Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Power and the Piss

A follow-on from the sacrilege post, and Ben's response:

Ben: I was kind of hoping I could argue for disregarding religion as a special category, for eschewing the notion of holiness as a consideration for Art, leaving you to defend the idea of the sacred, just because that would feel like such an amusing reversal of our positions in the Great Religion Debate that it would, I am sure, delight us both aesthetically. However, I believe you have mucked that up by arguing so convincingly above for (a hypostatized) Art's double role as true believer and cynic.

Heh. I could see it going that way, thought I'd derail it before I argued myself into a corner... in a church... with a hymn book in my hand.

I'll deal with the Madonna / Mapplethorpe question here first -- which is, um, actually the Madonna / Andres Serrano question, Serrano being the "Piss Christ" artist rather than Mapplethorpe. Anyway, I'll deal with this first because I think the heretic / apostate distinction is a red herring. While I am making a distinction between culture and religion, it's one that posits religion as one of the discourses that constitute culture, one of the discourses that constitutes individual identity. So Catholicism is as much a cultural tradition as it is a religion. The old platitude that "You can take the boy out of the Bible-Belt, but you can't take the Bible-Belt out of the boy" is relevant here, in so far as I don't think you can simply jump ship from one religion to another and reset your psyche to a tabula rasa. You will always be a native of your culture in some important respects.

Let me try and thrash out what I mean though.

For the sake of argument, let's say that Serrano (who was also raised strict Catholic) would also, like Madonna, be best described as apostate rather than heretic, traitor rather than revolutionary, that in the same way Madonna has defected to *ahem* "Jewish" *ahem* "mysticism" *cough cough*, Serrano abandoned his native faith entirely for balls-out atheism (I have no idea, but, as I say, for the sake of argument...). It might be seen by some as abrogating your right to criticise the community you've abandoned if you gave up a similarly formal cultural membership like nationality, for example, by emigrating to another country. You've given up your citizenship. Who are you to pass judgement? You're no longer a member.

But if that country is South Africa under apartheid, say, and you consider it intolerant to the point of insufferable, I think you're entitled to save your skin first, get the hell out, and then, from a nice, tolerant (and perhaps crazy, red-Kaballa-ribbon-wearing) country, speak up against the repressive mechanisms of the state you've rejected. Indeed, your anger might be fuelled by this self-imposed exile because there is much about that country that you love and cherish, the beauty of the land itself, a land you consider home. It's not the land that you hate but the system that has been imposed upon it.

I think this is often the case with sacrilegious art. Hell, I think it's the case with my somewhat sacrilegious art (and why I continually end up in Great Religious Debates :->). The drive to to challenge, to confront, may be voiced as an opposition to the whole religion (or the whole nation), Catholicism (or South Africa) such that the sacrileger is basically saying, let's tear this whole shit-house down and start again. They may even have an ideal(ised) notion of another system that could be built in its place -- atheism or Kaballababble (representative democracy or divination-by-cuckoo-entrails). But I think there's often an underlying desire to reclaim the sacred domain (the land). Because your roots, cultural and familial tell you that this is home, and you can't help but feel a loyalty to those still living there. You know that the people living there are human beings, so empathy-plus-ethics tells you that you've got to try and persuade them to either leave like you (and that imperative won't end until the religion/country is empty) or advocate for the overthrow of the system itself, so that your homeland, your native culture can be rebuilt as something less oppressive.

The "Piss Christ" is interesting in this context because visually it's actually quite sensitive, quite beautiful. With no knowledge of the title whatsoever, no knowledge of the liquid used, I'd say, a devout viewer's response might well be positive. This is an attempt to show the mystery of Christ, the other-worldliness, the state of suspension between material (solid) and spiritual (air), how that becomes a liminal existence. Is that murkiness, a Christian might ask, how Christ experienced our "unclear" world? It ties into many of his teachings about our "occluded" state, I'd say. But add the knowledge of what it actually is, call it "Christ in Urine" and you shift the message to something more controversial but still arguably Christian. After all, if God is -- as much of the Gospels tell us -- everywhere, in everything, isn't he also in urine. In so far as Jesus was made flesh and blood, born in a stable in straw and donkey-shit, lived his life among the beggars, cripples and criminals, rejected asceticism, equated wine and bread with his spirit and body and thereby sanctified food and drink as if to say that even the most basic biological acts may be holy, and eventually died beside a common thief in an execution reserved for the lowest of the low -- in this sense, a "Christ in Urine", I'd argue, could easily be seen as an attempt to reassert that core message. And change that title to "Piss Christ" and the message becomes fiercely passionate. Stripped of euphemistic or clinical terminology, rendered with an unashamed vulgarity, Serrano's title becomes a direct challenge to the aspect of the religion which now rejects the low, the base, the vulgar. It's challenging the very "Christianity" of the offended, not in the sense of saying that "it's piss", I think, but in the sense of saying that if you recoil in horror at the disrespect of the juxtaposition, you are not a true Christian. This is my reading of "Piss Christ". It may not be what Serrano intended but I think the work supports it.

Whether the "Piss Christ" is saying this from a heretical or apostate perspective is not, I think, terribly relevant. Whether we read this sacrilege as saying, "rebuild the temple my way" or "tear the fucker down completely", it still reads to me as an attempt to reclaim the sacred domain. It doesn't matter if the sacrileger is in here in the market or out there in the desert, a rebel or a deserter, a heretic or an apostate, they're still a prophet crying out against the wicked priests.

So, I don't think that Madonna and Serrano can be classed as appropriators in the way that they could as Muslims or Jews or Hindus or Buddhists. This, of course, raises the question -- what if they were? But before I get to that, let's deal with another alternative scenario. What if Catholicism was a tiny cult of a marginalised community? Would I still support the "Piss Christ" if it was in a context where Serrano was most clearly not attacking a dominant culture?

So. The question of power.

And I submit that it's disingenuous to deny that the issue here is power. Were the Mayans dominant, cutting out the hearts of Baptists atop their ziggurats, you would be, I submit, more sympathetic to a "Piss Yatoch K'un" than a "Piss Christ". Were the Ojibwa the dominant power in North America, a "Piss Dreamcatcher" from a Fox-loving apostate would command your "fuck yeah!"

Actually I agree that the issue in the case of sacrilege is power, but it's the power differential between the religion and the individual rather than between the dominant culture-as-community and the marginalised culture-as-community that's the deciding factor for me. Even if the Mayan culture had a tiny stronghold in a minute corner of Mexico, where they were cutting out the hearts of their own, I'd support a "Piss Yatoch K'un" created by a Mayan apostate. If the Fox controlled most of the North American continent without recourse to slavery while the Ojibwa had a tiny territory from which they raided nearby Fox tribes for slaves, that apostate who created the "Piss Dreamcatcher" would still get my "fuck yeah!" It's not so much that I'm trying to tease power out of the discussion as that I'm trying to find the actual power differential that is most relevant (to me) in the different types of acts that get lumped together as cultural appropriation. To that extent, I think it's important to challenge this specific idea that the sacrilegious act is validated by the dominance of the culture it's committed upon -- dominance in terms of its relationship to other cultures, that is. So it's not because the Ojibwa are marginalised as a culture that I see no justification for a "Piss Dreamcatcher"; it's because I see no use of those dreamcatchers to justify slavery in the present-day, no association of the artefact with tyranny that would justify sacrilege as statement.

I've got no desire to fall into that romanticism trap, btw, so I should probably have been more rigorous, made it explicit that in the presence of "tyrannical power-structures" all bets are off; I meant to give a culture I know little about the benefit of the doubt here, rather than suggest that the New Age "respect" is actually founded on an accurate representation -- hence the caveat vis-a-vis New Age perceptions and the "if" attached to "fair assessment". A major reason I single out the dreamcatcher as a point of contrast is exactly to do with that sort of lack of knowledge.

This does open us back up, I think, to a point where we can talk about the power differential between dominant and marginalised culture and how it does or does not validate (sacrilegious) appropriation, because it brings us to the question I posed above -- what if Serrano was raised Muslim or Jew or Hindu or Buddhist and came to us with his "Piss Christ" from that perspective? Or inversely, what if he were a devout Catholic and gave us a "Piss Mohammed" or "Piss Moses" or "Piss Shiva" or "Piss Buddha" (or "Piss Yatoch K'un" or "Piss Dreamcatcher" for that matter)?

Now I do think the power differential becomes hugely important here, but is it important as a thing in and of itself, or is it because of its effect on the motives and results of appropriation? I think there's a compelling case to be made that, by and large, an appropriator from a dominant culture carrying out such an act is likely to be doing so for negative motives and to negative results, that historically such cross-cultural sacrilege is motivated by misrepresentation and discrimination and aimed towards furthering misrepresentation and discrimination. In this sense, appropriation as a hostile act is functioning as a means to an end. You're absolutely right that power is important here. From the oldest civilisations to the present day, stealing a culture's holy artefacts has been an act of psychological warfare, an attempt to disempower.

To that extent any such act has a charge to answer with regards to motives and results. That's the focus of my "voudon ritual" example in the original post. And your example of control of commodification as regards the dreamcatcher (versus the historical "deal" involving smallpox, forced marches, etc.) ties into my own references to theft and swindling as entirely unethical appropriations. (And the fact that appropriation as a means of generating wealth is all but excused in the capitalist system -- where the power-differential can be passed-off as a difference in competitive nous rather than privilege -- and whether and how you can actually prevent this sort of Robber Baron exploitation without any sense of "communal property" -- is a meaty topic we've hardly touched on). But, yes. Power.

You're right, of course, btw, that my "ethics is aesthetics" stance makes a lot of my sacrilege notion look like it's about, well, tacky versus cool, imitations versus the "real thing". Ethics is the aesthetics of behaviour, as far as I'm concerned, "good form". But I think, applied to motives and results -- and with the power differential firmly in mind -- that notion of ethics can go deeper than just dismissing the commodified dreamcatcher as "tacky" like a galleria art snob; and it's not an either/or situation in which the exploitation is an alternative, contradictory reason for condemning the commodified dreamcatcher. It all becomes a part of the how of the aesthetic form's use. So, OK, yeah, I'm sentimentalising the ritual (and, yes, the actual belief involved in "don't worry, kiddo, this will catch your nightmares" is probably more analogous to that involved in telling kids about Father Christmas, the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny than to that involved in telling them that Jesus will be watching over them when they sleep, say), so there's an extent to which my criticism is about the crassness of commercialisation, the puerile attitude of the adult consumer, and other such aesthetic crimes (like spelling "aesthetic" without the "a"; man, that's just ugly! :->). But it's like the appropriation of Santa Claus (another icon in the "public sacred" domain which stands for a conceit rather than a true belief) by Coca-Cola; it's not simply that this "cheapens" the cultural product, but that it transforms the way it's used. I find it hard to look at an image of Santa Claus without having that fucking "holidays are coming" jingle in my head, which is exactly what Coke want -- a powerful positive association. And I find it hard to look at a dreamcatcher without thinking "New Age bullshit", which is exactly what the Ojibwa, I would think, don't want -- a powerful negative association. And the one leads to more actual power for Coke, less actual power for the Ojibwa.

Anyway, yes. Power.

So I am -- I stress -- in no way attempting to suggest that appropriation not being intrinsically wrong means that it's just neutral, so forget it. Indeed, in saying that it is intrinsically neutral, that it should be viewed as an act in and of itself, applicable in contexts other than between a dominant and a marginal culture, I'm saying that it gains its value of rightness or wrongness from the context. So where the context involves a power differential it is within this power differential that we must look for how this makes the appropriation right or wrong. To me this actually focuses us on the important thing -- the power differential -- and the specifics of the context -- the motives and results, the misrepresentation and discrimination -- where collapsing context and act into a shorthand concept only succeeds in saying "this is bad; don't do it".

As long as we do this someone will always ask "but why?", and we will never be able to give them a straight answer.

That answer is, indeed, "power", but if we focus on the act, with its definition so closely focused on cultural integrity, communal rights, we lose sight of the context of power differentials, misrepresentations and discriminations, blinker ourselves to alternative contexts of more complex power differentials, positive representations and attacks-on-discrimination where that act may take on an entirely different value. The very assumption of a power differential being between a dominant culture and a marginalised culture forgets that what we are dealing with here is individuals, that it's individuals who carry out the acts and individuals who suffer the results.

Maybe this is because I'm of a group whose members are subaltern in relation to most any culture they might belong to, dominant or marginalised. Being queer puts you in a group which, lacking the automatic familial cohesion of ethnicity, religion or other such inherited cultural bonds, can either construct itself into a set of sub-cultures, sub-communities within (and perhaps linking between) those communities, or exist as a set of non-culturally-bonded individuals each subaltern to the culture they identify with. This changes the whole situation when it comes to appropriation.

The point is, my position is such that as a member of the dominant culture attacking my own dominant culture with an act of sacrilege I can either validate that with reference to the power differential between the dominant culture and the marginalised individual or with reference to the power differential between cultures, dominant and marginalised. To do the latter requires me to identify with a "gay community", which may well render me "apostate" as far as the dominant culture is concerned. Those who would say "this doesn't matter; that's the dominant culture, so it's valid" are supportive and well-meaning, but their words only fortify the defences of the dominant culture by allowing them to deny that a) they are actually dominant (by characterising themselves as a minority); b) this is valid (by pointing to the inherent double-standard).

These are the practical issues I've already gone over though, so I won't repeat myself. Another, more crucial, difficulty here is that this places loyalty to the marginalised culture in opposition to loyalty to the dominant culture. And where that marginalised culture is a construct rather than an ethnicity, it is more difficult to justify the choice of loyalty as affirmation of one culture rather than rejection of another. It becomes necessary to argue -- quite possibly incorrectly -- that one is "born gay", that it is "not a choice", in order to validate one's (divided or repositioned) loyalty as being loyalty to something other than an artificial, anti-societal sub-culture.

This viewpoint is even more problematic though when it comes to a member of a marginalised culture attacking their own marginalised culture with an act of sacrilege. To validate this by the same logic requires a recharacterisation of the marginalised culture as dominant in relation to the sub-culture. This is no great logical leap, and it theoretically leaves the doubly-subaltern in the same position of validity as the singularly-subaltern. We can still say "this doesn't matter; that's the dominant (straight) culture, so it's valid". But by this logic, only a native member of that marginalised culture is in the clearly valid position. By this logic, a queer member of the dominant culture is on dubious ground if they, rather than a native member, attack the marginalised culture with an act of sacrilege.

Are they "not appropriating" because they are subaltern in respect of sexuality, or are they "appropriating" because they are dominant in terms of ethnicity?

In order to validate this as "not appropriating" we have to scale up the idea of a gay culture from a local "gay community" to a universal "queer nation". If we do so, however, we may well end up with a "queer nation" that vastly outweighs many marginalised cultures in terms of populace and resources. Within that culture many of the members will be coming from backgrounds of great privilege in comparison to straight members of ethnically marginalised cultures. Where those members use that privileged background (better access to education, funds, contacts in the establishment, etc.) to establish themselves in positions of power within the community, to shape the culture of that community, what you may end up with is a culture that, in relation to ethnically marginalised cultures can only be percieved as dominant and dominating.

Does this then, paradoxically, entirely invalidate any such attempts to undermine institutionalised, religiously-validated homophobia within marginalised culture by acts of sacrilege, rendering them automatically illegitimate as cultural appropriation? Does this, in fact, invalidate any attempt to tackle homophobia within those marginalised communities -- whether by imposing legislation, criticising prejudice, advocating change or simply supporting the queer subaltern trying to do this from within -- as cultural imperialism?

Many within those communities would, I think, argue that it does.

The very concept which seeks to articulate the wrongness of prejudice thus becomes a mechanism by which systems of prejudice are maintained. The very concept which seeks to protect the subaltern becomes a denial that I, as a member of a dominant culture, have the "right" to attack the marginalised cultures in which those subaltern are persecuted. By protecting the very artefacts and aesthetic forms of culture which are used to validate prejudice and persecution, it denies me, or anyone in a similarly privileged position, the right to attack the aspects of systems that play, I think, a crucial, central role in perpetuating persecution and which, I think, I am most equipped to deal with as an artist. You know what I'm going to say here, right?

Fuck that shit.

So what if we want to argue that this sacrilege is valid? It becomes an exercise in excuses and exceptions. Well, this culture is marginalised, so it's appropriation, so it's bad, except that the gays within that culture are more marginalised, so it's good, except that it's the gays outside that culture who're imposing their own values, so it's bad, except that they're doing it to help their fellow gays, so it's good, except that it's harmful to the marginalised culture, so it's bad, except that culture is homophobic, so it's good, except that it's still appropriation, which is just bad, except that it's fighting homophobia, which is just bad, except that being an appropriator makes you part of the problem, which is bad, except that being homophobic makes you a part of the problem, which is bad... and so on, ad infinitum.

I don't think we can afford the luxury of that intellectual white noise. I'm personally not interested in arguing over how subaltern I am with respect to every other culture, dominant or marginal, on the planet, and whether or not I'm engaged in appropriation if I blah blah blah blah blah.

Absolutely it's all about power, but it's individuals who wield power and individuals who are denied power. And if the concept of cultural appropriation grants any marginal culture's equivalent of Jesse Helms the power and privilege to say that an individual is a second-class citizen because of their sexuality, and takes away the power and privilege I have to piss on his sacred whipping-post, I reckon we're working with a concept that's FUBAR, that needs to be stripped down and overhauled. Not scrapped. Not by any means. But rebuilt from the ground up.


As a (hopefully brief) postscript, to address your other point(s):

There are few religions less heirarchical, in the strict sense of "religious practices and products are reserved to the class A, denied from the class B, within the religion" than American Bible-belt Protestantism.


Nor is a cross an artifact which is reserved for use by the priesthood; indeed, for European premodern peasantry or in villages in the Christian third world today, it is precisely the sort of thing parents make and hang up over the beds of their children to protect them.
You're dead right here.

On the one hand you have a religion that's a product of exactly the sort of Dionysian rebellion I'm talking about, in which the sacred domain was reclaimed from the priests. Think of the translation of the Bible, the smashing of "Papist idols", the rejection of indulgences, and on, and on, and on. It's kind of ironic that Jesse Helms would be outraged at the "Piss Christ", given that it's not just a cross, but a crucifix, which is itself, in early Protestant terms, a sacrilegious idolatry.

And on the other hand, you have an aspect of Catholicism in which it clearly demonstrates its own affinity with the sort of "public sacred" domain I'm positing. You could extend this to statues of saints, rosaries and other such personal (anthropologically speaking) fetishes. In some sense, what I'm talking about here as a public sacred domain can be made sense of in terms of a fetishistic component to religion -- gods of the hearth and kitchen magic.

So does this undermine my argument about sacrilege being based on taking an item out of a sacred domain defined in terms of where, when and by whom a sacred item may be used? Where is the hierarchy of elect claiming to themselves, and only themselves, the privilege to use these items in the only correct context?

In both cases, I do think we can see an attempt to lay claim to a privilege of proscribing and prescribing the use of such items, but they're almost mirror-images of each other in approach. Protestantism, having stripped away the multi-level hierarchy of Catholicism, has replaced it with a two-level system based on demagogues and their congregations, in which the sacred domain is defined largely in negative terms -- things that nobody is entitled to do. Its attitude seems to me to be similar to that of Islam or Judaism with regards to key words and images. Nobody can say this -- that's blasphemy. Nobody can represent this -- that's idolatry. It's maybe interesting (and definitely necessary in order to be fair), in that sense, to look at a distinction in these three forms of monotheism between the demagogues like Jesse Helms, Fred Phelps, etc., whose position seems to depend on having things that they can persuade others to be outraged about, and the non-demagogues -- those ministers, imams and rabbis who are following the model as intended (or at least, as it seems to me to be intended), performing in a ministerial capacity to their congregation.

I think my own Protestant-bound upbringing -- seeing from an early age the abhorrent "Reverend" Iain Paisley playing demagogue just over the water in Northern Ireland, seeing a strong strain of that type of demagogue in Calvinist Protestantism thoroughout Scotland (especially focused in the "Wee Frees" up North), and gradually getting clued-in to the prevalence of this type of character in American Protestantism -- Pat Buchanan, Pat Robertson, etc., etc. -- has focused my attention on that distinction between demagogue and minister. Seeing it also in the radical imams at the heart of Muslim fundamentalism, and in the major forces of 20th Century politics, I wonder if the demagogue is perhaps the most adaptive form of the latter-day Pentheus in the Modern era, the age of mass-communication. I think that might well be the case, and -- together with the focus on the "Word" as God-given (which lets the demagogue characterise themself as the mouthpiece of God, simply telling his Word as it is) and the focus on (potentially violent) suppression of dissent in much of that Word -- I think that's why these demagogues seem to me a dangerous enough threat to warrant sacrilege.

Flipping the coin to look at Roman Catholicism, there's much to the "folk religion" aspect of it, the focus on this "public sacred" domain that appeals to my heathen sensibility. It has so many neat toys in all those rosaries and Russian icons, statues of the Madonna and the saints. In many ways Protestantism threw the baby out with the bathwater when it went all iconoclastic on Catholicism's ass during the Reformation, Europe's Cultural Revolution, complete with pre-Maoist Maoism. But at the same time you do still have this hierarchical system which, even as it grants the laity their fetishes, their public sacred aesthetic forms, redirects the reverence for material things into a reverence for the Church as material manifestation of "God's Kingdom". One must go to a priest in the confession booth, to have the correct use of the rosary prescribed to you. The icons are in altarpieces. Tha Madonna and the saints map the hierarchy of the "Mother" Church and its bishopric. While many of those saints are appropriations of pagan deities who would have had their own temples, their own cults, they now serve as subordinates in a unified system. Everything feeds in to that single power-structure with the Pope at the top of the pyramid scheme dispensing doctrine in a similarly demagogic fashion to the self-elected leaders of Protestantism.

Does this not happen in other religions, those of marginalised "pagan" cultures, polytheistic, dualist or monotheistic? I'm quite sure it does. So is it more about these religions being part of the dominant culture than any difference in terms of "tyrannical power structures"? In some senses the expansionist policy of Christianity and Islam does mark them out as fundamentally imperialist threats to marginal cultures, does make it about the power-differential between the dominant and the marginalised at a cultural level. But I'm more concerned, and always will be, I think, about the effects on individuals rather than on cultures.

The scale makes it more important but it's in the structure that the problem lies, if that makes sense.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know, I was going to spell "esthetic" with an "a", but then I thought that might be considered appropriating your (British) people's cultural forms. *blink* *blink* *innocent smile*

Good clarifications and elucidations. I agree that only by careful attention to power in its effects on particular individuals, and not by any general "whose community has more subaltern points" calculus, can the clockwork of oppression be disassembled.

I don't have much more to say beyond "all righty then" and "hmm, yes, though there is more than one thing to be worried about".

Also, I am pleased to see you make the distinction between ministers and demagogues, and you might want to add Buddhism to your list of expansionist religions; and I would argue that though expansionist religions -- and more broadly, expansionist ideologies, like Marxism or liberalism -- and expansionist cultures -- are dangerous, they are also potentially valuable. As with representation and appropriation, I think it muddies things to think of cultural expansionism, proselytizing, meme diffusion, etc as bad in and of themselves, rather than arguing, case by case, whether they are bad in their effects.

8:03 pm  

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