The Long Hard Road Out of Conformity:
An excerpt from "The Dehabitualization of Sexuality: Shock as Shklovskian Ostranenie in The Revolting Cocks' 'Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?' and Marilyn Manson's 'Long Hard Road Out of Hell'"
by Tracy Derynck
What exactly is shock? How does one accomplish it, and what might it be used to accomplish itself? Within Russian Formalism, Viktor Shklovsky was concerned with making the familiar strange, suggesting that this undertaking is necessary if one is to avoid the "habitualization" which results in unaesthetic reduction: "all life is reckoned as nothing" (Shklovsky, 18). One might think that a transformation of the everyday or mundane into the striking or sublime could well be a component of shock. Furthermore, when such a transformation is well-executed, one can imagine how actual assumptions and their implications might be thrown into sharp relief against new possibilities, thereby disrupting the habitualization of which Shklovsky speaks.
What subjects might be most illuminated by such a treatment, by exposing our familiar assumptions through the introduction of exaggerated or aberrant elements? Probably those subjects which are both somewhat ubiquitous, and which are taken for granted in many ways in spite of their complexity. One such topic is sexuality. Portrayals of and allusions to sexuality can be found very easily throughout the media in our culture.
Furthermore, one tends to notice a degree of conformity in these sexual representations; even though a nearly endless variety of approaches to sexuality are theoretically possible, in general what we see in our regular daily lives reflects a fairly narrow stream of sexual expectations. We can generalize by noticing that most sexual portrayals treat heterosexual sex between two individuals as normal and imply that only the young and beautiful need apply. Additionally, sex appears to be divided roughly into two main kinds: the romantic kind associated with love, and the commercialized kind associated with pornography and opposed to religious morality and "real" art.
What happens then, when sexuality is approached through defamiliarization, through shock? Given the impact sexuality appears to have in the lives of many people, one would suspect that the highlighting and questioning of our assumptions about this matter could yield some interesting benefits. Perhaps we may discover limitations which we have unwittingly placed upon ourselves, or unearth unnecessary assumptions which tend to cause friction and frustration in our sexual relationships.
I would suggest that such discovery is exactly what occurs in Marilyn Manson's "Long Hard Road Out of Hell" video. The video takes a shock approach to sexuality, and both succeed in combining imagery, sound and lyrics to take the once-familiar topic of sexuality into unusual and challenging territory, territory in which we find that we do not know all the answers about sexuality that we thought we did.
Shock and rock have gone together long enough for some people to claim that nothing shocks them anymore, particularly in regards to sexuality. While it is true that the shocking/unfamiliar does not remain so continually (Rice and Waugh, 17), I would assert that so long as there is any idea of the normal, the usual, the everyday, from which it is possible to stray, shock in the Shklovskian way I am construing it can still be picked up on even by those who claim to have "seen it all." These deviations from normality, as revealed in the video, serve to make our prior expectations plain (by violating them), and to alter our views of what is possible and/or acceptable in the sexual realm. By doing this, they disrupt the process of habitualization, and thus they are "literary" as Russian Formalists use the term (Rice and Waugh, 16-7)...
Marilyn Manson's Long Hard Road Out of Conformity
Marilyn Manson is often identified as a performer who sets out to shock his audience. While such shock may not necessarily always be in the Shklovskian sense I am discussing, we can see defamiliarization at work in the video "Long Hard Road Out of Hell." The song's lyrics, inspired in part by Milton's Paradise Lost, are thematically centered around alienation and punishment as a result of one's differences. This message, combined with the sexually ambiguous imagery of the video, results in a shock-based questioning of whether sexuality which is not sanctified by love and/or normality is necessarily contrary to religion and art.
Fairly early on in the video, we are treated to images of Manson and his band posed in a manner that suggests religious iconography, a pope surrounded by cardinals. We are thus set up for the suggestion that one can usurp religious/aesthetic authority, treating one's own values as being just as valid as those backed by tradition. One could "live like a teenaged Christ,"as the lyrics say, combining rebellious individual values with sanctified authority. On the other hand, the resulting "saint", if not strong enough, finds him/herself on "a date with suicide": being made to feel that one is worthless because one has failed to conform. Either way, both the lyrics and imagery of the video at this point centre around a hijacking of religious terms, a situation which contrasts sharply with the reverent distancing such items are familiarly treated with.
The iconographic portrayal of Manson opens up the possibility of questioning aesthetic assumptions as well, particularly where they overlap with religious morality. With the individual empowered to take up, question and adapt religious aesthetics, the door is opened for the individual to alter other aspects of religion, such its typical opposition to sexual variety, as well as assumptions about sexual beauty. That is, unusual sexuality need not be shut out of religion and art, because human beings have the individual power, in the world Manson presents, to alter these traditions. Later imagery in the video furthers this questioning of religion and aesthetics, as Manson appears as an exotic one-horned god being approached with an attitude of tentative reverence.
Soon we begin to see twists in Manson's religious/aesthetic portrayals: sequences of iconic images of Manson are interrupted by a shot of him twitching, covered in blood, and small details such as tarantulas floating in formaldehyde serve to disrupt the seemingly pure beauty of other scenes. Such earthly ugliness serves to remind us that humans are not only cultural creatures, but also natural ones. Thus, cultural pursuits such as religion and aesthetics must ultimately be influenced by physical realities, including sexual ones. Manson's phallic horn brings out this idea even more strongly, divinely sanctioning sexuality as holy in itself rather than only as a segment of love. The holy and beautiful are thus defamiliarized through the addition of the sexual.
This defamiliarization can also be seen to a great extent in the semi-nude scenes, both those involving only Manson and those in which there are additional figures. Manson himself is presented as androgynous for most of the video, smooth-skinned and pretty in a feminine manner, but lacking enough curves to remain somewhat masculine. Thoroughly made up toward the video's beginning, he appears in less and less clothing as things progress, and that which he is wearing becomes torn and displaced. A highly aesthetic, graceful femininity thus gives way to touches of masculinity, disorder and jerkiness as Manson loses his clothes.
Nonetheless, all of the scenes involving only Manson involve him posing like a model. We are thereby made to see that the artistic and the pornographic run together, such that it is far more difficult to separate them than traditional aesthetic discourse would have us believe. Furthermore, because it is Manson who stars in both these scenes and those involving the religious imagery, a sharp distinction between the religiously attractive and the sexually attractive is also denied. It is further significant that the sexuality presented here is that of the voyeur, the exhibitionist and/or the cross-dresser, not the straightforward heterosexuality of traditional love.
As to the other figures in the semi-nude scenes, we notice that they undergo a pattern of transformation similar to Manson's own. At first they are feminine, lovely, and quite pure in their appearance: the fluffy outfit of one suggests an innocent kitten, and the androgynes appear blissfully unaware that their actions, from stabbing pins into flowers to touching Manson's horn, could have any sexual connotation. However, as the video progresses the scenes become more and more compromising, again denying the dichotomy of art and pornography.
From their postures later in the video, we surmise that one of the androgynes is dominated by Manson, soon after which "her" top is removed to reveal a flat, male chest. The same figure is next transformed into something bald and almost troll-like, with which Manson continues to interact as if nothing has happened. As the still shots are revealed in quicker succession, we begin to see threesomes interacting in the bedroom.
All of these elements–gender ambiguity, the possibility of domination, fetishism of the grotesque, and a denial of the exclusivity of the sexual couple–together conspire to confound our aesthetic notions of what constitutes beautiful–and hence normal–sensuality/sexuality. Our religion-influenced notions of what roles and appearances are sexually appropriate for males, females and human beings in general are disrupted as well. But additionally, one notices that one of the androgynes in these scenes was also the "worshiper" in the horned god scene. Thus, the suggestion is not only that alternatives to our usual aesthetic/religious expectations might exist, but that these alternative sexualities might be just as valid as "normal" components of religious/aesthetic practice.
Finally, that all of this emerges through a sequence of still shots adds to the degree of shock involved. One might assume that one knows what's going on in a static portrayal, and yet in this video nothing could be less true, as sexualities multiply and one is left wondering what happened.
In summary, we see Manson take on a variety of roles in "Long Hard Road Out of Hell," from holy icon and beautiful seductress to fallen and debased versions of these. But there is no sharp boundary drawn between roles, and we cannot be sure where the god ends and the porn star begins. Thus, sexuality is invited into religion and art as individual ideals replace traditional ones; the song's devil can succeed in his desire "to live... to love" in spite of his place outside of sanctified "normal" sexuality. In the end, he declares he will "sell my soul for anything, anything but you," presumably directed at God or equivalent human authorities.
As the video makes apparent, one's soul, including one's sexual self, can be turned to a variety of purposes, but it ought not to be subjugated to and ruled by authoritarian standards, including those imposed by traditional Western aesthetics and religion.