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.

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