"Kitsch"

by 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.

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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).

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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?).

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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)….

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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.

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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.

24 comments for this entry:
  1. Michael Peverett

    I thought KG’s piece on the demise of Silliman’s blog was kind of old-fashioned too. I mean there’s a lot you can criticize about RS but it seemed strange for KG to argue that a blog focussed on poetics ought not to be wasting time on popular movies and TV programs. I didn’t expect that. I thought it was one of the best things about it that when RS wrote about Project Runway or baseball he didn’t write from a poetic or philosophical high ground but using the terms of the topic, i.e. fan-terms.

  2. Johannes

    I haven’t read the KG piece you’re talking about, where is that? but I agree with you, I loved Ron on Project Runway, in fact he seemed a much more interesting critic of project runway than poetry; If he could give up his boundary-based thinking and look at poetry as fashion, that might be interesting.

  3. don mee

    Excellent! It gives me a lot to think about in regards to Kim Hyesoon’s poetry.

  4. Johannes

    Yes, I plan to write something about the Australian review and the way he sees Kim Hyesoon’s use of kitsch putting her at odds with American poetry.

    J

  5. Seth Oelbaum

    I concur with Johannes. I think shit is worth our attention. Genet smells his own farts, Rimbaud tells Verlaine that he’ll become so hungry he’ll start eating shit. We know why un-shit (houses, cars, people) is crucial to society, because it’s un-shit that keeps order. But I want chaos. Rimbaud snacking on shit (also, Divine eating dog shit) signifies an obliteration of boundaries, a willingness to explore and get dirty.

    Also, “high-art” as kitsch, as in Stanley Fish’s argument that a community decides the literature-ness of a certain text, what cosigns a text to a grocery store as opposed to intellectual-indie-bookshop is a group of people, in the same way kitsch objects (Nuremberg Rallies) gain their power from a group of people. Both depend on the masses. I think we should remove the focus from the object itself and heed how well the perceiver can process the item in an insightful way (Sontag’s dandy acquires his modern aristocracy credentials in his ability to find in mass objects something that the masses themselves can’t locate).

  6. Johannes

    Great points.

  7. adam strauss

    That the immigrant is kitsch seems anything but obvious: the discourse regarding immigrants is often utterly serious/unplayful and wedded to notions of authenticity/”real” reality. Too, the immigrant can frequently be seen as an epicenter of current events, and kitsch doesn’t clearly fit with that–with history which hasn’t made it to the museum yet etc. This isn’t to write that the immigrant is never seen as kitsch, but the domain seems to be immigrant representation in popular media forms: Apu in the Simpsons etc. Too, there are probably parodies of swimming across the Rio Grand to Texas–a King of the Hill episode etc–but again this is a subset of immigration/immigrant discourse.

  8. Johannes

    Exactly: authenticity kitsch! (I write more about this in my new book Entrance to a colonial pageant in which we all begin to intricate).

    J

  9. adam strauss

    Rhetoric of (/against) kitsch seems so much clearer than just writing kitsch; taking a noun and, basically, making it a verb–coolcool.

  10. adam strauss

    “merely turning it around on yet another group in order to further one’s modernist credientials”–why the dismisal of Modernism?; it’s certainly not the only interesting aesthetic, but it ain’t automatically bad either; too, it seems to me that writing like a Modernist is not all that easy (not just a matter of eliminating similes); in a silent way am I meant to subsitute certain essays of Ezra Pound (whose aesthetic dictums have been so oft cited/encouraged); if this is the case I get it, but if it isn’t then I’m scratching my noggin. Modernism–aside from its immense ambition–seems multiple to me; I can’t think of Moore, Williams, Mayakovsky, Stein, late Mallarme, Zukofsky if you want to include him etc as forming a homoegenous aethetic philosophy.

    Note: ambition can be written in more than one way! I do not think writig a la the Cantos is the necessary track!

  11. Johannes

    I tried to note the variety of modernism (dada etc).
    J

  12. Regina

    I enjoyed reading this. Especially the relationship to modernism & authenticity kitsch, which reminds me of camp.

    Other things that bubbled in my mind: the kitschiness of hipsters and the people who dislike them.
    Also the modern fascination with and addiction to irony. Having an obvious ironic slant to maintain “with-it” credentials. Conspicuous media consumption.

    Now I see everything as kitsch. Is there anything that is not kitsch? Earlier today I hiccupped totally by accident and I think that it wasn’t kitschy.

  13. Kent Johnson

    Coming to this, admittedly, via my Google Alerts!

    I don’t follow Harriet, so hadn’t seen KG’s article. Nor (not having looked at Ron’s place for months) did I know RS had more or less closed down his blog.

    The Harriet post is the best thing Goldsmith has ever written. One thing he doesn’t mention is that at the heart of Silliman’s Kingmaker shtick was *careful selectiveness*. His long lists of links had the encyclopedic, democratic feel to them, as if everything and anything of relevance. But they were, in a sense, kind of like an Escher drawing of geese flying, or something: as much about who and what WASN’T linked to as they were about who was there. So for example, all kinds of thoughtful pieces that ran afoul of his and circle’s poetics (John Latta’s ongoing, brilliant, and biting series of posts on the Grand Piano for one obvious instance) were ignored. And most often, *when* linking to things or people who didn’t fall into his ideological room, Ron would make a point to frame the link in dismissive or pointedly aggressive ways. His weekly lists, in other words, significantly used the veneer of the democratic in masterful service of discourse control and poetry-Field management.

    On the other hand, to complain about such is like complaining about the sky. Such is HOW the Field operates and will continue to operate. It’s always-already a struggle for positions. Ron worked hard and expertly to place himself at the center of a region of that total Field, and he succeeded. But as Goldsmith correctly points out, the history of it is going to circle back in certain ways, too.

  14. Corey

    Kitsch as you use it is fascinating to me. However, I’m curious about this mention of the museum, I think it’s good of you to include the forum, as you say, where kitsch is contended, but I’m unsure how your model of kitsch lives without the museum. Does kitsch overidentify with the taste monger the museum, or is it indifferent to it?

  15. Johannes

    Corey (and Kent),

    This is a good question and I don’t really have time to answer it right now, except to say that yes, kitsch is inevitably intertwined with Taste and yes, it can most certainly be turned into High Art, which is why I wrote in my post, that merely making kitsch Taste (reversing formulas) is not the most interesting way to approach this issue. in fact, it’s a way of maintaining the dichotomy to some extent. I would also note that I’m not interested in kitsch as a stable category (so that now a lot of literary devices and techniques appear to have become kitschy to “experimental” poets).

    Johannes

  16. Kent Johnson

    Corey’s question a basic and good one. The notion of kitsch as negative category or anti-aesthetic conceptual arena is fused at the groin to High Art ideology, all the messy branchings via mutation and selection of the latter taken into account, of course. At deep levels and manifold locations of the Culture cosmos, the kitsch is always in tight, rapid orbit to its High Art other. Which is probably why the kitsch so effortlessly crosses, periodically, into the Museum (by which I mean Institutional forces of Art and Lit writ large). One could see this happening now in the field of poetry, as it has happened plenty in the field of the visual Arts (poetry always behind the curve!). Kitsch IS, in fact, a mutated Species-Trope of High Art, without which, in turn, the latter would not exist either. (Sorry, I realize the binary formulas here are in realm of Deconstruction 101.)

    But perhaps Johannes or Joyelle have already engaged this problem (though I don’t suppose it’s actually a “problem”), I don’t know. But there are issues raised by it, in terms of where one sees the “avant” poetic going, or what it would aim to confront, oppose, unsettle, and so forth.

  17. Kent Johnson

    I don’t know why I said “fused at the groin.” Taht sort of messes up my metaphor. But oh well.

    Johannes, wanted to make sure I’m reading your last sentence correctly. Not quite sure I’m certain of your point there. Is it meant as critique of “experimental” poets who use now-kitsch techniques and devices in a shallow, self-serving way, or is it meant in sense that some “experimental” poets manipulate kitschy techniques and devices as function of a greater sophistication in the understanding of kitsch?

  18. Johannes

    Kent,
    I’ve been writing about how anti-kitsch rhetoric has been used against traditionally literary devices (like metaphor, simile etc) or even “expression” in Kenny Goldsmith’s “uncreative writing” rhetoric. So that what is kitsch now includes things that were once thought as High Taste. So, yes, it’s a critique of an “experimental poetry” that still depends on Taste and high-art, anti-kitsch rhetoric. I mean, you can see this conflict in the very term “modernism.”

    Also, I don’t use kitsch as negation or mutation of high art; I think the relationship is much more complicated and interesting. Kitsch is not something that happens to high art; there isn’t that causality. At the heart of the matter, I think these taxonomies (and museums) are ways of dealing with things about art that makes us uncomfortable: violence, counterfeits etc.

    More later.

    Johannes

  19. Nate

    I think this is right on. Taste is one of many pitiful stupidities, so I love the way you’re using kitsch / the the rhetoric of kitsch as a kind of nexus or zone that all sorts cultural debris flows into & out of. Far more compelling than the endless and frustrating dichotomies that abound in such discussions. Save me from the false dichotomy!

  20. Corey

    Kent and Johannes,

    Kent, thank you, though your second line belies your first. I don’t believe kitsch is an anti-aesthetic, I believe it is your second, Taste made diabolical through either contagion, promiscuity, licentiousness, failure, or overidentification. So Johannes, you’re right I think, it isn’t interesting to simply assign something the name of Taste and adjudge the kitsch by its distance, as electron, from the nucleus. However, the moment you declare it is separate from Taste, it is another Modernism, either bearing the gravitas of outlying the sphere of Taste, the economy of preference, or cultivating a different genre, and not an aesthetic. There’s a lot more I want to say, but I think to say kitsch is not mutation or negation is to lose its diabolical meaning as excrement of Taste or ravenous vermin mutineer, and posit a different order of Taste in the form of a new genre, Kitsch with a K, that is authentic kitsch versus inauthentic kitsch, where one merely must fulfill its expectations to be called as such.

  21. Johannes

    I don’t think it’s separate from Taste, that’s I think what I wrote explicitly. I think for me “negation” makes it seem like a typical avant-garde critique, so that’s why I prefer not to think of it that way; plus it isn’t always as black-and-white as that suggests. “Mutation” might be a more proper way to look at it. I’ll have to think about that. No, I certainly don’t want it to be an Alternative Taste.

    Johannes

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