"Swedes don't exist…": Naturalization, Kitsch and The Past

by on May.10, 2011

While I was waiting to be “naturalized” as a U.S. citizen on Friday I was reading Homi Bhabha’s Location of Culture, so that’s definitely influencing this post. But mostly it seems now would be an opportune time to get back to my common claim that “the immigrant is kitsch,” now that I’m “naturalized” (but obviously by definition not “natural”).

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As I was sitting there in the huge court house (With a motto from To Kill a Mockingbird, or maybe One Flew Over the Cucko’s Nest, on the bronze plaques, with a high school group of flag bearers with fake muskets), I was thinking about this very issue of the immigrant as kitsch: How the immigrant is so frequently made into an exotic trinket, or a counterfeit (“Made in Taiwan”) etc. As with atrocity kitsch, it’s a way of dealing with a troubling presence, something like an uncanny figure (un-home-like).

This unease seems to come from two directions: the immigrant brings a possibly corrupting outside influence (for example foreign poetry or foreign sexual mores etc); but more importantly, the immigrant mimics the real “natural” national, he counterfeits the “natural.” No matter how “naturalized” or appropriating immigrants are, there is an irritation that I think comes out of this imitation; there is a unsettling element to this mimicry in that it makes kitsch out of the authentic “natural.” It makes the natural into an act.

The foreigner is a bit like Freud’s double, who, in one of its incarnations can do everything the real person desires but cannot (because of the ego): the foreigner is commonly suspected of cheating, of playing tricks and, most interestingly, having a kind of quick access to some kind of source of jouissance. For example, the pervasive anxiety about translation: how do we know that this is an important poet? Or, how so many people have admitted to me that they suspect I have made up all the Swedish poets I’ve translated. Or: How people assume the poets I translate are marginal/experimental figures. Can’t trust us. And like Freud’s double, we’re strangely also death-like (or “nihilists”). We’re also of course “unheimlich” – un-home-ly, secretive, creepy.

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Usually when I bring up the idea that immigrants are kitsch, some well-meaning lefty will say “We’re all immigrants.” On some level I think this is what troubles people about immigrants: it makes us all homeless, their mimicry exposes the artificiality of the natural. But I can’t help resisting this argument when it’s made by the well-meaning lefty: it almost always strikes me as a way to get rid of the troubling presence of the immigrant. Or as I said in some discussion on the Internet some time back: “Don’t de-other me!” (Very dramatic). I agree with the argument in a general way (in fact, it’s the argument I’m basically giving on this blog), but in the specific situation it almost always seems to be a way to get rid of the nagging presence of the foreign(er). Maybe it’s wrong of me, maybe I should embrace this rhetoric more fully. But I can’t get over that feeling that it’s a way to smoothen things out.

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Also: Part of the time people want to treat me as a “European poet”, other times people get pissed when I emphasize that I am in fact Swedish. I think this is a no-win situation. Of course I can’t solve this dilemma either; I don’t want to.

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Another objection that people often bring up is: “What about Italian cooking by grandmothers? What about whiskey from Ireland? Aren’t people al Isn’t the immigrant in fact the representative of the authentic?” This is what I call instances of “authenticity kitsch.” Trinkets of an authentic past. In the Old World.

The Irish Policeman or the minstrelsy singer/joker would maybe show the connection between the two types of kitsch (Joyelle’s grampa performed a minstrelsy show as “the irish policeman” in bars in South Boston, he was actually a rope-tarrer in the shipyard and union organizer).

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Authenticity kitsch came up in an interesting way during the oath. The judge said: “American does not want you to forget about your past. We need you to tell us your stories about your past, so that we can appreciate the freedoms we have here.” That is to say, the immigrant can exist as true *in the past*. In the present, the immigrant has to disappear into America, but his or her past can exist. In fact plays a key role: the American needs us to tell our past. By making it past, most importantly, and thus making American present. The Old World ceases to exist, becomes America.

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There’s no correct attitude I think, that I’m arguing for here. The immigrant is troubling, that’s just it, and I’m not interested in removing that. But then most things are troubling.

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A lot of people seem to think that “exoticizing otherness” is a worse crime than ignoring otherness; likewise it seems a lot of people are concerned that immigrants should not be exoticized. This argument typically has a moralistic edge to it: it does harm to exoticize the other (think “orientalism” etc). But often I encounter it another way – it gives too much power to the other.

In translation discussions there’s always a lot of talk about trying to make the reader aware that they’re reading a translation etc, so you won’t get fooled, so you won’t exoticize etc. You don’t want to be “taken in” by the translation; you don’t want to lose your critical distance.

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When I was in fifth grade I got in trouble for an unhealthy interest in other cultures (I was obsessed with Asian culture); the exotic is bad for you, much like Art is bad for you. Exotic might another key term to bring into the reductive Accessibility vs Difficulty debate: it’s accessible yet obscure (other), a celebration of obscurity without access. And it’s so much more alluring than “accessibility.”

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I would like to end by giving a close reading to that Hemingway story “The Killers” where the Swede is about to be killed, and the Philip Roth story about “The Swede” (who is really a Jew), and the Berryman dream song about Swedes not existing. But I am out of steam so I’ll leave that for another time.

10 comments for this entry:
  1. Laura Wideburg

    Interesting thoughts.
    And your child(ren) — hee, hee — love those postmodern parenthesis!– can now wear those wonderful kitchy T-shirts that say
    MADE IN THE USA WITH SWEDISH PARTS.
    And you can give your wife that great kitchy blue-and-yellow coffee mug “Pray for me — I married a Swede!”
    And your grand(kids) can say “Granpa (or farfar, as many Swedish Americans do the “mormor” and “farfar” route for the Swedish grandparent)doesn’t know ANYTHING about modern Sweden! And I certainly don’t want to join the Swedish Cultural Center!” — until he turns 50 and wants to “rediscover his roots”. Then my daughter can teach him Swedish….

  2. adam strauss

    I just finally looked up why British English for rutabaga is swede figuring that the explanation would involve xenophobia and if wikipedia can be trusted I’m pleased to see that the word rutabaga is just an anglicization of a Swedish word. Do you know of any colloquial/xenophobic subtext in addition?

  3. Johannes

    That’s funny. Swedes eat a lot of root vegetables (Swedish cuisine is a cuisine for peasants living in a harsh climate).

    Johannes

  4. niina

    “[…]but more importantly, the immigrant mimics the real ‘natural’ national, he counterfeits the ‘natural.'” This is exactly the connection between fear of immigrant-aliens and fear of alien-aliens. The sci-fi alien flicks of the 50s (pretty much born out of a close-to-the-bone fear of communism) feature aliens that look just like “us.” Like imitation is just practice for infiltration.

  5. megan

    hi johannes – really thought-provoking post. you might be interested in work being done by siobhan somerville on u.s. naturalization ceremonies from a queer perspective. i heard her give a lecture at uic in which she showed images of naturalization ceremonies put on in partnership with the ringling brothers and disneyworld; her approach is very much in line with your notion of immigrant kitsch. i believe her book in progress is called “queering like a state: naturalized citizenship and u.s. empire.”

  6. Josef Horáček

    I like how you keep all the terms complicated and in limbo, Bhabha-style. It’s interesting how a term like the exotic can turn out intriguingly productive once we recuperate it from its simplistic, pejorative straightjacket. I want to extend this approach to what you said about reflexive translation. Reflexivity in translation can be quite exoticizing. It can flaunt otherness, sometimes quite gratuitously. This lead me to a point I hope to elaborate some time in the future: a particular approach to translation (or writing in general) can be used to varying ends.

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  8. Michael Peverett

    “Authenticity kitsch came up in an interesting way during the oath. The judge said: “American does not want you to forget about your past. We need you to tell us your stories about your past, so that we can appreciate the freedoms we have here.” That is to say, the immigrant can exist as true *in the past*. In the present, the immigrant has to disappear into America, but his or her past can exist. In fact plays a key role: the American needs us to tell our past. By making it past, most importantly, and thus making American present. The Old World ceases to exist, becomes America. ”

    Something I once wrote about ab English class discussing Moniza Alvi’s popular (and much-taught)poem “Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan” –

    The lesson continued well: there was focus and comment on “some of the key messages in Moniza Alvi’s poem”, and pupils “were able to discuss openly and calmly issues such as racism in society, cultural difference, their pride in their own cultural heritage and their conviction that they had successfully fused two (or more) cultures.” …. By temporarily foregrounding our varieties of cultural inheritance, and at the same time relegating them to an impractical mode, that is, to something “within us”, in fact a background and not a foreground at all, we make some play for ourselves in the dominant culture. We recognize and enjoy our differences. We don’t impose them. The dominant culture becomes more comfortable and more resilient. The past and the remote are enshrined.

  9. Michael Peverett

    Oh yeah, the word swede (vegetable) was just short for Swedish Turnip. The swede (or rutabaga) being a natural hybrid of turnip and cabbage, supposed to have originated in Sweden (a Swiss botanist claimed in 1620 – the first reference to the new vegetable – that it could be found growing wild in Sweden). So, no xenophobia in the origin, though I can confirm that a Swede or semi-Swede living in England will rapidly get bored of people making swede-jokes!

  10. Lucas de Lima

    I can’t wait to try this experiment and bring Bhabha or maybe Jaspir Puar to my oath ceremony.