Tuesday, October 14, 2008


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.


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?


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.