Saturday, July 11, 2009

Exessive/Surreal Jackson (some more thoughts)

Let me explain a little better my feelings about Michael Jackson.

The various articles I've read in Newsweek, People etc replicate the model I noticed in the initial article in NY Times, in which the writer wanted to divide MJ into the talented, musical, spontaneous and *natural* performer of the early work and the unnatural, decadent, grotesque, excessive (it's all about how much he spent, how much he cared about his face, how excessively sheltered his children were etc) and most of all - Pathological.

It especially interests me that the word "surreal" is repeatedly used to define this second MJ. The word Surreal has gained incredibly currency as a negative in our culture! In our ridiculously hygienic society, "surreal" seems to mean a lot more than Breton &Co, it seems to mean almost exclusively the excessive and pathological.

(I remember when the World Trade Center happened, everybody said it was "surreal.")

This same pathologization of the word "surreal" is rampant in poetry. In the latest APR, Tony Hoagland extols the virtues of Dean Young but warns that his young followers are too prone to surrealist excesses. Young's inheritance has to be policed! "Surreal" was the word Stephen Burt used to describe "elliptical" poets that went too far, that became excessively elliptical, in his "New Thing" article. Jon Woodward is quoted in that article criticizing "candy surrealism" (surrealism is useless candy,not nutritious vegetables of "new thing" poetry).

After a while one starts to wonder what the deal is. Why is everybody warning against surreal things. It seems to mean nothing much more than excess itself.

Here's an excerpt from an interview with poet Eric Baus from jacket: "I was reacting against my own tendency toward bombastic image-based Surrealism that had come into the first book. I wanted to strip things down, to have more silence and space around the images and ideas in the poems."

This is one of the craziest quotes I've read in a long time. Eric has to be nuts to think his first book is "bombastic"! Nobody who's read that book would ever mistake it for "bombastic," but in the current culture, surrealistic equals excessive.

And it is not accidental that this quote is led up to with the story about going the graduate school (and becoming more refined). There seems to be little thought about why one should be refined or why the image is unrefined.

Eric's quote also ties in with the anxiety about "the image" - that uncontrollable thing that almost inherently seems to lead to excess. Deleuze talks about the "contamination of affect" in one of his cinema books. I think that's related to the pathology of imagery and Surrealism. An anxiety about the powerful ways that the image communicates.

The interesting thing about the image is that Perloff &Co accused the Quietists of being image-based, and I think that has something to do with our sense that the image is unrefined these days. I remember at Iowa people kept praising poets for not using imagery - with little or no understanding why that should be so good.

It does seem unrefined. Not high culture. Afterall, the movies are all imagery all the time (insert your favorite Godard quote here as a counter view). And as I have repeatedly pointed out on this blog, the need for poetry to provide a shelter, a refined alternative to mass culture is one of the main pieces of American poetry rhetoric - from the New Critics to Cole Swensen's intro to The American Hybrid.

(Obviously there is a critique of imagery and spectacle, but my point here is that the actual critique doesn't seem to enter into most discussions. It is merely referred to as crass and tasteless, "bombastic".)

Interestingly the typical Quietist poetry has very little imagery; or I should say, very little imagery of interest. From my experience with workshops, the image has to be "earned," that is it has to be controlled, made productive, keep it from excess. Usually it is allowed to be put in at the very end, in the epiphany, where the poem has earned it. The protestant/bourgeois notion of purchasing is important (as opposed to the pathological of Bataille's notion of the unproductive expenditures).

In the mfa workshop, "silence" is much more valued than crassly "bombastic" images.

This all comes together in the somewhat contradictory urge in both Michael Jackson and his critics to be at the same time iconophobic and iconopilic; both face and mask; the constant looking that accompanies Jackson (through death).

And perhaps most importantly: the scopophilic nature of the late Jackson. The NY Times critic was opposed to the moonwalk because it did no seem raw and natural - it seemed unnatural. Unnatural like a movie is unnatural: that is it is so much like life and yet it is not real. It's the uncanny of the puppet.

(An interesting sidenote I think is the way fear of puppets erupted in the early 20the century I believe that has something to do with the anxiety about the cinematic image/mechanical reproduction - both real and not real. In several plays/movies etc, the puppet stand in for the threatening other, though usually proletariat; in this case it seems to have to do with androgeny and race. Perhaps Michael should have called himself pinochio rather than peter pan.)

His very personal presence seemed to be always already filmed,thus always already art (thus the Beuys-like relics). Thus he seemed to embody all kinds of fears about the cinematic image. He had no interior, he was all affect, movement etc. Even his sexuality seemed like it was choreographed. He was the constant purveyor of what cinema critics have called "visual fascination".

[I realize this is a very incomplete post. It seems that the commentators on this blog understand the Jackson phenomena better than me, so feel free to comment. I'll try to take some time over the next couple of days to explain myself better.]

[Also, I should note that I quite like both of Bauss's books. It's not his poetry I have a quarrel with, but with the sensibility he conveyed in the interview.]


Blogger Angela Genusa said...

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7:55 AM  
Blogger Angela Genusa said...

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8:03 AM  
Blogger Max said...

If anything, 9/11 was hyper-real, i.e. too "real" to be real.

I think the notion of the "moonwalk" as unnatural and robotic comes from a distinct misunderstanding or lack of knowledge about the history of black dance. If you knew anything about breakdancing at the time, the "moonwalk" probably didn't seem unnatural or robotic at all. Actually, this kind of dancing is more like a sleight of hand magic trick, convincing the audience through fluid, confident movement that something impossible is occurring.

There is a long history of this kind of thing in American entertainment. It seeming "surreal," not quite within the bounds of the possible, is kind of the point. I think MJ's "surrealism" takes on a hint of grotesquerie only because of the other stuff that shaped his image. If he had dressed like every other pop star, and stayed "black," and not been embroiled in scandal, etc, etc, etc, then his "surrealism" would have fallen in with a distinctly American tradition. But what we got instead was "freaky surrealism." And I'm not quite sure our pop culture would be the same had this not been the case.

5:04 PM  
Blogger Kate Durbin said...

Speaking of puppets, did anyone notice that Blanket (MJ's youngest son, who actually resembles him) was clutching an MJ Barbie during the memorial?

11:21 PM  
Blogger Kate Durbin said...

Also, calling MJ Pinnochio seems somehow perfect--particularly considering the constant re-sizing of his nose.

11:28 PM  
Blogger Eric Baus said...

Hey Johannes,

Yep, you’re right. “The To Sound” is not bombastic (I wish it were!). I agree. And I think I probably talked about Surrealism in a confusing way in parts of the interview. I also hate it when Surrealism, Surreal, stands in for the vaguely “weird” or carries negative, pathological connotations. So, is it that how I used “bombastic” seemed like it stands in for crude/dumb somehow and silence/space seems refined and smart and desirable? I can see that. If that’s how it seemed that’s not really what I intended. I didn’t mean to imply a hierarchy or a progression, more a sense of variation.

I get what you’re objecting too, and I realize the point of the post wasn’t a critique/diss of me or my writing... I do think it makes sense to clarify what I said/how I may have sounded in the interview: It wasn’t that I felt somehow beyond or ashamed of Surrealism/imagery when I got to grad school because it wasn’t cool or was discouraged, just that I got excited about writing in a way that was not like how I’d imagined I’d been writing before. I actually found the workshops I was in during my MFA to be full of some version of Surrealism w/ a ton of imagery (but also usually very narrative and tonally mild) and overall pretty suspicious of (even hostile to) abstraction or work that used sound a lot or that mixed together a bunch of these elements. It was a big program, lots of different kinds of writing (a lot of good stuff) happened there, these are just my impressions. I’m just pointing this out to contrast what you seem to have encountered at Iowa.

What I meant was that the first book was more directly influenced by French Surrealism (at least in my own mind) and that the second book was more influenced by contemporary French writing that had a lot of space and used more repetition of really general nouns. I would say the stuff I’m writing now is pretty image based and infused with, informed by Surrealism.

One last thought about “bombastic”... Maybe a better way for me say that would be to have discussed more literally levels of density/concentration of imagery, amount of juxtapositions and contrast that with a kind of smoother, folding repetition I became interested in for a while...
instead of using a word that most people would read as excessive w/ a negative connotation.

Anyway, blah blah blah... Incidentally, I read “With Deer” last night and loved it.


12:14 AM  
Blogger Stan Apps said...

Excellent post. I love the way you carry this critique of how the s-word is used through discussion of all sorts of different poetries (and the rhetorics around them). It's very catholic (small c) of you

9:53 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Yes, I agree, the WTC was called surreal because of the traumatic nature of the incidence, which tears a hole in the symbolic order. This might have something to do with the way surrealism hs become associated with a kind of asocial jouissance - irresponsible,unproductive etc. ie not in line with the symbolic order.

I think you're partially right about Jackson's moonwalk. It certainly fits into an African-American cultural tradition, but that tradition is also onethat has been very much interested in artifice and the unnatural. Breakdancing for example makes people into machines afterall.

The issue becomes why someone would call that 'unnatural.' Kate D mentioned this as well and I did too with my doll reference. Homosexuality, minority racesetc are rendered unnatural.

Perhaps therefore it's more correct to refer to Jackson as a Gothic figure - that is the genre that has persistently both created and critiqued "monsters" and the unnatural.


12:11 PM  
Blogger Angela Genusa said...

Noah Cicero has an interesting blog post on Michael Jackson:

6:55 AM  

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