Mise-En-Scene and the Obscene

Without being an antagonist to the history of or the idea that there is even such a thing as western civilization, or an intellectual opponent to bourgeois cultures and their collective economic civilization, I can say that virtually everything about Capitalism is obscene. I can say this without concluding that Capitalism is in itself evil. I am not going to venture an analysis of socio-economic systems whereby I compare them for the purposes of assessing them and evaluating them morally, as most ideological communists would. I do not assent to Capitalism being an evil, nor do I agree that it is invariably good, nor do I think that it is neutral and therefore virtually, if not actually, benign.

Most of us think that when something is understood to be neutral, it is at least implied, if not predicated, that this thing is benign and only remotely possibly malignant. There are many who might like to conclude the neutrality of Capitalism, as if expressing the wisest assessment, but then this is born of America’s love affair with consensus. Yes, everyone is allowed to disagree and present opposing positions, so long as they conform to the dogma that everyone must reach consensus in the end. What is is, though, whether I have formed an opinion on the moral state of capitalism–can an ism have morality? This is the question, or one of the questions that must be asked and thought through to determine whether capitalism is a good or an evil or neither or both.

I will, though, refrain from concluding that what is is right. What is, is, and whatever is is as it is when it is where it is however it is or becomes. I am also going to avoid what most ideological Capitalists like to assert, and that is that Capitalism is natural, more organic to humans and their interactive needs than any other socio-economic system. I am not now, nor have I ever been, nor am I likely ever to be a communist; but I cannot agree that Capitalism is a more natural economic system.

What then am I saying? Questions again begetting other questions, new strings strung–I remember that Theseus finds his way out of the labyrinth by way of his string. What I am saying is that Capitalism creates obscenity on an unparalleled level. First we must understand what obscenity is; or, more importantly, how I am using the term obscene? What implications will it have for my argument. Obscenity, Baudrillard reminds us is not restricted to sexuality. I understand how quickly many educated Americans (especially educated Americans) might recoil from any critique from a French intellectual of their most fervently pursued and defended faith–western bourgeois capitalism.

Yes, Monsieur Baudrillard tells us that obscenity is found everywhere in society, and that it can be applied to anything in society that is a matter of social negotiation. Obscenity is pornographic; this is the most popular understanding of what is obscene. The use of profanity might be another, yet this is a most highly restrictive sense of what is obscene. Since the sixties, our cinema has had a highly revised sense of obscenity; that is, what should always be, as the ancient Greeks would have said, ob skena, that is, off stage, had undergone serious revision in the sixties (remember that Midnight Cowboy originally had been rated X); , yes, quite literally, what was out of view had come into view. We began looking at again what we should be able to look at, if you do not mind the menagerie of words at play herein.

Now, pornography, in its links with obscenity, has permeated everything we do, everything we represent through our media, everywhere in our society including the sex trade (as we like to call it when we want to soften what we think about trading in sex, buying and selling human beings and what we call sexual gratification). Yes, pornography is not for sex alone; we have even made little league baseball competitions pornographic. What we say without words in America is if sex is included in trade, then the obscene must be okay–whatever is sexually pornographic has to be good. If it makes money, how can it be bad? Whatever is evil in pornography is counterbalanced by the money one makes? Could this be what we are saying? It seems so. We do prefer our criminals who make a lot of money and make money for others, usually corrupt politicians–yes, we prefer these money-making criminals to the decent man who makes little money. I am not herein asserting that all pornographers are criminals or that pornography in itself is criminal, although we do have draw lines, all definition, all laws, all ethical systems have boundaries of inclusion and exclusion. Nevertheless, there has to be something wrong with the man who is good to a fault in the marketplace, the good man who does not make a lot of money has some defect, doesn’t he? This remains implicit. When pornographic sexual content finds a stage, the paradigm of pornography finds its way into other commodities of exchange, other social negotiations. How is our news not pornographic?

Of course, I understand that I am using ‘obscene’ in a restrictive sense, one that has been given to us through a prolonged negotiation in our society and its traditions of theater. In its etymology, ‘obscene’ comes from the Greek ob skena, which literally translates, off stage. There are other meanings applied to the prefix ob. Another one, for which we could find a connotation appropriate is ‘against.’ Scenes of violence and sex were to take place off-stage. Orestes revenge does not take place on stage. Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon ob skena. So, the obscene is what should take place off stage, but what stages are we talking about? If all the world is a stage, then anyplace is a stage and thus there are many off stages. In the matter of pornography as we understand it to be sexually explicit media we have a special stage for what would have been off stage. Newly constructed stages where there are refined notions of what should and should not be staged. Snuff films are outside the boundaries of conventional porn, of course. Their criminality and inhumanity in the extreme make them more than obscene within the confines of what is pornography, socially acceptable porn. I am not going to delineate what is and is not acceptable pornography in the conventional sense of sexually explicit material. I will not discuss the varieties of pornographic media and what their “tastes’ are, or the set of values they impart, or the market they feed or create.

What then is obscene if everything is seen? If all that would have been ob skena, or was ob skena, is in view, then what is obscene? The obscene is, in one connotation, anything that should not be miss en scene, which, when written in itlaics without hyphens, translates from the French, put or placed in scene, put or places on stage. So, the mies-en-scene (note well the hyphens) is really an antonym of obscene. There used to be a whole ongoing dialogue in my New England bred mother’s family on the dialectic of public and private. What was public space and what was appropriate in public space and what was appropriate in private space and where that private space began and ended was of paramount importance in determining what was obscene, literally here, what should remain off stage, in the private scenes of ones life. Public space was a stage. Taking my cock out on the bus is obscene. Taking my cock out in the kitchen with my wife when we are home alone is not. Fucking in the bak yard at night when everyone is asleep may or may not be obscene; fucking on a park bench in the middle of the day is obscene. Fucking on the same park bench at three A.M. when no one is around might be obscene to an arresting police officer, but may not in the opinion of a judge be the same sentence as given to the couple fucking on the park bench in the middle of the day. Yes, I am in favor of the maxim, One rule for the lamb and the ox is tyranny. Of course, fucking on a park bench at 3 AM in the middle of the night and fucking on a park bench at 3 PM with children playing in the park after school are lambs and oxen.

We do have something very close to contextualism–what some like to call perspectivism, but I insist needs a new connotative understanding–But then, the removal of our stages, the elimination of the theater of society does make everything we do, ob skena, acquiring the taint of former obscenity for everything we do and say. Obscenity is also that which can be called against staging; therefore, all that is confrontational in its presentation, all that is against the conventions of social staging–all the world again . . . . Outside the conventions of traditional theater, and in my estimation this includes the Greeks of antiquity, yes, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides are within the conventions of traditional theater in the West, in fact, they are the beginnings of our tradition in theater. They represent the forms of theater in their variegation we enjoy today. Every theater–every staging–is one or another theme in variation on the Ancient Greek model. There are non-western varieties of theater that can be employed, but anything that is in part western is in part, at least, Ancient Greek. I will not venture an analysis of Greek drama and how it has been used, adapted, employed throughout the history of theater in western societies or how it has affected the theaters of non-western societies.

The pornographic, which is a prime connotation of obscenity, if not the most widespread synonym, permeates all commodities, all communication, all interactions. Public space shrinks and becomes oppressive, almost as if everything and everyone were in extreme close-up, as are sex acts in a porno film. At the same time, the boundaries of our private spaces are being erased, re-defined, made transparent for the voyeurism of the public who need to observe ever more microscopically because the spaciousness of space has been eliminated and revised not for our vision, what we see with our physical eyes, but for (ad)visory claims, what is taken under advisement (notice we are under as a female porn star in a gang bang film). What we see has been refocused for us. These changes in the conditions of the Public and the Private are confrontations with our conventions of Public and Private staging.

The duality of public and private space, public and private selves with a many-selves Self has been shattered. Am I too quick to conclude hyperbolically? Overstatement and understatement are broad and contingent categories; they are often mutual and reciprocal in their intensities in spite of their broadness; their dynamic energies have co-influence. The bull’s-eye of expression is a narrow band and more times than not we writers find our critiques in one or the other, hyperbole or litotes. Of course, there is willfulness to either of the latter two Greek terms when applied tom speech or writing. What I am expressing here is not a willfulness but unavoidable-ness, inevitable-ness to one or the other. The world Shakespeare understood to be a stage has been dismantled. The theater of our lives, of our world, of our selves is no more. What is filling this void is something for which our traditions of communication and communicating have little facility.


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