Violent Accessories, Counterfeit Lineages and "Occult Glamour"

by on Jun.28, 2011

I’ve been thinking a lot about kitsch and Alexander McQueen and fashion and Daniel Tiffany’s essays about kitsch. I don’t have any definite conclusions, but I think in these thoughts I am actually thinking about something like lineage and influence – only counterfeit lineages, translated lineages, artificial influences – so I’m going to write a few posts about poetry of “excessive beauty” and “occult glamour,” and I hope that they will tie into both our recent discussions about “the avant-garde” – most importantly the rejection of a contemporary idea of the avant-garde as linear, “rigorous” and high art – and Joyelle’s idea of an anachronistic lineage, a contaminated idea of influence, as well as my recent discussion of kitsch and Daniel Tiffany’s ideas of kitsch. Hopefully in the end we’ll end up with a “kitsched” idea of lineage, of the avant-garde, of poetry.

Some of the works and topics I will broach include Alexander McQueen, Aase Berg’s Dark Matter, Peter Richards’ Helsinki, China Mieville, Dada and Surrealism (“dream kitsch”) and Science Fiction (also “dream kitsch”?). In other words, artworks that have “influenced” me in some ways.


In the first chapter of his forthcoming book on kitsch, Tiffany lays out a kind of history of kitsch, tracing it back to the 19th century Gothic literature “which seeks to deliver the strongest possible doses of wonder and dread.” The key here is art as effect; as with the sublime, which comes out of the same general literary terrain, “kitsch” is about about the effect. And the effect of kitsch is “poetic”:

The orchestration of effects, it must be emphasized, pertains directly to the question of audience, of mass culture. Understood this way, kitsch in poetry trafficks in aestehetic hyperbole, counterfeiting poetry in a language that defies particularity, yet captivates its audience: a hyperaesthetic formula radiating the common estrangement of “poetry.” From a corresponding angle, poetic kitsch might also be described as poetry-in-drag, not cross-dressing, but something akin to female female impersonation or male male-impersonation: a cosmetic distilling of lyrical expression, a poetic doll. Kitsch in poetry thus enacts in material and syntactic terms a poetic melodrama, exposing at once the intrinsic falsehood of poetic diction and the unadulterated essence of poetry.

It is crucial to bear in mind, however, that the decadence of kitsch – the rarefaction of is materials – is sustained by, and indeed, expresses fundamentally, the imitative and reflexive logic of tradition itself.

It is precisely the reproducibility of poetic kitsch, along with its role as carrier of subliminal values and motives, with help to clarify how kitsch in poetry may be related to the conditions of mass culture. (27)


It is not surprising that Tiffany traces kitsch back to a series of counterfeit TRANSLATIONS in the Romantic era. Readers of this blog of course remembers my frequent mantra: Translations are kitsch, the immigrant is kitsch. (I’ll return to this topic.)


To refer back to Danielle’s post, influence becomes pathological, tasteless, when there’s too much emphasis on the effects, when they’re reproducible, when the Talking Heads record takes the head off Jonathan Lethem.


It struck me while reading Tiffany’s quote that fashion makes the perfect metaphor for the zone of literature I like to write about – and may be the reason why the wildest fashion tends to be gothic (Alexander McQueen, Rodarte) and why fashion shoots so often invokes the gothic conventions (See Laura Palmer discussion). Only in high fashion often explores motifs that would be considered “kitschy” or tasteless in poetry.

So I’m going to make a few points about the catalog for the Alexaner McQueen retrospective, “Savage Beauty” and then in future posts I’m going to maybe use his outfits as a critical framework for reading the poetry I want to talk about.


Maybe the first thing I will talk about is exactly the title, “Savage Beauty.” If one were to name a book of poem this, one would be laughed out of town, right? It’s a kitschy title. But it’s exactly in the same rhetorical terrain as “excessive beauty” (from Tiffany’s description of kitsch) and “occult glamour” (Salman Rushdie, by way of Lucas de Lima).

And perhaps most importantly, Breton’s “convulsive beauty.”

McQueen shares a whole lot of aspects that I like about Surrealism (“my surrealism”). To begin with the idea the connection between the poetic “effect” and violence (Here is the Tiffany connection between kitsch and the sublime perhaps). Breton is often accused of being a neo-Romantic – ie not properly modern, a “conservative avant-garde” (as Perloff quotes the Brazilian avant-garde in her new book). And indeed his poems are very “poetic”; “dream kitsch” as Benjamin called them. And his Surrealist manifesto is full of “surrealists” that precede the terms surrealist (Rimbaud, Shakespeare etc): ie he has a very anachronistic idea of “avant-gardism.” Perhaps I’d like to see Breton as “anachronistic” more than “conservative.”

One needs only to flip through the pages of the McQeen to get a similar impression: this is fashion at its most gothic and anachronistic (at one point the inspiration is “national romanticism”). It even includes that most anachronistic style, sci-fi gothic (more about that when I talk about Helsinki, Dark Matter and Mieville)… McQueen himself refer to his inspiration as “darkly romantic” and “hand-painted Victorian pictures.” In one quote he writes: “Things rot… I used flowers because they die.”


Flowers that rot and die, deathy Victorian dresses, grotesque sci-fi spines etc: We are certainly in a certain space of the “poetic,” but it’s not the official avant-garde space of “rigor” and “hard” modernity, like the kind of “realism” proscribed by Ron Silliman for example. It’s more like a gothic, anachronistic modernity. Something you would more likely find in a Lara Glenum poem (as one negative reviewer intuited, calling her poems “hot topics surrealism”) or a David Lynch movie.

Elsewhere, McQueen writes: “I especially like the accessory for its sadomasochistic aspect.”

This is my favorite quote in the book and something about it lines up for me with “convulsive beauty” *and* Tiffany’s idea of art as “effect” – it is the accessories that impose the violent eroticism, the inauthentic surface “effects” so to speak. But if you look at the dresses above, the artifice seems to blend with the body – not in a boring “subversion” of artifice/nature but in a much more necropastoral way.

If you look at the Latin origins of the word (as I just did on the Internet): it means “additional thing” as well as “increase.” And I think that speaks to the “poetic effects” that are not core, structural meaning, but in the effects, as well as the fact that it’s about “increasing” the effect (Tiffany’s “aesthetic hyperbole”). The accessory becomes part of the thing itself; the body contains its accessory; the accessory creates hybrid assemblages. But maybe more importantly to me: the outfits seem in motion: like they the assemblage is not stable; they are capable of erotic violence.

OK, next up I’ll apply these observations to some poems.

11 comments for this entry:
  1. Danielle Pafunda

    Okay–loose assemblage of pre-coffee-kick-in fashion thoughts says:

    1. fashion doesn’t sit back disaffected while a person consuming becomes affected and yearns to replace head with fashion. Fashion insists on replacing the human head, and its insistence, its love/hate/erotic violence to/desperation for the human form is always in bad taste? Fashion isn’t cool about it.

    2. when designers making livable fashions, things that function organically with the body, those fashions are often in “good taste” or at very least never stray into kitsch in a way that antlers, flounces where the body is straightlined, straight lines where the body flounces, etc. can’t be. Fashion isn’t cool about its relationship to humans, is hot & bothered for humans, particularly those humans whose bodies offer a combative excess to work with/against.

    3. there’s a fab reason that Project Runway disseminates the phrase “hot mess” into our contemporary vernacular! HOT MESS


    4. Kate Durbin triggered mad desire in me last night to find a Little Bo Peep costume to wear while reading from my new project (which I probably won’t do, but what a delirious daydream!), and so Googling “Little Bo Peep costume” (NSFW, but fascinating) led me to the term “fantasy bonnet,” which was literally a dowdy little renaissance era white cap that a mercantile or peasant woman would’ve worn, but it was called “fantasy bonnet!” In this tacky little reproduction of a pedestrian little accessory is lodged a whole host of fantasies–plenty of them nefarious, most of them trashy–but many, like mine, recombinant gestures…

    Can’t wait to hear how poems are accessorizing.

  2. Lara Glenum

    I love the accessories quote, Johannes. Accessories do very much seem to be about tying & binding, glimmering & mesmerism. Interesting to think of the poem itself as an accessory, an acute point of binding the language body. A poem as an S&M gadget.

    What I love about antler-lady is how she is nothing but accessory, a rococo mash-up of textures & species. Her code-switching, her occluded face, everything is inhuman. Incongruity made congruous through kinesis alone. Sutures me into my terror lobes.

    Do these figures look capable of erotic violence or like erotic violence has been done to them? Both, I think. A polysystem of erotic violence that refuses to give up it’s multivalent agency/passivity.

    I’m eager to hear more about tiffany’s ideas on poetry-in-drag. Also kitsch’s reinforcement of tradition and mimesis.

    I’m thinking a lot about kisch in relationship to Duchamp’s thematizing of the counterfeit & the realtionship of all of the above to L’etant Donee.

  3. Johannes

    Like you guys suggest, McQueen’s outfits seem tos challenge the idea of “accessory.” So that it might be more of an “intensification” of “affect” than something supplemental (both are of course in the zone of kitsch).

    I would say to Danielle that it seems to me that McQueen’s dresses move quite well – which again why simple binaries between artifice/nature don’t apply entirely, or apply like in the necropastoral. To me this functions by analogy to the shift from montage to digital technology, and to poetry. But more about that later I hope.

    I agree with the idea that the clothes/bodies both receive and give out the violence, but more than a traditional “agency” it seems the body and the clothes interact.

    Thanks for your responses!


  4. Johannes

    Also, I was looking for a link for you about Hans Bellmer’s influence on McQueen (I think itwas in the New Yorker), but I came upon this blog which looks pretty awesome:


  5. Lara Glenum

    O the medical armor is so pathologically tasty! I need some. Caucasian flesh as armadillo-like, inquisition-style armor, yes! Skin as prosthesis.

    Send the Belmer link when you find it.

  6. Adam Henne

    Since Mieville’s been rementioned, maybe I get to share this post on language and ideology in his YA novel ?i>Un Lun Dun

  7. Counterfeit lineages: Kitsch, Immigrants, Translation, Avant-Garde - Montevidayo

    […] Translation” – which notably is about “poetic effect,” not poetry proper, see my post about McQueen.) And almost as famous is his quip that writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net. […]

  8. Danielle Pafunda

    Look at all these internet goodies! I didn’t know that about the Bellmer-McQueen. Fascinating.

    I agree, Johannes, the dresses move beautifully, & yes, mistake to suggest a binary between nature/artifice. I was thinking not about an essential binary, but about the binary that, for instance, Project Runway suggests when it pronounces a design “organic,” or “fluid” or something “a real woman could/would wear.” Did you see the season where the fella got kicked off for making these weird egg-like fashions?

    Most of McQueen’s designs are in real tension with human kinesiology, and this is fascinating to me as someone whose own human kinesiology is in tension with what we regard as “normal” human kinesiology. So, when more muscles and nerves are activated, how does your canvas inform your design? Or, for designers, like choreographers or directors, is the human body a real active participant in the process? Models are for sure body artists–the control they have over macro and micro muscular lexicons! Anyone ever try to reproduce Am Next Top Model challenges at home? It’s got to be incredibly challenging to move with/against those dresses. And it’s no easy thing to wear antlers on one’s head, to catwalk in megaplatforms, to conduct multiple & opposed flounces–to support much of McQueen’s armature. Ohmygawsh, I’m so jealous I could vomit. I want this challenge so bad.


  9. Johannes

    I loved the egg costume. He was the first to go that season I think. Yes, the most interesting outfits on Project Runway are always deemed “costumey.” I think this translates 100 percent to the poetry world./Johannes

  10. adam strauss

    I love this: “Models are for sure body artists–the control they have over macro and micro muscular lexicons! Anyone ever try to reproduce Am Next Top Model challenges at home? It’s got to be incredibly challenging to move with/against those dresses. And it’s no easy thing to wear antlers on one’s head, to catwalk in megaplatforms, to conduct multiple & opposed flounces–to support much of McQueen’s armature. ”

    Yes-yes-yes! This is precisely why Naomi Campbell is one of my heroes. She is, to my mind, likely the best runway model ever, and I love how when she is in photos she tends to fill the frame, radiate, become almost 3-d; she is (or at-least was) exceptionally good at not letting the trappings of a shoot put her in the background/position herself recessively.

    For some hillarious wonderful period style catwalking, checkout youtube clips of Chanel shows from the mid/late 80s!

  11. Rethinking Experimental Literature / the Avant-Garde / what Henry Miller calls “the inhuman ones” | HTMLGIANT

    […] Glenum commented: “What I love about antler-lady is how she is nothing but accessory, a rococo mash-up of […]