Tuesday, October 14, 2008

AGAIN: RETHINKING THE WORK OF POETRY

Given present global instabilities, this may be an ideal time to collectively reconsider the relation of the aesthetic to the political, the politicization of the aesthetic, the ideological implications of form, or, more fundamentally, our material relation to language in a seemingly interminable moment of grave politico-economic disorder. Like the grammarians of seventh-century Toulouse, misreading the present moment and arguing "over the vocative of ego amid the crash of empires" is always a danger. But despite this danger, I find myself obsessed with the possibility that poetry, or any form of cultural production, might allow us to read the present situation and respond to it in a meaningful way.

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A recent NYT article addressed the impact of the mortgage crisis on working-class families in a small Indiana town. Sustained by a failing RV manufacturing plant, the residents of Elkhart, Indiana have taken to supplementing their dwindling incomes through garage sales — so much so that the local City Council considered passing a resolution that would limit residents to one garage sale a month. Despite these economic difficulties (but not surprisingly) no small number of Elkhart residents are considering voting for McCain, convinced he and Palin will somehow ameliorate the current crisis. Others are simply reluctant to place their confidence in a "colored" candidate. According to one resident: "When it comes down to it around here, people are going to vote color, and I don't think people are ready to vote for a colored president. I don't care myself, but at work a lot of people talk color there." When the people of this town cast their votes, to what extent will those votes have been predicated on informed decisions? If such a grossly misinformed understanding of race and racial difference continues to determine the decisions white voters make in the ballot booth, to what extent might such voters already be considered disenfranchised? As people of color in Macomb County, Michigan effected by the mortgage crisis are quite literally losing their right to vote along with their homes, white voters making their way to the polls in November will have already been ideologically disenfranchised, casting misinformed votes that work against their interests. To be sure these white voters enjoy a wide range of privileges people of color do not, yet it's precisely the tragically misinformed understanding of race that will drive these white voters to decide against their own more fundamental economic interests.

How is language — and the broader discursive formations language moves through — operating here? If the consciousness of voters is shaped in advance through a process which is profoundly unconscious, how can any vote cast be considered informed in any way at all?

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Addressing British deindustrialization in an editor's preface to Quid 19: Poetry and Class Politics, Keston Sutherland writes: "The outsourcing of the material base of the British economy must, on Marxist terms, mean that some of the superstructure that accompanied it has been outsourced, too." Whether or not you buy into the base / superstructure split orthodox Marxists insist on, Sutherland's statement is an exceptionally canny one. Exported along with the industrial components of the economic base are those forms of consciousness that have developed in relation to it, indeed through it: "I mean the feelings and perceptions and apprehensions and hopes and revulsions that make up the daily experience of people living and working and loving and eating and dying in societies where class difference is a fact that is obvious to everyone and that everyone talks about and acknowledges." Although the British socio-cultural landscape is markedly different from our own — that is, class difference in the UK is markedly less opaque, less disguised, than it is in the US — Sutherland's statement is also applicable to the American context.

Forms of class consciousness in Britain have typically been more sharply delineated, more present, than in the US. But the production and reproduction of subjectivities in the US and Britain alike have always been characterized by an overdetermined tension between race, region, gender and nation. To put it another way, any identification with class in a western context, any form of class consciousness, is always already shot through by a number of other identity-based categories. In times of international crisis, for example, an identification with nation almost always trumps an identification with any other category.

In the US the flight of industry has created a sort of vacuum in the production mill of subjectivity, and among the working poor and the underemployed this vacuum (especially in the wake of 911) has given space to more intense and far more destructive identifications with race and nation. To understand oneself as "working class" does not mean in precisely the same way it may have in the 1970s or even the 1980s. In fact, if we take stock of the proliferation of films released during the 90s that featured idealized representations of industrial workers, we see the release of these films coincides with the moment of deindustrialization. Here culture is gripped by a retrospective nostalgia for precisely that which can never be recovered. And as industry continues to exit out, so do those forms of consciousness associated with it. But, as the current financial crisis indicates, the flight of class-based forms of consciousness has not eliminated economic inequality. The economic is always with us.

In his editorial note, Sutherland claims the task of poetry involves locating "a way that the deep trauma of our comfort and affluence can be exposed for what it is, namely, the foundation of our moral psychology." Considering the volatility of financial markets worldwide, I wonder if the bourgeois comfort and affluence that shapes our moral psychology is itself in danger of falling away like big industry. If so, I wonder if this moral psychology (ideology by any other name) will shift with it and require us instead to find a way of exposing the trauma of our despair and poverty. I also wonder how such an approach to poetic production might take into consideration the moral psychology of people like the residents of Elkhart, Indiana — people that were never truly comfortable or affluent but whose overall world view is, in any number of ways, commensurate with the affluent and comfortable. How, that is, do we account for internal economic differentiation in locations like the US and Britain where grotesque forms of affluence drape domestic poverty in an obfuscating shadow?

However one might view Althusser's own accomplishments on the terrain of theory, for him Marxism was always the "theoretical terrain of a fundamental investigation" — and regardless of what name we assign to this investigation the work of poetry is always located within it. Although it's difficult to identify the task of poetry with any certainty, I suspect the work of poetry — the work of the aesthetic — is located somewhere in that curiously disjunctive gap between the political interests of a community (if ever these interests can be named with any certainty) and the often misinformed and contradictory political decisions a community consciously makes.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

MEMORY AS MEASURE OF MYTH

By now everyone's heard about the $440,000 AIG executives squandered on a bacchanalian orgy celebrating the first $85 billion bailout given to them by Washington. Since then AIG has received an additional $38 billion.

At the tale end of an eight year run that brought us Enron and other disastrous corporate scandals, the invasion of two "sovereign" nations first armed by the US, the privatization of these wars, a wholesale war on civil liberties at home, an undisguised attack on the poor during the Katrina debacle, two rigged presidential elections and god knows what else, the Bush administration chooses to closeout its second term in office by giving kickbacks to investment banks whose deeply unethical antics have finally caught up with them.

After the Reagan years I took comfort in the fact that the historical record would always disclose what a ruthless, evil bastard he was. Ditto for Nixon before him. In the case of Reagan we had the Iran-Contra scandal that armed Iraq at the expense of Nicaraguan self-determination. The Reagan years also gave us anti-union government intervention in the air-traffic controllers strike which eventually broke the back of organized labor in the US. Despite this, Reagan was canonized as a saint by American media at the moment of his death. The same is true of Nixon, whose presidential career was marked by the Watergate scandal and the secret blanket-bombing of Laos and Cambodia. But when Nixon died he went out in a blaze of media-friendly glory that insisted on rewriting the historical record and reinventing American memory. Like Reagan, Nixon too was transformed into a martyr.

Will this also be the case for Bush? When the man is on his deathbed and journalists are clamoring to cover his presidential career, will mainstream media's "investigative" journalists conveniently forget the willful mishandling of Hurricane Katrina, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the permissibility of torture at Guantanamo Bay, the unwarranted dismissal of US Attorneys, the Valerie Plame case, or the mortgage scandal that gave rise to the current global financial crisis?

Memory is never memory as such. It is invented as if out of thin air. Memory is a narrative cobbled together from the visual and textual materials at hand. The malleability of memory makes it a site of contestation, a site of struggle. It is perhaps for this reason poets like Olson and Duncan preferred Herodotus over Thucydides. In Herodotus there is no pretension to scientific method. History is not science. And it is perhaps for this reason Paul Metcalf insisted that myth is a form of "essential truth" — a truth that struggles to reconfigure the coordinates of power but is also itself a product of power.

Monday, October 06, 2008

PRISON-HOUSE OF CARDS: WORTHLESS SECURITIES

It's not surprising to see how thoroughly integrated in the world financial system the developed and underdeveloped nations of the world are. Despite ridicule from Jon Stewart, the "house of cards" metaphor George Bush appealed to when describing the economic crisis last week may in fact be the most accurate statement of his entire presidential career. The current economic meltdown, which we began to feel in earnest this summer via the US mortgage crisis, has consistently rippled outward, effecting markets in Europe and Asia:

Over the weekend, governments across Europe rushed to prop up failing banks. The German government and financial industry agreed on a $68 billion bailout for commercial-property lender Hypo Real Estate Holding AG, while France's BNP Paribas agreed to acquire a 75 percent stake in Fortis's Belgium bank after a government rescue failed.

Viral as ever, capital and the crises embedded in the very conditions of unregulated exchange move across borders with cavalier flair. Reading Fredric Jameson's pre-911 essay "Globalization and Political Strategy" (the same essay Divya Victor recently quoted at her blog) I found the following passage especially prescient:

The United States has resisted the strategy of introducing controls on the international transfers of capital — one method by which some of this financial and speculative damage [generated in part through instant transfers of capital] might presumably be contained ; and it has, of course, played a leading role within the IMF itself, long perceived to be the driving force of neo-liberal attempts to impose free-market conditions on other countries by threatening to withdraw investment funds. In recent years, however, it has no longer been so clear that the interests of the financial markets and those of the United States are absolutely identical: the anxiety exists that these new global financial markets may yet — like the sentient machinery of recent science fiction — mutate into autonomous mechanisms which produce disasters no one wants, and spin beyond the control of even the most powerful government.
It remains to be seen whether the $700 billion kickback (an exchange of public sector money for the failed profiteering strategies of reckless investment banks) will strengthen the "fundamentals" of the economy or create the conditions for an even greater financial calamity. Either way, basic concepts like "regulation" and "control" are central to this economic crisis. It is utterly impossible to imagine — given the highly international, flaneur-like fluidity of capital — how this crisis could have been anything less than global in scale.

On the terrain of poetry, for those invested in thinking the situation poetically, Pound's insistence on the centrality of the economic comes to mind. The poetics of excess (of computer-generated texts or poems desperately cobbled together using search-engines or labor-intensive transcriptions of massive amounts of information) do not, in the context of the current crisis, seem to repurpose informatic waste as much as it reproduces this waste and the destructive social relations constituted through this waste — that is, these projects grounded in a poetics of excess seem to yield results similar to failed investment banks: a glut of worthless securities.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

DAVID HADBAWNIK'S TRANSLATIONS FROM CREELEY

Roger Snell recently designed and published, through his Sardines Press imprint, a short selection of poems by David Hadbawnik under the title Translations from Creeley. The book is exquisite, situated in some curiously dislocated region between chapbook, chaplet and broadside. Like Creeley's poems, the work comes to us with a certain plainness and humility about it, refusing to announce itself in any inappropriately ostentatious way. The book itself is the size of a photograph and runs a total of eight pages — in fact, I was shocked to find the pages were numbered. But thinking further through this, the numbering appears to reinforce the scale of the work itself, work small and in motion, at all times ephemeral and passing away from us. We find this in the first poem "The Joke":

Pockets of energy caught up
in words. To release them
in time, as he had
heard it told; but to
hold their attention he
rushed to the end only
to find their
faces, waiting.

The residual trace of that which passes away, whatever it might be. A sort of presencing. As a whole, a modest whole, this is what the book itself does — it marks the trace of things released in time. The scale of the work, which is so crucial to it, is much smaller than David's earlier / other published work, particularly Ovid in Exile. His "translations" don't demand from the eye and are easy to lose among any number of papers and books one might have stacked on table or desk. But this seems to be part of the project, embedded in both the poems and the design of the book. A lovely thing to have pass, however briefly, through one's hands.