The grey scale
by Sam Kriss
The architectonic structure of the Kantian system, like the gymnastic pyramids of Sade’s orgies and the schematised principles of the early bourgeois freemasonry, reveals an organisation of life as a whole which is deprived of any substantial goal.
Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment
1. Fifty Shades of Grey is a 2014 direct-to-DVD dystopian action film directed by Curtis Lumpus with a screenplay by Jott Prittsteck. In this terrifying vision of the year 2146, the United States of America has collapsed, to be replaced by a totalitarian state called Canesco, one ruled over by the secretive tyrant Christian Grey. Canesco enjoys a high standard of living and is entirely free from crime; however, citizens are subjected to constant surveillance, and all colours are banned. Grey’s belief that the unknown Cataclysm that destroyed the old world was caused by the blasphemy of colour has led him to create a barren concrete wasteland, in which chemical defoliants are used to extinguish all chlorophyll-producing life, except the crops grown in vast underground gruel farms. Drones on round-the-clock cloud-seeding flights maintain a dense layer of cloud over the entire North American continent. Only Grey can now remember that the sky was once blue. Female citizens of Canesco are required to sign a personal contract with Grey on reaching puberty in which they promise to keep the existence of the colour red a secret, in a ceremony known as the Initiationing. However, one plucky young girl called Anastasia STE-313, who always felt that she was somehow different from the conformist society that surrounds her, refuses to sign. Soon she finds herself on the run from the brutal government agents in an epic flight across three identical warehouses and one nondescript desert. Her desperate fight to survive against all odds pits her against the powers of the Grey Castle, but, as a hunky resistance fighter in head-to-toe tie-dye teaches her, it’s also a fight for the future of humanity. In the dramatic final scene, Anastasia hijacks Christian Grey’s personal helicopter, binds and gags him, and blows it up in midair. The explosion opens up a rift in the layer of permanent cloud, and as strings swell the people of Canesco see the sky for the first time. The film received mixed to negative reviews from critics, with many criticising its drab visual style, derivative plot, and clunky CGI. The casting of teen icon and YouTube pencil vlogger Jophia Splutt as Anastasia STE-313 was met with mockery from partisans of high culture and officially denounced by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. Commentators have also noted that the regulation grey boiler suits worn by all citizens of Canesco are clearly several sizes too large for many of the actors, and that as a result everyone in the film appears to have a tiny head. In a 2015 interview, the director insisted that this was deliberate.
2. Fifty Shades of Grey is a 2012 British romantic comedy film set in a retirement community in the Cotswolds. It was directed by Tom Flan with a screenplay by Polandria and Chimera Hugankiss. Herb is a mild-mannered former accountant whose life has settled into a comforting routine: morning walks, crosswords, cups of tea, and a slow, resigned wait for it all to be finally over. But his life is turned upside down by the arrival of Dorothy, an outgoing and vivacious dame with an idiosyncratic haircut and one very saucy secret. As Dorothy tries to entice Herb out of his own head and into a pair of furry pink handcuffs, their romance grows from the pace of a zimmer-frame stroll into a full-blown bingo-hall Bacchanalia. But when his three large and prudish sons turn up on an unannounced visit to find Herb scrubbing his floor, wearing nothing but a pair of assless chaps, his old and new lives find themselves in a hilarious head-on collision. Can Herb’s weak heart cope with the demands of a late-blooming love? Can arthritic hands train themselves to perform Japanese rope bondage? One thing’s for certain: life at Bumpy Acres will never be the same.
3. Fifty Shades of Grey is an unfinished novel by D H Lawrence, intended as a further sequel to 1915’s The Rainbow. The story follows the lives of the Brangwen sisters after the end of Women in Love. Gudrun leaves Dresden for Paris and, unable to rid herself of the coldness that had come over her ever since being strangled half to death by Gerald, finds herself falling into an algedonic underworld of sadistic sexual violence. Her sister visits from England, husband in tow, but Ursula is appalled to discover that Birkin sees an aesthetic authenticity in Gudrun’s new lifestyle. After watching a performance in a secret theatre in which Gudrun, dressed as a voodoo witch, simultaneously anally penetrates three nervous, hogtied young poets with a trident-shaped strap-on, Birkin declares his passion for her. As they make love he tightens a collar firm around her neck, and she feels the kindling of a fire in her breast long thought extinguished. The two declare themselves to be the Dictator and Dictatrix of Earth, and lead a violent mob to the Palais de l’Élysée, promising them the domination and servitude that the lower orders secretly crave.
4. Fifty Shades of Grey is a patented proprietary colour matching system devised by Pantone. Launched in 2004, it has been one of the company’s most successful products, used to design magazines and decorate apartments for boring people the world over.
5. Fifty Shades of Grey is a handbook distributed to medical workers from 1978 to be used in the event of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. It identifies the causes, symptoms, and treatments for radiation poisoning, and included the notorious ‘grey-scale test’, in which it was asserted that patients whose skin had become discoloured beyond a certain shade of grey were beyond saving and should be left to die.
6. I saw Fifty Shades of Grey on Valentine’s Day in rural Somerset. It was disappointing. The cinema – if it could be called a cinema – was a rickety lean-to crumbling against the side of an ancient and pungent ciderworks. In this dense, hot room, sharp with the aphrodisiac tang of rotting apples, surrounded by the cacklings and fumblings of drunken locals, I felt almost immediately disoriented. At first I thought the cidery fog had Vaselined my vision: the screen wasn’t the prim white square I was used to but an indistinct shape, rippling and whorling, almost organic, almost alive. It took a while before I fully realised what I was seeing. Behind me, above the entrance of the shack, the projector was flickering, and the film was being projected onto a cow. Huge, almost entirely white, and clearly in pain. The poor beast had been chained up by its front and hind legs; a leather strap connected its nose-ring to the far wall, and a farmer in a Venetian mask and three-piece suit was flogging the creature with a riding crop whenever its laboured breathing or feeble attempts to escape interfered with the performance. Following the plot was hampered by the cow’s plaintive mooing and shifting, but from what I could make out it was about a woman who I assumed to be the tambourine player in an indie-folk band, who falls in love with an extremely powerful twelve-year-old boy. Sadly I didn’t get much further than that. As the first sex scene began, the imprisoned cow gave an almighty grunt and began to thrash around wildly, kicking up angry sprays of hay and manure. The timber of the shack, already weakened by several centuries of super-strength fumes, gave way. The cow was free. As I watched in mute horror, Christian Grey’s tight-lipped mid-coital face seemed to bulge and stretch, as if he were about to pop; I wondered would kind of fluid would seep out. Just before the beast burst through the image, I was dragged away by my viewing companion. We fled across sodden fields as the local folk took their revenge on the creature, but before we reached the safety of a nearby pub I could hear the cow’s desperate lowing and the sadistic yelps of its torturers turn into something else, a cold, seething reptile hiss that I thought had not been heard on this planet for sixty-five million years.
7. I saw Fifty Shades of Grey as part of a programme organised by the London Institute for Studies in Psychoanalysis, a subversive radical organisation I had been ordered to infiltrate. I didn’t understand much of it – all this stylised, highly sexed foreign cinema is frankly beyond me – but for the sake of appearances I jotted down a few observations. Typical Left propaganda: an industrialist billionaire and handcuff-happy sexual sadist seduces a young woman; what he doesn’t know is that she’s part of a revolutionary cell trying to take him down. For the most part, though, the film seems to be about contract law. The plutocrat tries to force his prey to sign a legal document waiving all her human rights protections, including the right to life; in this he’s thwarted by a series of increasingly abstract legal manoeuvres – by the end she’s stalling for time by demanding the contract include definitions for perfectly ordinary terms such as ‘and’, ‘but’, and ‘buttplug’. Procrastination seems to be her favourite tactic. At another point the capitalist, on discovering that she’s a student of English literature, asks if it was Charlotte Brontë, Jane Austen, or Thomas Hardy that made her fall in love with the written word. None of them, she says, before launching into a lengthy exegesis on contemporary literary theory before a man at first visibly aroused but who rapidly goes limp once it becomes apparent that poststructuralism isn’t just the text meaning whatever you want it to mean. So much for the film. Making idle small talk at the post-screening drinks reception (or about as small as talk can be among these self-important charlatans), I learned that for the LISP screening all the actual pornographic scenes had been cut from the film – this because of some Freudian dictum about sex never just being about sex, apparently. It was a shame, but it was also all I needed. Tampering with the film violated the terms of its rental from the distributors: finally, I had them on tape admitting to criminal activity. As soon as I could I pushed the button on my secret radio receiver. Most of the Institute were arrested alive; a few hid out in the building’s toilets and, regrettably, had to be shot by police snipers.
8. I saw Fifty Shades of Grey with my parents.
9. You ever feel like you’re living on the point of a knife? I really did want to write a review of Fifty Shades of Grey. But there’s that feeling of a knife at your stomach, just pricking the surface of your skin, so you know that if you take just one step forward your guts will pour out like slimy confetti. When people talk about their plans for the future, careers, families, don’t you want to stare at them with crazy eyes, ranting, breathing in manic gasps, and hiss: but it won’t happen! Don’t you understand? We’ll all be dead by then! Melting ice caps! Russian bombers off the coast of Cornwall! Everything’s fucked! Life in the crumbling, developed West isn’t great (people are starving to death, even here), but it still has the sense of an incredible precariousness, a bubble waiting to be popped. Fifty Shades of Grey is not a good film. But will sneering at that fact make it better? Will it save us from the coming bombs? Without God or communism we’ve been told that the point of life is to collect meaningful experiences, happy memories, and interesting opinions; to be entertained; to carve out some kind of expression of individuality that will, in its uniqueness and initerability, last forever. History suggests something different. Mostly people are destroyed, in their thousands, for no good reason. Why wouldn’t it happen to us? How many shiningly unique individuals were burned up in Dresden? When the Mongols came to Baghdad – a big urban cosmopolis, full of self-regarding educated types who, in the end, probably didn’t live too differently from you – they killed everyone. Like a nuclear bomb in slow motion. Scholars who’d spent most of their lives airily abstracting about the finer points of poetic technique and the exact arrangement of the heavenly spheres ended up with their heads suddenly piled up in a sloppy pyramid outside the city walls. (The scholars are remembered; more than, say, the women. Massacres of the educated are an affront to humanity, while men killing women is business as usual.) And why? The Mongol warlord Hulagu attacked the Abbasid caliphate on the advice of the usual gang of viziers and astrologists, but the loudest voice for war came from Nasir al-Din Tusi – a scholar and poet who’d become enraged after the Caliph, apparently disdaining its metrical and lexical subtleties, had lazily tossed one of his poems into the Tigris. One million people died, arrow-shafts through their bodies, knives through their necks, coughing up blood. Cultural critics beware.
10. I loved the book of Fifty Shades of Grey; I really loved it, with that total and unquestioning love you can only have for the utterly deformed. I loved its alternate psychoanalytic triad of the Subconscious, the Psyche and the Inner Goddess. I loved the catastrophically unsexy cor-blimey interior monologue. I loved the relentless commodity porn. It’s a universal story, an utterly bleak one: the story of power and its essential idiocy, and the tendency to read it as a wide-eyed paean to the titular pervert only demonstrates a critical failure of imagination. Yes, it started as fanfiction, but then so did the Aeneid. Yes, the relationship it depicts is fundamentally abusive, but safety, sanity and consent weren’t a major concern for de Sade, Bataille, Réage, or any of the other icons of literary sadomasochism either. With all its obtrusively terrible language it’s a book that constantly calls attention to its own writerly, textual quality, that’s constantly returning to its own meta- and inter-textual fabric. Fifty Shades had an overwhelming, effortless literariness, in a way that far outstripped the squalid grunting efforts of this century’s self-appointed guardians of high prose. Karl Ove Knausgård, Haruki Murakami, God help us, Jonathan fucking Franzen. They’re all squalid hacks, sad clowns, overinflated, overserious; it’s hard to imagine them keeping a straight face as they make their vague bromidic pronouncements on the Human Condition, shitting out watery insights as if anyone actually asked them, but somehow they do, and the same reading public that dismisses Fifty Shades as mere pornography nod wisely as they lap happily from the putrid trough. I’ll take bondage over coprophagy. Reviews of the Fifty Shades film have grudgingly commended it for turning a terrible book into something vaguely tolerable, competently produced if not exactly groundbreaking. As if descending from the mad and terrible stratospheres into Franzen-lite mediocrity is somehow an achievement. In fact, the film’s made a category error. A proper film adaptation should be pornography: ill-fitting suits, wobbly handheld cameras, and queasy lighting that makes the rippling flesh look like so much offcut meat, bright pink, churning out of an industrial mincer. Or it should resurrect not just the Inner Goddess and the Psyche but all the screaming others that crowd the mind of the modern schizophrenic; have the superego as a pale disappointed father, the id as a ravenous twelve-headed beast, doubt as a constant looming shroud, all watching every vaguely kinky sex session with drawn, horrified faces. Or it should delve deeper into the discourse of force and power and punishment, really take these concepts seriously. Every shot and every line of dialogue could remain exactly the same; it could be fixed in post-production. Black-clad jihadis parade hostages past the window of Ana’s hardware store. Christian’s helicopter is buzzed by Syrian MiG-23s, and as he flies over the city we see a dazzling constellation of explosions flashing in the streets below. Sniper rounds ping off the windscreen as the new Audi blithely swooshes past a rebel checkpoint. And as the couple stand naked before the floor-to-ceiling windows, the city beyond rises up to meet them: Aleppo, the final truth of our era, a thicket of gaunt ruins, concrete crags as lifeless and inhuman as a stranger’s face, drenched in the dust billowing from mortar strikes, coating the world in fifty thousand shades of grey.