Ronaldo Wilson's Woundscapes and Racial Deformation Zones

by on Apr.11, 2011

I was just teaching Ronaldo Wilson’s poetry (Narrative of the Brown Boy and the White Man and Poems of the Black Object), following a discussion of Aime Cesaire’s Notebook on a Return to the Native Land, and I couldn’t help reading Joyelle’s post but to see a connection between “the deformation zone” (a phrase Joyelle takes from Aase Berg’s book Upland, which is notably “set” in an airplane crash that never happens, instead hovering like a dragonfly in between life and death): a zone where the inside is outside, the outside inside.

From Narrative, we discussed the poem in which the brown boy fantasizes about Brad Pitt and Kevin Bacon being attacked by “a flaming couch section” and covered in gasoline and sperm, and the one in which the brown boy becomes sexually attracted/curious by an old white man who appears to be “dying”: accumulating bodily materials like “coral” or “rust,” his flimsy boxer shorts appearing to meld with his body, stitched up as if his interior was about to flow out.

This inbetween space (the swimming pool, the pool, the locker room) reappears throughout Black Object: The speaker in one poem goes with a white man to a hotel room where he discovered that the white man is bleeding profusely from the ass; a white man is stabbed in Brooklyn (“Welcome to Brooklyn,” says the speaker coolly); a black ex-army guy is disheveled in a public bathroom and the speaker fantasizes about pissing on his face. Strangers meeting sexually/violently in in-between spaces, generating grotesque bodies that are saturated with media, conducting media, swallowing media.

Not only do these instances recall Joyelle’s deformation zones but also Mark Seltzer’s idea of “wound culture,” where the public space is pathologized. These inbetween spaces – private spaces that are made semi-public – are distinguished not only by the violence, sexuality, fluid (media of swimming pool water, of gasoline, of semen), but also by the sense that these wounds create a kind of public space.

Also interesting how this model follows the one set up in Amiri Baraka’s seminal poem “Black Arts,” where the races met in violence (guns, cops etc) and homosexuality (the black leaders giving head to the white sheriff) resulting in grotesque bodies (something about Liz Taylor and “mulatto bitches”). Except that Ronaldo complicates things quite a bit: there is no search for “pure” heterosexual “love” in a “black world”, but rather the “love” is totally impure, the love is exactly in the grotesque body, in its wounds, in the public space where these interactions take place.

It seems that “pure” love – defined against an impure (gay, kitsch) love – might be related the the oldfashioned sublime, while Ronaldo’s impure love and grotesque bodies might have something to do with a deformation zone sublime.

16 comments for this entry:
  1. adam strauss

    Conflating “gay” love to pureness feels a tad frustrating to me/seems to base its definition on an outside, dissaproving viewpoint; and while practically speaking this is likely true, it seems to reiterate gayness as negative and to invest authority in a non-gay, nay, antigay perspective. Hmm, even as I write this I cant help critiquing myself: I’m not a fan of the idea that the subjects themselves (aka bodies displaying some recognized political identity)have maximal right to formulating what people think/how they percieve a given identity: women can mega-get men analytically, and men women, and whites blacks etc. Maybe I’m halting at the implicit equation between gay and kitsch; yes, there’s certainly a link, but it’s too well established for my taste. Gay equated to “redneck” or hick or somesuch strikes me as wayyyyyyyy more interesting/threatening; lesbian country gals: yayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!

    I hope all’s well with all ya’ll!

  2. Johannes

    I’m not saying gay is pure or impure; that part is about Amiri Baraka’s poem, in which “pure love” is implicitly pure, while homosexual love is depicted as black man being disempowered by white culture (or other way around). But yes, of course gayness is very frequently depicted as something kitschy, ridiculous, counterfeit; as as the immigrant is kitsch. That doesn’t mean it’s a good thing; it just means it’s a common depiction. /Johannes

  3. adam strauss

    I don’t believe you were suggesting it’s good; I just feel kitsch equals gay is boring. Because your parenthetical is in a new paragraph I didn’t at-first see that it summarizes Baraka. I’d love to see a Black Arts thread develop at Montevidayo! Seems like it might go with and against running ideas posted here in stimulating ways.

    Counterfeit equated to kitsch is an alignment I almost, but don’t quite, see: couldn’t one argue that kitsch can be read via sincerity?! A robotic sincerity perhaps, but still a kind of one—cheers to the indefinite article!

  4. Johannes

    I think you might not quite be understanding the way I’m using kitsch. I don’t believe there is something called kitsch. Kitsch is a rhetoric employed to criticize dismiss, using a metaphorical connection to mass-produced objects (which are the objects kitsch was originally employed to dismiss). Of course it’s boring to dismiss gay people as kitsch, but my point is that this rhetoric can be played with and that this rhetoric often attempts to cover up interesting tensions (for example how atrocity kitsch brings up a host of issues having to do with art and violence, translation etc). Just because it’s boring doesn’t mean that it will stop; the interesting part becomes reconfiguring these equations.

    So, yes, “sincerity” has already been equated with kitsch (it seems to be the main thread of Kenny Goldsmith’s rhetoric), but just altering the thing kitsch is attached to doesn’t make for interesting discussions, as long as sincerity is then just dismissed. If we can get kitsch to do more interesting things – the way I think for example discussing atrocity kitsch does – then that’s what I’m interested in. Robotic sincerity could be interesting.

    I feel like we have discussed Black Arts movement on the blog, but I’m not sure.


  5. adam strauss

    Oh oops–logical error: in my prior comment I imply that sincere is antonymic to counterfeit, which seems suspect to me.

  6. adam strauss

    Yes, the BA movement has been touched on: I’m just voting for more, as it’s been, so far, cursory.

  7. Johannes

    OK, I’ll try to do it.

  8. adam strauss

    “just altering the thing kitsch is attached to doesn’t make for interesting discussions”–without lots more expansion this doesn’t seem pursuasive to me; wouln’t altering the attachment inherently alter the way of thinking about kitsch/reframe various subjects? Isn’t this precisely what the figuration atrocity kitsch does? As well, I’m unclear on how the issue of new attachments relates to sincerity.

  9. Johannes

    No atrocity kitsch doesn’t make something else kitsch, it embraces kitsch as a zone.


  10. adam strauss

    “No atrocity kitsch doesn’t make something else kitsch, it embraces kitsch as a zone”: I don’t get it. Am I “crazy” for thinking that atrocity is not–by perhaps a majority and at the least many people–seen as concurrent to kitsch, so if your theory then grafts a rhetoric of kitsch onto a subject which is often seen as authentic, all about the “real,” then isn’t this therefore putting what is not conventionally a purview of kitsch and making it so, and hence attaching a rhetoric to a subject which is new to the usual parameters of the rhetoric? Atrocity cld be seen–and hypothetically usuALLY IS: THO IN “REALITY” i’D WAGER MOST PEOPLE ARE MILLIONS OF DEGREES SCARIER THAN PHILLOSOPHIES THEY MAY PURPORT TO EMBRACE–as synonym to tragedy/to the need for ethical reflection, and kitsch–even as a verb–doesn’t clearly fit as a synonym for tragedy/ethics in any remotely conventional sense AND COULD EVEN BE DEEMED UNETHICAL AND SEEN AS LAUGHING OR CRUELY CO-OPTING TRAGEDY. How is a zone different from an entity which can be part of an attachment? A zone, like that which can be attached, may be severed from a prior connection (border shiftts etc).

  11. Johannes

    I think you’re not understanding me. In part that may be because I used the word “embrace”? I meant more like: engage with, investigate. Not: love, relish. Does that clarify matters? It opens up a zone for the exploration of aesthetics and atrocities. I hope that makes more sense. Certainly I’m not interested in mass murder!!!


  12. adam strauss

    I’m still not clear on this: engaging/investigating a “zone” not conventionally associated with a rhetoric of kitsch would fit your rejected notion of “attaching” a lens of exploration to what is typically seen as outside that discourse. This opened up zone inherently implies a reframing–the frame itself a kind of wound perhaps as the lens could be said to maim/distort pain/atrocity and turn it into aesthetic phenomena; I like the way Creeley et al are flipped: form and content are severed rather than inextricable. The word kitsch, or the term rhetoric against kitsch, for me, feels off/something else–too distinct to mesh with the residual tinting of kitsch’s conventional meaning(s).

  13. Johannes

    Adam, I”m totally interested in maintaining the “residue” of kitsch.


  14. adam strauss

    I am officially lost then; well, rather, then that renders, for me, the theory (or pre-theory or whatever word works best) illegible as the logic feels hermetic–or if not illegible then like an electron or however the physics goes–that one cannot see an electron’s location or trajectory at the same time that it can be measured. Given that the above may read as a diss and raises the qestion why wld I bother trying to engage with this rhetoric–because it’s really friggin interesting at the same time that I can’t make anything like clear enough sense of it. Too, I am a fetishist for readily accesible reason: aka pedantic.

  15. Johannes

    I like your electron metaphor. It may be the best metaphor yet for the kind of dynamic I”m thinking of in terms of kitsch.

    It’s OK to be pedantic, I’m not dissing you, I’m trying to answer your questions.


  16. adam strauss

    I’m glad the metaphor registers! Any thoughts on kitsch’s relation to sci-fi? Have you by any chance read any of the Alpha novels? They’re teen girl works–or at least one wld presume that’s the targeted demographic–about a school which is also an alternate universe/bubble: very interesting and rather creepy.

    I love this: “It’s OK to be pedantic.”

    I hope all’s well.

    How far is Notre Dame from Louisville, Ky?