Secular Historiclasm, Moral Contagion, and Cults of Emotional Sacrifice
NB: This is a republication of a piece originally published in 2020.
On the basis of a recommendation, I listened to two installments about Carl Jung, artwork, and numinosity from a podcast called Weird Studies, hosted by Phil Ford and J. F. Martel. Noting that there is a strong male bias in the discussions’ exemplary references to persons (a notice with pertinence to the incoming subject matter), I’d recommend them as well if those initial keywords interest you. What I want to touch on here is a sort of sidebar near the end of the second episode — around fifty-two minutes in, if you want to check it out — where the hosts discuss the issue of the “problematic” artist, and the more-modern-than-not cultural phenomenon of dismissing, and perhaps trying to entomb, a person’s artworks once it is revealed that they are, or were, a Bad Person. Wagner is brought up as the initial example, and it is worth noting here that there continues to be, in Israel, an unofficial refusal (not a ban) by venues and performers to play works composed by Wagner. Here a few portions from the sidebar which I’ve selectively transcribed.
“…it is quite an icky feeling loving Wagner and knowing what kind of a monstrous psychopathology he gave vent to — not once, but repeatedly throughout his life, to the extent that it made even other antisemites uncomfortable around Wagner sometimes. And so, in the contemporary world, having an unacceptable political opinion is tantamount to representing it in your artwork. There’s a kind of an idea that if you listen to Wagner’s music, you are taking on board, in some unconscious way, the reprehensible ideas of Wagner the pamphleteer, Wagner the propagandist.
…Jung gives us a very good reason to be suspicious of any simplistic reduction of an artist’s art to what they’ve said and thought in their lives — reducing, for example, Wagner’s Ring cycle to that poisonous antisemitic pamphlet, which people do all the time. There’s a whole scholarly industry of people trying to argue that, for example, the Nibelung, of the Ring cycle, are actually Jewish stereotypes. I’m not even gonna totally negate that argument, but I also find the crass reduction of art to whatever the artist was supposed to have thought to be really annoying, because, for one, it just assumes that all of our psychic life is more or less conscious, and what takes place in one part of that conscious life is transferred unproblematically to every other part. So the Wagner that wrote that poisonous pamphlet is the same Wagner that wrote The Ring of the Nibelung — that that same guy, with all of his revolting ideas, is secreting them, in more or less coded form, in his art.
…The thing is that this whole worldview, this kind of strange moralism, is made for a neoliberal world that has worked to erase any distinction between art and entertainment. […] It’s a product cycle, and the whole point is not durability. The point is to always be creating product: getting the old product off to one side, and creating new product. And if you are fully assimilated to the product cycle of entertainment, then by the time you discover that some entertainer that you’ve enjoyed — a rapper, or a film star, or whatever — is racist, or sexist, or whatever, well, then it’s time for them to drop off the conveyor belt; time to move onto the next thing. And so your appreciation takes place only within a kind of temporal envelope, and that temporal envelope is set by the length of time it takes for scandal and public tittle-tattle to catch up with the creator, at which point you can just say, ‘All right, moving onto the next thing.’ People who are fully assimilated to the product cycle of entertainment […] like the idea of Miles Davis, maybe, because it’s like, ‘Oh, he’s, you know, he’s a black creator.’ Then they find out that he beat his wives. ‘Ehhh… yeah. No. Shitty guy. Don’t need him.’ Because there’s something else coming down the pike.”
In my opinion, these are incisive observations, and I’m going to respond just in terms of where they take my own lines of thought. Martel’s (unquoted) Jungian reference to the artwork as the product of the numinous filtering through the fallible, mortal human being is an appealingly poetic idea recalling daemonic possession (and, much more broadly, primitive rituals involving embodiment); but I don’t know how convincing it is as a standalone argument when we are trying make a certain sense of denotative works, such as lyrical music, where there is what we might call an extra-intentionality. Moreover, the question of the “problematic artist” encompasses not just the matter of posthumous persons but those who are alive, continue to make (or employ those who make in their name), and perhaps occupy spaces of employment, profit, and cultural presence which reward and/or ignore abusive behavior — spaces which, of course, might also still be taken up by posthumous persons. However, we could ask what is meant be “spaces”: for example, in the case of living persons who have not amassed a fortune, how do we tackle the questions of where they are “allowed” to go? of what profiting they are “allowed” to do after being outed? and if the matter is one of degrees, rather than a binary?
I can’t answer such questions due to their complexity, and I’m not sure if anyone else by their lonesome can either. It is not just that they are contextual (because we assign, or least profess to assign, more weight to certain offenses and abuses than others), but that our responses seem to be guided primarily by the discriminating trends of our social circle(s) and the sort of “free market” inevitabilities of patronage: mechanisms which appear to have come into place without any guided rule-set. In effect, this means that the critical response often takes the shape of demanding a public apology by the individual (a bizarre demand, considering that the audience, in these instances, only matters as much as it believes it has a kind of shared moralistic ownership over the vessel of celebrity), cutting off any direct or indirect monetary support one might’ve been contributing (while perhaps a “core” group of supporters take this as an opportunity to double down on a politically antithetical fanaticism), and making an arbitrary determination about what portion, if indeed any, of the person’s work remains “sanitary.”
One of the central issues here is how the intensity of moral feeling is equivalized to a de facto case for the legitimacy or illegitimacy of a given artwork. Although the moral feeling itself is legitimate, in the sense that all feelings are legitimate (the targets of our feelings are not necessarily legitimate), the presumption of a necessity of adoption by others, and its recourse to its not being adopted by labeling such individuals as “oppressors”, “toxic”, or “part of the problem”, is not. Despite the response acting as ostensible exertion of counter-cultural power — one “punches up” by trying to take a lauded, canonized, influential, and/or wealthy figure down –, it also imbues artwork with an almost super-moral quality, like a prudish modern day secular iconoclasm, regardless of any and all rejections of religious (i.e., Christian) hegemony.
Artwork comes to be judged on associational values relating to the worst attributes of a country, artist, or political moment (or, conversely, how much it adheres to progressive identistic trends), and not its contextual and/or numinous values. It is one thing to say that all artwork is political; it is quite another to say that it is all ultimately political. This latter assertion is right at home in our age of reductive materialism, where, because identity is seen as essentially performative, there is no ultimate psychic interiority. Human history collapses into a play of binary, behaviorist moral kinetics which we can presume to grasp, and then weaponize, through the correct ideological lens.
When history is reduced thusly, anything created by a person is merely an expression of their material situation and those corresponding problematics. Accordingly, everything in an artwork is an encrypted politic, and a wary assumptive process, verging on a sort of paranoia, begins of detecting shady, regressive notions in each particle of the work. Sometimes this is assisted by a sort of hindsight bias, where, once a person has been designated as “bad”, we can say, “Oh, of course! It was right in all of their book/music/art all along!” As an example, we might look at a movie directed by Hayao Miyazaki — perhaps Princess Mononoke or Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind — where there is a strong thematic affinity for the natural world and local community; and, alternately, critiques of industrialism and the rape of the Earth. Within the paranoid framework, such valuations and criticisms are interpreted as an isolationist provincialism, in the same way that J. R. R. Tolkien’s fictional depiction of portions of Middle Earth, including the verdant Shire, has, on occasion, been interpreted as the colonialist fantasy of the white Englishman who wishes for a neat fence around his home and the absence of pesky foreigners. The issue here is not necessarily that such interpretations are invalid, but rather that the most negative possible interpretation comes to stand dead-endedly at the forefront of the subject matter, as if it were now permanently tarnished, or as if all narrative threads were inflected by such subtextual propaganda (e.g., an essay from 2018 asserts that The Lord of the Rings is “not just racist but […] part of the preliminary formation of ideology for the alt-right.”).
Lisa Ruddick observes in her article, When Nothing is Cool, that we’ve been at a point for a while now where within many academic appraisals of media there is a groupthink tendency to go towards what is troubling, or troubled, yet with no holistic interests in mind. In this way, the penis becomes unerringly a weapon of harm, the vagina unerringly a site of trauma. Such a critical mode has nothing to say about what is invigorating, mysterious, fecund. Unless there is a fashionably marginal aspect to be mined, artwork is only as useful as it allows one to flex their moral-critical capacity and assert a formalized dominance over the object (interesting, given that this is a classically masculine behavior!), like a kind of cool revenge.
The point about fashionableness brings us back to Ford’s comment: that this critical framework — if it can be called that — is a slave to trends, for the relationship to an artwork becomes only as durable as the creator’s public image. Once the latter is disgraced, the push to disassociate oneself from those works puts a hard limit on forming meaningful ties to art, and also asks for a strange imaginative regression, where we force out a mature, nuanced understanding of the person and the work as related but not essentially synonymous entities. Moreover, if the person is still alive and “salvageable”, we don’t have any recourse to redemptive ritual. Like the demiurgic Old Testament god, we condemn, curse, and await a miraculously unproblematic person (who will eventually disappoint us too, of course). This makes it all the easier for the offender, and their retained fans, to harden their antagonism and be more justified in their perception of a Cancel Culture.
These reactionary denials of negative reality extends to appearances, leadership, and sexuality as well. Within artistic communities on sites like Tumblr and Twitter, there is a kind of physiognomic trend of making traditionally ugly fantasy characters like orcs, goblins, and demons “cute”, “sexy”, or “handsome”, and counter-characterizing the lot as, overall, Good. The function of this reclamation is to reverse the generic in-universe prejudices of fantasy works (and, perhaps, to deny that “good” persons can be revoltingly ugly). While the trend acts in the interest of uplifting fictional marginal demographics, it expresses the notion that those very demographics could only appear to have ever collectively done vile things because of the ruthless distortions of history-writing victors. In the political domain of American pop-feminism, so successfully has masculinity, in principle, been made fun of and demonized (despite any original ambitions to snuff out “toxic” strains), that matriarchy is naively set against patriarchy as a cure for oppression. Of course, the archetype of the suffocating mother has a presence equal to that of the distant father, and the ancient mother goddesses (occasionally resituated in contemporary discourses as divine feminists) were as violent, and egalitarian in their violence, as the father gods. Under the domain of our bland, ahistorical feminism, however, anything negative about woman — both in her capabilities and actions — must be explained away as a lie invented and instilled by man.
Elsewhere, sex is seen by some forward-thinkers as a landscape to be cleansed of pagan savageries through keywords like “enthusiastic consent” or “body positivity.” Yet sex affords us the unique opportunity to intimately and organically explore forms of grotesquerie, contradiction, and violence not sanctioned by what is understood as civilized society. The strangling man is just as much misogynist as the facesitting woman is misandrist. In both, there is the perverse desire for self-annihilation by the recipient and the equally perverse granting of this by the executioner. It is the terms of these play-deaths which are different. Rule out one and we rule out the other, until all we have left is a feeble make-believe of Wholesomeness. The idea of sex as a problematic to be, and which can be, solved — as just another stage for the personal to retreat and make way for the political (and implicitly Queer) –, is as naive as the idea that every human being is “basically good.”
It’s difficult to express much of this in the social circles which I’m used to without it being interpreted as centrist apologetics, a sort of contrarian anti-criticism (conversely, I could see it elsewhere being poach-warped into a screed against Fat Gay Feminazis and Triggered Soyboy Snowflakes). This would, unfortunately, be just another demonstration of how flattened and shrunken our discursive attitudes have gotten. You’re either Exactly This or Not, and if you’re not Exactly This, then you’re not an Ally — or whatever. But there is a difference between saying, or intimating, “Oh, rape isn’t that bad”, or, ”Oh, give the neo-Nazis a chance”, and stating that, in the vast majority of cases, we cannot describe bad behavior in terms of the bad person; and that the engagement of problematic work is not mathematically tantamount to a kind of second-hand participation in, or endorsement of, whatever violations occurred. The common and current progressive explanatory recourses of patriarchy (and then masculinity) or capitalistic economy put us no closer to understanding what we might call the shadow (Marie-Louise von Franz identifies this as “the dark side of the ego-personality”) because, as I sad before, when the psyche is just performative, then its expressions are just sociologically real. We are given an easy culprit which we can then disassociate from (not unlike reality television, which depends upon an audience’s self-exceptionalizing judgments to register), and we come to believe rationalistic falsities such as access to good education and punctual call-outs being means of eliminating racism or sexism.
While I am usually hesitant to bring persons I know into what I write, I would mention here, as an example, my younger sister who refuses to read any books by men. To her, this is a principled act justified by that wearisome Online strain of American feminism which sets everything in antagonistic terms and haughtily laughs if you have any response at all besides a mushy passivity to statements like, “Men are trash.” To me, it exemplifies a neurotic unwillingness to balance what I’ve called positive and negative realities. It is a surface irony that this imbalance, so preoccupied with negativity, cannot truly confront it. Confronting it would mean contending with old-fashioned, uncomfortable ideas like human nature (and, perhaps, a collective unconscious) and our own ever-present nearness to the unmentionable. So it is made into a bogeyman, at once infantile and diabolic, mocked and feared. The obsession within what has come to be called identity politics, both by detractors and supporters, over viciously lecturing on the dirt of everyone else and the content of their work is, in turn, an obsession with the presentation of oneself, and one’s consumptive habits, as set in exceptional relief against the preposterous problematics of an Other (Esmé Partridge touches on something similar, and similarly rarely commented on, in her essay on modern individualistic astrology). It is a sort of postural concern lacking self-awareness.
Obviously, there are personal ironies too. Were one to ask me now how I would propose to begin handling the point at issue, I’m just as incapable of giving a sure direction as I am with the questions pertaining to the post-scandal navigations of “problematic artists” — besides suggesting that we reexamine what we are sacrificing our strongest emotions to, and to start as locally as possible (and there is nothing more local then ourselves). Saying otherwise, in my opinion, would just be plain old ego projection. Ford and Martel’s commentary is an opportunity to step back and observe — a stance at odds with a cultural climate built on intensifying imperatives, where the “good person” is perpetually on edge, a tightly bound receptacle of somatized stress ready to do wordy, line-in-the-sand battle at the slightest provocation and inured to the abnormality of severing all ties at the drop of a hat.
I must include my own behavior over the past decade in this description. It has been painful for me to see it intensify in other people I know, or have known, and to see how much it has flattened idiosyncratic social attributes into a depressed monoculture of outrage, depression, moralizing, and virtue signaling. Of course, I can’t do much about it. The catalyst for change has to come from within. Any personalized remarks on my part would be received with disdainful sarcasm and perhaps something about how I “ought to know better.”
Although we tend to think of anger as a sort of destructiveness which demolishes boundaries in its passions, it is significant that this anger which so many of us are in thrall to is preoccupied with delineation. Such delineation is all the more easily done through the curatorial, mediated remove of the Internet. In a way, then, this phenomenon is a fanatical continuation of what Camille Paglia identifies as the antichthonic Apollonian principle, which attempts to stave off the problematic Dionysian principle through lines, borders, logic, bound form. “The west”, she writes, “insists on the discrete identity of objects. To name is to know; to know is to control.” The cursus publicus, a collective feat of expansionist engineering, could’ve been produced by the same force responsible for the sexual trope of bondage. Umberto Eco’s essay, Inventing the Enemy, explores a dimension of this delineation, leading us through a miniature catalogue of humanity’s ample and petty history of caricatures. Personal irritation has always been sufficient grounds for us to devise a categorical damnation. Eco observes, “Having an enemy is important not only to define our identity but also to provide us with an obstacle against which to measure our system of values and, in seeking to overcome it, demonstrate our own worth. So when there is no enemy, we have to invent one.” Just as for centuries we’ve had the stereotype of the innately lazy immigrant who threatens to plunge a nation into a ruinous state of obsolescence by infecting others with unproductivity, we now have leftist radical stereotypes such as the drab Cis-Het who, constitutionally, will simply never “get it”. He (and sometime she) is a buffoon with none of the crafty, vitalizing attributes of the fool archetype, oppressing through his availing of normative or traditional modalities. He is barely alive; he is a zombie — and, as we all know, zombies are better off dead.
When I speak of emotional sacrifice, I am speaking of sacrifice in older terms. Our common contemporary conceptualization of sacrifice is as a sort of trade-off — one sacrifices one’s lunch break to squeeze in a bit of extra work while on the job, for example –; but this conceptualization blurs out that a sacrifice is always ultimately done (whether we are aware of it or not) unto something larger than ourselves: deities with or without names. The nearly million-and-a-half people who die in automobile accidents each year are the sacrifice we have wordlessly agreed to make to the gods of Convenience and Speed. Likewise, the handful of broadly identifying hard line leftists on [Tumblr] who recently told me to kill myself are making sacrifices to the purity of a deified political idea. Maintaining the ideological shapeliness of this purity means that any perceived disputes and inquiries must be met with symbolic execution.
As reality is increasingly defined by technology — such that the time spent after, and before once again, using one’s phone, computer, television, or videogame console feels experientially intermediate –, socially reformative action increasingly takes the form of a sort of agitated fantasy of demarcation. One logs on, armed with idiomatic adjectives, prepared to fight by underlining these until the lines form a tower for each word, each tower an altar, each word a vessel. With our intensifying Judeo-Christian-derived, but now secular, view of the world as linear rather than cyclical, we have placed a burden on ourselves to keep a steady ascent and so reach a fixed peak of harmony, or utopia. Naturally, this is unfeasible, and so we despair over our lack of control. This despair can become self-loathing; self-loathing, misanthropy; misanthropy, the projected death wish. Over and over again, we place our emotional sacrifice upon the scapegoat of an Other, hoping that it will both satisfy our bottomless ideological god and make us cleansed, whole, non-problematic — Good.
It will probably be evident to anyone who has read this that, although the topic encompasses a whole spectrum, I am focusing on the politically left-hand side. One might wonder why I’ve done this, when, for example, the Republican contingent of the United States government has, as Noam Chomsky opined, become perhaps the most dangerous party in the history of the world, given the precariousness of our ecological future, might of corporate industry, and chasmic economic/accommodational inequality. Its members truly are those who, were they to have life and death set before them and told to choose life, would choose death, thinking it the inverse. One reason for this focus is that, I must admit, there has been a dissident element to my analytic impulses for as long as I’ve been aware of them as a creatively applicable faculty. I see analysis as an opportunity to speak to that which is largely unobserved, ignored, or quelled. Another reason is that, from my perspective, our predominant leftist commentaries have become so codified in terms of proprieties, improprieties, and parlance (are you an Anti-Racist or a Racist?) that there is little room for reexamination, and so fiercely guarded are these codifications that scrutinization is often shot down as a threat before it is given the chance to show that it might reify. Of course, this is classic tribalistic behavior, and the political left is no more guilty of it than any other faction or demographic. Finally, I am working from the angle that we can, potentially, learn as much about our own deficits and capacities by looking at the sympathies and antipathies on the “humanitarian” side as we can by looking at those of the “anti-humanitarian” side. It is much easier to exclude ourselves from the picture when we are just responding to the latter. Fear, failure, and compensatory projection are everywhere.
I want to acknowledge that, depending on the issue, few things are more annoying than the person who acts from a position of critical distance. Anything I’ve written could be shrugged off for reasons of tone, my privileges, or what is perceived as an attempt at authorial invisibility, as if this spate of observations is being spoken from a break in the clouds. My mention of balancing positive and negative realities, for example, could seem cavalier, or a veiled version of saying, “Everything will be okay!” But I can hardly claim that balance for myself; and everything will not be okay. It is an only recently begun work-in-progress. I suspect that this balance is really like a contrapuntal dynamic — and musical counterpoint is as famous as it is infamous for its bewildering demands to produce the effect of multiple, enriching voices working in unison.
The inevitable downside of any bio-psycho-social-spiritual premise and its exploration is that it will resort to some level of generality. One must then inquire about the role of subjectivity; that is, what the person is looking to get out of their observations or commentary. Not even the strictest scientific studies preclude this element. The most objective part of the proverbial scientific method is that it proclaims an objective. There is never an elimination of investment. Each discovery relates to what questions we are asking, and how we are asking them.
So I will say that writing this has been primarily a prickly exorcism, an expelling of frictional thoughts so that I can see what they look like, now more vulnerable because visible. I am its preview audience. I, too, participate in the Apollonian tradition where to say something, but especially to write it down with the illusion of its permanence, is to capture the thing and make it realer and useful — just as architecture is the “rationalization” of stone, wood, clay, reed. Yet I know that some of these expressions are threats to concepts I’ve cultivated for years, as if I were close to the completion of a statue and had instead knocked off half of the body. Nausea and vivification mix in the gut while pins and needles sizzle through the extremities. Maybe this is an unsatisfying answer.
Let me conclude with several clarifications. Enemies do exist, as do systemic injustices; change will not come solely through thinking about ourselves; and our moralistic capacity should be exercised. The problem is that the predominant harnesses of any of these initiating assertions have lost their effectiveness. Instead, we are being drawn further into a masochistic vortex of antagonism, both devourer and distractor. We need to figure out how to break our eyes, and then bodies, free from this hypnotic spiral as soon as possible.