Toward a New Urban Decadence

(This article was first published in the GC Advocate  in March 2008)

brucebenderson

  • Sex & Iso­la­tion: And Other Essays by Bruce Ben­der­son. U. of Wis­con­sin Press, 2007, 208pp.

These are inter­est­ing times for queer pol­i­tics. Next year will mark the 40th anniver­sary of the Stonewall Riots. In the time before non-discrimination laws, LGBT stud­ies pro­grams, and cor­po­rate spon­sored gay pride parades, liv­ing as an openly gay per­son required a life of uncom­mon courage, intel­li­gence, and for­ti­tude. These days one comes out of the closet armed to the teeth with ready-made polit­i­cal slo­gans and sup­port sys­tems. The activism of the Gay Lib­er­a­tion Front has been replaced with Broke­back Moun­tain and the LOGO chan­nel. While the far left­ists among us are loathe to admit it, the preva­lence of main­stream gay vis­i­bil­ity is progress of a sort. Now gay peo­ple have the priv­i­lege of being as dull and slow as the rest of the Amer­i­can pop­u­lace. But in the age of Project Run­way, what’s a sex rad­i­cal to do? Bruce Ben­der­son, for one, thumbs his nose at the sort of bour­geois iden­tity pol­i­tics behind all the niche mar­ket­ing and the fee­ble ges­tures toward inclu­sive­ness spouted by Amer­i­can politi­cians on the cam­paign trail. As he writes in Sex and Iso­la­tion, “whether a par­tic­u­lar voice of today’s ‘mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism’ has a black face, a woman’s face, a gay face or a working-class face is now beside the point. All speak the lan­guage of the well fed.”

I first heard of Bruce Ben­der­son here at the Grad­u­ate Cen­ter, appro­pri­ately enough. He was a nom­i­nee at the 2005 Lambda Lit­er­ary Awards hosted at the GC by The Cen­ter for Les­bian and Gay Stud­ies. I later rec­og­nized his name in the ded­i­ca­tion to Samuel R. Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999) and hunted down some of Benderson’s own writ­ing about Times Square – includ­ing the short story col­lec­tion Pre­tend­ing to Say No (1990) and the novel User (1994). Read­ers famil­iar with Times Square Red, Times Square Blue and Delany’s argu­ment about the dis­so­lu­tion of pub­lic space and inter­class con­tact in post-Giuliani New York will find sim­i­lar ideas in Bruce Benderson’s writ­ing. Benderson’s world is one pop­u­lated by out­casts and icon­o­clasts of all sorts, whether they be down and out drug-using hus­tlers, or obscure artists and intel­lec­tu­als. He often writes of his sex­ual exploits with young men from the under­classes here in Amer­ica and abroad, many of whom eschew self-identifying as gay or bisex­ual. His 2006 erotic mem­oir The Roman­ian: Story of an Obses­sion, tells of his trav­els in Europe begin­ning in Budapest where he was sent on assign­ment by Nerve.com to write an arti­cle about broth­els. Ben­der­son even­tu­ally takes up with a young Roman­ian hus­tler, and The Roman­ian tells the story of their jaunts together in Europe, with Ben­der­son weav­ing in his tren­chant obser­va­tions on sex, lust, love, and his­tory. His lat­est book, Sex & Iso­la­tion: and Other Essays, brings together some of his pre­vi­ously pub­lished essays, includ­ing sev­eral that were only pub­lished in France.

The essays in Sex and Iso­la­tion con­tain an intrigu­ing mix of mem­oir, soci­o­log­i­cal obser­va­tion, and cul­tural crit­i­cism. The col­lec­tion is anchored by two major essays, the tit­u­lar “Sex and Iso­la­tion,” and “Toward the New Degen­er­acy,” a some­what pop­u­lar essay pub­lished first in French, and now avail­able in the U.S. for the first time. (It was an excerpted online ver­sion of the lat­ter essay titled “The New Degen­er­ate Nar­ra­tive” which piqued my inter­est in get­ting my hands on Sex and Iso­la­tion.) The two essays com­ple­ment each other well. “Sex and Iso­la­tion” explores the changes wrought by the tri­umph of neo-liberalism and its ide­ol­ogy of favor­ing the “safety” of the pri­vate sphere over the “dan­ger” of the pub­lic. “Toward the New Degen­er­acy” exam­ines how the artist can make some inter­ven­tion in the midst of this pre­vail­ing ide­ol­ogy. It is a pro­posal for how the next gen­er­a­tion of cre­ative artists might break through this vicious rhetoric of safety and secu­rity to cre­ate vibrant and trans­for­ma­tive cul­tural work.

“Sex and Iso­la­tion” (the essay) ties together sev­eral defin­i­tive mark­ers of our times: the rise of the infor­ma­tion age, the decline of urban pub­lic space, the rhetoric of the bour­geois fam­ily (ema­nat­ing from Left and Right), and the ever-growing hys­te­ria over children’s sex­u­al­ity. In Fou­cauldian fash­ion, Ben­der­son sees these phe­nom­ena not as mat­ters of increas­ing repres­sion, but as mat­ters of dis­clo­sure. He describes dis­clo­sure as a Protes­tant Chris­t­ian mode of con­fes­sion that insists upon the impor­tance and sanc­tity of reveal­ing the secret life, and he stresses that this is dis­tinctly dif­fer­ent from the Catholic ver­sion of con­fes­sion. “Thus secret spaces, com­men­su­rate with urban space and ado­les­cent sex­ual exper­i­ments, are dis­ap­pear­ing to make room for a new, mind­less kind of trans­parency.” I can’t say the dis­clo­sure dis­tinc­tion is entirely clear and valid, but it is a provoca­tive one. It cer­tainly helps to make sense of all those sub­ur­ban mar­ried cou­ples on Oprah con­fess­ing about their elicit affairs. Their vac­u­ous emo­tional exhi­bi­tion­ism seems to have no real pur­pose and make no real dif­fer­ence in the world save for keep­ing Oprah’s self-help indus­try hum­ming along.

Like Delany, Ben­der­son was a fre­quent vis­i­tor to (and care­ful observer of) the old Times Square, a libidi­nous play­ground with its hus­tler bars, peep shows, and porn the­aters. “Sex and Iso­la­tion” begins with Ben­der­son not out in the streets of Man­hat­tan, but securely in his apart­ment sit­ting in front of his com­puter screen in a web­cam ses­sion with an anony­mous young man from Egypt. Ben­der­son calls atten­tion to the shift in loca­tion. He’d rather be out in the streets. While the Inter­net makes such improb­a­ble con­nec­tions pos­si­ble, this form of dis­tant, medi­ated elec­tronic inter­ac­tion pales in com­par­i­son to the phys­i­cal sen­su­al­ity of cruis­ing the streets. About the demise of the old Times Square Ben­der­son writes, “It wasn’t so much the assault on eroti­cism in New York as the new pro­hi­bi­tion against inter­class inter­ac­tion that really depressed me.” His obser­va­tion is timely, with rapid overde­vel­op­ment and gen­tri­fi­ca­tion con­tin­u­ing in New York unabated.

In “Toward the New Degen­er­acy,” Ben­der­son draws on the work of sev­eral icon­o­clas­tic thinkers to make sense of the cur­rent cul­tural moment at the begin­ning of the 21st cen­tury, and also to make some propo­si­tions about how to infuse this moment with new cul­tural vital­ity. The title of the piece alludes to an 1892 book titled Degen­er­acy writ­ten by Max Nor­dau, a Jew­ish Hun­gar­ian jour­nal­ist who saw the coun­ter­cul­tural lifestyle as patho­log­i­cal. One of the epigraphs of the essay is taken from Nor­dau: “Degen­er­ates are not always crim­i­nals, pros­ti­tutes, anar­chists, and pro­nounced lunatics; they are often authors and artists.” Ben­der­son finds in Nordau’s the­o­ries of degen­er­acy some unset­tling sim­i­lar­i­ties to the rhetoric of con­tem­po­rary middle-class lib­eral val­ues, par­tic­u­larly in the empha­sis on clean liv­ing, indi­vid­ual moral upright­ness, and acces­si­ble art for the masses. In mak­ing the con­nec­tion to Nordau’s the­o­ries Ben­der­son reveals the con­tem­po­rary middle-class lib­eral — with her yoga classes, organic foods, fas­tid­i­ous exer­cise reg­i­ments, and absti­nence from tobacco and alco­hol — as a closet Puritan.

In fact, Ben­der­son goes on to argue that the self-preservationism among America’s cen­trist lib­er­als is a direct out­growth of the ‘60s coun­ter­cul­ture. The usual nos­tal­gic lamen­ta­tion about the hip­pie mov­ment is that it was viciously hijacked by a cor­po­rate machine all too will­ing to co-opt any­thing it deems com­mer­cially viable. But Ben­der­son per­sua­sively argues that these puri­tan­i­cal ten­den­cies come from a built-in flaw in the polit­i­cal logic of ‘60s rad­i­cal­ism itself. While he is him­self a mem­ber of the boomer gen­er­a­tion, Ben­der­son makes it clear that his polit­i­cal and intel­lec­tual alle­giance is to the urban deca­dence of the ‘40s and ‘50s hip­sters rather than to the rural com­mune utopia of the ‘60s hip­pies. “Unlike the Beats whose philo­soph­i­cal tone was col­ored by Euro­pean café exis­ten­tial­ism and by the old dichotomy between the avant-garde and the bour­geoisie, the hip­pies of the six­ties believed that heavy intel­lec­tu­al­iz­ing ham­pered cre­ative and spon­ta­neous behav­ior and that art sprang from the pop­u­lar cul­ture that they already liked.”

Few peo­ple the­o­rized the lifestyle of the hip­ster bet­ter than the late Nor­man Mailer in “The White Negro.” (Mailer passed away in Novem­ber 2007.) Ben­der­son boldly draws on and defends Mailer whose work is still a light­ning rod, par­tic­u­larly among black stud­ies schol­ars. Like Mailer, Ben­der­son dares to sug­gest that there is such a thing as a cul­ture of poverty, that life among the under­class is strik­ingly dif­fer­ent from life in the more com­fort­able classes. This is inten­tional sac­ri­lege. Left lean­ing soci­ol­o­gists have spent many years and research dol­lars com­bat­ing this kind of talk. Ben­der­son also enlists the work of Oscar Lewis who wrote La Vida: A Puerto Rican fam­ily in the Cul­ture of Poverty San Juan and New York. (1966), a lit­tle known work not read much now out­side of the cir­cle of aca­d­e­mic soci­ol­ogy. To be fair, there are many rea­sons to reject this cul­ture of poverty posi­tion. More often than not cul­ture of poverty argu­ments have been used by social con­ser­v­a­tives to blame the poor for the own fail­ings, to dis­man­tle state-funded pro­grams and pri­va­tize pretty much every­thing includ­ing the schools and the prison sys­tems. How­ever, Ben­der­son argues that Lewis merely pointed out that “eco­nom­ics and polit­i­cal con­trol could cre­ate a last­ing, uni­form, inher­ited cul­ture that was even more pow­er­ful than inher­ited eth­nic­ity.” There’s a way in which such argu­ments could actu­ally dis­man­tle the racial­ist (and racist) logic of pathol­ogy argu­ments. Fur­ther, Lewis and Mailer auda­ciously sug­gested that there were pos­i­tive aspects to the cul­ture of poverty, traits that made it more humane than life in the middle-classes, namely “the sen­su­al­ity, spon­tane­ity, sense of adven­ture, and indul­gence of impulses that come from liv­ing in the present time.”

I can’t say I’m on board with all of this. There is cer­tainly a long tra­di­tion of the artist roman­ti­ciz­ing the lives of the irre­deemable, rebel­lious out­sider. The prob­lem with such a par­a­digm is that the artists roman­ti­cize rebel­lious­ness so much that any­one from the under­class who might have intel­lec­tual or artis­tic aspi­ra­tions and the dis­ci­pline required to pro­duce cre­ative work of their own is always ren­dered “inau­then­tic.” Fur­ther­more, con­tem­po­rary gangsta rap has cer­tainly shown that a sup­pos­edly oppo­si­tional urban cul­ture can eas­ily rein­force dom­i­nant bour­geois val­ues of mate­ri­al­ism and individuality.

Among the other high­lights in Sex and Iso­la­tion is “The Spi­der Woman’s Mother,” a mov­ing remem­brance of Manuel Puig, the Argen­tinean author of Kiss of the Spi­der Woman. Puig was a close friend of Benderson’s and stayed in his apart­ment dur­ing vis­its to New York. There’s also “America’s New Net­work­ers,” a hilar­i­ous satir­i­cal tale about a social climb­ing young musi­cian who comes to Ben­der­son to look for con­tacts to mar­ket his mediocre CDs. (Bruce is an “estab­lished” writer of course so the kid fig­ures he must know some peo­ple who can help him.) Ben­der­son uses the story to unleash a relent­less tirade on the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of young artists, weaned on media and adver­tis­ing, who have turned shame­less self-promotion into a way of life. I find Benderson’s obser­va­tions par­tic­u­larly pre­scient given the rise of a new cul­ture bear­ing the name “hip­ster.” This new gen­er­a­tion, raised under an unprece­dented sat­u­ra­tion of mass media, has per­fected the look and arti­fice of rebel­lion. All the while they have spurred on the most vig­or­ous era of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion and class strat­i­fi­ca­tion this city has ever seen. He nails the zeit­geist of this vapid con­tem­po­rary hip­ster cul­ture when he writes: “All you baby net­work­ers are hip to the value of the seduc­tive, sleazy come-on. If you’ve mas­tered any art to per­fec­tion, it’s how to project flir­ta­tion with­out ever delivering.”

Ben­der­son is clearly drawn to sto­ries about can­des­cent and con­tra­dic­tory larger than life fig­ures, like Puig, or the infa­mous boxer Emile Grif­fith (who Ben­der­son knew from the seedy Times Square bars) or drag per­former Con­suela Cos­metic (the sub­ject of one essay here about a film doc­u­ment­ing the last days of her life). Like the sub­jects and char­ac­ters he writes about Ben­der­son is him­self full of con­tra­dic­tion. There is no short­age of bour­geois artists who have gone slum­ming for ideas or inspi­ra­tion, try­ing to invig­o­rate their work with the vital­ity of the under­class. But to his credit he is unapolo­getic about the incon­gruities, and is will­ing to cop to his own some­times unflat­ter­ing desires and moti­va­tions. His writ­ing directly addresses this ten­sion between his own mid­dle class upbring­ing in upstate New York, and the life he now leads as a cool, cos­mopoli­tan urban flâneur in New York and Paris. In the fore­word to Sex and Iso­la­tion Cather­ine Tex­ier locates Ben­der­son in the tra­di­tion of the “bohemian bour­geois,” nam­ing Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, and Paul Bowles among his antecedents. Benderson’s writ­ing is the wrong place to look if you want any­thing like pub­lic pol­icy or rigid polit­i­cal pro­grams aimed at cur­ing social ills. How­ever, this col­lec­tion is full of valu­able and provoca­tive obser­va­tions about the coun­try and soci­ety that we are becoming.

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