In Dialogue With Régis Bonvicino and Alcir Pécora
A paper prepared for the Seminar on “Poetry in Time Of War And Banality”, Campinas, Sao Paulo, Brazil, April-June 2006; available also at the Sibila English
Available as translations into Portuguese, by Odile Cisneros, in Sibila 10, and here, into Norwegian by Paal Bjelke Anderson (nypoesi.net) and into Dutch by Tot van t’ Hof (de Contrabaas), into Russian by Alexander Skidan, into Danish by Martin Larsen (publ. as a Basilisk chapbook) and into Finnish by me.
I wish to thank Régis Bonvicino and Alcir Pécora for the great initiative for this Seminar, as well as for laying an excellent ground for it in their Propositions paper. These are my responses, now. I’m aware of my approach being a bit abstract and geographically confined, theoro-european, if you will, to the point of entering into contradiction with my central claim which will be for an absolute and global pluralism of forms, contents, and languages. I am happy to leave it for present and future practices, not least in this very Seminar, to correct this.
“Poetry, as the synthesis of intellectual and creative activity, has become incapable of dealing with stupidity and barbarism”, Régis and Alcir write. I want to read into this statement a certain rather high ideal of poetry. It seems to suggest that poetry at least at one point in history has had a certain, perhaps special, relation to stupidity and barbarism. I’d like to subscribe to this in a very concrete way. To me, it equals saying that poetry is anti-ideological. It has a special ability to look stupidity and barbarism squarely in the eye – also in the sense of accepting them. In the last instance, poetry’s – always precarious – ability to act “as the synthesis of intellectual and creative activity”, too, is grounded on this, on it’s capability to embrace stupidity and barbarism, among other things: the idea or ideal of the inclusiveness of poetry. In the history of poetry, this ideal has taken two mutually conflicting forms: on one hand, the notion of poetry as “nothing”, as a clownery, as existing only for itself, making “nothing happen” (and thus enjoying the freedom “to do whatever it likes”); on the other, the ideal of the poetical sublime. In the latter form, the key concept, from Kant on, has been that of mediation: for instance between though and sensuous experience (that I take to be, yes, banal, let us say in the meaning that emotions are banal): and also between what is intelligible, “rational”, and that what is not – again the central thrust is toward inclusiveness, to “embracing everything”. In both of these forms, I would want to emphasize the dimension of incomprehensibility: the need, and ability, of poetry to approach and even express non-understanding, that which we cannot comprehend, the fact that we cannot comprehend everything, even what incomprehensibility is (never far from stupidity…).
If it now would be the case that poetry had lost this ability, this could be for two reasons. It could just have lost its touch with the ideal, or – a more serious case – stupidity and barbarism could have reached new dimensions, grown too strong for poetry to embrace, even becoming capable of “engulfing” poetry in their turn. I take Régis and Alcir to refer to this possibility when they speak about a “violence” that is “derived precisely from its continued existence”.
An easy way to react to this pessimistic scenario would be just to let things stand as they are. Hasn’t poetry always evolved by reacting to its own state, by expressing its dissatisfaction with it, by revolting, by turning against itself (and hasn’t it thus, to allude in passing to one of the themes of the Seminar, mimicked and reproduced the structure of War: cf. “Poetry Wars”)? Perhaps it would be best just to leave things to poetry itself – after all, we cannot start giving orders to it, not least because it just “isn’t anything” and is anyway oriented towards “incomprehensibility”? On the other hand, the fact that I will not straight away buy this easy solution is a sign of my optimism: albeit with remarkable and complex reservations, I want to identify in the situation described by Régis and Alcir a dimension that, after all, will open up new possibilities for poetry – and I will claim: for it in particular – “to become conscious of itself”. Here, my very general response is already contained in one of Régis and Alcir’s formulations: “[it’s important to say that] the present also does not belong to us“. (my emphasis). Later, I will suggest, again with huge reservations, that times really have changed, one of the signs of this change being that they don’t “belong to us” any more in the ways they used to do.
Régis and Alcir, too, seem to talk about “a new kind of world”. Let me quote their paper again: “a world that is becoming both global and disorganized at the same rate”; “local, ethnic conflicts moved by hate, sectarianisms, and private tragedies”; “nationalist projects [have] become a strategy to strengthen corporate interests”; “internationalism, rather than opening up to pluralistic and democratic human experiences, has boiled down to a strategy of exploitation”. To remain for a moment at the historico-political level of these characterizations, I’d like to see them as referring to that new situation of questions, struggles, bewilderments and disappointments, hopes and irresolutions, that has come to be known as Globalization. Still, with reservations, I believe that the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the introduction of the Internet to a wide-spread use a few years later just did act as poles to a gate to a completely new world where almost nothing is as it used to be. I purposely mention these two events / phenomena that may not be linked together by everyone, and may be considered by some as “just” the surface of history: I think they interlink, and perhaps are not properly understood in all their “deep” meanings yet.
After saying “Globalization” it’s time to utter another word that does not – perhaps for reasons attached to the bewilderment mentioned above – figure in Régis and Alcir’s paper: Capitalism. As for me, I utter it with even greater reservations than those before: partly for reasons related to my own personal history on which I need to dwell a bit immediately – take this as a token of the power of the word uttered. I was born in a family of farmers in the Finnish countryside in 1951. I came to poetry quite early on: my debut collection, from 1967, was for a large part written with the pen of a 15 year old school-boy (at least one poem as an essay during Finnish lessons), or with a portable typewriter he’d bought specifically for this purpose. For reasons I will need to come back to later, my case came to be of the type described in Régis and Alcir’s paper: poetry turned out to be “[an] activity of [my] childhood or youth […] that [I abandoned] upon reaching adulthood”. As part of the universal radicalization of my generation (the hippies, 1968 in France and Germany, etc.), and after having struggled against this for some time, I eventually drifted to the ranks of the Finnish Communist Party – not to its Stalinist “minority”, though, as most of my pals did, but – more unfashionably – to those of the moderate, Eurocommunist, Party majority. From 1973 to 1983 or so, I served as a full-time party apparatchik, in quite responsible positions actually, such as the closest aid to the Secretary General, “the political secretary of the Secretariat”, and, later, political secretary to a couple of Cabinet Ministers (in late 70’s, the Party was part of the Governing Coalition) . In early 80’s I was, for a short time, one of the leaders of an intra-party reform movement known as the “Third Line”, serving in this capacity also as a member of the Central Committee. I was an “ideologist”, a drafter of speeches and declarations: in fact I “wrote” almost everything the party “officially” had to say during that time. In those years, I never wrote poetry, not even songs of combat. On the other hand, I remember how I, already then, kept thinking of my political activity as a continuation of poetry “by other means”, as poetry “in practical state”, if you will (I will return to this).
Against this background, my reservations vis-à-vis the word, “Capitalism”, may be reduced to it being – still, and especially today – almost impossible to utter without at the same time relying on (falling back to) certain teleological historico-philosophical assumptions, such as the laws of the movement of history, the attached notions of its “moving forces”, its “predetermined phases”, its ultimate goal, and so on. (These from a Leftist point of view: the Right’s idea of an “invisible hand” is no less problematic.) We were already close to these kinds of assumptions when saying that “the times have changed”. Equally problematic are the corresponding, and equally indispensable, notions of the “subjects of history”: actually, Régis and Alcir allude to the tendency of these to become their very opposites when they speak about what has happened to “internationalism” (once the definition of the proletariat), or to the “national projects” (in the frame of which almost all the reforms the proletariat likes to see as its own achievements have materialized). I also see them as speaking about this same problem when they qualify the adjectives, “local” and “ethnic”, concepts often idealized in the “struggle against Globalization”, with nouns like “hate, sectarianisms, and private tragedies” – here coming close to the criticism launched against these kind of concepts by the Italian political philosopher, Antonio Negri, a remarkable theoretician of “democratic Globalization”.
I confess that time, or age, has made me – from the point of view of all these notions – a Traditionalist. I still think of myself as socially radical, but with me, this radicalism is based, conceptually, on notions akin to those of a certain English Conservatism (cf. Eliot) where one supposes a fundamental deficiency of human nature, understanding “evolution” as grounded in a gradual learning, an accompanying tradition, and the always precarious, and never more than partial, passing of it over to the future generations. I don’t share this distrust toward human nature (though even here, my trust will occasionally falter); instead, my distrust is placed on human society: where Marxism, Liberalism, Islamic Fundamentalism, and Social Democracy – the four main political ideologies, or Fundamentalisms, of the contemporary world – all proceed from a notion of “proper”, or “ideal”, society, I am forced (even against my will) to suppose a fundamental deficiency of all human social organizations (all “movements”, and perhaps they in particular, included). “[T]he society has always been a question to me / about how it is possible”, as I write in a poem originating in the late 80’s.
At the same time, I realize that I have stuck to two modes of thinking, or attitudes, of my youth that were, if not directly borrowed from Marx or Marxism, at least established (ossified?) under their influence: First, a belief in the necessity to “break free from the pre-history of mankind”, i.e. a deep distrust toward everything that is “inherited”, “organic”, “genuine”, “representing roots” etc. – something which, at the same time, implies trust in the human potential. (My own life has followed this ideal of enlarging horizons, of questioning the antiquated, of continuous leaving behind…) And secondly, a notion of Capitalism as the very social relation or structure capable of ceaselessly effecting this kind of “detaching from roots”, “destroying all that is antiquated”, and “making go up in smoke” (without still being directed toward a given goal). Thus, even “Tradition” is to me more a “tradition of ruptures”, of constant detaching of oneself from the antiquated: an idea of islets of freedom, always temporary, marginal, unstable in their borders, and proportional, but never completely without history (albeit not a continuous, teleological one) in earlier (or even simultaneous, but “different”) attempts at the “same”. Today I would say that Capitalism never produces these islets, but – so it seems – never ceases to produce possibilities for them either. I cannot believe in them; I cannot stop believing in them. Perhaps I could summarize my attitude in these two formulations by the great Marxists influences of my youth: Gramsci’s slogan, “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”, and the title for the notes the French Marxist philosopher, Louis Althusser, made in his late years (in a mental hospital): “Aleatory Materialism”. If anything, I see history as open. Open, but blind. Blind because open…
As suggested, I felt my Leftist political activity to be “a continuation of poetry”. Now – before going on about Capitalism – I hasten to generalize: what I’ve just said about history, will in my view apply to the “evolution” of poetry as well. When thinking about my early poetry, I’m temped to polemicize against the somewhat pejorative characterization by Régis and Alcir of much of contemporary poetry writing as a “hobby” – if by that we mean the opposite of “seriousness”. I cannot remember any “serious” need to express myself, any teen-age wish to “unburden” myself, or like, only a (rather “light-hearted”) urge to produce something new (for myself), a kind of “empty” desire that does not know what it is after. And the collision of this urge – sideways, I’d like to say – with the still young tradition of Modernist Finnish poetry (Paavo Haavikko, Pentti Saarikoski: the break-through work of this tradition, Haavikko’s Tiet etäisyyksiin (Ways to the Distance), was published in the year I was born, 1951). And as vividly as the emptiness of my desire, I remember how the poetry of this tradition was without meaning to me. Or to put it more strictly: I had no qualifications to “understand” it in any conventional sense of the word. The same goes with the conditions of existence for my later poetry. For fifteen year or so, beginning from 1983, I worked as a full-time translator into Finnish – of novels, mystery stories, memoirs, books of sociology, philosophy… at the same time also doing a lot of so called business translations, from product sheets to contracts, from technical texts to biology and psychology (I see this as my second exposal, after the politically active period, to the ultimate social nature of language – or rather, as I will suggest in a moment, to its otherness). During this time, I naturally also did a lot of thinking, not only about the politico-social experiences of my youth, but also about language and literature, as well as gaining deeper insights into (“understanding”) the very tradition that had served as the springboard for my early poetry. Today I can say, categorically, that even though all this brought up a lot of “thoughts” (including some presented here above), none of these, by themselves, were capable of pointing the way back to poetry for me. Nothing came from just “understanding”, “subject matter”, or “message”. The case was rather the contrary: the more I began to “understand” my own tradition, the clearer it became that there was no way for me to proceed from it, into the distance, or anywhere. For the second period of my work to get off (from 1991 to now, I have published four volumes of poetry, and I would also see my “Google Poem Generator”, developed in the autumn of 2002, as part of my poetical oeuvre), a new exposal – again sideways – to a new, foreign tradition was needed: now to the North American Language writing. Here too, I want to be literal. Again, it was not a question of “understanding”, of taking in “influences”, of placing oneself in a position to follow the Language “tradition”. What really mattered in Language writing was not its formulated basic assumptions but, again, exactly the fact that I couldn’t even dream of understanding it: because of the cultural and geographical distance, but here also because much of the writing in question was not written against a horizon of understanding in the first place. Or: if nothing else, one could “understand” that Language writing was not meant to be “understood”. To put it very schematically, I’d like to say that as in history proper, there’s no continuous evolution, no teleology, in the history of writing either, yet no progress without influences: the empty mind and its incomprehensible other: always from elsewhere. Always sideways.
From a different angle, I would say that these two exposures to “incomprehensibility”, combined, taught me the ABC of thinking, which I’d summarize as follows: First, if anything, poetry is thinking – just one form of it, sure, but often of a kind where certain contradictions inherent in its concept can be taken further and exposed more barely than in any other – and, secondly, thinking is not an activity by a self-expressive subject, a “rationing” or a “rationalizing”, not a becoming-aware of the proportions between things, rather, it means exposing oneself to the disproportion of things, to one’s own “non-understanding”: creating of concepts as they would say in new French theory. In poetry, at least, thinking, too, always comes to us from elsewhere – then leaving us “outside ourselves”. It is non-subjective, but not communal in the meaning of “belonging to a community”. In a way, this means that poetry cannot be political, more, it must defy all attempts to make it socially useful. If this sounds overtly defeatist, let me refer to Antonio Negri again – I’m thinking of his insistence to see the multitude, for him the revolutionary force of the global age, as consisting not of individuals, but of singularities (to mark down a concept I will borrow of further on). As resistance for Negri, poetry for me is not possible in the context of a Social Contract where one is always forced to suppose some kind of historical subject (the homeland, the people, the working class… the literature… the movement… the enterprise…) that the individuals / the poet’s voices then identify themselves with, as individual subjects now become “conscious” via the ideology.
Back to Globalization. As indicated, I do to a certain extent share the pessimism of Régis and Alcir – both as regards the state of poetry, and that of our world. There really is a host of reasons to think that this “new world of ours” (the one emerged through the gate of the tearing down of the Wall and the arrival of the Internet, which I see as precisely the world of mature or, better, unleashed Capitalism) is a time of a new kind of Barbarism, or War and Banality. Not only the deafening triteness and banality of the global media industry, not only the return of war as a self-evident continuation of politics, but also the “mediatization” of war (from the first Iraq war that “was waged in the media” to the recent Cartoon Controversy where the media almost served as the object of war) with the simultaneous militarization of the media (cf. the central role of banal competition, in the meaning of a struggle for survival, in much of contemporary entertainment from the Movies to Reality-TV.). In more than one sense, this banalization indeed seems to have engulfed the poetry, too, the latter “lagging behind technology, the market and a voracious media and communications industry”, as Régis and Alcir write, and in many cases becoming a subordinated part of the media industry itself. To counter this, we only have the dissolution and fragmentation of all kinds of resistance… will there be any room left for an optimism of the will, especially after having limited its conditions of possibility in the extreme way I did above – for didn’t I in fact deny “any political impact or liberating aesthetic” (Régis and Alcir again) for poetry?
I am convinced that there will be room – and that poetry can regain its “vision and urgency” precisely by tapping into its special relation with stupidity and barbarism that I spoke of in the beginning: in general, by emphasizing, ever more radically, its own insignificance, and ceaselessly renewing its relation with its own incomprehensibility. Aware that this may sound like empty preaching, let me proceed via a counter-example. One solution to the problem of the marginalization and lack of impact of poetry one hears quite often is what I’d like to call an attitude of language-centered sublime. For instance in a country like Finland, with a small language, and still ultimately monocultural, poetry is always under a temptation to try to legitimize itself by its special relation to the (common) language. Here the language, a medium of inter-personal communication for sure, is also supposed to be the source of common meanings: accordingly, the clarity, transparence, purity, etc., of language is seen as a guarantee for the solidity of these meanings. A Finnish poet would typically say it is his or her job to further these objectives – against various “external” threats (such as, yes, Globalization). This will, necessarily, involve an idea of poetry as a higher form of language, and thus of a specialized poetical language that comes to represent a crystallization of the community’s “sense of language” at any given time – at the same time offering a neat solution to the problem of the sublime (and the beautiful). Still, all communities based on the command of the language (of the “common meanings”), though often offered as models of Democracy, are at the same time also deeply repressive and exclusive, selective, hierarchical, and hierarchy-creating: in a word, class communities. Thus, too, every notion of a “good”, “proper”, “deep” etc. poetical language is ultimately class-related, that is, communal in the very meaning of the word I see as problematic from the point of view of poetry. Indeed: the riddle of poetical meaning will not and cannot be reduced to the “right”, not even to the wrong use of language (even though the latter often proves to be more fruitful): I am forced to say that poetry (the kind of poetry I care for) turns to something that exists beyond right or wrong, to a sort of generalized capacity for language (which is a generalized loss of speech at the same time: I’d like to speak about language-fugal sublime here).
To approach the – alternative – social and revolutionary potential of this kind of poetry, I would now claim that our world – the world of Globalization – is not a world of language communities in the above meaning any more. Its dominant language is not “learned” by its speakers in the meaning of a mother tongue supposed by the language communities: I am of course thinking of English spoken as a Second or Nth language. Also the traditional language communities that often go together with the Nation States, are loosing their unitary character: instead of one, “proper”, Finnish, English, Portuguese, Chinese, we have an even more rapidly fragmenting nexus of special languages (those of various occupations, disciplines, localities, etc., not to speak of the constantly growing number of immigrant dialects). These special languages, jargons, slang, do in fact evolve within the frames of their respective general languages, but are not reducible to them – the influences over language borders often being of much greater importance. The interesting and crucially important thing about this development (both for the future of poetry and to that of the world) is – and this is my main claim, or hypothesis, in this paper – that it does not seem to lessen the possibilities for human interaction, as is sometimes, short-sightedly, claimed, but instead to increase them. We are, again, dealing with the question of the nature of human communality. As suggested, communality and belonging together, a feeling of togetherness, are often seen as mutually requisite. I want to claim the opposite – or to open an other angle: perhaps communality is better understood as an exposure to the language of the other, one that you will (never) understand completely, never “master”, but that at the same time, precisely for this reason, speaks to you, situates you in a certain place in the world – from where you, for your part, can start speaking – from which you, from the point of view of poetry, only can start speaking, not as an “individual”, as a given “member” of a community (a legal subject of a Social Contract) any more, but – if you please – as a singularity, as one, unique node of an endless multitude. You may be able to start to see what I mean when I speak about the possible social relevancy of the kind of poetry I’m proposing here. Indeed, the very dynamics of this poetry touches upon something that the world in its totality, too, is in desperate need of today. It is interesting, to me, to note that Negri is not far from what I’m after here when he writes: “Perhaps [a new common language] needs to be a new type of communication that functions not on the basis of resemblances but on the basis of differences: a communication of singularities.” I for my part would speak of the need and prospect for a new kind of World Poetry not yet in existence.
I will make one more attempt to return to the beginning: to War, Barbarism – and Capitalism. After all, the fragmentation and dissolution described above (one that, it should be evident now, I want to see as carrying great promise for humanity) does come about as a product of Capitalism, the same that produced the “voracious media and communications industry”. How to separate – or reconcile – these two tendencies? Above, I alluded to the four dominant political Fundamentalisms of our time – now, I’d like to suggest that we understand the (banal) global media industry as a common warp to them (as has often been observed, even Al Qaida, in the last instance, acts in the framework of global media). It is characteristic to Fundamentalisms to condense / flatten out our complex world into a few, basic, and ultimately empty statements (“Us” against the “Evil Doers”; “The Holy War” against the “Infidels”): they have the structure of the Banal in the sense of self-evident. But at the same time they also have the structure of ideology in the sense analyzed in later Marxist theory, especially with Gramsci and Althusser: they work as a “glue” holding the structure of society together: “interpellating” individuals to become subjects and making them happily do things that are in an “upside down” relation to their real societal being – be it a case of making a fool of oneself in a Reality-TV show, or of directing a passenger plane toward the World Trade Center Tower… There, a dominating, unifying ideology, here, an ever-increasing fragmentation calling for a totally new, different kind of interaction.
In reality, these two layers, if indeed they are that, have a lot in common (neither tendency is to be found in a pure form anywhere). Still, and in a way of experiment, I wish to make a (mock-serious) attempt to differentiate conceptually and to trace a line of contradiction between them. In this, I will tap into the concept of ideology so central in the history of Marxist thought (recall my qualification of poetry as anti-ideological), on one hand, and into the central role of immaterial labor both in the classical Communist utopia, and in recent discussions of network economy (Castellanis, Negri and Hardt…). Traditionally, in Marxist theory, ideology was situated in the superstructure, in this evolution-barring layer inherited from the old society that was to be wiped out to clear the way for the “uninhibited development of the productive forces” in the socialist revolution (we know where this ended up…) Later on, during the 20th Century, this view was replaced by the Gramscian-Althusserian “glue” theory, something witch immediately introduced another problem: how to think a possibility for a revolutionary consciousness that would develop outside this omnipresent ideology (cf. our own problem vis-à-vis the prospects for poetry)? Now, with the credentials of an ex Marxist theoretician, let me suggest that we start thinking of our own age as one where Capitalism, finally, is entering into a contradiction, from below , with its own ideological superstructure and its dominant ideology (remember I claimed that the (positive) fragmentation is a product of capitalism). I’m not offering this suggestion believing it to be original, let alone expecting any political consequences, but instead for the sake of the following, in my view indispensable, provocation: if we are still looking for a relevance, a “vision and urgency”, for poetry within this scheme, we are indeed forced to situate it, an activity that “produces nothing”, that most insignificant of all art forms, to the material, economic base of the society, as part of its productive forces.
If this sounds scandalous (as of course I hope it will: I’m playing the clown-poet here: only posing as a theoretician), think of what, according to many recent theorists, really constitutes the most dynamic part of today’s production – immaterial labor. Then think of what, most acutely, characterizes this labor – its increasing “being for itself”, its tendency to self-sufficiency (inherent in all intellectuality). And then think of exactly these notions as being central ingredients in the old Marxist utopia of Communism. There are points in common. In the light of what I’ve been trying to say above, nothing more is needed, either. If there is a future along these lines, the best way for poetry to contribute to it is by concentrating on doing its job, wherever it takes it.
In fact, this perspective of poetry as production is already included in Régis and Alcir’s paper: they speak about how the work of the poets of our time is characterized by a “more garrulous production in increasingly homogeneous environments”, and about the “conformity that poetry displays vis-à-vis an average production“, asking also: “But what type of real production could relinquish the power to transform?” (my emphasis). Indeed, I would claim that most of the questions pertinent to poetry just now will take the form of a question about its (changing, new) conditions of production – and here, if ever, I am optimistic: I really believe we can, not only “denaturalize disaster and reconquer the pain emerging from it”, but also conquer the “indifference, alienation and routine”, and – even – produce something “[for] the enjoyment of a pleasant life.” (Régis and Alcir).
Almost everything that I still have to say about this prospect will be related to the Internet – a medium I indeed want to see both as an expression of the most important tendencies of contemporary Capitalism (the fragmentation etc. – and here even though, or rather because, the evolution of the Net, in its most dynamic form, seems to take place outside the exchange economy in its traditional meaning), and as a metaphor, at least, for the possibilities to challenge that same Capitalism. At present the Internet already figures as a partial realization of Jorge Luis Borges’ great dream of an universal library: to me, it has become to be the third exposal (now an absolutely sidewise one) to a tradition that is fundamentally out of the reach of “understanding”. Many classical texts by Borges underline the fact that a generalized library, the immediate availability of everything ever written, necessarily means the impossibility to properly classify it: chaos, if you will. Chaos, and, thus, barbarism and stupidity too, in fact increasingly, if we take into account the present textualization of everyday life precipitated by the Net (blogs etc.): symptomatically, a new encounter with the banal – in its meanings of the everyday, silenced, questionable: in a word, with the whole “redundant proliferation of garrulous writing” – has been central to the multi-faced Net based poetry that has been emerging for some time now (I would mention the North American “Flarfist” poets, and in a more general way what has come to be known as “Google sculpting”; my own Google Poem Generator is also related to these tendencies). This, more acutely than any other movement in contemporary poetry that I know of, generalizes the idea I’ve been developing here of poetry as thinking that comes to us from elsewhere and that we do not encounter as “belonging” subjects but instead as, once more, singularities, “that make a multitude to move into another multitude” (Deleuze). This exactly was what I was thinking of when I said, perhaps exaggerating a bit, that our time “does not belong to us in the ways we are used to”. Net poetry is new and age-old at the same time; no wonder it has proved itself capable of re-activating even certain dilemmas of antiquated poetries we believed to have left behind us for good.
Directly Net based poetry is still a relatively new phenomenon; with a larger footing, to my (evidently limited) knowledge, mostly in Finland and in North America: however, the experiences from these lead me to predict that the use of online search engines will become ubiquitous in a matter of a few years: a change in the conditions of production of poetry – and/or a development making it easier for poets to see their work as production, as it perhaps always was. The other important network dimension for poetry, the use of the Internet as a personal publication channel, again, is already universal, and perhaps of an even more far-reaching significance. In my view, it already offers a solution to the “shrinking audiences” mentioned in Régis and Alcir’s paper. Here, if ever, the problem is part of the solution. I would claim that it is precisely that possibility to publish for a few, “peer to peer” in a good sense, without caring about how many people, if anyone, actually read it, that today – and fully in concordance with the laws of network economy – acts as the most important factor increasing both the amount and the availability of serious poetry: put in economic terms, our community has moved from extensive to intensive growth. This may also mean that serious poetry is about to free itself from the grip of the market economy – from curses like the “[j]oint property of peers”, and “corporate genre practices” (Régis and Alcir). It may be that, even here, sometimes, “[p]arochial activity takes offence at criticism and debate”; eventually, this will fade out (perhaps also changing the nature of “Poetry Wars”?). And in a much longer run, all these developments will also contribute to the actualization of the very prospect where the utopia of Communism most probably may indeed materialize some day: the dismantling of the system of copyright as we know it. Indeed, at a time when immaterial labor has become the most important force of production, the expropriation of its results (which we all understand to belong to everyone) into private property just may be the form of exploitation most urgently in need to be eliminated.
I could go on. What I’ve said above, I’ve said as a Non-Leftist Communist – an oxymoron that hopefully helps to free the revolutionary potential of poetry from the burden of (old) ideological identifications. Again, if poetry really has this potential, it can be realized only by poetry itself (not least because it may not be alone any more), and just for its own delight. If it turns to society, it does so only to ask, “how are you possible?” I would almost risk saying that poetry is becoming capable of effecting its own self-expellation from Plato’s Republic, to move towards new kinds of Democracies. It may not be enough to say, today, that art, let alone poetry, exists for itself. I would rather say that it exists, already, for the idea of “being for oneself”. This is its politics, its “vision and urgency”, today. Which of course does not prevent anyone from being a Leftist, if she or he so wants. Or me from being a Non-Communist – maybe I’m just kidding… Speaking of which, I’d like to conclude my liturgy in a slight disaccord: unlike Régis and Alcir, words like “affectation” and “frivolous” do not necessarily signal irresponsibility to me. In my view, our newest poetry still does not take humor seriously enough – down with “light poetry”, goodbye “serious” poetry: let’s have more of the kind where “the humor is so dark you cannot even see it”, as someone once said about Charles Bernstein’s poetry. Or, once more, in the words of Antonio Negri (whom I would not expect to accept what I’ve said above either ):
Gargantua and Pantagruel, between the 16th and 17th century, in the middle of the revolution that construed modernity, are giants whose value is that of emblems as extreme figures of liberty and invention: they go through the revolution and propose the gigantic commitment to become free. Today we need new giants and new monsters who can join together nature and history, labour and politics, art and invention in order to show the new power attributed to humanity by the birth of the General Intellect, the hegemony of immaterial labour, the new abstract passions and the activities of the multitude. We need a new Rabelais, or, better, many of them.
1 I have often said that it was exactly this drafting of declarations – in a situation where the Party was severely split up in two fractions, yet forced to stay together by the big Soviet neighbour – that made me understand the rhetorical nature of all writing (how you say it often being more important than what you say). The existence of two fractions also forced one to furnish every sentence with two meanings – a situation that pictures perfectly a certain Modernist poetry!
2 In Finland of the early 90s’, I was by no means the only one to be interested in Language Writing. The so called 90’s generation of Finnish poetry – mostly poets 10 to 20 years younger than I – also read Charles Bernstein, Bruce Andrews, and Ron Silliman – but in my eyes exactly from the point of view of “rationing” or “rationalizing” I just mentioned: in fact, in a rather typical Finnish fashion where the “foreign tomfoolery” is always first subjected to a certain automatic “ripping off of the extremities”, after which one concentrates in “extracting” the “rational kernel” that will then, finally, be turned upside down to ensure it will not produce anything disturbing here. This is a typical provincial mentality I will speak more of later on.
3 Cf. how Marx, in his Sixth These on Feuerbach, criticizes the latter for (1) posing (“presupposing”) an “abstract – isolated – human individual”, which is why he is then (2) forced to comprehend “essence” as “internal, dumb generality which naturally unites the many individuals” (my emphasis).
4 The attitude I’m describing here was, of course, already summed up in Pound’s slogan, “To purify the language of the tribe“. I am arguing here for a poetry that would, rather, attempt a continuous plurifying of the languages of the trite.
5 Yes, I am, at least in some sense, questioning here the great Wittgensteinian idea that “the meaning of a word is its use in a language”. My term, “generalized capacity for language” could point towards Noam Chomsky’s “generalized grammar”; I’m indebted for this insight to Oren Izenberg, (cf. “Language Poetry and Collective Life”. Critical Inquiry, Volume 30 no. 1. (2003)) A notable tendency in contemporary writing that I see as attempting at a “language-fugal” sublime is what has come to be known as “Conceptual Writing” (Craig Dworkin, Kenneth Goldsmith, Darren Weshler-Henry). This tendency toward conceptualism, understood as a reaction to the new textual conditions of the digital age, is perhaps to be found in most of the relevant new writing. Of course, “language-fugalism”, in my meaning here, was initiated by a writing that used to be called “language-centered”.
6 Some coordinates of this kind of World Poetry would be: independence vis-à-vis National Literatures, including institutionally (I’m reminded here of Goethe’s concept of “world literature”); mixing of languages; borrowing of structures – rhythmical, syntactical – from other languages; writing in one’s non-native languages; inventing new, ad hoc languages; conscious attempts to write for more heterogeneous, non-predetermined audiences… Should I add that this perspective is in strong opposition to the ideologies of “conflict”, or “dialogue”, of “cultures”: in fact, I see these as complementing each other, together forming a central ingredient in dominant Capitalist ideology of today (see further on), with possibly dangerous consequences for the freedoms of speech and expression – cf. the statement by an influential Finnish Conservative MP during the recent Cartoon Controversy, ostensibly in favour of “dialogue” and “understanding”: “Unfortunately, there are elements [in this country] that are irresponsible enough to endanger the security of the entire nation. Thus, the authorities must take all measures provided by the legislation to remove these offending images before they cause irreparable damage [to the country and its people]. The Government should also seriously consider ways to instigate new legislation […] in order to prevent activities that can lead to totally unpredictable consequences both economically and in terms of human lives.” (the emphasis on McCarthyism’s mine).
7 I think what is happening in Sao Paulo State and elsewhere in Brazil just now can and should be seen as an instance of this conflict, and that in more than one way. It is one more example of the inability of the dominant, “unifying” ideology to keep up with things and maintain “law and order”. One might also see it as an example of how the militarization of that very ideology that I spoke about serves to breed violence “at the base”. But its also, perhaps most importantly, a remainder of how the “layers” I spoke of intermingle, how it is absolutely impossible to trace any neat line (of combat) between those “above” and those “below” today. In the old days (of combat), they would have said that the “PCC” organization objectively serves to strengthen the dominant ideology. Of course, even that is not even nearly enough today… The task of poetry… O my… (This note added in the morning of May 16, 2006, Finnish time.)
8 To revisit the Theses on Feuerbach by Marx: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” One could write a whole history of the revolutionary movements of 19th and 20th century studying how this “point” by Marx was interpreted – not least by the man himself – precisely in the “dirty-judaic” (!) way criticized in the theses: always positing “practice” as an outside of thinking, reducing the latter to the position of “giving guidelines” etc. The “point” cannot be about leaving thinking behind, but about its becoming an active – yes, productive – force.
9 The Flarfist initiative (Gary Sullivan, K. Silem Mohammad, Michael Magee, Teemu Manninen, and others) could be summarized as an attempt to write intentionally “bad” poetry with a content that is “disturbing”, “non-PC”, even from the point of view of the author, often making heavy use of Internet “rubbish”, of chat-rooms language, and the like.
10 The most important attempts at “Googled” poetry in book form so far, in my view, are Word in Progress, by Aki Salmela (a Finnish poet writing in “English”), Deer Hunt Nation, by K. Silem Mohammad, and Lyhyellä matkalla ohuesti jäätyneen meren yli, by Janne Nummela (Finnish).
11 As I’ve indicated elsewhere, I tend to see the Flarfist initiative as a Modern version of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads project (1798): the same tapping into the language of the “common man”, and same re-collecting (pun intended) of emotions (or e-motions) in a tranquil (read: disturbed!) state. Also, there’s a strong “confessional” element in Flarf, and it can also be seen as a return to/of normative aesthetics (to write “badly”, you need to have some notion of what constitutes “good”).
12 All this ties up with the questions of poetry as occupation, very usefully taken up by Régis and Alcir in their paper (poetry as “a hobby” versus as “a modest way to earn a living”). I will not go any further into this here, except for saying that I’ve always liked Marx’ formulation, in The German Ideology, re “the abolition of the division of labor” in the “Communist Society” where it will become possible “to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner” (replace with your own favourite occupations).
13 My own main reservations re the thinking of Negri and Hardt would concentrate on their strong reliance on the Italian operaismo tradition, with its, as such fascinating, idea of all Capitalist development being ultimately based on workers’ struggles – i.e. “whenever there’s a strike, new machines get developed”. To me, this seems to lead to an unwarranted glorification of many contemporary “movements” that are in fact quite “reactionary” from a Communist perspective (think of the “PCC” of Brazil again). On the other hand, not everything pointing towards a Communist utopia comes in the form of “struggles”. Perhaps it has long since ceased to be a question of “struggles” at all? I still have the same problem with the place of “resistance” in Deleuze’s thinking.