Culture and Cruelty: Some Preliminaries on Relationships

“You can’t ignore divorce rates. Every friend of mine has parents who are divorced. I didn’t go into it with Max thinking, ‘This is going to last forever’. But I did go into it thinking, ‘I love him right now and I know that I will continue to love him for a long while’.” (Peaches Geldof, Heat magazine)

Contrary to the pastiche simulation of past moralities engaged in by mainstream media outlets, the underlying modern tendency and spiritual attitude is to dismantle the relationship rather than esteem it. In consumer culture, sex, self and individual desire have long since been prioritised over emotional/sexual fidelity. Increased luxury, the decline of ‘real’ suffering, the eradication of community and mutual dependency leaves sex and desire very much open to take the place of traditional relationships and even the complexity of human interaction more generally – ‘a relationship’ is a project of complex work and diligence whereas the leisure society isn’t particularly interested in work and diligence. Moreover, commitment is the death of fluidity and fluidity is at the heart of consumerism. ‘The relationship’, due to its durability, its constancy, its general predictability, lies completely at odds with the immediacy of the desire/satisfaction dichotomy at the heart of the electric-consumer age.

“Marriage is the death of hope” (Woody Allen, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy)


Under these circumstances, the question is not ‘why is there so much infidelity?’ rather, the question should be ‘why does anyone bother with such a thing at all?’ The reasons are multifarious. It helps us if we can believe we have any morality at all – particularly in the face of religious fundamentalism. Moreover, it helps us if we can believe our lives have some meaning beyond ourselves: morality after all is surely ‘meaningful’? Compassion and love surely commendable? ‘The other’ must surely have a value beyond ourselves? In theory, perhaps; however, in the public spectacle and the private self, evidence of ‘real’ and ‘genuinely’ committed interest and care are less and less apparent. The underlying fabric is perhaps decomposing, diminishing?


And to ease the way into this relational vacuum, to ease our passage, we have the soap opera and the talk show. To fill the chasm, this yawning void, an assembly line load of awful narratives, conflict narratives: affairs, domestic violence, various addictions, rape, debts – myths for the electric age. Morality provides the context by which we can stage such dramas in our own lives or the lives of others. Instantly gratifying or seemingly destructive, immediate and violent, the overall message being that the diligent, stable life is scarcely a life at all; it is the vital life that counts.

The conflict myth replaces the fidelity myth; sex, with liberation, has separated itself from the relationship and entered the fore; with it too, violence has entered the fore. There is no need for the relationship now to access sex, and sex is easy (apparently), fast, instantly gratifying (apparently) and therefore everything. The consequence is that we forget the complexity of interaction and replace it with a violent theatre or dramatic narratives that exacerbate the erotic component. The pleasures of relational diligence and reciprocity decay.


Speaking of the longevity of Baudelaire’s influence over that of other lyric poets, Walter Benjamin writes:

“He (Baudelaire) indicated the price for which the sensation of the modern age may be had: the disintegration of the aura in the experience of shock.” (Benjamin, Illuminations pg. 90)

The consequences of this statement are numerous. For Benjamin, ‘aura’ is the aspect of events which turns them from something akin to ‘information’ into ‘experience’. ‘Experience’ for Benjamin is related to involuntary memory, for instance when a scent transports you back to a particular moment in childhood. This quality of ‘experience’ is distinguished from information like that gained from newspapers; for instance, a story in a newspaper will not fix that story in the reader as an experience, nor will reflecting on a memory which is just a ‘going over’ of information. The aura that defines something as ‘experience’ is something more. He extends this quality of ‘aura’ to other objects too such as those of art, where ‘the mark’ of an individual artist may be found in the object; it is also extended to the gaze between people, where one’s gaze is returned, the aura is evoked.

For Benjamin, the mechanical age leads to the disintegration of this aura. With the movement of a hand, you can photograph an event. The photograph contains less aura than the painting as there is less of the individual artist within it; with an assembly line, there is no craftsman, just the jolt of a new item on which the same repetitive process is performed. With new media, printed, digital and electronic, we see less of the individual mark and encounter events in a way devoid of their creator’s personality and social function. The writing team and the focus group behind the sitcom, soap opera or pop song exacerbates this process, blanking the communal, relational aspect of our experience. In place of this, the modern artist – Baudelaire – puts ‘the shock’ sensation. In the above statement by Peaches Geldof, you could say its force was the shock from its implied disintegration of the relational aspect – aura. That this process’s occurrence was documented nearly 100 years ago, the world seems to have forgotten and continues with its insipid scandals and falsified facade of self-preservatory indignation.


As regards ‘the conflict narrative’, we have begun incorporating such shocks into our daily lives via familiarity with such narratives and the empty repetitiveness of their origins (technical writing formulae, the celluloid image, demographical art, writing teams).This is perhaps the real genius of Eminem – dramatic narratives played out in the extreme, amplified, even invented for the production of scenes. He is a cartoonist caricature of the process described and yet he is also an active participant in the narrative of conflict he at the same time parodies. He satirizes the emptiness of the iconography and lumbering politics of the system that surrounds him whilst at the same time he lives out conflict and shock experience in both his public and private life.

The Marshall Mathers LP

(A couple of reference points that came to me after time of writing:
Against Love: A Polemic– Laura Kipnis
Ashley Madison (Dsicreet Dating Service))

  1. October 10th, 2010

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