by Johannes Goransson on Apr.13, 2011
A lot of people seem to misunderstand what I mean by kitsch. So I’ll make a brief note here. To me kitsch is on the most basic level rhetoric used (usually) to dismiss things for being inauthentic – for being in essence like mass-produced objects and a whole host of associations that have come about in modernism through the discussion of kitsch – seductive, counterfeit, image, reproduction, “soft” (as in Silliman’s “soft surrealism”), feminine, gothic etc. Kitsch is the “versioning” of the original. Obviously the immigrant is kitsch.
When I talk about kitsch, I don’t mean mass-produced objects, but the rhetoric that surrounds them. So Kenny Goldsmith can build his rhetoric on dismissing “creative writing” as kitsch – it’s actually tasteless in its unoriginalness, the very thing it’s supposed to ensure (you should be able to “find your voice” or “the voice that is great within you”, and learn how to “earn your images”). In a lot of experimental poetry discussions, traditionally literary devices like similes and metaphors are now treated as kitsch of “creative writing.” Workshops meant to protect against the garish threat of kitsch (teaching generations of writers how to write with Taste), have now become kitsch-ified.
But like I said to Adam in the comment field, this is not the most interesting way of using kitsch – merely turning it around on yet another group in order to further one’s modernist credientials, in establishing a new Taste safe from the soft rabble. I’m more interested in the dynamics of softness and the rabble. Taste was never interesting to me.
Kitsch which has come to mean the opposite of modernism, even though the early modernists and the historical avant-garde (Dada, Surrealism, Expressionism etc) had a much more interesting relationship to mass culture, not necessarily embracing but certainly engaging with it – detourning or stealing or participating in it.
Daniel Tiffany is writing a book about kitsch and he traces it back to Romanticism and various counterfeit projects – pseudonyms etc. These counterfeit projects show the close connection to translation (they are *versions* of Romanticism etc). And of course Modernism generates a slew of such hoaxes (as I’ve noted elsewhere); perhaps the very anti-kitsch rhetoric of modernism generates hoaxes (or the other way around).
In the 90s, Kent Johnson’s Yasusada hoax was obviously in conversation with Forche’s “witness poetry” (both were “atrocity kitsch” and the fact that Kent freaked out when I used “atrocity kitsch” about his poems – even though in a positive way ! – shows how powerful a term kitsch still is. He came back with all kinds of scholarly credentials to help him clean his name of such a dirty word.)
But it was through kitsch (Forche, Johnson) that something like an interesting discussion about translation and art/violence came about, though it should have been more interesting than it was (turning Kent’s project into a “critique” is a boring, predictable and utterly academic way of neutralizing its power as kitsch).
It is interesting that one of the main sites of kitsch-making and kitsch-defending is the museum. Here we get the official great works, but there’s something kitsch-ifying about museums as well. Not only do we have a store with reproductions etc, but there’s something kitsch-ifying about the structure of the museums.
We can see the same in Carolyn Forche’s famous book of atrocity kitsch, Against Forgetting, where she makes a museum of atrocities in order on some level to defend American poetry against the garish surreal, Euro poetry by making it official, but at the same time manages to turn holocausts into kitsch. And you can see it in Hitler’s museum-obsession (of degenerate art, of great German art, of degenerate people, of the ghetto – everything turned into exhibition, into film etc)
This connection between museums and kitsch gets played out perhaps best in a number of b-movies about wax museums – where inevitably real people are killed and turned into wax sculptures, ie art, ie kitsch – or Aase Berg’s Dark Matter, with its play on exactly the museum-ishness of atrocities, and where b-movie characters like Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre enters this atrocity exhibition as a lover in that horribly kitschy genre of the love poem. We are faced with the threat of all art: that it kills real life. And the threat of art is also what makes it all kitsch (I mean, writing poetry, what could be more kitschy?).
The museum connection leads me to another way of viewing kitsch: not as necessarily a taxonomical term but a zone, a permeable zone, a zone that both is official and generates unofficial counterfeits. This is where something like postcolonialism becomes an interesting take on kitsch – mimicry (Homi Bhaba) and “writing back”. In some ways, perhaps postcolonialism provides a more interesting model for all writers in an age where capital has colonized everything down to our uteruses (See Sarah’s post from yesterday)….
Finally, kitsch as this permeable zone is what makes it so interesting to me. In Ron Silliman’s calls for “rigor” and denouncing the mushiness of “soft surrealism” I see the same rhetoric at work: not just purity but an idea of agency and subjecthood that I find oppressive. No wonder he has such anxieties talking about translation….
That’s the role of High Taste. I like the impure zones that kitsch opens up.
How many times have I heard supposedly experimental writers say, “The Internet is great, but there’s so much shit published on it…” The shit makes the internet interesting.