Congressmen Behaving Badly

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The way things are going, the notorious Congressional House Committee on Un-American Activities may have to be renamed the House Committee on Un-Believable Activities. What with Christopher Lee’s and Anthony Weiner’s career ruining escapades involving such online mainstays as Craiglist and Twitter, one might wonder whether they were auditioning for spots in Diesel’s “Be Stupid” campaign. But it is not only congressmen who are posting stunningly inappropriate material on the Web these days; a good number of other people are, too, especially the teenaged girls who have been getting themselves into trouble through “sexting.” Such an outbreak calls for a semiotic examination. Sex scandals themselves, of course, are nothing new to politics (or any other arena), but what I find interesting is the virtual dimension of the sexting phenomenon. It is the sheer exhibitionism that I find striking, an exhibitionism that does not involve actual contact. Behind such exhibitionism, as is so often the case in American popular culture, lies a fundamental contradiction: that is, while the Puritan tradition in our culture continues to regard the unclothed human body as a scandal and a sin, the capitalist side of the American character finds that same body to be a very good way to make money, either by associating it with all kinds of goods and services through advertising, or simply by selling its image through numerous varieties of visual entertainment. Wherever we look there are images of naked human bodies in our culture, and the images are not restricted to female bodies. Even the Yahoo News home page lets barely a day go by without an image of some half-dressed muscleman selling a bodybuilding product. Even as I write these words, an ad on the Yahoo News page that I am using to check my facts on the Anthony Weiner scandal features a close-up image of the nether regions of a woman in a very brief bikini—not unlike the picture that got Weiner into trouble in the first place. In short, the human body, abhorred by Puritanism, has been commodified by capitalism. In such an environment it appears that more and more people are coming to regard their own bodies as semi-commodities. In some cases, such self-commodification (as in the making of a personal sex tape) has proven to be a very profitable route to celebrity and success, and the increasing commonality of this sort of thing seems to be causing a lot of people to forget that, in the wrong place by the wrong person at the wrong time, our Puritan roots can still kick in and trip one up (in other words, what’s okay for Paris Hilton isn’t okay for Anthony Weiner). The fact that the use of digital devices is so much like the use of older, entertainment-oriented media like television only increases the confusion. Tweeting, texting, MySpacing, or Facebooking can feel like performing on TV, and just doesn’t have the same feeling of reality that person-to-person contact does. Somehow, it seems that people who should know better than to post trouble-making images of themselves on the Web donn’t seem to grasp that what they are doing is real and can have real-world consequences. Indeed, maybe Real World is to blame. The granddaddy of exhibitionist reality TV, Real World has contributed mightily to the blurring of fantasy and reality, tempting others to behave with the abandon of a a reality TV “star.”  The trouble is that all of America isn’t Girls Gone Wild or Jersey Shore, and what you can do on TV you can’t do in reality. Alas, it is too late to explain “The Situation” to Anthony Weiner.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.