Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Getting Ugly: Adorno, Anti-Pastoral, and the Punk Body

Forgive me, gentle reader, for the hyper-academic title of this post, utterly, irredeemably formulaic as it is. A punchy little phrase, a colon, a famous theorist's name, a genre, some pop culture and "the body" — half the papers at this year's MLA probably followed that format. But some day a rain will come, a real rain, that will wash all those titles from our works, and we'll go back to calling things "Aspects of the Novel" or "Some Versions of Pastoral."

But that's not why you dropped by. You wanted to know what was up with the Adorno confab in the works between Scroggins, Park, and the present humble blogger.

I wish I had my copy of Lipstick Traces handy, but I'm hanging out on the abandoned Lake Forest College campus today (old habits die hard — as the son of a prof I grew up in the university ghetto, and I couldn't wait for the students to head home so I could have the place to myself, scudding around the big concrete campus on my skateboard or, through a little minor-league vandalism, making my way to the rooftop of the chemistry building to read A Moveable Feast) (but I digress). So I'm here, and Greil Marcus' masterpiece repines on the radiator in my front room back at the house, pages yellowing in the late afternoon sun. And I'll have to respond to Park's new post on Adorno without throwing down the big chunks of Marcus' book I'd like to, though I can work with a few photocopies I've got in the office somewhere. Since I'm too jacked on caffeine to wait until I get home, I'll just have to freestyle, and throw in some bits of poetry from the Norton anthology (which is never far from my soft, pale, academic hands).

  • Ugliness and Anti-Pastoralism

    Park has made it to the chapter on beauty and the ugly in Adorno's Aesthetic Theory, a book he and Scroggins and I have been going through more-or-less simultaneously. Park's taken up the bit where Adorno talks about the rise of the ugly in art. Here's what Park says:

    ...Adorno concerns himself with the ugly and the beautiful. He addresses art's relationship to the 'ugly', which he situates as a more or less recent development. "The motive for the admission of the ugly," he claims, "was antifeudal. The peasants became a fit subject for art" (p. 48).

    This is familiar stuff to anyone who's spent time with nineteenth century lit: think of all those peasants in Wordsworth ("Simon Lee," "Michael" and the like). Poems like these deal a heavy blow to the feudal era's pastoral tradition of idealized landscapes and work-shy shephards who seem to spend their days lounging beneath the grape arbor pining languidly for love.

    Or go back earlier than Wordsworth, to the late eighteenth century: George Crabbe's "The Village" gives us a dire landscape of socio-economic ruin and general nastiness where we (as 18th C. readers) may have expected to read of beautiful pastoral comforts. In fact, the poem begins with a good sharp kick to the teeth of the beauties of the pastoral tradition. Check it out:

    Yes, thus the Muses sing of happy swains,
    Because the Muses never knew their pains:
    They boast their peasants' pipes; but peasants now
    Resign their pipes and plod behind the plough;
    And few, amid the rural-tribe, have time
    To number syllables, and play with rhyme;
    Save honest Duck, what son of verse could share
    The poet's rapture, and the peasant's care?

    And no, "Honest Duck" isn't a superhero, or some figure out of a mealy-mouthed Christian cartoon. He's a poet, Stephen Duck, an actual peasant, and remarkable autodidact. Sort of the John Clare of his day.

    Anyway. Oliver Goldsmith, another late 18th C. guy, does something similar to Crabbe in creating an aesthetic of the ugly in his long poem "The Deserted Village." My favorite bit of Goldsmith's antipastoral aesthetic of ugliness comes when he imagines the inhabitants of his ruined village forced to emigrate from England to the banks of the Alatamaha river, somwhere between what are now the cities of Savannah, Georgia and Jacksonville, Florida. What they find isn't pretty:

    Through torrid tracts with fainting steps they go,
    Where wild Altama murmurs to their woe.
    Far different there from all that charm'd before,
    The various terrors of that horrid shore;
    Those blazing suns that dart a downward ray,
    And fiercely shed intolerable day;
    Those matted woods where birds forget to sing,
    But silent bats in drowsy clusters cling;
    Those poisonous fields, with rank luxuriance crown'd,
    Where the dark scorpion gathers death around;
    Where at each step the stranger fears to wake
    The rattling terrors of the vengeful snake...

    Goldsmith's Georgia is so gawdaful the birds actually refuse to sing. Beauty resigns in disgust! (Last time I was in Georgia, the birds were singing full force, but that was in Athens, where the soft patchouli-scent of bohemia gentles the air).

    In one sense, all this Goldsmith/Crabbe business is all in line with what Adorno has to say. Here's a bit of Aesthetic Theory (quoted by Park) in which Adorno spells out the function of the ugly in terms that seem to describe what's happening in Goldsmith and Crabbe:

    Art must take up the cause of what is proscribed as ugly, though no longer in order to integrate or mitigate it or to reconcile it with its own existence through humor that is more offensive than anything repulsive. Rather, in the ugly, art must denounce the world that creates and reproduces the ugly in its own image, even if in this too the possibility persists that sympathy with the degraded will reverse into concurrence with degradation. (p. 49).

    Crabbe and Goldsmith give us a kind of ugly very different from, say, Shakespeare's comic ugliness (Falstaff, Dogberry, etc.). The ugly isn't in their poems for an (inherently classist) comic relief. It's here to throw the crappiness of the unfair and unjust world in our faces. In this, it's of a piece with the whole Zola groove of late nineteenth century Realism and Naturalism: it shows us the suffering people in art in order to condemn the world that creates ugliness and suffering.

  • Antifeudal Ugliness? Not So Fast!

    But in another sense all this evidence points in a slightly different direction than the first passage of Adorno points. I mean, from Goldsmith and Crabbe in the 18th C. through Wordsworth in the early 19th C. on to Zola in the late 19th C., the protest art makes via the rejection of traditional ideas of beauty isn't "antifeudal" at all: it's anti-capitalist. Sure, Wordsworth and Goldsmith explode the pastoral tradition, but in both cases they are protesting against the end of a sort of late feudal world, against the destruction of that world by capitalist developments. In Wordsworth's "Simon Lee," the problem is that the eponymous protagonist has been displaced from his old livery-wearing job as a huntsman in a nobleman's house. The decline of the aristocracy is a bad thing here, not a happy development (after his early revolutionary zeal, Wordsworth became a kind of Burke-reading conservative — for which Shelley never forgave him). And Goldsmith's village has been decimated by the enclosure system — the closing of small tenant farms so that landlords could keep flocks to grow wool for the emerging capitalist-owned textile industry. So the poem can hardly be taken as a protest against the residual feudal order. (Crabbe's another story — I don't think he's nostalgic for anything. He's like the old donkey in Orwell's animal farm, the one who thought that things have always been bad and always will be bad, a general miserablist of the first order, and therefore really very good reading for a bad day, when you want to cast a curse on all houses). And Zola? Fuggetaboutit — there's no nostalgia for feudalism in his work. But there's plenty of anxiety about capitalism — the lead character of Nana is a nightmare of capitalist consumption (of course Adorno has a lot to say about anti-capitalism in art and literature and music too).

  • Adorno Meets Johnny Rotten

    But here's where I want to bring in Greil Marcus' Lipstick Traces and his riffs on punk style. I've got a hunch that had a mischevious God plucked him from his study where he'd repaired to listen to Alban Berg, and plopped the bewildered philosopher down backstage at a Sex Pistols concert, Adorno wouldn't much like what he heard or what he saw. But in a way Punk seems very much in line with the kind of aesthetics of ugliness Adorno goes on about. There's the deliberate crudeness of the music, but there's more, too: think about the late-seventies, King's Row punk body-and-clothing parade.

    "It's hard to remember how ugly the first punks were" — that's one of Greil Marcus' great lines in Lipstick Traces, and he couldn't be more right. I mean, think of it, before it all got cleaned up and domesticated and marketed in that Great All-Consuming Maw of Capitalism way. The unbearable ugliness of Doc Martens, the affrontery of the big-ass safety pin through the face, the ripped up, filthy, S&M-inflected outfits, the penchant for spit and vomit — it's all more or less of a piece with the idea of the ugly as a protest against or refusal of social conditions. For starters, there's the great refusal of instrumentality and use-to-the-system of it all: back in the late 70s, you dressed that way and modified your body that way and talked that way in order to declare (and choose) your unemployability. You felt like a social leftover and you chose and declared that status, throwing it in the face of whoever came your way. Here's a bit from Marcus, not quite the one I wanted, but the best bit I've got with me right now:

    They were ugly. There were no mediations. A ten-inch safety pin cutting through a lower lip into a swastika tatooed onto a cheek was not a fashion statement: a fan forcing a finger down his throat, vomiting into his hands, then hurling the spew at the people on stage was spreading disease. An inch-thick nimbus of black mascara suggested death before it suggested anything else. The punks were not just pretty people, like the Slits or bassist Gaye of the Adverts, they made themselves ugly. They were fat, anorexic, pockmarked, acned, stuttering, crippled, scarred, and damaged, and what their new decorations underlined was the failure already engraved in their faces. The Sex Pistols had somehow permitted them to appear in public as human beings, to parade their afflictions as social facts.

    And that's why we like Greil Marcus more than we like Lester Bangs, boys and girls: the insight that things like punk bodies were a statements, throwings of ugly "social facts" up into public view. (Lester Bangs' freaky homophobia also doesn't help his cause) (but I digress yet again) (but I can't stand it that Bangs couldn't appreciate glam rock, so I beg your indulgence).

  • But Wait...

    But there's a catch:the whole aesthetic of the ugly thing has a tendency to drift away from being a refusal of the existing social world into being something that sophisticated people use to re-enforce their elite class identity.

    I was saying that the ugly as protest becomes something different. I'm thinking of what Pierre Bourdieu points out in another book I don't have with me, Distinction. One of the things Bourdieu's data points to is this: that people without a lot of cultural capital (that is, people who don't have a lot of background in the kind of cultural attitudes and tastes that the society as a whole views as prestigious) don't groove on the ugly. They prefer photos of non-abject subject matter to photos of stuff people think of as abject. I think the examples were pictures of first communions vs. pictures of potatos — I could be wrong, but it was something like that. There was a kind of inverse relation between cultural capital and the kind of subject matter people preferred in their art. If you're one of the culturatti, you're more likely to appreciate a photo of rotting potatos ("such fantastic contrast between the deep blacks and the pale highlights!" "what texture!") than you are to appreciate the overtly beautiful aesthetic ("girls in their pretty communion dresses — so banal!"). And the other way around, too. So in a weird and ironic way, the anti-social aesthetic of ugliness that we see from Crabbe and Goldsmith down to Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten can turn into a sign of one's relatively high social status: only the rubes shudder at the ugly, so embracing it becomes a sign of savoir-faire.

    So, here's my question: how does Adorno respond to this kind of irony? I'm sure he does, somewhere. Let me know, Adornonauts...

  • In Other News

    Brian Campbell and R.J. McCaffery have some interesting posts up on the ever-ongoing absorptive/antiabsorptive art debate.