Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Grimdark Kitsch: Let's Talk About Shit

Conversation on G+ led me to this excellent old post by Roger GS. (Isn't it terrifying that I can describe a post from 2014 as "old"? Doesn't that thought send shivers down your spine?)

It got me thinking about Milan Kundera. It is kind of embarrassing to name drop Kundera, especially The Unbearable Lightness of Being, because it has become a cliche and claiming to have read it has become a shorthand for a certain type of pseudo-intellectualism (and as a result the book perhaps has itself unjustly become part of a certain mode of kitsch). But I'm going to do it anyway, because the book is famous for a reason.

Towards the end of the book Kundera goes on a diversion and starts discussing kitsch. He comes up with what I think is the best definition of kitsch out there: "the aesthetic ideal [of the basic faith in human goodness]...is a world in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist. This aesthetic ideal is called kitsch."

The existence of shit is a metaphysical challenge to anybody who believes in a perfectly created world. If you believe that human beings are created properly and that human existence is a good thing, you would not hide shit. You would not lock yourself away in a bathroom but do it publicly, because to have a shit would be as normal and natural and good as eating. But people don't do this - they lock themselves in the bathroom. This must mean that shit is unacceptable to them, and this must hence mean that human beings are not created perfectly.

Kitsch is art which seeks to avoid and salve this fundamental metaphysical insecurity. Indeed, it is art which actively militates against shit by denying its existence at every turn. It is the pursuit of the complete opposite of shit - and hence the pursuit of reassurance about the perfect goodness of creation.

There is a lot more that Kundera has to say about kitsch. But let's begin with this (I think, true) observation that kitsch is the aesthetic ideal which denies shit. Is there an opposite sort of kitsch; a mirror image of kitsch; a kitsch that embraces, nay, insists on shit?

This is grimdark kitsch. Creation is imperfect, human life bleak, the universe apathetic if not actively baleful and hostile. Shit is not to be denied, but to be embraced. Indeed, to deny shit is to deny a set of fundamental givens about the nature of existence.

How does kitsch manifest itself? Kundera describes kitsch as something that must be shared by the multitudes - it has to be the kind of cliche which everybody knows and can refer to in their minds. He describes it, famously, as two tears. When somebody sees children running on grass and is moved to tears by the experience, the first tear says: "How nice to see children running on the grass!" The second tear says: "How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!"

"It is the second tear which makes kitsch kitsch."

Grimdark kitsch, similarly, is something that is shared by the multitudes.

Grimdark touches many different types of art and entertainment, but let's think about it in the context of OSR games.

When confronted with a horrible NPC death that serves no purpose, the first ironic smile of the grimdark gamer says: "How amusing to see the grim and uncaring nature of the universe reinforced!" The second ironic smile says: "How nice to amused, together with all other grimdark gamers, to see the grim and uncaring nature of the universe reinforced!"

When a PC goes mad due to having his sanity blasted by a pseudo-Lovecraftian entity, the first chortle says: "How deliciously fucked up!" The second chortle says, "How nice to see this as fucked up, together with all other grimdark gamers!"

When the party accidentally summon a demonic power which goes on the rampage and destroys a town, the first cackle says "How hilariously anti-heroic!" The second cackle says, "How nice to cackle at anti-heroic acts with all other grimdark gamers!"

It is the second ironic smile, chortle or cackle which makes grimdark kitsch kitsch.

Warhammer 40,000 is of course the epitome of grimdark kitsch, but you find it everywhere: in Irvine Welsh novels, in The Ass Goblins of Auschwitz, in Lovecraft's inferior successors, in any given slasher flick or torture porn film. The insistence on shit is as kitschy as its denial.

29 comments:

  1. I think the trouble with the second cackle is the implication that at that point you've stopped thinking about brutality and started bragging about your own toughness in the face of horror.

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  2. This makes me think of Kierkegaard describing the aesthetic in Either/Or reflecting on refllection.

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  4. I'll add that part of grimdark kitsch is the adolescent need to say, reflectively, "I am grownup; I can handle this extreme." It's much the same reason as junior-high reading lists are full of dystopias, suicides, and social problems, now that The Kids Can Handle It.

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  5. Well then kitsch is vanity, admiring one's own reaction at all times, reserving particular self praise for quirky eccentric responses. It is not so much that shit is denied as that primacy is granted to the response, as if the appraiser was the artist. This is swiftly dispelled when such an appraiser claims 'isn't this wonderful' and I say 'no it is shit, and shit is a valid description'. It is a shallow, giddy, aesthetic surely unsuited to roleplaying games.

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  6. I've said often before that the elevation of grimdark is a mark of adolescence. Children exit the nursery and discover that not all is good and pleasant, and come to the mistaken impression that awareness of the negative is a mark of a adulthood, and since as adolescents they seek to appear adult, they lather the grim and bleak on because that's how you show how adult you are.

    This is why a lot of comics are so awful, after Miller and Moore sold the industry on the idea that having superheros all have deep psychological issues made for better stories than colorful tales of adventure.

    The adult knows that there's good and bad, in different concentrations at different points in your life. I'd rather be joyful and have fun, frankly, having had my share of the downside over the past few years.

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    1. I think Grimdark, WHFRP is what I know, was a reaction to the US renfaire notion of antiquity clumsily expressed in B2 contrasted with for example Trouble at Embertrees (Paul Vernon White Dwarf magazine). Americans, in the main, have a thin naive grasp on history if they are lucky. Their sense of the medieval is cartoonish. That was an advantage for D&D because it opened the door to all sorts of imaginative nonsense but grimdark in itself is probably a response to the typical American sensibility of ahistorical piety.

      I personally think that WHFRP (if that is what is thought of as grimdark) was very imaginative and the campaign was worth reading but the entire concept was suffocatingly restrictive. No imaginative DM could use any of the material.

      ====Children ... come to the mistaken impression that awareness of the negative is a mark of a adulthood====

      Hardly a 'mistaken' impression.

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    2. True.
      How about: the mistaken impression that awareness of the negative is the ONLY mark of adulthood.

      Grownups are also aware of joys and pleasures that a child can't even conceive of. Usually earned at the expense of the downsides.

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    3. Sure. I had the sense that you knew what you were talking about.

      I think Kitsch is the issue and anything could be used to illustrate it, grimdark being just an example.

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    4. I'd rather be joyful and have fun, frankly, having had my share of the downside over the past few years.

      Amen, amen! To paraphrase a comics blog I often read, "RPGs should be FUN!"

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    5. BJ - Yes, that's what I'm getting at, in a way. If the reason why kitsch is bad is that it ignores shit, the reason why grimdark kitsch is bad is that it goes to the opposite extreme and privileges shit.

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    6. Indeed. And my take on the reasons why someone might see that as desirable is that they have a very cargo-culty view of what makes something mature. If you put enough terrible things in your movie or game or comic book people will view it as "true to life" because just look at all the bad things that happen in the world.

      It all comes down to superficiality from either direction. The best, at least entertainment wise, is stuff that comes from a place of honesty. It's at once hard and easy to identify, and the stuff that gets treasured in the long run has that quality.

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  7. I don't think ego has to necessarily figure into it. Part of it is just the ironic distance, one more step removed. Zak wrote about it, sort of.

    http://dndwithpornstars.blogspot.com/2010/03/playing-monopoly-with-squatters.html

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  8. I have no idea what your going on about. Kitsch is "considered to be in poor taste but appreciated in an ironic or knowing way". In my experience an artist will use kitsch as a crutch to hide the fact that they are not making any sort of original statement. So now you want to talk kitsch in the context of OSR. The last paragraph ends with "The insistence on shit is as kitschy as its denial". I have no idea what this means. The statement has zero value in terms of playing or designing any game. It reminds me of an art student who gets hammered the night before a project is due, slaps some stuff together at the last minute and has to dupe their professors by coming up with some double talk. When I am designing for RPGs "Lovecraft's inferior successes" are the farthest thing from my mind. Give me something I can use, a theory on game mechanics, a village key, a clever monster, a strategy to play npcs, anything.

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    1. Why don't you tell me what you really think?

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  9. Surely. I have your publication (Yoon-Suin) and like it a lot. I read your posts regularly and find ideas that have made my gaming better. Good useful stuff, even though I do not play D&D. I may be overreacting. I deal with creators all the time and when all they deliver is "theory" and nothing else an alarm goes off. That's all.

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  10. Noisms, I realize upon reflection that I owe you an apology. No one should be spoken to that way about anything. If I had a difference of opinion I should lay out proper arguments and be respectful. Instead I chose the path of a troll. My apologies.

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    1. It's cool mate - don't worry about it. God knows I've chosen the path of a troll enough times myself in the past!

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    2. Ro Annis, you come across like a real cowardly fag.

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    3. Kent, you come across as a bitter and spiteful but ultimately rather boring child.

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    4. Darn it! I was shooting for "Heroic Fag".

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    5. ==Kent, you come across as a bitter and spiteful but ultimately rather boring child.

      I would never say such a terrible thing to a child. It is not politically correct.

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  11. noisms, you should focus on posts like this one which are more interesting than those about your own game, IMHO. Much more interesting.

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  12. It's only Kitsch if we believe it's Kitsch. Say we appreciate Warhammer 40K aesthetics in an ironic, knowing way - so to us they are cheesy and kitschy. Does real kitsch also require that someone somewhere (early teen boys, in the case of WH40K) is taking the aesthetics seriously? Plenty of postmodern artists like Koons seem to produce pseudo-kitsch that is only ever intended to be appreciated ironically.

    So 1930s TV serial Flash Gordon is kitschy because it was intended 'straight', whereas 1980 movie Flash Gordon seems deliberately, ironically campy - then can it still be kitsch? Can a drag queen be kitsch?

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  13. It's only Kitsch if we believe it's Kitsch. Say we appreciate Warhammer 40K aesthetics in an ironic, knowing way - so to us they are cheesy and kitschy. Does real kitsch also require that someone somewhere (early teen boys, in the case of WH40K) is taking the aesthetics seriously? Plenty of postmodern artists like Koons seem to produce pseudo-kitsch that is only ever intended to be appreciated ironically.

    So 1930s TV serial Flash Gordon is kitschy because it was intended 'straight', whereas 1980 movie Flash Gordon seems deliberately, ironically campy - then can it still be kitsch? Can a drag queen be kitsch?

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  14. It's only Kitsch if we believe it's Kitsch. Say we appreciate Warhammer 40K aesthetics in an ironic, knowing way - so to us they are cheesy and kitschy. Does real kitsch also require that someone somewhere (early teen boys, in the case of WH40K) is taking the aesthetics seriously? Plenty of postmodern artists like Koons seem to produce pseudo-kitsch that is only ever intended to be appreciated ironically.

    So 1930s TV serial Flash Gordon is kitschy because it was intended 'straight', whereas 1980 movie Flash Gordon seems deliberately, ironically campy - then can it still be kitsch? Can a drag queen be kitsch?

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    1. Kitsch is only kitsch if it is played straight, I think - at least if you agree with Kundera's definition. Kitsch is not about irony, because irony is "shit".

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  15. I'm not sure if Kundera is just wrong, of if history has made him wrong; because what he calls Kitch (which has basically reached it's apotheosis in terrible facebook charm offensive memes "Like if you love people loving people loving cute puppies by a stream") is totally different from what the development of the last 20 years has ended up defining "Kitsch" as.

    Kitsch was the commercialisation of unreflective sentimental approval and insubstantial affirmations of positivity using the mass production of it's era. You get a child's clay model, and you mould it in plastic, then you say "wow, imagine how happy it will make my child for everyone to buy his special sculpture".

    This is Kitsch mark I, Kitsch mark II is when people notice that these things are Kitsch, and try to play up the sentimental elements as a genre, as something to do, emphasising it's formulaic nature and exaggerating it.

    Now it's not a shared experience of "everybody loves cuteness", it's a shared experience of "Jesus isn't this cuteness over the top, everyone knows how exploitative and mechanical this is right? Let's enjoy our shared knowledge of the futility of commercial emotion."

    Then there's Kitch mark III, which combines the first two into "wanking is mechanical, but it feels damn good, embrace the obvious, just know how stupid it is"

    Loads of D&D is Kitsch mark III, where you particularly use the obvious monsters, where you will fight a dragon in a dungeon because this is D&D. Reinvention is pretension, embrace the Kitsch.

    These last two things are where Ro Annis's definitions of Kitsch come from. See also: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-30439633 or https://lucian.uchicago.edu/blogs/mediatheory/keywords/kitsch/

    Social media Kitsch is too new, and too separated from people's ideas of commercialism to register in most of this analysis, even though it follows exactly the same rules; something emotionally affective happens, and you strip it down into it's most translatable form, and build it into a symbolism that affirms our common humanity by removing any offense, (with the exception of the offense generated by people thinking you are pandering to them). You gun for shared feeling, transferring your own weird idea or experience into something that other people respond to, that will get a hundred likes.

    Personally, I'd say the closest equivalent of grimdark kitsch on social media is probably darwin awards and conspiracy theories, because the actual Isis videos and stuff get taken down. Instead of your puppies and heartwarming tales to restore your faith in humanity, have more hard truths that the world is death and destruction ironic failure, and the heartless universe is out to destroy you.

    No wait, grimdark kitsch is newspapers.

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    1. I think you are right - what Kundera calls "kitsch" is still around, but that's a bit different to what we nowadays think of as "kitsch" (which is the ironic appreciation of what Kundera thought of as "kitsch").

      I like your idea that conspiracy theories are grimdark kitsch. I think that is a really interesting way of looking at it. In the recent Brexit referendum, a lot of Brexit supporters were terrified that because in the UK we traditionally mark our ballot papers in pencil, the government would fix the result by altering the marks. Conspiracy theorists look for the "shit" in everything.

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