On Transgression


The first thing I did on returning from the Momus Amerikong Tour, and the last thing I did before being admitted to Moorfields Eye Hospital with a serious eye infection, was take part in a panel discussion at London's Institute Of Contemporary Arts. It was part of a weekend conference organised by Cyberia Online and entitled Free Speech Wars.

Chaired by Factory Records' Tony Wilson, the Lyrical Correctness panel included a rap producer, a Face journalist, a pop sociology writer, me and a heavily pregnant Laetitia Sadier from Stereolab.

I was disappointed that the one panelist who had seemed likely to take a pro-censorship stance, Alan Clark MP, was nowhere to be seen.

Stuck In A Morph

My own performance also disappointed me. I know now what I should have said.

I should have said that the only responsibility artists have is to the future, and since nobody knows what the future is going to be like, we should allow them to think the unthinkable and speak the unspeakable.

I should have attacked Tony Wilson who said that, although he felt confused about his own reaction, if one of his bands on Factory had brought him homophobic material or a pedophile song, he would have said 'Sorry, guys, I didn't know you were like that' and refused to issue the record.

Instead I waffled about my ambivalence. Wearing an eye patch like a veteran of some long-forgotten six day war, I told the crowd I felt stuck in a morph, halfway between two kinds of artistic animal, each one adapted to a different environment, a different model of society...

Species One: The National Transgressor

An Oedipal arm wrestle is going on between this artist and his local state.

Because the artist is a secret Entryist who wants, like any adolescent, a share of the action Daddy has, he poses as a Transgressor or a Rebel, and picks fights around those topics which seem to cause the most embarrassment to the Father Figure.

His motto is: There are limits to expression; it is our duty to go to them.

Fair enough. He seems to be a libertarian, fighting battles of principle in the cause of freedom.

But like a political satirist, the Transgressor sooner or later finds himself tied to the powers that be, able only to caricature their faces and attitudes. Or, come the velvet revolution, he is, like Vaclav Havel, catapulted to the presidency.

Whichever of these things happens, though, he is fighting with the same basic conceptual aparatus and according to the same basic value system as his ostensible enemies.

He wants to challenge Daddy in order to become Daddy.

Species Two: The Pluralistic 'Intervidual'

The digital bitstream artist. He shares his personal interests with fellow obsessives all over the world, thanks to the internet. He incarnates the strange alliance between alienated consumer-individuals and vast turbo-capitalist global corporations.

His world is not the nation, it is the global bitstream. It is a technologically-delivered, contentious spectrum of voices in different languages, with different views, representing only themselves and promoting their ideas in the fragmented culture around them by means of niche marketing, identity politics, coertion, salesmanship and seduction.

In the hyperstimulant rush of this new world (digital TV, internet, pull not push, bits not atoms, moral disintermediation) we are increasingly operating our own 'censorship' by NOT PAYING ATTENTION. (The advertisers know it, and are quaking in their boots).

Interviduals, not Mother or the Nanny State, will now decide the exact location of the line between clean and dirty.

This will be a more responsible and virtuous society, since, as Milton pointed out when parliament wanted all books submitted for approval before publication, there can be no virtue without prior temptation. Virtue which never gets even the opportunity of corruption is no virtue at all.

The Good Old Bad Old Days

But we are, if no longer slaves to it, at least nostalgic for the old Consensus model, even as it faces dissolution. We have long ago learned to find sexy that which is forbidden, for example, restructuring our own sexuality around the arbitrary curves of national law. It's going to be difficult to forget the pleasures of transgression.

We are still in thrall to our Oedipal relation with our parents: defying daddy, canoodling with mummy.

How I Became An Intervidual

In the 1980s I really felt doomed to living in Britain, under a government whose values could not have been more repulsive to me. Margaret Thatcher became the Mother of all Father Figures, and I engaged in my own Oedipal arm wrestle with the values of her Britain. I became an artist of Type A, a Transgressor.

But by 1993 my life was very different. 'Satellites sent pictures through the night' and Cable TV started bringing global images and unBritish values into my flat. I bought my first proper computer with internet access. I also bought an international standard video recorder. The thrill of watching an NTSC VHS cassette or logging onto a Japanese newsgroup was all about the realisation that the British state could no longer hoe and weed the kitchen garden of my fantasy life.

(It's true British Customs and Excise did confiscate my copy of sex CD-ROM Virtual Valerie, since its bits were still inscribed in the atoms of a physical object they could touch, sniff suspiciously, and take. But that was their last intervention).

Ironically my liberation was partly Margaret Thatcher's doing. By denationalising the phone company and breaking the state monopoly on broadcasting, Margaret helped loosen the dead grip of England around my neck. Did she know what she was doing? Her social policy of the time -- a battery of legislation forbidding the promotion of homosexuality, endless cuts on art and libraries -- suggests not.

Analogue Chrysalis, Digital Butterfly

In 1994 I moved to France. That spelled the definitive end of my feelings of persecution by the British State and its archaic moral values. Three hours down the railway tracks the climate was completely different.

I abandoned transgression and became an Intervidual. Spending lots of money on telephony services and advanced electronic equipment, I began to make the species' characteristic artforms: websites and CD-ROMs.

Censorship In The Two Worlds

Censorship still exists in both worlds. I read in today's Guardian, for example, that Manchester police have seized Creation press author David Flint's porn film collection and told the publishers of a book of the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe to destroy all remaining copies.

And over in the capitalist world of niche markets and pluralism, I hear Bill Buford on Radio 4 saying there is a man on the 18th floor at the New Yorker whose job it is to see that editorial content does not offend advertisers. That doesn't just mean not printing Salman Rushdie's story 'The Floating Turd', it also means holding back a topical article about China because one of the advertisers has an important Sino-American business deal in the offing.

I think that given the choice of two evils, I would still go with capitalism over statism in the regulation of our media consumption and production. Money, like water, follows the contours of the human soul with some accuracy. Laws, like religions, try always to be splints or correctives, 'helping' us with their rigidity to be better people, and to submit.

A Double-Headed Coin

Some basic presumptions built into the Consensus model of society (which Tony Blair certainly believes in more than Margaret Thatcher did):

*Unity is desireable in a nation.

*A national-level body can 'represent' your voice and orchestrate debate, trying fairly to make sure you are heard.

*There's nothing patronising about noble and objective 'Brains Trust' types handing out medals to those who achieve distinction according to commonly held criteria of excellence.

*There are, behind all this, objective standards of behaviour, shared goals and values, and possibly a vague promise, one day, of a statute of Citizens' Rights.

*This model allows our representatives to take decisions (including moral and aesthetic ones) 'on our behalf'.

*It allows vigilante groups to shout 'Mais que fait la police?' not only because their own value systems are offended (simple answer: you are paying attention in the wrong area, this value bitstream is not for you), but because 'our common heritage' is being damaged.

But is there a common heritage of moral and aesthetic values in the same way that there is a public transport system?

If there is, it's open to renegotiation. There was no Golden Age when some moral Brains Trust got it right. We have a duty to keep experimenting.

The Paradox of Transgression

(This bit has a french accent, because the process it describes is more typically French. Imagine it whispered by the ghost of Serge Gainsbourg, or Georges Bataille peeking through the shelves at the Bibliotheque Nationale).

The transgressor who, like a stock broker, buys his taboo low and sells it high, always enters the Academie Francaise.

Transgression is therefore a way of buying into the Establishment, which is what any petit bourgeois nouveau riche wants to do.

Transgression is the other side of the medaille d'honneur called Consensus.

Transgression is how Consensus, which often is doomed to being merely reactive, gets its dirty work done.

National Transgressors hope to mark their national societies by the timeliness of their rebellion. They will capture a changing zeitgeist with a specific gesture which starts as something dangerous and spontaneous, but ends (like Kafka's panthers in the temple) as a ritualised gesture of conformity, a celebration of the way things are. (The defiance of the '60s... now a six CD set).

Transgressors are the lab rats of Consensus.

Easter Eggs

It's an easter egg hunt: just as there are only six basic plots, so there are only ten topics of interest to humans, but three or four of them are hidden at any one time, deliberately ignored, out of fashion, or taboo. By hiding some of the topics we keep them interesting.

Would a world with no sense of national sin, a world which had stopped burying easter eggs, be a more or a less exciting one?

Probably our excitement at taboos would revert to basic pre-programmed biological excitement, making our inner lives less social, less cultural.

Where one network of pre-programmed values gives way, the danger is that we bump down to a more primitive one.

Some Ridiculous Suggestions

I would therefore advocate some new tactics.

We need a more global search for values against which to transgress. We need to hunt down the taboos that interest us using a search engine called Elective Affinities.

Let's say I feel a sudden urge to transgress against a Japanese taboo, say the depiction of pubic hair. The Japanese government has no authority over me. How can I transgress against it with any real excitement?

Could we not extend the authority of all governments to all citizens of the world, at least when one of these citizens is deliberately approaching one of that nation's taboos?

Like a jet entering Japanese airspace, could I not perhaps radio ahead to a moral control tower and signal my intention to transgress in a very specific way against my Japanese taboo of choice, then enjoy some small token punishment for my act before flying on over the Pacific?

If some sort of system like this doesn't get erected soon, transgression will remain a depressingly provincial affair in an increasingly cosmopolitan world.

Stop Making Sense

The greatest charge we can currently level against the transgressor is that he is being not only Oedipal but predictable: nothing in his strategy comes from real risk or pure experimentation (things we need art to do for the sake of a truly unpredictable future society), it is all suggested by hidden cues (buried easter eggs) in the dominant consensus culture.

This works in the same way as sentimentality in music: it is immediately recognisable when I tickle a taboo, the audience responds with shock or pleasure, my status is assured.

But much more appropriate to the coming society of hyperstimulant bitstream rush is the experience you get when you walk into an art gallery and are confronted by a mass of strange new forms, all immediately confusing, none relating to any obvious taboos.

Domes, For Example

Nations with withering power, increasingly conscious that their electorates are changing into a mass of arrogant and indifferent Interviduals, find themselves clutching at symbols of Unity and Consensus (domes, for example) only to find that the bubble has already burst.

And so, stripped of real power over their own citizens, they turn into Flavour Nations, ranged on the supermarket shelf of turbo-capitalism. To attract a new Nissan plant or a stream of new tourists, they promote 'flavour of Britain'. Unfortunately for libertarians it has become part of 'flavour of Britain' that customs men search you for morally dubious materials when you enter the country, just as it is 'flavour of Britain' that there are Royals with horses and carriages and men in red livery.

But ultimately it doesn't really matter, because we are already in the Bitstream Age. And there are newsgroups out there in the supra-national ether dedicated to all ten taboos.

I checked this morning: not a single easter egg remains hidden.




Momus, London, March 1998
nick@momus.demon.co.uk



Previous Columns:
On Columns
On Flatness
On The Couch
On The ROM
On Quality
On Image
On Oasism
On Scenes
On 1996
On Unsuccess
On Negritude
On The Job
On Hong Kong
On Ghosts
On The NME
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