Wendy Steiner: The Scandal of Pleasure – Art in an Age of Fundamentalism (The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1995) The Scandal of Pleasure was published six years before Venus in Exile, and I probably should have read it before lighting into the latter book. Not that it would have changed the content of what I said, but it might have muted my tone. For The Scandal of Pleasure takes the most praiseworthy of moral positions regarding much of the nonsense that occurred in the decade or so before the book appeared, constituting thereby a suitable and much needed companion from within the literary and artistic establishment to the legal writings of Ronald Dworkin, Nadine Strossen and Ruwen Ogien as well as to the first person narratives of Larry Flynt, Philip Harvey and Marty Klein. Steiner and her publishers deserve praise for publishing the controversial Mapplethorpe photos (though she chose only the most anodyne of Sally Mann's and none at all from Jock Sturges) and retelling the controversial passages from The Satanic Verses. On the other hand, the best support could be energetic critical interaction and my interaction with Venus in Exile was nothing if not energetic.
Steiner addresses a number of events and issues that require extended treatment and comparison with other commentators - such is their importance. For that reason I shall deal with them separately. But Steiner will be much cited and deservedly so though not always in praise.
Let me just make two quick points here.
First in the years since the appearance of The Scandal of Pleasure, many of the disturbing fundamentalist campaigns she describes have backfired and the forces behind them have been more or less muzzled. Heidegger's influence in the United States at least is probably as great if not greater than it ever has been due in part to the efforts of Richard Rorty and others. Mapplethorpe's imagery is everywhere and has come to appear as quite a normal part of our sexuality. Indeed it is almost reticent compared to the work of Tony Ward and the videographers and performers exhibiting on sites like kink.com. The most memorable outcome of the MacDworkin fiasco is the confiscation of their oeuvre by the Canadian police and the emergence of Montreal as a center of porn production (although the lesbo left, as Margaret Atwood so presciently predicted would happen, has morphed into the Ladies’ Auxiliary of the Xtian Right, serving tea and placentas while the men folk discuss the serious issues of the day like how to get around the Bill of Rights, and remains one of the most serious dangers in American society). The Mohammedans overstepped themselves by attacking the continental United States and as a result two of their countries have been all but obliterated and turned into quasi American colonies. (Likewise Mohammedanism is not down for the count. It is the international equivalent of the Xtian right - a continuing threat to freedom. I have no doubt that it is now incumbent upon intellectuals of free societies to undertake a new Crusade, recapture the Jerusalem of the mind and so free the Arabs and other ethnicities from their enslavement to that hateful camel religion.) Did Steiner contribute to this fortunate turn? One would like to think so. But the real hero of this provisional somewhat happy ending is the internet and the joyful uninhibitedness of its billions of users, including, I might add, thousands of oppressed secular Arabs. (Furious efforts are of course underway on the part of the forces of repression – mullahs, moral majorities, communists, bottom liners - to do to the internet what they did to cable teevee, i.e. turn it into the preserve of a few media giants all offering the same mind numbing παίγνια, combined in the case of the internet with a glorified phone book. Let’s hope that, like its distinguished ancestor the printing press, the internet will outwit the enemies of free speech and their efforts to ban content or make it for all practical purposes inaccessible.) An essay on the subject would of course be entitled "The Work of Art in the Age of Electronic Transmission" and I may write it someday.
Secondly, Steiner shows the same dependence on secondary source material that was her undoing in Venus in Exile. Well, maybe the history of anything before 1980 isn't her strong suit, and the shakiness of her sources for The Scandal of Pleasure is not quite as distressing since she is dealing with issues and events roughly contemporaneous with her writing such that journalism is in some ways primary source material. It only really becomes a problem in the section on Heidegger where Steiner as well as her sources are in way over their heads by attempting a journalistic treatment of a complex philosophical corpus. She’s on safer ground with De Man who at least practiced the same academic specialty. Speaking of De Man I too remember him as a remarkably considerate and conscientious teacher who took the trouble to read with care the rubbish produced by a dimwit Yale junior - a racial minority to boot - and eventually nominated me, unsuccessfully as it turned out (Their fault not his), to the Harvard Society of Fellows. As far as his sins are concerned, the one that is truly serious is the anti-Semitic article. Although, as Steiner observes, the anti-Jewish remarks are not on the level of the nauseating utterances of Pound or Eliot or the truly awful collaboration of Heidegger, nevertheless any racism is unconscionable. Perhaps De Man should have admitted to his past: “I did something wrong and there is no excuse. The only explanation I can offer would be the potential consequences for anyone under suspicion during the Nazi occupation.??? As far as the rest is concerned, the people who should be punished are the jerks who invaded his privacy. So he boffed a couple of babes and dodged the rent à la cloche de bois. Big fuckin’ deal. Gingrich did worse and he ran for President. And what’s worse, De Man skipping out on the rent or Ivy league universities discriminating against Asian applicants? If De Man’s deeds merit punishment, half the country would be in jail. Personally speaking, I’m capable of causing more mayhem in a single week than De Man did during his entire time in the US.