Plagiarism and the Privatisation of Poetry
Saturday, 16 December 2017 12:50

Plagiarism and the Privatisation of Poetry

Published in Poetry

The Guardian recently ran an article on plagiarism in poetry by Will Storr. Andy Croft, author of two very widely read and influential articles on Culture MattersThe Privatisation of Poetry and Poetry Belongs to Everyone, was interviewed at what was called 'an anarchist bookfair' (actually London's Radical Bookfair).

It is very tempting to reduce these issues to questions of individual blame and shame, as the Guardian article did. However, we believe at Culture Matters that the problem of plagiarism is an inevitable consequence of the capitalistic corruption of poetry. Just as commercially motivated pressures on sportspeople turn essentially social and co-operative activities into matters of individualistic competition and excellence, encouraging cheating and drug-taking, so poetry is deformed and twisted from an essentially social art into a competitive, individualistic activity where new-ness and complete 'originality' is over-rated. This is the root cause of actual and alleged plagiarism.

So we are re-publishing Andy Croft's original article, because it puts all the issues into context. Andy Croft's argument is that poetry is essentially a collective and communist art, with the potential to overcome alienation and increase our sociality and connectedness. It belongs to everyone, cannot be owned nor become property, and is essentially committed to the common good of humanity. 

See also Communism by way of the Poem by Alain Badiou, and The Poetry of Common Ownership by Alan Morrison. Further contributions to this important debate are welcome.

The Privatisation of Poetry

by Andy Croft

‘Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto' - 'I am human, and nothing which is human can be alien to me’ - Marx’s favourite maxim


At the end of the fourth film in the ‘Alien’ franchise, Alien Resurrection (1997), the film’s only two survivors are preparing to visit Earth. Although we have previously been told that it is a toxic ‘shithole’, one of them observes that from a distance the planet looks beautiful. ‘I didn't expect it to be,’ she says, ‘what happens now?’ The other gives a puzzled half-smile and shrugs, ‘I don't know. I'm a stranger here myself.’

The ‘stranger’ is Ellen Ripley, who has been fighting the xenomorph aliens ever since Ridley Scott’s original Alien (1979). Her bewildered description of herself as a ‘stranger’ is one of cinema’s great understatements. For Ripley is a stranger, not only to a planet she has not seen for three hundred years, but to herself. Ripley was killed at the end of the third film, and has been resurrected as a clone with part-alien DNA. She does not yet understand the extent of her humanity or know just how much of an alien she is.

All the human characters are dead at the end of Alien Resurrection. The film’s only other survivor (played by Winona Ryder) is an android. Earlier in the film, when Ripley discovers that her companion is a robot, she observes, ‘I should have known. No human being is that humane.’ This is an idea that has been running through the series since Aliens (1986), when Ripley compares one of her companions to the aliens he is planning to sell to the Company’s weapons division – ‘I don't know which species is worse. You don't see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage...’

Alien Resurrection was a bleak fin-de-siecle farewell to a century of violence, avarice, fear and cruelty, and a grim welcome to a new millennium in which we are estranged from each other and from ourselves by exaggerated fears of differences. Ripley is a familiar figure in the twenty-first century – an alien, a homeless exile whose children are dead, a stranger in a strange land.

ALIENATION AND POETRY

The phrase ‘I’m a stranger here myself’ is also a quotation from a song by Kurt Weill (another exile). Written with Ogden Nash for the 1943 Broadway hit One Touch of Venus, the song is a satirical comment on contemporary US life. In the musical, an ancient statue of the Greek goddess of sexual love (played by Mary Martin) comes alive in a New York museum. She is confused by the strangeness of the world in which she finds herself, especially by the apparent absence of love in the cold modern city:

‘Tell me is love still a popular suggestion
Or merely an obsolete art?
Forgive me for asking, this simple question
I'm unfamiliar with this part
I am a stranger here myself.

Please tell me, tell a stranger
My curiosity goaded
Is there really any danger
That love is now out-moded?

I'm interested especially
In knowing why you waste it
True romance is so freshly
With what have you replaced it?’

As a study in alienation, One Touch of Venus may not have been as hard-hitting as The Threepenny Opera or Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, but it was nevertheless clearly shaped by Weill’s experiences in Weimar Germany, where hysterical ideas about ‘aliens’ of course carried toxic political meanings. In the musical it is the non-human alien who understands more about human happiness than the human characters. It is not an exaggeration to say that Venus is both ‘the heart of a heartless world’, and an example of the commodification of desire in a society where ‘all fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away... all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.’

Which brings us to Marx’s idea of entfremdung, the process by which, in class societies, we are alienated from Nature, from our work, from the products of our work, from each other and from ourselves. Each dramatic new stage of human social, economic and technological development has simultaneously pushed us farther apart from each other and from ourselves – property, slavery, money, territory, caste, class, religion, industrialisation, migration, urbanisation, mechanisation, militarisation, nationalism, empire, computerisation, globalisation...

Of course we all experience this ‘self-estrangement’ differently. As Marx argued in The Holy Family, although ‘the propertied class and the class of the proletariat present the same human self-estrangement,’

‘the former class feels at ease and strengthened in this self-estrangement, it recognizes estrangement as its own power, and has in it the semblance of a human existence. The class of the proletariat feels annihilated, this means that they cease to exist in estrangement; it sees in it its own powerlessness and in the reality of an inhuman existence.’

In a bewildering world where we feel ourselves to be strangers in our own lives, the false consolations of nostalgia, nationalism, chauvinism, religious fundamentalism and racism are tempting to many, especially to those with the least power. Each of these is an illusion ‘which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself’ (during international football tournaments there is always a greater concentration of England flags in those parts of our cities with the smallest economic or political stake in British society). But fearing ‘strangers’ will not make the world less strange; attacking ‘aliens’ cannot mitigate our alienation from ourselves.

On the other hand there are those forces that still pull us together – kinship, friendship, desire, solidarity, collectivity, utopianism, socialism. Despite all the commercial, cultural, social, economic and political pressures to emphasise our uniqueness and our separateness, the differences between us are not very great. We all share the same small planet, we breathe the same air and we share the same fate. And one of the ways in which we demonstrate and feel our common natures is through art. It is not just that creativity can raise individual ‘self-esteem’ or ‘well-being’. All artistic creation, whether individual or collective, amateur or professional, private or public represents a kind of resistance to the complex, centrifugal forces that push us apart. Art is both a reminder of our co-operative origins and a promise of a collective future. Art can be many things – painting, dance, music, literature, sculpture, poetry – but it cannot be property. As soon as a work of art is owned by one individual it is not shared; if it is not shared, then it is not art.

THE POWER OF POETRY

Poetry in particular contains the potential to connect writers to readers, and readers to each other. It can help us feel a little more connected to each other than usual. When any poet stands up to read in public they have to address the readers outside the page, the listeners across the room and beyond. Poetry can remind us what is significant and help us to imagine what is important. It can help to naturalise ideas and arguments by placing them within popular literary traditions. Anticipation and memory implicates reader and listener in the making of a line or a phrase and therefore in the making of the argument. This establishes a potentially inclusive community of interest between the writer/speaker and the reader/ audience – through shared laughter, anger or understanding.

According to George Thompson in Marxism and Poetry:

‘we find in all languages two modes of speech – common speech, the normal, everyday means of communication between individuals, and poetical speech a medium more intense, appropriate to collective acts of ritual, fantastic, rhythmical, magical... the language of poetry is essentially more primitive than common speech, because it preserves in a higher degree the qualities of rhythm, melody, fantasy, inherent in speech as such... And its function is magical. It is designed to effect some change in the external world by mimesis – to impose illusion on reality.’

Over the last five hundred years, poetry has lost many of its historic functions. Character has fled to the novel, dialogue to the stage, persuasion to advertising and public relations, action to cinema, comedy to television. This always seems to me to be an unnecessarily heavy price to pay for the development of the original ‘voice’ of the poet. But the shared, public music of common language and common experience remains its greatest asset – the power to communicate, universalise and shape a common human identity. The power of all poetry is still located in society – in the audience and not in the poet. Writing – in the sense of the composition of memorable language to record events that need remembering – is essentially a shared, collective, public activity. Poetry is essentially a means of communication, not a form of self-expression. Difficulty is only a virtue if the poem justifies the effort to understand it. Why write at all, if no-one is listening? If they think no-one is listening, poets end up talking only to each other, or to themselves. The poet Adrian Mitchell (who once observed that ‘most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people’) put it like this:

‘In the days when everyone lived in tribes, poetry was always something which was sung and danced, sometimes by one person, sometimes by the whole tribe. Song always had a purpose – a courting song, a song to make the crops grow, a song top help or instruct the hunter of seals, a song to thank the sun. Later on, when poetry began to be printed, it took on airs. When the universities started studying verse instead of alchemy, poetry began to strut around like a duchess full of snuff. By the middle of the twentieth century very few British poets would dare to sing.’

It seems to me that this is still understood at a subterranean level within British society, a long way from the centres of cultural authority and the cult of the ‘new’. Poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson, Kokumo, Moqapi Selassie, Benjamain Zephaniah and Jean Binta Breeze do not read their poems in public – they sing them. The most distinctive feature of an Urdu-Punjabi musha’ara (a marathon poetry-reading) is the level of audience participation. Poets do not always read their ‘own’ work. They often sing. And they are frequently interrupted by applause, by requests for a line to be read again, by the audience guessing the rhyme at the end of a couplet or by joining in the reading of well-known poems. This is a collective, shared poetry, the expression of a literary, linguistic and religious identity among a community whose first language is English, but whose first literary language is Urdu. And musha’ara attract hundreds of people of all ages.

POETRY AND COMMUNISM

There is something comparable about the role of poetry inside prison. Men who would not often go near a library in their ordinary lives, in prison can find solace and encouragement in reading and writing poetry. Prison magazines always carry pages of poetry. The Koestler Awards are an important part of the prison calendar. No-one is embarrassed to say that they like poetry in prison. There are certain poems – usually about love, heroin and regret – that prisoners take with them from one prison to another, copying them out and learning them by heart until the poems ‘belong’ to them.

In other words, the idea that language – and therefore poetry – belongs to everyone, is still felt most vividly among those who have been historically excluded from education and literacy by the forces of caste and class, empire and slavery.

The French Marxist philosopher Alain Badiou has moreover argued that it is not a coincidence that most of the great poets of the twentieth-century were communists (Hikmet, Brecht, Neruda, Eluard, Ritsos, Vallejo, Faiz, MacDiarmid, Aragon, Mayakovsky, Alberti, Darwish, Sanguineti, etc). For Badiou, there exists ‘an essential link between poetry and communism, if we understand “communism” closely in its primary sense’:

‘the concern for what is common to all. A tense, paradoxical, violent love of life in common; the desire that what ought to be common and accessible to all should not be appropriated by the servants of Capital. The poetic desire that the things of life would be like the sky and the earth, like the water of the oceans and the brush fires on a summer night – that is to say, would belong by right to the whole world... it is first and foremost to those who have nothing that everything must be given. It is to the mute, to the stutterer, to the stranger, that the poem must be offered, and not to the chatterbox, to the grammarian, or to the nationalist. It is to the proletarians – whom Marx defined as those who have nothing except their own body capable of work – that we must give the entire earth, as well as all the books, and all the music, and all the paintings, and all the sciences. What is more, it is to them, to the proletarians in all their forms, that the poem of communism must be offered.’

Of course, there are always forces pulling poets in the other direction. Like everything else, poetry is a contested space. The broadsheets, the BBC and most literary festivals are dominated by corporate publishers and a celebrity star-system. The whole apparatus of arts-coverage by press-release, celebrity book-festivals, short-lists, awards and prize-giving ceremonies seems almost designed to alienate as many people as possible from poetry – except as consumers. The result is the victory march of Dullness, characterised by humorlessness, political indifference, a disregard for tradition, a serious underestimation of poetry’s music and a snobbish hostility to amateurs. And all decorated in the usual language of PR disguised as literary criticism (‘sexy’, ‘dark’, ‘sassy’, ‘edgy’, ‘bold’, ‘daring’ etc).

POETRY CAN NEVER BE PROPERTY

Last year I published, at Smokestack Books, a collection of poems by the Newcastle writer Sheree Mack. Sheree’s mother is of Ghanaian and Bajan ancestry; her father is from Trinidad. Laventille told the story of the 1970 Black Power Revolution in Trinidad and Tobago, when for forty-five days an uprising of students, trade unions and the disaffected poor threatened to overthrow the government. It was a courageous and beautiful book, an original attempt to combine history and poetry as a ‘shrine of remembrances’ for the ordinary people behind the headlines.

A few weeks after the book was published Sheree found herself accused of borrowing phrases without attribution from other poets. Most were happy to see elements of their work resurrected and re-made like this, but a few were not. Although I variously offered to insert erratum slips in the book, to reprint the book with the necessary acknowledgements, and to print a new version of the book without the poems in question, Sheree’s accusers seemed more interested in mobilising a howling mob on social-media, armed with the usual pitchforks and burning torches. There followed several weeks of extraordinary personal abuse directed at author and publisher, a feature on Channel 4 News, demands that Sheree should be stripped of her qualifications and sacked from her teaching job, an editorial in Poetry News, and threats of legal action from two corporate publishers. Several festivals withdrew invitations for Sheree to read from the book. Eventually the book was withdrawn from sale and pulped.

I do not believe for a minute that Sheree intended to ‘steal’ anyone else’s work. Some of her borrowings were so obvious that they did not need acknowledging (any more than her poem called ‘What’s Going On?’ did not need to spell out its debt to Marvin Gaye). ‘Laventille Love Song’ for example, did not attempt to disguise its debt to Langston Hughes’ ‘Juke Box Love Song’. The point of the poem was to throw together two different moments in Black history, dialectically linked by the deliberate echoes of one poem in the other.

Sheree’s fault was one of omission and carelessness; the reaction of her accusers was deliberate, hysterical and disproportionate. Sheree made no attempt to conceal her borrowings, she did not profit from them, she has apologised for them repeatedly and she has been excessively punished. No-one has lost anything – except a sense of proportion and decency. Sheree’s faults may be forgiven; the venom of her pursuers is unforgiveable. And a beautiful, revolutionary book has been lost.

I am not interested in calculating how many words a poet may borrow from another writer without being accused of ‘theft’, or swapping examples of successful plagiarists – most notably, of course, Shakespeare, Stendhal and Brecht. (For the record, my last three books were comic verse-novels based on Hamlet, Nineteen Eighty-four and Don Juan.) But I am fascinated by the moral panic around ‘intellectual property’ in the contemporary poetry world, in the way that notions of private property have entered the world of poetry.

Property is a very recent (and contested) innovation in human history, usually used to determine access to scarce or limited resources such as land, buildings, the means of production, manufactured goods and money. It is a shifting concept; not so long ago, women, children and slaves were subject to property law; today we have ‘copyright’, ‘intellectual property’, ‘identity theft’ and ‘image rights’.

There are three kinds of property – common property (where resources are governed by rules which make them available for use by all or any members of the society), collective property (where the community as a whole determines how important resources are to be used), and private property (where contested resources are assigned to particular individuals).

It is difficult to see how the many various elements of any poem – words, phrases, grammatical structures, rhyme and metre, emotional syntax, allusions, echoes, patterns, imagery and metaphor etc – can be described as ‘property’ in any of the above senses (except perhaps ‘common property’). None of these elements are scarce or finite; their use by one person does not preclude their use by any number of others. In an age of mechanical reproduction, it is not possible to ‘steal’ a poem or part of a poem, only to copy it.

POETRY BELONGS TO EVERYONE

All poetry inhabits the common language of everyday living. A poem can be unique without being original; it can be ‘new’ at the same time that it is already known. As the French communist poet Francis Combes has argued:

‘Poetry belongs to everyone. Poetry does not belong to a small group of specialists. It arises from the everyday use of language. Like language, poetry only exists because we share it. Writing, singing, painting, cooking – these are ways of sharing pleasure. For me poetry is like an electrical transformer which converts our feelings and our ideas into energy. It is a way of keeping your feet on the ground without losing sight of the stars. It is at the same time both the world’s conscience and its best dreams; it’s an intimate language and a public necessity.’

Most important human activities are not subject to ideas of ownership. Talking, walking, whistling, running, making love, speaking a foreign language, cooking, playing football, baking bread, dancing, conversation, knitting, drawing – these are all acquired skills which we learn by imitating others, but they are not subject to ideas of ownership.

Historically, poetry was always understood to be much closer to these than to those things that the law regards as ‘property’ (land, money etc). No-one in, say fourteenth-century Italy would have understood the idea of ‘stealing’ a poem. Most cultures, even today, regard poetry as ‘common property’. You don’t hear many ‘original’ poems at an Urdu-Punjabi musha’ara. Everyone borrows/steals/copies/appropriates poetry in prison. Which is another way of saying that everyone owns it. And if everyone owns it, there is nothing to steal.

Until very recently in human history, poets were popularly understood to speak for and to the societies to which they belonged. The development of printing and publishing and the emergence of a reading-public have helped to elevate poets into a separate and professional caste. The Romantic idea of the sensitive individual alienated from ordinary society (by education, sensibility and mobility) has become in our time the cult of the international poet as exile, crossing cultural, intellectual and linguistic borders. This cult reached its logical conclusion a few years ago with the Martian poets, who wrote about life on earth as if they really were aliens.

The current moral panic over ‘plagiarism in poetry’ seems to derive from several overlapping elements – the post-Romantic privatisation of feeling and language, the fetishisation of ‘novelty’ in contemporary culture, half-hearted notions of intellectual property, the long-term consequences of Creative Writing moving from university adult education onto campus as an academic subject, the creation of a large pool of Creative Writing graduates competing for publication, jobs and prizes and the decline in the number of poetry publishers. If poetry is privatised, a personalised form of individual expression rather a means of public communication, then it needs to be policed by ideas of copyright, grammatical rules, unified spelling, critical standards and a canonical tradition.

The witch-hunting of Sheree Mack was an instructive episode in the internal workings of intellectual hegemony. The corporate lawyers and national media only joined the chase after a handful of poets (most of whom had not read Laventille) had already attacked one of their own, in the name of economic forces which are inimical to poetry.

Poetry arises out of the contradictions and consolations of a whole life and a whole society. It requires the proper humility necessary for any art. Poetry is not a Meritocracy of the educated, the privileged or the lucky. It is a Republic. Poetry is indivisible. If it doesn’t belong to everybody, it is something else – show business, big business, self-promotion, attention-seeking, property. As Alain Badiou argues:

‘Poets are communist for a primary reason, which is absolutely essential: their domain is language, most often their native tongue. Now language is what is given to all from birth as an absolutely common good. Poets are those who try to make a language say what it seems incapable of saying. Poets are those who seem to create in language new names to name that which, before the poem, has no name. And it is essential for poetry that these inventions, these creations, which are internal to language, have the same destiny as the mother tongue itself: for them to be given to all without exception. The poem is a gift of the poet to language. But this gift, like language itself, is destined to the common – that is, to this anonymous point where what matters is not one person in particular, but all, in the singular. Thus, the great poets of the twentieth century recognized the grandiose revolutionary project of communism something that was familiar to them – namely that, as the poem gives its inventions to language and as language is given to all, the material world and the world of thought must be given integrally to all, becoming no longer the property of a few but the common good of humanity as a whole.’

A Monument to the Working Class
Saturday, 16 December 2017 12:50

Let the poet lift a hammer: the prophetic poetry of Fred Voss

Published in Poetry

"I want to change the world, I want to strike the spark or kick the pebble that will start the fire or the avalanche that will change the world a little." - Fred Voss

Why have mortality rates amongst middle aged working class Americans suddenly increased? Why is inequality increasing, so that the top 1% of the U.S. population own 35% of the wealth, and why are bonuses on Wall Street more than double the total annual pay of all Americans on the federal minimum wage? Why has support swollen so rapidly for a buffoon like Donald Trump? And finally, in such darkly unequal times, what can poets do about it? 

Mortality rates for white working class Americans declined steadily until around 2000, as you might expect following the postwar years of peace and prosperity, the 'golden age of capitalism' as it is sometimes called. But in the last few years they have got worse, for the first time since records began. White working class men who never got beyond high school now have an absolutely worse mortality rate than black, Hispanic or any other demographic.

What are the causes of these early deaths? Drugs, alcohol and suicide, mostly. Basically, these men have killed themselves with drugs and drink because the rich and powerful American ruling class, running the richest and most powerful country in the history of the world, do not need or want them any more. They're on the economic scrapheap, or on their way there. There are simply not enough jobs for them, and the few jobs around are increasingly badly paid.

Those groups who have been on the margins of the capitalist USA for a long time have weathered the recession better because they have always had nasty, short, precarious lives. But white baby boomers, brought up to expect a brighter future, are discovering that they are going to be worse off than their parents. Most of their efforts to cope with, come to terms with, or struggle against this legalised robbery of their labour, their health, wealth and happiness, are failing. They are becoming more and more desperate, and so are voting for the dangerous, delusional fantasies of Donald Trump, when they are not drinking and drugging themselves to death.

Fred Voss expresses the situation poetically as

Shadows We Will Never Escape

All day as we work
we stare
out the rolled-open tin door at the 50-storey downtown L.A. WELLS FARGO
and BANK OF AMERICA and CITICORP
buildings gleaming
in the sun with all their wealth and power
trying
to keep our children fed
trying to keep from losing hope
and throwing in the towel
on our low wages
riding buses
bicycles
thin
with hangovers making us teeter and hold our stomachs
over pitted concrete floors
and stumps instead of fingers
we go without glasses and teeth and hope of anything
but poverty
in old age we
stick our chests out and throw around 100-pound vices and try not
to get strung out on drugs
or pick up guns and go crazy as we work
in the shadows
of those buildings
so close
with so much wealth and power we stare
out at those towering shining buildings
from the shadows on the concrete floor
of our factory
until we truly begin to know what it feels like
to be buried alive.

At the point of production, there is no democracy, no land of freedom and opportunity, not even adequate material rewards for punishingly hard work. For growing numbers of poor working class men and women there is only naked exploitation, built on centuries of racism and violence. In this impoverishing environment, suicide, madness and prison are only

One Hair's-Breadth Away

I sit on my steel stool at work at break and read
the news article
about the genocide we Americans committed against the Red Man
for centuries
I sit
and read about the genocide
we Americans committed against the Black Man
with nooses
and butcher knives
I read
the concern
the horror
the apology in these articles
the shock
that we as Americans could ever have allowed such genocides
then look around
this factory just like so many thousands of factories in this land
at the men
who cannot afford a pair of glasses a haircut shoelaces
a meal a room
a woman
men
one hair’s-breadth away
from suicide
madness
prison
the street
men
getting poorer penny by penny each hour each day each year
without hope of a raise
white men black men men from Mexico and East L.A.
and Guatemala and Vietnam and Russia
men
with twisted backs and tired tombstone eyes
and I wonder
where are all the articles full of concern and shock and horror
about them I wonder
why the only genocides that make our papers are the ones that are already
finished.

And where, you might wonder, are all the poems about work and the working class? The problem here is that

Only Poets With Clean Hands Win Prizes

The homeless woman pushes her little boy and girl in a shopping cart
down an alley to the trash cans
where she desperately looks for scraps of food
as the poet
writes about whether or not an ashtray on his coffee table
really exists
the man works 50 then 60 then 70 hours a week in a factory
so he can live in a tiny cheap room with another man
instead of in a car
and the poet
leans back pleased with her image
of a red teacup
sailing through a wall
the poets
are polishing lines about the shadows inside ivory bowls
and what time really means
as old people
must choose between their medicine and eating
people in agony with no health insurance spend nights sitting in chairs
waiting in crowded emergency rooms
men
go to prison for the rest of their lives for stealing
a sandwich
the poet
is writing about looking in a mirror
as a wave curls
over his shoulder and he knows it is all
an illusion
while men are thrown out onto the street
where they will pick up bottles
or needles that will ruin their lives because
there are no jobs
as the poets
work to polish words that prove the ticks of a clock
aren’t real.

Voss knows the ticks of the workplace clock are horribly real signifiers of oppression and exploitation. Not because of the work itself, but because of the conditions of employment which people work under. Voss sees and expresses the actual evil of capitalist production, but also the potential for good under different arrangements. And he expresses it clearly, lyrically, without ever losing sight of the factual, material basis of life, and the equally straightforward way things could be different. As he says in 'Bread and Blood', he is making parts for attack helicopters in Iraq, when he could be making socially useful things like wheelchair wheels.

Voss's dialectical understanding of capitalist production also connects the energy of work in his machine shop to universal values. See how in the following poem we move smoothly, seamlessly, from the sweaty, oily detail of early morning machining in a metalwork shop, to some of the finest scientific and artistic accomplishments of humanity, and from there to happiness, fulfilment and liberty.

By interpreting the world in this way, Voss is surely helping to change it. His poems sing out hope and possibility to us like Whitman's poems and Kerouac's prose and Ginsberg's poems and The Doors' music did for an earlier generation, or like a

Saxophone on a Railroad Track

There is nothing greater
than the energy in a lathe man at 6:07 am throwing every muscle in his body
into the steel 100-pound tailstock of an engine lathe
digging
his steel-toed shoes into a concrete floor and leaning
into the 100-pound tailstock and flexing muscle shoving it across the tool steel ways of the lathe
until the foot-long drill in the tailstock’s mouth meets
turning brass bar and begins to chew
an inch-in-diameter hole through that brass bar’s dead center
it is the energy
that raised the Eiffel Tower
pushed off
the shore in a canoe that crossed the Pacific
it is Einstein breaking through years of thinking to find time stops
at the speed of light
Galileo
daring to look through a telescope and prove the earth isn’t the center
of the universe
it is Houdini
breaking free of every lock and shooting up out of the river gasping
the air Van Gogh breathed
the minute he brushed the last stroke of oil across his canvas full
of sunflowers
look at the smile on the lathe man’s face as he turns the wheel
forcing the drill through the brass
it is the roar
of the tiger the ring
of the Liberty Bell the laugh
of that lathe man’s baby girl as she sits on his shoulder and reaches up
for a star and the lathe man puts everything he’s got
into turning that wheel
and smiles
because little girls laugh and planets revolve and telephone repairmen
climb telephone poles and train wheels carry a saxophone
toward a music shop window so a man
who has picked himself up out of a skid row gutter can blow Charlie Parker’s notes
off a green bridge again
as the butterfly wing cracks open the chrysalis and Nelson Mandela
steps out of prison
a free man.

Do not think that the clarity of expression is artless. At first sight Voss's poems look like chopped-up prose, but read them aloud and you will hear their sinuous, resilient rhythms, winding onwards like a Whitmanesque river, developing an idea from an initial striking title and first few lines, towards an always memorable resolution.

Here's a good question:

Can Revolutions Start in Bathrooms?

I’m standing
in front of the bathroom mirror washing up after another day’s work
all my life
I’ve seen the working man beaten down
unions broken
wages falling
as CEO salaries skyrocket and stockbrokers get rich and politicians
talk of “trickle down” and “the land of opportunity” and “the American way”
and Earl on the turret lathe keeps tying and retying his shoelaces that keep breaking
and blinks through 30-year-old glasses and finally
gives up his car to ride
the bus to work
and Ariel on the Cincinnati milling machines turns 72 heaving 80-pound vices onto steel tables
with swollen arthritic fingers and joking
about working until he drops
all my life I’ve wondered
why we men who’ve twisted chuck handles until our wrists screamed
shoved thousands of tons of steel into white-hot blast furnaces
under midnight moons
leaned our bodies against screaming drill motors meeting cruel deadlines until we thought
our hearts would burst
are silent
as the owners build their McMansions on hills and smoke big cigars driving a different
$100,000 leased car to work each month
why after bailing out the banks
losing our houses
seeing our wages slashed and our workloads rise I’ve never heard one word
of revolt
and Teddy the bear of a gantry mill operator walks into the bathroom to wash
all the razor-sharp steel chips and stinking black machine grease off
his arms and hands
he’s been driving the same cheap motorcycle
for 20 years and says,
“Hey which front office person is driving that brand new Jaguar
I see parked out there now?”
and none of us can answer
as we raise our heads from the sinks
“Well, whoever it is,” Teddy says,
“They’re making too much money!”
After 40 years of silence
I can’t help wishing his words could be like the musket shot
that set off the storming
of The Bastille.

Voss never loses the sense of what work is really for, and what the ideal communist society might look like. He lifts his poetic hammer, verbally envisioning redemptive change, helping to create the communist and compassionate political movement needed so that all of us – but especially the poor – will be able eventually to restore our health and happiness and eat

Broccoli and Salmon and Red Red Apples

Let the poet lift a hammer
let the poet break bread
with a man lying down in a bunk in a skid row midnight mission homeless shelter
let the poet come out from behind the walls of his ivory tower
and feel the steering wheel of a downtown Long Beach bus in his hands
as he steers it toward a 66-year-old grandmother
who rides it to work at a factory grinding wheel
let him feel the 12-hour sun the lettuce picker feels beating down on the back
of his neck
let him pull a drill press handle
hook a steel hook through a steel pan full of motorcycle sidecar yokes and drag it
100 feet across a gouged concrete factory floor as drop hammers pound
let him grease a gear turn a wheel
crack a locknut serve a plateful of crab
drain a panful of oil plant
a stick of dynamite hook a tuna
in the deep green sea dig bulldozer bucket teeth
into the side of a hill feel
how good the sun feels on his face Sunday morning
when he’s finally gotten a day off after 72 hours behind windowless factory
tin walls
how good a tree looks
or a river sounds or a baby feels
in his arms
when he’s earned his bread with the sweat on his back
how true a star
and the notes of Beethoven and the curl of a wave around the nose of his surfboard are
when he’s thrown his arms around a 1-ton bar of steel
and guided it into a furnace full
of white-hot flame
how much a wildflower or a fire truck siren or a pick
in the fists of a man in the depths of a coal mine
mean
when he earns his bread by getting the dirt of this earth
on his hands
how human
we all are covered in soft skin and pulsing
with warm blood and deserving
of a roof over our head and a bed under our bones and a laugh
around a dinner table piled high
with broccoli and salmon
and red red apples.

Finally, here is one of Voss's most complex and successful poems, weaving themes of beaten-down oppression and class division with utopian aspiration and a willed determination to achieve human – and indeed universal – reconciliation through socially useful, unalienated work. It is a vision of

The Earth and the Stars in the Palm of Our Hand

“Another day in paradise,”
a machinist says to me as he drops his time card into the time clock and the sun
rises
over the San Gabriel mountains
and we laugh
it’s a pretty good job we have
considering how tough it is out there in so many other factories
in this era of the busted union and the beaten-down worker
but paradise?
and we walk away toward our machines ready for another 10 hours inside tin walls
as outside perfect blue waves roll onto black sand Hawaiian beaches
and billionaires raise martini glasses
sailing their yachts to Cancún
but I can’t help thinking
why not paradise
why not a job
where I feel like I did when I was 4
out in my father’s garage
joyously shaving a block of wood in his vice with his plane
as a pile of sweet-smelling wood shavings rose at my feet
and my father smiled down at me and we held
the earth and the stars in the palm of our hand
why not a job
joyous as one of these poems I write
a job where each turn of a wrench
each ring of a hammer makes my soul sing out glad for each drop of sweat
rolling down my back because the world has woken up and stopped worshiping money
and power and fame
and because presidents and kings and professors and popes and Buddhas and mystics
and watch repairmen and astrophysicists and waitresses and undertakers know
there is nothing more important than the strong grip and will of men
carving steel
like I do
nothing more important than Jorge muscling a drill through steel plate so he can send money
to his mother and sister living under a sacred mountain in Honduras
nothing more noble
than bread on the table and a steel cutter’s grandson
reaching for the moon and men
dropping time cards into time clocks and stepping up to their machines
like the sun
couldn’t rise
without them.

Fred Voss' poetry is rooted in factory life on the West Coast of California, but rears up and stretches our imaginations as we read it, taking us across time and space. It lives in the here and now and works to the tick of the factory clock, but transcends our 'cold competitive time'. Like Blake's poetry, it sees the world in a grain of sand, tells truth to power. And like Blake, Voss combines the precision and realism born of years of skilled craftworking with a sweeping, lyrical imagination and vision arising from years of reflection on work, on the working class, and on the dreadful but alterable material realities of the world around him. Voss's sword will clearly not be sleeping in his hand, any time soon.

Voss writes prophetic poetry with a deep spiritual content, focused on the point of production. He connects the inherent, present harshness of class conflict under capitalism with the ultimate, future promise of communism, a 'warmer way to live' as he says in the poem below. It can be ironic, satirical and even angry, but it always retains its dignity, warmth and humanity. He is searingly honest in description, visionary in imagination, and is surely one of our greatest contemporary poets, tirelessly lifting his poetic hammer and striking the spark of revolution into our hearts and minds.

Let him have the last word, as well as the first. This is a poem about making

A Clock as Warm as Our Hearts

As I sit at this milling machine cranking out brass parts
at the precise rate of 21 per hour
I wait for the sun to creep its way across the sky until it shines
through the high windows
in the west wall of this factory onto the top of the blue
upside-down funnel on the workbench
beside my machine
and then my fingers
the way it always does.
There is an order to things
men in caves
before sundials and hourglasses
and clocks
knew
an order
higher than staying competitive by turning out 21 parts per hour in this factory
or losing your job
a warmth
in the sky that always returns
to shine upon my fingers
the way the dying leaves of fall return
the way our dreams return
the tide
and the comets
and as the boss comes down the aisle cold and angry
and screaming for parts
I wait
for the soothing touch of that sun on my fingers to tell me
that someday
we may put our cold competitive time clocks and bosses away
and find a warmer
way to live.

This article is also published in Communist Review. Thanks to Fred Voss, Bloodaxe Books and the Morning Star for permission to republish poems. Two collections of Fred Voss's poetry are currently available from Bloodaxe: Carnegie Hall with Tin Walls, £8.95 Bloodaxe Books 1998, and Hammers and Hearts of the Gods, £8.95 Bloodaxe Books 2009. 

 See also I believe in the common man: an interview with Fred Voss.

Guernica, by Pablo Picasso
Saturday, 16 December 2017 12:50

Communism by way of the poem

Published in Poetry

Alain Badiou writes about the links between poetry and communism, with particular reference to the poetry of the Spanish Civil War.


In the last century, some truly great poets, in almost all languages on earth, have been communists. In an explicit or formal way, for example, the following poets were committed to communism: in Turkey, Nâzim Hikmet; in Chile, Pablo Neruda; in Spain, Rafael Alberti; in Italy, Eduardo Sanguinetti; in Greece, Yannis Ritsos; in China, Ai Qing; in Palestine, Mahmoud Darwish; in Peru, César Vallejo; and in Germany, the shining example is above all Bertolt Brecht. But we could cite a very large number of other names in other languages, throughout the world.

Can we understand this link between poetic commitment and communist commitment as a simple illusion? An error, or an errancy? An ignorance of the ferocity of states ruled by communist parties? I do not believe so. I wish to argue, on the contrary, that there exists an essential link between poetry and communism, if we understand ‘communism’ closely in its primary sense: the concern for what is common to all. A tense, paradoxical, violent love of life in common; the desire that what ought to be common and accessible to all should not be appropriated by the servants of Capital. The poetic desire that the things of life would be like the sky and the earth, like the water of the oceans and the brush fires on a summer night – that is to say, would belong by right to the whole world.

Poets are communist for a primary reason, which is absolutely essential: their domain is language, most often their native tongue. Now, language is what is given to all from birth as an absolutely common good. Poets are those who try to make a language say what it seems incapable of saying. Poets are those who seek to create in language new names to name that which, before the poem, has no name. And it is essential for poetry that these inventions, these creations, which are internal to language, have the same destiny as the mother tongue itself: for them to be given to all without exception. The poem is a gift of the poet to language. But this gift, like language itself, is destined to the common – that is, to this anonymous point where what matters is not one person in particular but all, in the singular.

Thus, the great poets of the twentieth century recognized in the grandiose revolutionary project of communism something that was familiar to them – namely that, as the poem gives its inventions to language and as language is given to all, the material world and the world of thought must be given integrally to all, becoming no longer the property of a few but the common good of humanity as a whole.

This is why the poets have seen in communism above all a new figure of the destiny of the people. And ‘people’, here, means first and foremost the poor people, the workers, the abandoned women, the landless peasants. Why? Because it is first and foremost to those who have nothing that everything must be given. It is to the mute, to the stutterer, to the stranger, that the poem must be offered, and not to the chatterbox, to the grammarian, or to the nationalist. It is to the proletarian – whom Marx defined as those who have nothing except their own body capable of work – that we must give the entire earth, as well as all the books, and all the music, and all the paintings, and all the sciences. What is more, it is to them, to the proletarians in all their forms, that the poem of communism must be offered.

What is striking is that this should lead all those poets to rediscover a very old poetic form: the epic. The communists’ poem is first the epic of the heroism of the proletarians. The Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet thus distinguishes lyric poems, dedicated to love, from epic poems, dedicated to the action of the popular masses. But even a poet as wise and as hermetic as César Vallejo does not hesitate to write a poem with the title, ‘Hymn to the Volunteers of the Republic’. Such a title evidently belongs to the order of the commemoration of war, to epic commitment.

These communist poets rediscover what in France Victor Hugo had already discovered: the duty of the poet is to look in language for the new resources of an epic that would no longer be that of the aristocracy of knights but the epic of the people in the process of creating another world. The fundamental link organized into song by the poet is the one that the new politics is capable of founding between, on the one hand, the misery and extreme hardship of life, the horror of oppression, everything that calls for our pity, and, on the other hand, the levying, the combat, the collective thought, the new world – and, thus, everything that calls for our admiration.

It is of this dialectic of compassion and admiration, of this violently poetic opposition between debasement and levying, of this reversal of resignation into heroism, that the communist poets seek the living metaphor, the nonrealist representation, the symbolic power. They search for the words to express the moment in which the eternal patience of the oppressed of all times changes into a collective force which is indivisibly that of raised bodies and shared thoughts.

The Spanish Civil War and Poetry

That is why one moment – a singular historic moment – has been sung by all the communist poets who wrote between the 1920s and 1940s: the moment of the civil war in Spain, which as you know ran from 1936 to 1939.

Let us observe that the Spanish civil war is certainly the historic event that has most intensely mobilized all the artists and intellectuals of the world. On one hand, the personal commitment of writers from all ideological tendencies on the side of the republicans, including therefore the communists, is remarkable: whether we are dealing with organized communists, social democrats, mere liberals, or even fervent Catholics, such as the French writer Georges Bernanos, the list is extraordinary if we gather all those who publicly spoke out, who went to Spain in the midst of the war, or even entered into combat on the side of the republican forces. On the other hand, the number of masterpieces produced on this occasion is no less astonishing. I have already noted as much for poetry. But let us also think of the splendid painting by Pablo Picasso that is titled Guernica; let us think of two of the greatest novels in their genre: Man’s Hope by André Malraux and For Whom the Bell Tolls by the American Ernest Hemingway. The frightening and bloody civil war in Spain has illuminated the art of the world for several years.

I see at least four reasons for this massive and international commitment of intellectuals on the occasion of the war in Spain.

First, in the 1930s the world found itself in a vast ideological and political crisis. Public opinion sensed more and more that this crisis could not have a peaceful ending, no legal or consensual solution. The horizon was a fearsome one of internal and external warfare. Among intellectuals, the tendency was to choose between two absolutely contrary orientations: the fascist and the communist orientations. During the war in Spain, this conflict took the form of civil war pure and simple. Spain had become the violent emblem of the central ideological conflict of the time. This is what we might call the symbolic and therefore universal value of this war.

Second, during the Spanish war, the occasion arose for artists and intellectuals all over the world not only to show their support for the popular camp, but also to participate directly in combat. Thus what had been an opinion changed into action; what had been a form of solidarity became a form of fraternity.

Third, the war in Spain took on a fierceness that hit people over the head. Misery and destruction were present everywhere. The systematic massacre of prisoners, the indiscriminate bombing of villages, the relentlessness of both camps: all this gave people an idea of what could be and what in fact was to be the worldwide conflict to which the war in Spain was the prologue.

Fourth, the Spanish war was the strongest moment, perhaps unique in the history of the world, of the realization of the great Marxist project: that of a truly internationalist revolutionary politics. We should remember what the intervention of the International Brigades meant: they showed that the vast international mobilization of minds was also, and before anything, an international mobilization of peoples. I am thinking of the example of France: thousands of workers, often communists, had come as volunteers to do battle in Spain. But there were also Americans, Germans, Italians, Russians, people from all countries. This exemplary international dedication, this vital internationalist subjectivity, is perhaps the most striking accomplishment of what Marx had thought, which can be summarized in two phrases: negatively, the proletarians have no fatherland, their political homeland is the whole world of living men and women; positively, international organization is what allows for the confrontation and in the end the real victory over the enemy of all, the capitalist camp, including in its extreme form, which is fascism.

Thus, the communist poets had found major subjective reasons in the Spanish war for renewing epic poetry in the direction of a popular epic – one that was both that of the suffering of peoples and that of their internationalist heroism, organized and combative.

Already the titles of the poems or collections of poems are significant. They indicate almost always a kind of sensible reaction of the poet, a kind of shared suffering with the horrible fate and hardship reserved for the Spanish people. Thus, Pablo Neruda’s collection bears the title Spain in Our Hearts. This goes to show that the first commitment of the poet is an affective, subjective, immediate solidarity with the Spanish people at war. Similarly, the very beautiful title of César Vallejo’s collection is Spain, Take This Cup from Me. This title indicates that, for the poet, the sense of shared suffering becomes its own poetic ordeal, which is almost impossible to bear.

However, both poets will develop this first personal and affective impulse almost in the opposite direction – that of a creative use of suffering itself, that of an unknown liberty. This unknown liberty is precisely that of the reversal of misery into heroism, the reversal of a particular anxiety-ridden situation into a universal promise of emancipation. Here is how César Vallejo puts it, with his mysterious metaphors, in Hymn to the Volunteers of the Republic:

Proletarian who dies of the universe, in what frantic harmony
your grandeur will end, your extreme poverty, your impelling whirlpool,
your methodical violence, your theoretical & practical chaos, your Dantesque
wish, so very Spanish, to love, even treacherously, your enemy!

Liberator wrapped in shackles,
without whose labour extension would still be without handles ,
the nails would wander headless,
the day, ancient, slow, reddish,
our beloved helmets, unburied!
peasant fallen with your green foliage for man,
with the social inflection of your little finger,
with your ox that stays, with your physics,
also with your word tied to a stick
& your rented sky
& with the clay inserted in your tiredness
& with that in your fingernail, walking!
Agricultural
builders, civilian & military,
of the active, ant-swarming eternity: it was written
that you will create the light, half-closing
your eyes in death;
that, at the cruel fall of your mouths,
abundance will come on seven platters, everything
in the world will be of sudden gold
& the gold,
fabulous beggars for your own secretion of blood,
& the gold itself will then be made of gold!

You see how death itself – the death in combat of the volunteers of the Spanish people – becomes a construction; better yet, a kind of nonreligious eternity, an earthly eternity. The communist poet can say this: ‘Agricultural builders, civilian & military, of the active, ant-swarming eternity’. This eternity is that of the real truth, the real life, wrested away from the cruel powers that be. It changes everything into the gold of true life. Even the accursed gold of the rich and the oppressors will simply become once more what it is: ‘the gold itself will then be made of gold’.

We might say that, in the ordeal of the Spanish war, communist poetry sings of the world that has returned to what it really is – the world-truth, which can be born forever, when hardship and death change into paradoxical heroism. This is what César Vallejo will say later on by invoking the ‘victim in a column of victors’, and when he exclaims that ‘in Spain, in Madrid, the command is to kill, volunteers who fight for life!’

Pablo Neruda, as I have mentioned, likewise starts out from pain, misery and compassion. Thus, in the great epic poem titled ‘Arrival in Madrid of the International Brigade’, he begins by saying that ‘Spanish death, more acrid and sharper than other deaths, filled fields up to then honoured by wheat.’ But the poet is most sensitive to the internationalism of the arrival in Spain from all over the world of those whom he directly calls ‘comrades’. Let us listen to the poem of this arrival:

Comrades,
then
I saw you,
and my eyes are even now filled with pride
because through the misty morning I saw you reach
the pure brow of Castile
silent and firm
like bells before dawn,
filled with solemnity and blue-eyed, come from far,
far away,
come from your corners, from your lost fatherlands,
from your dreams,
covered with burning gentleness and guns
to defend the Spanish city in which besieged liberty
could fall and die bitten by the beasts.

Brothers,
from now on
let your pureness and your strength, your solemn story
be known by children and by men, by women and by old men,
let it reach all men without hope, let it go down to the mines
corroded by sulphuric air
let it mount the inhuman stairways of the slave,
let all the stars, let all the flowers of Castile
and of the world
write your name and your bitter struggle
and your victory strong and earthen as a red oak.
Because you have revived with your sacrifice
lost faith, absent heart, trust in the earth,
and through your abundance, through your nobility, through
your dead,
as if through a valley of harsh bloody rocks,
flows an immense river with doves of steel and of hope.

What we see this time is first the evidence of fraternity. The word ‘comrades’ is followed later on by the word ‘brothers’. This fraternity puts forward not so much the changing of the real world as the changing of subjectivity. Certainly, at first, all these international communist militants have come ‘from far’, ‘from your corners’, ‘from your lost fatherlands’. But above all they have come from their ‘dreams covered with burning gentleness and guns’. You will note the typical proximity of gentleness and violence. This will be repeated with the image of a ‘dove of steel’: combat is the building not of naked violence, not of power, but of a subjectivity capable of confronting the long run because it has confidence in itself.

The workers and intellectuals of the international brigades, mixed together, have given new birth to ‘lost faith, absent heart, trust in the earth’. Because we are at war, the dove of peace must be a dove of steel, but it is also and above all, says the poem, a dove of hope. In the end, the epic of war that Neruda celebrates, what he calls ‘your victory strong and earthen as a red oak’, is above all the creation of a new confidence or trust. The point is to escape from nihilistic resignation. And this constructive value of communist confidence, I believe, is also needed today.

The French poet Paul Eluard picks up on two of the motifs that we have seen so far, and mixes them together. On one hand, as César Vallejo says, the international volunteers of the Spanish war represent a new humanity, simply because they are true human beings, and not the false humanity of the capitalist world, competitive and obsessed with money and commodities. On the other hand, as Pablo Neruda says, these volunteers transform the surrounding nihilism into a new confidence. A stanza of the poem ‘The Victory of Guernica’ says this with precision:

True men for whom despair
Feeds the devouring fire of hope
Let us open together the last bud of the future.

However, in the Spanish war Eluard is sensitive to another factor with universal value. For him, as for Rousseau, humanity is fundamentally good natured, with a good nature that is being destroyed by oppression through competition, forced labour, money. This fundamental goodness of the world resides in the people, in their obstinate life, in the courage to live that is theirs. The poem begins as follows:

Fair world of hovel
Of the mine and fields.

Eluard thinks that women and children especially incarnate this universal good nature, this subjective treasure that finally is what men are trying to defend in the war in Spain:

VIII
Women and children have the same riches
Of green leaves of spring and pure milk
And endurance
In their pure eyes.

IX
Women and children have the same riches
In their eyes
Men defend them as they can.
X
Women and children have the same red roses
In their eyes
They show each their blood.
XI
The fear and the courage to live and to die
Death so difficult and so easy.

The Spanish war, for Eluard, reveals what simple riches are at the disposal of human life. This is why extreme oppression and war are also the revelation of the fact that men must guard the riches of life. And to do so you must keep the trust, even when the enemy is crushing you, imposing on you the easiness of death. We clearly sense that this trust is communism itself. This is why the poem is titled ‘The Victory of Guernica’. The destruction of this town by German bombers, the 2,000 dead of this first savage experience that announces the world war: all this will also be a victory, if people continue to be confident that the riches of simple life are indestructible. This is why the poem concludes as follows:

Outcasts the death the ground the hideous sight
Of our enemies have the dull
Colour of our night
Despite them we shall overcome.

Poetic communism

This is what we can call poetic communism: to sing the certainty that humanity is right to create a world in which the treasure of simple life will be preserved peacefully, and that, because it has reason on its side, humanity will impose this reason, and its reason will overcome its enemies. This link between popular life, political reason and confidence in victory: that is what Eluard seeks to confer, in language, upon the suffering and heroism of the Spanish war.

Nâzim Hikmet, in the truly beautiful poem titled ‘It Is Snowing in the Night’, will in turn traverse all these themes of communist poetics, starting out from a subjective identification. He imagines a sentry from the popular camp at the gates of Madrid. This sentinel, this lonely man – just as the poet is always alone in the work of language – carries inside him, fragile and threatened, everything the poet desires, everything that according to him gives meaning to existence. Thus, a lonely man at the gates of Madrid is in charge of the dreams of all of humanity:

It is snowing in the night,
You are at the door of Madrid.
In front of you an army
Killing the most beautiful things we own,
Hope, yearning, freedom and children,
The City …

You see how all the Spanish themes of communist poetics return: the volunteer of the Spanish war is the guardian of universal revolutionary hope. He finds himself at night, in the snow, trying to prohibit the killing of hope.

Nâzim Hikmet’s singular achievement no doubt consists in finding the profound universality of nostalgic yearning in this war. Communist poetics cannot be reduced to a vigorous and solid certainty of victory. It is also what we might call the nostalgia of the future. The hymn to the sentry of Madrid is related to this truly peculiar sentiment: the nostalgia for a grandeur and a beauty that nevertheless have not yet been created. Communism here works in the future anterior: we experience a kind of poetic regret for what we imagine the world will have been when communism has come. Therein lies the force of the conclusion of Hikmet’s poem:

I know,
everything great and beautiful there is,
everything great and beautiful man has still to create
that is, everything my nostalgic soul hopes for
smiles in the eyes
of the sentry at the door of Madrid.
And tomorrow, like yesterday, like tonight
I can do nothing else but love him.

You can hear that strange mixture of the present, of the past and future that the poem crystallizes in the imagined character of the solitary sentry, confronted with the fascist army, in the night and snow of Madrid. There is already nostalgia for what true humanity, the combatant people of Madrid, is capable of creating in terms of beauty and grandeur. If the people are capable of creating this, then humanity will certainly create it. And, then, we can have the nostalgia for that which the world would be if this possible creation had already taken place. Thus, communist poetry is not only epic poetry of combat, historic poetry of the future, affirmative poetry of confidence. It is also lyric poetry of what communism, as the figure of humanity reconciled with its own grandeur, will have been after victory, which for the poet is already regret and melancholy as well as ‘nostalgic hope’ of his soul, past as well as future, nostalgia as well as hope.

With regard to the Spanish civil war properly speaking, Bertolt Brecht also committed himself by writing a didactic play, Señora Carrar’s Rifles, which is devoted to the interior debate over the need to participate in the right battle, whatever the excellent reasons may be to stay at a safe remove.

But perhaps the most important aspect is the following: as the independent communist that he has always been, Brecht is the contemporary of very serious and bloody defeats of the communist cause. He has been directly present and active in the moment of the defeat of German communism in the face of the Nazis. And of course he has also been the contemporary of the terrible defeat of Spanish communism in the face of Franco’s military fascism. But one of the tasks that Brecht has always assigned to himself as a poet is to give poetic support to confidence, to political confidence, even in the worst of all conditions, when the defeat is at its most terrifying. Here we rediscover the motif of confidence, as that which the poem must stir up based on the reversal of compassion into admiration, and of resignation into heroism.

To this subjective task Brecht devoted some of his most beautiful poems, in which the almost abstract focus of the topic aims to produce an enthusiasm of sorts. I am thinking of the end of the poem ‘InPraise of Dialectics’, in which we again find the temporal metamorphoses that I have already talked about – the future that becomes the past, the present that is reduced to the power of the future – all of which makes a poem out of the way in which political subjectivity supports a highly complex connection to historical becoming. Brecht, for his part, in Lob der Dialektik, poeticizes the refusal of powerlessness in the name of the future’s presence in the present itself:

Who dares say: never?
On who does it depend if oppression remains? On us.
On who does it depend if its thrall is broken? Also on us.
Whoever has been beaten down must rise up!
Whoever is lost must fight back!
Whoever has recognized his condition – how can anyone stop him?
Because the vanquished of today are tomorrow’s victors
And never will become: already today!

Must we, too, not desire that ‘never’ become ‘already today’? They pretend to chain us to the financial necessities of Capital. They pretend that we ought to obey today so that tomorrow may exist. They pretend that the communist Idea is dead forever, after the disaster of Stalinism. But must we not in turn ‘recognize [our] condition’? Why do we accept a world in which one percent of the global population possesses 47 per cent of the world’s wealth, and in which 10 per cent possesses 86 per cent of the world’s wealth? Must we accept that the world is organized by such terrible inequalities? Must we think that nothing will ever change this? Must we think that the world will forever be organized by private property and the ferocity of monetary competition?

Poetry always says what is essential. Communist poetry from the 1930s and 1940s recalls for us that the essential aspect of communism, or of the communist Idea, is not and never has been the ferocity of a state, the bureaucracy of a party, or the stupidity of blind obedience. These poems tell us that the communist Idea is the compassion for the simple life of the people afflicted by inequality and injustice – that it is the broad vision of a raising up, both in thought and in practice, which is opposed to resignation and changes it into a patient heroism. It tells us that this patient heroism is aimed at the collective construction of a new world, with the means of a new thinking about what politics might be. And it recalls for us, with the riches of its images and metaphors, with the rhythm and musicality of its words, that communism in its essence is the political projection of the riches of the life of all.

Brecht saw all this very clearly, too. He is opposed to the tragic and monumental vision of communism. Yes, there is an epic poetry of communism, but it is the patient epic, which is heroic for its very patience, of all those who gather and organize themselves to heal the world of its deadly diseases that are injustice and inequality; and to do so requires going to the root of things: limit private property, end the violent separation of the power of the state, overcome the division of labour. This, Brecht tells us, is not an apocalyptic vision. On the contrary, it is what is normal and sensible, reflecting the average desire of all. This is why the communist poem recalls for us that sickness and violence are on the side of the capitalist and imperialist world as we know it, and not on the side of the calm, normal and average grandeur of the communist Idea. This is what Brecht is going to tell us in a poem that carries the absolutely surprising title, ‘Communism is the Middle Term’:

To call for the overthrow of the existing order
May seem a terrible thing
But what exists is no order.
To seek refuge in violence
May seem evil.
But what is constantly at work is violence
And there is nothing special about it.
Communism is not the extreme outlier
That only in a small part can be realized,
and until it is not completely realized,
The situation is unbearable
Even for someone who is insensitive.
Communism is really the most minimal demand
What is nearest, reasonable, the middle term.
Whoever is opposed to it is not someone who thinks otherwise
It is someone who does not think or who thinks only about himself
It is an enemy of the human species who,
Terrible
Evil
Insensitive
And, in particular,
Wanting the most extreme, realized even in the tiniest part,
Plunges all humankind into destruction.

Thus, communist poetry presents us with a peculiar epic: the epic of the minimal demand, the epic of what is never extreme nor monstrous. Communist poetry, with its resource of gentleness combined with that of enthusiasm, tells us: rise up with the will to think and act so that the world may be offered to all as the world that belongs to all, just as the poem in language offers to all the common world that is always contained therein, even if in secret. There have been and continue to be all kinds of discussions about the communist hypothesis: in philosophy, sociology, economics, history, political science. But I have wanted to tell you that there exists a proof of communism by way of the poem.

Translated by Bruno Bosteels. This essay is from The Age of the Poets and Other Writings on Twentieth-Century Poetry and Prose, by Alain Badiou, edited and translated by Bruno Bosteels with an introduction by Emily Apter and Bruno Bosteels (London-New York: Verso, 2014). Thanks to Alain Badiou and Verso Books for permission to republish this essay.

 #bernienumnum meme by Marc James Léger, March 2016.
Saturday, 16 December 2017 12:50

Ecce Homo! Occupy God?

Published in Cultural Commentary

A number of articles currently on Culture Matters touch on ideas of communism in cultural theory, in particular Andy Croft's The Privatisation of Poetry and Andrew Moore's Ghostly Communism - Provocative Documents for Thought. Here, Marc James Léger argues for maintaining a sense of human subjectivity in theorising leftist collectivism, from the writings of Max Haiven to the work of the activist arts group Not An Alternative.

I recently noticed an online article written for Roar magazine in June 2015 by a friend of mine, the Halifax-based activist and scholar Max Haiven. The article, titled “Reimagining our Collective Powers Against Austerity,” defines the concept of the commons in terms of grassroots democracy, horizontalism, sustainable reciprocity, community-level decision-making and radical autonomy. What intrigued me about his article was not so much what he had to say about the need to replace state sovereignty with commons, but the way that individuals and individualism figure in his discussion.

In the following I reflect on the tendency of social movement activists to dismiss individualism and try to complicate this by addressing psychoanalytic theories of subjectivity, which for previous generations was part of the standard mix of Freudo-Marxism, but that today, after the influence of postmodern discourse theory, have seemingly disappeared, as Michel Foucault once said, like a face in the sand at the edge of the sea. I contrast Max’s critique of individualism with the ideas of Not An Alternative, an activist group for which individualism is also a problem, but where, in contrast, psychoanalytic concepts are adopted and made use of in their Occupy strategies.

Brushing up against liberal ideology, Max’s text replaces the notion of “the public” and “counter-publics” with that of the commons, and so it makes sense that he would challenge the idea of the individual as an enlightenment concept that presupposes the public as its counterpart. The principle of egalitarian reciprocity that underwrites the commons involves, he says, “connections between communal and individual responsibility and autonomy.” He takes this beyond the idea of human rights, made in our capitalist world into a notion of the “self-contained, contract-making individual” as the source of political and economic power – the liberal social contract writ small. We must deconstruct this politics of white, male property owners – a “lethal fantasy,” he says, since none of us are self-sufficient monads. Instead, we always rely on collaboration, cooperation with others to create community and commons. He writes: “Our powers have been turned against us, to the point where we are at risk of undermining the network ecology of collaborative life that actually sustains us. Ecce Homo! This is what comes of the fetishization of the individual!”

The individual, according to Max, “is a dangerous but intoxicating fiction,” a “political box” we must deconstruct so that we can build commons. Since privacy implies private property regimes, as opposed to creative commons, neither are people or even the objects they make fully free, and so we must wake up from the adolescent dream of complete liberation from community, responsibility and accountability. Whatever social structures we have, he says, they should be used to build commons-in-struggle: human rights beyond human rights transformed into “rights to the commons” of education, health, material abundance, lifeways, migration, and the freedom to “practice one’s identity and body and mind and sexuality as one chooses.”

Max’s article contrasts interestingly with another text published in Roar magazine in February 2016: “Occupy the Party: The Sanders Campaign as a Site of Struggle,” written by the New York-based art collective Not An Alternative (NAA), a group comprised of core members Beka Economopoulos, Jason Jones and political theorist Jodi Dean. A few days ago I saw Beka Economopulos on the news show Democracy Now! She was participating in a campaign in which supporters of Democratic Party nominee Bernie Sanders had gathered in Zuccotti Park to telephone voters in the states of Illinois, Florida and Ohio and encourage them to vote for Bernie. I myself endorse the Sanders campaign and encourage people to use the hashtags: #hillarysowallstreet, #killarywarhawk and #bernienumnum (#bernienumnum is of course a reference to the hilarious Peter Sellers film The Party, where the main character interrupts the dinner party of a status quo establishment).

 

 

 

It’s significant that these activists have chosen to campaign on the site of the first Occupy Wall Street encampment, since Sanders is the only candidate who in some ways addresses the concerns of this grassroots movement. I know Beka from my brief interactions with NAA and I met her and Jason at the 2012 Creative Time Summit. The day after the Summit we also met at a Strike Debt assembly and march, where, as it happens, I met Max Haiven for the first time. Being familiar with the writings of Jodi Dean, I wasn’t surprised to see Beka on the Democracy Now! episode holding two placards, one of which read #Political Revolution and the other, #Not Me Us. The latter slogan would seem to fit perfectly with Max’s sentiments as well as Jodi Dean’s, even though there are significant differences between them in terms of the viability of party politics for the left. Jodi Dean has written extensively about the need for radical collective action and often criticizes individualism. For example, she writes in her book, The Communist Horizon:

“Some might object to my use of the second-person plural “we” and “us” – what do you mean “we”? This objection is symptomatic of the fragmentation that has pervaded the Left in Europe, the UK, and North America. Reducing invocations of “we” and “us” to sociological statements requiring a concrete, delineable, empirical referent, it erases the division necessary for politics as if interest and will were only and automatically attributes of a fixed social position. We-skepticism displaces the performative component of the second-person plural as it treats collectivity with suspicion and privileges a fantasy of individual singularity and autonomy. I write “we” hoping to enhance a partisan sense of collectivity. My break with conventions of writing that reinforce individualism by admonishing attempts to think and speak as part of a larger collective subject is deliberate.”

And so where Max sees individualism as a dangerous fiction, Dean sees it as a fantasy. I tend to appreciate Dean’s ideas and I certainly agree with her further critiques of the singular focus on micropolitical practices of self-cultivation and individual consumer choice. NAA and Jodi Dean are super-savvy activists and a boon to the movement.

 

BE

 - Not An Alternative’s Beka Economopoulos at Zuccotti Park in support of the Phone Bank for Sanders, interviewed by Democracy Now!, March 12, 2016.

 

The Democracy Now! episode showed people who disagree with NAA’s idea that grassroots activists should “occupy the party,” however. For example, Vlad Teichberg is quoted saying that OWS should remain outside the two-party system. In the way the episode was edited, Beka responds to this with the statement: “I’m thrilled that they’re here [i.e. those who disagree with the Zuccotti Park telephone campaign]. I believe that social movements, Occupy, are about disagreement – right? – yet a fidelity to what binds us together in struggle.” I want to reflect further on NAA’s Roar article but this simple statement implies, I would think, a nod to Alain Badiou’s notion of fidelity to an event and the truth procedure that follows from it. In other words, Beka is making an allusion to Badiou’s notion of “the communist hypothesis.” The buzz term fidelity is here not simply accidental, it’s potentially, insofar are people are followers of Badiou, or at least familiar with his work, a sort of conscripting concept.

In their artwork, NAA often use over-identification strategies, also known as the tactic of subversive affirmation. Examples include the pranks of the Yes Men, who pose as business leaders and infiltrate conferences to deliver in their speeches the kinds of information that corporate executives typically avoid, and the now defunct Colbert Report, a television parody of right-wing news pundits. During Occupy Wall Street, NAA made OWS protest tools that mimic the design of yellow and black police tape. The visually stimulating NAA tape was used extensively by OWS activists in their demonstrations. In the lead up to the one-year anniversary of OWS, the police had cordoned off certain streets near Zuccotti Park. In response, NAA made imitation police control cinder blocks out of polystyrene. These were spray painted with the same colours and fonts used by the NYPD and read: OWS Protecting the People from the Powerful. Cayley Sorochan and I used their instructional video on how to make book bloc shields and created for our Maple Spring marches red book shields of Alain Badiou’s The Rebirth of History and Slavoj Žižek’s The Universal Exception. Since we were a book bloc of only two people – impractical literati you might call us – we marched with these book shields alongside the demonstration in mimicry and mockery of the small police squads that would sometimes march alongside the demos. Cayley and I would certainly agree with the notion of fidelity to the idea of communism.

 

NAA

- Not An Alternative, Occupy Police Blocks, 2012. Courtesy of Not An Alternative.

 

This notion of fidelity is part of Badiou’s contribution to the radical theory of praxis, as defined in his two main books: Being and Event and Logic of Worlds. According to Badiou, it’s impossible to understand the idea of fidelity without an idea of subjectivity. Subjectivity and subjectivization are very different words from individual and individualism. Although individualism is by and large an enlightenment concept and an essential component of bourgeois ideology, one could say that since the Rights of Man is an essential, core aspect of the French Revolution, individual rights are part of the first sequence of what Badiou defines as the communist hypothesis. Marxists, in fact, have never entirely eliminated the individual subject from dialectical theories of humanism, and beyond this, notions of subjectivity – whether you characterize them as individualist or not – are essential to numerous strands of materialism. But what about commons? In Capital, Marx described the way that cooperation and solidarity, insofar as they exist inside a capitalist mode of production and are mediated by money, and so despite the good intentions of leftists nevertheless contribute to capitalist social relations. For all of the criticism one might make of possessive individualism, and all things being equal, it remains not only a communist but a human challenge to go beyond the hegemony of capital as the concrete universal. This is patently the case in the context of global warming.

For Badiou, being, or ontology, is associated with Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic notion of the subject and with mathematical set theory. Being is infinitely multiple and not particularly significant in terms of creating a meaningful event in the worlds of love, science, art or politics. For Žižek, on the other hand, we are never so fortunate as to inhabit the good graces of truthfulness since humans, as subjects of language, are never at the level of what Badiou derisively refers to as animality, defined as the bare subject before becoming faithful to an idea through the transformative procedure that follows an event.

What is important about NAA is that they appreciate these kinds of complex issues, even if such questions do not always make activism simple. In “Occupy the Party,” they address the limitations of the Democratic Party, the electoral system, parliamentary democracy, and the state form. These are essentially meaningless to any radical revolutionary politics that would be able to deliver “internationalism, anti-imperialism, anti-racism and worker control of the means of production.” And so why vote for Bernie at all? Why not build autonomous political structures outside the two major U.S. parties?

One quick answer is that, according to polls and analysts, Bernie is the only Democratic candidate that is critical enough of the oligarchic establishment to win an election victory against the likely Republican candidate, Donald Trump, a demagogue whose ideas many have begun to compare to Hitler’s. The point that NAA make in the article is that the left has no means at the moment to implement its principles, that “our principles become the barriers to their own realization.” And so the more we try to occupy places of power, the greater is the danger of co-option. As they put it nicely: “The dilemma of left politics is that we appear stuck between beautiful souls and dirty hands.” They write:

“Politics involves knots of principle, compromise, tactics and opportunity. Their push and pull against one another accounts for much of what many dislike about politics: banal rhetoric, betrayals, splits. Finding a candidate or party with which one fully agrees is impossible. Something is always missing, always off. This is not (only) the fault of the political system. It’s (also) a manifestation of the ways people are internally split, with conflicting, irreconcilable political commitments and desires.”

Nothing therefore is unified and self-identical, not individuals, not institutions, and not movements for social change. The question then, in the battle for hearts and minds, and in political organizing, is whether the level of individual subjectivity is something we should or even can eliminate? Beyond endless deconstruction, what is to be done?

For NAA, the political struggle cannot be a matter of numbers, or majority rule, but the insistent push in the streets and squares. They give as examples Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, two movements that have challenged the status quo and changed the parameters of political possibility. The extent to which these movements have actually done this is debatable. They have certainly affected the media representation of critical issues, but they are also conflicted internally, as NAA is right to mention, by very different political philosophies and orientations. Like BLM, NAA proposes that movements for change should not create another mass political party but should occupy the existing parties, with the Sanders campaign extending these struggles within the Democratic Party, forcing a split within the party. “The more we engage, they say, the more damage we can do, at every turn demonstrating the gap between people and practice.”

One might wonder, then, if everything is barred, to use Lacanian parlance, can institutions and individuals be occupied in the same way? The critique of liberal individualism has certainly seen its fair share of occupations in the twentieth century, from the “personalism” of forced collectivization and the gulag, to Maoist dormitories, Khmer Rouge social engineering and Symbionese Liberation Army abductions. If that be the case, one would rather be a member of a party that one has joined than be on either the receiving end of things, or worse, on the wrong side of History. Think for example of The New Babylon (1929), a wonderful Russian silent era film that depicts the events leading to the Paris Commune and its reorganization of the divisions that were already present in capitalist relationships, represented by the contrast between Dmitri Shostakovich’s “La Marseillaise” juxtaposed with the “Can-can” from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld. But then Socialist Realist films like this get criticized for its stock characters.

Closer to our “postmodern” times than Stalinist and Situationist purges, micropolitics skew the problem of dissent and difference within the ranks in favour of the capillary and rhizomatic formations of post-human subjects. Affinity rather than discipline becomes the watchword of social movement activists and the process of radicalization is understood to take many paths. Fidelity to a truth procedure can get pretty confusing in the context of a horizontalist grassroots movement, especially, as Badiou says, when one thinks in terms of equivocal concepts like democracy and in the absence of a strong ideology.

Where there is no unified political formation you have what’s called massism, the relatively (dis)organized masses pitted against state and corporate power without the guidance of leadership and party programme. Self-directed leadership in these kinds of contexts is not always effective and if someone decides to opt out of leaders and programmes altogether, as does the Invisible Committee, the question of collectivism gets to be very local and insular. We’ve all experienced the kinds of conflict and tensions that can easily erupt in the absence of a general will. As Naomi Klein said, it’s easier for people in the movement to give in to callouts and the micro-policing of comrades than it is to focus on changing the power structure. The pretense of speaking with authority, for example in the case of Anonymous, in the media campaigns of Adbusters, or in the over-identification tools of NAA, can certainly have illuminating and beneficial effects. In my view the significance of the resurgence of the left in the 2000s can be explained as a critique of the limits of postmodernism and a renewal of political economy and macro-political thinking.

Psychoanalysis teaches us that the unconscious does not begin and end at the point of conscious effort or political identification. As all advertisers know, ideology, propaganda, and spectacle are operative at the level of the psyche, even if the outcomes are never certain or predictable. This is certainly true when Bernie describes himself as a socialist. The American public, politicians and news media often don’t seem to know what to do with such statements; they seem more comfortable with the outlandish buffoonery of Donald Trump. Why is this? NAA explains it nicely, “Just as Occupy was never about one group, so the Sanders campaign is not about him. It’s about changing the conditions of political possibility.” The Democrats are terrified of being taken over by politics, they argue, and the mobilization of the left gives them reason to be afraid. But how useful is this notion of fear? True, the billionaire class is afraid to lose control of its enormous economic power and so it does everything to prevent social movements from directing change, as was noticed in Greece with the debacle that followed the referendum on the debt crisis.

But fear is also an intrinsic part of their game. As Badiou said in The Meaning of [Nicolas] Sarkozy, “The electoral operation incorporates fear, and the fear of fear, into the state, with the result that a mass subjective element comes to validate the state.” Once the state is occupied by fear, Badiou argues, “it can freely create fear.” The dialectic is one between fear and terrorism: a state that is legitimized by fear becomes ready to become terroristic. One sees this everywhere in the building of a security state, with surveillance of the enemies created by global imperialism spreading to encompass the control of all leftist organizations, no matter how small they might be. As Badiou puts it: “Control will change into pure and simple state terrorism as soon as circumstances turn at all serious.”

The experience of the Black Panther Party is only one case it point and based on this and similar experiences, a “post-traumatic” left tends to avoid ideas like revolution and vanguards. Militants in the capitalist North must therefore convince both the working class and the middle class that things can be done through the system and that they shouldn’t fear the existing conditions of economic decline since, when fear takes hold, the aspiration to class mobility leads to identification with centrist and conservative politics, which guarantees declining living standards, poverty and misery for the vast majority of people.

In this context, psychic resourcefulness, the ability to speculate, reflect, and criticize is essential. Individualism, for lack of a better term, is an asset to social movements, against both conformity to the dominant neoliberal order as well as to idealist temptations within our own political thinking. Of course we have to be idealistic, but better to do so as materialists. It might be better, even if more alienating and academic sounding, to use the terms subject formation and social formation than that of individuals and publics. Lacan teaches that psychoanalysis is not a recipe for politics. As Žižek puts it in How to Read Lacan, “psychoanalysis does not show an individual the way to accommodate him or herself to the demands of social reality.” Having been excommunicated from official psychoanalytic milieus, Lacan made an entire theory of the concept of excommunication, understood in terms of what is unanalyzable and yet shared through the chain of signifiers. One way to think of this is with the Lacanian formula according to which “there is no Dasein (ontology) except in the a-object.” For Lacan, writing in The Logic of Phantasy, “there is no subject except through a signifier and for another signifier.”

The scandal of psychoanalysis is that the truth of the subject does not reside in himself or herself and such knowledge remains to this day an enigma, something that we avoid through the mechanism of fetishistic disavowal: our criticism of individualism is a measure of our repudiation of the knowledge that is made available to us by psychoanalysis. This is the reason that critical cultural and political theory can today speak about jouissance, knots and split subjectivity, while also proposing that we remain faithful to movements for progressive radical change. From our entry into language our primary narcissism is always already part of a commons of symbolic meanings and social structures, the point is to change them for the better.

In Philosophy for Militants, Badiou says that the goal of the twentieth century was to create a new man at any cost, so that humanity could become the new God. What we have today, he says, is the inhumanity of technological annihilation and bureaucratic surveillance. How then does humanity overcome the inhumanity in which it is immersed? Franco Berardi asks a similar question in his book The Uprising about the hypercomplexity of the technolinguistic automatisms that cause us to behave like swarms. The bio-economic totalitarianism of financial abstraction is due to the acceleration of the infosphere, with little prospect of being able to reverse this trend. If the only imaginable process of subjectivization is that of immersion, then we need to think like Bifo of ways to subvert subsumption. For Badiou, this requires the courage to create “new symbolic forms for our collective actions”: truths that are not reducible to law and its transgression but that rather create a generic will.

My take on individualism is that we should be collective while also being human. This to me is definitional of leftist class struggle. It means ridding ourselves of the idea of creating a positive unconscious of knowledge that could be located either in social structures, as Louis Althusser and Foucault taught us, or in the persons of individual subjects, inclusive of those who are part of the movement and those who are not. Notwithstanding the irreconcilability of difference, there is more to enjoy in human variance than there is in the pretense of conformity and the strictures of correctness.

Think for example of both the hilarity and the pathos in a film like Miloš Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball (1967), where the effort to keep up appearances and respectability clashes with such human foibles as hunger and neuroses like voyeurism. This is not at all to deny the call for solidarity, organization, responsibility and mutuality on the left, but is rather to challenge what is now the orthodoxy of the discourse theory and social constructionism that has argued for the disappearance of the human subject. This erasure is a delusion of all positive systems and so-called materialisms that have not incorporated the complex of existing critiques of social systems and political structures.
Dark Light
Saturday, 16 December 2017 12:50

Dark Light

Published in Films

John Smith, the avant garde film maker, has kindly offered Culture Matters his short film, Dark Light. Below, he introduces it.

The only time I’ve visited a communist country was when I went to Poland in 1980, not long after Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was first elected in Britain. I first visited the former East Germany in 1997, eight years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and a few months after Tony Blair's 'New Labour' government was elected. Recalling these experiences many years later, Dark Light questions our imaginings of life in other places, times and political systems, mirroring its narrative through its form. London and Warsaw, 1980. London and Leipzig, 1997.

Where now?

 

 

More information on John Smith's films is available at www.johnsmithfilms.com

 

Saturday, 16 December 2017 12:50

Ghostly Communism - Provocative Documents for Thought

Published in Culture Hub

Several pieces on both the arts and culture hubs express, creatively and critically, what communism might mean. It's touched on in the poetry of Salena Godden, David Betteridge and others; the articles by Roland Boer on religion and by Andy Croft on poetry; and in the art of Ai Wei-Wei and others in the visual arts section. In this outstanding article, Andrew Brown picks up on the theme, and contributes a stimulating discussion of the notion of 'ghostly communism', and also some photographic images which illuminate the text in true Blakean fashion.

So long as humans live under conditions of the capitalist economy they remain fundamentally mute because their fate does not speak to them. If a human is not addressed by his or her fate, then he or she is incapable of answering it. Economic processes are anonymous, and not expressed in words. For this reason one cannot enter into discussion with economic processes; one cannot change their mind, convince them, persuade them, use words to win them over to one’s side. All that can be done is to adapt one’s own behaviour to what is occurring. Economic failure brooks no argument, just as economic success requires no additional discursive justification. In capitalism, the ultimate confirmation or refutation of human action is not linguistic but economic: it is expressed not with words but with numbers. The force of language as such is thereby annulled

(Boris Groys, The Communist Postscript, Verso Books).

Today, when words have lost their material base—in other words, their reality—and seem suspended in mid-air, a photographer’s eye can capture fragments of reality that cannot be expressed in language as it is. He can submit those images as a document to be considered alongside language and ideology. This is why, brash as it may seem, Provoke has the subtitle, ‘provocative documents for thought’

(Manifesto of the “Provoke Group” (1968) signed by Kohi Taki, Takuma Nakahira, Takahiko Okada, Yutaka Takanashi, and Daido Moriyama)

 childrenlaughing31jan

As someone involved in left politics in one way or another since my mid-teens in the late 1970s, one of the most disturbing realisations of recent times is, as Boris Groys observes, to see how the force of language has been annulled. Once upon a time I was able to converse and argue with all kinds of people in the public space about ideas concerning human life and our fate; today, wandering through the cultural and social wreckage of neoliberalism’s stealth revolution, I find I am “fundamentally mute” because the economization and financialization of everything has occurred. I, and my friends, comrades and even old adversaries, have found to our cost that “one cannot enter into discussion with economic processes; one cannot change their mind, convince them, persuade them, use words to win them over to one’s side. All that can be done is to adapt one’s own behaviour to what is occurring.”

Like everyone else I have been forced to adapt my behaviour—though, as you’ll see, not in the way neoliberalism would like. This is because I am all too aware of how the language of politics, the language of the demos (as in democracy), now no longer has the power effectively to encourage people in any significant numbers critically to examine what is happening in our lives and how our fate is so tightly held in the hands of those who are driving along the neoliberal agenda. Try as I like, whether in my role as a political activist or as a minister in a radical, free-religious, democratic tradition, I find it impossible to persuade people, as a whole, to rise up against their chains as a neoliberal homo oeconomicus and become, once again, homo politicus. I may point to the cry in the Communist Manifesto that the “proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains.” but the genius of the neoliberal stealth revolution has been to make its chains appear flower-decked. I may be able to point out, along with Marx, that neoliberalism’s flowers are “imaginary” but, what I cannot do at the moment, being fundamentally mute, is to persuade my fellow humans the value of “throw[ing] off the chain[s] and pluck[ing] the living flower” that is a genuine democracy.

This is a tragedy because, as Wendy Brown observes in a recent interview:

Democracy requires that citizens be modestly oriented toward self-rule, not simply value enhancement, and that we understand our freedom as resting in such self-rule, not simply in market conduct. When this dimension of being human is extinguished, it takes with it the necessary energies, practices, and culture of democracy, as well as its very intelligibility.

It is here that, for me, photography enters into the picture. Recognising that my words have lost “their material base—in other words, their reality—and seem suspended in mid-air” the Japanese Provoke movement’s 1968 manifesto came to me as an epiphany and began to inspire my own work, some of which you can see in this piece. Their insight suddenly offered me a way to continue the struggle for socialism and against barbarism in a very different way. They helped me see that, yes, it might be possible as a photographer to “capture fragments of reality that cannot be expressed in language as it is” and that the images I captured by my lens could be submitted as documents “to be considered alongside language and ideology”—photographs could be “provocative documents for thought” in a way that, at this moment in our culture’s life, our old political (and religious) words cannot.

I’ll return to the photographs found in this essay in a few paragraphs but, firstly, it is important to address the commonly expressed feeling that my words above may seem to express a typical leftist, defeatist attitude. However, two things can be cited to show this is not, I think, the case. The first is a parable told by Lenin and the second is the conception of a “weak” or “hermeneutic” communism as envisaged by Gianni Vattimo.

Man lying in sun 800x800

In 1924 Pravda (No. 87, April 16, 1924) published a short piece Lenin had written two years earlier at the end of the hugely destructive Russian Civil War called Notes of a Publicist that bears as one of its subtitles: “On ascending a high mountain.” In it Lenin imagines a man “ascending a very high, steep and hitherto unexplored mountain” who has “overcome unprecedented difficulties and dangers and has succeeded in reaching a much higher point than any of his predecessors, but still has not reached the summit.” The problem is that the mountaineer has got himself into a place where he can go no further and, if he is to succeed, he must turn back and seek another route. But, as is so often the case, descents prove to be more dangerous and difficult than any ascent. As Lenin notes,

. . . it is easier to slip; it is not so easy to choose a foothold; there is not that exhilaration that one feels in going upwards, straight to the goal, etc. . . . one has to move at a snail’s pace, and move downwards, descend, away from the goal; and one does not know where this extremely dangerous and painful descent will end, or whether there is a fairly safe detour by which one can ascend more boldly, more quickly and more directly to the summit.

To the people looking up at the climb from below, this descent causes them to shout all kinds of abuse “with malicious joy” about to the foolishness of the whole attempt to reach the summit. In Lenin’s parable he notes that,

Happily, in the circumstances we have described, our imaginary traveller cannot hear the voices of these people who are “true friends” of the idea of ascent; if he did, they would probably nauseate him. And nausea, it is said, does not help one to keep a clear head and a firm step, particularly at high altitudes.

Alas, as we descend from our first attempt to scale the mountain and, thereby, achieve socialism, the malicious joy of voices around us are today only too audible. Nauseating though this may be the important point to hold on to with a clear head is that even the great hero of the Russian Revolution saw there are moments in any struggle where you have no choice but radically to retrace the route you initially chose. In truth, this is always highly likely to occur because the mountain has not yet been conquered; you have absolutely no way of knowing beforehand what is going to be the successful route to the peak.

Reflection 530x800

It is clear that, due to external contingent circumstances, and too often our own foolishness, folly and occasionally brutality, we find ourselves in a place on the mountain that require us to retrace so many of our steps by undertaking a dangerous and very risky descent.

One person who has, to my mind, bravely and successfully done this to reach a place where we may have genuine hopes of mounting a more successful, gentle and humane attempt on the summit (though it is a very different kind of “summit” than the one imagined by Lenin and the kind of communist thinking he inherited) is the Italian leftist thinker and philosopher, Gianni Vattimo.

What appeals to me about Vattimo’s thinking is his feeling that, were communism to have any chance today of contributing to the improvement of world in healing, healthy and creative ways, then it needed to be in the full-time business of weakening all dogmas and ideologies—including, of course, its own. This idea of weakening all dogmas and ideologies may seem strange to many traditional leftists, but think about it. History has surely taught us that all strong totalising ideologies (whether religious, political, economic or financial) are deeply problematic and ultimately destructive as well as being profoundly anti-revolutionary. All such ideologies—including those once held by communists—fail properly to see that the world is always-already way more anomalous, complex, rich and revolutionary than can be dealt with by any single, totalising world-view. As Vattimo says in his highly influential 1983 essay “Weak Thought”, today it is possible to see clearly that:

. . . the world plays itself out in horizons constructed by a series of echoes, linguistic resonances, and messages coming from the past and from others (others alongside us as well as other cultures).

In other words, there is never going to be an end (a peak or summit) to the ongoing complex, multi-layered conversation between people and ideas and, therefore, there is also no such thing as ideological purity and certainty. Our world is, through and through, ceaselessly dialectical and this always means that new and revolutionary interpretations and insights are constantly being showing-up—there are theses and antitheses, yes, but there is no final, stable synthesis towards which we are ineluctably moving. The single, simple “summit” of the mountain Lenin and the early communists thought we were climbing disappears in Vattimo’s thought (and “weak” communism) to be replaced by a much more complex, shifting and interesting landscape that requires us always to flexible in our thinking and action. Perhaps this is also what John Storey is hinting at in his article 'What Do We Mean By Culture and Why Does It Matter?' elsewhere on the site: that to hold with absolute certainty any predetermined single ideology or doctrine, to be ideologically pure, is nothing less than to close oneself up to life itself.

With this thought of a life of ever-unfolding conversation we come to the nub of the matter, namely, what is now the best strategy available to us to change ourselves and the world for the better? How might we be truly true to the original revolutionary communist ideal with all its transformative energy and vision?

Well, we can start with Marx’s famous words “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it.” As we know most of these grand attempts to change the world were rooted in strong ideologies and doctrines and, without exception, they unfolded in some very, very bad ways. As Vattimo says in his 2010 essay “Weak Communism” this means that:

Thinking about a weak communism means rejecting not only Marx’s message, but also Lenin’s definition of communism as ‘soviet power plus electrification’ (assuming it was ever like this).

In consequence, in their recent book, “Hermenutic Communism”, Vattimo and his colleague Santiago Zabala feel, and I agree with them, that, today, Marx’s eleventh thesis should be rewritten thus:

The philosophers have only described the world in various ways; the moment now has arrived to interpret it.

Related to this thought, in a 2002 interview Vattimo notes that:

In a strong theory of weakness, the philosopher’s role would not derive from the world ‘as it is,’ but from the world viewed as the product of a history of interpretation throughout the history of human cultures. This philosophical effort would focus on interpretation as a process of weakening, a process in which the weight of objective structures is reduced.

The claim being made here is that the best way to affect change the world is firstly (and primarily) to change our interpretations of the world. In “Weak Communism” Vattimo states that to do this

We need an undisciplined social practice which shares with anarchism the refusal to formulate a system, a constitution, a positive ‘realistic’ model according to traditional political methods: for example, winning elections (who believes in them any longer?). Communism must have the courage to be a ‘ghost’ — if it wishes to recuperate an authentic reality.

A strikingly similar idea was expressed in the British context by Eric Hobsbawm who, in an interview towards the end of his life, suggested that the communism of the 21st century must become first and foremost

. . . a critique of capitalism, a critique of an unjust society that is developing its own contradictions; the ideal of a society with more equality, freedom, and fraternity; the passion of political action, the recognition of the necessity for common actions; the defence of the causes of the poorest and oppressed. This does not mean anymore a social order as the Soviet one, an economic order of total organisation and collectivity: I believe this experiment failed. Communism as a motivation is still valid, but not as programme.

Supermarket 27 March 2015 800x800

 

All of which allows me, finally, to turn to the photographs in this piece. They are “weak” images in the sense that they do not express any substantive political content but, for me, they do function as strong “provocative documents for thought.” Looking at them I am provoked to ask many questions, such as whether these laughing children are leading better and more fulfilled lives than their forebears or not?; whether the man sunbathing is engaging in a moment of resistance (bunking-off from exhausting and underpaid work for a while) or is he simply enjoying a well-earned and happy retirement?; whether the man reflected in the shop window surrounded by dozens of other reflections celebrating the omnipresent consumer culture through which he walks is elated and improved by this, or is he merely being crushed and erased by it?; whether the man in the supermarket is delighted by this huge range of commodities on the shelves before him or merely weighed-down by pointless choice?

As I say, these are just a few of the questions one might ask about these images and they all serve to keep me fully engaged in a political dialectic that will not be silenced by the neoliberal status quo.

 

 

For me taking these photos is part of my continuing activism as a “ghostly communist”, as someone still able to be engaged in resistance even though it is a kind of “spectral resistance” (a la Giorgio Agamben). Taking them helps me find a way of haunting every nook and cranny of the neoliberal culture in which I find myself mostly made mute. But, for all that I still have faith and hope that, along with my many ghostly comrades, we can ensure that the spectre of communism will continue to haunt not only Europe, but the whole world, our common home and treasury.
Saturday, 16 December 2017 12:50

The Communist Vision of Ai Weiwei

Published in Visual Arts

Is Ai Weiwei the most famous artist in the world? If so, it’s not because of his art but because of his celebrity status as a political dissident who’s been carefully shoehorned by the media — and sections of the cultural establishment, judging from some of the accompanying notes to this exhibition — into the liberal stereotype of the heroic individual artist defying communist tyranny.

To some extent, the question of whether this is a fair interpretation of his art gets a response in this large and varied exhibition, some of it site-specific, which provides an opportunity to assess the aesthetic and political qualities of Ai’s art.

Curiously, the least successful pieces are the most directly political ones focusing on Ai’s own disputes with the authorities. There are handcuffs, camcorders and CCTV cameras crafted from marble and a porcelain map of China’s regions with the slogan “free speech” on each of them. They show skilful craftsmanship but their deliberate uselessness as objects and superficial political content make them seem bombastic and crude.

Marble surveillance camera

Six iron boxes with dioramas of half-size, lifelike figurines tell the story of his imprisonment on suspicion of tax evasion a few years ago. While it must have been very stressful to live for several weeks under the gaze of guards, the literal, “cute” way the scenes are depicted drains them of any disturbing effect.

The echoes of the kitsch and jejune styles of official art under Mao undermine their power as political protest.

Some other pieces show similar strands of self-glorification and half-hearted, unconvincing conformity to certain well-worn Western artistic and political tropes.

In one triptych of photographs, Ai vandalises a Han dynasty vase by smashing it on the ground. Other ancient vases are dipped in bright industrial paint and daubed with the Coca-Cola logo and echoes of Duchamp. Crudely iconoclastic Dadaism and the more nihilist elements of Warhol-inspired art are painfully obvious in these derivative pieces.

Dropping a Han Dynasty urn 1

Yet there are other much more authentic and heartfelt artworks. One room is dedicated to the 2007 earthquake in Sichuan which killed 5,000 schoolchildren, partly due to the shoddy building materials and techniques used by corrupt local authorities. The victims are memorialised, not only in videos, photographs and lists of their names on the gallery walls, but most strikingly through Straight, a 50-foot-long installation laid across the floor of the gallery.

It’s a massive, beautiful construction using the reinforcing bars from the badly built school buildings. They were crumpled and twisted by the earthquake but have been straightened and then laid in gently undulating but unsettled waves, reminiscent of the seismic movements which caused the tragedy. It is a sombre, grieving and dignified monument to the victims and a particularly sensitive kind of artistic and political activism. As Ai says: “Everything is art. Everything is politics.”

Straight 1

Another of his aphorisms, “I want people to see their own power” is expressed in much of his previous work. He helped design the famous Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing, whose interlocking beams evoke fairness, mutual interdependence and social equality.

His installation of millions of sunflower seeds, supposedly China’s historic symbol of life and hope in adversity, in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall a few years ago was similarly memorable — a brilliantly original affirmation of hope and belief in the communist vision of similar yet separate individuals, living and growing together in a class-free society. The same feelings of respect for history, delight in craftsmanship and worked materials and an underlying faith in communal harmony are expressed in several brilliantly conceived and executed pieces in this exhibition.

The most abstract and imaginative expression is Fragments, a structure of intersecting beams taken from temples, sometimes driven through antique chairs and tables. The beams are fixed together without nails or screws, using traditional Chinese joinery methods and represent a kind of 3-D map of China, both formally geographical but also psychosocial. It invites the spectator to walk around and through it and it exudes history, strength and anxiety, along with a certain disquiet and subversive discontent, together with an exuberance at the power of the social, the joined and the co-operative.

Fragments 1

Other pieces, more straightforwardly representative, conform with another of Ai’s sayings, that “ordinary people should have the same ability to understand art as anyone else.” In one room, a sparkling and uplifting chandelier made of bicycles rotates very gently in the air, a wonderful homage to all the ordinary working people who have contributed their labour to building the modern Chinese republic. In another, vibrant tufts of grass are given a monumental quality by being carved out of marble. Like the sunflower seeds, they are all similar yet subtly different — a confident and empowering vision of Chinese people and society.

Bicycle Chandelier 1

Kippe is a stack of old and beautifully mellowed pieces of wood, salvaged from ancient temples. Fashioned into a tightly fitting, smooth-faced and harmonious block, strengthened and supported by gymnasts’ parallel bars, they reference the leading role of the Communist Party in maintaining and developing social harmony amongst the common people of China.

“My art becomes more and more political,” says Ai and it’s clear that his activist art is designed not just to interpret the world but to change it. It’s also clear from this exhibition that his political critique is not limited to repressive features of the Chinese state but is implicitly opposed to societies divided by class wherever they are. Ai’s best work summons up and celebrates the age-old communist vision of individuals living in egalitarian social harmony. By doing so in such an invigorating, empowering and pleasing way, it surely helps us achieve a society where we will indeed be “people who see their own power.”