Saturday, 10 April 2010

"Let the little children come unto me"


So perhaps the now super-sensationalist E4 series Skins has finally gone the way of all shock-TV in trading its original subtlety and humour - or at least lightness of touch - in portraying the teenage underworld of Bristol, for a more shock-and-awe/smash-and-grab approach. Still, what it has maintained throughout is an overriding preference and sympathy for the boozing, pill-popping, promiscuous wastrels - at the expense of the adults who, celebrity not withstanding, unfailing come across as dull, stupid, thoughtless, lumbering or downright evil.

While the easy condemnation of Daily Mailers, for whom Skins fits into the Ban This Filth list of programmes, corrupting the innocent, eager minds of our children,* what is really striking in this contrast is that despite the sex, drugs and foul language their authenticity and freedom returns to them a new definition of innocence. This of course sits oddly with their total eschewal of traditional forms of morality, but perhaps in our post-60s secular age it is authenticity that provides the new framework of ethics.+

Of course for the last several thousand years ethical systems have been dominated by an eschewal of self - a kenosis (emptying) of self - for the other. But while this is all very well if we’re martyring ourselves out to another world, or if we’re brashly empowered jocks who need taking down a peg, for the one who has been othered, it is conservative rather than radical, and there will always be an emperor Constantine to maximise that effect. Series 4 of Skins has a real thing about names and self identification. So we have Katie at her nadir moment screaming “I’m Katie fucking Fitch, who the fuck are you?”, and of course the climactic final moment of the series: “I don’t think you know what I am mate... I’m a fucking waste of space... Just a stupid kid... I got no sense....A criminal...I’m no fucking use...I am please... please... get it into know...into your bonce....That you killed my friend.... And... I’m Cook... I’M COOK!”

Both these scenes are about authenticated otherness, about the one whose voice has been stolen, by those in authority and the fake WAGs and wankers, screwing their courage into a ball and flinging it out in high density self-expression. This sort of “everyone’s-ok” right-on attitude is pastiched in scenes such as High School Musical’s "Stick to the Status Quo", but in Skins it achieves a properly tragic quality as the flawed characters are dragged down to their fated ends in the full glory of their realised flaws, which nevertheless preserve them ethically as authentic.

Now one might argue here that, although this might make them Enlightenment heroes, independent, free and authentically themselves, theologically they are no more to be praised than Milton’s Satan, no more justified than Macbeth. But in every series what is most remarkable, most notable, is the incredible solidarity shared amongst the teenagers, the seemingly limitless forgiveness they show one another - between Freddie and Cook fighting over Effie, Effie nearly killing Katie in series 3, but then being the person who helps pick her up when all is lost (by teaching her how to smoke!), Naomi betraying Emily, before their textbook happy-ending reconciliation. It is this “solidarity of the shaken”, as one theologian has called it,§ this self-authentication in otherness, that hopes, believes and endures all things.

They may not have taken on a Pauline eschewal of fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, the effeminate or abusers of themselves, but there is more of Christ about them than most Christians I have met. So perhaps authenticity does provide a clue to contemporary ethics in realising a counter-point to the saintly self-giving of the holy empowered. And perhaps from this other city the authentic poor provide their own tragic homage to what it is to participate in the crucified God.
*There is a suggestion of irony in these articles. Note the accompanying erotic image and what about the critique of True Blood: “More offensive than all this is the sheer distasteful nature of the content. There's oral sex, overt discussion of genitalia, graphic sex scenes bordering on the deviant, and foul language"? Apart from seeming ridiculously dated, the building up of criticism to that pinnacle of “foul language” is hard to take seriously.

+ For a great Laudamus te to authenticity,
and for its relation to secularism, see Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, which I’ve spent the last year reading for review but still only got to page 400.

§ Andrew Shanks, see his The Other Calling and Faith in Honesty, among others for this pervasive theme in his work.


  1. Great post! I'm particularly interested in how conservative the "saintly self-giving of the holy empowered" is, i.e. the vulnerability of those for whom vulnerability is easy. Obviously this is a massive feminist issue... how do you give yourself when you've got very little self to give? Maybe it goes back to the question of who can exploit themselves I was talking about in the Lady GaGa post.
    And the mental health issues are relevant - it's only when Effie realises that her past - painful and impossible to deal with as it is - is a crucial part of who she is that she can get on with healing. By repressing her vulnerability, she forecloses true self knowledge. But it's her vulnerability as a young woman in the first place that sets her up for abuse by the doctor...

  2. Denys Turner's The Darkness of God is interesting on the self. He talks about how the medieval mystics were all about annihilation of the self - but importantly this was in the context of a spiritual life which by rigorous discipline had created a quite formidable self.

    I think when it comes to kenosis we tend to rush in a bit quick. Most people don't have time, or haven't taken the time, to really discover and strengthen their selves before they start hearing the rhetoric of kenosis and self-abandonment.

    I think the first (and perhaps only stage for us seculars) is really to build up a fully operational relational self. This is what I think Skins is about - discovering and owning who we are while recognising that this somebody is connected to a lot of other people who matter.

  3. But that's exactly what I mean. For some, 'really discovering and strengthening themselves' isn't a straightforward matter when, say, survival is a priority, or so much time is spend doing necessary caring for others that there is no time left to build up oneself before one starts a kenotic project.
    It's like Janet Soskice's story about the mother who gets really bad advice from the priests about when to pray in 'The Kindness of God'.

    So it's easily said - by certain sorts of mystics and priests who have the luxury of doing it.

  4. That's why you have to remember that John of the Cross (and others) were writing for monks and nuns. I mean what else are they going to do?

  5. Anonymous Comment:
    I agree that there are lots of bad forms of kenosis which can be about oppression, destructive self-loathing, etc, but does this mean we should get rid of all talk of kenosis and sacrifice and just embrace self-affirmation/expression? The second half of your piece (after the bit about Milton) suggests not, but I think perhaps I would want to be more specific about saying how the virtuous qualities of the Skins characters themselves might be kenotic and sacrificial, in a good way, perhaps because they build up others in love. The implicit contrast with Constantine could suggest that the difference between good and bad kenosis is just whether you’re powerful or not, as if powerful people can’t be kenotic they just force others to be, while the powerless are the ones capable of true love and goodness. This obviously has strong Christian resonances (the Beatitudes and St Francis) but I think it has problems, not least that power becomes irredeemably corrupting and it would seem that it’s good to disempower people because that’s their only hope of being virtuous! I think I would want to say that power (even at the macro-Imperial level) can be exercised virtuously, even kenotically, against the Yoder-Mennonite-early Hauerwas-Ekklesia brigade. This is the sense in which I think being ‘anti-Constantinian’ is too easy an option. I think I would also want to say, in a Foucauldian sense, that even the Skins characters are not completely powerless, but have forms of power, including their virtues like friendship, loyalty, and self-sacrifice. To sum up, for me, sacrificial love is a sort of power: when God empties himself in Christ and is betrayed into the hands of sinners, he is not actually abandoning his power; this is the power of the cross. It is the Franciscan (Scotist-Kantian!) theology of powerlessness which I think actually encourages the abusive forms of kenosis which you’re concerned about at the beginning.

    Sorry, I’m not really disagreeing with you, only questioning a possible subtext of power=necessarily bad, powerlessness= always good, and I know you can’t say everything in a blog after all!

  6. Dear Anonymous,
    I agree. No one is completely powerless - part of our human condition is that we always, no matter how disempowered we might be, we are all enmeshed in these relationships and have access to power over someone/something. I'm reading Rowan William's Resurrection at the moment and he's interesting on this - with Jesus as the only real victim and thus only real possible saviour and judge.
    From a feminist point of view, for me this is exactly the point. Jesus REDEFINES power/patriarchy etc. So as you say it's not about disempowering people to make them virtuous, it's about a different sort of power. The challenge is to always be aware of the privileged ways in which each of us, in our own power (whether gender, race, forms of embodiment, sexuality etc) puts the Other in an unhelpful position of their vulnerablity being reified.


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