Monday, July 07, 2008

Gurlesque (a brief note)

There seems to be a lot of misunderstandings of "gurlesque" (and it appears I've only added to the confusion).

Gurlesque is not a movement (like Surrealism etc), it's a frame Arielle Greenberg thought up to read some of the most interesting contemporary poets in America (as possibly elsewhere).

I think the concept has promise, though it hasn't yet been made much more than a category. And if it includes both Mattea Harvey/Brenda Shaughnessy and Lara Glenum and Chelsey Minnis then it's too broad.

It seems the grotesque is a main element of this. And as in much recent history of the grotesque, an abuse of mass culture seems an essential part of it. The use of pop culture does not seem to be a simple parody (as often is the case) or nostalgia (perhaps even more frequent) but something more akin to Deleuze and Guattari's notion of Kafka's "minor literature" - Kafka doesn't attack Prague German but finds features that he exagerates in it. Thus the use of girly things (which I don't, as I stated below, know much about).

The grotesque and the gothic has throughout its history been associated with the tasteless, the un-natural and - since the 19th century - pop culture (which has been constructed as feminine and associated with prostitution) - there is something un-serious, low about the mode. And that makes a lot of people anxious - American Poetry still largely clings to the New Critical idea of poetry as "complex" and "elegant," the center of language and culture; somehow above the dirtiness of mass culture and capitalism.

I think "gurlesque" provides a possibly much more complex notion than Ron's "bad girl" concept. Ron seems to see no value in "shock" beyond the initial shock (just like Reginald Sheppherd sees not value in "avant-gardism" beyond some mythical first shock). A large part of that shock is a breaking of the formalist notion of the autonomy of the artwork. You can see that in how Minnis's book seems to have pushed Ron beyond his normally high modernist formalism toward a consideration of the social. And Arielle tries to work with this in her historical reading of these texts.

The shock is very important to Minnis, Reines and Glenum - but it's not Ron's idea of a first shock, the shock of bringing up a repressed reality. Rather it seems to me a self-consciously played-out shock, what happens to shock after the shock, almost a kind of boredom. So when Ron is disappoined that Minnis's shock is not frank but "coy" I would say he's right but that she's already a step ahead of him: she's playing with the notion of a played-out shock, a highly aestheticized (not "raw", not "true") shock. Sylvia Plath does something similar in the "striptease" that is "Lady Lazarus" - with its violence, pornography and tasteless genocide reference.

But I'd like to repeat that this is not a fully worked-out theory; it needs to do more yet. That's a strength.


Blogger Max said...

But isn't it possible that the "gurlesque" is based on a tired notion of what should be considered shocking or subversive?

For example, we already have mainstream musical acts who mash up and otherwise reconstitute the detritus of pop culture. This kind of "subversive" play has already been co-opted. Perhaps not so much in the literary world, but in most other media it has been.

Which begs the question: who or what is the target of a "gurlesque" utterance? Old-school academics and those who think like them? And if so, why should a bunch of old goats be shaping the blade of modern subversion when they're going to die out on their own within a generation? I mean, honestly. It's like sitting around wasting a bunch of witty jabs on Dean Koontz or something.

10:23 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


In brief, I think part of what's interesting about someone like Minnis is exactly that she is aware that the shocking is not "shocking" in the boring old sense of shocking. If you read Ron's original review he said that it's failure was that it wasn't as shocking as Carolee Shneeman etc - not as raw and real etc. But I think Minnis is perfectly aware that it isn't "shocking" - what we need is a different notion of shocking - not something that brings the repressed (usually sexuality) to the surface and that's it's only point. I would say that that idea of shock is tired - and in order to have a better reading of these poets. The shocking isn't the repressed brought to the surface, but something much more aestheticized, not some search for "the real."

11:02 AM  
Blogger Max said...

So it's shocking, in the sense you describe, because it achieves a meta layer (or multiple meta layers) of abstraction from what we normally think of as "shocking"? Because it is aware of its unshockingness?

I guess I'm just not buying into the idea that awareness of this trait necessarily makes it an interesting, subversive, or truly "shocking" (in the proposed sense) trait. I don't see the links in the argument.

In a time when theory-laden manifestos and all sorts of other attempts at "subversion" flood the literary underworld, it seems like probably the most subversive thing one could do is write an unapologetically and unabashedly "normal" novel, or something of that nature.

11:42 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Another interesting thing:

I think this dilemma is purely American, or at the very least Western.

The Japanese, for example, don't seem to have such a tense relationship with popular culture, or harbor the notion that if popular culture gobbles something up, this empty space must be refreshed with something new and subversive.

One need only sample the most mainstream of Japanese exports--manga and anime--to note the unique way in which, for the Japanese, something can be tongue-in-cheek, earnest, serious, and sentimental all at the same time without an iota of conflict.

At times, it seems like the impulse of the American artist is particularly cynical and sarcastic, and this is something that carries over to the art consumer. To watch a movie, read a book, or listen to an album is to make a statement about one's sensibilities, politics, etc. This seems like a particularly American trait, because we imagine that everything we consume is a comment on our individual selves. Cultures that lack such strong notions of individuality are less likely to share this trait.

In any case, it seems that joy has become a rare commodity these days. It's not that theory, politics, and various other sensibilities don't matter; it's that they've become an end in and of themselves. When I read a book, I'm consuming my own ego, because that seems to be what most Western art asks of me.

I may be wrong, but this seems like a problem.

12:04 PM  
Blogger Danielle said...


I've been thinking--if gurlesque is a framework, or an aesthetic (as I'd be more prone to call it), and not a school, isn't that exactly how it incorporates poets from Harvey to Glenum? Even that "to" is misleading. We're not talking about a spectrum of poets, so much as a set of tactics that a number of poets employ. To look at the poets rather than the manifestations of gurlesque in their work fucks up the perspective.

So, there's an overlapping network of tactics spreading across the work of a number of poets. If you mapped it, it wouldn't be a list, but a web. An affinity zone, that shouldn't be thought of as strictly delimited, or well-anchored.

Which maybe explains why one won't find an explicit target that all gurlesque is meant to shank. But that's not a bad idea. Maybe we gurlesque types should have a conference call...

12:22 AM  

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