In the Scene

I started reading Roland Barthes’ Mythologies recently. The very first essay, “In the Ring” drew immediate and obvious parallels for me about writing, and writing sex in particular. It could be those parallels are so painfully obvious to the reader or writer of literary erotica that all I should really do is grab you by the collar and command you to read Barthes, but it’s possible that what seems obvious to me isn’t to everyone else. So, I present a re-imagining of the opening of that essay the way my mind insisted on translating it as I read it. -M


The virtue of pornography is to be a spectacle of excess…

Some people consider that pornography is an ignoble art. Pornography is not a sport, it is a spectacle, and it is no more ignoble to watch or read a coupling performance of Pleasure than a performance of Burlesque at the Moulin Rouge. Of course, there is such a thing as fake, plastic pornography, which goes to great lengths to produce the useless appearances of a fair fuck. This is of no interest. True pornography, incorrectly called amateur porn, is performed in homes and hotel rooms; written on the internet and e-books where the viewers and readers spontaneously attune themselves to the spectacular nature of the coupling(s). Then these same people wax indignant because porn is a stage-managed show or formulaic prose (which, moreover, should mitigate their ignominy). The public couldn’t care less whether a scene is staged or pat cliche or not, and rightly so; it confines itself to spectacle’s primary virtue, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences: what matters to this public is not what it believes but what it sees.

This public knows very well the distinction between pornography and erotica; it knows that erotica is a Jansenist literature, based on a demonstration of excellence; one can bet on the outcome of an erotic story; in pornography, that would make no sense. An erotic story is one constructed under the reader’s eyes; in pornography, just the contrary, it is each moment which is intelligible, not the sum. The viewer is not interested in the development of a character, he is awaiting the momentary image of certain passions. Pornography therefore requires an immediate reading of the juxtaposed meanings, without its being necessary to connect them. The rational future of the coupling does not interest the porn reader, whereas on the contrary an erotic story always implies a science of the future. In other words, pornography is a sum of spectacles, none of which is a function: each moment imposes the total knowledge of a passion which rises erect on its own, without ever extending to the consummation of an outcome.

Hence the porn character’s function is not to make love, or even to fuck, but to perform the exact gestures required of him or her. It is said that erotica contains a hidden symbolic dimension (even at its most efficient). Erotica’s gestures are measured, precise but brief, carefully drawn (even if having little volume). Porn, on the contrary, proposes excessive gestures, exploited to the paroxysm of their signification. In erotica, a character who comes is hardly done at all. She rolls over. He withdraws. She evades consequence; or, if consequence is obvious, he embraces, leaves, grows, or is damaged. All four may occur in sequence or at once. In porn, a character’s exaggerated come fills the viewer’s entire field of vision with the intolerable spectacle of orgasm.


The whole essay could be rewritten this way and work, but I stopped the paraphrasing here because the wrestling/boxing – porn/erotica parallel in particular was  quite stunning to me and appropriate to many recent discussions on the subject I’ve had and read.  Barthes goes on to talk more exclusively about wrestling, and the language used continues to describe and reflect on both genres as effectively.  

As well, it’s not really my writing after all – I’ve altered/added/subtracted surprisingly few words. It would be a rather large conceit to attempt to appropriate (or relentlessly repurpose) all of Barthes essay in this way. So I’ll close by grabbing your collar and commanding you to read the rest of it yourself. And why not continue on to the rest of Mythologies? I know I am.

Categories: Discussion, Erotica, MonocleTags: , , , ,


I am the little devil on your shoulder, stroking your neck with my tail, whispering obscenities into your ear, and looking down your blouse. One third of The Erotic Writer blog.


  1. You write: [the public] knows that erotica is a Jansenist literature…

    So. I’m forced to google-up on my knowledge of Jansenism. Wikipedia:

    “Jansenism was a Christian theological movement, primarily in France, that emphasized original sin, human depravity, the necessity of divine grace, and predestination.”

    Given this brief, one sentence, definition of Jansenism, I’m not seeing how erotica is a “Jansenist literature”? Does this description of erotica apply to a certain class of erotica? I’m not sure that I would apply it to my own. Educate me.

    What I get from your paraphrase reflects an interesting insight (not my own) that I read a year or so ago. A writer was discussing why Hollywood actresses couldn’t be porn stars. His reasoning was that the viewer doesn’t want to know the porn star. Effective pornography requires anonymity. In other words, if we know too much about the individuals “acting” or “portraying” the sex, we are distracted from the spectacle of sex. In short, the focus of pornography isn’t the characters (or even the real people) but the sex. The sex is “the character”. Your essay, above, makes the same point.

    The same dynamics are not at play in erotica because it’s not a visual/graphic art. We may read erotica for the sex, but erotica in which sex is “the character” makes a poor substitute for pornography.

    Also, what do you mean by: “one can bet on the outcome of an erotic story”? I would say the opposite is true. One can bet on the outcome of pornography. An erotic story can be many different things and can be read for many different reasons. Edit: Now that I’ve read the original essay, this latter comment makes more sense. The analogy, I suppose, would be pornography as WWE wrestling and erotica as boxing. One can make an informed bet as to who is going to win a boxing match, but in WWE wrestling there’s no relationship between the skill of the wrestler and who will win.

    On to RM’s link.

  2. Monocle

    I used the “predetermined” or “predestined” definition of Jansenism in the context of my rewrite.

    An erotic story has a predetermined ending (created by the writer), though the reader doesn’t necessarily know it ahead of time. Hence it is Jansenist in this way. For porn, on the other hand, that is immaterial, because it is such a completely formulaic, known quantity. The reader of porn, in that sense, knows everything about the scene already.

    That’s also the sense that “one can bet on the outcome of an erotic story”. Though the end is predetermined by the writer, the reader does not know it until s/he reads it. A porn story is no bet because the reader *always* knows how it ends

    p=anonymity – I’d say yes and no. Part of it is, I think the ready need to be able to put any person in the place of the actors (or the characters), which is why so many look (on the screen), or are described (on the page) the same. A lot of porn _writing_ is nearly identical _save_ for minute physical differences in the characters (redhead/blonde/brunette; D/DD/etc breasts; specific heights and waist sizes; eyecolor/shape; what shade of cream/coffee/cinnamon the skin might be) to allow the porn reader to pick the exact configuration they want.

    The Angela Carter quote in Remittance Girl’s response post to this echoes (or pre-echoes) this as well.

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