"Pornography, Propaganda, Representation"
This seminar investigates “pornography” and “propaganda” as two categories that attempt to set boundaries around acceptable language. They work as genre designations as often as they work as aesthetic judgements and denunciations. When an object, a picture, or a text is accused of being pornographic or propagandistic, it stands accused of using representational force in an unacceptable way – too direct, too explicit, too symbolic, too something to accord with the idealized sincerity and critical openness of acceptable, normal, or mainstream discourse, of speech that should be unquestionably “free.”
This seminar originates in an interest in the feminist sex wars of the 70s and 80s. In their political mobilization against pornography, the anti-porn feminists activated debates about what is or isn’t speech, what is or isn’t fictional representation, and likened pornography to propaganda, itself a once-neutral category that came instead to signify a dangerous use of speech. The political stakes that different left- and right-wing groups held in defending, legislating, or organizing against pornography had developed over the course of the post-war moment: feminists split over their alliances with a New Left invested in “free love,” with a free speech movement that won the loosening of obscenity regulations in Miller v. California, and with a gay liberation movement that saw porn’s representation of sexual plurality as liberatory.
Our current moment is also animated by a politics of speech. On the left, activists strategize towards deplatforming the alt-right, and making tech behemoths liable for the disinformation they proliferate while claiming merely to transmit; on the right, politicians boogeyman the idea of “critical race theory” and talking about sexuality with students, and employ SESTA/FOSTA rulings to regulate the circulation of sex work cash flow. Our political moment encounters the same questions once articulated in terms of “propaganda” and “pornography,” traveling under new terms like disinformation, deplatforming, political correctness and “free exchange of ideas.” This seminar is interested in shedding light on the intellectual formation of our current moment by investigating the dated terms which once had a much more vital purchase on questions about the relationship between representation and reality.
We welcome papers and participation on topics including: What desire do we express when we call something porn or propaganda? How are we thinking about what language is when we think we can demarcate a set of texts as beyond the pale of public discourse? How does the distinction between language and action contribute to what is considered “viable” speech? We welcome papers that think about the histories of these terms and their contemporary reshuffling, objects that problematize or contest their categorizations as these terms, or the nature of these terms in relation to theories of genre or aesthetic judgment.
Please see our CFP and instructions for submitting an abstract at https://www.acla.org/pornography-propaganda-representation.