Pornographic Imagination Susan Sontag Attempts Essay

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While neither text would likely be considered pornographic according to the aforementioned problematic definitions of the term, because they do not seem solely focused on eliciting sexual arousal or release, they nevertheless contain certain scenes that seem intent on forcing the audience to, if not become aroused themselves, at least consider the possibility of arousal. For example, while Bill is restlessly waiting for his son's friend to eat the sandwich he has drugged, the film lingers on the boy's posterior, forcing the viewer to adopt the agitated, and aroused, perspective of Bill himself. However, far from engaging in the horror film trope of the assailant's direct point-of-view, the shot is not positioned directly from Bill's position on the couch, but rather from an intermediate space such that the audience is forced to inhabit Bill's particular sexual desire while remaining physically apart from him. In this moment, the viewer participates in the same pornographic imagination as Bill, if only because the viewer is capable of imagining how the image affects him. As such, "spectators may find it difficult, if not impossible, to digest or process" any "moral position" in regards to what is shown, and thus are left only with the position provided by Bill himself (Tylim 1999, p. 307).

Similarly, Frisk forces a recognition of "the reader's complicity in [its] extreme representations," both because the reader must inhabit the mind of the narrator and because many of the most transgressive moments are relayed in the second person, such that the reader takes on the role of Julian reading Dennis' letter (Aaron 2004, p. 115). For example, when Dennis says "his ass was so little and perfect it felt more like a prototype than a real ass, which made me think about what you once said about Kevin's ass, that it was 'a toy ass'," the reader is momentarily placed in the role of commenting on an adolescent boy's ass, even if the "you" in the statement ostensibly refers to Julian (Cooper, 1991, p. 103). Thus, the text is pornographic in the sense that it represents an iteration of the pornographic imagination, even if it cannot be "used" by the reader for his or her own sexual pleasure (which is not to say that a reader cannot be aroused by Dennis' narration; in fact, one might go so far as to argue that the repulsion the reader might feel towards Dennis' actions is not fundamentally different from the arousal he feels, because it is merely the same kind of intense mental and physical reaction, albeit in a different direction).

In the case of Happiness, the relation between sexual transgression and knowledge is highlighted by the conversations between Bill and his son, Billy, because Billy looks to Bill for knowledge regarding his own sexual development. This is why the final scene between the two is so powerful; Billy's questions about his father being a serial rapist are not out of the blue, but rather follow from a procession of questions he has been asking throughout the film. Similarly, Dennis' killing spree can be seen as a quest to obtain the knowledge which has remained tantalizingly out of reach ever since he discovers that the snuff porn he viewed as a youth was faked, knowledge "too out-of-focus to actually explore with one's eyes, but too mysterious not to want to try" (Cooper, 1991, p. 4). This line, which actually describes the center of a young Henry's anus as he lies seemingly strangled to death on a bed, ends the first chapter of the book (titled simply with the mathematical notation for infinity), and hints at the epistemological quest inherent in the pornographic imagination. The pornographic images Dennis views as a youth reveal to him the limits of his current knowledge as well as the seemingly limitless knowledge offered by sexual transgression, and "draw him farther and farther into the outer limits of society" (Storey 2005, p. 67).

In "The Pornographic Imagination," Susan Sontag reveals the inextricable connection between transgression and epistemological yearning, by noting how transgression, in addition to representing a kind of break or rupture, simultaneously provides access to previously verboten knowledge, knowledge unattainable by any means other than transgression. Recognizing how pornography expresses this drive towards knowledge is only possible if one is willing to discard many of the moralistic assumptions and distinctions that have characterizes the historical consideration of pornography, both in academia and elsewhere, because only by approaching pornography in terms of what it does, rather than what many people assume it is supposed to do, is one able to effectively describe it functions and relations to human experience more generally. Sontag's approach to pornography is vindicated when one considers it in light of Dennis Cooper's Frisk and Todd Solondz' Happiness, because these texts remain somewhat impenetrable unless one considers how the sexual transgressions of their protagonists are related to the general desire for verboten or mysterious knowledge. These texts succeed in drawing their audience into the (admittedly deranged) desires and actions of the protagonists precisely because they appeal to the universal desire for knowledge and rely on pornography's unique ability to align that desire with the heightened physical and emotional states of sexual arousal. The audience cannot help but experience the vicarious thrill of new knowledge, because even if it recoils at the violence of the protagonists' actions, the representation of these actions allows the audience the briefest glimpse of a kind of knowledge usually reserved only for the most despised individuals in society.


Aaron, M. 2004, "(Fill-in-the) Blank Fiction: Dennis Coopers Cinematics and the Complicitous

Reader," Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 27, no. 3, pp. 115-127.

Cooper, D. (1991), Frisk, Grove Press, New York.

Happiness, 1998, motion picture, Killer Films, distributed by Good Machine, United States.

Kieran, M. 2001, "Pornographic Art," Philosophy and Literature, vol. 25, no. 1, pp. 31-45.

Levinson, J. 2005, "Erotic Art and Pornographic Pictures," Philosophy and Literature, vol. 29,

no. 1,…

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