has been blitzed with what Gawker.com, a gossip website, calls “revulse-amusement” and misused for what columnist Andrea Peyser terms a “raunch-fest” — revelry calculated, according to the New York Times, to churn up waves of “ethical nausea.”
After recounting some of the recent seamy media events, such as the O. J. Simpson book and Britney Spears’ unfathomable exploits in public exhibitionism, de Russy notes that many of these occurrences are manifestations of publicity schemes pandering to the American public’s "apparently boundless public appetite for debased and scabrous material." But they are also more, she observes.
De Russy aptly cites Temple University humanities professor Noel Carroll’s observation of a "tolerance of boundary breaking," or as de Russy puts it, "the increasingly nonchalant acceptance of the violation of what were once accepted as the common standards of decency," which de Russy describes as ever-increasing.
Seeking the social meaning behind the trend, de Russy writes:
Janice Irvine, a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, interprets this tolerance as a kind of perverse holier-than-thou hedonism. She maintains that the public’s reaction to “socially sensitive issues,” such as O. J. Simpson’s book, “looks like rage, but there’s a lot of pleasure bound up in it. There’s incredible excitement in being publicly outraged. It’s what makes it so powerful.”
Other critics, myself included, view the gross-out phenomenon as a particularly conspicuous sign, among other related cultural dysfunction, of serious rifts in the aesthetic and moral foundations of American civilization (“Hollywood’s Gross-Out Comedies: Cultural Crisis or Festive Freedom?,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 22, 1999).
De Russy notes that fasionable leftist academics praise public assaults on refined sensibilities, calling these attacks "transgressive." (Interestingly, transgressive means not only boundary-breaking but also sinful, and the left seems not to see the irony in their use of this term.)
De Russy concludes that the trend is not just an outpouring of weirdness on the fringes of society but has at least begun to suffuse the culture and inculcate an increasing, progressive rot:
If civilization is to be salvaged, we must transcend transgression — “regress,” as it were, to an understanding of culture as famously defined by Matthew Arnold, culture as the repository of humanity’s highest spiritual, intellectual and aesthetic aspirations, or “the best that has been thought and said in the world.”
There is no denying that it will be a long climb up from the current day depredation of gross-out culture and its like. But climb we must or sink in grossness, and thus be infantilized and ultimately rendered powerless in face of barbarism.
I have argued to the contrary, that phenomena such as these are not a new rot but a public manifestation of the wide variety of human activities and interests that always exist but have not been able to reach wide audiences in the past. De Russy suggests that a powerful cultural response to counter these phenomena is in order, and I would certainly welcome that. However, I rather doubt that it will do much to suppress the impulses that bring on such behavior, and given that the technology that brings it easily to one and all onlookers is not going to go away unless the Muslims take over, this sort of open vulgarity is never going to recede in the rearview mirror.
I would suggest, as I have done in the past, that supporting what we think to be good and salutary is the best response we can make, for now at least. And I’m sure Candace de Russy would agree that it’s worth a try.