A while ago I wrote that the aim of shocking one’s audience is necessarily conservative. The example I used is South Park – the show is amusing and occasionally clever, but I’m really surprised that more people haven’t commented on its reactionary tendencies, which I find rather obvious. While they play the ‘messages’ at the end of episodes for irony, at least in the use of corny music, most of the episodes do make statements fairly unambiguously, and more often than not those statements are socially conservative. Exhibiting transgression as shocking, disgusting or laughable reinforces the idea that there’s something wrong with it; this is why Umberto Eco made the claim that all comedy is conservative. Perhaps South Park’s left-leaning fans just don’t want to ruin the show by teasing out its politics; I really can’t reconcile it with my beliefs, which are, in the end, really not that extreme.
I don’t reject art because I disagree with it, but I do find it interesting to think of how its political identity relates to that of its audience. Another example of intentionally-shocking art that I’ve been thinking about lately (because it’s been back in the media, naturally) is one of the great rock albums, Liz Phair’s ‘Exile in Guyville.’ The album may not be particularly shocking today (this is one of the reasons why Chris Dahlen’s review in Pitchfork Media claims that the album now sounds dated), but in its time it was fairly notorious for the highly explicit presentation of Phairs’s (Phair the character’s, if not Phair the actual person’s) sex life. The album has often been called feminist, and feminism often shows through in Phair’s independence and sexual aggression, which places her in a traditionally masculine role. But the absence of a traditional relationship is conspicuous, and the need for one comes to the surface in ‘Fuck and Run:’
Whatever happened to a boyfriend
The kind of guy who tries to win you over
Whatever happened to a boyfriend
The kind of guy who make loves ’cause he’s in it
I want a boyfriend
I want all that stupid old shit, like letters and sodas.
There’s nothing necessarily reactionary about the need for stability, even if takes the form of “letters and sodas,” and it’s fairly clear that the relationship Phair wants is an egalitarian one, but the album presents the alternative to jukebox-and-milkshake heterosexuality as bleak and loveless, and makes some pretty clear attempts to shock people with the details of it. This takes a bit of the irony out of these lines. There is a real longing for the courtship rituals of the (idealized) past in them.
But I don’t think this longing is reactionary. I would compare it with the sentiment of the Modernist poets, and in particular T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. If the main idea of Modernism was that poetry can only be successful if it has a strong sense of the ‘now’ – T.S. Eliot once claimed that the most important thing for a young poet to study is the internal combustion engine – the Modernists had very little affection for the time they lived in. The Modernists’ fixation on classical antiquity is in part explained by their belief that an understanding of the present must be grounded in an understanding of the past, but the genuine longing for a return to Byzantium was not peculiar to Yeats. What redeems the Modernists from being nothing more than curmudgeons is that they knew full well that the present was not the past, and that the time in which they lived really was that bad. Their longing for tradition came from a serious feeling of uprootedness that affected people across Europe and the U.S. in the first three decades of the twentieth century, and the sense of ‘tradition’ that they longed for never entailed stasis.
Phair’s work is, in much the same way, directed towards the present rather than the past – the record’s immersion in the indie rock culture of the early nineties is the other reason Dahlen calls it dated – and even though her longing for “all that stupid old shit” really is genuine, it does retain the bitterer part of its irony: she knows that it’s not coming back. The pathos in this situation could be interpreted as reactionary, except that Phair seems to be aware of the falsehood of the idealized past she craves; the real cause of her predicament is her inability to reconcile the actual nature of her life with the lingering remains of the tradition from which it has violently broken off which still reside in her consciousness. Classical feminism may not work this way – most of Katherine Mansfield’s protagonists, for instance, find themselves acting out social roles that they don’t genuinely feel engaged with, while Phair finds herself disengaged from social roles that she still has internalized. But that doesn’t mean Phair is not a feminist. Like Mansfield’s characters, she is after a way to resolve her life with the way she really feels, and a return to the strictures of the past is not the way to do that.
(Also, in response to the allmusic.com piece I linked to, which says of the album’s supposed parallel with the Rolling Stones’ ‘Exile on Main Street,’ “Just try to match the albums up: is the ‘blow-job queen’ fantasy of ‘Flower’ really the answer to the painful elegy ‘Let It Loose’?” Of course it is, and the fact that ‘Flower’ takes the place of a spiritual is one of the album’s most cutting jabs.)