More Gaudy Possibilities: Sentimentality vs Intensity

by on Feb.06, 2012

Stick the antennae into the poem!
I can hear the radio!
I sew up the body needles with needles and thread
It’s become a sagging yellow Yankee bag
Almost ready
I’m going to fire this body as a bullet!
(Hagiwara Kyojiro, “Morning*Noon*Night*Robot, Burning City)

I thought I would continue my response to Gene Tanta’s questions of whether my ideas about poetry could be reduced to a kind “fun.” In my last post, I talked about how my own experiences with art (such as Patti Smith, Aase Berg) don’t jive with the prevailing idea that art, and mechanical reproduction, “compromises” the materiality of experience; how art in fact strikes me as incredibly physically intensive.

In the latest issue of Pleiades (which, as I’ve said before, is a very excellent journal of reviews of books; a few issues back it had a review of Gunnar Björling that is one of the best things I’ve ever read about him, including essays by Swedish/Finnish critics), a poet named Joy Katz has curated some essays about “sentimentality.” In several of these essays, particularly in Katz’s own essays, art is modeled as a kind of mask, something that interferes with the communication of emotions. This might be the “quietist” version of the lefty critique I discussed in the Patti Smith post. Katz is in favor of “sentiment,” which she equates with “sincerity” and “emotions.”

By “sentimental” poetry Katz seems to mean a “personal lyric” or “quietist” or “workshop” poetry. That is to say, it’s sincere to write according to a lyric which does not call attention to its own artifice: sincerity is a more “direct” way of communication one’s “emotions.” As in all the rhetoric of “sincerity”, ART itself becomes a hinderance to people revealing their innermost emotions.

Sentiment is feeling, and we feel with our real bodies in real time. Sentiment is sincere… Surrealism distances the world… it’s easier, right now, to write poems with dance floors full of water torturers wearing lingerie than it is to find a non-icky way to feeling.

As so often in contemporary US poetry discussions, “Surrealism” is used without providing any specifics; it is a nameless threat to the authentic self. This namelessness I think is important because it suggests something of the threat: it will erase not just “emotion” but individuality in some way.

Katz criticizes this “surrealism” because it overemphasizes the artifice of art (because it breaks with the decorum of the “personal lyric”?), generating a mask behind which the poet hides. As well as for some reason “icky” (there’s something grotesque about deviating from the “sincerity” style).

As I’ve written repeatedly, I have many problems with this model of sincerity, most obviously that it is the Art that seduces me. Art participates in mediumcity, makes a medium of my body, my mouth, my nerves. Artifice doesn’t push me away, it draws me into the melee of Art. I don’t hide behind artifice; artifice pushes me into a world of images, language, bodies. But it also breaks me down, shatters me, makes me vulnerable.

I think here one key point is that the “emotions” posited by so much “sentimental” poetry and poetics is very much based on an idea of the isolated interiorities of individuals. “Emotions” (or “sentimentality”) is what individuals feel inside. It’s an aesthetic based on the model of “finding one’s voice” – or finding “the voice that is great within us.”

And this might connect with Lara’s comment in James’s Clayton/Ariana post about the “inhuman,” or Brian Massumi’s distinction between “affect” (preconscious often contradictory) and “emotions”(affect captured by individual interiority). Surrealism being a poetics of “affect” while “sentimental poetry” being focused on emotions – defined, belonging to individual interiority. [Here’s a summary of Massumi’s theory of affect.]

According to the rhetoric of “sincerity,” writing poetry means getting in touch with your interiority, a means of resisting the crazy spectacle of modern culture by writing very restrained, “personal” poetry about one’s feelings. To break the decorum is, according to this model, to become “unreal” because it foregrounds the artifice of poetry.

Perloff and the Language poets seized on the “sincere” poetry’s rejection of distance, and espoused a “distancing” in a more Marxist sense, embracing “distance” as in “critical distance.” They used this angle to criticize the institutional workshop lyric.

I have trouble with both these models – personal emotion and distancing critique – because I tend to see artifice as very affective, provoking intensive sensations. It is the artifice in art that creates these intensive experiences. The masks don’t distance me, or provide a “hiding” place for its makers; the masks (if good) are very intensive experiences.

One of my favorite books about art is Steven Shaviro’s The Cinematic Body, in which Shaviro argues against various views of film that seeks to create distance from the images, or that inherently condemns images for being to absorptive and visceral, arguing instead that it’s exactly film’s visceral power that makes it destabilizing. What is destabilized is of course roughly speaking Katz’s idea of the “sentimental,” interiority. In difference to a lot of art and literature discussion that pathologizes passivity – the reader should be active co-creator, the “spectator” is inherently immoral due to the passivity this word implies – Shaviro argues for a radically passive spectatorship, a masochistic experience of art.

Here are some quotes from Shaviro’s book about the great b-movie Blue Steel (by Kathryne Bigelow):

“Visual fascination is a passive, irresistible compulsion, and not an assertion of the active mastery of the gaze. And it is linked with the delegitimation of violence, its dissocation either from the demands of social order or from the assertion of virile (stereotypically male) power and control, for Eugene “catches” violence as one catches an infection, more than he inflicts it as a willful expression of a warped self. His Phallic, aggressive fantasies are decentered and unhinged in the very movement by which they are intensified. He is less an independent character than a hysterical figuration of the destabilizing excessiveness of Turner’s own desire. And Blue Steel as a whole celebrates this excess.”

“Blue Steel is a blatantly fetishistic and voyeuristic film: it unabashedly revels in visual fascination.”

“Blue Steel disrupts the gender codings and power relations implicit in more conventional actions films not by distancing us from but by intensifying such films’ disreputable pleasures.”

“Blue Steel’s extreme stylization and self-consciousness lead to an unbearable increase in tension that can be discharged only by random violence.”

“Blue Steel exposes visual fascination as a restless, shattering mobility – rather than as the stabilizing fixation assumed by so much film theory, or as the morose delectation of Blade Runner.”

“Something has happened to the act of looking. Outbursts of violence… arouse, agitate and unsettle the spectator. Narcissistic gratification is interrupted, not through any recognition of loss or lack, but because I am drawn into a condition of excessive, undischargeable excitation. I am depositioned and dispossessed by the film’s incessant modulations of visibility, no less than by its concise articulations of action and movement.”

“Vision in Blue Steel is excruciatingly, preternaturally vivid; reality is heightened into feverish hallucination. Such a hypertrophy of the visual is Bigelow’s way of undoing the security and possessiveness that have conventionally been associated with the “male gaze.” She pushes fetishism and voyeuristic fascination to the point where they explode.”

This idea of intensification over distancing is crucial to my own thinking about art (it’s at the heart of my last post about the intensity of Patti Smith’s art and imagery).

One last thing: Katz also disses “surrealism” for writing poetry abut “an imaginary war with exploding candy bunny soldiers” (As opposed to Carolyn Forche’s “poetry of witness” and Celan’s “Death Fugue” – more about this in my next post.) This couple with the water torturers on the dance floor suggests that surrealism may be engaged in political imagery without the due seriousness; it “aestheticizes violence” or suffering etc. Again this idea that by making something art we interfere with the truth of it; make the suffering frivolous somehow (a very common trope in poetry discussions). For me to “aestheticize” something is the very opposite of being frivolous about it.

I hope from the Shaviro quotes you can tell that I don’t think the intensive experiences of art as apolitical (or merely “fun”) and in the next post I’ll use it to turn to “political art” – such as Zurita and Nancy Spero.

9 comments for this entry:
  1. Spencer

    This is fantastic, Johannes.

  2. Carina

    I’m sitting in my office flipping between montevidayo, cinnamon roll recipes, and sedgwick’s epistemology of the closet. I read this paragraph right after I finished reading this post and it seems very relevant so now I’m going to post it for you:

    “the now modern crisis of homo/heterosexual definition has affected our culture through its ineffaceable marking particularly of the categories of secrecy/disclosure, knowledge/ignorance, private/public, masculine/feminine, majority/minority, innocence/initiation, natural/artificial, new/old, discipline/terrorism, canonic/noncanonic, wholeness/decadence, urbane/provincial, domestic/foreign, health/illness, same/different, active/passive, in/out, cognition/paranoia, art/kitsch, utopia/apocalypse, sincerity/sentimentality, and voluntary/addiction. And rather than embrace an idealist faith in the necessarily, immanently self-sorrosive efficacy of the contradictions inherent to these definitional binarisms, I will suggest instead that contests for discursive power can be specified as competitions for the material or rhetorical leverage required to set the terms of, and to profit in some way from, the operations of such an incoherence of definition” (11).

  3. Johannes

    There’s also all kind of interesting stuff about sentimentality in that book, and I was really drawn to these Pleiades essays because of this kind of background (Billy Budd) etc but found I was disappointed in the way it came to mean just “sincerity” rather than something more interesting./Johannes

  4. James Pate


    What amazes me about the rhetoric around “distancing critique” is its surprising yearning for certitude. “Surprising” because I think most critics and writers who celebrate distancing critiques imagine themselves to be cutting edge…

    The metaphor, of course, implies that critical distance leads to some higher and more universal truth. To some a-historical truth. It is Platonic through and through. A method yearning for a type of intellectual transcendence that looks threadbare as hell at this point.

    Even “distancing critiques” have a cultural history. And one as wildly arbitrary as most of the concepts we think of as being part of a teleological movement toward supposedly higher forms of knowledge…

    Plus, wasn’t the whole point of deconstruction to undercut such certitudes? Such naive celebrations of “distance”?

    As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, Derrida much preferred the theater of cruelty to the theater of alienation effects, the later seeming to him to be based on very conservative notions of western representation.

    And yet critics like Perloff continue on and on, catering to this nostalgia for “higher” types of truth. A safe little vantage point out of the wind and rain. How incredibly boring…


  5. Johannes

    There is of course interesting things one can do with distance. Bernstein’s “Artifice of Absorption” is still a very interesting essay to me, and I think that’s something Perloff seems to pick up on./Johannes

  6. Spencer

    Accusations of “camp” is another way of minimizing/reducing. Merrill suffered for years from accusations that his work wasn’t sincere/serious enough because of his virtuosity, artifice, and rhetorical foregrounding.

  7. James Pate

    Distance as a way to create a hall of mirrors, distance as a metafictional device, I’m all for: Cervantes, Borges, Nabokov, Puig, David Foster Wallace — I could read them all day and night.

    But the problem with “critical distance” as it is so frequently used is that it creates a hierarchy whereby the world of appearances becomes either an illusion, or something that must be surpassed. Appearances become degraded in the name of some sort of positivistic and foundational truth. Hence its Platonic tendencies. Distance as dogma is not the same thing as distance as play.

    I have to admit, I’ve never been into Bernstein, and have read little of him, so I don’t know about “Artifice of Absorption.”


  8. Johannes

    It’s an interesting article, particularly his reading of Dickinson’s awkwardness.


  9. James Pate


    I’ll have to read it…

    I’ve read other essays by him, but, to my ear, there’s such a self-congratulatory undercurrent to his outlook that I usually get bored after a few pages. That isn’t-it-great-we-have-finally-figured-out-the-keys-of-literture tone. As if literary history stops with him and his cohorts.