The Immorality of the Gurlesque

by on Oct.06, 2010

In a previous post, Joyelle and Johannes write: “The moralist attacks on Lady Gaga mirror almost exactly the critiques/attacks on the Gurlesque: it’s decadent, it’s immoral, it’s anti-feminist, or “it’s not new” (this claim made obsessively, seen through the moral-investment in the purist “newness” of modernism, is also a moralist critique), it’s been stolen, plagiarized, it’s a ruse, a costume. Both Gaga and Gurlesque have to be policed. The horror of Decadence!”

Much of the Gurlesque relies heavily on an excess of girly or femme ornamentation, which can be (mis)read as being cloyingly retro or second wave. To my thinking, the rococo excess of girly ornamentation (especially as it’s combined with an acute streak of “unladylike” violence or the grotesque) destabilizes gender performance and heteronormativity in very useful ways. And as Johannes notes, the Gurlesque also disrupts the aesthetic field: it’s “bad aesthetics,” “cheap,” “kitchy,” “costumey,” etc.

The Gurlesque represents what Josef calls below in his post on Klimt, “an engagement with artifice… faces and body parts drowning in excessive assemblages of pure ornament. What they seem to suggest is that desire itself may be artificial. And also that the body may be porous or amorphous, with no clearly defined boundaries.” Chelsea Minnis’s Zirconia, with its acute emphasis on artifice, is a great example of this.

Baudelaire was perhaps the first to attack naturalism, equating fondness for representational art and mimesis with a parasitic dependence on tradition. This is what Rene Girard calls “imitative desire”: the bizarro paradox that we become ourselves only by mimicking others, thus naturalizing the social and institutional values of our culture.

This is all, of course, icky. The cannons of the natural are exhausting and stupid. And oppressive. As Josef remarks, “blending the female body with nature is an old trick, a way to eroticize the female by placing limits on her human agency.”

The “amorphous body, with no clearly defined boundaries” (think Ariana Reines’ The Cow) poses a challenge to classical aesthetics. Ideals of symmetry, wholeness, moderation, stability, balance (modeled on the male body, long viewed as a closed, stable system) are chucked in favor of permeability, transience, mutability, mobility, excess, and penetrability.

These multiple concerns suggest to me that the Gurlesque is not just about poets flashing their Hello Kitty panties.

Go artifice!

Police away.

11 comments for this entry:
  1. adam strauss

    Yesyesyes–Artifice!

    Would challenging the truth of there being sexes at-all, or at-least sexes as primarily defined by genitalia difference ( a la Judith Butler via Foucault etc in Gender Trouble) fit in with your points? Or is that where the Gurlesque ends and something else starts?

  2. Lara Glenum

    Well, it would fit in with my own brainsac, for sure! And yes, I think some Gurlesque poets pitch their tent in Gender Trouble territory more than others. It’s a spectrum. Or rather: it’s spectral, the sexes as primarily defined by genital difference. There are much more interesting ways to think about/categorize sexual proclivities/compulsions/identities, if one wants to categorize.

  3. adam strauss

    Thank you for the response. It interests me the way it seems to not gell with Danielle Pafunda, who has more than once stated that the Gurlesque starts with a literal–authentic–girl. I find “The Gurlesque” interesting and confusing for the way it straddles essentialism and anti-essentialism–for the ways in which it alligns identity with language (and its attendent instability), but then also seems to have normative sex(uality a la the magnificent critiques of Amy King and Ana Božičević)constructions as the predicate for its discursions. Part of me feels bad for mentioning the dissenters (of which I am one in very Not-Across-The-Board-Ways) but I personally think it’s really wonderful that the anthology has become a site for queer critique; sites which make that critique possible are really, really valuable!
    Without the anthology, I wouldn’t have Ana Božičević
    and Kings’ responses, and so it’s–perhaps inadvertantly–made lesbianism, which I’d argue is the likely most major absence from experimental American poetry discourse (by which I don’t mean there aren’t experimental lesbian poets! Tho I could do with dozens and dozens more; or more OUTness: how friggin crazy/maddening is it that supposedly Mary Oliver is a lesbian!!!!!!!!!!!!!).

    On a non-sequiter note: I love how your own poems strike me as so Joycean with their ultra sensual portmanteauy-lexicons. The way Bloom sees kidneys seems very you, for example.

    I hope I have not cast myself as yet another antagonist, and that all’s goin’ well for you!

  4. Johannes

    I don’t see how the gurlesque has “normative sexuality.” I do think it’s interesting that the gurlesque brought so many charges of immorality against it, something I just haven’t seen in the reception of other anthologies.

    Johannes

  5. Carina Finn

    I don’t necessarily think there’s a “normative sexuality” per se, but I definitely get behind the idea that it does start with a “literal-authentic-girl,” because without the existence of such a girl, what would be the point? There would be no cause for performance if there wasn’t a marginalized self to begin with (I realize that this statement drums up lots of issues re: selfhood, gaze theory, etc). That’s not to say that other kinds of selves can’t be or haven’t been marginalized, but it seems to me that there’s is something specifically stifling about the way in which the girl-self has been “tamed,” and the cute voicelesness imposed upon it (see Ngai), that seems central to the gurlesque. All of that is just to circle back and say/ask: does the fact that it does (perhaps) begin with a real-live girl imply a sort of “normative sexuality,” in the sense that it stems out of the imposition of such?

  6. Danielle

    Carina, I think that’s really interesting!

    FIRST, lemme say, I’ve never argued for a “literal-authentic-girl” or a “real-live girl.” I *have* said that I think the performance of GIRL is central to the gurlesque–other explorations of gender performance would not, to my thinking, be gurlesque. The speaker in a gurlesque poem speaks from some area of the subject position GIRL. Which of course means that the *girl* in question could be dead, fiction, inauthentic, false, fake, etc.

    A lot of gurlesque poems struggle with the imposed heteronormativity and the speaker’s complicity/resistance. In turn, I imagine, this risks re-imposing the hteronormativity. It’s not a moralistic aesthetic, or an aesthetic working toward a better world in any explicit sense. It’s a descriptive aesthetic. What Uma Narayan calls for when she talks about the “failure” of sympathizers in positions of power to “understand” the marginalized (as gross as it is for me to appropriate from an analysis of Western/non-Western feminist relationships).

    There are certainly queer speakers in gurlesque poems; I don’t quite get the critique that states there are *no* queer poems/poets included in the gurlesque. But if someone suggested the bulk of gurlesque was tangling with heteronormativity, I wouldn’t disagree.

    Yes. I do stand somewhere between all-out relativism and essentialism. Donna Haraway style partial realities! A more cheerful postmodernism!

  7. Lara Glenum

    Adam, the Gurlesque is a mobile term that’s being worked in lots of different directions by Arielle, Danielle, Johannes, and numerous others. This is a good thing. I’m not really interested in ironing out the discrepancies/schizophrenia. For me, the Gurlesque describes a loose set of aesthetic strategies (see my above post on artifice) that can be wielded by anyone, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

    Cara, you say, “there’s is something specifically stifling about the way in which the girl-self has been “tamed,” and the cute voicelesness imposed upon it (see Ngai), that seems central to the gurlesque.” Yes, absolutely. I write about this at length in the intro to the anthology. I don’t, however, see how beginning with “a real-live girl” implies any sort of “normative sexuality,” though I’d be curious to hear from people who do.

    In fact, it seems to me quite the opposite: the cultural imposition of “normative sexuality” on the “real-live girl” means exactly that: it’s an imposed system, a chimera (with brutal working parts), that there is no “normative sexuality,” that desire is a far more free-floating thing, full of weird lacunae and rabbit holes. That desire constantly attaches to things it’s “not supposed to.” Desire is mobile, a fact that heteronormativity refuses to account for.

    (NOTE: I’m not even sure what “real” means. Or “normal” or “natural,” They strike me as terms that are used to police/contest my/your/our sense of reality. I generally have an allergic reaction to these words. That’s why I cling to artifice, the fact that nothing is natural.)

  8. adam strauss

    I find the notion that there’s no normative sexuality totally bizarre–if that was the case wouldn’t everyone constantly be required to come out? If a sexuality is assumed in a given discourse–and heterosexuality almost always is–then isn’t that evidence of a normative category–or if not a normative category, an hegemony? I too adore the concept of artifice, but I think it’s crucial to recognize that artifice can and does become naturalized, so that artifice and natural are by no means mutually exclusive. Too, artifice might be conflated with being of a marked status, and heterosexuality largely isn’t, so that for me reiterates how although it is technically artifice, it also equally isn’t.

    @D Pafunda: I find the notion that heteronormativity is imposed fascinating when specifically discussing “girls,” as how would this not apply to every human aside those who conclude they must resist that formation?…I get the word authentic from your statements that the performance is coming out of being socialized as female, that there’s a life experience which informs the performance. I’ll propose the equation/quasi-chiasmus life/living=organic; organic=authentic. In object terms: a skinned rabbit is real fur–synthetic fur is fake. I’d be curious to see a mimic Gurlesque a la Araki Yasusada; or can there be a mimic Gurlesque?

    “…charges of immorality against it”–I don’t get this; who has labeled The Gurlesque as immoral? Sure people have expressed qualms, but has anyone really implied that this formation is going to ruin society?

    “It’s not a moralistic aesthetic, or an aesthetic working toward a better world in any explicit sense. It’s a descriptive aesthetic. What Uma Narayan calls for when she talks about the “failure” of sympathizers in positions of power to “understand” the marginalized (as gross as it is for me to appropriate from an analysis of Western/non-Western feminist relationships).” I find this really interesting but don’t get the connection to the quotation: who is the sympathizer (the antho contributors? readers who aren’t all-on-board?), and what position of power is meant?

  9. Lara Glenum

    To me, “normative category” and “normative sexuality” are not the same thing. Of course, there are normative categories, heterosexuality being one of the more massive ones.

    You say: “…artifice can and does become naturalized, so that artifice and natural are by no means mutually exclusive.” This is very much my point. Hegemony, yes.

  10. Carina Finn

    Danielle, the concept of the “performance of GIRL” is, in terms of the sort of established aesthetic of the gurlesuqe, far more accurate than this “literal-authentic-girl” being bandied about here. I think I was quick to endorse the term because it’s very much a part of my personal poetics; while I’m all about the performance of various selves and artifice (I think dress-up, both in poetry and real life, is great fun!), I’m of the opinion that the performance can’t exist without a self to do the performing. That being said, a boy or a transgendered adult or a trained monkey could perform GIRL just as well as an “actual” girl, because so much of the identity of GIRL is external. Still, for me, this external identity can only exist because there was at some point a literal-authentic girl upon whom the artificial, performable identity of GIRL was founded.

    Lara, what I mean is that if the “normative sexuality” is being imposed on the real-live girl and if the gurlesque is a reaction against that imposed structure, then the “normative sexuality” is at play, a sort of ghost-element, even if it’s not a “part” of it. I think it’s absolutely true what you’ve said about “normalcy” being used as a police tactic. It seems to me, though, that a reaction against any thing carries with it an acknowledgment of the stimulus, which I guess is what I find problematic.

    I feel compelled to add here that I really do love the gurlesque; I just tend to be hyper-critical of the things I adore most.☺

  11. adam strauss

    Something I’d like to start soon on my unread–I assume–blog is little notes on lines of Gurlesque poems because if there’s one thing the antho is not lacking in it’s energy: D Pafunda has a piece which in one of its lines screams superb counterpoint to Hopkins, for example. I am totally guilty of downplaying the Gurlesque as style/craft, which is weird because line-lengths and syllable-counts, assonance, rhyme, all of those dynamics are ones I love. The vocabulary of the G’esque is delightfully eyecatching–Cathy Park Hong’s poems, for example.

    I hope all’s well!

    This interests me a lot–seems intuitively true to me–

    Lara, what I mean is that if the “normative sexuality” is being imposed on the real-live girl and if the gurlesque is a reaction against that imposed structure, then the “normative sexuality” is at play, a sort of ghost-element, even if it’s not a “part” of it–

    but I’m now wed to syllable and sound and not the ambient surround.