I appreciate Anthony Romero’s reading of my blog post about ASCO and “the foreigner” on this blog yesterday. I am glad that Romero asked these questions so that I can explain what I mean when I talk about the foreigner as “kitsch“ and how I relate that to the work of Asco..
Romero has some question about the role of the foriegner in my post. By foreigner I don’t mean just any “non-white” person. I am for example, a foreigner. I came to this country as a teenager and was met by an incredibly amount of violence and hostility, from other kids as well as teachers and other adults. What people objected to was my strange clothes and haircut. They said I was a “faggot.” I didn’t even know what that meant, but I gathered from the vehemence of their reaction that it was someone powerful, something threatening. My own thinking about not just foreigner but art was largely shaped by this violent experience. That is perhaps why something like queer studies to me has very wide relevance to understanding not just gay people but the status of foreigners.
As I note in my post, for me the “foreigner” does not have to do with citizenship but something else. In my original post I wrote:
“I’m using the word “foreigner” to conveniently include here both actual immigrants and ethnic minorities. I know there’s a difference but there’s also a similarity: a presence that troubles the dream of homogeneity.”
But really “foreigner” doesn’t have to mean even that; it could mean just about any figure that “troubles,” that does not smoothly blend into an easy version of reality. Once at a party a linguist came up to me and said she had been observing my accent and apparently my accent followed the same pattern as children of immigrants that she had been studying. Her theory was that the accent suggested a kind of resistence to assimilation. I don’t know if that’s true, but it makes a good metaphor for what I’m trying to get at: the metaphorical accent – or noise – that refuses to take its place in society, but calls attention to itself as unassimilated sound. But like I said, this accent can be read widely and metaphorically.
It’s also important to note in my “myth of origins” that it was the hair and clothing that got me in trouble as much as my accent. In other words, the realm of kitsch.
I always say, “the Foreigner is kitsch.” In American culture, the foreigner is often made into a ridiculous “version” of a real person (ie an All-American Person). This is one way our culture has of dealing with this troubling foreigness: our culture makes the foreigner into a ridiculous, flawed version. Not something that resists appropropriation (as in the cool linguist’s model); but something that fails to become “natural.”
My “favorite” example is the guy in “That 70s Show.” It’s unclear if he’s European or Latin but he is distinctly foreign. He’s also very gay-ish (in a stereotypical way: he’s lispy and affeminate), but typically he’s also hyper masculine, always looking for sex That is to say: there’s a violence in his foreigness. The show deals with this by making him ridiculous. But there’s that threat as well.
Another way of dealing with the foreign is to situate foreigners in the past – what I call authenticity kitsch – and identify the foreign with customs, food, traditions. As long as the foreigner is associated with these, he or she becomes quaint, of the past (that is not to say that customs are worthless, they are often quite beautiful).
There are of course tons of other methods, but these these are some that are relevant to the way I think about art, and to the way I think about Asco’s art in particular.
This jives very well with my experiences in America, and –sadly – particularly in the poetry world. Over and over again, I’ve been accused of cheating somehow, of being ridiculous, of being “too masculine” (or too opinionated). Once when I raised an innocent question to a famous Bay Area experimental writer, she told me she did not want to be in dialogue with me because I was “from someplace different” than her. Just the other day I was at a party and the spouse of a professor told me that Scandinavians are “inhuman” because we don’t have “feelings.”
It seems that Romero thinks I endorse this idea of the foreigner as kitsch. I am reacting to a portrayal of the foreigner. One way to oppose such a portrayal would be to correct it, to work toward more “human” portrayals of foreigners. But I think the “human” isn’t such a wonderful ideal, based as it is on the exclusion of the “inhuman”; and I think there is a power in the unassimilatable, the “inhuman” of the foreign. It’s that dynamic that I think Asco does a great job exploring; and I am interested in this dynamic as well, exploring it in my writing.
Anthony observes that by calling the foreigner “kitsch,” I dehumanize the foreigner and make them “thing-like.” I would say that I am not the one calling foreigners kitsch; the foreigner is already defined as a kitsch figure in our culture.
But I am interested in this portrayal. I’m interested in kitsch. We have to go through all kinds of contortions to create an illusory “interiority” – some internal essence – to define ourselves as human. In these portrayals, the foreigner is not human; he or she is thing-like. Kitsch. A foreigner has no soul.
That’s what interests me about kitsch and art and the foreigner. Clearly a lot of people who are of foreign descent do their best to get a soul, to become human. But for every “human” there’s always the inhuman, other. So I don’t love the idea of being human. And I think the idea of “interiority” as the highest value is a sham. I prefer atmospherics (for example asco, nausea) to interiority.
On the other hand, I don’t want to accept an easy “inhuman” label either; I am not interested in merely reproducing that guy from “That 70s Show.” Kitsch and art for me open up zones where the human and inhuman, the US and the foreigner can be troubled. I take the word “troubled” (I think, if I remember correctly) from Julia Kristeva’s writing on abjection: the abject as that which troubles boundaries.
I hope my previous post shows how all of this comes into really wonderful play in Asco’s “social surrealism”: with their masks, their fake stills, their play on Mexican ethnic customs and art; with their name “asco” which seems to be the vomit of artist, spectator and society (ie the place where they come together is a site of abjection, of repulsion but also a coming-together); and its deformations of popular culture.
Gronk (one of the leading Asco members): “A lot of Latino artists went back in history for imagery. We wanted to stay in the present and find our imagery as urban artists and produce a body of work out of our sense of displacement. Latin imagery had a strong input, but we also had Albert Camus, Daffy Duck and movies like Devil Girls from Mars.”
Gamboa (another leader artist in the collective) wrote that Asco was both “attracted and apalled by the glitter and gangrene of urban reality.” He’s said Asco was “El Camino Surrealism.” El Camino is of course both Spanish and a kitsch product (an outdated car).
A lot of Asco’s imagery and ideas come from B-movies, comics etc: The traditional realm of “kitsch.” They are very upfront about this and it’s obvious from their many “no films’ (fake film stills). But they also drew inspiration from news footage and “high art” (conceptualism, which Asco felt was racist). Their art is tasteless, but it’s tasteless in an interesting way that sabotaging this kind of distinction between high and low which I absolutely believe has not disappeared (and which is often ethnically motivated). So when Anthony says that to call Asco “kitsch” is to demean them, I feel he’s reiterating a denigration which I don’t subscribe to and I think Asco members clearly rejected. They were inspired by kitsch – comics, b-movies, telenovelas etc.
One more thing about kitsch: any art can become kitsch. It moves around. That’s why people are scared of it (of having their art turn into the next kitsch, making it worthless). But that’s why it makes such a promising zone of experimentation: it’s mobile. Once you enter into kitsch zone high becomes low, foreigner becomes “us”, not by becoming a naturalized but by assuming a place while wearing a mask. That’s why I’m interested in kitsch as a zone of exploration in my own work, and why Asco has been a great inspiration for me.
A couple of more things…
I would say that Romero’s statement that Asco has an “activist tendency” is both true and false. It’s true that a lot of their art made interesting political interventions – such as when they sent a fake (kitsch?) photograph of a dead chicano guy lying in the street to news sources (which published it), or when they dressed up in crucifixion type gear and blocked the draft office in their neighborhood. But I don’t think the “activist” label is entirely right because as the photograph example shows they were not often programmatic about their politics. They seemed more interested in images than in setting up a clear political agenda; they were explicitly at odds with the more traditionally, explicitly “activist” Chicano artists of the time (and the greater Chicano movement, even as it was part of it, this is well documented).
So when Romero writes:
“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.”
He may be right about the Chicano movement, but not necessarily about Asco. I definitely think that Asco was precisely about a “foreign experiment.” This is exactly how I read their work, and I don’t think that is to criticize them or to demean them. I think this is a very profound, very political form “experiment.”
I do think Romero is totally on the spot when he writes:“Foreigner means not from here. Here being the pace of the main subject, the one speaking, the one in an ultimate position of power.” Do we really want to just become that un-foreigner? That person in power? Or do we want to trouble that position? That person? That structure of dealing with difference?
I think this is where we get at the heart of the matter.
Since this blog doesn’t allow “comments”, I’ll post a link to it from Montevidayo.com, and I welcome people who want to join in the discussion to meet me there!