Karen Halttunen’s “Murder Most Foul”

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Dec 212011

Halttunen, Karen. Murder most foul: the killer and the American Gothic imagination Harvard University Press, 1998 Google Books

Halttunen’s book is about the transformation of how American society handles social deviance (violent crime, particularly) from the pre-industrial to the post-industrial.

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Dec 032011

This is a joke, right?

Don’t you get the point of this? It’s to turn people on. I get the sexy little schoolgirl. I even get the helpless mental patient, right? That can be hot.

But what is this? Lobotomized vegetable?

How about something a little more commercial, for God’s sake?

Sweet Pea, Sucker Punch, 2011, w./d. Zack Snyder

Searching “‘sucker punch’ snyder misogyny” on Google returns about 225,000 hits. I don’t think any film has been judged so harshly by being misunderstood.

Sucker Punch does present a confusing and at times incoherent story, but I don’t think it is operating on fundamentally bad faith with the audience. (The previously discussed Goodbye Uncle Tom, which likewise mixes exploitation imagery with pro-social messages, is a counter-example of a film in bad faith.)

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Veil of Fear: Convent tales

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Oct 202011

Schultz, Nancy Lusignan (ed.) Veil of Fear: Nineteenth-century convent tales NotaBell Books, Purdue University Press, 1999 Amazon

While Rebecca Read’s earlier Six Months in a Convent (1835) was a relatively sober and realistic work, Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures (1836) heads straight into paranoid xenophobic “virtue in distress”. This is what happens if young women heed the siren song of Catholicism, and it was popular enough to sell 300,000 copies by 1860. The fears of a young republic with large, unassimilated immigrant populations that were often Catholic, and an economy shifting to industrialization with consequent shifts in gender roles, found expression in anti-Catholicism. “In times of rapid social change, such as that experienced in antebellum America, intolerance and demonization of marginal groups find fertile soil.” (pg. viii) One of the anti-Catholic agitators, incidentally, was minister Lyman Beecher, father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

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May 112011

Steele, Valerie and Jennifer Park. Gothic: Dark Glamour Yale University Press, 2008

Trunk, Jonny. Dressing for Pleasure: The Best of AtomAge 1972-1980 Murray & Sorrell FUEL, 2010.

S/M as fashion is not exactly the same thing as S/M as a sexual practice. There’s considerable overlap, but they have followed different paths into the mainstream.

As of 2010, we’re so used to seeing BDSM/fetish fashion in Hot Topic, in music videos, on fashion runways and in big budget movies that it is hard to believe that the look was ever countercultural.

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Sep 192010

Goodlad, Lauren M.E. and Michael Bibby, ed. Goth: Undead Subculture Duke University Press, 2007 Gbooks

Emerging from the Romantics, emphasizing the truth of extreme experiences, and probably wearing too much black, the goth culture and the BDSM subculture are close cousins, if not actual siblings.

Goodlad and Bibby identify Goth as splitting off from punk, but with an emphasis on internal emotion and sensual expression instead of punk’s extroversion and asexuality. It borrowed from many other ancient and external influences, such as the occult, pagan religions, and the BDSM/fetish culture. Goth survives, while grunge, for example, has faded out. Like BDSM, goth prospered on the frontier of the World Wide Web, experiencing a flowering in the mid-90s. The authors also observe a later decoupling of goth style from goth culture (The Matrix being Goth style without Goth attitude, Donnie Darko and Buffy the Vampire Slayer being Goth attitude without goth style).

Goth style offers an ambivalent alternative to conventional standards of gender and beauty (the football jock and the perky cheerleader), but one that has it’s own strictures. Non-skinny goths of either sex are swimming upstream, and one essay observes that while goth give men greater license to perform femininity, it doesn’t give women license to perform masculinity, instead promoting a waif-like ideal. (As is often the case with those who defy gender, it’s about expanding options for men only. I’ve noticed that on the Second Life marketplace, you can get a “femboy” avatar, which is a male skin on a female body shape, but there doesn’t appear to be any avatars of female skins on male body shapes, or even a name for such a configuration.)

Trevor M Holmes, a former male exotic dancer, reported on an oral ultimatum from management, making tans and pumped up biceps and chests mandatory, and ordering “Act more masculine– no swishing, no frilly clothes– and act straight.” Why? “That’s what our customers want.” There’s a policing of desire here, that even (or especially) gay men must promote and prefer the ideal masculine sex object and subject of the straight-acting jock.

Skipping a lot of very interesting essays, what first caught my attention was Jason K Friedman’s “‘Ah am witness to its authenticity’: Goth style in Postmodern Southern Writing.” Thomas Jefferson, in the eighteenth query of Notes on the State of Virginia, wrote about masters in psychic bondage to their slaves. (Karl Marx also used the language of ghosts and vampires to describe the political and economic.) This ties into the South-as-Orient/sexual heterotopia idea I mentioned in previous posts.

Other essays touch on gothic fiction and the intersection of the BDSM subculture and goth subculture. These essays frequently touch on two fundamental questions about subcultures: if you join a subculture where everybody dresses the same, is it truly liberation? And can subcultures truly escape commodification by the mainstream?

So, is there anything truly revolutionary or transgressive in goth (and the same could be asked of BDSM, and many other subcultures)? Or is it just another marketing category? Somebody once said, there’s value and merit in being a punk in Orange County; but the moment the OC punk can articulate why being an OC punk is important, he or she can’t be that anymore. The same could be said of the kids in Saturday Night Live’s “Goth Talk” sketches, trying desperately to inject some magic and history and mystery and style into their suburban lives as they plug the Gloom Room, “right next to the Pizza Hut on Hibiscus Road.” Bless their monochromatic hearts.

Jun 042010

Ah&Oh Studio created a line of perfume packages based on male writers, including George Orwell, LaClos (author of Dangerous Liaisons), Edgar Allen Poe and the Marquis de Sade.

We found inspiration in the great, dark literature and distinctive, strong characters. We tried to describe the dark sides of men’s nature with line of scents named after famous writers.

Interesting that all four writers, not just Sade, could be seen as factoring into the history of BDSM. LaClos wrote about seduction and power games, and Poe about obsession and imprisonment. Even Orwell’s vision of dystopia in 1984 became fodder for masochistic fantasy.

I wonder what Sacher-Masoch or Richardson would smell like? Perhaps a complementary line of women’s fragrances: Stowe, Radcliffe, Rachilde, Reage, Rice, Carey?

Mar 182010

Praz, Mario. The Romantic Agony Meridian, 1956. First published 1933. Google Books

I think people tend to use the terms Romantic and Gothic interchangeably. I tend to use the Gothic as the underside of the Romantic, the cynicism to the humanism. BDSM comes from the Gothic, the parody/critique of the Romantic. This requires delving into the history of the Romantic, which like Praz’ book, is big, sprawling, disorderly and largely written in French and Italian.

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Jul 102009

If the Old West is America’s mythic past, then the South is its xenotopia, its Orient. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as discussed previously, partakes in both the Oriental and the Gothic. The HBO series Trueblood focuses on the small Louisiana town of Bon Temps in a world in which vampires have “come out of the coffin.” Likewise, it takes part of the Orientalism and the Gothicism stereotypically associated with the South, using the South as a blank screen for fantasies of, among other things, deviant sexuality.

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Jul 072009

Fiedler, Leslie A. Love and death in the American novel 1966.Link

In Fiedler’s book, it all comes from Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa: Lovelace and Clarissa are the encounter of the male principle and the female principle, the aristocracy and the newly risen bourgeoisie, reason and sentimentality. Everything from the romance paperback to sadomasochistic pornography is the distant, debased descendants from Clarissa, the first modern novel.

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Mar 052009

Darnton, Robert. The Forbidden Best-sellers of Pre-revolutionary France WW Norton & Co, 1996 Link

Justice Potter Stewart defined pornography as, “I know it when I see it.” The same could be said of genre in general. The genre of a given work is obvious, unmistakable, self-evident. A mystery story is a mystery because, well, there’s a mystery and it is solved.

However, genre is rarely pure, and there are many instances of works that defy categorization. Is James Cameron’s Aliens horror, science fiction or action? Also, genre becomes even less distinct when we backtrack, trying to find the first example of a given form. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is often cited as the first science fiction novel, but is it actually that, or a Gothic novel?

This gets even harder when you try to excavate the history of pornography. Case in point: the anonymous novel Therese Philosophe, published in 1748 (the same year as Denis Diderot’s erotica/satire The Indiscrete Jewels, and John Cleland’s apolitical Fanny Hill). It is usually attributed to the Marquis d’Argens.

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