Saturday, January 29, 2005

Twenty Questions

I think that, before we stand any chance of working out answers to tough questions, we need to work out what the questions are. Which we very rarely do. So, as a service to the general public, here are the relevant questions about last months Big Controversy.

1: Did the images, which portrayed St Jerry in the role of a tawdry chat-show host, considered by themselves and regardless of context, constitute blasphemy against the Springerist faith?

2: Were those images, considered in that way, likely to offend Springerists?

3: What do you mean by “offense”? Do you mean “actually painful to watch” or merely “slightly annoying”?

4: What do we mean by “blasphemy”? Is a religion free to decide for itself what is blasphemous? (In other words does “blasphemy against my religion” mean “anything my religion says is blasphemous?”) If not, who else gets to decide?

5: Are “blasphemy” and “offense” synonymous? Can something be blasphemous but not offensive? Can something be offensive but not blasphemous?

6: If I don’t belong to your church, should I care about what your church considers to be blasphemous? But if it is immoral (or at least bad mannered) of me to insult your mother, why is it quite all right for me to insult your God?

7: Can “blasphemy” or “offense” ever be legitimately used for artistic effect? Can a writer or painter ever say “I know it was offensive: it was meant to be.”?

8: If we say “This image is offensive” and “I was offended by this image”, are we saying the same thing? (Can I think that something was offensive if I personally wasn’t “offended” by it?)

9: Does the use of “blasphemous” or “offensive” images in, say, a play automatically make that play blasphemous or offensive? If an actor playing a Roman soldier spits on the image of Christ in a Passion Play, is he guilty of sacrilege? Granted that the phrase “fucking nigger” is highly offensive, does a play become offensive the moment a racist character uses the expression “fucking nigger”? (If so, who has committed the offense: the actor who said the words? The playwright who wrote them? The manager who staged the play? The audience? Everybody in the whole wide world?) If the phrase “Granted that the phrase ‘fucking nigger’ is highly offensive...” occurs in an article, does that article become offensive?

10: Does it make any difference if you print it as f*ck*ng n*gg*r?

11: Is an image less offensive if you find it in a work which has artistic merit than it would have been if you found it in a work which had none? Does the degree of artistic merit make a difference? If we discovered a lost painting by Leonardo that happened to depict the rape of a child by an adult, would the image’s offensiveness be reduced by the brilliance of the brushwork?

12: Contrawise, is the artistic merit of a work reduced if its subject matter is offensive? Could you say of the Leonardo “It can’t be a good painting, because it depicts a child being abused.”? Can we conceive of “good Nazi art”? If not, are we becoming confused about two possible uses of the word “good”?

13: If a work has sufficiently high artistic merit, does it matter who it offends? Can we says “It doesn’t matter that lots of people will be upset by the subject batter, because it is such a very pretty picture?” Is Ode to Grecian Urn really worth any number of old ladies?

14: Is it ever reasonable for someone to say “That work is offends me, so I won’t look at it”? Or is there some kind of moral duty to look at potentially offensive things? Or is it purely a matter of individual choice? Should I get around to seeing Life of Brian one of these days? Should Dastardly Dick Dawkins see The Passion of the Christ? Should anyone read Cerebus the Aardvark under any circumstances whatsoever?

15: Is it ever reasonable for me to say “That work offends me, so YOU shouldn’t look at it?” Can I be offended by a work I haven’t seen? Can’t the fact that other people are gathering to look at it be offensive in itself? Does my shock at the racist play or the pedophile picture go away simply because I don’t happen to be looking at them? Is it possible that under their cloths everyone is, in fact, naked?

16: Is your answer to question 15 affected by the number of people who find the work offensive? Do I have the same right to display a painting which is highly offensive to the 15 members of the UK’s frog-worshiping community than one which is equally offensive to the UK’s 500,000 Jews?

17: Is your answer to question 15 affected by the media in which the work is going to be displayed? Are there things which we can show to an all-ticket cinema audience which we can’t show on TV? Are there things which we can show on TV which we can’t put on a poster-hoarding near a busy road?

18: That Prince Harry, eh, what a twit.

19: What degree of “offense” and or “blasphemy” did Jerry Springer: The Opera in fact contain?

20: What degree of artistic merit does Jerry Springer: The Opera in fact possess? (Ignore this question if your answers to questions 11, 12 and 13 make it irrelevant.)

There. Now I’ve done the hard part, sorting out the answers is left as an exercise for the reader.

I didn’t see it, myself: and neither did any of the people who made such a fuss. I did get right through The Satanic Verses, though. It wasn’t very good.


mackatlaw said...

This is an unrelated note, but your comments page looked lonely, so I thought I'd add some. I wandered over to the main page of your old webpage and started reading Davewatch, which made me very sad.

I still have the phone books on my shelf, current up to "Women." I've read through some of the later ones, but don't own any, and gave up collecting in "Reads" when Sim went to stories that were almost entirely text. I still wondered, from time to time, what would happen to Cerebus in issue 300. But as the stories went on, I realized that Cerebus himself had become a marginalized character, and the plot threads I had known and loved earlier in the series were almost entirely ignored. I didn't like what was happening to Dave's world.

It's a sad thing to watch the world of a good writer twist and change until it's unrecognizeable, where finally the characters become puppets for the opinions of the writer, vacant and not "real" anymore. Somewhere, the animating force of creativity behind the comic went away, to be replaced by polemics and bitterness.

I'm sorry to hear that Dave was diagnosed as a borderline schizophrenic. I wish he'd get some help, or that somebody could make him do so. I'm glad I didn't stick around for the ride, no matter how much I miss the book and the characters. I hate to see madness develop like this, and all the beauty go away.


Andrew Rilstone said...


I don't know if you found it, but there is also a much too detailed essay on Cerebus # 300 here:

and other stuff under "arts" on the main page.

I think Cerebus remained worth reading right up to the end; but it certainly was a different comic to the one we started out reading. I think that there is a comparison to be made between Sim and Phillip K Dick: both were at some level mentally ill; and both to a great extent made that mental illness the subject of their writing. I will stick my neck out and say that Dick was a cleverer man than Sim, but that Sim was a better artists (i.e creative talent) than Dick. So Dick could stand outside his mental state and say "Maybe I'm mad". but Sim (so far) hasn't been able to do so, and ends up saying "There really is a female diety called YHWH living beneath the earth's crust; she/it really did make men's penises; the Bible and nuclear physics both confirm this and the only reason you don't agree with me is because you have been brain washed by homosexual feminist Islamic marxists." It's sad. "The Last Day" remains a very impressive graphic novel, though: with Kirby and Eisner both now dead, I would have thought that Sim's claim to be the greatest living comic book creator is now incontestable.

Ernest G. Tomlinson said...

I can answer some of these.

2. I don't think this is possible.

3. The first.

4. This isn't much of a definition but, for me, blasphemy is the equivalent (in whatever medium) of scribbling a moustache on a portrait of Jesus. The infamous "Piss Christ" is like that; Garth Ennis's turning Archangel Michael (it was Michael, wasn't it) into a snivelling pansy in "Hellblazer" is like that. Casual utterances of "God damn it!" or "Jesus H. Christ!" don't count as blasphemies; there's no intention to wound. Who gets to decide? Well, I do, of course.

5. No. "Piss Christ" is blasphemous but not particularly offensive, not to me anyway, because it's so silly and devoid of intellectual content. I vaguely remember that the same "artist", after the furore started, dunked a crucifix in milk, photographed it, and called it "White Christ"; that he was able to do so only proved how facile and childish his first piece was. Scribbling moustaches on Jesus, like I said. Offensive and not blasphemous? Where can I start?

6. Should you care about whether you insult my mother? I care but that's a different matter. (By the way, insult her as much as you like; I don't like her much.)

7. Yes.

8. Hair-splitting: "This image is offensive," I think, implies the dative, "to me." If I say, "This image is offensive to [so and so]" you're saying something different.

9. God, no.

10. Not really. What _is_ different is eliding the word altogether. Saying "f**k" is polite but doesn't conceal the meaning. Alluding to "fuck" as, oh, a "vulgarity" or something _is_ concealing the meaning.

11. No.

12. I've no easy answer to that one. The best start I can make is from the premise of Anthony Burgess's _A Clockwork Orange_ which partly was that the notion of "Good Art" or "Good Music" was devoid of moral content: a vile criminal may like Beethoven as much as a model of social virtue and respectability. The two sorts of "good" are separate. But the Beethoven that Alex liked wasn't intrinsically about evil maybe I'm off the rails with this argument.

13. It matters only to those who read (view, listen to, &c.) the art. If something's offensive, don't read it (&c.) The artist can do what he or she likes.

14. No imperatives here. (Except for this, you _should_ watch LIFE OF BRIAN.)

15. No. I can say, "I don't think you should see it," but again, no imperatives.

16. Yes.

17. No.

P.S. What have you got against Dawkins anyway? I think he's an asshole myself but for reasons only maybe 5% rational. Have you ever elaborated on this?

Andrew Rilstone said...

I think I may be confusing two different guys called Dawkins. There's the guy who wrote "The Blind Watchmaker" which is a brilliant, clear, lucid and persuasive explanation of what scientists actually mean when they say "evolution". Some day, I intend to read it. And there's the guy who writes ignorant, sneery articles in the papers about religion, at the level of "Ha-ha, there's been a big earthquake. Lot's of people died in the same place. So there can't be a God after all! And this has never occurred to any of the ignorant Christians before! Only I am clever enough to have spotted this! Curse you, Penelope Pitstop!"


I particularly enjoyed the one where he talks about "memes" (a good enough little intellectual conceit, and one I have found useful). The stages of his argument go

"ideas spread by copying themselves" (true)

"so the ideas which are good at copying themselves become widespread" (true)

"ideas spread like a computer virus" (possibly true)

"religion is a particularly successful idea" (up to a point, Lord Coooper)

"so there is an analogy between religion and a successful computer virus" (er..)

"when a body or a computer is infect with a virus, it gets sick or stops working" (well, it depends what you mean by....)

"ergo, religious believers have diseased minds "(help!)

I will write something sensible about this when I get a round tuit.

Sam Dodsworth said...

Two things strike me about your opinion of Dawkins:

(i) As an atheist, I completely agree with you.
(ii) He's irritating in exactly the same way as a naive theist. This says something depressing about human nature.

You should read "The Blind Watchmaker" before you see "Life of Brian", but after you play "Wario Ware".

As for the Big Controversy... I thought it was just a
particular bunch of mad Christians with an agenda trying
to revive the NVLA?

Ernest G. Tomlinson said...

"ideas spread by copying themselves" (true)

I stop right there myself. There is, I think, a difference between "able to reproduce" and "likely to be reproduced"; ideas _and_ viruses fall into the second category. Because both require external agency for replication neither is alive.

I agree up to a point that Dawkins is an effective popular science writer; the particular "point" is his insistence, now built up into an _idee fixe_, that inanimate objects like individual genes or, worse, individual thoughts are "alive" and we humans are mere mindless carriers for them. I sense in these notions of Dawkins's a disquieting contempt for the very concept of human intelligence by asserting that ideas and beliefs (ones that Dawkins doesn't like, at any rate) move about independently of human decision to hold or believe those ideas and beliefs.

Dawkins seems to me, incidentally, a particular instance of a larger class of scientist that...oh, how to put it...seems to enjoy regarding the human brain as a dumb, often faulty machine. The insufferable Francis Crick, who in a popular book questions the validity of the concept of consciousness, is another example. A third, a computer scientist whose name I forget, I stumbled across in an article in which he lamented at what a mess the human brain was and awaited its more perfect replication in silicon. The aluminium tree is better than the real one; consciousness is just a chemical phenomenon. I don't understand the impulse behind all this.

I've only occasional exposure to Dawkins's editorialising; now and again, twice a year maybe, I'll stumble across something reprinted in the Independent or maybe the Guardian, and once, visiting a friend, I found one of Dawkins's pieces in some atheists' magazine on her coffee-table. Dreary reading indeed but I did agree with Dawkins's point that there's something far wrong with young-earth creationists. Anyway, those exposures have been enough for me to build up a hearty dislike for the man (the 95% irrational dislike, eh?) But it's not just that.

Anonymous said...

Well, well, what a surprise...

Nice to see that you're alive and you. Herewith, my attempt at a reply...

So, as a service to the general public, here are the relevant questions about last months Big Controversy.This would appear to be one of those things that a person needs to be watch TV to understand. I don't pay much attention to the Boob Tube. Did I miss something?

1: No clue.

2: Equally benighted.

3: Usually, when something I'm watching offends me I either yell at it or turn it off. I rather enjoy yelling at the television, particularly the asinine commercials. My spouse finds this annoying, and is even more annoyed when I manage to make him snicker uncontrollably. But if it's so bad I can't even make fun of it, off it goes.

4: (And why was 3 a "you" question, and 4 is suddenly a "we" question?) I am reminded of the two boys in Murmur of the Heart. After they serve Mass, one of them opens up the box of wafers in the sacristy and starts munching away. He offers them to his friend who replys, "No thanks. To blaspheme you have to believe." There is an intent to do something (or not do something) precisely because it shows scorn and disrespect. And both the blasphemer and the believer determine what is blasphemous.

5: Well, there's nothing in Scripture to indicate that Hello Kitty or the Precious Moment figurines are hideous malformations of the human will to create and should be scorched off the face of the earth until even their names are obliterated. But I still find them incredibly offensive.

6: It's not all right. Whoever told you it was?

7: I think one can shock, and even offend, without blasphemy. Actually, I think it's really difficult to be blasphemous. God is tougher than that.

8: Well, yes. By exercising empathy, I can understand how something might offend you that doesn't offend me. Like feeding pork to an observant Jew and then laughing about it to her face. I would not be directly hurt by such an act, but I would feel and be outraged by the offense to her.

9: I think the answer here is no, with certain important limitations. If the racist(you used the example of a racist and we'll stick with it) is in the work of art, then naturally the artist must make the character as true as it possibly can be. To do otherwise were to be untrue to the art. And it's even permissible to create a likeable racist, to show how even Very Nice People can have tragic limitations. But it's unacceptably offensive to create a work of art that attempts to teach that racism is a Good Thing and racists are wholly admirable because of their racism. Such a work of art would be a lie against both morality and science.

10: No. It merely means you lack the courage of your convictions. Personally, I think it's worse.

11: This is a toughy. Can there be consummate skill allied to evil intent? I fear that there can. And I fear that there are people who will fail to notice the intent because they are absorbed by the skill.

12: Hmmm. Well... yeah. You know, I read a lot of anti-Semitic authors. Luther, for example. Much of what he has to say is excellent. You just have to take everything he says about Jews and mourn over it, then flush it.

13: Mappelthorpe's photographs come to mind here. Beautiful, and disturbing, and judgement had to be suspended rather aggressively at some points, but... yeah. In the end, I came away with much more profound memories and reactions to them than to the "video installation" in the museum lobby. One was art, the other, noise.

I do think patently offensive or blasphemous art needs a lot of contextual information around it.

14: I do think there is a moral imperative to keep an open mind, as far as one is able--but also to trust oneself if there comes a point where one just can't go on suspending judgement. For example, I'm glad I watched "Dogma" and read "The Last Temptation of Christ", even though I started out with at best a neutral attitude. I don't care if I never see "The Passion of the Christ," but that's because the book was gory enough for me...

15: No. I can tell you why I think you shouldn't look at it. And I think it's reasonable to suggest that certain images and ideas should not be incautiously communicated to children, who have a right to be unburdened by adult fantasies and fetishes for as long as possible. But at some point (to become theological here) I have to trust that the Spirit of God is in you as well as in me, able to guide you as well as me.

16: No.

17: Yes. People have to be able to choose, not be subjected against their will. This goes for both overt propaganda and covert marketing.

18: Yes, he certainly is. And Prince William was with him? Not as jolly as they thought it would be, perhaps.

19: I return to a state of bafflement.

20: Baffling continues.

Oh, and this is Lirazel.

Sam Dodsworth said...

Ernest G. Tomlinson wrote:

There is, I think, a difference between "able to reproduce" and "likely to be reproduced"; ideas _and_ viruses fall into the second category. Because both require external agency for replication neither is alive.In fairness to Dawkins, he's not trying to argue that either viruses or memes are 'alive' by the standard definition. He's making a point about the preconditions for evolution, which are not the same as the standard definition of what's alive. (Evolution requires only reproduction, a source of variation, and selective pressure.)

...his insistence, now built up into an _idee fixe_, that inanimate objects like individual genes or, worse, individual thoughts are "alive" and we humans are mere mindless carriers for them.I think this is a misreading. My recollection is that there's something in "The Selfish Gene" that's often misread in that way (and glossed in recent editions) but I've not noticed anything like an _idee fixe_. Can you cite some examples?

The aluminium tree is better than the real one; consciousness is just a chemical phenomenon. I don't understand the impulse behind all this.I don't think it would be easy to design an improved brain, but I have trouble understanding consciousness as anything but a property of physical systems. How else do you explain the two-way linkage between state of mind and the physical state of the brain?

Anonymous said...

received from "Flash"....

1 - Not a serious question
2 - Not a serious question
3 - Something which I regard as at least insulting to me or what I believe, which states something I either believe to be damaging to my own standing or to the standing of a group which I identify with. Such as any time astrology is mentioned.
4 - A group of individuals can take a collective decision to endow authority of their theology to a certain group, which may then make a decision as to what it considers blasphemous. This is not the same as me finding something blasphemous, however, unless I have considered the item itself, and the arguments behind it being insulting to what I believe or identify with, and consider it blasphemous myself. Although by endowing this authority with theological decision-making I do add a new potential target for calls of blasphemy which I might then find insulting since I evidently trust this body and other people do not - but this is liable to be defensive blasphemy-calling as opposed to genuine blasphemy.
5 - If you believe that God Himself objects to people using the word Belgium, that could constitute a difference. If you do not, then no - there is no difference.
6 - Your mother exists (or at least I have good reason to believe that your mother exists, although you never told me about your sister). Presumably unless I share your faith I do not believe that your God exists, so it would be like me insulting your [hopefully] non-existent aunt Maud, and calling her a bit of a toe-waggler.
7 - Yes. For three reasons - to challenge a taboo which the author feels worthy of breaking, in which case the viewers will decide whether this was a meaningless taboo and therefore change the terms of what they consider blasphemous/insulting - to make a more powerful point and where there is no way to avoid being insulting - or to make a sufficiently good comic point which could not be made without the insult.
8 - No. I could see why naked pictures of me projected onto tall buildings in London might be considered offensive, but it would not be offence that I would feel if it were to happen but embarrassment.
9 - No. Which is why again Mr Springer cannot be considered blasphemous. The whole series of scenes are depicted as being in the deranged imagination of Mr Springer. Surely only he could be offended by them.
10 - No, but it does make you look like a complete tw*t. Like spelling fuck wrongly on t-shirts.
11 - The image is as offensive as it was, but it might make the work as a whole palatable if it has merit as a whole - see point 7 subsection 2.
12 - No, again. A work of art can be superbly done, but depict something appalling, or be produced by an appalling person. See George Orwell's essay on Kipling for detailed analysis of this point.
13 - Offense is not a linear mathematical quantity. I might be seriously offended, or mildly offended, but I don't think you could add those up and make me even more offended by 17 offence points.
14 - Yes. If it's the sort of thing that you know you would find offensive, then unless you have some other reason (such as legitimate research to decide if the Life of Brian really is worth seeing, which it is) you can perfectly justify not seeing it. You may, if you like, extend this argument to works you consider boring and/or poor quality. You may use prejudice to decide this, but only four times per year.
15 - I could look at a cut-up human corpse, vomit profusely, and then stop someone from coming round the corner and warn them that they might well find it an unpleasant sight. I could equally do the same with things I find offensive, although the other person might wish to check once or twice to see if our tastes match.
16 - Yes, but more in the sense that I would have more respect for the opinions of the 500000 Jews than the 14 frog-worshippers.
17 - Yes.
18 - Yes. T. W. *. T.
19 - It contained a lot of swearing, and I felt somewhat uncomfortable under the barrage of the in-opera audience chorus. Odd, that.
20 - I thought it was quite funny, but more at the beginning when the slight shock of what was going on juxtaposed quite well with the language and the semi-operatic formality of it all. By the time it reached Hell I was a little bored with it.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Note for people from foriegn:

The BBC showed a performance of a stage-play called "Jerry Springer the Opera." Apparently, in the second act, Jerry Springer goes to hell and has Jesus, Mary, God and the Devil on his show, portrayed like the standard Jerry Springer feuding dysfunctional family. A lot of people with too much time on their hands got quite upset about this.

Sam Dodsworth said...

Further note: many people claim that the majority of complaints were the result of a campaign by an outfit called 'Mediawatch UK' - who, I discover from their website, are actually the 'relaunched' National Viewers and Listeners Association of Mary Whitehouse fame.

I believe this makes the whole non-affair a Great British Tradition, and as such I withdraw my previous indifference as unpatriotic.

Anonymous said...

Whatever else he is, Dawkins is an extremely capable and entertaining pop-science writer. *The Selfish Gene* clarifies the simple beauty of Darwinian evolution, and puts it together with genetics. Read it.

And no, he doesn't say that inanimate objects or ideas are "alive"; he suggests that anything which is capable of self-replication can end up being subject to evolutionary pressures. Not the same thing, and actually almost a tautology in itself. "Memes" are a bit of a throwaway idea in that book, and I think other people have developed it more than Dawkins since, though he has maybe made some rather gung-ho casual use of it. Somebody once said that the good fairy gave Dawkins intelligence, the ability to communicate, and good looks, and the bad fairy gave him a gift for metaphor...

He's also an impassioned polemical moralist with a low tolerance for what he sees as perverse ignorance in other people. If he annoys a few people, well, that's what polemical moralists are *for*. His attitude to religions may be abrasive, but in my opinion, he serves a rather useful purpose; he cuts through a great deal of the waffle and special pleading one hears from religious apologists, and points out that religion has been associated with huge quantities of crime and stupidity, and should bloody well stop ducking the issue sometimes.

"What about the Spanish Inquisition, then? And how can anybody take a book seriously which starts with all that stuff in Genesis?" may be crass and simplistic questions, but they're also good questions, and really need to be kept around. So long as we've got fundamentalists killing people and "Young Earth Creationists" outside of playpens, they're certainly not out of date.

Phil Masters

Anonymous said...

Dawkins can be irritating but I do not think anything he wrote about the tsunami was ignorant or sneery or on the level of "Ha-ha there's been a big earthquake...So there can't be a God after all! And this has never ocurred to any of the ignorant Christians before!" Instead he writes of his horror at the attempt to defend God and at the willingness of Christians to worship such a 'monster.' One of his letters to the Guardian on the subject of the tsunami ended with these moving words:

"If the comforts afforded by outstretched human arms, warm human words and heartbroken human generosity seem puny against the agony, they at least have the advantage of existing in the real world."


mackatlaw said...

"I don't know if you found it, but there is also a much too detailed essay on Cerebus # 300 here"

I went and read it upon your referral. Extremely detailed, extremely thorough. I feel as if I've read Issue 300 and had it thoroughly discussed by pundits now. Very good job, and I'm sure it was a lot of work to write!

"I think Cerebus remained worth reading right up to the end; but it certainly was a different comic to the one we started out reading."

Sim lost me, but you stuck with him, which shows a good deal of perseverance. I just couldn't cope with the change.

I have read both Sim and Dick, who is also a very strange writer (too much so for my tastes these days).
Mental illness is scary to those who have it as well as those who observe it, and I can't say whose was more severe here.

This journal entry may be of interest to you:

Sample quotes:

"When people experiencing the worst humanity has to offer manage to create art, it's an amazing feat, not a force of nature. It's always supposed to be properly artistic madness, isn't it? Properly artistic pain, properly artistic depression."

"I don't want to take a pure "better living through chemistry" approach to human suffering. I think that's a mistake. On the other hand, I really think that emphasizing past mistakes in psychiatry to the point of correlating them with the "treatment kills art" meme does a disservice to many, many people with brain chemistry that's making them miserable."

"So Dick could stand outside his mental state and say "Maybe I'm mad". but Sim (so far) hasn't been able to do so, and It's sad."

Schizophrenizia, unlike depression or many mood disorders, is hard to get the sufferers to voluntarily agree to treatment. Many simply don't want to take their meds, at least according to the doctor friends I have. They usually have to be ordered to, and that only happens if it's severe enough that they can't manage to get by otherwise. I don't know if Sim will ever agree to take medicine on his own; the mental state and belief system has become self-reinforcing.

"'The Last Day' remains a very impressive graphic novel, though: with Kirby and Eisner both now dead, I would have thought that Sim's claim to be the greatest living comic book creator is now incontestable."

I may have to read the graphic novel some time, then. That's a strong recommendation. I do think Neil Gaiman, back when he was writing comics, was a strong contender, though. Alan Moore has a longer track record, though.