The collapse of the barrier between popular culture and decadence has released a toxic mudslide of vulgarity into the nation's family rooms—and just about everywhere else. There is almost no remote corner of this culture that is not marked by the toleration of vulgarity, or the outright celebration of depravity.
Lee Siegel has seen this reality, and he doesn't like it. "When did the culture become so coarse?," he asks, adding: "It's a question that quickly gets you branded as either an unsophisticated rube or some angry culture warrior."
Siegel wants us all to know that he is neither unsophisticated nor a culture warrior. In his recent feature essay in The Wall Street Journal, "America the Vulgar," Siegel recites his cultural bona fides. As he relates, "I miss a time when there were powerful imprecations instead of mere obscenity—or at least when sexual innuendo, because it was innuendo, served as a delicious release of tension between our private and public lives."
In other words, Siegel doesn't mind graphic sexuality and innuendo, but he wants the public culture kept safe for children, and his children in particular. He opens his essay by telling us that his 7-year-old son recently asked, "What's celebrity sex?" Shortly thereafter, his 3-year-old daughter was found with a less than appropriate photographic image on mom's smart phone. "And so it went on this typical weekend," Siegel remembers, even as he adds that the television in the next room was blaring inappropriate language.
At least he understands we have a problem. Our culture is indeed becoming so vulgar that would-be moral outlaws find it increasingly difficult to transgress. How do you shock people in a culture that has seen and heard everything already?
Siegel is right to point to the new technologies of social media as part of the problem:
These days, with every new ripple in the culture transmitted, commented-on, analyzed, mocked, mashed-up and forgotten on countless universal devices every few minutes, everything is available to everyone instantly, every second, no matter how coarse or abrasive. You used to have to find your way to Lou Reed. Now as soon as some pointlessly vulgar song gets recorded, you hear it in a clothing store.
That is one of the key insights of his essay. We have now reached the point that obscene language (or innuendo) is playing in department stores and public venues. The living room has become a locker room.
Siegel's insights on technology and the vulgarization of the culture are worth careful attention:
Today, our cultural norms are driven in large part by technology, which in turn is often shaped by the lowest impulses in the culture. Behind the Internet's success in making obscene images commonplace is the dirty little fact that it was the pornography industry that revolutionized the technology of the Internet. Streaming video, technology like Flash, sites that confirm the validity of credit cards were all innovations of the porn business. The Internet and pornography go together like, well, love and marriage. No wonder so much culture seems to aspire to porn's depersonalization, absolute transparency and intolerance of secrets.
His diagnosis of the problem is almost prophetic; but Siegel's essay also reveals the deeper dimensions of our cultural crisis. As he concludes his analysis, Siegel disavows any effort to answer vulgarity with either censorship or repression. His reference to repression reveals a great deal.
The idea of sexual repression was given its classic definition by none other than Sigmund Freud. Freud blamed the repression of sexual urges for a host of problems in society and in individual lives. At the same time, he admitted that a certain level of repression was necessary in order to sustain civilization.
Freud's theories were understood to be an explicit rejection of the Christian understanding of the human person and human sexuality. And, even as he argued for a certain necessary level of sexual repression, the very idea of repression has unleashed a tidal wave of sexual energies into the society. By its very nature, the term repression seems to call for liberation; but even Freud would be scandalized by our vulgar culture, though he contributed in a powerful way to its momentum.
A culture afraid to repress sexuality in any way is a culture headed for destruction.
On one final point, Siegel is unquestionably right. He argues that "when the culture of vulgarity is produced by so many different factors—commercial, economic, social, aesthetic—there is no end in sight."
That is the sad truth. The culture of vulgarity is now driven by so many sectors of our society that it seems virtually impossible to reverse. Furthermore, it is profitable beyond the wildest dreams of those who peddled vulgarity before the invention of the Internet.
A society that increasingly sees all sexual restraint as repression hardly intends to turn back. Lee Siegel has it right, "there is no end in sight."
Lee Siegel, "America the Vulgar," The Wall Street Journal, Saturday/Sunday, December 7-8, 2013. http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304451904579238140379017148