Thursday, January 29, 2009

Ari Adut, _On Scandal: Moral Disturbances in Society, Politics, and Art_ (Cambridge UP, 2008) [brief review]

Scandal is moral conflict made public. Among history’s most famous examples, casting light not only on the provocation of homosexuality but the shifting boundaries of public and private life in Victorian England, was the 1895 trial of Oscar Wilde. Other cases discussed in this new book by sociologist Ari Adut include the American Presidency, reaching from the mid-1800s through Watergate, and the judicial investigations of high-ranking French officials in the 1980s. These events revealed, in various though clearly shared ways, how the changing status of elites and political office were publicly negotiated. Disruptive of everyday life, profane in its violation of accepted standards of behavior and expression, scandal entails a reckoning with a society’s guiding values.

Crucially, whether based in an actual, apparent, or alleged transgression, the scandalous episode is sustained by publicity. Even more, besides having consequences for the individual artists or politicians around whom the conflict swirls, scandal reveals through widespread contestation how society is organized in a given place and time and which politics best define it. On Scandal thus seeks both to develop its thesis by tracking the circumstances around individual cases and to explore their deeper import (sometimes realized in the moment, other times not) for morality and public life.

Probably the consummate (and most familiar) example here is the Monica Lewinsky scandal of 1998, which led to the impeachment of a U.S. President. A volatile mix of sexual wrongdoing and Constitutional crisis, the scandal’s eruption forced attention on the moral ambiguities of the nation’s cultural politics and the degradation of political authority. Moreover, at a time of expanding digital media, the episode foregrounded questions about the appropriate politicization of the personal and the personalization of the political.

What finally distinguishes the events recounted here from a wider litany of social controversies (think, recently, of Bush v. Gore or the Madoff pyramid scheme) is public provocation grounded in private attitudes or behaviors. Often meaning a preoccupation with sexuality or nudity or the matter of who in society is able to indulge them, it is the moral stakes for individuals constituting the public that lend scandals their weight. That assertion helps Adut to offer a more cohesive and manageable thesis but ultimately prevents his model from making fuller sense of the surplus of apparently scandalous - if certainly publicly provocative and morally contentious - events generated and amplified through the echo chambers of contemporary media.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Biggest Names in Sex?

Playboy magazine recently published its list of the "55 Most Important People in Sex" over the last 55 years to celebrate the magazine's anniversary.  (The list isn't available without subscription on the Playboy site, but has been re-printed elsewhere, such as .) It's unavoidably provocative and underscores how intertwined the histories of politics, culture, and social and psychological analysis of the past half-century-plus have been with sexuality.  It also raises issues about a mainstream -- largely white and heteronormative -- view of sex in America that has fragmented inexorably over those five decades.  While I wrote a lengthy letter to the editor in reaction, because of the apparent volume of other such responses, only a few lines were eventually accepted for publication on Playboy's blog.  The full letter follows.

Dear Playboy,
If your list of the 55 most important people in sex proves anything, it is that sex is complex -- here, it embraces cause and symptom of cultural change, human right and moral wrong, physiological puzzle and social provocation, and finally overarching symbol of who we are or at least imagine ourselves to be at a give moment (past and present).  Sorting through such happy complexity, a few thoughts.

The approach to media's contribution on the list is fairly free-form.  Inventors mix with marketers/popularizers, directors and producers and editors, as well as performers (who are included variously for their public and private actions).  The internet might be the greatest platform for sexual expression, community and marketing in human history, but does Tim Berners-Lee (#8) really merit that credit on the list?  Ditto: Charles Ginsburg (#12) on video magnetic recording tape.  Don't get me wrong, I know Danni Ashe (#49) is on the list and I'm not advocating for someone like Joe Francis of Girls Gone Wild fame.  My question is partly about intentions -- while Hef and the Stones (#3 & 7) understood their challenging of sexual taboos, at least to an extent, presumably Sir Tim did not when he proposed a global hypertext project in 1989.  It's also about looking back at history: there's a stark difference between ground-shaking provocations that rock their sexual or social moment and those whose influence builds, often beyond the originator's control or even wild imagining, over time.

The towering backroom media figure missing from the list is Jack Valenti, who steered a middle way for sexual content in the movies as the longtime (1966-2005) president of the Motion Picture Association of America.  After establishing the film ratings system, Valenti weather the eruption of mainstream pornographic films in the early 1970s, guided the incorporation of novel cinematic delivery technologies from the VCR to the internet, and managed cinematic cause celebres from Blow-up to Basic Instinct to Eyes Wide Shut.  He's not as sexy as Mike Nichols (#42; with whom he sparred about Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? upon arriving to the MPAA) or Bernardo Bertolluci (#53) -- much less Brigitte Bardot (#18), Bo Derek (#20), and other more obviously alluring figures from the big screen.  Yet Valenti's moral compass arguably set the direction of sex in Hollywood more than any other individual of the last 55 years.

Almost entirely absent from the list are racial concerns.  yes, like Nancy Friday (#31), who wrote in 1973 of white women's "Black-man fantasy," some of the important authors listed do discuss race.  But the other representatives  of that recurring American preoccupation are omitted (as are those involving other races).  Think of Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter, the interracial couple at the center of the groundbreaking 1967 Supreme Court case, Loving v. virginia, which struck down any race-based restrictions on marriage.  Or, also on the legal front, Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill.  Or, from entertainment, Hollywood's first African-American sex symbol, Dorothy Dandridge, or Motown's sexual healer, Marvin Gaye.

On a very different note, ranking Monica Lewinsky so highly (#6) is fanciful.  Ask Al Gore to explain his election loss in 2000 and my guess is that Bill's favorite intern would emerge only after a dozen other reasons.  While an undeniably influential sex scandal that marked the 1990s (or at least shared the decade's sullied political stage with Justice Thomas and, in a stretch, O.J.), does it really rank in the middle of the top ten?

Lastly, and among the many worthy persons who couldn't break onto this list but deserve mention, here's another idea to lead the second 55.  While condoms have been around for centuries, the "condom revolution" of the 1990s, brought about by the introduction of polyurethane models, the development of various new sizes and shapes (including for women), and the increased global use driven by the HIV/AIDS pandemic), warrants attention representation here.  For that position, who better than Dr. A.V.K. Reddy, whom The New York Times called the "Leonardo de Vinci" of condoms?

Happy 55th.


Monday, January 19, 2009

Of Obama's race and generation

What an extraordinary moment of change and hope. One of the critical comments that astutely conveys the scope of the change taking place with Barack Obama's ascendance to the White House involves the change it represents to the Black political landscape in the US. Different characterizations of a shift away from the "civil rights establishment" capture a crucial generational shift in Black America and, even, more the country's racial landscape. Patricia Williams, the insightful Columbia University law professor, sees this as an evolutionary step. Moving beyond the Civil Rights model of politics practiced by Al Sharpton, Charlie Rangel, Bobby Rush, and, more notably for his off-handed, derisive remarks during the Presidential campaign, Jesse Jackson, she sees a new Affirmative Action model of politics being ushered in by Obama.

Aptness of labels aside, this seems accurately to summarize some of the momentous shift underway. Yet at the same time as the justified parsing of the racial implications of Obama's inauguration continues, we can't neglect the broader generational consequences of the change for those of all races. I say this, full disclosure, as a white man. But underlying the spirit of hope and change is precisely a shift to a new generation that may or may not be post-racial but is genuinely a break from "greatest" and baby-boomer generations that have long held sway in politics and public life. This is not to dwell on Dubya as a baby boomer who created a mess that needs cleaning up (though clearly that's some of what's in play now). It is, instead, to speak to the need of the country to move beyond the cultural and political imagination of the baby boomers. That generation has achieved so much, not least their remaking of the possibilities for continuing engagement as they grow older in the political and institutional life of the country and, indeed, the world.

In other words, even as extended commentary is dedicated to hope for the future framed in racial terms, very little attention is being given to the larger generational shift taking place. With individuals living longer and the baby boomers having re-cast our thinking about the meaning and potential of growing older and remaining active in public and professional life, we haven't faced a greatly altered generational landscape -- until, possibly, now. How will different generations with often competing and even contradictory visions of society and their roles in it co-exist? What will this mean for the leadership and conduct of our political institutions? Our cultural and educational organizations? Our lives as businesspersons, producers, and consumers? And yes, the place of race in our lives? Generational change, and give-and-take, are obviously constants as history progresses. We're nevertheless asked at certain moments more than others to take stock of that change and actively consider our values.

My assumption is not that a national conversation would advantage or disadvantage any generation. The agenda would not be to justify the exit of one group or defer the entry to power of another. (Indeed, any conversation would quickly move beyond the simplistic categorizing I’m using here to affirm the complexity of age and groupings constructed around it in society.) The point, rather, would be to acknowledge that in a country where laws and policies are so crucial to the provision of rights, resources, and opportunities, we occasionally need to address, together and deliberately, the values and principles that enable us to craft appropriate and consistent laws and policies. This seems such a moment for that honest discussion of our multi-generational future.