Friday, September 27, 2013

Further Notes on Militant Poetics

 1.    One of the many keys to the meaning of Rimbaud’s “logical derangement of all the senses” is to be found in the title to Joseph Jarman’s 1966 poem “Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City”, aspects further indicated in an early poem of Amiri Baraka’s: “in back of the / terminal / where the circus will not go. At the back of the crowds, stooped and vulgar / breathing hate syllables”. This is a city lacking memory, understanding, visibility, history, money or art. “Aspects” of the city, not areas, meaning that these are not only geographical but psychological zones, zones defined by finance and debt, zones that extend backwards and forwards into history, zones that hang together to create a new / inverted city superimposed onto the one that tourists, bankers and psychogeographers experience: as Frantz Fanon put it, “a zone of non-being, an extraordinarily sterile and arid region, an utterly naked declivity where an authentic upheaval can be born.” Or as an early fiction by Amiri Baraka has it: “the place music goes when we don’t hear it no more . . . the silence at the top of our screams.” The secret of that silence is the secret mutterings of the commodity fetish in its human form, the “screaming commodity” of slavery. Fanon, again: “my long anetennae pick up the catch-phrases strewn over the surface of things”. The strewn catch-phrases are the wreckage of past and future upheavals and oppressions held together in a violent dialectic which, if you know how to hear, are covering the smooth surfaces of the capitalist tradition with the hollering of dead generations.

2.    That the “tradition of dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living” cuts both ways. There is class struggle among the dead as well. It is not merely that capital is dead labour, but that the networks of monuments that define and lock the official city – its cognitive aspects – are systems and accumulations of dead exploitation. Those monuments have their secrets: Cedric Robinson talks about just one of the many networks of ghosts they were built from: “the [slave-ships] also contained African cultures, critical mixes and admixtures of language and thought, of cosmology and metaphysics, of habits, beliefs and morality. These were the actual terms of their humanity . . . this was the embryo of the demon”. The demon reanimates the subjugated dead, makes them speak. Baraka’s “Leadbelly Gives an Autograph” rescues this dead speech from gothic metaphor: “The possibilities of statement. I am saying, now / what my father could not remember / to say. What my grandfather / was killed / for believing”. Speech as descent into unofficial history and non-cognitive cosmology. A statement that at one point would have been punishable by death is now the only thing worth saying. The tradition it speaks is one of brutality and murder, history a cocophony of wood and rope. The official world puts a ban on apocalypse – Baraka’s poem insists on it.

3.    “The forming of the five senses is a labour of the entire history of the world down to the present”. Marx describes the smooth transmutation of human love into stone, metal, money, information and power (the five senses of capital). The possibilities of statement that Baraka would seek to embody in his poem attempt a block on that trajectory, seeking to show that those senses were built from stolen materials, and that they have in any case been violently limited by the forces of capitalist need. In a recent essay Baraka has suggested that the limitation to five senses was produced by capitalist alienation, and that there may be infinite senses, reaching backward and forward into time “in modes, forms and directions that we do not even know exist”. It is at this point that Marx and Rimbaud can be read together: the derangement of the senses, the derangement of “all” the senses, is the derangement of the “labour of the entire history of the world down to the present”. Far from a merely poetic militancy, this is a negation of poetics forcing an active cognition, where Jarman’s non-cognitive aspects of the city come to determine the content and form of what can be known historically, culturally, politically and poetically. In the preface to The Black Jacobins, C.L.R. James said that “the violent conflicts of our age enable our practiced vision to see into the very bones of previous revolutions more easily than heretofore.” The bones of those revolutions can also be dug up to cast new light on our own conflicts. James goes on: “yet for that very reason it is impossible to recollect historical emotions in that tranquility which a great English writer, too narrowly, associated with poetry alone.” James recruits poetry for the revolutionary struggle. It forms a collective with other disciplines. The revolution doesn’t become poetic, poetry becomes revolutionary.

4.    The basic truth of Aimé Césaire’s famous proposition – “poetic knowledge is born in the great silence of scientific knowledge” – has changed a little since the early 1940s. Scientific and poetic knowledge are no longer dialectically opposed, both have been sucked into the non-cognitive counter-vortex of corporate knowledge, in which there are no senses to derange, in which all is, as Marx put it, “devoid of eyes, of teeth, of ears, of everything”. This is not to imply that poetic knowledge, thought or writing has a special value due to its absolute irrelevance to corporate nihilism. It is not “the opposite of money”. And it is certainly not, as the fatuous Franco Beradi would claim, revolutionary on account of being a somehow authentic, unmediated communication, as if anything could be. There is, in any case, no more “authentic” communication than the corporate state’s power to refuse you food, shelter and life. Workfare and zero-hours contracts are the poetics of capital. Poetic knowledge, alongside scientific, philosophical, historic, political, militant knowledge are collectively the great silence, the great defect and instability at the centre of corporate knowledge. By virtue of that collectivity, and only though it, they still have their chance.

5.    Walter Benjamin, at the beginning of the crisis of the 1930s, wrote of the need for a study of “esoteric poetry”, and of its “secret cargo”. His wager was that the forces of the crisis would enable such a study to reveal the rational kernal of poetic mysticism. “We penetrate the mystery only to the degree we recognize it in the everyday world”, he claimed, “and perceive the everyday as impenetrable, the impenetrable as everyday”. The “impenetrable” exists in two aspects: the invisible lives of migrant workers, benefit claimants etc, and the invisible workings of capital itself, only partially expressed in the lives of the very rich. Part of the intellectual struggle is to grasp these two “mysteries” in the mind at the same time, and to force into view their destructive unity, opening out into infernal history, into hidden constellations, Robinson’s demon. Poetry cannot do this alone, but it has its own way of contributing to the task. René Ménil, publishing alongside Aimé Césaire in Tropiques – an anti-fascist journal disguised as a magazine of poetry and Martinique folklore – wrote that “at every moment the poet is unknowingly playing with the solution to all human problems. It is no longer appropriate for poets to play childishly with their magical wealth; instead, they should criticize the poetic material with the aim of extracting the pure formulas for action”. To extract the magical wealth means that poetry’s intensities can come to match, and occupy the intensity of money. Wealth as Hades, as the accumulated dead labour and sensory reality of history, as the law that fixes reality as conflict, as the “silence at the top of our screams” that becomes audible with the rational clarity of what Hölderlin called “the eccentric orbit of the dead”: an alignment of the planets, the negation of the irrational din of capital itself. The task, as Bertolt Brecht outlined it in the 1930s, is hideous, massive and brutally simple: “we must neglect nothing in our struggle against that lot. What they are planning is nothing small, make no mistake about it. They’re planning for thirty thousand years ahead. Colossal things, colossal crimes. They stop at nothing. They’re out to destroy everything. Every living cell shrinks under their blows. That is why we too must think of everything”.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Poem (after Sappho)

the wealthier homes
have occupied my voice
can say nothing now, yes
my language has cracked
is a slow, creaking fire
deadens my eyes, in
high, contorted concern
fuses to protein and rent


because your mouth is bitter
with executioners salt, perhaps
when you die, perhaps
you will flutter through Hades
invisible, among the scorched dead

may you vanish there, famished
through the known and unknown worlds