Experiential Kitsch

“You said that we 
Could possibly 
Spend eternity”   

How can experience be anything but kitsch? Unable to follow the times, that of deep time, barely grasping with the ”sublime hyperobject of climate change”1, with the inevitable extinction, it cannot but simmer in pathos. Its exclusion makes it superficial and meaningless, even though it desperately tries to hold on to the last vestiges of meaning – gather and preserve it for harsher times that are unmistakably coming its way – by way of affective attainment, diving deeper into its libidinal underpinnings and affective dispositions. Such futile attempt of stabilising its own uncentering, even if only to make the transition into nothingness less excruciating, makes it seem even more “pathetic”. Yet how far can the drive for self-preservation take it? At what point does it become theatrical and flamboyant: perhaps tacky, but not without also being deeply ironic? In other words, at what point does it become camp?

Perhaps surprising that experience as such could be treated as an object of aesthetic judgement, or taste, but as it is a common source and mode of articulation, it cannot escape it. At least so I’ve noticed; from experience. So when one considers it as kitsch, they for the most part consider whether the human as ‘an experiencing being’ holds any epistemic and aesthetic value, and what happens to said value when transposed to the particular universality as that of art and thought. Such judgement is aesthetic, but not without any ethical implications. If indeed found as kitsch, experience may not be only aesthetically frowned upon, but quite possibly also ethically condemned, as kitsch tends to find its mentions amidst religious statements on “Satan”2 and moralistic ponderings on “radically evil men”3. This makes the expected disapproval, if not even radical annoyance, with kitsch twofold. 

So what could make experience kitsch? As technical imaging and remote observation expand the aesthetic limitations and reshape the social imaginary4, there is not a lot that a lived experience can do to compensate for its lost influence. Stuck in anthropocentric time, it can merely inflate meaning, create growing, flat planes (in contrast to worlds) with countless ornamental fragments, little mindless memes that have lost their original reference and are stuck in an anxious loop of half-meaning, endlessly processing the un-processable. The generating scenery of the looming calamity that experience creates can be considered apocalyptic, yet calmingly familiar, the figures amorphous, but endearingly cute, the gestures overdramatised, but pleasantly empty. In contrast to the happening of the expanded real, the experience of it produces mere bad fiction, collectable like figurines and schmaltzy souvenirs, horrifying us only to calm us down, not unlike Jenny Ryan’s plush toy sculpture, Soft 9/11, “presenting the Twin Towers as cartoonish, anthropomorphised figures captured in the combined moments that the attacking planes penetrated the buildings. The buildings, holding hands, show expressions of sickness and surprise on their faces.”5

Jenny Ryan, Soft 9/11; source: boingboing.net

Of course, it is reasonable to be sceptical when it comes to the therapeutic effect of such bad fictions. Like in the case of the plushy, these fictions might indeed capture the troubling event in comfort, but they also “stave off and silence any questioning of the mythology of the United States’ innocence and purity at home and abroad.”6 It would not be too farfetched to come to a similar conclusion when it comes to the bad fictions of our experience as well: struggling to grasp with the accelerating material changes that transpire on the axis of the corporal and environmental, they might be even deemed as mythologising and covering up the severity and scope of the planetary crisis. All plausible concerns.

That is if they stay as mere kitsch. As meaning inflates and experience gains its fantastic dimension, the flat planes and its miniature figures can turn away from “stylisation”, producing (merely) a bricolage of acquired meaning, and turn to “posing”7. The bad fictions, in this case, find a new love for artifice and exaggeration, no longer solely fixated on the cause of their existential dread. Instead, they directly engage with the lack, caused by their exclusion from the extended happening of the real; creating fictions of the “super-unnatural”8. This would be experience defined by the “camping effect”, a queer competitor to the paranoid mentality of its conspiratorial cousin (still clinging to the real; posing as theory).  

  1. Vít Bohal, ‘Anthropocene Aesthetics: Sublime, Weird, and Queer’, in: V. Bohal, D. Breitling (eds.), 2014, Speculative Ecologies, Litteria Pragensia Books, Prague, p. 31.  
  2. C. E. Emmer, ‘Traditional Kitsch and the Janus-Head of Comfort’, in: J. Stępień (ed.), 2014, Redefining Kitsch and Camp in Literature and Culture, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne, pp. 25–26.
  3. ibid.
  4. Vít Bohal, ibid., p. 28.
  5. C. E. Emmer, ibid., pp. 30–31.
  6. Marita Sturken, as cited in C. E. Emmer, ibid., p. 33.
  7. Anna Malinowska, ‘Bad Romance: Pop and Camp in Light of Evolutionary Confusion’, in: J. Stępień (ed.), 2014, Redefining Kitsch and Camp in Literature and Culture, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne, p. 18.
  8. ibid.

Author: Domen Ograjenšek

Writer, art critic, curator

One thought on “Experiential Kitsch”

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