Making the obscene seen

June 7, 2010 at 10:36 pm | In ideas, scandal, social_critique | 4 Comments

I chose a couple of redesigned BP logos to illustrate yesterday’s Sunday Diigo Links Post, even though my links weren’t related to the oilspill. They just struck me as appropriate. One in particular caught my attention:


The design is part of LogoMyWay’s BP Logo Redesign Contest. It was submitted by Gremlin (no further information logged about this designer, except s/he’s in Australia).

Anyway, it’s a damn good piece of work, to my mind, and it caught the attention of melanieb (also in Australia, coincidentally) who reads and comments often on my posts. She wrote:

I’m so old! I know that first reworked BP logo. It’s the south vietnamese police colonel assassinating a burglar (dressed up in the propaganda as a viet cong) in the street. I don’t know quite why, but I don’t think even BP deserves that.

I commented back, consequently thinking a bit more about what, exactly, made that redesign work for me. Let’s look at it a bit more closely…

First, here’s the famous photo by Eddie Adams that “Gremlin” references:


I can’t remember when I first saw it – I was 12 in 1968 and didn’t become aware of it until several years later. But take yourself back to an age perhaps more reserved, consider what is shown (a man being executed), and something new comes into focus.

In my comment I wrote, “…the designer latched on to something important: that photo seems to be the first instance of mainstream [media] obscenity, and linking the obscene to what’s happening in the Gulf seemed somehow right.” Then I tried “thinking out loud” about what I meant by “mainstream obscenity”:

I think this photo might be the first time that we saw an image in “respectable” mainstream media of a murder – a death – as it happens. Until then, people heard about pornographic films in which victims were actually “snuffed” out, but only sickos would seek out a snuff film (or produce one). Showing the act of murder was too much of a taboo, literally ob-scene. So for me, this photo marks a divide between what was unacceptable and what was acceptable to depict: it literally wrenched the goalposts into new territory.
The connection to BP might be that the current disaster, while it competes for First Place in the Hall of Shame (that is, other disasters have happened or are happening right now that compete for top prize), is going to do something similar: move the ob-scene into the scene/seen, and force us to deal with it. For years, environmental despoliation has been going on in Nigeria. For years, we’ve been burning these hydrocarbons and pumping the waste into the atmosphere – to the point where we’re now facing climate change that has potentially catastrophic consequences for us as a species. We’ve managed to cover these obscenities up, make them invisible. The BP disaster might change that, as Eddie Adam’s photo did.

Somewhere in the back of my head, my thinking was informed by feminist theory I read decades ago, but I had a hard time finding the right references online. Typing variations of a search string that included the words “obscene seen scene” into google wasn’t generating helpful links…

Finally, out of the googly blue, in Romanticism, Materialism, and the Origins of Modern Pornography, a 2001 article by Bradford K. Mudge (U. of Colorado, Denver) about George Eliot’s Middlemarch, a useful definition of the obscene-ness I was thinking of came up. Mudge quotes a passage from Middlemarch (p.92), in which Eliot describes Lydgate’s intellectual epiphany. The key sentence (from Eliot’s novel):

A liberal education had of course left him free to read the indecent passages in the school classics, but beyond a general sense of secrecy and obscenity in connection with his internal structure, had left his imagination quite unbiassed, so that for anything he knew his brains lay in small bags at his temples, and he had no more thought of representing to himself how his blood circulated than how paper served instead of gold.

From here, Mudge describes how the passage (it’s a longer passage than my extract above) offers “a series of artfully managed oppositions,” the most important of which is between the known and the unknown. Mudge writes:

Of particular interest is Eliot’s choice of the word “obscene.” (…) From the Greek meaning “off or behind the stage,” “obscenity” suggests that which is visually prohibited—because of its violent, coarse, or sexual nature—but that which is indispensable to, if not the cause of, the staged events.

Visually prohibited, obscenity belongs to the unknown (until it is seen, erupting as full-blown obscenity) – but, even though existing off-stage (un-seen, off-scene, ob-scene), it is “indispensable to, if not the cause of, the staged [seen] events.”

That’s the definition of obscenity I was looking for when I typed my comment, and it applies to Adams’s photo.

The photo is obscene: it reveals a visually prohibited aspect (full-frontal murder) of what was “indispensable to, if not the cause of, the staged events” conveyed by more traditional media representations of the war. And its obscenity made it an anti-war icon: it marks a watershed in what was henceforth allowed into mainstream representation, wrenched the goalposts into new territory by making it impossible to stop seeing the ob-scene. What was off-stage moved on-stage. …Of course we could now quibble and say, “well, if it’s no longer off-stage but on-stage, it’s not obscene,” but that’s just part of how the goalposts have moved. Obscenity is notoriously like art: you know it when you see it.

What’s the relation to BP and the oilspill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and why do I think appropriating Adams’s photo makes sense?

The current oilspill clusterfuck in the Gulf is obscene: an eruption onto the stage (into the scene/ the seen) of what was off-stage as far as the oil-guzzling public is concerned, even as its obscene-ness was (is) “indispensable to, if not the cause of, the staged [seen] events” (i.e., our habitual consumption of petroleum).

Now, however, we’ve all seen that huge obscene mess, and just as Adams’s photo made it impossible to pretend that obscenity wasn’t “indispensable” to the events on stage, the Gulf spill makes it impossible to pretend that our obscene dependence on petroleum can continue unchecked.

A bird is mired in oil on the beach at East Grand Terre Island along the Louisiana coast on Thursday, June 3, 2010. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel) (source)


  1. Excellent analysis (and now I know the derivation of ‘obscene’). My only question is how much obscenity can we tolerate – maybe a lot more than back then, we’re so inured to it.

    Another thing it says is: “America/Western world, you did it”.

    Comment by melanieb — June 8, 2010 #

  2. How much obscenity can we tolerate? Good question. Do we know where to stop? There’s always a struggle between “natural” limits and our innate desire to push against all limits.

    Comment by Yule — June 8, 2010 #

  3. In 1963 there was also the ‘full-frontal suicide’ of the monk who self-immolated. I was 15, and there was a still photo on the front page.

    Comment by melanieb — June 9, 2010 #

  4. […] by Doc’s post so far – it’s a good thread. And David Weinberger found my Making the obscene seen post interesting enough to post a response, which in turn made me post a comment, wondering if what […]

    Pingback by » Commenting around Yule Heibel's Post Studio © 2003-2010 — June 9, 2010 #

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