On Taboo

Some time in the very early 90s I went as a teenager to see an exhibition of art responding to the unfolding AIDS crisis, some of which involved very explicit discussion of safe (and not-so-safe) sex practices. I was staying with students at Bristol university, who I think were part of the Christian Union there (it was a church-organised trip); their reaction to this content can probably best be described as “quietly dismayed”. Open and forcefully politicised discussion of the mechanics and health implications of gay sex wasn’t something they were entirely ready for. Such matters were taboo, and a powerful current of respectable opinion — nurtured and amplified by the right-wing papers, and backed by the force of law in the form of Section 28 — held that they should properly remain so. Breaking that taboo, by speaking factually and earnestly about the realities it served to shroud and mystify, was recognised by queer activists at the time as a political (and, given the accelerating severity of the crisis, existential) imperative. Viewing that exhibition helped me towards understanding why this should be so.

I reject the fatuous generalisation that art has an unconditional “responsibility” to break taboos, confront realities that make people uncomfortable, and so on. It very much matters what forces hold the taboo in place, and to what ends, and what agency is involved in breaking it, and to what ends. Taboos around the use of racial slurs, ableist language and so on have a function, which is to decrease the amount of hostile signalling the designated targets of such language are exposed to. There are some but not many good reasons for contravening this, and it really does depend who you are and what you think you’re playing at. Such considerations can sometimes be very complex, and there often isn’t a single rule or authority that can be relied upon to resolve them, but they are also sometimes quite clear-cut. It is potentially of interest for art to scout out the edge-cases here, but only if the possibility of meaningful judgement is admitted as a premise: if your position from the outset is “I can say whatever I like and it is illegitimate for anybody to find this reprehensible on any grounds whatsoever”, then you’re just being a tool.

There is nevertheless something grossly maladroit about Dorian Batycka’s apparent contention, in an article titled “Is Accelerationism A Gateway Aesthetic To Fascism? On the Rise of Taboo in Contemporary Art” that naff edgelord art that dicks around with fascist imagery should be considered bad and dangerous because the matter it treats is taboo. This is to my mind entirely the wrong way of thinking about what’s bad about such art, as well as what might be dangerous about it. Batycka presents “the rise of the taboo” as inherently threatening, worrying that “taboo forms of culture have started to circulate in obscure corners of the internet” (one wonders what the timeline is here: there has been a 4chan for a long while now…). It’s very clear here that the “taboo” is always on the side of the devil:

However, the paradox of the internet is that while it has given marginalized voices a space in which to secure access to speech and community, disobedience and nonconformity, it has also given platform to taboo ideas, fascist and far-right literature and memes, cannibalizing extremist views into a cornucopia of half-truths and anti-establishment conspiracy theories.

One might also pause a little to take in the negative valorisation of “anti-establishment” here, positioned as it is directly alongside “half-truths” and “conspiracy theories”. Are we to understand that the speech and community of marginalized voices are to be considered aspects of the establishment? In the art world according to its own glittering self-image, a joyous carnival of disobedience and nonconformity funded by generous donations from steel magnates and advertising svengalis, this might conceivably be true — Batycka speaks without apparent irony of “the progressive values of the art world”. (Later, he is particularly exercised that “the biennale seems to platform art and artists that no longer had to take justification in the progressive identity values of the art world”, which seems to be a way of saying “edgelord-y white dudes” with a mouth full of cotton wool. To be clear, I don’t think stuffing an exhibition with edgelord-y white dudes is a good thing, or unworthy of remark; I’m just marvelling at the bureaucratic clumsiness of the expression).

The implicit argument here is that disobedience and nonconformity, which are evidently Good Things, are Good only up to a certain limit, which is marked by the intervention of the taboo. The taboo, in turn, adheres to signifiers: Batycka speaks of “Pepe the Frog, a taboo symbol that was included in Arns’s exhibition, which has proven to be used by far-right hate groups as a symbol”. To describe Pepe the Frog, for many years an innocuous cartoon character with no notable political associations, simply as a “taboo symbol” is to overlook the lengthy process by which the alt-right converted him into a totem, following a common practice of undermining speech hygiene codes by co-opting formerly innocent signifiers: Pepe was not “used by far-right hate groups as symbol” because of his noxious associations, but acquired them through sustained and widespread resignification. Pepe memes which participate in this resignification are indeed part of the lingua franca of a right-wing subculture, but all of this gets truncated by Batycka into a simple logic of contamination: this symbol “was included”, and in being so included it immediately summoned the worst that could be associated with it into its presence. Again, I’m not defending the placement of Pepe memes in the exhibition in question, which was likely a cringeworthy display at best; the point is that this is an inadequate critical apparatus for saying what might be troublesome about it.

OK, so why does this matter? Why am I taking potshots at a rather incoherent article about something that I give, to a first approximation, zero hoots about? There are two reasons. The first is that Batycka recirculates a historically illiterate third-hand account of “accelerationism” which is bedding in as received wisdom among people who apparently don’t recognise any obligation to know better, and I’m a bit on edge right now about anything that looks like the early stages of exponential growth. Although like most “left-accelerationists” I’ve essentially abandoned the label as degraded beyond all practical utility (and also, somewhat, moved on politically), it’s still a point of affiliation with thinkers that I care about (the XF collective, for starters). So there’s that. Every now and again, if you see someone actively promulgating wilful ignorance, it’s your moral duty to give them a bit of a shoeing. Think of it as flattening the curve.

The other reason is that I think Batycka’s way of characterising artworld laundering of fascist aesthetics (let alone LD50’s recklessly stupid platforming of white nationalists and Breivik fanboys) as the circulation of taboo material — leaping infectiously from the troll populations of “obscure corners of the internet” into humans of the art world — frames a politically serious question in a fundamentally unserious way. The argument of the edgelords themselves, after all, is that it is precisely where sanctioned “disobedience and nonconformity” come to an end, and a limit is imposed, that one should start asking questions: about who holds the prerogative of giving or withholding sanction, and how that prerogative is exercised. If the basis of that limit is the miasma of “taboo” around certain symbols, then an obvious first step is to deploy such symbols aggressively, to provoke and expose the workings of discursive authority. Worse, where the real aim is to advance a malignant agenda, to take advantage of the prestige of institutions such as art galleries to disseminate and normalise far-right ideologemes, those responsible can always claim merely to be tweaking the nose of authority, playing the game of exploring the boundaries of acceptable speech.

To this, Batycka opposes the very form of cultural respectability politics that such tactics are wholly parasitic upon. He can neither account for the proper rationale for overturning taboos when, as in my opening example, it is politically imperative to do so, nor give any stronger argument for their maintenance than a simplistic theory of contamination-by-inclusion — the taboo-identified symbol as freighted with moral danger, and demanding decontaminating “critique” wherever it appears. All of this simply guarantees a recurrence of the same arguments, with the same outcomes: a ratcheting up of paranoia, and of the tactical exploitation of paranoia.


1431 Words

2020-04-01 18:06:00