Joshua Clover - Keston Sutherland - Eric Linsker - Marxist poetics - Always totalize - Poetry and revolution - Militant Politics and Poetics - proletariat - Adorno - Hegel - Neoconceptualism - Kenny Goldsmith - MoMA - Sussex - Oakland



Poetry and revolution are like concerts with no programs: they end up on YouTube fast.

When that video of Keston Sutherland speaking at the Militant Politics and Poetics Conference in London at the end of May was shared on Facebook, Joshua Clover posted a “longish response,” beginning:

        Well, I love Keston affirming a Marxist poetics. Any disagreements  
        I might have with him would be friendly, and as a comrade. There 
        would probably be a few. For example:

        § in his first proposition, he holds that capitalism moves toward 
        “the extinction of the subject . . . the proletariat.” This isn’t true, of 
        course; capitalism seeks to reproduce the proletariat at the 
        minimum cost to itself, and indeed its existence depends on the 
        preservation of the proletariat (it is precisely this distinction which 
        undergirds the debates around communization, as it happens).

Those few comradely disagreements resulted in a month-long exchange of emails undergirded by Sutherland’s “fifth proposition, ‘it must be thrilling.’ Agreed” (Clover). Sutherland started out ending “in solidarity,” and finished concluding not in it, but “with” it, and “love,” matching Clover’s “kisses.” 

Poetry and revolution always totalize love, except they don’t, because that totality would be the vanishing point of sublation they strive to find their actual disappearance in and into. Read Keats’s letter with Shelley’s spirit: poetry should come like revolution to the trees, or it better not come at all. That wind is a lover’s discourse.

Eric Linsker

Mon, Jul 1, 2013 at 7:26 PM EDT
“Poetry makes nothing happen.” (Auden, 1939)
“Marxism makes nothing happen.” (Clover, 2013)

Joshua: a comradely embrace across the split. I’m grateful for your criticisms of the five propositions extemporised in my short talk for the militant poetics event in London. To start with the first: in response to my claim that capital extinguishes the proletarian subject, you reply that the claim cannot be true, since “capitalism seeks to reproduce the proletariat at the minimum cost to itself, and indeed its existence depends on the preservation of the proletariat.” I wonder if we are really at odds.
I agree that capitalism reproduces the proletariat and preserves it. But what is the subject that capitalism reproduces and preserves? The conceptual roots of those two verbs are tangled up but they lead to separate and distinct dead ends. Reproduction at its most basic is what subsistence does for the proletarian subject. She eats to be recharged, to persevere in her subjection to exploitation. Insofar as the subject is merely reproduced, it is at its most animal- or machine-like: “the law of capitalist society”, Marx writes in Capital, is like “the boundless reproduction of animals individually weak and constantly hunted down.” The subject confined to its reproduction is precisely proletarian life—the mind and body, suffering and habituation, boredom and fantasy—as a flesh of variable capital tossed over a skeleton quantity of labour-power. The subject confined to its reproduction is a slave, the anonymous chattels in bondage from top to bottom to an accumulation of stolen surplus value. Capital again: “The reproduction of the working class implies at the same time the transmission and accumulation of skills from one generation to another. The capitalist regards the existence of such a skilled working class as one of the conditions of production which belong to him, and in fact views it as the real existence of his variable capital.” The capitalist regards the proletariat as his property and in fact it really is his property. 
What this means for the individual labouring subject is not only that she “exists to satisfy the need of the existing values for valorization”—this rather than “the inverse situation, in which objective wealth is there to satisfy the worker’s own need for development”; not only is the labouring subject in bondage to capital abstracted into the mere “subjective factor of the labour process”, but she has to live her whole life in thrall to the grotesque spectacle in which commodity production itself enjoys the development she needs but is banned from achieving: “Only where wage-labour is its basis does commodity production impose itself upon society as a whole; but it is also true that only there does it unfold all its hidden potentialities.” That last sentence first appeared as an addition in the French text of Le Capital in 1872, where the phrase is less Hegelian than Fowkes’s “unfold its hidden potentialities”, more humanly hedonistic and by a hint in the verb just about notably sexual too: “Ce n’est que là où le travail salarié forme la base de la production marchande que celle-ci non-seulement s’impose à la société, mais fait, pour la première fois, jouer tous ses ressorts.” The infinity of commodity production, its jouissance out of all mere subjective bounds, is the anti-mirror of the paralysis and deadly inertia of the labouring subject. Commodity production fucks itself to an infinite climax, the labouring subject is cramped in a perpetual fold: the rigor mortis of self-reproduction, never-unfolding life. Communist society as Marx conceived it would be a “society in which the full and free development of every individual forms the ruling principle.” The proletarian in bondage to capital is precisely the subject in whom this ruling principle is preserved in catastrophic latency. When I say that the subject under capital is extinguished, I mean just what you say: that she is reproduced and preserved.
Preservation is, as you justly observe, a more Adornian concept. But it is Hegelian first. For Adorno, self-preservation is the invariable activity of the bourgeois philistine. The “spirit of self-preservation [Selbsterhaltung]”, Adorno writes, is the very spirit “which philosophy is precisely concerned to break down.” The Hegel is blatant. Preservation is the paralysis of spirit. I suspect you meant to use the word in a more straightforward sense as a synonym for reproduction, or an account of what reproduction does for the proletarian existence. But I drag in Hegel and Adorno because their speculative, critical supplement helps me to explain what I mean by saying that the subject is extinguished. Not only is her body worn down and her mind fenced into ruts of habit and repetition that become the arteries of its material freedom, but the “despotism of capital” (Marx’s phrase) drills the subject in its own slavish preservation in working order. The worker is “nothing other than labour-power for the duration of his whole life”, Marx straightforwardly insists; but the reproduction of what she is depends on her being preserved in catastrophic latency, not simply by filling up on frozen meals and caffeine, but also by learning to mock, belittle, paralyse, disown, drown out and distance herself from her own most radical potential. This is not ideology in the sense that it is something dumped on oblivious individuals from on high, or soft-wired into their cognitive and perceptual apparatus by history; it is what we actively learn to do, consciously and often with ingenuity. “Capitalist production has seized the vital forces of the people at their very roots”, says Marx [die Volkskraft an der Lebenswurzel ergriffen hat]. That is not the Marx of the early critique of Hegel, so attractive to the existentialists, who says that for man the root is man himself; it is Marx writing the critique of political economy, Capital, for whom “the root of life”, die Lebenswurzel, of the entire class of labouring subjects is infinitely expropriated: life as subjection to a perpetual despotic grab. The Selbsterhaltung that Adorno shudders at is not stupidity. As he says in Negative Dialectics, thought must be stupid before it can be true. This is not stupid thought on the way of despair over to the truth of spirit, but preservation, clever or not, nimble or crude, buying in or selling out. I don’t mean that I think anyone should necessarily be attacked for it. I mean that the weak subject—the reproduced, preserved and extinguished subject—should be supported in her effort to activate her latent potential development by whatever gifts of strength can be made, either by herself or by others.
It would be a lie—beguiling, darkly satisfying, maybe impressively scornful or impressively realistic—if I personally claimed that poetry had never been exactly that order of gift for me, that it had never supported me in my own effort to unlock my potential for practical resistance, for active critique, for solidarity in action. Poetry has certainly been just that gift for me, not only punctually and in what were for me my most memorable events of reading, writing or listening, but consistently and as an enduring tension fundamental to the substance of my life. I don’t pretend that it could or must be that sort of gift for everyone. Surely it will not. But for some people it truly will. What I am trying to think about is how poetry could be that gift not simply through its transmission of thrilling feeling, though that feeling is essential to my understanding of the potential of poetry, but also through its direct, energetic, explicit attack on the total structure and the myriad mechanisms of capital accumulation, as Marx described them: poetry as an “extensive intensity”, to lift a phrase from Adorno, extended outward between living subjects as a gift of feeling and thinking that helps—for sure only virtually or in fantastical articulations in the first instance—to abolish and tear down the social relations that trap the labouring subject forever in a cycle until death of reproduction and preservation. More direct forms of practical action will not be conjured by poetry as if by magical imprecation, but when the moments for active resistance do arrive, my hope is that poetry of the sort I am talking about will contribute to strengthen the imaginations and sinews of comrades ready to risk their freedom or even their lives.
Everything makes nothing happen sometimes. The point is not to erect that proposition into a definition of poetry or Marxism—certainly we shouldn’t be repeating a threadbare pensum from Auden at his most reactionary—but to strain every nerve and synapse to find the marginal or fenced-off zones of exceptional possibility, in language and in the flesh.

In solidarity,
Wed, Jul 3, 2013 at 12:12 PM EDT


Thanks as always for the subtle and learned account. The structure here encourages us to draw forth and clarify our differences and we will, I am sure. But let me first quickly state the most fundamental agreements: concerning our shared commitment to the annihilation of the capital-relation rather than some redistributive program of amelioration; concerning our own experience of poetry as an activity in some way entangled in this; and even, perhaps, the insistence that if there’s no poetry in this revolution we want no part of it. Perhaps.

We agree to a considerable extent, moreover, about the ambiguous senses of “extinguished” and “preserved,” but draw somewhat different conclusions. Marx uses “extinguished” very particularly in Capital to designate the terminal consumption of use values, whence they depart the circuit of exchange altogether. The proletarian bears a use value for capital, but a very peculiar one. Labor power alone is variable capital, for precisely the way that its use value is not extinguished in use, or is both extinguished and preserved. It is this very distinction—our relative inextinguishability—which makes us the sole source of surplus value. We efface this truth at our peril, hence my initial remark.

But we must also be attentive to the ways in which everything about us which is not a use value for capital is rather something to be reduced to a minimum along with the cost of reproduction. Your note is eloquent on this score, and I do not gainsay the misery to be found in this aspect of being. We might say that our proletarian here has two aspects, two sides. You are attentive to the character of the human which is not itself forged by capital but has been debased, diminished, brutalized; you wish to empower this species-being, the Gattungswesen whose potentiality lies beyond the present situation. The other side is the actual capital relation, the side where humans must be use value for capital and exchange value for themselves here in our actually existing world. Here. It is here that the compulsions lie, and it is this side that dominates, in current conditions, over the side of Gattungswesen.

So we are talking about facing sides of the same phenomenon, the same person—simply with different emphases. Is there any real debate in that? I think there is. I’ll try to set it forth as forcefully as I can, because I think it matters.

I will start where you end, with the heroics of “to strain every nerve and synapse to find the marginal or fenced-off zones of exceptional possibility, in language and in the flesh.” Here we must name the unmarked axiomatic that underwrites such muscular claims for poetry: that language and flesh exist at the same stratum.

I yearn for this to be true. I am not the only one, and there are good reasons that the academic left turned, in the latter half of last century, toward a grasp of reality which moved discourse errantly toward the decentered center. This is a continuity between the Frankfurt School’s “critical theory” and the capital-T Theory that would subsume that rubric, a troubled genealogy wherein the departure from the vulgar Marxism of base/superstructure passes through ever more labyrinthine models of mediation and eventually abandons the critique of political economy altogether and remakes itself as a colloquy of new idealisms. No wonder it is Hegel and Adorno who must bracket your Marx.

That is only one way to tell the history. Another would linger less on developments internal to Theory’s Bildung, more on the aggressive de-Marxification of the academy that began in the fifties and accelerated in the sixties. The period we are talking about, after all, is that of the long red scare. It seems from our vantage like a clear decision was made: that a Marxism which worried ceaselessly over culture—with parents from Frankfurt and Birmingham—would be granted a stay, in return for concerning itself increasingly with ideology critique, investing ever more in the categories of instrumental reason, alienation, reification, commodity fetishism, modernity, and the like. It would be a Marxism that an Arendtian could get behind, appropriately skeptical of all totalitarianisms. Abandoned are the critiques of capital as such, the value-form and the value-relation, the commodity and the compulsion of the wage: the actual things that will need to be done away with. This is simply what happened. And the equivocating of language and flesh rests on that history.

But one cannot cite Marx seriously and believe the equivalence, any more than one can conjure a crushed proletarian in support of an Adornian vision which allows that intellectuals might dirty their hands only with ink, where the poem is one among various “gifts of strength” all floating at the same specific gravity. “I mean that the weak subject —the reproduced, preserved and extinguished subject—should be supported in her effort to activate her latent potential development by whatever gifts of strength can be made, either by herself or by others.”
“Supported,” “potential,” “development.” It has the ring of a self-help manual. It is, as we say on the West Coast, awfully “posi.” My own sense is that struggle proceeds via the negative, through the negation of material conditions. The dialectic is no joke and no myth. While I am in no way opposed to developing latencies on the side of Gattungswesen, the war against capital is not staged from the outside, and I fear this is implicit in your desire to develop the aspects of species-being on the non-capitalist side. The war is fought here, on this side. Certain things will have to be actively destroyed on the side of capital. I have listed these things above. And they will not be destroyed with language, any more than they will be destroyed with critiques of language. This is the great irony of the commodity fetish: for all the power that humanists have invested in it, all this tearing back of the veil to show how things really are leaves the compulsions that lie behind it untouched.  

If we must turn to Frankfurt sorts, I would wish to spend a moment with Alfred Sohn-Rethel. He is for me the great thinker of the relation between the value-form and consciousness in the twentieth century. His idea of “real abstraction” is often ill-used exactly by wishful culturalists toward a claim that abstractions—ideas, beliefs, illusions—have nonetheless real, material effects. But this is not the argument at all. Rather it is that in an age ruled by exchange, the human subject is presented with a curious situation: the commodity she brings to market must be for her an exchange value and for the buyer a use value. It must be qualitatively different from the commodity for which it will be exchanged (or why exchange at all?), but at the same time it must be quantitatively the same. The difference is real, a material fact of the world: a pear is neither a peach nor copper. The equivalence, contrarily, exists only as an abstraction via exchange value. Thus it is in exchange that an object discloses itself as both real and abstract, and the commodity’s bearer must experience these together as real abstraction. “This abstract and purely social physicality of exchange has no existence other than in the human mind, but it does not spring from the mind. It springs from the activity of exchange and the necessity for it which arises owing to the disruption of communal production into private production [italics mine].”

The significance of this for me is not only in the insistence on materiality’s priority, but in the clarity with which we see that it is the contradiction of use and exchange values which orients the real abstraction. And as noted earlier, for the proletarian, neither her use nor exchange value are on the side of species-being, both on the side subsumed by capital. Hic rhodus hic salta.

Let me now briefly imagine two objections. The first is that there aren’t really two sides, that each of us is a unity however motley and it is absurd to propose the significance of one against the other. This is neither true nor false; no doubt we are talking in figures that get us only near to the real situation. But this sense of the divided subject is so fundamental to Marx that it would be impossible to reject it and still be discussing Marxist poetics.

The second objection is that we ought develop the side of species-being for the struggle, arm that portion of the human with imagination and courage and insight, along with all the other necessary armatures, for the moment they might be brought to bear. This seems to me to be the kernel of your argument. But for me this is the world stood on its head. One doesn’t bring correct ideas to the struggle, for there is no bringing—revolutionary theory arises from that struggle. When I say Marxism makes nothing happen, I am indifferent to whatever the fuck Auden meant. I mean that Marx’s account of capital is descriptive rather than programmatic. It means to assess the underlying dynamic through which social existence under capital develops, the often-concealed domination of the law of value—it means to grasp the “moving contradiction” between capital’s need to expel living labor from the production process toward greater productivity, and said labor as its only source of accumulation. In Marx’s assessment, this is the real movement, die wirkliche Bewegung. It is like a river flowing across the plain and then descending subterranean beneath the city walls; seen or unseen, it flows onward. It happens. This happening is the truth of materialism.

A further truth is that our forms of consciousness, including our poetry, arise from this situation. Our poetry’s attunement to our situation happens. Let me say my most optimistic thing: I count poetry as revolutionary theory. Not all poetry—but then, not all theory is revolutionary, or for that matter interesting. Some poetry, then. And it obeys the same strictures. We do not bring revolutionary poetry to the struggle. Revolutionary poetry arises from struggle; it is the gift that struggle brings us.

Friendship is also a real movement, 
Thu, Jul 4, 2013 at 5:57 PM EDT

Hello Joshua,
Thanks for this wonderfully bracing and challenging reply. I endorse completely your statement of our fundamental agreements, which seem all the more emphatic for our readiness to dispute how best to mean them and live with them. I might stop short of wanting no part of a revolution barren of poetry, not because I think the survival of poetry should not in some sense be a condition of whatever revolution we want to fight for, but only because I can’t get the fantasy of that refusal into the shape of a principle: if revolution will come, I think I probably will want it whether or not it comes with a guarantee that poetry will be allocated its part. Perhaps again we really agree about that; but perhaps at the same time the modicum of friction between our emphases says something about how we conceive the relation of poetry to social existence on “this side” of its speculative projections and outlooks. In the replies that follow, I will try to find out whether I really think so or not.
The sense in which I mean that the subject is “extinguished” within the capital-relation is not the one you specify from Marx’s account of the terminal consumption of use values. Labour power, the real and abstract substance of the labouring subject’s life within the capital-relation, is consumed by the capitalist with every production of surplus value. The consumption of the proletarian life is the destructive exchange at the root of all capital. But Marx also emphasised that proletarian labour is “meaningless drudgery which deadens both mind and body”: not then just the irreducibly abstract destruction that political economy repulsively dignifies with its “pure theoretical” whitewash, but at the same time, always and for real living individuals, the destruction of their life itself. What you call our “relative inextinguishability” is in my view relative in the specific sense that it is a relation absolutely proper and exclusively native to the capital-relation, within which the individual subject exists only as a quantity of labour power to be exploited like any other quantity in the market of minds and sinews. I am exchangeable for any other equivalent quantity of human abstraction without loss or disturbance to capital, provided some other average body from the reserve army can quickly be found to fill my place when I collapse or die. But the capital-relation is a violent contradiction full of catastrophe for living individuals precisely because life cannot simply be resolved without remainder into the identity that capital despotically assigns it; life must live too, full of its own inescapable, second-by-second, thoroughly felt suffering and endurance, or else the capital-relation, das Kapitalverhältnis, ceases to be the violent contradiction that Marx’s compound noun—twinned with his other ugly compound the “capital-individual” or Kapitalindividuum—compels us to reckon with dialectically, and lapses into a mere diagram of productivity of precisely the “political economic” variety that Marx was straining to scratch out and abolish. 
I agree entirely that whatever this life might be, it cannot be thought or lived outside of the world of exploitation that you and the early Marx together insist we call “this side”, “here”. But I don’t for that reason conclude that any attempt to think intimately about the life of the subject and to reckon with its specific extinction within the capital-relation must fall back on a detachable idea of species-being that materialism overrules. Marx was already writing very sceptically about the idea of a Gattungswesen in The German Ideology, where he says that the very idea of species or Gattung is a refuge for idealism in Feuerbach’s account of sensuous experience. I agree with that criticism and what I think are its implications for any possible account of the universality of the labouring subject. We don’t get humanity by subtracting whatever is contingent and inessential; humanity is historical through and through, we produce it with our bodies and our lives. The subject I am trying to conceive and interrogate within a Marxist poetics is not the ideal subject, or bare life, or humanity boiled down to its innate potentials. It is the subject who is right now daily destroyed in the consumption of his life in the form of the commodity, labour-power: the labouring subject within the capital-relation. When I say that under the despotism of capital that subject is extinguished, I mean what I think Marx means when he says that wage labour “deadens both mind and body”. It would be crude to claim by means of a quick dialectical volta that we can’t know what a deadened mind is without at least some intimation of what a living mind might be outside of the capital-relation; perhaps, as you say, it will only be from within practical struggle that an intimation worth trusting and fighting for will appear, not from the everyday throes of speculation or humanist theory. But whether we think that we might already be able to find or feel some promise of unexploited life from within the capital-relation, or whether we instead make it a principle of our revolutionary intransigence that by definition life must wait until the arrival of a world that it deserves, I can’t see how speculation—idealism, if you like—either can or should be excluded from the thinking we do.
That is where poetry is for me, both in Marx’s writing and in the world. Marx is inconceivable to me without poetry: poetry is essential to how I understand the difference between “political economy” and “the critique of political economy”. I don’t mean simply that Marx writes a literary language, or that, as he himself said about his work, it is all (including Capital) “an artistic whole”. I also mean that what makes Capital irreconcilable with political economy is its refusal to give up speculative thinking about the subject, about life, about experience and its nature. The abstractions of political economy are real, for Marx: the worker really is “nothing but labour-power”. But precisely because the abstractions are real, they are irreconcilable with the life they reductively define. It is a condition of the revolutionary force of Marx’s critique that the bodies and lives it defines using the abstractions of the value forms and (what Adorno might call) the theodicy of accumulation are emphatically not identical with those abstractions, even as they cannot escape them either; I am “nothing but” labour-power because labour-power extinguishes what I am. The capital-relation is a relation of finite and destructible bodies to infinity: accumulation is intrinsically infinite, it is perpetual expansion or it is abolished. The life of the labouring subject is sustained in its relation to infinity only within that catastrophic bondage. What you call our “relative inextinguishability” is really capital’s infinity. The fact that Marx keeps infinity in the world at all is the single most eloquent testimony to his loyalty to speculative thinking. Because infinity really is in the world, albeit only in the inhuman spiral of infinite expansion, poetry is as essential to materialism as it was to The Phenomenology of Spirit.  
The poetry that I hope will be a gift of strength to the subject extinguished by exploitation will not be a self-help manual. If anything, it will make life harder, not easier. Its mechanisms will not be for coping. It will be poetry that strains every nerve (not poetry that just goes on its nerve) to make intensely eloquent the real substance of suffering and endurance within the capital-relation and its preservation of one-sided and alien infinity. It will try to bring into existence new possibilities of eloquence and dumbness, passion and blockages of passion, that are transformatively exhilarating. It will be an explicit and detailed attack on the capital-relation in all its detail, and on everything that fills it up. It will be negative in exactly the sense you describe: an effort to tear down and abolish the apparatuses of exploitation and to make targets of the mechanisms of accumulation. It will try to do these things not just in a way that theory or literary criticism could serenely approve, but with an energy of feeling and thinking that moves the bodies and lives of people who read it and listen to it. You say that we don’t bring poetry to the struggle, but poetry must come out of it. To me that seems an idealistic position, however much I also do admire it for ramping up the pressure on poets actually to get out into the streets and fight, because it denies what I think is the really living dialectic of struggle: the reality that we have to, and do, bring with us whatever gives us strength, just as we do also take away the possibility of new expression that only the struggle itself can forge. I say that the one-sided view is idealistic because it conjures an idea of poetry that seems curiously almost magical: poetry leaps through the portal of struggle out of its absolute impotence and into its absolute eloquence. That seems an idealistic idea not only of poetry, which I think is always more complex and temporally divided and wide-strewn than that, but probably also of struggle too. It makes struggle into the alchemical scene that abolishes the impotence of expression. But I fear that (here I return to my first paragraph) even struggle cannot be made into a transcendentally dependable scene in which the impurities of idealism will be washed away and poetry will at last stand up and be able to be counted and not mumbled or rhapsodised. Isn’t the more difficult possibility that poetry does not fit obediently into the natural history of social relations, and that if we want it to have the force that you hope it will get from being forged in practical struggle, we had better not wait for the furnaces to be opened, but we ought to get on with looking for it right now? If not then surely the whole of Mayakovsky’s revolutionary poetics can be tossed on the shitheap of outmoded idealisms, because his categorical demand that the poet should find social problems and set about solving them through poetry itself can only be a delusion of Bolshevik grandeur.
In solidarity,
Mon, Jul 15, 2013 at 5:10 PM EDT

Hello from over here,

Rueful thanks for another erudite and citation-larded response; I can scarcely but feel a bit of a peasant in comparison. But all for the best: maybe it’s been too long a time since I’ve been scrambling down in the street. 

It is singularly useful to have my core position paraphrased back to me, especially when the restatement is so odd; by the parallax shall we know ourselves. My most basic position about the present situation can be presented as three-part syllogism. 

1) Poetry has no autonomous existence prior to the material life structured by the capitalist social relation, hence
2) Poetry cannot be brought to the struggle over that relation from some other place, as that place doesn’t exist, hence 
3) “Revolutionary poetry arises from struggle; it is the gift that struggle brings us.”

Now I’ll admit that I was left a bit drop-jawed when you declared that this position proposed an “idealistic idea” of poetry, given that it is in keeping with every definition of materialism set forth from Theses on Feuerbach and The German Ideology through Capital. What then could you possibly mean? This comes clear with your ventriloquism of what you take to be my position: “poetry leaps through the portal of struggle out of its absolute impotence and into its absolute eloquence.” 

Well, this is idealist indeed—but you have simply restated your own position as if it were mine. Behold poetry, in your telling, with its prior existence: a substance that merely leaps through struggle wherein it might undergo an “alchemy” (your word) which will transform it. 

So let me say just once more: that is not it at all. Poetry corresponds to “sensuous human activity, practice.” I do not think that Mayakovsky was confused on this point, having begun his poetry-writing whilst in prison for political activity (Shklovsky is clear enough: “A great poet”—he means Mayakovsky—”is born out of the contradictions of his time.”) And I do not think we need tarry with the false dilemma you pose as a question: “if we want [poetry] to have the force that you hope it will get from being forged in practical struggle, we had better not wait for the furnaces to be opened, but we ought to get on with looking for it right now?” 

Struggle is the looking. That’s the inquiry. Poetry does not obtain some objective existence and then attend the finishing school of the streets. It does not pass through struggle en route to purification; it arises from it. If not, then it arises from some other sensuous human activity which, in this moment, here, is less interesting, less pressing, and less useful. So let it arise from struggle. (At this juncture, I fear, someone is bound to interject that poetry is a sensuous practice too; there are still confessors, I gather, in the church of poststructuralism).

Anyway: good. That is our divergence. Useful to have it clarified. But let me take up the question which is in some way more practical as regards poetry (if that is not a solecism itself): what it is that might be peculiarly within poetry’s powers. I will be brief, as I am looking forward to turning this exchange over to others. Interestingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly) our basic difference returns here as well, but in ways that do not feel to me combative so much as axial. Jointly the accounts might make a set of coordinates, a territory.

You proffer poetry as a kind of speculation, much as you suggest is Capital. I think you mistake the objective character of the analysis in that text rather regrettably, but if that is the cost of gesturing at the preservation of a world thinkable beyond the seemingly given world in which we live, then perhaps it can be justified. For on that we can agree, as a project that is present in Marxism and remains for us. 

I am not sure we move toward that horizon via speculation, via the imaginative leaping beyond. For one thing, that doesn’t seem particular to poetry; various speculative fictions devote themselves to this. Against speculation, I will offer radicalization. 

We often think of poetry—particularly in this age that lingers under the sign of parataxis and hypotaxis, of subjectivity and the open text and most especially the fragment—as an art of partiality. Much of this poetry has mattered to me greatly. But as a theoretical matter, in this case I’m with Hegel: the truth is the whole. I think that, even behind the scrim of partiality (itself an image of the technical division of labor, of the segmentation of processes defining real subsumption under capital), poetry’s particular task of formalization moves toward totalization. Always totalize! The novel, alas, must always have appropriated for itself some specific passage from the entirety of history and thus, despite the ambitions of encyclopedists, can never really totalize. But the poem can—exactly through its relationship to formalization, through its attunement of the temporal and spatial dimensions, its negotiation of motion and structure. The inner dynamic of social existence and its forms of appearance: poetry cannot be these things, but its mode of formalization situates it to apprehend and perhaps disclose their relation, disclose the unity of motion and structure. This is no small matter. 

To put this another way, I think there is a reason that the author of “Those who make revolution halfway only dig their own graves” was a poet. Poetry is the radicalizing of whatever is discovered or it is nothing. Of course this gesture can be radically empty, as in the case of, say, neoconceptual poetry—but at least it has taken up the challenge. And it will necessarily be the case that a radicalism confined to the aesthetic without corresponding political intensity will be beloved of a certain class. So we should take the succès d’estime of neoconceptualism as a happy sign; its admirers too want total change. They have not yet realized they want it for something other than art.

Aux barricades,
Mon, Jul 29, 2013 at 11:36 AM EDT

Hi Joshua,
Thanks for another brilliantly instructive and challenging reply. Here are just a few last notes, prestissimo, to fend off unnecessary tangles & misunderstandings.
* You say you’re with Hegel: the whole is the true. Me too. That’s why I insist on the necessity of speculation. Without speculative thinking, that famous proposition is just a parody of a mathematical sum. For the whole to be the true, in Hegel’s sense, we have to keep thinking every movement, connection and turn: the labour of the concept must be living labour. Poetry is essential to that life. Dead labour of the concept is schematic, colourless, post-it notes on a skeleton; living labour of the concept is thinking full of poetic intensity and vibration.
* To say that Capital is speculative in that sense is not at all to dispute the objective character of its critique of political economy. I think we agree entirely about the perfect objectivity of Marx’s analysis of the value forms and the capital-relation, not to mention its truth to experience.
* It is no departure from either the letter or the spirit of Marx to speak in one breath of “language and the flesh”. Marx frequently described the “electric shock” inflicted on the paralysed bodies of the workers by radical literature. He was deeply, anxiously preoccupied with the problem of his own prose style and how to get his criticism into language that would be forceful enough to print itself into the living bodies of his readers. Marx believed that revolutionary culture is an indispensable means of “magnifying the given task [of revolution] in the imagination, not of fleeing from its solution in reality” (Eighteenth Brumaire).

* I do not believe that poetry leaps through the alchemical portal out of impotence and into eloquence. I believe that poetry can be powerful and eloquent on both sides of active struggle, before and after it, as well as (of course) in the decisive moments themselves. Perhaps we are just using the word “struggle” differently. If the word names the whole of life under capital, then of course there can be nowhere else, and poetry will be there alone. I was using the word to name scenes, moments and extended periods of conscious, active resistance and fightback against the oppressions of capital and its police. Poetry does not come only from those scenes and moments. It just as well comes from whatever experience might be the nearest void to sheer emptiness, bliss or boredom that we ever enjoy: as you say, always totalize.
* A poetic gift of strength is not the formalization of a relation of power. If I can make that gift, it doesn’t make me a tenured dispenser of benisons or a verbal paternalist. Poetic gifts are fragile, uncertain, ambiguous, perhaps impermanent. They are not the gifts of the individual poet, or they are not only her gifts; they make possible new forms of the living labour of the concept, new expeditions of solidarity, new trials of intensity that will be actual only to whatever extent real people take them up and live them. Poetry’s temporality is not determined in advance. Poetry will emerge in its true shape, value and meaning only through the work that is done with it. We know that and we acknowledge it instinctively every time we wince at some drab blurb, impertinent introduction or airbrushed author photo designed to gird poetry in values that we know only the living work of reading and memory can really produce. If poetry were not essentially a gift like that, an invitation to produce values that pressingly jut out from and contradict the circulation of value within the capital-relation, it would be nothing but grotesque, unpaid wage labour: a toy of thought.  
* People fight when they want their own life and the lives of others to be worth living. That fight cannot be fought without destruction and negation, we both agree. But negation means nothing without the mobility or the paralysis that it actualises. Whether we are with Hegel and mobility, or Adorno and paralysis, dialectics means finding the forms of negation that will activate future determinations of subjective disposition. Lives that we want actually to live. The proposition from Hegel that you and I both hang on, the whole is the true, depends on his other proposition, essential to the whole possibility of the absolute and therefore of truth itself, in his sense: that history advances by “the transformation of Substance into Subject”. Poetry is essential to that transformation and could not exist without it.
* You are surely too indulgent with the neo-conceptualists. Do you really think Kenny Goldsmith and his investors secretly dream of the nationalization of the MoMA? They are too blissed out shifting their weightless paradigms to bother about the labour of the concept. No gift of strength required for that.
Love and solidarity,
Fri, Aug 2, 2013 at 12:51 AM EDT

Oh Marx of speculation, Marx of language and the flesh, Marx of Hegel, Marx of Adorno, Marx of Hegel or Adorno, Marx of Hegel and Adorno, Marx of the labour of the concept, Marx of the absolute and truth itself, Marx of Substance and Subject. Marx of anything but historical materialism. That Marx is negated.

Keston, I adore everything here and your brilliance of mind. Alas we are in need of a different Marx, the Marx of historical materialism, the Marx for a global crisis of political economy. We haven’t a lot of time to fuck about. So let us negate the negation while we still can—or rather, let us observe how easily in this case it calls forth its own negation.

Keston: “dialectics means finding the forms of negation that will activate future determinations of subjective disposition.” Joshua: no it doesn’t.

Dialectics does not mean finding anything. It is “the moving contradiction.” The dialectic is not a program but a process. It happens. Dialectics is the real movement. We are in it. It is the dynamic set loose by the contradiction of use and exchange, value and price; by capital’s contradictory need to exploit living labor and to expel that same labor from the production process, by the contradiction between the buyers and sellers of labor itself. These contradictions need room to move, to overcome their limits or die trying. This is the undistricted space you imagine, the poetic space of capital—not speculation, not concept, not gift, but the room for contradiction to move. We are here in that place.

We can imagine that dialectics is a program or purpose or demand or goal. But we cannot do this and be Marxists. Guy Debord, twice the materialist and twenty times the poet that Adorno was, said that it is not a matter of putting poetry at the service of revolution, but rather revolution at the service of poetry. From the perspective of revolution this bears great ambition; from that of poetry, it offers extraordinary humility. It has as well the virtue of being right. Let’s go make revolution; poetry will come. One more try if you want to be Marxist poets!

La lutte continue, with kisses—