Putting Out Fire With Gasoline

I appreciate what Sady Doyle is trying to do in this essay on humor, culture and politics. Primarily the essay is addressed to artists and performers (and their audiences) who object to what they perceive as “politically correct” censoriousness. (One notable recent example are the comedians who’ve suggested that they won’t play college campuses because activists attempt to micromanage what they can and can’t say.)

Doyle uses the Glen Ridge rape case, particularly the relationship between an infamous lyric in a Beastie Boys’ song and the actions of one of the rapists, to offer an olive branch to artists and performers. I’m compressing a long and careful development of the argument of the piece, but fundamentally the analysis goes like this: activists know that the artists are “good people”, but if so, when you find out that the content of your expressive work is in the heads of “bad people” or is associated with “bad actions”, you should want to avoid that content in the future. Doyle couches this almost as a secular concern for the souls of artists and performers: “it must be one of the worst feelings in the world”, to discover that something you sang or joked or wrote or painted has been cited by or admired by a person who associates that cultural work with their own commission of evil.

The essay is very careful in the early going to avoid simplistic claims about causality. The content of expressive culture doesn’t cause bad actions to happen, Doyle initially acknowledges. The lyric didn’t cause the rape, it just informed it, gave it substance, suggested its horrific specificities. But by the end of the essay, that’s no longer the case: bad culture not only causes harm to the feelings or subjectivities of some who encounter it, but we’re back to the content of culture causing people to have explicit thoughts, thoughts that have tangible ideological intent to discriminate or harm. (A “man who believes all black people are criminals is going to shoot an unarmed black man”.) I think here Doyle demonstrates what has become a characteristic view of a lot of current identity-based activism: that discrimination, oppression and racism originate from the hidden interiority of individuals, that “bad action” is located in “bad thinking” and “bad personhood”, that bad thinking has a kind of explicit propositional character, and that its propositional content bad is a concentrated, distilled form of everyday language and representation. By the end of the essay, Doyle isn’t worrying about whether that shooter has a song lyric playing in his head when he shoots, but whether the song lyric got him to shoot when he wouldn’t have otherwise done so.

So by this point, the olive branch is this: if you don’t want to be the person who causes someone to do evil, then listen to us when we tell you that what you just said or performed or visualized is going to cause someone to do evil. Because, Doyle says, we know (we think we know) that you aren’t evil. It is almost a doppleganger of the debate on guns: comedians and others are portrayed as if they believe jokes don’t hurt people, people hurt people; Doyle is offering them the chance to think that it’s just jokes, jokes or art or culture as a technology that is separable from the personhood of its maker. You, she argues, can know that “some people are flammable” and you, she argues, can “be careful about where the spark lands”.


Put in this fashion, this is another round in a venerable debate about the responsibility of artists for the consequences of their art. A thought which, I have to confess, first fills me with a certain degree of professorial and middle-aged weariness. It is not that I want citations galore, but I do wish we could get some degree of acknowledgement that this is an ongoing conversation where many good points and difficult experiences have already been had. This does not mean it is impossible to come to new understandings, to move ahead, and every generation also has to undertake its own encounter with fundamental human problems. But just knowing that you are not the first to think these things tends to moderate the degree to which you speak as a missionary might speak to a heathen, as if you’re delivering a message that up to this point has never been heard. That’s especially important if you mean to offer an olive branch. We don’t hate you as a person, we just hate your jokes! is an easier message for a comedian to take, I am guessing, if it is offered as the latest modest turn of a familiar dilemma.

But this point opens up into another landscape of difficulty for this kind of argument. First, Doyle’s approach strikes me as a fairly typical example of the way that current activism has amended a postmodern approach to interpretation and hermeneutics, I think in some ways without knowing that something’s been left out. Foucault announced the “death of the Author”, which to simplify somewhat meant in his thinking and much of other postmodernist or poststructuralist theory, that to understand what a text meant had little to nothing to do with discovering what the producer of that text thought that it meant. For all sorts of reasons: the producer was no longer understood to be a masterful individual agent in control of their own consciousness and intention: power and culture and institutions and history all radiated through the Author like light shining through a prism and thus spoke within whatever the Author produced. But also: the audience, the reader, the viewer, determined what the text meant, and determined that within the circumstances of a single moment of interpretation. It could mean one thing today and another thing tomorrow even to the same person, it could mean one thing before it was used or cited or deployed and another thing after it was used, it could mean two things at once or ten things, it could mean nothing fixed or determinate at all. The text could be paired with another text and change meaning; it could mean something different in a library or a bookstore or read aloud on a tape; it could mean one thing if it was held by a preacher and thrown into a fire and another thing if it was read lovingly to a child in front of a fireplace. I caricature a bit: postmodern approaches to interpretation did not hold, as they are often accused of holding, that texts meant everything or nothing, that signifiers floated utterly free. But it was important in this style to say that meaning was a very large, messy and protean space even for the most seemingly banal or straightforward texts, and that context mattered as much as text, that saying that a certain work always meant something no matter where it was or who was reading it, was a kind of folly.

The postmodern emphasis on language preceding and shaping thought and thought shaping action is intact in this new activist stance, but not the indeterminacy and multiplicity of meaning. And the Author has been brought forth from his grave, but not entirely to a new life. Doyle, like many, argues that the meaning of culture is often quite determinate, and it should be determined not by an act of discerning interpretation but in relationship to a set of social subjects. E.g., meaning still resides in that sense with the audience and with usage and context, but only some audiences and some contexts. Only two audiences have authority to make meaning, in this view: the people who use expressive culture deliberately as a weapon and the people who are wounded by that weapon. The Author is being forgiven here: the Author does not wound. The Author is only the blacksmith who makes the sword on an anvil. Whether the sword is wielded by the righteous or the wicked, or left above the mantlepiece, is not the Author’s will–unless he deliberately peddles it to the wicked.

Anyone else who claims, however, to see the sword as spit for grilling meat, or as a fashion accessory, or as demonstration of metallurgical skill, or as a symbol of aristocratic nostalgia, or as a visual stimulus for writing fantasy novels, or as one of a class of crafted objects, etc., is being ruled out of bounds. Those other meanings and interpretations are unavailable if there is someone somewhere who has been wounded.

Let me try to make the problem more concrete and responsive to Doyle’s argument. Doyle focuses on the documented presence of a lyric about sexual assault with a baseball bat in the thinking of a young man who sexually assaulted a woman with a baseball bat. The first problem with that focus is, “What do we do about the presence of that lyric in the minds of so many who never did anything of the sort?” This point needs to be made carefully, because lurking behind it is the callowness and stupidity of slogans like “All Lives Matter”.

This is a genuine mystery if the argument is made that words and texts and performances do have (or can have) a singular meaning and do reliably serve as the predicate of bad thinking, bad personhood, and bad action. When media critics predict, as they have for decades, that the representation of violence in media will create violent people and violent action in some sort of rough tandem (the more of the first, then the more of the latter) and that doesn’t happen (it didn’t happen), that should mean that the initial assertion that the representation of violence has a fixed meaning and a fixed relationship to self-fashioning is just plain wrong. What it means is that if there’s more violence represented and less violent action that many people consuming that violent media are interpreting it and understanding it in ways that don’t actually incline them mimetically towards what they’ve seen, towards enactment. It means, well, that lots of things are happening when that media is consumed, and not just lots of things across the whole society, but lots of things in every single person.

When I’ve gotten into debates over the years with violence-in-media activists, one of the responses I often hear is, “Well, we’re not concerned with what well-educated, economically comfortable people in stable homes think when they watch violent media, we’re concerned about it as a contributing factor to violence in impoverished, marginalized and unstable homes”. At which point, my response is that “violent media” is being used as a substitute and alibi for poverty, inequality and injustice. It’s being made to stand in for the whole because the whole is perceived as too big and too difficult to attack. If that move were really about a strategic subdivision of a complex problem into small and manageable ones, it might be ok, though even there the whole point of thinking strategically is to prioritize, and violent media’s negligible and difficult-to-demonstrate contribution to violent action should be a low priority even in that context. But the problem is that small and manageable tasks should require small and manageable contributions of labor. Trying to cleanse the culture of violent video games or shows–or to get comedians to stop telling offensive jokes–is not a small or manageable task. So what happens is that the strategy swallows the whole; the small task comes to stand in for the entirety of the problem. Violent media become the way that one set of critics talk about poverty, and so they stop naming poverty for what it is. The enormity of structure disappears from view and becomes equivalent to the manageable choice of what to watch or play that night, or how to film a particular scene. In making a big problem open to our agency as individuals, we flatter ourselves too much. It’s as much an entrepreneurial or self-promoting move as it is a practical one.

Let me raise one last thought to trouble Doyle’s point. People who do evil sometimes leave in their wake considerable evidence about what they were watching, what they were listening to, what they liked and identified with in culture. The story is often told, for example, that Richard Nixon watched “Patton” and was profoundly influenced by it in his decision to illegally invade Cambodia. This story is often compared with the fact that the same film supposedly played a key role in getting the Israeli and Egyptian delegations to agree to the Camp David accords. Same film, seen in very different ways by different individuals and in different contexts. Score one for postmodernism, or maybe just old-fashioned critical analysis. It’s fair to say, “If someone tells you they were hurt by a joke, you should listen”. If there’s a fire where your sparks fell, pay attention. But it’s equally fair to say, “If someone else grabs the spark and builds a warming campfire with it, or cooks a meal over it, or makes a light from it, take note of that.” And equally fair to note that lightning starts fires too–and strikes in ways that no one expects.

After all, in the wake of some of the evil things that people have done, the archives of culture they leave behind often contain texts and songs and performances and images that none of us would intuitively see as a predicate of that evil. Much as I find clowns scary, I would not say that John Wayne Gacy’s obsession with clowns can be predictably “read out” from the art of clowning, nor that clowns ought to take their makeup off as a result. Murderers, rapists, bigots: populate the rogues’ gallery as you will, and you will find that what they viewed and heard and read are often not at all obviously tied to their actions. If you understand social evil as originating from bad thought and bad language and bad culture, and you keep finding that the inventory of social evil’s cultural world is brimming over with much more than you expected, you either have to decide that your understanding of the relationship between representation and action is too simplistic or that there is far more that artists and writers and comedians should have to be responsible for not painting or writing or saying. I think that’s the prospect that makes Patton Oswalt angry and other comedians afraid.

But there’s another mirroring complexity worth respecting: that the inventory of people who have fought for social justice–or who have suffered social injustice–is often also more capacious and contradictory than you’d expect if you think there’s a close relationship between social action and cultural consumption. That people suffering oppression sometimes see meaning and possibility even in texts that are very literally dedicated to that oppression, that the richness and indeterminacy of meaning flows in many directions.

The unpredictability of meaning, in so many different ways, suggests that our first and last response to it should be humility, should be a kind of principled uncertainty about what we think a joke will mean, can mean, has meant. Which is an uncertainty that should afflict comedian and critic alike. You might indeed be showering sparks on flammable people, or even calling down the lightning in an open field. But equally what looks like a spark might be a light in the darkness, or a warming memory of a distant flame. We should not manage that uncertainty by requiring everyone to perform and listen while covered in fire-retardant foam.

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5 Responses to Putting Out Fire With Gasoline

  1. nnyhav says:

    You conflate Barthes’ “Death of the Author” with Foucault’s “What is an Author?” … but then that might be a postmodern thing to do …

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    More it is that Foucault’s “What Is an Author” aligns with and I think completes Barthes’ initial line of attack on intention.

  3. Is not catharsis also a reaction to intense images or stories? Where is there anything even vaguely empirical in this discussion, rather than simply anecdotal and framing?

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    I’m not sure why interpretations of cultural meaning should be expected to be empirical.

  5. EK says:

    Would you please do a piece on the administration’s recently announced College Scorecard and what, if anything, it reveals about Swarthmore? Thank you

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