The Scandal of Pleasure

Philosophy and Literature 23 (1999): 243-55.

Denis Dutton

The title of Wendy Steiner’s new book identifies as essential to art a quality of aesthetic experience conspicuously absent from many works in contemporary aesthetic theory: its sheer pleasure. By her own description, The Scandal of Pleasure (University of Chicago Press, $24.95, with a stunning dustjacket designed by Andrea Federle-Bucsi) surveys “the battleground of contemporary culture, a landscape littered with the remains of vilified artworks and discredited orthodoxies, where a resentful and uncomprehending public faces off against experts whose ranks and spirits are broken.” Her instincts are worthy. She demonstrates a libertarian spirit, opposes the heavy hand of political correctness in universities, objects to the reduction of art to politics — indeed of everything to politics, and has as much contempt for feminist censors such as Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon as she does for Jesse Helms and the Ayatollah Khomeini, all of whom figure in her discussions of Mapplethorpe and Rushdie. She is less opinionated, but interesting nonetheless, in a chapter on Anthony Blunt’s treason, Heidegger’s Nazism, and de Man’s collaborationist journalism.

I sometimes wish, however, Steiner were less eager to convince us she is a reasonable mean between extremes. For example, the chapter on political correctness, “Caliban in the Ivory Tower,” relies to a large extent on Dinesh d’Souza, and it obviously aligns Steiner with much of what d’Souza says; at the same time she tries very hard to distance herself from him. So on the question of speech codes, she quotes a deeply confused remark by Barbara Johnson, saying “professors should have less freedom of expression than writers or artists, because professors are supposed to be creating a better world.” (Think about it!) This she contrasts with Camille Paglia on the infantilization of American universities: “The campus is now not an arena of ideas but a nursery-school where adulthood can be indefinitely postponed.” There is no doubt that Steiner regards Johnson’s remark as very troubling and thinks Paglia more-or-less right. Does she say so? No; instead she immediately sums up the paragraph with one of those equivocal cadences typical of Time magazine: “Utopia or womb, the American university, for better or for worse, has overwhelmingly admitted controls on symbolic expression.”

There’s too much of this in The Scandal of Pleasure. Whereas the politically correct left wants ethnic diversity at any cost, she explains, liberals want equality of opportunity and excellence, and she seems to side with the liberals: “What liberals hope is that diversity and excellence will finally coincide, that after families have been university-educated for a few generations, their ethnicity will not be a factor in their children's ability to excel.” Fine — although she feels compelled immediately to add, “When PC critics like Dinesh d’Souza insist that academic excellence should be the only criterion for university admission, they ignore the fact that higher education is a long-range socialization that begins at birth and extends forward into the generations to come.” Then she moves off on another tangent. But how do the platitudes of the final clauses refute the insistence that admission ought to be based on ability? Maybe they are consistent with it; maybe not. Steiner, once again keen to remind the reader she’s not from the Right, slides out a side door. There is an argument to be faced here, and I suspect Steiner is not engaging it because she’s too close to d’Souza for her own comfort.

Still, there is plenty of good sense in this book. She gives a clear summary of the Mapplethorpe affair, with many useful citations from the trial of the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, as well as a fine debunking of the left’s attempts at censorship, which puts into the same bed Catherine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin (whose first name, its bearer boldly declares, means “not cunt”), and Ed Meese (definitely not either). Even when Steiner fails to provide much robust analysis herself, she still gives us pertinent quotations, including this gem of a response to legislation to make publishers subject to civil action for damages (e.g., rape) “caused” by their publications; the writer is Leanne Katz of the National Coalition Against Censorship: “The central theory, that there should be legal cause for action for what is ‘caused’ by exposure to ideas, is a truly terrifying prospect....It negates all we know about the complexity and ambiguity of the human animal, and all that we love about the complexity of visual images and the written word....If [a criminal] says the video made him do it, and we believe it, we’re as psychotic as he is. To make someone else responsible disregards his personal responsibility for his acts, and permits the demonizing, eventually, of art and information and entertainment.” It used to be demon rum; now it's the corner video outlet.

Art for Steiner is what she calls “virtual,” and its pleasures and moral space are at the level of the imagination, not politics: “We will not be led into fascism or rape or child abuse or racial oppression through aesthetic experience. Quite the contrary — the more practiced we are in fantasy the better we will master its difference from the real.” We will never account for art “by denying its artifice, its beauty, and its allure” which is the very the aim of a “blind proliferation of partisan and aesthetically shallow ideologies.” In so resisting the reductionist simplifications of Marxist, feminist, and postcolonialist criticism, Wendy Steiner is not calling for a new formalism, but for a criticism that appreciates that audiences are intelligent and grasp the distinction between fantasy and reality. She also wants both criticism and art that cherish the pleasures of fantasy.

Copyright 1999 Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.