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The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

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May 20, 2008
"edge theory"

Cleaning out the reading pile from last month . . .

Here's an easy prize to award.

The Best String of Words in the entirety of the most recent issue of Tin House (the "Off the Grid" issue, vol. 9, no. 3) is this one:

As the debate fired on, I leaned back against the porch bench and realized that all my years of activism and cultural studies had never prepared me for a decision like this. What did I know about how goats show consent?

The string appears in Nathan Alling    Long's very terrific "Living on the Body of the Mountain," in which he discusses his time living at (apparently) the Short Mountain Sanctuary commune, with the Radical    Faeries.

However, the most interesting overall article, we think, among several strong contenders in the issue (e.g., J.C. Hallman's fascinating exploration of the Twin    Oaks intentional/utopian community) is Unmarketable author and now self-coined "edge theorist" Anne Elizabeth    Moore's zine now turned article, "17 Theses on the Edge."

A few years back, we noted Moore's article on the political limitations of so-called "culture jamming." The new piece in Tin House shows the continued evolution of her playing around with and working through ideas, with hard thinking and a strong stomach, concerning modern marketing methods and countering of same. In this case, her focus is the notion of products that are alleged by their salespeople to partake of "edginess" or "the edge."

A most thought-provoking point she raises goes to the phoniness of the danger, risk & excitement that Madison Avenue tells us "edgy" products will bring to our lifestyle:
It is a necessary part of edginess that it is perceived to make someone nervous; it is equally important, when viewing edginess, that no one must ever actually feel nervous. . . .

Edginess taken to its next logical phase is dangerous. Edginess thus must never be allowed to go to it next logical phase, because that would be dangerous. Therefore, edginess is wholly contained, safe, and edgy in name only.

We wondered why this point reminded us so much of part of what Kant had to say about the experience of facing awe-inspiring natural beauty, and the (dynamic) Sublime in his book about aesthetics, Critique of Judgment:
SS 28. Nature as Might.

If we are to estimate nature as dynamically sublime, it must be represented as a source of fear (though the converse, that every object that is a source of fear, in our aesthetic judgement, sublime, does not hold). . . .

SS 29. Modality of the judgement on the sublime in nature.

The astonishment amounting almost to terror, the awe and thrill of devout feeling, that takes hold of one when gazing upon the prospect of mountains ascending to heaven, deep ravines and torrents raging there, deep shadowed solitudes that invite to brooding melancholy, and the like-all this, when we are assured of our own safety, is not actual fear. Rather is it an attempt to gain access to it through imagination.

The desire to contemplate or behold, from a position of relative safety, the display of forces bigger or stronger than ourselves: One wonders about how the marketing of "edge" might take a vital, healthy human impulse and divert it towards cheapened, stunted, superficial ends.

Moore's "theses"
[She notes that she took inspiration for the "theses" format from Frances Richard's "Fifteen Theses on the Cute," which appeared in the fall 2001 Cabinet. Richard's piece is here.]
put "edge" through some thorough connective paces that include considerations of:





boringness, and even

naming vs. not-naming,
as here:
A very rich person making jokes about being a sex worker . . . can be edgy.   A very poor sex worker making jokes about being rich probably happens all the time and no one calls it anything.

While the piece has a sort of intellectual or theory-ish tone, it notably fails to name-drop or footnote any of the usual suspect theorists.   Saatchi & Saatchi's Kevin Roberts is one of the few individuals mentioned, for his remarks on "edge cultures." The result gives "17 Theses" an admirably DIY feel, consistent with Moore's association with the late, great Punk Planet. She sounds as if she's demonstrating to the reader how to think cultural theoryish topics through afresh, individualistically, via direct observation of life and pondering, rather than how to go to the bookshelf to memorize & regurgitate the utterances of the Masters.

But why, then, take a theoryish tone here at all? In this case, we could say that the approach seems to work, given the subject matter. Like the attention-redirecting effect of "culture jamming" when done interestingly, the object of study here is pulled out of the glib, adrenalized context preferred by the purveyors of "edge," and defamiliarized. The author filters her observations through a dispassionate register that nicely plays up some of the "edge" approach's important underlying characteristics, e.g., its condescension, tediousness, bloodlessness, lack & ultimate thwarting of affect, calculatedness, vacuity, etc.