Tired of Sex, Jamming, 12/09/2013

I thought I’d give the blog a quick break from Jean-Paul Sartre. You might notice, when you scroll down, a new name in my list of interesting people, other blogs on the internet that I think are worth reading. Some of these are generally interesting people, some I know from the internet, some I know from real life. 

Zaren is an old friend from real life. We knew each other in the old country since around 2006, and although we haven’t been in the same city at the same time for very long, we always try to talk when we get the chance. Historically speaking, she came from a background of literature studies, and is now doing graduate work in a gender studies program. As a result, she’s resurrected her old blog, Of Sugar-Baited Words, as a series of meditations on social issues of gender and sexuality of various types and expressions. For the inaugural post on the newly re-defined blog, it’s Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus because that’s how you increase traffic and we live in a tough world where you have to shoot for whatever opportunities come along.*

* It’s why I’ve been trying to figure out how to replicate the reader numbers of my posts on sophistry, Kurt Vonnegut’s Jailbird, and my last argument with P over the purpose of public philosophy.

Do people even consider this sexually alluring? To me, she
just looks as if she's falling asleep. And how am I supposed
to believe she's a construction worker? Those boots are
much too large for her. 
I have a few thoughts on what Zaren’s written already, but I’ll let you read the post first. Just follow this link.

Are you done?

How about now?

It’s kind of a funny idea, really. The ubiquity of gratuitous and imbecilic nudity and sex in our music culture and the associated collections of visual images (you know, television performances and music videos) are desensitizing us to the point where we don’t even really care. We’ve gone beyond offence, beyond shock. It’s sadly ordinary. It’s rather depressing to live in a world where tits are dull. I never want to live in that kind of world, but it seems to have been thrust upon me.

Here’s her most curious line. “The more accepting we get, the less critical we may become.” At heart here isn’t some substantive moral principle. If Zaren was the type of person who appealed to substantive moral principles, I don’t think we’d have become such good friends. What matters is our ability to be critical, to understand the implications of the images we see. We have to be able to ask why these images in this context, and what those images imply or signify to us, or to someone different from us. We have to be able to ask what the images do. 

It’s impossible to form that question, whether in acts of communication or even in thinking, if the images have become so banal that we barely notice them. Have you ever walked by the wall of an urban construction site and seen it covered in hundreds of posters for music shows, new movies, and theatre pieces? Once it reaches a particular level of saturation, all these advertisements become no more remarkable a part of the fence than its wood and nails. The posters could be publicizing the most terrible things, and we’d notice them at least sub-consciously, as signs of events and trends so ubiquitous, it isn’t worth getting upset about. 

When we stop noticing strange or disturbing or oppressive images of sex and violence in our lives, we accept that strangely disturbing oppression as no less ordinary than rain in a thunderstorm. Carry an umbrella, and you don’t even notice.


  1. I won't comment here on your friend's work (although I'll note she has a very snappy looking blog and I wish her the best).

    Just a few points:

    a. The issue of media saturation. I guess on one hand we might question who gets saturated: people who are very engaged with popular culture, mainly. I just don't think my wife's grandparents, for example, really encounter any of this material. What they do encounter is a lot of reaction to this material, in the form of moralizing jeremiads from cable news people. Young people are probably who we're really talking about, and I suspect there's a big dose of class here too: young people who are being raised with every expectation that they'll reproduce the middle class and be active and independent contributors to society. Not every young person is included in that list, of course! So with a narrower category of people in the mix, I think it remains an important point to consider not necessarily saturation of one specific type of image but rather the broader dynamics of the "market" (speaking metaphorically, or maybe metonymically) -- it's a crowded marketplace where success requires some exceptional quality or fortuitous and contingent configuration. In that context, shock is always in style, but I don't think shock will inevitably be connected to sexuality; there was a while there where people were chattering about virginity promise rings and other displays of shocking non-sexuality. Anyway, just thinking through context rather than content as the key issue here.

    b. On the other hand, we might think in terms of the great political philosopher Vaclav Havel who thought about cultural support for totalitarianism. His idea was that norms get formalized and supported through panorama effects, by which he meant constant but low-level acts of affirmation. His example was the greengrocer putting up a sign supporting the political party -- and the solution is to just not put up the sign, to not contribute to the wallpapering of one's surroundings with reaffirming signals. I would say this idea has leaked into my subconscious and my own reaction to the large amounts of very coarse cultural products in our society is disengagement and a refocusing on material that I value more highly. Which isn't hard to do, since we now have easy access to the best cultural works of all time.

    This isn't a slight on anyone working in earnest on such material, and it's important to think about trends in popular culture and keep an eye on the kids, but I do think we need to a) keep in mind that there are very specific groups receiving very specific and often quite different messages; b) consider our own role in the panorama of mass culture.

    1. Thanks Tom. I was very careful in my choice of the word 'banal,' specifically so I'd echo Hannah Arendt. I think her ideas are going to be more important to my utopias project than I'd originally planned, now that I'm diving into her material in greater depth. Given the context of Eichmann in Jerusalem, she concentrated on opposing the cultural narrative that would paint the ordinary person going along with the horrifying as a monstrous ghoul. Eichmann was simply a better-connected version of that grocer who hangs the Party poster for no other reason than because it's there.

      Could you cite me a couple of the Havel texts where he examines this? I'll put them on the list.

    2. Of banality:

      Lots more to discover on that topic, and I'm glad you're working on it. I've studied the Abu Ghraib affair in some detail and my first thought was that if I happened to have been there then, I would certainly be a war criminal now. We hold soldiers to pretty high standards!

      Of Havel:

      He has two real pieces of political philosophy: The power of the powerless, an essay that got reprinted in many different forms; and Living in Truth, a longer work where he tries to tie the ethic of resistance in The power of the powerless to a more active democratic vision.

      I think he's a great thinker, but that's not how he's normally viewed (for the record). He was a playwright and later Czech president. Famously, in one of his plays (produced in secret) he had a character dressed in plain clothes walk to the front of the stage and act as though he were writing down everyone's names in the audience.

      Since he had a long career and was personally very involved in politics for decades, there's a lot of different perspectives on the guy, but I think a great thinker nonetheless.

  2. As a follow up and in answer to your question, according to my research people do not find Miley Cyrus alluring, but rather feel queasy when looking at these images, hence their exceptionality.