Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

The Imperatives of Pornography: Realizable Fourteen Years Later?

Having previously read MacKinnon’s work on pornography in relation to how liberalism undermines women’s rights, I was pleased to see Butler address MacKinnon’s theories in “Burning Acts, Injurious Speech.”  As far as we know, in 1997, Butler disagreed with MacKinnon’s assertion that pornography “establish[es] what women are said to exist as, are seen as, are treated as, constructing the social reality of what a woman is…” (232).  Butler roots her case against MacKinnon’s thesis in the notion that pornography presents “unrealizable” imperatives and thus merely “depicts” a constructed social reality as opposed to “delivering” and successfully projecting the constructions onto the performances of women’s bodies.

However, with fourteen years having passed since the publication of “Burning Acts, Injurious Speech,” I would argue that at least some of the imperatives of pornography have become realizable.  With the rising popularity of labiaplasty and pubic depilation, the images depicted in pornography can also now be “delivered” onto the body through physical modification.  Perhaps “the faulty imaginary relations” of pornography cannot fully be enacted, but performances of genital modification surely reach for that enactment (235).  If gender is merely the result of a repetition of performances, can we think of procedures like labiaplasty as an extreme performative undertaking that supports the coherence of future performance?

On another note, I find it interesting that MacKinnon and Butler omit direct considerations of how pornography constructs a limiting social reality for men.  Although I abhor that pornography grants dominance to masculinity in a way that furthers rape culture, it shouldn’t be ignored that pornography contains imperatives of the male performance of sexuality that are depicted and “delivered” onto the bodies of men.  Depilation and muscularity are just two of the “desirables” of masculinity that are constructed through pornography.  Many of these constructions of masculinity work to simultaneously promote the sexual dominance of males while policing performances of masculine sexuality.

How do you think Butler would respond to the idea that men are both exalted and policed by pornography?  Would the tranference of a socially constructed reality from a visual field to a “lived field” be disrupted by the possibility that pornography projects conflicting imperatives for masculinity?

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