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04/03/2014 / rooswrites

Playing with Oneself in Front of the Other / The Dark Side of Representation: Perversion, Pornography and Psychoanalysis

Desire is the desire of the Other.

— Jacques Lacan

Foreplay – Introduction

One of the nineteenth century’s most acclaimed, controversial, adored as well as loathed novels is Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. With the content of its narrative revolving around paedophilia, it is not difficult to understand the text’s paradoxical appreciation. You either love it, or hate it. Loving it entails the ability to look at the novel without direct ethical considerations – it is an autonomous work of art and not a how-to book telling individuals how they should live their lives. A moralising stance towards literature has to be avoided when it comes to dealing with such works of controversy.

Psychoanalysis sees paedophilia as one of a vast array of perversions. Perversion, within Freudian and especially Lacanian thought, is an interesting notion in itself. Firstly, we will deal with the literal meaning of perversion – which is linked to the practice of perverting. To pervert means to “turn away from the right course”, to “lead astray” and to “make improper use of something”.[1] Thereby perversion is not merely a subjective term, it also makes it almost impossible to really define certain acts or entities as being perverse in their nature, since it remains only perverted in relation to that which is deemed normality. We can see this return in Freud’s exploration of the perversions, where his point of departure is that of the ‘normal’ sexual act, namely the copulation between a man and a woman.

 The union of the genitals in the characteristic act of copulation is taken as the normal sexual aim. It serves to loosen the sexual tension and temporarily to quench the sexual desire (gratification analogous to satisfaction of hunger). Yet even in the most normal sexual process those additions are distinguishable, the development of which leads to the aberrations described as perversions. Thus certain intermediary relations to the sexual object connected with copulation, such as touching and looking, are recognized as preliminary to the sexual aim. (32)

Very blatantly put, all that diverges from these practices of ‘normal’ sex, are perversions. The two types Freud distinguishes are: “(a) anatomical transgressions of the bodily regions destined for sexual union, or (b) a lingering at the intermediary relations to the sexual object which should normally be rapidly passed on the way to the definite sexual aim” (33). Transgressions of this kind are oral sex (which Freud calls a “perversion of the lips”) and other very literal ‘misuses’ of bodily parts or orifices.

The origins of Freudian perversion are to be found in the sexuality of the child – the perverted one avoids the ‘normal’ sexual act by retreating into a child-like polymorphous sexuality that involves the entire body. According to Nathalie Kok in her article on Lacan and perversion, perversion only becomes abnormal when it replaces the normal sexual act (173). In an unpublished Seminar referred to by Kok (D’un Autre à l’autre), Lacan distinguishes between a perverse structure and a perverse phantasm. The structure deals with the position that the subject takes whereas the phantasm revolves more around content and enactment. Accordingly to this distinction, Lacan argues explicitly that Nabokov’s Lolita is not a perverted text. Humbert Humbert is not the pervert, but Quilty is. Where Humbert sees his cunning plans continuously thwarted, Quilty seems to have unlimited access to Humbert’s beloved Lolita. Hereby, Lolita can be viewed as a critique on the practice of psychoanalysis itself. Thereby Humbert Humbert becomes the perverted one that aims at not perverting his perversion – and Lolita the other who in fact has perverted Humbert. The novel is not a perverted text, but a mere phantasma. The perversion is exactly were the sexual act finds itself in non-pornographic media (not-there, in an imagined margin).

Perverting the Fetish

The fetish, according to Freud, is some sort of a memorial – a subconscious memory of something that once was. Krips, repeating Freud, in his exposition on the fetish, calls it a “substitute for that which is and must remain repressed (verdrängt)” (7). Freud himself sees fetishism as an almost exclusively male perversion that “takes hold of something else instead [after finding out women have no penis] – apart of the body or some object – and assign it the role of the penis he cannot do without (59-60). I would argue that fetishism is an objectification of the whole range of perversions. It all amounts to a divergence from the standards of sexual normality. And is not the fetish the object of the perverted desire?

Lacan’s theories on sexuality revolve much more around the notion of an Other. For Lacan, there exist both objects of desire as well as the “objet a” – which is not merely the object that causes the desire, but also “the object around which the subject turns in order to derive pleasure” (Krips 9). The objet a then, is responsible for pleasure without being desired itself. Interestingly enough, Krips subsequently argues that the fetish is a sort of objet a – thereby adopting the Freudian interpretation of a fetish, as desiring something that is in fact repressed. It is through the means of the fetish that this repression is partially and temporarily subverted.

Hyldgaard, in her article on perversion, points out that what makes human desire different from animal desire, is that our desire can be directed to the desire of the other (par. 3). The humanity of our desire is that “man desires to be desired by the other” (par. 4).  Linking this to the practice of pornography, one could easily argue that this is an exquisite example of the dark animalistic side to human desire. Hyldgaard subsequently comes up with the projection of desire unto the pornographic screen – women that “desire energetically and loudly”, thereby illustrating that even in pornography, the desire of the other is essential.[2] Now then, what differs perversion from desire, is that in the perverted framework, the other becomes a mere puppet and not an object of desire (or objet a). Whereas Karen Coats argues that the pervert sees himself as “the object-instrument of the Other; he feels he knows what the Other wants, and he offers himself as an instrument to secure the Other’s pleasure and enjoyment” (74).

Nevertheless, it is all a fruitless expedition, since we are all perverts, merely by our action of reading. According to Roland Barthes, the text itself is a fetish object. One should firstly “bring together all the texts which have given pleasure to someone and display this textual body, in something like the way in which psychoanalysis has exhibited man’s erotic body” (34).

That is: either relate the text to the pleasures of life (a dish, a garden, an encounter, a voice, a moment, etc.) and to it join the personal catalogue of our sensualities, or force the text to breach bliss, that immense subjective loss, thereby identifying this text with the purest moments of perversion, with its clandestine sites. (Barthes 33)

Miklitsch explains this distinction by stating that “bliss is the excess of pleasure” and after stating that the text of pleasure is a classical text, the text of pleasure “milks us” whereas the texts of bliss “wean” us (103-4). Perversion, in this textual framework becomes nothing more than a sublime experience – a moment that moves in between pleasure and pain.

Enter: Pornography

Human beings alone have eroticised their sexual nature and imposed on it a normative element informing both act and imagination. […] Eroticism is the inescapable and distinguishing experience of all human beings.

 — Richard S. Randall

The collective problem that both a novel like Lolita and the discourse of pornography suffer from, is the dominant presence of their subject matter and the inherent ethical considerations that go with it. It seems impossible to detach the subject from its form. Most contemporary debates surrounding pornography deal either with its judicial or social implications. Or, pornography as a discourse that does ‘something’ to the female body. The American Judge Stewart once said that although he cannot describe pornography, he certainly knows it when he sees it. This statement is still often cited when it comes to describing what it is the issue that has and forever will surround the subject of pornography (see e.g. Ferguson). We do not really define something as being pornography, but we experience certain medial expressions as being pornographic.

One of the main currents is the interpretation that pornography is a masculine industry that suppresses the woman. The subject of pornography thus becomes a commodity and the whole process a mere economic enterprise. Well-known feminist theorist Catherine MacKinnon is one of pornography’s adversaries. To her, porn is a “primitive conditioning, with pictures and words as sexual stimuli. It makes them [men] want to [rape]” (16, 19). And more so, the message of porn is to “get her”, which – according to MacKinnon – speaks “directly to the penis, delivered through an erection and taken out on the women in the real world” (21). To MacKinnon, pornography is nothing more than a male-oriented construct that facilitates sexual violence.[3] Porn, in other words, leads to perversion. Then again – is pornography itself not already an example of perversion?

According to Freud, it is. Watching pornography is scopophilia – “the obtaining of sexual pleasure by looking at nude bodies, erotic photographs”[4]. Freud distinguishes two different types of this scopophilia, namely an active (masculine) and a passive (feminine) variety.  In classical psychoanalysis scopophilia is considered one of the earlier mentioned primary perversions.

Psychoanalysing Pornography

Susan Griffin, in her exploration of pornography, confronts the notion of eros in a psychoanalytical framework. To her, eros is to be discovered in the child’s realm, in the moment during which we were still as ease and one with our bodies (254). Sexuality, in her reading (which, without her acknowledging as much, is in fact is very psychoanalytical), introduces a return to our inner unity, to a somewhat Romantic ideal of the natural human that is with himself. She recounts the process of having sex most eloquently:

 [t]o make love is to become like this infant again. We grope with our mouths toward the body of another being, whom we trust, who takes us in her arms. […] We move beyond speech. Our bodies move past all the controls have have learned. We cry out in ecstasy, in feeling. We are back in a natural world before culture tried to erase our experience of nature. In this world, to touch is to express love; there is no idea apart from feeling, and no feeling which does not ring through our bodies and our souls at once. (254)

To Griffin then, the sexual act limits our humanity to our pre-adult self – to our Lacanian pre-mirror stage. We are whole again when we participate in this act. Although the work of Lacan can be closely tied to Freud’s notions of self and self-consciousness, there are many Freudian concepts he extends or reforms. One of the most important concepts he adds to the psychoanalytical debate is that of the mirror stage, which was regarded by Lacan as an influential, formative period in the development of the child. During this mirror stage (when the child is six to eight months of age), the infant begins to recognise its own image in the mirror. The child is subsequently

overcome [by] a flutter of jubilant activity […] fixing his attitude in a slightly leaning-forward position, in order to hold its in his gaze, [which] brings back an instantaneous aspect of the image. (1-2)

Eventually, the child will recognize the mirror image as its own – realising the mirror’s movements are actually its own. Interestingly enough, the child will reach awareness of the self (beginnings of self-consciousness) through a process of “alienation” – the mirror image is outside of the self and therefore strange (Lacan 4). Benvenuto, in his introductory reading of Lacan explains it as follows: “the formation of the ego commences at the point of alienation and fascination with one’s own image (55)”. This relationship of the self with the body is imaginary, the body is identified as ‘other’.  So, through the Lacanian mirror image of the self, there exists an other outside of our self. This stage, that Lacan calls the “symbolic”, means that we are forever split into this self and the other. A drive that we will never lose as a consequence of this division is that we will constantly attempt to fill in hole in our fractured ego. We strive, through the other, for a way in which we can be whole again (the pre-mirror phase). It is the image of the other that constitutes the self – yet at the same time these images create a division between the self and other, since we look at the other with the desire of being a unified self once more. Once more, the self is dependent of the other, although Lacan’s  other is an image of the self. As Felman states, the “unconscious is a discourse that is other to the self” (123).

However, if we adopt Griffin’s stance, having sex solves this issue. Pornography, on the other hand, is some sort of un-eros to her. It destroys all that sex can make whole again and is only a “delusion of cultural power” (255).

Playing with Oneself in Front of the Other

 Our desire is never properly our own, but is created through fantasies that are caught up in cultural ideologies rather than material sexuality.

— Jacques Lacan

Pornography in its contemporary context, is brought to us through largely visual media. This perspective of the materiality of its medium should not be ignored when one deals with pornography. Melendez does exactly this, as he tackles postmodernity and video pornography from a media theorist’s perspective. The visual itself is essentially pornographic.

 For precisely at the moment where the visible becomes an extension of the physical body, we can begin to conceptualise how a viewer experiences video pornography as a mediated image of immediacy. (403)

The experience of pornography is in itself some sort of paradoxical activity, since it simultaneously objectifies the gaze of the subject as object as well as its vision morphs into a physical response – excitement. Hereby the body becomes not only an extension of the medium, but it also becomes part of the medial experience itself. The body is “moved despite him- or herself” (415). The activity of watching pornography, starts with a gaze on the object that we see on the screen, but this is quickly reverted by the presence of the body – our body – in front of the screen. We see and experience, through the other, our most quintessential selves.

Within psychoanalysis, there is a constant subverted play between the other and the self at work, through means of suppression and repression. Since the other is alien to the conscious part of the self, its dialogue is always somehow problematic. The implications that accompany the self-other (same-difference) dichotomy is similarly intricate. The other is different from the self in terms of its alien characteristics. However – and not only in psychoanalysis – the other, is in a way close to the self. These issues are inextricably linked to the experience of pornography, in which we become alienated from ourselves – reminded of our inner otherness. We feel tainted, dirty – as if our hidden desires have been splayed naked in front of our eyes (which, in fact, is exactly what is happening, as long as we are physically responsive to the images). In a way, one could argue that pornography its very core is that of Das Unheimliche – it makes something seen that was intented to remain hidden. [5]

We repress that within ourselves that scares (or brings shame upon) us and project it unto the other, whom we then subsequently fear (or: whom disgusts us), for this exact uncanny experience that his being brings about. Because we recognise ourselves in the other, we ‘other’ him – a classical case of the uncanny. The unconscious within our selves is that with disturbs the feeling of feeling at home (heimlich) and thus makes us experience the alienating unheimlichkeit.

Žižekian Petit Mort

Slavoj Žižek, one of today’s most gifted literary, media and psychoanalytical theorists, bases many of his theoretical insight on a Lacanian framework of thought. In his influential article “Looking Awry”, he deals with the object of desire in the explicit context of pornography. Žižek defines the Lacanian objet a as “the object cause of desire, an object which is, in a way, posited by the desire itself” (34). According to Žižek, this objet a is always perceived in a distorted (looking awry) way – since it is inherently begotten with desire. This object is nothing without desire – “[i]n the movement of desire, ‘something comes from nothing’” (34). Pornography, in this strain of thought, is the exact opposite of this distorted view, since it shows all.

In pornography, the spectator is forced a priori to occupy a perverse position. [… P]erversion is defined by the fact that, as a stratagem to evade his constitutive splitting, the subject itself assumes the position of an object instrumental to the enjoyment of the Other. (36)

What is so perverse about pornography, then, is the fact that even though we are not the literal predetermined object of the experience, we become objects through our watching and experiencing of the pornographic. All because “[i]t is us who are stupidly gazing at the image that ‘shows all’” (37). We objectify ourselves by being passive viewers of pornography and not the other way around. We do not objectify the object in the pornographic medium, since it is this medium and its ability to ‘do something to us’ that subsequently makes an object out of us. And it just happens – we do not have to participate in any way.

Apart from pressing ‘play’ on the DVD-player – or typing in the correct URL in our internet browser.


Toys – Works Cited


Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. New York: Hill and Wang, 1975.

Benvenuto, Bice. The Works of Jacques Lacan: an Introduction. London: Free Association

Books, 1986.

Coats, Karen. Looking Glasses and Neverlands: Lacan, Desire and Subjectivity in Children’s

Literature. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2004.

Felman, Shoshana. Jacques Lacan and the Adventure of Insight:  Psychoanalysis in

Contemporary Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Ferguson, Frances. Pornography, the Theory: What Utilitarianism Did to Action. Chicago:

The University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Freud, Sigmund. (1917) “The Uncanny”. In: The Uncanny. London: Penguin Classics, 2003.


—                    Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex. New York: Nervous and Mental

Disease Publishing Company, 1920.

Griffin, Susan. Pornography and Silence. London: The Womens Press, 1982.

Hyldgaard, Kirsten. “The Conformity of Perversion”. In: Symptom – Journal for Lacan. Issue

5 (2004).

Kok, Nathalie. “Lacan, Perversie en Literatuur”. In: In Dialoog met Lacan. Amsterdam:

Boom, 1996.

Krips, Henry. Fetish: an Erotics of Culture. Ithaca, New York : Cornell University Press,


Lacan, Jacques. Écrit: A Selections. Alan Sheridan (Trans). New York: W. W. Norton &

Company, 1977.

MacKinnon, Catherine. Only Words. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Melendez, Franklin. “Video Pornography, Visual Pleasure, and the Return of the Sublime”.

In: Porn Studies. Williams, Linda (Ed). Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. pp.


Miklitsch, Robert. “Difference: Roland Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text, Text of Pleasure”.

In: Boundary (1983). pp. 101-114.

Randall, Richard S. Introduction. Freedom and Taboo: Pornography and the Politics of a Self

Divided. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1989.

Žižek, Slavoj. “Looking Awry”. In: October (1989). pp. 32-55.


[1] “to pervert.” Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. 04 Feb. 2008. <>.

[2] Rape fantasies excluded, one would say. Although, most pornographic material of this kind is mostly made on the premise of it being a rape, more than the sexual activity actually resembling a rape – the desire of the other seems omnipresent.

[3] In the contemporary media arena of pornography things have changed. With the rise of NC-17 varieties of video sharing websites (such as youtube) pornography has become increasingly more democratised. With more and more people making their own amateur videos and the rise of gay porn, it seems impossible to acknowledge MacKinnon’s claims.

[4] “scopophilia.” Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. 04 Feb. 2008. <>.

[5] “unheimlich [is applicable] to everything that was intended to remain secret, hidden away, and has come into the open” (Freud 1917; 132). What follows is that das Unheimliche (the uncanny) is the revelation of that what is private and concealed (hidden); hidden not only from others, but also from the self.

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