Wednesday, November 30, 2011


As over 1200 police continue to clear out the occupy encampment in LA, having arrested at this stage over 200 activists, more than two million public sector workers in the UK have engaged in a one day general strike. Rifling through any number of video clips to grasp in some way the scale of the strike, I cam across the following clip of a rally earlier today at George Square in Glasgow, where president of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) Janice Godrich delivered an awe-inspiring speech culminating in a merciless summary of the logic of austerity: "From each according to their vulnerability; to each according to their greed."

Watching Godrich, I'm reminded of a recent article on the rise of women to leadership roles in US labor unions. Troublingly titled "Redefining the Union Boss" (the willful confusion of union leadership with employers is clearly a cheap provocation), the article profiles three women: Sandy Pope who is now competing for against James Hoffa, Jr. for presidency of the Teamsters; Rose Ann Demoro, the executive director of the 170,000 strong National Nurses United; and Mary Kay Henry, the first woman to lead the Service Employees International Union. Likewise, Janice Godrich is the first woman president of the PCS.

Janice Godwin (center) in support of Building Workers, London, July 2010

Somewhat obviously, this shift in leadership coincides with the increasing feminization of labor and here, however scatteredly, I'm reminded now of the essential role women played, and shockingly without the privilege or promise of employment, during the 1972 Brookside Strike documented in Barbara Kople's soul-shattering film Harlan County, USA.

The increase in women union leadership in the Anglophone world with (but likely not proportionate to) the continued (global) feminization of labor also coincides with an increasing radicalization of union activity articulated, one can hope, with a broader shift in consciousness. In any case, if a decisive shift in consciousness is too much to ask for (Prynne: "hope is a stern purpose"), it is enough and really a privilege from this distance to be so moved by the force of ones devotion.     

Thursday, November 24, 2011


At 18,000 lines Melville's Clarel is, as the Wikipedia entry for the poem indicates, the longest lineated work in American literature and longer also than the Aeneid, Iliad and Paradise Lost. Stephen Ratcliffe's triptychs / trilogies no doubt exceed the scale of Clarel, but I sense Ratcliffe's trilogies aren't built toward this sense of the line, or what a line is in terms of quantifiability. The gesture of counting and measuring is crucial, or maybe just the most honest thing we can do: I mean, critical commentary that relies on quantifying data hides out in the open, reducing literary analysis to a system of weights and measures oriented toward rewarding pure unceasing production over more deliberate undertakings on a smaller scale. Size matters and, though we tend to prefer writers that are both hard and good workers, a hard worker is preferable to a good worker any day. 

Toward the end of Clarel there's a debate between Rolfe and Ungar, two of the pilgrims traveling with Clarel through the Holy Land. While Rolfe, who has been with Clarel most of the way, is a Protestant skeptic, Ungar is situated as a committed Catholic, Civil War vet and descendent of Anglo colonists and Native Americans. Here's the closing part of the debate, beginning with Rolfe:

"But leave this: the New World's the theme.
Here, to oppose your dark extreme,
(Since an old friend is good at need)
To an old thought I'll fly. Pray, heed:
Those waste-weirs which the New World yields
To inland freshets — the free vents
Supplied to turbid elements;
The vast reserves — the untried fields;
These long shall keep off and delay
The class-war, rich-and-poor-man fray
Of history. From that alone
Can serious trouble spring. Even that
Itself, this good result may own —
The first firm founding of the state."
          Here ending, with a watchful air,
Inquisitive, Rolfe waited him.
And Ungar:
                      "True heart do ye bear
In this discussion? or but trim
To draw my monomania out,
For monomania, past doubt,
Some of ye deem it. Yet I'll on.
Yours seems a reasonable tone;
But in the New World things make haste;
Not only men, the state lives fast --
Fast breeds the pregnant eggs and shells,
The slumberous combustibles
Sure to explode. 'Twill come, 'twill come!
One demagogue can trouble much:
How of a hundred thousand such?
And universal suffrage lent
To back them with brute element
Overwhelming? What shall bind these seas
Of rival sharp communities
Unchristianized? Yea, but 'twill come!"
          "What come?"
                                    "Your Thirty Years (of) War."
           "Should fortune's favorable star
Avert it?"
                        "Fortune? nay, 'tis doom."
"Then what comes after? spasms but tend
Ever, at last, to quiet."
Whatever happen in the end,
Be sure 'twill yield to no one and all
New confirmation of the fall
Of Adam. Sequel may ensue,
Indeed, whose germs one now may view:
Myriads playing pygmy parts —
Debased into equality:
In glut of all material arts
A civic barbarism may be:
Man disennobled — brutalized
By popular science — Atheized
Into a smatterer -----"
                                               "Oh, oh!"
              "Yet knowing all self need to know
In self's base little fallacy;
Dead level of rank commonplace:
An Anglo-Saxon China, see,
May on your vast plains shame the race
In the Dark Ages of Democracy."

                                In stilled estate,
On him, half-brother and co-mate —
In silence, and with vision dim
Rolfe, Vine, and Clarel gazed on him;
They gazed, nor one of them found heart
To upbraid the crotchet of his smart,
Bethinking them whence sole it came
Though birthright he renounced in hope,
Their sanguine country's wonted claim.
Nor dull they were in honest tone
To some misgivings of their own:
They felt how far beyond the scope
Of elder Europe's saddest thought
Might be the New World's sudden brought
In youth to share old age's pains —
To feel the arrest of hope's advance,
And squandered last inheritance;
And cry — "To Terminus build fanes!
Columbus ended earth's romance:
No New World to mankind remains!"

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


An article from today's NYT addressing the use of pepper spray in efforts to repress protest closes with a comment from Syracuse University professor Robert Thompson: "we are in the age of pepper spray, not the age of real bullets." The claim is a curious one and, however well tempered it may appear, the message it discloses is rigidly clear. Participants in this moment of defiance should be grateful police are equipped with industrial-strength instruments of repression like pepper spray, tear gas, beanbag rounds and flash grenades rather than "real bullets." If we abide by this logic then Scott Olsen and other injured activists can be gingerly bracketed out of the conversation as collateral damage. 

In any case, I can't help but wonder if the tear gas used against protesters in Oakland was, like the endless stream of CS canisters deployed by soldiers to disperse the tens of thousands gathering again in Tahir Square, also manufactured in western Pennsylvania by Combined Tactical Systems, a company whose self-flattering domain name ( further suggests our civilization has indeed advanced beyond the savage age of real bullets. Repression, torture and suffering should always be preferable to death and, as millions in Greece and elsewhere continue to bravely demonstrate, the illimitable reduction of living to bare survival builds character. Capital is a lightening rod that cannot be spared to spoil.        

Reasonably early on in the first book of The Prelude there's a phrase that never fails to suspend me in awe: "I was a fell destroyer." Fell as field or fen; earlier hill, associated with the northwest of England (cf. Cursor Mundi, Cotton Library version, circa 1300, easy pickings from the OED: "Moyses went vp-on þat fell, and fourti dais can þer-on duell"). At this juncture in the poem the narrator is not yet nine years old, the age at which Wordsworth himself would have been enrolled in Hawkshead Grammar School, Cumbria where he "was transplanted" after his mother's death. The poem goes:

                                In thought and wish
That time, my shoulder all with springes hung,
I was a fell destroyer. On the heights
Scudding away from snare to snare, I plied
My anxious visitation, hurrying on,
Still hurrying, hurrying onward; moon and stars
Were shining o'er my head; I was alone,
And seemed to be a trouble to the peace
That was among them. 

That one could imagine their own childhood self as a site of disruption, a "trouble to the peace" among the moon and stars. In this instance I'm not sure how to take the assertion "I was a fell destroyer." Alone in a field setting small game traps one by one — and later stealing birds caught in traps set by others — a child no older than nine is cast as a nuisance to the cosmos. The passage can be taken lightly, read as a lighthearted boast, a way of saying, "Yes, I too was a mischievous kid." But the passage is more than this, the assembly of its lines disclosing an astounding force reasonably commensurate with the wild expenditures of childhood energy they address. "I was a fell destroyer." This means much more than mischievous. This is ominous. A threat. Beyond field and hill, the word "fell" is also associated with animals, their skin and hide, their feathers and hair (cf. the late medieval poem Richard the Redeless, where the clothes of Richard II become a prop for critiquing surfaces: "his ffelle to anewe"). In Wordsworth's usage of "fell," at least here, the child appears to be a destroyer of surfaces, of fields and hides, such that the cosmos under which these surfaces reside is itself shaken by the force of this child's living. And I now recall David Harvey saying in one of his lectures on Capital that young children are perhaps the sharpest dialectical thinkers; the contradictions that we, in our wisdom, have long since learned to accept, appear confusing to children and worthy of inquiry against the brow-beating belligerence of common sense. To break these surfaces. Tear gas, pepper spray and beanbag rounds don't break the surface; they generously permit us to continue enduring a largely unbearable surface. But to be so permitted without formal permission is to acknowledge no permission at all; it is instead to engage in the necessity of an essential taking, to break these surfaces, to imagine oneself as a destroyer of this.     

Monday, November 07, 2011


Edited by the eternal and radically disembodied spirit of an Abiezer Coppe called into rematerialized being by the now unbearable severity of suffering and crisis, A Third Fiery Flying Roule contains a love letter from Rosa Luxemburg, a letter from Chicago on the People's Mic by Adam Weg, photographs by Andrew Kenower and an apropos poem from Susan Howe's Souls of the Labadie Tract.          

Earlier today on Democracy Now, George Pagoulatos, Athens University professor of economics and business: "Time is of the utmost importance because the eurozone is operating not on political time anymore but ... on a time that corresponds to the speed with which the markets operate ..." The eurozone is every zone and it seems essential to ask whether the tidal shifts of the political landscape were ever governed by a temporality other than calendar days announced by market bells.   

Weg's short letter on the people's microphone alerts us to a number of issues -- questions of leadership, participation, authority, surrender and trust -- but I find myself most excited by Weg's approach to the question of citationality. Committed to a sense of readership over authorship, Weg insists the people's mic "announces the commons as an erotic potentiality necessarily external to the strict economy of author and reader, producer and consumer, but decidedly ... on the side of the reader." Weg continues, "This commons will never be written, and you can only take pleasure in the pleasure of its readers."

Weg's assertion that the commons will at all times resist any form of hypostatizing inscription reminds me of a recent comment by Danny Hayward regarding our "infinite need for heaven." But Weg's insistence on the readerly quality of the people's mic suggests a sense of citationality that refuses to imagine itself as a form of appropriation — that is, repeating the word's of another, quoting the word's of another, is imagined as participation rather than appropriation. This distinction is crucial, and, within the site specific context of an assembly, this form of citationality is, in the imminence of its moment, a species of readerly participation that rigidly refuses appropriation and resists being misread as appropriation. Participants are not taking from one another; they are devotedly reading one another.

Reimagining temporality is central. If through crisis political time is subordinated to the whims and unpredictable volatility of financial markets, then perhaps the people's mic offers us an opportunity to rethink our relation to one another from moment to moment, through the time required to re-sound one another rather than the unbearable moments meted out by an economically-oriented clock governed by the violent fluctuation of financial instruments. In this instance time is decidedly not money. Framing the people's mic as a technological instrument, Weg writes, "At the assembly I enforce the new technology — ruthlessly even. Is it the Law? A kind of orthodoxy? I don't think I know for sure. But I shout verbatim across the delinquent speaker, listening with their own words for the fine caesura and motivating my own aggression to the cited oblivion of the coming text. How else will we survive the chronicity of such a fine-grained political process?"

The editorial articulation of lines from Susan Howe's Labadie Tract with Weg's letter is stunning. Howe: "You can't | hear us without having to be | us knowing everything we || know — you know you can't ..." The heteronymous Bay Area editor encourages readers to print the above images out, back-to-back on a single 8.5" x 11" sheet, then fold down the middle width-wise and distribute as desired — or circulate otherwise.