Category Archives: The Ethics of Immanent Creation

On Appropriation and Art

I’ll probably have more to say on this topic with time–something about Picasso’s use of African imagery to fuel his own creative processes, the Japonisme style in France, Duchamp’s readymades, etc–but for now I just want to draw your attention to a very singular case:
See here photographer Arne Svenson’s photograph series The Neighbors.  On the presumption that maybe this has been taken down, as it should be, you should know that the content is a number of photographs–quite artistic-looking, for sure–of various neighbors taken through their windows without their knowledge or consent.  (For reasons that should be or become obvious, I will not replicate these photos here.)  The lives of others are appropriated all the time in the creative process, as our own lives and experiences are inextricably linked to others.  Writers do a better or worse job of disguising their real-world inspiration, and this often leads to questionable ethical situations–such as when the real-life Kramer drew flak for actor Michael Richards’ racist outburst.  But in this case, the ethics doesn’t seem very questionable to me.  Photography has long been acknowledged as a complex but threatening gesture, and Svenson’s photographs in and of themselves are threateningly voyeuristic, particularly those directed at people who have the curtains or screen drawn but are still partially visible: they have made a clear gesture toward privacy that should be respected.  But on top of that you have his practice surrounding the photographs–not consulting the ‘subjects’ for ex post facto consent, taking these to a gallery, displaying them, and asking for money.

The intersections of privacy, art, and business have always been muddied in a country whose moral foundations are set against each other, but it seems clear to me that the rule we should follow here is the same one we follow with other ethical gray areas: consent.  What we have here is not only a lack of consent but a celebration of the invasive gaze, that sees people when they are feeling week or trying to remain hidden.  Although in itself very creepy, the act of photographing could at least have been mitigated by getting the consent of the people involved, but that is the exact opposite path from the one Svenson took.  The appropriation and exploitation of the lives of others may be an important part of art history, but it should remain in the past.


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On Writing Unpleasant Women

Hi, sorry it’s been so long, but I’ve been dealing with a number of things that have kept me away from posting.  Anyway, I just wanted to through out some quick thoughts on an issue that has come up several times recently.

In a novel I’ve been working on for a while now (since at least June of 2011, not counting pre-development), the two lead characters are both women.  They are also both, to various degrees, pretty unpleasant people.  Having had the first draft out for a while now and gotten some feedback, it’s striking to me that the number one feedback I get keeps being that these characters are pathetic, disturbing, disgusting, etc.  I’ve also had a couple people point out that this might be a bad thing–after all, the reader has trouble identifying with them, and is it really a good thing to have characters who are female–and what’s more, potentially queer–be unlikable?

The thing is, I knew these characters were unlikable.  This was always intentional, writing in a long tradition of books like The Cement GardenAmerican PsychoNotes from the Underground, etc.  But I hadn’t expected my readers to be surprised by this idea, that these characters might be unlikable.  Of course, the big distinction is that in all of the cited examples, the main characters are white hetero males.  Now, I’m sure there are plenty of unpleasant leads who are female, but all the ones I’ve read, at least for longer pieces (short stories always have more leeway), were written by female authors.  I think it’s a sign of privilege, of the state of how we receive characters, that white male characters are ‘allowed’ to be horrible people, whereas anyone outside that demographic (and my characters are not particularly far from normative either) is seen as somehow representative.  If you write a woman, you are understood as writing all women.  The same applies to a greater degree with race, and to an even greater degree with non-normative gender and sexuality.  It’s frightening just to think about the pressure of writing a trans character, where every action and word would no doubt be picked apart by readers from all over the political spectrum.  Now, this is naturally part of the experience of being anything but a straight white male, but it exists twofold with a character, since that character is being judged both in their world and as a character in a book.  Just look at the backlash to Silence of the Lambs--why is it that a transvestite serial killer can’t exist*?  The obvious answer is because in the real world, transvestites are demonized enough, and the image of a transvestite serial killer only adds to that.  But at the same time, saying that you can’t have a transvestite serial killer in a major motion picture limits what a transvestite character can be, makes them into more of a representation of their gender practices than a realistic purposes.  For the needs of mimetic art, this is problematic to say the least.

What’s the solution here?  I’m not sure that there is one, or at least that there is one easily available.  It’s the same issue raised when people make jokes about the idea of a colorblind society: as long as racism/sexism/general bigotry exists, we need to be aware of it, but that awareness is nonetheless part of that system.  The only solution I can see for the time being is to judge each work on its own merits, but at the same time pay attention to larger cultural trends.  I, for example, think that Silence of the Lambs does an excellent job of not demonizing non-normative gender as a whole even while it contains a very unpleasant non-normative character.  It does this a number of ways, including by addressing those gender practices as the behavior of that character (rather than generalizing), showing other characters with non-normative gender (at the very least, Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter), and by grounding the behavior in the world we see in the film.  Other naturally have the right to view the film differently, and many do.  One of the key things we can look toward is a resistance to clichés and tropes.  It seems to me that tropes are the most common way bigoted politics work their way into media.  With regard to the representation of women, just look at the number of pre-existing roles, from femme fatale to loyal housewife to leather-wearing badass to the very unfortunate cliché of the character that gets raped to prompt the male lead to action.  Sure, some of these may seem empowering, but they are nonetheless problematic in that to design a character in order to seem empowering means that you’re denying to them the ability to exist as a character. (Note: this only applies to mimetic literature.  Didactic literature is a whole other ballgame, one that I have largely stayed away from and thus don’t really feel qualified to speak on.)

So this brings me back to my original conundrum: is it okay to write female characters who are unpleasant?  Obviously yes, but with caveats.  In my case, I went into the novel intending to write about unpleasant people, and people who were female, but they were not unpleasant because they were female.  I am sure–very sure, now that I’ve gotten some feedback from readers–that the representations will be offensive to some, but to me it seems unfair to censure the characters’ behavior because of what readers would respond with.  What I have tried to do is ground that behavior in a world and experience, and show where it comes from and what it leads to, and to show realistic behavior rather than tropes either for the positive or the negative.  Nonetheless, I am aware that people are going to read the novel and make negative generalizations about women from it.  A necessary part of looking at characters as thinking, conscious subjects is allowing them a freedom of behavior, even of that behavior may be interpreted differently if they are looked at as objects.


*We’re totally going to ignore the fact that Buffalo Bill is not, according to both the book and movie, technically transgender, because it really distracts from the issue of representation we’re talking about here.

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Are You Responsible for Your Offensive Movie?

This is part of what will hopefully be an ongoing series I’m going to call The Ethics of Immanent Creation, focusing on the issue of creative work within the world–the productive process that gives rise to those things we analyze.  Rather than an analysis or opinion piece, this is meant to be more a rumination, an effort to help outline the problematic I encounter.

This is a conversation I’ve been having a lot lately, so I figured it was worth mentioning on here.  It goes something like this:
Other:  I really like “Independence Day.”
Me:  Yeah, it’s pretty good, but for me it’s a guilty pleasure.
O:  Why?  What’s wrong with it?  I mean, sure, there are some plot holes but…
M:  It’s more the political stuff.
O:  Like what?
M:  Well, how about the ridiculous number of Jewish stereotypes–or general racial stereotypes?  Economic stereotypes, such as with Randy Quaid’s character?  Or the whole ending sequence where we see the little montage of the world’s cliche’s, and of course no one knows what to do until–“It’s the Americans!  They want to organize a counter-offensive!”  “Well it’s about bloody time!”  “True, because we are literally helpless without the big American hyperpower to hold our hand, even in an apparently apocalyptic post-globalization scenario.”  Or how about the fate of the President’s wife, a textbook case of Women in Refrigerators if I’ve ever seen one?  Or the patronizing treatment of Jasmine’s strip-dancing, or structuring the film as a defense of heroic president-icons against conspiracy theories, or–  Well, as you can see, I could go on about this forever.
O:  I mean, I can kinda see what you’re saying, but what, do you think they intentionally put that there?  It’s just a fun action movie, I don’t think they were thinking about the political side of it.
M:  True.  I’m almost certain that Roland Emmerich, who seems to be a very well-meaning idealist sort of fellow, did not go into this project intending to perpetuate racist, sexist, and classist ideology.  Likewise with everyone else involved.  But nonetheless, the movie does this.  The key word here is ‘perpetuate’.  When this was put together, people didn’t think about the implications of what they were saying, in terms of race, because they were putting together a story based out of cultural myths–cliches and tropes, basically.  There’s nothing wrong with this.  Most everything either contains or reacts to cliches and tropes; that’s the fundamental basis of a number of theories of cultural transmission, from Roland Barthes to Richard Dawkins.  But nonetheless it resulted in a movie that is all these things: sexist, etc.
O:  But how can you expect them to be responsible for that?  Are they really responsible for the sorts of messages that get put into the story if they’re not even aware of them, if they’re not done intentionally?
M:  I don’t know.  This is why it becomes useful to talk about that idea of ‘originality’, which often means taking a critical look at the cultural myths we rely on.  Sure, by now the idea of another revision of traditional fairy tales or something might seem outdated and overplayed–except that Disney and company are still churning out replications of the unfortunate elements of these myths, and people are so used to it that they actually regard something like “Brave” as being feminist!  When someone is making a work, they are either replicated myths–and this can, generally, be called lazy storytelling–or they are critiquing those myths, even if their critique is just the refusal to use them.  So when I’m picking on Roland Emmerich, what I’m really doing is accusing him of lazy storytelling, but also pointing out that this laziness has political consequences.
O:  So, this is about political correctness?  Haven’t we been dealing with that for decades now–and isn’t it pretty universally loathed?
M:  Except that the term political correctness assumes some absolute, which is one of the reasons that critiques of what the right calls ‘liberals’ love to use the term: it implies that offended defenders of minority groups see themselves as imposing some new absolute rule.  While this may be true of a few, most of us are cultural relativists living instead with the issue of experienced ethics.  So perhaps the term ‘political responsibility’ would better convey what I’m trying to say: these people are responsible for their political content.  By saying that something is just a fun action movie, you can try to excuse that political responsibility, but it’s still there.
O:  But how is their responsibility?  It’s not like people are going to get their morals from watching “Independence Day”…
M:  Would that it were so.  But think back to your own childhood, assuming you grew up in some sort of normative United States-style experience: you were exposed to a lot of movies like “Independence Day”, songs like “Ignition (Remix)”, books like “Harry Potter”, games like “Duke Nukem” and you probably watched, listened to, read, or played these things repeatedly.  If you were anything like me you ran around the playground shouting, “Welcome to Earth!” and punching imaginary aliens.  In doing these things, you were re-enacting, you were learning how to perform cultural positions.  A lot of kids learned what it meant to be American from movies like “Independence Day”; is it any wonder, then, that they grow up believing in some myth of American exceptionalism?
O:  But you can’t just blame the films and music and whatnot; the children have to be responsible for what they end up learning as well.  Besides, don’t you like cheesy horror movies, which have traditionally been vilified for their influence on children?  How is this any different from those “Marilyn Manson and Doom caused Columbine” arguments?
M:  I absolutely agree: people are responsible for their individual actions.  What we have to understand is that these actions are overdetermined; they are both entirely the fault of the individuals who enact sexism, etc, and the fault of those who culturally imbue them with these ideas–although that’s a much more diffuse blame.  The classic metaphor is the man who is executed by a firing squad: each shooter would have been sufficient to kill him, yet they all shot him, so the blame is diffuse but the responsibility rests on the shoulders of each shooter.  The difference between these sorts of cultural ideas and something like the Manson-Columbine argument is in presentation.  No one with any vague amount of critical thinking approaches Manson thinking he is dead serious if he says, “Kill!”–it’s clear he’s being transgressive, and his performance carries transgressiveness almost to the point of parody.  I point you to Lukacs and simply say that the act of transgression is in itself a re-affirmation of the law; this is why the sort of ‘political correctness’ that goes after any discussion of drugs, sexuality, race, etc, is not only ineffective but actually harmful.  What is insidious about the sexism, etc, in the films of Roland Emmerich (and just about every other cultural product we enjoy; I don’t want to make too much of a scapegoat of Emmerich) is that it is not framed as a problem; rather, it is hardly framed at all, appearing as the basis and background for what is ostensibly a discussion of mankind uniting in the appearance of a new Other (Godzilla, aliens, ice age, Mayan apocalypse).  It is the way that cliches neither true to current reality nor an ideal reality are mindlessly replicated that I rebel against.  It is unrealistic and harmful.  Is it fair to ask the creators of a fun action film to be responsible for this?  Maybe not, in certain traditional conceptions of fairness.  But someone has to be responsible, and the only figures standing there are the creators.  By creating something, you need to be aware of not only what you do, but what you perpetuate, what you pass on.

Well, this is clearly not exactly 100% accurate to life, but it is indeed patched together out of various conversations I’ve had.  Is it the final word on the topic?  I don’t think so.  I specifically framed this as a dialogue to open myself up to refutation, and if anyone would like to continue the discussion I would be happy to.  But it does seem to me that there’s a good degree of excusing of bad messages that goes on–not the subversive messages that we associate with Eminem and Pussy Riot; the insidious, friendly, destructive messages contained in Meg Ryan movies and the show 24 and “Call Me Maybe”.  This isn’t a matter of  being too ‘politically correct’, it’s a matter of asking people creating cultural products that will be shown to hundreds of millions of people to take accountability for what they put out there.  Perhaps the most egregious violators are advertisers, who naturally have no advantage in telling us anything but exactly what we want to hear–in other words, reinforcing stereotypes, and in doing so defining cultural positions that vastly limit the ability of most people to understand anything apart from the normative message they’ve been spoon-fed for generations.  And we wonder why political change is so hard to achieve.


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