Aase Berg's guinea pig poems
from her first book, Hos Radjur, has been the subject of much writing, both in Sweden and here in the US, both by me and others. I think the reason for that is that it's a spellbinding work, but also, for me at least, it brings together a lot of ideas that I find interesting, and models a poetics that runs very much counter to a lot of contemporary American poetics. So excuse me if I add my two cents to the already voluminous commentary on these poems.
In her essays about the poems (there are two of them), "From Cosmos to Cosmetics: Aase Berg's Guinea Pigs and Girly Kitsch,"
Lara Glenum (contributor to this blog) brings in several of these interesting ideas. She invokes Daniel Tiffany's article, "Kitsching the Cantos" and the tradition of Modernist thinkers who used the "fakeness" of kitsch as the other which they defined the heroic High Modernists against (something Silliman still does). She also invokes Sinai Ngai's brilliant little essay on "The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde," where Ngai argues that there's an implicit violence in the cute. Following Ngai, Lara argues that the guinea pig poems explores the sadism of "the girl," a figure usually thought pure etc.
In her study of contemporary Swedish poetry, *Jag sjalv ett hus av ljus*, critic Asa Beckman - who seems to on the whole, at least previously to this book, have been pretty opposed to Berg - gives a more Kristeva-ish reading of Berg: "Aase Berg's poetry is discomforting because it lacks borders (or limits - granser). It's hard to say what kind of poem she writes. She works with the dissolution of genres and mixes wildly different types of poetic styles." Perhaps more interesting (in light of discussions about "hybrids" and such in contemporary American poetry, especially Mark W's sci-fi trope of monstruous hybridity in his AWP talk) Beckman writes about Berg's two first books (With Deer and Dark Matter): "two collections that mix nature imagery, science fiction, fantasy and modern science into a sort of abonormal hybrid poem. "The perverse nature continued to take place," she writes in her debut. In her poetry, it's not just nature but all of existence that is perverse and monstruous." (115)(This recalls Jordan's claim that "Berg is infatuated with the intense perversity of the world.")
Another thread of thought familiar to readers of this blog was James Pate's recent entry on "possession" in Kate Durbin and Antonin Artaud: a poetics so diametrically opposed to most prevailing poetics of contemporary American poetry (the anti-absorption stance of "critical distance," the authenticity-realness stance of quietism). What Durbin has in common with Aase is that they take the Artaud and forges it with The Excorcist, b-movie horror flicks, to produce a gurlesque-ing of femininity.
But mostly what it makes me think about is Lee Edelman's book "No Future," and in particular its discussion about Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds." So I thought I would say something about that now.
Edelman's book - which was actually first suggested to me on this blog, I think by Jasper Bernes, a while back - has been a very generative text for me; in so many ways his discussion of queerness overlap with my own ideas of the foreigner/the immigrant/translation (which is why I think Jasper suggested the book to me).
The basic argument of the book is that so much of American culture/politics is based on the idea of what Edelman calls "futurity" and "futurism" - perpetuating the social order. This is emblematized for Edelman in the rhetorical obsession with "the child" - ie both pro-choice and abortion proponents speak about the importance of "the children" and "the future."
In these discussions, the queer figure (either explicit or implicit, and I should add, Edelman's examples are very frequently foreign as well, as in the spy in "North by Northwest") represents a rejection of futurity (including constructive "critiques"). Rather than try to become acceptable, Edelman argues that Queers should embrace this otherness, this "no future" position as a protest. Also in this refusal he finds a connection to a near-Lacanian notion of "jouissance" and the death drive.
"The ups and downs of political fortune may measure the social order's pulse, but queerness, by contrast, figures, outside and beyond its political symptoms, the place of the social order's death drive: a place, to be sure, of abjection expressed in the stigma, sometimes fatal, that follows from reading that figure literally, and hence a place from which liberal politics strives - and strives quite reasonably, given its unlimited faith in reason - to dissociate the queer. More radically, though, as I argue here, queerness attains its ethical values precisely insofar as it accedes to that place, accepting its figural status as resistance to the viability of the social while insisting on the inextricability of such resistance from every social structure." (3)
Edelman also insists that this is not a "position" (sounds like made for American poetry with all of its futuritious moralizings) from which some "good" will come: "The embrace of queer negativity, then, can have no justification if justification requires it to reinforce some positive social value; its value, instead, resides in its challenge to value as defined by the social, and thus in its radical challenge to the very value of the social itself." (6)
Queerness for Edelman is not a positive identity but a disturbing of identity:
"queerness undoes the identities through which we experience ourselves as subjects, insisting on the Real of a jouissance that social reality and the futirism on which it relies have already foreclosed... Queerness, therefore, is never a matter of being or becoming but, rather, of embodying the remainder of the Real internal to the Symbolic order. One name for this unnameable remainder, as Lacan describes it, is jouissance, sometimes trnslated as "enjoyment": a movement beyond the pleasure principle, beyond the distinctions of pleasure and pain, a violent passage beyodn the bounds of identity, meaning and the law." (25)
Now obviously a lot of people have problem with this stance, but I think it's very interesting and offers interesting ways of reading various films, poems and art.
(Interestingly, as far as the "Gurlesque Debate" about Queerness, Lara's insistence of "embracing the disease" and questioning identities is in fact a very "queer" strategy in Edelman's definition.)
Back to Aase Berg. Or rather: Back to Edelman's reading of Hitchcock's "The Birds" (Only coincidentally my favorite movie of all time), which to me suggests a reading of Berg's guinea pig poems. Actually, I intuited this connection a long time ago, but I couldn't quite get beyond the repetition, the b-movie quality, the violence-ification of childhood innocence. So here's Edelman's reading in short (you should read the entire thing, it's pretty brilliant):
Edelman begins with the critical reaction to the movie: a pervasive rejection of the "useless" quality of the film, the overwhelming "slugging" of the senses, and its rejection of any "future" or meaning. Everyone in the film already ask obsessively: Why are the birds attacking? Nobody - least of all Hitchcock himself - seem capable of answering the question. On some level, the birds seem to signify their own failure to become an allegory.
But Melanie explains in one scene: the birds are "after the children." But they are, Edelman notes, also associated with children throughout the film (not the least in their screechings). The child assures heterosexual reproduction and meaning; but the movie blends the child with the death drive birds. The birds are "the arbitrary, future-negating force of a brutal and mindless drive." And: "the violent undoing of meaning, the loss of identityand coherence, the unnatural access to jouissance..."
Like The Birds, Berg gives us a "natural" place rendered unnatural by (in Edelman's words) "unnatural cinematic effects" (in his review of With Deer, Jordan notes the cinematic aspect of this work). As in the movie, the guinea pigs connect to both the child and that violent, brutal repetition of drive, turning an emblem of childhood into a nightmarish creature (and in one of the poems, rendering the sister into a corpse-girl). As in the film, the lover seem separate, pushed away from each other, from coupling in a heterosexual union (they run around in the gross corridors of the guinea pigs but can't get away, he becomes a "traitor" to the heterosexual union).
However, the poem puts in interesting spin on this model, one might say a female spin: because the compulsive drive in fact does give birth: incredibly quickly and grotesquely. The entire space of the "cave" becomes a female body, a female body-space that in the end envelops the lovers and turns the lover into a guinea pig (his body, his organs becoming guinea pig), contaminated by the queer/feminine (not mystique but) jouissance/repetitive childbirth.
On some level this turns Edelman's argument on its head, but on another level it makes perfect sense. And here I think of Joyelle's "Future of Poetry" piece (previously posted on this blog a few months ago): the idea of natural child, the natural mother vs the gothic mother. Birth is supposed to be the site of origin, the beginning of the narrative that moves us forward (to the future). But here there's not one birth but multiple births that are so repetitive, and incomplete that we don't get a birth so much as a queering of birth itself. It reworks birth as a place more than a time and collapses the depiction of feminity/masculinity. In many ways it becomes the unnatural motherhood that Joyelle talks about (of course Aase is very much influenced by Artaud and her time with the Stockholm Surrealists and he is one of the key figures in Joyelle's talk).
Another important distinction seems to be the joy of the poem, the ecstasy is even harder to distinguish from pain, disgust, violence than in the Hitchcock (where the birds are pretty bad, harder to get joy from).
And perhaps most importantly: what brings the birds and guinea pigs together is something like the spasmodic movements of both text and animals: the spasm here is the spasm of jouissance...
... I don't know but that's what I'm thinking about right now... Bringing together kitsch, cute children and death drive... That and my cutting disorders...