Editors' Note: This essay is one of a group of responses to Daniel Tiffany's "Cheap Signaling." Read the rest.
I can find beauty in any woman. The sun of Rousseauist faith in everyone shines in this sentence. The people are so lovely that any one of its specimens furnishes occasions for love, the lover pure-hearted enough to recognize the ubiquity and equality of loveliness.
But Dostoyevsky works a transformation of this sentiment in what has always been, for me, the most chilling scene in The Brothers Karamazov. The lover who expresses it is the degraded patriarch; the sentiment leads him to rape a mentally disabled girl. Why did I do it? Because I can find beauty in any woman. Rousseauist faith turns out to be kitsch. And kitsch turns out to be the substance, not of the basic goodness and simplicity of the people, but of the base desire of lowest-common-denominator man.
• • •
Dostoyevsky thus provides an analog and predecessor for the task Daniel Tiffany sets for poetry. The literature of class consciousness faces two challenges in contemporary America. The first is to provide the abstract economic class position with a cultural identity. The second is to present this cultural identity as eminently destructible, as destined for destruction.
Tiffany argues that kitsch diction furnishes the material for answering both challenges. On the one hand, kitsch embodies the substance of collectives. Everyone sympathizes with the sentiment of the lover who can find beauty in anyone. Put it on a heart-shaped refrigerator magnet and place it by the checkout lines at Target.
On the other hand, the very fact that one can identify so apparently objectionless a sentiment as kitsch means that there is something poisonous in it. If one hears it on the lips of a living person, one is probably dealing with a rapist or a robot. It is a sentence that expresses everyone’s sentiment, but belongs to no one. A line that the more one thinks about it, the more one hates it. Is this working class culture in 2014?
Tiffany points out that a true working class culture—in a Marxian sense—will work very differently from the cultures trafficked by identity politics. As John Guillory, Walter Benn Michaels, Kenneth Warren, and others have argued for some time now, identity politics works exclusively with positive group identities. If a group is the victim of racist contempt, the remedy is appreciation of racial identity. The remedy for economic deprivation is not appreciation, but the reform or revolution of the economic system responsible for deprivation. The solution for class is classlessness.
Consider the way the ‘blue collar’ costume of the factory worker has ceded to the branded, multicolored uniform of the retail worker.
Why then, does class need culture at all? If I am an exploited worker, surely all that matters is my position in the economic system. Why try to provide workers with cultural identity? Wouldn’t such identity inevitably attract the praise of Rousseauists, thus turning class into something one wants to preserve? And this, of course, is the very last thing radical class politics desires.
Perhaps we need class culture because class position is so hard to see. Dan Ariely and Michael Norton have shown how bad most Americans are at identifying the actual wealth distribution in America, and their own position in it. In fact everything conspires to blind workers to their class position. Consider the way the “blue collar” costume of the factory worker has ceded to the branded, multicolored uniform of the retail worker. These new costumes cover the real poverty of the workers—a poverty far greater than that of factory workers in the golden age of unions. The very term “blue collar” suggests that the success of the union movement was in large part facilitated by culture in the form of dress—culture that could link workers across different firms and industries.
It is true that this culture ultimately gave rise to a kind of class pride compatible with capitalism. But instead of culture, the brightly colored workers of McDonald’s and Target are clad in…kitsch. Their uniforms conjure up a world of happy clowns and friendly fields, a world where anyone can be beautiful. This culture has revolutionary potential far superior to blue-collar culture. Seen as kitsch, these uniforms can represent class without anyone thinking they authentically express the inner being of class members. Kitsch thus offers the potential to fulfill the twin goals of contemporary class politics: 1) it makes economic position visible and 2) it shows this position to be worthy of destruction.
The union of workers who wear brightly colored uniforms will be angrier, and more totally angry, than the blue-collar unions of the past. I’ve had intimations of this bitter energy. In high school I answered phones at the local Domino’s Pizza. Most of the deliverymen were aspiring stand-up comics, appearing at Domino’s between brief gigs at the low-rent comedy club one strip mall over. We stood around in our bright blue and red Domino’s shirts, turning our minimum wage eyes on the customers, listening to the drivers manically recite cheap laugh lines at high speed. If we’d had a union, what would we have wanted? Something more apocalyptic than United Automobile Workers.
Literature—and poetry—should start handing out brightly colored uniforms. Little uniforms for our feelings—composed of formulas drawn from the detritus of pop culture life. Little uniforms for our jobs—drawn from the language of our employers. Little uniforms for our dreams—drawn from the images of advertising.
And poetry can mix them all together in a fusion of kitsch fantasy, pop formula, and nihilistic desperation. Listen to Soulja Boy’s new song, “Work”:
Ridin’ in the ‘Rari tryin’ to make it work. . .
Catch me in the trap tryin’ to make it work.
I’ll close with a question about the relation of Tiffany’s argument to the form I’ve elsewhere argued is the purest contemporary lyric mode. Tiffany’s wonderful formulations kept making me think of certain strands of contemporary rap: Gucci Mane, Young Thug, Migos, Lil’ Durk, Rick Ross, Chief Keef. What is the difference between a criticism attuned to the canny deployment of kitsch in some variants of popular culture—like rap—and a political, avant-garde poetry aspiring to work with kitsch materials? In other words, is Tiffany’s thought here better suited to understand the submerged potential of an actually existing working class culture? Or is it best read as a call for a new form of advanced poetry that might spread widely?
Avant garde poetry can learn from rap in its deployment of cliché and formula, and in its viral circulation. The question Tiffany finally raises is: can rap learn from avant-garde poetry? Can poets furnish the lyric art form of poison candy with a heightened sense of the poison? Can poets help wash the last residues of authenticity from rap—which, despite the career of Rick Ross, still clings stubbornly to the form? Can poets show that anyone can be a rapper? Even an academic poet?
I can see the mass appeal in anyone.