If we take it on what its creators probably consider its own terms, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” wants to aestheticize that turbulent period before desire is consummated in a consensual sexual encounter. Many of us can relate to that terrible moment of indecision as you are drawn toward someone, even if you know the attraction is wrong or the product of short-sighted thinking. If you live long enough sometimes you even have sex with people you don’t like or respect or are that attracted to. Sometimes cheap lust gets the better of us in the madness of the moment. But if that’s what Thicke was trying to get at, that’s not all the song does. The song ultimately reproduces an understanding of consent that complicates whatever good-natured representation of desire it meant to project.
I’m not the first person to find the song “rapey.” I am, however, a little uncomfortable with the idea that any cultural product can lead directly to action, no matter how compelling the object. What culture does do, I think, is provide an interpretation of actions. As such, culture belongs to the realm of knowledge, which is fundamentally distinct from the real world. This might seem like academic hair-splitting to some of you but please bear with me. In elaborating Marx’s theory of knowledge, Althusser observes that it was by positing the distinction between reality and the knowledge of reality that Marx was able to discuss the historical foundations of knowledge. A real object, a real structure, a real system can be understood solely through the categories of knowledge available to us at any given historical period. Thus while the real thing is always there, people can only explain those features which are apparent or even perhaps visible to them given the historical condition of their knowledge. The most obvious example of this is astronomy. So long as we have existed, humans have looked up at more or less the same stars, yet how people consider the stars in relationship to their world has changed across historical periods and cultures. Marx’s argument was part of his relentless critique of any idealist or transcendental categories. Knowledge is not something that transcends the limits of the human, somehow bearing a one to one correspondence with reality in Marx’s thinking. It is, like everything else, a part of history. Understanding history, then, allows us to understand knowledge and vice versa. Or to put it a slightly different way, comprehending culture (knowledge) allows us to comprehend how people explain what they actually do (the real world).