Thursday, August 31, 2006

Bad Professor: James Kincaid misunderstands cultural theory, the JonBenet Phenom, and most of us.

James R. Kincaid, an English prof. at USC, has been writing in The Slate, and practically everywhere else, about how we are given to automatically labeling as child porn anything that’s a turn on.

The Slate article, titled “Little Miss Sunshine” in an opportunistic of-the-moment pop culture reference, has this to say about the return of the JonBenet case to the media:

It probably shouldn't surprise us that JonBenet, like Roderick Usher's sister, won't stay buried. It's the return of the repressed all over again, here before us, strutting its stuff and doing its cultural work because we so badly need it. Where else can we find forbidden material served up to us in ways we can both enjoy and disown? We have to deal with a most uncomfortable heritage: an "innocent" child who is also deeply eroticized…Somebody else finds the bodies of children irresistible and we want the chance to rail against these monsters, meanwhile relishing the details of the very bodies we claim indifference to. It is a classic example of scapegoating.

Kincaid’s deconstructionist double bluff is that anyone who takes an interest in the Jon Benet case is guilty of the exact same eroticisation of children that the media accuses her killer/s of perpetrating.

Ummm, really?
My mistake, I would have thought that the furor was because we care about the welfare of children.

The ta-da nature of Kincaid’s collapsing of binaries is pure sleight of hand and hence essentially false; the world is not always binaries fused at the node and there are more realities than Kincaid cares to acknowledge. In trying to insist that if we are horrified by child predators, we are in fact horrified by our inner demons, Kincaid attempts to gag us with projected uncertainties that are not our own.

(The if-you-are-disturbed-by-it-you-must-desire-it diagnosis has its limitations. I’ve used the if-you’re-so-homophobic-you-must-be-totally-gay line too, but tell you what, it only works flawlessly as speculative insult, never as serious philosophy or analysis.)

While the schadenfreude that Kincaid implies is rampant in a variety of scandalous situations, recently and most transparently in the Kaavya Vishwanathan case, when it comes to child abuse, I’ve never been able to detect schadenfreude in either tonal nuance or attitudinal stance. I refuse to believe that public alarm at child sexual abuse is because we are titillated by it, it’s because the majority of us are aware of the danger of it, because we seek to prevent it.

My long-standing distaste for children in pageants, or cabaret-style dance routines for that matter, is mostly aesthetic--the garishness of wedgie-inducing costumes, the unsubtlety of the performing-monkey make up, the manneristic ugliness of stage mothers, the hideousness of getting children to compete on grounds of attractiveness… But my distaste is increasingly ethical too. The human body is beautiful and lovable; parading underdressed and overly made up children is doing them a disservice, an indignity, and in our times, a treachery. So, I’m coming off as a prude, but whatever.

Perhaps I’m still recovering from reading the following gem from Kincaid who presumes to speak for all of us:
Tell ourselves the truth: in our culture kids and the erotic are overlapping categories and we cannot help but find kids erotic, which is not so bad, considering that we find lots of things erotic without attacking them. Most of us do not, for example, hump the legs of guests at parties.

Never mind, for the moment, that after previously arguing that society’s stance towards those who view children as sexual objects of desire be softened, Kincaid practically admits that it is social etiquette alone that precludes everyone from humping or having their legs humped at parties…

He said, “we cannot help but find kids erotic.”

Stand back, everyone.

Kincaid isn’t talking of the allure of young women or even unsuitably young women--think Brittney Spears on debut--we live in a mostly patriarchal society, I‘d get that. He’s talking about children--JonBenet, Shirley Temple--who look like children.

I wouldn’t go so far as to accuse Kincaid of being a pedophile as Lee Seigel does in The New Republic, but Kincaid, clearly, is screwing theory. Screw him.

24 comments:

pied piper said...

bleccch! screw him, indeed.

TMB said...

I don't know. I agree that I think Kincaid goes to far in his wording but I think he does have a point. 99% of the people interested in the Jon Benet Ramsey case aren't interested because they care about the welfare of children but because it is a sort of porn to them.

Right now I am reading the book Lolita. Obviously it has been written from the perspective of a pedophile. Due to a brilliant writing style, you actually come to see him as protagonist, or at least an anti-hero. I think Kincaid in his article was trying to pull off a Nabokov style approach to the Ramsey case (unsuccessfully according to you).
-Abhi

maya said...

Piper,

: ) He’d probably say that we’re so fixated on him that we desire him.

Abhi,

Thanks for your point. I wrote that post when I was mad and logic--never my strength to begin with-- may have collapsed.

I agree that a great percentage of the interest in the JonBenet case may come from a combination of the sensationalistic lure of the case (murder! At X-mas!), schadenfreude (what the heck were those parents thinking decking out a child like that?), even a prurient interest in the sexual aspects (was she sexually abused? Is Karr a pedophile?).

My problem with Kincaid is that he equates the public’s fixation (interest/horror) on the sexual aspects of the case with the erotic. I.e. he’s saying that the public finds the sexual details of the case sexually arousing. I don’t know that 99% of us are rubbing one out to television reports of the JonBenet case; if we are, our problems are way more serious than Kincaid’s faulty use of theory.

Which brings me to my second problem with Kincaid--he tries to normalize this eroticisation of children. The “we cannot help but find children erotic” is OTT. Notice the welcoming “we” (come join my club) “cannot help” (it’s normal, everyone does it, it’s not your fault).

Nabokov is one of my favorite writers, and Lolita is a wonderful novel. I agree, it easy to take H.H.’s part because he speaks the language of nostalgia, yearning, unrequited love. Who doesn’t love that kinda thing : ). SPOILERS: It’s only later when he’s paying L an allowance to perform sexual acts and then frequently withholds it for lack of enthusiasm, or measures her thighs, arms, etc. because he wants her to maintain her prepubescent dimensions that we realize that he is a monster. (I’m hazy on this--read it too long ago.)

And lastly, are you *that* Abhi : )?

pied piper said...

Abhi: "99% of the people interested in the Jon Benet Ramsey case aren't interested because they care about the welfare of children."

But who is it, exactly, that constitutes the set of people interested in Jon Benet Ramsey case in the first place? Certainly not everyone who ends up watching or reading stories about it, which in many cases may simply be out of inertia or on their way to something else. And even not everyone who ends up covering it -- as Keith Olbermann frequently calls these kinds of cases on Countdown, "yet another story that my producers are making me run."

And how do we get from there to "we cannot help but find kids erotic"? "Presum[ing]," as Maya notes, "to speak for all of us." I think there's a flaw in here, and the wrong turn seems to me right about here:

"JonBenet would not get all this attention did we not want to bestow it. It's not the media forcing on us something we'd rather not have: We're lining up at the trough to be fed."

It's the same move made by marketers who want to absolve themselves of any responsibility for what they peddle: cigarettes don't kill children, children kill themselves. True to a point, but wildly incomplete.

I'm with Maya's eloquence on this one -- "the world is not always binaries fused at the node and there are more realities than Kincaid cares to acknowledge." There is a legitimate and interesting point in Kincaid's essay, but to me it's not so much about the values of society at-large, as he would have it, but much more about the relationship between media and society.

TMB said...

Maya,
I think Kincaid is poorly thrusting us all into the story to make us (and him) feel dirty. You are right to call him out on it but rather than malicious intent on his part (or a latent pedophilia) I think he is trying to write in a style that makes us feel that "it is society's collective fault" for wanting to watch this on television.

Take a few other examples for instance. When Elizabeth Smart (14) was kidnapped (and probably treated like a sex slave) the public was eager to know all the lurid details of what happened to her (although most were probably not rubbing one out :). Questions from reporters were often thinly-veiled attempts to get details of the sexual abuse out of her. Watch this clip for instance:
http://www.crooksandliars.com/2006/07/19/elizabeth-smart-puts-grace-in-her-place/

Also don’t forget Natalie Holloway. Some dark skinned young men (possibly Indian) were suspected of raping and murdering her. The press and the public ate up all the lurid details of her apparent promiscuity when they came out.

What do all these have in common? Young white girls who were sexually manhandled. These stories get more headlines than the really important stories in the world (and definitely more than if a young minority woman went missing).

Kincaid I think is just an amateur writer who is poorly using a literary device to draw attention to this latent voyeuristic desire. In the same way that all men (according to Freud) are subconsciously driven to kill their fathers and marry their mothers, I think he is accusing us all of subconsciously craving more details of bondage and abuse of young white girls. I am sure for a significant portion of the audience this is true.

What do you study in grad school?
-Abhi

maya said...

Pied Piper and Abhi, TYVM for your in-depth comments!

I think that deconstructionist theory works poorly for minorities whether they be people of color, women, or children. Because as both of you mention, Kincaid does indeed have a point--that we are all involved in it: Protesting race inequity prolongs the discussion on race; choosing to marry involves women in contributing to patriarchy. But in a context such as child abuse, where the victims cannot speak for themselves and rely on advocates, i think it is necessary to speak up, as often as possible and say no, not I; no, not that.

Piper, thanks for pointing out that many of us do not actively seek out information on such cases but are co-opted into spectatorship merely by the flip of a news channel or standing in line at the checkout counter. I agree with you that we are being forcefed horror stories. Sadly the shock of the story then arms us with alarm that it could happen to a child we know and love--our offspring, nieces, nephews, siblings, godchildren, cousins, neighbors, friends… Anyway--I’m glad you brought that up. If I don’t bring up your comment about “eloquence” it’s only because I’m shy, but thank you anyway : ).

Abhi, thanks for the Holloway and Smart examples. And I’m calmer now and appreciate your point that Kincaid’s argument is more rhetorical--and more irresponsible-- than most. And ah-a, a question for a question--are we playing the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern question game : )?

TMB said...

Okay,
I am the Abhi who writes on Sepia Mutiny. Now your turn. What do you study? :)

maya said...

Abhi :),

Thanks for some terrific articles, and welcome to my humble blog.

(Cultural Studies--Amardeep--my portal to SM--is a notional colleague.)

pied piper said...

abhi --

your point is extremely well taken. but wow -- that nancy grace clip with elizabeth smart is unbelievable, and just reinforces my own reaction to kincaid. (and good for elizabeth smart. she's got a lot more grace than grace.) does he think that all of us are really that stupid? or that nancy grace asks those kinds of questions because that's simply what the public is clamoring for? no, thank you, many of us -- dare i say most of us -- are not clamoring for any of it. it's a sad commentary about media and society more generally that people like nancy grace are still on television. and that's before we start talking about fox news....

p

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