(too dirrty to clean my act up
If you ain’t dirrty .. you ain’t here to party)
—Christina Aguilera “DIRRTY”
The teacher engaged in a pedagogy which requires some articulation of knowledge forms and pleasures integral to students’ daily life is walking a dangerous road.
—Henry Giroux and Roger Simon, “Schooling, Popular Culture and a Pedagogy of Possibility”
Pornography and pedagogy have been positioned as mutually exclusive domains within educational discourses that seek to regulate the borders between rational knowledge and sexually lewd commercial imagery. Yet these realms begin to overlap in productive ways when hypersexual popular cultures are integrated as meaningful social texts within the classroom. As mainstream youth media increasingly play up the appeal of what Brian McNair calls “porno-chic” cultural entertainment, teachers and students of cultural meanings are compelled to take seriously the pervasive power of soft porn influencing everyday desires and identifications. McNair writes that “porno-chic is not porn, then, but the representation of porn in non-pornographic art and culture, the pastiche and parody of, the homage to and investigation of porn; the postmodern transformation of porn into mainstream cultural artifact for a variety of purposes.” (61) The crossover of porn imagery into commercial advertising and entertainment industries is an extension of a problem that Sut Jhally refers to as the commodity-image system which frames sexy bodies within marketing strategies that encourage fast voyeuristic forms of consumption (252). Yet complex questions about how youth engage with the intensification of their sexual fields of vision as part of their daily routines watching TV, playing video games, enjoying films and music videos as desiring subjects are often overlooked. As young people grow up today within porno saturated visual cultures, they need to be given space to talk about their ideas, feelings and contradictory responses. In this way, bringing porn into university curriculum is a necessary part of a critical and creative pedagogical practice. I learned about the urgency and difficulty of such a practice when my students brought in Christina Aguilera’s video Dirrty to a class on consumer cultures and sexual representation. Out of some wildly disparate and complex readings of this video developed by my students, we were able to explore ideas about body images, censorship, queerness, commodification and fantasy without foreclosing the ambivalence unleashed in the process of studying Dirrty pornographic styles.
In my introductory popular culture classes, I give permission to students to exchange stories about the sexualized pleasures of mediated youth cultures as a way to encourage awareness of the specific icons, textual details and patterns of representation that make up our viewing and listening experiences. I use this as a take off point to consider how our popular conceptions of sexuality are constructed and contested by desiring and relational interpretations connecting hegemonic image fantasies with subjective investments. Once students start conversing about what they notice and how they see and feel about sexually explicit images shown in class, the contested terrain of popular cultural porn becomes vividly animated. The point is to demystify the topic of pornographic imagery as something fixed, taboo, banal, asocial, shameful or demeaning. What students of media cultures do not expect is that their personal pleasures and longings will be socially situated and theorized as a dialogue about the politics of representation. Student pleasures collide in unexpected ways. I am always surprised by what appeals to their fantasy ideals, and the reasons they offer to explain why and how they seek out and utilize their desires as viewers. To spur discussion, I bring in sex texts that range from Hollywood film clips to nightclub fliers to queer photography to internet homepages. But while I have a rough idea of the conceptual course we will take, we usually end up following alternative paths, negotiating incommensurable psychic and social life-worlds. What I find troubling, erotic or fascinating might not connect up with what my students notice or experience as seductive or meaningful. Foregrounding the pleasures of sexual images in teaching popular culture is tricky because they are hard to predict or contain for analysis. Consensus is an impossibility from the start as sexual fears, denial and fantasies disrupt any possibility of rational unity. Pornography leaks across disciplinary boundaries and blurs conventional distinctions between, private/public, subjective/social, work/play, school/leisure, sexual/intellectual realms of experience. Teaching pornography is risky business.
Turning theoretically back upon the popular fascinations of “porno-chic” images also invites pleasure into the very process of academic learning that has traditionally scorned its worth and relevance. The interactions of teaching and learning become infused with affective longings and frustrations. Questions arise such as: What happens when sexualized pleasure as an experience lived through popular cultures is reenacted in the classroom? Who is willing to risk exposure and vulnerability? What are the ethical and political limits of interrogating intimate pleasures? How do I render this intimacy culturally meaningful? When personal pleasures are questioned as part of a public dialogue are they diminished? Intensified? Transformed?
I have spent many years theorizing sexuality and pleasure, trying to find a language that overcomes the one-sided institutional focus and conceptual detachment of ideological critiques without falling prey to empirical approaches that claims to pin down the authentic transparent truth of popular pleasures as fixed and isolated data. What is needed is a process of reading experience as a social semiotic process capable of attending to textual representations and institutional power formations that organize popular pleasures, without foreclosing the nuances of the erotic subjective and collective engagements with culture that exceed and disturb hegemonic meanings. Teresa de Lauretis’ writings are useful toward interconnecting subjectivity and social/cultural worlds in terms of dynamic mediations between texts, contexts, psychic memories and sense perceptions. Drawing upon Charle’s Peirce’s notion of interpretants, de Lauretis theorizes a semiosis of experience that is actively engaged with and constituted through everyday signs, objects, relations and events. A cultural sign such as a song or music video becomes mediated through intellectual, emotional and energetic interpretants, to comprise a “habit-change,” changes in consciousness and concrete action in the social world. The experiential process here is open-ended and ongoing in its formation and includes rational will and reflection in reading signs along with affective, bodily responses and enactments (1984). The realm of subjective experience and pleasure does not abstract or diminish the status of cultural texts and meanings but implicates them in a living practice. De Lauretis uses this approach to think through the exchanges of “perverse” desires that exceed heteronormative sex/gender relations between texts and spectators (1994). Acknowledging the normalization of “perverse” desire enables a more dynamic understanding of the psychic and social movements of fantasy scenarios as a historical process. I think it’s impossible to begin to embrace pornographic pleasure as pedagogically productive without such an elaboration of experience as always already appropriating, mediating, and transforming dominant social texts. At the same time, what has become vividly apparent to me is that translating a theory of the semiosis of experience into practical strategies performed in the classroom is easier said than done.
Nothing complicates and impels thinking about pleasure more than a room filled with dozens of teenage students who are asked to speak openly about their feelings and thoughts about sexy pop music stars and performances – especially when the topics and examples are chosen by, for and about students. During a week of my pop culture class last year, several students giving presentations coincidentally brought in the same video to show and talk about: Christina Aguilera’s music video for her song Dirrty – from the album Stripped. The video features aggressive erotic scenes of young women taking the lead with young men watching and dancing in a darkly lit underground boxing club, including signs of Hip Hop street culture- graffiti, break dancing, and rap, intermixed with raunchy soft-porn images of women wrestling and showering together. It is a massive party verging on sexual orgy compelling the audience to join in and get “dirty, filthy, nasty, and if you ain’t dirty you ain’t here to party.” This is an exemplary televised fantasy product designed shock and tease youth audiences with rebellious hip seductive visual forms and contents.
What is important for my purposes is not any single value or meaning of this video but the ways it elicited multiple engagements and interpretations from student presenters and classmates through their experiential pleasures and displeasures. The first presenter analyzed Dirrty as an example of the corporate commodification of youth sexuality. >From this perspective the video sells packaged consumable fragments of sexy bodies as imaginary fetish ideals. Drawing upon feminist analysis of pornography, the student argued that girls’ bodies continue to be objectified in the guise of physical femme dominance, remaining on display for the dreamworlds of adolescent men. What gets stressed are the ways sexual transgressions within mass media work in the service of maintaining inequalities, idolizing promiscuous feminine aggressors whose power is contained to feed fantasies of sexual submission that reinforce hierarchical control. Eroticized grrrl power becomes a contest of popularity intensified through the polymorphous visual style of MTV. Referring to Giroux’s critique of the hypersexual promotion and commercial branding of youth (1998), this student articulates her own desires for representations of youth sexuality focused on historically grounded and substantial relational qualities rather than normative beauty ideals.
In the first presentation “porno-chic” entertainment pleasures are analyzed as something to be wary of, as cheap surface distractions and corporate manipulations. The next presentation explored the cultural and emotional volatility of Dirrty’s visual spectacles. This student identified herself as seeing something else, a glimpse of sexual openness, diversity and freedom. Multi-racial/sexual groups of men and women, women with women and men moving together in playful scenarios through fluid urgent expression of desire, become framed here in terms of a productive excess. This person glimpsed utopian possibilities through exaggerated sexed-up styles of commodification. Postmodern theories of queer subjectivity are used in this presentation to challenge the binary categories structuring the first presentation. Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity is engaged with to help interpret possibilities for mobile gender identifications and sexual desires constituted within discursively organized frameworks (1990). The contingency and improvisation of her reading as a queer student confronts the limits of the previous presentation’s focus on uniform hegemonic ideological powers.
The final presenter turned the class’s attention to the surrounding media commentary and context of Aguilera’s video. In this argument, the public moral panic targeting Aguilera’s video Dirrty as obscene was contrasted with the acceptance and normalization of sexuality in videos by male artists such as Nelly’s Hot in Here where women move and strip in the background as decorations of male artists. The controversy in the press surrounding the sexually explicit images in Dirrty, which were seen as going too far (provoking an advisory warning), becomes politically meaningful to this student who insists that young women artists are regulated by different standards, demonized as vulgar, slutty and dangerous. This student affirmed the need for a broad range of images that affirm women taking sexual control, displaying creative sexual lust and publicly voicing desires as a way to confront conservative moral codes. Here viewing pleasures become focused on media pluralization and critical debates that situate sexual representations in relation to diverse forms of reception as politically vital for those historically censored and marginalized.
Each of these presentations ends in dissonant readings of a specific set of images, rhythms and words, making use of a wide range of theoretical ideas combined with experiential reflection. Tension fills the room as students realize their ideas and pleasures are contested, refused, challenged, and altered when in dialogue with others. What is my role as an instructor at this point? Do I synthesize the scattered heterogeneity of experiences arising in relation to Dirrty by promoting a single issue, theory or concept? Do I emphasize a playful “pornographication” of mainstream youth culture and encourage their guilty pleasures? Do I assert my authority as professor and provide a critical reading that tops theirs as moral, rational and free of personal pleasure and bias? Do I allow my class to become a free for all?
None of these options are pedagogically satisfying to me since I am interested in the very discomfort and questions provoked by the differences unleashed by this video. Perhaps it is precisely the wild loose ends of a questioning process that makes pornography a useful pedagogical tool. Differences produced through porno-chic entertainment are about a shifting divergence of social experiences, media powers and embodied pleasures. As a teacher I try to foster an ongoing dialogue about such differences by theorizing what gets privileged and left out of our purview without delimiting new ways of experiencing and interpreting their subjective and political significance. I smile, turn off my power point presentation and allow for a space of silence in which no definitions are offered, no contradictions resolved, no conclusions are reached. I try to convey the productive tensions between positions offered within this moment of radical ambivalence as part of a pedagogy engaged with popular sex cultures. It is at such times of learning as a semiosis of experience engaged with the pornographic edges of media cultures, that possibilities emerge for understanding our vulnerable pleasures in relation to those of others.