#15 Eating the Other

…or the racist kitsch and the kitsch of racism…

elvis lives Michael Ray Charles, (Forever Free) Elvis Lives! (1997) The featured image on the home page is a detail from Kara Walker’s “Fall Frum Grace, Miss Pipi’s Blue Tale” (2011).

Thursday’s batch of readings builds on ideas we’ve been angling at throughout the semester, while extending Wolfe’s critique of white radical chic as a cultured form of classism and racism. They’ll also give us the chance to more fully explore how aesthetic categories are always embodied, and often operate to secure existing socioeconomic hierarchies and reify race as a function of taste. If you have the chance to check out more than the required texts by bell hooks, Tania Nyong’o and Alexis L. Boylan (pp. 42-48), I heartily recommend you review the blog post, “Black People Don’t Go to Galleries: the Reproduction of Taste and Cultural Value.” Dan returns to the front of the room to lead us up to the exclusive gates of the gallery and down the dark halls of kitsch, where it crosses the color line in a very vivid way!

***

In “Eating the Other,” the Other–that which is not the subject, object, or abstract of normative power–is exploited as exotic and tokenized to be figuratively consumed by those considered normal. hooks posits the normal as those with the most power in a white supremacist capitalist patriarchal context. The powerful remain powerful, and assume the identity and functionality of oppressors that craft conditions where the Other is subjugated to be consumed by them. Typically, the Other is made desirable for consumption through instilling mass fantasy on oppressors who, in turn, characterize Otherness as pleasurably primitive, for which they romantically long for (hooks 27). Longing comes from the Others’ exotification; the Other reduced to a sexuallly or infantilizingly-exploited generalization. How the Other is exploited is typically tantalizing to the oppressor. The Other is imagined as less than the oppressor, yet when consumed, self-gratifying because the oppressor is consuming imagined difference. This difference, like the Other, is considered lesser. Consuming maintains the Other’s subservient position while fueling the oppressor’s social imagination to continue exploiting for consumption, having the effect of maintaining power, be that social, economic, political, etc.

hooks primarily discusses the oppressor as whiteness, as its norms, logics, and desires. White supremacy is upheld, especially in the U.S.’ post-formal slavery period through commodification. hooks states that “the commodification of difference promotes paradigms of consumption wherein whatever difference the Other inhabits is eradicated, via exchange, by a consumer cannibalism that not only displaces the Other but denies the significance of that Other’s history through a process of decontextualization” (hooks 31). Through decontextualization, the Other is commodified to a form palpable and violently ingenuine to whom it fails to imitate. Yet, mere commodifying signifies disinterest in sincerely knowing, but rather consuming on whiteness’ terms. The Other becomes attractive to consume within commercial culture, with hooks believing that “within the commercial realm of advertising [is where] the drama of Otherness finds expression. Encounters with Otherness are clearly marked as more exciting, more intense, and more threatening.” (hooks 26)

Its these attributes that develop white, racist audiences’ longing for racist kitsch. Though some try “to take ownership of it by modifying it…[to] produce” “pleasurable disgust” rather than “disgusting pleasure” (Nyong’o 374), Nyong’o states “racist kitsch cannot overcome its ability to reproduce scapegoating, because these practices of opposition inevitably reinscribe the object as a target for hatred and scorn (Nyong’o 388). With scorn retained, the sentimentality toward that deemed kitsch pervades. The problem with the failure in challenging racist kitsch through ownership is that the kitsch form remains stigmatized. With the stigmatization not dismantled, so to, does the racism of racist kitsch. For racist kitsch’s racism extends beyond content, but from the core of kitsch itself. Boylan suggests that “race binds nonwhites to popular culture and kitsch while never granting full acceptance or access” (Boylan 43). Whites can traverse Greenberg’s high art and kitsch juxtaposition, while the work of nonwhites is systemically funneled to the ridiculed category. Work of people of color is perpetually regarded as kitsch to be democratically consumed by the white, middle-class, from where kitsch found its fodder.

From there, my questions are:

Though the work of some people of color is appreciated and interrogated by white, high art circles, stark racial disparities exist in whose art is deemed high. Would mere equitable access to material culture not deemed kitsch liberate nonwhite artists from stigmatized kitsch, to allow more racially-democratic participation in numerous forms of material culture?

In many cases, we’ve studied kitsch being perceived positively and progressive based on social context (ex: socialist realism). Though some wish to subvert racist kitsch through ownership, developing pleasurable disgust to be reminded of ever present white supremacy, its history, and contemporary forms, the positivity of this different context is questioned by the kitsch never being destigmatized. Such is dangerous with most artists of color’s work being relegated as kitsch, with the category of their relegation always remaining negative. What other examples of attempted subversion to undermine failed undermine the attitudes of the form, which also fueled its negativity? Can material culture that is both in form and content ontologically problematic ever be subverted to position it positively?

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “#15 Eating the Other

  1. I really appreciated bell hooks’ piece, “Eating the Other,” and I think we can definitely see some connections to our past analysis of kitsch in her argument. In the desire to consume the other — whether that be sexually, aesthetically, etc — there is an unnamed desire to transcend the bland and tasteless realm of whiteness that hooks speaks of. Yet this transcendence is not only a means to get at some higher and more “primitive” level of pleasure and personal experience, but is also illustrative of our larger anxieties surrounding our inevitable insufficiency and “sameness,” and the fear that we are limited by this insufficiency. I think this might be getting at the anxiety that has spanned across various readings, that is evident in both the tone of some of the writers we’ve read, as well as their work. Once again, we see kitsch tied up in our social and cultural fears and insecurities.

  2. Going along with the insecurities, bell hooks brings up the idea of a western identity crisis, where young white youth become disillusioned with western culture because of alienation, unemployment and other perceived flaws with their society. They rebel, they embrace the other and pluralism. (They also pat themselves on the back for not being racist). But the pluralism and “diversity” that can be found in the west is so heavily commodified, they end up perpetuating racism and tokenizing the exotic. This process reminds me of Sots Art, where people have their gripes about the status quo and then still operate within their own culture and medium to criticize it. Still, eating the other seems to have more sinister and dire consequences.

  3. In your first question you say, “Though the work of some people of color is appreciated and interrogated by white, high art circles, stark racial disparities exist in whose art is deemed high.” I would like to point out that even in “high art circles” racism persists in the way the art of people of color is presented and interrogated. As an example, in a very recent Norton anthology of African American literature and poetry, the poems of Langston Hughes which were chosen to be included were entirely concerned with the US and all politically moderate. Meanwhile, Hughes wrote extensively of international solidarity and communism – rendering him an innocuous artifact to be used by white academics. As Yevginiy Fiks pointed out the communist history of many artists that MoMa sought to erase (which also included a few artist of color), the attempts of “high art circles” to canonize art are also guilty of erasing, simplifying, and infantilizing artists of color.

  4. Here’s my quick follow-up on the questions raised by today’s class, and animated by Dan’s provocative presentation and superlative blog post. If you have not read it, please do so post haste! (Same thing I sent via Moodle announcement, but better grouped with your reactions here.)

    In the last paragraph, he compactly captures the trouble with kitsch as an untroubled category, weaving together arguments and excerpts from Nyong’o and Boylan. Whether we stealthily disown racist kitsch, or consciously curate it to spectacularize our disgust with a racist past from which we cordon ourselves off in the present, self-knowing moment, the result is the same: bad. Why? Because the sentimental economy of kitsch remains intact, and the feelings attached to kitsch prevail and pervade, if shifting superficially in valence. As Dan puts it so pithily,

    The problem with the failure in challenging racist kitsch through ownership is that the kitsch form remains stigmatized. With the stigmatization not dismantled, so to, does the racism of racist kitsch. For racist kitsch’s racism extends beyond content, but from the core of kitsch itself. Boylan suggests that “race binds nonwhites to popular culture and kitsch while never granting full acceptance or access” (Boylan 43). Whites can traverse Greenberg’s high art and kitsch juxtaposition, while the work of nonwhites is systemically funneled to the ridiculed category. Work of people of color is perpetually regarded as kitsch to be democratically consumed by the white, middle-class, from where kitsch found its fodder.

    I’ve reprinted part of Dan’s post here because it gets to the garish pink porcelain elephant we bring into the room of Culture whenever we invoke the term “kitsch” without question or quotation marks. This is what Boylan does in the assigned pages of her essay (42-48), to which I urge you return before next class. While critiques of kitsch’s content (as racist, sexist, ableist, classist, imperialist, and so on) have been fashionable in recent scholarship, she points out,

    the very definition of kitsch remains static and unacknowledged as a malleable and problematic term—problematic in large part because it denies race as an essential factor in assessing how culture operates…he very idea of kitsch and the paradigm of high and low art are themselves sustaining mechanisms of racial hierarchy and apartheid…all visual culture—high and low, no style or subject excepted—maintains racist dialogues, and that all images speak race differently to various audiences. The distinctions between the high and the low in American culture seek to verify a fiction of a unified culture; no visual imagery can or could ever transcend race and yet the very constructs of such categories as “kitsch” or “art” promise to do exactly that. As a result, the idea of kitsch sustains a system that imagines racially “good” or “bad” imagery instead of appreciating the role of all visual culture in the production of a racist society. Part of my aim is to further deteriorate traditional uses of kitsch as an art historical paradigm and to explore how this construct ultimately denies the ways in which all visual culture both activates and suppresses social agency. (43-44).

    This is too important a claim to blithely go by, so let’s start our next class on camp–the first in a short series as we foray into the final titular iteration of bad taste–by reading those opening pages of the Boylan article together and thinking seriously about the assumptions we make when we pronounce the word kitsch as a noun of aesthetic judgment rather than a verb of social disqualification. In short, let’s ponder not what kitsch is but what kitsch does.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s