Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Book Review: The History of the Kiss! The Birth of Popular Culture by Marcel Danesi

How should we make sense of the iconic act of the kiss? How and when did it become a vital sign of romance and love? In this book, Marcel Danesi argues that the romantic kiss had its origins in the medieval court ritual. He aims to explore how the kiss emerged in the context of adultery and non-traditional amorous relationships. He takes the reader through medieval poetry and romance literature to modern paintings, movies, and pop songs, arguing that its romantic incarnation signalled the birth of popular culture. Catherine Hezser finds that The History of the Kiss is too light on analysis and lacks a convincing argument to make it useful for academic reading.
From the body of the review:
The allegedly subversive nature of the romantic kiss – distinguished from the erotic kiss and other types of kisses – is a theme stressed throughout the book: “the kiss originated as a need to subvert the extent religious and patriarchal order in medieval Europe” (p.16); it “has led to the sexual revolution of the modern Western world” (p.45) by liberating female sexuality. In light of the continuous patriarchal system of medieval and modern society these arguments are not persuasive. From medieval courtship rituals until modern movies, the kiss is most often represented as a male initiative in which women remain relatively passive. As such, it is represented as a first step towards sexual intercourse rather than a “spiritual” gesture idealizing love. That the romantic kiss “took the shame out of feminine love, allowing the latter to change the world” (p.45) cannot be corroborated. Unfortunately, such platitudes are repeated throughout the book. 
Part of Danesi’s argument and the title of the book is the alleged connection between the medieval emergence of the romantic kiss (note the conflation between practice and representation: does the author assume that the practice of romantic kissing began in medieval times only?) and the “birth of popular culture”. What “popular” culture means and how the two phenomena are related is never further explored, however.

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