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Pornography, the Theory

What Utilitarianism Did to Action

Pornography first developed in western Europe during the late eighteenth century in tandem with the rise of utilitarianism, the philosophical position that stresses the importance of something’s usefulness over its essence. Through incisive readings of Sade, Flaubert, Lawrence, and Bret Easton Ellis, Frances Ferguson here shows how pornography—like utilitarian social structures—diverts our attention from individual identities to actions and renders more clearly the social value of such actions through concrete literary representations.

208 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2004

Gender and Sexuality

Literature and Literary Criticism: Romance Languages

Political Science: Political and Social Theory


"The contribution [Ferguson] makes to the understanding of human actions and the social structure in which they occur makes this well worth reading."

Samantha Brennan | Victorian Studies

“In this profoundly original study, Frances Ferguson persuasively makes the startling claim that modern pornography can best be understood by its analogies to utilitarian social structures. Maintaining that we miss the essence of pornography when we isolate and emphasize its sexual content, Ferguson asks us to consider pornography as a scheme that—like the social organization promoted by Bentham’s utilitarianism—would produce unequivocal hierarchical evaluations of the individuals belonging to particular groups. This exciting and brilliantly argued book will be widely read and passionately debated.”<Leo Bersani, author of The Culture of Redemption

Leo Bersani, author of The Culture of Redemption

“This is not a study of pornography as such, but a deeply thoughtful meditation on an entire range of modern practices that conceptualize individuals in terms of their actions or use. Ferguson relentlessly unveils modern utilitarianism and persuasively demonstrates why appeals to belief are ineffective in a society ruled by this Benthamite calculus. This provocative study will generate controversy, as has the pornography debate, but, unlike the debate itself, Ferguson’s book is consistently illuminating and rewarding.”<Mary Poovey, author of A History of the Modern Fact

Mary Poovey, author of A History of the Modern Fact

"As a post-Foucauldian reconceptualization of utilitarianism, social organization, power distribution, and the conditions of equality, [the book] makes an original contribution to the fields of the history of sexuality, pornography studies, and studies in the novel but also, perhaps, to political theory."

Michelle Chilcoat | Journal of the History of Sexuality

Table of Contents

1. Pornography: The Theory
2. Justine, or The Law of the Road
3. Eugénie, or Sade and the Pornographic Legacy
4. Emma, or Happiness (or Sex Work)
5. Connie, or The Lawrentian Woman
Patrick: An Epilogue

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