A Dialogue with Tim Dean PhD
Updated: Aug 26, 2018
1) How did you become interested in studying pornography?
I was once a teenage boy! Which may be a way of saying that I study what I’m passionate about, without much regard for where it fits in an academic discipline. Because I believe in the unconscious, I’m skeptical about expertise and don’t really consider myself an academic expert on anything. But as a lifelong passionate reader, I’m interested in fantasy and in the worlds people make for themselves that are separate from the actual world we’re stuck in. For me, pornography is a particular kind of fantasy; I participate in it but I’m also interested in thinking about it with some critical distance. When you grow up queer, there is a built-in distance from mainstream porn that encourages that kind of critical thinking---or at least there was for me. I read a lot of feminism in college and took a lot of women’s studies courses, but I found that feminist critiques of pornography in the 1980s---the Dworkin-MacKinnon argument---didn’t really describe what I was seeing in straight porn, and they couldn’t explain gay porn at all. There’s a long history of feminism simply excluding gay porn from its purview, so that got me thinking.
2) What is the "origin" story behind Porn Archives? How did it come into being?
So I wrote a book called Unlimited Intimacy, which is about the subculture of barebacking---intentionally unprotected anal sex among gay men. One of the things I discovered was how important bareback porn was to this subculture. It was about so much more than the fact that a lot of people don’t really care to see condoms when they’re viewing porn. I ended up writing 100+ pages on porn in that book, which I hadn’t expected to do at all. In response to that, some Ph.D. students at Buffalo asked me to teach a graduate course on pornography. I agreed, on condition that they would help to organize a big conference at Buffalo on pornography, in conjunction with the course. I challenged them each to discover or invent an archive of pornography and to write about it. I thought we could make a book out of it. It was really a collective enterprise. The students & I did it together; the original book manuscript was over 1,000 pages long. The project took on a life of its own, as we discovered something about the astonishing range of pornographies and the range of ways of thinking about porn.
3) I'm curious about the title. Leo Bersani writes that "each word in the title...seems historically and logically—to contradict the other. Porn is private, ephemeral, and stigmatized, while the archive makes permanent and publicly accessible officially approved records." Can you talk a bit about how the title for this collection was chosen -- and what you hoped to convey to readers?
Yes, Leo Bersani did a great job of encapsulating the question that I tried to tackle in the book’s introduction. I remember in the summer of 2009, I was headed to a meeting with my then-Ph.D. student Steven Ruszczycky, & I came up with the phrase “porn archives” while walking to meet him. Steven wrote a brilliant Ph.D. dissertation on pornography, Vulgar Genres, soon to be published as a book by the University of Chicago Press. His buddy, David Squires, another brilliant Ph.D. student, was writing a dissertation about the archive as a means of collecting and classifying all sorts of material that otherwise might simply disappear, as much pornography over the centuries has simply disappeared. We decided to create the “porn archives” project together, the three of us, & I liked how the title encapsulated both of their own independent research projects. More broadly, I liked the resonances of the title: pornography is itself an archive, a record of a moment that otherwise might just disappear. And there is a tremendous history of people collecting material that turns them on---it’s the idea of ordinary people as archivists of their pleasures. You don’t have to be an expert to be a porn archivist!
4) As a non-clinician and an academic, what interests you about psychoanalysis? How do you make use of it in your written work?
I’ve been fascinated by psychoanalysis since I first heard about it in 1984. For over 30 years, I’ve been reading as much work in psychoanalysis as I can. I did a fairly classical analysis---4 times a week on the couch for 10 years---with a psychoanalyst in California. But it wasn’t a training analysis. I’m also engaged in an ongoing “peer analysis” with a longtime friend who is a psychoanalyst in Seattle; we’ve been speaking by phone twice each week---on Tuesdays she talks & I listen; on Thursdays we switch roles---for about 6 years. Ferenczi discussed the idea of peer analysis, & I consider it an ongoing experiment (as is the practice of phone analysis). So I have some clinical experience, even though, yes, I’m an academic, a writer and a teacher. One of the things I’m most aware of when working in the university is how much teachers and professors need to be able to handle transference. Institutions such as universities are riven by transference; and transference is central to what happens in the classroom. For me, psychoanalysis has become central to how I think. The language of psychoanalysis and the particulars of different psychoanalytic schools/traditions are much less important to me than a broadly psychoanalytic approach that takes the unconscious seriously. Whatever theory of the unconscious you’re working with, it changes how you think about sexuality. For instance, once you take the unconscious into account, there can be no such thing as sexual identity.
5) Conversations about pornography are often so polarizing. Why do you think it's so difficult for us to have meaningful dialogue about pornography?
We live in a polarizing moment, one that makes dialogue between people who might not agree with each other absolutely crucial. I’m thrilled that you’ve taken the trouble to organize this event in Santa Fe and that it’s billed as a dialogue. But you’re right that a meaningful dialogue about pornography faces plenty of obstacles. American puritanism is alive and well in the 21stcentury! Here is an interesting exchange I had right before I taught the pornography course at Buffalo. It took place on a plane, with a colleague who was curious about the course; we were stuck on the plane & we had many hours to talk. Her first comment was, “I hope you’re going to talk about porn addiction!” I asked her why she thought that was an important issue for the seminar. In the course of our conversation, she admitted that she had never seen internet porn or VHS porn or watched a porn movie. Ever. She had a ton of opinions on the subject, but they were based on almost complete ignorance of what pornography has been and is today. This colleague is a scholar of the novel, & I asked her how she’d react if someone who had never read a novel expressed a lot of opinions about the novel and even told her how she should be teaching it. One of the barriers to meaningful dialogue is ignorance and perhaps an unwillingness to learn from others who have a different experience of something. I trust that the Santa Fe event will be characterized by mutual openness to what others have to say!
6) The sociologist Patricia Hill Collins talks about "intellectual activism" -- academics and scholars speaking truth to power and speaking truth to the people. I'm wondering if this is an idea that feels resonant to you, if it speaks to and describes your work. Can you talk a bit about this? Is there a kind of activism in your academic work?
I do not think of myself as an activist---though I’m aware that a lot of queer scholars advertise themselves that way. I’m a reader, a thinker, a writer, a listener, and a teacher---I hope that’s enough! A friend of mine, having just read something I wrote, said that my work is about “unconsciousness raising” & I liked that description of what it is that I do. It’s not about consciousness raising (though that’s important), & it’s not about social justice (though I share the political goals of many of my colleagues). We need people, more than ever today, who will speak truth to power. I’m watching the NFL protests right now & admiring the eloquence of these football players who say so much by taking a knee during the national anthem (I support them one hundred per cent). But the part of me that believes in the unconscious says that, in order to speak truth to the people you have to be really certain about what the truth is. If you believe in the unconscious, then you have to admit that there are many truths, not just one. There’s a kind of arrogance in assuming that you have access to the truth and simply need to enlighten the rest of us about it. What I admire about the NFL protests is that a deeply respectful gesture---silent kneeling---has become a powerful symbol of protest at so much that is wrong in US society today. The silence speaks volumes without claiming to be about a single truth.
7) And finally, what are you working on currently?
Freud has a great line where he says, “I am accustoming myself to the idea of regarding every sexual act as a process in which four persons are involved.” I just finished an essay inspired by that sentence. I’ve also recently written a long essay about sexual harassment in the university---an essay that also tackles the Larry Nassar gymnastics abuse case---in which I tried to reframe sexual harassment in terms of transference and countertransference. I’m currently completing three books (all of which have not been finished because I work on too many things at once!): Sex, Literature, and Psychoanalysis (a book that combines my three principal interests); What Is Psychoanalytic Thinking? (a book that tries to describe conceptually what’s specific about psychoanalytic ways of thinking independently from the vocabulary of psychoanalysis---that is, how does one think along with the unconscious or harness unconscious thinking?); and Hatred of Sex, a book I’m writing with a colleague in England, Oliver Davis, who is a brilliant philosopher and, more importantly, filthier than I am. My home institution, the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, is very enlightened about interdisciplinary research and has awarded me a fellowship to spend the 2018-19 academic year studying Anthropology. So right now I’m working on the interesting project of becoming a student again, after so many years as a teacher. I’m learning how anthropologists think, in order to pursue an ethnography of sex work. My research on pornography has broadened beyond images and texts to questions about the conditions of sex work as an experience and a job.