October 27th, 2008

operesque

A tool in the hands of the authorities

The Observer yesterday had a leader written by Rafael Behr which examined an issue I find very interesting: sex. Not just sex, but whether things have gone too far in the direction of disinhibition, and whether it might not be time to reclaim some ground traditionally thought of as conservative: old-fashioned stuff like modesty, discretion, and virtue.



"For all that the liberal intelligentsia might have congratulated itself for prodding the establishment into incremental reform," says Behr, "the [sexual] revolution was actually driven - even in the Sixties - by market forces. The twin agents of change were then and still largely are music and television. It was the penetration of subversive pop music into people's homes, via the TV, that did more than anything else to challenge taboo, aggravate moral conservatives and push the boundaries of public decency, from Elvis's gyrations and Mick Jagger's leer, via Jimi Hendrix humping a guitar, through the Sex Pistols' profanity and Frankie Goes to Hollywood."

Behr then traces how Thatcherite Tories in the 80s were torn between their economic liberalism -- which opened the Pandora's Box of sexuality because sex sells -- and their social conservatism, which wanted the sex genie put back in the bottle pronto. "The market encourages instant gratification while the essence of sexual conservatism is deferring satisfaction - or denying it. Because Thatcher's Conservatism was socially illiberal, the artistic and cultural elite in Britain continued to see attacking taboo as part of the political struggle of the Sixties."

The contradiction in the right's position on this (economic liberalism, social conservatism) is matched by a contradiction in the left's position, which is that in our desire to be socially radical, we supported the economic exploitation of sexuality in ways that we perhaps shouldn't have done. We met the Tories half way: our social agenda dovetailed with their economic agenda. I lived this contradiction by subscribing to a cable sex channel in the early 90s (it was called VLC) that owed its existence entirely to Thatcher's deregulation of UK broadcasting.

In my work as a recording artist I've certainly used sexuality, and certainly tried to pass it off as "subversive" (a weapon against "the establishment") rather than purely commercial. To some extent this has been true -- I very deliberately introduced homosexual themes into my work in the late 80s, for instance, to counteract the Thatcherite Section 28 legislation which sought to create new taboos around the issue.

Sometimes the motive is neither commercial nor subversive -- it's something more robust and ribald. Pop music should contain earthy medieval smut -- for me, that's built into the medium. There should be lots of Villon and Rabelais and Chaucer in pop music, lots of filth. My new album abounds in references to "fucking on a table" and "fisting in the park" and "cunts all sloppy and yeasty", and -- screw the 60s, screw the 80s! -- I really do see unrestrained libidinal vulgarity as an absolutely integral part of pop's purpose. It's supposed to be rude and cheeky and explicit and bawdy, and the sap is always supposed to be rising. That was as true in 1569 as 1969 (annee erotique), and it's as true of my forthcoming novel as of my forthcoming album.

At the same time, I'm giving lectures -- like the recent AA lecture -- which talk about "repressive desublimation", and I tend to see sex as it's represented in mainstream commercial culture as, somehow, totalitarian noise, Pavlovian pabulum placed there to undermine the will of the subject-consumer. I totally screen out Nuts and Zoo magazine, in fact 90% of magazines on British news stands, with their bronzed, blonde, semi-naked winner-predator-trophy-fantasy cover stars, the formulaic sirens and pin-up girls for a social philosophy (Darwinian, opportunistic, greedy, with everything for sale) I reject.

It's different when we're talking about Japanese popular culture or Japanese porn, of course -- somehow I feel I'm evading social control when I'm consuming that -- but I filter out 99% of western ads on western billboards and 100% of western porn, to the extent that, in the typical western media environment (a British newsagent, for instance) I feel homosexual or asexual, so little do the "exciting" images connect with my id. I filter for aesthetic reasons, but also for political ones -- this stuff is pure mind control, a tool in the hands of the authorities that's calculated to get my tool in my hands, but never will, because, well, I'm a rebel! Wanking to a copy of Nuts would be a slippery slope to consumer-slavery and "the life of ugliness". I hope you hear a little D.H. Lawrence in my tone!

But I think Behr missed a trick when he failed to mention Herbert Marcuse's 1960s concept of "repressive desublimation", because the 60s wasn't all the Lady Chatterly trial and Mick Jagger and that Philip Larkin poem about fucking starting in 1963. I know those are the soundbites, and I know leader articles in broadsheet papers don't tend to go beyond soundbite-level history, but the 60s -- the left wing, radical part of the 60s -- also contains New Left critiques of repressive desublimation, critiques of "letting it all hang out", as well as lots of identity politics (the gay movement, the feminist movement, the lesbian movement) which rejects commercialized sex.

Marcuse's repressive desublimation idea isn't puritanical (as the anti-porn parts of feminism were supposed to be), it's a clever amalgam of Marx and Freud. Late Freud didn't believe that society could survive if you lifted the lid on the id, let the genie out of the bottle, opened Pandora's Box. And Marx saw religion and other social distractions as "opiates", keeping the people happy, preventing them from thinking in class terms. He would certainly have seen commercialized sex as an opiate; true revolutionaries have to be disciplined, to defer gratification, to plan and organize.

The genius of Marcuse's idea is that it turns common sense on its head: if desublimation is really repressive, freedom is really unfree, and being delivered up to one's own appetites is being handed over to one's enemies. What's really repressive is failing to repress. It's paradoxical and counter-intuitive, yet it makes perfect sense. And with the New Left concept of repressive desublimation on our side, it's no longer conservative to want a return to modesty, discretion and virtue. It could, in fact, be revolutionary.

I'd add that there's nothing more sexy than modesty -- just ask your local ingenue. And, to the looming question "Why, if sex is so counter-revolutionary, have you made a sexy record, Momus?" I'll have to answer with a piece of sophistry: if modesty and understatement are the really sexy things, being bawdy isn't being sexy, and therefore is, and therefore isn't, and therefore is, and so on forever.