Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Where there are adults present, there is no sex; and where there is sex, there are no adults present

Andrew O'Hagan's article on the Jimmy Savile affair offers real insight into the ethos that facilitated Savile's conduct, an ethos that prevails not simply at the BBC but in British society as a whole. 

"Why is British light entertainment so often based on the sexualisation of people too young to cope?" asks O'Hagan. "Is it to cover the fact, via some kind of willed outrage, that the culture itself is largely paedophile in its commercial and entertainment excitements?" O'Hagan makes a very good case for thinking so. But there is more. For, the paedophilia of British culture extends beyond its commercial and entertainment excitements, to define social relations more generally.

One of the aspects of British culture most striking to the newcomer is British humour, which has, for the most part, the following two components: references to bodily function, including to sexual function; and silliness. The archetypal humourous moment occurs when your friend's dad rises from the dinner table, says something like: "Wee willy needs a wonking...," and exits to the bathroom, to delighted giggles from the home crowd. The newcomer is inevitably nonplussed; both the content and the style of this humour is, to her, quintessentially childish, combining the slightly-hysterical lack of wit and the slightly-knowing reference to body parts that are the lot, in other societies, of some older children during some few short years. 

But this characteristically British humour can be understood with reference to two further aspects of British culture that are striking to the newcomer. 

The first is British sex, which has at least the following components. First: an excessive directness of approach; none of those roundabout, ritualistic we-really-shouldn'ts, so fundamental for example to Catholic societies as actually to constitute sex in those societies, but instead a kind of get-your-kit-off-then lack of ceremony, a sort of lewd innocence, without sidestep or byroad. Sex, like other bodily functions, does not seem off-limits or private. Second, and clearly related: an all-pervasive infantilism. There is a disconcerting sense to the newcomer, of British families that are at once rather indifferent to each other and rather besotted with each other, at once lacking in family feeling and brimming with, well, sexual tension. Perhaps because parents seem to live somewhat separate lives - he watches the football; she Facebooks her friends - and lack a certain investment in each other, children are made to provide much of the sexual satisfaction available in British family life. With the result that there seems little content to adult sexuality, nothing for adults to grow into. This is most painfully evident in those who ought to be growing fast, in young men and women, no longer children themselves and with no children yet to focus upon. Young women of twenty, who we might think ought to be in the first full flush of sexual awareness, dress and demean themselves like ten-year-old girls, shuffling about in great sheepskin slippers, in leggings through which their undergarments are unconsciously to be seen, with hair and coffee cups and satchels and cardigans big enough to make them appear even more diminutive than their demeanor would suggest (they are often not diminutive in fact, heavier now than young women ever were). As for young men: it is hardly a coincidence that the urchin rent-boy look is more prevalent here than almost anywhere else in the world, done either for the office (suit that looks two sizes too small, long pointed shoes as if they're Dad's) or for the street (pipe-cleaner jeans worn a long, long way below the waist and hair tousled carefully in front of the face).  

The other aspect of British culture of relevance to understanding British humour is: British reserve, the total and utter formalization of almost all of social encounter; the absence of spontaneity, of banter, of anything like conversation except in the most rarefied and self-consciously "intellectual" of environments (where conversation tends to be dull). Nothing must stray from the path laid out for it; service at the supermarket is very polite and very efficient, but it does not expect to hear or to say the unexpected.

Now, this last aspect of British culture, British reserve, would seem to be in conflict with at least the directness of British sex. But it is not. And not for the reason that Foucault gives for why the reserve of Victorian culture was not in conflict with the proliferation, during Victorian times, of categories, investigations, analyses and practices of sex. Foucault's question is: why, during an age which is associated most with prudery about the body generally and about sex in particular, was there such an explosion of ways of knowing about sex; why, when you weren't supposed to talk about it, was there so much being said? The answer Foucault gives is that knowing and doing are not necessarily liberatory, nor are not knowing and not doing necessarily prohibitive. The explosion of knowledge about sex and the explosion of sex followed from all of the ways in which people were put under surveillance to make sure they did not know about or have sex, just as the increase in knowledge about sex and in sex generated whole new categories of how not to know about or to have sex. Knowledge and power; licentious prohibition, prohibitive licentiousness. 

Now, to anyone from a Catholic country, as Foucault was, this Victorian society sounds familiar; indeed, to the extent that it began to employ the practice of confession (the "talking cure" is its secular equivalent), very very familiar indeed... 

But this is not how British reserve is related to British sex. Because the fact is that there is no relation between British reserve and British sex, except that where there is reserve there is no sex, and where there is sex there is no reserve. Or, we might say, where there are "adults" present, there is no sex; and where there is sex, there are no "adults" present. As for British humour (and British light entertainment, perhaps) that is what prevents the situation from imploding, by operating as a comforting reminder, when there are "adults" present, that the Queen's just "Cabbage," the BBC's just "Auntie," and we'll all be allowed out to play sometime very soon...

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