Prolegomena to Any Future Discussion of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Part 1

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In a recent palaver at the US Intellectual History blog, the long-running and irresolvable debate about what intellectual historians ought to study reached a familiar ad absurdum resting point: should we study this or that ridiculous thing?

The “this” and “that” in this case were Glenn Beck and the TLC reality TV show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, respectively. I think both are proper subjects for intellectual history, which, as I understand it, has transitioned from the study of traditional intellectuals to the study of conceptual structures and their change over time. Correlatively, it seems to me that the always thin line that separated intellectual from cultural history has been permanently erased. That seems good to me; it seems bad to others. Anecdotally, in the final analysis, the instigator of the debate revealed himself to be concern-trolling the collective in the name of a poorly defined miserabilist alarmism concerning the end of Western civilization. That kind of thinking is not interesting to me.

What was most interesting about the conversation, however, was the reference to Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, a very different creature from Glenn Beck. The latter, after all, writes books, talks about politics and culture for a living, publishes a magazine, constantly references works of scholarship (often terrible ones, and in the case of less terrible ones, usually in service of conspiracy-mongering and character assassination, but works of scholarship all the same), and even founded something called “Glenn Beck University.” In other words, Beck is clearly engaged in the kind of textual production in which intellectual historians are interested. If the study of the writings of William F. Buckley, Ayn Rand, Whittaker Chambers, or Westbrook Pegler count as legitimate archival sources for intellectual history, why not Beck?

Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, on the other hand, is a TV show. Honey Boo Boo and the members of her family are not traditional intellectuals, but I will argue that their performances for the camera are certainly worthy of study with the tools of intellectual history.

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I will specify below why I think this is so–my justification requires a registral shift and the introduction of some terms. But first, it bears mentioning that Here Comes Honey Boo Boo qualifies as a suitable object for intellectual history in at least two straightforward ways. First, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is the latest in a long line of documentary engagements with southern proletarian life, from the researches of song collectors following in the footsteps of Francis James Child, to the famous New Deal projects of  You Have Seen Their Faces and the photography of Dorothea Lange, to Michael Harrington’s The Other America to Barbara Koppel’s  Harlan County, USA to the recent arthouse hit The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia. (To this list, of course, hundreds of other texts could be added). Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is also rooted in the aesthetic tradition of southern literature. Echoes of Erskine Caldwell, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Al Capp, Russ Meyer, Deliverance,  and The Dukes of Hazzard are audible throughout the show’s run.

Second, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is a product of a shift in the political economy of television: the rise of reality TV as a source of cheap content and a managerial strategy to remove professional writers (unionized white-collar workers with strong contractual guarantees of equitable compensation and residuals) from  the production process. In this transition–which is really a labor history story as much as it is a cultural one, beginning with the WGA-West strike of 1988–the “subjects” of reality TV have increasingly come to function as “writers,” collaborating with producers and editors in the creation of texts. And whatever indeterminacy remains in the disciplinary boundary marking, we know that writers are intellectuals. Thus, Honey Boo Boo Child=an intellectual worker. QED.

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My emphasis here is not, however, on arguments such as these. I want to look not at Honey Boo Boo Child as intellectual but at Here Comes Honey Boo Boo as an aesthetic project rich with meaning regarding certain recent conceptual-historical shifts in the US: I am interested, in other words, in reading Here Comes Honey Boo Boo at the level of what the French call mentalité.

In particular, I think we can learn a great deal by reading Here Comes Honey Boo Boo as a contemporary example of the narrative form called the “grotesque.”

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As Colin Trodd, Paul Barlow, and David Amigoni write in their introduction to the edited volume Victorian Culture and the Idea of the Grotesque, the origins of the term “grotesque” lie in the fifteenth century-era “discovery of fantastic hybrid images adorning the reopened ancient Roman Titus Baths,” which had sunk over time below street level, and thus came to be associated with grottoes. From these grottoes, our term of art “grotesque.” Over time, new connotations glommed on to the term—particularly new figurative meanings of “monstrous” and “fantastic.”

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The “grotesque,” as it is used in modern aesthetic theory, is a uniquely Victorian artifact—as such, it should come as no surprise that the “grotesque” is often the privileged form in anti-capitalist poetics. The Victorian interest in the “grotesque” paralleled the intellectual productions of Marx and Engels (whose Communist Manifesto, we might recall, kicks off with a powerful exercise in “grotesque” rhapsody). Thomas Carlyle, for Trodd, Barlow, and Amigoni the “presiding genius of the grotesque” (from whom the aforementioned text borrowed its pungent central term of opprobrium, the “cash nexus”) saw modernity itself as fundamentally grotesque, because, as the editors observe “contradiction collapsed claims to knowledge, constantly generating the form of its own perversion,” leading to a constant “oscillation between the monstrous and the ridiculous” (3). John Ruskin, who attended to the “grotesque” in his Stones of Venice and Modern Painters, questioned the morality of the “grotesque’s” disfigurements, bestiaries, and violence. At the same time, Victorian aesthetic theory was fascinated with the will-to-ornament to which the classical “grotesque” spoke: the marginal decorations, fanciful gargoyles, and errant filigree resonated with the nineteenth century’s new culture of capitalism and the proliferation of new commercial spaces similarly crowded with contradictory objects (commodities), mimetic fetishes, and a nascent advertising industry drunk on colonialist exotica. Thus the age of “high capitalism” was also a “grotesque” age, and the linkage between the sort of world created by the market and the ever-present danger of the irrepressible explosion of the monstrous has never disappeared

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If Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is a distant descendant of the Victorian “grotesque,” it bears a more direct relation to more recent developments. More precisely, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo stands as the latest in a long line of aesthetic projects that Michael Denning groups together under the label of “proletarian grotesque” (the more familiar “southern grotesque,” practiced by and about which Flannery O’Connor wrote beautifully, can be seen as a subset of the “proletarian grotesque”). In his masterful treatment of the art and ideas of the 1930s and its legacies, The Cultural Front, Denning places the gargoyles of the “proletarian grotesque,” along with the inner-city reveries of the “ghetto pastoral,” at the center of the radical cultural formation of the 1930s, and thus at the center of twentieth century left aesthetics writ large.

In its purest distillations—it might be useful to call up Denning’s Exhibit A, Billie Holiday’s recording of Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit,” or the photographs of Diane Arbus or Weegee, the prose of Richard Wright and Langston Hughes, Raymond Chandler and Cornell Woolrich, the drawings of Robert Crumb, the paintings of Leon Golub, the various experiments in musicalizing noise from Duke Ellington to Morbid Angel, the examples really are endless––the “proletarian grotesque” works by exaggerating and amplifying the monstrous, nightmarish, and frightening dimensions of urban working-class life, attending in particular to contradictions, paradoxes, and impossible juxtapositions to evoke a permanent sense of unreality, of life under the sovereignty of fantasy’s logic.

Denning’s focus upon the “grotesque” challenges dominant readings of Popular Front-era art and literature, readings that characterize all of the aesthetic production of the red decade as so many attempts to stay faithful to the (officially dictated) values of “socialist realism.” Denning stresses, in contrast, the degree to which the “proletarian grotesque’s” putatively realistic gestures often register as profoundly anti-realistic. It is the tension between realism and anti-realism––a tension that is particularly attenuated in moments of global crisis like the Great Depression, or our own time––to which the “grotesque” speaks. This oscillation between realism and anti-realism speaks most of all to the experience of living in capitalist historical time: recall Ernst Bloch and Walter Benjamin’s briefs for the argument that modernity’s distinctive sense of historicity is itself grotesque (even if this was not always the word they used)—shape-shifting and paradoxical, moving backwards and forwards in erratic tempos, marked by “synchronicities of the non-synchronous,” overlapping temporalities, moments of profane illumination and spontaneous “blasting” through the gauze of reification. Under such conditions, even the most unmediated forms of mimesis or reportage might fall squarely within the universe of the “grotesque.”

Denning’s interpretive shift is itself an act of historical recovery—a paradoxical kind of revisionism that derives from carefully reading the Popular Front’s internal dialogues, rather than retroactively deciding the meaning of Depression-era art in light of current concerns or subsequent historical developments. For the “grotesque” was an active topic in the conversations of the 1930s, and an even more active area of aesthetic research. As the screen memory of “socialist realism” crowded out attention to less orthodox cultural strains, the discourse of the “grotesque” disappeared. Forgetting the theory and practice of the “grotesque,” many dissident leftist critics of the postwar era wrote off the left-flavored mass culture of the 1930s and after as a wasteland of brainless populism and propagandistic pablum, tractor musicals and Capra-corn, a gloss that remains current even today. Certainly there was a great deal of dumb, nationalistic, sexist, racist, producerist sentimentalism in the cultural output of the 1930s. But this was hardly the whole story.

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Take 1: Kenneth Burke

Literary critic Kenneth Burke was the key theorist of the “grotesque” in the left intellectual circles of the 1930s. In his book Attitudes Toward History (1937), Burke fleshed out a theory of the “grotesque” in the context of an extended thought experiment on the relationship between literature and receptivity to historical change. Suggesting that most authors and artists react to “progress” with a “yes” or a “no” (a choice which in turn shapes the development of their unique “frame of acceptance”), and that most of Western literature could be classified as either tragedy or comedy, Burke sought to identify deep-rooted ideological dispositions buried under more superficial acts of political signaling. Thus, certain forms of comedy—satire, for example—that might seem at first glance straightforwardly “progressive” (in the left-wing sense), turn out to be quite conservative in their propensity (if not their compulsion) to mock and dismiss every new development. Working out this matrix of tragedy and comedy, affirmation and negation, Burke anticipated much of the Marxist literary criticism of the post-World War II period: Raymond Williams, Fredric Jameson, and Hayden White, for example, all wrestle with Burkean questions in Burkean ways, even if Burke’s name is not always indexed.

The “grotesque,” in the context of Attitudes Toward History, is treated as a form that pops us in moments of crisis and transition. Along with the “didactic,” Burke suggests that the “grotesque” tends to be the favored medium of radical political expression, uniquely suited to convey the mystical side of political protest as the “didactic” is uniquely suited to convey the propagandistic.

Isolated mystics, Burke reminds us, can pop up in any historical moment; but “mysticism as a collective movement belongs to periods marked by great confusion of the cultural frame, requiring a radical shift in people’s allegiance to symbols of authority” (57-58). Mysticism thrived in the centuries before Christ, and those following the Protestant Reformation; such precedents suggest to Burke in the 1930s that it would be logical to look for “strong mystical ingredients today.”

Humor, Burke notes, “specializes in incongruities; but by its… stylistic ways of reassuring us in dwarfing he magnitude of obstacles or threats, it provides us relief in laughter.” This is the familiar argument for the essential conservatism of comedy (a view that Burke rejects as he arrives at a brief for a certain kind of “comic frame of acceptance”—by which he means a kind of non-judgmental cynicism capable of synthesizing literature’s accumulated wisdom about the nature of human motivation––as the best hope for surviving Depression, fascism, and war). The “grotesque,” on the other hand, is “the cult of incongruity without the laughter.” The “grotesque,” Burke writes, “is not funny unless you are out of sympathy with it (whereby it serves as unintentional burlesque).” Specialists in the “grotesque” are deadly earnest, invested and absorbed in “frightfully sober matters” (58).

“The incongruity of the grotesque-mystical comes to a focus in the oxymoron: one hears silence, peoples loneliness, feels distance, and sees in the dark” (59). While the analysis of grotesque symbolism is “admittedly a very weedy garden,” Burke insists that some generalizations can be made. The logic of the “grotesque” speaks to the breakdown in official order and public structures—into this breach step “subjective elements of imagery,” which offer commentary on the brokenness of the social system, and the corrosion of its ostensible essence. When the “forensic superstructure” shakes, new political possibilities emerge (60). Intriguingly, Burke focuses on the rise of “homosexual patterns in current literature” as a reflection of a “revolutionary shift in our attitude towards the symbols of authority.”

In a manner predictive of the insights of psychoanalytic feminist and queer theory, Burke hints at a correlation between crisis in what Lacan called the law-of-the-father, grotesque expression, and radical politics. I am reminded, for example, of Judith Roof’s notes on this crisis in her Reproduction of Reproduction. And in a section that adumbrates the  “performative” turn in feminist and queer theory, Burke writes of playful self-presentation and experimentation with identity as multiple and fluid as key gestures of “grotesque” aesthetics, gestures which link ancient mystical premises to utopian radical ends: “We get changes of identity, often symbolized—in strict obedience to the rules of magic—by the changing of one’s name, as the new synthetic character is felt to require a corresponding verbal change; or there is a formal choice of ‘ancestors,’ as one in meeting the exigencies of his present, proposes to coerce the future by a quasi-mystical revising of his past” (64).

In an afterword to Attitudes Toward History written in 1955, Burke emphasizes the “gargoyle” nature of the “grotesque” (its monstrosity, in other words) and ties it more explicitly to the politics of the body. Literary attention to the Grobian body, or the machinic body, or the commodified body––so often seen as signs of political exhaustion––might not indicate a descent into puerility, but rather an elevation to a “sophistication of a higher order.” While ordinary sophistication might analyze beauty by “whatever criteria we agree upon when choosing for Miss America this particular contestant rather than one of the others,” could not the “grotesque’s ” understanding of beauty, by forcing a perspectival shift, grant access to a higher level of negative capability or dialectical sophistication? This might not be irrelevant to Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

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