With Culture, Guilt Can Sometimes Be a Good Thing

Being ashamed of personal taste is pointless, but it's important to be aware of what makes you feel bad in the first place.

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

A confession: I quite like Iggy Azalea. I wouldn't put The New Classic on my list of greatest albums of all time, but as far as empty-headed bubblegum rap goes, it's more consistently entertaining than Nicki Minaj's The Pinkprint, which (despite some great singles) gets mired in bland ballads and incongruous sincerity. None of that for Iggy, who tosses off one cheerfully snotty anthemic chorus after another, complete with an affected hood accent. She's the Bob Dylan of pop rap: the awfulness of the pseudo-authenticity is its own grating hook.

Liking Iggy, even a little bit, is a major aesthetic faux pas, a guilty pleasure, and whether people should feel guilty about culture has been the source of much debate in recent years. The UCLA English professor Megan Stephan speaks for the critical consensus when she declares, "I'll be grateful when the back-and-forth chatter about whether our reading should make us feel guilty fades to a silence that allows me to hear the sound of pages turning." Ignore the elitist sneering of cultural arbiters who don't want you to enjoy Fifty Shades of Grey or The Avengers, these voices say. Fight the power by embracing your Iggy love, guilt-free.

There are a lot of good reasons to mistrust guilt. Regulation and censure of pleasure has historically been used to denigrate and control marginalized groups. That's most obvious in the case of the LGBT community, whose desires and pleasures have been literally policed. It's true of women too, though, who are shamed for reading romance novels, and for black people, who've been shamed for basically every form of cultural expression they've developed—blues, jazz, rock, hip hop, twerking—in the short period between invention and the moment when mainstream squatters like Iggy repackaged them and took them straight to the bank. Even straight white men can be shamed or mocked for liking romantic comedies, or surreptitiously enjoying Taylor Swift and thereby associating themselves with a denigrated gender, or age group, or sexuality. "Wrong" pleasures are a way to identify the wrong people; the respectable read The Goldfinch, the debased and deluded read Twilight.

In this formulation, society imposes guilt and denies pleasure. To be true to yourself, to resist social control, you need to own your authentic loves. Even the essayist Mark Dery, who defended guilty pleasures in a recent Boing Boing article, retains this basic construction. Dery argues that guilt can signal real and valuable individual uncertainty. Guilt is okay if it's a sign of "intellectual honesty" and "genuine ambivalence"; it's only bad if it's a fear of other people. According to Dery, I can feel guilty about Iggy as long as my guilt is all internal. I can like some things about Iggy (those Abba-worthy hooks) while disliking other things (the authenticity-mongering), as long as likes and dislikes come from myself rather than from my fear of mockery. Pleasure, for Dery as for Stephan, shouldn't be limited by repressive killjoys.

But are those arbiters out there really all killjoys? Is culture really structured around the repression of pleasure? Iggy Azalea may not have won a Grammy, but she isn't exactly contraband either. On the contrary, she's a massively successful performer. Culture isn't hiding her from me; culture is packaging her for my consumption. Capitalism is, after all, basically a giant engine for delivering pleasure. It says want this, and then it delivers the thing it has worked so hard to make you want—or, if not that thing, then a reasonable replica of it. Adam Smith's invisible hand is a big paw of pleasure; the thing that pushes you willingly into capitalism's sacrificial maw is your own desire.

From this perspective, guilt is not the social force attempting to control your individual, rebellious jouissance. Rather, pleasure is the seamless control, and guilt is a glitch in the system; a residue of individuality increasingly beneath the nacreous layers of poptimism. Popular opinion says I should enjoy The Avengers because power is fun and blowing stuff up is awesome—but there's a twinge of guilt in that pleasure when you think through how that logic actually worked in Iraq. Popular opinion says I should enjoy 50 Shades of Grey or Keeping Up With the Kardashians because being a zillionaire is sexy—but maybe, guilt says, fetishizing wealth isn't the best of all possible foundations for a just world.

Lest high-culture fans pat themselves on the back too enthusiastically, it's important to note that guilty pleasure isn't just for the lowbrow. In A Midsummer's Nights Dream, Shakespeare uses all his considerable comedic skills to show you that working people—carpenters, weavers, tailors—are ridiculous fools, unfit for the polite company of nobles. One could even argue that Shakespeare is more dangerous than E.L. James. Christian Grey is so poorly written that it's hard to imagine anyone takes him seriously as a real vision of virtuous class hierarchy. But Nick Bottom is so delightfully an ass, who can gainsay his absurdity? The greater the art, the greater the pleasure, the more one falls under the sway of the tyrannical Oberon.

This isn't to say we should all identify all enjoyment with immorality. But I do think consumers of culture could stand to recapture a bit of skepticism in pleasure, and perhaps a bit of faith in guilt as well. Pleasure isn't just individual or interior; it's one of the primary ways we interact with society, and one of the primary ways that society acts upon us. And by the same token, guilt isn't just some elite imposition from outside. It's also the small, painful reminder that sometimes, in complicated ways, the things that make you feel good—those fantasies of blowing things up, or of blowing ten grand on a handbag—may also make the world a worse place.