Dirty Old Men?

June 22, 2011
By

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A review of Julia Lupton’s Thinking with Shakespeare: Essays on Politics and Life from a recent issue of the Time Higher Ed opened with a clip from Samuel Johnson on the Bard:

“There is,” wrote Johnson in the magnificent preface to his edition of the plays,” always an appeal open from criticism to nature.” Shakespeare is true to life when he shows joy bumping up against sorrow and the sublime against the ridiculous.

The review went on to call into account Lupton’s premise: that to “think with Shakespeare” was to learn about both politics and life, as well as to call into question how—with nods to Agamben and Arendt—Shakes might help us unravel a contemporary crisis or two.
The next afternoon, reading a piece by Rosemary Counter in the Globe and Mail on Carrie Pitzulo’s Bachelors and Bunnies: The Sexual Politics of Playboy, we were reminded of Johnson’s reference to the open appeal. Here, too, in a review that delved into the viability of Pitzluto’s premise, was a question that posited the sublime with the ridiculous: can we “think with Playboy?”
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In search of answers, Pitzulo begins with what we’re all thinking: the centerefolds. While objectification comes straight to mind, Hefner believes playmates are “glorified” as a “friend and equal.” And, to his credit, they’re far from wanton libertines or nameless nudes: through interviews, the Playmates are often presented as educated, assertive, hard-working and individualist (also presented, however, are their measurements).

The core of Pitzulo’s claim, though, goes beyond the images saturating the magazine and calls into question the content that accompanied it, including Playboy’s liberal positions on “civil rights, Vietnam, free speech, and a surprising degree of fair and sympathetic gender politics.”
In the instance—and interest—of both works, however, the real question fielded by their authors seems to be the validity of a revisionist account, and how such a return in recent criticism might help us to explore the social constructs that these two monster narratives have imbued in our cultural consciousness.
Never the twain shall meet? How about a particularly dramatic revisiting of Harry Nilsson’s ubiquitous ode to “The Desk” from Playboy After Dark? Not quite the quandary of Caliban’s age or minority status, and isolated from the the question of whether Hef’s notion of gender as a social construct and sexuality as a wide spectrum was ahead of its time, but still a moment when we might again use a mix of high and low culture to enter that shapeshifting space between politics and life:

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