Most of the research materials that I want to read are behind “pay fences” which is the new academic way of shutting out “ordinary people who might misunderstand.” They used to just switch to Latin, but now even the elite are unlikely to know Latin. So money, as usual, is the new line around anything “elite.” There are a couple of articles about obscenity I wanted to read.
Talking about obscenity seems to make a lot of quotation marks necessary. Like, what IS “obscene”? In this effort I will try to define it by its uses and whether they are successful. I mean, what is “obscenity” when kids on the streets use so many “uck” words that they sound like ducks, but CEOs can destroy the lives of millions of people and get a huge raise that same year? Which is obscene?
I just watched six hours of “OZ” because one DVD from Netflix came in the mail late and unless I stay in a certain pattern, I lose my project thread. I’m watching so I can write about this stuff -- of course, it’s exciting, too. I’m about halfway through the series. The two discs were Season 4, one and two. The language is the usual “uck” stuff with some dubious sounding slang that Tom Fontana admits he made up himself, like “tits” for drugs which appear to be cocaine packaged in condoms. He says he did this because “real” street slang is so constantly changing that it will soon become dated and he wants his story to stay “current.” Of course, as soon as the series aired, the street people, searching for ways to be themselves, began to use Fontana’s slang.
Anyway, I’ll just speculate on what I think are the uses of obscenity and check it out in other writing later.
1. Since the French overwhelmed the Brits, the good old Anglo-Saxon glottal shock sound (“Uck”) is as close as we come to the original back-of-the-throat consonants in four-letter words that have been mainstays. Also, in those days calling on the name of God was taken seriously, so the euphemisms like “gee,” “golly” and “gosh” had a lot more kick. We don’t say “God’s blood” or any other parts of his anatomy now since we have been cautioned that he’s not a humanoid. But this sort of thing, esp. glottal shocks, have remained markers of the lower classes, the oppressed, the lesser, the stigmatized.
2. One of the strategies of the “lower” and “street” classes is to intensify their obscenity as a sign of boldness and defiance. For the upper classes, esp. the academics, obscenity can be used as emphasis -- “it’s a fucking atrocity!” -- or it can be a kind of entitlement, along the same lines as being able to talk openly about sex because one’s professional and class status means one can handle such topics. It’s a little like a doctor having permission to do things to your body that no other person (maybe a lover) would EVER be permitted to do. Is there a more explicit and invasive rape than a colonoscopy? Would you ever return to a doc who used profanity to describe it to you?
3. So when the guards in "OZ" use language as "bad" as the inmates, it signals two things: I’m so much better than you that I’m entitled and you are so worthless and deserving of disrespect that no one cares if I describe you as a “cocksucker.”
These are just language obscenities. “Picture” obscenities usually concentrate on nudity, esp. genitalia, which we are not used to seeing and yet know so well that a quick few scribbles on a wall can bring them to life. And they can convert to sacrality: the lingum and the temple of the phallus in Japan. After all, it embodies fertility and intense pleasure as well as aggressive invasion and forced pregnancy. Shit is more usually invoked than illustrated, but assholes . . . there are a lot of them.
People who are suffering might resort to obscenity for complex reasons. It expresses intense and exceptional and objectionable pain and indignities. It jolts the systems of all present into a higher level of adrenaline which always gives more energy, more intentionality, near-martial action. It calls for action from those who care, especially intimates, to DO something, to intervene. It paradoxically says, “I don’t care WHAT you do to me because it means less than the dog shit I scrape off my shoe.” (Is that the origin of the Middle Eastern showing of contempt by throwing one’s shoe?) It says, “So you put me in jail. You can’t keep me from talking, esp. if you never hear what I say, so what are you gonna do? Cut out my tongue?” And, of course, that’s exactly what happens to one inmate on “OZ”.
I was in the bank when the “uck” sound floated across the lobby. I remarked to the young woman teller, “If these kids say fucking, cocksucker, and bastard all in the same sentence when they’re just talking about ordinary things, what will they say when they REALLY need bad words?” She laughed and so did the tellers on each side of her. They know that obscenity is a generational marker. Kids are used to hearing those words in their music. I did not say “cunt”. They might take that personally. By now “boobs” and “pee” don’t even sound like obscenities to most people.
It’s hard to know whether war or money are the bigger atrocity/obscenity. Clearly they are nearly fused into the same thing, a bastard fucking machine of injustice, disrespect and illegitimate entitlement. Who among the victims’ friends and intimates would or could intervene? Who among the general public is even shocked anymore if someone calls a zillionaire CEO a “cocksucker,” though he’s swallowing the coined sperm of millions of people.
Are you shocked yet? If so, maybe there’s still hope. If not, what is the next level? Tom Fontana has exhausted the potential of HBO permissiveness and the plot lines have escaped back into our real lives -- without the Shavian comment that justify their graphic portrayal. So what can be done to shock people now? Because will they pay for anything less than shocking? Fontana is counting on the BBC, those masters of insane crime.