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What Is Obscene?

The same people who get upset about 'American Psycho' or 'Irreversible' or 'A Serbian Film' or de Sade or whatever other kind of work that incorporates nasty language or violence are the same ones who begin their day watching 'The View' and Kelly Ripa...

Recently, a printing house refused to print a novel set to be published by Tyrant Books because they found it “obscene”, which seems extremely lame. There are still such things as obscene books? I traded some emails with Giancarlo DiTrapano, Tyrant’s editor and frequent VICE contributor, to try and figure out what sort of puritanical printing houses are able to stay in business in 2013.

(Full disclosure: Tyrant published my most recent novel, Sky Saw, in November.)


VICE: It's been a long time since I can remember feeling offended—especially about obscenity in art. Honestly, I'm having trouble thinking of a time ever when I saw something and was like, "That's so fucked up it shouldn't exist." Do you remember the last time you felt offended?
Giancarlo: That's a hard one. I was talking to someone the other day about Max Hardcore's legal problems and how some of his porn is about the only thing I have ever been offended by. Like the ultraviolent, five dicks in a crying girl's mouth, her eyeliner running down her face stuff. Have to admit, that shit is pretty unpleasant. But I wouldn't ban it or anything.

What was it about the video that got you? That it seemed against her will?
Yeah, that. The look of like pure terror on these girls' faces. There is something about gagging in porn. It's almost this biological line of consent. But it can be hot. Why'd we start talking about porn? Can you imagine being offended by Piss Christ or NWA or any of that shit people have freaked out over that made it to the cover of Newsweek? I feel like the one thing that would seriously offend me would be child pornography, and that is probably the only type of pornography I haven't seen. There's something about kids. Adults, I don't really care what happens to them. They can do whatever, so long as it’s consensual, but kids need to be watched over.

Yeah, I can remember feeling upset—or at least emotionally stressed—by things where a person seemed to be inflicting sexual shit on someone against his or her will. I've never looked at child porn either, but I've read a bit by Peter Sotos, who has been arrested for possessing child porn and writes about it in great detail. I'm not sure about his personal preferences and wouldn't support him doing anything to kids, but I also think it's good that someone is out there thinking about that stuff in a way no one else is—exploring ideas of why it exists and what it does. I think people immediately turn their brains off when they hear shocking keywords like “child porn” or “rape” and almost act as if they want to pretend it doesn't exist. I think being open to thinking about things while also knowing they are wrong is important to not only understanding the world, but to intellect. Like anyone who could get that upset about Piss Christ, no matter what god means to them, I'd question their emotional intelligence.
People don't like when I talk abut this (a friend once dragged me by the arm from a house because I was offending the host), but whenever that show To Catch a Predator comes on I find myself not rooting for but kind of sympathizing with the "predators" instead of Chris Hansen and his camera crew. In Germany they have billboards with phone numbers to call where you can seek help if you are attracted to children. That is what you call civilization. On To Catch a Predator the cops get online, flirt with lonely men, and lure them onto national TV. And it's not like the children are eight or nine. They're like 15 or 16, which in a lot of countries is not against the law. Wow, this is hard to talk about without sounding like a fucking creep. OK, I know that what the men are doing is wrong, and pedophilia is bad, but how about "Hello. We're here to offer you help" instead of "I'm Chris Hansen, and you're on NBC. Care to tell us why you're such a sad and awful loser whose life is now going to be a hundred times worse since you're going to jail and when you get out you won't have anyone waiting on you since you're a child rapist?" You know? Pedophiles do not choose to be pedophiles. Who would choose that? Did you choose to be into whatever it is you're into? Because I definitely didn't choose to be into what I'm into. I am only grateful that it falls on the right side of the law. I have this deep sympathy with pedophiles, especially the ones who make it through their entire lives without ever acting on it. That is a lot of repressing.


I agree. I don't think a person necessarily chooses to be a pedophile any more than anyone else selects who they are attracted to. I do think you should be able to control it, however, especially in the instance of children. In general, I think it’s good for people to be offended by things. It can trigger something and make them more open, more empathetic and understanding in general, even if they still don't agree with the thing they find profane. It's necessary for innovation, because people are usually offended by things that don't coddle their own personal egos and tastes. And really, I find creative restriction more offensive than most creative acts. Calling something obscene seems obscene and self-righteous. For instance, when that printing company said they wouldn't do Marie Calloway's book, it seemed offensive—sort of like “why are you better than this?”
Yeah, the Calloway problem was simply a matter of them seeing certain things out of context (pretty sure they didn't read the book), so they decided against doing the job. Actually, another printer rejected it the next day, but I just kept quiet about it. Got enough mileage from the first instance.

What I find the most offensive in the world are people themselves. The way people treat one another is pretty bad. I'm offended by the fact that I am of the same species as a lot of these assholes.

Exactly. And the same people who get upset about American Psycho or Irreversible or A Serbian Film or de Sade or whatever other kind of work that incorporates nasty language or violence are the same ones who begin their day watching The View and Kelly Ripa's show, both of which nearly give me a stroke. They also seem to be OK with profanity when it’s presented by a figure Americans can handle, like Bruce Willis or something, where its intent is clearer. Like, you are using this violence for my entertainment, you are still a good person, etc…. I'm all for using mediated experiences, in a theater, on paper, to make people uncomfortable, to feel out of the box… whether it ends up causing them to feel they've learned something or not. I think it actually does the opposite of desensitizing when it’s not all plasticized and CGId and laugh-tracked. At least it has a better chance of making you remember you're just another person.



Previously by Blake Butler - Crude Drawings of Hot Scenes from Literature