I've seen kitsch in museums and in a few living rooms, which is, as far as I'm concerned, the extent of where it probably belongs. As the term itself appears now and then in discourse about poetry, however, "kitsch" remains unclear to me: tossed around like other pigeon-holing labels, albeit with fewer birds, arguably, to occupy the holes. Kitsch: what the hell is it? Fortunately, Daniel Tiffany is on the case! With his very generous permission, I'm pleased to be able to feature a preview of some hot shit work Daniel's doing on this very subject. Here goes... Ready?? I've even turned comments on again...
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Inventing Clichés: A Genealogy of Kitsch and Poetry
Kitsch is a term associated in most people’s minds with certain kinds of visual images or furnishings characteristic of mass culture, often considered to be sentimental, vulgar, or fraudulent in some way. Long before it had been reduced to a synonym for mediocrity in the arts, however, the term kitsch functioned as a lightning rod in debates about mass culture and the fate of modernism confronting the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. For a term now applied quite casually to trivial and spurious things, kitsch has a surprising history of provoking alarm and extremism: Hermann Broch called kitsch “the element of evil in the value system of art.” Adorno refers to kitsch as “poison” and, drawing upon the German etymology of the term, as “artistic trash.” Clement Greenberg later referred to the “looting” and “traps” associated with kitsch, to its criminal aspect. In these same essays, the “evil” of kitsch acquires an array of sinister qualities: it is said to be at once parasitic, mechanical, and pornographic; a “decorative cult” and a “parody of catharsis.”
Inquiries into the nature of kitsch are not uncommon in debates about popular culture, yet even the most astute contemporary observers usually overlook a central feature of the inaugural theorizations of kitsch: poetry is identified in the foundational essays on the subject as a primary exemplum and genealogical source of kitsch. Robert Musil, for example, in his essay of 1923, “Schwarze Magie” (Black Magic), responds to the question “what is Kitsch?” by mocking the work of “poet X,” who is at once a “popular hack” and a “bad Expressionist.” Later, in a more influential essay of 1933, Hermann Broch develops his theory of kitsch as a “Luciferian” phenomenon (fallen from the heights of Romanticism) in reference to the poetry of Novalis, Stefan George, and Mallarmé. Even more prominently (in an American context), Clement Greenberg’s essay of 1939 initiates its polemical formulation of kitsch (heavily dependent on Broch’s ideas) by drawing a contrast between the modernist poetry of T. S. Eliot and the songs of Tin Pan Alley. In addition, Greenberg, like Broch, points to Romantic poetry (Keats, in this case) as a progenitor of modern kitsch.
Certainly, it is not surprising that Musil and Broch (along with Walter Benjamin, as we will discover in a moment) approach kitsch from a literary perspective, since they are themselves literary critics and theorists, in addition to being authors of literary texts. As a result of the literary orientation of these critics, the inaugural essays on kitsch offer grounds for assigning to poetry a significant place in the genealogy of kitsch, yet this orientation no longer informs our presumptions about kitsch. It would be unthinkable now to claim, for example, that the problem of kitsch could be traced to certain notorious events in the history of poetry. From the perspective of poetry, however, there are those--starting with Wordsworth in his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads--who would assert that the fate of poetry since the Romantic Revival of archaic and demotic traditions has been frivolously and dangerously entangled, in so many words, with the problem of kitsch. Because the values of kitsch and of “serious” poetry (even the most progressive and experimental kinds) remain deeply polarized, however, it is impossible to say how such statements, were they found to be true, might affect our understanding of kitsch or of modern poetry. No charge more damaging can be brought against a poem, especially one subscribing to the tenets of modernism, than to describe it as kitsch. Yet it is precisely for this reason, I will argue, that the full significance of kitsch can be revealed only by excavating its forgotten relationship to poetry.
The present injunction against discussing kitsch and serious poetry has not, however, as I indicated earlier, always been observed. In one of the earliest essays on kitsch--certainly the first to appreciate its dialectical appeal--Walter Benjamin activates the verbal figurine of kitsch by referring (in the first sentence of his text) to the dream of the blue flower (the epitome of poetic artifice) suffered by Heinrich von Ofterdingen (the medieval poet-protagonist of Novalis’ eponymous novel): “One cannot truly dream of the blue flower any more. He who wakes up today as Heinrich von Ofterdingen must have overslept.” Casting von Ofterdingen in the role of a proto-Surrealist poet, Benjamin brings up to date (by putting to death) the unavowable liaison between kitsch and poetry: the Traumkitsch (dreamkitsch) of Surrealism spells the end of poetry, he claims: “Louis Aragon reports how the mania to dream spread throughout Paris. The young people believed that they had found a secret to poetry--in reality they brought an end to poetry.” Poets heeding the methods of Surrealism, Benjamin concludes, need only dream to do their work. At the same time, “Dreams are now a pathway to the banal,” Benjamin declares, “The side which things present to dreams is kitsch.” Hence the historical development of “dreamkitsch” spells the end of poetry, even as it discloses the secret life of everyday things. Poetry turns to “mottos” and “gossip.”
Although kitsch appears to be a factor in the eclipse of poetry, it does not, surprisingly, spell the end of the avant-garde, since Benjamin equates kitsch and the avant-garde (in the form of Surrealism). For Benjamin (as for Adorno), poetry mediates the relation between kitsch and Surrealism in a way that destabilizes the antithesis (advanced by Greenberg) between kitsch and the avant-garde. Reactivating poetry’s relation to kitsch may therefore expose the grounds for a new formulation of the avant-garde.
The concept of kitsch emerged in the latter part of the nineteenth century in Germany, but was not fully activated as a critical term until the 1920s and 1930s, when it acquired (through the foundational essays I cited above) the traits and connotations it still possesses today--though bereft of the implications of poetry. Since its formulation nearly a century ago, the general parameters of the modernist bias against kitsch have therefore remained largely intact. Kitsch is said to be the antithesis of “true” art,--what Greenberg calls “synthetic art.” An assertion of this kind harbors the basic attitudes towards kitsch promulgated by modernists--of various persuasions--who defined it: derision, condescension, resentment. In fact, the historical usage and etymology of the word (from the German verb, kitschen, to smear or scrape together) have always betrayed a note of contempt. It is crucial, however, to emphasize that the term kitsch has, because of its persistently derogatory connotation, been used historically only within a highly restricted segment of society. What the elite calls kitsch, many people would simply call art, and the garbled equation of art and kitsch fuels the anxiety surrounding kitsch.
The modernist attack on kitsch and mass culture did not, of cause, go unanswered. Rooted in the neo-Marxist orientation of the Frankfurt School, a furious critique on several fronts (ideology, semiotics, identity politics) has steadily undermined the polarization of high and low culture informing the modernist definition of kitsch, advancing a continuous theoretical and critical transvaluation of the means of popular culture. In the recent history of the visual arts, for example, the collision between the neo-modernist ideology of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art in the 1960s represents the most significant episode in the ongoing sublimation of material culture. Similar confrontations are developing, I will argue more fully below, in contemporary poetry.
One might therefore presume, as a result of these powerful challenges to the modernist demonization of popular culture, that the usefulness of kitsch as a concept has run its course. Perhaps the idea of kitsch no longer has anything interesting to tell us about the relationship between popular culture and the avant-garde, precisely because the distinction between the two has been--at least in theory--abolished. Does the possible erasure of this distinction imply that the avant-garde has been vanquished by kitsch, or does kitsch, by contrast, acquire a new subversive edge?
Modernism’s puzzling (and now forgotten) emphasis on poetry as a framework for understanding the banality of everyday art suggests that the concept of kitsch may still have the power to ignite controversy--certainly regarding poetry’s significance for early theorizations of kitsch but also, more provocatively, regarding poetry’s susceptibility to the value system of kitsch. Standing apart from the ongoing desublimation of visual art into visual culture, modern poetry, despite the recent valorization of techniques such as appropriation (sampling “other” texts), has only begun to assimilate and transform the values intrinsic to the discourse of kitsch: artificiality, sentimentality, insularity. The first generation of New York School poets (O’Hara, Ashbery, et al) may indeed have revived the diction of the conversation poem and dared to make verse from scraps of trivia and everyday experience, but their poems are not now lauded, nor are they viewed as significant, because they are deemed to be fraudulent, vague, commonplace, or popular (though they may be all of these things).
Poetry’s stubborn resistance to incorporating and transforming the values of kitsch requires it to ignore the tentative orientation towards poetry and poetics already available within the modernist definitions of kitsch. And contemporary scholarship exerts little or no pressure on poets to think about the problem of kitsch. Poetry’s role in shaping the origins of kitsch has been, as I indicated earlier, almost entirely ignored by later generations of kitsch theorists: Svetlana Boym, Danilo Kis, Celeste Olalquiaga, and Susan Sontag (on camp, an ironized mode of kitsch) make no mention of poetry in their otherwise valuable and astute studies of kitsch. (Matei Caliescu does, to his credit, briefly consider the properties of poetic kitsch in his book on modernism.) Poetry’s disappearance from the discourse of kitsch stems almost certainly from shifting models of reception, audience, and mass culture within the ideology of poetic modernism (articulated by Greenberg but also by Cleanth Brooks and the New Critics), which has had the effect of alienating poetry--in public opinion--from mass culture.
The shadowy relations between kitsch and poetry are, at the same time, irresistibly and ruinously dialectical: even as the poetics of modernism requires the erasure of poetry from the discourse of kitsch, poetry itself becomes--even for certain modernists--the veiled essence of kitsch. One becomes witness to the abject ritual of poets repudiating poetry (evidence of the anathematic substance of kitsch): Laura Riding, for example, abandoning poetry for its truthlessness (its spurious nature); or Marianne Moore’s famous denunciation (“I, too, dislike it”) motivated by the equation of poetry and “all this fiddle.” Thus poetry may disappear from the discourse of kitsch, but the specter of kitsch gradually consumes the reputation of lyric poetry (even poetry obsessed with eliminating the filth of kitsch). By condemning kitsch to the realm of the abject, poetry enables the equation of poetry and kitsch.
What appears to be a dereliction of the fate of poetry in contemporary accounts of kitsch may stem from a curious lapse in the inaugural essays of Benjamin, Musil, Broch, and Greenberg. In each case, one finds assertions about the significance of Romantic poetry and poetics for a general model of kitsch, supplemented by comparisons between authentic and degraded modes of verse within the poetic tradition. Yet one searches these essays in vain for an explanation of how a linguistic phenomenon with apparently little or no relation to mass culture (Romantic poetry), and one preceding significantly the historical emergence of kitsch in modern, industrial culture, could legitimately serve as a model for theorizing the ubiquity and banality of industrial artifacts in popular culture. In what ways do the conditions of Romantic poetry prefigure the copycat mentality and the sensationalism of popular culture? How is the logic of kitsch encrypted in the origins of modern poetry? The inaugural formulations of kitsch, although they assert the relevance of serious poetry to kitsch and popular culture, do not provide answers to these questions. In this sense, the curious silences riddling the foundation of kitsch turn into gaping holes in succeeding generations of kitsch theory: poetry simply vanishes from the map of popular culture because its atavistic relation to kitsch can no longer be traced or illuminated.
Following the essential and irreversible advances in our assessments and understanding of popular culture, kitsch must now be regarded as a moribund concept whose full significance can be revealed--and reactivated--only through a critique of its seminal but forgotten relations to poetry. My aim is, accordingly, to try to recover the specific conditions, or events, in the history of poetry which motivate the puzzling, modernist assertions of poetry’s significance for kitsch. Identifying how certain poetic events anticipate and model the general properties of kitsch will establish new grounds for expanding the conversation about poetry and kitsch initiated, but also foreclosed, by modernist formulations of kitsch. Such an investigation will inevitably trouble certain basic assumptions, as I have indicated, about modern poetry’s susceptibility to the values of kitsch and about the significance of these affinities for our understanding of kitsch in general. The prospect of disclosing these affinities promises as well to set in motion a revision of the basic parameters of kitsch as it pertains to material culture, to renovate the material economy of kitsch in the image of poetry--that is, to produce a poetics of kitsch.
Disclosing the relevance of poetry for our understanding of kitsch--and vice-versa--must inevitably occur as a confrontation between values associated with modernism (formal integrity, originality, concreteness, accuracy, authenticity, immediacy) and a set of values which inevitably appear, through the filter of modernist ideology, to be perverse if not incomprehensible. Baudelaire’s declaration of his poetic intention to “invent a cliché” (créer un poncif) nicely captures the perversity of the values associated with kitsch. Assessing the relation between the immobility of the cliché--a means of arresting poetry--and the possibility of mutation within a closed “genetic” system will be one of the principal theoretical tasks at hand in renovating the concept of kitsch.
To write critically about kitsch must entail a deliberate appropriation--and transvaluation--of the term “kitsch.” The most concrete verbal evidence of such a revision might be a shift in the usage of the word “kitsch”: the prospect, for example, of using it as a transitive (or intransitive) verb applied to a poem, an author, a discipline, a period (in a manner resembling the recent shift in the usage of the term “queer”). One might find it useful, or necessary, to kitsch a poem or a body of work.
The insights to be gained from reconstructing and elaborating the concept of kitsch in this manner will emerge not by focusing on its most obvious referent--popular and material culture--but by attending to what has disappeared from the discourse of kitsch: poetry and poetics. In this regard, Arresting Poetry [will not be] a book about kitsch in general, or even about kitsch and material culture, but about kitsch and poetry. To that end, I do not seek to directly accommodate poetry to existing insights about material culture, or to make poetry comply with received models of kitsch as it pertains to material culture. Rather, it is my intention, as I indicated a moment ago, to develop a specifically poetological orientation towards kitsch, which will in turn influence our views of poetry written since the Romantic Revival, not to mention our presumptions about the nature of kitsch in material culture.
Any attempt to produce a poetics of kitsch must begin by acknowledging that, as a result of modernist inhibitions or forgetfulness, we simply have no idea how to identify precisely something called poetic kitsch. Though it appears, perhaps, to have certain rhetorical features and to possess distinct ethical connotations--bad!--kitsch in poetry is a genre without qualities (to echo the title of Musil’s great novel), without a distinct verbal profile. No critical vocabulary appears to be available for describing the verbal properties of kitsch in poetry--crucial to establishing a basic paradigm--or for developing a coherent account of these properties. We can’t really be sure what constitutes kitsch in a poem: is it or isn’t it? This uncertainty can be demonstrated quite easily by presenting a bouquet, so to speak, of possible examples, antecedents, and variants of poetic kitsch (fragments of kitsch drawn--for the sake of brevity--from poems evoking in their entirety the physiognomy of kitsch). Take a moment or two to appraise the specimens I have assembled below (names of poets withheld in order to eliminate prejudicial factors in the reader’s judgment).
Frail golden flowers that perish at a breath,
Flickering points of honey-coloured flame,
From sunset garden of the moon you came,
Pale flowers of passion...delicate flowers of death...
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals, on a wet, black bough.
I dreamed I moved among the Elysian fields,
In converse with sweet women long since dead;
And out of blossoms which that meadow yields
I wove a garland for your living head
I remember after Christmas shopping coming home and
gloating over everything I bought.
I remember Rosemary Clooney and Bing Crosby and "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas."
I remember how sad and happy at the same time Christmas carols always made me feel: all warm inside.
See! the white moone sheens onne hie;
Whyterre ys mie true loves shroude;
Whyterre yanne the mornynge skie,
Mie love ys dedde,
Gon to hys deathe-bedde,
Al under the wyllowe tree.
Here she lies, a pretty bud,
Lately made of flesh and blood;
Who as soon fell fast asleep
As her little eyes did peep.
Dash'd by the wood-nymph's beauty, so he burn'd;
Then, lighting on the printless verdure, turn'd
To the swoon'd serpent, and with languid arm,
Delicate, put to proof the lythe Cadusean charm.
Flower of wax, of jade, of unstreaked agate;
Flower with surfaces of ice,
With shadows faintly crimson
Bereft of rune-gates.
Smoke is on the plaster,
Scarred the shower-burghs,
Shorn and shattered,
By eld under-eaten.
Porgy, I'se yo' woman now,
I is, I is!
An' I ain't never goin' nowhere 'less you shares de fun.
But all the time
I'se been a-climbin' on,
And reachin' landin's,
And turnin' corners,
And sometimes goin' in the dark
Where there ain't been no light.
So looks Anthea when in bed she lies,
O'ercome or half betrayed by tiffanies:
Like to a twilight, or that simpering dawn
That roses show when misted o'er with lawn.
Now the storm begins to lower,
(Haste, the loom of heel prepare,)
Iron-sleet of arrowy shower
Hurtles in the darkened air
O my kitten a kitten,
And oh! my kitten, my deary,
Such a sweet pap as this
There is not far nor neary.
I hoped that he would love me,
And he has kissed my mouth,
But I am like a stricken bird
That cannot reach the south
First, my Motorola
Then my Frette
Then my Sonia Rykiel
Then my Bulgari
Then my Asprey
Then my Cartier
Then my Kohler
Then my Brightsmile
Then my Cetaphil
Then my Braun
Then my Brightsmile
Then my Kohler
Then my Cetaphil
Then my Bliss
Then my Apple
Then my Kashi
Then my Maytag
Then my Silk
Then my Pom
Mourn, all ye little gods of love, whose darts
Have lost their wonted power of piercing hearts;
Lay by the gilded quiver and the bow,
The useless toys can do no mischief now.
One’s assessment of these examples may suggest that we know poetic kitsch when we see it (we like to think), but who is to say--if your opinion, dear reader, differs from mine--who is correct? There are no specific, verbal criteria in place--much less a general theory--to articulate our judgments about poetic kitsch, or to settle a dispute about it. Yet we do seem to possess certain intuitive markers or guidelines--based perhaps on usage--about what constitutes kitsch in poetry. The fact that our intuitive judgments about poetic kitsch may be based in our sense of the spectrum of usage--rather than any meaningful familiarity with poetry itself--tells us something important about kitsch in poetry: poetic kitsch takes root in verbal connotation, in expressive values acquired through, or against, common usage. Kitsch in poetry therefore exercises certain social powers of language, revealing a social ontology that precedes, or suspends, as we shall see, the domain of the personal.
Let me return, however, to my sampling of test cases, to my little “horn-book” of poetic kitsch. Let’s try to sort out what might allow us to say what is kitsch and what is not. I am not inclined to divulge, as I said, the authors of these fragments (though this would hardly be necessary in those cases that are well known), since one of the distinguishing features of poetic kitsch is its lack of originality, its anonymity--however well known it may be. Kitsch in poetry turns out to be deeply and perversely rooted in the poetic tradition, which explains the historical reach of my little field guide, ranging from the early seventeenth century to the present moment. Many of these passages are by canonical poets--all composed originally in English--including certain influential literary forgeries, though some examples will perhaps not immediately be acknowledged as part of the tradition of poetry in English, or indeed as conforming to our intuitive assessments of poetic kitsch.
My decision to omit samples of “amateur” kitsch reflects my views concerning the complex relations of kitsch (even the most insipid or vulgar forms of it) to the poetic tradition and to the historical concept of literature. The historical emergence of poetic kitsch in the late eighteenth century signals, I will argue, a schism between poetry and literature. This enduring (and frequently unacknowledged) antipathy expresses, by contrast, the grounds for an affinity between mass culture and poetry, a common backwardness that refuses to be subsumed within the aspirational system of “polite letters”--that is, within the historical invention of the category of literature. Choosing to work with examples of “high kitsch” (ostensibly a contradiction in terms)--whether canonical, academic, or avant-garde--will serve to demonstrate the saturation of “cultural capital” in all forms of kitsch, including the poetic kind, which is marked at once by familiarity and insularity. Exposing the submerged, canonical dimension of kitsch reveals not only the historical foundations of high kitsch but the inevitable transactions between high and low kitsch. The dangerous concentrations of “linguistic capital” in poetic kitsch offer therefore a crucial index of the mechanism of class in formulations of popular culture.
The earliest critical recognition of what we may call poetic kitsch occurs in 1810 in an essay by the founder of the Edinburgh Review, Francis Jeffrey, reviewing Walter Scott’s lengthy ballad, The Lady of the Lake. (Hermann Broch also identified Scott’s anachronistic ballads as examples of kitsch, echoing the essential insight of Jeffrey’s formative reception of Scott.) Examining the phenomenon of “very popular poetry” (exemplified by the archaic--or archaisized--poetic ballad), in contrast to poetry that appeals to more “refined taste,” Jeffries observes,
we know no way in which we could so shortly describe the poetry that pleases the multitude, and displeases the select few, as by saying that it consists of all the most known and most brilliant parts of the most celebrated authors--of a splendid and unmeaning accumulation of those images and phrases which had long charmed every reader in the works of their original inventors.Francis here acknowledges that “popular poetry” consists of passages purloined from the poetic tradition and, by implication, that popular poetry (kitsch) differs from serious poetry not in its verbal substance, but in the arrangement of materials borrowed from the tradition. Thus, on the basis of this formulation, one could argue, for example, that the arrangements of synthetic verse produced by the Pre-Raphaelite school later developed a more programmatic vision of Scott’s antiquarian pop.
Astonishingly, Francis concludes--in the earliest judgment of the merits of kitsch--that the difference between popular and “refined” poetry is not to be found in the subject itself: “It is not, then, because the ornaments of popular poetry are deficient in intrinsic worth and beauty that they are slighted by the critical reader, but because he at once recognizes them to be stolen, and perceives that they are arranged without taste or congruity.” Though the “beauties” of popular poetry may be stolen and displayed in bad taste (in a manner offending the refined reader), their “intrinsic worth” is equal to those found in the exalted sources from which they have been stolen. One cannot emphasize too strongly the fundamental difference between Jeffrey’s assessment of the qualities of poetic kitsch and the judgments we have inherited from modernist definitions of kitsch: measured by the criterion of pleasure, popular poetry can claim the same significance as poetry appealing to more restricted tastes. And it possesses the dubious, but potentially transgressive, value of greater social resonance. One would also want to note that Jeffrey’s foundational definition of poetic kitsch (and his positive evaluation of it) emerged in the colonialist context of Scottish nationalism, the same context in which the “distressed genre” of the ballad (the subject of Jeffrey’s review) had emerged nearly a hundred years earlier.
Returning to the golden treasury of verse I’ve assembled, let me pose once again the basic question: what verbal qualities do we find to be intrinsic to these examples of poetic kitsch? One notices certain themes recurring: erotic or passionate love; death and encounters with the dead; martial conflict. Yet these themes, common as they may be, are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions for poetic kitsch. One also notices immediately the recurrence of certain images or tropes, a distinctive iconography, among these poems: flowers, twilight, dawn, airy phenomena (clouds, mist), pale colors, mythological creatures, precious materials (gold, silver), shadows, darkness. Some of these tropes (such as darkness or flowers, or even the phenomenon of color itself) may serve as subtle, reflexive emblems of poetic kitsch, yet none of these tropes, however much they may share with familiar modes of kitsch in other media, are either necessary or sufficient criteria for the existence of kitsch in poetry.
The consistent thematics and iconographies of these verse fragments fail to establish (despite their coherent appeal) a foundation for poetic kitsch because they are not sufficiently verbal in a material and structural sense. One must be able to identify certain specific verbal properties consistent with all of these samples in order to be able to establish the grounds--a working definition--for poetic kitsch. To meet this requirement, I will argue that kitsch in poetry is determined primarily by its diction and, more precisely, by what we call poetic diction--a view consistent with Jeffrey’s emphasis on the shared verbal substance of popular and serious poetry. Despite the presumed transparency of kitsch, however, the criterion of diction is not necessarily its most accessible feature. On the contrary, from this perspective, diction may be experienced by many readers as a subliminal aspect of a text, both as a reservoir of the poetic tradition and as a garbled echo of common speech.
The substance of poetic kitsch draws upon the aspect of language that is most susceptible to commodification (advertising, propaganda, social media), a language integrating calculation and enchantment. By harnessing language for indiscriminate ends, whether virtuous or indecent, poetic kitsch is worldly yet strange, superficial and seductive. Kitsch in poetry thus restages the ancient and insidious alignment of literature and rhetoric, a coupling that isolates poetry from its other potential suitors, ethics and history. Poetic kitsch shows no interest in describing either physical or psychological worlds with accuracy, in authenticity or originality, or in technical virtuosity. The authority of poetic kitsch lies not in its powers of representation, which are in fact extremely weak, but in its ability to express through its synthetic diction an impersonal, social “substance” concealed by ideology. In its essence, what kitsch expresses lies beyond personal experience. Hence, kitsch in poetry strives to be vague, insensible, formulaic, spurious, miscreant. What is at stake finally--to borrow Walter Benjamin’s famous trope for the manifestation of pop art--is the decay of the poem’s aura of originality, which allows poetry to become--via the traits of its reproducibility--the impersonal expression of millions of souls: a mass ornament.
Among the canons of rhetoric (inventio, dispositio, etc.) diction pertains to elocutio, the crafting of speech or writing. More specifically, as an aspect of elocutio, diction involves figures of speech, understood not as tropes but, more concretely, as the physical patterning of language. Diction itself is an ancient and durable critical concept, first defined by Aristotle and revised many times since at crucial junctures in literary history (by Dante, Dryden, Samuel Johnson, Wordsworth, Coleridge, T. S. Eliot, Laura Riding, and so on). In the broadest sense, which extends well beyond the confines of literature, diction pertains to the control of syntax, orthography, word order and, most importantly, word-choice or vocabulary--elements often associated in a literary sense with the question of style. Strictly speaking, “style” would be the narrower term (though we often use it as a synonym for diction), as Donald Davie explains: “there is no Miltonic diction in Milton; there is only Milton’s style.” For Miltonic diction, one must turn to the works of his followers, a criterion revealing the deliberate and essentially recursive nature of poetic diction.
The elements of diction combine to produce certain tonal qualities in language, which become the objects of the mechanism of taste. As a result, poetic artifacts displaying divergent sorts of diction can be objects of good taste, or of bad taste--as one commonly assumes about kitsch. The question of diction is always a matter of a particular diction, determined either by policing or relaxing the boundaries of particular vocabularies and syntactical elements. Whether through closure or transgression, exclusion or transmission (and sometimes translation), the substance of a particular diction is always determined at its borders.
The concept of diction was central to debates about poetry and poetics throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but the values and implications of the problem of diction were largely eclipsed by the rise of modernism and its preoccupations with form, innovation, and historical discontinuity. This displacement may be explained in part by the fact that diction does not ordinarily extend to questions of form in a literary sense, though certain forms (sonnet, villanelle, sestina) may become auratic icons of poetic value, allowing them to function, like diction itself, as indices of taste and social stratification. The suppression of a poetics oriented around questions of diction in the context of modernism may also help to explain the withering of a critical vocabulary adequate to the values of poetic kitsch--and to the curious disappearance of poetry itself from the discourse of kitsch. The suppression of kitsch in the context of modernism has thus been accompanied by the suspension of those critical concepts and vocabularies (such as diction) that might have illuminated the properties of kitsch as something other than an obstacle to modernist experimentation.
Only with increasing attention to the implications of textual practices such as appropriation and sampling, which disclose and deploy the subliminal aspects of diction, has vanguard poetic practice begun to acknowledge and reactivate the question of diction--though it must be emphasized that the parameters of diction (and sometimes kitsch) have remained essential to the production of conventional lyric poetry in defiance of poetic modernism. The polemics of modernism have therefore produced an unprecedented equation of lyric poetry and kitsch, of high and low. Equally disorienting, in a demonstration of the hegemonic thrust of modernist ideology, the emerging vanguard experimentation with diction (via sampling and appropriation) is sometimes portrayed as an extension of modernist formalism--though appropriation and formalist innovation sustain distinctly different systems of value. If anything, recent experiments in diction (a few of which appear in my primer of poetic kitsch) appear to be testing and developing in new ways the concept of kitsch in poetry.
The question of whether one views various modes of appropriation in modernist texts as manifestations of formalism is crucial to one’s understanding of the parameters and the effects of poetic diction. In my view, poetic practices such as citation and translation in the Cantos or The Waste Land contribute less to the poetic form of the text than they do to the range of diction accommodated within that text. Although citation, or appropriation, are implicated in the paratactic forms of modernist poetry (collage, montage), these practices do not constitute, or generate, innovations in form. They function, more importantly, as devices that extend and complicate the spectrum of diction available in the poem--in ways that often involve archaism. Pound’s poetic personae, for example--a translational practice essential to modernist poetics--allow him to smuggle into his poetic texts varieties of diction--often archaic or markedly “poetic”--which defy his own modernist principles. These verbal personae--clandestine reservoirs of poetic diction--are directly related to the citational means by which Pound elaborates the diction of the Cantos.
More generally, diction becomes a matter of “poetic diction,” a restricted vocabulary and set of compositional traits, chosen with certain goals in mind, as Owen Barfield explains: “When words are selected and arranged in such a way that their meaning arouses, or is obviously intended to arouse, aesthetic imagination, the result may be described as poetic diction.” Even poets (Wordsworth, for example, or Pound) who publicly disavow the “adulterated phraseology” and the syntactic irregularities of the poet’s inheritance fail to avoid the exigencies of poetic diction. Following the integration of vernacular writing (in English) into school curricula in Britain in the eighteenth century, along with the resulting controversies about the role of common speech in poetry, the “substance” of poetic diction became essential to maintaining distinctions between poetry and prose and to preserving the cultural value of poetry. More radically, at this historical juncture, reinforcing and supplementing poetic diction (from classical or native, and even counterfeit, sources) placed poetry at odds with the emerging category of “literature,” which aimed to subdue the verbal and cultural distinctions of poetry.
Diction in poetry is determined by its antecedents in verse, by a particular (and often contested) model of colloquial speech, and by the possible incorporation of syntactical irregularities and vocabularies alien to the existing terrain of poetic diction. From these disparate sources, a distinctive (and sometimes polemical) diction is synthesized, often involving the deliberate suppression of certain registers. At the same time, there are major poets (Chaucer, Shakespeare, Ashbery), and minor ones, whose vocabularies are so variegated that they disable the problematic of diction. (The casual dissolution of boundaries, it must be emphasized, is not equivalent to calculated transgression and deliberate impurities). Diction is therefore useful as a critical concept only to poetry that cultivates, rejects, or deliberately violates, specific vocabularies, syntactic signatures, and tonal effects. Poetic diction--whatever its qualities--always results, Donald Davie contends, from “an act of will, of contrivance and perseverance.”
On a larger scale, the problematic of diction becomes most visible in the history of English poetry when the native diction falls prey to the influence of external or archaic sources, whether it be Italian or French models during the sixteenth century; classical languages in the seventeenth and eighteen centuries; archaic (and sometimes invented) native sources in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; or nonliterary and technical vocabularies in the twentieth century. Poets and critics of various persuasions seek either to promote or to condemn such transactions. Even the most extravagant or grotesque verbal novelties, however, may ultimately be assimilated and sublimated within an expanded “poetic diction,” resulting in verbal textures--such as kitsch--that are at once eccentric and formulaic, barbarous and familiar, deviant and conventional, flamboyant and decorous.
Traditionally, the banality of kitsch is intertwined with formulaic--even compulsory--models of beauty: Broch, for example, calls kitsch “a new religion of beauty.” The correlation of banality and beauty is perplexing, however, since (as Broch’s thesis suggests) kitsch involves not merely the purification of beauty (i.e., the suppression of all qualities other than beauty), but exaggerated and even delusional regard for beauty. The banality of kitsch must therefore be reconciled with excessive beauty, a development suggesting that kitsch precipitates a crisis in the aesthetics of beauty. Adorno identifies a fundamental polarity between kitsch and beauty: “the phenomenon of kitsch, or sugary kitsch, is the beautiful minus its ugly counterpart. Therefore kitsch, purified beauty, becomes subject to an aesthetic taboo that in the name of beauty pronounces kitsch to be ugly.” As a form of exaggerated beauty, the ugliness of kitsch plunges the artifact into aesthetic turmoil.
Kitsch ruptures the aesthetics of beauty, combining incommensurability and banality--a grotesque beauty--in a way that exposes a startling concordance between poetic kitsch and the discourse of the sublime. As aesthetic categories, kitsch and the Romantic sublime both emerged within the context of Gothic literature, which seeks to deliver the strongest possible doses of wonder and dread. At the same time, the ultimate effects of both kitsch and the sublime depend on mediation, on buffering the subject from dread, passion, and danger, on securitizing the modern subject. The aesthetic securitization of the subject coincides, moreover, with a partial disabling of representation in both kitsch and the sublime--an orientation that is associated specifically (in Lessing, Burke, and Kant) with poetry. Both kitsch and the sublime are therefore primarily modes of expression designed in part to activate a moribund reader, a task revealing poetry’s significance--via kitsch--for theorizations of mass culture. The strong medicine delivered by kitsch and the sublime is experienced as cathartic --hence the importance of affect and sentiment--but ultimately as comforting. Through the mediation of style, kitsch and the sublime therefore convert the experience of shock into one of comfort, composure, and relief. The dialectic of shock and comfort mobilized by poetic kitsch demonstrates its relevance to mass culture.
Whether or not one views poetic diction as vicious or sublime, as a verbal spectacle to be suppressed in English poetry, or as the very essence of poetic language (in contrast to prose), kitsch is the direct outgrowth of a heightened and restricted vocabulary associated specifically with poetry and designed to elicit certain generalized “poetic” effects (which places it at odds with the category of literature per se). One could even go so far as to say that kitsch separates poetry from annihilation, or that kitsch emerges as the final, inextinguishable symptom of poetry’s essence--its ultimate defense. In poetry’s “closing time,” kitsch thus extends Poe’s doctrine of “compositional” effects to its limit, curtailing the functions of representation and meaning in order to foreground a poetics of pure effect. The orchestration of effects, it must be emphasized, pertains directly to the question of audience, of mass culture. Understood in this way, kitsch in poetry trafficks in aesthetic hyperbole, counterfeiting poetry in a language that defies particularity, yet captivates its audience: a hyperaesthetic formula radiating the common estrangement of “poetry.” From a corresponding angle, poetic kitsch might also be described as poetry-in-drag, not cross-dressing, but something akin to female female-impersonation or male male-impersonation: a cosmetic distilling of lyrical expression, a poetic doll. Kitsch in poetry thus enacts in material and syntactic terms a poetic melodrama, exposing at once the intrinsic falsehood of poetic diction and the adulterated essence of poetry.
It is crucial to bear in mind, however, that the decadence of kitsch--the rarefaction of its materials--is sustained by, and indeed expresses fundamentally, the imitative and reflexive logic of the poetic tradition. In this regard, kitsch subscribes to Deleuze and Guattari’s conception of a “minor literature”: “only the possibility of setting up a minor practice of major literature from within allows one to define popular literature.” It is precisely the backwardness, passivity, and insularity of poetic kitsch (its ability to sublimate and neutralize even the most grotesque stylistic flourishes) which identify it as a powerful engine of simulation, conservation, and tradition. In a more basic sense, and under the most extreme conditions, the reproducibility and immobility of poetic kitsch may succeed in arresting poetry, in removing poetic language from external influence, from the continuous stream of historical incident. As a result, the domain of poetic diction functions both aesthetically and socially as a closed system of resonance and feedback, allowing for the possibility of collective experience based on the reverberation of shared conditions. The markers of individuality and discontinuity dissolve, even as the echolalia of an artificial, common language becomes an expressive matrix for cultural, and even political, cohesion. While the aesthetic significance of arresting poetry via the immobility of kitsch is ostensibly conservative, its political implications are less unambiguous. The reverberating totality of kitsch might, for example, serve as a precondition of revolutionary will for communities stripped of their capacities for self-recognition, cohesion, and solidarity.
Returning to a more narrowly poetic framework, kitsch is directly implicated in T. S. Eliot’s so-called “thesis of minority,” a model of the literary canon in which the diction of minor poets sustains--by its absence of originality or invention--the main features of the poetic tradition. The minor stance of a poet such as Dryden depends, according to Eliot, on his role in shaping “a language possible for mediocrity." Cultivating the diction of mediocrity, Dryden becomes influential “by reason of his precise degree of inferiority.” By this measure, kitsch stands not on the margins of poetic tradition, but at the very core of it. What remains occluded--and susceptible to revision--in Eliot’s thesis is the poetic substance of what he calls “inferiority” and “minority.” It is possible that the substance of poetic minority may disclose the conditions of poetry’s intrinsic antagonism to the criteria of literature (a resistance to the verbal and socioeconomic affinities of “literature,” which in turn becomes the basis of poetry’s harmonic relation--via kitsch--to mass culture).
Insofar as kitsch may be understood as the purest form of minor poetry, saturated with the highest concentration of poetic “capital” preserved by the tradition, the properties of mediocrity and inferiority serve as points of access to a kind of verbal unconscious of the English poetic tradition but also, as I indicated earlier, to the reverberations of class formation. It is precisely the reproducibility of poetic kitsch, along with its role as carrier of subliminal values and motives, which help to clarify how kitsch in poetry may be related to the condition of mass culture. For if the aesthetic category of kitsch enables mass culture by arresting poetry, it must be possible to explain how poetic kitsch participates in the subliminal domain of mass experience, even if it is not reproduced materially on a mass scale. The collective experience of language itself--its irrational synthesis of disparate voices, its drive towards impersonality--may be viewed as a paradigm of mass culture. Would it not therefore be legitimate to speak about verbal artifacts whose elements (the stuttering repertoire of poetic diction) are consumed and reproduced intuitively--without being materially produced--on a massive scale? Does poetic kitsch perhaps offer a basic paradigm for mass intuition --through a common, synthetic language--without mass production: pop without popularity, cult pop, subliminal pop, or even private pop?
In the twentieth century, Andy Warhol’s cryptic use of the terms “pop” and “plastic”--still veiled by the inattention of most art criticism on the subject--suggests that the New York poets who followed his revolutionary ideas and practice were fabricating a kind of poetic kitsch combining a deadpan “purity of diction” with the arcana of a visible underworld: a pop cryptonymy, a fusion of kitsch and the avant-garde. Perhaps even more importantly, the imitative paradigm sustaining the logic of kitsch is overturned, or neutralized, when kitsch becomes pop, releasing the artifact from the framework of judgment requiring it to be either real or fake, original or copy. A new kind of artifact emerges--a sampling, a nonmimetic forgery--the premises of which can be traced to the poetic foundation of kitsch.
The earliest formulations of poetic diction support the idea of kitsch (a precipitate of poetic diction) as a synthetic or “plastic” (in Warhol’s lexicon) phenomenon rooted in the vernacular. In order to avoid the “drab” style (consisting solely of common speech), Aristotle states that poetic diction requires a “blend” of unfamiliar and colloquial elements. Ultimately, if the drab substance of common speech anchors the effects of poetic diction, it must be supplemented by “ornamental” words in order to produce a synthetic medium. Thus commonplace language, insofar as it functions as the matrix of poetic diction, becomes a synthetic material--fabricated, impure, fraudulent--suggesting that poems written in the vernacular, or dialect, may constitute (as certain examples in my anthology suggest) forms of poetic kitsch. One might therefore adumbrate a theory of “synthetic vernaculars” mirroring the abject features of kitsch.
The artifice of blackface minstrelsy (employed by poets across the racial spectrum) may indeed be related--via the genealogy of poetic kitsch--to the so-called “ballad scandals,” the forged minstrelsy, of the eighteenth century. Indeed, the problem of fake or synthetic poetry associated with minstrelsy returns us to the basic premises of the inaugural, modernist essays on kitsch I cited earlier. More precisely, it returns us to the explanatory gap separating their two basic premises: kitsch is irremediably false, and kitsch can trace its roots to Romantic poetics. Now, as I’ve already indicated, none of these essays explains why poetry would be a suitable model for the proliferation of spurious artifacts associated with popular culture; nor do they give any specific or plausible grounds for linking a discourse of fraudulence directly to Romantic poetry. The missing link between poetry and fraudulence lies embedded, I will argue, in Romantic poetry’s affinity for, and contamination by, the varieties of counterfeit poetry produced in the eighteenth century. It is therefore my contention that kitsch (as a category of aesthetic artifacts) first acquired its association with fakery through a series of momentous and controversial literary forgeries. More specifically, the “distressed genre” of the counterfeit folk-poem made available a new palette of eccentric and even spurious poetic diction. Furthermore, “distressed genres,” according to Susan Stewart, “are close to kitsch objects, artifacts of exaggerated surface and collective experience.” Kitsch first found its bearings, one could say, during what Dwight Macdonald calls “the golden age of literary hanky-panky.”
The catechism of modern kitsch, let me reiterate, acquired its basic features during the Romantic Revival of spurious epics and ballads, including the fabrication of durable relic-genres (such as the nursery rhyme and the poetic melodrama). Starting with Lady Wardlow’s forgery of the Scottish ballad, “Hardyknute,” in 1716, and followed by a veritable deluge of spurious texts in the 1760s, the Gothic impulse in verse (sustained by a rhetoric of dubious and morbid animation) shadowed the development of Romantic poetry: the spectacular forgeries of Ossian, the bogus scholarship of Mother Goose, Percy’s “improved” Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, Chatterton’s Warholian factory of distressed (and ultra-hip) incunabula, William Henry Ireland’s sprawling manufacture of “lost” plays by Shakespeare.
Buried in this avalanche of counterfeit texts, one discovers the prototypical genre of poetic kitsch, the Gothic melodrama. First imported from France during the Revolutionary period of political subversion, the melodrâme combines (in a manner anticipating public “readings” of poetry in contemporary culture) music and spoken word, where poetry is recited over, or alternates with, incidental music. One of the earliest examples of the genre in English (A Tale of Mystery, 1802) was composed by Thomas Holcroft, a jacobin and political subversive (member of Thomas Spence’s London Corresponding Society), who was tried for sedition and imprisoned in 1794. Holcroft’s miscreant compositions may be compared to the earliest known example of a melodrâme in French, a Pygmalion written in 1760 by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Smartly furnished with antique figures and topical themes of social sublimation (the elevation of base materials), Rousseau’s poetical toy anticipates the Gothic tale of the Frankenstein monster, which may in turn be read as a symbolic narrative of the miscreant and counterfeit “creature” gone astray, bent upon the destruction of its master: an allegory of the forged materials of kitsch (a monster of borrowed language) and their fatal appeal to modern poetry. It is also worth noting that the apostrophes (and epitaphs) composed by the monster may be counted (along with the forgery and the melodrama) as contributing to one of the preliminary pseudo-genres of poetic kitsch.
Since poetic kitsch can trace its origins to eighteenth- century forgeries, restorations, and imitations of traditional ballads, one may also want to identify kitsch in poetry as one of the “crimes of writing” articulated by Susan Stewart. Yet to place kitsch, according to Stewart’s model, at the intersection of literature and legal definitions of intellectual “property,” or at the intersection of literature and the “forging” of history (as Ian Haywood’s model would require), inevitably results in a diminution of its poetic, or aesthetic, significance. This divergence from the scandal of equating poetry and kitsch can be rectified by placing kitsch, as I suggested earlier, at the junction of rhetoric and literature--a context that foregrounds the ancient and controversial relation between the calculated orchestration of verbal enchantment (rhetoric) and its creative expression (poetry). One begins to understand more fully the implications of Hermann Broch’s assertion that kitsch is “lodged like a foreign body in the overall system of art”--and all the more insidious, he notes, because one cannot easily distinguish between the two.
Reading kitsch into the polarized relation between literature and rhetoric lends coherence to its divergent sources: the eighteenth-century rhetorical practice of the “commonplace book” and the spurious diction (exemplified by forgery) of Gothic verse. Rooted in the classicism of the early modern period, the book of “commonplaces,” or verbal topoi, functioned as a compositional tool in which quotations from classical (and, later, vernacular) sources were recorded and memorized as the basis for a normative style of writing. Closely associated with the compositional method of eighteenth-century poetry, the commonplace book provided “a means of both consuming and producing texts” and, hence, functioned as a crucial device in the accumulation of the clichés and ornaments of poetic diction. Rejected, ostensibly, as a method of composition by Romantic poets, the normalizing procedures of the commonplace book nevertheless played a central role in assimilating the extravagant, but also popular, verbal textures, of Gothic verse to a new archive--oriented more broadly towards mass culture--of poetic diction. In this regard, the sublimating logic of poetic kitsch finds a methodological paradigm in the routine of the commonplace book, which trivializes the barbarous diction of Gothic verse and forged balladry.
The axis of literature and rhetoric also has the benefit of revealing the historical and theoretical correspondences between the simultaneous emergence of modern, aesthetic theory (Kant, Schiller, Hegel) and the recurring incidents of poetic forgery that lock into place the basic criteria of poetic kitsch. From this perspective, the modernist polemic antagonizing the relation between avant-garde art and kitsch finds expression as well in a philosophical critique (by George Bataille, Paul de Man, and others) seeking to highlight a schism between an authentic model of the aesthetic (said to be buried in the prose of Kant) and the unmarked, historical development of a fraudulent “aesthetic ideology.” The truth of aesthetics was quickly displaced, according to this critique, by aesthetic ideology, which cultivates the perversity of generalization. Poetic inversion, understood as the origin of kitsch, thus exemplifies a massive regime of special effects, of generality, in the arts. In this context, poetry, kitsch, and aesthetic ideology become targets of a positivist critique of false consciousness (and fraudulent artifacts). The most important--and least assimilable--inference of this critique is that aesthetic ideology (the fraudulent twin of genuine aesthetics) has never been about anything but kitsch. All our thinking about art has really been about kitsch.
The implications of the cumulative scandals of Gothic forgery, along with the residual influence of the commonplace book, emerged in a vehement debate over “poetic diction” in the Preface (along with other accessory texts) to the Lyrical Ballads in 1802. Wordsworth’s vituperative sketch and denunciation of the diverse temptations of poetic diction (“a motley masquerade of tricks, quaintnesses, hieroglyphics, and enigmas”) might be regarded as the earliest polemic against poetic kitsch (soon to be vigorously challenged by Francis Jeffrey) and a prototype of the modernist aversion to kitsch.
One could argue, however, that the very first symptoms of the problematic of kitsch appear considerably earlier in an age troubled, like the eighteenth century, by the importation of archaic materials and their effect on the native store of poetic diction. For it is among the Cavalier poets of the seventeenth century (who refashioned English as a medium for poetry after the examples of Latin and Greek) where one discovers the first tropes depicting the phenomenon of poetic mediation, an idea central to the problems of imitation, restoration, and indeed to forgery. Robert Herrick in particular appears to be intrigued by various translucent media (such as the so-called “tiffany,” a gauzy, linen veil) through which the world, especially nature and erotic objects, appears to be essentially ornamental and even illusory.
The atmospheric aspect of these tropes becomes more fully developed in Gothic verse (likewise concerned with the problem of mediation), where one discovers a whole range of meteoric, phenomenalistic, and ephemeral objects of perception, including Coleridge’s hallucinatory “spectres” and Keats’s dainty “silver proxy” (a figure of moonlight as both perceptual medium and aesthetic artifact). All of these ambiguous and immaterial objects function as tropes of derealization, of the emerging concept of aesthetic experience, but also, in their most hyperbolic forms, as emblems of kitsch. A later development of the rhetoric of mediation and forgery (concerned with the impact of foreign materials on poetic diction) occurs with the modernist “translations” and incorporations of Chinese, Anglo-Saxon, and Provençal materials (modernist variations of archaic “minstrelsy”). All of these later transactions, it must be emphasized, place the resources of kitsch in perilous proximity to the emerging practice of the poetic avant-garde.
The values associated with poetic kitsch--insularity, fraudulence, reproducibility--cannot be reconciled with the ideology of modernism. Immune to formal innovation yet employing a compound diction estranged from ordinary human speech (a synthetic and disfigured vernacular), kitsch fails to represent accurately the world or any type of subjective experience; representation is secondary to its expressive priorities. Indeed, the flight from representation is one of the seminal features, according to Deleuze and Guattari, of “minor literature”: “language stops being representative to move toward its extremities or limits.” Contrary, however, to assumptions that kitsch is the epitome of self-expression, kitsch in poetry works from the outside in, occupying a fictive interior with false feelings and specious phrases. The lyric subject becomes through verbal imposture the expression of inscrutable social and economic conditions. In its essence, kitsch is a mode of poetic expression renouncing both physical and psychological verisimilitude, resisting the dogmas of exteriority and interiority. Thus, to begin to understand the allure and significance of kitsch, one must employ a model of expression which is not disabled by the impersonality and the superficiality of kitsch, or by its lack of originality. Kitsch is purely cosmetic yet it also reveals the inscrutable conditions of the social cosmos.
What kitsch expresses, Kracauer contends in his monadological theory of the “mass ornament,” is incommensurable with its (and society’s) glittering surface, with the spectacle of its formulaic diction--though these elements are the irresistible triggers of a social trance, at once banal and apocalyptic. In the absence of any specific content, Kracauer contends, “in pure externality, the audience encounters itself; its own reality is revealed in the fragmented sequence of splendid sense-impressions.” What the mass discovers in the strange language, the worn-out phrases, the artifice--and the familiarity--of poetic kitsch is a reverberation, an allegory, of its own social being in historical conditions that would otherwise remain inscrutable. Consuming the borrowed poetic capital of one’s native tongue may be narcissistic, but “it is not,” according to John Guillory, “the pleasure of the individual’s recognition of his or her individuality; rather, it takes the form of identification with a social body expressed or embodied in the common possession of writer and reader, a common language.” The distressed genre of kitsch reveals to the mass its own social distress in a historical echo chamber of borrowed language.
Acknowledging the apocalyptic dimension of kitsch, Adorno muses, “What art used to be, kitsch may become in the future. Kitsch may be a correction to the decomposing trend in art, perhaps it is even the true progress of art.” Yet perhaps one need not wait for the future to assess Adnorno’s conjecture about the synthesizing (and synthetic) powers of kitsch: one need only scrutinize more closely the poetic origins of kitsch.