A Defense of Kitsch Criticism

Some kitsch criticism certainly deserves criticism itself. When a major leftist publication devotes a whole issue to the analysis of Lana del Rey, it’s hard not to start tut-tutting, as Ross Wolfe does, citing art critic Harold Rosenberg. Reading the collection of think pieces, that indispensable tool of pop-culture criticism, one can’t help but wonder what’s being accomplished. It’s hard to shake the feeling that such analysis isn’t the same sleight-of-hand that it tries to pin on the starlet herself.

Contemporary discourse is saturated with pop culture analysis. The explosion of new digital media has taken kitsch criticism as its bread and butter, so much so that it’s hard not to find oneself not reflexively passing over the latest Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones analysis. Most left-intellectuals at least dabble in it, the exemplar of whom is Slavoj Žižek, who regularly deploys it in his lectures and even makes whole movies devoted to it.

This isn’t without reason. For those wanting to mount criticisms of capitalism, kitsch is an obvious port of entry – kitsch is ubiquitous, doesn’t need special training to consume or discuss, and is a uniquely capitalist phenomenon. But the amount of ink devoted to it results in, as Wolfe puts it, “that odd situation where a piece of writing or commentary comes to resemble the [pop-culture] object it supposedly critiques: dull, ephemeral, and ultimately forgettable.”

That kitsch criticism strays into becoming kitsch itself isn’t being contested here. What I am offering, though, is a corrective for Wolfe’s post – a reminder that, though we might risk straying into counterproductive irrelevance, we can’t cede kitsch as an ideological battleground. Kitsch is there, and like Rosenberg’s malarial mosquito, we have to grapple with it until we have the means to reshape the landscape and do away with it entirely (between 1946 and 1950, a massive project was undertaken – successfully – to rid Sardinia of malaria and the mosquitos that carried it; it involved a substantial draining of swampland on the island).

Among the more relevant examples of this are two of the articles that Wolfe cites, “Death to the Gamer” and “In Defense of Gamers”, both of which address Gamergate. Gamergate is a recent scandal in the video game community, ostensibly about journalistic ethics, but in reality an excuse to carry out a campaign of terroristic misogyny against certain women and their supporters. The scandal has also resulted in a large volume of writing, both about it and about gender and video games more broadly.

I’ve read and written a great deal about Gamergate. And, sure, I too have to make an editorial disclosure that I play video games. But what struck me most about the discussion surrounding Gamergate were the narratives being offered up by different parties of different analytical stripes. For feminists, Gamergate was fundamentally about misogyny, specifically the misogyny native to and cultivated by video game culture. This is true, but after the initial shockwaves passed, anticapitalist voices came forward offering an additional interpretation – Gamergate was also a political-economic phenomenon, one inextricably linked to video games as a capitalistic enterprise, and one that was indicative of broader trends in the cultural commodification of late capitalism.

This discussion about what Gamergate is, exactly, is one that has both theoretical and pragmatic implications. If we accept the mainstream analyses, we risk succumbing to the same problems that afflict neoliberal feminism – a bias for identitarian concerns and a blindness to how those intersect with class dimensions. This blindness limits us to merely demanding more from a capital that retains all the same proclivities that produced Gamergate in the first place. If we acknowledge that there is a class component, on the other hand, it opens up the possibility of not just demanding more, but of reshaping the industry root and branch into something that precludes terroristic misogyny from the outset.

It was just so with the malarial mosquito. Aggressive applications of DDT were not what eradicated it. It was, as Rosenberg himself pointed out, the reshaping of the Sardinian landscape itself, which required an understanding of the insect and how it reproduced.

All this to say: video games may be kitsch through and through, but moments like Gamergate reveal them also as a point of contradiction, which brings us to that core technique of anticapitalist, and particularly Marxist, critique. Crises like Gamergate are analogous to capitalist crises of accumulation – they are cracks in the armor of capitalist social reproduction. To engage kitsch on this point isn’t to suss out “the wisdom secreted in bad movies” or to “test the pollution in the water.” It’s to grapple with the terms of capitalism itself, and understand how they bear on our humanist and socialist praxis within it. And that is criticism worth undertaking.

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One thought on “A Defense of Kitsch Criticism

  1. Ironically, the list of authors whose essays were included in the collection on Mass Culture, which Rosenberg was reviewing, was pretty impressive. Edmund Wilson, David Riesman, and Leo Löwenthal all contributed pieces. And while Rosenberg thought there was some merit to their studies, he nevertheless took issue with their chosen objects of critique. Or rather, he disagreed about their significance.

    Today, the calibre of cultural critics is far lower than this. Žižek, for all his clowning, is quite talented as a (pop) cultural critic. So are Owen Hatherley, and Agata Pyzik, and perhaps Anna Khachiyan as well.

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