“… orgiastic barrage of smut”: On Taste, Sensationalism and Haute Surveillance

by on Apr.13, 2015

The other day I discovered an interesting review of Haute Surveillance on Publisher’s Weekly. Often negative reviews are very revealing – especially when it’s such a negative review as this, especially in a magazine that like to present itself as a “journal of record” that is supposed to be a guide to things published with an air of “objectivity.” If an “objective” record has to abject my book in this way, has to warn instead of merely take note of my book, what does it say about my book’s relationship to “objective” American poetry?
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I am particularly interested in the contradictions of this rhetoric: It is both “underwhelming” and “orgiastic,” both “pornography” and “disinteret[ed],” a morass” that “drowns” the reader and “vacuous.” The review repeatedly presents my book as both too much and not enough. This is the hallmark of when people who perceive themselves as having refined taste tries to shield others from work that challenges that taste.

How can a text both be a barrage that drowns the reader and be “exhaustive critique”? The critique suggest a stable place from which to view one’s culture; and that’s a place I’ve never found for myself, and it’s not a stance I’ve found convincing in other writers. (I’ve written quite a bit about my dissatisfaction with this pervasive paradigm of the writer-as-critic, for example here.)
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It seem this person is unable to read the text and has to fall back on a number of cliches (that contradict each other): it’s about “spectatorship” (which it certainly is), so it must be a “critique”. If it’s pornographic and masochism, then it cannot be “boundary-pushing” (ie “experimental”). When you stumble into this many contradictions, I think it’s important to ask oneself as a critic if one is actually reviewing a book or flailing wildly?

The review is correct in many ways (perhaps in spite of itself). I think my book mostly certainly is a “morass” and “masochistic”, and it most certainly doesn’t provide a way out, a way forward, a progressive worldview. It is most certainly meant to be a “barrage.” But again, if I were the critic, I might ask myself: Why is this author creating a barrage, a morass? Why would someone want to subject himself or his reader to such “smut”? Can there be any other way than the “critique” of engaging with US culture (and its splendid images, its barrage, its violence)?

The smut is particularly interesting to me of course. The falling back on the rhetoric of “pornography” is common these days. I have written extensively about this (for example here, about “ruin porn”). At the heart, I think this line of criticism goes back to the fundamental rhetoric of high taste: high taste is anxious about art that traffics in sensational images. I have also written about Jacques Ranciere’s “The Emancipation of the Spectator”:

It was in this context that a rumour began to be heard: too many stimuli have been unleashed on all sides; too many thoughts and images are invading brains that have not been prepared for mastering this abundance; too many images of possible pleasures are held out to the sight of the poor in big towns; too many new pieces of knowledge are being thrust into the feeble skulls of the children of the common people…

This also goes back to my last post, which treated the charges that Action Books represented a “sensationalistic” – and therefore immoral, ignorant – aesthetic.

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Here’s the review:

Göransson’s latest effort is an underwhelming collection of aphorisms and non-sequiturs that congeal into assemblages of pornography and the daily news. In content and style it resembles the disinterest and disjointedness of late night channel surfing. Göransson (Dear Ra) enumerates various appalling sexual or violent acts in a deadpan and detached manner conveying an endless stream of unrelated instances of sadomasochism, molestation, murder, heaped corpses, and other forms of graphic violence. These acts are shuffled between a set of nameless recurring characters such as the murdered Starlet, the Father Voice-Over, and the Black Man. Into this morass of pulp Görannson incorporates topical references to Fox News, Gaza, and drones in the desert. Unfortunately, the deluge of provocative and raunchy content is exhausted through sheer repetition and drowns out the sparsely interspersed passages that are enjoyable or inventive. Göransson’s celebratory and orgiastic barrage of smut reiterates an already exhausted critique of political theater, nihilistic spectatorship, and American popular culture. The shock of this screed is undermined by sheer unrelenting volume making for a cringe-inducing text that feels paradoxically abrasive and cliché. What Görannson has created is a vacuous form of post-modernism that feels more like an exercise in masochism than boundary-pushing experimentation. (May)

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One place this critic might begin is in Steve Shaviro’s book The Cinematic Body which includes the following:

“The psychoanalytic theorist’s need for control, his or hr fear of giving way to the insidious blandishments of visual fascination, and his or her consequent construction of a theoretical edifice as a defense against a threatening pleasure – all this tends uncannily to resemble the very drama of trauma and disavowal that psychoanalytic film theory attribute to the normative male spectator… Beneath its claim to methodological rigor and political correctness, it manifests a barely contained panic at the prospect (or is it memory?) of being affected and moved by visual forms. It is as if there were something degrading and dangerous about giving way to images, and so easily falling under their power. Theory thus seeks to ward off the cinema’s dangerous allure, to refuse the suspect pleasures that it offers, to dissipate its effects by articulating its hidden but intelligible structure. Behind all these supposedly materialist attacks on the ideological illusions built into the cinematic apparatus should we not rather see the opposite, an idealist’s fear of the ontological instability of the image, and of the materiality of affect and sensation?”

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PS
I think the fact that he review misspells my name is indicative of something.

15 comments for this entry:
  1. James Pate

    To me, this is key the sentence: “What Görannson has created is a vacuous form of post-modernism that feels more like an exercise in masochism than boundary-pushing experimentation.” The reviewer is deeply embedded in a notion of art and “experimentation” that is linear, pushing us toward ever sunnier climes. The notion that there might be a radically different way of thinking about writing is not even hinted at. Ironically, this Modernist approach to literature is what’s actually dated. It’s the same old story, Pound’s shadow and Hegel’s ghost, repeated for a century now.

  2. adam s

    I like the image with this post–seems like cross twixt taffeta, albumen, and smoke.

  3. Johannes

    Thanks Adam.

  4. adam s

    And cotton candy and feathers.

  5. Kim G

    Yeah this review is pretty predictable. I’ve been thinking a lot lately though about that line of what is “going too far”, who gets to do what, when does something become misogynistic or racist, how can you, for instance, as a white male, write about “dead girls” or “the black man”, about rape, about performing acts of violence, child abuse etc. It seems like in a lot of cases conservative reactions, like this review, and feminist protests align, calling for a more… I don’t know… considerate art? Or in general for more control, more controlled texts, well-defined subjects and more controlled, stable masculinity. I found the book quite beautiful because of the masochism and continual collapse, if anything a kind of decorative masculinity, never felt like I’d been assigned any particular “male gaze” pov. which feels pretty “boundary-pushing” for a book that’s full of the kind of violence that typically gets to people. Anyway it seems like a discussion that isn’t happening that much and is very tricky to maneuver.

  6. Johannes

    Thanks Kim.

  7. adam s

    Kim, I find this bit really interesting: never felt like I’d been assigned any particular “male gaze” pov.

    I would welcome any more thoughts you have regarding this–please, more–more–more!

  8. adam s

    I am largely inclined to agree with Kim, and tried working some ideas out driving home from work, and didn’t get anywhere that isn’t comically contradictory/counterintuitive. Basically, I keep circling back to this probably misquotation from Hamlet–“nothing is good or bad, ’tis thinking makes it so.” I mean I get there’s first-person narration happening, that one is reading subjectivity, but what I actually register is objectivity, in the sense of isness, ground-zero predicate–not objectivity in any normative sense. Is it, what for me, registers as presence of no pathos that allows for a POV not seeming infiltrated by a subject position such as man/male etc? Perhaps weirdly, purity comes to mind–and not purity as in puritanical, but rather as unalloyed, as, again, sheer isness, purity as extreme, extremity–like synapse plucked out a cortex and chilled in nitrous oxide, thought which even as it originates in, in this instance, human consciousness is, via ink, screen, page, amazingly independent–dry-ice, yes: there looks to be steam, or smoke, but it’s cold, distant, even as it’s right there! Yah I for sure am not trying to claim anything definitive, and this comment became rather full of eructation/possible illegibility–just some attempts at trying to figure out an impression or two. Kim, does this musing make even slight sense?

  9. Kim G

    Hey Adam. Shit, I don’t know. It’s sort of along the lines of what James was talking about in his review about this “Planet” view I guess. The characters aren’t allowed to develop. The book is full of bodies, or interestingly, voices without bodies like “Father-voice-over”, or actors, soldiers. An unstable collection of figures similar to those in David Lynch movies. More objects than subjects, an arrangement of bodies, bodies that are allowed to become art. Or something. Which makes me think about how rare it is especially for the male body to be allowed to be decorated and become useless.

    I’m just really interested in general in this popular idea that the stereotypical male rationality or well-defined subjectivity or masculine “stability” and productivity etc even though it’s clearly harmful is still considered the ideal that everyone should strive toward.

    Re the male gaze pov for the most part I feel like it has more to do with coercion than explicit violence, more distant, careful than obsessed, like here look at my very objective text where everything is equal and carefully developed and any violence that might happen is entirely the result of the story and doesn’t reflect what I as a writer feel or desire, in fact, I as writer am not even here… its just a story… just a poem. The sort of thing that reviewers like this one is probably in favor of, an inventive art wiped clean of any trace of violence.

    Actually the review is a pretty good example of this male gaze pov I think, it doesn’t own its violence either. Sort of like the invisible violence of colonization versus the very visible violence of terrorism. But I’ll shut up for now

  10. Kim G

    Oh and, Johannes, I’m curious, did you consciously borrow Transtromer’s line “parachute jump from the dream” in the soldier’s radio play?

  11. Johannes

    I love that poem!

  12. adam s

    Kim, thanks for responding! For me, Johannes’ poems never seem obsessed, in the sense of losing control despite not meaning to; they, for me,do seem to fit how you’ve seemingly characterized male POV–but I don’t mean to then conclude that your initial response, and my concurrence, is off. For one thing, violence is a major, major thread, or binding agent, or mode, or atmosphere, but…oof, I feel like I’m about to become incoherent. I guess I’ll leave with I like how his poems–wel the “prose”-based ones–more than less produce an affective response in me that is totally counter to intensity, revulsion, hot-bloodedness (Plath does this to me too, in instances), even as I guess that response is wrong? But maybe this is what can happen when writing, expression, becomes a series of images, or rather inspired by images? No matter what an image is of, if “you” touch it it’s likely to feel flat, smooth, cool or room temperature, like magazine paper etc; and this won’t necessarily change even if one image is of a lion cub and the other of a chest with mega scars. Images have distance built into their structure: an image of a zebra at the San Diego Wild-Life Park won’t make “you” in San Diego if you’re in Nebraska, but it’s, simultaneously, right where “you” are! Then, though, there are moving images, aka film, and that’s, for me, another story. Again, I am not meaning to make judgment, only trying to try and figure out for why I could be having some of the impressions I am. Happy Wednesday or, as my computer so hilariously disturbingly informs, Tax-Day! ““parachute jump from the dream””–I like this too!

  13. adam s

    Does a state of fascination, or intrigue, have to overlap with intensity? Really, what most strikes me with Johannes’ prose-poem work is its lucidity! It’s so clear and yet, terrifically, leaves my mind unclear.

  14. Kim G

    Yeh, my thoughts re male gazing got a bit carried away. Obsession is the wrong word to use in contrast. I’m trying to locate what I mean, going to have to keep thinking about that.

    I’m thinking what James said about not being concerned with being on the “right side of history” is somehow important though, a kind of anti-humanist writing…

    I always find myself instinctively wanting to be on the side of this subhuman terrain with its mucked up smutty violence, to find temporary refuge from the vast shitsea of ever advancing healthy and “nourishing” art production that somehow never gets “repetitive”. Also not being concerned with a corresponding stable interiority, which Johannes has written about extensively, or “psychology”, character development, maybe.

    I guess I was thinking about this violence in Johannes’ book and how it compares with other kinds of violence, for instance these recent conceptual poems, “massaged” autopsy reports and mass murder remixes… are they concerned with being on the right side of history? It’s interesting how in wanting to remove themselves from the art they actually make themselves more of a presence, they seem very much concerned with it! with being on the right side, with the humanist-building project, while Johannes seem to be all up in his book (no offense!) and the opposite happens.

    Wonder if there’s a clue in this “masochism” that this reviewer is bothered by, “an exercise in masochism”, too self involved. Isn’t it funny how the protectors of art always seem like they don’t even like it? How can there be an art that isn’t indulging!

    Oh well. I’m gonna go throw up now in support of all the anorexic french models that just became illegal http://www.evoke.ie/extra/victory-for-women-as-france-bans-skinny-models/

  15. adam s

    Hey Kim, thank you for writing more response! Yah the whole illegal BMI deal sounds kinda good, but really it seems most like a PR moment: meassure BMI right before a runway show and, mm, illegal is gonna reign; and as some people have commented: being one percent above illegal doesn’t really mean all that much.