Negotiating the Unacceptable
Sarah Keith, John Scannell, Becky Shepherd
Endemic to the concept of 'unacceptability' are the boundaries that proscribe it; the points where particular bodies, images or practices have apparently exceeded the limits of utility and are deemed surplus to the requirements of functional community. A utilitarian gesture mobilised in the name of consistency and social cohesion, the unacceptable must be deployed with circumspection and caution, lest it constitute a collective cultural blind-spot. Topics deemed too difficult to discuss, are all too often marginalised, and important cultural, communicative or creative issues are simply excluded from discussion. Matters of propriety can, and all too often do, become matters of silence, erasure and heresy. Contesting the boundaries of the unacceptable constitutes a vital component of most of our daily lives, and rightly so; for as a relativist concept, it is exemplary, and one much distinguished by its capacity to elude universal accord.
The articles contained in this issue of Scan attempt to probe the limits of acceptability, as they seek to comprehend, and perhaps, intervene in some divisive contemporary issues.
Andrew Murphie's "On Not Performing: the third enclosure and fractal neo-feudal fantasies" calls into question many of our collective assumptions about the value of performance, and how "not-performing" is just as valuable to our wellbeing. Whilst the lack of performance is often commonly construed as a moment of weakness, Murphie shows how not-performing can also be a moment of strength. The paper proposes that rather than being unacceptable, there is instead a kind of power to be found in stillness, non-action, not performing: the promise of a differential life. Murphie's broad-ranging interdisciplinary discussion, takes in many aspects of performance: theatre and performance (art) style performance, performatives in language, the cultural performativity inferred in queer theory, performance as measured by inputs and outputs and efficiencies, performance evaluation and performance development systems. Murphie argues that "performance" unifies and amplifies the old forms of sovereign, disciplinary and control powers. Sometimes it contests these from within, even if it sometimes seems to do so only with the available costumes and props. Performance systems seem to reject difference even as they feed on it, to stratify behaviour, and the production of subjectivity, all the while forcing difference into retreat.
It is incomprehensible difference that is so often attached to myth and misrepresentation and where moral panics and hysterias abound - often in lieu of rather more deep-seated and elusive social problems. Whilst it is true that there are many intolerable activities that occur in this world, it is also rather unfortunate that prohibition is readily promoted as the answer to problems too difficult to address. Often ill-conceived and destructive, prohibition can anticipate more trouble than it seemingly curtails. Banning things does not make them go away, but simply pushes them farther underground. To paraphrase the words of Lacan: the law creates desire, yet somewhat ironically, it is prohibition that can, in turn, drive creativity.
As Daniel Wilson's"Bound[aries]: An Investigation of Sadomasochistic Imagery in Merzbow's Music For Bondage Performance" points out, the prohibition against the depiction of pubic hair and genitalia in the Japanese media has rather ironically allowed many of the graphic images and subject matter commonly found in Japanese manga and erotic films to exist in the first place. Wilson's discussion of the relationship between two transgressive art forms, the noise music of Japanese artist Merzbow and his use of sadomasochistic imagery, provides the subtext for the history of bondage in Japan as well that country's obscenity laws. Wilson's exploration of the conceptual cross-fertilisation of such "unacceptable" art forms, prompts an intriguing point: is it noise that is transgressive, or is it, in fact, transgression that is noisy?
The philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari have argued that the arts are significant of our breaking free of the intolerability of life; a shock to thought that necessarily motivates a creative response. Yet our encounters with the visual arts are all too often subsumed in simple representationalism - a judgement based on pre-existing forms - and perhaps the most banal method of interaction with the artwork's productive capacity. The impounding of Bill Henson's photographs from the Roslyn Oxley9 gallery in 2008 is perhaps symptomatic of representationalism triumphing over creative thought. In "Unacceptable Censorship: The Bill Henson Case Revisited", Tony Mitchell offers some historical contextualisation of the debate, drawing Henson's work into a relationship with Italian renaissance artist Caravaggio, also notable for portraying the naked bodies of children and adolescents in his work, and similarly accused with promoting paedophilia. Mitchell is deeply critical of the subjection of Henson's work to police brutality and public censure, if only because Henson's work might revise "rigidly imposed ways of thinking about the representation of young adolescents and the "taint" of sexualisation".
Mitchell's personal experience of the divisive opinion that has accompanied the Henson photographs reflects the fact that large sections of the public do find them unacceptable, and that limiting the availability of objectionable material is an important function of a civil society. To suggest that "anything goes" in this society, is to contravene its most vital mode of constitution, the stability of law. Yet, as we are more than aware, the culture of policing has, in fact needed some policing itself. Celeste Lawson's, "Police culture: changing the unacceptable" considers the nature of police culture in Queensland 20 years after the Fitzgerald Inquiry. With the historic investigation affecing wide-ranging changes in Queensland Police Service, Lawson considers the effects of a once-reactive culture undertaking a more proactive policing model.
The next three essays contend with other "unacceptable" bodies and bodily practices. Stephen Kerry's "'Intersex imperialism' and the case of Caster Semenya: the unacceptable women's body" discusses the widely publicised case of South African athlete Caster Semenya, who, in 2009, was subjected to international media scrutiny over her gender. Kerry uses the Semenya case to discuss the process of "normalising" surgeries, which result in 90% of intersex cases becoming girls/women. Despite international sport community's changes to 'sex test' policies, Kerry describes the conflation of intersex and the female, and how this dominant narrative within news media actually reflects the unacceptability of all female athletes' bodies.
Jacek Kornak's essay looks at Roland Barthes' posthumously published Incidents. Arguing that whilst Barthes' sexualisation of Moroccan boys, is, on the one hand, typical of a post-colonial attitude towards Arabs, on the other, their presence in the text is also a figure of his transformation; a trope through which Barthes examines how the inflexabilty of language also contains a capacity for the transfiguration of Western values with the promise of something new.
For one of the most virulent enemies of newness is the comfort of tradition. Our attitudes toward "acceptable" relationships have changed little over the years. Niko Antalffy's essay is concerned with the mainstream media's often titillating treatment of polyamory. Antalffy differentiates polyamory and cheating, and evaluates the ethical framework that conditions the two, a point that is often ignored by the media who wants to simply brand this transgressive movement as unacceptable.
Central to this issue is a negotiation of the "unacceptable": How is it defined? At what point is regulation necessary? Who is qualified to assess what is fit to present to society? Is the concept of unacceptability purely reactionary in nature? Can we easily tell the difference between proactive social policy and despotism?
Through their documentation of such suitably "unacceptable" topics, the articles contained in this issue of Scan offer compelling interventions into such concerns.