Saturday, November 15, 2014

The post-cringe society

A former student sent me a link to a new video clip – #Only, by female rap “artist” #NikiManaj (featuring also some male collaborators). She had found the piece utterly appalling – offering final proof that there is, indeed, nothing sacred left anywhere anymore. This, of course, should hardly be surprising – given all the hand-wringing (or celebration) regarding the “desacralization” of the world since the 19th century. The “song” itself is a string of profanities set against the backdrop of a music-like sound track and stylized/computerized Nazi-like imagery. Of these, only the latter has apparently provoked some – no doubt anticipated – protests. The whole video project, meanwhile, has “received generally positive reviews from critics” – if the Wikipedia entry is a reliable source. This latest contribution to the neverending quest to shock, and shock, and shock the bourgeoisie seemed particularly grotesque – as I watched it after a CNN “story” featuring a young man lying dead in front of his shack in Freetown. So why do “artists” now need to go to such lengths to appear provocative and generate some buzz?

I am afraid abstractions like “desacralization” do not quite cut it here. Rather, this is what pop “art” (and not just “pop”) needs to become in an age when much of the buying public has lost the ability to cringe. To an extent, this is a neurosomatic adaptation essential to the smooth functioning of any modern society. It assures (as Georg Zimmel, Stanley Milgram and others observed long ago) a semblance of emotional balance and a degree of mutual tolerance in dense and diverse social environments. Such affective cooling is also essential for achieving a degree of bureaucratic efficiency and impartiality. Back in the 1950’s, over 80 percent of white Americans admitted they would be disgusted to drink from a water fountain after a black person – and few people would want to go back to those good old days (or to accept the various forms of “corruption” that are so pervasive in societies marked by “amoral familism”). Beyond some point, though, progressive desensitization (mightily reinforced by the “information revolution”) creates a world hospitable to all sorts of social and economic transgressions. These are often experienced as an exercise of exhilarating “freedom,” or “liberation” from all sorts of oppressive norms and relationships. In any case, it is a world which is not for the faint at heart.