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University of Southern California
Consuming Bodies: Pornology, Textualization, and the Rossetti Woman
Moribund yet excessively embodied, the images of Fanny Cornforth and Elizabeth Siddall haunt the canon of female visual representation. Bodies of pleasure and pain, fear and allure, Rossetti's half-length pieces produced between 1859 and 1870 staged the spectator's desire, inciting a shared fantasy that aroused and troubled the psychological and corporeal stability of the viewing subject. This paper suggests that the circulation of these images was largely governed by the viewer who, I will argue, was often a 'connoisseur,' but whose critical judgement betrays a provocative admixture of aesthetic appraisal and scarcely regulated erotic fixation. I intend to elucidate the male viewer's compulsion to narrate his own ambivalent response, and how his own supplementary narrative connotatively inserts his corporeal presence into the painting's mise en scène, in a sense transforming the painting into a correlative of his own illicit desires.
My use of the word pornography in relation to the production and interpretation of Rossetti's paintings refers to a 'cultural image repertoire' he drew upon which (dis)figured the female form and reconfigured her sexuality for high culture consumption. The representational choices Rossetti made were obligingly composed to coax the perceptions of his viewer and encourage both voyeuristic pleasure and gratification through imagined interaction. Therefore, as Rossetti solicits the viewer and, through gesture, look, location, perspective, and distance signifies erotically, the spectator's fantasy of corporeal interaction threatens to dissolve the distinctions between high art and pornographic representation, tasteful eroticism and venal sexuality.
I apply the Derridean notion of the 'pornological' in order to flesh out the ways commodity culture and the spectacularized body mutually implicate and explicate one another. Though his market is clearly the high-art viewer, Rossetti's paintings draw upon 'codes' of pornography-offering the fleshy body, implying spatial proximity, and suggesting the gratification of sensual pleasures-but also must be discursively situated in the realm of 'moral' aesthetic consumption. This paper suggests that, in his paintings, Rossetti participated in a 'politics of representation' that finds its extreme illustration in pornography as a history of images, but more importantly as 'a psychological phenomenon' wherein the feminine body performs as a sign of masculine desire and dread. Thus, I want to suggest that the phenomenology of consuming these Rossetti paintings stages the transmission and reception of libidinal intensities, mapping out a circuit that inevitably indexes the anxious body of the viewing subject. Finally, through writing such as that of Arthur Hughes, we may see how textuality and visual representation may work to produce a pornological discourse and how writing itself may be figured as something of a sexual response mechanism.