Against kitsch criticism

Not to be elit­ist or de­lib­er­ately “high brow,” but I feel like the ana­lys­is of pop cul­ture phe­nom­ena has more than run its course in left­ist circles. Or rather, be­ing op­tim­ist­ic, it’s be­come in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to sep­ar­ate the wheat from the chaff, to sift genu­ine in­sights from a sea of banal­it­ies. Per­haps the real cri­terion is time, see­ing wheth­er or not a giv­en work or series stands up to re­valu­ation after a few years. At least then, once philo­sophy’s painted its gray on gray, there’s some sense of bal­ance and per­spect­ive. Did movie x or y truly cap­ture something of the cul­tur­al Zeit­geist? Is it still rel­ev­ant today? Hence the more qual­ity re­flec­tions tend to ar­rive only after the fact, like Agata Pyzik’s “Mauer Dream­story” (on An­drzej Żuławski’s 1981 film Pos­ses­sion) or Fre­dric Jameson’s “Real­ism and Uto­pia in The Wire (on the hit show by Dav­id Si­mon).

Writers for The New In­quiry and even Jac­obin would do well to re­vis­it an old es­say by Har­old Rosen­berg on “kitsch cri­ti­cism,” which ex­am­ines that odd situ­ation where a piece of writ­ing or com­ment­ary comes to re­semble the ob­ject it sup­posedly cri­tiques: dull, eph­em­er­al, and ul­ti­mately for­get­table. Ori­gin­ally pub­lished in Dis­sent back in 1958, and later re­pub­lished in Rosen­berg’s in­flu­en­tial col­lec­tion The Tra­di­tion of the New, it ob­serves that

[o]ne of the grot­esquer­ies of present-day Amer­ic­an life is the amount of reas­on­ing that goes in­to dis­play­ing the wis­dom secreted in bad movies while prov­ing that mod­ern art is mean­ing­less. Yet it is noth­ing else than the in­tel­lec­tu­al­iz­a­tion of kitsch.

Un­like his con­tem­por­ary, Clem­ent Green­berg, who would prob­ably agree with him that end­less in­quir­ies in­to mass cul­ture are a waste of time, Rosen­berg did not think that kitsch could be elim­in­ated by simply cham­pi­on­ing mod­ern art. “There is no coun­ter­concept to kitsch,” he main­tained. “Its ant­ag­on­ist is not an idea but real­ity. To do away with kitsch it is ne­ces­sary to change the land­scape, as it was ne­ces­sary to change the land­scape of Sardin­ia in or­der to get rid of the mal­ari­al mos­quito.” Neither by del­ic­ate de­mys­ti­fic­a­tion nor po­lem­ic­al an­ni­hil­a­tion can kitsch be re­moved.

So please, lay off the art­icles al­tern­ately de­clar­ing “Death to the Gamer” or stand­ing “In De­fense of Gamers,” or dreck about how Break­ing Bad is some­how ra­cist or the black fam­ily sit­com is in ter­min­al de­cline. Lana Del Rey is cool, and I even like some of her songs, but ded­ic­at­ing a whole is­sue of a magazine to the Kul­turkritik of her latest al­bum just seems to me like the­or­et­ic­al overkill.

I say this as someone who ap­pre­ci­ates many of the clas­sic stud­ies of film, tele­vi­sion, and mass me­dia con­duc­ted by Ben­jamin, Ad­orno, Barthes, and oc­ca­sion­ally some even today. For their sake, if not for mine, knock it off.

Just a brief up­date, Decem­ber 2016: For whatever reas­on, the amount of “cri­ti­cism” writ­ten in this vein has only in­creased. Sam Kriss is a very tal­en­ted writer, of­ten an in­sight­ful crit­ic. But his calls to “smash the force” (i.e., “[the latest Star Wars is] not just in­fant­ile bour­geois ul­traleft­ism; it’s Blan­quism in space”) and “res­ist Pokémon Go (i.e., “this form [of game] de­mands a par­tic­u­lar type of en­gage­ment, that of a vi­cious, sticky-fingered child”) fall flat. Kriss has done pop cul­tur­al cri­tique quite well in the past, one need only look at his bril­liant sen­dup of Hildebeast in “Just Plain Nasty” for proof of this fact. If you’re look­ing for a funny and un­ex­pec­tedly com­pel­ling in­ter­pret­a­tion of Star Wars, check out “The Rad­ic­al­iz­a­tion of Luke Sky­walk­er: One Jedi’s Path to Ji­had” in­stead.

5 thoughts on “Against kitsch criticism

  1. And the problem works both ways. Most of these social analyses of contemporary media (Gone Girl seems to be a major example right now) either reduce and trivialize the work in question or focus far too much on work that is already trivial to begin with. Zeitgeists are rarely reflected in such on-the-nose fashion and there are usually much more interesting aspects to unpack in a work of art. The terms of the Pop-policital discussion are exceedingly banal.

  2. There is indeed something cringe-inducing about all these philosophers writing in-depth articles on popular television series and films. As if they’re begging for a morsel of attention from the masses. Pearls before swine in reverse.

  3. Pingback: A Defense of Kitsch Criticism | At Dunwich Beach

  4. You’re saying that bad writers are writing bad pieces of theory and criticism about pop culture and that they should stop. Leave it to the professionals, as it were. Banal elitism at its finest.

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