by Becca Klaver
Bloof Books, April 2013
36 pages / $8 Buy from Bloof Books
There is certainly a widespread fascination with Pop in women’s writing and performance today. From the Warholian Pop Vanessa Place Inc., to Lady’s Gaga ARTPOP album, women’s culture has embraced the “lowbrow” of POPular culture, it’s would-be nemesis. Lara Glenum’s Pop Corpse and Becca Klaver’s Nonstop Pop, are two such examples. In an endless purposeful regression towards their inner fucked up girly girl, Klaver and Glenum explore not only in the language of pop but also in the relationship between the paranoid nature of pop and the always already dead and doubted girl.
Glenum’s Pop Corpse takes place in a post-apocalyptic ecological wasteland—literally, an unda-tha-sea Little Mermaid remix that takes place in a world devoid of terra firma, an archipelago of “floating islands of plastic garbage.” The book follows an asexual mermaid named XXX on her quest to give herself a vagina by any means (cleverly troping on the desexed Little Mermaid, who perhaps didn’t only wish for legs)—whether this means self-cutting, visiting the Sea Witch, or killing The Smear, the philosophizing love interest. XXX is publicly shamed for self-mutilation, and quarantined in a “RE-EDUCATION CAMP 4 THE SEXUALLY DEVIANT,” where she films her own self-mutilation, presumable broadcasting it on the underwater internet. Written in dramatic form, and utilizing pop-slang and e-slang, here, pop is a language, a way of thinking, but it also predicates pain and suffering for the mermaids. In many ways, Glenum’s scoring of feminine affect reads like a transcription of a hyper-girly Ryan Trecartin film. The mermaids talk like they’re texting: “Ever since the ocean’s gone toxic and the earth’s been burnt to a crisp, she’s been totes sketch.” And the male characters have absorbed the ironic, sexist adolescent boy humor that dominates American capitalist entertainment discourse: “Try kissing one sometime. It’s like giving a rim job to a dysentery victim. With really long ass hair.” Yet, the language remains manic, and at times is theoretically lucid. For instance, an Undersea Denizen observes that the King and Queen of the Sea are “openly oppressing us by persistently courting/curtailing our lines of sight with the spectacle of their Vision Machines […] a culturally-produced spectacle that naturalizes highly specific forms of desire and consumption.”
It is these acute observations about the spectacle of commodity that Becca Klaver’s Nonstop Pop performs. In this way, Nonstop Pop always predicts loss, even when it does not explicitly perform it. In a neoconfesional meets Flarf vein, the poems are a mix of lineated reflections and prose meditations that struggle with the ridiculous demands of consumerism—“less treadmill, more Skechers Shape-Ups” and “I was like so … Geico/ And you were like so… Activia”—as well as a troubled attachment to a more adolescent, indeed girlish, relation with capitalist commodity—from “Schwarzeneneggery”: “She knows she’s not supposed to love it but knows that’s why she does […] she presumes to be a muscleman.”
Lauren Berlant has argued that women’s culture is a juxtapolitical entity. Thus, women’s culture may not be revolutionary in a destructive or subversive sense—in the sense of a counterpublic or subculture—but rather serves as a maintenance mechanism. Women’s culture may be critical of the status quo, but remains in fidelity with oppressive structures and norms. Nevertheless, women’s culture also legitimates and embodies desires towards luminosity and exceptionalism and in this way is a kind of messy, confused clusterfuck of feminine desire.
For Berlant, the sentimental mid-century romance films are axiomatic of the female complaint, which is that love is the gift that keeps on taking. Women’s culture, an example of what Berlant calls an “intimate public,” thus allows need fulfillment, but also yearns for a more vulnerable, balanced, compassionate iteration of romantic love. However, the female complaint of the mid-twentieth century can hardly still be indicative of the multivocal frustration of today’s still marginalized women. Glenum’s and Klaver’s works give us two perspectives on female dissatisfaction. For Glenum, the female complaint is primarily a lack of symbolic access. XXX is neither female, nor male, and this symbolic reality is made material in her lack of sexual organs. But XXX wants badly to feel desire. As we will see, XXX is straight-up girl: as Delezue and Guattari argue, a figure of pure becoming, and thus pure desire.
Klaver’s work points out, however, that capitalist narrative fetishism is still largely interested in repackaging “the staged break-up under the antique lamppost haze.” And yet, for many women, “so grateful for the Hollywood formula,” those narratives, as obviously problematic as they may be, continue to define not just the pains, but also the joys of our childhoods, our girlhoods, and our womanhoods. We are still woefully (and often not so woefully) attached to them. Both writers fold the opposing and contradictory yearnings towards commodity fetishism and systematic rejection of capitalist exploitation into one another. “America so vast and usable,” as Klaver writes. And yet, acutely aware of the privilege of such a statement, “what can I tell you that will exploit myself and no one else.” In the words of XXX’s mermaid sister Blubber Socket, who seems more content with her vagina-less future, “We spiritualize consumption! We’re nothing but surface!”
Rather than purely sentimental, then, the female complaint contained in these collections is something more unstable and contradictory—full of irony, skepticism, mockery, disdain, panic, paranoia, freedom, play, and yes, nostalgia. Our girlfriend Glenum asks of our lover Pop:
“Is this a relationship
a confused noise”
We see similar approaches to women’s culture in the performance and internet-based work of artists like Kate Durbin, and indeed in Glenum’s own readings of Pop Corpse!, which have recently included costumed performances. This kind of work is all owning the spectacle of the girl (OMG she’s making a spectacle of herself!), and yet, as Pop Corpse makes clear, it’s also about suffering.
It was, we should remember, the post-war economy of the 1940s that, along with a dissatisfaction with the formalism of Abstract Expressionism, inaugurated Pop Art and its later iterations. Poor economies necessitate greater popular distraction, not only to keep the masses sleepy, delusional and unmotivated to revolt, but also to help us deal. With all this in mind, it no longer seems strictly coincidental, self-indulgent, or even intentional that contemporary work has an increased interest in Warholian irony, performance, and ambiguity. To borrow a phrase from the new kings and queens of pop-theory over at Gaga Stigmata, many of us have no choice but to move at the “speed of pop.” Thus, conceptualism and these related feminist poetic iterations are closely linked: neither have time to dress up in fancy clothing, choosing instead cheap, bubblegummy, sale rack clothing, which feels more indicative of the 99%.
In other words, pop is poverty, and poverty is pop. Pop is cheap, fast, easy, sexy and an altogether intimate affair. And of course, pop is paranoid, because, as we know, pop is always watching us.
Capitalist commodification, specifically of the girl, is in both collections translated into an embodied, paranoiac state. Klaver’s work is here reminiscent of the witness in the Buddhist sense, observing the chaos of the everyday from a removed but not disconnected distance (whereas XXX is totally, even materially, imbricated). In both approaches, however, the subject is rendered permanently unstable, outside itself, and yet implicated by the gendered symbolic and by commodity fetishism. In these works, desire and drive do exist, but so does repulsion, injustice, eco-waste, war, self-mutilation, addiction and rehab.
Significant in Glenum’s Pop Corpse is this latter theme of torture, trauma and self-mutilation. It has been widely documented that self-mutilation is spurred by a desire to feel control of one’s body—no surprise then that this illness is primarily experienced by teen girls. The desire for pain here is not just a desire for physical hurt, but for certainty, where the world itself only offers the girl apprehension. The girl—forever a becoming—has been reduced to pure flesh, and so is dead before she is living. Or, perhaps, the erotic and bloodied girl-corpse women writers are so fascinated by today, is the desire for pure pain, the perversion-subversion of the candied and paranoid face of pop. This is not an Top Model ugly-pretty face, but rather pretty-in-pain face. Moreover, given the very patriarchal tradition of aestheticizing the tortured girl—the girl, interrupted—and the more recent phantasm of the girl as global neoliberal charity case, perhaps the most salient qualities of the girl-in-pop is pain and suffering. As Glenum writes:
My suffering has become frivolous & ornamental
which is to say
it now participates in “luxury, mourning, war, cults,
the construction of sumptuary monuments, games,
Indeed, as Glenum writes, “When u r a GIRL/ yr body is a CRIME LAB.” In other words, a site of skepticism. When discussing with her sister her own self-mutilation, XXX claims “It’s performance art,” while sister PURSED & PUCKERED argues it’s “More like torture porn.” Given the number of untested rape kits sitting in crime labs across the country, as well as rape culture’s continued a priori dehumanization of the girl, all of these responses to girlishness feel dead on (pun intended), but it is being met with the pose of uncertainty, of doubt, that girls know best.
Amanda Montei holds an MFA from California Institute of the Arts, and is currently a PhD student at SUNY at Buffalo. She is co-editor, with Jon Rutzmoser, of Bon Aire Projects, and editor of the literary journal P-QUEUE. Her novel Two Memoirs is forthcoming from Jaded Ibis Press in 2014.