Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Jeffrey Bahr has posted an appreciation of Chris Nealon's article "Camp Messianism," which he actually paid twelve bucks to read—yet his attitude toward the article's premises strikes me as a cynical one. Following a debunking of Marxism as "simplistic," that I, needless to say, find unconvincing (yes there have always been concentrations of power—what's interesting about capitalilsm is how it broke up old structures, promising the freedom of "choice" along the way, and then set up new ones that seem more entrenched than feudalism ever was—which is not to say that I prefer feudalism), there is a much more serious claim that neither he as a Sixties activist nor my generation attempting to construct a usable critique of capitalism and the structures of domination it promulgates, had/have any idea what we're talking about. He has a point about how we tend to form interpretive cliques that more or less agree with us—but such cliques are constantly clashing, encountering resistance, breaking apart and reforming. (For example here we are, Jeffrey and I, part of the same blog circle, disagreeing.) Such groups aren't static and I think calling attention to the social dimension of thought doesn't automatically discredit it. I rather think many of the Sixties radicals had a very good idea of what they were talking about, even if the jargon they used at the time now seems inadequate. The proof is in the pudding: those marches were effective. The war was discredited and stopped, and a new counterculture (which had already absorbed its most important impetus from the Civil Rights movement) made the widespread critique of patriarchal authority possible (I see feminism as a direct result of the Vietnam War protests, not least because women came to question the dominance of men in the peace movement as well as in government and business). On a pratical level, as Chomsky points out, structures of resistance were put in place that made it much, much harder for the government to wage open war on poor countries for nakedly imperialistic ends; so that in the 80s for example most of the warmongering had to take place in secret. As bad as the Contras were for Nicarugra, U.S. troops on the ground there probably would have been worse. Only with 9/11 has our national paranoia meter been ratcheted high up enough to make open warmaking possible again, and hopefully as the truth about the venality of the current Administration continues to emerge such actions will again become politically unafffordable. (Though lately I take a darker view: that we're going to have to enter a new era of theocratic repression that leads to a level of popular revulsion if the Left is to be revitalized.)

Even so, the claim "you don't know what you're talking about" doesn't obligate you to sit down at your cubicle and get back to work (doing as much furtive Internet shopping as possible when your boss isn't looking), much less take out a subscription to Poetry. It obligates you to find out. Claims that "this is all very complicated" may be true on their face, but they tend to be employed for quietistic ends: "we know so much better than you do, and after all you're just a student/housewife/entertainer/poet. Best leave these matters to those who understand them." Furthermore, finding out about things this complicated doesn't require you to take some sort of "objective" position outside the system where you can observe it empirically—'cause such a position doesn't exist. We're all in this together in Clover's Totality for Kids. So you try to become conscious about the position you occupy and the vectors you're already moving along, and you commit yourself to understanding the contradictions of a system that wants you to be an efficient servant of power and privilege (a task made more complicated by the fact that you directly benefit from being such a servant). I happen to think poetry is a very good means of raising and exploring such consciousness; after all, lyric poetry has traditionally been a way to discover and give voice to one's subjectivity in all its complexity and contradiction. Now that many of us understand our subjectivities as at least partially constructed, interpolated by flows of the Big Other's desire ("capital" has proved a useful shorthand for this), what better means than lyric poetry to try and discover what it really means to be an "I" in a world that wants to recast all choice as consumption, that arbirarily denies "I-ness" to the nonmale and nonwhite, and that corrupts language into a mere instrument of control? I see no contradiction between this conception of a critical poetry and Keats' conception of poetry as a means of engaging with the world as "a vale of soul-making." Furthermore, writing and reading this poetry can be supremely entertaining, as Nealon's article demonstrates. Jeffrey's insistence on poetry as entertainment strikes me as another quietist move—and if poetry were only a mode of entertainment I'd give it up, if for no other reason than that its audience is so small. Fortunately, no mode of entertainment is always only that: even the most ridiculous TV shows carry a burden of obligation toward reality, if only as a point of departure. An alien anthropologist could learn a lot about us from something like American Idol. However, I choose to turn the idea of poetry as entertainment on its head, and say that poetry as political thought is continuous with poetry as source of pleasure—it's a superabundance of pleasure in fact, on top of poetry's fundamental resources of pleasure (sound, image, wordplay).

I'm reminded of the story about Robert Duncan and Barrett Watten doing a reading together; how Duncan, exasperated with Watten's hypercerebral acrobatics, complained, "Can't we just have fun?" "But Robert, this is how we get our fun," Watten replied. A poetry that combined Duncan's theosophical ear with Watten's critical Marxian intelligence would be a formidable one. It would probably look a lot like camp messianism.

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