists and non-classicists), a kind of balancing act is certainly necessary. The patronizing tone of the introduction, however, is not only annoying, but it also tends to infantilize the narratorial voice itself: “We hope classicists will understand we want to bring our material to a new audience, readers who may not yet have heard of Athenaeus but who will be very interested in him once they make his acquaintance” (xiv). “We hope feminists will understand that we want to bring feminist theory to a new audience, readers who may not yet have heard of Suzanne Kappeler but who will be very interested in her once they make her acquaintance” (xvii). When are adults addressed like this in a scholarly text? Richlin, known for her work on “Priapus,” heads a collaborative transposition of the phallic cult into a peter principle, which envisions an ideal commonality of incompetence: readers are addressed in terms of the editor’s assumption of their lack of background; the authors bond in a sense of shared but self-proclaimed polymorphous lack of qualifications; methods are adopted for their inapplicability. Of course, some discipline-specific idiosyncracies should be spelled out for the non-specialist reader, and it is likely that the more traditional Greek historian or Latin literature scholar will not be familiar with the history of current feminist debates on censorship. Even so, I seriously doubt that the title of the collection will be as puzzling to classicists as Richlin suggests; she fears they may have trouble figuring out “what representation is doing next to pornography” (xiv). I would assume that regardless of their political views on the issue, classicists with sufficient command of English to read the book would also recognize the latter as a type of the former. There is a much more serious problem, however, with the way the readership is bifurcated. To anticipate interest from “classicists” and “non-classicists” is one thing; to divide them into “feminists” and “non-feminists” is something else: “Nonclassicists may not realize…” (xii); and “Nonfeminists should also realize” (xiv). This reduces “feminism” to a discipline, a set of procedures, a subject of study, a personal preference (like Greek over Latin), essentially eliding the meanings that “feminism” usually includes. For “feminism” is more than a personal or political identification: it is a range of practices, such as historical investigations into the various political, social, and cultural struggles for rights for women—and redresses against injuries and oppression inflicted on women; critical philosophies; radical analyses of dominant sex/gender systems, as well as transformative alternative modes of envisioning and enacting sexed and gendered subject positions; and sustained reconceptualizations and transvaluations of human interaction and significance. Secondly, the initial binary pairs classicist/non-classicist, feminist/non-feminist—are collapsed into the equation “classicist = non-feminist,” which produces a doubly questionable self-identification assumed by the collective in Richlin’s narrative. As these intrepid chaperones at the first feminist-Greco-Roman mixer traverse the void between classicists and feminists to get Athenaeus to shake hands with Kappeler, they arrogate to themselves an identity of privileged impossibility as feminist-classicists, embodied transcendents of the principle of non-contradiction. Richlin states as much without reflecting on it: “As classicists, we bring to our subjects expertise in language and art; as feminist scholars, … we have … tried to supply nonspecialist readers with enough background information to make each article intelligible” (xiv). On what grounds do all the writers involved define themselves as feminists—particularly the men? The critical and political problems surrounding the issue of “men in feminism” has a long divisive history, and cannot be so painlessly solved by ignoring them (or being ignorant of them). I object to the strategies of the book both in terms of the politics of sexual representation and in terms of methodological rigor in cross-cultural comparisons, two problems which often merge here. Within twenty years following the creation of the first Japanese word for “symbol” in 1873, at least seven more were coined and variously introduced. No insight into the significance of any of these words would be gained by referring to Mallarme or Todorov. Why then do the contributors to this collection expect Dworkin’s or Gloria Steinem’s definitions of “pornography” to shed light on cultural practices in ancient Greece and Roman? The authors inform us that the Greek term “pornographos” referred to courtesan biography, “which may not contain any obscene material at all,” and that sexually explicit texts—sex manuals—were written by “an-aiskhunto-graphoi, ‘writers of shameless things'” (Parker, 91). “Pornography” was introduced into the English language in the nineteenth-century, in reference to the erotic wall murals discovered in Pompeii (Shapiro 53). Therefore, these are actually two different words, which in itself should require clearly demarcated critical parameters for the discussions of “pornography” in Greece, in Rome, and in contemporary Europe and the U. S. Why, then, do the same scholars who provide this information, repeatedly defer to Dworkin and Kappeler for the “real meanings” of ancient pornography? Kappeler insists on the continuity of the term, since women in pornographic scenes are treated like prostitutes (Kappeler 152). Shapiro cites this with approval, even though his own account of the English history of “pornography” had already rendered Kappeler’s claims superfluous (Shapiro 72n.1). Dworkin’s semantic fantasies are also quoted and/or referred to without challenge or adaptation to totally alien cultural contexts: “‘Contemporary pornography strictly and literally conforms to the word’s root meaning: the graphic depiction of vile whores… The word has not changed its meaning and the genre is not misnamed” (Dworkin, qtd. Rabinowitz, 37). In relinquishing definitional authority to these writers, the classicists abandon their intellectual responsibility to their own philological and historical training. This is not the only conceptual fogginess that plagues the collection. Because studies of the “products of popular culture” benefit from a two-track examination of both the artifacts and “of audience attitudes and reactions,” Robert F. Sutton, Jr. adopts the consumer-producer feedback focus Carol Thurston used in her work on “the romance novel” for his discussion of “Pornography and Persuasion on Attic Pottery” (Sutton 3), even though “in analyzing Greek vase paintings we have only the product to look at” (3-4). Doesn’t this destroy the feasibility of using Thurston’s model? Sutton gets around this by imagining the shifts in audience address based on unexamined generalizations of “what women like” now: “Over the course of two centuries, vase paintings moved from a strictly male-oriented, egocentric eroticism to one that was emotionally based, aimed in good part at a feminine audience” (4). Without defining what constituted “pornography” in Attic Greece, Sutton compares modern and ancient theories of the threat pornography poses, likening current beliefs that pornographic images incite viewers to “imitate” the actions depicted, to Greek conceptions of “Peitho,” or “persuasion.” Even in Greek traditions, the nature of the act of “persuasion” and what part of the human being it affects, depends on whether one is reading Homer or Plato. Socratic critiques of persuasion, focused on the rhetorical skill of the performance, seem hardly comparable to modern anti-porn arguments, based on an ego-psychology of adaptation, response to stimulus, and desensitivization. Furthermore, not only are the vase paintings rarely sexually explicit, the “persuasion” they enact is often represented by fully clothed figures in conventional poses: we are dealing here, in other words, with verbal persuasion. A far cry from the incessant barrage of photographic images of real sex acts necessary to “persuade” rapists, according to current admonitions. Sutton’s ill-advised adherence to an audience-feedback model provides no coherent theory of representation. This lacuna is reflected in several frustrating moments in the text. Describing the “male-centered” pornographic vases, Sutton notes in passing that although “female pleasure is occasionally portrayed by the Archaic artist and then consistently developed in the Classical Period, it serves only as an aspect … of male pleasure” (9), without citing illustrations or explaining what “female pleasure” might look like. He apparently knows it when he sees it—and even recognizes the “real intention” of those representations (male pleasure) without benefit of consumer record. If Sutton’s failure to define “pornography” is perplexing, Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz’s irresponsible universalizing definitions are even more so, but at least her essay, “Tragedy and the Politics of Containment,” economically demonstrates the absurdity and fraudulence of centering discussions of sexual politics and representation on the myopic and moronic diatribes of Dworkin and Kappeler. Rabinowitz’s introductory statements clearly foreshadow her conclusion that “pornography” is a monolithic and continuous tradition of male victimization of women through sexual imaging; for some reason she includes gay male bathhouses in her opening insinuations (36). This inclusion is not only patently offensive, but it even falls outside of the parameters of her own framework. Not only is consensual male-male sexual contact not an act of violence against women, it is not a representation. Maybe the book title is a tricky one for classicists, after all. Rabinowitz cites Kappeler’s apt observation that pornography is only one of many forms of representation “constructed for male viewing,” which Rabinowitz succinctly focuses as a need to scrutinize the other forms for their commonalities in agenda and gendered subject construction, without reducing all of these genres to one. She notes that Kappeler’s “generalization risks obscuring important distinctions between ‘hard-core’ pornography depicting violence against women … and other forms of [patriarchal] representation … it performs an important task … in connecting pornography to those other forms of representation, most particularly film” (37). Unfortunately, Rabinowitz then not only blurs these categories but blurs the distinction between making connections and obfuscation, particularly frustrating, because she does this after a very interesting and suggestive move in which she classifies definitions of pornography according to their respective focus on content, representation, and effect. She sacrifices her categorical precision to her claim that tragedy is “pornographic.” She authorizes this self-sabotage by eschewing her own knowledge of the Greek language, adopting as the meaning of “pornography” Dworkin’s folk etymology, whose indifference to Greek and tautologous reasoning is more harmonious with Richlin’s preference for “sameness”—in fact the “obscuring of important distinctions” Rabinowitz herself had just cautioned against. Rabinowitz’s first example completely baffles any attempt to extrapolate a coherent definition of “pornography” from her theory of tragedy: she characterizes “Antigone” as a “pornographic experience,” finds Kreon’s death sentence of Antigone “explicitly sexual” because “he means to teach [her] to be a woman,” and declares a central choral ode “pornography” because it celebrates Kreon as a “maker of language” (39-40). Rabinowitz muses that in tragedy female characters “die like women-offstage” (39), without mentioning that all characters die off-stage (with two exceptions), following a conventional prohibition against direct representation of murder. Her subsequent insistence on the specularization of the woman’s death and corpse makes it even more difficult to understand how dying “offstage” constitutes a pornographic gendering of the feminine. Rabinowitz’s slippages in her reading of Oedipus Rex are even more slippery. She perceives an extreme sexuality in Jocasta’s suicide: “Jocasta goes silently off stage; we only find her again when the Messenger’s narration represents Oedipus’s violently opening the doors of her room… The specularization of Jocasta is overt: like the victim in pornography, she is displayed to viewers … she has become an object of their and our gaze…The representation of Jocasta’s violation is a form of pornography, and it contributes to the production of male subjectivity” (44). The oblique reference to the Messenger’s narration and the flurry of intervening sentences (deleted here) veil the fact Jocasta is never shown on stage after her exit. Oedipus’s discovery of her body is only relayed in the Messenger’s report. The antecedent of “their” in the bizarre sentence quoted above, is “the viewers of pornography.” Somehow the spectacle of Jocasta’s body which is not displayed, in a play we are reading and not watching, transforms us into witnesses of the (non-displayed) body and conjoins our gaze to that of metaphoric viewers of pornography who inhabit a simile describing the exposure of Jocasta’s body that never occurs. Even though Rabinowitz numbers herself among these implicated onlookers of spectacles not offered, this (non-existent) specularization of Jocasta’s body miraculously contributes only to the production of male subjectivity—the subjectivity of the men in the irreal audience who are not seeing it. At least Rabinowitz seems to believe in her politics, even if she sacrifices her credibility to express them. I find the perfunctory citations of Kappeler among the authors obviously uninterested in these issues far more disturbing. H. A. Shapiro’s article, “Eros in Love: Pederasty and Pornography in Greece” is a case in point. Like Sutton, Shapiro assumes a modern hetero-/homo divide, but more astonishing is his portrayal of contemporary heterosexual attitudes to gay pornography as one of benign neglect, observing that “male homosexual pornography … has rarely entered into the dialogue concerning pornography as a social, legal, and political phenomenon” (54). Apparently he hasn’t read Dworkin, Steinem, Kathleen Barry, or John Stoltenberg, among others, or writing the essay didn’t give him time to follow the government-led furor over Robert Mapplethorpe, the crippling of the NEA, and the on-going witchhunts against gay expression of any sort. Perhaps he didn’t realize that even non-sexual representations of lesbian and gay lives as positive options are deemed inherently pornographic. Shapiro goes on to attribute the heterosexual tolerance of gay porn to its important role as a safe sex tool against the AIDS epidemic. He must have missed congressional and Christian loony-fundamentalist attempts to destroy sexually explicit AIDS prevention guides for adult gay men, and the right-wing collusions with simplistic zealots like Kappeler and Dworkin that effectively reduce all sexual representations into a Satanic force against women, which have authorized the destruction and criminalization of safer sex educational materials. In short, apparently Shapiro hasn’t paid attention to any of the issues he deals with. In fact, Shapiro doesn’t seem to have read Kappeler, although he cites her. Hard pressed to find instances of “pornography” in the pottery he describes, he tentatively offers the Ganymede images, but immediately withdraws the suggestion, reasoning that Ganymede’s unattainability makes these depictions closer “to the sexy, unattainable ‘pin up’ of mid-20th Century America, the Betty Grables and Marilyn Monroes” (63). Apparently he skipped the pages (the whole book) where Kappeler vehemently considers such “pin ups” exemplary pornographic texts. Nor does Shapiro consider that real women are not quite as “unattainable” as mythic youths, or that the dissemination of these women’s images as “coy” and “playfully innocent” may have different political ramifications in 20th Century America than the corresponding images of Ganymede in fifth-century Greece. With the exception of Joshel, the authors seem to labor under an obligation to cite Kappeler or Dworkin at least once. The reference to Kappeler seems completely gratuitous in Shelby Brown’s essay on Roman mosaics of animal combat, since it never deals with pornography at all. Molly Myerowitz’s aside that the feminist arguments on representation have been “most clearly enunciated by Kappeler” (152) reads either as insincere or ironic since her article systematically refutes all of Kappeler’s premises. The ill fit and forced insertions (yikes!) of Kappeler and Dworkin reinforce the other indications that many of the contributors to the volume occupy only an opportunistic exteriority to the feminism invoked, and reflect a critical directionlessness that such acquiescence only exacerbates. In other essays, an entire ideology seems to be self-imposed as part of the group process, particularly in those essays by men. Their failure to find examples of “pornography” that fit the group definitions never lead Sutton or Shapiro to question the suitability of the theoretical apparatus. Perhaps they thought it would be unchivalrous to do so. If Kappeler represents “feminism” then a “feminist” position must find pornography in all representations, and all sexual representations must be unambiguous expressions of male hostile objectification of women. Holt N. Parker convinces himself of this against his own evidence in a schizophrenic askesis entitled “Love’s Body Anatomized: The Ancient Erotic Handbooks and the Rhetoric of Sexuality.” After distinguishing between courtesan biographies and sex manuals, Parker initially ventures that the content-based definition of “pornography” may be inadequate (99). He follows this with a litany of quotations from MacKinnon, Kappeler, and Dworkin defining pornography as the objectification and fragmentation of women’s bodies, and the sexualization thereof as part of a power-based masculine hegemony (99-100). He never returns to his initial reservations. Through peculiar readings of Foucault and Gayle Rubin (who might have saved him) Parker ends up within the Kappeler view. He writes: “Pornography represents an attempt to place human sexuality … under intellectual control … in the act of analyzing sexuality, pornography creates it” (102). Originally pornography represented sexuality, now it represents an intellectualization of it, which becomes an analysis of it, that then creates what it had represented. Through another projection of twentieth-century gender associations (Freud’s “dark continent” of female sexuality), Parker manages to render any investigation of sexuality inherently an act of male dominance over women: “Pornography is part of the discourse that … posits … sexuality as mysterious, unfathomable, … that is, in its essence feminine—and desires to subject it to the mastery of the intellect … in its essence masculine” (102). Here a “discourse” posits “sexuality” and “desires” to master it. There are no people involved in this scenario, just the impersonal and transcendental movements of a mechanism impervious to historical or social variation or intervention, imposed indifferently on the sexual interactions of all temporally and somatically delimited individuals. Parker’s metaphysics allows him to make generalizations based on decontextualized equivalences without attention to differences. He infers that because sex manuals were exchanged, the manuals themselves reflect the patriarchal exchange of women, particularly because the representations of women in the manuals aren’t real women, but symbols of women, just as women are reduced to symbols of exchange according to Levi-Strauss (102). Several questions arise. Why doesn’t the exchange of anything at all represent the exchange of women? Why don’t the representations of men in the manuals turn them into symbols as well? Why is the exchange of representations of women no worse than the exchange of real women in the endogamous patriarchies to which Levi-Strauss refers? For some reason, ancient heterosexuals weren’t supposed to be interested in their own erotic needs and possibilites, and these manuals were only a means of controling and restricting sexuality, a counterintuitive premise that Parker derives from Kappeler: “Sex or sexual practices do not just exist out there, waiting to be represented; rather, there is a dialectical relationship between representational practices which construct sexuality and the actual sexual practices, each informing the other” (Kappeler, 2, qtd. 104). I’m not sure how “actual sexual practices” that “don’t just exist out there” manage nevertheless to “be there” enough to relate to representation, but there does seem to be an idea worth developing here. Never one to let a sustained thought survive long, however, Kappeler elucidates her argument through the Namibia murder case. Yet Parker persists in appealing to Kappeler’s logic to conclude that any pictorial guides for sexual knowledge even among married couples limits behavior to normative heterosexual positions, and reduces women to material objects for male manipulation. Myerowitz has much saner and subtler things to say about similiar sexual depictions in the erotic wall murals in Pompeii in one of the most intelligent contributions, “The Domestication of Desire: Ovid’s Parva Tabella and the Theater of Love”. In these domestic erotic paintings Myerowitz sees “the reflection of a sexual reality that includes two participants and objectifies both … Women are sex objects in these pictures, and so are men …” (154). She distinguishes sexism from sexuality and sexual representation, by noting that sexual inequality does not necessarily inhere within sexual encounters or their depiction but in the social contexts within which they are read (153-154). Despite the insights and intelligence evidenced in several of the individual papers, the book as a public record preserves, as definitive, stages of theoretical uncertainty and critical aporia that should have been developed within the group prior to publication. The only coherent statement to emerge collectively is that ancient women were oppressed and silenced. Didn’t we know that already? Does the philosophy behind the MacKinnon/Dworkin amendment provide new critical perspectives on this? The real disappointments of the collection are probably yet to come: just as Dworkin’s or Kappeler’s texts are often quoted to ridicule feminism, the haphazard amalgam of “feminist theory” and Graeco-Roman scholarship here may provide examples for tradition-bound academics who wish to delegitimate critical innovations in the discipline. Despite the best of intentions, Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome proves a disservice to feminism as well as to Classics.