Monday, July 21, 2008

"the avant-garde" vs "the grotesque"

Here are some fairly random thoughts I just had (Feel free to chip in):

As I noted in the post below, the grotesque played an important in the historical avant-garde; it is the feature of the avant-garde that most seems to have inflamed Hitler's anti-modernist rhetoric.

The reason for this is of course that the grotesque is degenerate, it does not seek to exterminate the non-normative body, the sick body, but rather revels in non-normative bodies and uses them to undermine the very concept of normal.

One of the reasons I always refer to "the historical avant-garde" is that I don't feel entirely happy with the term "avant-garde," because it suggests not just militarism but progress. And I think this is in part where the grotesque gets in trouble with the avant-garde: the grotesque does not lead to progress; the sickness does not get healed/exterminated/eugenisized away.

This is also why I feel a bit at odds with "experimentalism" and all of its attendant metaphors (poetic "research" etc) - it smells of "Progress."

One thing about Dada is that it comes after "The Futurism Moment" - it is not about progress. It's also very grotesque - not just Grosz's satires of fat capitalists and hookers, but perhaps more interestingly the grotesque shell-shock-inspired poetry of Ball.

For me, it appears that the grotesque is a space of gender fluidity, epilepsy and strange songs. The place where strange, non-normative bodies and strange, non-normative words intersect.

I am here reminded of Deleuze and Guattari's Kafka, where the bug-body and the bug-like voice come together in Gregor Samsa; Or Pär Bäckström's notion of "language grotesque", writing about how Henri Michaux's language is deformed much like his bodies; or Aase Berg's poems in which the Swedish language becomes as fluid and strange as the blubbery bodies.

As everyone knows, I'm a big David Lynch fan. So here's an example of "language grotesque" from Twin Peaks:

It is notable to me that the grotesque is largely absent from contemporary "avant-gardism" or "experimentalism" - and when it does appear on Ron's blog it is relegated to "bad girls." Likewise, when Ron refers to "soft surrealism" vs "hard surrealism" - what he partly wants is to privilege the useful, politically progressive Surrealism, not Bataille, Michaux and the grotesque Surrealism of the Documents group (interestingly seem to be the main influence on Edson).

When Barret Watten writes about "The Constructivist Moment," I feel in a sense that what he wants to do is define a progressive avant-garde, an avant-garde without the grotesque, the excessiveness.

Also, here I wanted to say something about the epileptic body in "Control" (see below), the Gurlesque, R.Crumb and his sexism/racism, and my Disabled Text manifesto from a while back.


Blogger Max said...

One thing I fail to understand, though, is why certain people place such a premium on degeneracy, non-normative, etc. expression. It seems almost always to be a reactionary--and covertly militant--position, to directly oppose oneself to that which is normative or "progress"-oriented, as though doing so is to engage in the most pointed kind of critique simply because it appears (I repeat, appears) to nullify its oppositional counterpart.

If I were to draw a picture of this struggle, I would perhaps do so in the style of a superhero comic. The villain stands on the right shooting some kind of energy beam at our hero, on the left, who cancels it out with his own energy beam. Fair enough. But my point is, why the fuck are we shooting energy beams in the first place?

3:58 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Because energy beams are cool.

"Degeneracy" is a term used - often with great political consequences - to establish norms and ideals and such.

I think the idea behind a lot of what might be called grotesque is not undermine the idea of a normative body.

5:12 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

However, I want to add that that's a part of it; clearly that doesn't describe what's so interesting about all of these people's work. If I could tell you a neat little purpose for the artwork it would probably be pretty boring.

That's why I referred to the epilepsy of Ian Curtis - why the filmmaker should be intrigued, and then why he has to cover it up, erase it. In order to keep a "realism" that cannot make sense of this weird body dancing strangely and having fits. Clearly my explanation is just a small part; and probably it explain more about why the grotesque has to be taken away or demonized than why it interests me.

5:19 PM  
Blogger Joseph said...

I disagree that "the grotesque is largely absent from contemporary 'avant-gardism' or 'experimentalism'." In the visual arts there are artists such as Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Tony fact there was just a show a few years ago curated in Santa Fe by Robert Storr called "Disparities & Deformations: Our Grotesque," which featured these artists and more, including Cindy Sherman, Kara Walker, Sherrie Levine, John Currin....In poetry, I think much of Flarf is grotesque, as is the gurlesque you have been discussing (I admit I haven't caught up with all those posts, apologies if I'm repeating things you've already pointed out).

Also I have to take issue with your implication that the metaphor "research" equals "progress." I'm not sure if that was supposed to be a dig at us or not, but I'm involved with a group called the Poetic Research Bureau, and we've explicitly stated in one of our statements that what is of interest to us is the moment; "make now" rather than "make new."

5:49 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes --

Obviously my point is (at least) a tad reductive, but I do think there are poets--among other artists--out there who say, hey, look, there's something tired/boring/traditional/conservative going on here, so the route I should take for subversion is the polar opposite, or what appears, at the time, to be the polar opposite. If normalcy is in, then I'll be degenerate or deformed or grotesque. If progress is king, then I'll tout a poetics that argues for the opposite of or against progress.

While such poetics may, in themselves, be interesting, sometimes the impulse is a bit less than interesting. It can be an extremely militaristic, combative, reactionary attitude ... and while the attitude might have interesting results, I'm often not sure it's a way of thinking that brings us to the most (or more) interesting conclusions.

I know the criticism is vague, but I think you can see what I'm getting at. A deformed/degenerate/anti-progress/non-normative/etc type of poetics isn't inherently of interest simply because it stands in opposition to a more dominant poetics. And even more troubling is the fact that, because such things often come out of a reactionary mindset, they are implicitly conditioned by, and in a sense, controlled by those dominant theories as a result.

Which isn't to say that the world is completely devoid of writers who react by turning 90 degrees (rather than 180), just that I wish I saw more people who practiced this impulse.

6:10 PM  
Blogger Max said...


While I haven't seen "Control" yet, I can definitely sympathize with a director in Corbijn's position. He's obviously dealing with a tough character, and I'm sure his impulse was probably not to overplay the epileptic stuff, lest it become a crutch, or even worse, venture into exploitative territory. In a film, the question is going to be: "If I use this, how does it add to the audience's understanding of the character?" Are these fits going to bring a "certain something" to the picture, or are they just going to be tossed in for good measure? These are things a director has to weigh.

6:19 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Or I guess, more to the point of your actual post: I'm not sure why you, or others, think that the grotesque is so interesting/compelling/relevant. You seem to be interested in it because it stands in opposition to certain tendencies of the "avant-garde," and of course, more dominant poetics, but I guess what I'm trying to say is that I don't understand why direct opposition is interesting, in and of itself.

It seems to me that a reactionary or oppositional stance has become a predictable impulse, a conventional--even traditional--mindset.

6:27 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


You're right, it's totally there in the visual art - I love Mike Kelley, Kara Walker etc. I was thinking of poetry only.

And I totally agree about Flarf and the gurlesque, but those two are rather recent incidents.

I didn't know about your poetic research group but based on what you say, you're clearly not indictable.

The research things is a pretty vague and highly contradictory feeling I have. I talk about the Documents folks as being the grotesque but they were really into research (anthropological mostly, and highly dubious at that). So it's definitely not absolute. Just this feeling that we are experimenting towards some goal. I'll have to check out your group to see what you're talking about.

6:31 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


You've made too many comments for me to answer all right now, but I'll make a few tentative stabs:

1) In "control" - yes the epileptic stuff etc is difficult and problematic; he doesn't want to play "look at the freak" and yet he cannot help but be fascinated by it. I'm not saying there is a right way, but to me the director merely showed that he was interested but then wanted to submit it to an overarching "realism." It's interesting to see how the epilepsy (both of Curtis's body and aesthetics) threaten to undo the simplistic realism - I constantly felt that the director was trying to "control" this wiggling subject matter.

2) I don't think the grotesque is in direct opposition to the mainstream. Sometimes it's part of the mainstream, sometimes it's horrifying etc. I don't want to sound like I idealize it. I'm fascinated by it, drawn to it. Can't fully explain it. And if I could, I probably wouldn't be interested in it.

6:39 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

But Joseph,

I can't see why you think Anna's work is "didactic"?

6:46 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes --

Yeah. Again, I've heard great things about "Control," but at the same time, if you've ever seen live footage of Joy Division, it's hard to imagine a biopic revealing anything more tense, exuberant, or electric. I guess that's why I'm hesitant to watch it. I can see how the project would be very difficult to pull off, so unless it was an abject failure, I'd have a hard time not being charitable to Corbijn. That's the problem with fictional films: they are always more or less "controlled" works of art, mostly because they are among the most expensive works of art to produce, and therefore must (in the vast majority of cases) hold to specific, highly detailed plans. Of course, there are exceptions galore, but not for films with outside financing. It may be the case that a director wants to explore, for example, Ian Curtis's epileptic episodes in an unbridled, uncontrolled way, but this sidetracks the rest of the project, or draws significantly from whatever else is going on in the film. There are so many things to consider ... it's like writing a novel and deciding to make 5 chapters about a fingernail or something. Only it costs $10 or $20 million to make, and the investors want their money back.

I think you answered my concerns adequately. I guess I just felt like questioning the impulse behind your excitement about the grotesque, etc. The reactionary impulse just bothers me, so I kind of bristle whenever I see (or think I see) it in use. Also kind of contradictory on my part, since much of the time my responses to things are reactionary. I think "why?" is perhaps my favorite question.

6:53 PM  
Blogger Jordan said...

Hi Johannes. I don't see what you see in Ron's soft vs hard surrealism -- rather I see him policing an attempt by American prose-poets to claim authority for what he sees as mere idiosyncratic whimsy. It's true though that I haven't seen him to go bat for Bataille or Michaux.

7:28 AM  
Blogger Joseph said...

Hi Johannes,

I didn't write that bit about Anna's "didacticism." It was written by Andrew Maxwell, feloow PRBer. He could explain what he meant, but I don't think he reads poetry blogs that often. I'll ask him and follow up.

10:38 AM  
Blogger Maxwell said...

Well, I've nowhere called Anna's work "didactic" exactly, though in the loose announcement for her reading, I made the statement that in the presence of her work, "(t)he didactic is generative." Which is fair, I think.

The didactic relative to poetry is a historical term perhaps more effectively than it is a qualitative term. I think there's a persistent pivoting between didactic (particularly Lucretian) and analytical modes of thought in Anna's work, and many of her poems proceed as if a series of "ground truths" and teaching moments might prove provisional through subsequent, often contradictory, propositions. There's a similar pedagogical technique often loosely tagged as "generative vocabularies" where "possible sentences" are modeled by language learners given smaller primary units, sometimes resulting in awkward results (again, teaching moments).

I don't mean this to be taken as a dispositive reading of her work, just an explanation of where I was coming from. I think there is a propositional element in many of her poems, and a didactic mode that I think is lacking from much post-Language writing which feels haphazard and ambient to me. I'm glad to have the didactic back, personally, but I'm not here to speak for a generation, either.

1:49 PM  
Blogger UCOP Killer said...

Another point of reference for "research" would be Colectivo Situaciones notion of militant research:

I don't think this has to be seen as "progressive" in the sense of art getting, gradually, better. Rather, it's about the kinds of attention to the present--as Joseph rightly indicates, "make now"--that might allow different forms of experience to take place. In the case of Colectivo Situaciones, there's a clear socialist content to such a project--a hope for a better future--but no guarantees, and no sense that history proceeds according to linear stages. This is visible in Lisa Robertson's Lucretian and "didactic" researches as well--:"The truly utopian act is to manifest current conditions and dialects. Practice description. Description is mystical."

I also think Lyn Hejinian's notion of "experiment" in her "Two Stein Talks" is applicable here, as a non-"progressive" definition of research.

9:54 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


My point is more about the signifier/vehicle than any specific group or instance.

But like I am all too willing to admit, there are plenty of examples of "research" that I quite like.

I spend a lot of my time with the 1960s and I love a lot of that kookery.

6:29 AM  

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