I feel like we’re getting to the ideological core of Against Everything in these essays: Greif is building on a theme he started exploring in “On Exercise” and “On Food”, by calling out the creeping influence of neoliberalism on our everyday activities. In “…Sex Children” and “Octomom…”, the sexual and reproductive agency of women and girls is analysed within an economic framework, contrasting the processes of liberation, the cultural acceptance of what people are doing already, and liberalisation, the marketization of human desires and interactions.
In “…Sex Children”, Greif uses a discussion of Lolita as a jumping-off point to look at what he sees as the fetishisation of youth in culture, driving the increasing sexualisation of children and the corresponding infantilisation of sexual women. This is playing out in interesting ways. Vice recently devoted some fearless investigative reporting to the phenomenon of MILF porn, where mature characters are increasingly being portrayed by relatively young female performers, limiting the range of sexual identities on offer to performers and effectively replacing the ‘Madonna/whore’ dichotomy with ‘barely legal/cougar’. Meanwhile, the mainstream media uses facial recognition software to try to prove that refugee children are really predatory jihadists in disguise. Childhood and adulthood are increasingly seen as social constructs, with corresponding values of innocence and shame, rather than a simple matter of dates. Of course, concepts of adulthood have always been social constructs; in the 1950s, the 16 year old star of the stag film Smart Alec was regarded as a feminist for showing agency in her scenes; nowadays, the presence of a 16 year old on set would land everyone involved in prison.
I went to a talk by Catherine Hakim, a few years ago, where she spoke about erotic capital, and the idea that attractive people do better in their careers (it turned out to be a pretty broad definition of ‘attractive’, which included qualities like competence and punctuality). She mentioned that this idea always met lots of resistance in England, whereas when she gave the talk in countries like Italy, Japan and Spain it was readily accepted as a fact of life. Whether that was connected to the three countries in question having been governed by Fascist dictatorships wasn’t discussed… Anyway, as well as a visceral tendency to equate outward appearance with inner goodness, this idea does seem to chime with an increased tendency to ascribe economic value to rather intangible qualities like hotness, as Greif touches on.
Left wing ideals of free love do seem dated now. I recently watched the Serbian surrealist film WR: The Mystery of the Organism, which pits sexual liberation against totalitarianism, and argues that Stalinism is a symptom of sexual repression. Looking at the documentary sections of the movie now, filmed in 1970s New York, it’s striking how ugly and unaesthetic these people seem to the modern viewer, with their awful haircuts and Seventies bush—a far cry from the toned and trimmed sexual archetypes of today.
I think, though, there are a couple of unaddressed issues here. Firstly, and without being all ‘what about the menz?!’, it is striking that Greif focuses on the female experience in “…Sex Children”—but when society is so heavily sexualised, as Greif argues, then it’s important to look at the messages boys are receiving too, in terms of expectation and entitlement. Also, it’s tempting to take a puritanical view, but I’m not sure Greif really takes female agency into account either. It feels very much like culture (and sexualisation) is a thing that happens to women, without them shaping or adapting it in any way. Obviously we all exist inside a culture, but identity is about how we negotiate with that, right?
“Octomom…” looks at the media hoo-ha surrounding the birth of octuplets, conceived via IVF, by a single mother, Nadya Suleman. Again, we see the trend of ascribing market values to natural processes made explicit, as Suleman’s children are cast by the media as investments, designed to secure funding for Nadya from a beleaguered state. In the neo-liberal view, Nadya is leveraging her fertility to maximum effect; any discussion of the (unpaid) emotional and physical labour involved in bringing up this vast litter of children is secondary to the purely economic view. Of course, this is an extreme example of the traditional prejudice towards the fertile poor, forever conceiving children in order to secure council housing or benefits.
Greif skilfully contrasts the opprobrium heaped upon Suleman with the distinct lack of focus placed on the perpetrators of America’s financial collapse, who took a similar approach to leveraging their assets for maximum gain, with much further-reaching impact.
I found myself nodding along with this, and admiring the writing – maybe it feels more self-contained than the other essays we’ve read, so less open for discussion? It was interesting that he made the point about the bankers behind the financial collapse remaining faceless, as far as the media and public were concerned. Since the essay was initially published, there’s been a burst of films made about the financial world, from The Wolf of Wall Street to The Big Short, but while the tone has generally been critical, it means we unconsciously glamorise these figures – the faces we think about when we think about quants and brokers are Leonardo DiCaprio and Christian Bale.
Anyway – look forward to reading your thoughts on this…
I was going to start with talking about “… Sex Children” but on rereading “Octomom…” I was struck by something Greif says that I think has a much greater impact on that section, and in some ways, the other one. Where he is talking about Vivid’s (the porn production company) offer of one million dollars to Suleman to feature in a movie, and then Hustler’s (unpaid) offer to Sarah Palin to do the same, he notes “… mixed hate with erotic curiosity.” He is referring to the greater (American, here) public’s desire to see this, whether real or a fantasy version (Palin obviously did not take the offer, and an actress was made up to look like her). Greif does not mention that Suleman took a version of that offer by Vivid: I believe it was half that, because she would not have sex on screen. Instead, she agreed to masturbate. It’s relevant to mention in that it is an acknowledgment of that erotic curiosity by the object of it—she must have also realised after a certain point in her coverage by the media that she was hated by a certain unseen percentage of people, as well. Against the relative non-coverage of AIG management at the time of the financial crisis, it also points that hatred/erotic curiosity—that while might have always existed—has crept more and more into a prominent position. It has become another standard of criteria in what the public consider newsworthy: and by that I mean capable of stoking more than momentary rage.
Madoff, of course, was found guilty in his (more or less standalone) Ponzi scheme: he is exempt from Suleman’s treatment as age already marked him out as unworthy of capturing the sexual hatred of the news-watching demographic. This was, for the most part, a problem of older people—I use that as a dismissive phrase deliberately—ones that specifically are not attractive. There’s a blandness when speaking of high finance that tends to make anyone working in it homogenous: likewise, the hate for AIG et al was homogenous. Everyone was the same. The public raged, then it tapered out—there was nothing ‘extra’ (as if the potential financial collapse of a nation wasn’t enough) to maintain that rage. It was removed enough from ‘real life’ as people saw it, to not be interesting. But what if Madoff had looked like Brad Pitt or Justin Trudeau? The news would have tried to have routed out mistresses, past lovers. There would have been porn offers, or at least lookalike actors in movies. But here’s a disturbing difference, and one that perhaps highlights Greif’s rather throwaway phrase even more: the fantasy would be to be fucked by the person who fucked you (financially). There is almost no doubt of that. It’s hard to believe any porn company would have had ‘punishment’ inflicted on the object of curiosity/hatred. But Suleman would have been fucked, as ‘Paylin’ (a deliberate name change to avoid a lawsuit) was. It’s a secondary form of public punishment, one that has echoes of how women have been treated for centuries in light of sexual (mis)conduct, or simply conduct viewed as inappropriate to men (and how they run society), as well as the sexual jealousy/hatred of women who take the male accusatory/punishment view. Now, I have to agree with Greif—none of this means that I view Suleman’s choices as logical (or sane, strictly from the information that her first children via IVF were disabled—to then decide to have seven, eight more seems misguided at least—although I don’t believe she was maliciously out to take advantage the welfare system). His Didion quote was rather apt: she was/is a “golden dreamer”. Her particular dream was just obsessive enough to drive her to some serious extremes. While her example as an abstract one is a fair enough debate: if every woman has a right to have children, whether natural or through artificial means, while the welfare state, if needed, should be there, at what point does it become untenable? Never mind everyone else that would need it, more Sulemans exponentially would be enough to make it break down, I would think. That too, is an example of the inability now to think in abstract terms: the news must attach a personality to the issue, and the act of that automatically negates the issue itself. We’ve become mired in irrationality. Combined with a relatively short-term attention span (helped in part by the way we consume information due to the internet and social media), it almost completely ensures we do not answer any questions or problems legitimately raised. This is the kind of thing that helps enable AIG management, crooked politicians, etc. to get away with it. It’s a narcissistic deflection that also reflects ‘easy thinking’. Sex is by no means simple, of course, when you start to unpack it. But in this context, reaching for sex as blame, as issue where it isn’t, is saying I choose A instead of B because I don’t have to think hard about it: I have experience of A, therefore what I think about A must be relevant. I have no experience of B, therefore that is not relevant (worse still, has no impact at all) to me.
Back to the idea of hatred and sexual curiosity, it still makes sense in the context of “…Sex Children”, and again, helped not in a small way by media/internet/social media. I’m sure I’ve moaned before about not knowing how I would have dealt with growing up in an age where one’s life is or can always be recorded in some manner, with or without permission. In retrospect, I’m grateful I could fuck up with abandon and only worry about my parents or immediate social circle—or if I were really lucky, not have anyone know at all. And that’s just the things I didn’t want to be caught doing. I don’t think I would have been sexually experimental if I had grown up now, as there’s something to be said about having the room to grow sexually, in relative privacy. When Greif says “[i]t is child sexual liberation that transforms the moment” , he knows it is due not only to popular culture—the rise of youth culture, music videos, etc—but technology. What may have been private isn’t, whether the decision not to be is consensual or not. That lack of privacy acts as an unintentional invitation/voyeurism (although sometimes intentional). Sexual curiosity is of course, natural for developing children/teenagers/adults—it’s simply where we are on that particular scale at any time that differs. ‘Intrusions’ are acceptable if they are forward-looking: that is, the child glimpsing the older sibling or parents getting undressed, the teenager seeing peers or adults having sex, but strictly in a voyeuristic, private mode—call it information to be stored against developmental actions at a later point. We’re agreed as a society that any backwards-scale intrusion—voyeuristic, and certainly in physical action—is taboo.
Leaving paedophilia aside as a known problem, the ‘now’ of technology and sexual development blurs the divisions on the scale. Technology, social media is seen for some as the permission (granted) for these intrusions. I don’t mean porn, as that’s too easy a target. I mean nude selfies that get leaked by enemies, open sex messaging on unlocked social media accounts, that sort of thing. I think most people still understand the divisions and right to privacy in a world that isn’t, a kind of invisible boundary. But increasingly it is seen by some in a hateful light: hateful because it is technically forbidden, the reading of (available) sexual openness as flaunting. I’m not sure people like this ever realise that in an age where one may have grown up surrounded by texting, social media platforms, video on phones, that as long as it doesn’t escape one’s social bubble, privacy is a particular state of mind. These children don’t feel any less private, on the whole, than we might have done. But like Suleman and the news, the fixation is there. And you’re right, this fixation is on boys as well as girls. I think that’s coming to light more now, whereas it might have been buried more under the norms of culture as we knew it at an earlier time. The interesting thing about the internet—or that I think it will show at some point—is that while we can pick out more female examples at the moment of sexual exploitation (strictly speaking in the context of this piece) and development, how boys develop will probably show itself not to be that different in a sexual-technological sense. But I do think the media’s coverage of it will be negatively female-biased for some time to come, as the old norms still dictate coverage (again, Suleman).
But this hatred and sexual curiosity afflicts the self as well, like you also point out in noting expectation and agency in boys and girls.
What we are definitely seeing more of now is a public grappling with identity: how to develop sexually, define oneself when you’re doing it for an audience—the crisis is often coming at realisation of the audience/betrayal of the privacy illusion by one of your circle.
It’s not unlike an embarrassing incident at school somehow getting out to the wider district, but when we say wider now, we potentially mean viral/global. How does a child (in terms of socio-sexual development) cope with self (hatred) and the sexual curiosity—and judgement, of the strangers commenting kind—on top of it, of the world in one hit?
What you say about glamorisation—there’s certainly a perverse version of that with anyone caught in the gaze of media/social media now. Social priorities have absolutely, and I certainly hope not irrevocably, shifted. I think there’s even more need for responsibility: for the actions of self as well as taking others to account who seek to shift the gaze away from actual issues, because as long as it keeps escalating, so will the extremism. But ironically, I think that comes with individual action and less of what I’ll call the appearance of online solidarity. Just do something, and don’t worry about announcing it to the world. The vanity of cause is just as destructive as inaction.
I agree with you on Greif’s writing in these—I found them more interesting than say the philosophy of Radiohead, but on the whole I find he’s taking his subjects and being realistically critical in his essay writing, not critical for the sake of argument only. I think one of the book blurbs referred to him as being contrarian, but I’m not finding that so much—unless it means I’m more of a contrarian than I thought—well, at least until I read the first of the parts on experience…
Mark Greif is a founder and Editor of the journal n+1. He lives and works in New York, where he is Associate Professor of Literary Studies at the New School. He is the highly acclaimed author of The Age of the Crisis of Man, and his criticism and journalism have appeared in publications including the London Review of Books, Guardian, Times Literary Supplement, and New Statesman.
In the kingdom of kitsch Thom Cuell would be a monster.
Tomoé Hill is an editor at minor literature[s]. Her reviews, essays, and non-fiction can also be found at Berfrois, 3:AM Magazine, and Numéro Cinq.
Against Everything is published by Verso Books. Author bio courtesy of the same.