Pornography and the New Expression

An atavistic, cohesive, and participatory “revolution of the flesh" is the new expression, and in the view of Richard Schechner, volatile editor of the TULANE DRAMA REVIEW,this revolution threatens to transform our theater, politics, literature, and virtually all other forms of cultural expression. The author studied at Cornell and Johns Hopkins before accepting a teaching and editing post at Tulane University.

by Richard Schechner

THE first question is, Why such a fuss? Sex has been with us since the start, and art nearly that long. They have always been intertwined, sometimes openly and graphically, and more recently, in a variety of covert ways. Every society has sought to regulate both sexuality and artistic expression, and to a degree, each has succeeded. Freedom, so called, is nothing other than an agreement on what to suppress. It becomes a social issue only when opinion diverges. But it is always an artistic issue because the artistic impulse — to play, expose, and invent — is deeply opposed to the state’s urge to conserve and control. We are terribly bothered today because our regulatory systems, our behavior, our expressions, and our tastes are neither harmonious nor static. The problem cuts deep and involves tensions between perception and conception, expression and repression, civilization and its discontented masses. We have always been encouraged to make love and war; but to make love instead of war undercuts the social structure at an intolerably basic level. Such mad fantasies have usually been relegated to religions, where they are neutralized by the Church Militant.

Everyone knows the new expression, but no one knows what to do about it: the “Now” movements among Negroes, students, New Leftists, and artists; “God is dead” theology, existential man, automation, electric circuitry, and ontological insecurity; suburban and campus sex (paired and grouped), Playboy “sophistication,” film nudity. The symptoms of change, exploration, explosion, and implosion are so clear and self-contradictory that one is at a loss to organize them coherently. One wonders if rational discussion suits these phenomena at all. Good is mixed with bad, but standards are so variable that few people can agree on what is good or bad. Previously easy distinctions between the arts and between art and life have blurred. Ann Halprin’s dancers act, John Cage’s music is visual, and the USCO Group’s paintings perform. The synesthesia Utopians dreamed of is upon us with disarming repercussions. One need not accept Yeats’s happy dread to understand him:

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold:
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

It is not the first time.

In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan suggests that our literary, individualized culture is being tribalized. By that he means that “commitment and participation” are replacing “point of view” as the criteria for evaluating experience. He credits electric circuitry and the media flowing from it — TV, computers, stereo, telephone, telegraph, and so forth — for the “implosive” revolution which has converted the world, in Buckminster Fuller’s phrase, into a “global village.” McLuhan urges us to disregard the messages sent by these media; his compelling slogan is “the medium is the message.” As the storing and exchange of information become the major human activity, the quality and intensity of life change. The sequential organization of perceptions that is the basis for a literary view of the world yields to a multifocused, many-faceted participation in the world. Things no longer come to us one after another, as on the printed page, the assembly line, or in logical thought. They arrive at once, helter-skelter, as a set of organically interrelated phenomena, like a traffic circle or a problem in topological mathematics. One can certainly connect McLuhan’s observations with Freud and Einstein. Psychoanalysis and the General Theory of Relativity arc both “in depth” grasps of experienced reality. Neither Freud nor Einstein was as interested in mapping as in exploring laws of transformation and relation. As these complicated and sophisticated ideas percolate through our culture, the result is a rejection of classical abstraction (understanding experience by reducing it to other terms) and an urge to “get with it” — to exist inside a situation.

In America, nothing has accelerated this change in context more than TV. According to McLuhan, the TV image is “cool.” The tiny dots which are the picture do not provide us with all the information necessary to make figures out of the sensory material. We must participate in the image, constructing out of its thousands of dots the contours of the picture. McLuhan argues that this high degree of participation in making the TV image involves our tactile, rather than our visual, sense: “The TV image in fostering a passion for depth involvement in every aspect of experience ... is, above all, an extension of the sense of touch, which involves maximal interplay of all the senses.” We don’t so much “watch” TV as “do” TV. A child who receives his perceptual training in front of the video tube is one who is anxious to participate in the world. As he matures, he will not make the usual distinctions between life and art, politics and poetics. The specializations of the industrial world — essentially an eighteenthand nineteenth-century world — are replaced by the generalized electric circuit. And rather than be aghast at Berkeley rebels who mess in the administration of the multiversity, or civil rights marchers who occupy private property, we should recognize that these crossovers from learning to doing and from “mine and yours” to “ours” are the natural consequences of a world in which there is less and less distinction between categories that once formed the very basis of our grasp of reality. In McLuhan’s words:

Perhaps it is not very contradictory that when a medium becomes a means of depth experience the old categories of “classical and “popular” or of “highbrow” and “lowbrow” no longer obtain.

TV affects our perceptions in still another way. TV offers instant, dramatic, and illogical change. The popular idea of “turning on” refers to more than marijuana or LSD: it is an approach to living that takes its metaphorical cue from TV. The inert tube which is consciousness can be switched into any one of many channels, and these channels can be easily intermixed. And consciousness can do what TV can’t — play several experiences simultaneously. The classic rule “each in its own place” now reads “everything in any place.”

If one can see the brutal dogs on the streets of Selma and drink Budweiser at home in the same instant, then one can go to Selma and participate personally in someone else’s drama, making it one’s own, while at home others are watching you and drinking beer. Not only are we able to construct conceptual wholes from perceptual fragments, but we are able to move into the center of what we have made. Traditional lags and gaps are healed. Instant communication leads to rapid transportation, both internally and externally. The age-old dream of no wait between impulse and act is today’s reality.

However, the freedom thus achieved is largely illusory. More body conscious, certainly more socially aware than preceding generations, we discover, nonetheless, that the real gaps and lags are built into the human being. Each element of free activity and expression becomes, automatically, an awesome test of our ability to make use of it. A tension is quickly established between a possible and inviting mobility and a stubborn, inborn immobility. Despite TV, and every other prompt and aid, most people sit at home watching someone else’s drama. But the awareness that it is possible to go to Selma, or around the corner, or deep inside oneself, is very unsettling.

I think it is from this tension between opportunity and inborn stubbornness— the unique psychic configuration of each individual — that the new expression, including pornography, emerges. A real space has opened up between what we are permitted, even encouraged, to do and what we are. The attempts to fill this space fall as much to fantasy as to real projects. Like the patient on the couch who when told by his analyst to say whatever comes into his head finds he can’t say anything, we, as a society and as individuals, fall back into silence or fantasy. Instead of participating, we flee from real involvement and consume, as we go, The Story of O and the Playboy “philosophy.”

Loosed by an image-happy society, a giant bulk of submerged material has surfaced. New work that could not find a commercial sponsor ten years ago is now sought by publishers, film-makers, and stage producers. And classic work long suppressed is now openly sold. We are beginning to understand the difference between masturbatory and celebratory sex; and it may not be long before phallic art becomes as openly popular in our culture as it was in Golden-Age Greece. The attention given sadomasochistic work is both a compensation for the long suppression and an indication that we are far from comfortable with our new liberality.

George Steiner, in an article in Encounter, deplored our interest in Sade and his cohorts, both past and present. Steiner suggested a causal link between literary sadism and its horrible actuality in Nazi Germany. However, Steiner, like so many others, confuses two symptoms for a symptom and its cause. The spate of sadistic writing in preHitler Germany was not a cause of the Gestapo, but an indication that such impulses were there. The iron discipline of the Nazis translated these impulses into facts. Suppressing the literature would have had no effect on the underlying causes of both literature and Nazism. In fact, the literature probably served for a time as a safety valve. Our own pornography is to be condemned because it takes a cheap and totally athletic view of sexual experience. But one ought to look at such pornography the way Freud looked at dirty jokes:

What these jokes whisper may be said aloud: that the wishes and desires of men have a right to make themselves acceptable alongside of exacting and ruthless morality. And in our days it has been said in forceful and stirring sentences that this morality is only a sellish regulation laid down by the few who are rich and powerful and who can satisfy their wishes at any time without any postponement. So long as the art of healing has not gone further in making our life safe and so long as social arrangements do no more to make it more enjoyable, so long will it be impossible to stifle the voice within us that rebels against the demands of morality.

The answer is not suppression, but the elimination of that “ruthless morality” which drives people to desperate satisfaction. Pornography — and I include in this category everything from dirty pictures to The Story of O — is not a release from inhibitions, but a function of them. Surely we should not, as we have done, outlaw these repressive mechanisms. But neither should we admire them as examples of free expression. They are nothing other than the means by which repressive consciousness keeps a restless psyche in tow. And Freud is accurate when he suggests that our consciousness is repressive because of conditioning made necessary by a social order concerned primarily with productivity. Pornography, whether open or underground, is an important weapon in the arsenal of social control. It does not, as Steiner suggests, lead to activity; its tendency is the opposite. The challenge that electric circuitry presents to this control is real. An expressive society would have need for neither pornography nor oppressive controls. Replacing them would be celebratory sexual art and expression: the phallic dances of the Greeks, the promiscuity of Elizabethan England.

THE submerged material now available falls into two classes: stuff that uses words once thought obscene; works that show scenes that once were taboo. Although related, the distinction between verbal and scenic expression is a crucial index. For a long time the community’s efforts were concentrated against those naughty “Anglo-Saxon” words. This nineteenth-century fight (which continues today in many backwaters) was one of propriety, of “decency” in its social sense. The images which these words conjured up were simply not to be thought, certainly not to be expressed. This was the result of a sexual segregation in which women were property to be used but not exposed to their uses. Once females became something other than chattel, the verbal taboos were soon to go. Not entirely, of course; the producers of the film version of Edward A1bee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? had to buck industry pressure to cut the dirty words. As for the plot, no one cared.

But propriety and decency as understood a generation ago (the “dirty little secret” D. H. Lawrence abhorred) are no longer the major issue. We now see things in scenic terms: scope rather than point, and relation rather than incident, form our opinions. And it is the divergent attitudes toward scenic sexuality that I find most interesting. There is a hierarchy in our tolerance, and this seems to say a good deal about us and our art.

Literature is the most free, filmic representation next, and stage presentation last. One can tell everything in a novel, and the writer need have no fear about how graphic his description might be. One can suggest the same things in a film, but one rarely sees anything more than sexual foreplay and a pair of naked bodies afterward. The “bold” orgasm scene in A Stranger Knocks was of course a fraud. Even the twilight nudie and sex films are timid, concentrating on voyeurism. On stage one dare do nothing more than kiss. A seemingly strange variation is that one can buy records which appear to be accurate simulations (or realities?) of the sounds of lovemaking. And the texts of many popular songs are so obviously coital that one wonders how they get on the radio and are sold openly to pre-teens. The fact is that our sexuality is still understood as something visual. The ear is attuned only to catch the “dirty” words; any recorded sentence without them, no matter how suggestive, simply slips by.

The same visual hierarchy applies to nudity. A novelist can describe naked people with as much detail as his words can muster. In films one can show a naked female (but not all of her: the genitals are off limits). On stage, except in specialized nightclub strip shows, nudity is taboo. Last fall I saw Poor Bitos at the Theater of the Living Arts in Philadelphia. It was an excellent production. In one scene, a character had a breast exposed. The lobby talk — as one might expect — centered on that passing detail. But this same audience (including me) would go home and read The Story of O and Candy or see Les Liaisons Dangereuses at the movies without a second thought.

This hierarchy of tolerance seems related both to the degree and kind of involvement expected of the reader and viewer. The reader selects his own style of reading; he can put the book down, pick it up, go fast or slow. He is always alone, in a one-toone relationship to the author. He need tell no one how he felt, or if he felt. The reading experience is therefore the paradigm of secret pleasure; it is an organic relation to an inanimate object. That there are few taboos here is no surprise.

The movie-and-theater-goer is part of a group. But the most important fact about this group is not its largest unit — the entire audience — but its nuclear units — the “families” of viewers. Book reviewers are sent one copy of the book; film and theater reviewers are always given two tickets. It is assumed that the film and stage experience is one which we naturally share with a few others who are emotionally close to us. Many of these nuclear groups make up a single audience; and the relationship of performers to audience is not one-to-one— as is usually supposed — but performers to small groups to larger, inclusive group. Why don’t we go to the movies and theater as individuals? Why does it seem natural to insulate ourselves from the whole audience by means of the nuclear group?

The scenic experience is more explosive and empathetic than reading. The energies generated by a film or play, and the rhythms vibrating between performers and audience in toto, are counterbalanced by the restraints inherent in the nuclear group. As a whole audience we are encouraged to participate in the performance; as part of the “family" we are warned against complete participation. A compromise emerges as a rigid set of audience conventions: applause, laughter, tears, and coughs are all the physical response permitted. But in a tribal performance, the family, like the individual, is drawn into the larger group; active and total participation is not infrequent. This participation is often orgiastic — a frenzied communally sanctioned release from strict authority.

In our culture we bring the family with us to the movies or theater, and even our wildest dramas, say Lear and The Balcony, are essentially reassuring and passive as we produce them. Were we to go to the movies or theater as individuals, surrendering the protective envelope of the family, our drama would rapidly become sexualized and orgiastic. A play like Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade, as it was produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company, is moving in this direction. But scenic taboos continue in the theater (less in film) because letting go would be too dangerous: the performance which has traditionally included actors and audience would soon become, as in a tribal dance, one unified activity.

There are some reasons, too, why theater has more taboos than film. The movie-goer has no control over the rhythm of what he sees. The projector runs on its predetermined schedule. The viewer has to adjust his perceptual rhythm to what he is seeing, and he is constantly reminded that the film is an abstraction. Even as he is engaged by the pictures, he is disengaged by the form of the film and its steady, mechanical unfolding. Film-makers turn this to their advantage, using montage, camera angle, and distance to make the perceptual “reality” of film other than the reality of life. But each effort to make the film less abstract is drawn from the abstract nature of filming: a set of machines that permit editing and dozens of other techniques. And because film art is more abstract than theater, it is also more sexually permissive. No matter how torrid the love scene, we never feel concerned for the actor. The masterful thing about film is that the actor vanishes into the character, and the character is always (at least perceptually) a fiction, an abstraction.

The unique thing about theater, of course, is that the actors are there. They never vanish into their characters. Like the Christian God who is three-in-one, every actor is two-in-one. It is this double existence that gives him his authenticity as actor. His role in our theater is not very different from that of his primitive counterpart, who is at once dancer and god. Little overt sexuality is permitted on stage because the audience knows that what happens to the character also happens to the actor. One can understand why physical violence is feigned on stage: there are obligations to tomorrow’s performance. But why not have nudity and lovemaking? It cannot simply be that human sexual response is an undependable mechanism. The Greeks, who accepted both sexuality and nudity in public life, maintained a strict decorum in their tragedies. It is that stage performance is always on the verge of tumbling from art back into life. Overt and graphic sexuality would destroy the aesthetic fabric of any performance. How then did Aristophanes manage the love pranks of Lysistrata? Aristophanic drama is farce and celebration in a combination that we have lost touch with. Filled with regard for the family, schooled in Renaissance humanism, we are not up to the phallic play of Aristophanes. And it is only within a framework of celebration that sexuality can be both graphic and aesthetic.

Celebratory theater is returning to our culture in some Happenings. Many of these events are designed to obliterate distinctions between life and art. Once performers are no longer concerned about maintaining their double identities, and audiences accept the invitation to participate in the performance, almost anything can happen. Carolee Schneemann describes her goals in Meat Joy this way:

My kinetic theatre provides for an intensification of all faculties simultaneously ... a mobile, tactile event into which the eye leads the body. ... I assume that senses crave sources of maximum information. . . . Meat Joy, a shifting vision now, relating Artaud, McClure, and French Butcher Shops . . . acting and viewing space interchanged. I see several girls whose gestures develop from a tactile, bodily relationship to individual men and to a mass of meat slices.

Meat Joy is an orgiastic Happening linking butcher’s beef and women with the phallic meat. Nude or nearly nude bodies are painted, intertwined, and frolicked with. At once intimate and impersonal, it typifies that strange combination of participation and irony that marks much of the new theater. In some Happenings it is difficult to say whether one is attending a performance or a party. Even in more formal works, orgiastic and celebratory material is included within disciplined frameworks, giving the effect of a performance mosaic, some parts of which are expansive and inclusive while others resemble traditional theater.

Contemporary theater, in fact, has been affected by the new expression. Jack Gelber’s The Connection, Kenneth H. Brown’s The Brig, and Megan Terry’s Viet Rock are probably the three most important new American plays of the last ten years. (I would add Robert Lowell’s Benito Cereno to that list — and Lowell’s theme, if not his style, is related to my discussion.) Maintaining the scenic taboos, these three plays nevertheless engulf our consciousness, blurring the usual distinctions between performance and reality, audience and stage. Far from being Pirandellian exercises, these plays move in the opposite direction. Pirandello wished to pose insoluble problems: he was the intellectual par excellence. Gelber, Brown, and Terry work rather to make their solutions so unavoidable that they fold the audience into the play. Thus, junk is everywhere, white lines are for crossing, and this ruthless war is our open-eyed choice. The productions of The Connection, The Brig, and Viet Rock — the first two plays done by the Living Theater and the last by the Open Theater, the successor to the Living Theater in New York — cannot be separated from the plays: the act of writing is so joined to the act of doing that the two become one. The “writer” no longer exists in such a scheme; the craft of making a play becomes a participatory game which involves all the artists and technicians of the theater and the audience.

Surely Happenings, and some of off-Broadway theater, are not art, if judged by traditional criteria. But changes in form elicit changes in criteria. The strategies of Berkeley students and Negro marchers are not traditional modes of academic behavior or political maneuver in the United States. But the Free Speech Movement, the civil rights movement, and new directions in the performing arts are related. They are all participating forms which value involvement more than “style.” This demand for “getting with it” links all the varieties of the new expression.

In Marat/Sade, the Marquis speaks of the “revolution of the flesh,” which, he says, “will make all your other revolutions seem like prison mutinies.” This atavistic, cohesive, and participatory revolution is the new expression. The upheaval has barely begun, and if it ever truly gets moving, we may wish we were safe with Sade in his asylum. The new expression seems pornographic and obscene only when it threatens our sexual taboos. That this is frequent is an index of how much both old and new have invested in sexuality. The least interesting part of the new expression is its literature. At best, publication of new, sexy titles and the reissuing of classics are efforts to keep up with change. But Maurice Girodias is hardly Dionysus, and the boldest text is tame in the World of Murray the K. The new expression is a public event, a dramatic shift in scene and context. That is what makes it so disquieting. A society which has been indoors, repressive, and individually protestant is becoming outdoors, expressive, and tribally catholic. And we are never quite certain whether the noise we hear is authentic or merely one more role added to our endless repertory. When authentic, the new expression rejects the sequential logic of print for the simultaneous tumult of experience. We are beginning to see that to “make love, not war” is to go to war against most of what our culture asks of us. The decision in that conflict is not yet clear.