This first appeared in the Spectator Australia and can be read here:

Where did innuendo go?

That is the question that has been bugging me recently.

I listen to a lot of music from the 1940s, many of which are scattered with allusions to sex without ever saying it explicitly. In many ways, innuendo is what creates the allure. When the sexual reference is merely an inference you are invited to fill in the gaps with your imagination. Take this classic from George Formby:

The chambermaids’ sweet names I call It’s a wonder I don’t fall My mind’s not on my work at all When I’m cleanin’ windows.

Compare this with the top song of last year WAP which (as the name Wet-Ass Pussy suggests) is completely explicit in its depiction:

Gobble me, swallow me, drip down the side of me (yeah) Quick, jump out ‘fore you let it get inside of me (yeah).

It is not just music that has lost the art of the innuendo, art has too.

The difference between porn and erotica used to be both stark and intentional. Pornography was an explicit and visual medium more or less exclusively aimed at and consumed by men. Erotic art (such as the famous Shunga art from Japan) on the other hand was the dance between the explicit and implicit, the real and the fantasy, and had many female aficionados.

This distinction has been completely lost today. Take for instance The Great Wall of Vagina. You don’t need any imagination here, the clue is in the name, it is a wall of casts of women’s vulva. It is both completely explicit, or as was said of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party it is “3-D ceramic pornography,” and bereft of passion or fantasy.

Although the depiction of sex today is the most obvious instance where the implicit has been completely subsumed by the literal, it is a phenomenon that is creeping it to the culture wherever fantasy and imagination once had a draw.

Nations tend to have stories about their founding or character. These stories are depicted and multiply through the culture (both pop and folk). Think of how comic books picked up the American ideal and reflected it with heroes like Captain America.

What is largely considered the most sacred day on the Australian Calendar, Anzac day, has just passed. A German friend once said to me that he thought it cute that Australia’s most foundational tale is a battle which we lost — Gallipoli. (Suffice it to say that Germany isn’t in any hurry to celebrate a war it lost anytime soon.) But it is not the outcome but the character which is celebrated by Australia. It is our grit, humour, and mateship and why we don’t have comic book heroes but comic heroes like Paul Hogan’s various characters or The Castle’s Darryl Kerrigan.

The point however is not the difference in national heroes but that fact they are no longer depicted throughout our art. We only speak of our country literally — and in great detail of all its shortcomings — not mythically.

This is not to say we should live in a fantasy land, by endlessly depicting good things about our country that are completely untrue. But proliferating representations of the national mythos allows for imagination of what we might be or what we could achieve.

The explicitness of the current cultural moment has been something I keep noticing but never really understood why, until this week when the penny dropped.

Just as when people acquired the ability to write memory gave way. Almost nobody has the experience of talking to an illiterate person today, but in years gone by (so I am told), the people with the best memories were the ones that had to remember because they couldn’t simply write it down. Likewise, skills that technology replaces becomes a lost art very quickly.

Video recording is nothing new, but the ability for each of us to record everything all the time and play it back exactly as it took place has only existed since the smartphone. Just as the video killed the radio star, the smartphone has killed the Hollywood video stars by making fantasy obsolete.

With the ability to completely and accurately record everything in real-time, there is no longer a need to allude to something, and when something is no longer needed it is lost.

So, to answer my original question, where did innuendo go? It went extinct. We have, literally, lost the ability to leave anything to the imagination.

Updated: Nov 20, 2021

The greatest changes in culture have come through the domination of a particular subculture or scene. These are groups of people in very different fields which share a common ideal or goal and advance it through different mediums.

Think the Bloomsbury Group who sprouted the most influential people of the era from economist John Maynard Keynes to writer Virginia Woolf. The point is not whether you agree with what this group put into the world but the fact that a common subculture that contained different people in different disciplines changed the world.

Likewise, art movements such as art nouveau are so recognisable because it was not just an art movement but a recognisable aesthetic across multiple disciplines that shaped both houses (or architecture) and what went inside them (furniture, art, interior design etc).

In recent years such scenes and subcultures were mostly a teen dalliance based on the looks and music of certain bands. Probably it started through imitation of one devoted fan but took on a life of its own.

This holds across multiple generations. My mum speaks of everyone having the Flock of Seagulls Haircut whereas in my day many a teen had an emo do like My Chemical Romance.

Even for a non-emo like myself, the music of many of the bands that influenced the subculture is part of my generation. The subculture influenced a whole period of music to the point that it is basically mainstreamed.

A clear example of that is the hipster subculture which was based on indie music, and a non-mass produced look, but the popularity of which resulted in the clothes and music becoming a fashion trend.

What is even more bizarre is that the appeal of these subcultures are coming back with a Y2K look being on trend right now.

The desire to be part of a club is innate in humans. That in part explains the success of scenes and subcultures being the sources of breakthroughs in the broader culture. People want to fit into a group bigger enough to influence the world and be recognisable, but no one wants to be part of a group so big that all individuality is lost to it. Subcultures are the perfect size in that respect.

It also solves the coordination problem. The “Friendly Ambitious Nerd” Visakan Veerasamy makes the point that scenes are the best way to encourage creativity.

People don't need to reinvent the wheel. If there is a common subculture to riff off (sometimes literally) then people can play with whatever precepts or views are common to the subculture but then put an individual or creative tweak on top of it. This is where having people from different walks of life and disciplines really help as one person may create visual art from the common riff whilst another might be inspired to create mathematical equations - who knows.

This subculture effect is exactly what All Minus One was conceived to facilitate. The goal of which is precisely to have different people in different disciplines and spheres of influence come together over shared values, particularly of freedom of expression, from there who knows what projects will be sparked, but the world would be a better one if we found out.

The great offence that has taken hold recently was against another one of Dave Chappelle’s Netflix specials where he told a joke which concluded with him announcing that he is a TERF.

For those that have been living under a rock for the last few years, that stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist. These are feminists that believe that certain rights that women fought for, such as female-only spaces, should be reserved for biological females, rather than open to anyone that merely identifies as such.

Many of the people, mostly women, that have been subject to an attempted cancellation for being a TERF have been an example of exactly what to do when the mob comes for you.

The most high profile instance was J.K. Rowling. She refused to bow to the mob after being accused of being transphobic. Instead of going away, she doubled down on her eminently reasonable position that the gender ideology that much of the trans activism (as distinct from individuals) is based on is not an uncomplicated good. Many harms and unintended consequences flow from erasing the sex from language and culture.

Another lady that stood up against the mob is a textile artist from the UK, Jess de Wahls - whose work famously includes the Big Swinging Ovaries which I hinted at in the title of this piece.

Much like Rowling before her, she released a statement explaining why she holds the views she does, rather than apologising for them.

What Wahls and Rowling have in common is a history of being silenced. Rowling speaks of the attempts to ban her books in her statement and Wahls tells the story of growing up on the east side of the Berlin Wall:

The idea of ’wrong think’ is something that has, worryingly, returned to many aspects of the political spectrum and public discourse. And its increasing prevalence scares the shit out of me, frankly.

It is telling that the people that stand up against the mob are the ones with the experience to know where bowing down to those that wish to silence might lead.

Both of these women survived the mob. Rowling is too big to cancel and Jess De Wahls received an apology from the Royal Academy of Arts and had her work reinstated in the gift shop.

More importantly, both of these women provided cover for others to speak out. J.K. Rowling in particular was vocal in support of Maya Forstater, she writes about this being the issue that kicked off the campaign against her:

For people who don’t know: last December I tweeted my support for Maya Forstater, a tax specialist who’d lost her job for what was deemed ‘transphobic’ tweets. She took her case to an employment tribunal, asking the judge to rule on whether a philosophical belief that sex is determined by biology is protected in law. Judge Tayler ruled that it wasn’t.

There are many more cancellation attempts against TERFs, just this week philosophy professor Kathleen Stock resigned after calls were made for her to be fired for her ‘transphobic’ views. At least on the topic of gender ideology, there are examples of women that have weathered the crowd. This hopefully will give her confidence that she too will land on her feet and in an organisation less keen to have her shut up.

Certainly, providing a counterweight to the cancel culture mobs of today is one of the reasons I started All Minus One. These women should be a lesson to all that by not capitulating you can help less powerful people survive a cancellation attempt.