While this year's AAA theme asks us to secure a more "capacious, progressive vision of the human," this panel looks at a particularly contested and often ignored site of human interaction and representation: pornography. Studying pornography anthropologically exposes particular understandings of personhood-notions of the representable semiotically loaded with moral and ethical assumptions-as well as forces existing frameworks for the interpretation of images into the light. Moral orientations to porn - among its producers, consumers, and those who identify as neither but nevertheless interact with the conceptual category- bring into relief morally charged ambivalences about the agency of images. These can manifest as uncertainties about an image's potentiality as merely a text, the "promise of flesh," or an experience of the flesh itself (Rancière 2007) or judgements regarding an image's "tendency" (Mazzarella 2013), its performative potential to stir immoral impulses in viewers. In other contexts, illicit images are understood to presence occult spiritual forces (Meyer 2015) or otherwise alter proximity to religious or divine figures, transforming ethical and spiritual practices (Buggenhagen 2010, Sansi 2013, Van der Port 2005). Alternately, the obscene can produce embodied reactions to moral transgression that force those moral transgressions into public debate (Allison 2000, Larkin 2008). This panel builds on these efforts to situate illicit images within broader contexts of image-making and moral aspiration. While some scholars in the social sciences have attempted to provide historical context for shifting notions of morality as it pertains to pornography (Rubin 1984; Lancaster 2011), others have seen academia as beholden to particular ethical stances on porn, as most famously represented by the feminist "sex wars" of the late-twentieth century (Duggan and Hunter 2006). Ethnographic work that focuses on the experiences of porn performers (Miller-Young 2014) has contextualized notions of the moral within the "political economy of pleasure" of the transnational sex trade; a perspective reiterated in work focused on sex workers more broadly (Kimberly Kay Hoang 2016; Maia 2016; Frank 2013; Bernstein 2018). While the 'moral,' and even the "pornographic" are highly contested categories, this panel offers these terms not to be defined or secured, but as keywords for an exploration of the relationship between formulations of moral selfhood and various illicit image practices. What sorts of interpretive frameworks for truth, digital embodiment, and moral selfhood emerge through individuals' or groups' orientations to pornography? Through what semiotic processes do these interpretive frameworks become naturalized? For instance, how are notions of personhood (e.g. the porn star, the contaminable viewer, etc.) constructed and reinforced by particular classes of images ("pornographic" or "obscene" images), themselves defined by divergent and highly contextual frames of interpretation (e.g. religious doctrine; legal discourse, social reform movements, extralegal media censorship regimes)? To what extent are these interpretive frameworks open to contestation or critical reappropriation? This panel explores the topic of pornography as a site for exploring how frameworks for the interpretation of images co-constitute moral discourses, including ideas of an "ethical self"; notions of the representable, the transgressive and the real.
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Debating white supremacist tattoos in gay pornography
AAA Annual Meeting 2021
18 November 2021