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’

Keston Sutherland

 

 

I

 

 

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?

 

 

II

 

   

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. 

 

 

III

 

 

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.

 

 

IV

 

 

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.

 

V

 

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.

Jennifer Cooke, Protest Emotions and (a bit about) Poetry

“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.”

 

I wanted to start by talking about the political climate in Oakland right now. Some people call it a lull, which is perhaps the kindest word. I’ve heard other people describe the atmosphere as poisonous. We are perpetually talking about the infighting and denunciations between different left factions as a cesspool, dissolution, decay. Many people don’t want to be in the same room with one another, much less organize together. I don’t intend to get melancholic or propose an easy solution. These fissures are real. Instead I want to investigate this sense of mourning, of enemies at large, to quote a recent article making the rounds on the internet. This sense of mourning, for me, has little to do with the failure of a political movement. All of the actions I enumerated yesterday in the report back from Oakland—the Oscar Grant riots, the student movement, the building occupations, the freeway occupations, the Santa Cruz dance parties, the Bay of Rage, the occupy encampments, the port blockade, the January 28 arrests, the protests surrounding, Trayvon Martin, Alan Blueford, Kenneth Harding—either failed to achieve their demands or abandoned demands entirely. Of course “failed” is a tricky word, or rather tends to miss the point. But my sense of the political climate in Oakland now and the ways we tend to narrate this decay has nothing to do with the success or failure of any kind of demand imposed, reformist, revolutionary, or otherwise. What we seem to be mourning, now, is the loss of the communities that these struggles had built. I am suspicious of the word community, in that it seems overly romantic. Communities, by definition, are exclusionary. They can be entirely terrible. Thinking of Jen’s opening remarks, I like the word “solidarity” better, because it implies, to me at least, that you don’t have to particularly like or even know the persons involved.

 

All this brings me around to poetry, because—if asked to make a connection of revolution and poetry—I begin to think about communities. One of the things that I value most about the Bay is not, actually, the fact that I am nearer to the real-time creation of so many brilliant poems that exist on the page, perhaps to be read in classrooms elsewhere and studied by posterity, but that here, in the Bay, there is this existence of many people who are interested in this vague thing we call poetry. And this many people all writing poetry or reading poetry published or not and then getting together to talk about poetry and hear poetry read out loud has created a community apart from work and apart from private life at home. The poetry community can be a terrible, terrible thing, as we’ve all complained and, more seriously, self-criticized, at length. But there was a moment, in the fall of 2011, where the boundaries of the poetry community and the boundaries of the political community and the boundaries of the students groups and the neighborhood groups became more permeable, not perfectly or even elegantly, and with much dissatisfaction. But it was this seeming shift in social relations, not a grand collapse of hierarchies, certainly, but a kind of unsticking of the labels poet, student, parent, anarchist, trot, teen, felon, professor.  To return to Occupy Oakland, in its most utopian articulations, the encampment became a space for a different model of social relations, not just between poets and non-poets, but between all of the other various labels we might apply to ourselves and find others applying to us. This is not to say any of these labels disappeared. Occupy Oakland was, in many ways, another, bigger terrible community, a violent community, one riven with sexual assault, racial hierarchies, homophobia, class violence.

 

What all this goes to say is that this sense of the unsticking of the labels we call ourselves and the boundaries of these various communities included poets but was not really about them; that the political milieu and the poetry world offer modes of community that can be terrible but also materially essential, whether we like each other or not, whether we agree or not. Our present moment reveals these models of social life, poetic, political, or the inelegant unsticking of both, to be less terrible than no community at all.

Image

[excerpted from an article forthcoming in Endnotes 3]

Without an account of the relationship between “race” and the systematic reproduction of the class relation, the question of revolution as the overcoming of entrenched social divisions can only be posed in a distorted and incomplete form. And without an understanding of the dynamics of racialisation — from capitalism’s historical origins in “primitive accumulation” to the US state’s restructuring in the post-World War II era — continuing struggles against evolving forms of racial rule can only be misrecognised as peripheral to an ultimately race-neutral conflict between capital and labour. Rather than waning with the decline of what is sometimes construed as a vestigial system of folk beliefs, resistance to racial subordination in the US has continued. “Race” has not withered away: rather, it has been reconfigured in the face of austerity measures and an augmented “post-racial” security state which has come into being to manage the ostensible racial threats to the nation posed by black wage­less life, Latino immigrant labour, and “Islamic fundamentalism”.

“Race” has been variously described as an illusion, a social construction, a cultural identity, a biological fiction but social fact, and an evolving complex of social mean­ings. It is difficult to avoid attributing independent causal properties to objects defined by ascriptive processes. Simply put, “race” is the consequence and not the cause of racial ascription or racialisation processes which justify historically asymmetrical power relationships through reference to phenotypical characteristics and ancestry.

“Race” is an index of varieties of material inequality, a bundle of ideologies and processes which create a racially stratified social order, and as an evolving history of struggle against racism and racial domination — a his­tory which has often risked reifying “race” by revaluing imposed identities, or reifying “racelessness” by affirm­ing liberal fictions of atomistically isolated individuality. The intertwining of racial domination with the class relation holds out the hope of systematically dismantling “race” as an indicator of unequal structural relations of power. “Race” can now be imagined as an emancipatory category not from the point of view of its affirmation, but through its abolition.

Antiracist political movements now confront a structurally racist social order, with its own array of state-sanctioned “race leaders” and spokespeople, which has appropriated the language of past movements of liberation and narrowed the legacy of these movements to inclusion within existing hierarchies of power. An antiracist poetry would begin here antagonistic to the material conditions of the emergence of “race,” and to its “organic” systems of value, which have yoked fictions of cultural representativeness to a pervasive politics of racial respectability and uplift.

Tim Kreiner and Jasper Bernes

1. The Poem

The bad romance of poem and revolution unfolds, largely, as a problem with time, a problem with timing, a surplus or shortage of time. Because the poem is, in the last instance, a disorder of time, a refusal of all the patterning markers of first and last, if and then, the poem arrives at the revolution either way too late or far too early or maybe both. The poem is either “the first repercussion of an act yet to come” or “the last shock wave whose significance escapes everyone”; either the promesse d’bonheur that will pay dividends only to the revolution’s dead, or the crucial registration of history’s truth long after all those who could have benefited from it have been imprisoned or maimed or otherwise crushed. In this sense the poem vouchsafes the truth of insurrection, itself arriving too early or too late, forced to preside over its own funeral or commanding its doomed partisans to surge forward, hopelessly, into the guns. The poem in the longue durée is therefore a doubly sad object, late for that which is itself late, or early for that which is too early.

2. The Poet

The poet is something else, alas. Every poet who remains a poet within the moment of revolt is either manager or mortician. If we say that after the revolution there will be poetry but no poems, what we mean is that every poet is a counter-revolution in miniature. To enter the commune as a poet is to remain within the individuating misprisions of language, the un-common, re-animating the carcass of authorship in accord with the status quo, a regime for which identity is to the individual what copyright law is to The State: a negation of collective activity in the name of ownership. Thus it makes as little sense to be a poet in the commune as to be a thief in communism. Proletarian shopping, like the poet, belongs to an order of things wherein need shapes women and men among the goods and affects of the marketplace. Where markets no longer reign, there is just as little need to slink through the night stealing bread from your neighbors as to insist on identities — and activities — that hinder the abolition of need as the sole artist of social forms. If poets have a part to play in smashing the state of atomistic welfare and sinecured laureates, it is not as scribes of the new, but among crowds committed to the armature of omnia sunt communia.

3. Poetry

There have never been any real revolutions just as there has probably never been any real poetry. There have been a few genuine insurrections here and there, hyperbolized and hypostasized by the literary carrion feeders they entrain, and then there have been about ten thousand counter-revolutions. That’s what history is: a Russian doll of counter-revolution inside counter-revolution from which we can trace out, in negative, the lines and forms of prospective revolution. Insurrection is a break, a swerve inserted into the prose sentence of capitalism, a breakdown, a moment in which all the habits which hold us and the rest of the world in suspension fail. The pathways and circuits through which we are herded by money and meaning and the cops disappear, and a new city emerges, from which what results is a tremendous act of improvisation. That’s what the insurrection is: a failure of habit, a collapse of the social theatre and division of roles, to which people respond with tremendous and moving acts of invention. Everything has to be refunctioned, even breathing, even speech and especially poetry. When we talk about the poetry of revolution, we mean this spirit of invention, and not poems as such, which could only be written through the continual performance of the outmoded social role of poet.

4. Revolution

This, finally, is the sense in which we may speak of poetry and/or revolution. In fits and starts of rupture and invention, the revolution dissolves poets into the poetry of deeds and words in defiance of habit. Thus poetry’s insurrectionary acts break with the page just as revolutionary acts break with everything that exists to force us back into routines. The port blockade, the occupation, the riot, the barricade, the strike, the demo, the street fight, the general assembly – all these iterations of failure, exhilarating missteps and momentary breakthroughs finally end not with the kettles and batons, cops and courts, but in our return to the status quo. What crushes us is rarely the violence of the moment, in spite of the shock and awe of a confrontation that is more and more brutally asymmetrical. What crushes us is the longue durée of despair, the Lethean waters in which counter-revolution grows hourly to fill up the pores of days through which we drift further and further from the experience even of our most crushing failures. Poems are, at most, a rift in this despair; hence the funereal mien of their partisans as they rush into the guns and/or back onto the page. Therefore when insurrection arrives it can have no use for poems; the process of revolution it inaugurates proceeds through the abolition of poets, and the realization of poetry.

I wanted to have one of those I HAVE FOUR POINTS sorts of manifestoes. But I don’t have four points. I have one point. I hope it’s broadly applicable. It’s not theoretical though it concerns theory. It’s a point about self-regard, even when clothed in propriety and humility. I suspect this self-regard is gendered and raced and classed, but that’s not my point. My point is as follows: DON’T PUT THE RABBIT IN THE HAT. We must insist, militantly, on not putting the rabbit in the hat.

What does this mean? It means, there are all kinds of ways to predecide one’s analyses. To choose a notable contemporary example: the invention the “cognitariat” and the payload carried by that term, which is that restructurations of capital have made certain kinds of cognitive work newly productive, and thus have moved the cognitariat to a newly vital position in anticapitalist struuggles. It is a theory made by a cluster of persons who do a thing, allowing them to discover that the thing they do is special and important and potentially revolutionary. The theory puts the rabbit in the hat, and then when they have conferences on the Cognitariat and/or Revolution, or Militant Cognition, they pull the rabbit out again. Presto!

When we begin our peroration “We are all poets in this room…” or even more droll, “As poets…” we are putting the rabbit in the hat. Not long after, we discover that poems are the answer to the question before us. Look, a rabbit. When we choose to understand political economy through philosophy, exploitation through alienation, value through subjectivity, we have done the same thing, albeit in far more sophisticated ways. It turns out that “As poets” we love to put that rabbit in the hat, the Adorno rabbit. Because we get to be the answer. We pull ourselves out of the hat. We’re rabbits.

I am not opposed to poems. I love poems. I love people who write poems, passionately. But the SOCIAL ROLE OF POET is a disaster, just like every other social role. The struggle is for the end of roles, for the end of the division of labor, for the end of the gender distinction, for the end of identity as it exists. Free relations, not roles. Poems made by anyone who makes them. No poets. And no “As poets.” I learned this from Guy Debord and Mariarosa Dalla Costa and my friends here, new and old.