The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 19 No. 3 (Fall 2017)

Signifiers

Vulgarity

Robert Boyers

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2017

(Volume 19 | Issue 3)

Do we any longer use the term vulgar? There was a time, not so long ago, when it was as often employed as coarse or common. We take it that something is said to be vulgar when it is low, indecent, gross, trite, or ostentatious. The several possible meanings of vulgar are not perfectly synonymous, but it is obvious that informing each of them is a sense that certain things are disreputable, that they exist—so it can seem—principally to be disdained. Though the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips may well be right to say that “we don’t really know what is vulgar about vulgarity,” we are always confident that the word refers to qualities we are pleased to dislike and condescend to.

One of the many odd things we note about vulgar is that it has largely disappeared from ordinary speech. Many objects, acts, or utterances that would once have seemed vulgar now seem no longer notable enough to inspire condemnation. Violations of propriety, of so-called good taste, are now often regarded as legitimate expressions of protest against conventional decorum. Indecency itself—in fashion, in art, in daily speech—is today, more often than not, a mark of legitimate extravagance, daring, or wit. To be outré, to reveal or expose too much, to appear to be trying too hard to produce convulsive effects, is no longer to be vulgar but to be engaging in a species of performance, and those who earnestly scorn what they see are clearly out of touch with the spirit of the culture. The secure judgment required to complete the formerly standard transaction is no longer much in evidence. We remember what vulgar used to signify, but we are loath to invoke or rely upon the ostensible good taste that alone underwrites the adverse judgment. Vulgarity has by now become quaint, anachronistic. To respond with such a word to Donald Trump is in effect to miss what is genuinely grotesque in the man and in the language he uses, to condescend to something that deserves more than disdain. Those for whom Trump is merely an opportunity to declare their superior status—as thinkers or sophisticated moral beings—have little hope of coming to terms with the reality he embodies.

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Robert Boyers is the editor of Salmagundi Magazine, a professor of English at Skidmore College, and director of The New York State Summer Writers Institute. The most recent of his ten books is The Fate of Ideas (Columbia University Press).

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 19.3 (Fall 2017). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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