Saturday, November 16, 2013

you were a lithe wingless bird,
and beloved, it's been three years of
unincorporated tundra
on the streets Sunset
always littered with
people pushing carts
and strollers. It was
not short of business
either and things were
worn on sleeves
so that's a loss
here there's
far fewer objects
for the psyche to sit in
and the violet skies have blown off

lately everything about the business of life
and life has the feeling of having
already happened to some not me
and the feeling that everything has
changed is the feeling
of wanting something else and everywhere
this is but in me

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Dialogism, et al.

Zehra Çirak’s poem, “Kein Sand im Rad der Zeit [No Sand in the Wheel of Time],” from her collection Fremde Flügel auf eigener Schulter [Foreign Wing on a Familiar Shoulder] (1994), plays with the referentiality of the lyric “I,” the poetic speaker. Çirak’s status as a minority writer in Germany was established when she was awarded the Adalbert-von-Chamisso Prize in 1989 (for young writers whose native tongue is not German). In this “thing poem,” the speaker is a bicycle. However, it is not just any bicycle, but a bicycle circulating dialogically between her work and the tradition of political lyric poetry in Cold War and post-Cold War Germany. Çirak’s poem references two others, Bertolt Brecht’s “Der Radwechsel [Wheel Change]” (1953) and Günter Eich’s “Sand im Getriebe [Sand in the Gears]” (1960). These two poems have a status beyond their texts—Brecht’s poem became an example of the postwar notion of “political” art (art that is political because it refuses political content); lines from Eich’s poem are well known and have even become a slogan for the anti-globalization organization Attac. By pointing out its intertexts, I read Çirak’s poem in dialogue with other works dealing with the relation between the literary work and society, between literary referent and social reference, because this, roughly speaking, is the terrain of dialogism. With Brecht and Eich as points of reference, Çirak’s poem can be seen to raise questions about how ethnic literature speaks the language of a national literature, even as it takes place in the gap between the things and words of a national language.

In approaching this instance of intertextuality through the notion of dialogism, I mean to highlight a structure of identification and dis-identification that is at play in the figure of the poetic “I,” and which refers to the lyric subject’s otherness to itself. I argue that Çirak’s minor poetry eschews its expressive function vis-à-vis national literature and actively constructs the ambivalence of the lyric “I” through a transformational dialogue with that literature concerning the things of culture and the poetic language that purports to refer to them. This raises a central question: how does the ambivalence of the ethnic, dialogic, and lyric “I” invite us to think differently about the politics of identity in the lyric speaker? Thinking about “ambivalence” as a matter of dialogism, I take up the insight that the lyric speaker is at the same time an individual (monological) moral subject and a collective (dialogic) social force. In “Word, Dialogue, and Novel,” Julia Kristeva describes this ambivalence as the work’s being constituted by both monological and dialogical spaces. Ambivalence is another way of thinking about the radical alterity of dialogism, in contrast to mere opposition of author and character.

My readings of Çirak develop these ideas about the ambivalence of the lyric “I.” Çirak engages with this gap in referentiality because in writing and speaking about her poems she eschews the particularity of culture in favor of more universal questions about identity, violence, and embodiment. As an author who dis-identifies with her status as a minority writer, an attitude that is shared by many artists and writers who refute their Turkish-German or other hyphenated identity, she presents the central paradox of this dialogic referentiality as how to read the ambivalence of ethnic identity within a national tradition. As John Kim describes, and as bears out in scholarship on Çirak, this trend to read “the specter of the autobiographical ‘self’ when reading the figure of the ethnicized narrative ‘I’” (333) extends to reading Çirak’s dis-identification with this identity as a part of her poetry. Çirak scholar Marilya Veteto-Conrad presents a good example of this when she describes this conflict that was there for Çirak between her poems being read for “aesthetic value” versus primarily for their “ethnic origin.” Although I arrive where Kim does in thinking how the parallel structures of ethnicity and irony lead to the self’s “absolute negation in ‘being’ nothing” (349), I find that dialogism allows the question of the ambivalence of this poetic identity to be raised as an ethical and political question.

If, as I argue, the terrain of dialogism is the relation between literary referent and social reference, Çirak’s play with the referentiality of the poetic speaker shifts the coordinates of subject and object with German lyric poetry. The critical discourse of Migrationliteratur challenges common understandings of dialogic communication “as a process in which readers and characters engage as representatives of discrete worlds.” In The Turkish Turn in Contemporary German Literature, Leslie Adelson proposes that such dialogism be understood instead through the “riddle of referentiality,” a phrase that she uses to indicate the chiasmic relation between figuration and referential meaning. Adelson describes how this takes place as a dialogic encounter “between an object of analysis and its interpreter, one that seeks to bridge a gap inherent in the initial relationship” (24), but as she claims, critical work should aim to keep open this gap rather than to close it. In poetry, the lyric “I” takes place in this gap as a reference that arises in the ambivalence of thing and word.

Theoretically, these thoughts draw on the limitations of Bakhtin’s theory for dialogism, which originate in his distinction between poetry and prose and his insistence on the non-dialogic aspect of poetry. Paul de Man’s reading in “Dialogue and Dialogism” of Bakhtin’s distinction between the “expressive” aspect of poetry and the dialogical aspect of the novel resolves into a “separation of trope from dialogism.” De Man thus points to how expression forms a limit of the dialogic work, returning to questions of referentiality explored in thinking about the literal and figural grounds of metaphor. Developing the critical work of Adelson and Kim on referentiality, I advance this thinking about why poetry does not count as a form of dialogism to think about why the dialogism of migration and minority literature so often reduces the “I” to an expressive voice. Another point of reference is Peter Hitchcock’s Dialogics of the Oppressed (1993), in which he proposes that Bakhtinian aesthetic activity, which involves this structure of identification/dis-identification (first as the author puts himself in the place of the character and then as he moves away from this identification (47)) makes the theory of dialogism particularly apt for thinking about what he calls “subaltern subjectivity” (xi), of those who are oppressed on the basis of race, gender, or class. Building on this critical theoretical work, I argue that reading minority poetry dialogistically illuminates some of the problems of the expressive subject, in particular, assumptions that surface about the politics of identity in poetry.

Sunday, May 12, 2013


the line
a measure of
the distance from A
point zero
B is
the ontological divide
branches cross |volutions| of sky
blech blech blech blech blech blech
take (the absolute value
of) that
revolution, white noise

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Bartleby, preferrer?

Two recent essays that engage both with "Bartleby" and with the idea of disobedience propose to think about what models of "resistance" are provided by this enigmatic figure/Melville's enigmatic text. Aaron Bady's "Bartleby in the University of California: The Social Life of Disobedience" looks at how disobedience is related to critique, and specifically to critique's dependence on its object, as he describes the difficulty of critiquing the privatization of the university, for example, without taking on the "very language of the corporate university itself." In "Bartleby's Occupation: Passive Resistance Then and Now," Jonathan Poore describes how Melville's story stages the "gap" between the point of view of production and the point of view of the market. Both Bady and Poore distance themselves from promoting Bartleby to an Example, as Deleuze does in "Bartleby, or the Formula," which, it's safe to say, informs the short list of recent theorists (given by Poore) who have: Agamben, Hardt and Negri, Zizek (and to which I would add Tiqqun). And both play with the idea and language of "preference," Bartleby's singular utterance, providing rich interpretations of this textual moment that make it seem all the more relevant to think about the theoretical implications of this term--of preference--for thinking about political activity.

In Bady's account, Bartleby presents the communicatory effectiveness of "negative affect," because his assertion of a "negative preference" (of preferring not to) suspends the possibility of engaging with him in a reasonable way, as soon all those in the office seem to be affected by these words, even the lawyer. Bady writes, "When he is presented with Bartleby, however—that obstinately present absence of affect—he can no longer be a copyist, because there is nothing to copy. He has no choice but to become a writer: he has to invent stories about a character whose apparent subjective core is an absence of subjectivity. Faced with Bartleby—a kind of subjective zero point—the narrator not only finds his own humanity cast into sharp relief, but he discovers that he must improvise, act, invent, and in so doing, becomes a person who, for the first time, also prefers." The analogy that Bady draws to the corporate university, to the UC, then, involves the identification of the UC faculty, staff, and students who protested, or assembled, or disobeyed as the crisis. In the above quotation, Bady describes how Bartleby initiates the "reaction" of the lawyer in much the same way that the chancellor and other administrative figures reconfigure their actions as reactions, in order to also reconfigure responsibility as not their own.

But how does the lawyer prefer? And how does the UC prefer (if the analogy is indeed, as I am reading it, between these figures)? Certainly, "Bartleby" illustrates the dependence of so-called figures of authority on those who are subordinate to them, as Bady also points out. Although it is not spelled out in the essay, Bady seems to arrive at the paradoxical kernel of preference (and its splitting into good and bad) when he describes how critique loses its capacity to resist because it is dependent upon power: "Instead of 'how not to be governed like that'—which might be expressive of a desire for the absence of governance—critique describes 'how to be governed, BUT how not to be governed not like that.'" What would be negative preference (a desire for the absence of governance) is flattened out, so to speak, into a choice between two options that really lead to the same place. This mode of preferring is the outcome of a critique that is not based on truth, but emerges from authority as a justification of its very existence (as power). The tendency to present "choices" as much more complex than action admits, as being conditioned by multiple factors, as (per Bady) "enshroud[ed] a kind of fog of war," etc., also takes on and appropriates the language of preference by disavowing the presence of a wish "not to be," or that one could prefer this "nothing" over a "something." A radical preference includes a capacity for the wish "not to be"; it's this that administrators cannot think, admit, or create.

Marxist interpretations of "Bartleby," as are mentioned by Poore, tend to emphasize the "negativity" or "absoluteness" of his withdrawal/refusal/preference as a way of conceptualizing as necessary the autonomy of this moment of refusal (so that it can be characterized--positively, by them--as a vacuous resistance). As Deleuze writes in "Bartleby, or the Formula," Bartleby's gesture--his rejection of a "non-preferred option," which "continually recharges itself"--is construed as action. Insofar as it can be seen as distinct from the lawyer-narrator, who observes the action, acting qua negative preference can be seen as pure activity, as an act in which the autonomy of movement that it seems to achieve is executed on the basis of this "negativity beyond negativity." My interest in "Bartleby," however, resides in the indistinction between Bartleby and the lawyer-narrator, an indistinction that would posit preferring and negative preferring as two poles of the same process, as is suggested in Bady's reading. The indistinction presented in the story resides in the ambiguity of Bartleby as actor (who prefers not to) and the lawyer-narrator as spectator (who prefers), and the many instances in which they seem to be one and the same figure (seeing each other through and as the bust of Cicero, for example). This ambiguity seems to function to remind the reader that at every instance, the actor is also a spectator, or as Hannah Arendt would put it, that there is "a spectator in every actor." Arendt's idea that preference functions like a "silent sense" to "approve or disapprove" of an action emphasizes the role that spectation has in radical activity, but also suggests that the radicality of Bartleby's negative preferring cannot be separated out from the lawyer-narrator's non-radical (i.e. neoliberal?) preferring.

In "Bartleby's Occupation," Jonathan Poore concludes that Bartleby's recent vogue and exemplary status in Occupy is "peculiar" and I agree with this (see Lauren Klein, "What Bartleby Can Teach Us about Occupy Wall Street"; Jonathan Greenberg, "Occupy Wall Street's Debt to Melville"; Jac Asher, "'Preferring Not To' in the Age of Occupy"; Regina Dilgen, "The Original Occupy Wall Street: Melville's 'Bartleby, the Scrivener'"). Citing Bartleby's failure to resist in the way that contemporary activists, theorists, and literary scholars generally find, Poore writes, "Bartleby sought to express a principled opposition to the market in the form of a statement of preference, but his resistance remains a “dead letter” because to convert principles into preferences is merely to mirror the action of the market itself. Ultimately, then, rather than imagining the state as an effective mechanism of resistance to the market, “Bartleby” dramatizes the pervasiveness of the market (or properly speaking, market ideology), its ability to absorb resistance into itself." Poore describes how "Bartleby" stages a gap between the perspectives of labor and the market and ultimately shows how resistance to the market cannot take on the terms of the market (i.e. must step outside of market ideology), and he argues that critics such as Zizek and Hardt and Negri who invoke Bartleby as a figure also fail to step outside of the language (and ideolgoy) of the market. One aspect of the failure of Bartleby to function as a force of resistance has to do, according to Poore, with the way that privatization converts principles into preferences: "In other words, resistance itself essentially becomes privatized, as political principles find their primary expression in market preferences." This assessment of the co-optation of principles of resistance by the market also implies that the faculty of preferring consists is also already inscribed (and only legible) within the market. But this is also only the case if one returns to the conceptual opposition (between the state and the market, or between labor and the market) that Poore has convincingly argued becomes problematically conflated (in the figure of "society" or "social institutions") in the anti-capitalist movement.

But of course there are places where "society" is the conflation of these terms (i.e. according to Marx's ideas about "real subsumption" of labor under capital) or that social relations, indeed "society" changes as a result of changes in the mode of production. Arendt's idea that preference is the faculty of approbation or disapprobation only makes sense when it can be seen to function in opposition to this "society," where what is at stake is not the idea that "preferences" will only mirror the institution (be it the UC, the market, etc.,) they seek to resist, but the fact that preferences make an intervention in what appears as "the realm of necessity," which is dictated by various social institutions. The impact of this line of thought becomes clearer if we turn to Marxist feminist ideas, following Maria Mies, of the interpenetration of patriarchy and capitalism in the system of Capitalist-Patriarchy. Mies describes how "feminists not only challenged the division of labour but also the very divisions of 'work' and 'non-work'. This approach also put into question the accepted division, following from other dualistic divisions, between politics and economics" (Patriarchy & Accumulation on a World Scale 31). One of the primary challenges raised by Marxist feminists in the 70s was that the "socially invisible" (31) work of reproductive labor is necessary for the reproduction of the working class, i.e. for productive, wage-labor. In effect, therefore, the realm of necessity and of "necessary labor" became redefined as "socially invisible" work. This has many other consequences, of course, but to return to "Bartleby," we might observe that one of the things the text presents is the interruption of productive labor and of the workplace with the reproductive labor of Bartleby, insofar as the office-space becomes his home; the private sphere of necessity, of domestic labor, erupts into the public space of the office (think of the narrator-lawyer's discovery that "for an indefinite period Bartleby must have ate, dressed, and slept in my office"). The text does not render this labor visible as labor, in the way that a feminist interpretation of it would, but it does suggest that what Arendt finds about preference, namely that the faculty of approbation and disapprobation can intervene in the realm of necessity by illuminating what appears as necessary to not be and vice versa, takes place primarily in this realm of reproductive labor, where actions that might otherwise be invisible appear as visible.

This is meant as a provocation, although not yet fully developed, to readings of "Bartleby" that focus on the power of his gesture as a way of creating a praxis based on the "negativity" of preference as a principle of action. As Bady, Poore, and other Bartleby readers have shown, there is no reason to presume that the "negativity" of preference is more immediately political (even if this is perhaps (!?) their unexpressed wish) than any other gesture, but what Arendt's and Mies's ideas about the ambiguous relations between "invisible work" and the "silent sense" present is the even a "wish for nothing," which forms the basis of radical preference, can intervene in what appears as necessary.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Nonintegration, the Unintegrated State: the Silence of Falling Trees

One of the impressive features of Freud's "Thoughts for the Times on War and Death" is the emphasis that he places on the disjuncture between individual morality and the morality of the community, a disjuncture that is also at play in his account of the ambivalence of civilization and barbarism. The difference in the matter has to do with the role and the function of instinctual renunciaton, which both "creates" civilization (per Freud), but also (per Adorno) only creates civilization (i.e. leads to the appropriation of individual interests for the sake of "humanity"). In his effort to describe the primitive attitude towards death, from which he thinks we stand to learn something, Freud digresses about the function of the artwork in representing death:
"It is an inevitable result of all this that we should seek in the world of fiction, of general literature and of the theatre compensation for the impoverishment of life. There we still find people who know how to die, indeed, who are even capable of killing someone else. There alone too we can enjoy the condition which makes it possible for us to reconcile ourselves with death—namely, that behind all the vicissitudes of life we preserve our existence intact. For it is indeed too sad that in life it should be as it is in chess, when one false move may lose us the game, but with the difference that we can have no second game, no return-match. In the realm of fiction we discover that plurality of lives for which we crave. We die in the person of a given hero, yet we survive him, and are ready to die again with the next hero just as safely."
As he describes elsewhere (primarily in "Creative Writers and Daydreaming") through the concept of forepleasure, Freud here again attempts to account for that "extra" work that the artwork does; the so-called "incentive bonus" of the artwork, which elicits--also through identification--catharsis for an observing audience. But the suggestion that "compensation for the impoverishment of life" is provided by artworks links aesthetic "forepleasure" more explicitly with the performance of instinctual renunciation, with the renounced "death wish" that there is to experience (so his narrative of the primitive attitude of death goes) that is there in the observation of the deaths of others. The secret of forepleasure, then, is that it can provide us with the experience of the "plurality of lives," and this somehow provides the "compensation" for the feeling that life is impoverished. This is a feeling that Freud finds characteristic of the modern attitude towards death and one that he is optimistic that war (via aggression) could also work against, that is, counter-intuitively, that war could enrichen the experience of life.

Winnicott's similar interpretation of a patient that "All sorts of things happen and they wither. This is the myriad deaths you have dies. But if someone is there, someone who can give you back what has happened, then the details dealt with in this way become part of you, and do not die" (Playing and Reality 82) contributes to the development of the link between forepleasure and death. In the footnote to this interpretation, he comments: "This is, the sense of self comes on the basis of an unintegrated state which, however, by definition is not observed and remembered by the individual, and which is lost unless observed and mirrored back by someone who is trusted and who justifies the trust and meets the dependence." Here, and in other essays on the maturation of infants, he writes about the "unintegrated" state which precedes the important phase of "integration" in child development. This "unintegrated state," which he describes as also existing in older children and adults as a "non-purposive state" (74) is "the opposite of integration" (86).

The value of making a distinction between the pre-integration state (which is also not disintegration) and integration lies is Winnicott's desire to say something about "what life can be about for healthy children and adults" and thus to creativity and culture (there are also things to say, he notes, about the unintegrated state in relation to infant life and schizoid disorders). In "The Concept of a Healthy Individual," he writes, "In adult life, integration is enjoyed along with the ever-extending meaning of the term right up to and including integrity. Disintegration, in resting and in relaxation and in dreaming, can be allowed by the healthy person, and the pain associated with it accepted, especially because relaxation is associated with creativity, so that it is out of the unintegrated state that the creative impulse appears and reappears. Organized defence against disintegration robs the individual of the precondition for the creative impulse and therefore prevents creative living" (Home is Where We Start From 29). In his footnote, he also gestures towards forepleasure: "It is thought by some, as in Balint's paper (in Problems of Human Pleasure and Behavior, 1952) discussing Khan, that much of the pleasure in the experience of art in one form or another arises from the nearness to unintegration to which the artist's creation may safely lead the audience or viewer. So where the artist's achievement is potentially great, failure near the point of achievement may cause great pain to the audience by bringing them close to disintegration or the memory of disintegration, and leaving them there. The appreciation of art thus keeps people on a knife-edge, because achievement is so close to painful failure. This experience must be reckoned part of health." As Winnicott suggests, like Freud, the value of art, as described, is its ability to create conditions for the experience of nonintegration, a state that is lost unless observed and reflected back by someone (or in the case of the artwork, something). Much like the question of whether a tree can be heard if it falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, the enigma lies in imagining the parameters of a state that hinges on, but does not necessarily lead to integration (to being heard). The silence of the tree that falls without being heard is nonintegration.

As suggested by Winnicott, and by Bernard Golse's definition of "integration" in the International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, nonintegration is significant because it implies the trust to "yield to this regressive movement"; such a negative state occurs like depression between integration and disintegration, civilization and barbarism, and guilt and aggression to indicate the work of alternative forms of rearrangement that enhance our understanding of agency and activity--political, emotional, and otherwise.

photo: Philli Workman
Disclaimer: Above thoughts and associations might only be confused at this point...

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The "empathy gap"?

As news of the Guantanamo Hunger Strike continues to come to the forefront of media outlets, including the New York Times publication of Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel's op-ed of his experiences in the camp, a major victory for the counter-terrorist state took place in Boston. Last September, Amnesty International published an article, titled "Why Close Guantanamo? A Dead Man's Poem Speaks" by Zeke Johnson on the death of Adnan Latif on September 8, 2012, which has been determined to be suicide (but as Marc Falkoff writes before the autopsy was done, was a result of "detention"). As Andy Worthington states in an article first published on the Close Guantanamo website, Latif was released for return to Yemen, but the actual release was prohibited by Obama's moratorium on releasing Yemenis in Guantanamo following the (failed) 2009 Christmas Day bomb plot. Latif's "Hunger Strike Poem," published in the 2007 collection Poems from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak functions to phrase those pertinent questions about the role of the "world" that have similarly been raised in the juxtaposition of the victims of the Boston Marathon Bombing and the victims of US drone attacks, and relatedly about the characterization of certain violence as "terrorism." Latif writes,
They are artists of torture,
They are artists of pain and fatigue,
They are artists of insults
and humiliation.
Where is the world to save us
from torture?
Where is the world to save us
from the fire and sadness?
Where is the world to save
the hunger strikers?
The questions raised by contemplating the role of the "world" as observer have come down, in some accounts, to an "empathy gap," a term which writer Teju Cole has used to describe the "heavy silence" surrounding the use of drones to assassinate people outside of the country, and in general the incapacity of the American public to care about the victims of its violence.

But there are problems with the "empathy gap," and in general with using empathetic identification as a guideline for moral action or responsibility, and Latif's poem addresses some of these problems, which I would like to deliberate over here in both a preliminary and a restropective way. The primary problem with what I call "empathic identification" is the way that it constructs the subject as a victim of imperial aggression without taking into account the fundamental ambivalence of this subject as victim and as an agent who exposes aggression. In an essay published in Postmodern Culture in 2011, "The Enemy Combatant as Poet: The Politics of Writing in Poems from Guantanamo," I argued that the status of guilt assumed by the "enemy combatant" is related to this exposure of the aggression of his enemies and that even liberal commentators do not get past reading the poems as testimonies of the violence and of their suffering. And while this testimonial function is important to effecting an actual change in either conditions or in the existence of the prison on the basis of Human Rights violations, the poem, like other poems in the collection, also challenge at a more fundamental level the complicity of the discourse of Human Rights with US and Western interests. The poems point out that this complicity, and not a lack of empathy, informs the blindness of Western, in particular, US observers.

In Latif's poem, as in other poems, the language of universal human rights is pursued through the figure of the “world” as an impartial judge or law outside the prison: a world “that will wait for us,” to which “photographs of my corpse at the grave” will be sent, “before” which men will bear a “burden” and, finally, as an implied addressee, if “justice and compassion remain in this world.” As Latif writes, “Where is the world to save us from torture? / Where is the world to save us from the fire and sadness? / Where is the world to save the hunger strikers?” In these formulations, the world becomes a figure for human rights, the neutral observer who is there to witness suffering. But as we know, and as critiques of Human Rights Discourse have long established, such neutrality is a pretension. Despite this, there is little sense about how to move past these constructs and frame the terms of moral responsibility in another way. The poems, however, which challenge the triangular relationship between "Us," "Them," and the "World," present a poetic speaker that takes place within a history of forms that is irreducible to the enunciation of a universal human subject. The ambiguity of this poetic speaker resists discernible efforts to provide a “close-up” of the terrorist turned victim, and in this way, the poems operate critically in a milieu otherwise rife with naïve assumptions about the self-evidence of testimony in expressive work.

In important ways, reading this poetic speaker yields a take on aggression that might help us to perceive some of the alternative expressive aspects of "terrorist" violence. It's this--and not empathy--however, which the American public does not want to hear, since then it would also have to confront the violent contours of its own guilt--not the aggression of imperialism as a national phenomenon, but the aggression that figures in the experience of complicity (as a registration of both empathy and the "empathy gap"). Such ideas, I would suggest, could help us to think about the ambivalence of aggression and victimhood, or of civilization and barbarism, in constructions of morality in imagining alternative experiences of political and ethical subjecthood.

Monday, April 22, 2013


why, Leben? And after that,
it snowed
translucent middle night
the margins of the page
absorb color,
icicle snow | fantasize that

it's the construction of the battlefield,
too | in all the elsewhere
guilt, the palpable emotion

the child |is| the revolutionary spectator
above all, this is what
being |a parent|
implies, and yet, we close it off
there are "real, active men" out there
setting out

lost in all the drifts

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


what a |lovely| day
the spring
already up
with sun
the outside
world again
--you have a fantasay
that you have
a job--so robbing,
the indigo bunting
migrates by night.
this is enough.

this is enough

One of the most common desires of critical work is to get beyond the binary. There are many figures for the division--contradiction, antagonism, double bind, splitting--terms that also involve the construction of definitions that function to make clear the boundaries at work between terms. As Maria Mies describes in Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale (London: Zed Books, 1986), the strategy of the feminist movement to reject "all dualistic and hierarchical divisions, created by capitalist patriarchy, viz., between public and private, political and economic, body and mind, head and heart, etc.," was the right strategy, and I agree with her assessment that there is still work to be done here, in demystifying "all colonizing divisions," but the next part of the argument, which for her involves the "desire to 'become whole' again" (35), raises more questions about what kind of strategy there is to have in moving forward, and this in no small way relates back to how the divisions, splitting, and difference are conceptualized in the first place.

Of primary interest for her analysis is "the interplay between the sexual and international division of labor." She reflects on what terms we should use to describe these divided and yet related sides of the world market (and similarly, it's a question of how to refer to the divided and yet related aspects of the sexual division of labor). She writes, "If we follow the feminist principle of transcending the divisions created by capitalist patriarchy in order to be able to establish that these divisions constitute only parts of the whole, we cannot treat the 'First' and 'Third' world as separate entities, but have to identify the relations that exist between the two" (39). Her effort to relate the two parts involves thinking about "polarization": "one pole is getting 'developed' at the expense of the other pole, which in this process is getting 'underdeveloped'" (39). The terms of development thus function to describe the international division of labor, but the structure that she presents here is generalized as well to other divisions. Unlike "First" and "Third" world countries, or "center" and "peripheries," she argues that the process of polarization put to use by capitalist patriarchy requires terms that "identify the relations between the two" at the same time that they clarify how the processes produce distinct poles. The polarization that she describes happens both on the level of material reality and on the level of the concepts--both in relation to mental and material labor (see her reference to the distinction in Marx, page 51), and it is because it is preceded by a division of labor that for her is thoroughgoing that this division (like the others that she describes) does not adequately describe the conditions of capitalist patriarchy, but its effects. The division that she finds as primary or thoroughgoing is the designation of the "'production of new life' as 'natural' and not as a historical fact" (51). The polarization of the production of new life and the production of historical life is covered over by the division of labor (between mental and material labor), with the result that the production of new life is underdeveloped, economically and conceptually, and the production of historical life is overdeveloped. 

The "desire" to transcend these divisions, to find a place of "wholeness" again (as problematic as this might be, as Paige Sweet points out) is supposed to take place in opposition to the desire or the force that compels polarization (for the benefit of overdevelopment). She writes: "The very motor driving on this polarization of the world economy, namely, the capital accumulation process, is based on a world view which never says 'This is enough'" (39). As a "motor" of the world economy, polarization functions because there is a world view behind it which never says "enough." Here, the belief in an endless, limitless process functions to describe that "world view." What is the relation between the desire to overcome the binary, to find wholeness, and to say "this is enough"? Who, or what, would such a revolutionary spectator be?

pictures: Philli's feet and a drawing of a pufferfish; Rosemarie Trockel, A Cosmos (2011)

Friday, April 12, 2013


the glance backwards
within is read
as unbecoming
look down, to look up
I wouldn't say otherwise
but it's forgotten, forgone,
becomes depressed, sunk
returns as

Tuesday, April 9, 2013


sucking is infantile
pleasure and aggression
the primordial all in one
in the figure of
the child

Monday, April 8, 2013


before depletion
when the fibers were more luminous
fantasy of maternal imaginary
the oceanic, of plethora
the thinness now
not wear

Saturday, April 6, 2013


The world spools around us,
this enclosure, wringing out
incessant clicking around
filtering, the new
mechanism for administration--
but how to enclose the content
of the world? It's not the
word's inadequacy, but

Friday, April 5, 2013


Imagination monsters in
the end also incognito
it's far easier to draw
the beginning, blackness--
the zero force out of which

but it's not that darkness
that stills, of necessity--

and speaks of loss
tiny and circumspect,
small harbor
indigo drift.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Der andere Schauplatz

I'm trying to synthesize a few things with this post, perhaps more wildly disparate than will merge in the space of writing this (both temporal and raeumlich), and all of them associatively linked to the convergence of some factors experientially and conceptually. The first is Balibar's notion of "the other scene," which occurred to me as a formulation that could be useful for thinking about alternative functions of the poetic work (alternative to the "task" of political lyric, or the task of lyric to sublimate aggression or combat barbarism). Turning to Balibar, I noted that "the other scene" is a reference taken from Freud (primarily in The Interpretation of Dreams), and further, that Freud develops his ideas about it from the luminous G.T. Fechner, whose Principles of Psycho-Physics is also a primary referent of Beyond the Pleasure Principle. This all only means something to me because in attempting to think about "forepleasure [Vorlust]" as a means for thinking alternatively about the function of tension release in relation to pleasure and displeasure, Freud's references also lead to Fechner, who develops this notion in The Primer of Aesthetics, and here it is the idea of the mutual non-contradiction of factors that allows him to account for otherwise inexplicable effects, such as the feelings of identification and transfer of emotions that occur in experiencing works of art and aesthetic events.

In Politics and the Other Scene, Balibar uses the term to refer to the "differentiation of change," or a "change within change," rather than the "changing of conditions." The idea seems to provide Balibar with a way of conceptualizing the "locality" of such factors, or the coherence of a pattern that is, as he says, one "inverted" from Marx's turning away from the "apparent scene" of politics to reveal the "real scene" of economic processes. Balibar writes, "I have a certain tendency to invert this pattern--not to return to the idea that 'ideas drive history', but to emphasize the fact that 'material' processes are themselves (over- and under-) determined by the processes of the imaginary which have their own very effective materiality and need to be unveiled" (xiii). Balibar qualifies this distinction with the idea that it's not exactly that the political other scene is the scene of the imaginary collective processes and their unconscious determinants, and this qualification perhaps points to the significance of this being originally Fechner's notion. It's been a little while since I've looked more closely at his work, but the Fechner/Freud distinction (which is elaborated by Mai Wegener in "DAS PSYCHOPHYSISCHE UNBEWUSSTE: GUSTAV THEODOR FECHNER UND DER MOND" (Psychoanalytische Perspectiven 23 (2005) 2, 261-282)) often seems to consist of Fechner's greater emphasis upon the preconscious aspects of the unconscious, rather than the unconscious itself. The structure is interesting, however, and resonates with Balibar's above because Fechner's elaboration of the indistinction seems to require the rather more forceful distinction of cs/ucs, as Balibar's inversion seeks also to recombine and relocate the place, or perhaps "moment," of their interaction. This is the point at which, I think, the associative connection with "the other scene" shifts into a conceptualization of "civility" and for a "politics of civility." In the preface, the connection is drawn, although not explicit: "A politics of violence, or a politics of civility (the same thing obversely formulated), is not something that can be pursued solely on the stage of globalization, where processes, motivations and interests are supposed to be visible and manageable" (xii). Balibar explains that it's in order to account for the heterogeneity of the processes of globalization that Freud's concept is so useful, and it's this that Freud attempts to describe as the "essential heterogeneity of psychic processes" (xii). It's possible, therefore, to think about how this notion of the Schauplatz provides a scene for civility, for what is neither, according to Balibar, "transformation" or "emancipation."

Briefly, civility is, for Balibar, "a politics which regulates the conflict of identifications between the impossible (and yet, in a sense, very real) limits of a total and floating identification, 'civility'. Civility in this sense is certainly not a politics which suppresses all violence; but it excludes extremes of violence, so as to create a (public, private) space for politics (emancipation, transformation), and enable violence itself to be historicized. What interests me, here, is not to codify that civility, but to attempt, in conclusion to outline some of its problems" (29-30). "Civility" is not then a model for a politics, but a way of thinking about the problems that are necessarily involved in thinking what precedes political actions, or politics, or what takes place behind the scenes of globalization. And in this sense, "civility" refers to the processes of identification and misidentification (processes involved in the master-slave dynamic and in the notion that fascism is the desire that "desires its own repression") and the destructiveness (tending toward death drivenness) of these processes. These ideas are elaborated in "Violence and Civility: On the Limits of Political Anthropology" (differences 20 (2009)), and here above I've done little more than outline the argument and ideas, but the link that I'm attempting to draw out between "the other scene" and "civility" relates to the distinction between sleeping and waking.

It's not just that "the other scene" refers to this distinction, and in fact becomes a concept that allows for the theorization of the distinction, but it remains very much the case, in Balibar's writings, that this also underlies the parallel (and gain) of the essential heterogeneity of the psychical and the essential heterogeneity of the political.

In her essay, Wegener describes the difference between Freud's and Fechner's notions of "the other scene [anderen Schauplatz] by talking about how Freud fixes the concept as a "synonym of the unconscious itself." (271, translations mine). In contrast, Wegener argues that Fechner's conceptualization of the unconscious is "physical," which is surprising, she notes, for the founder of psychophysics: "Dies ist nicht der Fall [die Zuordnung des Unbewussten zwischen dem Koerperlichen und dem Psychischen], Fechners Unbewusstsein ist unzweitdeutig ein physisches. Die psychophysisiche Taetigkeit wird, wie oben erwaehnt, von ihm als koerperliche gekennzeichnet, sie ist der koerperliche Traeger des Psychischen. Ihre negativen Werte, also das Unbewusste, entsprechen schlicht dem Schlaf [This is not the case [the placement of the unconscious between the bodily and the psychical]; Fechner's unconscious is unambivalently physical. The psychophysical activity becomes, as mentioned above, designated as bodily; it is the bodily carrier of the physical. Its negative value, the unconscious, corresponds simply in sleep]." As Wegener describes, "the other scene" is the expression of a negativity, rather than the expression of an ambivalence between psychical and physical life, as the distinction between waking and sleeping often seems to entail. Fechner articulates this: "Sollte der Schauplatz der psychophysischen Thaetigkeit waehrend des Schlafes und des Wachens derselbe sein, so koennte der Traum meines Erachtens blos eine, auf einem niedern Grade der Intensistaet sich haltende, Forsetzung des wachen Vorstellungsleben sein, und muesste uebrigens dessen Stoff und dessen Form theilen. Aber es verhaelt sich ganz anders [If the scene of psychophysical activity is supposed to be the same during sleep and waking, then the dream, in my opinion, can be merely a continuation, which maintains a lower degree of intensity, of the waking imaginative life and would therefore share this material and form. But it behaves quite differently]." His articulation of this difference between waking and sleeping makes use of the notion of the "threshold [die Schwelle]," which preoccupies the Elements. From this threshold, he derives the notion of negativity that Wegener takes up above: "...die zunehmende Vertiefung des Schlafes unter die Schwelle eben so mit wachsenden negativen Werthen zu bezeichnen, womit sich unsere fruehere Auffassung negativer Bewusstseinswerthe als unbewusster Werthe von der Empfindung auf das Gesammtbewusstsein uebertraegt, und eine Verallgemeinerung und Verstaerkung der frueheren Auffassung zugleich erwaechst [the growing deepening of sleep beneath the threshold indicates the growing negative value, with which our earlier ideas about the negative consciousness value were translated as the unconscious value of the sensation on the entire consciousness and a generalization and strengthening of the earlier ideas simultaneously increase] (441)." This rather figural notion of the negativity and positivity in relation to the threshold thus serves as Fechner's conceptualization of the oscillation that is constitutive of conscious and unconscious value. It's all about the threshold, for Fechner, and how or what its overcoming can be conceived of as. In this conception, "the other scene" is not the unconscious, per se, but the registration of a threshold which can be passed over and under, according to the gradations in the state of sleep.

Note: These associations/convergences latently manifested walking in Boston, with a recounted dream of EB (with Rei Terada and Travis Tanner).

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

die Aufgabe

“Was Wunder, da sie ihre Funktion darin haben, diesen Typ mit sich selbst zu versöhnen und jene Identität zwischen Berufs- und Privatleben herzustellen, die von diesen Leuten unter dem Namen »Menschlichkeit« verstanden wird, in Wahrheit aber das eigentlich Bestialische ist, weil alle echte Menschlichkeit – unter den heutigen Verhältnissen - nur aus der Spannung zwischen jenen beiden Polen hervorgehen kann. In ihr bilden sich Besinnung und Tat, sie zu schaffen ist die Aufgabe jeder politischen Lyrik, und erfüllt wird sie heute am strengsten in den Gedichten von Brecht.”
[It is surprising that their function is to reconcile this type of person to himself, and to establish that identity of professional and private life which these men understand by the name “humanity” but which is in truth the genuinely bestial, since authentic humanity—under present conditions—can arise only from a tension between these two poles? In this tension, consciousness and deed are formed. To create it is the task of the all political lyricism, and today this task is most strictly fulfilled by Bertolt Brecht’s poems.]
--Walter Benjamin, “Die Linke Melancholie [zu Erich Kästners neuem Gedichtbuch]” (1931; trans. Ben Brewer, italics mine)

In his essay criticizing the poetic work of Erich Kästner, Benjamin comments on the "task of all political lyricism [die Aufgabe jeder politischen Lyrik]," which follows up some recent conversations I had had regarding the conceptual terrain of the idea of the "task" at hand in thinking about the work of the poem, or of lyric poetry (more generally of art or writing). It emerges more clearly in relation to Benjamin's reference to the term that the term--the task, the idea of the vocation of the poetry--is itself to be regarded with skepticism. This task is not the type of vocation (Beruf) that Benjamin imagines to need suspending from private life (Privatleben) in the first part of the above statement, but is instead defines the function of maintaining "tension" (Spannung) against "establishing an identity" (Identität herstellen). I have found the work of the maintenance of tension to be something that requires the cover of other forms of affective work that do not usually receive credit for having a function in and of themselves (something like "beneath the cover of one," a poetic fragment I recovered recently in a pile of old books from earlier poetry-writing days). But I think what Benjamin imagines, and uses Brecht as an example of--which, in fact, Brecht is so often taken as an example of, by Eich, by Enzensbeger, by Muller--is the dissolution of the thing that functions as the "cover of one," a dissolution that allows for the real clarity of the political message to be illuminated even as it engages in this tension. That there is no tolerance for the "cover of one," for what we might consider that non-dialectical element, is not something that perhaps gets admitted, not something that well-meaning theorists intentionally thwart, but it does always happen on the way, in a way not at all dissimilar to how the task (Aufgabe) emerges here both in opposition to and as an extension of the Berufsleben
Although I would not offer the same utopian figure of the "search for a shared new language," as Zafer Senocak does in his essay "The Concept of Culture and its Discontents" (Atlas of a Tropical Germany: Essays on Politics and Culture, 1990-1998, trans. Leslie A. Adelson, U Nebraska Press, 2000), which functions similarly to above, to define and re-assign the task, I do appreciate the impulse that this is organized against, namely the "dialectically cast mode of thought" that describes civilization and the civilizing processes. Perhaps it is not so much the truth of the dialectic that remains such a powerful and compulsive idea, but in fact the way that its engagement with tension often (always?) involves the employment (or awareness) of a safety relief valve.