Friday, December 11, 2009

Gurlesque, Jack Smith, Kenneth Anger, Translation

I recently wrote an article about the Gurlesque for a new San Francisco journal called Calaveras, and that made me think some more about this poetry.


One thing that interests me about the term is the resistance to the term. When I first read it, I too disliked it. It sounds a bit ridiculous. Then I was drawn toward this ridiculousness.

A friend of mine said she didn't like it because it sounded pop culture, it didn't sound refined. This objection seems to jive with that "goodreads" review I like to quote when the reviewer compared Lara Glenum's work to Marilyn Manson. Not just pop culture, in that regard, but debased pop culture even. And I think both of these objections are correct: In its embrace of the kitschy and debased it seems to more than anything oppose the "good taste" that poetry is supposed to uphold.


New Critics, Cole Swenson's "American hybrid," Ron Silliman's "post-avant," the goodreads reivew or the Workshop Poem- all these rhetorical models seem based on the assumption that poetry should be somehow "high art" and not kitsch, tasteless. In her intro to the American Hybrid anthology, Cole argues that poetry should save language against the onslaught of mass culture.

Here's from the Publisher's Weekly review of Andrew Zawacki's recent book: "Zawacki's work is not for everyone—its density and opaqueness can frustrate. But he displays a rigor, earnestness and commitment to poetry as high art; seekers of those virtues will admire this book deeply."

In the end I think Poetry still plays the role of High Art (at least to those who read/write it.).


It was interesting to me the other day how Jordan Davis on this very blog argued that Flarf was "accurate" representation of the English language, opposed to "translatese" of other poetry. In addition to this running totally contrary to the original impulse of Flarf as "bad taste", it was interesting to me that he used the word "translatese" to suggest the dullness of other poetry.

Translatese is of course the term traditionally used for the kind of deformed, minoritized language resulting from translations, language that has been foreignized by the process of translation. As Lawrence Venuti is prone to point out, it is the term used to describe unsuccessful translations, translations that do not sound "native" (It is noteworthy that this is explicitly Ron Silliman's criteria for judging translations, proving just how elitist and reactionary his supposed "avant" aesthetics are.).

Translatese is debased language, impure language.

But also: it sounds silly, ridiculous, just the same way "gurlesque" sounds ridiculous. There's an inherent, sonic despicableness about both terms. (Another terms that sounds the same way: Esperanto.). And this connection I think shows the connection between an anxiety about foreignized, impure English ("majoritiarian" poetry, to use Deleuze and Guattari's framework, establishes official language, true language) of translation, and the "Marilyn Manson" (or "gothic") aesthetics of "gurlesque" writing.

Kitsch, minor lit, the gurlesque: all of these terms are seen are debased, as foreign, as parasitic, impure.


Perhaps a pertinent quote here is the one I posted on this blog a while back (taken from Daniel Tiffany's wonderful essay "Kitsching the Cantos").

Herman Broch: “kitsch is lodged like a foreign body in the overall system of art.”

This seminal 1933 statement on kitsch makes a similar connection between the foreign and the debased, degraded. But similar views have been expressed repeatedly through modernity. Clement Greenberg called kitsch a parasite for the way it moves across national boundaries and destroys natural communities. Adorno objected both to kitsch and to impure German in poetry. As Tiffany notes, kitsch has been used throughout modernity as a negation of "art" (especially modernist art).

If kitsch is a foreign body, then the foreign body is kitsch.

(I already knew that.)


Another thing I find interesting about the term gurlesque is that both people who object to the gurlesque and people who favor it seem to want to expel *me* from it.

Both seem to want to say that I'm talking about something else entirely! This makes me really interested in this term! I'm a parasite within the parasite's body!


It's interesting to me how descriptions of kitsch and trash almost always come in lists. Whether it's Rimbaud's "Parade," Walt Whitman, Ginsberg, Clement (and Arielle!) Greenberg: The "poetic crap" (Rimbaud) always come in these long lists. It's as if there was an implicit notion of montage in the junk. No wonder Dada, Cornell, Rauschenberg etc etc made collages and assemblages out of this excrement. Our idea of kitsch is already as a pile of crap that we have to wade through. It lacks hierarchy or narrative. We have to wade through it. Just a bunch of excrement.


In a previous post about "hipsters" and kitsch, Bobby Baird left an insightful quote from Jacques Ranciere:

"Flaubert already deals with what Adorno will spell out as the problem of kitsch… Kitsch in fact means art incorporated into anybody’s life, art become part of the scenery and the furnishings of everyday life. In that respect, Madame Bovary is the first antikitsch manifesto."

This essay is called "Why Emma Bovary Must Die." She must die to keep art out of life. Ultimately, the fear of kitsch is this immersive aspect of it. The danger with Wax museums, novels, movie theaters, freak shows and other immersive experiences is that these works of art turns us into wax figures, puppets. Our bodies become denaturalized, become “foreign bodies.”


The question of course then becomes: what to do with all this trash?

Someone might say: It's camp.

But if camp, as Sontag famously put it, is the appreciation of the "awful," then it's not the same thing. Because most of the writing I see as "gurlesque" is never just an ironic appreciation of bad taste (which reinforces the bad/good taste divide).

In my article for Calaveras, I make a comparison to the 1960s underground cinema of Kenneth Anger and Jack Smith. I don't think of their art as "camp," but as something else. Both of these directors used a blend of lowbrow references (oriental costumes from the Silent Era, motorcycle erotics, pop music) and montage to create a gothic, fragmented body that is both unnatural and visceral, much like the Gurlesque writers.

In his book on the 1960s gay underground cinema, Bike Boys, Drag Queens and Superstars, Juan A. Suarez describes the scandalous Flaming Creatues like this:

"In Flaming Creatures… there is no subjective essence to be realized, no interiority where the self’s truth lies dormant. Gender-blurring, polymorphous desire, and constant fetishistic substitutions present an unstable sort of sexuality, always en fugue through various bodies and body parts, and never incarnated in self-identical images."

Suarez further argues that the “bodies are stages for the reenactment of alien roles” and that they are “collages made up, like Frankenstein’s body, of pre-existing fragments – quotes and images that most often emanate from the stock of Hollywood fantasies.”


Sontag defended Smith from censors arguing that it was really, after all, "high art." But Jack Smith himself insisted that he was not high art, that his "moldy aesthetics" was far from high art. This is an extreme case of an artist embracing not just mass culture (which Warhol did very differently), but embracing unfashionable items (a practice which links back up with Surrealism through his mentor, Joseph Cornell). Suarez notes that what drew Smith to his muse, Maria Montez, were the “intense affects” of her performances. This and in Smith’s “taste for kitschy ornamentalism and emotive figurativeness… and baroque Catholic altars” we can see a rejection of the “form equals function” of modernism and, to return to the beginning of this article, the urge of many people involved in contemporary American poetry to police work they feel is “too much,” excessive.

In Smith's devotion to Maria Montez and his moldy aesthetic, we can hear a number of echoes: Of Arielle Greenberg's valorization of Stevie Nicks, of the Goodreads comparison of Lara G to Marilyn Manson (she's not just mass culture, she's unfashionable mass culture), of Silliman's rejection of the kitschiness of "soft surrealism" (moldy surrealism from now on!).


Suarez wants Jack Smith’s recycling to be a critique of capitalism, arguing that his work destabilized the consumer economy of capitalism. Kaja Silverman’s argument about another 1960s filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard’s seminal movie Weekend (which refers to itself as a “trash film,” and which, as Harun Farucki points out, engages in a lot of “scrapheap” aesthetics of underground film of the 1960s) is perhaps pertinent to this argument. In her book about Godard, Silverman discusses Weekend in terms of “anal capitalism.” According to Silverman, the movie depicts a world of consumption, in which “the phallus has lost its privileged status,” because capitalism has rendered everything exchangeable. even gender, even body parts (a claim reminiscent of Sontag’s observation about the equivalence of body parts in Flaming Creatures). Commodities lose their value when they are actually consumed; her insight is that Weekend is a movie that wants to be consumed, that does not want to be a monument like high art predecessors.

I see in these “anal yzes” also something of Georges Bataille’s notion of “unproductive expenditures.” That's what I'm thinking about right now. Also, his ideas of heteregenous matter (within the system of Poetry).

For some other ideas and close readings of Chelsey Minnis, Dodie Bellamy and Aase Berg, you'll have to read the magazine when it comes out.


Blogger Unknown said...

In Hiroaki Sato's book trans. of Hagiwara Sakutaro, he notes that Hagiwara would sometimes write poems in a mode called "hon'yaku-cho," a term defined by Sato as "Translation style . . . writings that read like clumsy translations."

1:52 PM  
Blogger Larry Sawyer said...

Good to see you writing about Jack Smith, Johannes. I was lucky to publish some of his writing about 10 years ago in a magazine called Nexus, which doesn't exist anymore. I was instantly fascinated by Smith's film/writing/photography because it seemed that he'd stripped away some of the subconscious narrative that's inherent in "Hollywood" films by producing a work that doesn't celebrate or denigrate--it just is. He created a brand new mythology in his fascination with Hollywood's golden age because it was filtered through his unique and weird sensibility. Maybe that's why it still seems somehow frightening.

I used to talk on the phone quite a bit with Ira Cohen the poet and photographer about Jack Smith and his process and according to Ira much of it was just completely spontaneous--he was just recording these psychedelic dream sequences that have never been fully absorbed into the mainstream (unlike Warhol's work, which seems right at home on a postcard).

Although I still admire much of what Warhol did (although less so now) I still think Smith was the real catalyst for much of what later occurred during that era. Is there a category for "deep-kitsch"?

2:27 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I'd love to see the writings. Would you please make me a copy? Ira Cohen is an interesting artist/poet as well.

I agree that there is some similar concerns with Warhol. Smith apparently influenced Warhol, but Smith was on the whole pretty negative toward Warhol.

Both Smith and Warhol are examples of the immersive element of kitsch (with their lives as performance).

I don't think it's "depth" that makes Smith's art different. I'm not sure Warhol even plays with kitsch so much as mass production.


3:50 PM  
Blogger Stanley Bishop Burhans said...

Excellent post! It seems to bring together many of the issues that have been simmering on this blog, in one big zesty shambling mound.

a few comments:

1) re "translationese" Nada Gordon's been doing beautiful poems based on mistranslation or inappropriate translation for years now, but especially recently

2) re Jack Smith, I worship him!! I love his defense of his own lowness from Sontag's effort to monumentalize and sacralize him. Speaking of, isn't it time for us to begin criticizing Sontag's essay on Camp, which, well-written as it is, is wrong about many things, but most of all wrong in assigning camp to the category of the apolitical.

3) the point about kitsch's lack of hierarchy and narrative is very good. Is that really the only reason poets need to hold on to High Art trappings? In order to maintain some semblance of hierarchy? But then, it isn't such a small need is it? If you don't like high art, do you have some sort of alternative to hierarchy to propose, some other way to allocate those scarce, scarce resources?

I admit, I would be sad if the best we could do were to give the resources to those with the most pomposity and gravitas. . . but have people ever managed any better?

Thanks for the provocative thoughts,


8:57 PM  
Blogger Max said...

The Korean language has an entire vocabulary of "translatese" called Konglish. Cell phone = "handphone." Flat tire = "punctire" (punctured tire).

10:44 PM  
Blogger Larry Sawyer said...

It seems that another parallel to this discussion might be the use of "cool" in the language, especially as that relates to its use in the underground that developed in the 40s, 50s, and 1960s in the U.S. Somewhere I was reading that it was the sense of ironic distance in Warhol's mass-produced items that would classify it as being something other than kitsch, as being "cool." Smith's work being deep-kitsch only because the narrative he created glorified in some absurd way a Hollywood era that verged on the fetishistic. Warhol's work didn't fetishize necessarily because it had/has that ironic distance. Smith made films because he loved the process as evidenced by his impulse to keep doing it despite all odds (ie, no matter the difficulty involved in the production of it because of his lack of funds), whereas Warhol would do whatever was easiest. But to "understand" Smith's kitsch would require some understanding of the continuation that his work represents of that Hollywood narrative, no matter how low-budget or absurd. So, deep in the sense that it's not primarily concerned with surface effect as with Warhol's work. I wish I could send you a copy of the Nexus issues, but I only have a few myself! If you're interested in Flaming Creatures you should see Cohen's Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda, too, because it's a representation of a similar maximalist aesthetic, but it wouldn't be classified as kitsch.

8:43 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I think you're absolutely right about "cool." I've been thinking about yoru comment since yesterday, and I keep thinking about that exact word, and how the "cool" irony of Warhol recuperates mass images as tasteful - ie not as images. And perhaps that's where "deep" comes in. The flatness of Warhol is important. Also I suppose "deep" in the sense of Smith's movies being part of an ongoing performance project - the ultimate instance of blending art and life, the ultimate fear of kitsch. Though of course that can be seen in The Factory and Warhol's movies too.

More about this later.


10:02 AM  
Blogger Jordan said...

You and I mean different things by translatese. I mean language that has been overpolished to the point of vagueness. You mean something that sounds kind of interesting and gibberishy. I don't think you read The Hat -- if you did, you'd recognize that I'm not talking about something that, as you so hyperbolically put it, runs "totally contrary to the original impulse of Flarf as 'bad taste.'"

I don't enjoy hearing from you about how I mean the opposite of what I say, or being lectured at by you about events that I witnessed.

6:45 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

THen don't read my blog Jordan.

As for Translatese - Why would you compare "overpolished" to the act of translation? It's not just the tenor but also the vehicle that matters in the metaphor.


6:57 AM  
Blogger Jordan said...

Not to worry, I've already stopped.

Despite your crusades to correct other people's distortions, I see no reason to believe you will own up to and correct your own distortions.

7:23 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I don't mind changing my views aobut things, but I don't as a result of people getting pissy. You have to present some kind of argument or at least a nice drawing of a bear cub.


7:30 AM  

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