Reading the Obscene: Transgressive Editors and the Class Politics of US Literature by Jordan S. Carroll. Stanford University Press, 280 pages.
What draws us to the obscene? It’s a question scholars rarely ask because the allure of the forbidden seems so obvious. What if, though, for the white male professional-managerial class of the mid-to-late twentieth century, the enticement of the obscene was not so hot but rather cool? What if the point of reading smut was not to indulge in prurient interest but to show oneself capable of overcoming such base impulses? Not to masturbate, but to master? Such is the gambit of Jordan S. Carroll’s Reading the Obscene, which charts a bildungsroman of boomer hermeneutics. From Playboy to “Howl,” Carroll examines how a generation of PMC men were invited to treat obscene and transgressive reading as a formal challenge, an “exercise in maintaining professional composure that helped them prepare to serve as functionaries in impersonal bureaucracies.” Instead of seeing sex as the zone of rationalism suspended, it became the ultimate staging ground for a systematization of life in which everything could be bureaucratized. Thus were PMC erotics born, as a technocratic desexualization of sex itself. What could be hotter than alienation?
In the foundational 1977 essay theorizing the PMC, Barbara and John Ehrenreich noted that the anxieties around the private lives of the PMC demanded experts to help administer a variety of functions, including “sexual fulfillment,” but they had little more to say on matters of sexuality. The subsequent rise of scholarly work on the history of gender and sexuality lavished great attention on the acute anxiety, often bordering on terror, of the emasculated bourgeois bureaucrat (Barbara Ehrenreich returned to this theme in The Hearts of Men, showing how the strains of normative masculinity often proved fatal, in the form of heart attacks). The declining economic fortunes of the PMC in the latter decades of the twentieth century occurred alongside the emergence of the history of sexuality as a field, but the two topics have generally remained siloed—Catherine Liu devoted a chapter of her recent anti-PMC polemic Virtue Hoarders to “The PMC Has Sex,” though mostly as an excuse for glib dunking on the perceived excesses of campus feminism. Carroll can snark too, riffing on “how midcentury American editors came to market the Marquis de Sade to middle managers,” but he’s not here to coast on quotably quippy cadence. He cares about the political stakes of obscene reading techniques, and he’s merciless in his cultural and class analysis.
Obscenity provides a useful site to examine the role of class politics in the forging of sexual sensibility. The history of legal obscenity doctrine from the 1870s to the 1970s breaks fairly cleanly into three eras, all shaped by different bourgeois concerns. The 1873 Comstock Act marked the full statutory emergence of obscenity law in the United States, making “obscenity” a crime punishable with fines and prison sentences. Its namesake, the feverish moralist Anthony Comstock, benefited from the reconfiguration of the state underway during Reconstruction; the country’s recalibration toward a strong national government occurred not just through the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments but also through a “moral reconstruction” in which the state rebuilt itself through federal campaigns against polygamy, gambling through the mail, and, yes, obscene material.
The Comstock Act was broad enough to apply not only to naughty books and postcards but also materials related to contraception and abortion—a rearguard action against the severing of sex from procreation already well underway by the 1870s. But with Anthony Comstock holding the powers of arrest thanks to his appointment as a special agent of the postmaster general until his death in 1915, social change met resistance every step of the way. Comstock’s more famous arrests and cases targeted feminist Victoria Woodhull, anti-religious freethinker D.M. Bennett, free love advocate Ezra Heywood, and birth control activist Margaret Sanger, among hundreds of less renowned figures. He drove abortionist Ann Lohman (better known as Madame Restell) and marital sex educator Ida Craddock to suicide, infamously commenting of the former, “a bloody ending to a bloody life.”
The first wave of social historians recognized Comstockism as a form of bourgeois social control, a recoiling from the late nineteenth-century tumult of urbanization and non-WASP immigration. His original base of support came from the wealthy philanthropists behind the Young Men’s Christian Association, and certainly Comstock himself embodied the classic Protestant work ethic. But as Nicola Beisel shrewdly notes in her book Imperiled Innocents, the real class anxieties of the Comstock era were far less about unruly working classes than familial downward mobility. The bourgeoisie cared less what effect pornographic texts had on the proletariat than what tendencies said books might instill in their own children. Occurring precisely alongside the coalescence of the PMC, these fears about class reproduction proved constitutive to its eternally shaky sense of security.
By the time of Comstock’s passing, his repressive regime of heavy-handed state censorship was already being supplanted by what historians term sexual liberalism. As consumer culture and the movies, the language of psychoanalysis, and nascent queer visibility cemented the place of non-procreative sex in the public sphere, civil libertarians chipped away at obscenity law, with Radclyffe Hall’s pioneering lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness and James Joyce’s formally adventurous but also vulgar Ulysses defeating customs officials in 1929 and 1933, respectively. Embracing these changes was a way to stake a claim to the mantle of modernity, and accordingly, the PMC missed no opportunity to applaud itself for breaking the shackles of Victorianism.
It took until 1957 for the Supreme Court to finally weigh in on obscenity, after avoiding the matter for nearly six decades while pressure built within the wildly diverging opinions of the lower courts. The justices tried to have it both ways. In the landmark Roth v. United States, Justice William J. Brennan Jr. affirmed the constitutionality of the Comstock Act but restricted its deployment. “Sex and obscenity are not synonymous,” Brennan decreed, leaving only those texts “utterly without redeeming social importance” subject to prosecution. With some revisions along the way—further liberalization across the 1960s, then a somewhat conservative course correction from a new majority that included all four of Richard Nixon’s appointees in the 1973 Miller v. California decision—Roth remains the bedrock of contemporary obscenity law. To this day, material deemed obscene has no claim to First Amendment protections, though such cases have been relatively rare since the 1990s and usually tend to arise only when Republicans need to rile up their white evangelical base.
Roth was a victory of PMC sexuality, and in turn, so was the sexual revolution it helped unleash—the final era in this century-long arc. Carroll’s telling is exemplary. He knows that the court battles, while familiar, must nonetheless be retold to ground his analysis, and so he focuses on a particularly salient layer: the use of obscenity cases as a laboratory for new strains of PMC governmentality regarding sex. The winning technique for lawyers and editors in these cases was to show that, counter to state claims about the wild effects of obscenity in driving readers to lust and perversion, in fact these texts were read with clinical detachment. The PMC eros Carroll limns is often dry but displays “a genuine enthusiasm and excitement for the rules and regulations and expresses itself in an ardent desire to see sexuality compartmentalized, buffered, and constricted.” This proved enormously successful in court, as lawyers and judges alike prided themselves on transcending the pitfalls of desire in obscene literature.
Having established this interpretive framework, Carroll fleshes out the genealogy of PMC erotics through case studies. H.L. Mencken may not loom large in the history of obscenity, but his deliberate provoking of authorities in 1926 after his American Mercury published Herbert Asbury’s short story “Hatrack,” about a prostitute seeking forgiveness at a Methodist congregation, pulls nascent PMC free-speech politics into focus. Unlike the more romantic arguments of D.H. Lawrence, who saw his sex-saturated work as a means of resisting modern alienation by recovering a more “primitive” sensuality, Mencken saw obscene reading as “an opportunity to rise above the mob by showing that one is civilized.” While Mencken’s most-remembered work is his mocking coverage of the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial,” perhaps more telling was his “strangely Americanizing” 1908 volume on Nietzsche, which called for an “aristocracy of efficiency,” essentially routing the German philosopher through a lens that put him as close to Henry Ford as to Wagner. This was precisely the framework Mencken applied to fighting obscenity law. As Carroll summarizes it, “overcoming pornographic impulses prepares readers to view the body from the bloodless perspective of an efficiency expert.” The goal is not Lawrence’s return to a sweaty pre-modern carnality but rather “to ignore the concrete, sensual aspects of bodies and treat them instead as interchangeable units to be monitored and controlled.”
If there seems to be something a little masochistic about all of this, the point isn’t lost on Carroll—he returns to that issue later. First, he examines EC Comics, which became embroiled in an early-1950s moral panic over horror comics that very much set the template for the ensuing anti-porn fervor of that decade. In William “Bill” Gaines, who took over the company from his father, Carroll finds an excellent figure through which to conceptualize the “editor function,” another central motif of Reading the Obscene. While anti-comics psychiatrist Fredric Wertham catapulted to fame with sordid tales of children driven to murder and sexual violence by horror comics in his widely read Seduction of the Innocent, in fact, Gaines’s editorial framing solicited less unhinged reading practices. Youthful EC readers were taught to approach horror stories as, according to Carroll, “intellectual puzzles that improve readers’ abilities to decode, replicate, and respond to patterns.” By “breaking readers of their sentimental attachments and sympathetic identifications,” Gaines didn’t turn his readers into maniacs; they became “junior semioticians.” Cracking the structural codes and anticipating the grotesque, blood-soaked twist endings readied the young comics “fan-addict” to think like the organization man he would soon become when he swapped comics for centerfolds.
By taking seriously the corny adage about reading Playboy for the articles, Carroll shows how the nation’s premier outlet for tits and science fiction marked the maturation of PMC erotics. The estrangement effect of science fiction is much like that of horror comics, but in the context of nude Playmates, it allowed readers to “imagine their private lives as technical or administrative problems, projecting a future in which sexuality is another form of human capital to be cultivated or controlled.” Hugh Hefner invited male readers to approach seduction through this lens, not as an act of passion but rather a “training regimens for masculine self-discipline.” Sex was a luxury good like the Rolexes advertised in Playboy, but also part of a managerial ethos.
Hefner modeled this in his own futuristic “fully automated love life.” Working from his bed, and bedding as work, he shattered any clear divisions between labor and leisure. His “intimate life became part of the means of production,” with “sex functioning as just another editorial duty,” thereby cultivating a PMC sexual sensibility in which the logic of the boardroom dictated the affective structure of the bedroom. Bodies, conquests, and technology all entered the supply chain for Hefner’s Great Flowchart of Being. Carroll has a pronounced aversion to re-litigating the feminist sex wars, but it’s certainly a damning feminist indictment when he shows how silencing women’s voices was integral to the reading strategies Hefner cultivated. Here again, the artifice of the airbrushed women resonated deeply with the science fiction—indeed, the magazine’s first use of the phrase “the girl next door” came in its serialization of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
If Playboy’s erotic imaginary culminated in “the cool eros of metadata”—not so much the thrill of sexual conquest as the logging of it—Barney Rosset’s Grove Press adjusted PMC sexuality to shifting historical terrain. The horrors of the Vietnam War, delivered with the same dispassionate calculation as a Hefnerian seduction, challenged the innocence of the technocratic dream. With blood on the hands of the best and brightest, the PMC turned to what Carroll calls “white-collar masochism.” Rosset led the way, publishing shelves worth of leftist manifestos and erotica with a BDSM bent.
Again, Carroll ingeniously charts the ways such novels as Story of O and The Image staged bondage through scenes of “botched management or sabotaged pedagogy,” and crafted a new erotic pose of powerlessness through which the PMC could fantasize away its complicity in the horrors of the twentieth century. This failed as absolution, and also as capitalism; as editor, Rosset ran his own company to the ground and lost control of it, eventually being fired in 1986. What Carroll calls the “political masochism” of the Grove Press fell flat for the New Left, whose participants in the Free Speech (and Filthy Speech) Movements demanded new meaning for obscenity. When a case involving a jacket reading “Fuck the Draft” reached the Supreme Court in 1971, there was no pretense of cerebral disengagement: it was legal obscenity directed against the obscenity of war and imperialism.
The reading strategies devised through encounters with the obscene reappeared decades later in the “failed PMC aspirants” of the contemporary alt-right. The reactionary tendencies of PMC sensibilities were never far from the surface, and early on Mencken’s elitism evinced racism, anti-Semitism, and rage against the New Deal order. As capitalist labor practices shifted away from the midcentury corporate hedonism toward more austerities both financial and interpersonal, cultural capital was detached from career opportunity. One wing of the downwardly mobile would-be PMC are the ones unionizing Starbucks. The other wing’s frustrations curdled into Something Awful and 4chan, and Carroll ends by suggesting that the energies at play there, among men’s rights activists, pickup artists, and incels are better understood as extensions of the possessive detachments fashioned by the midcentury PMC. What are NoFap Proud Boys but the latest conspicuous display of proving one’s bona fides by resisting the allure of the obscene?