…what man has sought for is, indeed, neither pain nor pleasure, but simply Life. Man has sought to live intensely, fully, perfectly. When he can do so without exercizing restraint on others, or suffering it ever, and his activities are all pleasurable to him, he will be saner, healthier, more civilized, more himself.
Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism
‘Gargantua’ is an encounter with mass culture. The encounter is personified through Rabelais’s character of Prince Gargantua, whose behaviour is used as an allegory of the operations of the culture industry. Gargantua is excessive, profligate, crude, indulgent, spontaneous and incontinent. He is a giant whose appetites are insatiable, despite his very best efforts to fulfil them. Gargantua lives for the moment without thought of his actions nor care for their consequences.
Stallabrass reads this as a tale of consumption. In Gargantua’s eating, shitting and general debauchery there is no time for reflection nor awareness: only the transitory immediacy of the pleasure of the act itself. In such a life there is no room for development, learning, awareness or judgements of value: only a succession of moments, in which the subject is hardly a subject at all. Herein lies the appeal of using Gargantua as an allegory of manufactured mass culture. Stallabrass wishes to show how the culture industry seduces, dupes and distracts in order to spread consumption. This consumption in turn feeds itself: its power, its interests and its profit. This is a tale of the lost subject, bombarded and drawn into passivity, with critical faculties weary and dulled. Gargantua is described at one point (before his education) as virtually no more than an enormous gut, capable only of eating and shitting. This bodily analogy is appropriate for Stallabrass, standing for a whole gamut of base desires and needs. The satisfaction of these immediacies threaten to overwhelm a critical, self-reflective subject. The only hope for the subject is constant vigilance against the soporific totalitarianism of the culture industry.
The other salient characteristic of Gargantua is his size: he is a giant, whose power is extensive and irresistible. So Gargantua is like the culture industry, and the subjects it produces, in several ways. He lives for immediacy and consumption over all else. He is excessive. He has no sense of discrimination nor value nor appropriateness. He is always distracting and distracted. He precludes reflection and self-consciousness. He is, therefore, a “subjectless subject” (a term of Adorno’s that Stallabrass uses).
Gargantua is only mentioned substantially at the beginning and end of the book. But all of its pages are haunted by the conflict between two characters: the monstrous, uncouth Gargantua (the subjectless subject) and the critical, self-reflective consciousness (what might be called the “subjectfull subject”). The latter, active subject is one capable of reflection and analysis of its own position in relation to a damaging, deluding and corrupting culture.
Stallabrass sets out to analyse a society of indiscriminate, destructive consumption and a culture of distraction. He sees these as inextricable linked, or as roughly the same thing. Along the way he condemns ‘postmodern’ theory for its complicity with the norms of the culture industry and its descent from analysis and commitment into utilitarianism and relativism. He sees theory itself as deluded and corrupted by the form and content of mass culture, to the point where it has lost any idea of value.
This analysis takes the form of little journeys through pieces of familiar culture. The totalizing tendencies of mass culture and its means of distraction and suppression are drawn out. Stallabrass nevertheless lives in hope of a critique that might seize on those small moments of failure in the system. Then the smooth operation of the total illusion of mass culture might be dispelled. For a moment, in such failures, the materiality of the world and history break through. These slippages are small and transitory: glitches in computer games; trash on the streets; the quirks of amateur photograph; accumulated fragments of graffiti; and so on. They have no more than the potential to allow the reflective and critical mind to get a grip.
The critical subject needs to exercise caution and control. The western world and its culture is a place of illusion and deceit. Stallabrass says, near the beginning:
“[Mass culture works] in favour of distraction, conformity and cultivated stupidity; it is a system which encourages the wasting of lives.[…] If this book has a readership for whom it is particularly intended, then it is for those who have the education and the chance to think about such things and who have, I believe, often betrayed this opportunity.”
The educated, critical subject is defined against the near monolith of mass culture: commitment, individuality and intelligence battle distraction, conformity and stupidity.
Gargantua is a kind of bogeyman for such a subject. He is always threatening to come and get you: to swallow up, to consume, one’s subjectivity. He is always threatening to get one to surrender to the pleasures and distractions of one’s body, to immediacy, and to hang the consequences.
Gargantua is not only an external threat, out there in the world (mass culture and so on) but an internal threat, the enemy within. So Gargantua could also be the subjectfull subject’s own body. For a subject that prizes self-reflection and critical awareness at all times, the pleasures of the body are dangerous. These are inferior pleasures to the pleasures of the mind because the subject can lose its identity (that is, its critical powers) in being overwhelmed by emotion or desire. Indeed, we talk of being lost in pleasure.
Traditionally, one gets lost in dark and dangerous places beyond the surveillance of rationality. And in the shadows lurk monstrous threats. In fact, this book has the structure of a horror film. There is a story here of a threatened subject menaced by a voracious foe, only half glanced in the gloom.
As in most horror, the menace is more powerful than the lone, isolated protagonist. This protagonist is the autonomous subject. Its only resources are of the mind. It must rely on reason to outwit the crude but powerful monster. The monster, for its part, is always getting closer. This is what monsters do. It threatens to overwhelm and consume the discrete spatiality of the subject. And the point of attack is the body. The monster threatens to blur the boundaries between oneself and the world: to turn one inside out. In ‘Alien’ the baby monster bursts out of one’s stomach. For the critical, self-reflective subject the stomach threatens to do the job all by itself. Uncivilized, uncultured and uneducated pleasures – monstrous pleasures – threaten to eat the ascetic pleasures of the autonomous subject.
For the cultivated mind the body is a weakness. Kant thought the hungry incapable of good judgement. For the disinterested subject (with a full stomach), mass culture is a phantom, notwithstanding its undoubted economic and ideological functions. The mind is stalked by the body; the ego by the libido.
Gargantua is a picture of unbridled pleasure. His consumption is not necessarily complicit with the needs of consumer capitalism. Read as the unshackling of the denials and repressions of an educated and cautious subjectivity, Gargantua can point to how some pleasures are privileged over and over again in all sorts of philosophy and critical thought. Others are demeaned and excluded. Gargantua is no model of revolutionary action. He is, though, a reminder of a loss. This is not the loss of the subject but the loss of certain pleasures for a particular kind of subject. This is to say that self-reflection and critical analysis have never been enough, being blind to indulgence. The subject that fears its own delusion creates its own delusion in the flight from indulgence, in its desperation not to get lost in pleasure. This subject is embarrassed, and embarrassing, with its body and with bodily pleasures.
Gargantua is abhorrent because he values pleasure differently. Adorno, of whom Stallabrass is an attentive reader, hated jazz. This not only because its pleasures were trivial and immediate but because of how one danced to it. He feared the subject lost in music. Goodness knows what he’d have made of contemporary dance culture and of E. Such music takes over the body, putting one at he mercy of its rhythms, of something external. The question is whether such behaviour is ipso facto a threat to subjectivity and freedom. Or is only the disinterested, educated subject at risk from Gargantuan pleasures. Adorno dedicated his life and work to a resistance to the seductions of capitalism and its culture industry. Oscar Wilde famously, on the other hand, could resist anything but temptation. His proclivity for indulgence and excess did not diminish nor threaten his individuality or powers of critical reflection. If anything it seemed to have the opposite effect. I like to think they are both on my side. But I know with whom I’d rather go dancing.