I’m about to talk about feelings. So, if you don’t like to talk about feelings, read something else.
OK. So, I really don’t have anything to say about Spring Breakers. I haven’t seen it. I’ve even tried to avoid thinking about it. But today, I let myself follow a link in an email from the Daily Beast to this piece, which includes a short debate, between Marlow Stern and Ramin Setoodeh, about the relative merits and demerits of the film. Their debate didn’t actually make me more interested in the film. Instead, what interested me was how Stern characterized Harmony Korine’s approach to filmmaking as contemptuous. He betrays a kind of contempt for the viewer. Setoodeh confessed that this contempt—which apparently oozes through the medium of the film and into the emotional world of the viewer—is precisely what he hated about the film. He seemed to be meeting Korine’s contempt, and matching it. Stern, on the other hand, seemed unperturbed by it. The overall aesthetic effect of the film was pleasing enough that he didn’t mind being treated contemptuously. I have to admit, I admire Stern’s cool remove and sense of blase. I find contempt the most difficult of all affects to deal with and I felt an immediate emotional solidarity with Setoodeh.
It made me think of my intense and groundless hatred of David Lynch’s films. I have nothing of real substance to say about his work. I never had much of a problem with Twin Peaks. I didn’t love it. But I was able to tolerate it. I recognized its merits. Mulholland Drive, on the other hand, left me feeling so emotionally violated that I’ve had to excise myself from discussions of it on more than one occasion because I simply end up churning out flimsy and unfounded criticisms. Sure, I can see its beauty. I’m just entirely incapable of dealing with Lynch’s manipulation of me, and contempt for me. For me as the generic “viewer.” Yes, I take it personally. It does something totally undesirable to my emotional world that I feel it necessary to deflect.
Look, I recognize that contempt is merely one human affective state among a host of affective possibilities. Years ago, I read Stuart Walton’s A Natural History of Human Emotions and found his parsing of disgust and contempt helpful. Disgust, as he described it, hovers somewhere between an emotion and a simple physiological reaction. Disgust is, he says, “a visceral, corporeal reaction to negative external stimuli.” (87) I understand disgust. I often feel disgusted. When I become aware of something that disgusts me, I test myself to see if I can resist that disgust (incidentally, for those who don’t know, there’s been a lot of talk about the possible correlation of disgust sensitivity and conservative politics). Contempt, as Walton describes it, is a bit more refined and subtle. To treat someone with contempt, he says, “is to regard them with scorn, and at the same time hardly to regard them at all.” Contempt oscillates “between a desire to ignore the offending individual, and the desire to make it plain to him how worthless he is.” (207) Where disgust is something that betrays the body’s own limits, contempt is more like a relational engineering tactic. After reading Walton’s book, I recall coming to the conclusion that I saw a viable place for every emotion he discussed—disgust, anger, whatever—except for contempt. I still couldn’t quite grasp contempt. I couldn’t see clearly enough what function it served. I couldn’t make any sense of its function in the ecology of human emotions. I wanted contempt to disappear.
I won’t pretend that I’ve never treated anyone with contempt—as if I am somehow mystified by contempt because I’ve just never embodied it, or experienced it. I am probably ignorant of my own displays of contemptuousness. Perhaps they are myriad. I’m not discounting that possibility. I am simply confused by its function. The experience of disgust does something real in the body. Letting a shudder of disgust pass through me gives the illusion of some kind of cleansing: the illusion of purity. The experience of anger does something else, but it also allows for a critical kind of release. When anger bursts an emotional state open, the emotions are often left there—opened, more vulnerable, ready for some kind of reconstrual. It seems to me that contempt’s function is more superfluous, more superficial. By using language, and the body, to make another body feel worthless and ignored, contempt serves to lift the contemptuous person up. But this is such a trivial and fragile leap. If given the conscious choice, how many people would choose to lift themselves up onto a throne of worthlessness?
Am I missing something about contempt? Have I gotten it entirely wrong? Help me with this. Change my mind about contempt. Really, I wouldn’t mind thinking differently about contempt. Because I am convinced that we are living not in the age of irony, but in the age of contempt. Often, what passes for irony might otherwise be called a performance of contempt. It’s everywhere. It’s layered into the tone of critique and commentary, sustaining its very cleverness. Contempt is just under the surface of almost everything I read in the blogosphere. It appears in little bursts in social media. We go to theaters to bask in it, and perhaps (also) to achieve something else if we’re able to deflect it. In a culture with an absurd distribution of wealth, where most assets are effectively owned by a tiny percentage of the population, we can build ourselves up on the crumbs of contempt. We can live like royalty on the little thrones built of someone else’s pangs of worthlessness. Do you think it’s possible to abstain from contempt? Would this be delusion, or folly?