Thursday, October 16, 2003


If you have read the questions for the Poetry & Empire retreat from the past three days, this one should not surprise you:


To what degree do our local actions as poets and teachers affect larger contexts, including national and international ones?


I have no question whatsoever that both teaching & writing poetry creates something akin to an underground railroad of the mind, enabling other people down the line, whether our students or readers or students & readers not yet born, to think critically. That and 37 cents will enable me to post a letter.


The much more important question to my mind – and I’m beginning to understand that I what I think needs to be done with these questions is not to reiterate the platitudes of the past but rather to turn these questions inside out, the way one might a t-shirt – would seem to me to be what is the impact of larger context on our actions as poets & teachers.


Let me state this another way. Capitalism, for better or worse, is grounded upon the instability of markets, let alone individual institutions & products. IBM in the year 2100 will be as utterly different from what it is today as this same corporation is from the Tabulating Machine Company, manufacturer of the Hollerith punch card, of 1900. The same holds true of Microsoft, GE, any corporation you care to name. Further, the acceleration of change at the level of a commercial institution has been going on for some time. The wild west character of the dot com boom of the 1990s was not an aberration – indeed, even its short-lived nature underscores the direction of historic particulars.


Yet most forms of the anti-globalization movement, to cite a countervailing effort, are predicated on preserving certain relationships in a steady state or even returning them to a prior one. There is an almost 100 percent predictable outcome with that kind of strategy, insofar as it has prevailed not once over the past 200 years. I’m not just making the point here that the dramatic monolog, that great 19th century innovation, is a form that was generated by a world that did not yet have electricity or indoor plumbing – tho that’s certainly true also – but rather that the left within which many poets seek to work continues to organize around forms that are very nearly as retro. The result, predictable enough, is increasing marginalization as both the nation & the world system move ever rightward.


It is in this sense that I sometimes think that the most outré genres & the most out-there genres often offer the greatest value – they simply offer alternative modes of reality as possible, as options. This may be why I am particularly disturbed at the recent trend among the cyberpunk novelists to look backwards, to write about World War 2, 19th century British science & similar historical contexts. It is as if they are announcing that we cannot change the future unless & until we change a past that has already escaped us. That’s a grim prospect.


There is organization against capitalism as a force, and there is organization against capitalism’s anti-democratic tendencies. These strike me as two very different projects. The first is not at all unlike organizing against gravity as a force. The great problem that the communist movement never could overcome was that it was predicated on a particular mode of capital organization, the industrial factory, while in fact capital is not organized on any given state of production, but rather on the constant destruction of whatever the existing state happens to be in order to replace it with one that is, in capitalist terms, more efficient. Whatever success the forces for democracy, peace & justice might have cannot come through attempting to halt such forces, but rather to use them, to direct to whatever degree possible the evolution of this engine of innovation.


The utopianism of some of the dot com futurists was over the top in its excessive optimism. But what that social tendency had right was its presumption that the most powerful force for directing society was not to halt change, but rather to take the reigns of production, precisely by redefining them. One won’t defeat for long something such as genetically modified foods through legislation, but one could do so through the creation of corporations that successfully outperform the biotech farming conglomerates.


There are, of course, a variety of different ways one can define “successfully outperform” as anyone who has read the work of the likes of Francis Moore Lappe or Walden Bello on the impact of western “aid” on Third World agricultural production will be aware. But that is the nexus of where political struggle can make some difference, in slowing down the devastation through which the so-called developing world finds itself ever further behind the developed one. Such organizing efforts, however, amount to band-aids on severed arteries without the other side of the coin. The failure of the most recent WTO talks in Cancun came about precisely because western nations were unwilling to surrender the price supports and subsidies that make such anachronisms as American farming competitive. In point of fact, the anti-globalization movement eventually will have to take on the American farmer as a disproportionate political force if it hopes to have an impact of the quality of life not just in Malaysia or Cameroon, but in Tulsa & Darby & Camden. The power of the farmer is hardwired into the American system through institutions such as the U.S. Senate, which gives California just two votes although it has a population equal to over 20 other states combined. In practice, this means that such things as biotech corn & cyborg beef have something akin to 40 votes in hand on any issue they want, not only price supports, but gun control, tax fairness, a woman’s right to choose, a gay person’s right to marry.


Nowhere in this ensemble of forces is the coalition of capital more vulnerable than at its core, its own impulse to drive toward a steady state constructed around currently existing relationships of power – everyone presently in power would love for capitalism’s game of musical chairs to end right now – and that is its presumption that its own method of creating something such as food for profit cannot be trumped. Develop a process that brings food to market better, faster & cheaper and the entire system unravels.


This is true for virtually every issue in which capitalism plays some part, which means virtually every issue at all. The question that a progressive coalition has yet to address is how to beat capitalism at its own game, how to take charge of the kinds of innovation that make a difference. Mere Ben & Jerry capitalism is not enough. And I frankly don’t know if this is a challenge to which the progressive coalition as currently constituted is capable of addressing. But I do know that if it is not, then band-aids for severed arteries is the best we will ever have & no amount of holding hands & singing We Shall Overcome will make up the difference.


So I look to alternative realms – the arts in general are such – as models, even as laboratories for figuring new modes of action. Just as the history of literature is not the catalog of the best or most well written works but rather the history of literary change, I look at how the arts figure the struggles over change in their own dimensions. Do they demonstrate how dramatically a form can be & must be reconceived for every generation, are they a model for innovation predicated upon anything other than greed? There are artists & art forms & art movements for which I would in fact answer that affirmatively. Judy Grahn, whose work I invoked Monday, virtually invented the idea of a women’s audience as such. We see Grahn’s impact everywhere from the post-New Narrative ventures of a Kathy Lou Schultz to Oprah’s network of book clubs. Let me say this again in another way so that I won’t be misunderstood: the wealth & political power that are implicit in the Oprah Winfrey model of book clubs can at least in part be traced back directly to Edward the Dyke. People have been awarded the Nobel Prize for a lot less.


So, yes, absolutely, our actions as poets have impact. None more important than our relationship to change.


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