the naked gaze

politics, theory, and cultural critique

carlos rojas

Friday, April 07, 2006

"The Shocker"

Last week Antonin Scalia made a controversial hand gesture when asked, inside the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, about those who might question his impartiality on matters relating to the separation of church and state. During the ensuring controversy, Scalia defended himself by suggesting that anyone who thought the gesture obscene must have been watching “too many episodes of The Sopranos,” whereupon the Boston Herald responded by interviewing several of the Sopranos actors themselves for their views:
It’s not like grabbing your crotch, not that bad an obscenity. But it’s an obscenity. It’s something you would do after paying a bookie, to your bookie, but not something you would do in church.
said one;
It’s not that bad, but I wouldn’t do it to my mother. No way. Would I do it in church? These days, maybe. It depends if the priest was giving me the hairy eyeball.
said another (and, in the process, adding to the existing confusion the additional question of what, precisely, it means to give “the hairy eyeball"). An animated debate ensued over the hermeneutics of chin flips, during the course of which the original photographer, Peter Smith, was “fired” by the Catholic weekly for which he occasionally worked (but nevertheless retained his "second" job as a professor at Boston University).

This miniature scandal about the semantics of obscenity is reminiscent of an imbroglio several years ago involving a similarly opaque hand gesture, known colloquially as the “Shocker”—a gesture which, the NY Times observed in a different context, is “a sexual reference understood by most college students but by few over 22.” The consequences of this semantic generation gap became most pronounced when it was brought to the attention of the administrators of Hanover High School in Pennsylvania that more than 30 seniors had posed for their yearbook photos making the gesture in question. Upon belatedly realizing what had happened, the administrators ordered that the photos in question be destroyed and re-taken, and that the students not only pay for the re-take but furthermore perform one day of community service. In the ensuing controversy, however, the decision to have photos re-taken was overturned (they were airbrushed instead), and the principal ended up resigning soon after.

Both of these incidents revolve around hand gestures that derive their impact not only from their sexual connotations (whether real or imagined), but more importantly from their status as a kind of private language. By “private language,” I don’t have in mind Wittgenstein’s famous discussion of the possibility (or, he argues, lack thereof) of a language that is truly private and only meaningful to the speaker him or herself (“[C]ould we also imagine a language in which a person could write down or give expression to his inner experiences - his feelings, moods, and the rest - for his private use?....”). Indeed, the controversy in both the Scalia and Hanover High incidents is predicated on the existence of a community which understands the significance of the gestures in question. Instead, I have in mind here something more along the lines of the kind of covert communication described in Stallybrass’ and White’s classic study The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, wherein the sense of frisson created by certain kinds of utterances derives precisely from the knowledge of the rifts which those utterances create between “in-groups” and “out-groups.”

Therefore, the notion of a “private language” developed here is informed less by Wittgenstein than by Baudrillard’s notion of obscenity. As Kellner observes in a recent speech, “for Baudrillard, the society of production was passing over to simulation and seduction; the panoptic and repressive power theorized by Foucault was turning into a cynical and seductive power of the media and information society.”

In “The Masses: The Implosion of the Social in the Media," Baudrillard posits a crucial distinction between the spectacle and obscenity:
the spectacle is never obscene. Obscenity begins precisely where there is no more spectacle, no more scene, when all becomes transparence and immediate visibility, when everything is exposed to the harsh and inexorable light of information and communication.
The implication here is that it is precisely the transparency of our media-saturated world, the knowledge that one’s actions are potentially visible by a vast audience of anonymous viewers creates the potential for a specific kind of obscenity located precisely at the border between the private and the super-public.

It is precisely this quality of ubiquitous transparency which paradoxically creates an impulse for self-commemoration. For instance, there is a well-established connection between photography and death. Barthes, for instance, observes at one point that “each photograph always contains this imperious sign of my future death,” and Derrida similarly argues that “the spectral is the essence of photography.” Perhaps it is precisely on account of this natural affinity between death and photography, therefore, that the photography of death can easily veer into obscenity. A case in point in a recent Reuters piece on the phenomenon of mourners using cell phones to take pictures at funerals in Japan: “I get the sense that people no longer respect the dead. It's disturbing," a funeral director told the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper.”

[Klingensmith, in a thoughtful posting on this topic, notes not only that the photo accompanying the article appears to have been cited out of context, but furthermore that this is simply an extension of a longstanding practice of photographing the dead:
Before the camera phone, one had to make an advance decision to bring a camera, specifically in order to capture a last glimpse of the departed, in defiance of what seems like a widespread belief that such behavior is an act of disrespect. Camera phones may make it easier to act on the important but difficult desire to preserve the memory of the dead as dead, returning death as a part of life rather than allowing the continued denial of its presence.
This is undoubtedly true, but at the same time continues to acknowledge the “widespread belief that such behavior is an act of disrespect.”]

These twin impulses toward commemoration and obscenity are, of course, particularly evident in the Abu Graihb scandal. Susan Sontag, building on her argument in her recent book Regarding Another’s Pain, has argued that a crucial element in the scandal is not merely the torture itself, but more importantly the compulsion to pose, to photographically record one’s transgressions for the public and posterity:
To live is to be photographed, to have a record of one's life, and therefore to go on with one's life oblivious, or claiming to be oblivious, to the camera's nonstop attentions. But to live is also to pose. To act is to share in the community of actions recorded as images. The expression of satisfaction at the acts of torture being inflicted on helpless, trussed, naked victims is only part of the story. There is the deep satisfaction of being photographed, to which one is now more inclined to respond not with a stiff, direct gaze (as in former times) but with glee. The events are in part designed to be photographed. The grin is a grin for the camera. There would be something missing if, after stacking the naked men, you couldn't take a picture of them.
This self-defeating impulse to create a visual record of one’s crime—a visual record which, in turn, may provide the basis for subsequent prosecution—is grounded precisely on the subject’s awareness of his or her position within an imminently visible, media-saturated world.

An excellent example of this imbrication of visibility and obscenity can be found in the opening scene of City of God (Fernando Meirelles, 2002), in which a Rio De Janeiro gang of armed boys (who happen to be chasing a chicken, but that’s another story) run into the protagonist, Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), who has recently started working as a photographer for a local newspaper. Rocket initially fears that they will shot him (in retribution for [accidentally] having one of his pictures of them published in the newspaper), but instead the gang invites him to shoot them—their desire for fame being equaled perhaps only by the newspaper’s desire for their photos (Jana Prikryl makes a similar point in a very nice article in Believer a year ago). In subsequently photo sessions, the gang repeatedly hams it up for Rocket’s camera, borrowing from the same archive of martial/machismo poses and gestures which we find again in the Abu Graihb photos.

Final, to conclude this discussion of the relationship between hyper-transparency and obscenity by returning to Scalia’s controversial hand gesture, it is undoubtedly welcome that the Supreme Court as a whole continues to resist general pressures for self-publicity (and more concrete pressure from Congress) to televise their own proceedings.



Blogger roger said...

One last comment about Wittgenstein -- Scalia's gesture irresistably calls to mind Malcolm's famous anecdote about Wittgenstein:

Wittgenstein and P. Sraffa, a lecturer in economics at Cambridge, argued together a great deal over the ideas of the Tractatus. One day (they were riding, I think, on a train) when
Wittgenstein was insisting that a proposition and that which it describes must have the same 'logical form', the same 'logical multiplicity', Sraffa made a gesture, familiar to Neapolitans as meaning something like disgust or contempt, of brushing the underneath of his chin with an
outward sweep of the finger-tips of one hand. And he asked: 'What is the logical form of that?' Sraffa's example produced in Wittgenstein the feeling that there was an absurdity in the insistence that a proposition
and what it describes must have the same 'form'. This broke the hold on him of the conception that a proposition must literally be a 'picture'of the reality it describes.'"

3:16 PM  
Blogger crojas said...

Thank you. That is fantastic anecdote, and one of which I was not aware.
(Speaking of Wittgenstein, I had originally thought about trying to bring him ["In what sense are my sensations private? - Well, only I can know whether I am really in pain; another person can only surmise it."] and Sontag ["No "we" should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people's pain."] into dialogue with each other, but found it taking me too far afield.

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