- The American Conservative - http://www.theamericanconservative.com -

Alan Jacobs Takes Me To The Woodshed

Which probably means that’s where I belong. Please read his response [1] to my last post [2].

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.

13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "Alan Jacobs Takes Me To The Woodshed"

#1 Comment By Aaron Gross On May 13, 2013 @ 11:57 pm

It’s not just civilized, it’s American civilized:

According to the agreement, the crowd had permission to poke the model, fondle her, and finger her, but only if they washed their hands and had neatly trimmed fingernails. A fingernail trimmer was available if necessary.

The Marquis de Sade is laughing in his grave.

Really, what is uncivilized about degradation? What civilization has not practiced degradation in various forms?

I’m not saying that this formality is a sign of civilization, either. My guess is that all socially approved degradation is formalized and limited – though not as comically as this was – whether in civilized or primitive societies. What seems especially civilized, especially un-savage, about the degradation here is that it’s so detached and so distant.

#2 Comment By logical atomist On May 14, 2013 @ 1:04 pm

Reading Alan Jacobs (and Rod, who was a more emotional/hysterical and so somewhat less interesting), the last part of his second-to-last paragraph seemed key.

“They are immensely destructive to themselves and to others; they becloud the image of God in which they were made. I do not believe that it is possible to be more uncivilized than they are, though one might be equally uncivilized in different ways. ”

I wondered to what extent their whole experience of reading about this stuff depended on this notion of humans being made in “the image of God”. If you don’t share this rather odd* philosophical notion, then these behaviors don’t appear particularly destructive — after all the sadomasochists are ultimately just playing around. In fact. if it makes them happy and doesn’t obviously harm anybody else, then, prima facie, it looks like a good thing.

Also, Noah shouldn’t worry about this silly “uncivilized” talk. Most people recognize that, for example, ancient Athens and Rome, or early Twentieth Century Britain were more civilized than ancient Israel or medieval France. The Abrahamic obsession with sexual morality is generally a sign of lingering barbarism.

*Consider the motivation for so-called “negative theology” in Christian writers (like Thomas Aquinas), as well as Kant’s distinction between objects as appearance and things in themselves to see why this notion is problematic.

#3 Comment By Anderson On May 14, 2013 @ 2:34 pm

Couple of thoughts – Witt did a good job of making that article hard to forget, though I’d have to reread it to decide whether her personal situation & what she observes really cohere as an essay.

(1) Sex has a good bit of unreality about it. Reality about sex might amount to Marcus Aurelius’s comments on it; surely the species cannot bear that much reality. It’s transgressive: we achieve intimacy by breaking some really strict boundaries about how our bodies interact with other bodies. What the young lady, Penny, allows to be done to her is on a continuum with what normal couples (if there’s ever any such thing as normal sex) do: it’s extreme, but it’s on a continuum, and part of our revulsion may be recoiling from recognition that we’re on that continuum with Penny. She and the people abusing her are not doing something completely unlike what plain-vanilla wives and husbands are doing.

(2) Witt – I started to say “the narrator” – apparently doesn’t believe she can find sexual happiness in a couple. From a Christian point of view, she isn’t wrong. Marriage, and sex in marriage, are not guaranteed to be happy and healthy any more than anything else in this fallen world. Christians can regret Witt’s rejection of the divinely approved channel for sex (a fair description, given Paul’s “better to marry than burn”), but again, even devout, married, non-adulterous Christians are on a continuum with Witt, too.

#4 Comment By Turmarion On May 14, 2013 @ 5:07 pm

I’ve been following this across Rod’s, your, and Alan’s blogs, though I haven’t had any interest in reading the original article (though I’ve read of similar stuff before). I’m not really sure what my take is yet–I need to think about it. I just throw this out, just as maybe point of interest: In the course of drawing analogies, in your original post you compare the stuff in Witt’s article as a “more extreme” version of immersive theater. I had actually read your post on immersive theater a few days ago; and while it fascinating and well-written, it occurred to me that I would have not the slightest interest in such an experience. No matter how good the plot, how well-written and well-staged the show, I don’t want to be that much immersed in a play. I want to watch from a greater distance.

Maybe different people’s temperament is a big factor in this; and perhaps that’s what we’re seeing in the various reactions to Witt’s article too. It’s a thought, anyway.

#5 Comment By Christopher On May 14, 2013 @ 6:39 pm

A problem I have with Jacobs’ post is that “civilized” is an extremely broad term that covers a lot of things.

Is burping loudly and frequently in public uncivilized? Surely.

Is beating random people to death with a club and eating their remains uncivilized? Just as surely.

But other than the fact that they’re both uncivilized, they have little in common, including the question of whether they meaningfully threaten the broader civilizations that they’re part of. It’s not hard to imagine a society that functions well and keeps its people happy despite a lack of taboos against public belching. It’s impossible to imagine a healthy, happy society that has no taboo against murder.

In other words, it’s perfectly coherent to say that some behavior (Whether it be public belching or weird, humiliating sex) is uncivilized but does not demand any strong moral response.

Admittedly, I’m hampered by the fact that I can’t force myself to read Witt’s piece past the first description of Mistress Donna’s thing. Witt is overly focused on little details in a way that makes reading unpleasant and convinces me she can’t possibly have any real insights.

#6 Comment By Fran Macadam On May 14, 2013 @ 9:32 pm

The Marquis has been rehabilitated of late, but obviously not for any change of heart on his part. De Sade’s cleverness was in molesting the minds of his potential readers, even into the far-flung future, giving him a kind immortality. The thought that he could be the corrupter of possibly any number of victims far into the future long after his death was his somewhat unique bequest. Interestingly, Ariel Castro of Cleveland did just what De Sade got away with, kidnapping and confining women and torturing them.

Yet not a few in the academy celebrate (and teach) De Sade as representing the sexual vanguard, supposedly more libertarian than libertine, a progressive and pioneer in the sexual “civil” rights movement.

I’ve had my own San Francisco teachable moments, replete with blacked-out orgy rooms and door-lock size holes waist-height between anonymous cubicles.

I cannot describe it as a positive contribution to freeing the human personality, nor could I recommend it as a learning experience to the uninitiated, due to the very consequences the Marquis deemed so salubrious. But it has contributed to an understanding that no longer denies God.

#7 Comment By Anderson On May 14, 2013 @ 9:40 pm

Alan’s remark —

” it is indeed performance that such people are pursuing: they seek an arena in which they are both actor and audience, observed and observer, while others serve as mere instruments to enable the self-testing”

— again makes me think Nietzsche is worth a look here, as “the problem of the actor” was both important to him and tied up with Wagner for him. And again, is Alan describing anything separate from how sex is for everyone? Is there not always an element of acting? Pretending that physical intimacy is anything more than a metaphor for the spiritual kind … how is that anything other than acting?

#8 Comment By JonF On May 16, 2013 @ 6:10 am

Re: Interestingly, Ariel Castro of Cleveland did just what De Sade got away with

De Sade did not get away with things. He was imprisoned, and in the Bastille. Because he dropping notes out his window (as a nobleman he qualified for the comfier sort of digs, up in a tower) urging the rabble to rise up and free him from tyranny, he was transferred elsewhere shortly before that memorable July day in 1789 when the rabble did rise up.

#9 Comment By Anderson On May 16, 2013 @ 10:46 am

“Witt is overly focused on little details in a way that makes reading unpleasant”

I would have thought that was one of the strengths of her essay, if you mean the unpleasantness of what she saw. Or is the objection to small details on any subject? Do you have the same objection to “Madame Bovary”?

#10 Comment By Joe On May 17, 2013 @ 2:11 pm

“”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.””

You’re on the right path with this part. Even small kids know this stuff when they see it. To give my favorite example: [3]

#11 Comment By GS On May 17, 2013 @ 4:16 pm

“What the young lady, Penny, allows to be done to her is on a continuum with what normal couples (if there’s ever any such thing as normal sex) do: it’s extreme, but it’s on a continuum, and part of our revulsion may be recoiling from recognition that we’re on that continuum with Penny. She and the people abusing her are not doing something completely unlike what plain-vanilla wives and husbands are doing.”

Oh, nonsense.

That’s like saying, I rode a bike as a kid, the X Games is on a continuum with that. No. This is a parallel track, one in which the utter abandon makes it more difficult to achieve actual intimacy with a partner. This is the debasement of something beautiful, a conscious attempt to make it ugly and violent, because those participating, and those watching at home, feel ugly and violent is somehow liberating.

#12 Comment By Erica On May 17, 2013 @ 5:16 pm

Is what Witt describes worse than professional boxing, hockey and football? If so, why?

#13 Comment By Pedro Dias On May 17, 2013 @ 10:43 pm

Wow, this entire conversation is a compendium of unexamined assumptions and unpacked terminology…

“Degraded”? Really? Who has been lowered, against whom, on what continuum, by what means, how measured? I suspect the actress would disagree she has been “degraded”, and that some would presume to disagree with her own judgement, which, in the implicit removal of her self-determination and moral agency, strikes me as far more “degrading” than anything in the video described. In fact, regarding porn generally, it has long seemed to me that the harm to professionals lies less in the thing itself than in the pervasive stigmatizing they suffer outside the industry. They *are* lowered, and we harrumph self-satisfiedly that they do it to themselves, but they don’t, not really: we do it to them.

“Civilized”? What markers of whose norms of “civilization” are transgressed here? What distinguishes civilized societies from uncivilized ones? It strikes me as obvious that sexual permissiveness increases as tolerance, economic leveling, education, health standards, rise. Purely on a correlative basis, without worrying with causality, S&M videos strike me as quite likely the ne plus ultra of civilizational markers. Of course, if one’s understanding of the term “civilized” tends to evoke synonyms like “genteel” and “mannerly”, or even “kind” and “well-behaved”, I’d need someone to justify those – some quite savage cultures are perfectly capable of enforcing codes of behavior. In fact, are usually anxious to.

I understand we’re all beset with throbbing, tumescent indignation-organelles. But I haven’t seen, from anyone in this exchange, an examination of premises: who is being harmed in these videos? By whom? How? And, if we can fill in those blanks, feel free to tackle the next set: what is to be done about this heinous scandal? Why, and to what end? And who then benefits, and who loses?