Porn talks

Professor Tzachi Zamir discusses the empowering side of porn

Professor Tzachi Zamir from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem gave a lecture on pornography and acting in Watson Hall on Wednesday.
Professor Tzachi Zamir from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem gave a lecture on pornography and acting in Watson Hall on Wednesday.
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“I don’t know if he’s anticipating live demonstrations, but I always volunteer,” the guy beside me joked at Tzachi Zamir’s lecture on pornography and acting.

Zamir, a leading scholar on moral philosophy and literature, spoke to a crowd of about 30 on Wednesday in Watson Hall, arguing that acting in pornographic films can be empowering.

He explained why sex scenes in mainstream media may be at times more exploitative than actually having sex on film.

A professor in the department of English and comparative literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, his latest research considers philosophical dimensions of acting and identity.

With prompting questions like “Where’s the line between acting and doing?”— a vegetarian can’t justly eat a hamburger on camera and claim to never eat meat — Zamir questions, for actors, whether having sex on camera is that much different than pretending to.

Zamir spoke to the Journal via email, ahead of coming to Kingston.

1. Can you explain your argument?

I will be attempting to answer questions such as whether pornographic performance constitutes acting — whether it should be understood, for example, as bad acting, as is often done.

I shall then try to pinpoint the exact sense in which pornography does something to the  performer. The interesting outcome of the analysis is that porn need not always be exploitative, and that some mainstream erotic acting (non-pornographic acting) can be deeply exploitative. I shall try to show how and why this can be the case.

2. What inspired you to explore this field?

The study of pornography is part of a larger project on acting and theatricality, in which I look at the ways in which role-playing and identity are mutually constituted in interesting ways. One part of the project deals with acting on stage; the other examines  self-theatricalization off the stage, the manner whereby we become  what we play.

In this (second) context I have published work on  masochism, in which intimacy is created through role-playing, and have also written on eating disorders as performances — I believe that  anorexia is often a prolonged, performed suicide.

Porn is unique since in pornographic role-playing, performance and identity seem to be totally collapsing into each other: one performs sex, but is also having sex.

Role-playing and being are merged into one.

I began writing on porn because I wished to be clearer about the precise limits of role-playing.

3. What kind of research did this entail?

Looking at the existing literature on porn, but more importantly, looking at what porn performers write about themselves. Without doubt, this is a problematic methodology to use, since only the better known (female) porn performers are commissioned to write about their experiences, so relying on such testimonials risks culling information from a distorted sample. I found nothing written by male performers or about the experience of gay porn performance.

Moreover, the actual “autobiographies” are often peppered with episodes that are themselves pornographic, so the projected reader is often assumed to be a porn consumer, rather than someone who is genuinely interested in the life of the performer. Nevertheless, some useful insights can be gained by reading such work.

Because I distrust armchair philosophy, I did try to receive input from some porn performers about this work, but none responded.

4. What are people’s reactions when you discuss this subject?

A man writing on porn is bound to be suspected of being prurient, or of underestimating the feminist argument against porn or of both. Moreover, when the research is funded by a governmental research fund as is the case with me, eyebrows are raised regarding a possible abuse of the tax-payer’s money.

But once people begin thinking about porn patiently, they get a sense of the problems involved, which becomes even more acute once one realizes how large this industry is and how many individual performers it uses.

Beyond the overlap with the questions raised by prostitution — for example, whether transacting in sex is some essential wrong — the  problem with a blanket condemnation of porn surfaces when one attempts to account for strong pro-porn claims by some female performers without dismissing them through patronizing explanations.

5. How should people approach porn?

Porn is usually a deeply exploitative practice — so no, I do not think that I underestimate the feminist argument against porn. In the talk, I attempt to pinpoint the precise dimension of harm to which performers are subjected, by unearthing the depth-structure of this form of performance. At the same time, the same depth-structure shows how porn can also be, under rare circumstances, empowering, liberating and self-validating. I attempt to explain that too in the talk.

A third interesting dimension that is implied by this depth-structure relates to the dubious nature of much non-pornographic erotic acting, that we watch all the time and relate to as benign. It isn’t.

6. What has been the reaction of people in the porn industry to your work?

Regrettably, none.

7. What message do you hope people will get out of your work?

Apart from rethinking porn, I hope that people will pause the next time they watch actors in an erotic scene in non-pornographic work, such as is routinely shown in any HBO series. The process of unbridled explicitness when it comes to filmed sex in mainstream cinema, television and theatre in the past decades tends to be explained as a movement towards authenticity and greater realism. Dispute that, and you are immediately tagged as a prude.

I believe, however, that actors are deeply and unfairly exploited in a process that flatters them into exposure by playing on their commitment to total embodiment. I hope to de-automate this response, and to restructure it within an ethics of performance which may, given time and a refusal of defeatism, change how and what people perform.

— With files from Alyssa Ashton

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