In an article entitled ‘The Force of Fantasy: Feminism, Mapplethorpe, and Discursive Excess’,Judith Butler (1990b) considers the issue of pornography, and in particular the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, against the backdrop of feminist debates around pornography, representation and fantasy. She contends that within the anti­pornography position there is an ‘implicit theory’ which ‘relies upon a representational realism that conflates the signified of fantasy with its (impossible) referent’ (Butler 1990b: 105). She claims that it is this theory of fantasy which informs those branches of feminism which call for censorship against pornography and which ‘appears to inform New Right efforts to prohibit federal funding of artists like Robert Mapplethorpe’ (ibid).

Butler contends that the effort to limit ‘representations of homoeroticism’ in the federally funded art world, ‘in an effort to censor the phantasmatic’, inevitably leads to its production. Drawing on the work ofJacqueline Rose, Butler (1990b:108) shows how ‘the phantasmatic is also precisely that which haunts and contests the borders which circumscribe the construction of stable identities’. Fantasy offers the possibility of the fragmentation or proliferation of identifications which challenges the very ‘locatability of identity’.

It is within this context that Butler challenges the implications for both representations and identity of the anti-pornography position. As she contends,

the effort to impute a causal or temporal relation between the phantasmatic and the real raises a set of problems…[The] view that fantasy motivates action rules out the possibility that fantasy is the very scene which suspends action and which, in its suspension, provides for a critical investigation of what it is that constitutes action.

(Butler 1990b:113)

The anti-pornography position, in its assumptions about cause and effect, offers no possibilities for alternative interpretations because it is based on the claim that the text permits a single interpretation and understands the ‘construction of the pornographic text as a site of univocal meaning’ (ibid.). Butler notes that it is this ‘postulation of a single identificatory access’ to representation that carries with it a stabilisation of gender identity. She claims that ‘the political task is to promote a proliferation of representations, sites of discursive production, which might then contest the authoritative production produced by the prohibitive law’ (1990b:119).


Postfeminist and postmodernist debates, while not necessarily advocating ‘the death of the subject’, recognise that the epistemological framing of the subject as an object of knowledge increases as differentiation proliferates division. These unitary categories which characterised ‘identity polities’ have been increasingly challenged as identity becomes more fluid and fragmented, undermined by contrasts such as that between gay and straight, female and male, and black and white. This increasing fluidity has impacted on both the range and meaning given to representations. The proliferation of representations emerging from cultural forms are partly the result of popular cultural forms emerging as ‘sites of resistance’. As Dyer (1993:2) notes, cultural forms can no longer be seen to have a single determinate meaning and are understood in different ways by different cultural and subcultural groups. However, he recognises that ‘the complexity of viewing/reading practices in relation to representation’ does not imply that there is ‘equality and freedom in the regime of representation’. As Butler (1990b:121) contends, it is the very proliferation and deregulation of representations as part of a process towards the production of a chaotic multiplicity of representations which will undermine the restriction of the terms of political identity.