Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Carol Siegel's "Goth's Dark Empire": Book Review.

Gloom shrouded me by sentence three of this academic treatise. "And just as [Linda] Williams set out to examine the Foucauldian 'knowledge-pleasure' produced as 'the frenzy of the visible' through the convergence of 'a variety of discourses of sexuality' within pornography (36), I set out to examine the Deleuzoguattarian becomings [1] that are produced within the discourses of sexuality that converge within Goth." (1) Siegel, a professor of English, studies Goth culture within fiction, music, film, and sexual mores. This is an admirable goal, but I wonder if those who'd benefit most from these contextual chapters can even decipher much of this prose.

I started this hoping that Siegel, given her "sex radical" hippie-era formation and her interviews with Goths in the Northwest U.S., would incorporate a wide-ranging survey of how sexuality and fashion, music and aesthetics, morals and subversion all intertwine in the American manifestations of this often caricatured subculture. Glimpses of this persist, but much of her 2005 academic work, three of its six topical chapters published previously (often a sign that a book's cobbled together from past research rather than conceived as an organic project), struggles to arrive at the goal that her introduction promises.

Professor Siegel tends to wander around her subject. Digressions about our destructive automotive reliance, abstinence programs in schools, and Chandra Levy (remember her pre-9/11?) may distract readers wishing for a focused analysis. Her insights reminded me of a passionate lecturer, eager to pursue tangents, and then bringing the discussion back a few minutes later to the main point. This may please some of her audience but may annoy others.

The audience needs lots of background in critical theory. I found two of my grad school classmates cited in the text, and while I admit less patience for extended forays into jargon than they indeed possessed, the theoretical tone of much of this work does distance itself from those readers likely to take it off the shelf for information. I found in teaching students needing reference works on Goth culture (the reason I sought Siegel's book out), that undergrads lacked solid, thoughtful explanations. Siegel does bring sympathy to her project, but her reading level's elevated so high that few outside of-- yes, grad school seminars in post-modern cultural criticism-- will be able to understand her own analyses.

That being said, patient readers will come away with some value. Within the text, phrases pop up that sum up her perspective well. "In place of the denial of the future that characterizes mainstream American life, Goth offers a very special kind of masochistic delight in knowing the worst." (25) Chapter One tries to contrast Goth culture with "abstinence programs." It veers all over the place in doing so.

Chapter Two takes on Angela Carter's fiction. Siegel spends much of this section lamenting the passing of 1960s celebrations of free love but while she advocates similar freedom for today's teens, she seems to gloss over the American reality that has followed this shift. She decries sexual restraint, while she blames the dearth of "useful information about sex" that results in an "appalling rate of unwanted pregnancies and venereal diseases." She then states how "young people form radical countercultures around their musical tastes," to resist a custodial, infantilizing social schooling routine. (25) Siegel packs so much into so small a space that this left me puzzled as to how sexual rebellion could bring freedom-- given the dismal track record (pregnancies, STDs, sexting) of radical alterations in how sex was brought into teenaged American culture by the late 20th century.

And how does Goth relate? Siegel promotes casual sex and feminist-positive play. She wants to resurrect sexual expression from those who demonize it among the young. But within the "Dark Empire" of Goth, how these aberrant revolutionaries will manage sex better than their cowed if somewhat perkier peers appears uncertain. Siegel left me befuddled as to how this transformation will occur.

Chapter Three dives into Poppy Z. Brite's novels, which celebrate male masochism and female dominance. Yet, given the cannibalism of Exquisite Corpse, even Siegel appears to shrink back at the extremes of such liberties. She's on surer ground when navigating the gender fluidity and male self-discovery and female empowerment within such fiction. "In Brite's fiction, as in much of Goth, the gendering of classic Gothic iconography may seem reversed, for she presents her female readers with breaking and broken male bodies that fill the spaces of her prose as if it were the last act of Hamlet." (84)

Comparing a documentary on Brandon Teena vs. the Boys Don't Cry film treatment of his fate, Siegel favors the former portrayal, for it does not "erase" the boys and their brutalization of Teena. (Brandon, as she notes if gingerly, was no icon.) She earlier, if tangentially given her convoluted approach, juxtaposes Punk with Goth. Punk's "destructive fury" followed the loving hippies. After punk's rage subsided, youth faced scorched, haunted landscapes. Punks posed in bondage gear but twisted free of its signifiers; Goths "express their rejection through a defiantly eroticized passive resistance." (97) They wrench punishment into victory.

Chapter Five surveys "male femme homosexualities" in film, but without a thorough knowledge of her examples (as with the literature earlier discussed), readers will be challenged to grasp theoretical formulations. The sixth chapter winds up her pursuit of masculinity with Asian American Goths. She settles on a satisfying take on Keanu Reeves as Neo in the Matrix series. "Man enough to save humanity, gentle and nonmacho enough to be himself and saved by a woman, and easily sexually attractive enough to inspire her devotion, Neo models the new masculinity" that these new models engender. (151-2)

One ends this work with little of a broader appreciation of the sexual subcultures as lived by Goths today; one does learn more about how Goths are dramatized in films, literature, and music. Siegel strives to expand Paul Hodgkinson's Goth thesis (see my review and also that for Jillian Venters' Gothic Charm School) farther from fashion into sexual behavior. Still, you get little sense of how actual Goths, as opposed to aestheticized ones, express such devotion to the alternative models she so longs to see replace those of the typical high school campus. Musically, as with Hodkinson's monograph, Siegel leaves us without the depth this aspect merits, but Don Anderson's appended discography's very helpful.

She concludes spiritedly. "Goths escape the willed stupidity of the American dream to find in the nightmare of fallen knowledge a becoming that is also a coming to knowledge with no goal beyond intimacy with life's dark side. They refuse end goals, remaining, instead, fascinated with natural decay and the falling apart of all things that current mainstream values formed. By valorizing perversion and artifice for its own sake, they express their desire for a regime of endless desire." (166)

Again, I'm unsure how this manifesto plays out given this decade's downturn in Goth's fanbase. I also wondered how Goth may endure among older devotees. Those readers who could gain the most will find this work far too dense to unpack its meanings easily. (As an aside, from my observation, Siegel overlooks a delayed generational identification of some Latino and inner-city youths with a Goth-rave-darkwave-death metal assortment of styles.) Still, she tries to extend the direction of cultural studies towards Goth, and while the background's foreshortened and the examples as digressive as often as targeted, Siegel's empathy assists her and her sympathizers. (Posted to Amazon US 6-11-10)

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