Soft Skills and Skeletal Remains: Review of Jordan S. Carroll’s Reading the Obscene

Soft Skills and Skeletal Remains: Review of Jordan S. Carroll, Reading the Obscene

Robert Kiely

Under Review:
Reading the Obscene: Transgressive Editors and the Class Politics of Us Literature. Jordan S. Carroll. Stanford University Press, 2021.

Jordan S. Carroll’s Reading the Obscene completely debunks the notion that transgression is “inherently sublime and subversive.” What is new and useful is that Carroll’s book argues this by taking as its archive the encounters between the legal establishment in the US in the twentieth century and editors who published material initially dubbed obscene by members of that legal establishment. It shows us all the ways in which theorizations about obscenity were circulated and formulated in and around those legal encounters, while also giving us some insights into the personal tastes and practices of editors at key publishers such as Grove Press, and it does so in extremely clear prose. The book takes arguments made by lawyers to defend obscene material and applies this interpretive rubric to the editors and their texts themselves. 

Carroll demonstrates that in fact transgressive material such as pornography and horror comics have often been published in a way which contextually rendered them a job training exercise. Someone who got used to certain kinds of EC Comics became good at noticing background rules for stories, narrative tricks, and the abstraction of plot, while consumers of certain kinds of pornography became good at distancing themselves from sensual feelings and transformed such images into numbers games. These skills, Carroll points out, were and are especially useful for members of the Professional Managerial Class (PMC) – such as administrators rethinking processes, lawyers making arguments they might not actually believe, or doctors inspecting bodies without emotion. 

This account is useful in our contemporary moment because it clarifies a certain tendency within the “alt-right.” For Carroll, the “alt-right” is “an exacerbation of a tendency within the PMC” – the PMC who emerged after WWII made norm-violations into a virtue because, in their own view, norm violations facilitated liberal progress. Carroll’s conclusion carries us through a whistle-stop tour from his thesis on transgressive editors as emissaries of the PMC through the pickup artist phenomenon of the early 2000s and the emergence of the alt-right. This book will be useful for anyone worried about the alt-right and contemporary fascism, as transgression is frequently discussed by alt-right sympathizers such as Angela Nagle or Catherine Liu, as well as liberals whose most pressing concern is free-speech. Carroll’s text could be read fruitfully alongside Danny Hayward’s Wound Building, which also has a fascinating reading of “transgression” with regards to fantasies of revenge in contemporary poetry via the work of Verity Spott. 

Reading the Obscene is an excellent book. But at times, distinctions between allegedly high and low culture come in through the back door of this class analysis – for example, when Carroll claims that the EC editorial process removes “any psychological depth” from the work of Ray Bradbury and that characters in their comics have “very little in the way of history or psychological complexity.” Carroll might be sufficiently disinterested as a literary critic for us to assume he implies no condemnation in these claims – his virtuosic performances of literary criticism strongly imply they cannot be meant in a condemnatory or judgmental fashion. On the same page, Carroll squashes EC Comic’s adaptation of Bradbury’s “Skeleton,” in which a man becomes a seething blob of jelly when his skeleton is removed: The EC Comic method of adaptation “rips the skeletal structure out of Bradbury’s narrative while leaving the heart and guts on the cutting room floor.” This is an immensely pleasurable moment, and in part Carroll’s claim is that this is the pleasure a reader derives from the text. But was this material consumed because its readers derived pleasure from analyzing it? It seems highly unlikely to be the only reason to read something like EC Comics. 

Carroll’s reading of the EC adaptation of “Skeleton” is also almost uncomfortably neat. Even if this reading of the EC Comics adaptation is accurate, Carroll’s reading introduces another protagonist to our tale – the critic, who, in an obsessive quest, is squashing every story he encounters into a meta-commentary on the conditions of its own production and/or circulation. What he says of EC Comics can be said of his own reading of the text here: just as EC Comics simplifies Bradbury, Carroll simplifies EC Comics’s simplifications by making them merely self-referential. 

What is most interesting about Carroll’s effort to describe the pleasure of EC Comics for its readers is that Carroll’s theorizing spills out and becomes a meditation on the pleasures of literary criticism at this precise moment. Serious questions are raised for the readers: Have the transgressive editors of yesteryear, who trained young managers in soft skills, had their function usurped by literary critics? Are critics training their readers and fellow academics in rhetorical performances which turn abstraction and insight into libidinal pleasure? What might the circulation of this account of transgression mean for the practice of literary criticism? If literary criticism is being forced to make itself look like a training exercise by a climate in which everything is being measured in terms of its ability to deliver jobs or skills to undergraduates, what then? Literary criticism is a training exercise too, as one needs advanced interpretive skills to navigate the contemporary job market and, indeed, receive unemployment benefits. Carroll’s book is valuable precisely because it allows us to formulate and ask such a question, and all while it robs from us any simplistic notion of transgression as vaguely “boundary-pushing.” 

As Carroll’s conclusion shows us, the internet has not democratized smut but made definitions of obscenity, and indeed discrimination, more obscure and increasingly motivated by profit. Any algorithm detecting obscenity made in our culture has embedded white, middle-class, liberal values inside of it. In this situation, it is not surprising that, as Carroll points out, “most banned pornographic literature today seems to be written for audiences of women and queer men primarily interested in sexual pleasure rather than personal edification.” The solutions Carroll advocates: breaking up large monopolies in publishing, and eradicating any and all mystique around transgression and obscenity.

Robert Kiely is the author of simmering of a declarative void (the87press, 2020), Incomparable Poetry, an essay on the financial crisis of 2007-8 and Irish literature (punctum, 2020), and Gelpack Allegory (Veer2, 2021). Born in Ireland, he currently lives in London. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram.

Transparency Statement

This review was commissioned from an emailed pitch from ARB’s monthly calls for review. It was edited by Misha Grifka Wander and copyedited by Adam McLain. The author and editors had no prior acquaintance. ARB arranged a review copy from Stanford University Press.

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