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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: kitsch

Rebecca West on Sentimentality

But the sentimental artist is becoming nothing, he has ears, he has eyes, he is being intelligent, he is playing a game, he is moving certain objects according to certain rules in front of spectators. Those objects one may take as the isolated units of his material which he has passed through his imagination by an unfortunately discontinuous process. He sees that one of these objects occupies a certain position on the ground, and knows that he will score a point if he can remove it to another position; he therefore sends another of these objects rolling along to displace it. Shock…one hears that ugly sound.

Rebecca West, “That Strange Necessity”

Impossible for me not to think immediately of my beloved Musil essay Black Magic:

In a somewhat less propitious time, the poet X would have become a popular hack on a family magazine. He would then have presupposed that the heart always responds to certain situations with the same set feelings. Noble-mindedness would always have been recognizably noble, the abandoned child lamentable, and the summer landscape stirring. Notice that in this way, a firm, clearcut, and immutable relationships would have been established between the feelings and the words, true to the nature of the term kitsch. Thus kitsch, which prides itself so much on sentiment, turns sentiment into concepts.

As a function of the times, however, X, instead of being a good family magazine hack, has become a bad Expressionist. Consequently, his work causes intellectual short-circuiting. He appeals to Man, God, the Spirit, Goodness, Chaos; and out of such big words he squeezes his sophisticated sentences. He could not possibly do so, were he to imagine the totality of their meaning, or at least grasp their utter unimaginability. But long before his time, these words had already taken on connotations meaningful and meaningless, in books and newspapers; our Expressionist has often seen them wedged together, and the words need only be loaded with the least little bit of significance for him to perceive sparks flying between them. This, however, is only a consequence of the fact that he had not learned how to think based on the experience of his own imagination, but rather, with the aid of borrowed terms.

Robert Musil

I like West’s mechanistic cause-and-effect imagery, though; it invokes the sheer cheapness of the devices employed and the effects achieved. That the slightest variation in the manipulation of these objects (and concomitant alteration in surface effect) is applauded as an innovation: this indicates the creative impoverishment of the whole culture surrounding an artistic scene, as fake innovation is taken for real innovation and real innovation is taken for flawed aberration. (Such was the case with techno sub-genres in the 1990s; the best stuff was at the fringes and mostly ignored as people leapt to anoint new scene-leaders.) This has been a noticeable downside to genre-beholden literature like mysteries and science-fiction, where the task was explicitly to conceive of new variations within a preconceived structure (does anyone remember that Columbo episode where the killer himself is murdered?), but we can be assured the same goes for literary fiction as well. There’s just more effort being made to disguise the circuitous variations as stunning advances in form and content. Good thing we have short memories….

Bernhard on Heidegger

And speaking of Heidegger, here is the much less subtle Thomas Bernhard on him, from the always amusing Old Masters:

I always visualize him sitting on his wooden bench outside his Black Forest house, alongside his wife who, with her perverse knitting enthusiasm, ceaselessly knits winter socks for him from the wool she has shorn from their own Heidegger sheep.

I cannot visualize Heidegger other than sitting on the bench outside his Black Forest house, alongside his wife, who all her life totally dominated him and who knitted all his socks and crocheted all his caps and baked all his bread and wove all his bedlinen and who even cobbled up his sandals for him. Heidegger was a kitschy brain….. a feeble thinker from the Alpine foothills, as I believe, and just about right for the German philosophical hot-pot. For decades they ravenously spooned up that man Heidegger, more than anybody else, and overloaded their stomachs with his stuff. Heidegger had a common face, not a spiritual one, Reger said, he was through and through an unspiritual person, devoid of all fantasy, devoid of all sensibility, a genuine German philosophical ruminant, a ceaselessly gravid German philosophical cow, Reger said, which grazed upon German philosophy and thereupon for decades let its smart little cow-pats drop on it….

Heidegger is the petit-bourgeois of German philosophy, the man who has placed on German philosophy his kitschy nightcaps, that kitschy black night-cap which Heidegger always wore, on all occasions. Heidegger is the carpet-slipper and night-cap philosopher of the Germans, nothing else.

There’s another great section, which I don’t have at hand, talking about how at dinner parties people are always coming up to you and offering you bits of Heidegger and you haven’t even gotten in the door before someone is offering you a little piece of Heidegger, and so on.

Autonomy

An example of figure-ground reversal:

Modernist art might even be defined by a loss of audience or loss of trust between audience and artist (as Cavell has famously suggested), making the question of trust, fraud, authenticity, reliability, and philosophical self-consciousness about art itself all wholly new sorts of aesthetic values, and ones that do not seem arbitrarily invented or at all reversible. (In most contexts the name for such attempts at reversibility is kitsch.)

We cannot make any sense of this phenomenon by restricting the account to the history of art or novels or drama or poetry alone, but only by trying to understand what has turned out to be the so unexpectedly poisonous, deracinating, the simultaneously oversocializing and desocializing effects of social and cultural “modernization.” One kind of sensemaking or explanation is seeing one phenomenon in the context of something wider and more comprehensive, so that a phenomenon such as Cavell’s distrust or loss of audience can begin to look like what we would expect in the aesthetic domain, given some fate for normative expectations generally. I have suggested that this larger context has to do with being called on by a historical situation “to be a subject,” lead a life, take up the reins, as it were, and that this is something at which, “modernism” discovers, we can fail (oddly, especially when we try very hard to do it).

Robert Pippin, The Persistence of Subjectivity

At the same time Clementine and Leo deluded themselves, like everyone whose mind has been formed by the prevailing customs and literature, that their passions, characters, destinies, and actions made them dependent on each other. In truth, of course, more than half of life consists not of actions but of formulas, of opinions we make our own, of on-the-one-hands and on-the-other-hands, and of all the piled-up impersonality of everything one has heard and knows. The fate of this husband and wife depended mostly on a murky, persistent, confused structuring of ideas that were not even their own but belonged to public opinion and shifted with it, without their being able to defend themselves against it. Compared with this dependence their personal dependence on each other represented only a tiny fraction, a wildly overestimated residue. And while they deluded themselves that they had their own private lives, and questioned each other’s character and will, the agonizing difficulty lay in the unreality of the conflict, which they covered with every possible peevishness.

Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities, ch. 51

Sentiment and Kitsch

Writers are seldom recognized as empiricists, idealists, skeptics, or stoics, though they ought–I mean, now, in terms of the principles of their constructions, for Sartre is everywhere recognized as an existentialist leaning left, but few have noticed that the construction of his novels is utterly bourgeois. No search is made for first principles, none for rules, and in fact all capacity for thought in the face of fiction is so regularly abandoned as to reduce it to another form of passive and mechanical amusement. The novelist has, by this ineptitude, been driven out of healthy contact with his audience, and the supreme values of fiction sentimentalized.

William Gass, “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction”

In a somewhat less propitious time, the poet X would have become a popular hack on a family magazine. He would then have presupposed that the heart always responds to certain situations with the same set feelings. Noble-mindedness would always have been recognizably noble, the abandoned child lamentable, and the summer landscape stirring. Notice that in this way, a firm, clearcut, and immutable relationship would have been established between the feelings and the words, true to the nature of the term kitsch. Thus kitsch, which prides itself so much on sentiment, turns sentiment into concepts. As a function of the times, however, X, instead of being a good family magazine hack, has become a bad Expressionist.

Robert Musil, “Black Magic”

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