Arthur's “Arousing disgust: visceral configurations of the queer, obscene, and pornographic in the reception and trial of William S. Burrough's Naked Lunch (1959)” (2021)
As aesthetic judgements of moral standing increasingly relied on evidence of bodily response, the stomach churning of disgust allows depictions of queerness – the bodies and forms of embodiment deemed queer – to pass the censor. With non-normative sexual desire deemed patently unerotic, courtrooms grappled with the ‘special competence’ needed to make sense of ‘deviant interest’ as obscenity law demanded evidence of the sexually arousing (USA v. Irving Klaw and Jack Kramer 1965). The assertion that Naked Lunch only solicited the limited visceral response of disgust freed it from the courtroom but simultaneously denied the erotic potential of the sexuality it depicted.
The attention to bodies exposes how subjective visceral response is deployed in designations of obscenity even as obscenity law lays claim to an aesthetic, objective mode of seeing.
The definition of the obscene has included profanity, indecency, and incitement to crime in some of its permutations in US law.
Justice Stewart refused any attempt to ‘define the kinds of material’ indicated by hardcore pornography, arguing instead that he ‘could never succeed in intelligibly doing so.’ He continued simply ‘I know it when I see it’, a remark he later joked would grace his tombstone and haunt his afterlife as it had his legal career
The history of censorship has involved a judicial seeing eye providing a rational and objective account for a visceral, feeling public. The rational sight of the censor is positioned as necessary to judge and delineate the obscene due to its ability to detect – but never participate in – the material’s encouragement of highly unseemly and potentially socially unsettling visceral response.
[T]he aesthetic category of ‘obscenity’ is judged, prosecuted, and criminalized through watching: it is known when it is seen. This mode of aesthetic inference is enacted through a cultural privileging of sight and consequent negation, circumvention, and diminishing of other senses.
Catherine MacKinnon has argued that Justice Stewart’s dictum ‘revealed that the obscenity standard’, like other laws, ‘is built on what the male standpoint sees’. Her argument that ‘appeal to prurient interest means to give a man an erection’ suggests that the constitution of the pornographic and, therefore, of obscenity, is built, rather, on what the (heterosexual) male body feels (1991 , 197 and 202). While MacKinnon’s ardently anti-pornography conclusion has been criticized for reifying the law’s dispossession of the female subject (Berlant 1997, 70), it – along with Berlant’s analysis of the ‘intimate public sphere’ – usefully anticipates my attention to obscenity law as an attempt to regulate the visceral through an institution that belies its own stubbornly embodied practice.
I build on the work of Williams (1991) to argue that those texts that are best read through other bodily senses, that deliberately provoke a response considered a gratuitous bodily excess, are deemed obscene precisely because of this quality. The visceral becomes constitutive of the obscene: unseemly and anti-social. Williams’ formative concept of ‘body genres’ looks at those genres and forms which demand a bodily response from their audience – be it the hair-raising of horror, the rolling tears of the weepie, or those other kinds of raising and wetness caused by pornography. Williams argues that the ‘seemingly gratuitous excess’ of sex, violence, and emotion in these genres ‘are fundamental effects of these three types of films’ (1991, 3). The idea of excess is therefore misplaced, as it mistakenly refers to a threshold or boundary that has been crossed, bypassed, or transgressed. Instead, Williams contests, the sensational reactions of the body are the fulfilment of systematic, formal, and generic expectations. The perception of visceral excess, then, becomes part of the social regulation of bodies, the disciplining of emotion in intimate publics.
Bodily response is not only presented as an indicator of aesthetic categorization (I am sexually aroused, therefore it is pornography; I am disgusted, therefore it cannot be art) but is also used as the primary mode to determine moral value. By collapsing the visceral into aesthetic judgement, embodied reactions become synonymous for the dangerously arousing text.
Rather than the rational aesthetic eye, it is embodied arousal, the stimulation of the sensational body or the rousing of bodily sensation, that dictates aesthetic and ethical judgement of Burroughs’ work.
Naked Lunch confounds the attempts by reviewers to participate in the cultural gatekeeping of pornography – or the aesthetic object proper – by blurring formal and generic distinctions. The insistence from different sources, including the author himself, that Burroughs’ work is not pornographic obscures as much as it reveals about the book.
Evoking such bodily responses renders the book filth, appealing to base bodily reactions and forgoing the non-bodily treatment of morality found in good or ‘high’ literature.
[A]fter Stanley Eldred, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, argued that the book was useful in medical training beyond the subject matter of ‘homosexuals and drug addicts’, the prosecution asks Eldred whether hardcore pornography would be of professional interest to a psychiatrist. The prosecution attempt to show that the scientific value found in Naked Lunch by Eldred could also be found in hardcore pornography. The prosecution use pornography as an aesthetic foil to undermine the defence’s attempt to prove social value in the book.
Hans Maes (2013, 1) has argued that the division between aesthetic and sensual pleasure in modern aesthetic theory dates back to Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgement (1790). Kant thought that a judgement of beauty was based on a ‘disinterested pleasure’, ‘a pleasure that does not depend on or generate a desire for the object’. The titillation of pornography, on the other hand, provokes an ‘interested pleasure’, or a judgement of the agreeable.
To save the book, witnesses argued that its queer content is intended to disgust the reader away from such behaviours. Underlying this strategy is an appeal to the cultural understanding of homosexuality as deviant. Homosexual content, particularly without clear authorial condemnation or textual redemption, warranted a charge of obscenity.
The prosecution undermined the argument that homosexual content was an artistic technique by repeatedly asking witnesses whether the ‘deletion of a number of references to homosexuality’ would ‘reduce the literary effect?’ (1965, 38, 64, 88–89 and 138). The prosecution raised questions about homosexuality and perversion (1965, 53, 62, 64, 77, 88–89, 98–99, 138 and 141) more than profanity (1965, 63, 64, 77, 95 and 141) and excrement (1965, 35, 77 and 141) – or even baboons, which do get a few prominent mentions (1965, 38).Witnesses, conversely, focused on the story of a redeemed drug addict to steer away from homosexual erotics (1965, 25, 29, 44, 45, 46, 49, 50, 58–59, 66, 82, 83, 85, 88–89, 95, 98, 108, 128 and 134–137). By evoking disgust, describing queer sexual content as ‘unattractive’, ‘revolting’, or imagery to portray a ‘loss of moral standards’, witnesses defend the book from charges of prurient or pornographic intent. In doing so, witnesses imbue Burroughs’ work with a moral meaning that upholds queer sexuality as deviant, criminal, and immoral.
The preoccupation of the court with policing sex is similarly seen in the obscenity trials of Cleland’s Fanny Hill, Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, or Miller’s _Tropic of Cancer_. Obscenity legislation regulates sexuality, sexual desire, and sexual acts both literarily and, by implication, literally. Non-normative sexual acts occupied a semi-presence in understandings of obscenity. Sex that disobeyed cultural norms on gender, class, monogamy, or heterosexuality was acknowledged by courtrooms as potentially arousing, but only to the disordered mind. Unlike class-crossing adultery in Lawrence or aggressive promiscuity in Miller, however, homosexuality held a particular position in obscenity law, and indeed the contemporaneous law in general, as a state of being – medically, physiologically, and criminally – as opposed to an act or, to borrow from Foucault further, a ‘temporary aberration’ (1978, 43).