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.