Can we have done with Molly Crabapple at some point soon? The self-appointed house artist of Occupy Wall Street (who cashed in even faster on the left-hip quotient of her radical turn than the most pessimistic of observers of the movement would have guessed for the most cynical of its fellow-travellers) keeps writing these articles about the Photoshopping of models and other female celebrities as some sort of neo-feminist form of détournage. She now writes for – among other things – Vice. I imagine that I don’t need to go into the politics of that. But here’s the latest example of what I’m talking about. Here we go:
To these feminists, Photoshop is to blame to unrealistic body standards, poor self-esteem, and anorexia in teenage girls. The campaign against Photoshop is the perfect cause for white, middle-class women whose primary problem is feeling their bodies do not match an increasingly surreal media ideal.
Ah, right. It’s the fat, lumpy bourgeois ladies that are angry about this – presumably not the ones who used to be topless models. But there’s something that we’re missing about Photoshop, and it’s something to do with out failure to understand Ahhht… Crabapple continues:
Photoshop, the belief goes, takes a true record of a moment and turns it into an oppressive lie.
But fuck Photoshop. Photos are already lies.
I’m a former model and current artist. I’ve learned this every second I’ve stared into the camera’s insect eye.
As we learn in the course of her piece, all photos are lies, therefore participation in the increasing deceptiveness of the form is actually a form of liberation for women, for young girls. The ability to tweak your Instagrams (leaving aside whether it’s a great idea to build up an endless collection of tweaked selfies, pragamatically or self-confidence-wise) is cast as a guerrilla action on the part of young women, canny as they are (clearly, according to Crabapple, as canny as her) in the arts of ironically-distanced self-presentation.
Retouching is post-hoc glamor. Pixels shellac images like makeup on a face. From Photoshop to Instagram, each tech iteration has made retouching more democratic—and more despised. The self-facing phone cam is a master class in how posing affects perception. Media concern-trolls Photoshop’s effect on teen girls. Meanwhile, teen girls use iPhone retouching apps to construct media of themselves.
A teen girl knows the lies behind photography best. When she takes selfies, she’s teaching herself what were once trade secrets. Now she’s the one who angles, crops, and blurs.
Just in case the argument isn’t clear, and you’re not sure which side you’re on, Crabapple drops the bomb – as it were – near the end of her piece.
To get a “true” photo, you need to remove artifice. This means removing art. Art’s opposite is bulk surveillance. Drones, CCTV, ultra-fast-ultra-high-res DSLR, our fingers stroking our iPhones or tapping at Google Glass.
Ok then… So if Photoshop = Art and Art is the opposite of surveillance, to deny the magazines the right to crop women into hourglass magnificence is, what? To advocate the bombing of family get-togethers in Pakistan? Or, at the minimum, to back the imposition of some sort of Airstrip One style CCTV regime?
That is to say, if I’m a little worried that my now eight-year-old daughter is going to start to feel chubby, and thus unselfconfident, and thus worthless, and thus not even in line to become – for instance – an NYC downtown art celebrity due to her incessant bombardment with women as unrealistically rendered as those in the magazines on the supermarket shelves, I’ve supported some sort of Drone War on women – or in fact, implicitly, the Drone War itself. Or is the point that, when she’s inevitably confronted by these insecurities, I should just have her download Photoshop Express onto her iPad and inflate and deflate as needed, until she has the sort of body that buys her a place at the marketplace of culture commerce today?
At any rate, in Crabapple’s rendering of it, the camouflaging of flab, or small boobs, or a pasty face, seems to be tantamount to the secreting of the children away from the Hellfire missiles that drop from the sky in parts far distant from the lower Manhattan where she lives. I guess that’s the sort of conjunction that one has to make to get on with one’s hypocritical existence as the former artist-of-Occupy, on the “entrepreneurial” side of the movement of course, peddling on with the Vice pieces, the bogus art, and, most of all, the position as yet another of our new radical class of post-feminist confidence women.
One might be tempted to think that the end of “net neutrality” might well be counterbalanced by the tendency of all things of the electronic sort to grow and thus outpace the attempts to enclose them. That is, what would a fast-lane really mean in a world in which all lanes are getting faster all the time?
But we’ve learned this lesson again and again in capitalist modernity, during the slow but steady war on all things held in common and distributed equally. The very minute a top-up option is added – and added, as it always is, as simply more good on top of a very good thing – the forces of neglect, disinterest, and deliberate sabotage begin to go to work eroding the old, non-topped up forms. Education, health care, old-age pensions, civil services of every type – it always works the same way. And now, from the looks of it, the internet as well.
Once the mega-corporations (which are getting more mega all the time) who man the pipes can sell special sections of the pipes to the mega-corporations that provide the expensive content, watch to see how long the older, slow-lane sections of the “information superhighway” are under-maintained, full of pot holes and lined with crab grass, despite the toll booth newly erected every few miles.
According to The Financial Times today:
In 1975, more than a decade before the Big Bang that deregulated the City, the average London financial services worker was paid about £3,800 a year, a salary that was outstripped by a sizeable proportion of other professionals. Academics were paid about £5,000, around a third more, while natural scientists and engineers received roughly 10 per cent more than finance workers.
Now the average London financial services salary is about £102,000 including bonuses while academics are paid about £48,000, natural scientists average about £42,000 and mechanical engineers £46,000.
Very strange, and not at all sure what to do with this yet. Might just be a false echo… But as I’ve indicated on here before, I’ve long been fascinated by the final paragraph of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis. Namely…
Beneath the conflicts, an economic and cultural levelling process is taking place. It is still a long way to a common life of mankind on earth, but the goal begins to be visible. And it is most concretely visible now in the unprejudiced, precise, interior and exterior representation of the random moment in the lives of different people. So the complicated process of dissolution which led to fragmentation of the exterior action, to reflection of consciousness, and to stratification of time seems to be tending toward a very simple solution. Perhaps it will be too simple to please those who, despite all its dangers and catastrophes, admire and love our epoch for the sake of its abundance of life and the incomparable historical vantage point which it affords. But they are few in number, and probably they will not live to see much more than the first forewarnings of the approaching unification and simplification.
I discuss it, for instance, in a (strange, wandering) post here. At any rate, I’ve been getting ready to give a lecture today on T.S. Eliot’s essays, and found the following in his 1921 piece The Metaphysical Poets.
We can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.
The play of simplicity vs. difficulty (and the gap of a few very important decades) does make me wonder whether there’s a responsive echo going on in Auerbach. Something to look into… (If only there was a good Auerbach biography in English!) What makes it more interesting, perhaps, is that arch-small-c-conservative Eliot is in the midst of laying out his theory of the “dissociation of sensibility” that somehow happened after the seventeenth century (hmmm) while – if very obliquely – Auerbach seems to be suggesting a sort of “re-association of sensibility” in the aftermath of modernism…
More soon if I can find a way / get a chance to look into this further…
From Hannah Dawson’s review (paywalled) of Margret Grebowicz’s Why Internet Porn Matters in the current issue of the TLS:
Grebowicz […] argues that despite its theoretical potential, internet pornography tends to oppress rather than emancipate. The “free speech” that it embodies still belongs in large part to men, objectifying and subjugating other human beings. The many testimonies of self-empowerment from the “victims” of the industry are matched by first-person reports of misogyny, degradation, rape and incarceration. Rather than opening up an egalitarian space for self-construction, the file-sharing, file-ranking chatrooming online realm is creating communities all the more powerfully by normalizing discourses that preclude our saying anything new or real. “Internet pornography”, writes Grebowicz, “emerges as the perfect manifestation of the babbling political body, the speechless mass, in which every subject is interchangeable for every other, exercising its rights and expressing, more and more, telling us what we already know, climaxing, climaxing, always recognizable and predictable.”
The final sentence of the paragraph rings a bit oddly against what precedes it. While “speechless” sounds ominous, the “babbling” of the “political body” sounds like an only slight pejorative rendition of democracy. Interchangeability is ambiguous too, as it is both the result of capitalism’s reduction of us labourers to replaceable parts and, again, a quality of democratic equality. The exercise of rights, in particular the right to expression, too is of course a staple of the democratic diet. But the point of the paragraph seems to be that porn is underwritten by and a source of profitable reenforcement to the powers that be, in particular, men.
So there’s complexity at play here: internet pornography presents an ambiguous vision of freedom that is subtended by a business apparatus that depends upon the very opposite of freedom. In this, it stands (like so many other cultural products, but more intensely and viscerally) as an uncannily accurate aesthetic mirror – a reflection more than a representation – of the political and economic conditions that obtain today in the world. On the aggregation sites, it seems, everyone has a voice, the cascading streams of thumbnails suggest a world in which all are represented, all represent themselves, and all are of course taking great pleasure in this rhythm of representing and being represented. And the consumer in turn sifts her or his pleasure out of this capacious pot of pleasure-taking and freedom-having. Everyone is equal, ostensibly, in their interchangeability – one’s acts are as free and pleasurable as those of the next. It can start to sound almost utopian, when described this way. But, of course, in the end and as in the world itself, almost all of this performance is stage-managed by those who profit from the exploitation of others. *
Given all this, a few questions to start. First, a quiet aesthetic question posed by internet pornography, perhaps, is what we do with its banality – the fact that it is constantly “telling us what we want to know” – in view that we incessantly come back to taste the banality again. There further is another quiet question, this time politico-aesthetic, about what this banality has to do with the conditions of its production and the means of its distribution.
But beyond these two, there’s an age old matter of ethics – and the ethics of the aesthetic – at play, one that queries the relationship between exploitation and representation, empathy and what we might call “forced performance” which has troubled the better sort of critic and writer since the very beginnings of literature itself, and which manifests itself at certain vividly aporetic moments as history moves forward. (One relatively recent example – Ruskin’s implication that the gothic cathedral is actually more beautiful than the pyramids because of the freedom of the workers who made them. But can that be right? Does free trade coffee actually taste better than that which is more exploitatively sourced?)
How much relieved sexual dissatisfaction is the suffering of a single human being worth? What am I to make of my enjoyment of the fruits of other’s struggles? Does it matter whether I am aware of the mechanics of production of that which I enjoy? How are we to understand the nexus of volition and exploitation, of willed self-exploitation and exploited wilfulness, that underwrites not only pornography but the increasingly illiberal world-space of “liberal capitalism”?
I have a sense that this perpetually recoded algorithm of suffering and enjoyment, repression and representation, is one of the matters that it has always been and still is essentially worthwhile for us to take up. Further, it is a question that has everything to do with the issues at play in the article by J.M. Coetzee that I discuss in this post. But more on that, I promise, soon…. A continuation of this is already in the works…
* Please note that I am – for the sake of starting up a line of thought – side-stepping for the moment several very important issues here. They include the very non-representative nature of porn (obviously not anything like “everyone” is represented there, no matter how many hundreds of thousands of videos exist to be viewed) as well as the extremely complex issues of exploitation and agency in the production of porn. These need to be addressed… but for now, let me just juggle a bit with the terms of the argument and description of the situation as presented in the review I have started from…
Most Americans – me included before I moved here – have a difficult time reading British “class” through accent and its other accoutrements. Sure, there’s My Fair Lady cockneyism on the one side and chinless Royal Familyism on the other, we can detect that, but between lies just a fast undifferentiated middle. Which of course not how British people hear it, not in the least, as they sniff each other out with the subtle discernment of dogs testing each others’ asses.
But on the other hand: Americans are completely indiscernable to Brits as well. They can’t detect the subtle differences of speech and gesture that mark the well-born or earned-through from the other sorts, and all the complicating and obsfucating play that goes on in between. But whereas Americans default to “rich and polished” when they hear Brits, I think Americans are assigned a lower and more ambiguous place in the eyes of my hosts here. The best analogy I can come up with for where we are placed is the way that Dante handles the virtuous non-Christians in Inferno. Greek philosophers and the like aren’t mixed into the bottom, not quite, but they don’t quite merit the middle berthing either.
They are placed in Limbo, for lack of anywhere else to settle them – technically in the game but ultimately not really.