Speaking the Unspeakable

A Poetics of Obscenity

By Peter Michelson

Subjects: Comparative Literature
Series: SUNY series, The Margins of Literature
Paperback : 9780791412244, 312 pages, November 1992
Hardcover : 9780791412237, 312 pages, December 1992

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Table of contents


A Note on Usage

1. The History of Sexuality and Poetics

Liberalism and the Problem of Problems

The Covert History of Poetics

The Proliferation of Perversities

Speaking the Unspeakable

2. Pornographic Ways and Means

De Vulgari and Beyond

The Beast with Two Backs

Soft-Core Sophistry

Consciousness and Love's Body

3. Decadence and the Poetics of Obscenity

What You See Is What She Got

But What Do You See?

With the Help of That Long Newspaper Spoon

There Is No Disputing Taste

4. Unspeakable Moral Rhetorics

Interrogating Consensus

Visions and Revisions

5. An Unspeakably Tragic Ethos

Toward Proliferating Uncertainties

Via the Sadistic Sublime

6. The Anarchy Connection

Regeneration and Orgiastic Being

Where Straight and Gay Converge

7. Comic Catharsis

Amiable Anarchy

High Affirmation and the Lowdown Truth

8. Women and Pornorotica

Asserting Sexual Autonomy

Definition and Dialectic

Soft-Core Sentiments

Interrogation of Nature and Bourgeois Liberation

Mining the Hard-Core

Class Analysis and the Pornorotica Debate

Radical Perverts and Pornorotic Pleasures

9. Unspeakable Spectacle, the Movies

What to Do with the Body

The Avant-Garde Cinema of Sexuality

Hard-Core Full Blown

The Dirty Little Secret Goes Pop

10. Obscenity and the Unbearable Law of Liberalism

Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty . . .


Expense of Spirit in a Waste of Shame



This book studies the literary and cinematic functions of the pornographic as a development from a poetics of obscenity. It focuses on the developments of French, British, and American artistic pornography since the eighteenth century. Discussing female literary figures including Hall, Wharton, Nin, "Reage," Jong, and Shulman; such men as Cleland, Sade, Beardsley, Lawrence, Joyce, and Miller; and film makers such as Brakhage, Jack Smith, Bruce Conner, Bertolucci, Oshima, and Wertmuller; Michelson analyzes both the use of aesthetic pornography and the philosophical, cultural, and legal implications of its use. He proposes that realizing the obscene —in the sense of speaking the unspeakable— is the principle aesthetic function of pornography.

Peter Michelson teaches in the English Department at the University of Colorado, Boulder.


"This book goes far beyond the limited implications of the free-speech arguments typically used in support of pornography and erotica. It convincingly argues for the profound, even if sometimes demonic, values of pornography and erotica in the context of literary studies, cultural practices, and philosophical discourse. It is well argued and well researched, avoiding both the polemical excesses and the technical jargon that mar so much current discourse on the topic. Its theoretical openness permits often striking leaps of the imagination and far-reaching apercus which might otherwise have been lost under the weight of a more rigid technical machinery. " — Allen S. Weiss, New York University