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Bend It Like Benglis

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Lynda Benglis’s portrait of herself scandalized not because it supplanted the phallus but because it ridiculed it.

In the December 1974 issue of Artforum, five editors published and co-signed a letter “publically disassociating” themselves from portions of the previous issue. The letter cites the “extreme vulgarity” and “brutalizing” effect of an advertisement placed in the November 1974 issue by and for a New York artist, a sculptor, appearing as herself in the image. The editors condemn the uncouthness of the ad as a harmful mockery not only of the editors’ personal sensibilities but also of the larger (and conveniently undefined) “aims of [the women’s] movement.” Another grievance: As art writers and editors, these five felt professionally compromised by their forced complicity with the artist’s self-exploitation—or worse, self-promotion, “in the most debased sense of the term.”

Professional feminists agreed, with Cindy Nemster accusing the artist of “making a frantic bid for male attention.” Art historians were scandalized. School principals pulled their schools’ Artforum subscriptions. The magazine received more letters for a single issue than it had in its 13-year history. In Philadelphia, a man reportedly stormed into a museum, waving his copy of the issue, and toppled over one of the artist’s works. In a no less extreme reaction, the two women among those five editors—Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson—would soon quit the magazine to start October. Everyone knew their departure had begun with an advertisement.

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Dick Picky

dick picky Critique My Dick Pic has convinced its proprietor that the female gaze is not homogeneous. Traditionally functioning as little more than late-night infomercials, often with hilariously utilitarian demonstrations of size, dick pics have been shared en masse on dating sites and social apps for years. The dick-pic economy is thriving, replicating a whole host of our cultural malaises in miniature: Aggressively insecure men harass women whose disinterest is irrelevant to them, blithely sailing past boundaries to demand that their manhood be looked at and validated; scornful women pass them on to girlfriends with less-than-smiling emoji. Dick pics are routinely shared the first time without consent on the part of the recipient and are widely loathed for this reason. Yet they’re also intimate, amateur portraits of the genitals of men, sometimes very lonely men, which gives rise to a kind of dual nature: The dick pic is hostile yet pitiable, aggressive but also acutely pathetic. They’re also almost invariably ugly. Dick pics are, on the whole, dull and artless, inexpertly captured and painfully unerotic.

A year ago I started Critique My Dick Pic, a blog that is not safe for work unless your workplace is chill. The premise is simple: Men and other people with dicks send me photos thereof, and I critique the photos with love. I have a general policy of being gentle about people’s bodies, including their genitals (the blog’s motto is “100% ANON, NO SIZE SHAMING”), but I was also feeling particularly magnanimous toward dick pics the day that the blog was born. I’m often asked why I started CMDP, and the truth is that I woke up one morning to a dick pic so good that I felt inspired to change the others. That’s all it was—one excellent, well-planned pic from a person whose dick I explicitly wanted to see. I was jarred by how unnecessarily rare that move was and struck by the conviction that people with dicks could do better.

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♫ Roxane ♫

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With a bestselling book and a new site, Roxane Gay is a welcome threat to mainstream feminist sensibilities

Roxane Gay is on the verge of being our next feminist icon. Bad Feminist spent a month on the New York Times Best Sellers List. She is the subject of interviews and profiles in all the big media outlets at home and abroad. In addition to the regular bookstore circuit, she’s the new darling of the Women’s Studies academy with invitations to speak at colleges and universities around the country. Her fan base is deep and wide. This week Gay launches The Butter, her own companion site to Nicole Cliffe and Mallory Ortberg’s The Toast, where Gay will edit a mix of cultural essays, advice, and, judging by Cliffe and Ortberg’s precedent, whatever she wants to publish. As everyone who is paying attention has noted, she excels at fiction and sharp cultural critiques and is very good at being a bad feminist. She also sort of sucks at being A BLACK ♀.

In life, on television, and in the movies A BLACK ♀ is sassy, fierce, appropriately tragic and/or hilarious (ain’t nobody got time for that). She is angry (always), and strong. A BLACK ♀ means Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, Olivia Pope, Angela Davis, and, now, Professor Annalise Keating, J.D. There are exceptions, like Issa Rae’s “Awkward Black Girl” and Jean Gray’s sharp, surreal “Life with Jeannie.” which, like all of the more nuanced representations and representing of black womanhood these days, can be found on the Internet. We might be quirky from time to time (think Denise Huxtable or Monica Wright), but we’re never pathetic, at least not in public or in the public imagination. We don’t get to do neurotic. We are not manic-pixie dream girls.

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Venerated Members

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Europe’s history of penis worship was cast aside when the Catholic Church realized Jesus’s foreskin was too potent to control.

Grigori Rasputin’s dick is on display at the Museum of Erotics in Saint Petersburg. Housed in a jar of formaldehyde, the member, which the museum’s owner claims he obtained from a French antiquarian, is quite sizable. Actually, it’s enormous for a human penis: Wide and meaty, it measures about a foot long. According to the museum, just gazing on the preserved member can cure a range of problems, everything from infertility to a humdrum sex life. But the specimen isn’t a human penis. It more than likely came from a horse.

It wouldn’t be the first time something inhuman was passed off as Rasputin’s dick. An earlier version circulated after Rasputin’s 1916 murder, legendary for being long and difficult: an initial failed poisoning, followed by multiple gunshots, a beating, and finally a drowning. Legend has it that in the midst of the horror show the man in charge of the grisly plot, Prince Felix Yusupov, somehow managed to castrate the mad mystic. Rasputin’s penis was supposedly scurried out of the country and ended up in the hands of Russian émigrés in Paris. There, his dick became a kind of religious relic of their vanished homeland, a potent piece of a vanished social order.

According to Rasputin biographer Patte Barham, the émigrés treated it as quasi-sacred, keeping it in a makeshift reliquary and venerating it. The powerful appendage of the dead mystic had strength or reassurance to offer the beleaguered community. By the 1970s, Barham reported that Rasputin’s dick looked like “a blackened, overripe banana, about a foot long, and resting on a velvet cloth.” When Rasputin’s daughter Maria discovered that others were in possession of the only remaining earthly piece of her father, she successfully demanded the member be returned to its rightful heir. It stayed with her until her death in 1977, after which it was confirmed that the relic was actually a sea cucumber.

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View From Nowhere

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On the cultural ideology of Big Data.

“What science becomes in any historical era depends on what we make of it”  —Sandra Harding, Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? (1991)

Modernity has long been obsessed with, perhaps even defined by, its epistemic insecurity, its grasping toward big truths that ultimately disappoint as our world grows only less knowable. New knowledge and new ways of understanding simultaneously produce new forms of nonknowledge, new uncertainties and mysteries. The scientific method, based in deduction and falsifiability, is better at proliferating questions than it is at answering them. For instance, Einstein’s theories about the curvature of space and motion at the quantum level provide new knowledge and generates new unknowns that previously could not be pondered.

Since every theory destabilizes as much as it solidifies in our view of the world, the collective frenzy to generate knowledge creates at the same time a mounting sense of futility, a tension looking for catharsis — a moment in which we could feel, if only for an instant, that we know something for sure. In contemporary culture, Big Data promises this relief.

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