Of Fishiness, Flesh, and the Radical Undead
Sep 17, 2014
11 Min read time
Editors' Note: This essay is one of a group of responses to Daniel Tiffany's "Cheap Signaling." Read the rest.
I am grateful to Daniel Tiffany for opening up a forum in which to apprehend the clashing strains of class and diction in an evolving constellation of contemporary English-language poetry—for moving beyond the depoliticized discussions of experimentalism that have dominated academic and otherwise institutional discourse about poetry in the US since conceptualism eclipsed its more apparently politically discomfiting rival, Flarf. The possibility of a poetry in which “[t]he historical debris of bourgeois and proletarian cultures becomes the phantasmatic material from which one begins to construct the model of a new revolutionary class” is auspicious by comparison, but unperturbed affirmations of the extinction of cultures being actively disappeared, and the suggestion that fakery is the only viable means of representing them, make me—with my old-fangled attachment to the actual, to the people speaking the debris—squirm. Aspiring otherwise, to channel the late Édouard Glissant, “I say that nothing is true and everything is alive.” To sample the debris of cultures in smoke towards performance of a formal revolution is an ethical failing.
What does it mean to frame the death of the proletariat in language when the underclass is more expansive, more exploited, and potentially more mobilized against its dissolute oppressors than ever, as sanctioned murders and the consequent unrest in Ferguson attest? The death of the underclass as Marx conceived of it—as Gáspár Miklós Tamás, cited by Tiffany in his virtuosic edifice of a thesis, invokes—would be synonymous with the implosion of the system that has enforced the proletariat’s intolerable state: this is a death that has not occurred outside of theory. Any death of blue-collar culture we might mourn today does not equal the death of a people, but the extermination of the visibility of those whose bodies are on the front and assembly lines, in often poisonous contact with the materials that generate the virtual satisfactions to which the United States has become addicted. It is the death of the opportunity to be unconcealed, organized, and empowered as workers in the Rust Belt and beyond as production is outsourced, its machinations obscured. For too many, moreover, social death results from the withdrawal of the collar, of the opportunity to work with dignity or at all. “The working-class culture which inspired so much heroism and self-abnegation is dead”—only in the sense that politics driven by transnational capital routinely subsumes voices of refusal under the sign of incorporation. It subsumes them via the exploitative syncretism of social engineering (sham populism, multiculturalism and the like)—until riots break out. If we are witnesses to the death of the working class today, then a teargassed eruption of Molotov cocktails in St. Louis County is its funeral.
Only by being variously embroiled, yoked, can poetry impart a sense of what it is like to depart from that richly determining matrix.
Some writers who are appalled and occasionally elated by the public consequences of linguistic constructs such as pretexts for invasion, neutralizations of torture, bombardment, and police brutality, or chants in the street insist on seeing poetry as a means of defamiliarizing social truth and sending it back in a more repulsive or ecstatic form, rather than a means of managing and re-branding information. Poetry with any such political aspiration that has attachments to vernacular expression by blood, experience, or affection must resist complacent practices of appropriation, especially practices that imply that the suspicion and inequality among still-reigning castes could be glibly singable, that caste (much less class) dissolution is really in effect anywhere in the “global village” of capital, that our iconic government and its paramilitary forces are “of the people, by the people, for the people” as they pronounce. Instead it should make power and class relations shriek through our common medium of transcribed, traduced, and otherwise embattled speech. Homonoia, in Greek, means being of one mind: poets seeking to address the dispossession that surrounds in that space Fred Moten and Stefano Harney identify as the “undercommons” seek solidarity across the institutional and class structures that divide us by obliterating common bonds, but we do not want to be of one mind. Nor do we want to construct inert reliquaries of revolution or resuscitate tableaux morts, as fascinated as we may be with history; history doesn’t stop for still lifes, not when it has demands. As a collective, a chorus, we can reintroduce the noise that is routinely expunged from transmission into history and the news and take back time as sensuous experience from the advances of positivism and its overlords. Dialect is a key resource in this struggle because it “remains . . . far from every throne,” as Andrea Zanzotto, the great experimental poet of Pieve di Soligo, demonstrates in his essays and verse.
The irreverent Marxist Pier Paolo Pasolini proposed in 1952 that to bring the dialect of his mother’s province of Friuli “to a level of consciousness that would render it representable,” the author needed “to be sufficiently detached from it, marginal,” writing not too much like a native speaker, so as “to deploy its language freely and with a sense of virginity.” Having been apprenticed through translation for a dozen years to Pasolini’s errant protégé, the polyglot poet of exile Amelia Rosselli, I grew to want the opposite: to employ the dialect(s) that make up my discomfortable “mother tongue” with a sense of contamination true to its extraction: an archaic provincial variety of Nnapulitano (a variant of vulgar Latin, Greek, and a purported Oscan substratum) mingled with Irpinese and Messinese, Bronxified, doused with Yiddish, jazz slang, and the phantasmatic film-jargon of 1950s America, and slowly eroded by the injunction of cultural death (as Theodore Roosevelt admonished of the “tangle of squabbling nationalities” that were “bringing this nation to ruin,” “There can be no divided allegiance here. . . . We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language”). Only in being submerged in this tongue acquired “without any rule, by imitating our nurses,” the vernacular for which Dante argued so eloquently—only by being variously embroiled, yoked, can poetry impart a sense of what it is like to depart from that richly determining matrix: a corpus politick that has been branded and scarred by expressions of sex, class, ethnicity and race at once.
In the years of the so-called “economic miracle” in Italy, Rosselli, the daughter of an assassinated Jewish hero of the Italian anti-Fascist Resistance and an English Labour activist, born in Paris, rejected the belatedly modernist polylingual collages fabricated by the cosmopolitan neo-avant-garde. Instead, writing through the mastery of a canon of poets stretching from Donne through Rimbaud and Montale, she chose to occupy one language at a time fallibly, aiming to introduce “the grammar of the poor” into her poetry alongside lyric archaisms, and to translate “what can be read . . . by the laborer who doesn’t even have time to read the newspaper”:
You self-taught heart who has understoodits weak point, obduring through winterstoo great for harmony . . .[. . .]though with your pen you may think, and analyseencounters or things into being, they escapeyou not without poverty. . .
The resultant lines convey the welter of lingos that swarm, phantasmatic and real, alien and native, current and antique, “high” and “low,” in the consciousness of a migrant listener. Rosselli resisted any untormented representation of “the people” who cannot represent themselves, indicting those who went about “serving higher / ideals as if it were a soup: to be fried / in, or held astance with light grip,” who cannibalize and “swallow the meat in the jargon as if it / were a pauper’s den. . . .” As such, her work remained unintelligible to the literary establishment for decades, though it comes closer to restaging the conflict Pasolini described in introducing the 1955 Italian Songbook, and which we arguably perceive best in his films: the “dissimilation, and at the same time assimilation” between popular or folk song and the ruling class that aims to absorb it—churning “at intensest frequency, at once sympathy and struggle, of ‘relation.’”
In my own writing I hope to puncture theory with the patois and stop-dead solecisms of the crucible that raised me, and which was anything but intellectual or academic (uncolleged; gougingly “across the abyss of a class migration”). I want to mobilize the speech of my girlhood household and neighborhoods for its critical and poetic capacity, its ability to talk back—and I aspire to tune to the neighborhoods of others, as artists from Tom Raworth to Julie Ezelle Patton, Rodrigo Toscano, and LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs do so bravely. Writing the poems of From Dame Quickly in the aftermath of 9/11, I wanted to introduce the carnality of “collateral damage” back into the cant of leadership and media channels that had eliminated bodies from their accountings of that latest detonation of the military-industrial complex, and also through the intellectual frameworks then reigning in school, at Berkeley, which was my employer, and beyond. Those frameworks had devolved into either a poststructuralism of the most narcissistic, amnesiac order, or a heroic Marxism that policed the wayside through its undead model of base and superstructure. Orthodox Marxism remains just as insufficient a vehicle for capturing the complexity of class formation and conflict, inside and outside the academy, as Romantic or Rousseauian visions of collusion with an idealized “people”; it can’t account for the fact that class and property are racialized and gendered. In 1970, Carla Lonzi, author of Let’s Spit on Hegel, affirmed, “The oppression of woman will not be overcome by annihilating man. Nor will equality resolve it; oppression will continue with equality. Revolution will not resolve it; it will continue with revolution.” These prophesies could apply to all those who fall outside of Hegel’s dialectic, his history.
It may be true that academic and liberal discourse has accommodated critical race and gender studies more readily than class issues (due not only to the way that the academy tends hypocritically to represent itself as a refuge removed from relations of production, but also to a history of red-baiting). Yet as Prageeta Sharma’s Undergloom discloses in abundance, the academy is no space of asylum from the hierarchies of repressive regimes of race, ethnicity, gender, ableist ambition, and the burden of assimilation; moreover, it compels advancement for some fortunate few (including myself and various poets herein named) through an elaborate succession of abstruse rituals shaped by the intellectual elite of the ruling class, while subsisting increasingly on the protracted trial, displacement, disenfranchisement, and overall precarity of hordes of devoted educators. “I’m only inside of reports and evaluations and things / from which I stick out,” divulges an institutionalized but unsheltered I of Undergloom.
In Capital, Karl Marx alluded provocatively—however obliquely—to a female body-cum-thing in Shakespeare’s Eastcheap as a testament to the material actuality obscured by commodity fetishism:
The objectivity of commodities as values differs from Dame Quickly in the sense that ‘a man knows not where to have it.’ Not an atom of matter enters into the objectivity of commodities as values; in this it is the direct opposite of the coarsely sensuous objectivity of commodities as physical objects. . . .
The citation embedded in the passage hails from Falstaff, in King Henry IV, Part One: in an argument over money he owes the Boar Head Tavern’s keeper and some kind of lover, Hostess Quickly, he says to the Prince, “Why, she’s neither fish nor flesh; a man knows not where to have her”—to which Quickly replies, “thou or any man knows where to have me, thou knave, thou!” Unlike the commodity whose social substance has been abstracted beyond recognition, Quickly, though objectified as “you thing” by Falstaff, remains coarsely sensuous matter, able to be “had” by a man; moreover, she talks back, obliging us variously to “remember that commodities possess an objective character as values only in so far as they are expressions of an identical social substance, human labour.” Quickly’s malapropisms throughout Shakespeare’s plays speak with a forked tongue: they generate puns that subvert the King’s English by grounding discourse in the bawdy, the social body at the core of commerce. Poetry with any stake in expressing class antagonism has to resist the discarnate forms of appearance, but also to deploy Marx’s critique against itself, to counter the abstracted patriarchal and often Eurocentric ideologies of revolution that came to dominate the discourse on class: to be divided allegiances, both/and, of fish and flesh.
As Antonin Artaud speaks through the epigraph to Judith Goldman’s l.b.; or, catenaries, “if there is still one hellish, truly accursed thing in our time, it is our artistic dallying with forms, instead of . . . signaling through the flames.” A diction at vigilant odds with its own invention of specters, a diction of salvaged testimony and feast “obduring” through winter and smoke, can be the harrowing vehicle that renders apprehensible the discordant presence of cultures abused or disappeared. Seek a disparate poetics of sincerity: not to manufacture by-the-book solidarity, or to make the invisible visible via a false logic of transparency, but to uphold the right to every other’s opacity—to bruise and multiply the channels of its invisibility.
September 17, 2014
11 Min read time