Flirtatious research

MD: In your writings so far on cultural seriousness, you have introduced different forms of what we might term queer methodologies. In the article “Scholarly Flirtations” (2006) you argue for instance that undertaking a flirtatious approach to the objects of study might be a way of resisting the reiteration of the norms of “proper” art historical studies. How did this wonderful notion of flirting as an academic practice come about?

Mathias Danbolt:

GB: It came about through the art historian Carol Mavor. Reading my manuscript for Between You and Me, she suggested that what I was doing in approaching gossip, not only as subject of an art historical study but also as a kind of method for an art historical analysis, was to be seen as adopting a flirtatious methodology. That interested me, also because of the ways that Adam Phillips has written about flirtation, not as an absolute Other to serious commitment, but as a way of relating to it.[4] It is a way of entertaining seriousness, but without being committed to it: Entering into a relationship with it, but without being made subject to it. Thinking of the flirtatious as a curious, or you might say queer, relationship to the serious is something that I find very intriguing. Flirtation is often dismissed as being either a harmless or harmful activity, and it is interesting that it is often seen as being almost both of these things at the same time. It says a lot about the denigrated status that accrues to the behavior of the flirt. I am interested in how such discredited or even morally disapproved behaviors can be seen as models for how a queer scholar might act in writing and researching. Flirtation is only one such model for thinking perverse ways of doing queer research.

[4] Adam Phillips, On Flirtation, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994).



The founder of the Ridiculous Theatre, Charles Ludlam, has an interesting quote in this regard. He says in an interview from 1978:

Now the whole idea of seriousness is awful to me – it sounds like something imposed from without. It doesn’t really imply gravity or profundity; it implies decorum, behaving yourself, and that’s what I don’t like about it.[5]

The performer and writer Matthew Goulish pointed out an important distinction for me in this quotation, because what is so interesting about it is that Ludlam splits apart seriousness from gravity and importance. I think that is great, because it allows me to think that one can lay claim to importance, to matters grave, without necessarily being serious. So one can recognize the value and importance of something without having to do it in the terms of serious culture. I think that was what Ludlam was getting at. That’s actually what I’m trying to do, and that is part of the queerness of the project.

[5] Gautam Dasgupta, “Interview: Charles Ludlam” in Performing Arts Journal, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Spring – Summer 1978), p. 72.

But interestingly, there is also a strong autobiographical dimension to the project as it is emerging. It has to do with modes of cultural consumption that relate to social class. I was brought up in Derbyshire, in the English East Midlands, in a working class family, without any high form of culture whatsoever. There was no context of cultural seriousness into which I was schooled. There was no familiar appreciation of high art or music. My formative culture was a televisual culture – mass culture. The terms upon which that mass culture became important to me had nothing to do with serious, bourgeois forms of standards and evaluation. This is something that goes right back to the one of the founding texts of modern cultural studies, the work of Richard Hoggart and his book The Uses of Literacy: Aspects of Working Class Life from 1957. In many ways it was a paradigm-establishing text that explored the ways in which popular fiction, pulp novels etc., came to be important within working class cultures. It is a key study because he looks at how working class families didn’t take these things seriously in ascribing them value and currency within working class communities. His book is very much styled, as he said in interviews, as a critique of studies like Queenie Leavis’ Fiction and a Reading Public (1932). Leavis really takes the mass readership to task for its unserious pleasures and interest in popular, serialized fiction, and sensationalized forms, and she is very judgmental and moralizing about the poor reading pleasures of the masses. Hoggart quite rightly takes issue with that, and he is at pains to point out the different economies of value, that is, the different ways in which literature has a currency in working class culture. This takes us very far from serious being the only barometer by which we assess value and importance.

So the project has an autobiographical dimension, and it has started to move me toward not only the context of contemporary queer studies, visual culture, and performance studies, but also into the broader field of cultural studies as I think about popular pleasures and mass pleasures and the ways in which they are dismissed as being facile. I’m probably drawn to the facile, the low and the flighty, because I’m interested in dwelling in levity as a way of cultural engagement.


MD: I’m interested in this exploration of different “perverse” forms of valuation. In your text “Joe Brainard’s Queer Seriousness, or, How to Make Fun Out of the Avant-Garde” (2006) you touch upon the danger of recuperation in this process: when elevating the non-serious into the realm of the serious by giving it scholarly attention, the structure that created the divide between the serious and non-serious in the first place is left untouched.[6] How are we to keep such other modes of valuation critical and “perverse”?

GB: That is the $64,000 question. It is a question to which I don’t have any ready answers, because I’m in the process of trying to work that out as I progress with this project. I can begin by talking about the dangers that you elude to – the dangers of betraying a perverse mode of valorization. The project could be seen as a project of revalorization, looking at de-legitimated ways of accessing culture and entertaining an object, and looking at those ways again, saying that these idle, or flip, or trivial modes of engagement might actually be worthy of more attention and consideration. But the minute you begin to suggest that we need to re-look at our relationship to these things, there is the danger – especially within the context of a scholarly project – to say that these things are important and therefore worthy of serious attention. But then you end up re-subordinating queer pleasures to a normative kind of seriousness. In the Brainard text I discuss this in terms of the ways in which the campiness and gossipy nature of Frank O’Hara’s poetry is revalorized by someone like Allen Ginsberg as important rather than superficial because it demonstrates O’Hara’s ear for “deep gossip” on common humanity. That really seemed to crystallize the problem for me in terms of queer valorization, because Ginsberg returns O’Hara’s poetry to a stereotypical construction of deep seriousness in order to positively valorize it. As if gossip can only be reclaimed if it is deep – deeply important. The perversity of my project is in trying to resist the deep, and deeply important, constructs of meaning and value. How we do that is difficult.

Lately, I deliberately – and to some degree repetitively – have attempted do undermine my own seriousness and the seriousness that accrues to scholarship by being flip or campy, and by offering propositions that are slightly dubious, or very playful, in terms of “queer seriousness” as a concept. That is one way which I’m trying to resist the serious, introducing into my work some level of playfulness which works to undercut the project, or – perhaps better still – to do the work of the project.

[6] Gavin Butt, “Joe Brainard’s Queer Seriousness, or, How to Make Fun Out of the Avant-Garde” in David Hopkins (ed.), Neo-Avant-Garde, (New York and Amsterdam: Rodopi Press, 2006), pp. 277-297.

Mathias Danbolt: Dismantling the Serious