Notes on Cant

Masha Tupitsyn, DECADES, 2017–ongoing, video, sound, color.

Composed over the past decade, Masha Tupitsyn’s Picture Cycle (2019) is a book of essays that considers the shift from analog to digital as an analogy for the psychic turn to binary, reactive, accelerated, and impatient spectatorship. Expanding the style of her 2007 book, Beauty Talk & Monsters, Tupitsyn combines criticism, philosophy, and autobiography to create pathways out of our current melancholic replay and media narcissism. Deftly recording the cultural loss of the cinematic sensibility in culture, she simultaneously confronts lost time, lost desire, and lost love. Tupitsyn’s singular style offers an antidote to the present moment, which craves difference without difficulty or deferral. —Felix Bernstein

Felix Bernstein: Today, queerness is often offered as sheer, ready-to-wear content extracted from history’s dialectical energy. Queer multimedia hybridity has become stratified into a mono-media master signifier of camp homogeneity. What is refreshing and moving in your work is the tackling of varied forms and ages, how you cycle through decades in your life and cultural experiences. Susan Sontag famously attempted to move beyond the content-form antinomy; how do you see the content-form binary playing out today?

Masha Tupitsyn: In the same way that aesthetics are no longer transgressive, content alone can’t do all the queering. At least not anymore, when so much content is being generated, when difference has been completely gentrified. Likewise, form for its own sake can be tedious. The point is to figure out what form, what aesthetic, an idea needs.

I think to write in a formally “straight” manner is to take form almost for granted—to assume it as a function that will serve whatever aim you give it, instead of the other way around. When nonmainstream writers set out, especially in today’s narrow art market, to write a novel, it always troubles me. It’s the desire to write using a privileged form—the novel is approached socially and economically as a requisite because it is professionally legitimizing. It is the genre that sells. The novel normalizes one’s ideas, giving them status and an assumed seriousness. The form bends to the content and the audience, erasing issues of possible illegibility or margins. 

FB: I’d call this moment “post-camp,” a self-conscious effort for people to one-up and accelerate camp, but also a generational sensibility of those born with camp as a given. For the latter, no intentional détournement is necessary, so camp becomes redoubled as a trope that can be toyed with or passively endured. Accelerated post-camp can be an occasionally compelling aesthetic style, mimetic of the neoliberal commercialization and pacification of identity, but ironically, this year’s Met Gala wasn’t even post-camp. It was just quaint—too little, too late, neither exaggerated, fantastic, passionate, nor naive. It didn’t represent the failure of seriousness, but rather the overserious use of failure as an aesthetic.

MT: To me, the Met Gala wasn’t simply quaint, or too little, too late—it was passé. I am inherently allergic to and embarrassed by that kind of conformist rebellion. I know this is risky to ask, but why are we so eager to make transgression ubiquitous—to make it totally acceptable and risk-free? On the one hand, we want to completely usurp all authority, even in cases where it is sometimes valuable. On the other, we are obsessed with the paternalizing principles of capitalism. Consumerism and fame have become the only engines of difference we seem to be interested in. Socially sanctioned difference is everywhere now—something I write about in Picture Cycle. Seeing something everywhere, all the time, makes it meaningless. It loses its charge, its context, and its power to disrupt. There is a great quote in the 1980 movie Death Watch: “Everything’s of interest, but nothing matters.”

Look from Franco Moschino’s Spring 1991 collection. From “Camp: Notes on Fashion.”

FB: That passé quality hits like an insult—the shortness of cultural memory, the counterfeiting of recuperative scholarship, leading to a presentism that casts Sontag as an obscure proto-influencer and paragon of virtue. Warhol’s legacy was long extolled by the Met—one of his closest friends and screen-test subjects was Henry Geldzahler, a major Met curator—and has been celebrated in every form of cultural synergy imaginable, from Apple Photo Booth to Uniqlo. The critique of the selling-out of camp was even written in real time by Jack Smith, whose ideas were “borrowed” by both Warhol and Sontag. The Met Costume Institute’s novelty was in finding a pernicious way to reverse the queer’s position of degenerate, disproportionate, abject desire by focusing on the homonormative desired object—from the “symmetrical musculature” of the nineteenth-century beau ideal to the Harry Styles boy toy—so camp can appear to follow a neoclassical route toward enlightened democratic consumerism, eliminating any taint of hierarchy and grotesquerie. Your work complicates paradigms and eras that have been rendered two-dimensional. What’s your relation to the retrospective and nostalgic aspect of the curatorial framing of eras?

MT: I think using memory as a curatorial device is just another cynical side effect of melancholia, in most cases, because it relies upon an aggressive form of forgetting in order to make institutional space for the performance of remembering and inclusion, of atonement for the crimes of cultural neglect. Nostalgia, or retromania, is usually the only framing device being summoned, and it’s often at the expense of forgetting someone else’s effort or canceling what is now retroactively seen as offensive.

There is a difference between nostalgia and mourning that no one ever talks about. Nostalgia is often about the fetishistic melancholia of forgetting. Mourning allows us to be critical of the time we live in and aware of what has changed, what is being lost, destroyed, and what that does to relationships, communities, ecologies, ideas. Examining—as opposed to forbidding or negating—the past is very important, especially today, when everything is disappearing at an astonishing rate in favor of a tyrannical nowness that reads as new. Time is treated as generic and homogeneous, as if it’s always been the same. As if time itself isn’t changing. Time, as we knew it, is gone.

Cover of Masha Tupitsyn’s Picture Cycle, November 2019.

FB: It’s not that accelerated tempos are necessarily reified—we’re both interested in the speed aesthetics of the artist Gretchen Bender, for instance. The issue is more the sacrifice of slowness and what that means for psychological cycles of grieving. How do you see tempo relating to mourning and melancholia?

MT: In my feminist classes on what I’ve termed “Male Melancholia,” I always start with a close analysis of Freud’s 1917 essay “Mourning and Melancholia.” I then extend the essay to perform a critical reading of not just the profound melancholia of contemporary culture, but the infrastructural systems of power and violence that train us to become pathologically melancholic, or what I have begun to refer to as “digital melancholia.” Our relationships and desires have become much more transient, transactional, mediated, curated. We’ve repackaged the kind of response to loss Freud interrogates in his essay, armoring ourselves against it with melancholia and consumerist wellness. To me, cultural criticism must be a modality of the work of mourning. In order to be ethical and truly attentive to the bombastic world around us, it must be.

FB: That slowness of attention is reminiscent of Elizabeth Freeman’s notion of a “temporal drag”—of “retrogression, delay, and the pull of the past on the present” (from her 2010 book Time Binds). This is not unlike what Parker Tyler had earlier called “dragtime” (dull narcissizing) and “drugtime” (trippy narcoticizing) in Warhol’s films, which remain hard for people to sit through despite his otherwise Instagram-happy legacy. What roots your continued interest in dragging and duration, especially in your ongoing video work DECADES, which uses film scores and sound to produce a tonal ethnography of twentieth-century cinematic decades, from the 1930s to 2000?

MT: Freud writes about the distortion of memory in his 1899 essay “Screen Memories.” The screen memory, he writes, is the memory that comes in to hide and express an original memory, typically unconscious mental content. It could be argued that cinema itself is—or was—a kind of screen memory for our lives. The movies of the 1980s certainly functioned this way. Focusing on the sound of cinema, as I do in my films Love Sounds and DECADES, is a process of carefully wading through cultural memory by using the retrogressive fantasy of cinema. We don’t know how to experience or bear time anymore. Any pause or delay is unbearable. For example, in the movie Call Me By Your Name, audiences were moved by Elio’s unrelenting longing for Oliver. But what makes it so affecting isn’t simply the intensity or focus of Elio’s desire, it’s the way the absence of the smartphone creates the affective space for waiting, which creates a space for presence and attention.

llustration from Masha Tupitsyn’s Picture Cycle.

FB: Today, it seems as if everyone gets fifteen seconds to critically analyze the concept of “fifteen minutes of fame” in SEO-friendly sound bites. How can critique continue without becoming an ouroboros? And how can art create space for absence and longing, without sliding into a fetish for unrequited love? 

MT: In postdigital life, we don’t act because we don’t have to, which also means we don’t want to. We’re more comfortable being virtually satisfied, and that’s enough now. Our optics are now elsewhere. And that’s how the real world falls apart, when no one is looking. When no one is paying attention. Who needs dreams—which are risky and can be crushed—when you can roam the internet for everything without ever actually getting involved? Longing is only useful if it enables you to understand and act. On the one hand, it can become a fetishization of lack. The narcissistic tease of delaying, avoiding, ghosting. But it can also be that return to slowness, presence, and attention we’ve been talking about. Nothing happens without a phenomenology of time. But we also can’t waste it.

Masha Tupitsyn is a writer, critic, and multimedia artist from New York. Her new book, Picture Cycle, is out November 19, 2019 from Semiotext(e). She teaches film, literature, and gender studies at the New School.