“From cosmos to cosmetics”: A Note on Aase Berg’s Guinea Pigs & Girly Kitsch
by Lara Glenum
Read Aase Berg's poems here: http://www.conduit.org/online/aase/aase.html?
Fickle, like an imp, kitsch defies definition. The one enduring characteristics it has is that it preys on fictitious feelings, thereby neutralizing the real ones. Kitsch is a parody of catharsis (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory 339).
Theodor Adorno may have famously pronounced kitsch “the realm of artificial imagery” (Adorno, “Veblen’s Attack” 401), but other critics have been even more vituperative, calling kitsch a parasite feeding on the production of “true art.” Austrian novelist Hermann Broch, an early theorist of kitsch, deplored Romanticism’s “susceptibility to a disastrous fall” from cosmic heights to kitsch: what Daniel Tiffany winkingly calls “a Luciferian swerve from cosmos to cosmetics” (Tiffany 330). This explosive dialectic between specifically girly kitsch and masculine high art is one that many Gurlesque poets seek to exploit, recognizing that, as Tiffany puts it, kitsch’s resemblance to art “only enhances its catastrophically destructive challenge to the [traditional] values of art” (Tiffany 330).
The proper name for the domain of girly kitsch might be, in critic Sianne Ngai’s terms, the domain of the Cute. While this may seem the least harmless, least provocative of aesthetic categories, Ngai thinks otherwise. In "The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde," Ngai suggests that violence lurks implicitly in the aesthetic of the Cute. Ngai notes, "The formal attributes associated with cuteness — smallness, compactness, softness, simplicity, and pliancy — call forth specific affects: helplessness, pitifulness, and even despondency" (Ngai 816). And further, "In its exaggerated passivity and vulnerability, the cute object is often intended to excite a consumer's sadistic desires for mastery and control as much as his or her desire to cuddle" (Ngai 816). Cuteness is, of course, the realm of pre-pubescent girls and their small, furry companions, and if cuteness speaks to an exaggerated difference in power — “names a relationship to a socially disempowered other” — the relationship of owner to captive pet is the relationship par excellence that illustrates this phenomenon (Ngai 828).
In Aase Berg’s “In the Guinea Pig Cave,” we discover the speaker and her sister at the tail end of a sadistic spree, in which they appear to have baked, eaten and otherwise exterminated legions of guinea pigs. Countless guinea pigs still remain alive, looking “depraved… blue under their eyes as from months of debauchery.” They smell atrocious, and their bodies are “contorted,” their legs sticking “straight up like beetles.” They are not dead, though, but “aching” and “waiting,” like the speaker’s “puking,” swollen sister.
The brutalized guinea pigs elicit alternating waves of cloying devotion and sadism from the speaker. “Objects are cutest when maimed or hobbled,” Ngai notes, and the more the guinea pigs appear to be the victims of aggression, the more they engender retaliatory fantasies (Ngai 823). Berg’s speaker muses: “I knew that they would take revenge on me.” In her essay, Ngai notes, “The subject imposes the aesthetic quality [of cuteness] on that other – abetting a fantasy of the cute object’s capacity for retaliation…” (Ngai 828). Further, the secret knowledge of this imposition heightens rather than detracts from the experience of the cute object. Ngai stresses, “cute objects can be helpless and aggressive at the same time: the more it appears to be the victim of aggression, the more it appears to be the agent of aggression” (Ngai 823). The speaker in Berg’s poem thus projects her own violence onto the fetishized guinea pigs, imagining them as debauched and savoring their revenge. This feels disturbingly similar to misogynist fantasies of women as ensorceling icons of perversity who actually welcome the cruelty they are subjected to. The chimerical agency of the guinea pigs in the carnage is perhaps one of the funniest and most disturbing aspects of this poem, a poem that is ultimately, as Michael Gira puts it, about “feral ritual and animal submission.”
The aggression (and ritual) of this poem not only concerns varieties of slaughter, but the imposition onto the animals face of gaudy hues – blue on the eye, red around the mouth – invoking young girls experimenting with make-up and dressing up their hapless pets, who become animals in human drag. The drag guinea pigs, of course, look totally lurid. Suffering them to bear the markers of gender ruins them – and to captivating effect, or so it would seem, to judge by the speaker’s rapture.
Whatever is happening to the sister, who “swell[s] and ached and throb[s],” blurs the lines between extreme injury, sexual arousal, and pregnancy. To a child, the extremities wrought on the female body by pregnancy (not to mention sexuality) may appear grotesque indeed – all the more frightening to a girl coming into a nascent awareness of her own biology. “Puking,” mandatory bed-rest, and the swelling protrusions of the pregnant body – biological phenomena that evoke visions of a particularly grim future. In light of these private fears, the guinea pigs mimic swarms of externalized fetuses that must be exterminated or beaten back.
Amidst this grotesque spectacle, the sister remains calm and indifferent, both to her physical state and to her power to kill, though this may as well be a daredevil performance: the vomit “runs out of her slack mouth without her moving a single nerve.” The speaker, on the other hand, experiences the pleasures of stark biological fascination and perhaps no small degree of terror. The imagistic flottage of the poem – dough and baking, gathering forest blueberries, mannequins, warm “teats” – is expressly domestic, coded female. They are fragments of a gender-essentialized world that the two girls have just spectacularly destroyed, along with legions of guinea pigs.
Berg’s poem radically upends the notion that women, young girls in particular, are free from sadistic compulsion and cruelty, burrowing into the heart of the dialectic between cuteness and violence. The preoccupation of pre-adolescent girls with all things cute, perhaps, speaks not to their attraction to things that mirror their own innocence but to things that mirror their own abjection and fear of further deformity; it reflects the degree to which they have already found themselves stripped of significant social agency. Cuteness, then, far from being a harmless aesthetic category, reveals a state of acute deformity.
Despite this, there is a palpable quest for pleasure at the heart of Berg’s excessive poetics, and utter delight in the grotesque. As Arielle Greenberg noted in her original talk on the Gurlesque, “[The] honest assessment of the perverse pleasures of horror — even horror so closely associated with women’s suppression — is one of the key markers of the Gurlesque.” The Gurlesque’s appropriation of the grotesque, like its appropriation of burlesque, camp, and kitsch, stands in outright defiance of the cannons of classical aesthetics and their masculocentric practices.
To Bakhtin, women represent the quintessential grotesque: they are “penetrable, suffer the addition of alien body parts, and become alternately huge and tiny” (Bakhtin 339). Grotesque bodies, male or female, are no longer “clearly differentiated from the word but transferred, merged, fused with it” (Bakhtin 339). This concept manifests in Berg’s poem, “In the Heart of the Guinea Pig Darkness.” At the center of the poem lies a “gigantic guinea-pig queen” with a “sensitive swollen egg-white body,” who – like the sister in the preceding poem – moans and bleeds. She births countless guinea pigs that “crawl on each other like spiders.” The babies also “hatch out of caves and holes,” conflating the queen’s body with the cave itself. The sister is nowhere to be found; in this poem, the speaker addresses, most surprisingly, her lover:
We run with the heart in the tunnel, you and I, while nervous systems break down behind us, while the amniotic fluid surges in the pumping, pulsing cavern. Rotting acids and guinea-pig lymph are streaming yes streaming down the walls. Guinea pigs are coming. Here they come to get us! Now they’re opening us up, now they’re swallowing us with their pink flesh organs. Now I love you and now I fear you, and now I finally roll out your guinea-pig body on the baking sheet.
The conflation of the cave with the guinea-pig queen’s body is total: the speaker and her lover are trapped inside a gargantuan reproductive system, attempting to flee. We are in the domain of high camp – “Here they come to get us!” – a sci-fi parody of teenage melodrama, lovers fleeing societal “oppressors.” When the speaker baldly exclaims, “Now I love you and now I fear you,” the lover’s identity begins to merge with the guinea pigs and this strange elision becomes the axis on which the end of the poem turns. The entire narrative of the chase dramatically collapses into the lover’s “guinea pig-body,” which the speaker rolls out on a baking sheet. As Ngai notes in her essay, the very idea of cuteness is deeply bound up in the language of eating and consumption, edibility being the ultimate index of cuteness.
As the poem closes, the male lover, now addressed as “my beautiful traitor,” leans back against the cave wall as the speaker handles his body, letting his skin “grow into the stinking cell plasma of the guinea-pig wall.” The lover is being reabsorbed into the body of the mother-queen “and the guinea-pigs swarm all the way into the depth of [his] guinea-pig organism.” The term “cute,” of course, is also the term that teenage girls (and even grown women) commonly use when referring to men they’re attracted to – those “beautiful traitors[s].” To call a sexual object “cute” expresses a linguistic deformation: girls and women have traditionally been forbidden to speak about (or even experience) the stirrings of sexual desire. Demoting a sexually arousing man to the status of a puppy or a cupcake represents the phenomena of stunted female sexuality. Girls, the very epitome of “cute,” already know very well that cuteness is only achieved through a kind of cultural pruning and binding, and perhaps the primary thing that is pruned back in girls and young women is their system of sexual response, their own body, from which they are methodically divorced through a series of cultural and linguistic subversions, learning to see themselves as object rather than subject.
One of the most astonishing features of Berg’s poem, though, is the way in which the swarming guinea pigs colonize signification so that they symbolize offspring, the avenging queen, the lover’s body, and finally, the experience of desire itself. In doing so, Berg overfreights networks of signification so that they collapse, completely deforming language’s capacity as a conduit for desire. The speaker’s imagined violent penetration of her lover through his mouth ostensibly debilitates his language, too. Sex and reproduction, in this poem, are a processes of extreme deformation.
Gurlesque poets such as Berg contend that human bodies and human language (and thus identity) are not closed, discrete systems. They are grotesque bodies/systems — never finished, ever-morphing, unstable, porous and open. The body, as the nexus of language and identity, is a strange borderland, the site of erratic and highly specific (and language-mediated) desires. There is no experience of “pure” identity or language available to us, no unmediated desire. A dystopic vision, perhaps, but debunking notions of female purity is an anti-essentializing project of the first order.
If aesthetic categories such as the grotesque or kitsch are, as Adorno claims, “a parody of catharsis,” why would Gurlesque poets engage in such strategies? To begin with, catharsis comes from the Greek verb “to purify.” The concept of the pure lies at the heart of western aesthetics, and women, non-whites, queers, impoverished, or disabled persons have historically been labeled as social contaminants. Gurlesque poets deny catharsis because they deny the aesthetics of the pure. And belief in the pure, as Adorno demonstrates, is inextricably linked to belief in the real. Who among us can actually locate the “real” feelings Adorno speaks of, which we are to value over “fictitious” feelings? In the moment that we experience them, all feelings are equally real. Isn’t that, after all, the primary power (and terror and pleasure) of art?
Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. C. Lenhardt. London: Routledge, 1984.
---. “Veblan’s Attack on Culture.” Studies in Philosophy and Social Science 9 (1941):
Bahktin, Mikhail. Rabelais and his World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Cambridge: MIT, 1968.
Berg, Aase. Remainland. Trans. Johannes Goransson. South Bend, IN: Action Books, 2005.
Greenberg, Arielle. “On the Gurlesque.” Small Press Traffic website. <http://web.archive.org/web/20040108013739/http://www.sptraffic.org/html/news_rept/gurl.html>
Ngai, Sianne. “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde.” Critical Inquiry. 31.4 (Summer 2005): 811-847.
Tiffany, Daniel. “Kitsching The Cantos.” Modernism/modernity 12.2 (April 2005): 329-337.