Reification and Pornotopia

by Scott McLemee on November 18, 2007

A few months ago, Nina at Infinite Thought offered an appreciation of the difference between the playfulness of vintage European porn films (from roughly 1905 to 1930) and the more industrialized contemporary product:

The first thing you notice is the sheer level of silliness on show: sex isn’t just a succession of grim orgasms and the parading of physical prowess, but something closer to slapstick and vaudeville. Men pretend to be statues of fauns for curious women to tickle; two seamstresses fall into a fit of giggles as their over-excited boss falls off the bed; a bawdy waitress serves a series of sexually-inspired meals to a man dressed as a musketeer before joining him for ‘dessert’. This kind of theatrical role-play pre-empts many of the clichés of contemporary pornography, of course: nuns, school-mistresses, the ‘peeping tom’ motif, and so on. But the beauty of these early short films lies in the details, the laughter of its participants and the sheer variety of the bodies on parade: the unconventionally attractive mingle with the genuinely pretty; large posteriors squish overjoyed little men. The fact that the rules of pornographic film-making haven’t yet been formally established, as well as the rudimentary nature of the film equipment, means that often the filming cuts off before any sort of climax, which only adds to the amateurish, unstructured, anarchic charm of it all.

At Quick Study, I’ve posted a short response to another recent Infinite Thought item developing this line of reflection.

It has prompted a discussion touching — so far — on Sade, Steven Marcus, and the days when everybody in a pornographic novel would recharge their orgy batteries by stopping to listen to a lecture on Enlightenment philosophy.

If this sounds like it might float your boat, stop by. Quick Study is my personal blog, and I’ve been averse to pushing here at Crooked Timber, but what the hell….Diffidence gets you no traffic. (But the start of the semester sure did; it seems that freshmen Google the words “quick study” in an effort to increase the amount of time they can spend getting wasted.)

{ 1 trackback }

Noli Irritare Leones » Blog Archive » figleaf totally has to read this post
11.19.07 at 2:48 am



Danielle Day 11.18.07 at 10:17 pm

For a selection of vintage porn DVDs:


noen 11.18.07 at 10:40 pm

That was fast.

Perhaps it goes like this: Victorian porn is to modern porn as Guinness is to crack cocaine. That and our sheer numbers. I’m sure it was hard for coprophiliacs to find each other back then.


Brock 11.18.07 at 10:55 pm

I call for a moratorium on the use of the word “reification”.


roger 11.19.07 at 12:26 am

Coprophiliacs, I believe, still have trouble finding each other. Which is why they need a livelier bar scene, or, perhaps, a specialized dating service.


noen 11.19.07 at 12:34 am

How about “hypostatization” in it’s place then?



Scott McLemee 11.19.07 at 1:58 am

I like “thingification” but it seems unlikely to catch on.


yoyo 11.19.07 at 2:01 am

i have not seen said porn but people giggling because they feel awkward sounds terrible


vivian 11.19.07 at 3:24 am

(Thanks for telling us about your other blog. I find it hard to keep track of who writes where, and since folks were teasing you and Berube about your many vacation homes, I sort of gave up. So any links are appreciated whether or not I click through.)


goatchowder 11.19.07 at 4:36 am

I’ve noticed that European porn producers tend to like their sex cut with farce and camp, whereas American producers tend to like their sex cut with… what else… violence.


lemuel pitkin 11.19.07 at 5:03 am

Just so long as Bruce Webb (who’s great on Social Security) doesn’t start posting more comments on his “cock”.


Soullite 11.19.07 at 1:25 pm

Goat, when was the last time you saw a porno? 1978?

I watch porn all the time. You will not find violence, rape, etc. in a mainstream film anymore. You have to actually look to find that crap. You CAN find extreme porn, but it in no way makes up the majority if material produced.


figleaf 11.19.07 at 4:52 pm

Those old images aren’t *quite* as benign as they appear to contemporary eyes, but they really do point in a great direction.

100 years ago we were still pretty involved in the (hard to believe today) belief that women could actually have sex with very few physical or medical consequences (social being obviously another story altogether), men who ejaculated “as often as” once a month were likely to die very young. (Sounds insane to our ears, yes, but back then mainstream doctors held that one ejaculation was equivalent to losing one pint of blood!)

Anyway, even knowing that the foolish-looking men and laughing women are slightly less socially integrated in to *their* time than they seem from our perspective, from *our* perspective I think Nina’s on to something. If there is to a humanist pornography, as she proposes, then it’s probably going to have a whole mix of emotion and experience instead of just the two permitted by contemporary anxieties about sex and sexuality.



Morat 11.19.07 at 8:14 pm

Soulite: It’s been rather interesting looking at how the more hardcore BDSM porn is handling the combination of sex and BDSM.

Heavy BDSM play often looks REALLY violent — and those into the more roleplay aspects of it (and porn does tend to be heavier on ‘roleplay’) make it look more so.

So BDSM porn producers have walked a narrow line between showcasing violent or violent-looking fetishes and showcasing actual sex. There has been a real reluctance to do both together, as what’s easier in the bedroom (understanding and acquiring the consent of everyone involved) is very hard to showcase visually.

At least one company has taken to simply bookending it’s porn — a candid disucssion between partipants as to what they’re looking for out of a scene, a great deal of rather vigorous and often terribly painful-looking bdsm and sex, and then another bookend in which the participants discuss things and what they felt about it.

I found it amusing, as I understand that’s how most real-life S&M partners work in any case.

I’m not sure it solves the problem of telling fake violence from real violence, but it’s worth noting that some of the peddlers of the most extreme stuff consider it a problem.


Dale 11.19.07 at 8:52 pm

Back in about 1970 I knew a student at Portland State U. that used the word “thingification” in that context. Haven’t heard it since.


duus 11.20.07 at 5:42 pm

(But the start of the semester sure did; it seems that freshmen Google the words “quick study” in an effort to increase the amount of time they can spend getting wasted.)

Hence the popularity of my blog “Cutting Down On Homework Time In Order To Get Wasted More Often,” which is a critical commentary on post-modern literature and its affect on the development of modern-day statistical techniques.

Comments on this entry are closed.