Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Another post from the past: "Kitsch, Neo-Romanticism, and the Beats", from 2003

Sunday, April 13, 2003 Kitsch, Neo-Romanticism, and the Beats...
To illuminate the principles of Neo-Romanticism further, and to show which side we're on, it's necessary to examine the phenomenon known as Kitsch, as well as the truly Post-Modern.
The Post-Modern to me, is precisely what comes after the break up of the cultural force in American society which dominated from roughly the end of the civil war to the end of the second World War. Modernism, as a cultural force, was not something abstract and debatable. That after the Second World War it disappeared is a fact.
The Post-Modern is most visible in writing and poetry, mostly that generated by the Beats. If you compare Ginsburg's poetry with that of William Carlos Williams, or Kerouac's writings with Faulkner's, you'll see a great deal of continuity. Indeed, these were the guys they were all reading, as was everyone at that time. Take Ginsburg's later statements that he got it all from Whitman as just so much bullshit, please. But, there is an essential difference between Ginsburg and Williams, or Ginsburg and T.S. Elliot, or Kerouac and Faulkner, which can be stated thusly: although all authors explore consciousness and the experiential material of life, the modernists always subsume their explorations under an overarching theme; whether it be the decay of Southern life in Faulkner, or the polemics of Socialism in William Carlos Williams, or the more subtle observations about society which T.S. Elliot generated.
Even Henry Miller has a subtext, that of the struggle of the working class.
The Beats, on the other hand, kept the experiential information but never put a cap on it. Instead, they were satisfied to just keep on exploring the experience in depth without ever really coming to a summation.
The difference between the Modernist need for a summation and the Beat comfortableness with a lack of it is what distinguishes the Modern from the Post-Modern in literature.
William S. Burroughs creates Interzone in Naked Lunch, where everything comes together in one huge market bazaar, while Paul Bowles subsumes similar experiences under a dreary North African subtext.
After the war, and the breakup of the idea that the technocratic faith of the previous generation was really a viable alternative to religious culture---as evidenced by the Atomic Bomb as well as the scientific Racism of the Nazis, not to mention Stalinist reductionism---- American culture took off in a multiplicity of directions, with more openness to new ideas than had been present before. The Beats were clearly a catalyst for this. By not subsuming everything under a greater theme, Americans were able to see the East on it's own terms, as well as examine the experience of Native Americans on theirs, among other notable enlightening experiences, for example seeing the experience of Blacks in the South on it's own terms....but anyways....
This, I would argue is the truly post-modern.....and it's connected to the current pop-culture movement which emphasizes Kitsch and things like Tiki culture and Lounge culture and Rockabilly music, and the interest with gaudy popular representations of Christ, etc....satirical lunch boxes with Soviet posters of Lenin on it, you get the picture.
The origins of this cultural movement, while obscure, clearly reflect the urge of people to explore deviate paths from establishment culture, as manifested in the fifties and early sixties. Through deviance comes knowledge and the establishment of ones own path out of the current culture and into something more viable and interesting.
This fits directly into the conceptions of Kitsch which Susan Sontag defined as being at the heart of American culture, I believe, and it also fits in with the architectural praise heaped on Las Vegas as being a quintessential American city because of it's gaudiness. This is post- modern architecture, by the way.
We're seeing a movement of young people towards culturally sanctioned deviance which stems from low culture as opposed to high, and this movement will probably yield some very interesting fruit as time goes by.
You could conceptualize the movement towards the post-modern as taking place on two levels: on the level of High Culture you have the Post-Modernism of the Beats, especially the extraordinarily literate Beats on the west coast associated with Reed College; on the level of Low Culture you have the Post-Modern as it's manifesting itself in interest with deviant Kitsch and cultural forms related to that. After all, Las Vegas might typify something about American Culture, but it surely isn't the accepted, mainstream, culture which we would like to see all around us. It's the very definition of deviance, after all.
The movement to the post-modern amongst youth culture comes as a competitor to the post-structuralist idea of culture, which has claimed it's own towns and adherents, and has generated it's own sort of counter-culture. As opposed to dour post-structuralists who dress
in black, think of themselves as Avant-Garde, and intone that everything is a text and that all texts are false, and that nothing is true, the Post-Modernists show their colours by embracing the camp and the deviant, and explore those very texts that Post-Structuralists say have no value, sort of getting meaning out of them and saying, at the same time, to the dour post-structuralists "Yeah, so what's your point?".
The most sublime form of modernist oppression is that which says that since modernism doesn't work anymore, that nothing works. This, when you strip Post-Structuralism of it's garb, is what it's saying. It's why they're such a boring group of people. Post-Modernists, on the other hand, accept from the outset that there probably is no overarching meta-theme to life, but rather a whole lot of interesting side roads that a person can take and get some meaning out of, and then they take it, get the meaning, and thumb their nose at the Post- Toasties.
Post-Modernism is also a lot more congenial to Social Welfare programs than is Modernism. Ironically, the laissez-faire attitude to exploration which characterizes the Post- Modernists also leads to a realization that even if Socialism, in big neon letters, doesn't provide the answers to every problem in society, that that's no big deal; it's still been proven to really help out with SOME things, like health care etc.... and that's all that really matters...not whether Socialism is in the grand cosmic design for the next phase of all human civilization.
So Socialism in the realistic sense is OK.
The interaction between Post-Modernism, the Beat experience, and the Neo-Romantic is very deep. The Neo-Romantic seeks to liberate the experience in a Beat way through the Post-Modern. The Post-Modern is a door through which the Neo-Romantic practitioner can exit out of established society in order to eventually find his or her own way towards a reflexive, high culture, Beatnik-esque pursuit of value and true human interaction.
It opposes Post-Structuralism as life killing and obsolete.
The author himself entered into the Lost Highway which led to the Neo-Romantic through the Post-Modern, although he did not think of it like that at that time. For him, Conspiracy theory and Pop-UFO books, along with some of the weirder aspects of Drug Culture, led out of established society and into that realm of cultural freedom where one can then reflect on the world in a more intelligent, high culture, way. All of those things mentioned above could be considered Post-Modern artifacts of late 20th century culture.
Not that I'm advocating you to pursue that way, please, don't; culture has changed severely, people need to find their own Post-Modern escape hatch out of the Dominant Positivistic society---preferably one that does not destroy brain cells along the way.
The Neo-Romantic Movement situates itself along the cultural space opened up by the Post-Modern and the Beat pursuit of individualistic cultural knowledge, which exists in a sort of limbo apart from the established society as a whole. The Neo-Romantic is distinguished from the purely Post-Modern and experience seeking part of this culture in that it is not content to just sit in a small alternative it's whole existence but wants instead to take the values of this counter culture and apply them to society as a whole, to change society so that the production of strange little subcultures, the need to separate, becomes less. The policy of Separate but Equal is inherently unfair. This region does not exist autonomously, but is the product of the damage that a positivistic, science oriented society, based on industrial capitalism, has done to people. No matter how hard we try to forget it, the enemy is always out there.
The current ghettoization of Post-Modern culture, or more precisely of people professing to be neo-beat, or neo-romantic, is not a victimless act. Existing within our little subcultures is a nice illusion for a while, but eventually time and experience prove that society as a whole has to change for balance and sanity to be restored.
The Neo-Romantic, then, is the activist wing of Post-Modern culture, the evangelist wing, which says "You know, we're here for a reason, and eventually society will have to change because of us; we're not here because of individual problems or inadequacies, we're here because the system has put us here, and it's the system that's going to have to change, not us."
If we choose after the revolution to stay in our little post-modern subcultures, that's our business; but at least it'll be a decision based on free will and not on compelled resistance to a corrupt system and society.
Go forth, ye apostles of the weird, the valuable but rejected, the high and low paths of knowledge and deviance, and multiply ye-selves within the greater culture; travel under the veil of secrecy if you must, but assert the true culture, the culture of the 19th centuries in Europe and of the early 20th, and make this place more like the rest of the world....
In the words of Guizot, Enrichez Vous! Enrich Yourselves, and your culture. Whew..... posted by Summerisle @ 5:42 PM posted by Summerisle @ 10:34 PM
Saturday, April 12, 2003
I should add that Magical Realism, the literary style from South America, as well as the Magical Urbanism described in an interesting book about Hispanic culture in America, are both kindred spirits to the Beat, the Post-Modern, and the Neo-Romantic........much in the way that Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters were kindred spirits, exploring the psychedelic space just as they had explored the space of low-lifes and subterranean culture, to the Beatniks.....We are Family, you and all my sisters and me....

No comments: