Keston Sutherland’s statement for ‘Revolution and/or Poetry’
Statement for ‘Revolution and/or Poetry’
Once upon a time, Ezra Pound: ‘The common or homo canis snarls violently at the thought of there being ideas which he doesn’t know. He dies a death of lingering horror at the thought that even after he has learned even the newest set of made ideas, there will still be more ideas, that the horrid things will grow, will go on growing in spite of him.’ Earlier but closer to us now, Rosa Luxemburg: ‘No coarser insult, no baser defamation, can be thrown against the workers than the remark “Theoretical controversies are only for intellectuals.”’ The most influential modernist poetry fashioned its aesthetic priorities on the dogmatic basis that the majority of people are stupid. Pound’s assurance to the loyal cognoscenti of BLAST, that ‘of course the homo canis will follow us’ because ‘it is the nature of the homo canis to follow’, is not just a festering scrap of leftover Nietzsche, but also a defamation of working class experience. Its judgment (posing as a rollicking mannerist exercise in fascist ribaldry) is that the power of art to move is the same power that keeps stupid (working class) people unfree. Where it moves, they must follow. Art proves the necessity of blind compulsion. Its power depends on the unequal distribution of intellect as the condition of aesthetic possibility; its immortality depends on the inexorability of that unequal distribution and the power of art to exploit it. Luxemburg’s account of the worker whose living labour is already theoretical is the true blast. What might be the complexion and activity of a poetry that started from the principle that all people are equally intelligent? How might poetry shape its technical priorities and depths of feeling in response to the proposition of Jacques Rancière, that ‘there is inequality in the manifestations of intelligence, according to the greater or lesser energy communicated to the intelligence by the will for discovering and combining new relations; but there is no hierarchy of intellectual capacity’? What would a poetry sound like, how would it move, whose principle is that radical egalitarian activism—activism aimed at abolishing social hierarchies—depends on the communication of energy to the intelligence?
A poetry that started with that active principle might agitate on two fronts at once. First, it could be a ruthless criticism of everything in existence that functions or contrives to block the communication of energy to the intelligence: the whole complex machinery (which it is not enough just to suborn in a fantasy of contempt or tidy away under grand concepts like ‘the spectacle’) of repression and paralysis and thwarting that keeps working class individuals trapped in inescapably unequal lives. Second, it could be a passionately optimistic gift of musical and cognitive energy that aims to make eloquent, to invigorate and to revitalise the fullest possible extent of living and dead experience, to occupy the commons of sensation and desire where real equalities and the speculative premonition of their permanence can flare into meaning and sound, however contingently for now.
A poetry that starts from the equality of intelligence might be able to think and sing new potentials for the equality of experience too. To do that, poetry must take working class experience seriously. Living labour is not just an abstract category belonging to political economy, but also and at the same time a speculative concept whose dialectical poetics is necessary for the critique of political economy: the distance between the abstract category of living labour and its speculative concept is unthinkable without a poetics of subjective transformation. We do not all feel the same and we do not all wish to feel the same. Class, race, gender and sexuality are not just categories supervening on individuals, but worlds of subjective experience that extend right into their capillaries and marrow. An actively egalitarian poetry would disappear up its own index the instant it attempted to claim that revolutionary subjective universality can be made stable and permanent right now, down here under the despotism of capital, as though the subject were an object whose conundrum is merely how to be matched to its proper relations or to its orientation in ontology, like the dollar in Shenzhen. Poetry is one of the ways in which we know and learn this. It always is, because it is inescapably a representative art, moving and therefore making claims on and for real other people and on their share in the universal, however it may also be activated by an aesthetic, moral, ethical, or political priority to be anti-representative and to speak for nothing but itself or for no-one. Representation is unavoidably transformative: we get other people wrong. But this is the risk and pressure which poetry cannot avoid without resigning itself to playacting the subaltern to political economy, as if deference to its schematic alternative were the only way for poetry to establish the realist credentials of its author. Poetry will not take experience seriously enough unless it risks destroying those credentials. My feeling is that the problem of revolutionary subjective universality (which in academic terms is the problem how to make a partisan recalibration of Kant’s ‘subjective universals’ so that the very idea and its possibility depend on felt solidarity with others in scenes of active protest against capital and its repressions) will be more energetically illuminated the more extreme are the risks taken by poetry in exposing and interrogating the individual subjective life. Poetry makes life move by risking life. ‘Lyrical confession’ versus ‘formal complexity’ is a false contest whose function in literary critical culture is to blackmail poets and readers out of the formal complexities of subjectivity: the formal complexities of life itself.
A poetry that tried energetically to occupy the commons of sensation and desire might aim at least to interrogate, and sometimes, where it can do so to true communist purpose, to defy, every form and instance of deadening proscription and disallowance that would confine it to the use of compulsory or approved techniques, compulsory or approved trivialisations of technique, compulsory or approved evacuations of technique, and their common use value. The legal advice that you can’t do x, y, or z any more (rhyme, use your own voice, write about experience, etc.) because art history has long since advanced beyond them (out the alphabet and by means of upward mobility into space) is thoroughly harmonious with the spirit of capital and with the mentality of its career-savvy managers, who are likewise corporately on the lifelong lookout for efficiencies in best poetic practice. Poetry can be theoretical, musical, conceptual, nonsensical, clamorous, abstract, tender, rageful, confessional, formally complex, suspicious of pronouns and determined to risk their use, erotic, satirical, timid, rational and delirious all at once, not because it is an ideal plateau of already free and unenclosed expression, or a virtual world beyond the impediments, suffering and division of labour in which we get our reward by entering into the joy of possessive freedom, but because it is a perpetual exertion of imagination and of desire: the subject at full stretch.
The living labour of poetry makes audible as music and makes count as longing the infinite distance between people that is locked inside even the smallest material distances between people.
loooooooool the idea that the working class could even begin to decipher this or have any response to this garble
Hello “fostate”, whoever you are behind that mask. Can you explain why you think that working class people could not be expected to understand this short statement? Your reaction is the very thing I was trying to talk about: the traditional assumption that people without access to elite institutions of education and elite cultures must be incapable of understanding complex ideas, difficult art etc. Have you never met working class people who are intelligent, curious and enthusiastic about philosophy? Are you smarter than all the working class people you have met? Would it better suit your vision of revolution if working class people could all be relied on to have no interest in this sort of thing and to be capable of no sort of practical eloquence besides rioting and fighting the cops? That is how the bourgeois ultraleft has always imagined the working class, just dumbstruck bodies to be immiserated into insurrection. But the truth is different. People who work hard want to be happy, they want to be addressed, they want to share in the energies of living culture, they are not stupid. Your laughter is the same old haughty and philistine slur. “Philosophy for the working class? What a joke!” But perhaps there are plenty of people who just put in a shift of eight hours and who are “tired” and “don’t have time” (as the bourgeois ultraleft likes schematically to represent them) but who nonetheless understand this brief statement a great deal better than you do? Or is that unimaginable?