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….