Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Problem with the Culture Wars

Ross Douthat tweaks the noses of liberals, who he says enjoy the culture wars after all.

"Can we officially retire the notion that liberals don’t like the culture war? That it’s something foisted on them by knuckle-dragging conservatives? That they would prefer to only talk about Very Serious Economic Policies, and that they hate the way the right wing keeps dragging the conversation around to sex and God and all the rest of it?

With Christine O’Donnell, as with Sarah Palin before her, American liberals have been confronted with a politician who’s vulnerable to all sorts of possible attacks, and whose record and qualifications and positions provide plenty of fodder for either a high-minded, issues-based critique, or a more no-holds-barred assault on her honesty and integrity. And what do liberals want to talk about? Why, her decade-old comments on masturbation, of course!"

The liberal response would be that the culture wars shouldn’t matter in theory; however, since conservatives hope to legislate morality, one is pressed into active service. Gossiping about Christine O’Donnell’s nutty views on masturbation is hence a defense of liberty, as she’d likely make it illegal if she could- bad news for the justice system since most of the public are repeat offenders.

I’ve never quite sympathized with those on the left who believe that cultural struggles are a “distraction” from the economic issues that “really matter”. Unlike the Marxists, I don’t understand culture as “epiphenomena”, deriving only from the material forces that shape our lives and history. Certainly, our material situation affects the course of our life, yet, so does the culture in which we find ourselves. Culture provides us a rough guide to how to live a meaningful life, and most of us will find that, in spite of our free will, numerous existential potentialities strike us either as realistic or off-limits due more to culture than our intrinsic nature.

The real problem with the culture war, then, is that the stakes are so low.

Gun control? Liberals have mostly abandoned that impossible dream. Abortion laws? Nobody expects Roe V Wade to be overturned, nor should they. Controversial art? The art scene is the province of the super wealthy, effectively removing it from public discussion. Radical professors? Universities are already fazing out tenure, making academics, already some of the most boring people on earth, into timid functionaries. Gay rights? We’re one step away from enshrining them, ending the debate, and finally reducing the fluid vagaries of human sexuality to two boxes on a census form- the monosexuals won.

What’s left? Arguing about whether mall greeters should be made to say “Merry Christmas” or an Islamic center in New York shouldn’t move elsewhere in the interest of sensitivity. There’s same sex marriage, but again the question seems to be whether or not society as a whole will accept one subset of adult middle class couples. Between the right’s hurt feelings about elite condescension and the left’s yearning for widespread tolerance and celebration of diversity, one would think Americans are united in that insipid bourgeois dream of being liked by people that one doesn’t know. To dream the uninteresting dream…

None of these things is a debate about the terms of existence as much as the sorts of trivialities insecure suburbanites worry about. People say that the battles of the culture wars are symbolic of “larger struggles”, and really the largest struggle here is the fight against the collapse of cultural meaning as the last embers of a once dynamic society sizzle out and the inky night triumphs. It’s hard not to feel that there is no space of radical possibility- political or divine- remaining. Another world is no longer possible.

I mean think about it. In terms of love, Americans went from a radical discussion of potential relationships- saving patriarchy or doing away with it, whether open marriages or monogamous ones are more in keeping with our nature, whether divorce is liberating or purely destructive, if free love is even possible- to a tacit siding with conventionality and an argument about whether gays can call their square relationships “marriage” without hurting anyone’s feelings. In terms of faith, we went from an important discussion about the role of the divine within modernity- do we lose some aspect of our humanity within secularism, does a godless universe remove the possibility of free will, is a wealthy nation with no space for spirituality ultimately empty, and has God lost interest in us- to a debate about how not to hurt the feelings of knee-jerk Christians without hurting the feelings of knee-jerk atheists. In terms of labor, we now discuss whether avoiding Wal-Mart is solidarity or snobbery. As for the environment, we choose to shop at Green Incorporated. Feminism, once radical, now does little more than maintain the abortion status quo. Racial debates now involve “visibility” on television shows. It’s not that these things don’t matter. But none of this poses any questions how you, or I, live our lives. All of these debates are about whether our own particular version of the status quo will be flattered or not. It’s hard to be passionate about matters of decorum.

The mythos about the sixties culture wars is that they resulted inevitably from the conformist fifties culture, and yet it’s hard to see Eisenhower’s America as any more conformist than Obama’s. It’s hard to imagine that the generation that embraced television was somehow more stultified or less inspired than that which embraced the Internet. As then, the truly important questions are inappropriate for mixed company. To each his own “lifestyle”.

The problem with the culture wars is that they distract from the culture wars we could be having.


Thursday, September 16, 2010

Movie Notes: Emmanuelle (1974)

Emmanuelle is famous for being a sexually graphic (but not pornographic) film released by a major studio with an X rating and subsequently making a lot of money. It’s not a masterpiece in any sense, although it’s certainly better than most films of this sort; and it is, in many ways, a product of its time (the mid 70s). There’s also a debate about whether it’s a ‘feminist’ sex film. I think it is, but not in any way we would be quick to recognize, which I think says more about the feminist movement than about the film.

Based on the novel by Emmanuelle Arsan, the movie tells the story of a French diplomat’s wife, played by Sylvia Kristel, who moves to Bangkok with her husband and settles into the life of the consular community. This life apparently involves great boredom and diplomatic wives cheating on their husbands. This is not an issue for Emmanuelle, however, because her husband encourages her to take lovers; he’s not jealous but is French.

The film, then, is a story of innocence coming into a world of experience and into her own as a sexual woman. The film has a dream-like and languid tone, and seemingly everyone she encounters is more open sexually than Emmanuelle, from Marie-Ange a young girl who masturbates in front of her to Bee, the bisexual archaeologist who seduces and leaves her, from her husband who encourages her to have sex with others to Mario, an older European decadent who introduces her to opium, underground boxing matches and being sodomized before a crowd. His philosophy holds that all of the limits of bourgeois morality must be transgressed and he becomes sort of a tutor to Emmanuelle. In the end, however, she seems to have graduated and no longer needs anyone in particular to fulfill her sexual desires. Sitting before a mirror in the last shot, she has passed from innocence to experience. Or it was all a dream.

Of course, none of this is particularly realistic or even always coherent. Emmanuelle is clearly a fantasy about female sexuality, and yet it’s strange to think of how rare films like this- an erotic film about a woman coming into her own as a sexually liberated adult- have become. It really is a product of its time. Current mainstream cinema generally portrays adult women as having few or no sexual desires of their own, while pornography is much more often about female degradation than liberation. The sort of argument the film makes is not often heard anymore, especially not in cinema.

That argument: that in order for a woman to be sexually liberated and self-actualized she must have several sexual partners, and so monogamy is anathema to female liberation- well, let’s just say it’s still shocking. Is it feminist? I think it is a valid feminist argument in the sense that it’s a radical statement about female liberation and self-actualization. It is not feminist in the sense that it is not an argument that has been widely embraced by the feminist movement. Some feminist thinkers have said as much, but the feminist movement has tended far more generally towards renegotiating the terms of monogamy than arguing for its abolition. Emmanuelle has more often been read, by feminists, as a male fantasy (written by a woman), since women naturally desire monogamy. Mais, bien sûr!

I think maybe it’s most interesting to see Emmanuelle as a path not taken. Its case is totally valid, in my opinion, but it’s also not one that many people- feminist or not- are willing to side with. At least, not outside of fantasy.