Cultural Performances on the Internet

While political scientists and analysts have spent innumerable hours trying to account for Clinton’s ability to survive, even thrive, during the two-year saga, Americans on the Internet, with their Java Photo Lab software and musical wavs, brought acute critical skills and breathtaking creativity to the medium with their own accounts of Clinton’s survival.[6] At the same time, any analysis of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair as magically mirrored on the Internet must begin with several caveats. First, the vast number of texts available makes any claims to a single, or overriding, political or social meaning impossible. For each text that lovingly pokes fun at Clinton, there is an equal and opposite text that pours vitriolic. For every witty turn of phrase, there is a tired, recycled cheating-husband joke. For every clever doctoring of a photo, there is poor cut and paste job using a still photograph from hard-core pornography. To borrow a phrase from Yeats, “the center will not hold” given the immensity of created texts and political agendas available on the web. If there is a center, however, it is that all cultural performances are “flexible and nuanced instruments capable of carrying and communicating many messages at once, even of subverting on one level what it appears to be ‘saying’ on another” (Turner 24).

Second, attribution in most cases is next to impossible.[7] While each text featured here was created by someone, the medium loosens authorial ties, sending these performances into cyberspace without the traditional legal protection developed for and afforded to print-based texts. Closer to oral folklore than printed literature, performance and dispersal on the Internet is collective. To use a market-based analogy, we each purchase a share in these texts when we retrieve them, save them on “favorites,” print them and post them on our office bulletin boards, forward them to friends, and participate in both their emergence as performances and livelihood as cultural artifacts. Like oral texts, the critiques of Clinton available on the Internet confuse our notions of textual “permanence.” At once readily available to those of us on the privileged side of the digital divide, they are also marked by planned obsolescence. When a web page is “No Longer Available,” it is really gone. To locate these texts in their historical and authorial specificity, part of any postmodern critique that rejects ahistorical, atemporal, universal narratives, is difficult if not impossible.

Third, even if “no longer available,” the Internet represents an incredible cultural storehouse of folk material. Political jokes, especially those that feature sexual taboos like oral sex, have long circulated orally; their taboo topics flourishing precisely because traditional media outlets censored both language and acts (Oring). Most of these jokes “fall into oblivion,” and Alan Dundes claims that this is “another reason for recording them in print” in academic journals and books (47). Dundes analyzes a number of Gary Hart jokes, which circulated orally after Miami Herald reporters discovered him with Donna Rice on board a boat named Monkey Business, in 1987. Dundes asks, “Who knows how many ephemeral and brief political joke cycles in centuries past came and went without anyone thinking to record them for posterity” (48). Monica and Bill web sites are this record.

As an incredible storehouse of oral and graphic texts, available for criticism and interpretation, at once a record yet unmoored from specific author, locale, and historical moment, these texts are thoroughly steeped in cultural and political structures. As such, these texts are exemplary of culture at play.


Playing With Hegemonic Masculinity

The intersection of play and performance is a rich site for textual analysis, and Turner speaks, again prophetically when applied to the Internet, to play’s forms and functions:

Here early theories that play arises from excess energy have renewed relevance. Part of that surplus fabricates ludic critiques of presentness, of the status quo, undermining it by parody, satire, irony, slapstick; part of it subverts past legitimacies and structures; part of it is mortgaged to the future in the form of a store of possible cultural and social structures, ranging from the bizarre and ludicrous to the utopian and idealistic . . . (Turner 170)

In Eric Fassin’s analysis of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, he asks, “How can we even evoke the parallel with the Dreyfus Affair without falling into parody, and how can one seriously talk of ‘Monica Dreyfus’?” (153). With these questions, he discounts the seriousness of play and its possibilities for critique.[8] Ludic critiques of the present, subversion of past legitimacies, and a storehouse of possible future cultural and social structures are the tripartite organizing principles of the Clinton-Lewinsky Internet texts. At the center of this chronological triptych is masculinity.

Masculinity names and produces a set of power relations and social expectations, performed with varying degrees of success by individuals. A prescriptive set of behaviors is always difficult to create, especially given the ways that subject positions—race, ethnicity, age, sexuality, physical ability—are determinants of and determined by economic, social, political, historical, and geographic factors. Still, brave theorists try to name masculinity in ways that help delineate the powers and oppressions produced there. James Doyle, in an early work, offered five themes (or hortatory “thou shalls”) of masculinity in the West: Be successful, Be Independent, Be Aggressive, Don’t Be Feminine, and Be Sexual. For R. W. Connell, masculinities—hegemonic, complicit, subordinate, and marginalized—are interrelated and contingent upon each other. In a semiotic approach, masculinity is always set in opposition to femininity as the “unmarked term, the place of symbolic authority” (Connell 70). Hegemonic masculinity is established “only if there is some correspondence between cultural ideal and institutional power, collective if not individual. So the top levels of business, the military and government provide a fairly convincing corporate display of masculinity” (Connell 76). A few men succeed in this performance of masculinity: successful, wealthy, powerful--politically, socially, and sexually. These heterosexual, white men are both emulated and envied by other, “lesser” masculine subject positions. It is no great leap of faith to cast the President of the United States as both symbol and embodiment of hegemonic masculinity in the West.[9]

The texts I analyze here take Clinton as symbol and embodiment of hegemonic masculinity very seriously, amidst the high hilarity that centers these political and social critiques. I argue that individually and collectively the jokes have two primary functions: to shore up hegemonic masculinity and to remember heteronormative sex acts. Both of these functions are accomplished through the women of the social drama.

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