Saturday, May 30, 2009

God Is Dead, And Nothing Is Permitted

As Jacques Lacan observed, after God is dead, nothing is anymore permitted. Or rather, although everything is permitted, it is hedonism devoid of its vitality: it is fat free and decaffeinated, deprived of its malignant property. Nothing is more heinous, it would seem, than the possibility of someone indulging in excessive enjoyment, as anymore enjoyment is perceived not as enjoyment but as excess. Rather than inhaling with deep pleasure, the postmodern individual does it without inhaling. Virtual sex is an acceptable alternative to actual sex. Although it seems utterly absurd, our media technology—televisions, CD and MP3 players, DVD players, and game consoles, for instance—are purchased on the assumption that we will limit its capabilities, deprive it of its full potential. Our televisions are equipped with V-chips, and our cable TV boxes, DVD players, and game consoles have installed in them parental control features that can block, disable, and filter information. Our CDs and MP3s exist in “clean” or bowdlerized versions which, like decaffeinated coffee, alcohol free beer, and fat free cream, have had the offensive, malignant property removed; it has been cleansed of its dirty element. Hence our technology is actually a control technology, enforcing and supervising our values and morals. The irony of all this is that the very media that once were perceived as so pernicious in their effects, that presumably required such severe restrictive legislation and policing, is now that which legislates, polices, censors, and bowdlerizes (“bleeps”). The fact is, the function of media technology is not to present us a “window” to the world, but to defend us from the world, to show us The Real, perhaps—but not the Too Real.

An example of the power of media technology to invisibly censor is the infamous Stalinist practice of retouching the photos of nomenklatura. Just a few years ago, the United States Postal Service erased the cigarette from the stamps with the photographic portraits of blues guitarist Robert Johnson and of Jackson Pollock, yet another instance of issuing a “clean,” edited version. God forbid we should see these historically significant figures as having indulged in a vice. The impulse for such bowdlerization reveals that today’s tolerant liberal multiculturalism is really premised on the experience of Other deprived of its Otherness: the idealized Other, for instance, may smoke (that is, have an offending characteristic) but the practice must remain out of sight, and hence, out of mind, hidden. Depriving the Other of what makes it Other is, of course, an expression of the politics of fear, which is why the blocking, disabling, and censoring capabilities of media technology enable and enact the liberal form of the politics of fear: its purpose is to protect us from the Too Real.

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