Brian Ang: In a recent interview on Maisonneuve posted May 9, 2012, you express, "I think that politics may be a place of ought, of should. Poetry isn't [....] I wouldn't have [people] write a different kind of poetry, I would simply have them recognize [their poetry] as a minor task. I think that if everyone engaged in militant political action, we would have to stop worrying about whether our poetry is good for something, or has the right politics or something. Write poems about flowers and how they’re pretty in your spare time, and as long as you’re doing what needs to be done in the rest of your time, why should you feel bad about it? That’s great!"
I've observed you repeat this aesthetic openness in interviews for years, and I fully agree with the urgency for militant political action, enabled in recent years. The interview closes with, "If I was to make the strongest case I could for poetry it wouldn't be as a political intervention but as a mode of thought which I find to be well-tuned to thinking about our changing global situation—or something like that." This connects to your arguments for a renewed Marxist reading practice, most recently in "Georgic for theWorld-System," which includes the declarations, "Always totalize!", "there is no serious question for art or politics other than what stance to take in relation to this [long twentieth century's transition]," "We have no aesthetic mode whose very thought is the whole, a mode that can accommodate totality," and "Aesthetics and political economy will henceforth [from Mallarmé] have to be thought together [due to the twentieth century's annihilation of their separation]."
Given these potentials and urgencies and that the urgency to militant political action has been registered, why the contradictory reluctance to equally strongly theorize politicized writing practices adequate to the present?
Joshua Clover: Well, if I were committed to rescuing myself from contradiction, I would perhaps develop the difference between what individual poets ought to do (about which I really have no prescription) and what I myself find interesting, or what tasks lay before us all. But I am probably just contradictory here. Certainly my own poetry, in the book I am finishing, is obsessed with the romance of value, "the real movement of history," economic crisis and the place of poetry within it, the question of militancy and the experience of revolution and counterrevolution. But these are my fascinations; people write about what they can't escape.
If there is a real contradiction here, it is not between differing verdicts on what kind of poetry to write, or how to think about poetry. It is between poetry and political efficacy. The reason I would stand up for the flower poem is not because I am opposed to what you call "politicized writing practices," or don't find them interesting. I do. But I don't mistake them for political struggle. My own observations of the last couple-few decades are that the effort to "strongly theorize politicized writing practices" has, intentionally or not, functioned to legitimate the capacity of poetry for intervention. I am not convinced. Indeed, that's probably the worst thing to happen to poetry in the current era. It comes largely from a misreading of materiality routed through certain poststructuralisms (and now through the poststructural quasi-Marxism of people like Toni Negri) such that discourse is imagined to be a material thing, existing at the same substrate as political economy. It's not surprising the poets were enthusiastic about this "discovery." In train, the capacity of poetry to intervene in political struggle has been not a little overstated.
If that has been a trajectory of the last, say, 40 years, one would both hope and guess that in the current conjuncture — as the crisis ramifies and openings for direct struggle present themselves — that inflation of poetry's political force would start to fade. I think that in some places it has. But not so much. Instead we get Bifo Berardi, who is in every way a lovely guy, saying "the revolution will be neither peaceful nor violent—it will be linguistic, or will not be at all." Or at least that's from the short description in his new book, which I assume he wrote or authorized. Really, it's embarrassing.
Now I realize that the happy resolution that lets everyone walk away from this feeling okay is to say, well, we should all do both, should have a strongly politicized practice and also engage in more direct forms of struggle. This is always the magic resolution. It’s okay to vote for Obama despite knowing what we know because we plan to do all kinds of other political work, pressure from below, on the streets organizing. But in my life I haven't much seen this. The people who think voting matters think it matters enough; they don't do that much else, as best I can tell. Except for maybe take positions, say stuff. In practice, in my experience, it's most often one or the other. And if that's the case, I'd rather write flower poems or whatever all else, and get out there and fight, in Exacrheia and in the schools of Santiago, in Mahalla and in downtown Oakland. Better that than making mistakes about how much political force our poems have.
Someone said that the act of pure poetry calls the unpaid debts of history back into question. I'm not sure that's poems, right now. It might have been at a different moment, but that's not my sense of the present. But here you are: convince me otherwise!
BA: There is a difference between no prescription for writing and the position that people should write about anything they want. In the contradiction between poetry and political efficacy, no prescription for writing neither contributes to nor detracts from poetry's potentials for empowerment to political efficacy, while the position that people should write about anything they want detracts from poetry’s potentials for empowerment to political efficacy by encouraging depoliticizing pluralism. A politicized poetry requires immanent politicized direction: prescribing “[w]rit[ing] poems about flowers […] as long as you’re [engaging in militant political action]” is a “magic resolution” of this contradiction. In Chris Nealon’s lines, in the fraction you present as exemplary of “his masterwork ‘The Dial’” in your introduction to your recent portfolio, “”: “let me mention what my friends were up against // First: other poets // the ones who’ve always said it was arrogant to have a politics […] Then: the police […] Finally capital.” From the position of poetry, poetry, the police, and capital are widening concentric circles of political confrontation.
In contrast to your experience that people either privilege politicized writing practices or more direct forms of struggle, leading you to decline theorizing the former, my recent experience has precisely been their mutual empowerment. Sublating the last 40 years of politicized writing practices empowered me to engage in more direct forms of struggle, enabled in recent years. Politicized writing practices adequate to the present begin with the insistence on extrapoetic political struggle. It’s mutually empowering to advance them dialectically.
My efforts in response to your “Georgic” arguments, agreeing with emphasizing political economy toward a reading of totality, is to advance the implications of that reading toward writing the presently absent aesthetics that can confront political economic totality, which I also agree is the only serious present question for poetry. My current poetic project, The Totality Cantos: An Investigation of Epistemological Totality, specifies in its title that it is not yet that absent aesthetics, yet has other politicized potentials including providing the scale and resources toward writing that aesthetics.
While declining to theorize politicized writing practices, you do make gestures to aesthetic value, as in declaring “The Dial” Chris’ “masterwork” for “captur[ing] [the] complicated and uneven shift [of the last year or two’s leaping of poets into direct political antagonisms and the global economic catastrophe] most eloquently.” I’m interested in an argument for its mastery, and given your portfolio’s emphasis on the contemporary and its turn, the poem’s dominant use of over-40-years-old Frank O’Hara technique ought to be addressed. Relatedly, I found it wanting that the portfolio’s poetries were ambiguously selected as products of “this exposure, this opening, this Insurrectionary Turn” without addressing why they are exemplary.
JC: Ah, but I haven't done anything like "prescribing “[w]rit[ing] poems about flowers […] as long as you’re [engaging in militant political action]."
I don't know how many ways I can say this. I'm not opposed to theorizing a politicized poetry. I'm not opposed to politicized poetry. I have watched, over the last 40 years, the political efficacy of poetry qua poetry be systematically exaggerated. To my measure, it has been at the expense of other political engagements.
Now, there are good reasons for this. I wouldn't change that history. But history itself has changed—the situation has changed. There are openings for non-discursive interventions that weren't there in the United States in 1979, 1985, 2000. I believe in the possibility of those interventions. I'd like to see the poets fighting, and organizing, and engaging themselves directly in political struggle. I'd like to see that for non-poets too. It's certainly my ambition for myself. It's well and good to say, ah, politicized writing practices and direct antagonism advance together. If they do for you, Brian, that's fantastic. Most of the "poetry of Occupy," as they say, was written by people who were not much involved in the organizational work, the provision of food, the security, the building of barricades, the cleaning of pots.
I love poetry. But I feel if we lose a few poems — of any stripe — and gain a few new political practices, I'm okay with that.
BA: You expressed the position to “Write poems about flowers […] as long as you’re [engaging in militant political action]” in the Maisonneuve interview I quoted at this conversation’s beginning. If you advocated political struggle with no comment regarding writing, I wouldn’t have issue and I agree. But as I differentiated in my previous message, in advocating political struggle in the contradiction between poetry and political efficacy, which I’ll take up in your realignment of my initial presented contradiction regarding your own theorizing and lack of in reading and writing practices, you expose yourself to critique on those terms.
Diminishing poetry to advocate political struggle, repeating a position in your 2012 piece co-written with Juliana Spahr to “give a lot of our time to other matters, and […] write less poetry,” is uncompelling for bracketing poetry’s empowering potentials as its argument for extrapoetic political struggle is admirable. I want to emphasize statements in that piece embedded in service to that conclusion, that “a great deal of the thinking and the motivation that got [poets engaged in political struggle] came from being a poet” and that “writing poems is one possibility in trying to figure out what is needed.”
These statements are more closely related to your and Juliana’s 95 Cent Skool’s statement in 2010, which “beg[an] with the assumption that poetry has a role to play in the larger political and intellectual sphere of contemporary culture, and that any poetry which subtracts itself from such engagements is no longer of interest. ‘Social poetics’ is not a settled category, and does not necessarily refer to poetry espousing a social vision. It simply assumes that the basis of poetry is not personal expression or the truth of any given individual, but shared social struggle.” I agreed with this position and launched my magazine ARMED CELL at the 95 Cent Skool’s sequel, the Durruti Free Skool, in 2011: the magazine stated its aim “to be […] a site for the study necessary for executing political actions.” In my sustained editorial argument I’ve continued to publish the poetries I’ve found to be most empowering for being self-conscious of their writing practices in tandem with participations in contemporary social struggles. The last 40 years of politicized writing practices are to be sublated and should not detain us.
It seems that a difference between us is that in the contradiction between politicized writing practices and direct antagonism, I regard them as mutually empowering while you feel that you must choose direct antagonism. In your paraphrase “politicized writing practices and direct antagonism advance together” of my “It’s mutually empowering to advance [politicized writing practices and direct antagonism] dialectically,” I want to specify that dialectic as empowering for subjects, and not an autonomously advancing historical dialectic. The dialectic firstly empowers me, and I seek to manifest that empowerment in my writing, editing of comrades, and direct antagonisms in order to make contributions to test them socially and empower others, as others’ contributions have empowered me. Subjects construct history.
Since you seem to be more interested in extrapoetic political struggle than writing practices, I’m interested in what defines kinds of struggle as adequate to the present for you, as you’ve stated voting and poetry not to be, and specifics on your sense of present openings for struggle.
JC: "[I]n advocating political struggle in the contradiction between poetry and political efficacy, which I’ll take up in your realignment of my initial presented contradiction regarding your own theorizing and lack of in reading and writing practices…" — I'm not sure I follow this. But I admire your inquisitorial zeal, your rage for a certain kind of internal consistency!
Actually, I want to turn things around. You've been generous in along questions and I should turn some back on you. I get how, if one assumes that some kinds of poetry are "empowering for subjects," one might then spend a good bit of time worrying over which is the right kind to do all that empowering. And I confess I want this to be true. But my own theorizing and historical analysis indicates to me a couple of things that I have tried to say as clearly as I am able. One, your assumption is not a break from but a continuation of the assumptions of the left-theoretical wing (if you'll allow me) of North American poetry in the post-Fordist era, the limits of which I have already discussed. Two, I think we find ourselves in a meaningfully changed political situation, where discursive interventions (or "empowerment") have less traction than they might have had before — because of the material character of the crisis, which is far more immediately one of political economy than was the period around 1968 in the west. So I have laid out why I am skeptical about the relationship between poetry and political efficacy just now. Why — this is my question, finally — why do you assume a relation? On what grounds? What is it about poetry and our present situation which leads you to believe it is "empowering" in ways adequate to our situation? How is your position different from the positions taken by the left-theoretical wing of North America since the seventies?
And maybe a sub-question, or terminological one. I don't think we are using the word "dialectical" in the same way. When I use it, I refer to the relation between two elements in a contradiction that constitutes them as a unity, such that one can't exist without the other — but always, as Marx says, "a moving contradiction" wherein the dynamic of the two pushes in a direction, has a tendency internal to its contradiction. I can't really see how that's at play in "It’s mutually empowering to advance [politicized writing practices and direct antagonism] dialectically" — since, for example, one could do away with politicized writing practices without abolishing political antagonism, and moreover the relationship there isn't one of will, wherein one chooses to "advance" these elements together. So you see I am just asking my question again: is the relationship dialectical, in a materialist sense? If not, how do you understand that relationship?
(best on a rainy Sunday,
BA: The contradiction in your theorizing and lack of in reading and writing practices is as much your work in itself as its accentuation in my relation to it: having taken up your concern with totality, I needed a more systematic writing practice than “people write about what they can’t escape.”
I have a different reading of the “limits [you’ve] discussed” of “the left-theoretical wing […] of North American poetry in the post-Fordist era” in “legitimat[ing] the capacity of poetry for intervention” as “com[ing] largely from a misreading of materiality routed through certain poststructuralisms […] such that discourse is imagined to be a material thing, existing at the same substrate as political economy.” I don’t observe in this poetry a dominant poststructuralist imagining of discourse equating political economy so much as an underemphasis on political economy and that the imagination for intervention concerned social ideological composition rather than extrapoetic direct antagonism.
In “The Political Economy of Poetry,” Ron Silliman, emphasizing cultural production over capital proper, wrote, “The potential contents of the text are only actualized according to their reception, which depends on the social composition of the receivers [….] Poetry […] reflects struggle […] as much [as] between audiences as […] between poets (or, to be precise, it is one between social formations).” Bruce Andrews is the poet of this era most concerned with totality but emphasized ideology over political economy: for instance, in “Total Equals What” and the recently made available “Rewriting Society:Poetics, the Self, Ideology,” in which he most directly registers his antipathy with poststructuralist anti-totalization. The concerns with social composition and totality continue to be essential, but to be adequate to the changed political situation’s crisis, more immediately one of political economy with openings for direct antagonism, poetry’s social composing needs to be in the provision of resources for subjects empowering direct antagonism and totality needs to be read through political economy. Poetry that can empower direct antagonism in this situation becomes more important rather than less: I regard poetry as useful study materials for engaging in direct antagonism and not merely direct antagonism’s products. My first attempt to theorize this and distinguish my position from positions since the seventies was in 2011’s "Poetry and Militancy," reflecting on the University of California protests that began in 2009 in their inertia and my first books written while a participant: “Poets must become militants themselves [….] [W]hat operations of poems might be useful for militancy? […] Provision of arsenals of theory and experience to form a saturated structure from which to issue attacks.” Advancing the presently absent aesthetics that can confront political economic totality would be included in this theoretical arsenal, the most urgent work in poetry to do.
I agree that my use of the dialectic above is not quite right: I only want to emphasize that concerning politics, poetry can empower subjects to direct antagonism and that direct antagonism is to be the principal aspect.
JC: Those are useful statements, and I think they bring us toward some clarifications. But I must note that my fundamental question remains open. You again assert, "poetry can empower subjects to direct antagonism and that direct antagonism is to be the principal aspect." But what is your argument for believing that assertion? And is it a universal argument, about the intrinsic nature of poetry? Or is it a historical argument; is there something about this present moment that lends poetry that capacity?
I find no fault in Language writing for being directly poststructuralist. I think that the heroic attempt to square the circle, to synthesize poststructuralist propositions and historical materialism, was in almost every sense the necessary intellectual path in that post-68 moment. But the limits of that synthesis are something I have tried to be thoughtful about. I actually think you affirm my position, though you reformulate it slightly. In your words, there was "an underemphasis on political economy" which allowed "the imagination for intervention concerned social ideological composition." Ron SIlliman "emphasiz[ed] cultural production over capital proper." Bruce Andrews "is the poet of this era most concerned with totality but emphasized ideology over political economy." I guess I would just say, yes, that is a way of saying what I meant to say: that their analysis of poetry's political status, of the political effects of certain formal practices, exaggerated those effects to give them a kind of primacy they don't in truth have. I think this exaggeration is routed through a political-economizing, as it were, of poetic form — I hardly need to cite the passages in which semiotic categories are aligned with commodities and etc. I know you know them well.
And for all that, I would not have Language writing be any different. I think it more or less rescued US poetry, with its inventions, its commitments, and its thorn-in-the-side-of-banality zeal. I'm just registering the specificity of a break with that moment (rather than a modulation). For me the break is in the world.
And that's the position to which I'll hew. I believe in thinking the totality. But that's a great distance from thinking the totality into being. The totality is the form of the unfolding of the contradictions of class society at any given historical moment. In your model, thought (for which poetry seems to be exemplary) necessarily precedes action: "Provision of arsenals of theory and experience to form a saturated structure from which to issue attacks.” Now in many ways I like this formulation. It's pretty deft in gesturing at the entanglements of thought and action, how we can't help but produce a false separation between the two but should rightly grasp the ways that each is always arising out of the other. I see that you are not intent on providing recipes for action, but something like an intellectual ambience from which actions are more likely to leap in effective ways. I like that. It's optimistic, but I like it.
And yet, it still seems abstract to me. It still has an odd priority. The kind of theorizing you prefer still seems to me to do a lot of predeciding. It says theories are already in place before the action. It still generates "poet" as an autonomous role; in this model, a poet's contribution could still be this provision of theory, this production of a saturated structure, from which others could then "issue attacks." Now I know you will want to say, well, in our model, it should be the poets who are also engaging in the direct struggles, having done their assigned homework saturating structures. But in reality this doesn't necessarily happen. This kind of division of intellectual and manual labor happens. You get a lot of poets saying, well, my poems are my contribution — poetry retains a certain elite status.
I still want to affirm that poetry, just like theory, is immanent to given struggles. Poetry isn't the saturated structure from which they arise — though history is, history containing some poetry, to invert old Ez — but arises from struggle. As a proposition, what I am saying is not particularly new. But the situation is new. The situation we are living through now is new. The new poetry won't present itself to us because we have theorized it correctly, but because the situation is new and we have entered into it alive.
And my optimism is that we can get to a place where there is new poetry, but no poets. People will write poetry. But the autonomous role of the poet, which as it exists now is a consequence of this historical division of manual and intellectual level — that role won't exist. Now I should say, at last, that you keep insisting this account of poetry, where it is immanent to struggle, is a "lack of" theorizing poetry as political practice. I'm not sure I agree. It's actually a pretty explicit theorizing. It simply isn't prescriptive. It's a theory of poetry and political antagonism and their relation, not a theory of what kind of poetry poets should write.
BA: I’m more interested in an historical argument than a universal argument for asserting that “poetry can empower subjects to direct antagonism” because I’m most interested in the political novelty of recent years for present practice. My argument arises from my own experience of being motivated to direct antagonism by poetry and its historical political concerns cultivated in capital’s margins, and my consonant observation with yours in “The Insurrectionary Turn” that in recent years “there has been a striking leap of poets into direct political antagonism,” to which I would add that poets have frequently been key actors. “Poetry and Militancy” is an historical argument situated in “the post-2008 market crash’s systemic re-exposure of capitalism’s brutality at the level of everyday life and resultant re-ignition of political imagination and praxis for the efficacy of activism, call[ing] for a greater insistence on poetry to contribute to militancy.” As you emphasized, theory is immanent to struggles, my theorizing first arising from the experience of the University of California protests. Due to these historical experiences and observations, it seems worth theorizing their intuitions to advance the novel contributions poetry may have for subjects in contemporary struggles. It’s possible that its contributions are limited to a certain abstraction: accurately delimiting its potential enables its full utility and the exceeding of it for other activities as useful.
I don’t observe an alternative theorizing tendency for writing adequate for wholly breaking with Language writing: more is lost in forcing a break than modulating at this time. Potentially useful tendencies should be mastered as they arise. I agree “in thinking the totality” and not “thinking the totality into being”: I’m not advocating the latter.
I agree that “in reality” the “division of intellectual and manual labor happens […] [that] [y]ou get a lot of poets saying, well, my poems are my contribution”: may those tendencies be ceaselessly criticized to the dustbin. “Poetry and Militancy” includes, “If elements of poetry posture to be concerned with politics at all, they need to contribute to thinking and acting toward [militancy] or they are useless at best and reactionary at worst,” as a contribution to their critique and a motivating self-critique.
I disagree with the dichotomy in “The new poetry won't present itself to us because we have theorized it correctly, but because the situation is new and we have entered into it alive.” Theorizing correctly is the aim to historical self-consciousness, to enter the present situation most accurately, including poetic practice adequate to the present.
My insistence was on your lack of theorizing writing practices, which you confirm as a lack of prescription. So your theorizing of poetry as political practice is toward a future post-poet society. Orientation toward the future is only useful insofar as it directs present practice: my advocacy for prescription is that it is agency for present practice, part of a writer’s activity toward historical self-consciousness.
JC: Thanks for extending the generous offer to close this conversation. I worry we have gone on a bit long trying to surmount a real impasse. It may be (warning: here comes the Easy Way Out) that we are simply using the term "theorize" differently. But maybe not, as I still can't see it.
From here, you still seem to be offering a prescription based on an assumption about the political efficacy of poetry which is in turn based on anecdote, on "[your] own experience of being motivated to direct antagonism by poetry and its historical political concerns." You then announce a "historical argument situated in “the post-2008 market crash’s systemic re-exposure of capitalism’s brutality at the level of everyday life and resultant re-ignition of political imagination and praxis for the efficacy of activism.” That all sounds right, descriptively: economic catastrophe, intensified exposure to immiseration among the poetried classes, new or restored politicization and practice. We have both stood somewhere in the midst of that, for sure. But then you conclude, "call[ing] for a greater insistence on poetry to contribute to militancy." That's a call. An affirmation.
But it doesn't tell me how poetry does this, or why we should believe poetry empowers anyone, or contributes to militancy, aside from your personal account. Perhaps more significantly, it doesn't speak to the particulars of the present situation, and whether it bears an underlying relationship to poetry's efficacy. Instead, basically, you offer a historical invariant: poetry does this. Things are especially intense now, you indicate, so poetry should do this especially intensely. As far as I can tell, that's not a theory.
The theory on which I hang my hat is a version of that good ol' hat-rack, historical materialism. This theory suggests that theory itself is immanent to struggle, and so is poetry — that politicized, political poetry will arise from antagonism, from its development. Theory doesn't prescribe, in that sense. Theory is the opposite of prescription. I think we share the idea that poetry can itself be a theory of the historical moment, and perhaps even of the struggle. But this will be true in so far as it arises immanently.
And I feel curiously optimistic in this unfolding. Which is to say, while I am open to all kinds of poems, including the dread flower poem, I believe that if we involve ourselves directly in the central antagonisms of our time, that it will change our poems. Probably not so many flower poems, or maybe really excellent flower poems. We will get more and better politics in our poems not because we should, or because that's a desirable goal, but because we have so involved ourselves. We are seeing this already, I think. That said, what a pleasure to take a break from that involvement, and from the miserable shit of labor, and the lovely scraping work of friendship and of love...what a pleasure to take a break from that to read poems with you and Lyn!