Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

A Foreigner at Home: Morrissey and the Art of Embarrassment

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

A Foreigner at Home: Morrissey and the Art of Embarrassment

Article excerpt

Hiere is no such thing in life as normal

- Morrissey

ACCORDING TO THE SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGIST ERVING GOFFMAN, our lives are shaped by the desire to avoid embarrassment - a condition he refers to as wearing "the leper's bell."1 The artist, however, runs in the opposite direction - towards the things that others flee, towards the epicentre of the disturbance. In his fine study Keats and Embarrassment, Christopher Ricks shows how the Romantic poet was "especially sensitive to, and morally intelligent about, embarrassment," and argues that it was one of the poet's unpraised virtues that he did not flinch or flee from what Charles Darwin describes as this "most human" of emotions, and instead turned awkwardness into "a human victory."2 Morrissey, likewise, I want to suggest, is acutely sensitive to embarrassment, and it is this sensitivity - which is at once social, moral, and aesthetic - that is central to his significance as an artist. Like Keats, he frequently writes about embarrassment, documenting others' and making fun of his own awkwardness and ineptitude. What makes his work so extraordinary, though, is the way he seeks out and heroically holds himself in embarrassing situations - suffering as it were sacrificially in front of us on behalf of humanity. If this sounds embarrassingly melodramatic, well, that's because it is. Yet to say so is in no way to diminish his achievement; on the contrary, it is in braving the embarrassing grandeur of his own gestures that his greatness significantly consists.

An example will help. In 2004, Morrissey was interviewed on Later ... with Jools Holland, and it was going terribly. The singer was squirming, repeating the questions, giving one-word answers, his face a ferment of interiority, and Jools Holland was trying everything to get him to feel at home and join in. It was excruciating. In a last-ditch attempt to get the profoundly embarrassed and embarrassing Morrissey to play the game, Jools falls back on the apparently foolproof conventions of the participatory joke:

HOLLAND: Knock, knock!

MORRISSEY: I'm not joining in.

HOLLAND: Oh go on, please!

MORRISSEY: [to laughing audience] You can join in. [laughter] No, Jools, I refuse to open the door.

HOLLAND: That's very good - that's very clever. You don't even know who it is!

MORRISSEY: I'm not curious.

This short exchange reveals a lot about Morrissey. It reveals, for instance, that he is witty, slippery, and remains in character even when he is off stage. It also suggests that central to this 'character' is a not-joining-in or a refusal to make friends with everyday experience. Perhaps most interestingly of all, though, what it reveals is that his not-joining-in is a double gesture which subverts and, paradoxically, takes part in the game. That is to say, in making a joke of the joke - which lays bare but nonetheless relies upon its conventions - his refusal is itself a sort of 'knock knock' joke and a continuation of its tradition. In this essay, I want to argue that Morrissey' s fondness for inhabiting structures, as it were, from without is not only a central feature of his art but also a subversive political gesture, which makes him a paradigmatic example of what Michel de Ccrtcau refers to as a "foreigner at home."2

I. A Ticklish Subject

Before I say anything more about the nature and function of embarrassment, it will be useful to look at a few more examples, to establish that it is a recurrent and cohering subject in Morrissey's work. In order to do this, I shall invoke the principle of 'homology', which was popularized by the media theorist Dick Hebdige and has proved enlightening in the study of style as signifying practice in relation to subcultures. Briefly, 'homology' refers to an internal correspondence or "symbolic fit between the values and life-styles of a group."4 Thus, in punk, for example, Hebdige argues that there was

a homological relation between the trashy cut-up clothes and spiky hair, the pogo and the amphetamines, the spitting, the vomiting, the format of the fanzines, the insurrectionary poses, and the 'soul-less', frantically driven music. …

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