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Chains or Whips? The Cruel Decade and its Aftermath

It seems to me that the 00s ended with the final withdrawal of NATO soldiers from Afghanistan in 2021. Or with the end of Britney’s conservatorship. Or with the coming into public knowledge that Paris Hilton had been abused as a child, and that her seemingly unfounded mode of celebrity, the unhinged bling of her stardom, so endemic to that decade, could in fact be reread as the triumph of a victim. It is as if the decade before last is only now being tried, its witnesses called to the stand one by one. Gilmore Girls: feminist. Gossip Girl: not. George Bush: apparently moderate, by comparison. The contemporary is looping back to its mother, that first decade of the millennium, which for so long left its questions unanswered, ribbons fluttering in the wind.  

 

Nothing is ever over when it’s over, only much later. This is partly because hours and days and years are arbitrary divisions, and partly because many things are unfathomable in the moment they take place, and so simply don’t take place in that moment, but stretch out for however long it takes for us to be able to grasp them. You could say the nineteenth century ended when the Crystal Palace burst into flames and Virginia Woolf finished her novel The Years on November 30, 1936. My college era began two years after I started college, and only ended two years after I left. This was because the affects which defined that period took some time to take hold, and would not be so easily superseded by what came after. So strong and complex were they, so bold in the questions they brought up, that nothing that happened during that time would help me understand them – the clues were in the aftermath. 

 

In childhood and adolescence you are defencelessly immersed in the public sphere and its institutions. Without the experience of any precedence at all, everything is truth. The arrival of large espresso-based to-go drinks in Northern Europe, of Miss Sixty jeans and reality TV and homes decorated entirely in white with a single bright red detail (something in sheer plastic from Kartell); the singularly urgent threat posed by ‘terrorism’, and the clash between Muslims and Christians in the West as the new point of friction which would set the wheels of history turning again after the Cold War; the over-arching sense of post-ness, that there were no more concessions to be made, but each to their own raft, their own weapon, rescued from the twentieth century – all this registered self-evidently as truth, and spoke the language of the future. The brutality and confusion of that decade belonged both to the zeitgeist and, quite plainly, to coming of age, and those of us on the frontlines of the 00s are only now coming into the kind of maturity that allows us to look back and see anything at all. In that sense, we are both the most and the least reliable of witnesses. But if any truth has emerged from the 10 years that came after, it is that it is not reliability, insight or expertise that determines who gets to give testimony, but the strength of one’s feeling and the unassailability of experience. And so, to begin to understand how it became that way, here’s one millennial’s account of that Decade of Cruelty. 

 

It started with the low-rise jeans. How impossible it seemed that anyone’s trousers would ever be cut at the hips again; how infinitely ancient the thicker specimen Shannon Doherty wore on Charmed in 1998 appeared in 2001. Of course, no one looked good in them; they demanded a torso without space for vital organs. It was not fashion for life, but a peculiar new chicness that stunk of impossibility and thoughtlessness, of a death we thought we had escaped primarily for the reason that it had not already happened. I still think there was something transfixing about this lack of idealism; that bodies should be skeletal and houses empty (save for that one red detail) for no reason whatsoever. What extremity, what decadence! Tiny gold charms dangling from Paris Hilton’s hipbone. John Galliano’s newspaper dress inspired by homeless people was one emblem of the era’s total amorality and creative freedom, a special elegance afforded only by wilful detachment. Carrie wore it on Sex & The City. Carrie, a character who would never, not even in the following decade’s sad attempt to rescue her, be punished for her selfishness and opportunism. I think we should leave her be. After all, what have we learned? We still believe in individuals, not in their genius but the power of their image. Wars were fought with the image of individuals at their centre, entire cities given their face. Carrie, Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein.

 

It might also have begun in the last year of the twentieth century with Britney’s midriff in the …Baby One More Time video: how simultaneous infantilisation and sexualisation not only ceased to be problematic, but became the era’s most successful business model. Britney was not alone in being underage and horny, and this was the problem: at every level in society, a childish freedom was in fashion, the world turned into a playground governed by the same rules as the financial markets: none. In a situation where everyone is equally infantilised there is no one to blame for the public exploitation and subsequent disintegration of Britney, the emblem of so many young women everywhere, who was also – and this everyone seemed to forget – a young woman herself. Perhaps she was the ‘Young-Girl’ theorised in the book by the French collective Tiqqun in 1999, the English translation of which became a vague magnetic centre for the dawn of the feminist revival after 2012: someone who is at once ravished and empowered, almost as if by force of nature, in exponential relation to her exposure. It is this vacuum of responsibility, an absence of thinking we have yet to recover from, but have in the last decade begun responding to differently, that brings me to my diagnosis of that decade’s cruelty –  a great sense of conviction born from simplicity, or a particular childish ruthlessness which it required the strength of an adult to survive. Another Young-Girl was Lynndie England, the 21-year-old United States Army Reserve soldier who grinned at the cameras in Abu Ghraib. ‘We don’t feel like we were doing things we weren’t supposed to do, because we were told to do them,’ she said during an interview with the news channel CBS in 2004. As Jacqueline Rose wrote in her essay ‘Freud Goes to Abu Ghraib’ (2004), although such orders could, indeed, be traced back through the highest chain of command, it was England whose face and name became synonymous with American disgrace. As we know, libertarianism makes its children do its dirty work, sending them off to battle with their midriffs, their shamelessness and the hubris cultivated in them – with cruel and wilful naivety – since birth. 

 

Britney’s immense appeal was always that of Lolita, precocious, all-American and dangerously naive. But the way that she was chewed up and spat out tells us something rather different than Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 classic. The novel follows Humbert Humbert, a handsome, distinguished and morose European, a castaway from a continent at war, who becomes obsessed with the titular 12-year-old American girl; a girl who is, perhaps, the metaphorical embodiment of the false promise of innocence issued by the ‘Virgin Land’ as Europe collapsed into fascism. The two indulge in illicit carnal actives at endless highway motels across the vast lands of the newly victorious superpower – activities meticulously accounted for by the guilty Humbert, awaiting trial in a psychiatric institution. Lolita is the nickname of Dolores: dolor, from the Latin word for pain. It follows that this is very much a story about shame and anguish. Humbert’s tortured sexuality is of a masochistic type: he wallows in the indecency of his pursuit, the ink of his story dyeing the black pool of his conscience. The difference lies in his knowingness, disclosed by the decency of his elaborate testimony: there is not a single obscene word in this wholly obscene novel. Humbert bears the weight of his perversion and he dies for it. In a way, the reader dies with him, sullied and complicit after having been dragged along for 300 pages that illustrate the final exhaustion of the possibility of a fresh start.    

 

The 00s was a decade of unabashed obscenity – from the humiliating dating game show Next to reality TV like House of Carters and Hogan Knows Best, which allowed Z-list celebrities to exchange their last shreds of fame and dignity for cash. MTV, once a music channel, was the centre of youth culture one last splendid time, except the soundtrack was the incessant bleeping out of fucks and shits and cunts that only added to the obscenity. It was not censorship so much as disdain, adding the chill-factor of conservatism entirely for its own sake, and to the singular end of making a spectacle of human desperation. In the decade since, swearing on TV, say, in an episode of Lena Dunham’s Girls or a Taylor Swift song, would be seen as a marker of the female narrator’s strength and the progressive politics of the product. Meanwhile, as their TV show enabled the Kardashians to graduate from Z to A-listers and the dignity-for-cash trade formalised into the profession now known as Influencing, the genre lost its ghoulish appeal. Where in Nabokov it is the perverted and punishable Humbert who is society’s mirror image and Lolita mere collateral damage, in the 00s we were all both Britney and her perpetrators: her father, her lawyers, Paris and Lindsey and Kevin and Justin and her two children she went to court to get back and whose pictures were sold to People Magazine for several million dollars. Ethically speaking, it was a zero-sum game in which everyone was a loser and a sell-out. And while this has not changed, back then no one would claim to have been either empowered or victimised by it. Rather, everyone involved – from the paparazzi to the lucky girl inside the SUV who cried cried cried – was just doing their job. 

 

It was a balancing act between causing damage and controlling it. A catastrophe is a media event, but it must not annihilate its victims, as they need to be able to walk to the bank afterwards. A quick Google search to find out the price of Britney’s baby pictures (still uncertain) led me to an article from the US television network ABC from 2008, which questions the ethics of such a sale:

 

‘If your own parents are literally selling you out, where can one feel safe?’ asks Dr. Bruce Weinstein, a syndicated ethics columnist. ‘What’s especially troubling is that the person who’s the subject of these photos isn’t able to give informed consent. I could imagine that person being really troubled by it.’

 

This consideration seems wildly foreign in our current situation, where not just celebrities but anyone will exchange all parts of their lives on Instagram for more or less stable currencies, monetary, social or otherwise. In fact, in the countless feminist reading groups and think pieces that followed Tiqqun’s English translation, the ambivalence of the Young-Girl, her exploitation, was dramatically out-sounded by the power afforded her by new technology: she could take her own selfie. In the 00s, while a picture must be submitted for circulation in order to meet the demands of fame, you would, at the same time, be chastised for it (this, in a twisted, exacerbated way, was a problem Lynndie England faced, too, after posing for the camera with a chain in one hand and a cigarette in the other, prisoners lying at her feet). The retrospective cruelty of the era, then, lay not in its ethical transgressions, but in setting up an impossible situation. Jennifer Lopez, the ABC article says, ‘who hasn’t had a hit record or movie in several years,’ sold pictures of her babies for 6 million dollars, and Christina Aguilera, named a ‘B-list singer’, fetched 1.5 million for her nativity pics. The two women were deemed wrong both for cashing in on their fame and for not being famous enough, a logic that leaves its subjects with no other option than to relish in being bad. The next decade would turn this dynamic on its head, answering Dr. Weinstein’s question of ‘where can one feel safe’ by creating trademarked ‘safe spaces’ inside of total commodification and calling it empowerment.

 

It follows that, in the 00s, the best picture that could be taken of you was one which caught you unaware. For celebrities that meant paparazzi and for civilians party photography. If you were not famous you had to rely on a combination of time and luck for what would become your next Facebook profile picture. But exposing yourself to the lens of others, of course, comes at a certain risk. And since the platforms on which images were shared – blogs, the websites of clubs, online magazines, or even Facebook, where people would drop dozens of pictures at once – were not primarily about promoting the brands of individual creators, but modelled on the notion of ‘the public sphere’, bad or even humiliating pictures, too, would circulate. Social success would be born from strategic passivity, not agency, and the risk of debasement was an intrinsic part of the package. 

 

Such exposure demanded a thick skin and readiness for conflict that not everyone was prepared for. 10 years later, in her book Conflict Is Not Abuse (2016), Sarah Schulman described a collapsing public sphere where any disagreement was experienced as attack. ‘Why would a person rather have an enemy than a conversation?’, she asked. Her argument was widely derided among millennials, I think, because they – we – at a fairly young age, had felt powerless in the face of conflict and would henceforth experience it precisely as abuse. And so it became that the generation that grew up in the dying light of heroin chic, caught in the merciless flashes of early digital cameras that caught every imperfection, would become such cautious, manicured and professional adults it would seem nothing could ever go wrong again. Here is the other side of the coin from selfie-mode empowerment, seen, say, in the exclusion of white people with dreadlocks from queer spaces for making them ‘unsafe’, or of Heart of Darkness from syllabuses for being ‘triggering’: a Nietzschean triumph of the weak.    

 

The most favoured diagnosis of the 2010s, then, was anxiety, paraded at times as a badge of honour, testifying to what would make a person interesting and attuned to trending concepts like privilege, and the intersections of various forms of power and difference. Conversely, in the 00s, a cultural fixation on eating disorders pervaded, in part, as a riposte to the anarchy of rampant cultural liberalism; a sign not of weakness but of control, or weakness-as-control. This was rarely politicised along the lines of gendered oppression, depression, or structural violence. Rather, the aesthetic and discourse of anorexia – something only adjacent to the grim reality of it – was a kind of fashion, a dangerous and decadent flirtation flaunted in school cafeterias by pulling long sleeves down over one’s hands (to be cold was to be chic) while picking, bird-like, at a piece of bread, or even abstaining from food altogether. Per the logic of punishment as certification of worth, to be famished and frail offered the same ravaged glamour as being assaulted by paparazzi, but readily available to anyone. In the public sphere this was attended by a ghoulish obsession with obesity that bordered on fetishism. Countless TV shows chastised people for being large, old or ugly, and pop music responded with desperately conscientious anthems like Sugababes’ ‘Ugly’ and B-list Aguilera’s ‘Beautiful’, a set of kitsch efforts, which would become the ruling model for culture in the decade after. So obvious and lucrative was the problem with the blatant and unchecked promotion of ‘normative’ body standards in the public sphere that P!nk made what turned out to be the most enduring career of that generation out of having short hair and not being as pretty as Britney Spears. And so while her competition gained weight, went nuts or into perpetual rehab, the self-styled outsider continued to tour the world, in 2017 with an album titled Beautiful Trauma, as a kind of godmother of the zeitgeist.

 

The decade’s skeletal aesthetic also made itself evident in the home makeover programmes that helped people throw out as many of their belongings as possible and replace them with new ones – one concept even translated the weight of what was thrown out into cash. The 00s body and home were governed by the delusion that expunging the self will serve as a kind of solution. With small tits, no ass and the hips of child, we would enter the new millennium carrying as little of the twentieth century with us as possible. There was a sadness to how little of it was any use (Andy Warhol, impersonal and hollow like a helium balloon, just made it across the threshold in the guise of an entrepreneur), but a freedom, too. The thing about travelling light was that, like the ever-more elaborate identity constructions that have taken the place of these efforts in more recent years, it was a form of consumerism, too: Being no one also required a new wardrobe. 

 

The question of fetishism brings me back to that of masochism, and what other forms of established cruelty we might lean on for the portrait of this decade. In his book Coldness and Cruelty (1967) about the father of masochism, the nineteenth-century novelist Sacher-Masoch, Gilles Deleuze writes that fetishism ‘belongs essentially to masochism’. In Sacher-Masoch’s stories the despotic Venus is always in furs and leather boots, as in Lolita, in which Humbert buys skirts and blouses and lollypops for his child-torturer, and the identity-politician of the 2010s who sews themselves a coat of many colours of trauma and oppression. Conversely, per Deleuze, fetishism ‘only occurs in sadism in a secondary and distorted sense [when it] passes into the totally different context of negativity and negation, where it becomes an agent in the sadistic process of condensation.’ Sadism, then, does not set store by objects, whether material or discursive, but by action. What Deleuze names a ‘process of condensation’, we might say, like that of ridding yourself of old junk in exchange for money, is one in which the point is not the junk itself but the purging of it. The object is obsolete and exchangeable. From The 120 Days of Sodom, written by Marquis de Sade in 1785, Deleuze surmises that the libertine ‘finds excitement not in “what is here,” but in “what is not here,” the absent Object, “the idea of evil.”’ And so where in masochism pleasure is derived from a troubled relation to some kind of moral code, the keyword in sadism is apathy: a negation of both ego and world for the sake of pleasure. The sadist wishes that the violence would be carried out on repeat for perpetuity on its own accord so that he did not have to do it himself, but alas. This impersonal element of sadism, argues Deleuze, identifies violence with an idea of pure reason. The sadist does not want to convince anyone, as the masochist does, that he is deserving of his own oppression, and so ‘in every respect … the sadistic “instructor” stands in contrast to the masochistic “educator”.’ The contrast between sadist and masochist, instructor and educator, can be seen in the contrast between the 00s and the 10s, as the difference between having your head bashed in by, say, artists like Bjarne Melgaard or Ryan Trecartin – all of whom soared in the 00s, but whose tactics of assault have since be met with scepticism – and either patrolling like a pious police officer, or dragging yourself, with affected humility, through the swathes of educational documentaries at the endless biennials of the 10s. Psychosis versus neurosis; repetition versus narrowing; the freedom of destruction versus codes of conduct and rules of punishment.

 

It follows that Lolita is not a cruel novel but a painful one – too painful, perhaps, were it not for its gallows humour. The brutal culture of the 00s resulted not in immunity to discomfort, but a phobia of it, so that a decade later, we would be intolerant to the moral ambivalence of cultural artefacts like Nabokov’s. This might have something to do with the Pure Reason of ice-cold cultural libertarianism that had left its children to fend for themselves in the years before. In a way, it was this cruel pedagogy that paved the way for militantly unabashed double standards in the name of rights and equality, the glitchy reattachment of the signifier of the 2010s that said ‘No, anything does not go’: gender is performative, but my gender is essential; expression is free, but this expression is wrong – etc. A dangerous game that ushered in the notion of post-truth.

 

Before educators, cancel-culture and keyboard warriors, there was the American TV-journalist Diane Sawyer. As anchor on the ABC shows ‘Good Morning America’ and ‘Primetime’, Sawyer reported from every emblematic crisis of the decade: Ground Zero, Afghanistan, Iraq, New Orleans, and the beaches of South-East Asia flooded by a tsunami in the last days of 2004. Whether interviewing ‘Dr. Germ’ of Saddam Hussein’s bioweapons programme or confronting the young, helpless protagonists of the culture of total exposure with their own nudity, her thoughts were with the Public, not her subject, and her ethos one of unflinching rigour. Britney Spears had to answer the question ‘Where are your clothes?’, and consider whether conservative detractors were not justified in wanting her dead for what her image was doing to their children. These were the kinds of spikes that identity politics, that discursive, cultural-cosmetic form of Keynesianism, was brought in to soften. And, indeed, the next decade would call out Sawyer’s lack of interest in Spears’s emotional well-being as bad feminism, when it is also true she was just not that kind of journalist. She ranged from critical to cruel because she worked for the viewer, not as a PR organ for the pop star, a line long since blurred beyond distinction. Spears was a new kind of celebrity and Sawyer an old-school journalist, and they met at the changing of the guards. Around the same time, Whitney Houston got similar treatment from Sawyer, probing her privacy, but her interview shows that this type of sadism does in fact give its subject the opportunity to talk back. ‘Do you really know, Diane?’ Houston pushed back against Sawyer’s claim that the singer was anorexic; ‘No you know,’ Sawyer conceded. ‘Thank you,’ Houston replied, leaning back into the couch and holding her own. And here, as much as Sawyer was out of line, we can glean from her cruelty the expectation that her subject just might be capable of surviving it, or even fending for herself; an expectation which contains the possibility of dignity and traces of respect we’d have to search far and wide for 10 years later.

 

Is it possible to rescue from those cruel years what Deleuze names sadism’s ‘impersonal element’? And if so, can we find in it an antidote to the stuffy atmosphere of sentimentality that has replaced it? If the first decade begged the question whether the price of free speech must necessarily be cruelty, at the start of the third, we might ask: can we afford not to pay it? 

 

The impersonality of the 00s, its complete denial of identity, meant that by 2012 the only thing worth having was ‘skin in the game’, feminist situatedness and auto-everything. Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, which had suffered a harsh reception when first published in 1997, finally found a grateful audience in the 20-somethings that had grown up on Diane Sawyer’s tough love, and the author toured the world’s art schools. But what’s a sex-tape when everyone has one; what’s a confession in a world immunised to scandal? In a review of The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick (2017)  in Bookforum, Sarah Nicole Prickett objected to the notion made popular by the likes of Kraus, and in Kate Zambreno’s Heroines (2012), which touted that to take ‘the self out of our essays is a form of repression’. Rather Prickett praised Hardwick for doing exactly that:

 

I have to confess that while Chris Kraus’s epistolary I Love Dick matters hugely in a Moby-Dick world, I no longer care who loves dick. I care that Hardwick spent her life loving [Herman] Melville and made her study of him, published in 2000, her excellent last work, careful by then to find the feminine in her hero as a better way of saying that there can be heroines – if we are given the time and the space, but also the covert, exacting generosity of higher standards.

 

Hardwick’s writing was republished by New York Review Books during those years precisely because her impersonality, her ‘higher standards’, had come to seem so foreign as to be almost fantastical. Her cruelty belonged to ‘the bigger picture’; as in sadism, per Deleuze, acts of violence ‘are a mere reflection of a higher form of violence to which the demonstration testifies.’ 

 

There may be skilled sadists and less skilled ones, and it is this fine distinction which continues to make Hardwick’s a bitter pill to swallow among the survivors of the cruel decade. Her adamantly impersonal, though highly characteristic, criticism shows no interest in protecting sensibilities, and her cruelty served a purpose beyond its own spectacle and the pleasure she and her audience might’ve derived from it. In Head Over Heels, her 1999 essay about Monica Lewinsky – an aptly lewd scandal to inaugurate the era – she threw a wet blanket over the fun of public debasement in the first paragraph: ‘President Clinton: shallow, reckless, a blushing trimmer; Monica Lewinsky, aggressive, rouge-lipped exhibitionist.’ What else is there to say? The whole thing ought to have been beneath everyone involved. Instead Lewinsky’s famous testimony became a kind of chorus for the times to come: 

 

We continued to make love for several more hours, as Bill demonstrated more sexual libido than I have ever seen in a man. I’m not sure how many times he came, but he seemed to be inexhaustible. I remember thinking this is the kind of drive a man needs to become president of the United States.

 

Repetition is key to sadism. How many times did the President come? How many times did Paris flash her waxed fanny as she stepped out of a car? How many times did the good girl fall, and the leader of the free world resort to petty torture? Lewinsky’s is a case in point for how the same story can serve both a sadistic narrative of transgression, punishment and pleasure, and, 15 years later, a masochistic one of victimisation, suffering and guilt. 

 

Lewinsky, who was the subject of the acclaimed podcast series Slow Burn in 2018, joined the list of attempts made in the next decade to twist repetition out of sadistic hollowness and into a sort of palimpsestic over-inscription: Gossip Girl, Sex & the City, Gilmore Girls, Paris Hilton – Britney, the saint. Kim Kardashian has been as famous as she has, and for seemingly not much at all, in part because she could play the role of a stunt-double on whom the mistakes of the 00s could be redeemed: she could be curvy, not quite white, and powerful without also being violated. She was in the background of that decade as Paris Hilton’s unpaid intern, taking notes. 

 

In 2012, Taylor Swift stood on the side of mega-producer Max Martin as Britney had 10 years earlier. The scene would be played again, but this time it would be different: this time, there would be rules (while the man who makes the money, Martin, naturally remained the same). ‘The masochist draws up contracts while the sadist abominates and destroys them,’ declared Deleuze: terms and conditions are fetish gear. The new celebrity would above all be a sound and determined business person with an army of lawyers, a PR team and a stock portfolio. Swift would talk openly about the anorexia and the sexism of the music industry, and when she came out as a Liberal it seemed more like a public relations strategy to place her on the right side of the zeitgeist. She went on to re-record her albums of the early years of that decade in order to restore rights to her own music in a form of undoing by redoing. This fantasy of retrospectively applied justice begs the question of whether claiming victimhood breeds power, or if power will just wear victimhood as its latest stole, while those without power, by identifying with their oppression, become trapped by it.

 

While the woke culture of the 2010s offered plenty of spectacle in the form of cancellations and call outs, in terms of what makes a good story, ambivalence has always been a better sell than justice. The pedagogical and politically manicured arcs of Beyoncé, Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga were clever and good – as their respective documentaries would show, a close cousin of the twins ‘dogmatic’ and ‘boring’ – and for that reason so much less riveting and dumbfounding than those of Britney, Monica and the rest. (The last time we saw Beyoncé’s human face was when Ashton Kutcher Punk’d her in 2003.) There was truly some greatness in their tragedy, something of the eternal in their demise, which was somehow banalised by the sentimentality of their subsequent public restitutions, necessary though they may have been (in legal terms, for Britney, especially). Of course, woke is just the other side of the coin from cruel, as masochism is, at points, almost indistinguishable from sadism. And so, when we go back to the gory and enthralling near-deaths of the 00s under the self-serving auspices of saving them – throwing black and queer characters at Gossip Girl and Sex & the City, politicising various fallen women through strings of well-produced documentaries and podcasts – it is also because no story since has been better.


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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is a writer based in Berlin. He is a contributor to magazines such as Artforum, frieze, Texte zur Kunst and Kunstkritikk. Doing Time, a collection of essays about prison correspondence, appropriation, and the boundaries of fiction, was published by Floating Opera Press in 2021.



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