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.

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