Monday, 3 September 2007

Does a Culture of Transgression Lead to Social Decay?

Succinctly put, the answer to the above question I choose would be "no, not necessarily". Those who claim otherwise, Habermas once made comparable observations regarding Daniel Bell's The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, haven't factored into account the contingency that arises, not so much as a result of immanent critique, but as an immanent property of the social itself: an empty space at the heart of democracy that can never be filled. This structural principle should also serve as a reminder of the "blindspot" my previous post picked up on relation to Luhmann's work. Things can always be seen in another way because of the contingent position of the observer. So here too is an opportune moment to clarify my position in the previous post, and indeed to also rationalise my choice of a particularly atrociously puerile picture to illustrate this post (not unrelated to Girls and Corpses or Bizarre Magazine, a kind of Viz or Ralph magazines for the Adam Parfrey crowd, encompasses many of the fetish areas of a "culture of extremism" I critically examine in ths post. Of course, the images are faked- not that it isn't really saying anything that the taboo breaking teen sex "comedy" Weekend at Bernie's touched on more than a decade ago).

Unfortunately, a somewhat windy theoretical digression is in order first of all. It is also the case that transgression aka "extreme culture", can be classified as a response to cultural crystallisation. In this case though, here respecting some of the strictures that should be placed on "reflexive" critique in relation to transgression as a cultural phenomenon, it should be noted that explanation, reduction to the status of an object, would come at the expense of the extreme. Such an account would suffer from not reflecting on its own relationship to the extreme, the excitement of its own vicarious participation. In other words, the latter's associated distinction between restriction and transgression is open to interrogation by an entire army of Lacanians and poststructuralists who would insist that social structures and strictures are themselves fuelled by libidinous excess. Derrida, for one, engaged with the issue of what he called "the mystical foundations of authority", where he found the "violent force of Law".

What might need more follow up work therefore is a questioning of the adequacy of Noy's prescriptions in the article on Ballard and transgression I've pasted below, for becoming more "banal". Should we rather place greater faith in the democratic distinction between probability and potentiality, or is this itself compromised by the re-entry and blindness that a Luhmannesque observer might choose to comment on?

Difficult questions, but they may at least provide some entry points for situating contemporary anthropologists and geographers of "extremism", who may be [un]consciously walking in Bataille's footsteps. I'm thinking here of people such as Alphonso Lingis, (who sounds the catchcry, "the unlived life is not worth examining!), and Nick Middleton (his Going to Extremes is a four-part series in which writer, presenter and Oxford geography don Nick Middleton visits the world's hottest, coldest, wettest and driest inhabited places).

I would also hope that they may help ratify my own sense that the culture of transgression/extremism is, by and large, actually rather patriarchical and boring. Can it accomplish anything other than solicit another round of prohibition and transgression? This thought occurred to me when, not too long ago, I was thumbing through an issue of The Wire, and they remarked on how the power electronics group Whitehouse were not only boring, but they also proved that transgression does not work. It may well be that considerable mileage could be drawn from these insights with respect to Adam Parfrey's efforts in his Apocalypse Culture books to chronicle extremism in its various forms, including, for example, necrophilia, serial killers, GG Allin, Anton LaVey, Joe Coleman, to say nothing of snuff films, pornography, mondo filmmaking etc etc.

As far as sociohistorical contextualisation goes, Patrick Brantlinger's Bread and Circuses: Theories of Mass Culture As Social Decay is a text probably easiest to find in a university library. The analogy of today's culture with Imperial Rome's favoured means of entertainment is revealed as having a long pedigree, claimed by people on every point of the political compass. I recall my own earlier posting on Colin Wilson, who in his modestly titled (!) Criminal History of Mankind had danced around some ideas comparable to Abraham Maslow's "hierarchy of needs"; once the basic needs of food and shelter are taken care of, Mankind [sic] needs to, you know, attain higher levels of self-realisation based on creating meaning, otherwise societies devolve to the level of Rome (see, they had already conquered everything, so they lapsed into decadence). Even Richard Sennett flirts with some of this when he emphasises the need for new forms of urban planning that will increase people's sense of disorder, for without it, here drawing on Freud, organisms will sicken due to lack of stimulation. Of course it goes without saying that he would hesitate to endorse Wilson's solution that the "nanny" state should simply be rolled back. Afterall, his greater interest in Flesh and Stone is an examination of the virtues of republican citizenship, think Hannah Arendt, a matter of no interest to Wilson's sweeping historical generalisations.

Thanks to Dave Boothroyd, I've uncovered evidence of some of the forms interest in extremism takes in both academic and popular forms. Unfortunately I was unable to find a pic or a mpeg of the obnoxious marketing cartoon character called "Poochie", who featured on an episode of The Simpsons, and used the catchcry "Go to the extremes". Despite this, I think this is enough to convey my points about how banal and widespread this kind of injunction has become:

A primer on the anthropological cultural research of Nancy Scheper Hughes and Lawrence Cohen ("Extreme Research"):

Speaking of Nick Middleton, one wonders, reading between the lines of this superb article, "Welcome to Anthrax Island", if this scenario could be the logical arc of the transgressive continuum (it would, for example, connect Ballard's later themes of transgression with his earlier apocalyptic works i.e. stripped back survivalism, depopulated vistas, ecological catastrophe etc):

Wikipedia entry on "the cinema of transgression":

Doubting Damien [Hirst]

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