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Deathworks Everywhere

Rod Dreher just posted an interesting and long excerpt from an article about one of his favorite go to analysts of our cultural moment, Philip Rieff:

Rieff evinces more concern about the “triumph of the therapeutic” in his famous book of that name published in 1966. That work opens with the text of Yeats’s “Second Coming”—a sure sign that what follows will not be painted in the sunny colors of American progressivism. Rieff now worried that, though Christian culture had been all but entirely shattered, nothing had succeeded it; there were therefore no extant authoritative institutions whose demands and remissions (the culturally regulated relaxation of those demands) could be internalized, thereby acting to “bind and loose men in the conduct of their affairs.” This failure of succession was no accident but rather the explicit program of the “modern cultural revolution,” which was deliberately being undertaken “not in the name of any new order of communal purpose” but for the “permanent disestablishment of any deeply internalized moral demands.”
This revolution posed an unprecedented problem, for at the heart of Rieff’s theory of culture lies the insight that all cultures consist precisely in a “symbolic order of controls and remissions.” Lacking such an order, one gets not a new culture but rather a kind of anti-culture. For that reason, in Rieff’s view, therapeutic ideology rather than communism represented the revolutionary movement of the age. Communism inverts religion but accepts, at least in theory, the idea of a social order that embodies certain moral commitments; therapeutic society, on the other hand, stands both against all religions and for all religions. That is, it refuses to engage religious claims on their own terms, to take them seriously as a “compelling symbolic of self-integrating communal purpose.” It represents the absolute privatization of religious doctrines, absorbing them as potentially useful therapies for individuals. “Psychological man,” remarks Rieff, “will be a hedger against his own bets, a user of any faith that lends itself to therapeutic use.”

Indeed, compared to the emergent Western rejection of all “moral demand systems,” Rieff notes that communism was, in a certain sense, conservative. Americans, on the other hand, had been released by the anti-cultural doctrine of the therapeutic to be “morally less self-demanding,” aiming instead to enjoy “all that money can buy, technology can make, and science can conceive.” (This comparison helps explains why self-publicists such as Christopher Hitchens have been able so easily to “switch sides” in our culture wars; their fundamental allegiance is to the globalization of therapeutic remissiveness, and they realize that that goal is now best served by Western secular liberalism.)

The loss of “corporate ideals,” of any communally recognized symbols of authority or guides to conduct, as well as “the systematic hunting down of all settled convictions,” began to trouble Rieff, who knew that such an anti-culture had never before existed and was likely not even possible. Still, at this point Rieff was willing to entertain the notion that this attempt to build civilization on the foundation of psychic well-being rather than a system of moral demands (which he would later call “interdicts”) and their circumstantial remissions might work. He even concludes his book with the claim that “the new releasing insights deserve only a little less respect than the old controlling ones.” It is not clear whether he is being coy.

What was the occasion for Rod to recall this piece in The American Conservative about Rieff and his views on the cultural destruction he saw all around him? Rod was reading about a modern photographer (that thankfully I had never heard of) who was profiled in The New Yorker and makes around $1 million a year on her ‘art’ (not to mention wins all sorts of awards and praise from the art establishment):

In the course of a thirty-year career, the photographer Catherine Opie has made a study of the freeways of Los Angeles, lesbian families, surfers, Tea Party gatherings, America’s national parks, the houses of Beverly Hills, teen-age football players, the personal effects of Elizabeth Taylor, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, Boy Scouts, her friends, mini-malls, and tree stumps. But her most famous photographs are probably two that she took of herself, early in her working life. In “Self-Portrait/Cutting,” which Opie made in 1993, when she was thirty-two years old, she stands shirtless with her back to the camera in front of an emerald-green tapestry, which offsets her pale skin and the rivulets of blood emerging from an image carved into her back with a scalpel: a childlike scene of a house, a cloud, and a pair of smiling, skirt-wearing stick figures. In “Self-Portrait/Pervert,” made the following year, Opie is faceless and topless and bleeding again: she sits in front of a black-and-gold brocade with her hands folded in her lap, her head sealed in an ominous black leather hood, the word “pervert” carved in oozing, ornate letters across her chest.

Really, what Opie liked best about transgressive sex was the way it created a feeling of family. “S/M was all about community for me,” she said one afternoon, sitting in her sunny kitchen in Los Angeles, with its gleaming stainless-steel stove and Heath-tile backsplash. On a bench by the window was a pillow with a needlepoint inscription that read, “Grandmothers are a special part of all that’s cherished in the heart.” Opie, who is fifty-five, smiled wistfully when she recalled that era: “You dress up with your friends; you do things together in the dungeons.” At the time, she was taking photographs of her cohort, with their tattoos and piercings, in formal compositions and vibrant colors that evoked the Renaissance paintings of Hans Holbein. Opie felt that she was creating a portrait gallery of her own “royal family.” There was something not just regal but disarmingly heartfelt in those pictures. As the Los Angeles art critic David Pagel put it, in 1994, “The strangest and most telling quality that Opie manages to smuggle into her images of aggressive misfits is a sense of wholesomeness.”

Opie grew up in the Midwest. She was going to be a kindergarten teacher before she became a photographer. She always wanted to be a mother. “ ‘Self-Portrait/Cutting’ was about longing,” Shaun Caley Regen, Opie’s gallerist since 1993, told me. “It was about an unattainable ideal—two women, a house, whatever it was she felt she couldn’t have—cut into her back.”

Rod says that Reiff calls this kind of art a “deathwork” — art that deliberately destroys the foundations upon which a society can build a flourishing life. Rod’s post and the disgusting Opie got me thinking about a couple of deathworks that I’ve come across in my own life recently – not only are the examples I'm going to discuss disgusting and annoying but I often get the feeling that whoever created these ads/cultural effluvia is deliberately trying to subvert all that is good and true about the world.

My first example is from the world of pop culture -- the humble super-hero television show. This year the Marvel company teamed up with a cable station called FX to produce a unique and fresh take on their mutant superheroes – a show called Legion about a mutant with amazing psychic and telekinetic powers who grows up thinking he is mentally ill. The show was aimed at adult viewers and while it had some unfortunate sexual content, such content was generally kept to a minimum and wasn’t the focus of the plot for most of the show; the focus was on our main character and his fragmented mental state.

And then we get to the last episode. In the final show we are re-introduced to a “bad guy”, Clark, who works for Division 3 – a special government agency tasked with hunting down mutants and making sure they don’t threaten normal people. Clark was badly injured in an earlier episode (by mutants who rescued our hero who was being interrogated by Division 3 agents including Clark) and in this last episode, I guess the writers wanted to humanize Clark and give us a peek into his home life – what would it be like for him as he recovered from terrible burns and went back to work for Division 3. So what do our writers do with Clark’s backstory? They make him gay and give him a caring and supportive gay partner (who, we find out later, also works for Division 3) and to top it off, the two of them have an adopted son (and isn’t it just precious, he is black?)

I couldn’t believe what I was watching – a perfectly fun, at times clever and original television show about mutants suddenly had become a bizarro world Hallmark Card movie complete with scenes of the recovering Clark, his loving “partner” and their black adopted “son” all in bed together – just like any other family you might find working for a secret government agency!!! Total propaganda and it served no other purpose other than to rub our noses in the perversion of so-called gay “marriage.”

My second example comes from the world of advertising – specifically ads for a company called Designer Shoe Warehouse (DSW). These ads are now ubiquitous in downtown Chicago wrapped around our big solar-powered garbage cans. Apparently, DSW decided that they didn’t want to advertise their shoes – they wanted to sell their hip and edgy brand to young millennials (and especially millennial women) and so they have an ad campaign with pictures of various women (not a shoe in sight) looking at a the viewer and a supposedly funny statement made by the women that usually indicates she is in control of her destiny, sexually adventurous, without a care in the world, independent, ready to lead some sort of corporation, etc., etc. Did I say there were pictures of women? Oh yes, and then there is this picture and caption:


Isn’t that funny and clever – not only do we have to be reminded that Carl is a gay man looking for love, but he is apparently dating so many different men that they get confused about who is who when they text him their notes of affection!?! Imagine visiting Chicago with your family and walking by this ad with your kids – why should parents have to explain such nonsense polluting the public way? As we all have discussed here at W4, when it comes to liberalism, corporations are not friends of the traditionalist -- these ads are just madness (remember, this is all for a shoe company!)

As Reif says, these really are deathworks designed to attack and undermine all that is left of traditional norms and values – one little television storyline and foolish corporate ad at a time.

Comments (2)

I didn't know that Rieff had that coy ending to his book. Weird.

It's good that you relate the egregiously transgressive deathworks to the smarmy and perverse ads promoting homosexuality, pointing out that the latter are also deathworks. I notice that the first of your examples makes homosexual couples look monogamous and sweet, while the latter hints at the promiscuity that is particularly common in the homosexual lifestyle and that redefines "monogamy" even for those couples that claim to be "married" and "monogamous." It surprises me a little that the shoe company would allude to this, much less make it look amusing, since it is hardly an attractive feature of the homosexual lifestyle, nor is it one likely to make people think well of the lifestyle, which is presumably their goal. But perhaps, as you imply, their goal is now even to normalize those things that are deathly and miserable, including rank promiscuity and the unhappiness it brings.

One is reminded - again - of C.S. Lewis's character Screwtape, bragging that the Lowerarchy are not only bringing in ever more souls, they are doing it without even granting humans the enjoyment of those ill-gotten goods. They are pawning sinners off on false goods that aren't even enjoyable here on earth. Satan: "come with me, and we'll both pretend that you're having fun while I will make your life miserable now, and that's only a foretaste of the torture you'll get later."

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