Monday, 25 September 2017

More Unanswerable Questions

[Text of a rather miserable paper given at the University of Plymouth last May. This was the starting point for the recently published essay in Chicago Review, and stumbles around a bit, as usual. Still, it says things that the larger essay didn’t get round to, so I thought it worth posting here. I seem never to have written down the references, but they’re hardly obscure]

Unanswerable Questions

What is the condition of a problem if you are the problem?

Despite the unedifying vacuity of most assertions about the “power of poetry,” poems remain something of an affront. The best contemporary poetry, at least, is that which speaks in tones of powerfully unstable intransigence, which unfolds in damaged antagonism in relation to the conditions of its production, which refuses to allow those conditions to confer upon the poetry an a priori sense of autonomous resistance, but which compels its readers to confront the questions it poses as the means by which that resistance could itself be forged in the gift or trial of expression, and which by its gift or trial, or by the gift of its trial, is an object worth living with at least until the powers of its expressive mobility become otherwise than absolutely essential to the survival of our atrophied and melancholy imaginations. These criteria are not arbitrary or fantastic, but the vital characteristics of the poetry now most in need of our attention and support, and most often also the poetry lost among the grandiose and airy claims about the “power” of the genre more generally, whenever those claims are made in the facile culture columns of the mainstream press, literary or otherwise. A just and committed analysis of poetry’s “power” would cease the meaningless assertions of violently affirmative transformation that the vocabulary connotes, as if poetry were an essential force which acted upon the world through its strength of moral fiber and high-minded ideals. If poetry has “power” it does not consist in these reflexive character-traits of the kind of historical subject for whom the world is indeed something to be acted upon, influenced and transformed at will. It would instead consist in the negative image of such a subject: in the body of one trampled beneath the various forms of real material power – state, economic, sexual and racial – in the service of which we are most disastrously animated. In relation to this body and those like it, the affirmative sense of poetry’s “power” can only speak – and critically ventriloquize its poetic objects –  in tones of charitable or tragic pity, in the voice of universal lament that reminds us of the existence of inequality and injustice (or worse, of “death” or “tragedy” in general) but which is content to identify this fact and rest assured that we have noticed it too, perhaps on the way to the reading or the gallery opening. Lots of poetry is written purely in order to provide for the model of poetic affirmation the Duplo blocks of subjective whimsy that it requires to maintain a kind of contemporary structural coherence (criticism may pluck its historical object-examples with great freedom and alacrity – there will always be succour available in the form of a classic). It is written, in other words, to be praised by its blurb-writers for having identified precisely the tone of our contemporary moment, or the touching manner in which distant suffering is trapped behind our iPad screens, or the commoditization of everyday life that has still, miraculously, left slivers of everyday life un-commoditized so that New York or South London gallery poets and Brighton performance poets can notice them, the slivers, and then write poems about their commoditization. This kind of poetry will not be amenable to the criticism of poetry’s negative powers because it has none: it is, even in its most depressive positions, all thumbs up.

One way in which we might approach what I am calling, perhaps after Keats but not really, poetry’s negative powers, is through the identity and peculiar grammatical purchase of unanswerable questions. The best and most compelling contemporary poetry is a fit of unanswerable questions; that is to say, it is sustained by an attachment to the world that is made from an impossible address to a subject who cannot answer. Unanswerable questions should be distinguished from, though they may at times be coterminous with, the category of apostrophe as its most famous modern theorists define it: the figure which “makes its point by troping not on the meaning of a word but on the circuit or situation of communication itself,” and which thereby figures the “temporality of writing” in scenes of either completed or frustrated reconciliation between poet-author and the natural or inanimate world. It is the optative character of apostrophic verse, its “impossible imperatives” in Johnathan Culler’s sense, that is most closely related to unanswerable questions, except the questions that I am interested in – whether posed directly in the language of poetry as questions or expressed by some textual or metatextual demand, however complex – do not point towards “reconciliation” as such but towards the consummate experience of its suspension. Unanswerable questions do not figure the fictional harmony of subject and object but the experience – intense, interminable, prosaic, or parodic – of their incompatibility. They are the hallmark of a radical art of non-constructive criticism. They do not offer to heal damaged life, to find alternative means of succour or sustainability, or to rhetorically present an intersubjective encounter with an absent other as the model for an ethical ideal. To read unanswerable questions closely is to ask with Anne Boyer, in her essay ‘Questions for Poets,’
Is the trial of today that if there is no answer in and as poetry then all poetry till the revolution comes is only a list of questions? Or is it that all poetry till the revolution comes is only a list of questions and the answer to them is almost always ‘no’? Is it to keep as a counter-poetry a record of each answer ‘no’?
Boyer’s essay, itself composed entirely of questions, reads Whitman’s injunction that the “direct trial of him who would be the greatest poet is today” ironically, as a form of collective interrogation of the contemporary through an address to the tribe. These are questions for poets, both addressed to them and for them to ask, questions the logical and speculative power of which is to be found in their grammar of persistent negativity. Each new question threatens to cancel its precedent by the urgency of address all exude. The very form of the essay asks, not altogether pessimistically, whether “the trial of the poet that is today [is] an arena in which we perform only in fidelity to the tradition of what is unanswerable?” What are the forms of attachment, relation, intransigence or antagonism that such a trial would effect?

The first line of Lisa Robertson’s book-length poem Cinema of the Present (2014) with which I began, “What is the condition of a problem if you are the problem?,” is in one sense performative, jovial and benign: it opens a poem of one-hundred and six pages with an invocation designed to unsettle its reader, but the reader need not be unsettled for long: the poem contains hundreds of other lines, each content to lean patiently against the left margin in splendid, double-line-broken isolation from its neighbours. There is no narrative logic to the poem; or at least, narrative per enjambment dissolves as each new line is built not from the semantic coordinates of the previous, but from the futural presence of the line’s lexical, semantic and grammatical companions elsewhere in the poem. Each line reads like the beginning of a poem that could become Cinema of the Present. The lines of the poem do not so much break as replace each other. Thus the reason for the first line’s capacity for insouciance also bears upon the quality of its terminal unanswerability. The poem’s opening page dramatizes the pleasurable ease with which any self-interruption of your “condition” is erased, overridden or simply forgotten; it continues:

You move into the distributive texture of an experimental protocol.
A bunch of uncanniness emerges.
At 20 hertz it becomes touch.
A concomitant gate.
At the middle of your life on a Sunday.
A dove, a crowned warbler in redwood, an alarm, it stops.
You set out from consciousness carrying only a small valise.
A downtown tree, the old sky, and still you want an inventory.
You were an intuition without a concept.
A gallery, a hospital, an hypothesis.
Pure gesture.

To pose the question “What is the condition of a problem if you are the problem?” at the very tip of the long poem Cinema of the Present is to identify a “problem” of constitution and to keep it, gently but insistently and firmly, in the possession of the second-person subject around whom the entire poem orbits. For “me” to answer this question would be a legitimate but catastrophically self-involved gesture of affirmation. There is no limit to what or whom “you” are or what it is that “you” do, but “you” are always potentially the problem for which there is an unidentifiable “condition,” and it is that “condition” that remains the inscrutable and universal motor of the entire work. The poem’s seemingly endless iterations of possibility are themselves universally in train to the endless arbitrariness of their determination. How is it possible for this subject to identify the condition of their own problematic? As the poem continues, the questions begin to accumulate. Here is another excerpt from the middle section of the poem, the opening gambit now pluralized:

What are the conditions of a problem, if you are the problem?
It was a kind of dance music from the plains you hear at nighttime from far above.
What city are you seeing?
Ah, the true and fluent beauty of mass protest!
What do you believe about form?
And yet incomplete.
What if there were a life that sustains life?
You had drunk only half of the wine.
What if your only witness were an animal?
The problem of solitude, what was it to you?
What is a pronoun but a metaphor?
You’re bent to a book as the uprising unfurls.
What will you be, then?
You’re absolutely in love with trees.
What will you do next?
Each has a horoscope.
What will you do when you’re human?

At this point in the poem the roving address incorporates the abstract, even cliché extremes of proximal solitary endeavor on the one hand, and distant collective insurrectionary activity on the other. Taken on their own, the questions herein do not always appear to be unanswerable. The question, “What will you do next?,” for example, does not exert a particularly onerous pressure on any environment of possible activity. But read in the form in which they appear together on the page inflects even the most innocent of these questions with a desperate tension between their utterance and any possible context of their answerability. The various conditions of a problem that “you” are has by this point in the poem taken on the affective dimensions of the material conditions that maintain the greatest possible distance between “you” and the “fluent beauty” of the “mass protest” witnessed with a whimsical sigh of romantic spectatorship. It is beautiful because you are drunk, despite your sensible conservation of “half of the wine.” The “uprising unfurls” as a condition of this separation, which is not a separation the abolition of which the poem can propose, condone or even gesture towards. But neither does the poem’s proposition of the relative scale of “you” and “distant mass protest” allow those two objects to exist in lamentable and comfortable isolation from one another. It at once objectivizes and internalizes that distance as the very “problem” that “you” are. It makes of “protest” itself the object of a scopophilic cathexis reminiscent of the enthusiasm with which the uprisings of the Arab Spring were greeted, with staggering technological sycophancy, as the “Twitter revolution.” If Boyer’s formulation of the question, “Is the trial of today that if there is no answer in and as poetry then all poetry till the revolution comes is only a list of questions?,” then what the questions in Cinema of the Present do, and the list of questions that Cinema of the Present is, figure that trial, at least in part, as the ironic exhaustive recapitulation of human powers in the midst of their terminal and inalienable solitude. The negative universalism of the question “What will you do when you’re human?,” to which no answer can be given that does not divest the interlocutor of their humanity, and therefore their ability to constitute themselves as a political subject, is the emblematic caricature of this trial. But it is also the gruesome truth of the global inhumanity implicated in the question’s rhetorical backdraft. The lesson here is that such unanswerable questions nevertheless seem constantly to invite, in the face of their refusal to provide a constructive alternative to the conditions to which they appeal, something like the radical substitution of the world in which those conditions continue to make such appalling and predictable sense. 

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Affect Storms and Affected Response

Affect storms 2017 from KS on Vimeo.

These are precious news seconds, if you could speed up the rate of your responze. Talk by Keston Sutherland, response by me, plus questions and answers. Link to original video here, with information about the missing opening minutes.

Friday, 2 December 2016

A Fragment on Allen Fisher

[A brief, improvised fragment for the discussion of Allen Fisher’s poetry and artwork held at the University of Sussex, November 17th, 2016]

Allen Fisher and Everything

One way to think about late modernist British poetry is to think of it as the poetry of everything. Allen Fisher and his contemporary J.H. Prynne are poets for whom everything matters. Both poets cite the American poet Charles Olson as the formative influence on the expansion of possibility in British avant-garde poetry circles in the 1960s and 1970s, and both poets emerge at that time into, and then beyond, the space opened up by Olsonian ambition and reach. But Fisher and Prynne diverge in the following manner: whereas for Prynne, a Poundian comprehensiveness is the means by which the world must be made vivid in its murderous coherence, for Fisher the compositional principle most clearly at work is instead complexity, in the sense of a dynamic system the component parts of which cannot be understood in isolation from their relative modalities of contact (and influence) both with (and on) each other and with (and on) an observer, or in this case, reader. In a complex system, individual relationships between parts of the system contribute to, but cannot finally determine, the mutable, emergent and innovative behaviour of the whole. It may or it may not make sense to study any given poem as a complex linguistic system. But it certainly does make sense to consider complexity as a formal concern in Allen Fisher’s poetry, and nowhere more so than when form is made vitally present in the work as a particular component of a poem’s unruly activity within the history of versification. Fisher’s poetry contains a vital additive principle intrinsic to complex systems, known as feedback: that everything in the world, or the everything that is the world, is increased by the activity of the poem, and that aesthetic experience is the inevitably dynamic relation of a reader to this irruption into the world of what is perpetually more than everything there always is.

The poems I want to touch on very briefly today are part of a sequence called Human Poems. They are examples of a genre I want to call pseudo-sonnets. Like the comparable pseudo-sonnets of William Fuller and Tom Raworth, these poems produce affinities with the historical form of the sonnet as a function of divergence from the sonnet’s claims on compositional logic. The system of a pseudo-sonnet contains as one of its agents the mutable history of sonnet form, and this agent interacts in various ways with the syntactical properties of the poem as it unfolds over the course of its fourteen lines. Fourteen lines at a snap tells us something, namely, that such-and-such a poem looks like a sonnet; a poem’s basic disposition on the page, its brevity and compaction, its placement in a sequence of like-minded poems, all tell us more; but none of these properties tells us everything, and in the space prised open between this evidence and its indeterminacy the pseudo-sonnet exercises a particular kind of formal and syntactical feedback continually at play with everything that the poem does. Here is Allen Fisher’s poem ‘Human cosmos’:

This slow universe does not seem at all isotropic, on your back in
tension it’s difficult to imagine at half the speed of light watching
starlight and the radiation background coming toward you, from the
direction toward which you are moving, with much higher intensity
than from behind. Beyond this skylight window the universe is said
to be the same all around, an isotropy precise in cosmic background
microwaves traveling through you
from the day of your conception,
somewhat more difficult to speculate that you, or humankind,
are in any special position. In formulating the assumption of isotropy,
you could specify that the universe seems the same in all directions
to a murmuration of freely falling neighbours, each with the average
velocity of typical galaxies, typical brain muscles and simultaneously
all of them might see conditions pretty much the same.

Isotropy is the quality of exhibiting equal physical properties or actions (e.g. refraction of light, elasticity, or conduction of heat or electricity) in all directions; the so-called cosmological principle states that, on a universal scale, the distribution of matter is both homogenous and isotropic: it is “the same in all directions.” Now, there is a simple irony at work here: that the poem expresses the logic of the Nietzschean obsolescence of anything so arrogant and mendacious as a specifically “Human” cosmos, whether or not the universe from our perspective “seem[s]” to be “at all isotropic.” But there is also a complex irony at work in the poem, because the spectres of traditionally sonnet-like appeal, persuasion and erotic desire permeate the poem and provide a field of depth in which to disport itself according to various combinations of immanent and historical relations: the human and the cosmic are breezily, practically insouciantly intertwined as a result, as the poem calmly and candidly plays in the light of the unimaginable scale and velocity that frame its purpose. The lines “microwaves traveling through you / from the day of your conception” express a flinch or glitch or an inward jolt in the poem’s disposition at the moment of the most direct convergence of human life and physical universe, while “galaxies” and “brain muscles” alike extend across the penultimate line as it swings into the ultimate last one: “all of them [that is, the “freely falling neighbours”] might see conditions pretty much the same.” In the paradigmatic simple Romantic grammar of extension,

How exquisitely the individual Mind
[…] to the external World
Is fitted: -- and how exquisitely, too,
[…] The external World is fitted to the Mind;

And in the simple post-modern grammar of lamentable distortion, how it isn’t. But in what I want to call the complex Romantic grammar of Fisher’s poetry, Wordsworth’s fit becomes a Blakean Vortex, an active and dynamic principle at work not simply between two elements in a perfectly calibrated system, but across and between the historical and syntactical elements of a complex system that is the poem, and which includes how the poem replies to the historical conditions of its composition; that include, for example, the inevitably bathetic tone of the final line in a world in which homogeneity can promise only dearth and mutual immiseration; but which must also inevitably include, for example, the promise, however faint, of a world from the perspective of which “all of them [your “neighbours”] might see conditions pretty much the same” would mean the celebration of those conditions as evenly distributed, replete and life-affirming. The feedback produced by ‘Human cosmos,’ this Blakean excessive spirit of affirmation, which must be there because it “seems” impossible, which emerges from the poem as a function of its formal complexity, confirms the emphatic irony of life and what life could be, “to a murmuration of freely falling neighbours.” This is the spirit in which the most compelling contemporary poetry is written today.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Reading, 2005

Monday, 12 September 2016

Three Types of Pain in the Poetry of Keston Sutherland (work in progress)

1. Juxtaposition – at the largest structural level, the pain of lurching (in performance, where it is often accomplished through a dramatic shift in the speed and volume of delivery, though occurring during private reading on a sliding scale of torturously slowly to joltingly abruptly, depending on the rhythms of the transition and the reading speed; between two informationally and/or syntactically distinct bodies of material, whether explicitly “sourced” or not, so that the difference between the two is at least nominally marked by the substance of the material itself, and not by a lesser shift in tone or metre; present often in Odes, and perhaps paradigmatically (given the content), though tessellated, in Sinking Feeling 4. This type of pain is induced, though it is not inflicted; it is not a kind of pain that is possible to receive vindictively, usually because processes, laments, cries or struggles of/for subjectivization have been interrupted or counter-balanced, and the reader therefore only witnesses the juxtaposition instead of having it happen to them, per se: but see below for the affective influence of metrical stability/instability in the same process. The interruption of subjectivization is itself painful: as expression is cauterized by the financial logic which is the material base of its possibility as value in this world. This is not so much dialectical as deliberately falsely so: the two ends do not meet. They are stuck; themselves a form of conceptual grating that is the inward annoyance of frustrated resolution, another kind of pain. This is ironic.

2. The metrically distinct/the metrically abusive – difficult to fully separate since one can often feel like the other. The octosyllabics in Odes are a case in point – the attempt by the reader to put the stresses in the “right” place produces the violence of received instruction upon material that inevitably attempts to shirk such patterns or that buckles under the pressure of their imposition; see in particular long numbers, URLs, decimal points, abbreviations, acronyms, etc., that pepper Odes and Sinking Feeling. The spectre of received metrical formality crushes what spontaneity might select from the line into strictly egalitarian homogeneity; stresses feel painfully re-distributed (even or especially when they are in the “right” place) because their material (where they reside) resists the pleasure of abstract equivocation (syllable/stress) that was sought for in, say, 18th century verse; the metre is therefore abusive, because it disrupts what it was made to do by doing it. But metre is also therefore dis-abusive, since such passages are the negative image of a truly communistic equivalence. It is difficult to explain why all or any of this is painful, but it is; not just because insistent hammering iambic tetrameter hurts, like an infant repeatedly smashing a piano key, but because one feels something like the interrogatee’s anticipatory fear of the misuse of an object for the inscrutable and probably pernicious purposes of demonstration: the first stage of torture is to show the victim the instruments of torture. Metre in the dis-abusive sense is painful because abstract equivalence refuses to resolve into either real equivalence (poem/line) or real abstraction (rhythm/metre): we are once again held in a space neither positive nor negative, only incessantly articulated by the expression of each of these spaces flourishing in the wrong body.

3. Commas – a case in point in the recent sections from Sinking Feeling, of all punctuation in Sutherland's poetry commas are the most painful, because they operate therein as the notation of a repetition which is made out of iterations of the unendurable (they are this repetition); because they are the pause and the passage between articulations of inescapability; because they promise not the relative safety of closure as a period would, but the potentially limitless expansion of the material into the future: they are punctuation’s emblem of whatever kind of infinity they are made to express. There is a tragedy to commas that all other punctuation marks lack, perhaps save the (showy, stentorian, practically operatic) question mark. Commas in Sinking Feeling are vindictive where the upper-level structural forms of pain in the poetry cannot be, because it is in the nature of the prospect of clausal infinity to be exhausting and punishing, and since the comma is the representative of our enduring repeated sections of similarly metrical prose for as long as we must. They are not rhythmical in themselves, but ring out with the rhythmicality of the factory alarm or the foreman’s whistle. They keep going. They contain too, then, as does what I call dis-abusive metre, the prospect of their abolition into recurrence instead of repetition, but the pressure they exert on the reader’s body is such that this prospect is as far away when the poem ends as when it began; if anything it slips back under the poem and returns us to its beginning (it is in this sense that the frequent self-reflexive demands to “go back to the start” in Sutherland’s poetry are expressed in the scaffold of its versification: we are strained through the blocks of prose poetry as much as we traverse them. Self-reflexivity is, incidentally, never emancipatory in the poetry, but always dastardly).

25th August, 2016

Sunday, 11 September 2016


Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Harmless Unnecessary Cat

A talk-essay of mine from a couple of years previous has been kindly published on Edmund Hardys Intercapillary Space. Here’s a sample:

Poetry is intrinsically futural: it delineates a relationship to the future that is both simple and impossible. It makes a future by refusing to relinquish its possibilities of commitment and thoughtful pressure to the critical idiom of the spectacle of resistance. I think that the “demand [...] placed on thought” by the attempt to fashion the impossible perspectives that Adorno describes could help to formulate a criticism that would define poems not as loci of resistance, serene in their localised discretion, but as the echoes of the future from which resistance gains its energies, tactics and emotional intelligence of possibility. Perhaps this would help us to think about poetry as the historical expression of presently ineradicable social contradictions, rather than, as it sometimes feels with the resistance model, as the cauterization or suppression of those contradictions in the service of defending the authentic remnants of a life already given over to its pre-, post- or sub-aesthetic abolition. I wonder if this might either intersect with, or entirely bypass, Jacques Rancière’s polemical distinction between the pretentious uselessness of critical art conceived as such on the one hand, and the critical attention to the dogma of the equality of the intelligence on the other, by which lights his theory re-interprets entire swathes of 20th century art as the historical hangover of the failures of didactic methodology and of the misguided ontological compartmentalisation of art and life.

The full weft can be read on the Intercapillary Space website, and the original oral delivery can be recovered here, and below.

ED ATKINS «Un-like». Part 3: WORDS. 26 April 2014. from Kunsthalle Zürich on Vimeo.

Ed Atkins, Ann Cotten, James Richards and Adam Kleinman are also represented. Some of the discussion is omitted. 

Thursday, 18 August 2016

From a Letter, 23rd October 2015

Dear all,

I hope this finds you thriving, by which I mean, spitting blood and fire, recuperating, revolving on various platforms of multilateral desire and destruction. Ive had to abandon the letter I was trying to compose to you about Samo Tomšičs The Capitalist Unconscious: Marx and Lacan out of frustration; it was becoming unwieldy, full of quotation and scraps of response Ive been putting together all week, and it wasnt hanging together. For some reason I feel compelled - duty-bound even - to respond to this book in the company of poets, because the questions it raises are, I think, inordinately poetical. But I also screwed up the letter because I felt it was becoming too much like a tirade instead of a critique. Have any of you seen Tomšičs book? Tom, I know you are at least familiar with his work, but I dont know if K, Danny or Ed have seen it? Its just out from Verso, and I did an inside job and got a copy which now lies spreadeagled before me, covered in scribbles and upsets. I think this theory has compelled me to write to you about it because of some powerful disconnect between my sympathy with its aims, and my (low) level of satisfaction with its premises and methods of argument. It seems to me to be a book which manages to articulate quite virtuosically the absolute limits of theoretical discourse; not theorys most profound insights or possible lived ramifications, but its limits. The avowed aim is thus, spoken through Tomšičs description of the project of psychoanalysis and Marxism:

The shared logical and political project of psychoanalysis and Marxism is to determine the terrain in which the subject is constituted and to detach this subject from its commodified form that capitalism imposes on everyone through direct forms of domination as well as through the hyper-fetishisation of financial abstractions.

The project of determining the terrain is a structural one; thus Marx is read through Lacan:

Marx never intended to elaborate a communist worldview and [...] speculation about the future social order did not belong in his mature critical work, since it is all groundwork for beginning to think social change itself:

Marxs critical project repeatedly shows that the passage from interpretation to political action involves a move from the production of philosophical, political and religious worldviews [...] to a materialist interpretation that, in quite the opposite fashion, uncovers the very gaps that existing worldviews strive to foreclose. By detecting these structural gaps, the materialist method provides a rigorous understanding of logical relations that support the capitalist social link, thereby also detecting the structural disclosure that enables one to address the question of change. It is precisely at this point that Lacan intervenes in the debates regarding Marxs epistemological and political coordinates, proposing a structuralist reading that implies a much more unorthodox, albeit no less politically radical, Marx.

I suppose my issue here is that I distrust how really radical this kind of Marx can be. This move of claiming a kind of binary trajectory, in quite the opposite fashion, seems to dive straight into the desiccated gristle of Althusserian structuralism without maintaining the speculative element that would provide for the opening onto something as derisively dismissed as a communist worldview. As he was the first theoretician of the symptom, in Marx the proletariat is the subject of the unconscious. This means that the proletariat designates more than an empirical class. It expresses the universal subjective position in capitalism. And further:

“With the shift from the proletarian seen simply as an empirical subject to the subject of the unconscious, the notion and the reality of class struggle also appears in a different light. It no longer signifies merely a conflict of actually existing social classes but the manifestation of structural contradictions in social and subjective reality, thereby assuming the same epistemological-political status as the unconscious.”

Thus, some fifty pages later, and this claim is stressed throughout: Capital is about structural and not empirical or cognitive reality, a claim based entirely on a reading of the few opening chapters of Capital.

Now it seems to me, with my limited knowledge of Lacan, that the topographical shape of this kind of theory might be useful to us. It tries to make structurally co-extensive the universal domination of the commodity form and the structure of fantasy, and by doing so the polemic wants to understand the imminent and permanent instability of this co-extension. One more quote:

Psychoanalysis and the critical of political economy are conditioned by this epistemological paradigm. The unconscious and class struggle, two real cracks in the social and the subjective reality, can be encountered by pushing the discursive consistency to its limits.

Nevertheless its at points like this that, in full cognizance of my own fucking cognition, I throw the damn book out of the window and scream in exasperation that perhaps class struggle could be encountered more comprehensively in the camps in Calais or in the streets of Baltimore. The value of this kind of theory is that, as I say, what it determines as co-extensive seems to be something like the terrain on which lots of important poetry is currently working. But its utter limits are something like the following (I admit I have lost the critique and am now blazing my tirade):

1. Marxproject is treated as such, a project, whereas I am interested in - and I think you are all interested in - Marxs writing. The limits of a project are precisely in the universal applicability of its concepts. Thus class struggle is promoted to the structure of the unconscious, making domination something indistinct that we can begin to encounter, rather than something that is infinitely mediated by class position, race and gender, to name a few.

2. The way Tomšičs book is put together seems to prove my worst fears about readings of Lacan that draw out (what Leo Bersani at Sussex recently called) the domination of the signifier in such a way to render subconscious activity a kind of robotic schemata. In this way, and in Tomšičs book too, domination becomes something that operates unilaterally across minds with no distinction, as Ive said, between classes - let alone races or genders. But this is the point, of course. The reorientation of class in the service of the logical revelation of the structure of both the unconscious and society severs the personal connection between them - precisely the aim of the theory: There is no social relation.

3. But far from allowing therefore the disclosure of the permanent instability of the system, which is now everywhere and nowhere, arent the real bloody bodies, not just of Chapter 10 of Capital, but of a Pakistani construction worker in Qatar or a Syrian refugee, hereby rendered simply a part of the permanent instability of the structural relation that we need to examine to encounter class struggle, rather than the actual actionable social imperative that Marx was writing?

4. Its at this point in my thinking about Tomšičs book that I feel a little like a kind of Eagleton with a sledgehammer. Maybe thats too much; I feel like there are plenty of ways in which theories like Tomšičs can help us think injustice and domination. But I come back to something like this: dont we need a cognitive subject to do the very work of shifting the epistemological paradigms that Tomšič threads so laboriously together? And doesnt the promotion of class struggle to an unconscious universal misrecognise the real work of activism for the pseudo-repetitions of May 68 under the guise of demanding a new master? What cognition, where, and whose?

5. I dont suppose Tomšič would deny that we cognitive subjects, just that they have anything to do with Marxproject. Thus: Marxs critical method cannot envisage an overall abolition of fetishisation but the detachment of politics from the reign of economic abstractions, which has been intensified by decades of neoliberalism. The liberation of politics consequently means the same as the abolition of the rootedness of social links in the commodity form as their unique formal envelope. The theory is the power of this methodology to allow the space to think a new politics - that fetishised catchphrase of everyone from Agamben to Cameron.

6. The final power of Tomšičs book is in its production of a virtually inescapable dead end. The dead end is that we cannot think social change before we attend to the structural critique of the constitution of subjects for capitalism. But this end is precisely deadening: it strips the cognitive subject of the life through it would be possible to think that shift. It ends up being far more utopian than the Freudo-Marxists it descries, because it creates such a profound and limited break between 1) where and what we are, and 2) where and what we need to get to.

These points are probably desperately unsophisticated. I think it is a completely fascinating to move to ensure we encounter class struggle as a structure of subjective reality, and I think it could and does open out all sorts of micro-struggles in the structure of daily life that I find examined and exacerbated in our poems. But I think the reason Ive been so interested by this book is that it seems to be doing precisely half of what I consider our poems to be doing at their best, which is to innervate both the structures of domination and the lives that struggle vitally within them, to be both the structure and the cognition of subjective life, to be both the exhaustion of language in the diagnosis of domination and the gift of bloody commitment to lives outside of it. I dont think Ive encountered any theory capable of thinking this kind of thing. The accusations of idealism this would elicit from the Lacanian seem to me at the moment to be nothing less than the illiterate schema of a bad reader of poetry. Marx happened to be a great reader of poetry, and I think that poetry for him becomes a site of the constant struggle of the living tissue of historical expression in the structures of character and genre. Tomšičs book is like a perfectly valid, theoretically inescapable dead end: the movement of the critique of political economy proceeds [...] from the economic forms of knowledge to the progressive deduction of the subject of value, where also the horizon of a possible transformation is outlined, albeit without a prospective insight into the future social order. Our poems are not dead ends but living ones, in which what is here nominated as transformation is not so monumental as the horizon, flat-lining on the edge of a paradigm, but is rather fluid and malleable and distended enough to be the consistency of every beat and line, the shining promise of nothing so glib and frustrated as a future social order, but of forms of sociality that are impossibly already with us.

Please dive in and give all this a good kicking.

With lots of love,

Joe x

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

A Primer for Cadavers

Greetings traveller. For some time I've been writing about, and collaborating with, the artist Ed Atkins, and have recently written a note on the after-text for Ed's forthcoming collected; it will be out from Fitzcarraldo Editions shortly. The short text at the back of the book is a little manifesto on writing, mourning and melancholia, and will, I hope, fit snugly at the back of Ed's extraordinary collection. The whole book will look, really nicely, like this:

A couple of paragraphs from the website

One of the most widely celebrated artists of his generation, Ed Atkins makes videos, draws, and writes, developing a complex and deeply figured discourse around definition, wherein the impossibilities for sufficient representations of the physical, specifically corporeal, world — from computer generated imagery to bathetic poetry — are hysterically rehearsed.

A Primer for Cadavers, a startlingly original first collection, brings together a selection of his texts from 2010 to 2016. ‘Part prose-poetry, part theatrical direction, part script-work, part dream-work,’ writes Joe Luna in his afterword, ‘Atkins’ texts present something as fantastic and commonplace as the record of a creation, the diary of a writer glued to the screen of their own production, an elegiac, erotic Frankenstein for the twenty-first century.’

Kill Jester.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Surfacers: Paragraphs on Rachel Rose

“If architecture is entombed structure or thanatos, ornament is the frontier of the surface. It is at the surface where lively variability takes place.”­ – Lisa Robertson

Rachel Rose’s videos are surfaces. Or else, Rose’s videos comprise a series of discrete but interwoven meditations on surface, some of which include but are not limited to the purview of, or at least appear over the whole cloth of the screen seemingly sometimes in tandem, or otherwise cut-away to split between them with: the weather on the surface of the skin, the sonic surfacing the image harmoniously non-diegetic, that is, the diegesis of a visual harmonic series, the texture of art-historical representation, the fabric of an act of viewing, the material surface of a painted scene, the architectural surface of a digital illumination, the subtitle’s surface of signification that obscures or overlays, at least, a visual cue, the surface of the word that collects and coordinates the images it points out or to, the collar on a coat or jacket, the surface of the cut or edit, the surfaces elided by the cut or edit, the temporal surface of a look or lesson, each landmark interior domestic surface patiently and carefully exploding in a million shards of Adobe After Effects, the symbolic surface of the various repeated motifs, for example, animality, element, landscape, rhythm, gesture, countdown, catastrophe, cartography, colonialism, cops, water falling from the sky or in a tray, developing. Surface in Rose’s work operates profoundly superficially. It surfaces itself to foreground that which on the surface speaks, or at least is spoken for. Rose’s videos are surfacers.

Deer appear often, enclosed within a frozen scene or stuck mid-loop like a damaged .gif repeating, like itself. In one scene of Palisades in Palisades (2014) the Facebook movie theme tune played inside a 3D animated reconstruction of a painted deer is heard just off-screen as the shot cuts from the deer-interior, following the path of a 3D animated reconstruction of a bullet passing through the deer-interior in slow motion, obviously, the cinematic pun on “shot” there emerging into some red litter on the road. In one comparable scene from A Minute Ago (2014) the deer is possibly in the first panicked fragile moments of being startled, although one might only know this by pausing and pausing to reflect on it, whereas the video itself flashes forward in a series of hyperactive intercut and intercutting interiors with rain or Landscape with the Funeral of Phocion hung in said human interior and housed there. What is the equivalent in digital video of the tiny to minuscule animal and human forms that pepper Poussin? What is the smallest part of the film? A dead fox by the side of the road that mimics the corpse of Phocion (or which brings to mind the dead man in the foreground of Landscape with a Man Killed by Snake) in the final frames of A Minute Ago could be a contender if the question could be answered with an image and not a component, relation or technique. But I think it cannot. The act of looking proves a relation to history reflected in the frightened eyes of an animal alive or dead, since in that blank mortality is found the image of the null and central fact of history itself, freshly circumscribed by every act of looking, every view.

The whiff of death catches you off-screen, a kind of counterpoint to the Glass House’s dialectic of fragility and permanence, of destruction and resilience, or even of fleeting impermanence and hateful immortality, that peculiar combination of affects that seem to structure the experience of life in the digital archive. It’s much like a dog, sniffing its way into the room. A stronger smell accompanies Philip Johnson’s iterated claim repeated vaguely in the video but also elsewhere that the Glass House’s central brick cylinder was inspired by the beautiful remnants of burnt out Polish ruins, since Johnson’s early Nazi sympathies structure this claim in ways he later stoically regretted. “Um, I’m the voice of dead people, so…” The uneasy itemisation of this particular facet of the inspiration behind the house, however, only exaggerates the overwhelming stench of death – of organised manslaughter – that subtends the law of private property in general. Of course the Glass House’s most prescient pair is seeing and being seen, exhibitionism and the exhibit. The beautiful landscape it surrounds and encompasses passes for the Death of Phocion doubled, as the world that property owned expands mid-century to realise and counter-claim the art-object permanence of Cold War universalism. But the constant surveillance, the Polish ruins, the central hearth: there is not a little of the camp in Johnson’s house. Even before the house is animated out of existence, the shelter it imagines is already compromised; it is already an immaculate “mausoleum,” housing both the representable and the un-representable dead. [See Wendy Vogel, ‘Reel to Real: Rachel Rose’s Trippy Videos Have Painterly Roots,’ Modern Painters (Jan. 2015).] At the climax of A Minute Ago the post-war architectural apogee of modernist dematerialisation digitally dematerialises to be replaced in the film’s final act, its coda, by a belligerently material Landscape that brackets and intervenes, and resolutely refuses to be atomised, a reminder of the funereal in the midst of its comprehensive architectural deletion. Isn’t architecture the art most permanently threatened by the death it seeks to sullenly apportion and contain, and isn’t digital hi-definition video the act of looking made most contemporaneously immortal par excellence, divorced from any necessary spectator, sequestered by the animation’s purview in a state of the art impervious and weirdly unimpeachable? The video itself is a kind of tomb.

In Palisades in Palisades the camera lingers on someone looking. The act of looking centralises the skin of paint. The paintings depict idealised moments of revolutionary significance, and include most prominently John Trumbull’s Surrender of General Burgoyne and Edward Savage’s The Washington Family. The person looking is presumably standing in Palisades Interstate Park, looking out over the Hudson River, possibly over Snedens Landing. “At the end of the war the new American nation was first saluted in the person of George Washington by a British warship lying off Snedens.” [Alice Munro Haagensen, Palisades and Snedens Landing: From the Beginning of History to the Turn of the Twentieth Century (Tarrytown, NY: Pilgramage Publishing, 1986), p.2.] Or else it approaches them to look at them looking out over the landing, or about to turn away from it, or turning round and walking, in the person of whoever it is that’s looking, the camera winding its way snakily towards them where they stand, or reversing. Skin segues into Savage’s massive background, into Eleanor’s forearm, into Martha’s forearm pointing down the National Mall with fan, so that the body’s and the nation’s surfaces confuse each other, mingle. George’s forearm’s next. Later the slave to the far right of the scene who once (at least) tried to escape is barely visible. The child’s white arm at the centre of the newly established nation. The someone looking is further found next to a rock, or railing, sometimes smoking. Sea becomes skin becomes colour becomes paint becomes land becomes smoke in a narrative fungibility that takes what it looks at to exchange it for the history it illuminates by obscuring: the birth of a nation as analogy for the sovereign power of representation the work of art simultaneously both excludes and officiously commands. The cost of this analogy is that which remains uncollected by the metaphorical transfer it enacts. Some portions of untraceable smoke or rock, an abandoned coat or camera, a camera lens still spinning. A button. 

Right in the middle of the video is that smoke from the twin towers on 9/11 billowing into the air behind a gasp? In A Minute Ago and Palisades there are a number of gasps and breaths etched into the diegesis from without it. Sometimes sound wants to describe what is happening by sharpening the scene into a sonic superposition of varying instants, as when a cigarette burn ignites the cannons in the Revolutionary War and a car backfires; sometimes description has nothing to do with it, as when someone’s eyes blink in time with a digital chink timed and carefully adjusted to the type of blink, whether full or only partially covering the eyeball sheltered. That sound is indexical of a human gesture by dint of sounding so tantalisingly inhuman. The surface of the sound and the sound of the surface are in the contemporary moving image so infinitesimally spliced as to almost inhabit the same audio-visual picture plane, which is to say that the more the videos self-consciously navigate between their fields of image-complex by a series of super-expository clicks and sighs to signify transition, the more these sounds seem to emerge from and inhabit the internal flux of visual material for which they provide the punctuation. In this sense sound is essayistic in the work, lacing the image-complex through by anchoring the scenes to each other and themselves. Sound keeps scraping the surface. There is nothing outside the film.

As the process of producing, reproducing and circulating images becomes ever more transparently ubiquitous, an understanding of the means of such image-production in the sense of a knowledge of the systematic parameters of both the hardware/software operations that produce an image in the first place or reproduce it in the next million, and the fantastically de-centralized networks of dissemination and distribution, become correspondingly shrouded in mystery. This and so much else, of course, has been pointed out before. But it’s worth remembering.
[The] aura is no longer based on the permanence of the “original,” but on the transience of the copy. It is no longer anchored within a classical public sphere mediated and supported by the frame of the nation-state or corporation, but floats on the surface of temporary and dubious data pools. [Hito Steyerl, The Wretched of the Screen (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012), p.42.]
But then neither is the original or natural in any fit state to revenge itself upon the superficial, the derogatory, the imitative, the slavish or the derivative. As the digital meniscus of A Minute Ago shatters in the final moments of the film’s penultimate scene, the catastrophe cannot return us to the Arcadia its destruction might seem to promise - only to the frenetic memory of the landscape concocted by the video’s bizarre conglomerations of past and present. What is Big Sean doing there? A spokesperson for the notionally authentic in the contemporary pop culture imaginary, perhaps. I remember as a child I would stare at the ceiling in bed, hoping it would come off, or loosen. The one, two, three, four sides of the Glass House correspond to the one, two, three, four sides of the video screen: you can count them but you can’t look out. The architectural possibilities that Rose’s videos discern are not therefore physical and spatial but lateral and palimpsestuous, overlaying the surface of the temporary and dubious body with the data pooled from its temperamental environment. Perhaps they are films about being on a place instead of in it, being on the surface of things liable to collapse into hypostatized impossible mourning.

There is no such thing as a natural disaster. A sunny beach is plunged into a hailstorm shattering the leisure time expected or desired, a house of glass is carefully and clinically deconstructed. The simple collage or super-juxtaposition at the heart of A Minute Ago points to the pernicious unreliability of anything so manipulated and manufactured as a natural disaster, in the context of which “the difference between who lives and who dies is to a greater or lesser extent a social calculus” in any case: look at Katrina, to which the deluge besieging Johnson’s property in the final stages of the film might plausibly allude. [See Neil Smith, ‘There’s No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster,’ Understanding Katrina: Perspectives from the Social Sciences.] Johnson died in his sleep in the Glass House on January 25th 2005. Feuerbach says in his Thoughts on Death:
As much and as far as other things and essences exist outside of you, so much and so far you do not exist. And as many of these things as exist, so many edges and boundaries, in and at which you and your being cease, have you. In every tree, every wall, every table that you touch, you touch your death, as it were, you touch the boundary and the edge of your existence. [Ludwig Feuerbach, Thoughts on Death and Immortality: From the Papers of a Thinker, trans. James A. Massey (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981), p.31.]
Both A Minute Ago and Palisades end with countdowns, scored into the surface of each film by sound or sign respectively, their edge and boundary exacerbated in the service of a) a parody of theoretical postmodern self-awareness to their quiet end, both, sort of, underwater crumpled and complete, b) an index of repetition that, especially if the videos are played on a continuous loop, would make each video’s end the concomitant edge and boundary of its beginning, c) a kind of melancholy digital last rites. The more trees, walls, tables (struts, screens, beams, easels, rafters, scaffold) you have around you the more you come up against the edge and boundary of your existence codified in cartographic corporal materiality, for better or for worse, the films set out to dramatise this surface tension by a corresponding tension on the surface of the film, where am I on the front of my residual self image – what kind of boundary do I touch exactly when I touch a screen or painting, or a screen or painting full of things to see and touch and by those senses multiply the edges of my existence, have you? Perhaps the most illuminating psychoanalytical concept or descriptor for an understanding of the actors on the stage of social media would not be narcissism, but the death drive.

If tracking shots like those that – fragmented and worked over, nevertheless – accompany Johnson into the Glass House in A Minute Ago are a question of ethics, pace Godard, raising once again the spectre of the camp and the burden of representational proof upon any camera straining to articulate, what is the ethical status of the digital zoom? We alluded already to the punning “shot” through the deer-interior in Palisades, but the temporal surface of the screen is brought to bear or surfaced by the sped-up, close-to, lugubrious or microscopic zoom throughout. The detraction zoom effected from the total social image, pace Berger, can today be read as well as the critical extraction from the object under consideration of a particular tone or germ of colour, in order to cinematically interweave the isolatable but ultimately indivisible strands of temporality that structure that same total social image. [In the Vogel article Rose names them as “this deep, evolutionary physical sense of time; this social, historical sense of time; and then this bodily sense of time.” For John Berger on zooming, see the first episode of Ways of Seeing (1972).] The zoom has lately achieved heights of optical clarification hitherto unheard of by photographic means, and Palisades’s chosen choke points exploit this fact chainmail cigarette to smoke to painterly dismemberment to beheading back to skin again and so on, a technique that speaks to almost everything we’ve touched on here, including surveillance, surface, the exchange of looks and looking, the identification of the single infinitesimal life to be exalted or removed as seen fit, the exacerbation or suppression of the history of what is framed, the jargon of authenticity, the closer you look the more becomes obscured, the mediation of surface by surface through surface, the relation of each frame to the next itself the focus of the spinning lens, the stillness of the surface of the painting being moved.

Which bring us finally to animation and its discontents and to the limits of spectatorship, to what T.J. Clark calls “all this unnoticeable animation that prepares the ground, so to speak, for the place where the animation stops,” since it also stops, so to speak, with the watching viewer:
Perhaps I imagine such a viewer especially now, in our current circumstances of image production, when stasis and smallness and meticulous coordination are by and large the opposites of the qualities – the kinds of world-making – that visualizations are involved with. [T.J. Clark, The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006), p.63, p.43.]
Rose’s method of putting on the excess of the image that her films work with isn’t to stack or to frenetically cajole her scenes but instead to surface them, to bring them to the point of almost calamitous proximity, zooming as far as one possibly can in to a human, or witnessing first hand an very everyday disaster. The meticulousness of A Minute Ago and Palisades is found in the grain of their strangely marmoreal, lapidary medium, and in the way in which their shots seem so arranged as to form a kind of score for visual interpretation, each scene so fixed proceeding, even when quickly interlaced, or layered, glitching or overlaid, in the manner of some mid-century avant-garde graphic notation. What are we to do with them? What to do with the rotoscoped Philip Johnson hovering around Poussin’s Landscape over an imploring Big Sean’s plea never to regret anything and to apologise for what you’ve done next to a 3D simulation of the Glass House beside a song played backwards, and doesn’t any song played backwards accrue some veneer of magical pathos played backwards? The kind of world being made here is deceptively precarious. The two most unsettling phrases of the two films discussed in these notes are “if we die - know that I love you ^_^” and “um, I’m the voice of dead people, so.” They both appear or get heard at one remove from the surface of the video: the first in translated subtitle, the second dubbed. They sound like the films talking to each other. We could listen. 

Monday, 20 April 2015

Poetry and the Work of Sabotage

Writing poetry necessitates acts of sabotage. Sabotage sustains the labour of composition by encouraging in the line of verse an agency capable of offering definition to the previous line by deliberately withholding it. Writing verse can do this not because it is not prose, or because the fantasy of composition involves an inherently contradictory process of abstraction, but because the “prosodic gift” is something which compels the temporal signature of living thought to register the traffic of its combination by re-creating the conditions for its survival. Poetic work must involve the sabotage of its mechanisms of production in order to emerge as poem. The phrase “prosodic gift” is Lisa Robertson’s, from the last 'Untitled Essay' in her Nilling: “Covertly the poem transforms [the] vernacular to a prosodic gift whose agency flourishes in the bodily time of an institutional and economic evasion.” Such a gift must be taken from the prosodic lab by the labour of composition in order to be freely available for giving; its value emerges from the impossibility of its final determination as thought or thinking. No free lunches, either. Giorgio Agamben is wrong about the “end of the poem” because the “poetic institution” he defines as such can never “[trespass] into prose” since to do so would be to keep the poem shut forever. What the “end of the poem” in fact necessitates is a theory of the possibility of the poem beginning to be a poem in the first place, that is, a theory of prosody defined by the structural incoherency of “prosody” itself to account for the comings and goings of each line in relation to every other. The poem sabotages prosody by appearing to present a finished product, when really what it proves is that the product of poetic thinking is always infinitely defective. Prosody constitutes the poem by covertly evading itself. All good poems are damaged goods. To coin a tautology in prose: the conditions for the survival of living thought are poems.

When I had written that paragraph it was late at night. I was in the middle of writing what I thought was going to be a much longer poem than it turned out, in fact, to be. I think what I was trying to articulate was something like the fear that writing the poem would not be able to carry on forever, which of course it duly didn’t. That’s a fear anyone can live with. But the twist point of risk and sustain seems to me at the moment to be something like this: writing a poem involves the need to continually discover the possibility of being able to continue to do so, and to do that it needs to prevent itself from securing the kind of survival it would otherwise continue, uninterrupted, to enjoy. Another way of saying this, or of perhaps saying something similar, is that there has to be a way that the poem can begin to unravel so that it feels like it can really begin. I’m paraphrasing, or para-reading, Lisa Robertson’s untitled Nilling essay again. Robertson’s incredible sentence I quoted above is followed by this, equally incredible one: “Let us suppose here that poems are those commodious anywheres that might evade determination by continuously inviting their own dissolution in semantic distribution.” Robertson is too much of a poet to allow this sentence to remain purely propositional: sequestered into its supposition is the whiff of final “determination,” of the security of ending up, of an odious somewhere. The somewhere that Agamben’s essay ‘The End of the Poem’ gets to, quite explicitly, is that “poetry should really only be philosophized.” The end of the poem “reveals the goal of its proud strategy: to let language finally communicate itself, without remaining unsaid in what is said.” Agamben’s intuition is to treat the threatening excess of tension and thought that he identifies at the of end the poem as potentially figuring what he calls the “mystical marriage of sound and sense.” This is because of what he thinks poetry is: the name given to the discourse in which the possibility of enjambment exists.

Agamben’s thesis would only really work, or apply, if it were possible to read a poem only from beginning to end, and only once. It relies on the distinction that poetry needs to be conceptually promoted to an object to be thought of, and not a thing to be read, in order to be amenable to the rigours of Heideggerian disclosure. The difference between Agamben and Robertson’s definition of what poetry consists of, and in, is instructive: whereas for Agamben: in poetry language can finally communicate itself; for Robertson: in poetry language listens, since in poems “speech still evades quantification, escapes the enumerating sign, and follows language towards its ear, towards natality, which is anybody’s.” Robertson’s definition of a poem does not reside in the lines and ligaments of prosodic movement per se, but in a kind of roving co-embodiment: “the poem,” she says, “is the shapely urgency that emerges in language whenever the subject’s desiring vernacular innovates its receivers.” The possibility of enjambment is emphatically lacking from Robertson’s recent long poem Cinema of the Present. It is a work in which every line attempts to start again – to begin the poem – and thus in some sense to sabotage the opportunity of its completion. That this opportunity is continually suspended is the condition for the poem’s capacity to keep going. All of its questions are the titles of its unanswered interior cartography. The poem sustains itself by the exponential accumulation of irresolution.

The question of what to sustain has been an enabling element in some recent correspondence I’ve shared with poets. Sustain seems related to two questions that are deeply interconnected: why write poems? And, how can I write the next word in any poem? These questions have seemed to me lately to be of roughly the same significance. The answers I can try to find for them may not be causally or structurally related; that is, the next word in the poem will not provide an answer to the question of why I write poems, although it may help me to answer the question of why I am writing this particular poem. The thicket of relationships the two questions together throw up – as well as the relationship between both questions and the question, or predicament, of sustain – enables something to come into focus which is the real subject of Robertson’s essay in Nilling, and that is the kinds of politics that only poems have the capability to present, promise or predict. Robertson’s poetic, as I understand it, is centrally concerned with the relationship between embodied social life and the distribution of that life, which is anybody’s, through the desiring speech of lyric utterance. The poem starts by refusing to determine the limits to the social life that its politics begins. Composition is the sabotage of poetry to account for the existence of poems.

All quotations from Giorgio Agamben, The End of the Poem: Studies in Poetics, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: University of California Press, 1999), and Lisa Robertson, Nilling: Prose Essays on Noise, Pornography, The Codex, Melancholy, Lucretius, Folds, Cities and Related Aporias (Toronto: Bookthug, 2012).

[Delivered at Work, Performance, Poetry, the Fourth Annual Northumbria Poetry Symposium, University of Thumbprint, 16th April 2015.]

Friday, 25 July 2014

My Little Poetry

* Click on Rainbow Dash to begin. It's worth also pointing out that Mike Bernstein's alternative etymology of "brony," as recounted in the new documentary A Brony Tale at around 18m 57s - 19m 18s, contradicts the origin of "brony" given in the essay (as a portmanteau of "bro" and "pony"). This alternative etymology is that the term emerged from the combination of the "b" from the "b" message boards of 4chan, and "pony." I'm not sure where the "r" got in.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Poetry and the Fantasy of Totality

[This experimental beginning/stub written for the ACLA seminar 'Poetry and Capital(i)s(m)', March 21st 2014, but delivered without the accompanying still from Fritz Lang's 'M', above, which feels important, perhaps central, to any argument the paper might have or be in the making.]

The feeling of reading poetry under capitalism is sometimes the feeling of trying to comprehend what it would be like to articulate the monstrous accumulation of everything there is, and then looking at it. Not as taxonomy or catalogue, elegy or list, but as the experience of struggling to be as contemporary as the world is, once it has already moved off into the future of the same world from which it came. Some poems give the impression of an attempt to track and trace as carefully and as formally rigorously as possible the contemplation of an everything that we would like, if we had the time, to ruthlessly critique, and when they do this they articulate a condition not of resistance or struggle per se but of disproportion. Lyric poetry survives because the attempt to theoretically de-regulate its relationship to capital succeeded. The disproportion I am talking about is made manifest by poems which take as their object the whole of capitalism not as a concept or a system or even a set of social relations whose reproduction maintains the survival of capitalism at the expense of the immiseration of living people, but as a thing which is normally and fundamentally impossible to so depict or even think. It is possible to do this in poetry because the fluctuations and sinews of prosody make discrete and discontinuous in life what is in life a perpetually evolving adaptation of that life to its inescapable transformation into dead labour. There have been many attempts to make perfectly clear what it is about poetry and about lyric that resists and struggles against the myriad particular oppressions that constitute life under capitalism. Many attempts, too, to make it perfectly clear what it is poetry does as poetry that distinguishes it from other walks of life and that makes it particularly important or relevant as a use-value for anti-capitalism. Karl Marx was the first Marxist to do this, to make poetic language intrinsic to the revolutionary imperative to transform social relations, when, in Capital, he put Shakespeare into the mouths of the dinglich actors die Ware and das Geld: "We see, then, that the commodity loves money, but that 'the course of true love never does run smooth.'" [ text here] By doing so Marx does not merely siphon off bourgeois cultural treasure into the service of the decorative eloquence of his critique, but in fact makes the inhuman nature of commodity exchange integral to the constitution of bourgeois universalism. The recognition of a world by the bourgeois reader of Capital which this sentence invites simultaneously turns that world, and everything in it, against the bourgeoisie. What is nominally the site of the universally applicable truth of great art, in this case Shakespeare, is made incongruous with the social truth of that universalism's reproduction by the mediation of exchange-value. Many poets since Marx have done something similar and many are still doing so, and it is not my intention here to reproduce a necrotic condemnation of poetry for not yet having done enough to end capitalism. We all know that poetry can tell us things about capitalism that nothing else can, and that it can articulate a scene of social relations in contradistinction and in opposition to those organised by and dependent upon the accumulation of value. And we all know that by saying these things we do not tendentiously or heroically or arrogantly assume that poetry is therefore better than, or even in competition with, activism or the politics of class struggle.

My object here is poetry that makes the capitalism that we live in as big as the poem, and that in doing so figures the experience of being alive under capitalism comprehensible as a totality, a totality which in practically all other experiential possibilities must needs be posited or exemplified or speculated; but not felt. This feeling is an experience of disproportion which the poem produces and which is the poem; the feeling does not occur a hair's breadth from reality, at the imagined standpoint of redemption, and does not even necessarily give an inkling of the direction from which redemption might appear; it occurs at the site of the most complete incommensurability of the promise of a better world and the possibility of its realisation. This is why poetry affords us a glimpse of the fantasy of totality: it can make it seem like everything is collapsing. The feeling is not emancipatory, in any positive sense; the glimpse, the fantasy of totality afforded by the poems I will discuss, is not a glimpse of utopia, or of a normative totality, or of a better world: it is, rather, a reflection of the standpoint of domination. But neither is this to say that the experience is wholly pessimistic; on the contrary, it is cruelly optimistic in precisely Lauren Berlant's sense of the deletion of the possibility of attaining the transformation of a relation or attachment which is nevertheless sustaining and confirming. Poetry delivers the fantasy of totality when it articulates a relation to domination that is deliberately and specifically capitalistic. You know the feeling.

Here is a short poem from 1969 by the British poet J.H. Prynne.

                                                                 On the Anvil

                                                                 Finely, brush the
                                                                 sound from your
                                                                 eyes: it rests
                                                                 in the hollow

                                                                 as looking in
                                                                 the shops at both
                                                                 reflections, in
                                                                 the glass

                                                                 to move and the
                                                                 sun slanting over
                                                                 the streets: shielded
                                                                 from the market

                                                                 in the public
                                                                 domain, as
                                                                 taking the pace
                                                                 of movement

                                                                 in the hollow
                                                                 furnished with that
                                                                 tacit gleam, the
                                                                 cavernous heart

Elsewhere in the book from which this poem is taken, The White Stones, Prynne articulates a condition of love that serves a much more grandiose nobility of sentiment. But this poem, partly by its length, partly by the sound it makes, partly by its formal delicacy and emphatic, literal insistence on answering the question it is prevented from fully formulating ("how / to move"), partly by its location in the scope of the enormity of the The White Stones' claims on knowledge and need, as the merest comma in the trajectory of the book's fullest social designs; this poem articulates a scene couched in such generous frailty that its effect is profoundly disproportionate to the language it deploys to produce that effect.

"As looking in / the shops at both / reflections, in / the glass" is a familiar enough experience, except in order to make it a fully familiar experience we might gloss over "both / reflections" and assume our shape in the glass to remain singular and distinct. Still, any reciprocal or isomorphic relation between that subject and her displaced or alienated image or images is further denied at the site of the poem's major syntactical and prosodic lacuna, as "the glass" of the shop window barely contains within itself the momentum needed to reach over to the mono-syllabic expression of demand and incredulity hanging off to the right, "how," and we might feel all this only retrospectively when we arrive, momentarily, in the haven of a reassuring colon, only now "shielded / from the market" and the truth of social contradiction that encounter affords. It is the poem's rhythmic consistency that has this effect as much as the pressure of its voicing, how each metrical cluster is snapped into its lowest common denominators, from the cliff-hanger iamb of "the glass" to the still-beating dactylic extra-metrical twofer "cavernous heart," so that the break between "glass" and "how" remains un-terminal only if we have withheld any significant impression of caesura until "the streets" and its accompanying ":", whose sudden appearance suggests we should, and should have. The dramatisation of Lacan's claim that "a sentence closes its signification only with its last term, each term being anticipated in the construction constituted by the other terms and, inversely, sealing their meaning by its retroactive effect" [see 'The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire'] takes place only partially: the poem's sentence is singular, though it is not complete: no gullible end-stop rounds off this estrangement, and the weight of the "cavernous heart" is therefore in part denied the satisfaction of delicious pathos it would acquire were it to be the proper telos of the poem's movement. It cannot be, because it is still too much with us, too much resplendent with some primitive greed, "cavernous," not yet entirely opposed to the "hollow" inside which the poem's flicker of exchange takes place, but its gaping reflex; the experience of the love correspondingly immured in the glassy resonance of its cry for purchase is still yet the the grammar of the language "furnished with that / tacit gleam," the trappings of sustained and necessary hunger. In the hollow, this heart cannot be full; it cannot be sincere, and it cannot be whole; it must, therefore, be cavernous. This is not a hunger that can be accounted for, or checked. The love that commodities bear for money is the excruciating, ironic truth of the encounter in 'On the Anvil,' precisely because it should not be. Both reflections oscillate endlessly between the hollow experience of the shop window and the cavernous heart of the shopper, between which the entire "pace / of movement" is measured out, quantified. In the poem, the condition for the knowledge of the reflection of lyric subject-as-commodity is the impossibility of the abolition of that subject as commodity. What I mean is that the poem does not give us a glimpse of humanity freed from the domination of the commodity form, but a glimpse of the domination of the commodity form freed from humanity. It is only possible to be shielded from the market, in the public domain, by being enclosed behind the armour of the shop's gleaming window pane. Love is the commodity becoming perfect.

One of the persistent experiences of reading Lisa Robertson's poetry has been, for me, the anticipation and the feeling of what Adorno calls sensuous particularity, but with regard to massive things. There is no other poet, to my knowledge, who can write about the sky, or language, or memory, with such surgical precision and deftness. Often the experience produces something of an irony of eloquent prematurity: you can't believe the sky can be summed up so succinctly, and yet it has been, and you are already on the next line. This experience in reading Robertson's poetry can be whimsical, humorous, witty and sensual, and it can also be disproportionate, as the intensity of preterite summation results in the overflow of attentive reception onto an object which has nothing more to say, which has finished. Some of Robertson's sentences leave you. In doing so they leave you terribly open and adrift, awake and with a surplus of attention whose objects have resolutely refused to satisfy, even or especially when those objects include everything. Consider this section from the 2001 collection, The Weather.

                                                     from The Weather

                                                     Give me hackneyed words because
                                                     they are good. Brocade me the whole body
                                                     of terrestrial air. […]
                                                                               Memorize being sequinned
                                                     to something, water. Everything you forget
                                                     inserts love into the silent money.
                                                     Memorize huge things of girders greased. Say
                                                     the water parting about the particular
                                                     animal. Say what happens to the face
                                                     as it gala tints my simple cut
                                                     vicious this afternoon the beautiful
                                                     light on the cash is human to guzzle
                                                     with – go away wild feelings, there you go
                                                     as the robin as the songsparrow go
                                                     the system shines with uninterrupted
                                                     light. It's petal caked. Leaves shoot up. Each
                                                     leaf's a runnel. Far into the night a
                                                     sweetness. Marvelous. Spectacular. Brilliant.

The propositional lilt of the bluntly syncretic sentences propels you forward even as the enormity of the sentiment packed into each proposition pulls you back like a magnet; but the lines which exert by far the most powerful gravitational pull are these: "Everything you forget / inserts love into the silent money." Christopher Nealon reads these lines in the following manner:
Robertson seems to be saying that any lapse of our attention to what we love hurries love off to capital; she is noticing that it is perfectly human to want to soak up the light, but that whatever it falls on, it is always falling on cash, so that one cannot perceive without ingesting it […] [see 'Reading on the Left,' Representations 108.2, Fall 2009]
I like Nealon's reading, but I'm unsure as to whether the discrepancy that he reads into the poem, that between what is perfectly human, and what is the unfortunately inescapable result of its attention, is really there in the lines themselves. What if what is "perfectly human" in this poem is rather less capable of wanting something as natural and pleasurable as soaking up the light; what if the "you" is as much a part of the fabric of determination, command and imperative as the "silent money" into which is inserted "love"? After all, the lines exhibit a grammatical ambiguity that seems to actively eschew a clear-cut discrepancy between the good human and the bad money, as do the later lines "this afternoon the beautiful / light on the cash is human to guzzle / with." Does everything, you forget, insert love into the silent money; or does everything you forget insert that love; or does the line break act as an icon of forgetting itself, so that what inserts love into the silent money remains as arbitrary and inexact as a "self" that says so not because it needs to, or wants to, or desires to, but merely "because it can." What agency, if any, do "you" have with regard to the love that gets inserted into the "silent money"? 

Throughout the poem objects coalesce into imperatives whose claims on possibility range from the banal ("Give me hackneyed words") to the theatrical and ludicrous ("Brocade me the whole body / of terrestrial air") to the troublingly beautiful, yet traumatic ("Memorize being sequined / to something, water"). These do not feel like demands that can be met. Their tone is almost totally inscrutable, deliberately and painfully blank, reposing on the page as if to invite any reader to dare question their simple possibility of existence. What at first seems like the sheer pleasure of the vocable inevitably becomes the instrumentalization of that pleasure in the service of historically feminized labour: "Say sequin because the word just / appeared" precedes "Memorize being sequined to something," and as the over-determined line-break smugly intimates that "the word" was never going to do anything else other than "appear," the vocable itself becomes less and less possible to attend to pleasurably at all, and the stacks of demands to "Say" things become more and more sinister and unpleasant. Utterance, material production and memory are woven together in the verse to such an extent that it becomes impossible to distinguish, the further down we go, the human face from the cash into which a putatively human love is smuggled, inserted, and as "the system shines with uninterrupted / light" what is finally nominated as "beautiful" in this poem, what is named in a series of blunt, unarguable declarations as "Marvelous. Spectacular. Brilliant," is that "system" itself, the entire process of demand ("Brocade me"), production ("being sequined") and purchase, this last the point of exchange in which the substitution of abstract for particular human labour produces the fetish of equivalence that makes "cash" itself "human." It is not that human pleasures are derailed by the accidents and contingencies of the world in which that "pleasure" finds its objects; but that all pleasurable objects essentially reflect the "beautiful light" with which "the system shines [...] uninterrupted," and this goes for everything from cash, to language, to humans. It is in this sense that everything, whether you forget it or not, inserts love into the mutely universal equivalent for which everything can be exchanged.