for the final panel of Poetry and/or Revolution, we were asked to give manifestos, responses, or proposals. as my contribution, i wanted to make this material available for distribution. my closing statement was in part related to the trauma caused by activism and/or other personal history. you may have noticed yourself tremoring after a fight-or-flight event (like this polar bear: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-H_PLi8-N4 ). tremoring is the body’s natural response to traumatic incidents; it releases the stress hormones created during times when the body is in fight-or-flight mode. for reasons unknown, this tremoring often does not happen in adult humans, and in these cases, trauma can have long-term effects. someone who is traumatized has trouble being in the world, being out of their home, making decisions in times of pressure, or in some cases, making decisions period. in order for us to remain able to work together and to think/act for ourselves/each other, we need a method of clearing this stuff. this PDF contains a section from a book on trauma, which shows you how to put stressors on your leg muscles to tire them out, which eventually induces tremoring. these releasing exercises have helped a number people i know who are coping with the aftereffects of trauma, whether from a history of abuse, activism, or living in war zones. they may be helpful for activists who have been in situations where ‘fight or flight’ takes over – running from police, witnessing/being a victim of police violence, watching friends/comrades being arrested, or being arrested themselves. one of the best things about these exercises is that you don’t have to talk about your experiences during clearing – it is a somatic process which releases the stress hormones that accumulate in your body during fight-or-flight episodes. the exercises are very simple, and the tremoring feels really good. they take about 40 minutes to complete.
Dear Jacob and Tom,
You blog post surprised me. Firstly, I believe it accuses me of something I didn’t actually say or express in my paper. The paper describes what happened at the Millbank protest in terms of how the crowd reacts. I think it is notable – which is why I wrote about it – that the crowd responded immediately and in condemnatory fashion. It expressed a judgement. I do not, in the paper, comment upon whether I think that judgement is the correct one. I point to it as an example of how crowds make ethical decisions (something often disputed in theories of crowd behaviour); how, in this example, they distinguish between an act judged as indiscriminate and potentially harmful to protesters and other acts which the crowd directly supported through cheers and other chants. Girard calls this way that a group operates to exclude a member to reinforce its sense of itself as a group scapegoating; my very brief allusion there to Girard is perhaps unclear and certainly too short. I was not advocating scapegoating but pointing to how it happens. I think it is very important for us to understand carefully how crowds behave.
What the crowd did in that moment is very different to what later happened to Edward Woollard, in the press and through the courts. My description of that event is not analogous or the same as stating that I agree with the attitudes of the judiciary. For the record, I can state that I did not agree with or support his arrest, his prosecution or his imprisonment, and nor do I now. In fact, I absolutely condemn it.
Yet, for me, no one, no crowd, no individual, in whatever situation (revolutionary struggle and protest included) is beyond criticism. Not all actions in a protest are revolutionary. If we want to think and act in ways which are going to further the struggle against the current State, then it is important that we analyse our collective and individual actions. To do so is not to align oneself with the State, who might also critique those actions but from a very different perspective and with different reasons. I personally think it is a shame that Edward Woollard threw the fire extinguisher towards the people below, which included both protesters and police. I’d have preferred he’d done something else with it, any number of things. I’m glad it didn’t hit a protester, for obvious reasons; I’m glad it didn’t hit a member of the police because they’d have tried to put him away for life and painted an even more vicious picture of the protests than they did, it would have given the Daily Mail even juicer headlines and it would have achieved very little to nothing in furthering what the protests were actually about. I’d be very worried about a situation which forbade us to think critically about the actions we undertake, collectively or individually. Perhaps this is a genuine point of disagreement here with you, given what you wrote.
As to the other points you raise, I don’t have much disagreement with your political statements, although I have a problem with the rhetorical style in which you write. You tend to try to state what I say, then state your own position as different, and in doing so, caricature my position as one which apologises for police violence or denies that other emotions than the one I am focusing on are also felt on protests. This dismays me, for several reasons. It is so often that the left ends up fighting among itself, expending the precious resources we have on debates about position-taking and misrepresentation. I truly believe – and this was very much in the spirit of the Revolution and/or Poetry conference – that we are not at all best served by the denouncing style that this blog post is written in. For one, it made me feel like I simply want nothing to do with ‘Militant Poetics’, whatever that is. It made me feel tired. It is a form of grand-standing and, in an uncannily accurate inversion of your own accusation of what you think I am doing, excluded me from the kinds of militant position your post thinks we should be taking.
Of course we should criticise each other and each other’s positions. For example, I’d be interested to extend the conversation about the chorus that you raise briefly in the post. There is a historical, literary (dramatic) dimension to the chorus, of course, and there is also a very immediate need to discuss how chants and slogans operate on us, circulate among us, express our feelings or work to make us feel alienated. You say that the chorus is on the side of the police and negative community formation. I don’t agree that all chanting is just like a chorus or that it is all negative, in history and in practice, even though obviously some chants are. I’d like to explore this: I usually find chanting problematic. But everything about the way this blog post has been done has not at all been in the spirit of seeking dialogue or discussion. You know how to contact me. You didn’t. You just posted this to the web. You know my name – and I have met Jacob, at least, several times at events and on protests – yet you refer to ‘the author’ throughout. The ‘we’ that operates in your paper is quite obviously deployed in order not to include me.
We should seek dialogue, to talk to one another about what we think the other might be saying, to be careful of one another and each other’s feelings. Today, I should be writing to a deadline. Had I done so, I’d have had more time to give to preparing for the strike which has been called for the 31st October 2013. This is a very real material consequence of how you’ve decided to engage with my paper and it makes me angry and makes me feel the impotence of how we conduct our debates. There were all sorts of options open to you to make this into more of a dialogue than a denunciation and yet you explore none of them.
It is precisely this issue of how we talk to each other and how we try to build lasting, inclusive conversations and solidarity that for me was the most important aspect of what was discussed at the conference in the Bay Area. I’m not sure what you intended to achieve with your response. But the effect has been to make me angry, baffled, despairing, and to feel as though the possibilities of us being able to organise anything among poets and activists in London in the way that the two conferences at Birkbeck hoped for are extremely far away.
We, as militants, want nothing to do with any solidarity achieved through the condemnation and ostracism of other protestors regardless of whether their deeds are agreeable to us or not. While we might not wish to affirm everything which takes place we believe that where acts of protest are matched with the most brutal and inhumane violence of state repression then we must side with humans who are crushed by that power
If critique is going to be total – if it is going to be worth doing without falling back into the reified position of self-satisfaction – it must be directed towards ourselves, also. We know this. We fuck up sometimes – a lot actually. I probably fuck up at least 100 times a day, & those are just the thoughts in my head, let alone my interactions with others. And the fucking up – irritating, embarrassing, time-stealing thing that it is – is a necessary part of the process, a necessary condition for continuing to learn how to do what you’re doing, and for discovering that you don’t know how to do what you’re doing until you’re doing it. I feel alienated when theory is used with the aim of ‘being right’ or ‘winning’ an argument, whilst failing to acknowledge that nothing’s been won unless conditions have changed, are changing. I think this can be a problem with identity politics also, as we’ve discussed. We cannot pretend that wielding rhetorical power, even if only in the process of argument, does not risk preventing others from adequately expressing their own opinions – this is structural oppression and the nature of power itself. I am intensely concerned with the idea of ‘having the ‘right’ opinions, especially on the far Left – and that not holding the ‘right’ opinions, even when expressed without antagonism, leads to exclusion anyway – cus it means you’re a liberal, or a hippy, or you haven’t read enough Marxist theory, or you didn’t understand the finer points of x. Which frankly is just imposing another hierarchy. And is often another way of telling the emotional, the sensitive, the weak, the feminine, even the doubting or the sceptic, to FUCK OFF, because those qualities have no place in OUR revolution.
I’m tired of the devaluing of emotional ties in political action, activism, discussion and theory, including left feminist theory. I’m not really talking about this beautiful oasis of community here, but I am talking about potential methodologies. I have to be honest now and say I hated that essay about blowing up your boyfriend in LIES. It’s not because I’m stupid or weak or romantic, [although I’ll admit at variance to be all those things] it’s just that I know the boyfriend is my projection so I’d just be blowing up an aspect of myself which is probably a better idea. I am my own worst boyfriend. Who am I to generalise about the violence of an entire sex by blowing them up?
So, I’m interested in the genius of the space that hovers below identity, solidarity and ego. In reaching for an affective politics, I ask that we make ourselves sociologically weaker – that is, in the terms of Keston’s paper at Militant Poetics, MORE emotional, more supposedly FEMININE – and that everybody does this. I’m interested in intersubjectivity, in what we might mean or do to each other beyond our socially accrued markers, in the weirdness of being humans at this time now, in how we can be kinder to each other. I like to call this form of praxis ‘revolutionary tenderness’.
I want to say NOW that I have no wish to get rid of dissent or internal critique in place of an artificial unity or solidarity: that would be love founded on illusion, see my earlier point. Nor do I want to make this plea imagining that it will fall only to the women in our community to assume some sort of matriarchal, blindly benevolent role. Guys! (& not only guys, all of this applies equally to me!) We have a responsibility to seriously consider a feminist critique of action-based theories, the exclusions and reductions necessitated by programmatic philosophies, and how feminist and queer thought could affect your thoughts, relationships with yourself and others, and poetic work at the most cellular level. (My apologies to the men, women and genderqueers in the room who are already doing this, but Militant Poetics showed me that it still needs to be said.) This means being really attentive. If we want the revolution, we will have to surrender the privileges and comforts offered by gender (among other social markers of power) and accept, as women in any masculine sphere have for centuries, that a creative and balanced perspective is androgynous and perpetually adaptable, fluctuating, unstable.
This means actually changing the way ‘we’ do things – including writing papers, organising conferences, [which this conference, I believe, sets a great example for] socialising, thinking, discussing concepts such as action, environment, nature, revolutionary subjectivity AND collectivity – through self-reflection and awareness, so that this isn’t merely a rehashing of perspectives which correlate to a predetermined agenda about the conditions for revolution. (ie Hegel and Marx and Adorno.) It means slowing down and iterating what constitutes identity, instead of skipping those stages to an immediately dissolved collectivity. It means self-critique and self-acceptance and the willingness to change. It means existing within a perpetual present.
I think it is possible to create absolute awareness of privilege within our communities without blame culture, and with absolute responsibility and care for the unique (& as if it needed saying again, revolutionary) potential that exists within each of us.
Is tenderness passivity? No. It’s passionate action which is also full of care. I don’t want to repeat the violence of our oppressors in order to ‘win’. That would be a hollow victory – no victory at all, merely substituting one tyrannical regime for another of our own making.
Tenderness asks us to meet one another in an atmosphere of welcoming and love. For me it allows mistakes but not exclusion because we might not agree about some things. It asks us to shift our focus from negativity to one of appreciating what exists and admitting that we don’t know everything. Tenderness doesn’t have to be about ‘sex’ although that might be the fear behind the anger we are greeted with by cops: the absolute refusal of interdependence, the shutting us out as a foreign body. Isn’t this moment, in Timothy Thornton’s heart-stopping poem written 10th December 2010, one of revolutionary tenderness – ‘Can someone please put some towels down for the horses now, they’re getting iron dust all over the tarmac, said the street, and little bits of tarmac on their shoes’? He goes on to talk about massaging a cop’s prostate. I’m not suggesting we try such tender methods on our enemies. This is more like a request, largely to myself, to not create enemies of each other. To come to think and act like a collective body, caring for all the parts of itself, rather than trying to impose a homogenised way of thinking or acting on each other.
I don’t think that poetry needs to do anything. I think that the poetry we have written, are writing, will write, is extraordinary and earthshaking and lifechanging as it is. TRULY. And I also think that our political lives need to continue to evolve, to be productive, to be active, and that is already revolutionary practice. I have come to believe that ‘revolutionary tenderness’ signifies ‘the negation of the negation’. That is, the refusal of the shittiness of our present moment and the determined insistence on optimism and in doing so, making the future life we want live in our present selves. I believe that unless we treat each other with tenderness and care now the revolution won’t come. Tenderness isn’t always soft, it isn’t always kind or nonviolent – sometimes it’s a person screaming at someone else because it’s the only way they can be heard – but tenderness can make things clear. I want desperately to see things for what they truly are, and in this room it feels more possible to start building a world which supports the revolution coming into reality, more possible than it has ever seemed in my life before. Thank you.
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.
“I have learned more about what is needed for political change to happen by participating in protests than I ever have from reading Marxism or political theory. This seems both stupidly obvious and yet remarkable. As an academic who spends the majority of her time engaging with critical and literary theory of some stripe or another, I’ve certainly spent more time reading about how the world should change than I have spent hours on picket lines or roaming around London following actions by the black bloc or UK Uncut or giving poetry readings in under-threat squats.”
The world’s horizon is filled with men: their arms, their armour, glistening in columns & they are fierce, ready to fight.
I am scared.
I pick up a flame thrower & burn the rows of paper men to cinders.