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Reading The Readers Of Sasha Grey Reading Slavoj Žižek – arkbooks
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Reading The Readers Of Sasha Grey Reading Slavoj Žižek

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I happened upon this picture of the actor, writer, musician and former pornographic actor, Sasha Grey, reading Slavoj Žižek’s 2008 book, In Defence of Lost Causes, on my Facebook timeline posted by a fan/meme page dedicated to the Slovenian philosopher. The photograph itself was clearly part of an attempt to mould Grey’s public persona in the formation of a “post-pornography intellectual” brand. Thus it is impossible to determine what Grey’s relationship to Žižek’s work is from this artefact. But such speculation is not really important here.

I’ll admit I experienced a problematic excitement upon first seeing the photo. In the sense that those who consider themselves in to be engaged in academic or intellectual pursuits often delude themselves that their proclivities are somehow exempt from the process of objectification upon which western culture is largely built.

As has been discussed elsewhere, there is a reductive fetishism around the girl who reads that takes on the appearance of the enlightenment while being ridden with objectification. Excitement about the former-pornstar-who-reads-continental-philosophy is inescapably, in part, a self congratulatory smirk at recognizing the intersection of niches. But this is a point for others, better equipped than I, to dwell upon. As I will explain in what follows, we have problem of proximity.

As this was a Facebook post it was possible to comment upon it publically. And, as it was a Facebook post featuring the image of a person well-known for her involvement in hard-core pornography, the temptation to comment was too much to be resisted for some. Many problematically positive remarks were made in the vein outlined above but what confused me was the commenters, who sought through jokes or in one case outrage, to assert some kind of superiority to Grey. The direct moralizing outrage, while odd, was at least to some extent comprehensible but the kind of schoolyard humour had this troubling inference about it; to have engaged in sexual behaviour outside of the mainstream must also call one’s intellectual capacity into question.

This is the problem of proximity, the porn performer through the lens of the camera, or the lens of theory becomes a knowable quantity, but when the lens is revealed to also be a window, what was once an object of observation is revealed as a subject of experience.

In short, she could not actually be as into Žižek as they (the commenters) are because of her involvement in pornography, which to me just seemed the strangest logic. While we can imagine the fans of conservative philosophy may hold such views, Žižek fans often consider themselves radicals, so what is to be gained from such a conservative exclusion?

Now I have no idea about Grey’s level of engagement with the work of the big Lacanian lug from Ljubljana and this piece is no sense a defence of Grey the person. I don’t believe she is in need of the support of some young privileged white male she has never met. Rather, I want to focus on what this maneuver of humour suggests; the fissure between the intellect and the erotic and the patriarchal notions this fissure serves at the expense of actually thinking about the glorious complexity of life and how we can better communicate and understand our confusions.


We can perhaps see the problem more clearly if we unpack the way in which a Žižekian may understand the category of pornography. Žižek has argued in the past (somewhere) that the reason sexual acts can not be fully represented in mainstream films is because the act itself is too close to the Lacanian notion of the real and mainstream films operate in the symbolic and the imaginary. The distaste our cultural norms have to this kind of proximity to the real has relegated the explicit representation of sex to pornography. Of course pornography has it’s own engagement with the imaginary too, but it is configured differently to mainstream productions. Normative intellectual discourse considers the engagements of pornography with the imaginary to be base and thus unworthy of serious consideration consideration. However, the Žižekian is of the opinion that this neglected field is an opening to the unconscious. What’s more is that much of pornography’s engagement with the imaginary is itself patriarchal, which can connect the Žižekian’s understanding of the unconscious to all sorts of discourses on oppression.  This is a kind of knowledge, one that to which the Žižekian feels he has special access. He can see how cultural objects reveal the uncomfortable truths we disavow but also live with. Here the pornographic performer becomes a mere resource upon which to structure his (the Žižekian’s) grand theory and analysis. However, in the picture of Sasha Grey, the dynamic is reversed; the pornographic performer looks, through Žižek’s text, back. This is like a kind of feedback that transform the observer into an object of observation. I’m pretty sure this is the structure that underpins the anxiety manifested in the comments below the picture.

This is the problem of proximity: the porn actor, through the lens of the camera or the lens of theory, becomes a knowable quantity, but when the lens is revealed to also be a window, what was once an object of observation is revealed as a subject of experience.

In a number of ways, different from the Žižekian observer but also very much the same.



The ephemera around this picture on my feed reminded me of having seen the logical ends of such a fissure before. In his most recent boring novel, Submission, the 60 year old enfant-terrible of French literature, Michel Houellebecq, unwittingly provides a clear summary and culmination of this perspective. While the muslim brotherhood democratically take over France, the narrator retreats to a monastery in the countryside where he reflects, in away similar to a teenage boy in the midst of a new hormonal mailstrom, that in the absence of women, or more properly the visible body parts of young women, he is able to concentrate more clearly on what is important. Which, in his case, is apparently Huysmans.   

Are we to take this seriously? It has the appearance of a joke about the absurdity of enforced chastity but if that were the case, the rest of the book would be either oblique beyond comprehension or incoherent. At face value, Houellebecq is expounding the upside of what is likely to be an oppressive theocracy. The bright side of a formalized patriarchy that would relieve its denizens of the obligation of making ethically engaged decisions and compromises in return for reducing said denizens to struts of systemic maintenance. With some struts more equal than others. However, it should be noted that this is not an imposition of an alien cultural form upon France, rather it makes explicit the restrictive structures implicit in the discourse of sexuality that are already present in the western capitalist society.

While much is made about the increasing pornification of culture, and the real problems and abuse associated with that practice of cultural production, it should be made clear that this is not a problem of overt sexuality as such. Rather, it could be argued that this is the result of those with the power to do so, forcing a kind of sexuality that has been formed through a particular type of repression onto the culture at large. In a manner similar to what Foucault suggests, when he argues that cultures with stated prohibitions against sexuality create conditions under which sex is in actuality far more present, the role mainstream pornography plays in our culture is as a manifestation of a cultural norm that insists that the erotic as a field of experience, outside of certain sanctioned frames, is always a reduction to a base level.

Interests or desires that fall outside of this scheme are pathologized, and to act upon them become evidence of one’s intellectual instability or insufficiency, which are mere euphemisms for the rightly unfashionable idea of moral deviance.


However, we can read some compelling renunciations of this line of thinking. For example, the power of the opening passage of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is in how she collapses her meaningful romantic relationship, into her intellectual engagement with Wittgenstein’s linguistics, into her erotic enjoyment of anal sex. The appearance of contradiction is an illusion created by category distinctions (romance, intellect, eros), and exacerbated here by the fact that the sex act in question is non-reproductive. As Nelson argues throughout the book, our culture is one that ostensibly accepts the right of individuals to be autonomous sexual beings, but in actuality attaches various caveats to this acceptance that ties this right to reproduction.

Interests or desires that fall outside of this scheme are pathologized, and to act upon them become evidence of one’s intellectual instability or insufficiency, which are mere euphemisms for the rightly unfashionable idea of moral deviance. However, there is no actual contradiction here, rather this is the upshot of Whitman’s notion that one can contain multitudes. What seemingly can’t contain multitudes however, is a dominant discourse.  

Within the dynamic of patriarchy this rule is of course more strictly applied to women, who also have far more at stake in reproduction. Though this is not to say men are unaffected. If we think back to the Houellebecq’s narrator’s view, on the bright side of theocracy, we can see the desperation experienced by someone whose desires are intimately tied to fragile but forceful imbalances of power. Houellebecq’s narrator relies on his status as a relatively wealthy intellectual to attain the sexual gratification that gives his life some sort of purpose. However, this requires something, albeit very little, from him and the dynamic is becoming increasingly precarious as he ages. The religious patriarchy offered by the Muslim Brotherhood relieves him of these requirements while providing him with all the gratification he wants. All that needs to be sacrificed is the recognition of the subject positions of half the population as valid.

What is significantly different in my reading of this remark from Lerner, and I hope in this piece, is that the confusion is expressed as confusion, rather than deflected into patriarchal frustration.

For all the chauvinistic/misogynistic bluster of Houellebecq’s narrators, there is a desperation here to avoid confronting the actual complexity with which they are faced. Like petulant teenagers they cannot cope with the apparent contradictions of their day-to-day behaviour and intellectual adventures, as being in someway necessarily bodily. And thus not different in kind from their sexuality.

We can see a similar anxiety in this passage from Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04 which goes to great lengths to couch the narrators awares of pornogrphy and its practices within his interest in art analysis. As the narrator describes one of his lover’s artworks at a show, artwork made by treating contemporary photographs so they appear aged as if from the renaissance:

There was a painting based on an image downloaded from the Internet and then enlarged of a young woman whose eyes are lined with running shadow and upon whose face a man beyond the frame has ejaculated; she stares at the viewer as if from another century, the craquelure confusing genres and lending the image tremendous gravity; the title read: The Picture of Sasha Grey.

Here we have Grey again, whose stage name, wikipedia page informs me, is indeed a reference to Oscar Wilde novel, serving as a foil for another intellectual man to express the confusion of the blushing boundary of intellect and libido. The same should certainly also be said of this piece

What is significantly different in my reading of this remark from Lerner, and I hope in this piece, is that the confusion is expressed as confusion, rather than deflected into patriarchal frustration.

Because as much as what has been explored here is vexed and rightly resistant to simplification, the notion that sexuality is in anyway antithetical to intellect is one that can only serve to enrich morons in love with a power they wish they could actually have.

Macon has spent the last four years trying to shoehorn Infinite Jest into a PhD about popular music and capitalism. He managed to do this by making it about something called sonic fiction. He is one half of the podcasting team and the reason why the critical theory section is an odd mix of Adorno and Deleuze & Guattari. For many months he was mistaken for a ghost that had decided to haunt the store, but it was just him editing his thesis and/or the podcast. Here he writes about things which might be true or are entirely made up.


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