Monday 29 April 2024

The Continuous Trading of Thought

[Paper delivered at the Risk, Security, and the Visual conference at the KWI, Essen, April 26. Many thanks to Tom Allen and Jakob Schnetz. Page numbers aren’t given, but can be hunted down (or up) easily enough through the references below. Minor edits for clarity]

The Continuous Trading of Thought

Peter Hallward’s criticism of Quentin Meillassoux’s ground-breaking, provocative, and elegantly written book of philosophy, After Finitude (first published nearly twenty years ago), is both carefully self-contained and tantalisingly suggestive. Hallward summarises the central tenet of Meillassoux’s essay on the ‘necessity of contingency’ thus:

Philosophical speculation can regain determinate knowledge of absolute reality. We can think the nature of things as they are in themselves, independently of the way they appear to us. We can demonstrate that the modality of this nature is radically contingent—that there is no reason for things or ‘laws’ to be or remain as they are. Nothing is necessary, apart from the necessity that nothing be necessary. Anything can happen, any place and at any time, without reason or cause.

The precise reasoning that Meillassoux employs to make this audacious argument, and the particulars of the philosophical tradition which he seeks to overturn, are less consequential to the nature of my brief intervention in this paper than the ramifications of his thesis and what I take to be one of the key motivations for writing it. What I would like to do is to read some of the things that Meillassoux says, led very much by Hallward’s critique, and then to read him in concert with the work of the derivatives trader and pseudo-philosopher Elie Ayache, for whom Meillassoux’s work is extremely important, in order to produce a supplement to Hallward’s set of shortcomings and problems with Meillassoux’s argument. This is risky, and quite possibly tendentious. But I hope in so doing to hold up an Ayacheian mirror to Meillassoux’s work, and thereby to contextualise the latter’s thesis of the necessity of contingency proximate to the specifically financialised aspects of contemporary capitalism with which Ayache is more than familiar. This paper is, then, a document of my own apprehension of the risks immanent in what Hallward calls Meillassoux’s ‘seductively argued book’. Ayache is clearly seduced by it; the results, in Ayache’s work, speak to the value of this seduction and the kind of raptures it engenders. 

The reason I think Hallward’s criticism is suggestive has to do with the nature of his reconstruction of Meillassoux’s book. ‘If Meillassoux can be described as a “realist”’, writes Hallward, ‘the reality that concerns him does not involve the way things are so much as the possibility that they might always be otherwise’. Hallward reconstructs Meillassoux’s argument in the following ways. First, he identifies the importance to After Finitude of Hume’s argument that ‘pure reasoning a priori cannot suffice to prove that a given effect must always and necessarily follow from a given cause’. From this, Meillassoux derives his claim that ‘we cannot rationally discover any reason why laws should be so rather than otherwise, that is to say why they should remain in their current state rather than being arbitrarily modified from one moment to the next’. Hallward notes that, ‘in keeping with a tactic he deploys elsewhere in his work, Meillassoux himself quickly turns Hume’s old problem into an opportunity’: ‘Our inability rationally to determine an absolute necessity or sufficient reason underlying things, properly understood, can be affirmed as a demonstration that there in fact is no such necessity or reason.’ Hallward continues:

Conversion of Hume’s problem into Meillassoux’s opportunity requires, then, a neo-Platonic deflation of experience and the senses. It requires not a reversed but an ‘inverted’ Platonism, “a Platonism which would maintain that thought must free itself from the fascination for the phenomenal fixity of laws, so as to accede to a purely intelligible Chaos capable of destroying and of producing, without reason, things and the laws which they obey”.

Famously, Meillassoux calls the ‘vision of the acausal and an-archic universe that results from the affirmation of such contingency’, ‘an extreme form of chaos, a hyper-Chaos, for which nothing is or would seem to be, impossible, not even the unthinkable.’ The seeming problem with this radical argument, that ‘the world we experience does not seem chaotic but stable’, is once more converted by Meillassoux into an opportunity by way of set theory. Because Cantor argued ‘that we have no grounds for maintaining that the conceivable is necessarily totalizable’, he showed ‘that there can be no all-inclusive set of all sets, leaving probabilistic reason with no purchase on an open or ‘detotalized’ set of possibilities.’ Meillassoux argues in turn that ‘[L]aws which are contingent, but stable beyond all probability, thereby become conceivable’. This allows Meillassoux to envisage ‘a time capable of bringing forth, outside of all necessity and probability, situations which are not at all pre-contained in their precedents’. Hallward notes that, outside of After Finitude, Meillassoux develops the mathematical aspect of this argument ‘by insisting on the absolute arbitrary, meaningless, and contingent nature of mathematical signs qua signs […] Perhaps’, Hallward mentions by way of aside, ‘an absolutely arbitrary discourse will be adequate to the absolutely contingent nature of things’. 

I will skip some of Hallward’s incisive critiques of Meillassoux’s argumentation, to arrive at his most powerful criticism:

Meillassoux’s acausal ontology […] includes no account of an actual process of transformation or development. There is no account [in After Finitude] of any positive ontological or historical force, no substitute for what other thinkers have conceived as substance, or spirit, or power, or labour […] Once Meillassoux has purged his speculative materialism of any sort of causality he deprives it of any worldly-historical purchase as well […] Rather than any sort of articulation of past, present and future, Meillassoux’s time is a matter of spontaneous and immediate irruption ex nihilo. Time is reduced, here, to a succession of ‘gratuitous sequences’. 

For Hallward, the obvious ‘paradigm for such gratuitous irruption […] is the miracle’, and ‘the only event that might qualify as contingent and without reason in [Meillassoux’s] absolute sense of the term is the emergence of the universe itself’. This is a problem because Meillassoux’s entire philosophical edifice is constructed against the philosophical reliance, whether avowed or implied, on a theistic universe, against the realms of belief, faith, and mystery, and against ‘the kind of dogmatism which claims that this God, this world, this history, and ultimately this actually existing political regime necessarily exists, and must be the way it is’. ‘Against dogmatism’, he writes,

it is important that we uphold the refusal of every metaphysical absolute, but against the reasoned violence of various fanaticisms, it is important that we re-discover in thought a modicum of absoluteness—enough of it, in any case, to counter the pretensions of those who would present themselves as its privileged trustees, solely by virtue of some revelation.

Opportunity, it turns out, is as central to Meillassoux’s motivation as much as it is to his methodology. The project of After Finitude is an essentially competitive one: the discovery of the means to think that which is unthinkable should provide us with the means to out-think those whose ‘reasoned violence’ is levied, presumably against us, and presumably with a view to imposing their own idea of what is and therefore can be. 

Meillassoux does not name the privileged trustees of the absolute to which he refers, but the fact that there is enough room in his tacit accusation of philosophical imperialism for religious dogmatism of all stripes accounts for Hallward’s approving gloss that ‘Meillassoux launches a principled assault on every ‘“superstitious” presumption that existing social situations should be accepted as natural or inevitable’. The central thread of Hallward’s own principled scepticism is that Meillassoux’s ‘suggestion that such situations are actually a matter of uncaused contingency […] offers us little grip on the means of their material transformation’. This kind of transformation is epiphenomenal to After Finitude: the point is to prove that nothing is necessary except contingency itself, and to prove it quick. Enter the trader, philosopher, and CEO of the financial analytics services company ITO33, Elie Ayache. Ayache’s first major work, The Blank Swan (2010), is a maverick treatise on ‘writing, pricing and contingent claims’. It is deeply indebted to Meillassoux, and to After Finitude in particular, the arguments, terminology, and assumptions of which are embedded or directly addressed with great frequency across its nearly five hundred pages. It treats Meillassoux as the question for which the market in derivatives is the answer. And its ambitions for the field of financial theory are comparable with Meillassoux’s for metaphysics and ontology: it seeks to overturn the idea that possibility and probability—which underlie the standard derivatives pricing models such as the Black-Scholes-Merton formula—do, can, or could ever explain the movements of derivatives markets. As Edward LiPuma puts it, Ayache ‘reports that everything in his experience says the realities of existential uncertainty so encompass and overwhelm the act of trading that probability represents a retrospective interpretation; it is nothing more than an intellocentric [sic] fiction that supports the illusion there is a genuine prospective calculus of derivative pricing.’ 

What distinguishes Ayache’s argument from the familiar anthropologies of finance that locate the market in the social activity of the trading floor, rather than in the formulaic algorithms developed to predict and profit from volatility, is Ayache’s startling claim that the market itself is the ‘perfect’ medium of Meillassoux’s contingency, and that, furthermore, the market-maker is the privileged trustee of this medium. To write derivative contracts—or, as Ayache prefers to call them, contingent claims—has nothing to do with probability: it is to produce ‘the pure, material writing of contingency’. This makes of the trader something of a para-ontological oracle whose activity formalises the innate exchangeability of things: ‘In a world that is only made of contingency, it is only natural that we should invent options or derivative contracts. It is only natural that we should circulate, today, things that we know will make a difference in the future. This is why I have always thought of derivatives markets as the technology of the future’. Because, for Ayache, ‘[a]nyone who believes that unreplicable derivatives can durably trade and prosper in a market that endures by its own necessity has no other ground for such a belief than sheer dogmatic faith,’ ‘the market [as Ayache understands it] emerges both as our absolute and as our best guarantee against metaphysics, against necessary beings, and against the dogmatisms looming behind them.’ The market is at once a model world whose dynamics are illuminated by Meillassoux’s thesis, and a world that exceeds the hyper-Chaos of Meillassoux’s universe through the activity of the trader: 

Possibilities do not materially exist (they only exist metaphysically). What materially exists is the price […] By travelling across the world with the necessity of contingency in our hand, we may verify no possibility and no necessity; we make the world work (on fait marcher le monde); we make market of the world (on fait marché du monde); we make work, not state, of the world; we exchange its unexchangeability against the unexchangeability of writing; we exceed it; we become at once posterior and original in it. We instate another order of thought in it. We price it.

Ayache’s work is dense, circulatory, tangential, endlessly repetitive, and borderline megalomaniacal. His textual composition is the diametric opposite of Meillassoux’s concise, lucid, analytical unfolding. Anthropologists of the market such as LiPuma treat Ayache as an idiosyncratic insider who confirms their theories about the market in abstract risk as a human socius for which historical events are de-coupled from the valuation of derivative contracts, with catastrophic results. Financial journalists seem to treat Ayache with a mixture of bemusement and frustration. But Ayache is a particularly instructive reader of Meillassoux, because what he says discloses that which in the form, content, and motivation of Meillassoux’s work makes it more descriptive of the financial markets of the early twenty-first century than it is proof of the ‘possible destruction of every order’. Ayache’s answer to Hallward’s question about the deletion of historical change from Meillassoux’s universe is to point out that, ‘[w]hen thought has to speculate on the physical world under the regime of the necessity of contingency […] it must think the price and not the possible […] [p]rice is the material process of history and change’. This answer is not only more convincing than the bare necessity of contingency; it is contingency’s own perfected brand of fanaticism. The opportunity that Ayache seizes in Meillassoux’s work is the opportunity to develop it into a trading technology, a technology that presumably underlies the options pricing software packages sold by ITO33. 

Hallward’s ‘absolutely arbitrary discourse […] adequate to the absolutely contingent nature of things’ exists, and it is the work of Elie Ayache. The miraculous which Hallward identifies as paradigmatic of Meillassoux’s temporality of gratuitous irruptions is codified in Ayache’s adoration of the market as the perfected medium of contingency. For all Ayache’s eccentricity, his effort to make price the only real, the trump-card to Meillassoux’s hyper-Chaos, stands in a far more plausible relation to the movement of recent history than Meillassoux’s claim that ‘anything can happen’, because what this speculative triumph of logic describes is not so much the organon of (non)existence as it is the fetish-character of the financial markets, the worldly-historical purchase of which are felt in everything from the price of oil to the price of bread. Ayache’s very distance from the sober financial theories that recover human agency from the algorithmic abstractions of the market renders his work more realist than Meillassoux’s ever was. It is more realist because it expresses, in all its chaotic raptures, the rapaciousness of the market for which After Finitude provides only the disinterested and amoral blueprint. Ayache’s work is a window onto the soul of contemporary financialised capitalism, for which the risk that things can be anything other than they are is immediately convertible into an option to price and trade. It seems to me less than coincidental that this aperture is prised open by the kind of thought that relies for its beauty and coherence on the necessary fungibility of all that exists or could do so.


Elie Ayache, The Blank Swan: The End of Probability (Wiley, 2010)
Peter Hallward, ‘Anything is Possible: A Reading of Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude’, in The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism (, 2011)
Edward LiPuma, The Social Life of Financial Derivatives: Markets, Risk, and Time (Duke, 2017)
Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, trans. Ray Brassier (Continuum, 2008) 

Wednesday 14 February 2024


Acerbic, scathing, revelatory, barbed, sharp as paper cuts, close to the humorous… Joe Luna’s Old News, brought to you by Erotoplasty Editions and slub press (arm in arm they go!) is at last upon us! Here to rival Laura Kuenssberg and Boris Johnson’s weekly op-eds with an elegant and mordant survey of the state of poetry in these our fair unpleasant lands, and in the bright and sordid beyond! Bringing you all you never knew you wanted to know (or were afraid to ask) about Anglophone poetry scenes present and late, in measured, rapturing, lapidary prose, this fateful mirror weaves the fates of pages, liege lords, layman, acolytes, all… all the while offering up some timely ultimata for that most afflicted of artforms - poor, dear, sweet little poésie! The nightingale about our necks! Feel the blade if ye be guilty! Man the oars if ye be free! Luna’s rosebush vignettes are available now, if ye dare...

from the publishers, Slub and Erotoplasty 

Monday 29 January 2024

Peter Manson's Self-Avoiding Space-Filling Curve

From a letter to Peter Manson, nearly a year ago. You can get Self-Avoiding Space-Filling Curve (Just Not) here


I finally had the chance to sit with the sheaf of poems you sent me before Christmas, and wanted to send you a quick note to say how much I love them. They are tender and beautiful and funny by turns; the first two are a kind of incredible overture, notes of which the rest (so far) pick up on and dive down into in different ways. The sequence completely unfolds in its sequencing, too, so there’s never a dull moment. Indeed, the moments when ‘Peter’ emerges can be shockingly emotional; the moment when ‘spontaneous vaginal delivery Manson’ emerged left me rolling in the aisles (honestly I don’t think I‘ve laughed that hard since the last Stewart Lee gig I went to). Shades of Lee, too, in the lines parodically exaggerating the poet’s sense of self and oeuvre. The pop icons interleaved here seem deliberately beyond their respective sell-by dates, so that the references promise nothing so much as a pop idiom of fleeting lyric feeling (as in Riley?), but something more keenly cynical than that. The parodies/inversions of O’Hara and Wordsworth do something similar — the détournements are hardly even that, more like belligerent refusals or petulant reversals, a more fitting kind of acknowledgement/inheritance for our age of infantilism. And all shot through, yes, with the becoming human of one life among its mothers and fathers, glimpses of this throughout, without much sentimentality but with a knowingness too brutal for Freud.  


Saturday 21 October 2023

A letter to John Wilkinson, on his Fugue State

Dear John, 

Some more thoughts on Fugue StateI think I’m coming to it more on its own terms now, which I’ve found to be delightfully and quite dazzlingly musical and sculptural; just as if some of the poems were in/an ekphrasis of an imaginary scene (although there’s plenty of ‘real’ skin to go round), there is a music in/of the prosody and verse-forms here that simply hasn’t been invented yet. By way of example, selected fairly randomly from my underlinings: ‘liquifies injury in milk’s slurry’, ‘block aperture startle will prise open’ (a poetics, in that one), ‘a cockroach or angel / seize into life / and in like form shamble forward’, ‘in its suchlike folds does its lack self-devour / also?’ It rings with a cracked futural euphony, so that part- or whole-word repetitions make little dimensional cuts in the depth of the image-clusters; these in turn accumulate, so that the grammar of iterative accumulation, at this point near-virtuosic, is supported upon a whole relief network of stave-like emphases and indirect catchment areas for song fragment. It really is like reading nothing else, I can’t emphasise that enough. 

Partly I hear the sheer depth of the surfaces here as in carefully practised defiance of contemporary depthlessness, for which there are a few ciphers scattered about, and also therefore in a kind of phenomenological defiance of the fascistic predilection for the myth-kitty and its all-too-surface readings, here nicely inverted via the concentration on poor, inverted Marsyas at the expense of any Olympic cheerleading. I stood in front of José de Ribera’s Apollo and Marsyas in Brussels last year and kept his face close by in my recollection as his skein was stretched across the kettle drums and sky. The real meat of the matter seems to lie in the phenomenology of reading which is a movement of mind pegged to a besieged cultural immortality against the immortality of any given Bezos reaching for the stars. The elegy for al-Asad would seem to confirm this. We end with ‘fleshing out senses’ gates, / chief inlets of soul’, as a way of referring to the experience we’ve just had but can’t yet name. 

As ever, for this reader, those poems of exquisite compression and confluence rein me in the most and keep me bubbling away on the inside; ‘Actaeon’ is a recent favourite. Do the dioramic longer pseudo-narratives discourse upon what song is made of, what it should be made of, what it can be made of? Perhaps, then, the interludes in their very state as less-than the main events make more of a case for the former’s inherent poetics? I’m reaching for the stars a bit, here. So what is the poetics? On a couple of pages I’ve scribbled some notes towards them (viz., below): clearly the ethics of self-examination operates at the level of poetico-philosophical discourse, so that what’s at stake is nothing less than being: it would be difficult to maintain the chain-linked data-shards of imagery and iteration on a basis that is anything less than the ontological. 

What we have access to is the architecture of the underworld. What we can make of it pierces through it, but only in the process of our endeavouring to do so, in song’s midst: it’s like learning to be and think as an infant, but without the possibility of the achievement of permanence on either side. I think this is why those openings and horizons and bridges of gaps are so fleeting, why ‘no iota escapes’, why the achievement of the book is partly the uncanniness of those repetitions both local and through-composed — from syllabic pointillism to the alpha and omega of white sand — in which you can hear the hors-texte pressing down or in or out (I suppose at this point we can’t be sure of the direction of travel), an external divination of the internal which is composition, which is chain-linked to the phenomenology of reading that you’ve recently returned to flesh-out in The Following

The risks can be bluntly put, and they are familiar because I’m very familiar with them, having often tried to make my poems sing and sting in the same breath like yours: whether the density of the linguistic texture outweighs the subtlety of the endeavour; whether the iterative accumulation builds up to0 much and too quickly, so that it then can’t be leveraged or weaponised effectively; whether ‘being’ or ‘life’ become too unwieldy to have a purchase on anything except everything. On another note entirely, have you read Didier Anzieu’s The Skin Ego? I haven’t gone back to it but I’m guessing you must know it well, and I’d be interested to know if it had any bearing on the work. And anyway, here’s a note I wrote in the margin of ‘At Celaenae’ (though not necessarily in concert with that poem) that feels fairly fucking particular: 

The book tries to define a fascist temporality or phenomenology, and to overcome it; the true universality is under the skin, i.e., a world of gaps and turmoil that must be sought out by reaching out of oneself, to engender it; the fascists are not only wrong, they are incorrect! They worship the smooth, the unified, the false. 

It is an anti-fascist poetry by being pro-schist: the fascist is all surface. 

The reading of the work tries harder than ever to turn the mental enunciation of words into a physical traversal of the mind’s tongue over the relief of the poetic object; the poem returns you to your failing body, not your triumphant mind.’ 

All best, 

You can get Fugue State here.

Tuesday 8 August 2023

Somewhere Else in the Market: An Essay on the Poetry of J. H. Prynne

Free lunch for the first two weeks. Download here. My condolences, pastor. 

Wednesday 2 February 2022

Hi Zero archive now live

The Hi Zero archive is now live, preserving most of the readings for the series that took place in Brighton 2011–2020. The site also serves as the new home for all things Hi Zero-related, including publications (Z-folds, books, out-of-print issues of Hi Zero magazine, and Hix Eros PDF Poetry Review) and Robbie Dawson’s and Josh Cook’s artwork for the series. Click the zone below to gain access. 

Please send any correspondence or corrections to hizeroreadings AT, including orders for books and Z-folds. 

Thursday 26 November 2020

Reading from Development Hell

From The87Press’s reading on 19th November, 2020. Thanks to Azad Sharma and Kashif Sharma-Patel.  

Thursday 19 November 2020

Development Hell, out now from Hi Zero

Development Hell, by Joe Luna

A new 25-part poem published by Hi Zero, with illustrations by Martin Steuck. Designed and typeset by Ian Heames. Printed on Risograph by Earthbound Press. 36pp saddle-stitched on Munken Lynx paper in black, red, and aqua blue inks. Published November, 2020. 

£10 UK + EU incl. p+p
£12 ROW incl. p+p

Paypal using the link:

or the e-mail address:

NB. Pls include shipping address when making an order, or send separately to if using the button. 

Thursday 9 August 2018

Air Hunger, out now from Plea Press

A new book of poems, Air Hunger, is out now from Plea Press in Berlin. From the publisher's website:

Plea’s inaugural publication is a collection by the Brighton-based poet, Joe Luna. Air Hunger is a set of poems about finitude and loss; about psychic cannibalism and the inexorable movement of desire inchwards towards death.

“Joe Luna writes extremely careful poems that pursue recklessness. Air Hunger is highly allusive, intricately detailed, and yet unfussy: it flows freely between weirdly earnest Romantic pastiche and formidably dense modernist music. It’s either a giddy celebration of self-destructive love or a melancholic lament for a love that’s not quite self-destructive enough. I can’t decide. But either way, the book is thoughtful and moving, and a great read: come for the alienating compressed syllabics, stay for the humanistic pleasure of recognising yourself in the lyricism of its neurotic involution. Luna’s writing is fraught in the best way.”

– Steven Zultanski

What relation stops subtending shards of recognition 
that glint in crass identitarian prolepsis, that prevents 
this glow from seeming nothing less than too much 
gorgeous irony, that love is, endlessly, the sight of you?

The book is available to order now from for €10 incl. shipping everywhere. Risograph printed with a glue-spine, an image by Martin Steuck, and ten poems.

Thursday 19 April 2018

Indexical Self-Cut

A short squib read at the Doubting Thomas’ symposium at the University of Sussex, 18th April 2018. 

In a 2007 exchange with the critic Sam Ladkin, the poet and theatre maker Chris Goode calls Caravaggio’s The incredulity of St Thomas “the most powerfully salient depiction of exemplary wound response that we have.” Goode continues:  

“Noise […] increases uncertainty: therefore, the wound – its appearance, its tangibility – must be a signal that dispels Thomas’s doubt: because it encourages him into a confrontation with the physical body. Caravaggio, as touchingly as any boyband fan, trusts the idea only insofar as he trusts its carnal embodiment. But it’s only the body below the surface that carries such authority; the surface appearance of the body may still be a depthless apparition, a commercial presentation, one of a million roaming pin-ups. So as the wound slowly heals, the body becomes less like itself, more like its image.”

At stake in this enigmatic polemic is something like a commitment to the truth of damage beyond its reconciliation into a healthy body politic; the question that concerns Goode is the following: “how do you enact fidelity to a wound, once the possibility of preventing it has been lost?” He goes on:

“In other words, the wound may be an instance of failure in the body system, but it is also a local suspension in our failure to know each other within our social system. The body thus becomes the setting for a legible signal, but also its enemy; and for as long as the wound remains, a tension exists between the tendency of the body towards closure and the tendency of the open wound towards information-giving. There is then a civic aspect to this tension, and it is, I would want to suggest, the tension that I want to hold open, not (sadistically, torturously) the wound.”

Caravaggio, for Goode, represents such a “local suspension” in our failure to know, in this instance, the risen Christ; incredulity is itself, in Goode’s reading, a Christian synecdoche for that slew of negative affects that put us in touch with a self whose price of admission is temporarily slashed. In Caravaggio’s Thomas’s incredulity, not his scepticism or his faith restored, Goode sees the possibility of rendering in aesthetic experience the very distinction between you and me, not as a function of an historically organised set of divisions and alienations, but as “a civic aspect,” that is, a kind of trust mediated not by exchange per se (in which the value of the gift is always measured by the prospect of its loss) but by community itself. It is in this sense a properly communist aesthetic, because the being of one body is visible (is readable) as the condition of the other, not as its corollary or analogy.

To move off at a bit of a tangent, this brief contribution to today’s discussion offers the following claim: it was important to certain poets writing in the 2000s, and remains important to certain poets writing today, that they cut themselves so that other people can poke around inside them. I mean this sentence to absolutely collapse the distinction between pain expressed in poetry, and the pain of the poet, because it is essential to a poetics of wounding as I understand it that no false pretences be made about some airy sphere of language distinct from the hands that write it and the mouths that speak it. Properly wounded and wounding language, language which refuses the salvific functions of lyric harmony, is one of the defining features of the current avant-garde, and is often misread as a kind of heroic martyrdom: look at the poet bleed, they must value their own blood highly. But it seems at least worth considering what kind of violence is done to what Goode calls the “civic” commitment of wounded language when we assume either that the poet is attempting some kind of personal catharsis, or that they merely represent kinds of suffering for the edification or the activism of others.

Goode’s reading of Caravaggio suggests to me another way to think about poetry that is full of open wounds, poetry that is designed to hurt. And that is to think about it as serving a “civic” function such as the one Goode alludes to in his conversation with Ladkin. In many ways this term “civic” is the unexplored term in the exchange: it is not at all clear what it means, and it even seems likely that Goode himself is unclear as to its meaning in the context he creates. In any case, “local suspension[s] in our failure to know each other within our social system” happen all the time; perhaps they are happening right now. But criticism needs to insist on these encounters as suspensions in failure so that the wound has a chance not to heal, and the body to be more like itself.

And in that spirit, here are some recklessly polemical suggestions for further thinking:

1. Only poetry that hurts, and stays hurting, is capable of making us feel restlessly available to one another as that which we need to be alive.

2. Poetry that wounds only to heal, or to gesture towards a recuperative synthesis of body and social body without keeping alive the specific kind of “tension” that Goode describes – that between the tendency to bleed and the tendency to forget – might as well be pop music. That would be fine.

3. Poetry that ruthlessly and torturously wounds itself in an endless display of linguistic gore, and which tips into misery without the straining of lament or dirge, is despair without incredulity, and is therefore useless.

4. It is important that criticism preserve something of the incredulity of St Thomas as I read it above – as the productive tension that elucidates the negative image of a fully-fleshed out encounter – by closely reading poems without plastering over them a theoretical account of social relations which the poem is supposed to exemplify.

Further reading:

Sam Ladkin and Chris Goode, Some Correspondence,’ in Chicago Review 53:1 (2007), pp.126-138.

Wednesday 7 March 2018

Aphorisms for the Strike, 6th March 2018

1. Poetry is the durable record of the future ingrained into the present experience of hurt and historical disenfranchisement. The structure of verse contains and expresses the movement of history beyond what is presently possible to write of poetrys effects, because effects have the inconvenient tendency to either happen or not, whereas what is effected in poems is not limited to the immediately discernible reaction they may or not elicit in people, but is instead realised according to the historical coordinates of their composition and reception. The questions of contemporary verse practise the understanding of present struggles by subjecting those struggles to the innermost scrutiny of affective resolution, and by doing so they preserve in language - in the intimate shape of common feeling - the conditions of political existence. To write of what is effected in poems built at moments of acute crisis or the threat of social upheaval, far from relatively promoting or relegating such moments beyond or beneath the generalised political crisis of what passes for "the times," is in fact to recognize crisis itself as the indelible mark of historical transformation, and in turn to transform through the praxis of reading what might otherwise remain latent into the shared acquisition of manifest social knowledge. This is to offer a definition of close reading that treats the object of interpretation as a social fact of historical contingency. It is to refuse the logic of simple cause and effect by representing effect as a product of the world poetry swallows and regurgitates the better to savour its taste: effect is mathematical, logical, universalised without a second chance; poetry is the promise of non-equivalence in the sound of an equivocal promise. Antithetical to the slick, gilded logic of consumption, poetry sticks in the craw.

2. One way in which poetry generates an extraordinary reserve of critical momentum is by being basically and belligerently unrealistic. Reactionaries always claim that this is a failure of the imagination; or rather, they claim with the syrupy pathos of a broadsheet editor that the poets eyes are bigger than their stomach, but that nevertheless they provide a hopeful vision (whether visible or invisible) of a future stripped of the qualities of the world from which it emerges. This is bullshit. Hope in poetry is not to be idealised out of existence by cleverly diluting it in the antidote that would cure the poem of its ills, but maintained at the cost of its violent eradication at every turn. Against cynicism, readers should claim the audible communication of hurt as the condition of social truth; against idealism, they should interpret this hurt within the careful proximity of material injustice. Likewise, those that claim that damaged or hurt poetry - that is, poetry marked by crisis - only parades the wounds of the bleeding heart solipsist, betray their own narcissistic image of suffering as something that exists only to be claimed as ones own, rather than produced in the contingency of individual composition as a protest against its social organisation. Bad poems are usually bad because they forget this basic fact; the mainstream perpetually misrepresents "protest" as a levelling of the unrealistic against the real, whereas the point is to fashion the unrealistic as a critical weapon against the present terms and conditions upon which reality is conceived and enacted. The recent production of hexes by contemporary poets attests to this fact. Spells are the ironic exaggeration of material powerlessness to effect the justice that material inequality demands. To read them as magic divests them of their social truth. But to believe entirely that social truth snaps shut the eyelet opened by the spells casting.

3. Nostalgia, like love, is neither inherently radical nor inherently reactionary. The losses of the past, like the losses of the present, need not be recast in the bloody light of pathos or damaged optimism to remain painfully alive and persistent; they can injure the despair of complacent rectitude just as well by refusing to succumb to a happy ending. Love in the poetry of Frank OHara, Lisa Robertson, and Keston Sutherland is not the end in futurity of a presently unrealisable affective surplus, any more than it is finally the same thing in each of their poetries. But it is possible in each of these cases to discern a passionate optic of desire that motivates, even as it interrogates, the social constitution of desire. This is the recursive critical idiom of the best contemporary love poetry. Recursive does not mean self-destructive: no excoriation of the unlovable subject completely atones for their willed self-importance. But neither can love be abandoned to the scrap-heap of self-indulgence without also abandoning the desire for self-transcendence, the loss of which curses the poet to a paradise of one. During moments of particularly intense social momentum, such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2010 student movement, the poetry of love acquires a semblance of blank futility, as it reflects beyond catastrophe the solace of intimate conservation. But such desire should also be read as its readiness for adaptation, in the sense that elegy is always also a projection of relational memory. The poetry of those periods is riven with exorbitant, flailing, gratuitous violence, precisely as a means to measure, apperceive, and comprehend the destruction of life that each moment seemed to promise, on their different scales of historical significance and proximity. That response, in all its variety, was a form of loving exactitude enacted on the principles of solidarity with the victims of military and economic violence. What are the forms of love that will make the interruption of the present moment cleave most passionately to the future it drags behind it?

4. Aphorisms are a cop-out. They claim through wilful hermeticism and the dense topography of impacted thought an insight into historical time, especially that of crisis or struggle, protected from the scalpels of the uninitiated by a thick carapace of rhetorical suggestiveness. In this sense they are the exaggerated image of the shibboleth-esque that some read into the contorted lines and ligaments of contemporary radical poetry. Why should we listen to these poets, the argument goes, when they simply will not tell us what they simply mean? The answer to this question is a necessarily aphoristic one: because they have nothing to tell you that you want so desperately to know that you will stop at nothing to have it told. Times like ours present this contradiction in the starkest of terms: you can see it on the picket line, in the contorted lines and ligaments of the face of the scab, in the enormous focus of concentration it takes to ignore an invitation proffered, however clumsily, in the spirit of joyful cooperation. There is no greater ringing endorsement of the primacy of address to each other that we make in our poems than the face of the other for whom an invitation can only be heard as an insult. In the face of that narcissistic portcullis, initiation is a field day. And in the moments gathered in the fragile precarity of collective resolution, by the permanent record of beautiful dissent, the day is ours.

Monday 25 September 2017

More Unanswerable Questions

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

Unanswerable Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 19 April 2017

Affect Storms and Affected Response

Affect storms 2017 from KS on Vimeo.

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

Friday 2 December 2016

A Fragment on Allen Fisher

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

Allen Fisher and Everything

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 18 September 2016

Reading, 2005

Monday 12 September 2016

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

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

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

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

25th August, 2016

Sunday 11 September 2016


Tuesday 30 August 2016

Harmless Unnecessary Cat

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 18 August 2016

From a Letter, 23rd October 2015

Dear all,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please dive in and give all this a good kicking.

With lots of love,

Joe x