I am typically one who shies away from meaning. I am more interested in use and value. What might we do with dance, for example, or how might we begin to revalue devalued objects and methodologies? Meaning, as Avital Ronell has pointed out, has “historically and intellectually very often had fascist and non-progressivist edges, if not a core.” Meaning is a preventative measure that keeps difference from gaining mobility, from entering into dominant culture. It for that reason that I find value in the usefulness of things, it is through an understanding of use that we might better grasp how to counter various forms of power, to develop tactics and strategies of resistance.
“I tell you, old weapons go rotten: make some new ones and shoot accurately.“ – D.H. Lawrence.
I am typically one who shies away from discussing meaning, I say typically because it is in this moment that I am motivated, after reading an article by another Bad at Sports contributor on ASCO, Kitsch, and The Foreigner, to discuss the meaning of terms like “Kitsch” and “Foreigner”. To discuss how the use of these terms, along with the meanings ascribed to them, perpetuate misrepresentation and misunderstandings of the unique legacies of those being labeled as “Kitsch” or “Foreign”.
The Los Angeles based art collective, ASCO, have been the subject of numerous exhibitions and publications. They have emerged and reemerged several times over, as museums and curators, become more and less interested in the experience and expression of the Chicano movement and the art it created. ASCO, which translates into English as nausea, operates in multiple mediums but are perhaps best known for their performance and film works which have an activist tendency.
ASCO formed in 1972 at time in which the Chicano movement in the southwest began to gain traction. Chicano, while a somewhat contested term, is used here to described those “born from the blood of the Spanish sword and the Indian temple.” It is a term used to describe politicized Mexican-Americans, who, while born on American soil, are attempting to reclaim a lost indigenous heritage. I point this out to remind us of the complexity of citizenship.
For those of non-white heritages the price of assimilation, even if the encounter between indigenous population and colonizer is no longer conscious in the minds of formerly free subjects, was no less than entire histories of colonized civilizations. While it is true that some empires opted to incorporate the beliefs of the colonized, more often than not, the role of the colonizer was to eradicate these histories through the use of fear, language, brutality, and the introduction of ownership and property. For some Mexican-Americans, particularly those in the southwest, the relationship between country of origin and chosen (or not) country of occupation is complicated by the redrawing of borders that occurred following civil and national wars. Texas for example was under Mexican rule until independence, at which time it became a sovereign nation, until of course it is made a part of The United States of America. How are we to describe the generations who lived through this transition? Mexicans? Texans? Americans? It’s also important to keep in mind is that freedom, independence and statehood is won only for landowners and the ruling elite. It wouldn’t be until the Chicano movement, when there is a shift in consciousness among America’s Hispanic population, that greater political mobility would be attempted by farm workers and urban dwellers living below the poverty line.
What does it mean then to label these Americans, many of whom are several generations into citizenship, as “Foreigners”? And what might one mean by “Foreigner”? If given the benefit of the doubt, one would have to suspect, as ridiculous as it may be, that the “Foreigner” would designate an other outside of one’s own country. That is a person who, after having developed up to a certain point abroad in some expansive global void, has found their way onto one’s Country of origin, whatever that might mean. Of course one could also consider the “The Foreigner” as a position from which one chooses to operate. This might be used to express some deep feeling of otherness rooted within an individual’s psyche. A feeling of not belonging, of being outside. A feeling that might motivate individuals to look towards an eradicated heritage as a place from which to become empowered. We could consider this a strategy of self-making. My point here is that in any scenario, imagined or unimagined, “Foreigner” means not from here. Here being the place of the main subject, the one speaking, the one in an ultimate position of power. It is a designation of otherness that indicates one’s place as not belonging. This is an internalized reality. One that is difficult to escape from. Even if one were to use the term with good intentions in an attempt to illuminate some greater understanding of how typical Americans understand particular histories through Art, to label some Americans as foreign because they have a different heritage and speak a language other than English, is to perpetuate an understanding of American citizenship that excludes not only non-whites, but anyone who has a legacy of speaking a language other than English.
The article I am writing in response to, is not only guilty of ostracizing and essentializing an entire social group, of which ASCO is a part, but manages to dehumanize them as well. It does this in an attempt to describe the way in which “U.S. Culture” looks to the “Foreigner” as a “Kitsch” figure. They are “thing-like.” Again, I am left to ponder what might be meant by such an accusation.
“Kitsch” tends to be used to describe the mass produced, market driven, empty object that in some conversations has historically represented the aesthetic of “low” culture. Putting aside the unproductive binary of “High” and “Low” for a moment, designations that do nothing but contribute to a cultural value system that has slowly been dismantled over the last 20 plus years of Art Historical and Cultural criticism. The use of the term “Kitsch” here is not attempting to subvert a traditional hierarchy but instead seems to imply that “Americans” still feel this way. To be more accurate, it seems to suggest that White Americans of a certain statue feel as though non-English speaking non-whites are “thing-like“. If this is true, it is a reality only because it has been written into being. “Kitsch” as a go to term to describe the work of a group like ASCO, while it may be attempting to speak to pervasive cultural opinions, does nothing but legitimize their work through a traditional hierarchical system of value. This is to say, that while they may be “thing-like”, we’ve been given the go ahead by the author to appreciate them as “things.”
The power of what we do as cultural critics and producers lies in our ability to make real our aspirations. Our power lies in our ability to simultaneously imagine and enact realities. This is the reason why, so many of us are drawn to the work of groups like ASCO, because they made real the nausea they felt in a time of war and social strife. The plight of the Chicano movement is not some isolated “Foreign” experiment. It is a social movement against violence, oppression, and unnecessary death, during a time in which other American collectives were also publicly struggling for their livelihood.
“But these forms of persistence and resistance still take place within the shadow-life of the public, occasionally breaking out and contesting those schemes by which they are devalued by asserting their collective value. So, yes, the ungrievable gather sometimes in public insurgencies of grief, which is why in so many countries it is difficult to distinguish the funeral from the demonstration. “ – Judith Butler
To banalize them, to other them, is to render them powerless, to prevent their history from becoming American history. It is to prevent their struggle from being incorporated into the democratic pursuit. The struggle of the Chicano movement means too much to let that happen.