Keep reminding yourself that literature is one of the saddest roads that leads to everything.
- André Breton
Things make us happy. But this is not always true, and even if it is, emphatically true, what kind of ‘things’ are we talking about? Objects? Commodities? Beer? Holidays? Lovers? All these and more undoubtedly make our lives more complete than they otherwise would have been, regardless of whether that standard of completeness has been pre-programmed into our relations of exchange by those things themselves. Happiness can at least be decisively accounted for by things, especially commodities, because they provide what emotions and circumstance, bound by unflattering indeterminacy, cannot: a knowable and total cartography of desire, mapped out for us in every bus stop and chatroom, deftly legible in any situation in which we might find ourselves. But, this is not always true, and certain things are better at carrying off their thing-ness than others. Partly this has to do with function, or evacuated function, or simple crassness, that peculiar inability of a thing to justify its own existence; nevertheless, things do make us happy, especially things that use their thing-ness to re-create the conditions for their necessity whilst proposing their own superabundance of universal humanity. What avails a sense of idealized empathy from subjects otherwise incomplete, weakened or damaged by desire, is the complete thing, the bounded, constant, secret, composed thing, held out to us with all the sublime grace of macro-life, supernumerary, brilliant chrome, the miniature gestalt containing all the crucial elements of style and faith to make it the ideal companion, the soundtrack to our lives, gliding effortlessly along beside us & life in impeachable parallel design, offering. But we’re not even fucking subjects any more, and anyway, the preceding has already by its all-too-grandiose effort at categorization defied the truth of the elemental thing it wished to approach, which might better be apprehended as slightly as possible so as not to destabilize its delicate purity in the face of its ready-made dismissal as opium for the MTV masses, tin-pan alley manufactured nothing, the final, lowest common denominator dregs of mass production’s appropriation of the most stylistically abstract of the arts. The pop song can endure this flagrantly overwrought introduction because it is that thing of things, a thing which we love because it is both profoundly superficially like us - relentlessly complete and forever wanting - and profoundly dismissible as waste, superfluity, neon capital. We want it and we want it to make us happy and it does do that, if we want it to.
It does this, of course, by doing what the persistent use of the first person plural might do to any listener well-disposed to the fact that the universal proposals which Pop declaims are in suffering fact in gleaming denial of the evil truth of Pop hegemony as the suckers on the tentacles of global capital: by recklessly producing the desire to desire itself, claiming itself on your behalf, making its own particular, industry-standard brand of happiness the normative state of affairs for everything from bedroom politics to class warfare - Pop makes you its own happy. But that’s also bullshit, if you think about, or in fact actually listen to, a pop song (that you like). Thinking about pop songs is immensely difficult because the residue they leave is short-circuited, a kind of ‘self-destruct in 5 seconds’ sonic memory that only works by imparting the double dream of future listening bliss and the abject melancholy at the parallel objectification of the world that the pop song enacts (more on this melancholy later), and because, most importantly, they are emphatically not built to be thought about, or thought with, or thought on, or in fact done anything with except bopped, tranced, head-banged, slammed and smiled with. To. You can’t smile with Pop, you can’t even smile at Pop - it must be smiled to, because built into its silvery organs of transmission are not companionship or subjectivity but ruthless collectivity and the universal propaganda of love. Pop hates you and you love it back.
You are not the Pop Princess. You’re not even the pop princess. You’re a sham, a charlatan, a contestant, a by-stander, a listener. Pop’s most gloriously insipid achievement has been to clinically wipe off the face of the earth the act of listening, and in its place has produced the ersatz sublime of Pop satisfaction, deep, meaningful, recyclable, carbon neutral, cute. You love it. I love it. The truth of it is, of course, that it doesn’t matter what we do, what we love, because the best, most finely wrought pop songs appeal directly to the individual outside of the collective euphoria ‘we’ always assume they are supposed to document, perform or create, and if they didn’t then the sheer intensity of Pop’s innately huggable chrome robot of love wouldn’t produce such giddy affirmation in the pit of your stomach whilst simultaneously (or rather retroactively) revealing the condition of such intensity as intensity itself, with no other ground than that you desire to be affirmed by an Other which turns out to be the 99 pence you spent downloading the 256 kbps mp3 from iTunes. The stunning vacuity of the gargantuan mechanisms that pump Pop around the entire universe in the consistent futurity of 20-whatever is more than enough to render the immortality of children merely equal in duration to the ad segments audibly enforced by Spotify’s evil geniuses. Last year’s Facebook campaign to make a 1992 song by Rage Against the Machine Christmas number one in the face of the massively over-determined popular economics of the X-Factor favourite Joe McElderry was somewhat evacuated of its grass roots radicalism when it was pointed out that both franchises belong to the Sony BMG corporation, who would be doubling profits whoever won. Pop loves you, and you have to hate it back.
Things make us happy, but that happiness is radically contingent on the production of those things which are designed to make us happy, and to keep us, in a sense, the limiters rather than the arbiters of our own happiness. Self-regulation as Pop primacy. But I think that, actually, if we are trying to figure out something resembling a more rigorous happiness, which is what I think we have to do, or to figure out what kind of things might help us constitute that happiness, then we have to think about the conditions of reception at least as much, if not much, much more than, the conditions of production, and to think about how those conditions of reception might be able to impel a reading of Pop, or a pop reading, that tempers a stultifying and inertia-driven dialectic of the thing; not just that such conditions are always already built into this or that thing for pre-packaged digestion, but what we might choose to do with them, how we might decide to deploy the things we love to pre-empt or re-activate or re-recuperate or, perhaps most perilously of all, truly believe in what it is that Pop ineffably does, despite itself. A rigorous happiness needs to understand the things that make us happy and figure out why they must, and what we can do to actively account for them, not merely passively accept them as in fact negative fulfillment, but positive affirmation, in order to produce an affirmative viral humanity that could infect the very mass production of love as product placement, and in this sense make love itself a form of insurgent recuperation that would destabilize and militate against the truthfully and necessarily mendacious love of things. Reality (Poetry) must be constituted by our own investigations into the appeasement of un-reality which is the basis of the culture industry’s diurnal cartography.
One problem with this kind of untenable, flowery global cultural détournement might be summed up in the condition described by Adorno in section 48 of Minima Moralia:
In a phase when the subject is capitulating before the alienated predominance of things, his readiness to discover value or beauty everywhere shows the resignation both of his critical faculties and of the interpreting imagination inseparable from them. Those who find everything beautiful are now in danger of finding nothing beautiful. [Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia (London: Verso, 2005), p.76.]
The passage continues, ‘The universality of beauty can communicate itself to the subject in no other way than in obsession with the particular’; but in ultra-modern real-live hyper life where the World itself, 50 years after first being sentimentally objectified by William Anders’ Earthrise photograph (a moment marked by Prynne in ‘The Ideal Star-Fighter’ and ‘Of Movement Towards a Natural Place’ and by Dorn, weirdly, before it happened, in ‘Song: The Astronauts’, among others) has become one enormous broadcast particular of Hooman planetary affairs, where can we locate the real particular? When every street corner is up for grabs in Google Street View, the elimination of distance realized by a joyous and efficient new barbarism, the instant of direct apprehension phased out by Skype sex and real-time warfare simulation, the virtual hegemony in apathetic overload makes Chat Roulette the new global larynx, perhaps attempting to find everything beautiful might hew our attention to the particular conditions of that everything in a positively utilitarian manner. A rigorous happiness might further start by realizing that any particular is now recuperated by generality and virtual categorization at Infinity speed and thus find worth and real live soft humanity by getting at it from the other direction, by going straight through Life, the Universe and Everything to where those abstracts constitute you, and consistently determine your happiness through things.
This is not the place (ha!) to get into a sticky discussion about the constitution of the first person plural, or the composition of the readership at large. I could make a cringing statement to the effect that the voice of culture distinguishes not those whom it embraces (didn’t I point that out earlier?), or perhaps make clear that even fewer people read theoretical accounts of avant-garde poetry (passionately not even masquerading as Positive Thinking) than read the poetry itself (if there is still such a thing. ha.), and that therefore the whole efficacy debate (which I realize at this point that I may or may not have invented for the purposes of this essay, or better yet be some flagrantly misremembered bullshit Jamelia Wigmore whispered to me in the pub on New Year’s Eve) is fried from the start because if you’re reading this, you already care, and are probably changing your mind, and therefore your experience, right now. But instead, I say we flip the whole shebang, and not just for metaphysical shits and giggles: what real, substantial, social effect does Life have on Poetry? What, in any case, is efficacious life? How is my life affecting Poetry? After all, a little art can solve a lot of problems, and usually does. Rodefer, in the piece quoted above, has more to say about self-help:
What is crucial is not the ingenuity of a verbal work, nor the meticulous care for detail, nor the working out of schema and intent, however much these may contribute, but something absolutely vital no matter what else is present. I mean that power to lift us out of our seats and keep us in them. Perhaps that old churchy purpose of literature to be uplifting is not so far off in a varied sense. To disclose, in short, a design and a vision which impel us to a greater apprehension of where we are situated as inhabitors [sic] of room on this globe, larger than we, and smaller than the universe. [Rodefer, ‘Prologue to Language Doubling.’]
So we can at least see that if poetry is still to compose, comprise and constitute us, wildly and beautifully, as we as readers of poetry surely feel we are so composed (even if it doesn’t always have to be wild and beautiful), that apprehending everything could not only be useful for qualifying and interrupting everything’s machinations on the real, but also for evincing and articulating that real as an essential component of every thing we passionately inhabit. [And thus, as Rodefer’s crucial neologism simultaneously suggests, inhibit.] I believe in poetry’s didactic promise to teach us how to love, for example, but more than that I believe in the necessary risk involved in saying, this time with only a residual trace of unwitting pathological irony embedded in my teeth, something that pathetic and stupidly bourgeois. When I say “us” I mean “me”. Me and Jonty.
Jonty Tiplady’s poetry takes what Pop proposes, mendaciously, coercively, and attempts to make it real, vulnerably live, and loveable. It can, after all, be real. We can, for the moment, really believe in the hook, verse and chorus, the rising minor key synthesizers of “Dear World and Everyone in it”, primed as it is for super-realisation of the fully-blown burgeoning reality of life composed around us, forging an intenser real from the cacophony of Pop-sexuality, Pop-social performance and Pop-cataloguing than any smarmy neo-Romantic blitzkrieg of luddite pretensions could ever believe possible, let alone confirm, let alone betray. Like AiDS-3D’s or Universal Swimsuit’s remixes of 90s dance hits, the poem achieves grace not by cynical or ironic citation, but by actually re-investing its material with the hope, or if there is to be a concession to at least a modicum of restraint, the wry hope, that the affirmatives of its lyric appeal might truly be believed, or at least trusted in until the poem either frowns in belated emo majesty or squirms in pathologically persuasive climax. The relentless anti-nostalgia in the form of a precise and presumably ever-accelerating hurtle into retro Technicolor futurity is couched in such endearing generosity it almost effaces the sustaining melancholy of the underlying drift:
So I believe, eleven, that since there / still must be some street corner soul, for example, some effects of it, the issue becomes not loss but the quality of these surviving effects as they / enigmatically insist out of and into that loss. Street corner soul was perhaps / always not what we think we now know it isn't anymore, which perhaps / means it now has a chance of still being more itself than it ever was, more / snappy and strange, which is to say less, always less. Yet anewly so. [Jonty Tiplady, Zam Bonk Dip (Cambridge: Salt, 2010), p.30]
Which, incidentally, is also how lost love operates, or is perhaps love translated into ‘different Google machine language’, the double rainbows of ‘darkest happiness’ proving by negation of non-affirmation that ‘life / isn't something we made up’, even though the parameters of the verse itself in a book like At the School of Metaphysics are a testament to that very composition. ‘Here I’m over pop, / which therefore rises falls again, like there is no absence only very weak / shades of presence down to the custard at your feet’ announces the first poem in this sequence, riffing on a heart-rendingly addictive materialism whilst declining to do much more than riff, thus betraying by that very succulent aphoristic approach the love of pop not lost but ‘always less’, and newly so. Here, love is distressingly like a box of chocolates which you’re never going to get, but which will instead be held in such careful, tender esteem that the possibility of its always being available to our sticky fingers might be at least forever sustained. About every poem’s end is a particularly hook-esque sign-off, recalling the distance between ourselves and the ‘brief dream’ we’ve just managed to occupy (or inhibit), a style seemingly distilled from the intensity of alienation even from those things we love too much, or especially so; the lyric subjects in ‘Madrock Gunned Down in Flowers’ and ‘For the Brazilian Rocket Queen’ are in themselves practically parallel in their worldly roving, ever hugging the surface of the earth without ever being fed into a machine for Wohnen or housing benefit. Parallel in the sense that they are about the very world they are passionate about, rather than buried inside it - their ‘furiously hopeful music’, a love of loving that might in some poets become emotional sycophancy, but which here is the absolutely necessary temporary structure for thinking the troublesome nature of ‘losing so much / especially zeros’, that bad negativity plumbed for all its image of emotional leverage that becomes actual emotional leverage when you realise that the description is not just wittily uncanny, but true.
Happiness in Tiplady’s poems is certainly true, however provisionally, and in fact perhaps radically and necessarily provisional; such a state is always under duress, must be worked at and maintained, is usually durational by dint of its intensity, however offensively charming. ‘Like tissue for some universal fucking soul beat’ the gags and splurges ‘get your human / ass night on’ by refusing death and the economy in favour of ‘abracafuckingsexdabra’ and singing the Google-future not as something so cynical as a pop-culture reference but as the enveloping ‘sound of bricks’ that is happiness itself, digitally dark and only blithely, deliciously conversational if the conversation happens to be Life and not resemble it. ‘It’s like when my room / resembles a hospital, my insides cry out, and / the thing seems to be the more happy I am’, at which point we meet face-to-face the damaged bedroom-pop utopianism that best characterizes the work of Tiplady’s that I’ve so far imbibed, an intensity of focus that over-stimulates happiness to a wild and pathological distress by believing in its own appeal for reconciliation. Thus ‘A happiness he cannot / face’ becomes the enduring site of a too-susceptible empathy, for Pop can contain and limit a kind of queer subversion mere local happiness can only dream of or dread, or in this case, both. Too much happiness is bad for the soul, it seems.
The melancholic carries the poems on a bed of tonics and dominants that can sustain the ‘brief dream’ for as long as it can, and no longer. ‘Those lava mice are scathing / about every poem’s end’ because they know that’s where we want to get to, finally, as the détourned image of real happiness, but must by necessity of song brush past in the time of reading, or as listening, you know that the more you play the song the less the pre-fabricated hooks are able to cope with the love you have for them, and will eventually buckle under the stress of your desire and become quotidian again. I think that same fear regulates the poems in At the School of Metaphysics: they dare not grip the rail too tightly for fear of the structural reprisal built into their code for loving. It is the curse and charm of the poetry, this parallelism noted above, and this choral flop, both part of a disconcerting vulnerability that is the truly antithetical informal device at play, ultimately deflecting the immortal chrome pretensions of the Pop Golem. However thinly veiled by the camp, affectionate slapstick of ‘I went with my Mum to headbutt a cactus’, the palpable weakness of the arbitrary, scattershot line speaks in Negative Capability without the caps, and, ‘Almost even too free and fair to want to / act as art at all’, both the pop analogy and Pop materialism are hereby dropped and subtly, almost insidiously, reinforced as the self-effacing labour the poetry accomplishes, despite its ersatz self:
Last but not / least, I believe, as the song says, that you are the only one to understand / why it is I will have to spend a lifetime saying the very opposite of what I / believe, which is that there is no such thing as cosmic pessimism because / there will be nobody there to feel it, unless there is somebody there to feel / it, or unless there is nobody or somebody here, now, to feel it. Are we not a / little this last glissade made colossal pop affirmation? [Zam Bonk Dip, p.31]
The opposite of what I believe is not thereby ignored and eliminated from the life of the poetry, relegated to some blasé ignorance where it could lie perniciously unobserved, but militates against the negation of itself by this willful, obtuse and ‘colossal’ affirmation. By shoring up everything against things, Tiplady’s poems proclaim a rigorously happy irruption into the damaged life that efficiently and sublimely determines the social reality that (the) poetry strives to realize and accomplish. The poetry and my vague sense of it remain, crushingly, bigger and more powerful than particular poems could ever hope to be. The question, to what extent this accomplishment might be altogether too exact to allow the poems to exist as anything more than affirmative pastiche, peeled off the ruptured artificial nostalgia to reveal: nostalgia, is itself the measure of their barely contained, humorous self-destruction; after all, suicide is painless. The risk of believing in what pop can do for you is the risk of believing Pop on face value. But mightn’t the poem’s question invite the glib rhetorical response: no, we’re not, we’re reading about it, however much we love to yearn and yearn to love better and more realistically; and doesn’t the fact that “there will be nobody there to feel it” smack uncomfortably of the kind of solipsistic utopian apocalypse that invites love of self to be the yardstick by which an already fantastical ‘we’ is ultimately measured, brushed up, squared, before finally being redeemed from the frailest of bourgeois miseries? Transformational for whom, indeed. Sitting comfortably, I opened my copy of The Revolution of Everyday Life. When I say ‘me’, I mean ‘poetry’. Remarkably, that same ‘stunning vacuity’ that renders the intensity of Pop the shaky ground of its own enticing real is suddenly and breathlessly evinced by your desire to have your own life affirmed in poetry. ‘Dear World and Everyone in it’ does not just implicate you by association, it is, in a sense, your own composition, and thanks to Merleau-Ponty we have the proof:
The thing is nothing but a significance, the significant ‘thing’. Very well. But when I understand a thing, a picture for example, I do not here and now effect its synthesis, I come to it bringing my sensory fields and my perceptual field with me, and in the last resort I bring a schema of all possible being, a universal setting in relation to the world. At the heart of the subject himself we discovered, then, the presence of the world… [Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (London: Routledge, 2002), p.498.]
I bring in M-P not to kick-start a discussion of reading or reader-reception theory that would pop-up more subjects & objects than we could by this point possibly be real enough to render useful, but to further emphasize the universal settings we all save in our versions of real life to enable us to function at the level of fully-human. Readers of poetry know that some poets are ultimately better at providing themselves with an armory of succor and artifice than they are at providing them for the rest of us, which is the point at which self-identification kicks in to bridge the gap opened up by that very knowledge, a kind of generous readerly compensation for the poet’s (bad) superabundance of desire. Ultimate subjectivity is hard to come by, and harder still to keep from collapsing in on its own maximal designs, ours or theirs. But readers of poetry also know that everything is theirs by right, and that happiness involves the risk of attentiveness to every thing that could possibly threaten the opposite of what they believe. Or maybe I’ve just written myself into that conclusion because I want it to make me happy and it does do that, if I want it to. Either way, everything is too much for nothing except total joy. Human is a positive movement.
[This essay was originally drafted between November-January 2010-11, minor revisions December 2011. Hello sunshine.]