Context and Scene
In the fall of 2017, Louis C.K.’s career was all but destroyed by allegations of sexual misconduct (bordering on sexual assault) directed at a handful of women at various times over the past twenty years. The context of this series of events was filtered through the New York Times, depicting an awful and uncomfortable scene that justifiably confused and horrified fans and critics alike. The context of this set of circumstances is pivotal in determining the extent of Louis C.K.’s misgivings, and therefore the extent to which he needs to recompense. NYT’s contributors Ryzik et. al. provide the following context about one particular night in question:
The bars were closed and they wanted to celebrate. He was a comedian they admired. The women would be together. His intentions seemed collegial…. As soon as they sat down in his room, still wrapped in their winter jackets and hats, Louis C.K. asked if he could take out his penis, the women said…. During Ms. Goodman and Ms. Wolov’s surreal visit to Louis C.K.’s Aspen hotel room, they said they were holding onto each other, screaming and laughing in shock, as Louis C.K. masturbated in a chair. ‘We were paralyzed,’ Ms. Goodman said. After he ejaculated on his stomach, they said, they fled. He called after them: ‘He was like, “Which one is Dana and which one is Julia?”‘ Ms. Goodman recalled.
For starters, I want to make it clear that I believe the purpose of this article was to highlight the impact of Louis C.K.’s disturbing actions on these women, not to simply lambaste Louis C.K. as some sexual deviant and destroy his career. However, I also think there is a lesson to be learned about storytelling through this all-too American cultural anecdote.
Primarily, in looking at the weight of intentions within the provided context (that is, by looking at Louis C.K.’s depicted intentions in the infamous NYT article), the audience makes correlative judgments about his moral character. The following is in no way a claim over what is ethically right or wrong from a journalistic perspective. Rather, I want to look directly at how context affects moral judgments in readers. The cumulative effect of the authors establishing a sickened, accusatorial tone (through words such as “seemed,” “surreal,” “shock,” “fled,” etc.) and the intentional depiction of the women as victims (through details such as “…holding onto each other” and “We were paralyzed,” etc.) present readers with little choice as to how Louis C.K. ought to be morally judged.
This is the power of context. Despite the level of accuracy or bias, this article in-and-of itself presents us with a strong example of how intentions and context intermingle in the realm of storytelling. Considering the morality of contextualization might prove useful when we think about the specific details we include in our stories. Both as a writer and reader of fiction, one looks to discover the strangeness of the real world — discovery being the operative concept. Context is the tool by which an author welcomes their audience into this discovery process. For example, the most common piece of advice in creative writing is to show vs. tell, which carries with it the inherent assumption that your reader wants to find the things that matter for him or herself, not be handed some piece of moral wisdom as if they were reading a fortune cookie.
In fiction, we don’t think of bias in the traditional sense because the intentions of the author are not bound by truth. When we read any scene from any piece of literature, the politics, culture, morality, ethics, etc. are all bound to the rules set in place by that scene, ergo context. While fiction and nonfiction are not bound to truth in the same way, they are bound to the established context of any given scene. The reader’s moral assessment of any scene, character, or story-line is contingent on the provided context. Further, this calls attention to the importance of establishing intentions in terms of how they are received by any given audience. In other words, how important is it that the reader understands how the women victimized by Louis C.K. felt? How important is it for the authors of this article that Louis C.K. is perceived as a predator by their intended NYT audience? And, finally, could you discover the immorality of Louis C.K.’s actions without the intentional negative portrayal provided by Ryzik et. al.?
At the very least, discussing the morality of contextualization will be useful for authors of fiction in developing theme, setting, tone, style, characterization, etc., because it will force the writer to question their relationship with their supposed audience. When put under close examination, the morality of forcing a reader into a specific context, especially one where difficult human conversations need to be had, becomes quite complicated.
A useful case study in literature worth dissecting for its moral implications as they relate to context is the short story “Guts” by Chuck Palahniuk [WARNING: DO NOT READ IF SQUEAMISH]. Short story shorter, this piece forces the reader into extreme discomfort, deliberately and effectively, through the context of sexual deviancy. Whenever I describe this story to friends, I usually jump to the painfully gruesome depiction of the main character’s prolapse via pool filter. It’s worth considering why Chuck decided to write this scene, and equally important to consider the specific context in which this scene unfolds. Doing so, we might be able to measure the relationship between moral judgment and context.
The integral line of context from this story comes when our narrator tells us, “Some deeds are too low to even get a name. Too low to even get talked about.” This statement provides swathes of moral context for readers, and when positioned after the “ghost carrot,” the reader is being primed for something uncomfortable and taboo. The moral question becomes, to what extent is this “tricking” the reader into an uncomfortable experience, and to what end? The slow escalation of sexual depravity displayed in “Guts” functions as a roller coaster ride the audience doesn’t realize they are on until it’s too late. At the same time, the reader has the choice to set the story down. So the real moral question becomes, to what extent is it acceptable to lure your reader into discomfort?
As stated above, the intentions of the author are equally as important as the impact on the audience. By looking at the provided context in “Guts,” the impact on the audience will almost incontrovertibly be one of discomfort. I don’t see this discomfort as immoral because I read Chuck’s intention as being focused on the significance of shame and the proliferation of sexual deviancy in the woodwork of American living, one that sheds light on the shared humanity of what happens behind closed doors.
In many ways, “Guts” and the NYT article on Louis C.K.’s victims both present readers with a deliberate and clear context. Similarly, the intentions behind both pieces seem more-or-less clear. Arguably, it is through conversations about where and how fiction intersects with culture that we attempt to refine our universal moral principles. In a larger and formalized Philosophy of Fiction, studying The Consequences of Context will help authors strive toward a more holistic approach to developing scene, characterization, and the overall thematic relevance to American culture.