The revised Estranging Lyric proposes to examine the emergence of civilian guilt as one of the dominant modes in which the moral regime of financial capitalism comes to be developed out of the framework of postwar Europe. I argue that poetry creates a space in which the discourse of political morality becomes discernible, first, because the subject of poetry figures centrally in how the postwar dialectic of culture and barbarism reaches its so-called last stage, and second, because the processes of identification that become perceptible in this “crisis of lyric agency” map onto the crises of political activity experienced after the second world war. In short, the lyric “I” becomes a cipher for reading the newly construed “bystander,” who arose as the model of the world citizen after the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Part of the work of the book is to develop the terms for talking about this postwar period, in which, I argue, the terms of “culture” and the “economy” are developed together. In this book, I propose a strong reading of the “postwar,” problematizing characterizations of the period as the aftermath of trauma. Instead, I focus on how economic restructuring gets taken up through figures of guilt and responsibility. The unique focus of my project lies in approaching the discursive aspect of guilt and considers how this period yields the simultaneous constitution and crisis of the liberal bourgeois subject as the subject of lyric poetry. The situation of this discussion around the figure of war isolates the problem of violence and representation by establishing barbarism as the term through which the continuity of European fascism and imperialism can be thought. In contrast to books that explore postwar culture as a problem or crisis of representation, this book addresses the continuity of aggression in the postwar through the construction of morality.
There are many historical pinpoints that elicit periods and readings of the “postwar” period, and there are multiple aspects of the restructuring processes, including the global economic policies put forth in Bretton Woods in 1944 implemented later in 1958, the Marshall Plan, the creation of the IMF and World Bank, the restructuring of defeated countries and the organization of Cold War states, decolonization, and wars of national liberation. Now, it is possible to see this all as the unfolding of capitalism, of neo-liberal economic policies, and to see it not as something inevitable, but as something with pronounced turning points throughout. Accompanying these discontinuous developments of today’s late capitalist world, are the moral and ethical positions that not only keep pace with development, but present us with the very capacity to make sense of historical periods. This is crucial: it is crucial that the construction of morality and the distribution of ethical behavior are not just the ideological underpinning of these economic and structural forms of violence, but that they are the very means by which we can claim to be able to see something like the system from the position of the system, to see the very materiality and immateriality of labor. The arc that forms connecting one plotted point to the next coincides with a necessity that appears narrative.
The question I approach is thus an inversion of one that is often posed elsewhere, such as Christopher Nealon’s notion in his article “Value| Theory | Crisis” (PMLA 127.1 (Jan 2012)101-106) that it is “not the pursuit of a transcendental vantage point or the critique of that pursuit but the relentless surveying of possible grounds for solidarity among those for whom the regime of capital spells only suffering” (106, cites after During 115). The turn to poetry made recently and explicitly by Nealon and by Joshua Clover (whose essay of the same title also appears in this issue of PMLA, pages 107-114), as a response to the narrative (and I would say performative) supremacy of the linguistic turn (and post-structuralism), involves thinking about the suitability of poetry as a form to deal with the contradictions of “value theory” (Clover 110).
Acknowledging, as Nealon does above, that the pursuit of the subject and its critique are one and the same, his positing of a third, of the “solidarity [of] … suffering,” raises similar contradictions about how to think of the position of subjectivity. If Nealon exhibits “the optimism of the will,” Clover, in his own phrase, inhabits “the delusion of the intellect” (Clover 113), something that, if I am to read him correctly, is only a good thing. Postwar poetry too has a lot to say about the tension that holds between the collective “we” and the individually deluded “I,” and more explicitly about the claims that are made to either of these positions. It is for good reason that Adorno maintains the tension and distinction between individual and collective identifications--not, of course, to place one above the other, but because of this very tension, which is at the heart of the production of morality.
The value of addressing the terms of identification in poetry is that it opens up questions about how we can theorize the crisis of agency and also possibilities of subjectivity. These are important because they concern “the subjective life-world of labor” (Clover 111). If it is true that poetry is better equipped to deal with the “axial transmutation” of price into value, as Clover claims, or with “passing off time as space,” it is not because it has resolved and put behind the debates and discussion surrounding poetry in Europe in the 40s and 50s, and in the U.S. in the 60s and 70s, which track the emergence of the problem of the subject. By “problem,” I mean, perhaps, what Jason Read has identified in The Micro-politics of Capital: Marx and the prehistory of the Present as the “philosophical” nature of the mode of production, which Read emphasizes is not “just another name for economy or society,” but relates to the production of consciousness and subjectivity (6). My study of poetry develops this aspect of Marxist and poetic thought, proposing that the lyric “I” is a cipher for this problem of subjective agency.
The experience of feeling “haunted,” which Clover describes in “Autumn of the System: Poetry and Financial Capital” (Journal of Narrative Theory 41.1 (Spring 2011) 34-52) as akin to Jameson’s account of the “waning of affect,” is the experiential grasp of this subtraction: “the feeling of M-M’; haunted by the C to come” (Clover 46). The experience of this haunting has a correlate in postwar writing on the problem of civilian guilt. Different, and yet not unrelated to mourning, or the working through of the atrocity of the Holocaust, civilian guilt involves thinking about the limits of language, that is, precisely those points at which things become unsayable. Normally read through trauma theory, the unsayable also pertains to the intractability of the moral and economic and to be more precise to the figure of indeterminacy and delusion that is well-taken by the “I” in postwar lyric. My thesis is that the crisis of agency in the lyric speaker of postwar poetry corresponds to the experience of civilian guilt. Civilian guilt, in the figure of the bystander, in turn, becomes the founding narrative of postwar reconstruction; it describes how subjects experience the postwar but it also involves the subject’s capacity to maintain the delusion of a moral regime that accompanies capital’s global expansion.
Postwar poetry makes the argument that wartime aggression continues into daily life, that it becomes everyday. But this argument is supplanted by another, more critical discourse, which notes a similar phenomenon. This critical postwar poetry regards the continuation of aggression into society as the extension of European imperialism and thus as the continued project of European self-making. These “I”s are thus critical of both reconstruction and the denunciation of aggression because they are two sides of the same construction of morality. The project is thus to think about the genealogy of the bystander, the guilty civilian, who becomes the figure of morality that accompanies the regime of postwar globalized capital. There are reasons to locate this figure in the context of Germany. The bystander, I propose, is not immediately the liberal subject, but the barbarity of bystanding becomes internalized or introjected; it provides us with a model for thinking about the problems of the liberal subject that is no merely not-not-a-collective, and by taking the conflict between ethical and transcendental subject head on.