Black Ribbon Award

Month: February, 2018



I have two approaches when it comes to attending parties: show up very early or show up very late. By “late,” of course, I mean the following afternoon when it is certifiable that every guest has left but all the Solo cups, pizza boxes, roaches, and small mirrors (if applicable) are still strewn about like a bomb went off and when the bathrooms are still disgusting. I find these approaches to be greatly congenial to my temperament, which craves not the thrill of the spectacle but the intimacy of its being carefully assembled beforehand or the vulnerability of its being totally dismantled after the fact. Needless to say, the frequency at which I am invited to parties has steadily dwindled over time.

This is no less true of metaphorical parties. And indeed this is the case now as I find myself late to the pornography party that came and went last weekend.

As Twitter seeks to resemble the brute meritocracy of high school more and more, I seek refuge further and further from it. Yet I still could not help hearing through the grapevine that never ceases to grow that Ross Douthat threw a “ban porn” rager in his online corner and simply everyone who was anyone was there. I’ve been early to pornography parties before, which is awkward enough, but showing up late to a pornography party, even a metaphorical one, is quite like the old saying that one should never bring a knife to a gunfight, except there are much different … tools involved. But here I am, and I hold my nose accordingly.

Douthat’s piece is a standard spiel from conservatives who have achieved a certain level of prominence in the center-left forum. He tries to persuade those who would be his enemies that they are, quite contrary to their blasé conventions, his friends. They share a common ground that culture is in a bad way, with sexual mores being entirely tangled and lopsided as either gross power play or “joyless mimetic spamming.” We must seek to be better to one another, ergo we must seek to be virtuous. “So if you want better men by any standard,” writes Douthat, “there is every reason to regard ubiquitous pornography as an obstacle.”

It doesn’t appear that his pitch was altogether successful. But I believe there is reason for this.

Anti-porn crusaders are familiar with the standard line of pro-porn argument that pornography won’t be banned until humanity has ceded its dominion over earth to a less depraved species. Douthat was perhaps moved to write what he did when his employer published Maggie Jones’s long feature on “porn education” three days earlier. It tells of the push of sex studies professors introducing “critical thinking” courses on pornography to high school students. As one professor puts it, such classes are “grounded in the reality that most adolescents do see porn and takes the approach that teaching them to analyze its messages is far more effective than simply wishing our children could live in a porn-free world.” Hannah Witton, a YouTube vlogger who focuses on sexuality, also sounds the education horn in her video “The Benefits of Porn.” Granted, her pointers are not entirely consistent. Porn helps people in relationships open up about their desires and boundaries, and it provides escape when those sexual desires prove disappointing. But that seems beside the point, and indeed implies a much grander aim.

I suspect that pornography doesn’t factor too heavily in the schemes of the sex positive. It is, as the porn literacy teachers imply, something they’ve come to accept, albeit gladly. It is not sex sex, let’s be clear. It’s an ideal, or in any case it is a kind of magical realism. Whatever it is, though, it is not offensive or an aberration, but something that should be encountered, acknowledged, and not shunned. It’s a part of a ritual: a rite of passage. It is the entryway to rather than the final destination of the new adulthood.

Over the advocacy of pornography, or whatever atomized issue is presently at stake for them, is the blanket gospel of the maturity the advocates are demonstrating. It is less a concern to ask why a world takes this or that form than it is to adjust to its norms and to assimilate. This particular world is one that favors freedom, but a very joyous and extroverted sort. It’s the kind of freedom that comes to resemble mandatory fun as it depends on the assumption that one would be foolish or actively antagonistic not to want to bask in the bacchanalia. But of course there are such people, people who are awkward, people who have scruples, people with morals founded out of sight or while the screens were in sleep mode, people who are low energy, people who are fearful but who can’t really say why, people who had fun exactly once and felt awful, people who don’t care to talk right now, people who don’t live in cities, people who can’t afford to move, people who dropped out of school, people who need rather than luxuriate libraries, people who require considerable effort to be happy, people who may never be happy, people who are at least content and may not be interested in any ideas of happiness others are selling, among others.

It’s wrong to assume that sex positive advocates disparage these types of people. It is probably better to say that they simply don’t notice them, and when they do it is generally met with bewilderment. The negativists may be vulnerable to offensive notions, but they themselves are too strange to truly offend. The positivists will show compassion, if not empathy, but might lose patience once the negativists prove immobile on certain principles. But of course the prestige self-help movement where sex positivists thrive has become less ideologically inert, while remaining tonally so. Soon people like Jordan Peterson shrewdly come to take the place the last person who gave up left behind.

Ultimately it is less interesting in parsing the justification or logistics that go into restricting pornography. If it comes it comes, and no one crusader may have any significant say in how it does. The implications of that shift, no matter what, will be messy and any benefits derived from it will not be apparent after maybe a couple of generational turnovers. What’s more interesting, and for my part more important, is to figure out how to jump off of this pendulum that swings violently between repression and liberation, and which calls for an all-consuming hegemony on either end. The greatest case against pornography, and the world in which it thrives, is that sooner or later it’s going to get boring.




Last month held a significant anniversary for me. 10 years ago—January 24 to be exact—a box containing 300 copies of the first issue of Biopsy magazine was delivered to my door. After a year and a half of false starts it finally came together, physical evidence of a thing I conceived in my head to be used at my discretion. Of course I gave them out to whoever would take them. Somehow, over the course of five years, we managed to repeat this process three more times.

The onset of the anniversary came to me sporadically over the course of last year. Throughout that, it occurred to me that I might be in a position to mark it. How this was to be done I could not say. An “event” was out of the question. We never held events for Biopsy while it existed, what point is it to have one now, for a magazine whose core audience was never fixed and whose other creator has effectively moved on to better things? Indeed, thinking about what to do merely reminded me of the poor logistics I brought to the entire operation. In the end, the anniversary was rather muted; in part because of the event I mentioned in the previous post, and in part because there simply wasn’t occasion for it.

I had taken plenty of opportunities in the past to wax triumphal about my zine. I’m sure that even—perhaps especially—at its most tongue-in-cheek, such triumphalism over a burgeoning and unproven endeavor could come off as perplexing or hard to swallow. But that is the paradox of triumphalism, which works like the inverse of nostalgia. With nostalgia, one realizes that the good old days were good long after they’ve occurred and have had time for the rough patches to be smoothed over. When one is triumphal, it is often in the heat of excitement in real time, before the moment’s faults and lesions can be gleaned.

But of course this triumphalism was not limited to me. It was constantly being over-shouted by one that I could not avoid for what seemed like Biopsy’s entire existence.

Blogosphere is not a term one hears very often these days. In fact it seems like I am the only one who brings it up anymore. When I think of it, I’m reminded of the scene in the 1980s-set 1999 film SLC Punk in which a monied German weed dealer is showing off his laser disc to a bored Matthew Lillard and Michael Goorjian. The dealer has that glee people sometimes convey when they see what looks like a past being heaped onto the funeral pyre by a risen future-present, but rendered ridiculous with over a decade of hindsight—you know, when DVDs were on the cusp. But my memory of 2008-2013 was rife with such moments before the hindsight, and I was somewhat more than bored with hearing them.

I’ve thought of the Dish as a blogazine for quite a while now. The model we’ve groped our way toward combines the agility of a pond-skater with the ability to deep dive at any moment. And its reader-generated content makes it a product of a collective mind as well as an individual one, a bull-session as well as an individual’s thinking out loud. Who knew this evolution was possible even a year or two ago?

That’s Andrew Sullivan writing on The Dish, his then Atlantic-affiliated blog, in 2010. I read The Dish fairly habitually in its heyday; it was by no means a poor source of information and reading material in a time of media upheaval. (My own work was even linked on it.) But I would sour on Sullivan every so often when he would post those self-congratulatory hosannas, often accompanied by images of empty magazine racks, to how swimmingly he and others were navigating this upheaval. “But that’s the joy of this new medium,” he concluded. “We still don’t know where it will go next. And we’re all improvising like mad. What’s not to love?”

In truth, I can see his point. Sullivan and others where experimenting with ways to compel readers to care about substantial journalism. Print was buckling under a changing market. Sullivan, a magazine veteran was looking to adapt while a host of young upstarts were gaining entry through this new medium. Even Biopsy had a blog component, but I didn’t consider it until someone told me to do it. But in the end I could only see blogs, “blogazines,” and bloggers as benign antagonists. It all seemed rather convenient, gushy, and presumptuous to boldly usher in this new era with so many people with less ingenuity struggling to keep their professional lifelines connected. (In addition to Biopsy I was working at a failing magazine publisher that, come to think of it, still owes me money.) They were not enemies to me personally but to my stringent notions of work and craftsmanship. My view of that time period was as a lone prophet diving strange and subversive ideas with a darkly bewitching aesthetic while precocious Cool Kids were talking VERY LOUDLY about Sarah Palin, the surge working, voter demographic charts, or Julia Allison.

10 years later I can say that Biopsy was unique, even, I think, among the independent (maga)zine crowd. At my most triumphal I compared it to Carnival of Souls, a Z-grade horror film with (mostly credible) art house ambitions. Biopsy was more atmospheric than intellectual, portending, as a friend pointed out, a generational malaise to which the remaining generation had not yet caught up. It was also the most effective way for me to admit that Biopsy was very, very flawed. It was perhaps the purest product of which a 20-something could conceive, infused as it was with over-fired ambition, immaturity, inexperience, isolation, anxiety, and patent lack of self-awareness. There was an urge to get something accomplished and to derive merit from it. More than that, I wanted each issue to be a testament to my abilities should I get hit by a bus soon after one was printed.

Needless to say, I’m very glad I was not hit by a bus. With time, the Biopsysphere and blogosphere would become less separate and, in fact, they would find overlap. But this is perhaps due in no small part to our respective ‘spheres coming at the same crossroads. Some of us needed to do something else. Blogging in the late-‘00s ideation burned itself out on too much rapid-fire commentary and quantitative hairsplitting. For the most talent blogging veterans, the ultimate endgame was being less concerned with experimentation and more with just giving readers information in the most complete form possible, which meant a return to web-calibrated magazines and print-calibrated websites. For me it was accepting the necessity of being somehow a part of a professional web of sorts, though more than that, accepting certain limitations and just generally trying to be more socially cohesive. Also, I am very obviously writing on a blog now while, oddly enough, Andrew Sullivan is back at a magazine.

Occasionally people have put to me the suggestion of starting Biopsy again. Some of these are probably in jest, responses no doubt to the aforementioned triumphalism. But even the serious suggestions are not compelling for me. First are my limitations as a manager and editor. The four issues break down in revealing ways. The first two had me trying and failing to be an editor, or some mismatched idea of what an editor was. The last two, the issues I still share with people, mark when I became a writer in earnest. But I can’t also just sit down and write a Biopsy article, some of which seem labored in subsequent reading because they were often padded for space. I also can’t tell if they are more muddled or more amusing/sophisticated predecessors to the current crop of “edgy” online pablum.

If Biopsy is of any importance it is at least in its establishing of a mode of working. So long as avenues are available to me, I am always going to do fugitive work. Sometimes it will be to set foundations to building on ideas, other times it will be as a more self-indulgent end in itself. One medium—print or web—is not superior to another. Each has its own distinct benefits and detriments, neither lacks potential for prestige, they just reach it differently, or at least at different times.

In any case, the search for the perfect all-purpose medium is of less interest to me than testing the limits of any one idea I may have with a range of options, at least with text. Here just happens to be the most proper place at the moment to explore them. I am not a zinester because I no longer put in the work. I am also not a blogger because I don’t seem to be reader-friendly. I would not be averse to having some work gatecrash Kool-Aid man-like into a #conversation without immediately stumbling face-first to the floor. More often, however, the best work I can manage on here is to take on a succession of personal fixations, examine each one with as much precision as I can manage, and render unto the public their ultimate condition. Kind of like some kind of form of medical testing but in prose, which seems kind of familiar.

TL;DR: I became a better writer.