The Shame of Shamelessness

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Felix Bernstein on the set of Bieber Bathos Elegy, designed by George Dupont. Photo by Mabel Nash Greenberg. 

An Interview with Poet, Performer, and Critic Felix Bernstein

Felix Bernstein’s writing moves between the painfully autobiographical and the archly self-mocking. His latest work, Burn Book (Nightboat Press) is both joyous and hopeless—burnt out, but still full of an unquenchable flame.

As Bernstein prepares for his January show, Bieber Bathos Elegy at the Whitney Museum, which brings to life pages of his book, I talked to him about his relationship to evasion and oppositionality, and the implacable pornography of selfhood.

—Max Taylor-Milner

THE BELIEVER: Your books and performances move between the intensely personal and affective to ironic baroque melodrama through quick changes between mediums, characters, scenarios, and guises. You set up registers of emotion, and then disrupt them with quotation. Sometimes it seems as if you’re mocking the reader for following you into these maudlin places. Is this what you mean by bathos? What is the difference between pathos and bathos?

FELIX BERNSTEIN: For me, pathos is basic tragedy, which makes an appeal to the audience’s sentiment, raises your ecological and moral consciousness. Bathos is being trapped in pathos but not being able to appeal to the audience, the performance doesn’t work. This has become that generic thing called “narcissistic,” masturbatory performance art. I still try to do this. Maybe I’m just trying to fit in.

BLVR: It feels like you’re role-playing as yourself, dressing up in affects and using concepts as props. Would you say the book, as a whole, is a kind of psychodrama?

FB: Or a spoof. I don’t disagree with Godard calling Douglas Sirk’s films black comedies, but they are of course, also, melodramas. Or Charles Ludlum saying the audience laughs but he cries, when he plays Camille. To do Queer Theory revisionist readings of these things, and erasing Brecht’s influence—seeing only “bodies and affect,” simplifies the art. Art shouldn’t be mere normalizing sublimation or queer desublimation, which amounts to the same thing. should actually make your problems worse. Only then can the fantasy of endless role-playing and analysis be traversed. Art is, in this way, less delusional than psychoanalysis.

BLVR: One of the things that impressed me most about your last book, Notes on Post-Conceptual Poetry is its coherency, both how clearly you identify the targets of your criticism, and the unity of voice you address them with. But Burn Book…it’s all over the place. How self-conscious were you in assembling these poems? Were they intuitive? Did they have an overall structure?

FB: What’s the actual question? Do I know what I’m doing?

BLVR: Yes, but I find it hard to believe you would write this way without a reason. What, if anything, were you trying to do by bringing all of these different styles and genres together in one book? Each piece is an expression of a different mode, and it’s hard to read the entire project as an example of poiesis because it feels fractured, so fragmented.

FB: It is definitely fragmented in comparison to my critical writing. But as for intent, often enough gay male bathos is deemed intentional, whereas female bathos is deemed “suicidal,” or troubling. Likewise, there is the difference between the intentional ridiculousness of Ludlum’s “Ridiculous Theater” and the mistaken ridiculousness of Samuel Barber’s “Anthony and Cleopatra.” More interesting is when you can’t tell. Ideally, people won’t be able to tell at the Whitney.

BLVR: When I was reading it, I kept wondering, as a thought experiment, what the thesis would be…

FB: The thesis was probably to develop something that I couldn’t develop a thesis from very easily.

BLVR: That’s what makes it so hard to read Burn Book in relation to Notes on Post-Conceptual Poetry.

FB: People who are insecure about their critical writing have a hard time making art that isn’t trying to overcompensate for that insecurity, especially if they’re in New York. How many poems reference theory and it’s just ‘cause they really want to seem like they “get it” and that they’re “hip.”

BLVR: This suspicion about theory-as-reference is interesting since it seems like a lot of your project is about how opposition is impotent.

FB: Well, I wager that playing by the rules aggressively can be a sort of opposition. Aggressively passive rather than passive aggressive. In the conversation with my dad’s character in the book, he says, “why aren’t you being more clearly oppositional? Why would you let people see you in this impotent way?” One reason is that I don’t want to produce obvious “experimental” art because I know it’ll be dismissed as “bloodline.” I try, not always successfully, to feel unpopular and annoying, not just cool and hip. Which I’ve noticed is the very wrong aesthetic for a young gay male at the moment. Which seems to be about mirroring Clueless style popularity… or being unpopular in a way that is sort of at the margins but fits in the Hollywood cliché of emo boy or melancholic girl. But what camp once was was a sort of unpopular inside joke. How now do you create an inside joke now when Joe’s Pub (etc.) is just another tourist trap in NYU’s bought up and renovated lower east side?  

BLVR: So you’re sad about the normalization of gay identity?

FB: Actually it’s good because I need something to critique! I am sad about the normalization of the critique of the normalization of gay identity. What then is left for me to say?

BLVR: But is there nothing left of gay kinship?

FB: As a gay person I noticed that many people assume I have a similar structural and traumatic make-up but I don’t. People don’t kill themselves because they are gay. The worst feeling is when you can’t not be what you are. I don’t want to be a part of anything that traps me, but that in and of itself is a trap.

BLVR: You’re not really an upbeat guy, are you?

FB: That’s not very nice. People have said that some of my videos are upbeat, or funny, a lot people have told me they listen to Gabe (Rubin) and me singing Cats for four hours, while they work, and it’s enjoyable. But then there are Tinder boys who find my videos, and say they are “put off,” and I want to be like: I’m really not as gay and wacky as I seem in those videos! But what can I do? They’ve seen them.

BLVR: But there always seems to be a darker undercurrent in your videos, full of dissociation and paranoia.

FB: I’m very paranoid. And if I don’t feel alienated then I feel even more paranoid. That’s why I like there to be tension between what the audience wants and what the performer does. And the problem—always—with avant-garde or experimental art is that this tension gets lost because everyone is on the same team. And then the artist doesn’t get to feel alienated. That is scary.

BLVR: There’s that section in Burn Book where you, or a version of you, is having depersonalization from marijuana, and there’s an effect of flipping through channels or leafing through case files. And yet despite this disassociation you’re always present in each poem.

FB: I made a self that’s visible!

BLVR: There’s also a persistent theme of adolescent or childhood sexuality running throughout Burn Book—your own, Justin Bieber’s, Eva Ionesco. On the one hand, there’s something free or emancipatory here, both in the ownership of sexuality in lines like “We were the world’s youngest pedophiles” or the nostalgic, Joe Brainard-style evocation of the joy of sexual self-awareness. But it also presents an erotic gaze cruelly attracted to the shamelessness of children, while adult sexuality is presented as confusing or even abject. Is there ever a pleasant resolution to adult-child tensions and violence?  

FB: I think actually the children in this book, including me, are not children but movie stars. The "traumatic” memories in the book aren’t lies because I was always already fictional. I can’t remember not being sexually sarcastic. I did have a fleeting moment of erotic adolescent sublime, and it could not be enjoyed because I was already trying so desperately to milk and re-present it. I was always already child pornography, doomed to be confiscated. This was what I thought about as a kid. Not all joy is meant to be enjoyable. And shamelessness is always full of shame or performed and self-aware in this book. Outside of the book, well that’s my own private problem… I’m adjusting.

Max Taylor-Milner is a curator who works at the intersection of text and performance. He has contributed to projects at Artists Space, MASS MoCA, and to PS1’s “Greater New York,” 2015. He currently lives in Marfa, Texas.

Felix Bernstein is the author of Burn Book (Nightboat) and Notes on Post-Conceptual Poetry (Insert Blanc Press), a “best of 2015” pick in Artforum, Entropy, and the New York Times. His writing has been featured in Bomb, the Believer, Poetry Magazine, The Awl, and Hyperallergic. His performance Bieber Bathos Elegy will debut at the Whitney in January 2016.