What happens when you try to respond to the tone of a letter not written to you? There’s a gap that is akin to the silence in a forest when a tree falls and no one is there to hear it; perhaps it's like what we could imagine remains of the death drive after some destructive instinct has been acted upon, acted out.
This is such a response, a respose to a writing by Commune Editions titled "Dear Simone." The piece by Commune Editions is addressed to Simone White, who asked a number of poets to write about "matters of capital and class" for an issue of The Recluse (a journal of The Poetry Project) that she was editing titled "Capital P." In her introduction, White clarifies that by "capital and class" she means the "systematic dehumanization of the human into laboring factions." The script of the introduction is not apparently the same as the initial phrasing of the request for responses, since Commune Editions invokes several times the phrase "a surge of interest in class (by which some people mean race),” and attributes this phrase to White’s initial request. So when I say I'm responding to "tone," I mean that I'm responding to what lies behind the citation and repetition of this phrase, and to something that begins, and perhaps ends, with the appropriation of this phrase.
Would it matter if we could read Simone White’s initial request? Reading it might give one a sense of the tone of the original phrase, but it's not this that is really at stake--and also not the reality status of it, whether or not Simone White is right or not about this surge, although it's this that is disputed throughout Commune Edition's letter. At stake in this question about the reality of this surge is the organization of a world almost entirely around internal objects, and the extent to which a radical poetic-political project organized in this way can make its hoped-for intervention, its destruction of the world. I find this letter to be mostly about and addressed to internal objects. Internal objects, in contrast to external objects, represent people and events but they involve, as psychoanalyst Paula Heimann writes, "the subject at the same time as her objects." This is significant because in attacking these objects, one is also attacking oneself. Does all the talk about destroying the world in the letter--"the resolute rejection of this world," "the world to be abolished," "in every poem that insists it all has to go"--fold back upon the part that remains as much about the subject as the objects included in this world? If the world includes all struggles worthy of abolition (struggles, Commune defines, aimed at "the unmaking of whiteness, or of gender") but not this capacity to reflect upon the specificity of these struggles in contrast to their inclusion within this totality, might there not be a need to place some pressure upon just what is meant by "the world"?
Reading the letter--its content signalling but never locating, never externalizing, those who've claimed that "the problem is the hubris of purportedly Jacobin militants always going too far"--one gathers some of the referents of these internal objects, if one knows enough of this world. Commune Edition's dispute, for example, with the "surge of interest" is a response to (perhaps other things, too, who knows?) a dossier arranged by Daniel Tiffany for The Boston Review on class. I'm inferring this because I was there in the FB forest when the vitriol about Tiffany's column fell, and it seems likely, given Commune's use of terms "kitsch" and "rhetoric" that Tiffany is an object of critique. Beyond this kind of matching of internal with external objects, one is left feeling like the letter itself, its elliptical response, remains in a world peopled by internal objects, phrases, and discussions whose representation exists almost entirely within the life of the mind. In the letter, the coordinates to external reality cannot be spoken, and one wonders why: Out of tact? Because it's not just a single example, but a set of examples, massified, in this way? Because it's not worth naming these enemies of class, giving this recognition? Because in order to "get" this letter, one should know already, who or what the objects are? To be a reader of this letter, but not the reader, is to be in a forest when the tree fell and not to have heard the noise, to have missed the tone of falling limbs. From this position, a question that is not supported within the discourse arises: how is it that you've come into this place of knowledge?
Perhaps one way of thinking about this circumscription of knowledge is to approach one of the most obvious features of the letter-- its attachment to poetry. This attachment comes with an expressed commitment to the question of "the relation between revolutionary politics (which we take to demand a cothinking of race and class among other things) and a poetry which threatens certainty, commitment, didacticism." We might just as well ask, why poetry? What work is being done by poetry? How is the vaunted antagonism or contradiction of destruction and creation, "between absolute political demand and the proper tonalities for poetry" held in place by the law of genre? And what sort of dynamic of sublimation, of the transfer of destructive and creative energies or vice verse, must be imagined in order to achieve this worldview?
To kind of extend this overextended metaphor, we might imagine that the tree that has fallen--producing or not a noise, a sound, a tone--is itself the poem, and insofar, roughly correlates with Commune's example of the pop song. I am drawn to how Commune theorizes the moment of pleasure--"a cross-class pleasure," a "real pleasure--from the pop song, and by extension from the "pop song in the poem." I quote at length from their description of these moments of pleasure, of "negative delight":
But we are also not sure we see the pop song that way. In truth it sounds more true about Eliot; much has changed since then. Here’s our thought: it matters how you see the pop song. We certainly get that, even after the supposed collapse of the hi-lo distinction, turning your nose up at the pop song is still class-marked, a kind of upper-middlebrow Philistinism. Still, it’s a sort of cross-class pleasure, the pop song, isn’t it? A real pleasure. We hope you will not hear irony. We think that a great pop song, and there are a lot of them — Top 40, sing along, solid gold — is sensually thrilling and emotionally powerful. It is one of the finest things (still no irony) that civilization has produced.
But not just any civilization. Its affordances are capitalism itself, its technologies, its circuits of distribution, its reascriptions of race, its microleisures, invention of the world market, the world audience. In this sense the pop song is emblematic of much human making in the last couple-few centuries. We could speak of Hollywood, or Bollywood, or a videochat with a distant friend, or the Hong Kong skyline. Or bicycling out on the path alongside the Bay Bridge and sitting over the water while the birds and porpoises and oily wakes of container ships pass underneath.
This is the thing about even the most resolute rejection of this world. We know also that this world is in many ways an astonishing achievement of human making, with incomparable pleasures, unevenly distributed. This knowledge is always with us, this pleasure and maybe even wonder. It is with us even in the moments when we think of surplus populations in Dhaka and Sao Paulo, when we think of manganese in the Pearl River and Mike Brown’s body moldering in the street in metropolitan St. Louis. And when we say that it has to go, we say that knowing this means forsaking all of these things.
I read these lines as being about the way in which the "pleasure" that is evoked is subsumed within a total system, and about how these moments "sit inside" this larger system. No single moment could be greater or more expansive than the entirety of the system. And yet, in a way, it's just that--the way that the "poetic" destroys by consuming--that David Marriott, via Cesaire, describes in a recent response to The Boston Review's issue, "Race and the Poetic Avant Garde":
Césaire’s immense productivity consists in creating a poetry of events that does not have form or content as its end, but is rather the pursuit of their irremedial alienation. Instead of claiming, as the various European avant-gardes did while reading Marx, say, or Freud, that he was producing a new dialectics (of culture, or meaning), Césaire claimed that poetic production was productive because it consumed knowledge. Or rather–that it was the ‘poetic’ itself that was productive, often against the express conscious and political wishes of the poet.Marriott emphasizes how for Cesaire the contradiction between the poetic and political does not express an antagonism that becomes about the tension or maintenance or resolution of this contradiction, i.e. its sublimation in written work, but about an “irremedial alienation” that is consumptive, i.e. destructive, in relation to knowledge. Thus knowledge is not a position from which to maintain certainty or perspective, it is a position that is always threatened by poetry's destructive aspect.
And one might wonder, how much would poetry have to consume, in order to destroy? But I wonder, even if it were just a little bit, would there not be less--quite a bit less--to say about how a knowledge of the whole world pertained to this damaged part?
In Commune Edition's lines, knowledge of the pleasures afforded by capitalism is held alongside "thinking" about surplus populations, manganese, and Mike Brown's body. There's quite a bit of assumption already in the way that "pleasures" and "thinking" constitute the antagonism that is then the aesthetico-political. It's a certain universalism that feels tiring. But there is something here worth thinking about, and it's the way in which these moments of "incomparable pleasures" are in a line with complicity. Here, another tone I am deaf to: "But are we not all complicit, none of us pure, all of us benefitting from entanglement with the very thing from which we claim to take absolute distance? No shit." How do we read the inclusiveness or exclusiveness of no shit? Does this mean that "we" have been accused of complicity? Does it mean that the accusation of complicity is to be read as politically irrelevant? Does it mean that even complicity is a concept that sits inside the structure of this system? Or is it an invocation of complicity as a kind of precursor to this "knowledge"?
In psychoanalysis, complicity is perhaps the least evident thing. It refers, even in the most complex form, in its relation to political emotion, to an ambivalence on the level of a distinction between subject and object, but one that is perhaps even more indeterminate, to a non-integrated state that precedes but is not outside of relating. For those independent analysts in the British postwar, including Paula Heimann and D.W. Winnicott, this state was all about the primacy of destruction, and these formulations followed from Freud's ideas about complicity or guilt being a defense against feelings of aggressiveness or destruction. Complicity, because it involves this defensive relation to aggression, sits not too far afield from sublimation, in terms of the function it assumes to redirect instinctive energy.
In a recent post, I described how Paula Heimann recalls an interaction with a patient in which the patient spontaneously recites a poem in analysis. Heimann recounts the patient's deep joy in this recitation and in the phrasing of words. She reads this withdrawal not as an expression of hostility, a turning away from the analyst, not just as destructive of that structure in which it takes place, but as a moment of reprieve, a momentary lifting, a sublimation that is not just about the recovery of a lost object or about the destruction of analytic space but about finding a self that survives the expression of destructiveness. What does Heimann’s discussion of these moments bring to to the moments of pleasure, of negative delight, that Commune describes? Heimann makes visible the fact that the world Commune wishes to destroy is maintained by a fantasy of omnipotence. It’s a wish that is construed politically--admirably, to some extent--but it’s a wish that, because of this relation to fantasy, to internal objects, involuntarily destroys the struggles of others whose experiences become subsumed within this world as well. The militancy of destruction as a political project does indeed involve a hubris about the scope and aims of such a venture. Being willing to ignore how one’s definition of the “world” affects those it claims to include is also an extension of not taking responsibility for the unintended destruction that one enacts by holding knowledge in such an intimate relation, or the damage that is done by reinforcing the knowledge afforded by a poetics of class, by saying for example that poetic struggles for racial justice and against antiblack racism, transphobic violence, gender discrimination, and racial profiling have “played at least as great a role as a poetics of class.” Because what does that mean to qualify this poetry by quantifying its impact--”at least as great a role”--and to hold firm to this worldview?