Friday, October 23, 2009

Hipsters, Kitsch and the Specter of Mass Culture

∑ This blog entry is in part my response to the &Now Conference. It’s about Writing and the specter of kitsch, aestheticism, vulgarity and mass culture. It’s also prompted by the book Cutting Edge: Art-Horror and the Horrific Avant-Garde by Joan Hawkins, Daniel Tiffany’s essay Kitsching the Cantos and Lara Glenum’s and my &Now panel on the gurlesque and kitsch. As well as some other stuff, some of which I have discussed on this blog.

∑ In his book Highbrow Lowbrow, Lawrence W. Levine argues that until late 19th century, the mingling of high and low culture was common in the US. There was little “cultural stratification.” Opera would be sung in the music halls, which might also include a soliloquy from Hamlet (often as farce) etc.

∑ In the late 19th century, culture was hierarchized – Shakespeare became high art, while popular music was lowbrow. This was largely based on economics: it was more expensive to go to the theater or the opera than the dance hall. High art came to signify status and class standing.

∑ But also: “…the drive for political order was paralleled by a drive for cultural order, and the push to organize the economic sphere was paralleled by a push to organize the cultural sphere, that the quest for social authority (“the control of action through the giving of commands”) was parallelled by a quest for cultural authority (“the construction of reality through definitions of fact and value”)…”

∑ As Joan Hawkins notes, the historical avant-garde was largely about undoing this stratification. You get Cabaret Voltaire or Futurist cabarets encouraging people to talk and badmouth the performers; you have Breton and Jacques Vache ducking in and out of movies; you get people throwing stuff at the screen during the showing of Un Chien Andalou etc. This is in line with Huyssen’s idea that the historical avant-garde was all about trying to alter the relationship between high culture and mass culture.

∑ Tiffany notes that there is always the risk of a work of high art turning into kitsch, and proves this by reading Pound’s The Cantos (usually seen as the epitome of High Modernism) for its kitsch. The kitsch in the Cantos can be found in the deathiness and the imagery (Imagism turned very easily into Amygism – feminine, kitsch, the opposite of “hard” Imagism – which ties perfectly into Ron Silliman’s macho hard vs soft distinction). And thus Totalitarian Kitsch.

∑ An interesting study: the gurlesque and totalitarianism. I like that idea. Uhm… I guess Aaron Kunin touched on this in his essay in Action, Yes. I see a connection to the Slovenian Retrogardists.

Or "You Should Be President" by Imperiet (from the 80s, Sweden):

∑ Imagism was at first conceived as an antidote to the ornamentalism of Victorian writing, but it soon became another ornament, perhaps the biggest sign of ornamentalism. Thus kitsch. Thus contemporary poetry’s use of the demeaning term “hipster.” It’s all image, not hard cold facts. It’s all art/illusion: everything is art, everything is ornament. What a crime.

∑ Adorno argues that the High Modern move towards abstraction is a move away from the kitsch of the image (“mimetic enchantment”).

∑ Steven Shaviro: “Behind all these supposedly materialist attacks on the ideological illusions built into the cinematic apparatus, should we not rather see the opposite, an idealist’s fear of the ontological instability of the image, and of the materiality of affect and sensation?”

∑ Steven Shaviro: “Images are condemned because they are bodies without souls, or forms without bodies. They are flat and insubstantial, devoid of interiority and substance, unable to express anything beyond themselves.”

∑ Shaviro: “But is it really lack that makes images so dangerous and disturbing? What these theorists fear is not the emptiness of the image, but its weird fullness; not its impotence as much as its power. Images have an excessive capacity to seduce and mislead, to affect the spectator unwarrantedly.”

∑ Shaviro: “The image is not a symptom of lack, but an uncanny, excessive residue of being that subsists when all should be lacking… Images are banally self-evident and self-contained, but their superficiality and obviousness is also a strange blankness, a resistance to the closure of definition, or to any imposition of meaning.”

∑ Saul Friedländer: “Kitsch is a debased form of myth, but nevertheless draws from the mythic substance.”

∑ For debased myth, see Jack Smith’s “Flaming Creatures” with its vampires and trannie deities; see Kenneth Anger’s “Scorpio Rising” with its debased Death and debased Jesus; see Anger’s “Invocation of my Demon Brother” (with Mick Jagger’s awesome soundtrack); see Aase Berg’s guinea pigs; see Antonin Artaud’s rampant bleeding daughters.

∑ Tiffany: Kitsch is “permeated by an atmosphere of death.”

∑ Hawkins: “The operative criterion here is affect: the ability of a film to thrill, frighten, gross out, arouse, or otherwise directly engage the spectator’s body. And it is this emphasis on affect that characterizes paracinema as a low cinematic culture. Paracinema catalogs are dominated by what [Carol] Clover terms “body genre” films, films that Linda Williams [Note: Hardcore: The Frenzy of the Visible is an interesting book about porn and the power of the image] Most of the titles are horror, porn, exploitation, horrific sci-fi, or thrillers; other non-body genre films – art films, Nixon’s infamous Checkers speech, sword-and-sandal spics, and so forth - tend to be collapsed into categories dictated by the body genres…/… Finally, the body genres directly address the spectator’s body. This last feature, Williams argues, most noticeably characterizes body genres as low cultural forms…”

∑ Paracinema; paraliteratures (Delaney); paramilitary; paraplegic; parasite. “Clement Greenberg identified kitsch as a parasite feeding upon the productions of the avant-garde” (Daniel Tiffany).

∑ Steven Shaviro: “Something has happened to the act of looking. Outbursts of violence… arouse, agitate and unsettle the spectator. Narcissistic gratification is interrupted, not through any recognition of loss or lack, but because I am drawn into a condition of excessive, undischargeable excitation. I am depositioned and dispossessed by the film’s incessant modulations of visibility, no less than by its concise articulations of action and movement.”

∑ At the &Now Conference, I talked to many Experimental Writers who all expressed a great deal of anxiety about the Internet: “The writing on the Internet is so bad,” they would say. This anxiety about standards being upheld. This anxiety is of course totally contrary from the power of the historical avant-garde, which Experimental Writing claims affinity to.

∑ At the panels at &Now, one frequent topic was how to remain experimental. The answer seemed always to be self-examination and the drive toward greater “complexity.” In one panel, one audience member pointed out that one of the characters in a story was a stereotype. The author replied that he hoped to “complicate” the character in the rest of the story.

∑ Complexity is the new Negative Capability.

∑ Negative Capability is the urge toward prestige. It’s also the urge to “transcend” ‘the body. To become complex, abstract, refined.

∑ But what happens when that prestige is totally marginalized, left without monetary support?

∑ No wonder Adorno’s simplistic “culture industry” model is so popular in experimental quarters.

Donald Revell's argument that Allen Ginsberg was locked in the cage of capitalism, while Revell is freed by his bodiless verse.

∑ I feel bad that this comes off as a criticism of the &Now Conference, which on the whole I greatly enjoyed. I loved the way the Html Giant moved like a foreign body through the proceedings. I loved talking to people. I loved Lara, Jordan’s and Joshko’s installation (“Meat Out of the Eater!). I loved the idea of ‘avatar performances” in 2nd Life (Sondheim etc).

∑ Nevertheless.

∑ So much of contemporary poetry criticism seems based on cultural prestige vs kitsch. What is Ron Silliman’s criticism but a constant charge of kitsch! Why aren’t Quietists good: they are tasteless, they are not modern, they are not “hard” and macho. Why is Surrealism is “soft” and feminine – it’s ornamental, image-based etc. As I showed in a recent entry on Jed Rasula’s critique of Bly: His charge is that Bly is kitsch. The reason why he’s kitsch? The Image (as opposed to Creeley’s infinitely more tasteful “syntactic” experiments). The best way to argue in poetry is to argue that you represent the most prestigious and to scare people that their taste is kitschy.

∑ Flarf: Like Gurlesque seems to embrace kitsch. But then there are moments like the incident when the “glittering asian gays,” when Mike McGee couldn’t handle the flarf rhetoric and had to argue that in fact what he was doing was subverting Yeats’ orientalism. Subversion = taste. Yeats = tasteless. You lost me there.

∑ One of the things that strike me when reading Levine’s description of the un-stratified world before high/low brow is that it reminds me of Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, where TS Eliot and Ezra Pound mingle with Calypso singers, and Paul Revere’s horse bursts into the kitchen, and Einstein [though I wish it were Eisenstein] disguises himself as Robin Hood. Another thing it reminds me of is Godard’s Weekend, with its car-crashes and Charlotte Bronte and cannibals etc. The more I think of it, the more it reminds me of the 1960s! Surrealistic pillow!

∑ The MFA programs that took of in the 1970s came about largely as a response to the increased college population, spurred on by the GI Bill and the democratization of Higher Ed. We have to refine the rabble, in other words. And what was the pillar of MFA poetics: You have to earn the image. The image has to be controlled. Be made tasteful. Overtness is the enemy. Political statement is vulgar. Allusion to popular culture or political figures makes it impossible for your poem to be timeless, the ultimate goal. They ‘date’ the poem. These attitudes were still in place when I attended Iowa in the 90’s.

∑ It is interesting how both the MFA poetics and Language poetics are based on a rejection of the perceived “surrealist” “excesses” of the 1960s. You have Ron Silliman’s constant critique of “soft surrealism” of the 1960s; and you have Tony Hoagland’s attacks on “the excesses of the 1960s.” They are different sides of the same coin, both opposed to a sense that the 60s represents a moment of bad taste, of excess (for what is excess but an exceeding of norms of taste). A date which is dated. And everywhere, the specter of a mass culture tastelessness invading high art, ruining the standards!


Blogger Phanero Noemikon said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

9:49 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I love Mike Kelley.


10:21 AM  
Blogger Jordan said...

> It is interesting

Is it.

10:41 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Also, Lanny, my post wasn't about Art but rhetoric of contemporary poetry discussions.


11:40 AM  
Blogger Ken Baumann said...

Johannes: I love your brain. You sing so sweet.

'The best way to argue in poetry is to argue that you represent the most prestigious and to scare people that their taste is kitschy.'


12:37 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Isn't this the problem with defining things, calling upon ideology, etc. in the first place? When you define something, when you put this over here and that over there, you are always engaging in a kind of cultural hegemony. Ignore, ignore, ignore, I say.

4:17 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

One more thing quickly: the writer who said he hoped to "complicate" - I actually like his work - and it seems like an interesting project - it's just that this whole rhetoric of "complexity" that I find tiresome.

5:01 PM  
Blogger Max said...

I don't think that it's the case that complex, abstract, refined, etc. are marginalized in terms of resources, though. The "official channels" are, yes, obviously going to lend more support to whatever the opposite happens to be (I'm not sure exactly who the bogeyman is these days), but to argue that the "experimental" is entirely bereft of resources, that it has been effectively stamped out within those official channels, is absurd. In the MFA complex, ideology is highly localized. They have their places, we have ours, etc, etc, etc.

9:17 PM  
Blogger Ross Brighton said...

Max -
I get what you're saying, but unless you define things, how do you talk about them? I suppose you'd rather people not talk - but then the hegemony invents itself anyway....
And you need definintion to thing about what you're doing...

Great post, btw. Fits in well with an essay I'm in the early stages of gestating.

2:47 AM  
Blogger Gary said...

Magee. M-a-g-e-e.

3:04 AM  
Blogger Max said...


I think part of the frustration I have with this kind of complaint about the "marginalization" of experimental writing, or whatever you want to call it, is that it's become this eternal preoccupation among experimental people, a preoccupation with actually giving a crap what these dinosaurs think or say or do. What I'm asking, essentially, is this: why even rebut the arguments of these geezers who no longer have anything relevant to say about writing? If they're full of shit, ignore them. There's plenty that we can talk about that doesn't consist of fighting day-in and day-out against this paper dragon.

I know Johannes won't agree with me when I say this, but the largest problems facing the writing community, and particularly the American poetry community, are not ideological or stylistic, but rather are rooted pretty firmly in material/economic realities.

7:09 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Peculiar comment since much of my entry deals with economics. Also pecular because I dont see style as unconnected with economics.

Also peculiar because this entry is obviously not about the marginalization of experimental writing but actually a critique of experimental writing. Few things I like less than experimental writing.

Why did you spell the name out twice? Yes, foreigners are very stupid but one time would actually be quite sufficient.


10:04 AM  
Blogger François Luong said...

I don't think Gary was thinking about your foreign status when he wrote this comment, Johannes.

11:50 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Very very interesting post. Still processing much of this.

"Negative Capability is the urge toward prestige. It’s also the urge to “transcend” ‘the body. To become complex, abstract, refined."

The way complexity (/NC) is often appropriated may be troublesome, but the movement away from the subject/object divide (which seems still quite pervasive) seems important. Complexity in terms of noticing how Heidegger (and most of his offspring) neglected the body seems important at as well. The lived body.

In regard to the "Cultural Industry," to me, it is interesting only in so much as most of popular culture is handed down from big movie studios and news organizations. It is the monopolization of culture that is troublesome, not popular/folk culture proper. The economics, again.

MFA programs are sort of petite-bourgeois themselves. 'Low' culture's power also gets thrashed and trashed in the accelerated industrial machine. Someone else makes it, the the little guy looks for a quick distraction before clocking back in.

Complexity (maybe a word to be thrown out) seems important in so much as 'low' culture becomes abstracted by the media monopolies (while the experimental writer self-imposes an abstraction on the other hand).


12:57 PM  
Blogger Kate Durbin said...


Do you plan to post more on the gurlesque/kitsch panel discussion? Hope so--


P.S. This post is great, esp. your definition of negative capability.

3:23 PM  
Blogger Danielle said...

Weird comment stream, but great post, Johannes. Kitsch is such a thrilla gorilla. Mmmch. D

4:20 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

You seem to be arguing, in this post, against a current experimentalism, and toward (maybe?) an experimentalism that doesn't aspire to high-brow status, or engage in any of the other no-no's you take issue with.

Also, the economics you seem to be most concerned with are not the ones that investigate from whence the resources come, but who happens to get them. When I say "ideology," I'm talking about poetic ideology, vis a vis arguments that you prefer to have over whether "complexity" is a valuable end in experimental writing. I think that kind of ideological talk is fairly disconnected from the raw economic realities of MFA programs (the one in which lowly apprentices of all poetic stripes teach comp courses so that people with books will have cushy salaries).

4:50 PM  
Blogger Ross Brighton said...

Max - somewhat belated, but anyway:
"What I'm asking, essentially, is this: why even rebut the arguments of these geezers who no longer have anything relevant to say about writing? If they're full of shit, ignore them. There's plenty that we can talk about that doesn't consist of fighting day-in and day-out against this paper dragon"

Because they are still the ones with power/currency in the discourse. And a lot of those whose discourse is inherently hegemonic are within the "experimental" fold.

I still find it wierd that there is this facetious argument that engagement in critical coversations about what other (powerful) poeple are saying is incompatible with actually doing the "work" or writing literature - or that stating dissenting opinions is somehow counterproductive. And I agree 100% with Johannes' refusal to seperate material (circumstances) and style - nothing is autonomous.

Though this is a horse that has been flogged maybe too much, and will probably garner many groans, And what exactly do you mean by "experimentation", as opposed to the process of writing (anything anywhere) itself? I'm not sure i follow this. Is it simply a catch-all for what is not personal-lyric-epiphany? in which case it may be a tad broad in it's scope (a la "postmodernism", meaning totally different things in different contexts/disciplines)

7:42 PM  
Blogger The Primes said...


This post is rather interesting-- feel free to not post this comment if it's too common or extraneous. I keep returning to old ideas about taste-making and the role that k-12 education plays in that. Additionally, I look at "experimental" poetry as a form of cultural segregation-- an elitist affair-- and the idea of complexity as a further segregation strategy. First and foremost, I believe much of what is published nowadays would be considered "experimental" or "complex/ aka confusing" due to the public's exposure to poetry in public education. Contemporary poetry fails the public's template of what a poem is and does because of the limited exposure in public k-12. It seems that the easiest way to widen a readership and to damage the stratification would be to change curricula and reading lists of kids in high school. But there is a social risk in exposing the public to newer works== namely, it has the potential of exposing the economically lower public to an intellectual and cultural territory reserved for those who are members of the upper crust. This may scare the unconscious segregationists amongst the university crowd.

But these are just thoughts.

I personally believe that poetry and lit in general has been marginalized by cinema, tv and entertainment to the point that it had to evolve formally and address content that can't be addressed in other mediums. Nonetheless, it should be exposed to the public at an earlier age.


9:50 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Ross -

At the same time, I think that if what we're taking exception to is not substantial discourse (i.e. one poet calling another poet a "hipster," which is just a dressed up bit of namecalling, really), we'd probably do well to ignore it.

What I find interesting is how Johannes began this whole pushback against the derogatory "hipster" thing by responding to namecalling, but came around to this reactionary stance whereby the name (hipster) and the style (kitsch) are embraced, deemed of interest (seemingly) only because there exists a set who find it tasteless, bad, or whatever else.

It's not that conversation should shut down. It's that perhaps we should be wary of forming values always from reactions to largely innocuous and/or pathetic arguments from some bogeyman sect.

10:43 PM  
Blogger Gary said...

Thank you, François. And, yes, it was not a comment on "stupidity"; it was a comment on accuracy.

Johannes, you're not the first person to misspell Michael's last name. It's not a big deal; it's just not accurate.

Accuracy being what I took Michael's defense of his poem to have been. He wasn't saying he was subverting Yeats. He was saying--we all were--that he was accurately rendering language as it is used.

The "Glittering Asian Guys" debate seemed (to me) to pit two approaches against each other: utopian vision versus accuracy of rendering.

Anyway, my apologies if the way I spelled his name twice came across as insulting in any way. It honestly wasn't meant to be insulting.

5:11 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


If all I was doing was valorizing something because other people hated it, I would be pretty lame.

But it's not that other people hate it, it's that I'm largely interested in the kind of poetics that has been denigrated as "hipster" or "kitsch." That is why for example I go on at great length about "the image."

I would also add that most of all what I'm writing about is a way poetry seems constrained by these simplistic critera; it doesn't seem like very interesting frameworks for reading poetry; and so I'd like to call attention to that.


6:44 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I'm not really insulted.

My own name is very rarely spelled correctly and I don't really care.

I was never very involved in the Flarf debates so it's possible that i go this wrong, but I"m pretty sure I read a post somehwere where MM said the purpose of the piece was to subvert Yeats' orientalism.

I like a lot of flarf, but it seems when it comes to the discussions about it, you tend to fall apart and not stick to your ideas about bad taste etc.


6:48 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I will reply to the rest of you later but now I must go. Thanks for all the replies.

6:49 AM  
Blogger Jordan said...

This thread reminds me of something Bruce Andrews said to me one time as I was apologizing for breaking the cork in a bottle I was opening: "How is the wine being characterized now?"

7:18 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I think the idea of the culture industry doesn't take into account the ways in which people might interact with this mass-produced fare.

More importantly, it seems like the specter of mass culture is what troubles Experimental Writing - always defining itself in opposition to mass culture feels like just an attempt to extract ourselves from the mess.

I'll try to take some time to be more precise about this. I think mostly it has to do with anxieties about the movies and the cinematic body (which Shavior talks about in the book I quote liberally in the post).


1:20 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Is "accuracy" now the guiding principle of flarf?


1:21 PM  
Blogger Jordan said...

There's a single overriding principle of flarf?

Also, I must have missed it, what's this site's reading of so-called soft-surrealism -- not of the criticism, but the work itself. And what work is that, by the way.

3:17 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Great point. A phenomenology of whatever relevant thing (that is a part of the shared culture) is always already more worthwhile/care-full than a phenomenology some abstraction outside of the culture(/"mess").

I will definitely check out that Shaviro text. Sounds very interesting. Actually, I’m kind of excited to find out about him through this post. I’m re-applying to graduate programs (having dropped out of an MFA) and Wayne State was already on my list because of Carla Harryman & Barrett Watten.

& I’ll be looking forward to your next post on the topic.


4:43 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I didn't say a single principle, but the way Gary replied gave me impression that "accuracy" was some kind of flarfist principle.

I've written about Soft Surrealism. You can google it. I posted a thing Joyelle and I wrote and we analyzed several poems. Of course our idea of soft surrealism isn't what Ron Silliman means when he talks about soft surrealists, but then what is.


4:52 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Also, I'm sorry to see that Lanny removed his post because it's a valid point.


4:53 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Yes, I love Shaviro's writings (though at times it gets beyond me). But Carla Harryman isn't there anymore. SHe's at Eastern Michigan with Christine Hume.


4:58 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Ah, thanks for the heads up on Harryman.


5:37 PM  
Blogger Jordan said...

Thanks, Johannes. I'll do my homework.

7:53 AM  
Blogger Robert J. said...

Mike Judge makes film about "F=L=A=R=F" as high culture, looking back from 2381 or something.

Gordon Lish stars. Someone solemnly says, "Miscast."

I like this.

Johannes, do you like the idea of "experimental writing" at all in terms of process? It seems like kitsch could be created through experimental means. But I guess that depends on what best typifies "experimental": the effect on the audience, the methods of the author, the cultural relationships, or . . .

6:54 PM  
Blogger Jordan said...

Re: JG's question about accuracy and flarf --

Sounds very opposing counsel the way you've put it.

What I would say is that flarf does seem to take a significant interest in changing the language of poetry from a bland translationese to something closer to English as she is spoke online. You could call that "accuracy," you could call it "demotic," you could call it Ray Jay...

8:53 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Your comment is good. I'm still thinking about it. Why don't you write your own thoughts?


7:17 AM  
Blogger Robert J. said...

I think that any affinity that I have ever felt for the "avant garde" or the "experimental" is very selfishly wrapped up in economic concerns: I don't see myself ever making money via literature (certainly not through poetry) and therefore I lazily and vaguely embrace that which seems to eschew popular acceptance, i.e. the "experimental." That's stupid of me

Lately, instead, I've been focusing simply on what I like in poetry, which is not necessarily classified as experimental, or even "abstract" (are the two normally associated?). But, the poetry that I like doesn't seem like it could be produced by a narrative or stream-of-consciousness, or anything else that we might now label as "conventional" procedural methods. Rather, it feels like it comes from an attitude that starts as "let's just see what happens if . . ." and evolves from there. Perhaps the authors have an emotional base or a concept from which they also work, but they there's an openness to how the poems might end up, or to how they begin (with a google search? with a set of oulipo-esque constraints? is there an "openness" in these things?) that suggests an "experimental process".

I get the feeling that I am misapplying several terms here, or at least they are very vague, but that is sort of how I was distinguishing experimental process from experimental product.

Not very helpful, maybe.

7:48 AM  

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