The System Loves Subversion

In a recent interview in Toronto’s weekly entertainment paper, the cult-turned-mainstream filmmaker John Waters lauded the latest Jackass film for its anarchic disregard for standards (“Dirty Waters” in Now Magazine, Oct 21-27, 2010). He is quoted as seeing in the success and wide distribution of the Jackass movies a popularization of the type of transgression once limited to avant-guard arthouse cinema:

Last night I saw a blue-collar audience, sold out; guys with their kids watch a pig eat an apple out of another man’s asshole. And I thought–huh? How do they get away with it? And they do get away with it, in a great way. It’s really anarchy.

The interviewer then asks whether this is not a lowering of standards, to which Waters replies “There are no standards. And that’s the point.” Apart from the standardized format of this exchange, in which the media interviewer plays the role of the mildly scandalized, voice of reason to which the outlandish interviewee replies with a diabolical rejoinder aimed at subverting his interlocutor’s conservative sentiment, the logic behind Waters’ championing subversion actually works to uphold the very standards he dismisses. The reason the producers of Jackass can “get away with it” is because their films are not truly subversive, but rather offer a cathartic release that serves to strengthen the standards they purport to overturn.

Jackass-style shock humour, an early example of which can be found in Tom Green’s public-access cable show from the nineties, works precisely because there are standards which these comedians can overturn and exploit. The fun in Tom Green having a pornographic picture airbrushed on the hood of his parent’s car lies in the fact that this act flaunts the staid, workaday order of respectable society. The audience can indulge an adolescent thrill in overturning social norms and expectations, but the reason this kind of humour contains an affective charge that can have popular appeal is precisely because these norms and standards are so pervasive.

If there actually were no standards, as Waters suggests, this form of humour simply would not work. The question is whether or not these type of carnivalesque inversions actually support the very structures they pretend to subvert, temporarily suspending them only to make them all the more entrenched when the momentary thrill of escaping the established order wears off. The mutually supportive relationship between transgression and repressive order is the secret hinge that allows so much allegedly subversive popular culture to be tolerated and even encouraged by the modern culture industry.

As Foucault’s anti-repressive hypothesis suggests, modern systems of social control operate within a permissive and productive, rather than a repressive framework. The repressive element enters in when we try to consider the types of truly oppositional actions that the sensationalist pseudo-subversions of popular culture effectively trivialize and preempt. John Waters is right to this extent: the antics of the Jackass crew are a popularized incorporation of the types of shock tactics developed by avant-guard artists, though I would look back to such innovators as the dadaists and surrealists rather than 70s trash films. By lacing surreal, interventionist imagery with a generous dose of sadomasochistic humiliation and macho fraternity antics, the Jackass films subvert subversion, reclaiming it for a social order based on power and domination.

But can we locate the initial kernel of resistance that lies buried in the incorporated form of guerrilla humour exhibited by the Jackass films? The genius inherent in some of Tom Green’s skits lies in his ability to use sensational disruptions of the everyday order to point out the urecognized absurdity of this order. To this extent, his best work is in the lineage of great modern art like the surrealists or the films of Chaplin where a character’s lack of fit with the social order brings out its inherent contradictions. With this in mind, I would offer one of my favourite Tom Green pieces…

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