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Understanding the Pornographic and the Obscene

Location: MIT

Wednesdays 5:00PM - 8:00PM

September 7, 2016 - December 7, 2016

Expressions, images, and narratives labeled "obscene" and "pornographic" are often deeply charged. Pornography appears in a broad range of historical periods and cultural contexts; it varies drastically; and it is often influential in the way people define, think about, and understand sexuality. Both feminists and non-feminists from a range of disciplines, and outside the academy, have taken up the topic of pornography, producing dynamic debate but little consensus.


This course explores what feminist scholars in multiple disciplines have said about the pornographic and the obscene. We will explore criticisms of pornography and celebrations of it, as well as more ecumenical efforts to study and understand what pornography is and has been. We will look at its adjacency to other genres and media (including websites, fan fiction, and romance novels) and will discuss recent examples of sexually explicit media that can be placed in dialogue with the pornography (including works by Sally Mann, Robert Mapplethorpe, Lars Von Trier, and others).  As a class, we will work to understand how pornography has been defined by various cultures and across time periods throughout history, how it is produced and consumed and by whom, the impacts of pornography consumption on individuals, families, communities, and societal norms, and -- importantly -- how pornography interacts with the multiple forms of oppression and expression, based on race, class, national identity, gender and sexual identities. Students can expect readings and topics from various disciplines, including history, literature, cinema and media studies, and the social sciences.



Sarah L. Leonard is Associate Professor of History at Simmons College. She is the author of several articles situating pornography in a historical context. Her book, Fragile Minds and Vulnerable Souls: The Matter of Obscenity in Nineteenth-Century Germany, was recently published by University of Pennsylvania Press.


Burlin Barr is Associate Professor and Program Coordinator of Cinema Studies at Central Connecticut State University. He has published articles in Camera Obscura, Screen, Jump Cut, and other journals. His scholarly interests concern the constructions of gender in film, as well as the intersection of film form and cultural politics.



Madeline Caviness is Mary Richardson Professor Emeritus of Tufts University where she taught Medieval Art and Gender Studies. She is the author of Visualizing Women in the Middle Ages: Sight, Spectacle and Scopic Economy, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001, Reframing Medieval Art: Difference, Margins, Boundaries, Tufts University electronic book, 2001, and numerous articles on the history and reception of European art from the pre-modern era.