For taxonomy

(from James Leon's series, Psychopathia Sexualis)

IT has recently been writing about Sade and Pornography and taxonomy – which of course brings out my inner fetishist. I get all drooly about… taxonomy.

“One of the best things about early 20th-century erotic photograph is its lack of taxonomy. Contemporary pornography has more categories than there are dirty thoughts in the world, and yet it fails in one crucial respect - it can no longer surprise. You can be into women who look like cats who specialise in shaving biscuits whilst bouncing up and down on trampolines, and there'd probably be a website that could cater to your needs, but once you've seen a couple of cat-women shaving biscuits whilst bouncing on trampolines surely you've seen them all. The excessive taxonomical drive of contemporary pornography is merely one element of its quest to bore us all to death and remind us that everything is merely a form of work, including, or even most especially, pleasure.”

Myself, I want to disagree with this a bit, because I think IT is underdetermining the taxonomic drive. Although I think she is right that porno embraces specialization, I don’t think you can locate that drive merely in contemporary pornography as a new form of thing. I'd argue that all modern porno, going back to the end of the French revolution, is tied in one way or another to taxonomy. In the case of the early 20-th century, the porno she is referring to comes on the heels of the great explosion in sexual types associated with people like Krafft-Ebbing, and picked up by Freud, and by bohemian culture very quickly. The types included – as Jonathan Katz notes in The Invention of the Heterosexual – heterosexuality itself, which was introduced into the U.S. in the 1890s by a psychologist who referred to the thing as an “abnormal manifestation of the sexual appetite.”

There’s a scene in Wyndham Lewis’ satire of Bloomsbury, the Apes of God, in which a prim little girl of twelve, sitting in her father’s garden, is reading a thick book. An adult approaches her to ask what it is. Is it Charles and Mary Lamb’s Shakespeare for Children? Robinson Crusoe? No, it turns out to be the Psychopathia Sexualis. The joke worked – back then – because the book had gained both a scholarly and popular notoriety, with the popular audience coalescing around a genteel form of sexual enlightenment, a la Freud, Havelock Ellis, and science. Always science. In sexology, as indeed in psychology, the anxiety that the field was a science was assuaged, among practitioners, by the production of taxonomies without end – and, unfortunately, without any central principle. In the world of Darwinian evolution and the periodic table, surely the royal road to science was to produce tables – tables that would characterize mental illnesses, tables that would characterize the different degeneracies of criminals, tables that would bring the human appetite for sexual pleasure into the pleasing order of family, genera, species.

Krafft-Ebbing's style is a sort of cross between court reporting and the Arabian Nights. It has a gloss of dull prurience that is unintentionally and irresistibly... funny. Although one does sympathize with the collection of specimens, each locked into his hidy hole of sexual fevers. Here, for example, is how case 102 starts:

Case 102. Hair-fetichism. Mr. X., between thirty and forty years old; of the higher class of society; single. Came of a healthy family, but from childhood had been nervous, vacillating and peculiar; since his eighth year he had been powerfully attracted by female hair. This was particularly true in the case of young girls. When he was nine years old, a girl of thirteen seduced him. He did not understand it, and was not at all excited. A twelve-year- old sister of this girl also courted, kissed, and hugged him. He allowed this quietly, because this girl's hair pleased him so well. When about ten years old, he began to have erotic feelings at the sight of female hair that pleased him.

Gradually these feelings occurred spontaneously, and memory-pictures of girl's hair were always immediately associated with them. At the age of eleven he was taught to masturbate by school-mates.”

Of course, from such beginnings, Mr. X is only going to go downhill, first into crime: “Not infrequently, in the street and in crowds, he could not keep from imprinting a kiss on ladies' heads, he would then hurry home to masturbate. Sometimes he could resist this impulse; but it was then necessary for him, filled with feelings of fear, to run away as quickly as possible, in order to escape the domination of his fetich, he was only once impelled to cut off a girl's hair in a crowd.” But in this case, there is a happy ending: “He drank large quantities,
had alcoholic delirium, an attack of alcoholic epilepsy, and required hospital treatment. After the intoxication had passed away, under appropriate treatment, the sexual excitement soon disappeared; and when the patient was discharged, he was freed from his fetichistic idea, save for its occasional occurrence in dreams. The physical examination showed normal genitals and no degenerative signs whatever.” Thank god for that! Mr. X wavers, obviously, between the subspecies of hair despoilers and those who, like another X, case 99, loved only men with large bushy moustaches (99’s story is less anxiety producing than 102: One day he met a man who answered his ideal. He invited him to his home, but was unspeakably disappointed when this man removed an artificial mustache. Only when the visitor put the ornament on the upper lip again, he exercised his charm over X. once more and restored him to the full possession of virility.”

“Fetishism” had first been applied by Binet to cases of sexual distraction from the full possession of one’s virility, but Krafft-Ebbing popularized it – and of course he is credited with naming masochism, sadism, hetero and homo sexuality and the like. What interests me, here, is the difference of this taxonomical impulse from the utopian taxonomies of Charles Fourier, who was also a great namer and arranger. I will do a post on these soon.

Meanwhile, there is now a film version of the Psychopathia Sexualis that I think will satisfy even IT’s demand for the reinvigoration of pornography through early twentieth century techniques. If you have never seen a shadow play depicting the rather sad but highly moral story of Sergeant Bertrand, necrophiliac – and I know you want to! you should run, not walk, to Bret Wood and Tracy Martin’s site.


k said…
Though this doesn't necessarily contradict IT's point. Mr X et al. obviously got a kick from their own taxonomical labors: the hunt for the perfect moustache or whatever was part of the thrill, and one assumes they'd often find what they're looking for in non-pornographic texts or by taking a walk in a public park. Today taxonomy is thoroughly desexualised in itself, it's already done for you by the porn sites, offering frictionless (oo-er) access to the money shot. Something like the difference between flanerie and pay-per-view television.
roger said…
k - You are right that I am not contradicting IT's point so much as trying to loosen the tie between taxonomy, repetition, boredom and labor. From the Sadeian viewpoint, boredom will lead to the coldness of the master libertine - from the Freudian viewpoint, what is missing is here is anxiety - the puzzle of repetition being the key to Freud's break with the dominance of the pleasure principle, right?
However, I don't think the notion that the porno industry is yet another easy to shop industry is quite right. If you interview erotica writers who were involved in the spread of a certain kind of porn, in the seventies - the Hustler and Blue Boy age - there was certainly a tight bind between the industry and the libidinous lives of its 'customers', such that it is hard to model it as just another market with sellers and buyers. I don't understand why you are simply assuming the model of seller domination of the taxonomy of porno - to my mind, the libidinal investment in that taxonomy makes it much harder to control by the producers of porn. That libidinous investment in being, say, straight, a fem dom, a male submissive, a watersports buff, etc., etc. is convergent with one of the business facts about porn - it is an industry where the barrier to entry is pretty low. You can't say the same thing about, say, action movies, which require an enormous outlay in technical investment. In the 90s, the porn film industry deliberately went low fi - which is rather a contrast to the film industry as a whole, with their bloated budgets, their need for enormous openings, and their enormous advertising budgets. One way of explaining that contrast is to say that the p industry was rationalizing, getting rid of big scenarios, using amateurs that didn't cost as much, etc. Another way, however, would be to say that the porn industry cannot ever assume taxonomic control - it is always contested by the taxons themselves.
roger said…
ps - now I see what is wrong with my post! I should have titled it: For the Taxons.

By the way, k, I hope you went to that psychopathia sexualis film. It is pretty ... amazing.