Saturday, May 01, 2010

The Cute Death Drive: Aase Berg and Hitchcock

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...



Blogger Boyd Nielson said...

I appreciate your attention to Lee Edelman, Johannes. Certainly, it is well deserved; Edelman is a stunningly brilliant scholar, theorist and polemicist. And, as anyone who has ever met him can attest, his oratory at least matches the eloquent pitch of his prose.

Even so, your drawing from Edelman to buttress and extend your own ideas about kitsch and foreignness makes sense only if the most radical and provocative aspects of Edelman’s argument are absolutely neutralized. After all, as you have made eminently clear both at Harriet and on this blog, you are interested in kitsch because it indexes “minor literature” and “inauthentic community.” As you say here on 1-16-10,

“The model of community one could say present in Berg’s minor poetry is […] a minor community, a community based on a rejection of a common language in favor of a language that collapses and blacks out and faints and is deformed into anti-hierarchical fat. It is the “no-future” community of the queer boys mourning the Falstaff character outside the official fence of the graveyard.

It is not an official community of lineages and descendants […] (reflect perhaps in Silliman’s obsessive charting of lineages and descendants) but a minor idea of community, the fake kind – not the ideal so frequently perpetuated in American poetry of an unalienated community, but a counterfeit community.”

Here you contrast authentic, genealogical community (one which ties, as you correctly note, into Silliman’s ideas about the post-avant) with useless, counterfeit community. But this counterfeit can be called a “‘no-future’ community” only by getting Edelman precisely backwards. Edelman develops his argument about “no future” not by turning toward a fake or counterfeit community but rather by refusing the very logic of community that underwrites nothing less than instituted order and symbolic sociality. That is the whole point of his focus on Hitchcock’s birds and Dickens’s Scrooge. Scrooge, Edelman says,

“as a bachelor in a text that declares ‘a bachelor…a wretched outcast’ (103) […] exudes from the outset a mode of enjoyment alien to that of the community at large and alien, more importantly, to the very concept of community at all. […] Scrooge, as sinthomosexual, denies, by virtue of his unwillingness to contribute to the communal realization of futurity, the fantastic structure, the aesthetic frame, supporting reality itself. He realizes, that is, the jouissance that derealizes sociality and thereby threatens, in Žižek’s words, ‘the total destruction of the symbolic universe.’” (Edelman 44-45)

[continued in next comment]

1:40 PM  
Blogger Boyd Nielson said...

[continued from last comment]

That total destruction refuses without compromise not just sociality but also its basis in the human, and it is exemplified by the birds who “are gathering now, who are beating their wings, and who, like the drive, keep on coming” (154).

The discrepancy between Edelman’s “no future” and your own ideas about the immigrant as kitsch does not by itself invalidate your claims, of course, and my identification of this discrepancy should not be read as an uncritical endorsement of Edelman. But it should be read as evidence of my misgivings about your own interest in the counterfeit community of the wax museum and its intersection with foreignness. After all, Edelman’s claims about “no future” follow from his identification of queerness as alien to the “logic within which the political itself must be thought” (2). Mapping this onto foreignness or otherness tout court ahistorically ignores the political relevance of Edelman’s polemics. It also ignores and leaves untouched the historically embedded social relations that now make wretched outcasts, it must be acknowledged, out of not so much immigrants in general as so-called illegal immigrants in particular. And what Edelman calls this “ideological limit on political discourse” (2) is at the same time the horizon of participation and publicity (or what Jodi Dean refers to as the democratic “promise of revelation” [“Publicity’s Secret” 632]), the horizon, in short, of community itself.

If you are interested, Dale Smith and I have a conversation that briefly addresses these questions, re: poetry and publicity. It is forthcoming here


1:42 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I appreciate your comments.

Obviously I'm using aspects of Edelman in synthesis with other ideas (as I make pretty clear here - a cutting disorder - not even synthesized in this instance) to develop my own ideas about art and sociality (and I should admit that I'm led to these places largely by following the art, not the scholars). And in fact there are things in Edelman that I don't agree with, but I find him a very provocative writer.

(Just as obviously there are things in Deleuze I like and things I choose to ignore.)

My use of the word "model" in the quote you give is sloppy. I'm not sure what kind of "model" that would be. As I've written many times too, I'm in general opposed to "models" as opposed to something more like a movement (not one with manifestos etc, but as in motion). But it's pretty indicative that this "model" in the quote is a kind of black out.

I'm not for the creation of a community of foreigners - in the sense of a group of expats or something like that (that seems to be your impression). I invoke the foreigner, kitsch, the wax museum because they seem to be the threats, the thing that many notions of authentic community are built against - it seems community must have such figures. It seems part of the dynamic of community.

What would a wax museum community be? I am interested in exploring a non-community community - or more correctly a non-community-based social dynamic; one that is not "future'-based.

I keep using "community" like i said because it's such a key concept in contemporary poetics,yet most use it in a very unexamined way, as if community for its own sake were some universal unimpeachable good, a good in itself. Take for exampel the Bay Area's obsessive documentation of its own community formation. I want to question the term, how it's used.

On the other hand I'm not just intersted in a negation; I am interested in various social formations. For example, translation (the movement of).

On the topic of legal/illegal immigrant, what are you implying-- that immigrants such as myself are getting the free ride on the back of illegal immigrants? Playing a race card I don't have a right to? To me that notion recapitulates the hegemonic social idea that immigrants(and gays and disabled people and women for that matter)should be invisible, should assimilate, are fine as long as they don't 'shove it down their throats.' Paradoxically, the AZ law makes no distinction between illegal and legal immigrants or citizens for that matter-- all are under suspicion and must carry documentation which writes them back into the social order, pins down their free floating obstreperation of the social code.

Yes, please send me your essay. I'd be interested to see how you apply these ideas to poetry.


9:12 AM  
Blogger Boyd Nielson said...


Certainly I understand that you’re using only aspects of Edelman’s argument, and it should be noted that I have no interest in policing how Edelman is interpreted or deployed. For the sake of clarity, I simply wanted to make sure that the contradictions between Edelman’s polemic and yours are explicit.

By no means did I mean in my brief comments about so-called illegal immigration to single you or anyone else out as “getting [a] free ride on the back of illegal immigrants.” The privilege of a free ride, it should (almost) go without saying, is far more general. Moreover, it is less than generous, to say the least, to read my comments as in any way supporting the idea that “immigrants (and gays and disabled people and women for that matter) should be invisible [and] assimilate.” The point is that Edelman’s argument about “no future” and its ethical refusal of “the image of the Child, not to be confused with the lived experience of any historical children” (11) is itself meant to confront historically determined social relations that structure not only one way in which the political is thought vis-à-vis queers but also how the political even can be thought. To suggest that this “no future” can be mapped onto questions of foreignness in general is to misread social topography as well as the trajectory of Edelman’s claims.

If for the sake of argument we were to insist on that mapping, my comments meant to hazard the guess that the only correlative that even begins to make sense is unauthorized immigration. While it is true that “AZ law makes no distinction between illegal and legal immigrants or citizens for that matter-- all are under suspicion and must carry documentation which writes them back into the social order,” it is does not follow that the ideological limit on discourse about unauthorized immigration situates citizens, authorized immigrants and unauthorized immigrants on identical or even specifically comparable points within the social order. First of all, as the Pew Hispanic Center demonstrates, 76 percent of unauthorized immigrants are Hispanic (and 59 percent from Mexico alone). And since they are disproportionally employed in farming, groundskeeping and construction trades and more likely to be poorly educated (47 percent have less than a high school education) it is a mistake to think that all citizens or immigrants regardless of race or class will be uniformly targeted or surveilled by laws such as Arizona’s. Even more importantly, as the debate around the Arizona law demonstrates, unauthorized immigration can be thought politically only through heads-I-win-tails-you-lose poles that either see unauthorized immigrants as threatening to society (thus the calls to exclude them in order to protect citizens and authorized immigrants) or as already part of society (thus the explicit or implicit calls for amnesty—a position most liberals share with George W. Bush) . While the sides are surely not interchangeable, neither is able to see unauthorized immigration as symptomatic of a set of contradictions within the social order itself, and so neither is able to offer anything beyond a perpetuation of capitalist relations that ruthlessly exploit those immigrants even if they are granted equal protection under the law.

I do want to underscore, however, that, despite my misgivings, I absolutely agree that "‘community’ […is] a key concept in contemporary poetics, yet most use it in a very unexamined way, as if community for its own sake were some universal unimpeachable good, a good in itself.” I also identify with your desire to question the term and how it is used. I’ll make sure to request a copy of the pamphlet for you.

take care,


3:52 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Well, I'm sorry if I over-reacted to your immigrant comment - it's just that I have received a lot such comments over the years, so I'm perhaps quick on the trigger.


4:48 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home