Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Gabriel Ojeda-Sague reviews What Pornography Knows

Kathleen Lubey. What Pornography Knows: Sex and Social Protest since the Eighteenth Century. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2022. 288 pp.

Review by Gabriel Ojeda-Sague

19 April 2023

In Kathleen Lubey’s What Pornography Knows, pornography is where sex gets chatty. Or, to put it in her more precise words, pornography is “sex imbricated in a culture’s conversation about itself” (p. 25). Its style is “temperamentally inconsistent, discursively hybrid, intermittently erotic, and irreducibly feminist” (p. 81). Through her new history of the development of British literary pornography from the eighteenth century onwards, Lubey finds that pornography’s supposed aim of arousal is actually secondary to the more primary aim of “inventing, through admixture and apposition, an experimental social vision, one that separates genitals from persons in order to discover how the former are operationalized to produce the latter” (p. 12).

            What Pornography Knows centers most of its analysis on two anonymous erotic picaresques: The History of the Human Heart (1749) and The Progress of Nature (1744). In the monograph’s first half, Lubey contextualizes and analyzes these works (along with several contemporaneous works of bawdy fiction and erotic print) to discover a style she considers fundamental to pornography’s genesis as a genre, a style that overlaps genital sexuality with discourses of philosophy, cultural analysis, and “meandering and associative” narrative, always taking on the task of “connecting sex to culture” (p. 3). The pornography of this period is not so certain that “heteropenetration is common and pleasurable,” as we may assume is proposed by most contemporary straight pornography; rather, these works actively question and deconstruct how the contours of women’s social experience are determined by genital experience (p. 2). In this sense, this pornography is more feminist than we may initially give it credit for.

            The reason we may not have initially given it such credit from our contemporary vantage is the subject of the monograph’s second half. Lubey follows the re-publication of her primary eighteenth century examples in the nineteenth and twentieth century, where contemporary editorial revisions cut, abridge, and bowdlerize the digressive social commentary of the original texts. In the nineteenth century, editors constrain feminist content in favor of manufacturing an illusion of sexual plenitude (p. 127). In the twentieth century, pulp re-publications of eighteenth century texts see the limits of narrative efficiency heightening emphasis on male ejaculation and the clear division of sexual numbers. Lubey employs a dualist metaphor: “pornographic narrative economically focuses on eroticized bodies, masculine prowess, and consummated sex acts, a rather far cry from the eighteenth-century text’s equal reliance on the mind to complete the erotic sense” (p. 174). For Lubey, the political division between feminism and pornography in the twentieth century should not be taken as a given, but instead should be seen as an effect of the historical process of pornography’s becoming “emptied of its thinking” (p. 189). This is the argument of Lubey’s I find least convincing, as she seems to pay little attention to the way what she calls pornography’s “thinking” has taken new forms in twentieth century pornography, forms that may not square with what she trains us to look for in her eighteenth century texts. To ascribe this mental atrophy, what she calls making porn “efficient,” to pornographic pulp feels especially ill-fit, being a genre that in the twentieth century is associated with a variety of queer, feminist, and indeed narratively digressive and self-conscious erotic production (p. 183).

            This being said, Lubey’s greater argument, that pornography places sex in a discursive whirl that assesses how culture and sex refract each other, remains useful for porn studies and histories of erotic literature. This monograph will feel especially interesting to researchers working on porn’s reception history and the intersection of eighteenth century book history with spheres of erotic production.