Saturday, December 03, 2011

Laura Kipnis: How to Become a Scandal

Depending on who you believe, Freud has either been debunked or remains the key to understanding all of humanity.  If fall into the "Freud was right, and the it's all about shit and sex" camp, then you will probably enjoy "How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior." If, like me, you are somewhat skeptical of claims that diapers make for the best scandals because they're about bodily functions, this book may fall short of credibility. I had high hopes, too, because celebrity scandals really are a fascinating modern phenomena, but Laura Kipnis tempers all of her great insights with noxious Freudian references, leaving the foul taste of oozing poop in my mouth. (Really, the vivid details are necessary, according to Kipnis, to get the sense of primal disgust across.)

We all have guilty pleasures: I can't get away from Diet Coke or reading in bed All Day Long or CSI. Some people look down on me for this, or shake their heads in disbelief. But everyone understands that these are pleasurable endeavors; we're supposed to enjoy sugary drinks, relaxing, and craptastic entertainment.  On the other hand, most people are also sucked into what Kipnis calls "one of the few reliable growth industries," scandal-tainment (my word), and I'd venture that most of us feel somewhat bad about watching celebrity train-wrecks.  Sure, the media plays them out for us day in and day out, but that doesn't mean we feel good about being desperate to know the next update in some one's stalking story or weight loss story or whatever.  But we all do it, even people like me who hide their heads in the sand from the majority of pop culture. I'm not talking about stopping for a moment of silence for the death of a famous person. Tragedy, Kipnis writes, "is supposed to concern noble feelings and high motives," and when there is a tragedy, we don't feel guilty about rubbernecking: we also don't care for very long. Think about the deaths of Michael Jackson and Steve Jobs. In the latter case, the world has mourned the loss of an innovative thinker.  In the case of MJ, his life and death meet Kipnis's criteria for a "genuine scandal": "pathos and tragedy, it should have gravitas. It should jar our sense of social tidiness a little, it should incite unanswerable questions about human propensities and the moral compact and the ongoing battle between the anarchy of desire and the sledgehammer of social propriety." Over a year after MJ's death, the trial of his doctor/murderer is still big news. I have a feeling there will not quite be the same kind of stir over the tragedy surrounding Jobs.

The best part of Kipnis's book is that she validates our sleazy fascination with scandals. (More on low-brow culture next week when I finish my current book.) She goes further than okay'ing scandal, she backs it up with academic-sounding arguments thus taking away any guilt one might feel in following the rise and fall of one's favorite stars. The only drawback is that much of her argument is propped up with Freudian psychology, which I've already said is not entirely convincing, but in order to feel good about ourselves and our scandal addiction, let's suspend disbelief for a minute.  "Culture," Kipnis writes, "needs scandal." (Italics belong to Kipnis.) Cultures are built on social norms, and scandals serve the vital role of reminding us a) what the norms are by breaking the norms and b) showing happens when the norms get broken. It's bad, real bad.  She continues: "It appears we're the kind of people who enjoy watching people 'get what's coming'- probably not the most admirable trait in a population, but after all, it's our norms that are being violated. (Communities are enclaves of shared norms-scandals are what define a community.) The media may whip things up for motives of their own, but it's our standards that have to be breached, and we care about these breaches, deeply." Basically, Michael Jackson enabled us to talk about race and sex, because he was so outrageously scandalous that we could "other" him, and say that is NOT us, that is NOT our values, our community would not do x, y, or z.  The community could then reestablish guidelines by punishing him for his supposed sins: in fact, the job of society is to make the scandalizer feel their punishment in public. You can't change your predetermined race, Michael! You can't touch little boys! And monkeys? What's up with monkeys!? Shame On You! Scandals can't happen without us, Kipnis writes, and remember that culture needs scandal. So sit back, drink your Diet Coke, watch CSI, then read all day. Don't feel bad if you're reading about people going down in flames of scandal.  Just don't read this book about it.