Rather than trying to lead an audience into a suspension of disbelief, cornball artists who get their own joke hope everyone will play along, or anyway enjoy the joke, which suggests that successful corn involves a suspension of embarrassment, or else a revel in it. (Marcus 323)
Sure, it was corny as anything, pretentious, and silly beyond reason. But it felt so refreshing to see a band so absolutely devoid of irony and hipster chic, to see them perform and actually have enough sense and gravitas to not take themselves so damned seriously. And I think that, for a lot of people (myself included), that was a breath of fresh air. If there had been even the slightest trace of irony in the Illinoisemakers’ performance, the crowd would have picked up on it, and I doubt Sufjan and Co would have made it out with their pom-poms intact. (Morehead)
The club was packed tight but I managed to find a spot to stand for the next two hours, squeezed along the rail of the upstairs balcony, looking down almost directly at the top of Sufjan Stevens’s head and, in front of him, an unusually hushed audience of fresh-faced indie rock kids. In conversation with some of the club’s staff a few days after the show, they would confide in me that they were unnerved by the evening’s crowd: “Where did these people come from?”, just “too well-behaved” for an all-ages show, there was something vaguely eerie about the level of rapt attention, about their/our unembarrassed affection for the on-stage spectacle. After all, with his gender-split six-piece back-up band (why have just one glockenspiel when two could be better?) dressed in matching cheerleader uniforms (offering between-song cheers and “spirit fingers” and a show-closing human pyramid) and himself all decked-out in a silk American flag jumpsuit, which may or may not have also had a cape, it would be tempting to see and hear 30-year-old Sufjan Stevens and his band – known, on this tour, as the Illinoisemakers – as “kitsch” or “camp”, but that’s not quite it. The affective tone is a bit too far off the mark – the archly self-ironic quotation marks – to qualify as camp or kitsch (or, for that matter, it is also far too waxing to fit any thesis about the waning of affect, such as Fredric Jameson’s notion of “blank parody”). Migrating elsewhere, this affect locates its heartfelt kernel, unabashedly, as corn.
Susan Sontag, in her 1964 essay Notes on “Camp”, helped to set out the critical coordinates for the camp sensibility. Among them, an affection for the affectations of artifice and exaggeration, a rewiring of the logics of taste (bad can be good!) in order to account for an excessiveness and/or a “failed seriousness” that doubles back to slip quotation marks around itself, often undertaking a kind of historical salvage operation whereby the once-banal might now be redeemed as fantastic. As a significant subset of (non-naïve) camp, kitsch pertains to the more intentionally frivolous or ostentatious, and it inheres, most immediately, in the practices/objects produced through the camp sensibility. In sum, camp and kitsch take pleasure and refuge in affectedness, and regularly draw upon a particular relationship to the past: a past not to be conserved as it once was but to be transformed toward different, potentially more liberating ends within the present.
The sensibility of corn occupies an almost coincidental space in our contemporary moment (where else could it be?) but its initial impulse faces in the other direction: rather than a past, it seeks to redeem a future for the present. Although by no means bypassing the powers of being affected (though without ironically turning this affectedness upon itself), cornball art sets to work by fictively divulging capacities to affect among existing constellations of forces and aesthetic figures, finding hidden-in-plain-sight alliances and branchings, offering a glimpse of a future not quite in view. That is, if camp and especially kitsch are the sound of a world chortling in the mirror at the sight of its own enlightened cynicism, corn gives voice to the near-impossible belief, in the face of all-available evidence to the contrary, that traversing the dreadfully familiar still holds the chance potential for imagining (and perhaps creating) a world that is decidedly otherwise. A work of (“successful”) corn actively dedicates itself to conjuring up an affective topography – opening the way for the possibility of collective inhabitation or contagion – within and around the hollows and shadows of the cliché and the commonplace, extracting from the field of its circulation the tiniest differences and variations.
Although camp and kitsch are “statistically” on the political left (in the same way that Roland Barthes claims that “myth” is statistically on the right), corn has no intrinsic political valence. Making itself at home in the midst of the already known and patently obvious, corn’s stubborn (“silly beyond reason”) act of faith in the conversion of the banal becomes the future-oriented task of the always-to-be-made. The fabulist potential of corn then is that, beginning in the middle of nowhere, it can deliver us somewhere else: even if somewhere else is inevitably right here (no-where turned now-here). Corn’s politics don’t arrive in advance but only through its own act of creative, patchwork assembling. Rather than camp’s self-inoculating wink of solidarity (often delivered from arm’s length), whatever might be the coming politics of corn, it is precisely in its articulations and the expanse of its arms-wide embrace.
Sufjan Stevens is already a fairly complex tangle of articulations all by himself: a plainly quirky musical composer-arranger and multi-instrumentalist (imagine Philip Glass writing “twee lo-fi” scores for a local community theater) / simultaneously straightforward balladeer and goofy-assed cheerleader-bandleader / fabulating geo-philosopher / practicing Christian (Episcopalian) of the non-evangelical variety / undeterred and affectionate chronicler of an increasingly unsettled America. What keeps this tangle of articulations from falling into a mess of contradictions is his earnestly cornball conceit as a musical surveyor – with or without a cape – of the vast American landscape. Stevens’s new Come on Feel the Illinoise and his 2003 release Greetings from Michigan serve merely as the first two states in an ambitious and admittedly foolhardy “50 States” project. Stevens re-conjures these states as immensely intimate geographies of the everyday mundane (folding laundry, wasp stings, zoo visits), of the cosmically mythic (UFOs, God, ghosts), and through figures, events and places, both past and present (Mary Todd Lincoln, the Black Hawk War, Decatur, his stepmother). In and across his musical compositions, there are no conceptual, lyrical or moral hierarchies (no above or below, including God); everything is situated alongside each other. Nothing is subordinated to anything else, and all are linked as one.
Describing his “poetics of landscape”, Stevens says:
I think this is a complicated subject, this idea of environment and geography shaping our doctrines, our behavior, our memory, even our inclinations … Now, our life is not a series of compartments. Here is our health. Here is our diet. Here is our genealogy. Here is our religion. Here is our politics. Here is our job. No, these things are all one big thing. Landscape is the palate of all activity. We live and move on the surface of this planet. Of course the character of that geography informs us. Even more, it determines us, and we affect it as well. It’s correlative … (Dodd).
Although everything is already in immanence, it is also always to be articulated. Or, in the case of Sufjan Stevens’s rewrite of the United States’ national anthem, it is still all to be re-articulated: reclaiming God from the religious right while declaiming America’s militarism. The affective-aesthetic resonance of these articulations, through corn’s familiar traversal of the recurring same, serves as a selective ontology that comes to guide what falls out or rises up – the difference in repetition – into resources for hope in the present (Massumi). By nurturing these hopeful fall-outs and rise-ups into their next iterations, and by sustaining them into ever-expanding and self-varying accumulation, corn’s peculiar affective sensibility invokes its ethical task and, thus, its capacity to deliver its audience – though there are no guarantees – from nowhere (especially given the present sorry state of affairs on the US political left). It takes landscape as the palate of its activity, and then “populate[s] it with other instances, with other poetic, novelistic, or even pictorial or musical entities” (Deleuze and Guattari 66-7), populates it with a people to come.
At present, it is safe to say that Sufjan Stevens is almost precisely nowhere, a mere speck on the popular music landscape of North America – at least as such matters might be determined through sales statistics or mainstream radio airplay. But a growing number of US music critics, journalists, and music bloggers have begun to take notice. See, for example, the critics at Amazon.com in the US or Metacritic.com – a Website that cross-tabulates critical reviews (mostly US and British) of film, television, music, etc – where, in both, Stevens’s Illinoise stands as the number one music release for 2005. All of which might add up, of course, to next to nothing (a temporary crush, this year’s model, a critical darling). Except that, wedged along the balcony rail as I observed the evening’s crowd in resonant conjunction with Stevens and his band, there seemed and still seems every reason to believe or every reason to want to believe that a reconfigured, newly-weird and corn-fed America may be nudging its way onto the horizon as an emergent, fledgling generational sensibility. Or, so, that’s the infectious hope anyway … admittedly as naïve as any before it.
Think of it as a manifestation of what Deleuze calls the need for belief (and not its suspension) in the world. In this world (this world now: no waiting for a next one) belief that operates, in one way, through “the powers of the false” (fabulation): supplanting the close-to-expired effectivity of “speaking truth to power” anytime too soon. Deleuze and Guattari maintain that, “belief becomes a genuine concept only when it is made into belief in this world and is connected rather than projected” (92). To connect. To fabulate. To pass into the landscape. To create the conditions for a people-who-are-missing. But, more than any other ingredient to be drawn as political necessity from the contemporary moment, it is belief – unembarrassed by its open expression, unfettered by irony’s built-in self-protection mechanism – that sets corn apart from camp and kitsch.
It is belief in this world that sets Sufjan Stevens’s music and its live performance, as corn, into motion: belief as force for belonging. Corn lends itself, almost by its very nature (albeit its fictive nature), to such gathering-up, to collective enunciation. “All things go / All things go / To re-create us / All things grow / All things grow”, Stevens sings in part of the chorus of his Chicago (arguably the centrepiece of Illinoise), his voice supported – both live and on record – by what feels like every other voice in its vicinity. But, in the song, Chicago serves as just a momentary passing through on the way to somewhere else, on the way to New York and beyond that: “Freedom from myself and from the land”. In the sliver of this moment (beyond one state or two, a nation or land dissolving into what develops), the affect of corn reveals its opening on to a boundless expansion of landscape, out past the amber waves of grain, the majesty of purple mountains, and God shedding his grace, pom-poms intact.