Editors' Note: This essay is one of a group of responses to Daniel Tiffany's "Cheap Signaling." Read the rest

We were in conversation, Daniel Tiffany and I, when he said, “I take kitsch very seriously.” However unprepossessing the words as utterance, they struck me otherwise, and I could not help remarking that this thought is not only a sentence, but a statement—an avowal and a poetics, a declaration and an ethos. His essay “Cheap Signaling” establishes what is implied through that statement.

Continuing with this proposition of Tiffany’s, it becomes evident that kitsch is not to be patronized, for it is not camp. Camp presupposes kitsch, and kitsch, as ersatz in materials, ideas and sentiment, is a sociolect that is readymade for parody. Indeed, so the reasoning goes, since the Industrial Revolution, the very conditions productive of the readymade are those of the mass culture and its effects. Ideological rubric then and forever after, kitsch has become synonymous with capitalism, and so an easily extracted object and target for cultural mimicry. If this be so, then camp risks nothing. It risks nothing in merely designating the already known and reified. Camp is certainly not decadence, a much more anarchic cultural intervention and individualistic self-determined implosion calculated to lawlessness. And my response to the summoning of kitsch must draw in camp, if only to establish not the limit conditions of kitsch but its difference in sociolect: parodic of kitsch, camp is a simulation mobilized to entertain as it inoculates itself against the very questions of ethics and aesthetics it purports to raise.

Camp is a simulation mobilized to entertain as it inoculates itself against the very questions of ethics and aesthetics it purports to raise.

Both Tiffany and Joshua Clover, in The Totality for Kids, presuppose a modernity expressed through urban industrial modernization. In Clover’s ideological position, avant-garde revolutionary concerns locate a critical poetics of late capitalism to redirect its products and attitudes through décadence and aestheticism, because, whether avant-garde or kitsch, culture is caught in the same devastatingly self-deceived socioeconomic maelstrom. In my reading of Tiffany’s position, the demands of revolution construct a poetics that would not flinch from these same materials nor get a perspective from outside them, but even so locate a horizon immediately at hand in abject circumstances. And so Tiffany deliberately disallows decadence and cuts himself off from that cultural instrumentality. Rather he assigns himself a constructed poetics of the inarticulate and frustrated, using techniques of montage for empowering kitsch, constructing a poetic artifact of vital force and validity, which can happen only if taken seriously enough from within its linguistic hindrances.

The problem Tiffany has set for himself, then, is that of allowing kitsch a poetics neither parodic nor cynical. For it to be taken seriously, kitsch must exceed our ability to encapsulate it as pregiven. Tiffany’s own poetry is his attempt to demonstrate how if accorded singularity and formlessness, social grievance can indeed become eloquent on its own behalf. In considering the sort of kitsch he constructs from today’s social surrounds and from niche vocabularies, it is fair to say that Tiffany builds a dereliction through the poetics of the remainder, the space of the semantic and syntactic in-between. 

Although this reading of Tiffany’s position may not be his own, from this vantage the presupposition that the stigma of kitsch be closely identified with industrialization gives an ideologically predictable reading to kitsch, which even long ago seemed to range opportunistically across traditions’ socioeconomic categories.  For instance, Classical epigrams are quick to ridicule bad verse as well as bad behavior within and across classes. Then too, although there may well be class inflections, the broader frame of the vernacular is a cultural expression both diverse and complex, about which Dante and Wordsworth and Coleridge have a lot to say. Coleridge’s feud with his friend at the core of English Romanticism focused on dialect: the idiosyncratic and particular as too regionally specific to count as the commonplace of human community. Too peculiarly attached to locale, the vernacular written on behalf of a local community can, even with all ethnographic sincerity, fail to live up to the vital validity that would warrant a poetics. In much writing, overheard dialect reads as a stylization and turns quaint as soon as it hits the page, rendering oral utterance as written inscription. In other words, kitsch might be the unintended consequence of cultural frameworks other than class.  

In considering these examples, I have weighed the possible errors of judgment that might occur by presupposing the class formation of kitsch.

Moreover, as class is an over-determined yet under-theorized concept, when anguish or genuine misery emerges in trite verses taken to be the publishable standard most of the time, the pathos attributed to “the poor” is a poetical reflex that perpetuates a stereotype, whatever the class formation. So it is difficult to choose a diction to represent a marginal sociolect in such a way as to avoid both the stereotypical subject positions assigned to a class and the idiosyncratic manner which has confused individualistic acting out with singularity. Such an ambition requires much more than homage. Documentary capture for enhancing the cultural archives is one way, but versified mimicry too often seems parasitic or derivative where linguistic immersion is required. Otherwise, a course of action might be to construct a poetics for marginal language not dependent on resemblance.