Content warning: sexual assault, in celebrity art/intellectual culture, questions about unlearning
It is so dark to be reminded that not only is power in this society publicly & plainly ok with violence, sexual violence, but that the first things I turned to as a teenager for wisdom or for help imagining alternatives to what seemed bad or drained of humanity were in several cases made by people acting with equal cruelty, maybe with guilt but without change.
Something I’m grappling with is the way I still hero-worship artists and intellectuals, as an alternative to the political / economic / cultural powers we know to be so cruel, when substantial parts of intellectual/artistic celebrity culture continue to be involved with, to enable, excuse, and aestheticize, sexual violence, and that this must be connected not just with their names but in what they said and their sense of immunity. I was thinking about this also when watching Nanette, and its remarkable, terrible discussion of Picasso and art history.
“Too-sensitive-for-this-world” David Foster Wallace, not just sexist and objectifying of female fans, but abusing stalking and threatening another novelist. I remember in college several times showing people classic movies I thought were my favorites, full of depth and awe, Roger Ebert 4/4 stars, and being surprised when they featured men assaulting women in scenes I barely remembered, not knowing what to say, not saying anything, pretending the movie, Good Art, was still supposed to be the thing that showed the world’s resonance to us. The contemporary cases are too many to name of course: John Searle, Junot Diaz, Sherman Alexie, Gopal Balakrishnan here, and Avital Ronell and her horrible letter signed by the leading ‘radical’ names (late, but I thought “On Power and Aporia in the Academy: A Response in Three Parts” was really good on this). A Pablo Neruda poem a structuring epigraph to my first large piece of digital writing: that Pablo Neruda was a rapist, but not only this, that he wrote his rape in the same style that he wrote his poetry, in his autobiography, and if he hadn’t written it no one would have known. And that this scene in which he raped a servant in Sri Lanka where he was an ambassador was not surprising or commented on for decades, and even after a cover story in a feminist publication wrote on it in 2011, I didn’t know until a classmate mentioned this in a class and I looked online, and the passage was crueler and more unrepentant than anything.
It’s not really something I’m a survivor of – but what to make of the (common) possibility of being maybe damaged or traumatized by a thing that you’ve also in the past, separately from art, went along with or internalized aspects of? I could try to say some positive things about what trying to unlearn casually inherited rape culture is, some reassurance in the possibility of kinder ways & communities with less ominous assumptions. I do believe it’s possible to learn different models & stories