Author Archive

The Ralph E. Whittington Collection

May 14, 2009

In the museum network, there are many famous collectors and collections: Nelson Rockefeller and his collection of “primitive” art, Henry Clay Frick and his collection of European art, J. Paul Getty and his questionable collection of antiquities. Perhaps the most unique collector in this network is Ralph E. Whittington, a relatively new player in the game, with his collection of pornography and erotica, which the Museum of Sex in New York City acquired in 2002. Whittington, a former Library of Congress archivist, has spent approximately the last 30 years collecting porn in the attempt to create a credible archive for this category of materials. Today, the collection consists of nearly 700 boxes, each full of objects that relate to a specific entry within the entire collection, all organized by Whittington and the system he devised to archive his materials, and approximately 300 large envelopes marked “Miscellaneous” kept in two plastic crates. The majority of the collection is still housed in the original boxes, only a small percent has been integrated into the rest of the museum’s collections and an even smaller percent is actually on display, and the boxes are kept in their own room on the third floor of the museum’s building on 27th Street and 5th Avenue in New York City. Basically, the collection isn’t getting a lot of action these days.

Although there is a lot of variation in the collection, there are three categories that encompass the majority of the entries: individuals, most of which are porn stars or other women in the sex industry in addition to a few individuals who are famous in mainstream popular culture like “Vanessa Del Rio” and “Jayne Mansfield,” respectively; fetishes, which include things like “Asian” and “Scatology”; and the niche – boxes that contain objects related to any number of things, like “Crash” and “Screw Magazine.”
According to Whittington himself, “The important thing is the diversity. That’s where my collection stands out” (Carlson). This statement is not only true about the different categories in Whittington’s collection, but also is applicable to the contents in each individual box. In the box labeled “Jenna Jameson #3” (out of three), you encounter a wide range of objects: the requisite DVDs expected to be attributed to a porn star, photos (including one that is signed), a copy of her auto(ish)biography, magazine cut-outs and articles, trading cards, and the anatomical models of Jenna’s mouth and pussy. In a box labeled “Shoe Dangle”, there are two videos and 16 photographs illustrating the concept of the shoe dangle, which is when a woman’s high heel shoe dangles on her toes, exposing her heel. Perhaps the strangest and most interesting box in the collection is “Porn Cereal Parody,” which contains four sets of four DVDs, 16 total, and four corresponding cereal boxes. To go with the Cheerios cereal box, we have the “Cherry Hos” DVD set, Frosted Flakes has “Frosted Facials,” Kixx has “Trixx,” and, although technically not a cereal, Cream of Wheat has “Cream of Meat.” And these are only three out of nearly a thousand boxes …

Inherently, a collection consists of any number of objects gathered together by an individual or group of individuals for any number of reasons. Collections can be thought of as assemblages. Jane Bennett, who follows the work of Gilles Deleuze, writes on the subject, “An assemblage is, first, an ad hoc grouping, a collectivity whose origins are historical and circumstantial, though its contingent status says nothing about its efficacy, which can be quite strong” (Bennett 445). The Whittington collection, and the way that the collector and the individuals at MoSex who decided to purchase the collection think about the collection, fits well within this definition. In an article in the Washington Post by Peter Carlson, Grady Turner, the curator at the time of the acquisition of the collection is quoted saying, “It’s an incredible time capsule of a period in American pop culture when pornography went from an under-the-table, plain-brown-wrapper kind of thing to the mainstream, where you could buy it in any community” (Carlson). It is clear that time and space are important components in the ways people think of this collection: it stands as a marker of a certain time period in the sex world. Carlson continues,
Whittington’s collection captures the era when court decisions made most pornography legal and the advent of the VCR took porn out of peep shows and made it a multibillion-dollar industry. ‘When there were technological changes and new genres emerging, Ralph was collecting it and cataloguing it,’ Turner says. ‘This is a collection you could not make now. It will be a primary source for historical research and a great repository of pop culture.’
It is clear that there is a strong intention of this collection: to serve as a marker of a specific time and place: the development of the sex industry in the 1970s through the present. But this is only one aspect of the assemblage and the collection.

Bennett continues, “An assemblage is, second, a living, throbbing grouping whose coherence coexists with energies and countercultures that exceed and confound it” (445). Each object in the collection came into being for any number of reasons, and each box was then assembled because of one aspect that ties them all together, creating a coherence, but then that is again disrupted when the collection is seen as a whole. Most people who see the collection are shocked by its size, a fact that trumps the subject of each box. The entire collection becomes more impacting than each box. Back to Bennett, “An assemblage is, third, a web with an uneven topography: some of the points at which the trajectories of actants cross each other are more heavily trafficked than others, and thus power is not equally distributed across the assemblage” (445). In addition to this point describing the entire collection, this point of the assemblage also relates back to the collection: some pieces were actually integrated into the museum collections and displays, while others are relegated to the Ralph Whittington room on the third floor. Also, some aspects of the collection are more known among the general public, so they have different types and levels of agency.

The assemblage gets further complicated when Bennett writes, “An assemblage is, fourth, not governed by a central power: no one member has sufficient competence to fully determine the consequences of the activities of the assemblage” (445). Despite some objects or boxes being better known to the public, there is no central entry that governs the entire collection. The only thing that could be said to unite the entire collection is that they are some way related to sex, and some of them are not even that explicitly about sex. Perhaps the tie that governs them is the collector himself, but, again, he is not explicitly apparent in each entry except for the fact that he collected them. And if Whittington really is trying to document a time period in American history relating to sex, as he is claiming, then there are entries in the collection that have no relation to him and his sexual preferences. And now that the collection is no longer in his possession, the Museum is another actant determining what this assemblage has the possibility to do and what it actually does. Today, the collection sits without use – so where does the agency lie? Is it in the fact that it even exists rather than what each individual box is, making the assemblage the primary agent? After working with this collection for the past three months, I can say without a doubt that the answer is yes. This collection does more just being in existence then it does in use (which may be because it is not really being used, but that is a formality).

There is no question about whether the last definition of an assemblage relates to the Ralph Whittington Collection: “An assemblage, finally, is made up of many types of actants: human and nonhumans; animals, vegetables, and minerals; nature, culture, and technology” (445). All materials and all people are equal parts in this assemblage; where else could you find “Candy Stripers” next to “Puffed Pussies”?


Bennett, Jane. 2005. The Agency of Assemblages and the North American Blackout. Public Culture 17(3): 445-65.

Carlson, Peter. 2002. ‘King of Porn’ Empties Out His Castle: New N.Y. Museum Buys His 30-Year Collection. Washington Post, August 24: C01.



May 14, 2009

      lace      What is the difference between a naked female figure and one clad in lacy, revealing garments known as lingerie?  The physical appearances are indeed different, but they have both come to stand and symbols of desire and sex appeal.  Lingerie is a unique object in that its power lies in its ability to hide something else.  Or is it rather that is exposes something, but still manages to leave something up to the imagination of the viewer?  There is no way to know for sure, but what lingerie desires is to inflict thoughts of nakedness, thereby heightening the anticipation of viewing a naked body in its entirety.  By acting as a physical barrier between a viewer’s eye and the naked body, lingerie utilizes a sense of prolonging the waiting period before viewing the naked body will be realized.  This object has come to stand as a symbol of desire that references the naked body without actually showing it, and has proliferated in the mainstream culture despite, or perhaps because of, what it has come to stand for.

            Although lingerie has come to serve as a symbol of desire, it was not originally intended for this.  Lingerie was once a term that referenced the undergarments worn by women that were not shown in public, but rather were kept to themselves.  With the development of companies like Frederick’s of Hollywood and Victoria’s Secret, lingerie was transformed from functional undergarments to the desirous thing it is today (  In addition to standing as a symbol of desire, images of women in lingerie infiltrate our everyday lives through every aspect of advertising, from television to city billboards.  So, if a naked body and a body in lingerie have to come to stand for the same thing at times, why is it ok to show one so freely and the other with restrictions?

            One text that is helpful in thinking through this question is Roy Ellen’s “Fetishism,” which explores the different realms of the fetish, particularly in both psychological and anthropological terms.  The term fetish refers to many things in different disciplines, with the psychological treatment providing the most aid in thinking through the concept of lingerie and what it stands for today, a sort of standard, commercialized and nationalized fetish, a symbol of sex and sexuality through the naked form. 

Ellen writes, “In the psychological literature fetishism refers to the use of a non-genital object to achieve sexual gratification, or an erotic attachment to inanimate objects or ordinarily asexual parts of the human body” (217).  Here, the objects is imbued with a sexual purpose and comes to stand as the embodiment of desire, turning the immaterial into a material. Lingerie works here on a double level: both the actual fabric coming to stand as the barrier between the viewer and the body, and the images of women in lingerie used as a symbol of desire. 

Ellen addresses this when he continues, “The sexual goal is the body part (a hand, an armpit or a buttock), body products, items of clothing (frequently shoes and items of female under-clothing), fabrics (fur, leather, rubber), even inanimate objects such as collar studs and safety pins” (217).  There is much that could possibly be explored in terms of the materiality of these objects, how different materials like lace and silk work within the context of discussing desire, and indeed there are fetishes in the sexual world based around different types of fabric; however they are not the most important aspect of lingerie in broad terms of desire.  The body that wears the lingerie is important, but what I argue is the most important aspect of lingerie in terms of desire is the purpose of it: to hide.  There is an erotic attachment to different materials, but the greater attachment is to the sense of waiting and hiding when viewing an almost-but-not-quite naked body.  Lingerie is a powerful thing in that it takes a subject, objectifies it, but then reifies it within a whole new context of the fetish. 

Ellen also provides in this piece a useful discussion of Freud, a figure who cannot be ignored when talking of the fetish.  Ellen writes,

The Freudian definition and explanation is altogether more specific.  In his essay on the subject, Freud describes fetishism as the ‘after-effect of some sexual impression, received as a rule in early childhood.’  The fetish stands—he argues—for the missing penis of the woman.  Thus, a foot and shoe fetishism reflects the inquisitive desire of young boys to approach a woman’s genitals from below—from her feet upwards—whereas fur and velvet fetishism becomes a fixation on pubic hair.  By comparison, underclothing crystallizes the moment of undressing—the last moment in which a woman can still be regarded as phallic” (218). 

This theory adds a new dimension to the discussion of lingerie.  Although the proliferation of images of women donning lingerie has no doubt affected the ways we think about it, first being presented to us at an early age and desiring to be thought of as desirous, I do not think that lingerie stands as the last moment when a woman can be considered phallic.  Because lingerie does not just command desire from males, females are also targets of lingerie, whether it is sexual desire, or the desire to replicate, or purchase, or a million different other actions of desire.  Lingerie stands for something else; it hides the body to create a sense of waiting, but that waiting is individualized.  

A body wearing lingerie, at least in terms of mainstream popular culture, is often times more important in what it means than the person who is wearing it.  This can also become apparent when again discussing gender, and what lingerie desires from both males and females.  Generally speaking, to a female, the lingerie wants to be worn, but this can be convoluted by the expectations that our popular fetish with lingerie brings: not being “desirous” enough, or desiring to look different in the garments.  And, generally speaking, to a male, lingerie wants to reference a naked body and create arousal or desire in the viewer. 

The question of desire, particularly in regards to images, is one that W.J.T. Mitchell explores in his book “What Do Pictures Want?”  When addressing desire explicitly, he writes, “The question of what pictures want leads inevitably to a reflection on what picture we have of desire itself.  Some might argue, of course, that desire is invisible and unrepresentable, a dimension of the Real that remains inaccessible to depiction” (57).  But that’s not what lingerie, and many other sex products for that matter, wants us to believe.  Lingerie, and the companies and networks behind the production and consumption of these products attempt to embody desire by referencing the naked body and standing as the waiting period before that will be revealed. 

Mitchell continues, “It seems, then, that the question of desire is inseparable from the problem of the image, as if the two concepts were caught in a mutually generative circuit, desire generating images and images generating desire” (58).  The same could be said for lingerie (and by extension, images of bodies wearing lingerie); by being a thing meant to create desire, it has come to stand for desire itself, becoming inseparable from the term.  But what exactly creates this desire?  The person wearing the lingerie?  The skin revealed by the wearing of the lingerie?  Or the knowledge of what is underneath the garments, the waiting period prolonged by extra material standing between two extremes?  The question may never be answered, but perhaps the questioning of this thing is more important than the answer.
PORT-INT-Lingerie torso





Ellen, Roy.  1998.  Fetishism.  Man (N.S.) 23:213-35.

Lingerie.  2009., accessed 22 March 2009.

Mitchell, W.J.T.  2005.  What Do Pictures Want?  University of Chicago Press.

end of the semester

April 29, 2009

I have to agree with Matt that is seems the most important thing that this class has given me has been a shift in my overall ways of thinking about things.  I have to admit that I am a little worn out by the discussions of distinguishing what a thing really is (and how it maybe differs from an object).  I think that the Harmon text was a nice way to leave the readings, because it summarized Latour’s ways of thinking about actants (or things) in the world, which perhaps encompasses all of the readings in one broad manner of thought.  So, perhaps whether something is a subject or an object really doesn’t matter, because anything carries with it the possibility to play a role in something else, the potential to carry some type of agency, whether it is a person or a door hinge.  Although I personally sometimes have difficulty in isolating the human agency out of things doesn’t change the fact that it can be, which alters the thing completely.

the thing

April 22, 2009

While reading the thing, I kept wondering (although it is possible that Heideggar addresses this issue and I just didn’t catch on), about what he thinks about human agency.  I feel like so many of the text we are reading are trying to move away from giving human actors too much agency in defining (or at least trying to define) what a thing is and how it is different from an object.  But if H. claims that things are that which stand before us, isn’t that again using humans to describe the difference between a thing and an object?  I am finding it harder and harder to think of a world of things without their human counterparts, especially when our cognition about these objects seems to be what some are arguing as the difference between thing and object.  Help :(


March 25, 2009


My presentation will explore the indexical relationship between lingerie, desire and the female body

Art and Agency

February 11, 2009

Gell’s text Art and Agency is his very sophisticated call for a new type of theory, one that gives agency to objects, although I suppose this is not new for us since we’ve looked at works that start to touch on ideas like these, but regardless, Gell solidifies a concrete methodology for recognizing the power of agency in art, and objects or things.  Although some of the diagrams get a little confusing, I think that fact alone shows that these relationships are complex and not as simple as a semiotic understanding would provide us.  One of his points and examples that he uses that I like the most is his discussion of the egg and the desire behind it.  He writes, “If there were no breakfast-desiring agents like me about, there would be no hens’ eggs (except in the South-East Asian jungle), no saucepans, no gas appliances, and the whole egg-boiling phenomenon would never transpire and never need to be physically explained” (101).  I’ve recently looked at concepts of value and the circulation of non-Western art, especially through the work of Nicholas Thomas and Fred Myers, both of who’s work I think relates to Gell and that statement.  Myers in particular looks at the new(ish) desires in the Western art world for Aboriginal paintings and artwork from Australia, which affects not only the modes in which people look at the paintings, but also how they are created.  The new desire for them will allow for the creation of new forms and ideas, thus demonstrating another aspects of agency, and I suppose desire.