Saturday, March 10, 2007

What Do Cyborgs Want?

(Paris, Suburb of the Twentieth Century)

In this "Xerox degree of culture" that has come to be known, for reasons as paradoxical as they are historical, as post-modernity, what we notice first – because it so loudly and vigorously calls attention to itself, like the stereotypic masochist begging "Beat me, beat me" – is the self-flagellation of theory. We have seen the dispersal of theory, as with the grand diaspora of post-structuralisms, theory posed against theory itself, sometimes for very different reasons, theory sealing itself off and declaring its sole horizon to be a critique of the history of itself, theory that wills itself to become what it once took for its object or Other – this is particularly visible in those sophomoric critical texts that imagine themselves to be art –, and we have even seen theory that is apparently willing to erase its own characteristic feature of the critical gesture, that fundamental distantiation which is the presumption of all analysis, until it slides over from a critique of high culture, so-called, into becoming simply one more wavelength among many in the limitless spectrum of mass culture, a move by which the theoretician is transformed into a kind of celebrity, a talk show host for ideas, perhaps, or a standup comic on the new vaudeville circuit of college conferences, but a person who is most certainly subject to the rules of the game of celebrity far more absolutely than to any for the game of theory. Much of what makes the work of Jean Baudrillard interesting, even fascinating, and which has enabled it to remain resilient over these past three decades, has been a willingness on his part – knowingly and even laughingly, since humor is as much a part of his repertoire as is insight – to occupy so many of these incommensurable positions. Baudrillard is, to follow his own metaphor, the grand drag queen of theory. He gives us theory at its most provocative, at its most pornographic. He is, in some sense, our own Cicciolina, that Italian representative who, it has been alleged, sometimes urinates on the spectators in the front rows of her naked entertainments. What will Baudrillard say next? How can we not hear, whenever he asks that question, "What are we going to do after the orgy?" the real question: what are we going to do after this talk? Baudrillard, at least at one level, is the orgy. Or at least would like to be. No wonder he says that sex is no longer of much interest.

So to be asked to follow Baudrillard, to respond, is a little too obviously a set-up. Here he is discussing, amid much else, the disappearance of art...and I'm a poet. Here he is, the maverick apotheosis of the theoretical, that most critical and academic of discursive formations...I'm still a poet. (Even worse, my terminal degree is from a high school: I'm an unlettered poet.) Here Baudrillard is talking beyond politics, toward what he calls the transpolitical, and I'm a longtime political activist, a veteran, respectively, of the anti-war, prison and tenants' movements, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, part of the collective that publishes Socialist Review and until one month ago the executive editor of that publication. There is even a generational angle here: Baudrillard, after all, is just two years younger than my father. It's all too perfect and Oedipal a match. So if I decline to slay Baudrillard today, in the way that every response to a keynote speech is a form of ritual public disembowelment, Baudrillard posed as the bull and I as the matador, the way I once watched Arthur Kroker slay Fred Jameson in Lawrence, Kansas, I hope you will forgive me. Frankly, I have a larger target in mind: the problem of the transpolitical itself.

But it is impossible to approach the horizon of the transpolitical without considering the context within which it first comes into view. It is significant not only that this first sighting should occur within theory, nor even within theory of a certain type, but specifically within theory inscribed under the name Baudrillard. As the translators of Baudrillard's books have learned, whenever they have sought, without success, to locate the precise quotations that ornament and substantiate his arguments, the most distinctive methodological feature of his work – beyond even its reliance on metaphor, that old structuralist gambit, and his weakness (somewhat held in check tonight) for incredible, amazing, unprecedented, unbelievable intensifiers – is a flagrant and unparalleled sloppiness. At least that which appears to be a callous disregard for the documentable and the defensible. There is no graduate student in the United States who is going to be able to get away with playing anywhere nearly so fast and loose with details and critical terms in his or her orals or dissertation defense. As the saying goes, "Kids, don't try this at home."

Here, we find its most glaring instance in Baudrillard's conflation of two radically opposed conditions: transvestitism and transexuality. Transvestitism is more or less the practice he describes and what is apparently intended by these terms. In contrast, transexuality need not entail any such liberatory movement on the part of its experiencing subject. Phenomenologically, the transsexual's principle state seems to be a condition of horror, of the self trapped within a body that is explicitly and profoundly Other. The gendering of this experience may very well be a social construct specific to the codes and history of Euroamerican culture. The tragedy of many transsexuals is that this sense of otherness and horror is often not resolved by surgery, and that the suicide rate among post-operative transsexuals is quite high.

Liberation and flight are moves within a game that might be conjoined, as they were for Afro-American slaves moving north along the underground railroad, but they are not identical. The flight of Kampucheans from Pol Pot's killing fields into the inner-city ghettoes and minimum-wage jobs of North America, like that of Palestinians a generation ago from their homeland into the camps of Lebanon, can scarcely be called liberation. Like the parallel concept of speed, that fleeting state which is perhaps best analogized to the phenomenon of acceleration in an already moving vehicle, there can be no representative instance of the pure condition. Purity is a methodological fiction. Like silence, whether in the desert or in an anechoic chamber, it does not exist: the perceiving subject is perpetually stuck with the roar of the blood vessels and the whine of the central nervous system. As recent developments in the theory of superconductivity ironically reveal, even something such as electricity is organized not around the free flow of electrons, but rather as a series of practical responses to the problem of resistance, the impure. At the level of generality that is necessary for Baudrillard to deploy them, categories such as transvestitism never exist. This world is composed only of particulars.

This flagrant disregard for facticity drives Baudrillard's detractors bananas. It counters the fundamental positivism and fetishization of the empirical that lies at the heart of the orthodox academy's concept of professionalism. Thus, in North America, where the traditional left, in both its social democratic and Marxian modes, has been historically centered in and around the social sciences, a domain virtually constructed around its anxiety over the notion of a fact, much more energy has been expended in fighting off the ideas of Baudrillard than in listening to them. Sometimes the sheer anger behind such responses is amusing. Recently, at Socialist Review, we received a submission of a review of Baudrillard's most recent scandal, America. This review was simply an excerpt from Mark Twain's journals of his travels to France in which the French are reduced to those barbarians who taught Native Americans how to scalp their enemies.

But it is often more useful to ask ourselves just who is being offended and why. For Baudrillard's cavalier attitude toward his verbal chess games of abstraction, characterized by hyperbole, the broad stroke and the sweeping gesture, is certainly no accident. As computer programmers like to say about peculiarities in software, "that's not a bug, that's a feature." This in fact may be Baudrillard's peculiar genius, and his greatest methodological gift. Here is a strategy for escaping, however imperfectly, the filters and blind spots inherent in those discourses that are constructed upon the disciplinarity that is at the heart of empiricism. Forever held in check by their fear of the impure, which they conceive of as allegiance to the empirical, and even, at its most pathological, to quantification and statistical significance, these discourses can only proceed incrementally, anchored in the framework of previous positions. It's a narrative mode that aspires to hypotaxis – this is why impurity is so threatening – and the teleological function is structurally implicit within it. This is why paradigm shifts are registered as such deep shocks to the system that the vocabulary of revolution is invoked. It is a negative definition of rigor and Baudrillard simply abolishes it.

In fact, even Baudrillard is not yet entirely free of the dubious vestiges of theory's pseudo-scientific rules of discourse, where simplicity and grace are taken for virtues rather than as mediations. Thus, here, we perceive a felt need to carry the prefix trans over several fields of evidence – the transpolitical, the transaesthetic – where it might have been better to have focused the model of transvestism per se upon that distinct sub-category where, typically, males dress as females while consciously foregrounding elements of their masculine gender by retaining beards or wearing lowcut gowns calculated to reveal massive tufts of chest hair. The theoretical term for this is radical cross-dressing, although its practitioners in San Francisco just call it gender-fuck.

The advantage to Baudrillard's method is that it is structural, in the best sense of that term, and proceeds from the broadest and most general features, that domain which is most apt to remain occluded if not outright invisible when approached from any other direction. Baudrillard's term for it is fractal, and his analogy of the hologram cagily presents a perspective that can only operate from above and outside. This perspective is what so often gives Baudrillard's texts their eery air of rightness even when the reader knows full well that massive amounts of evidence, impurities, could be marshalled together to counter this or that assertion. It is this structural view that enables Baudrillard to perceive and identify the transpolitical.

Marx certainly understood that the bourgeois state, in particular, was an instrument of capital, and not the other way around, just as he understood also that the state itself was not an absolute, a given of nature, and could at some future point wither away. What Marx seems not to have foreseen, however, is the possibility that, in some utterly critical sense, the state might wither prior to the abolition of capital. At the level of the political, many (if not all) of the effects that we have come to know as postmodernity can be traced to this radical reformulation, this redistribution of power out of (and away from) the body of the state back into a civil society that has itself been technologically internationalized and radically reconfigured.

This is the subtext of a statement such as, speaking of our present world, "it is utopia realized," and this is why Baudrillard can make such a bald and bold assertion, even in the face of famine, wars, Chernobyl, Bhopal and the Exxon Valdez. The state is withering in the precise sense that its scope no longer defines the outer limit of power. That this is happening even as state budgets and the absolute number of personnel increase, and at the same moment when computerization dramatically expands the surveillance capacity of governments, is what is lost whenever we approach this problem from within. Yet Reagan and Thatcher have managed to role back the welfare state in the U.S. and Britain. Deregulation has ceded large domains of agency and initiative away from the public sphere. Socialist, or at least social democratic, governments from Australia to France have found themselves forced, often against their own will, to replicate many of these same shifts. This is especially poignant in those nations, such Spain and Greece, where the socialist party out of power once took positions that today ring with the nostalgic tones of ultraleftism. In many of these states, socialist governments have learned the hard way that nationalization of the means of production is politically unenforceable and is thus reduced as a strategy to little more than the government propping up certain failing industries. Further, the technological transformation of commodities production over the past two decades has created such a disparity in available goods between the so-called capitalist and communist blocs that the Soviet Union, China, and several of the Soviet client states, in the name of increased production through economic decentralization, have been forced to attempt to reinvent capitalism itself. The subsequent civil unrest in both those nations demonstrates not only how volatile this process is – it may get far bloodier in the future – but serves ultimately as an index, whatever reversals and convolutions may still lie ahead, of the retraction of the state even in total societies. It is in this light that the projected confederation of the European Economic Community in 1992 seems little more than a nostalgic attempt to hold the future at bay by inventing a new level of statehood that seeks only to retrieve a degree of national agency that no longer exists. Finally, basic social problems have emerged, of which acid rain and the greenhouse effect are but the first signals, against which national action, by definition, can only be partial and inadequate.

For those of us who have been a part of the traditional left, these events pose an ironic and most unpleasant question: What is socialism? In the First World, it would seem that the answer is that it is the stage between capital and capital. In the Third World, we might substitute feudalism for the first of these two bracketing periods, but the final term remains the same. The condition, as Baudrillard might put it, would appear to be fatal.

Not one of the notorious shortcomings of capitalism are in any way resolved by this historic shift. If anything, freed of many constraints, these can be anticipated to become even more dire in the future. If American tobacco farmers find a declining market at home for their lethal products, they simply increase their advertising in France, Hong Kong or Africa, just as the producers of infant formula did before them. Union Carbide has demonstrated quite well how national borders can protect a corporation unfortunate enough to have a Bhopal. The total cost of the Exxon Valdez disaster, in the hundreds of millions of dollars, will absorb only a few weeks' worth of net profit, not enough to even impact Exxon's price on the stock market. Factor in insurance coverage, tax write-offs and price increases, and Exxon actually stands to net over $100 million on this single event.

The great failing of the left, particularly in North America, our enormous crime of negligence, has been our inability to conceive politics beyond the horizon of the state. Even the Trotskyist workplace organizer, disdainful of all electoral strategies, is entirely encircled within a trade union practice whose commission ends at the border. Because we have conceived of politics as defined in a classical and historic fashion, as the public sphere of the polis, we have failed to sufficiently recognize the state as an instrument of power. Where once it served to protect capital by providing a wall of nationhood around its markets, now it serves a very different function: to limit the potential of anyone, including the state, to threaten capital.

Nations now operate very much the way suburbs once did, as a limit to individual and public will. Much of the original impulse behind these ex-urban hamlets was not in any idealization of the rural, simpler life, but as a mechanism for spatially separating classes, races, and, most especially, tax populations. Particularly when unincorporated, suburbs could not place the same infrastructural demands on their inhabitants that were the acknowledged necessities of the city. Many of the first planned communities of California and elsewhere contained explicit language in their deed restrictions as to the racial composition of future tenants. Piedmont, California, for example, is a white enclave of vast wealth, surrounded on all four sides by Oakland, yet legally distinct. The power relations at the heart of suburbanization were initially so naked that residents of Piedmont were permitted to run for political office in Oakland (although not the other way around), and for decades the white mayors of this black majority city were residents of that suburb. It is no accident that the subnational geopolitical unit that best corresponds to the internationalization of capital in the postmodern period should be the suburb. The suburb is first of all a political form.

The totalization of power implicit in nuclear capability is just one of a number of causes that have metamorphosed nations into just such suburbs. Power is elsewhere. The question of dating, of whether this transformation, Baudrillard's "real" orgy, first came forth from its cocoon in August, 1945, in the air over Hiroshima, in Vietnam and Algeria a decade later, or perhaps in the streets of Paris, Prague, Saigon, Mexico City, and Chicago in 1968, is an issue for obsessives. Stalin's worst excesses, after all, can read as attempts to impose from above that which was already no longer strong enough to sustain itself from within. Yet, as we know, this evacuation of power from the state is in no way accompanied by a lessening of the presence or effects of power. If this is what inadvertently generates the confusion we see on the part of those who, like Jameson or the Frankfurt School partisans, cannot truthfully imagine the one without the other, at least not in this configuration, it accounts also for those others who, like Jean-François Lyotard, celebrate the present simply because it is here. The rise of French theory itself may have much to do with the fact that this evacuation may well be more perceptible, more readily felt, from the vantage point of that city Walter Benjamin once called "the capital of the nineteenth century." The history of the present, however, forces us to reconceive this project of theory, even to offer it a new title: "Paris, Suburb of the Twentieth Century."

Long before postmodernity, the United States found itself structurally predisposed toward a regime of decentralization, situating political power in Washington, capital in New York, and information in Boston. The very name we give this nation says it all – it is not a description but a desire, a wish for the impossible. What has traditionally been interpreted as a history of the expansion of the American state, from the Federalist Papers through the Civil War to the New Deal and Great Society, can just as easily be read as a sequence of operations aimed not at coalescing and empowering a national union so much as of holding off a far stronger pull in precisely the opposite direction, toward dissolution and dispersal. In California, we have arrived at a society of suburbs whose urban centers are, at best, mere formalities.

If the problem that faces us today is how to recognize and live with the consequences of this transformation, French theory, precisely because it is so suburban, so conscious of the decline and loss of centers, has presented many valuable hints and suggestions. Baudrillard's advantage over Foucault (the first volume of whose History of Sexuality has been offered to us today not so secretly in the red dress of transvestitism) is that, where Foucault's focus was on the micropolitical, transcribing the concretion and dispersal of authority, Baudrillard's perspective, that of the hologram, has been at the level of the macro. Like Jameson, Baudrillard is – and I will use this term positively one more time – a structuralist. Unlike Jameson, however, Baudrillard is not nostalgic for structure. In this disjunction, Baudrillard replicates, at the level of methodology, what is by now a familiar dispersal of power. Here is the real scandal, the hologram from hell, and it is one from which we can extract clues toward political, cultural and aesthetic practices that extend beyond what Baudrillard himself seems prepared to suggest.

At the level of the individual, the corollary of this evacuation of power from the state, accomplished at least partially by its totalization of lethal force, has been the devolution of the subject from an ego toward an ensemble of destabilized and competing subject positions. Those leftists – still a minority – who are even willing to publicly acknowledge this transformation respond to it by trying to imagine methods for reversing this process. Thus Chantal Mouffe turns to the concept of citizenship without addressing how this might be possible, post-polis, in the epoch of the transpolitical. The dream, which Mouffe shares with such radically different leftists as Stanley Aronowitz and Ellen Meiksins Wood, Michael Harrington and Mike Davis, is to reconstruct this mourned-for coalition, even if it is only a coalition of the self. The slogan of this politics, which might be rephrased as "The Subject United / Shall Never Be Depleted," is notable mostly for the vast quantities of evidence to the contrary it so militantly ignores.

What the emergence of the transpolitical suggests, however, is that the impulse to unite may itself be a significant problem, conditioned as it must be by a principle of organization that can only reproduce a narrative of hypotaxis. All fantasies to the contrary are simply predicated upon a universal citizen whose features are arbitrary (or not so arbitrary) extrapolations of a specific subject, against which everyone else is relativized into a subaltern position. Those political programs, such as syndicalism, that appear to evade this trap through a rejection of the party as their institutional expression merely reinvent it in the guise of their opponent, which is, whether it is called capital or the state, invariably caricatured as a monolith. Yet we know that even the multinational corporation is every bit as unstable as money or as the self. Entire industries are broken apart, reformulated, shipped overseas, brought back, reconstructed, technologically transformed, and dispersed all over again. Inside individual organizations, between the critical tacit knowledge of the shopfloor worker, the turf-jealous sectors of middle management, the often strained relations between CEOs and corporate boards, and the external threats of hostile takeovers, power can never flow freely in any direction. It is always impure, clotted, ambivalent, filled with resistance. Within this reality, we are asking the wrong questions. What we need instead is a practice that reconceptualizes power itself. Our goal and motivation cannot be to "overthrow" it, because we will ultimately never locate the real it to be overthrown.

As Donna Haraway once phrased this issue, we must become cyborgs, not just transvestites. We must move beyond gender-fuck as a strategy, beyond even species-fuck, to power-fuck itself. Our struggle is not for unity, but with unity. The problem we are confronted with is how to neutralize the lethal effects of power without reconstituting it elsewhere. Confusing power with the polis will leave us incapable of even approaching either side of this equation. The very real possibility is that this project is impossible, an oxymoron, for power will not go away. Perhaps what we should be seeking instead is the perpetual destabilization of power, the war of the flea. Politics then would shift away from a teleological practice toward a process of perpetual resistance, one whose integrity is no longer defined by a goal. We need a politics without goals. That is the cyborg lesson of the transpolitical, a politics of perpetual motion, no more stable than mercury on a mirror; in the hypotaxis of this talk, that is the topic sentence.

This does not mean an end to resistance, an end to movements, an end to strategic organizing in coalition form, or even an end to identifying the state as a vital mediating concentration of authority. But it means directing every action, and each movement, not into a master narrative, however noble, but towards anti-narrative itself.

At the level of aesthetics (you knew I would end here – this talk is a narrative, a use of power in the act of perpetual resistance, power aimed against power), the aestheticization of everything via media, advertising and subcultural style destabilizes each artistic practice. This may well be the end of aesthetics as we have known it, but it is certainly not the end of artistic practice, whose political function and potentiality is now open to contestation in ways that are still unfamiliar and may even be wholly new. The question confronting poetry is not what is the best poem, nor even the best poetry, but what are the social roles of the poem and how can these be raised to the level of consciousness so that the power relations upon which poetry itself is constituted become perceptible and vulnerable to challenge. The poem as high art versus low art, the poem as an expression of a Self (that reified subject), the poem – and poet – as the antithesis of theory, the poem as beautiful language, the poem as difficult symbolism, the poem as direct speech, the poet as academic, the poet as drunk, the poet as bohemian, the poet as mystic, the poet as avant-garde, as effete or as macho, the poem as anything other than a research laboratory for verbal effects that can be deployed a generation later in advertising: the social role of each poem is the political content of any such text. And there is no single correct answer, ever.

What is manifestly a disaster in any artistic or cultural practice, for the practitioner as well as for their audience, is a process that seeks stasis. If we say that a certain kind of poetry which attempts merely to preserve the traditional status of the poem is lifeless, or if we make the same allegation about a practice of painting that has become entirely subservient to an economy of galleries, it is because these seek to freeze the relations of power in which they find themselves enveloped. Such work is death through inertia, a culture of agoraphobia. Yet even these, we must remind ourselves, are modes of impurity. How ironic and wonderful: we could not exist without them.

Against the culture of agoraphobia and stasis, however, we must pose a counter-praxis of paralogy, Lyotard's term for the perpetual differentiation of the academy, for the need of each scientific or cultural worker to articulate a position that is defensible precisely because it has not previously been occupied – for each tenure a new idea, a grid of potential information that totalizes and reduces thought to a sequence of moves along an infinite grid. Here, however, we must propose a leap, not in faith but in practice. And Baudrillard's career itself presents us with an excellent model. If we identify freedom in the transpolitical universe as residing primarily, and perhaps entirely, in the interstices between points within a destabilized field of power, perpetual resistance requires us to carry paralogy to a new level. Paralogy's potential lies not in locating new points within the grid of the game, but between games, so as to make gaming itself visible, simply a grid of a different order, with all the same pockets of power and lethal force, to call even this into question. It is in this sense that Baudrillard-the-scholar, like Cicciolina urinating upon her fans, presents us with a model for cyborg politics.

Missoula, MT, 1989

Friday, March 09, 2007

My trip to Missoula, Montana, was memorable for a number of reasons. Taking place in May of 1989, it occurred just a matter of weeks before the massacre in Tiananmen Square in the People’s Republic of China, a pivotal – if, in the Chinese instance, abortive – event in the global collapse of “actually existing” Stalinist states that would result over the next two years in the fall of the Berlin Wall & implosion of the Soviet Socialist Republics. Indeed, I was already scheduled to spend part of that summer in what was then Leningrad.

I had also just started working – less than four weeks on the job – in the computer industry and had had to negotiate permission to take this week in the Rockies, plus the later time abroad (there were stops along the way in both Finland & Germany), when I first signed my contract with ComputerLand. I had just left my tenure as the executive editor of The Socialist Review (SR) – I remained on the editorial collective for an additional three years – and was making a conscious decision to go into the computer industry, sensing that technology had the potential to change the terms of many social debates of the late ‘80s.

But what makes my trip to Missoula most memorable, well beyond the stunning mountain setting of the University of Montana, very possibly the most beautiful campus in the United States, with osprey hunting fish in the river that runs through it, were my meetings with two people. One was Jean Baudrillard, whom I’d been asked to debate by the organizers of a conference focused around the work of the French philosopher.

The second was with the painter Mel Laubach, a one-time roommate of mine in San Francisco. Mel & I had put together a collective household in a seven-bedroom Victorian – total rent for the entire building was $350 – in 1975, a group that lasted with some rolling changes until the fall of 1977 when a leaky roof & recalcitrant landlord led to a rent strike & eventual eviction. Mel had been a student at the San Francisco Art Institute when I first met him, working mostly with abstracts in oil – imagine Franz Kline with paints as thick as some of Jess’ portraits of Robert Duncan – but graduated and had moved to New York City, seeking the proverbial great gallery deal & fame & fortune. I’d lost touch with him entirely until one day, when I had gotten my first East Coast reading tour ever, Charles Bernstein picked me up at the Newark airport and we were driving back into Manhattan. As we pulled through the Holland Tunnel and came to the first red light, one of the passersby in the crosswalk was Mel. We actually blocked traffic – it wasn’t going anywhere very fast anyway – for a couple of minutes as I got his contact information & told him about the reading.

Not only was Mel living in New York, but he had become the super of his building on the Lower East Side. As I was to learn that same weekend, one of the tenants in that building was Hannah Weiner. Talk about weird coincidences. I met with Mel several more times in New York – one of our old housemates actually succeeded him as that building’s super – the last time when he was working at an outdoor & camping equipment chain, thinking about going back to grad school. But when I got back to the city again, he was gone and I had no way of knowing where.

So I was floored when, as I was walking through the lobby of the Performing Arts Center in Missoula, about to deliver my talk, I ran into Mel again. He had settled in Missoula and was getting his MFA in painting there. He had not even realized that I was speaking there that night, and had never heard of Baudrillard. He’d simply heard that there was going to be a debate with a weird French philosopher and that it ought to be pretty funny. In Missoula, that was reason enough to head out of the house.

I spent a good portion of the next day with Mel. Indeed, a screw in the frame of my glasses had fallen out & disappeared the night before as I was addressing the audience of some 600 people & Mel knew which mall had a good optician who quickly repaired them – a good thing as I had a reading that night with jazz musician Eugene Chadbourne, complete with his electric rake.

I lost touch with Mel again after that & it was only a couple of months ago, after I’d googled him, looking to see if there were any jpegs of recent paintings available on the web, that I discovered that he’d been killed in 2004 in an auto accident in Missoula. And it was only after I’d emailed his widow – he’d been single when I’d seen him last – that I discovered that she was the sister of one of my co-workers from the California Institute of Integral Studies, where I’d been the director of development for several years before taking over the editorship at Socialist Review. I still have a painting of Mel’s from his Art Institute days just ten feet from where I’m typing right now.

Baudrillard was another matter. I’d read the books, of course, and had originally been interested in him as a provocative protégé of Henri Lefebvre, but had never met the person. In 1989, his star in the world of celebrity academics was at its peak & responding to him on the same stage was, in some fashion, a big deal. For me, it was an opportunity to present in a different context than any I’d had previously, tho my work at SR had put me into some pretty interesting spots, and during that period I was very much involved with working out what I felt were that mostly amnesiac premises of what in those days constituted post-modernism. Amnesiac because nobody, at least other than Jurgen Habermas, was prepared to address the problems of modernity from which the post-modern presumably sprang. Baudrillard presented a terrific opportunity to address this question and the draft of his talk that I’d been given by conference co-chair William Chaloupka – “Transpolitics, Transexuality, Transaesthetics,” maybe 90 percent of the version he eventually published in Jean Baudrillard: The Disappearance of Art and Politics – made it self-evident that I shouldn’t pass up this opportunity.

Shorter than I’d expected but perfectly affable, Baudrillard had the star routine down solid. He hadn’t flown directly into Missoula, but had landed either in the LA or Las Vegas & rented a car, seeking to drive north through the desert that he loved so much about America – I always thought that he was the one person besides Nabokov who really saw that landscape as sensuous. Unfortunately, the rental car died along the route, perhaps in Utah, and some poor grad student had had to be dispatched to fetch the stranded philosopher. The rental car was just left on the side of the road, with Baudrillard saying succinctly, “Oh, I’m sure the university will take care of that.” He’d also arrived entirely without cash – a trick I’ve seen one or two other celebrity academics pull – so that grad students were perpetually having to buy everything for him. And he was not without his appetites.

I think I surprised him in our session together. If you read his talk – and especially in the back & forth session that followed our presentations – it was clear that he expected me to represent the aesthetic in some relatively pure form, lyric poetry perhaps. But that wasn’t me and certainly what I wasn’t doing. My own piece, when I published it in that same volume¹, was entitled “What Do Cyborgs Want? (Paris, Suburb of the Twentieth Century),” playing of course off of the title of the famous Donna Haraway essay, “Cyborg Manifesto,” that had first appeared in the pages of SR a couple of years earlier.

Jean Baudrillard: The Disappearance of Art and Politics has been out of print for some time & a search of the web suggests that there are no used copies to be had at all. I’ll post my piece from the conference tomorrow if all goes well. (See alternate accounts of this conference by Thomas Dumm and Bill Borneman.)


¹ The book's subtitle was a play on my “Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World,” which Chaloupka and his co-editor William Stearns republished in that volume as well.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

March is Small Press Month


According to the Wall Street Journal,
The LA Times Book Review
is about to be toast

with the Washington Post,
SF Chronicle,
Chicago Tribune
San Diego Union-Tribune
all considering doing likewise
to their book review sections


The new Dark Ages:
Oregon libraries
are set to close


A different approach


The oldest bookstore in America


The race for a Pulitzer
has begun


Boston appears to be hunting
for Bill Corbett


is preparing
for its very first bookfest


A profile of
Roger Bonair-Agard


Poetry Day


A reason for publishers


Kathryn Starbuck,
the widow of George,
has begun writing poetry


Kermode & Gawain


Granta’s list
of the top new
American writers
under 40


"His work was enormously groundbreaking
in terms of typography,
he was using tons of odd punctuation
and strange spacing…"
(Will somebody PUH-LEASE
buy Tree Swenson
a book by e.e. cummings?)


“Like Yeats and Lowell before him
(you just know
it’s going to be all downhill
from there)


He rebelled quietly
(to say the least)


The Perfect Form
(and other
modes of hyperbole)


Mutanabi Street
where booksellers
once thrived


The decline & closure
of bookstores
and publishers

is not just
U.S. problem


What’s classical?


Who’s an authority?


Alvin Curran
Steve Lacy


The trouble with some new Pollocks


Hanging with Brice Marden


A profile of Tim Hawkinson


Michael Kimmelman
moves to Europe


An appreciation of
John Simon


Jazz man or terrorist?

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Jordan’s note to the comments stream regarding my note about Conjunctions was short, but to the point:

Never mind the names – any work in the issue you'd consider major?

I nominate Marcella Durand's lyric essay.

It’s a good question. I found myself sympathizing also with the commentators who bemoaned the difficulty of “keeping up” with journals in an era of shit distribution, increasing reliance on web publishing & still way too many print magazines. Even as I get notes every week as to “where should I send my work?” from two or three blog readers here.

I get 20 books in the mail on a slow week these days. Of these, somewhere between seven & ten deserve some serious attention. And I’m lucky if I get to half of those. It would be very easy indeed to become overwhelmed with guilt because I didn’t read your book, or his book, or her book, or that stack over there, three freaking feet tall next to the exploding eight-foot tall bookcase that contains the unread books that fit into the “deserve serious attention” category. And I can understand why friends of mine in the bookstore industry often treat their wares as if it were shit – it’s really a defense against that overwhelming guilt. There’s a tale that Milton was the last man to have read all the available literature in his time, but I suspect that’s apocryphal. I suspect that that had already become impossible.

So what does one do?

There are of course many more ways than one to read a text simply front to back the way you were taught in preschool. Just as there different ways to go to a museum or to look at a work of visual art. It’s perfectly reasonable to go to a museum and to sit in front of a single painting or sculpture all day long, just as it is to walk rapidly through gallery after gallery, letting the paintings sweep over you in waves & clusters. That is at least as valid as the zombies you see at these palaces of visual culture with the Official Story literally hanging from their neck & plugged into their ears, wandering from numbered work to numbered work, missing everything else. Or trailing a half-trained docent. Is there anyone who goes to a museum just to look at a single detail – a corner of a Rothko, or the way the registration of paint doesn’t quite fit the lips in one of Warhol’s Marilyn multiples? I don’t see why not. One can learn a lot this way.

There are, looking in Conjunctions’ 25th anniversary number, several poets whom I do tend always to read straight through – Rosmarie Waldrop, Lyn Hejinian, Rae Armantrout, Clark Coolidge, Forrest Gander, Robert Kelly, C.D. Wright – as well as a number of others whom I tend to read a lot. But even with these poets, it’s not always how I read them when I’m going through a magazine. For example, Peter Gizzi has a longish piece here, five pages, that is quite unlike much of his other poetry, entitled “Vincent, Homesick for the Land of Pictures.” Gizzi’s work often starts from a take on the work of poets, mostly New Americans, around which he constructs often dazzling meta-commentaries. “Vincent,” tho, doesn’t immediately suggest such an approach and is composed instead of 14 stanzas, each of 11 lines, long lines at that. Reading a stanza in the middle, I start to count out the feet, ten here, twelve there, until I ascertain that there isn’t a fixed pattern at this level as well. I go back to the beginning, which starts, literally, with a rhetorical question and realize that there is no way on earth I would ever complete this poem if it were by someone whose name I had never heard of before, my distaste for this relic of the 19th century is so strong. It is noteworthy, I think, that the rhetorical question –

Is this what you intended, Vincent
that we take our rest at the end of the grove
nestled into our portion beneath the bird’s migration
saying, who and how am I made better through struggle.

– itself contains an interior question, yet neither invokes or otherwise seems to warrant the actual deployment of a question mark. Gizzi wants to put the reader into a particular style of discomfort, which is consistent not only with the next question, but the remainder of the stanza itself:

Or why am I I inside this empty arboretum
this inward spiral of whoop ass and vision
the leafy vine twisting and choking the tree.
O, dear heaven, if you are indeed that
or if you can indeed hear what I might say
heal me and grant me laughter’s bounty
of eyes and smiles, of eyes and affection.

How is it, in the middle of all this self-consciously stilted language, does a phrase like whoop ass and vision suddenly show up? Otherwise, the stanza reads like a translation, deliberately so. Gizzi’s poetry often pushes & prods the reader, but this one seems instead to want to smother him or her. Gizzi very much to knows what he wants & what he’s doing here, but it’s not a journey I’m personally comfortable taking. I read & think through the first two pages, but don’t complete the piece. But I don’t feel as tho I “haven’t read it,” tho in some sense that’s exactly the case.

Another piece that seems to me no less problematic is “Realm of Ends” by Ann Lauterbach. I like Ann personally a great deal & trust her sense – one shared by several other poets in Conjunctions, including Gander & Wright – that there can be a middle road between the New Americans & the traditionalism of the School of Quietude, that one can have literally the best of both worlds without necessarily being torn apart by the contradictions. “Realm of Ends” immediately raises this same specter for me that Gizzi’s choice of dramatic monolog invokes. It is narrative to the point where I could imagine hearing Danny Glover read it aloud on NPR’s salute to fiction, Selected Shorts:

Francis turns. He has something to say. He has an
announcement. He says, “Snow in summer” and falls silent.

A single egg in the nest. Francis turns.
It is not metaphysical; it is merely distraction.

Time passes. The nest is empty.
The snow, bountiful. A girl dedicates her last weeks

to a show of force. She writes gracefully about force.
Francis turns. He seems weak and small and without volition.

Thus the bird lands on his head.
Thus there are radiant seconds.

Is it reliable? Not the garden. Not the bed.
The streaming elocution is more or less prosaic.

The bird lifts up onto the bare branch.
The tree, an elm, is dying, almost dead.

Francis is indifferent, but the bird, a cardinal,
shines on the barren branch.

Tit tit tittit tit hovers the weary pragmatist.
It is hoped, by Francis and the rest, that she

cannot know heartbreak, not
the melodrama of the nest’s margin of error.

Here Lauterbach’s mastery of line and stanza fascinate me & carry me past my initial flinch at the recognition of a narrative so symbolic that I want to cringe at a phrase like “weary pragmatist” characterizing a bird, recognizing the Catholic undertone in the choice of a cardinal, just as, at this moment, I think Lauterbach wants the reader to at least entertain the idea that this may be Francis of Assisi.

The person I immediately think of here, curiously enough, is the late William Bronk, whom I think of as the master of the line that contains within it multiple sentences with their inevitable full stops – it’s the point in Bronk’s work where he gets closest also to the Oppen of Of Being Numerous, the nearest Bronk gets to Objectivism as an overall program.

This puts me into an interesting position – Lauterbach is doing things narratively here I would almost never bother to read – it’s a model of the tale I inherently think of as false because it excludes too much, leaving us only the threads she wants to remain, more suitable to a motion picture (where the camera raises problems of containment poetry never need confront) than to a poem – but Lauterbach is also doing things to line and stanza that completely draw me in. I read the whole poem – the section above is just the first of six – feeling this push-pull dynamic the entire way. At the end I feel that Lauterbach has had her way with me, gotten me to do things I don’t generally like to do, gotten me even to enjoy it. It’s exhausting and brilliant, but it leaves me feeling upset at the same time, not just because of what occurs in the narrative, but because of the narrative itself – this poem would make a great short film, tho perhaps one only Ingmar Bergman could have directed.

So in this manner I proceed through Conjunctions, mostly skipping the fictioneers to whom I may or may not come back later. Are there works here that are major, at least in the way I presume that Jordan must mean? I’m not sure that’s the role of a journal. There are works that are entirely new in what they’re doing, including (as Jordan suggests) Marcella Durand’s work, though I wouldn’t call it a “lyric essay” so much as meditative. Jonathan Lethem has a piece that bristles with brilliance from beginning to end. Called “Their Back Pages,” this short story, which has more akin to the work of fiction of Thomas Pynchon (young Pynchon at that) than to other work I’ve previously read by Lethem, is not unmindful of the allusion to Dylan, as this inserted poem, clearly “to the tune” of “Woody’s Song,” Dylan’s very first effort at writing, testifies:

Say, Keener Dingbat, I wrote you a poem
On a funny old island where much has gone wrong
Sit right back and you’ll hear of my love
For coiled scribbled hair and your spidery legs
Not so spidery though as the giant spider I killed
To protect you, my love, but should I have let it eat
Your husband and kids and that wretched vile clown?
Oh, Keener Dingbat, you’re haunting my days
I see you in the pale lagoon and at the hidden spring
I seek you like a sheriff hunting a walnut oh shit
I stole that line, I can’t help myself, I steal everything, I am
Your Villain,

It is worth noting that everything above is immediately apparent and relevant from the perspective of the story as a whole.

Another work that jumps out at me here is by Marjorie Welish, yet another of the Third Way poets. Written in numbered sections a la Lauterbach, but centered on the page in the manner of Michael McClure, “Isle of the Signatories,” plays with narrative, literature (from Virgil to Artaud), pop culture, ontology & much more all at once. Here are the first three, of eleven, sections. Be sure to read at least the first aloud:


The following lines were omitted:

Even in
Arcady I exist
e-signature in whose writings
lie the body
or its facsimile
Et in arcadia, I also,
Saw “
Pierre” there also.


The following lines were omitted:

I, too, have known
Name, signature
Here lie
Ego’s avatars also
I, Jacques Rivière,
The lie:
Fabrication requires a thinker, he said.
Whereas, he went on, attempting to think
Any thought, yet

Attempting to think henceforth
As a text though ex temporare
All were reprinted
With the lyric effect
His and “there is”
By adverting to the effect.


The following lines were omitted, probably deliberately:

I, Marni Nixon, unpaginated
And the corrected typescript
At a table, as a text
Attempting to think henceforth
To think as the corrected typescript would think
through the lyric effect
incited to rhetoric where structure has been.

Followed by an additional line:

I, writing.

“Isle of the Signatories” has one characteristic I associate with all great literature – it makes me madly jealous that I didn’t write it. At what level is this a discussion of death’s immanence in writing? Or of the “ghost” in so much movie music that was Marni Nixon (check out her career). Or the role of the editor in the text, which is how I read Rivière’s presence here? If this poem is characteristic of what Welish is doing these days, she has clearly moved to a new level in her already quite significant career. This is a poem that not only ensures that I will read it completely, but that I will now have to go read & reread her most recent books. As Lethem’s Murkly might put it, something is happening here and there’s only one way to find out.

Monday, March 05, 2007

I’ve always found critical writing to be a useful activity. Indeed, when I first began writing relatively theoretical articles, first with “Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World” – a piece David Highsmith had to talk me into writing for an art journal he was working on – and not all that much later with “The New Sentence,” which began as a talk in Bob Perelman’s series of poets’ talks, I was pulling together lots of inchoate ideas that had been floating around in my thinking with only the loosest connections for some time, but which I had never set down in anything like a systematic manner. So just writing them up was as surprising to me as anything I wrote could have been to any other reader later on. Plus the fact that as you set things down, new pathways begin to suggest themselves, making the actual writing process really a journey of discovery. Which has a lot to do with why it’s so much fun.

The day I finally gave my talk on the new sentence, I was in the kitchen in my top-floor flat on San Jose Avenue in San Francisco typing like a crazed weasel on three pounds of meth until my downstairs neighbor, Alan Bernheimer, knocked on the back door to let me know that “we really really need to go right now if we don’t want the crowd to give up & leave.” It wasn’t the first time he’d come to check on me that afternoon. Once we got to the San Francisco Art Institute, I found myself improvising off a text – it must be in the archives at UC San Diego somewhere – that was more outline than anything else. Later when I typed it up for the anthology Bob did in his journal, Hills, I mostly just put the main points down in the manner of speech. Later, as I was editing the talk into a format for the Roof Press Book, James Sherry and my editor, David Sternbach, forced me to be clear in some thing that had slid along without being questioned. All of which is to say that what you read in the essay by that name really has no more to do with the actual talk I gave (let alone my much more cryptic notes) than the notes of Saussure’s students could be said to really be his thinking about linguistics. It’s in the vicinity, but only an approximation.

It was toward the end of that talk when I was attempting to list the qualities of the new sentence, as such, that I first mentioned torque:

1)     The paragraph organizes the sentences;

2)     The paragraph is a unity of quantity, not logic or argument;

3)     Sentence length is a unit of measure;

4)     Sentence structure is altered for torque, or increased polysemy / ambiguity;

5)     Syllogistic movement is: (a) limited; (b) controlled;

6)     Primary syllogistic movement is between the preceding and following sentences;

7)     Secondary syllogistic movement is toward the paragraph as a whole, or the total work;

8)     The limiting of syllogistic movement keeps the reader’s attention at or very close to the level of the paragraph, that is, most often at the sentence level or below.

The number on torque is, in fact, the only one that talks about what occurs within the sentence, as such. Torque, the word, was something I’d never used critically before. Indeed, I’d probably never invoked in my writing at all before that moment. It was a concept I had gotten in, of all places, my ninth or tenth grade electricity shop, a requirement for boys at Albany High, in which we hand-built little motors while attempting to learn the underlying principles of the engine. I understood it – I could have been quite wrong about this – as the force inherent in a twisting motion, and thus specifically as an expression of force. I was, at that moment, thinking specifically of the prose of Peter Seaton, Carla Harryman & Leslie Scalapino, all of whom struck me as masters syntax that started to go in one direction, only to veer off at unpredictable angles, creating as they went something of far greater power than referential or abstract meaning would lead one to suspect. Here are two paragraphs – the first of Seaton’s contribution to In the American Tree – from The Son Master:

The pro stampede which grows out of our associations of the west completely explodes it.

And here it comes again, father stuff and substitution leaving it to read persons and physiological passages for the sake of you under my own roof. I need my burg tomorrow, wishing us onto a field of appreciation like getting happiness from God or Kings or Congress. It’s clear close to the letters leaving everything as a demonstration of alarm, dangers of the test for George for a notion I would like to fix it so. Reading ambition, what the father in English charges streaks as a single line under the thundering thumb.

What is the status of that first sentence? It’s not, strictly speaking, referential, tho a clever reading shouldn’t have that much trouble gleaning meaning from it. But the word choices – the diction of the abbreviated pro or the insertion of the intensifier – seem determined to keep our focus as close to the word or phrase as might be possible. And consistently, throughout these few sentences and elsewhere in Seaton’s work, we come across sentences that can’t possibly be boiled down because at every juncture the actual focus of what is being said can change, not unintelligibly so, but with such localism of attention that the reader is forever refocusing on what “here” means, what “now” is.

This of course is something that occurs in a lot of poetry that is not in prose, particularly since the end of the Second World War and the advent of an interest in Asian literary heritage on the part of many of the New American poets. Phil Whalen seems a very clear instance of this, but so are Anselm Hollo, Robert Creeley, Larry Eigner. What Seaton is showing – not unlike some of what we can learn by close reading Leslie Scalapino – is how this might occur as well in prose. It’s something one finds a great deal of, say, in the early short fiction of Robert Creeley, not to mention Jack Kerouac, in whose works sentences often stretch out so far that keeping it all in mind isn’t even a possibility, so that you are forced to readjust your focus, something that radically reconstitutes what reading means.

The Son Master is prose torqued up high, close to what you will find it at times in the work of Clark Coolidge, neither of whom prove as angular as, say, Scalapino. Whereas the normative view of the sentence is as a “complete thought” – subject (often a noun phrase) + predicate – these are sentences that prove reluctant to conclude, preferring, at moments, to turn & turn & turn again:

A person walking in the freezing countryside in a parka, gloves wool clothes, and no one else being around. Angry voices wrestling in the person as she’s concentrating and walking, beside the road in the snow were the marks of a struggle of a bird picking up an animal. The dark glasses of the person freezing over but the glare from the light snow blinding, feet numbing, having to get back to home – then listening to the radio, people to be in from the freezing, children not to be going out to schools.

A woman reading on the radio, and then in the great heat she and a man bicycling by the corn fields a dark sky that seems to be a tornado near where they’d come from, where they’re living. Bicycling back because of that, sweating in the heat. A dog chasing them up the road. The siren of the tornado warning whined. At night a strand of lightning singes the building, there in bed in the dark. Turn on the radio to hear which has just been blasted back on, after going off.*

There is a footnote attached to that asterisk which reads “See Jerry Ratch, Plein-Air, for fields with crows in them.”

It is not that Scalapino is being obfuscatory or in any way “difficult” in this passage from The Return of Painting, even as her unnamed but gendered characters go from hypothermia to extreme heat within the course of two paragraphs, only one sentence of which follows the normative subject → predicate model: The siren of the tornado warning whined. But normative grammar would suggest that there in bed in the dark refers back either to building or a strand of lightning, and yet no reader I can imagine will be confused by that. Because it’s not about building transparent (or even elegant) grammatical architecture, the transparent prose of a Twain or Bellow, but of representing the shape of time & of experience. Elsewhere, in a piece entitled “’Thinking Serially,’ in For Love, Words and Pieces,” Scalapino writes

Creeley’s use of autobiographical reference, is following the movement of itself in time (watching the mind) – rather than the expression of ‘creation’ of a personality. Its mirroring of its own mind formation and its race to out-run that as ‘serial thinking’ is not static personality creation because it is only that movement.

This internally produced ‘argument’ (the mind watching itself and trying to outrace its own closure, as a ‘particular’ form in this time) rather than being a trap that ultimately enshrines the self, are pieces in the collection of writing which by the very fact of occurring as ‘merely’ components repeating a conflict, as it shows up, without essential change, are not ‘that’ (fixed) psychology.

Nearly 30 years after I pulled together that initial list, there’s nothing particularly new about the new sentence. Like the title of the talk itself, torque is a term that has had something of a career of its own. But given the degree to which I was appropriating a term from a radically different discourse, the idea that it has been in any way useful to anybody subsequently strikes me as fortuitous in the extreme. Mike Hauser’s initial question, which prompted Kasey Mohammad’s response, which in turn provoked this note, isn’t at all off the mark. The suggestiveness of the thing has been far more powerful than the thing itself. And Kasey’s attempt at a definition is about 90 percent on target.

A couple of addenda are worth noting. One is that I never intended to suggest that any particular sentence or piece of writing needed to satisfy all eight points of that list to qualify as a “new sentence,” only that these are some of the features one can anticipate finding there. The excerpt from The Return of Painting demonstrates an instance in which torque pretty much is the only element from that list that’s active there, largely because Leslie is pursuing a different set of interests in that piece. I do know that when I wrote that list, it was very much “top down,” in that the first item – The paragraph organizes the sentences – is by far the most important. So there was (is?) a hierarchy of formal interests I was noticing in the writing being done at that moment in the late 1970s.

A second is that torque, as such, has generally become less important among younger poets. To the great detriment to their poetry. I can’t really think of anybody under the age of, say, 40, whose work is as syntactically marked as distinct as that of Scalapino, Coolidge or Seaton – their writing is unmistakable. In a sense, the disruptiveness that one senses around such work has continued – one sees it in both visual & conceptual poetics. One sees it in flarf, which loves to foreground its seams, or in a work like Nick Thurston’s Reading the Remove of Literature, just out from Information as Material, a personally annotated & highlighted edition of Maurice Blanchot’s L’Espace littéraire in which every word of Blanchot’s master text has been erased. But this is disruption not at the moment of a syntactic turn, but merely at the level of the text as idea. It is not too much to suggest that, in this sense, torque largely has been marginalized. Why, precisely, and what that means are questions we (I) need to be asking now.