Thursday, November 19, 2009

WORKING NOTES: ABGRUND (AGROUND)


(Rockwell Kent's Father Mapple, 1930 Lakeside Press edition of Moby Dick)

Choir answers choir. In her notes on Jonathan Edwards and Wallace Stevens in the spring number of Chicago Review, Susan Howe comments on the contemporary critical attitudes toward Edwards that reduce him to a proselytizing mouth-foaming Father Mapple of the 1951 John Houston variety. This reduction comes with consequences, generates blind spots: "In 2008 we see through speculative knowledge and are unwilling to embrace the imaginative and aesthetic crossing he makes between our material world — the world of types — and the spiritual world as it actively flows from revelation into human history."

The order of march (from the spiritual into human history) is possibly an order of idealism difficult to reconcile, but I get the sense the material world for Howe, at least here, precisely here, is a world of, as she says, types — categories, forms, typologies, a priori subject positions, language. The flipside — the spiritual world — then might be a sort of terra firma or void beyond the horizon of these types, not a utopian space as such but a sort of ground zero or point of departure that might allow one to act on a human history legislated by types.

Like Howe's Jonathan Edwards, Amiri Baraka too is often dismissed as a pathological pulpit-climbing evangelical. And I come back again and again not to his blown up America or his Dutchman but the figure of his daughter praying in "Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note," a poem so well known I find it difficult to engage. In the poem he hears his daughter speaking but on peeking into her room sees she speaks to no one. He finds she is praying, her prayer an utterance thrown out perhaps toward the void. But before he encounters his daughter, and testifies to a very particular recognition of his daughter praying, he is swallowed Jonah-like. The poem begins with a ground that opens up and envelops him (or "the broad edged silly music in the wind").

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Looking again at Žižek's first essay in The Monstrosity of Christ, he points toward a brilliant but easily ignored material example of the ideological distance between the US and Europe:

There is a detail which, perhaps, tells a lot about the difference between Europe and the USA: in Europe, the ground floor in a building is counted as 0, so that the floor above it is the “first floor,” while in the USA the “first floor” is at street level. In short, Americans start to count with 1, while Europeans know that 1 is already a stand- in for 0. Or, to put it in more historical terms: Europeans are aware that, before we start counting, there has to be a “ground” of tradition, a ground which is always- already given and, as such, cannot be counted; while the USA, a land with no premodern historical tradition proper, lacks such a “ground”—things begin there directly with self-legislated freedom, the past is erased (transposed onto Europe).

Thinking about Badiou's refusal of one, Žižek then asks which of these is in fact the case, the European model or the American. Not surprisingly he insists neither is the case and points toward Poland (a state incidentally located in a historically nebulous border region) where buildings have no first floor, where there is only ground level (0) and above that the 2nd floor (viz, the opposite of multiplicity is zero, the void, and not one, communion). What Žižek fails to consider here in this distinction between the US and the European is the internal cultural differentiation in the US that allows a poet like Baraka, a black poet on his way to Black Nationalism and then Leninism-Marxism, to not only take account of the ground as void but surrender himself to it. And it is through his later commitments to Black Nationalism and Marxist political philosophy that Baraka maintains an on-the-way-ness toward the conditions of possibility within the ground (the space of a radical negativity) that swallows him in this early poem. This preface to suicide is the opening salvo in an ongoing and fundamentally spiritual series of disavowals that refuse what we are and move toward a deeper and long abandoned we projected into an unimagined but nonetheless possible future.

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A couple weeks ago I managed to snag Robert Bertholf's copy of Baraka's 1964 collection The Dead Lecturer at a used bookshop here in Buffalo. One of the herd thinned before Bertholf bounced to Austin. A couple of lines from Baraka's "The politics of rich painters" leap out at me:

You know the pity
of democracy, that we must sit here
and listen to how he made his money.

In "Expressive Language" — written around the same time the poems in The Dead Lecturer were composed, gathered and prepared for publication — Baraka writes:

As if Brooks Adams were right. Money does not mean the same thing to me it must mean to a rich man. I cannot, right now, think of one meaning to name. This is not so simple to understand. Even as a simple term if the English language, money does not posses the same meanings for the rich man as it does for me, a lower-middle-class American, albeit of laughably "aristocratic" pretensions. What possibly can "money" mean to a poor man? And I am not talking now about those courageous products of our permissive society who walk knowledgeably into "poverty" as they would into a public toilet. I mean, The Poor.

Front end differential. Back end standard. The poor have always known how to be poor and money means something different to an
otherwise comfortable "middle class" family fresh out of sheckles than it does to a poor family that never had any in the first place.

An economist interviewed on NPR a day or two ago claimed the US economy would have to grow at 2.5% over the next year to accommodate new bodies preparing to enter the workforce for the first time. An unlikely rate of growth that suggests unemployment will rise over the coming years.

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In "The Expanded Object of the Poetic Field; Or, W hat is a Poet/Critic?" Barrett Watten writes:

What I often find lacking, I will say, in much poetry of the present—not that it is not worthwhile in other terms, no—is a connection to the conditions of its own production. If that sounds like a prescription for what counts as aesthetic experience, again I’m s
orry. By ‘conditions’ I mean motivating factors, not surface effects that can never locate them, that dissolve in the bitstreams of channel switching or the identity profiling of data pools. The act of ‘erasure’ only gets us so far; I want to see the larger logic or motivation that makes such acts of abstraction and recombination necessary and productive, on other terms than simply as a placeholder for producers of like objects seen as a ‘community’ (maybe ‘community’ itself is one such logic; in which case let’s hope for an engaged one). But even more I am struck with the pervasive inability to read or comprehend the information one is given. We need high-level interpretants, and poetry can produce them.

A poetry turned inward not toward the ground of its being but the conditions of its production. If the figure of embedded liberalism is outward, the figure of neoliberalism is inward — a hermeneutic no measure of reason can penetrate. But reason is not
force and the legibility of the illegible is just another form of wish fulfillment.

Love turns inward (I looked up at the moon and saw pictures of me). Torque = the moment of force. "Moment" is a synonym for torque. Un momento. Torque is not force as such but the moment of force — a momen
t in time. This moment always involves leverage and relies on three quantities: 1. the amount of force applied; 2. the length of a lever's arm connecting the source of force to that against which this force is exercised; 3. the angle between the source of force and the object upon which it acts. The length of the lever is especially crucial. The length of some levers extend across centuries, even millennia. Love is a lever crimped at the fulcrum under neoliberalism. Ideology too is a lever.

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As if Brooks Adams were right. In 1967, under Olson's direction, Harvey Brown — courageous product of our permissive society — published Brooks Adams' New Empire through Frontier Press. In 1969 Brown brought out The Book of Daniel Drew, Bouck White's fictional autobiography of the financier and founder of Drew Theological Seminary (Drew University). Commenting on Drew's rise to power in an introductory note on par with Slinger, Ed Dorn writes:

It isn't done like this anymore. Not now. Now the thing, the pass, the action is made another way, shudders behind very hard shades. Perhaps reflects where you stand in your "world," the eagle flies across the convex mirror lens — dig — in the sky it's a bird, no! and while you were looking somebody nailed your big toe to the floor.

We encounter a bitterly jaded Dorn in this passage, a Dorn fresh on the ugly side of '68 and suspicious perhaps of The Book of Daniel Drew's continued relevance. Undoubtedly, as Dorn insists, the action is made another way these days and nothing registers this more masterfully than Slinger. But the collisions seem remarkably similar to trainwrecks during the rise of big industry. Point of fact: most of the work published by Bouck White, "P
astor of the Church of Social Revolution," can be viewed through Google Books (monopoly pharmakon of a chimney sweep variety; I can look up and read thousands of radical texts for free, but only as my big toe is nailed to the floor and thousands of Chinese miners die working to fuel an economy expected to expand over the next year at a rate of 8%).

In any case, I'm stunned by White's desire for an economic history of Christ's life in The Call of the Carpenter (1912):

We here address ourselves to view Jesus, the Carpenter of Nazareth, from the viewpoint of economics. Concededly a different viewpoint from that usually held. But we shall be rigorously historical. The present is not a work of the imagination. It affirms to be a piece of cool, scientific history.

Too much a socialist for the Congregationalists (he graduated from Union Theological Seminary) and too much a Christian for the socialists, White founded the Church of Social Revolution in NYC and later did a stint in prison for flag burning before the outbreak of WWI. Like Hugh MacDiarmid's contradictory nationalist and socialist tendencies, White's twin commitments to Christianity and socialism were synthesized in writings that infused biblical exegesis with a social and economic history from below informed by Engels. (I'm reminded here of Saint Cecilia or Don Arcangelo Tadini, founder of the Worker's Mutual Aid Association in southern Italy and beatified (effectively neutralized) by Pope Rottweiler earlier this year; Tadini died the year Call of the Carpenter was published.


Critiques of the theological tendencies that shape orthodox Marxism are old hat. Ditto for investigations of the socialist tendencies in scripture. But my interest in White has something to do with the possibilities contained in locating the retroactive seed of a sort of piss-and-vinegar Liberation Theology in the global north — at least the usefulness of pointing toward a Christianity in America not the Bible Belt — or a reminder to myself that it ain't always been profiteering evangelical ministers, God-fearing woman-hating war-mongering congregations and abusive priests. It helps to remember other Berrigan's as important as Ted, Anselm and Edmund — Daniel and Philip.

But I want to come back to
Žižek's Monstrosity — the figure of Christ read through Job not as the representative of God on earth but as the crest-fallen material trace of a God thrown in a moment of abandon into his own creation, a God that does not sacrifice his son but forsakes himself through a transfiguring gesture that fully disavows his power. If I read the work correctly — which I fear I don't — Žižek goes the long way around, through Hegel, to come eventually to Jean-Luc Nancy's deconstructionist position on Christianity:

Apropos of Christianity and its overcoming, Jean-Luc Nancy proposed two guidelines: (1) “Only a Christianity which envisages the present possibility of its negation can be relevant today.” (2) “Only an atheism which envisages the reality of its Christian provenance can be relevant today.”

And Žižek agrees here "with some reservations." His reservation lies in Nancy's inability to recognize the split parallactic view that frames the Crucifixion not as an event succeeded by Resurrection, but each as one and the same, a single event viewed from two different vantage points:

This is why Hegel is the Christian philosopher: the supreme example of the dialectical reversal is that of Crucifixion and Resurrection, which should be perceived not as two consecutive events, but as a purely formal parallax shift on one and the same event: Crucifixion is Resurrection—to see this, one has only to include oneself in the picture. When the believers gather, mourning Christ’s death, their shared spirit is the resurrected Christ.

For Žižek the issue extends far beyond the need for Christians to imagine the negation of Christianity or the need for an effective atheism to locate the material traces its Christian provenance. For Žižek the figure of God is fundamentally a space of relation, the space of a "shared spirit" that retroactively bodies forth an eternal and everlasting body beyond the material world and prior to man. And for Žižek the same is the case for revolution, the moment of reconciliation is located in the moment of conflict itself, in the space of relation that doesn't change reality but generates a parallactic shift in our recognition of it. It is here that I have difficulty. At its worst this logic frames effective political change as a shared (single / one) point of view, reducing an idea of revolution to a shift in consciousness and allowing one to come in through the backdoor and again subsume multiplicity. At bottom it's this notion of God not as an immanent whole within which the multiplicity of all particulars is contained but God as the willfully activated space of relation I take as a potentially useful saving grace.

Another name for the shared spirit Žižek addresses is belief — or faith.

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In Bertholf's edition of Baraka's Dead Lecturer I see a note in the margins of the poem "Duncan Spoke of A Process." Bertholf, who wrote his diss on Wallace Stevens and served as executor of the Duncan estate for many years, comments in the top left corner of the page, "Stevens / here perhaps." Toward the end of the poem Baraka confesses: "I see what I love most and will not / leave what futile lies / I have. I am where there

is nothing, save myself. And go out to
what is most beautiful.

Baraka is where there is nothing except himself. But he is also — perhaps — where there is a nothing that has the potential to save him, a nothing that is the site of a ground where he can be saved and removed to what is most beautiful, what Adorno would call the non-identical. Duncan spoke of a process, an on-the-way-ness that finds the shape of its aggressive force in the form of a surrender to the ground that envelops. Here torque is a moment, the moment of force, the moment of a shared spirit that recognizes crucifixion as resurrection.

It's appropriate here to give Howe the last word. After commenting on Steven's "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words" in her notes we find:

Poetry has no proof nor plan nor evidence by decree or in any other way. From somewhere in the twilight realm of sound a spirit of belief flares up at the point where meaning stops and the unreality of what seems most real floods over us. It's a sense of self-identification and trust, or the granting of grace in an ordinary room, in a secular time.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

WORKING NOTES: INTELLIGIBILITY OF CONFLICT


At the Steak-A-Licious sub shop on Main Street in Buffalo the irony is twofold. The door entering into the shop is flanked on either side by large storefront windows. On the window to the left we encounter a hand-painted steak sandwich with the word "Steak-A-Licious" above it and "Buffalo's Best" below. To the right is a portrait of Obama with a view of the Capital Building over his right shoulder. The words below Obama read, "STEAKS / 2 for $8.00." Further to the right we see Obama's campaign catchphrase: "YES WE CAN!"

Two cheese steaks for eight dollars is a surprisingly good deal, but the newsprint pasted behind the image of Obama and his catchphrase quickly transforms this "can" into an especially painful "can't." The shop's location — literally on Main Street — further intensifies the ironic intelligibility of the phrase. Next to this even the most outrageous détournement strategies are kid stuff.

The fifth rigorously revised and exponentially enlarged edition of The Oxbridge Complainion to Hummerican Anglisc posits that economic contexts for the fricative /r/ reside in springwells of power. Cowboys /r/ hard. But the dialectically inverted sliding tax scale insists Lyndon Johnson's Texarkkkana /r/ is structurally coeval with the /r/ discovered by linguistic anthropologists in the shit-stained shanties inhabited by Roscoe Holcomb in Hazard, Kentucky and Hazel Adkins in Boone County, West Virginia. Even more troubling, the Complainion fails to account for the silent but nonetheless savory /r/ in the cramped urban Po' Boy (a gRindeRRR) or the spacious iveyleague luxury sedan referred to by yokels as Ha'va'd, Massacheussetts.

Bluntly: this ain't no joke. Or, Why Marx? Since the rise of Marxism coincides with the ascendancy of the oil industry perhaps it should be scrapped in a gradual and whimpering manner as dependency on oil slowly gives way to other forms of energy production. Unfortunately, a shift in commodity (energy) production already fails to promise a commensurate shift in class difference — i.e. market-driven commitments to solar power rhyme ideologically with passive zen-like imperatives to just be happy (viz, bright sunny smiles in fields of swaying wheat invite us to calm down, take a step back, love one another and purchase products manufactured by solar energy). Put differently, single mothers exchanging WIC tickets for grape soda on the way home from a double at the slop barrel really should feel badly for Richard Cory. Like Jon Gosselin, he had everything and still he hung himself.

When not reduced to a quaintly charming but otherwise disposable "interpretive lens" for reading culture, invoking Marxism speaks to capital with an impressive measure of stubborn clarity. It insists (quixoticity notwithstanding): This really is a pitchfork.

Althusser and Jameson each offer useful and curiously compatible working definitions of a Marxism that provide ample wiggle room for climbing out of orthodox commitments to economic determinism, the base/superstructure model, the teleology rabbit hole and other troubling stumbling blocks that have allowed critics to toss baby and bucket out with the bathwater.

Althusser: ... Marxism should not be simply a political doctrine, a 'method' of analysis and action, but also, over and above the rest, the theoretical domain of a fundamental investigation, indispensable not only to the development of society and of the various 'human sciences', but also to that of the natural sciences and philosophy (For Marx 26).

Jameson: — I would prefer to grasp Marxism as something rather different than a philosophical system (incomplete or not). I believe that it shares, uniquely with psychoanalysis in our time, the character of an as yet unnamed conceptual species one can only call a 'unity of theory and practice', which by its very nature and structure stubbornly resists assimilation to the older philosophical 'system' as such (foreword to the second vol. of Sartre's Critique of Dialectical Reason xiii).

In their brevity and vagueness both definitions leave a crawlspace for contingency and invite expanding the field of investigation. Weirdly, however, each allows the elephant in the room to go unnamed. But if there's any confusion make no mistake: for both Althusser and Jameson the name of the enemy is clear.

Claude Lévi-Strauss died today. A related passage from Structural Anthropology:

... as soon as the various aspects of social life — economic, linguistic, etc. — are expressed as relationships, anthropology [&c &c &c] will become a general theory of relationships. Then it will be possible to analyze societies in terms of the differential features characteristic of the systems of relationships that define them.

Structures of kinship. Relatedness. Any relationship can be imagined as a blood tie.

My daughter sleeps best when we drive. When she fusses and seems sleepy but resists sleep we drive. We drive all over Buffalo and when I need a smoke while she snoozes I pull over, step out and spark up, looking in on her while I quickly suck down a cigarette. The disjunctive leap from the opulent stone mansions we drive by along the Lincoln Parkway, near the Albright-Knox, to the dilapidated hovels west of Grant Street or on the East Side of the city persistently astound me. However boring, intellectually unsophisticated or simply mundane calling attention to the disparity might be, radical economic differentiation from one neighborhood to another is nonetheless palpable and lived. According to a 2007 Census Bureau report, Buffalo is the second poorest large city in the US.

She hasn't gotten a handle on consonants yet, but the range of wildly inflected vowel sounds my daughter utters daily is something to behold. At four and a half months she is still without language. Unlike her mother and I, she is also without or prior to linguistic difference. She has no /r/ yet. What is at stake is the almost undetectable difference between an oil mogul's gritty Texarkana /r/ and the comparably hard /r/ located in a forty-a-month Kentucky shack or the similarly callous but distant /r/ in a Paterson project complex. Clearly the line in the sand ain't reducible to this alone but certainly a determinate pea in the pod of Hummerican Anglisc.

In the appendices to the "second volume" of Sartre's Critique there's what appears to have been a hastily sketched note on his theory of totalization (a concept a little too complex to parse here). In the note Sartre addresses mass culture, focusing on radio and television, insisting — like Gramsci, Laclau, Jameson, Zizek &c &c &c have with markedly different conceptual tools — that mass culture is ideologically bourgeois in character:

That means the dominant class finds a new means of diffusing its own ideology (i.e. the practical justification of its praxis) ... The part provokes the contradiction by posing as the whole (universal culture). This is called 'integrating one's working class'. But this integration is false, because it gives a culture of the advantaged to men [and women?] who remain disadvantaged. It gives the enjoyment of luxury by sight, rather than by lived reality. There is a working-class and peasant culture that is prevented from emerging or developing. Hence, a contradiction between the universal and the class divide. The latter being deeper and more definitive. However, even as the universal veils the struggle, this is a superficial unification which brings out more clearly the reality of the contradiction (bourgeois culture is exposed, as soon as the workers go back to work).

Admittedly this passage is just par for the course. Sartre's more fundamental contributions reside in his theorizations of scarcity, totality and, according to Jameson, the via media he navigates between idealism and materialism. But the passage calls my attention to two restaurants, one just around the corner on Forrest Ave going east and the other on Forrest Ave going west. Both were within walking distance. One was a small coffee shop admirably stripped bare of all the feel-good hypersentimental-but-youthfully-edgy illusion-of-fair-trade fluff. The other was the first fried chicken joint not KFC in the neighborhood. Both closed within two months of opening and I imagine both disasters were built on small business loans. Vacations are permitted before returning to work but they must be paid for. And I'm not so sure bourgeois culture is adequately exposed when the workers punch the clock. They might be bitter, they might have difficulty coping with the impossibility of being-your-own-boss and extending the vacation indefinitely, but it seems gratuitous or naive to insist any fundamental contradiction becomes patently clear in the return to work. A worker might assign accountability for a failed business scheme to the local economy, the neighborhood, poor business practices, or simply their own inability to "dig deep" for the pluck and determination essential to success — anything but the fundamental structure of the market.

Working people often hate themselves. Measured against the success of working families in mass culture, they know in advance they were never worthy. Even Rosanne's Dan managed to get a bike repair shop off the ground.

There's an /r/ in there somewhere and no one /r/ is ever quite like any other. South of the mesa there's a rolling leaf-blower /r/ hitherto undocumented and markedly different from Felipe Calderón's tumbling /r/. The absence of an /r/ of any stripe is baby talk. The adults are speaking.

O Fatthe' I gitten cowd
I kin sca'ce tawk

And ain't it a fucking riot when working people struggle to will away the busted texture of their devalued downhome speech in the company of highly ain'tchumacated professionals. The gesture is a reliable measuring rod that tells us there will be no riot. The practice proceeds as follows: 1. the voice is lowered; 2. speech is ground down to a snail's pace; 3. inflected tell-tale vowels are carefully reined in; 4. painstaking consonantal annunciation negates the calm dignity of a raised head and unswerving eyes, giving the perpetually shifting home-team advantage to whichever physician, loan officer, educator, officer of the law, gubernatorial candidate, bank teller, telemarketer, retail associate, or high sheriff of shit blood and filth the peasant encounters. At such moments the /r/ is dropped, acquired or hammered out with a flattening iron as needed.

Eliza Doolittle's a good girl. Her Cockney's no less London than Surrey. And she's no Liza Jane.

Today I feel the usefulness of subsemantic utterance while my daughter lives its potential — a brief moment before forms of cultural and economic belonging are inscribed on her vocal chords. The /r/ I offer her through repetitive exposure is in part a determinate one. In cahoots with other factors on a complex field of play this /r/ assumes a decidedly partisan position. One thing to be aware of this. Another to pass the exhaust fumes billowing from your linguistic torch downwind to your child.

Any away-game disadvantage can be recast as an against-the-odds salt-of-the-earth badge of honor. Mass culture, bourgeois in character, in fact encourages this. Such pride guarantees the beautiful losers a very specific relation to power. Remember the backside of the Alamo. Or Daniel Defoe on the Northumbrian /r/ in his 1764 Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain:

... the natives of this country ... are distinguished by a shibboleth upon their tongues, namely, a difficulty in pronouncing the letter r, which they cannot deliver from their tongues without a hollow jarring in the throat, by which they are plainly known ... and the natives value themselves upon that imperfection, because, forsooth, it shews the antiquity of their blood.

Difficulty. But the trouble rolls far beyond the beaten-to-death debates around Received Pronunciation and Standard English and in the Anglophone wo'ld rhoticity cuts across vertical social relations. Again and again, Po' Boys don't go to Ha'va'd.

Whurled or trilled (never in Ourmerican Hinglish), rolled or run through, /r/ can never be framed as a single shooter (i.e. the monophthongization — retraction of dipthongs — occurring before /r/ in labial environs, as in Northern England and isolated perts of the US). And like a shape-shifting comic book character /r/ transforms itself across time as the flesh of our throats moves through the world, from one location to another, one party to another, from home to job to street. A slippery character that discloses its masked identity and betrays the throat that spits it out when we least expect it, the /r/ economically embedded in us lays itself bare to the world in moments of reckless abandon, when we are most ourselves.

Sartre: "Stress the existence of the interiorized Other in everyone."

Small businesses, they say, are the backbone of Harmerica: the industrially-processed chemically-saturated chicken soup that feeds the sole. Shitheel. Be hardpressed to find a working slob that don't want to be their own boss. Elizabeth I'm coming home. When the workers return to work. Liza is a diminutive of Elizabeth. Not Donald Trump as such but a Donald Trump writ small. Archie Bunker eventually had his own place. Fred Sanford was forever the king of his own castle. Earl Hickey doesn't work at all. My Name Is Earl. There's clearly an /r/ in this title. Fortunately my daughter's name is not Elizabeth. There's no /r/ in Elizabeth. Nor is there an /r/ in my daughter's name. But the /r/ in praxis is unmistakably present. The pitchfork component of praxis is indispensable.