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



* 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.'" [Marxists.org 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

                                                                                       how
                                                                 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.

END.

Monday, 2 December 2013


Sunday, 29 September 2013

Note on the metaphorical economy of fucking


Hi all,

Reading and reflecting on Jen, Selina and Will's posts to the blog I was reminded of my own contribution to the deployment of a vocabulary of fucking. This may yet dwindle into spurious and diaristic auto-critique, but I suppose that could be useful too; here goes. The language employed is in the untitled 'last' poem that was published in a pamphlet published by Grasp Press, 'Poems, Written Between October and December, 2010,' which contained (contains) poems by Timothy Thornton, Jonny Liron, Francesca Lisette and myself. I believe this printed fold is now out of print, but I have a .pdf and can send it to anyone on request.

The poem opens "Sections of an absent pressure herein fucks us[.]" To gather the sense of a language of arbitrary, despairing, despondent, throwaway ease of reference in prosaic terms, terms that are used to refer colloquially, but no less passionately uttered, to a situation in which dinner might be burnt and therefore fucked, as much in a situation where generations of children would be excluded from the right to education as matter of profitable principle and therefore also fucked, did not, at the time, seem to me to be, as for example Will's last paragraph figures it, to be fighting fire with fire; that is, its usage did not seem to fight being fucked with fucking. Rather, it attempted to channel disgust at a culture of domination into a steady articulation of the social moment; to be representative of a doomed solidarity of victimhood. This now seems far too abstractly posed. What it felt like was the use of a vocabulary that risked a negatively defined solidarity, one that emerged for me as an aspect of the protests at the time that were eminently doomed to failure, even as the movement in its grandest gestures were at their most ebulliently defiant. The vocabulary of fucking would, I hoped, be powerful enough to to reproduce the affective mediocrity of a ruinous and ruling universal imperative - to sacrifice life on the altar of capital - but banal and colloquial enough to temper such a grandiosity of declaimed solidarity; so that the desire to define ourselves negatively in opposition not only with our friends and each other but with everyone we didn't know, the unborn progeny of policy, would be tempered with a more particularly deflated exhalation. The situation in those protests felt so fraught with the sense of everyday intimate ruination that I wanted to try to register this in the most prosaic terms possible; the violence felt so palpable, so keen and generalised and essential at the same time, that I wanted terms that risked collusion in a violent, unthinking metaphorical economy, as connotative of casual despondency as they were of abject despair, in order to rig my "protest poem" with the catch in the throat any such song would need to be articulate. It was precisely the elucidation of the coeval nature of the banal, the ubiquitous and the horrific that the terms "fuck" and "fucked" tried to articulate. That the ruination of intimacy could be properly imputed by the appropriation of the language of sexual violence to connote general suffering I now find hard to stomach; being raped is not like having to pay £9000 a year in tuition fees. I wanted a disproportionate analogy to exacerbate the normalised credulity of defeat; I now think the analogy is clumsy and perhaps useless.

I'm conflicted about the last line of Will's post, that "struggle, in a revolutionary sense, is the only valid form of ecstasy." I suspect that nominating such ecstasy, however various and contingent, as "the only valid form" risks demanding of the language in poetry that it resonate monochromatically with the authentic desire of "revolutionaries," in whatever context they may be writing; and that that resonance will shine with the singular truth of the ecstasy of struggle in order to refute the lesser, invalid ecstasies that are not of the form "struggle." I don't think I'm being pedantic here; I'm not suggesting that Will means that struggle is always and everywhere ecstatic - surely in the vast majority of cases struggle, however broadly defined, is definitively ecstasy's endless refutation - but I want to escape what seems like the extreme reciprocal tennis-match between fucking as sheerest bliss and being fucked as sheerest oppression. For one thing this underlying assumption seems absolutely based on the privilege of penetration and of the cock-bearer: someone always ends up getting fucked. This contradiction seemed pertinent to me at the time of writing the poem in the pamphlet: it exercised an aporetic economy of unfreedom that could be analogous to the condition and trajectory of any collective innervation produced by a large number of my kettled friends. But it now seems to produce in me the wrong disgust.

Sam Solomon wrote an incisive and committed review of the pamphlet, which can be found here.

I want to say all this in the spirit of questioning my own practice as a commitment to getting poetic work done, and to consider the ramifications of work that has been done, because I think my contributions to this exciting on-going discussion can perhaps best pertain to the particulars of work that I know as much as work of my own that I perhaps no longer know, or feel like the conditions for which were so crushed into a sense of staving off despair that I can no longer know them, or reconstruct them as if I did, but have to grasp at their production in retrospect. I feel at the moment that I'm more capable of doing this than anything else, since after all I want the material content of poems to be at the forefront of thinking about what poems are good at, and what they need to be better at doing, in a forum like ours. That said, I don't want to apologise for the potential treatment of this letter as in any sense narcissistic, although I'm aware it might be taken as such.

all best,

xj

Originally posted to the Militant Poetics listserve, June 25th 2013.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013


Wednesday, 22 May 2013


To Mary

your life, and life presented
make that claim
circumoral to the bad loop
charlatan in front

of us who charmingly delivers us,
you go, and finely
strain life out to the ants and to
the

rank subscription that amends.
by piecemeal
universal schtick your ankles
are still the same

ones you walk on, following a line, down
where
that claim is nothing like your life
or the same

world that does
lock instead
round everything that
still so patently,

for you,
obtains. you

know that, and come back round.
also,
at back of you, grass and they
spill the air rips

over you love
nothing less, nothing
that claim
does not subtend, or claiming even
locks out

shit, that happens, so
that loop slides piece
meal into
the grass, and the ants, and the rain,

the whole professional harmonic
on his fingertip
delivers
partly your life cannot but
still you appear,

clouds bank up outside
the window of you
but
you do. you turn round
your fantastic face,
and go, destroying object
-oriented ontology

and hype,
and you
miss 
the air reeling away.