Start End
Headshot of me wearing red lipstick Kara Babcock

Is that a heterotopia in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?

Let's talk about porn.

Er, I mean, I didn't just wake up today and say, "Hmm, I think I'll write a blog post about porn." Though that would be totally OK.

No, for those of you keeping score at home, this is my third critical response to a reading from my Philosophy & the Internet course. Last week we read "Pornography in Small Places and Other Spaces," by Katrien Jacobs, first published in Cultural Studies, Vol. 18. A PDF version is available on her website. It's an interesting article; go read it.

Back? Good. So, we're talking porn. Specifically, online pornography analyzed through the lens of Foucault's heterotopias. Jacobs approaches pornographic sites as spaces online. She differentiates between place and space by drawing from Michel de Certeau's distinction:

Whereas places are distinct locations and imply an indication of stability, spaces are constituted through movements and operations of bodies and minds.… De Certeau's "spacing" allows us to conceptualize complex attachments and reflect on networked agency.

In this sense, we might be able to consider websites "places," because they have distinct locations in the sense that, when one directs one's browser to a static URL, one expects to visit the same page every time. This seems tenuous to me, however, and is belied by the complexities of the Web. It's true that certain pages, like the one to which I linked above containing Foucault's treatise on other spaces, are static. Most of the websites we visit in the course of our day, including porn sites, are dynamic. Pages are generated anew each time a visitor requests them; they include information about the visitor's login status, the time of the day, recent activity by other users. All of these things are precisely the results of "movements and operations of bodies and minds," and thus websites, distinct though they may be, are more properly thought of as spaces.

Jacobs contends that pornographic sites as online spaces have changed the power dynamics of the porn industry. Prior to online distribution, pornography was distributed and controlled much like any other entertainment venture: mostly by large companies that make deals with television networks, hotel chains, etc. The models of production and power were top-down, hierarchical, and dominated by white men in suits. The Internet provides a flatter model of production. Individual porn actors can create their own websites. This gives them direct control over revenue and allows them to interact directly with their audience, or as Jacobs says:

A number of women pornographers have equally started to build independent websites to have control over the exchange with their clients and create community-friendly commodity environment.

Also, this freedom in the production of pornography further encourages the "shift towards decentralization and heterogeneity" that Jacobs says characterizes the recent decades of pornography. Whereas porn distributed through more traditional channels tends to cater to "mainstream" sexual proclivities, the Internet provides a space where porn producers can target any number of fantasies and fetishes--and as a result, we have Rule 34. But we also get performances of pornography that are quite different from the traditional forms. Jacobs uses Francesca da Rimini's characters and erotic tales that draw both from da Rimini's experiences and Japanese folklore as an example.

xkcd comic #305: Rule 34

Unlike offline porn, porn sites are spaces. Many of these sites are actually communities, where members can interact with the actors and with each other. For the consumer of porn, this creates an altogether different experience. Of course, this doesn't mean the Internet is a panacea. The same capitalist agents present prior to online distribution are still present and still involved. This can result in tension when larger corporations begin absorbing the more "independent" and heterogeneous ventures, amalgamating them into a monolithic, more homogeneous entity (as in the case of PopcornQ merging with merging with PlanetOut). The result is a potential for the Internet to "become a homogeneous environment that reproduces unequal conditions for access and participation."

Indeed, the Internet for porn is not all fun and games. Jacobs talks a lot about censorship and the relationship between pornography, governments, and community organizations. Her observations remind me a lot of David Lyons' "The World Wide Web of Surveillance" article (which was the subject of my first critical response). This is crucial to understanding porn sites as heterotopic. Tolerance for viewing pornography is conditional: generally, one must be an adult; nude photographs must be of adults, not children; and the time and place where one views pornography matters (no porn at work!). The conditions might vary across cultures, but their existence is what allows pornography to meet Foucault's first principle (though whether porn sites are heterotopias of crisis or heterotopias of deviation is an interesting question).

xkcd comid #598: Porn

With regards to censorship, Jacobs focuses on attempts to censor online pornography out of concern for the welfare of children. It is apparently too easy for children to stumble upon porn while surfing the Web. We can debate the propriety of exposing children to pornography, of course. (Personally, I find the campaign to maintain children's ignorance under the guise of "innocence" abhorrent and disrespectful towards our children's development. Our society is geared toward sex, and it's not as if you magically notice that when you turn 18. We might as well admit it while they're young and teach them how to deal with it.) Regardless of one's position in that debate, the debate's existence belies the classification of online porn as heterotopic by definition. There is plenty of free porn available online, and depending on how well the search engine filters perform, it can be easy to stumble upon porn unintentionally. So online porn in general cannot satisfy Foucault's fifth principle.

But that was never the claim. Rather, the Internet offers a way to distribute porn through different types of porn communities, whether they are portals managed by large companies or smaller sites run by a single porn actor, that function as distinct spaces within our society. These spaces are heterotopic. Let's run down the list of Foucault's principles:

  • It's possible to view porn sites both as crisis heterotopias and as heterotopias of deviation. One visits porn sites when one is in a mood to do so. Porn sites provide a convenient space to relieve one's sexual desires, an act for which we designate private or intimate spaces. On the other hand, there is a porn site to satisfy any type of deviant or non-normative sexual desire one might have.
  • They have a specific function, which has changed over time and will continue to change as our relationship with the Internet changes.
  • Much like theatre, porn sites bring several elements of "real" places together, often in surprising combinations, in the pursuit of erotic journeys and fantasies.
  • The heterochrony of a porn site is a kind of idealized slice of time in which the actors are in their prime, at the peak of their health, performance, and prowess. (This does not necessarily mean everyone is young, per se, but everyone, regardless of age, exudes youthfulness and vitality.)
  • Unlike random pornography just circulating online, porn sites are usually behind paywalls, so there is an economic barrier. Only adults are legally allowed to access those porn sites, and theoretically the economic requirement of possessing a credit card is supposed to enforce this. Finally, there are many social conventions about when it is appropriate to browse porn. For example, workplace policies prohibit surfing for porn at work. Couples will have varying protocols about the appropriateness of accessing porn alone or together.
  • Ultimately, of course, porn sites are a space of illusion. They complement our reality by reifying our fantasies. We seek out enactments of fetishes that cannot (should not) ever be realized in real life.

I found one phrase in Jacobs' discussion of censorship particularly striking in the context of our discussion of heterotopias:

The debate … is still going on today and questions if community standards of decency can be transferred from place to place.

I find this question fascinating. It recalls our discussions of the Internet's relationship with geography and Manuel Castells' interpretation of the network society. It seems to me that the answer to this question is probably "no," although that answer itself probably requires qualification, and as noted above, it's still open to debate.

Now what if we replace "place to place" with "space to space" and look at the Internet's relationship with spaces? I think it would be very easy to read only as far as "heterotopias of deviation" in Foucault's writing and respond to the revised question in the negative. Yet it's a little more complex, isn't it, because in his third principle Foucault describes heterotopias as "juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible." This suggests, to me, that a heterotopia should be able to juxtapose multiple standards of decency. Indeed, two consumers on a porn site might have differing standards of decency and only consume those aspects of the site that meet those standards.

So the original question attempted to use geographical place as a context for debating Internet censorship. The ACLU objected that a blanket federal law would require us to censor according to a conservative common denominator, if you will, while proponents of censorship maintained that community standards about porn might vary across cultures but not when it comes to exposing children to it. All of these arguments engage with porn sites and the Internet as places, and as we've seen in previous weeks in this class, the Internet's relationship with physical geography is complex and not necessarily straightforward.

If we instead consider the debate in the context of spaces, which seem a more apt model for the online environment, then does the phrase "community standards" even have meaning any more? After all, what "community" are we talking about? I'm struggling a little here to convey the question I'm grappling with, but I suppose one way to express would be: how does our interpretation of porn sites as heterotopias affect this question of censorship? I'm not sure if that's exactly the issue I'm trying to raise when comparing these two different ways of viewing the Internet and porn sites.

I don't see it mentioned on the course Moodle site, so I'll recommend a look at Katrien Jacobs' blog in general. There are links to other articles she's written and excerpts from a forthcoming book.

When I think about porn and the Internet, Peter Nowak comes to mind. He's the author of Sex, Bombs and Burgers: How War, Porn and Fast Food Created Technology As We Know It (and wow, my Oxford comma hindbrain is twitching right now). I have not yet read his book (it's somewhere on my hideously detailed and lengthy book), but I've been reading his blog for a while now, and he was interviewed for Spark as well. Nowak discusses the role that the porn industry plays in technological innovation. Of course, the Internet is one of the major innovations of our era, so if his thesis is correct, the porn industry has a significant effect on it as well. Although what I've seen of his writing so far doesn't draw explicitly on the notion of heterotopia, Nowak's ruminations on porn are very holistic in the way he considers our relationship with porn spaces. For example, he has linked the US Library of Congress decision to allow iPhone jailbreaking to the return of porn to the iPhone and offered his opinion on what this means in the context of mobile phone spaces. Forget the computer, we can have porn on our phones now! And with phones increasingly becoming smart, they are no longer just devices but spaces in their own right (or at least, interfaces allowing us to engage in other spaces). As a society we are exploring how best to negotiate these spaces--whether we prefer more "closed" environments like Apple's app store or "open" environments like those of another platform. If Nowak is correct, our attitudes toward porn and the porn industry will have an impact on how we engage with these spaces.

Rather than include a single pithy image at the beginning of this post, as seems to be trendy in the blogosphere these days, I've interspersed a couple xkcd comics abour porn, courtesy of their CC-BY-NC license. I leave you now with one more, which is relevant both to last week's discussion and our previous week's discussion about performance and the queer:

xkcd comic #714: Porn for Women

(By the way, Porn for Women is a real book. From what I glean from the Amazon page and their website this is a satirical endeavour that likewise tackles issues of gender stereotypes. Nevertheless, I still think the comic is relevant and entertaining.)