Clarification of my relationship with Zero Books

Since Angela Nagle, author of the Zero Books title Kill All Normies, has begun writing anti-immigration columns in pro-Trump publications, I thought it would be helpful to clarify my relationship with that imprint. Long story short, there was a complete and total turnover of editorial staff while Creepiness was in production. The new leadership obviously did not share the same values or editorial standards as the founders, as shown by the fact that they didn’t just publish Nagle’s deeply flawed, partially plagiarized book — they publicized it intensively. At the same time, they left “orphaned” authors like me to languish, even though I had already provided two of their previous bestsellers.

I had to do my own publicity for years, with very limited success, because I was told that they had no resources. So to see them finally put some effort into marketing for such a deeply questionable book was infuriating. Meanwhile, the New Yorker had requested a review copy of Creepiness and COULDN’T GET AN ANSWER from the publisher. They ignored a request from the New Yorker! I had to personally send them one of my author copies. When I complained about this situation, the new editor — who is now on record as saying that they don’t do editing and hence Nagle’s plagiarism is fine — offered to make it up to me by hooking me up with a podcast interview with a little-known Zero author. I declined.

So if anyone wants to paint me with a guilt-by-association brush here — you have your answer. They disowned me completely before I even realized what was happening.

Louis CK bent over backwards to tell us he was a creep

[Note: This is an excerpt from my book Creepiness, available wherever fine books are sold. I post it now mainly because I have been tempted to write something in response to the revelations about Louis C.K.’s sexual misconduct, but realize I would not say anything I didn’t already say in this analysis.]

Louie has become known for stretching the boundaries of the sitcom format, telling stories of widely differing length and tone. In a given episode, one could just as easily see a series of short sketches or a segment from a multi-episode arc—or some combination of the two. This bold experimentation gave Louis C.K. a reputation as a true sitcom auteur, and by the time the show reached its third season, there was an emerging critical consensus that Louie was on pace to become one of the greatest sitcoms of all time. The cultural critic Chuck Klosterman even went so far as to claim that watching Louis C.K. hit his stride showed us what it must have felt like to witness the Beatles’ greatest achievements as they unfolded in real time. Truly, the man could do no wrong.

Hence all indications pointed toward the fourth season being an utter train wreck of narcissistic self-indulgence—and yet even the most pessimistic critic could not have predicted how bad it actually turned out to be in practice. Continue reading “Louis CK bent over backwards to tell us he was a creep”

Sculpture and the Uncanny Valley

Bernini, Rape of Proserpina (detail)
In this era of increasingly accurate 3D computer imagery, animators have come up against a problem known as the “uncanny valley” — after a certain point, the closer to accurate 3D imagery is, the creepier it becomes. The reason that it’s a “valley” is that it’s assumed that once we hit on absolute accuracy, it will no longer be creepy. I believe that assumption is unfounded. If we hit absolute accuracy, we would also hit the level of absolute creepiness. Human culture may never recover.

Humanity was in danger of hitting this uncanny point of horror at once before, during the Renaissance. At that time, painters and sculptors strove for the greatest possible accuracy, and the results are often startling, especially in the case of sculpture. Close-ups of familiar pieces like Michelangelo’s David reveal detail that is almost literally unbelievable.

Now for contemporary viewers, it’s the most natural thing in the world that all those sculptures are unpainted. Yet it’s now known that the reason for this is a historical accident. The Greeks and Romans painted their sculptures, but after many centuries, there was no apparent evidence of this fact. The Renaissance sculptors, in their passion to imitate classical models, thus left their sculptures unpainted.

There’s a certain irony in this fact, but there is also a saving grace — for imagine what would have happened if the Renaissance artists, with their passion for absolute imitation of nature, had actually combined sculpture and painting. A version of Michelangelo’s David that was painted as accurately as it is sculpted would, I submit, be utterly unbearable to look at. It would be too real. Only the abstraction of color allows the accuracy of the sculpture to provoke wonder rather than horror.

My proof for this is Bernini’s Rape of Proserpina, where the absolute accuracy of the form is so extreme that it can, at least for some viewers, overwhelm the abstraction from color and cross deeply into the uncanny valley. Where Pluto’s fingers touch her thigh, we believe we see real flesh, and the effect can either be appreciative disbelief — or revulsion.

Creepiness: This is happening, people

After many years of joking about the project and gradually taking the idea more seriously, this morning I finished a full draft of Creepiness, the final volume of my study of negative character traits in popular culture. Although I still need to make a formal proposal, I have the go-ahead from Zero Books. With any luck, it should be out late this year or early next year.

One discovery I made as I worked through the idea for this book is that all along, my trilogy has been a kind of internal critique of straight white male popular culture. In this volume, that theme is more explicit, as I claim that the crisis of white masculinity provides a privileged window into the creepiness that underlies — and constantly threatens to undermine — every social order.

At the Birkbeck conference, Zizek told me that I need to decide whether I’m a theologian who does cultural criticism on the side or a cultural critic with a background in theology. By number of books, Creepiness will tip the balance toward the latter, though by page count, the former is still winning out. If all goes well, this should clear the decks for me to complete an even longer-promised project, which I’m tentatively entitling The Prince of This World: Toward a Political Theology of the Devil — or at the very least, I will be able to contractually obligate myself to complete that project before the conclusion of Mad Men makes a book on the show too tempting to resist….

Creepiness as an aesthetic judgment

[The following is a segment from a draft introduction for Creepiness, which did not seem to fit very well with the rest of the argument.]

Anyone who undertakes to define creepiness faces seemingly insuperable obstacles. How can we define a concept that can include such heterogeneous examples? We might be tempted to say that any quest for a unifying concept is doomed to fail, that creepiness simply has many different definitions. Yet there is a problem here as well, because creepiness cannot be easily replaced by other descriptors. If we were to call any of these examples anything other than “creepy,” something would be missing. For instance, we might call the sleazy attempted seducer pathetic, but that is something very different from being creepy. Similarly, we might call him threatening, but that misses the mark in the other direction. We may get the sense that the sleazy guy is not above resorting to a date-rape drug, but if he actually did so, he would no longer be merely a creep—he would be a criminal.

We might not be able to say what creepiness is, but we somehow sense that when something is creepy, it is very emphatically and precisely creepy—no other word will do. Indeed, if the phenomenon in question can be plausibly described by another word, that in itself disqualifies it as being properly creepy.

I have initiated many conversations about creepiness over the years, and each one confirmed this basic point. Though my attempted definitions of creepiness were always rejected out of hand, each group—whether I was out for drinks with a friend or at a dinner party, whether I was among academic colleagues or students or strangers—could identify creepiness with confidence. It was as though creepiness, while undeniably a subjective reaction, was nonetheless something objective. The structure is similar to Kant’s notion of an aesthetic judgment. When we judge something to be beautiful, we are not doing the same kind of thing as when we determine something to be triangular or wooden. We aren’t applying an objective standard or concept, but making a subjective judgment, a judgment about how something makes us feel—and yet this judgment is one that we expect other rational people to share. It is, so to speak, objectively subjective.

It may seem strange to extend this structure to cover the creepy, but Sianne Ngai has recently argued that we need to expand our aesthetic vocabulary beyond the region of the beautiful. In Our Aesthetic Categories (2012), she puts forward the categories of the zany, the cute, and the interesting, and I’d like to add an example that is closer to the familiar ballpark of beauty: namely, the tacky. When we judge something to be tacky, we aren’t simply calling it ugly, or garish, or unstylish. We are calling it precisely tacky. The quality of tackiness cannot be fully described but can be confidently identified—it is not an objective category, but an objectively subjective judgment.

Ngai’s goal in designating “our” aesthetic categories is not simply to enlarge our vocabulary for its own sake, but to help aesthetics take into account things like history and class and power. We can say the same of tackiness, a judgment that is always time-bound and caught up in the dynamics of class and class-aspiration. Something can be the peak of fashion one day and a tacky faux pas the next. What’s more, the same basic type of object can have a stylish and a tacky version, with the latter usually associated with the lower classes. For the wealthy and upwardly mobile, there are dark slim-cut jeans, while the lower classes wallow in their tacky “dad jeans”—and perhaps by the time this comes to print, the fashion-forward will have embraced “dad jeans,” rendering dark slim-cut jeans a tacky imposture.

Power dynamics are certainly at work in judgments of creepiness as well. Think of the creepiness of the stereotypical “redneck,” skinny and gawky (or repulsively obese) with a mouth full of crooked teeth, always living under a cloud of suspicion for insufficient exogamy. This judgment of creepiness goes hand in hand with the broader desire of many American elites to disown white working class and rural populations.

[And here the abandoned segment joins up with more usable fragments….]