Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Foreigner is (Still) Kitsch

Lily Hoang started a discussion with a quote from Caroline Bergvall, and then it turned into a discussion about "the foreigner is kitsch."

What I like about Gretchen Henderson's comments is that she brings in Bakhtin's ideas of monoglossia and heteroglossia. Monoglossia is of course an illusion that must be maintained against the forces of heteroglossia. That is where the lyric poem tends to function: to maintain the illusion of language purity, authenticity.

It is this authenticity that modern art/poetry/culture has used to define itself; and it is kitsch it has defined itself against. Modern art is authentic; the inauthentic is kitsch. Kitsch is generally associated with mass-produced items (and in fact the term is created in a response to mass production, to the excess it creates). However, it's not a stable term (lots of things can be kitsch), it's a way of dismissing things (not just mass-produced items) as "cheap" or inauthentic. In Greenberg (and many others) kitsch is associated with crossing borders, with the foreign, with the "seductive." For Greenberg (and Bobby Baird pointed this out as well on this blog) kitsch also included the loss of the autonomous artwork.

It struck me as strange that Lily objected to being called an "Asian-American" writer and just wanted to be "American." But behind that dislike is perhaps the sense that the hyphen has been turned into a kitsch item, something not quite high culture, something that lets the social into the pristine realm of the authentic.

I like Lily's quote from Bergvall:
"For many bicultural artists and writers, the processes of identity and of writing acquisition go hand in hand with aspects of cultural belonging and the way this articulates their lived body and speaking voice. When the writer’s cultural and social body accommodates two or three languages and/or cultures, their inscriptive narratives and poetics are necessarily at a break from a monolingual textual body-type and a nationally defined writing culture. It is often accompanied by a propensity towards open-forms and mixed genres, remains dubious and questioning of defining terms, can be resistant of exile or immigrant narratives and their inward longing for a traditionalist past where identities are firmly locked in place, rather than in play."

It seems important here that the traditional "immigrant narratives" are about looking back etc - they are kitsch. This kitsch idea of immigrant hides the more interesting idea that Bergvall forwards, the violence that is not hyphenated. And I think the traditional idea of immigrant narratives covers up the way immigrant language denaturalizes "the native", makes the native strange, shows the illusoriness of the "monoglossic" (this is of course why I object to Ron Silliman objecting to foreigners translating foreign literature - he distrusts their lack of native "ear" - I distrust his idea of native).

I wrote a book called Pilot in which I tried to write an "immigrant" narrative that would entail the violence of languages and bodies that are involved in immigration. It's based on translations in various directions (from english to english to swedish to english etc), resulting - I hope - in a kind of immigrant-like language, an always foreign, inauthentic language. When I read it (I can only speak for myself) out loud the result is a kind of artificial language that sounds perhaps made on archaic recording equipment or perhaps spoken by an immigrant. The source texts were things like birthing manuals, poems (Dickinson, Scalapino etc) and Cronenberg's "Videodrome" (an already foreign sounding neologism, a movie that is very video, a story about seeing one's girlfriend on a broadcast of her death), and the Internet. Pilot is of course someone flying from one place to another,but it's also the pilot episode of a show. What's interesting about the pilot episode (for example the Twin Peaks pilot episode) is that it's the origin of the story, but it seems mostly to be slightly off, things haven't been worked out yet, actors are different, the script is a little different. It's both origin and fake copy.

I would also add that queer theory has influenced me a great deal in my thinking about foreigness and kitsch.


Blogger Kent Johnson said...

>(this is of course why I object to Ron Silliman objecting to foreigners translating foreign literature - he distrusts their lack of native "ear"

I'd object, too! Ron's notion of translation assumes the art is simply a matter of *linguistic* transfer.

A pretty basic misunderstanding. You've probably addressed that.

8:43 AM  
Blogger Lily Hoang said...

j, thanks for posting this. to clarify though, i would dislike the tag "american" writer even more than "asian american," although both would technically be correct. i would prefer for both these tags to be removed. instead, why not just call me--and others--"writers"? why is there that need to categorize? this echos teresa carmody's point that she's rarely tagged caucasian-american writer or even queer writer. at times, she may be called "feminist writer." for kicks, i just pulled some books off my shelf. junot diaz is not tagged dominican american writer. kate bernheimer is not tagged jewish american writer, nor is raymond federman, etc. anne carson is not tagged canadian writer, nor is michael ondaatje, etc. whereas i'm not saying my books are like their books, i'm questioning this use of subtle (or not so subtle) categorization.

again, though, i wouldn't necessarily remove the tag "asian american" from my identity or my books. i am, after all, undeniably both asian and american, but i do question it.

in several reviews that recently went up about me, my age was brought up. i'll call that out too. yes, i'm young. i can't deny that, but really, i'm not that young. how often does old age get brought up in reviews? how often is someone tagged "old writer"? or "middle aged writer"? whereas i understand the point of mentioning my age, why is there this insistence on further putting boundaries on a writer's identity to differentiate one from another? (i'm just as guilty for doing this in reviews/interviews. i bring age, etc., as well, and it's problematic.) like the Foreigner, isn't the Young also kitsch?

my point with all these ramblings is that if we're supposed to live in this post-racial world, why is the emphasis still there? well, obviously, because we racialized, sexualized, genderized, ageist world. these are the theories we surround ourselves with but have a hard time enacting.

8:47 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

But "asian-american" or "Swedish" - do these things have to be bad? Do you really want to live in a "post-racial" world? Is the term "asian-American" always inherently racist? As I said on the Harriet blog recently, I'm much more annoyed at being "de-othered" than being "othered."


9:02 AM  
Blogger Lily Hoang said...

1. i don't think asian american or swedish are bad, nor do i find them racist. as i said on htmlg, i approved (or maybe wrote? i can't remember) the tag "asian american" on my books. 2. i can't imagine a post-racial world to say if i'd want to live in one. 3. i don't think it's de-Othering to call someone a writer v. a hyphenated-American writer. though yes, i agree with you entirely that i'd rather be Othered than de-Othered, if that makes sense. 4. thanks for all this, johannes, you've given me a lot to think about! hopefully, i'll come up with a nuanced argument for all this soon!

9:36 AM  
Blogger Max said...

I think that the way people of Asian descent (well, specifically East Asian) are treated in America (on every level, not just in the literary world) is a special case, relative to people of other non-white ethnic backgrounds. People of East Asian descent are far more likely to be considered "opposite" or "backwards" compared to the dominant, American socio-cultural order, whereas other backgrounds, say that of a Swedish person, would be viewed more as "crooked." We can "see something of ourselves" in a Swedish person, but the East Asian is perceived as totally incomprehensible and/or exotic.

All it takes is a quick look at common reactions to "weird," "quirky," or "incomprehensible" news trivialities that emerge from Japan, Korea, or China every so often (the only type of news from that region on which we love to feed regularly) to see ample evidence of this.

3:46 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Yes, Max, and the "exotic" comment is of course key here. Asians are the most fetishized because they are incomprehensible.


5:18 AM  
Blogger Pierre Joris said...

1) I recognize myself totally in the Caroline Bergvall quote.Couldn't have put it better.
2)I always though Luxembourgers were the most fetishized (if only anybody would ever notice one of us...

6:32 AM  
Blogger SpiritGuideOnMountainPath said...

I disagree with or don't understand max's comment, how would you account for the emerging popularity of anime, manga, JRPG's, etc. if even most american's believe media out of east asia is just weird. Even the exoticism seems to be fading.

6:35 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I actually think Max's comments are pretty correct. But the correct part about it is the way total othering/rejecting as "weird" comes along with exoticism, or being drawn to the otherness. But most importantly, I think the impasse of this dichotomy is what interests me: the way this impasse suggests how difficult it is to think about difference/attraction without criticizing it. I'm going to write more about this today or early next week - apropo Nada's and Gary's essay on Exoticism and the recent discussion on anti-eoxticist translation practices on the Harriet blog. I'm not sure I'll however get any closer to an answer. The answer seems to lay actually in the impasse.

6:43 AM  
Blogger Max said...


Look at most anime, manga, and JRPG's, and you'll notice that these represent the Japan that Westerners want to see, the one that is "crazy," "quirky," "zany," etc. It's also a highly stylized, exaggerated Japan, when these things are even depicting Japan in the first place. Even the great Haruki Murakami, perhaps the Japanese author read most widely in the West, is one who works in a postmodern, stylized mode, and whose stories are often (though not always) cartoonish in nature.

It's not that I have a problem with this type of material being produced in Japan. The problem I have is that our demand only for things like it bespeaks a larger underlying truth about how we feel toward East Asian cultures in general.

But beyond that, there are things we'll say about East Asians that we would never say about anybody else. On Jezebel, a site which one would imagine prides itself on a level of social progressiveness, there was several months ago a story about a Korean-American female con-artist working her way around Brooklyn. It didn't take long for them to launch a story asking whether this woman had used a "loathsome hipster Asian fetish" to her advantage when conning people out of various things. Can you imagine if this woman had been black? Not only would this kind of utterance never have happened, but we're talking about progressive people here ... they'd likely never have even thought it in the first place.

I think there's a clear PC double standard in America when it comes to how we treat Asian-Americans, particularly those of East Asian descent. And it's one of the most ignored, and pernicious, racial issues of modern times.

2:49 PM  

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