Tim Dean, “Stumped: The Pornography of Disability”
Guest Writer: Erin McKenna

Thursday, November 15, 2012

posted under , , , , by Unit for Criticism
[On November 12, 2012, the Unit for Criticism hosted “Stumped: The Pornography of Disability,”a lecture by Tim Dean (University at Buffalo). His talk is described below by guest writer, Erin McKenna, a graduate student affiliate of the Unit for Criticism in Recreation, Sport and Tourism.]

Dean addresses the audience in Levis Faculty Center
“'What the Hell is Going On?' The (Im)mobility of being Stumped”

Erin McKenna (Department of Recreation, Sport and Tourism)

Tim Dean’s lecture on Monday pulled from his chapter in his forthcoming edited project, Porn Archives. As in previous books such as his recent Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking, Dean discussed the potential for queer porn, in this instance combined with disability, to function as a site of mobility. This mobility stands in contradiction to the immobility often associated with disability as well as to the moment of maximum intensity in sexual activity that renders the body immobile or disabled. Dean further challenged normative assumptions about mobility through the motif of “being stumped.” In addition to referring to the amputees in the online porn Dean took for the basis of his analysis, “stumped” also pointed to the reaction of the heteronormative, able-bodied viewers of this porn and their inability to grasp the appeal or purpose of this activity—a reaction built into the video Dean screened by means of a spliced in clip in which the actor Kevin Bacon asks, “What the hell is going on?”

Dean opened his talk by discussing the link between disability and destitution, and how the current biopolitical situation does not show concern for all bodies. However, as porn becomes increasingly accessible both in its production and consumption, new opportunities for challenging normative ideas about the range and potential of the disabled body emerge.

Contemporary porn, according to Dean, emphasizes the freakish: the larger-than or smaller-than-life anatomy and the non-normative body. However, such spectacularization of non-normative bodies need not always produce exploitative effects. By eroticizing bodily variables, disabled porn creates a space for making disabilities sexy. Moreover, disabled porn moves beyond the exotification of the anomalous body common in freak shows, as those engaging in disabled porn are turning themselves into sexual subjects rather than objects to be gazed upon. While disabled porn is a small subset of porn production in its entirety, Dean suggested that porn, like novels, should be judged by the most interesting examples, not (or not only) the most common or banal. Disability porn falls into the more innovative, interesting category and has widespread implications. In addition to changing how the disabled Other is perceived, disability porn also has the potential to impact self-identity because disability is a reality for all bodies which are equally subject to injury, aging, and mortality. Nevertheless, as Dean pointed out, the representation and gaze on the disabled body is not a stable one.

In his analysis, Dean provided a visual example to the audience with the video “2 guys 1 stump” to point to how disabled porn can be usurped and used for other reasons. The video amended a longer original version which was published by one of the men who appears in both versions. While the longer version (which Dean did not screen) provides a relatively unmediated contribution to online disability porn, Dean was interested in the less erotic but more mediated and metatextual edited version. In this version the synchronization between erotic movements and background music from Super Mario Brothers “Mario Invincible” can be interpreted as trivializing the sexual behavior. The concluding clip from the movie Tremors (1990) derives from a scene in which a group of guys are looking at something off screen and Kevin Bacon asks “what the hell” they just saw. Dean suggests that this closing scene supports and encourages the heteronormative reaction of disgust and a lack of understanding towards the sexual practices of queer “crips.”

While the modified variation of “2 guys 1 stump” has the potential to illustrate the tendency to disparage disabled and queer pornography, Dean also discussed videos that depict other possibilities. For example, in one video, a disabled man in a wheelchair is approached by another man who takes him into a room where his amputated limbs are caressed before a series of sexual encounters among the numerous men in the room. Significantly, when the amputee is penetrated, his partners use condoms suggesting that he, unlike his partners, is HIV negative and wants to remain that way. Moreover, in this video as well as others that Dean analyzed, the amputated limbs are remapped from sites of pain or pity to erogenous zones.

Dean concluded by talking about how this remapping of the disabled body in queer crip porn mobilizes disabled bodies. More than just compensatory, the stumps of amputated limbs enhance erotic pleasure for disabled bodies. Disabled porn thus expands the range of possibilities for the body and for porn; it works against normatization by rendering identities irrelevant. While the heteronormative able-bodied subjects may be “stumped” or immobilized by their lack of comprehension for the erotic pleasures of non-normative bodies and subjects, the stumps of the disabled are fostering mobility.

Dean fielded a number of questions on the subject after his talk. Several audience members asked Dean to address the logic of capitalism in his work on the porn archive, especially given that Linda Williams’ assessment of it in her influential book Hard Core which first appeared in 1989. Dean pointed out that while Williams’ study was groundbreaking, she was restricted by the limited access and knowledge of porn that was available in the 1980s. Today’s porn industry is therefore much more diverse and accessible than what her study could reflect. To illustrate, he referred to the examples described by the various contributors to Porn Archives focus less on the money shot. In addition Dean finds this porn to be minimally or not at all exploitative because so much of it is amateur and non-commercial. Dean did admit that there is more to uncover when considering the way that capital is exchanged on Internet sites even for non-commercial video producers. He suggested that this might follow a technology-driven logic rather than a capitalist logic per se.

Other questions revolved around the issue of disgust and whether disgust and pleasure are the only possible responses that emerge from heteronormative, able-bodied viewers of queer crip porn. While Dean admitted that there are other possible reactions, his focus on disgust derived especially from the comments posted on videos. The time taken to express such disgust points to its significance, he noted. He also suggested that his interest in disgust is paramount partly because queer theory tends to focus on shame while simultaneously avoiding the topic of disgust. Thus, there is much to uncover regarding disgust.

An audience member followed up with a question about how disgust can also be a transformative or mobilizing experience and whether that disgust then serves to mobilize the heteronormative, able-bodied viewer. Dean’s response addressed a previous question about Bodily Integrity Identity Disorder. He said that while he had not come across any porn that dealt with BIID, most kinds of sex challenge bodily integrity, which is one of the reasons that people have to confront this psychological barrier at a certain age in order to engage in any kind of sexual act.

Several audience members asked Dean to elaborate further on the ways that disabled porn challenges heteronormativity and the inequality of non-normative bodies. Dean responded that porn is much less heteronormative than people assume and that because of new technology, disabled people can make porn pretty easily, which allows for self-representation. Dean emphasized that he avoids talking about disabled porn as a fetish because it minoritizes the practice rather than highlighting its universal implications, which is one of the main things his work attempts to address.


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Anonymous said...

Linda Williams may not have "had" the internet when she wrote "Hard Core", but Tim Dean doesn't "get" the internet when he fails to read such obvious internet signifiers as "2 guys 1 stump" vis a vis "2 girls 1 cup", the invincibility music of Super Mario Galaxy (Not Super Mario Brothers), and Tremors...all of which have a very specific meaning and status in internet culture. His reading is reductive because he already knows what he's looking for.

Claire said...

Actually, Dean did mention the importance of "2 girls 1 cup" for the shorter video when he spoke but didn't go into a full-out comparison of the two. I would have liked to hear what he had to say about the two together. Also, Anonymous, what's your reading of "2 guys 1 stump"; I'm interested.

Lauren said...

Thank you anonymous. What Claire said and this: I've heard Tim Dean talk about "2 Guys 1 cup" at length--when he was here at UIUC for the Larry Schehr memorial conference. I would be very surprised if it didn't figure at some length in his published work on "disgust." The accounts we publish on Kritik are not intended as complete digests of the talks and the lectures themselves are usually based on work in progress in what will be much-longer published versions. Thanks very much, anonymous for joining the discussion. LG

Anonymous said...

I can't speak to the longer version, as I am neither a scholar of disability studies nor of pornography in general, but in terms of the shorter version, it is my feeling that these signifiers (mentioned above) can also be read as aesthetically transformative acts, rather than simply as evidence of heteronormative disgust at queer crip porn. In order to determine what exactly this representation means, it is of course necessary to "read" these signifiers carefully. This is my gripe with Dean's approach here. I don't think he reads them at all (apparently with the exception of "2 girls 1 cup", though I would be interested to know what exactly his reading focuses on...) I would like to see a reading where we allow for the possibility, at least of this second version, to be read as an object of net art (net.art), as an aesthetic/conceptual representation that attempts to draw on the pluralist practices of image/audio archiving and montage so prevalent in much of the creative practice currently appearing on the net. In addition, there is no recognition on Dean's part that this mash-up draws on elements of the comic, and that the comic cannot simply be reduced to the vulgar (as ridicule or ignorance for example). What is going here in this representation? It would require a much larger space in order to fully elaborate what is in my opinion a very complex set of signifiers at work here, but I think that the shorter version of "2 guys 1 stump" is an attempt to aestheticize rather than demoralize queer crip porn. The problem is that because it uses the language of net art (which often deals in parody, absurdity, satire, etc.) it is perceived by Dean as authentically manifesting those genres, rather than as challenging our understanding of what those genres mean outside of their traditional contexts. I appreciate the work Dean has done, but I think he needs to reassess his critical approach when it comes to representations on the net, and to become a little more fluent in the language of net art and culture if he wants to push our critical understanding into the contemporary moment. Excellent article. Thanks!

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