triple exxxistentialism

"The Body of Christ in the Tomb" Hans Holbein the Younger (1521)

It’s a bit embarrassing – nothing can date you faster than not keeping abreast (pun grenade) of the latest names in pop culture: barely squeaked in there with Lady Gaga, but I definitely showed-up late to the party with Sasha Grey (the pun detonates). Not until The Girlfriend Experience was at the local video store; didn’t even know about her. What does it mean to be an existentialist and to be starring in prØn? Yes, titillating subject matter, but this will be a serious discussion.

Over the last several postings we’ve been discussing the aesthetic nature of personhood (that is, “who I am” is fundamentally a performance of who I think I am): we’ve considered the possibility that “who I am” is an accumulation of responses to traumatic events, that “who I am” is possibly an agglomeration of pieces of other examples of who I could be, and that a central component to the currently-developing economic relationship called spectaclism is the exploitation of a sense of dissolution in celebrity and anonymity. Last week we considered Lil’ Wayne and psychasthenia, this week we consider Sasha Grey’s self-proclaimed existentialism. Still not familiar with Ms. Grey? She’s cleverly employed in The Roots’ video Birthday Girl here. But, what is existentialism anyhow?

Detail from "Icon durae matris in convexa superficie visae" Jan Ladmiral (1738)

“Masha is lying on the table. Will Masha and I ever see each other again?” Thus begins Dostoevsky’s journal entry on the day that he is to bury his first wife in April, 1864.

If ever there is a moment to ask the meaning of it all, surely it would be while waiting to bury one’s spouse in an early grave.

Born with the “holy disease” (epilepsy) Dostoevsky would come to view sickness as a privileged mode for experiencing capital-T Truth. When Dostoevsky viewed Holbein the Younger’s The Body of Christ in the Tomb he was struck by the humanity of this portrayal – there was Christ the man, in the flesh, three days decaying. He fished a drowned body out of the Rhine to model the dead Son of God some suggest that it was to underscore that the body of the flesh is temporary thus stressing the miracle of resurrection.

"We believe in nussing, Lebowski, nussing."

The debate during Holbein’s lifetime (and which we continue to have today, tiresomely) was to establish the position of subjective truth (that truth we experience) and objective Truth (universally, forever and always, amen, Truth); against these is positioned nihilism, there is no Truth at all, there is no meaning to any of it.

Dostoevsky was so captivated by the painting that his second wife had to physically remove him from the room out of fear that it would induce in him an epileptic fit. Myshkin, the protagonist in The Idiot, states that the painting would cause a man to lose his faith. The nihilist sees the painting and has confirmed there that, sure, some guy named Jesus was crucified, so what? Existentialism is a direct response to this non-convergence of Truth, a strategy for overcoming nihilism.

There is no doctrine to which all thinkers considered existential subscribe, not even all thinkers considered existential self-identify as such, (Camus, for example, was explicit in denying he was an existentialist). So how do we judge whether or not Ms. Grey is being true to existentialism?

"Man, Stag, and Antelope" from "A Comparative View of the Human and Animal Frame" Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (1860)

The Modern dilemma is that humanity is infected with the awareness of their own mortality.

Kierkegaard, said to be a favorite of Sasha Grey, called this awareness The Sickness Unto Death because as we become aware of our ultimate demise we are filled with despair. Every moment that we have this despair we become aware that we are bringing this upon ourselves, thus “to be sick unto death is to be unable to die [….] when death is the greatest danger, we hope for death. When danger is so great that death becomes the hope, then despair is the hopelessness of not being able to die.” But this was before the invention of adolescence.

You gotta understand: it wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that it was possible to be a teenager and not be already married, already employed or already dead. With the development of consumer culture (which was discovered through the invention of adolescents with their parents’ extra money) the sickness unto death has became the sickness from the death of youth.

Not to put too fine a point on it but, aren’t all teenagers essentially existentialists? Isn’t the questioning of the roles of freedom and the limitations of metaphysical truth (is there a difference between when Dad says so and when God says so?) fundamentally the core questioning of being an adolescent?

"Copulating" Alex Grey (1984)

This is why Alex Grey, I assume of no relation to Sasha, was so right to state that all adolescents are forced to choose one of three options:

1) sell-out,
2) kill yourself, or
3) become something greater than you had anticipated possible.

Suspending judgment for the time being let’s consider that there is something more to what Ms. Grey does than simply selling herself through pornography.

It’s no surprise that the immediate question becomes for many whether or not there is an emancipatory element in Sasha Grey’s pornographic strategy – this is a fizzling reminder of that old form of avante-gardism where the artist presented the utopian vision and was the leader for the untrained masses to follow.

But, as Nicolas Borriaud points out, contemporary art practice since the 1990s has not been about preparing the future utopia(s), “today it is modeling possible universes.” To seek an emancipatory strategy from Sasha Grey, still effectively an adolescent, mind you, but especially because she is a pornographer seems unfair. It also ignores the nature of cultural change that has occurred over the last 20 years (nearly her entire lifetime). Probably the best illustration of that change can be seen by comparing Berlin’s 1982 hit Sex (I’m a…) with Lovage’s reappropriation of the song in 2001.

Berlin’s song was successful in establishing the band on the international pop charts because it blended the best parts of disco with what would be called New Wave. The song’s okay. It song becomes amazing, however, with the collaboration between Dan the Automator (here as Nathaniel Merriwether of Handsome Boy Modeling School fame), Kid Koala, Mike Patton (an entire musical subgenre unto himself), and Jennifer Charles (Elysian Fields). The album, Nathaniel Merriwether Presents… Lovage: Music To Make Love to Your Old Lady By is exceptional, but the key moment in the album is this return to the Berlin song.

The album is sexy, in many ways it is hip hop’s answer to the cinematics of Serge Gainsbourg‘s Hitoire de Melodie Nelson, but the histrionics become sinister and critically clear on Sex (I’m a…). The lyrics are kitschy for the most part, but as the song enters it’s refrain (04:24) the kitsch becomes absurd and ultimately sinister with Mike Patton reduced to simple echolalia:

"Orang-Outang, sive Homo Sylvestris: or, the Anatomy of a Pygmie compared with that of a Monkey, an Ape, and a Man" Edward Tyson (1699)

Mike Patton (MP): I’m a man
Jennifer Charles (JC): I’m a goddess
MP: I’m a man
JC: I’m a hooker
MP: I’m a man
JC: I’m a blue movie
MP: I’m a man
JC: I’m a slut
MP: I’m a man
JC: I’m your babe
MP: I’m a man
JC: I’m a dream divine

From here they reiterate their chorus and we begin to hear the sounds of what might be carnal passion, but then it becomes unclear if what we’re hearing is might be sobbing as Jennifer Charles snarls-out, “you fucking piece of shit.” The song, previously (with Berlin), was an invitation to dance but now has become a critique of the misogyny inherent to hip hop and also begs the question of gender in sexuality: while the woman can be many things in this heterosexual formulation, what can the man be? That is, the woman in this song has the freedom to transform into many roles, but what can a man be? Within hip hop there seems to be only the maudlin thug, sometimes he sings, some times he raps, but he is always two dimensional.

The song is successful in several ways, it’s largely a danceable tune, it is largely a sexy song, but it also meets a requirement necessary for the form of art in contemporary parlance: it produces a specific sociability, a conversation amongst the listeners, a state of encounter.

Illustration for Baudelaire's "Les Fleurs Mals" Carlo Ferneti (1935)

The critical reception of Sasha Grey’s performance as a high-priced escort to Wall Street denizens in Steven Soderbergh’s film The Girlfriend Experience unfortunately to this point has failed to move beyond the level of marketing. The critics, in effect, seem to only ask, “Wow, could a woman that makes pornography also become something other than a sex object?” It’s hard to accept this critique largely because we would have to accept that women in Hollywood are somehow more than sex objects in the main; this is Grey’s simple (and maybe her only) argument, this is the argument she made on the Tyra Banks show at the launch of her career. Left at this level, she wins in marketing herself, but what is achieved is only the commodification of her person-as-sex-object; to do this is to ignore what she and Soderbergh are attempting in the film. The critics tend to locate the failure of Grey’s performance as not capitalizing enough on the incessant conversation of her clients – they hire her less for the sex and instead compliment her for the conversation,this is a crucial element in understanding Soderbergh’s film.

Set the day before the election of Barack Obama, amid her client’s talk of Wall Street bailouts, the film is an attempt to highlight the commodification of social relations but also a discussion of the image as art. The film was shot in high definition, which many comment made the film seem depersonalized, but I’d suggest this was an invocation of the highly-influential French film critic Serge Daney.

Daney saw the production of images as the production of possible encounters, “It is the horizon based on which the image may have a meaning, by pointing to a desired world, which the beholder thus becomes capable of discussing, and based on which his own desire can rebound.” This is, clearly, antithetical to pornography as it is practiced today where it is strictly a one-way transmission, whose purpose is not to compel us to participate in the action but to satisfy our sense that action is occurring (not unlike the way politics is now practiced on CNN, Fox, and The Daily Show).

Could there be a resolution to the question of whether Sasha Grey is really being existentialist? What do we get from that answer? We are likely in a better position to develop more appropriate understandings of our place within the spectacular economy by appreciating what both Sasha Grey and Lil’ Wayne are saying they are doing:

Sasha Grey: “I am determined and ready to be a commodity that fulfills everyone’s fantasies.”
Lil’ Wayne: “We’re creating it to where that’s the artist you have to be period. To where a motherfucker just gotta like YOU. That’s a superstar.”

Still from "Birthday Girl" The Roots (2008)

We have entered a new stage of technological development where one’s literacy is being extended beyond the ability to read words and now into what Greg Ulmer terms electracy: “What literacy is to the analytical mind, electracy is to the affective body: a prosthesis that enhances and augments a natural or organic human potential.” It seems perhaps too sci-fi to say this, but we are witnessing the explosive birth of a new ecosystem. Lil’ Wayne, Grey, they build-off of earlier superstars – these are significant explorations of what is possible within the flourishing worlds of social media and hypermedia. This new prosthesis will facilitate the increasingly seamless transitions between virtual and actual worlds.

Super big thanks to Tom Maxwell for introducing me to the excellent images, he’s got impeccable internet taste, y’all.

Web Gallery of Art; University of Iowa; Tuesday, Midnight; University of Wisconsin; Alex Grey; wikimedia; BibliOdyssey; A Journey Around My Skull; Vevo



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3 responses to “triple exxxistentialism

  1. Kyle

    My question with Sasha Grey is whether or not her associating herself with existentialism matters. Porn stars (or celebs in general) call themselves all sorts of things in order to assert their uniqueness or marketable individuality (think of Tracy Morgan getting facial tattoos on 30 Rock). With the internet allowing discreetness, more people than ever are experiencing pornography as a part of their lives which, of course, creates new markets. Sasha Grey doesn’t fit the traditional Jenna Jameson crowd demanding exaggerated feminine attributes but she does fit into the realm that has allowed for the rise of directors like Eon McKai– who appear at first to be doing something new and interesting with the genre but in reality it’s all just part of the fantasy. Is existentialism (or doing a real film) for Sasha Grey no different than breast implants for another porn star?

    • In a lot of ways I think you’re correct Kyle, thanks! I especially like the breast implants analogy.

      Does it matter that she markets herself as an existentialist? Only in so far as she has to this point, right? It worked when it worked: it got her the market exposure she was looking for. How much longevity does that ad campaign have? I suspect not much; but maybe that’s because my imagination of existentialists is Sartre, with his crazy eye and Simone de Beauvoir, smoking together at some cafe on the Left Bank. How does that become porn? I just don’t have the imagination I guess.

      My follow-up question would be to ask if we should expect more of these forms of appropriation from future celebrities?

      You brought-up Tracy Morgan, which is a perfect set-up for my question. He got some flack in the media for making a joke last year about how the Obamas were going to be the first Presidential family to have a sex tape leaked.

      Look at the frequency of these tapes getting national exposure: Tommy Lee and Pam Anderson in early ’96 (insures their bad boy/girl image), Paris Hilton’s in late 2003 (makes her a celebrity), Kid Rock and the guy from Creed in 2006 (only 2 years after Paris reinvigorates their celebrities), and then Ray J & Kim Kardashian’s tape in 2007 (and thus ushering in all that great Kardashian reality tv stuff for us).

      In just 10 years pornography has become a viable strategy for establishing a career in the spectacular economy. Will the proliferation of sex shared make it so quotidian that in 2030 we’ll be watching people eat their body weight in foie-gras while getting punched in their faces?

      The electracy bit at the end of the article is a question for me. Will these kinds of sex performances become an avatar (to jump on a recurring theme on the site this week) for people to put on as they negotiate how they want to be understood in society? I assume that there will continue to be an ocean of people that are the victims of human trafficking for the purpose of sexual abuse – maybe even a harsher divide will erupt. Thus the question becomes, what kinds of encounters are possible in these performances? Can we create other forms of social understanding beyond the exploitation of others for the purpose of reenacting what is the dominant form of sexuality? This is Judith Butler territory.

  2. Pingback: popop//chain of fools | the avant guardian

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