I’m going to have to think about my reaction a bit more, since people I deeply respect came away with a very different emotional response to the piece. But let me make a couple of clarifications.
First, why was I coy about the activities described in the Witt piece? Because I couldn’t think of a way of describing them that would be acceptable in this space, and merely alluding to them as “sludge” or “filth” would be doing exactly what I didn’t want to do. But I suspect Alan is right that this coyness made my argument seem more plausible than it might otherwise have seemed.
Second, would I attend such a thing? I hope not. I don’t think I could stand it. And I don’t want to be able to stand it. It’s not a goal of mine to plumb those particular depths.
But I suspect I could stand looking at images of those goings on (though I don’t think I would be aroused by them). I certainly could stand reading about them – I did. And that was precisely my point about mediated experience. The activities described are financed by the marketing of those images, but the images are not the thing itself. And neither is an article’s description. And in this case, I strongly suspect, a great deal of psychological and cultural significance is going on in that particular gap.
Third, what did I mean by “pretty civilized” behavior? Am I reducing civilization to consent? No – but I may be reducing it to rituals of courtesy, with which the scene that Emily Witt described was replete. Assuming she was describing it accurately, it sounded like a strange and (to me) unappealing culture, rather than an attempt to repudiate civilization. Of course, she may be describing it inaccurately – or I may be reading her wrong. Or my definition of civilization may be wrong. I am open to all possibilities.
Finally: why didn’t I judge the scene itself as morally horrifying? Because I just wasn’t interested in that question. How interesting is it for anyone to hear that I don’t like the ritual degradation of women – even women who (again, assuming the article is accurate) have enthusiastically signed up (not merely consented) for the experience? And what else, really, is communicated by my saying “shame, shame”?
There’s a titillating quality to these ritual condemnations that I distrust almost as much as I distrust the pornographic impulse in art. Maybe it’s as simple as that.
I was interested in Emily Witt after reading her piece. Interested to talk to her. Interested to understand why she felt – this is what I got, in part, from her piece – kind of guilty about not really being on the life-is-to-accumulate-experiences-the-more-the-better train, not being able to articulate what other trains might be. Personally, I don’t think it’s necessary to condemn that particular train in order to talk about what life is like on a different train, or to note that most people quite sensibly prefer to ride different trains than that one. I did not feel pity for her; I felt compassion.