Monday, June 22, 2009

Giovanni Arrighi, 1937-2009

There have been few books of history and social theory--not quite sure where I can place it in terms of genre--as important as The Long Twentieth Century. It's a shame that Arrighi couldn't have lived to see more of history's own confirmations and counters to his predictions. So far, mostly confirmations. One cannot but help feel, now, in the summery green of the dollar, the autumnal yellows and reds of a terminal crisis. . .

As is well-known, Marx projected the writing of a number of companion books after he finished his investigation of Capital (which he never finished)--books on wages, the state, the world-market. There have been many writers--of course--who attempted to fill in these gaps, and many of the arguments among leftists during the early and middle part of the 20th century concerned the precise relationship between the state, the world-market, finance and capitalism--in other words, the forms and futures of imperialism. It seems uncontroversial to suggest that Arrighi's contribution--set beside Lenin and Luxemburg--is definitive here, however much its integration with the micrological account of the capital-labor relationship of Marx (the subject of his earlier research) remains unclear, and however mild and modest its horizon of possible worlds.

I met him once, and he seemed a kind and generous man. You can read an interview with him here.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

One More Fragment on Machines

A new stage in the historical process was suggested by Wedderburn's pamphlet Cast-Iron Parsons, or Hints to the Public and the Legislature, on Political Economy (1820). During a visit to Saint Paul's Church, Shadwell, on the London waterfront, he had asked the parson whether the church was built of brick or stone. "Of neither," came the reply, "but of CAST-IRON." An old apple woman who overheard the conversation added, "Would to God the Pasons were of Cast-Iron too." Wedderburn considered this to be an excellent idea: "Finding that the routine of duty required of the Clergy of the legitimate Church, was so completely mechanical, and that nothing was so much in vogue as the dispensing with human labour by the means of machinery, it struck me that it might one day be possible to substitute a CAST-IRON PARSON." It would be oiled and kept fresh in a closet, to be rolled out on Sundays. In fact, the idea had broader application, as it might also be possible to make a clockwork schoolmaster to teach the sciences. This invention Wedderburn called a "TECHNICATHOLICAUTOMATOPPANTOPPIDON." As a postscript, he suggested making a cast-iron king and cast-iron members of Parliament, and was promptly jailed for his blasphemy. He understood machinery, politicians, and the source of all wealth: "Slaves and unfortunate men have cultivated the earth, adorned it with buildings, and filled it with all kinds of riches. And the wealth that enabled you to set these people to work, ,was got by hook or crook from society.--Pray, was ever a solitary savage found to be rich? No; all riches come from society, I mean the labouring part of it."

From The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (318)

Follow-up and News

Well, Terminator Salvation did, indeed, suck. And that's an understatement. Perhaps, if there were no acting or writing, the film would have been watchable. I mean, Christian Bale is so boring. He puts me in mind of the part of Paradise Lost where Jesus appears, the most uncharismatic and stultifying Jesus ever, whose overbearing seriousness instantly forces you to Satan's party.


In other news, it turns out that Joshua has a radio show--Jane Dark's Cultural Revolution--and it also turns out that I'm going to be on it tomorrow, talking about pirates. I don't think you can download a podcast after the fact (the link is broken) but you can stream it live: Monday the 25th, 5:00 pm. After that, Joshua and I are going to read at the Sacramento Poetry Center.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Marx's Sci-Fi

I'm going to see
Terminator Salvation tonight. With full knowledge the film will likely suck. But I share with many of my friends the hope—irrational, surely—that a film like this will succeed, that it will lay bare all of the operative contradictions of this last horrible decade. Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. The first two Terminator films were formative, giving shape to a form of catastrophic thinking I'd already developed on my own. (I’m remembering now that I watched the first one on Laserdisc, in a motel in the tiny highway town of Chemult, Oregon. I must have been ten or eleven, and was visiting my mother and stepfather who lived in middle-of-nowhere woods in southeastern Oregon. My stepfather had built a house for them, a log cabin, essentially single-handedly, but they didn’t have hot water or electricity, and so we’d occasionally drive into town and rent a room—just for the day—to take showers and watch movies. Then we’d go and eat fried clams or roast beef au jus).

I’ve been thinking about the first two Terminator films, which I’m sure I misremember, and wondering, to the extent that they are symptomatic of the Bush and Reagan years, how much they were really concerned with technology, robots and artificial intelligence. Or perhaps it’s only that they were worried about these things in a different way than a film like
The Matrix. In T1 and T2, the imminent robot takeover seems a pretext for a Haraway-esque allegorical recoding of the culture wars of this period: unborn babies threatened by a technological future, single mothers, androgynous women, at-risk kids.

In short, what seems at stake in these films is biological reproduction, the family and gender, where technology (in the form of T1’s “bad” Terminator) threatens to wipe out biological reproduction, or erase the differences between men and women (buff Linda Hamilton in T2). But in T2 the masculinized mother is also super-mom, so maybe what we get is a sort auto-immunological masculinity, not designed to undo the differences the institutions of patriarchy but to preserve them in a new form.

The first two films, then, seem to wonder if bourgeois society still needs the bourgeoisie—its morality, its family structure, its bizarre rituals. The anti-bourgeois bourgeoisie is, of course, coded in the first film as a fascist (read: Austrian, accented) other. But the second film realizes that there can be no simple rejection of these emergent forms—only the good terminator can destroy the bad terminator, only a masculinized mother can preserve the institution of motherhood.

I don’t know what T3 is about. The internet? Yeah, sure, but the film also seems to take seriously the rhetoric of globalization and the end of history. The final scene—with its shot of the empty podium and the Seal of the Office of the President, its regression to an era (the 1960s) when US dominance was assured, wants to think the fact of waning US hegemony.

Not to disparage the themes above—which were relevant then and are still-relevant now—but my irrational hope for
Terminator Salvation is that it will take on the development of capitalist technology in a more direct way. In other words, now that we get to see armies of robots as opposed to one or two robots, I’d like to see a filmic translation of the part of Marx’s Grundrisse called the “Fragment on Machines” (Viking, 690-714). It's one of the most amazing pieces of critical theory ever written, and the points Marx makes there are enormously relevant to the current organization of society.

For Marx, as productive forces develop—as society becomes able to produce more and more stuff with less and less direct labor—large numbers of people become redundant. And yet capitalism has no way of distributing access to this wealth except through the measure of the wage and, implicitly, labor time. As his Hegelian grammar has it:

In machinery, objectified labour materially confronts living labour as a ruling power and as an active subsumption of the latter under itself, not only by appropriating it, but in the real production process itself; the relation of capital as value which appropriates value-creating activity is, in fixed capital existing as machinery, posited at the same time as the relation of the use value of capital to the use value of labour capacity; further, the value objectified in machinery appears as a presupposition against which the value-creating power of the individual labour capacity is an infinitesimal, vanishing magnitude. . .
Workers become “conscious linkages” within a larger automaton, “a mere living accessory of this machinery.” Such a situation effects a profound mystification, not only for perpetually mystified owners of capital, but for workers as well: “The accumulation of knowledge and of skill, of the general productive forces of the social brain, is thus absorbed into capital, as opposed to labour, and hence appears as an attribute of capital. . .”

The paradox of such a situation—the central contradiction of capitalism for Marx—is that poverty and abundance grow simultaneously. The more these productive forces develop the more workers are cast out of the production process. Further, because this development also means, as he demonstrates in his reworking of this argument in Capital Volume 3, a tendency for the profit rate to fall, there is less willingness to ameliorate this growing poverty and dispossession by a redistribution of profits through social entitlement programs. This is what we’ve seen over the last 30 years.
Real wealth manifests itself, rather—and large industry reveals this—in the monstrous disproportion between the labour time applied, and its product, as well as in the qualitative imbalance between labour, reduced to a pure abstraction, and the power of the production process it superintends. . .

On the one side, then, it (capital) calls to life all the powers of science and of nature, as of social combination and of social intercourse, in order to make the creation of wealth independent (relatively) of the labour time employed on it. On the other side, it wants to use labour time as the measuring rod for the giant social forces thereby created, and to confine them within the limits required to maintain the already created value. . .

The saving of labour time [is] equal to an increase of free time, i.e. time for the full development of the individual, which in turn reacts back upon the productive power of labour as itself the greatest productive power. From the standpoint of the direct production process it can be regarded as the production of fixed capital, this fixed capital being man himself. . .
The point here is that the accumulation of capital in the form of machinery is an alienated, objectified form of potential freedom—the full development of the individual—one that is constantly reconverted into alien form. There is some danger in the perspective that Marx lays out in this passage—we shouldn’t go too far in attributing to capital an automatic, self-organizing power. To the extent that the social brain of capital is Skynet, it is a robot horde that, in pushing both the class of capitalists and the working-class to the side, continually relies on them in order to stay in motion. There is no automatic subject without the people who serve and direct it, and such automatism takes place as the class struggle between the two classes trying to direct, control and appropriate the fruits of such a process. But neither class can really completely determine the automaton, as recent events confirm. At the same time, the automaton has no raison d’être except by way of people. If Skynet were to eliminate people it would have no reason to continue, would it? And anyway, the convenience of the time-travel plot device does away with this line of metaphysical speculation. There is no apocalypse. And history has not even begun.

This is a tall order for a film, and I realize I’m mostly using the Terminator series as an opportunity to geek out on Marx. But if Terminator Salvation doesn’t deliver, maybe we should make the action-movie version of the
Grundrisse ourselves?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Two Kinds of Credit

Today it is possible to speak of a credit crisis in the double sense with which one used to speak about the Bush administration's "intelligence failures." For the torrents of real and nominal money that the Obama economic team continues to pour into banks, with the sole intention of propping up equity values and saving stockholders and bondholders from an inevitable day of reckoning, money which has reached consumers and businesses almost not at all, done nothing to stop the plummeting of housing prices, the hemorraghing of jobs, you can fill in the rest yourself--such a plan is only really possible because of the intense, fanatical optimism which his election has produced, and which his diplomatic and charismatic form of eloquent thievery and rhetorically-skillful imperialism maintains by a favorable comparison with the unashamed, plainspoken thuggery of the Bush crew. The trillions of dollars of credit facilities that team Obama has offered to the banking industry--for the sole purpose of maintaining the wealth of the rich and avoiding the dreaded nationalization which will yet still be necessary, next month or next year--: none of this would be possible without the belief, the hope, the faith and optimism which the majority of the American people continue to lend to his administration. The same goes, of course, for his intensification of the war in Afghanistan and its extension into Pakistan; his continuation of the Bush policies with regard to secrecy and extra-legal detention; Homeland Security's continuance of raids and its deportations of immigants; the proposal of a solution to the health care crisis that comes from the medical and insurance industries themselves; a solution to the ecological crisis developed by the energy-industry. None of this would be possible without Obama's return to the graceful, charismatic form of lying that once used to characterize the office of the President: a "don't ask, don't tell" policy on torture, the bob and weave of diplomacy covering the use of military force, a few decisively vague admonitions for Israel designed to imply the opposite of what they say. Obama is, therefore, an instrument, a kind of credit facility, by which the US state can absorb vast torrents of political "capital" in the very same way that the banking industry can suck up economic capital. But just as the interventions in the banking industry do nothing to address the underlying contradictions of the US economy, so too is the face-lift that Obama gives neoliberalism entirely cosmetic. In the same way that our banks are now zombie banks, their avant-garde accounting practices maintained by state guarantees, so too is neoliberalism a zombie neoliberalism, dead but still shuffling forward. Both zombies will die, of course, die again, when the supply of fresh brains runs out. And when they do die, we will most likely find that the libertarian wing of the Republican party, with its naturalistic fantasies of the free market, is better at resolving its differences with the gay-bashing, racist and pro-life wing of said party than the American hard left is at convincing the still starry-eyed and hopeful progressives that they've been pwned.

The World Turned Upside Down

(Office of the Under Secretary)
1500 Pennsylvania Avenue NW,
Washington, D.C. 20220.

I am Timothy F. Geithner the newly elected secretary of the united
state treasury department, following the series of complains from
Citizens of the United States as well as Citizens of Other Countries
In Europe over the Discrepancies and fraudulent ways in which fund
transfers are handled by Africans which has made it impossible for a
lot of People to claim their Contract or Inheritance or lottery funds from most
African Countries due to frauds and illegal activities, A decision was
reached recently by the United States Treasury Department under the
authority The office of foreign Asset Control(OFAC) at the G-8 summit
in Japan to compel African Union Fund Recovery (AFR) to urgently
release all funds of American and European citizens that are trapped
in most Banks in Africa. It was discovered that some bureaucratic
bottlenecks was put by these Banks to make it impossible for
beneficiaries to claim their funds so that they will fraudulently
divert those funds to their private accounts. After this meeting it
was stated that because of the problems with Bank transfers and so it
was agreed that all Unclaimed Funds should now be paid in Cash to the

Consequent upon the aforementioned, I personally came into this matter
with my vector power as the official secretary of united state
treasury department secretary to ensure that all funds of our Citizens
and others, which are fraudulently being trapped in African Banks, are
urgently retrieved and paid to the actual Beneficiary under a legal
manner. the team of experts were delegated to Africa for this task and
we discovered your File NO: AFR/NG227/59068007/00 with your unclaimed

It was discovered that officials of the Bank has only put up illegal
requirements in order to make it difficult for you to claim your fund.
The United States Department of Treasury has retrieved all Files of
legal transactions and we will be working under a legitimate
arrangement to ensure that you receive them along side with your

Your unclaimed Fund has been directed by the G-8 to be packed in
two trunk boxes and delivered to your destination the Diplomat who
will accompany the funds will not know the contents of the Trunk Boxes
for security reasons so once the Diplomat arrives You will be notified
so that you will go personally to the Airport to claim your

You are requested to Re-confirm the following information to us by e-mail:


Be informed that the above information will only enable us to make due
confirmation and You are also required to get prepared to Clear the
Consignment as soon as the Diplomat arrives your country, with this
medium you will not be subjected to any illegal bills for any
documents from any office and I shall make sure that all the documents
regarding to this transaction is also sent to your residents.

Thank you.

Timothy F. Geithner

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Given the evidence that swine flu originates from "the fecal mire of an industrial pigsty," in Mike Davis's memorable phrasing, and more specifically, from a subsidiary of US-owned Smithfield Foods, one of the many companies which moved, after NAFTA, to remake Mexican food production along the lines of US agribusiness, we propose renaming the virus "the NAFTA flu." Unsurprisingly, someone else has the same idea.

Jokes about "bourgeois pig flu" notwithstanding, we do not think this jeopardizes Infinite Thought's musings on the Transcendental Pig.

There was never a better time to read Joshua Clover's astounding "Terrorflu," in Lana Turner.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Truth of the Enlightenment

"Oskar Morgenstern, who along with Albert Einstein was to serve as one of his two witnesses at the proceedings, reports that Godel had taken the injunction to study the American system of government for the naturalization exam quite seriously, so much that he confided in Morgenstern that, to his distress, he had discovered an inconsistency in the American Constitution. Morgenstern, fearful that this would jeopardize the swearing-in ceremony, conspired with Einstein on the drive to the courthouse to distract Godel's attention. Of course, the judge scheduled to administer the oath was acquainted with Einstein, and so Godel was accorded special treatment when the appointed time arrived. The judge ushered them all into his chambers, began chatting with Einstein and Morgenstern, and as part of the process of making polite conversation, queried Godel: "Do you think a dictatorship like that in Germany could ever arise in the United States?" Godel, with all the tenacity of a logician, the fervor of a firsthand witness of Hitler's Anschluss, and the rationality of a paranoid, became animated, and launched into an elaborate disquisition on how the Constitution might indeed allow such a thing to happen, due to a subtle logical inconsistency. The judge, wiser in the ways of man, quickly realized that something had gone awry, and thus quashed Godel's explanation with an assurance that he needn't go into the problem, and proceeded to administer the citizenship oath" (308).

--from Philip Mirowski's wonderful Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes a Cyborg Science

Sunday, April 05, 2009

The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization

[Note: This is a short description of my dissertation project. The full version--too long to post--can be downloaded here. I'm happy to hear responses to either version]

There is no shortage of persuasive interpretation that correlates the cultural products of the last few decades with those signal economic and political restructurations that must run alongside them on any timeline, where the latter are placed, alternately, under the signs of postmodernity, the information age, neoliberalism, or the like. With a few exceptions, though, most of these critics do not attend to the significant transformations of labor and the labor process during this period—changes not only in what people do for work but in how they work—and as a result they remain unable to reflect in any sustained manner on the effect that these changes might have on the horizon of artistic or literary making. My dissertation, The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization, descends into the “hidden abode of production,” as Marx calls the site of value-formation, in order to illuminate the “mutations in built space” (Fredric Jameson) and the changing “shape of the signifier” (Walter Benn Michaels) during this period. I read the sometimes antagonistic and sometimes complementary relationship between the work of art and work in capitalism as an important part of the interventions in the labor process with which capitalists respond to the economic crises of the 1960s and 1970s: deindustrialization and the rise of the service industry (as well as the turn to geographically-dispersed production), the informationalization of work and the concomitant attempts to make it more “flexible,” the increasing reliance on temporary, part-time contracts and the entry of large numbers of women into the workforce.

If we are to come to terms with these transitions, and understand them as integral to the dynamic of capitalism, the terms will be, by large measure, drawn from Marx. It is my view that while there has indeed been a great deal of very powerful Marxist-oriented criticism in the humanities in the last 30 years, too much of it begins and ends with Part One of Capital Vol. I—that is, with the commodity and money. While it is true that the entirety of Marx’s system is, in effect, contained within his reflections on the theological whims of the commodity, there are many useful (and, for scholars in the humanities, under-examined) terms and concepts elsewhere in Marx. I am at pains, therefore, to work out a phenomenology of labor that can be applied to literature and art, particularly through a reading of Marx’s analytic of capital and labor, with its dynamic ensemble of overlapping pairs: dead and living labor, fixed and circulating capital, constant and variable capital, formal and real subsumption, technical and value composition of capital, etc. I am particularly keen to route this reading of Marx—in which the Grundrisse, his notes for Capital from the 1850s, looms particularly large—through Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. I read Debord’s “spectacle” as a broadly applicable analytic term that also has a specific historical referent—in my view, spectacle is first and foremost an account of the regulatory mechanisms of the period dominated by the welfarist economics of John Maynard Keynes and the industrial organization of Henry Ford (mechanisms that persist in the logics of capital in the period after this, too): spectacle is a complex of apparatuses which bridle capitalism’s tendency toward economic and politic crisis. It is a machine which manages overaccumulation and rebellion through 1) an expanded reproduction of consumer demand, the creation of new “lines” for capital through the transformation, as Marx puts it, of desires into needs and 2) a mechanical (in other words, automatic) reproduction of social relations, where the administration of labor is partially internalized by a self-managing and therefore self-dominating class of workers, now “treated like grown-ups, with a great show of solicitude and politeness, in their new role as consumers” (Debord).

I focus on experimental writers (mostly poets) and conceptual, installation and performance artists because it is these figures who most explicitly address the rationalization (one might say Taylorization) of labor and society. The artists and writers in this study draw attention to the “administered life” of postwar American (and, in the case of Debord, European) culture, the subsumption under abstract labor time of more and more of the activities and faculties of the human organism. What these figures confront is something similar to Sartre’s practico-inert, a field of activity and matter that resists the agency of the subject. To use Marx’s terms, this period is marked by the conversion of more and more labor into the dead, inert form of fixed capital—dead labor that in its objectified form weighs like a nightmare upon the brains of the living, reifying and making rigid their activities. It is important to remember, of course, that Marx’s infamous argument about the tendency of the rate of profit to fall devolves upon his sense that with capital accumulation comes an increasing disproportion between dead and living labor, where the dead, in its way, squeezes out the living and with it the profitability of capital. In my reading, then, the figures in my study proffer alternatives to this reification, this fixity, alternatives that evoke, in opposition, forms of liquidity, dissipation, dematerialization, or free exchange. But as Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello have shown in their important study of French capitalism, through a kind of capitalist sublation the artistic critique of capitalism gets incorporated as part of the “new spirit” of capitalism, a spirit which stresses “creativity,” “innovation,” and non-hierarchical “networked” relations between “team” members working on “projects.” My goal here is not to wag my fingers at these writers and artists because of their participation, unwittingly, in the cunning of capitalist reason, but rather to understand precisely how such subsumption took place, and what parts of the art of that period still provide alternative forms of thinking and being in the world that might link up with an anti-capitalist politics. In other words, this study requires the patience of the dialectic: it proposes to understand these figures both in the positivity of the alternatives their work offers, and in the negativity of what actually results from it. Only then can we begin to imagine other forms of political and aesthetic mobilization.

My first chapter combines a study of a certain crucial period in the poetry of John Ashbery—from The Tennis Court Oath (1962) through to Three Poems (1972)—with a study of the theory and practice of the Situationist International: in particular the visual-verbal collage, Memoires (1957), which Asger Jorn and Debord produced together, and the theoretical architecture of Constant’s New Babylon. In brief, this chapter takes Ashbery’s self-positioning with respect to early 20th century modernism and aligns it with Debord’s Hegelian account of cultural “decomposition.” My basic claim with regard to Ashbery is that, whereas his predecessors such as Wallace Stevens figure the work of poetry as engaging with raw materials or elements and making from them, through a process of selection, abstraction and focalization, a sui generis product or artifact, Ashbery takes as his materials these pre-made or pre-given (“readymade”) artifacts that are the products of modernism. And while it is true that Ashbery’s practices do resemble the avant-garde practices of collage or appropriation from earlier in the century, for the most part, Ashbery does not mark such work, as did earlier figures, as a kind of negation of bourgeois values. Ashbery realizes, as did Debord, that this negation has already been accomplished and redirected by bourgeois society itself. If anything what remains to be done is to reassemble the fragments in a manner different from that proposed by the ruling order—for Debord this means art’s self-transcendence (“the negation of the negation”); for Ashbery a sense of the perpetually unfinished, protracted and yet at the same time foreclosed and preempted nature of the activity. I argue that this diagnosis on both Ashbery’s and Debord’s part hinges upon the transformed nature of the capitalist mode of production in the US and France (where Ashbery spent at least half of the years under consideration here)—that is, the retreat of art’s encounter with primary matters and elements and its acceptance of the prefabricated as its primary material parallels the incipient movement away from a manufacturing-intensive economy and toward a service-oriented one. In Ashbery and in the slim artistic output of the Situationist International, we find an aesthetic of distibution, circulation and exchange rather than one of extraction and production. And in both cases, this involves a reliance upon forms of free indirect discourse (in the sense to which Deleuze gives the term in his writings on cinema) which prefigure the form of unalienated life—what Marx calls the “social individual”—that the economic transformations of this period have as their repressed potential.

But “social individual” as a term remains ambiguous and could connect to any number of possible mergers between individual and collective, the great majority of which will not involve a “free association” of unalienated workers. In this light, my second chapter concerns the peculiar postwar discipline of cybernetics and the fate of some of its key conceptions—feedback, information entropy, system—as they are taken up by the artists and writers of the period. Emerging from Wiener’s work with automated anti-aircaft guns and self-guided missiles during WWII, the discipline is in many respects a science of management—Norbert Wiener coins the term cybernetics from the Greek kybernetes, for steersman or governor—and it was taken up immediately with great excitement by businesses and scholars of business, a fact which makes its deployment by artists and writers associated with the counterculture somewhat odd. On the one hand, the discourse of cybernetics allows the writers and artist I attend to in this chapter— the poets Hannah Weiner and Madeline Gins, the conceptual artists Dan Graham and Hans Haacke, among others—to reflect on “administered life,” the subsumption of the entire day (not just that part of it devoted to work) under capital and the application of forms of dominance developed in the workplace to the entirety of the social field. But at the same time many of the figures above, despite their alliance with the counterculture or left, see something different in this discourse. Because it is non-mechanistic or “organismic” and sees “environment” as a partial agent within the circuit of “systems,” cybernetics provides an ambiguous model: a picture of administered life in which, at the same time, people like Haacke or Graham also discern glimmerings of an organic, self-organizing and egalitarian sociality. I argue that this ambiguity is reflected in the uncertain meaning of the concepts of “information” (which refers to both the measure of “organization” and “uncertainty”) and entropy (which evokes both static homogeneity and volatility). In my reading, entropy is the ideologically-determined lens through which the crisis of postwar capitalism of this period comes into view.

The understanding of systems as adaptive and dynamic, non-equilibrated forms of self-organization connects, on many levels, to Marx’s understanding of the capital cycle, the passage from dead to living labor and back again under the terms of the dialectic between constant (non-wage) and variable (wage) capital. But cybernetics also mystifies this dialectic—therefore, my third chapter will pick up on such threads in examining Bernadette Mayer’s project-based writing (much of which could be hung under the sign of conceptual art) during the 1970s. In a certain respect, Mayer’s projects are models of systems—whether psychic (Memory) or personal (Midwinter Day)—but they are models that I think open up some of the blind spots and presuppositions of cybernetics, particularly its conflation of epistemology with praxis, a slippage that is foundational for the discipline (and that persists in latter-day systems theorists like Niklas Luhmann) and which ultimately belies its technocratic and bureaucratic disposition. If a certain version of cybernetics imagines itself answering Debord’s call for art’s self-transcendence through the complete subordination of artistic technique to the technocratic rationality of postwar capitalism, Mayer instead returns us to the real implications and consequences of Debord’s notion, and also highlights the perpetually vexed relationship between an art that wants to cancel its own separateness, and a life that, because of its division from art and the aesthetic, remains mere labor.

My final chapter will conclude the dissertation by looking at works by two poets (one of whom is also an installation and conceptual artist) that are themselves acts of conclusion and inconclusion, acts of restrospection that draw various conclusions from the failures and transformation of the 1960s and 1970s. Barrett Watten’s Progress (1985) is a meditation on the neutralization of the anticapitalist movements of the 1960s and 1970s, one which continuously features scenes of repetitive labor and therefore mimes, in its formal structures, the recursive temporality of Taylorized labor. But because Watten identifies language with matter, and language work with industrial work, he ends up uneasily identified with both the technical-managerial class and proletarianized white-collar workers. The ambiguity of the class position here is part of what leads to this sense of suspended agency, the sense that a meaningful historical subject is missing. I argue that we can begin to locate such a meaningful actor within the poetry, performance and installation art of Cecilia Vicuña. In her reflection on the tragedies of the 1973 Pinochet coup and the subsequent massacre of the Chilean left, Vicuña elaborates a poetry and art based upon the indigenous weaving practices and the Incan language of knot-tying (quipu). Braiding together English, Spanish and Quechua, her poetry places labor and specifically feminine labor front and center within the work of poetry. Her poetry takes as its object forms of connection-making and relationality that can be made and broken in the service of oppression or made and broken in the service of emancipation. And by focusing on the fragile and precarious (or, alternately, chain-like) threads of social relations, her precarios, precarious objects, specifically foreground the historical subject missing in Watten, and begin to elaborate forms of social relationality and labor—and thus forms of value, since value is nothing but relation—that could replace the capitalist value-form and the forms of labor that it dictates.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

All Power to the Government of the Dead (Labour)

My chapbook, Desequencer, is now available from TAXT. It's free and it features lovely drawings from one of my oldest friends in the world, Daniel Subkoff. All you have to do is write Suzanne Stein ask her for a copy. The e-mail address is on the TAXT site. Thanks to Suzanne and Erin Morrill for their hard work putting it together.

In other news, we here at Little Red's Recovery room heart "bossnapping," plant occupations and the wit of the G20 meltdown participants. We'd like to see all of that and more out here in Cali.

On the subject of bossnapping, I am of course reminded of Godard's excellent Tout Va Bien, also the title of an also excellent chapbook by Suzanne, which brings me full circle.

I'm pretty sure that no bosses were kidnapped in the making of Suzanne's Tout Va Bien, but you never know.

This is the preface to Desequencer:

A Correction
What follows is an annotation of the sequence of nucleotides which form the
human genome. Or rather, an annotation of their representation as letters, since
the “genome”—itself an abstraction—is not letters but molecules. From this
distinction, often effaced, many aberrations issue.

And yet, while it is no doubt a distortion to describe genetic material as code,
as language, consisting of messages, signals or instructions, such an account is
not without its truth. It is only assigned to the wrong object. What such
abstractions do describe, in fact, is the world which a heroic science would
realize. Writing from Dublin during Second World War, Erwin Schrödinger’s
invocation of a substance in the chromosome which was both “law-code and
executive power,” able to counteract the inherent entropy of matter, smacks of
the authoritarian core of a world in ruins. Taken up by Cold War societies in
the midst of 1950s future-rapture, it referred to nothing so much as the real
abstraction of life in advanced capitalism, the real state of affairs within a
highly administered and rationalized society. The cell in biology textbooks is a
picture of a technocratic dream world, perfectly ordered by networks of
command and commission. And so, fifty years after the transformations
inaugurated by the model of DNA that James Watson and Francis Crick
devised, now more than ever the scriptural model of the genome is also a
practical truth, an abstraction which real practices have made concrete. If
genes were never originally a code, the information technology for their
sequencing, analysis and synthesis has certainly made them so.

In genetic science, the bad conscience of capitalist society—its knowledge that
the difference between those who do and those who do not own things is
nothing but the history of theft, violence, lies—finds a perfect opportunity to
render true a favorite fable about why things are as they are, to realize those
fictive differences between classes and races that have required such vigorous
ideological exertion. Done with the ambiguity of class, done with the endless
work of racialization: what the enclosure and privatization of the genome
dreams of is the transformation of class into species.

Of course, this catastrophe will have to get in line behind the other faces of
gross imbalance. The passage from gene to protein and back is no more easily
navigated than the passage from the particular to the abstract and back.
Therein lie weird folds, feedback loops, irreversible changes, crises, gaps,
monsters. It is to that intermediate terrain—the not yet real of the not quite
abstract—that the following attends.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Illiquid Assets

[In the form of the inimitable photo-essays of IT]

Bored with the world and its maldistributions, Jane and TK and I drove out to Benicia to document the circulating capital stranded in parking lots in the shape of automobiles.

All dressed up and nowhere to go, like a bunch of adolescent boys ready to lose their virginity in any way possible (animal vegetable mineral mechanical), they posed, these cars, just shy of sublimity, in front of the derelict navy ships given over to the slow sacrificial fires of rust.

In De Chirico's paintings, the miniaturized trains steaming along in the distance are meant to announce the inexorable impact of modernity and its rectilinear exactions on the a-perspectival angles of a yellowing classicism gone bananas, but in Benicia the junked fleets shoaled upon the ranks and files of stranded cars mean just the opposite, mean the retreat of modernity into senility, financial dementia, suicidal wars.

& a kind of eternal traffic jam.

"The combination of this labour appears just as subservient to and led by an alien will and an alien intelligence—having its animating unity elsewhere—as its material unity appears subordinate to the objective unity of the machinery, of fixed capital, which, as animated monster, objectifies the scientific idea, and is in fact the coordinator, does not in any way relate to the individual worker as his instrument; but rather he himself exists as an animated individual punctuation mark, as its living isolated accessory" (Capital, 430).

Never for a moment are you allowed to forget which country you are in.

Not even by self-induced amnesia.

It's a hothouse for political dissidents. . .

. . .whose cryptic messages the authorities will have learned to decipher too late. Amnesty? Immunity? American unity? @?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Please join us on Wednesday, March 4 for an ENGLISH FACULTY AND GRADUATE STUDENT COLLOQUIUM on Poetry, Entropy and Information.

Presentations by

JASPER BERNES: "Hannah Weiner, Dan Graham and the Use and Abuse of Cybernetics at the End of the Postwar Boom"


CELESTE LANGAN: "Precipitation: Poetry and the Rain of Information"

Wednesday, March 4 * 5 pm * Wheeler 300
*Reception to follow in the lounge*

Hope to see you all there!

De quoi Obama est-il le nom?

[This is my contribution to Starting Today: Poems for the First 100 Days, Arielle Greenberg and Rachel Zucker's attempt to give new force to our thinking about the extension of the Ideological State Apparatus today--JB]

It was said by the statistically lawful personalities and charismatic slimes in the Treasury Department as they crafted
$2 trillion dollars of new giveaways for the banking industry. . . Yes we can!

It was said by Lt. Something Something Something as he maneuvered his predator drone into position and unloosed a quiver of rockets on the probably terrorist morphologies of the villagers below. . . Yes we can!

It was said backchannel by the Obama administration to the Israeli government in advance of the massacre, in Gaza, of a thousand people. . . Sure, why not!

It was said by the Justice Department when it formally announced that it would continue the Bush administration’s extra-legal detentions of Afghanis at Bagram Airforce Base. . . You betcha!

And by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement as it continued terrorizing immigrants at their places of work. . . Yes we can!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Undergoing stress test. . . please standby.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


The Interdisciplinary Marxism Working Group


Crisis, Contradiction, Contestation: Postwar Economy and Culture

March 6th-7th Wheeler Hall

Friday, March 6th

Panels 9:00--4:00, 300 Wheeler

Keynote 5:00, Maude Fife Room

“Knowing Finance, Being Risk”

Randy Martin, Art and Public Policy, NYU, Tisch School of the Arts

Saturday, March 7th

Panels 10:005:30, 300 Wheeler

Poetry Reading 6:308:00, Maude Fife Room

Craig Santos Perez Geoffrey G. O’Brien

Juliana Spahr Joshua Clover & hate socialist collective

Co-sponsored by The Critical Theory Program, Critical Sense: a Journal of Cultural and Political Theory, The Department of English, The Department of History, Global Metropolitan Studies, The Townsend Center for the Humanities, and The Katherine Bixby Hotchkis Chair.

A program with panel titles and abstracts will be available at the IMWG website:

Please direct questions to or

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Home Defense Campaign

[I'm going to have to miss this event tomorrow, but I was at the action in front of Martha and Eddie Daniels's house earlier this month. It was a good time. Sometimes (ok, mostly) marches and rallies and such things are just baldly depressing. One goes around and around in front of the enormity of the thing, its awfulness, and the bad slogans and bad signs persevere in their badness, against all odds. I can't go, I'll go on, whatever. But the ACORN thing was exhilarating, largely because it seemed like it could start to have immediate effects, that it consisted of a small, pragmatic, not-necessarily-radical demand that hit upon the core violence of the present. Or maybe that's just me. I don't know. We'll see what happens.

In any case, I'm hoping there will be a lot more actions like this, and that ACORN will be able to summon large, surly crowds with very short notice. Whatever you think about their (frankly tepid) politics, they seem to be handling this campaign quite well. There's an excellent article about their work here. I'm particularly fond of the idea of moving potential evictees into the bank lobby. Detailed here .]

Come join us as we kick off our Home Defense Campaign!

Thursday, February 19th 11a.m.-1p.m.
2525 Ritchie Street, Oakland Ca.

On Feb. 19, Oakland ACORN will join six other cities across the country in announcing its "Home Staying" Campaign, a national foreclosure-prevention project in which families facing eviction for foreclosure will refuse to leave their homes. Read about it in the New York Times!

Families like Rosa Gonzalez, her husband and 10-year-old daughter, who are facing an imminent eviction from their East Oakland home sometime this month, will announce that they are staying in their homes! Come and join us to support them and defend their home!!!

"There are so many families in this same situation, losing their homes, and it isn't fair," said Rosa Gonzales. "We have income, we want to keep our home. We want the bank to negotiate with us, work something out, and let us stay in our community." Gonzalez and her family live in an East Oakland neighborhood where vacancy and abandonment has been a grim reminder of the crisis sweeping the nation.

As part of ACORN's comprehensive foreclosure campaign, foreclosure victims and community activists are building Home Defender Teams to mobilize peacefully to defend a family's right to stay in their home until a fair solution to this crisis is put into place by the new Administration.

Oakland ACORN is at the front edge of this fight, after successfully defending the home of Martha and Eddie Daniels from eviction on February 3rd. While ACORN members, neighbors, and allies gathered outside their home waiting for the sheriff to come, ACORN Housing counselors continued negotiating with the bank to reach an agreement and combined efforts led to the cancellation of the eviction.

"If it hadn't been for the support of other ACORN members and the action we did, we would be on the street. It was something timely and much needed, not just for us but for everyone losing their homes," said Martha Daniels, who, along with members of ACORN defended her home from eviction on February 3rd. She offered advice to others in the same situation, "Stay in your home and fight for as long as you can. Use whatever tools you have and keep fighting, taking action, and exposing what the banks and brokers are doing to families and communities across the country."

For more information, contact Claire Haas at (510)434-3110 x241.

Monday, February 09, 2009

On Balance

I take as particularly auspicious (in a good way) the combustion of this hotel at the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations. The hotel is a sibling building to the OMA's headquarters for China Central Television (bottom), one of the most famous recent architectural projects and a metonym for neoliberal globalization, for the wealth of the destroyers, awkwardly balanced in a weird mid-air jointure, like a game of Twister, straddling the rich countries and the industrializing ones, and looking as if, yes, it's about to topple over at any moment. I take as particularly illuminating the confusion regarding the meaning of the acronym CCTV. Some disambiguation is more difficult than others. And now that it appears no one was harmed in the fire, I can enjoy its destruction wholeheartedly.

Don't get me wrong: I like Rem Koolhaas's and OMA's writings and I think many of the OMA buildings are quite stunning, innovative, and perhaps even useful for people other than the rich. But the CCTV building is a gorgeous prison, and like all gorgeous prisons--the commodity first and foremost--it must burn. If it won't burn, we'll settle for the hotel next door.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Bad Guys and Bad Banks

My son is a huge fan of the president. Indeed, Obama is incredibly popular among the pre-K set here in Berkeley. Obama has magical powers, and he's bad news for bad guys. This is one of the things you learn from your parents if you grow up in Berkeley.

Because Noah is five, and also adorable, he gets a pass from me: he's allowed to believe in Obama, Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, all that stuff.

But I wish that everybody over the age of consent would get real. I know that the election of Obama has provided a much-needed opportunity for middle-class white people to feel good about their own tolerant open-mindedness, and I know that the new meaning of "hope" is "I don't want to think about it," but I must now declare the post-inauguration grace period over.

For a while I felt ambivalent about the Obama election. I could understand its meaningfulness for many and I was happy for people's happiness and I wanted to affirm what I thought and still think are mostly benevolent aspirations on the part of the electorate. But ambivalence also ends, and I've been really almost too irritated and dispirited to write anything here--I can feel nothing now but antipathy for a president who stays silent while our immaculate ally in Israel massacres, starves and humiliates the people of Gaza.

It's a pretty lonely place, over here with the handful of haters, revolted by the crypto-Reaganite rhetoric of American exceptionalism and personal responsibility that apparently impressed people in his inauguration speech. As it seems to me, the true meaning of Obama's claims that the financial crisis was caused by people living beyond their means, or refusing to make "tough choices," is that people must now prepare to hand their wages over to the banks and take whatever shit jobs they can find.

I feel no special relief about Obama's economic stimulus package with its capitulation to the ideology of "tax breaks." The infrastructure programs that people think the bill contained, and which have provoked absurd comparisons with FDR, amount to pennies, really, less than $100 billion, all told, most of which will no doubt be sucked up by the creative accounting of contractors. I mean, there is $32 billion for clean energy: a figure that is guaranteed to make absolutely no difference for climate change. Looked at beside the $2-4 trillion that they're getting ready to dump into the banking system, and in light of the rate at which the economy is hemorraghing jobs, this is simply laughable.

But I am supposed to feel calmed by Obama's performance of "anger" last week after the news (which is no news) about banking bonuses finally percolated into the mainstream media. Sitting beside one of the engineers of the original bank giveaway in the person of his Treasury Secretary, Obama tells us he's going to have a serious "talk" with the bankers. A talk! About responsibility! Those bad bankers! They need a "bad" bank!

I do admit that I am intrigued by the resonances of the term "bad bank." I am reminded of the wide variety of pre-capitalist responses to crises of accumulation--many of them proactive--from the burying of excess precious metals (in order to preserve the value of holdings) to the Jewish practice of declaring a Jubilee year every fifty years, in which all debts were forgiven, all slaves freed, and all contracts anulled.

One wants, however, not merely to return the system to homeostasis but to end it once and for all. I propose, therefore, that we come up with our own proposal for a "bad" bank or sacrificial economy whereby we might zero out any and all debts, annul contracts we find injurious, print and distribute poetic monies of all flavors and colors, seize the means of production, throw parties, get divorced and/or married many times in the same day, make puppets, hold free concerts, etc. The purpose of this "bad bank" will be to lose money rather than make it. I nominate Anne Boyer for CEO.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Taxt Benefit

I'll have an exhibit based on my TAXT chapbook, Desequencer, at this event. The chapbook has been delayed a bit, and won't be ready by Sunday. But you can get a taster. And see what all of the other TAXT-ites are up to.

Join us this Sunday, January 18, 2009 at 6:30pm for a very special ensemble performance, gala in spirit and cozy at heart.

In the intimate manner of carnival coin toss or old-school tents-of-wonder, a dozen poets will present their work fairground style, with all performances happening at once around the space. Expect real-time twitter feeds, slide shows & other sweet surprises! Listen in on headphones, have a poem whispered in your ear, observe in groups of two or three, or all at once or all alone. There might even be a REAL KISSING BOOTH.

Our star-studded TAXT cast of contributors and performers includes:

Stefani Barber
Jasper Bernes
Lindsey Boldt
David Brazil
David Buuck
Geneva Chao
Del Ray Cross
Chris Girard
Michael Nicoloff
Eleni Stecopoulos
John Sakkis
Jerrold Shiroma

This event is a TAXT FUNDRAISER. All proceeds will go towards the printing, stapling, & mailing of the 2009 series of TAXT chapbooks. TAXT appreciates your support!

About the press:

"TAXT works to make visible the work of contemporary Bay Area poets, writers, & artists previously under-represented in publication. The chapbooks are produced at home in Oakland, on an irregular but consistent basis & will continue to appear thus until I get tired of folding pages. This editor's role is to provide a physical space in which writers & artists may do whatever work they choose: the site is always 24pgs, in the 5.5 x 8.5 framework. This publisher's desire is to work with each contributor to produce a simple book that makes its consideration as both object and container.

TAXT chapbooks are ALWAYS FREE. Keep yours or pass it on. Share the wealth; there will never be more than 100 copies of each book. Sorry."
If you can't come to the KISSING BOOTH, but would still like to support TAXT, or would just like more information about the press, please visit or email the press directly:

Sunday, December 21, 2008

MLA Off-Site Reading

[I'm not quite sure why we'll be wearing masks. Is it a counterpoint to all the facey-face of the MLA? But if Laura says masks, then masked we must be!]

SUNDAY, DECEMBER 28th from 7-10:00pm
the Forum at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission Street, San Francisco

FREE and ADA accessible to the public
Co-sponsored by Small Press Distribution and the Poetry Foundation

Over 60 POETS reading (just) 2 minutes each: Aaron Kunin, Alan Bernheimer, Aldon Nielsen, Andrew Osborn, Barrett Watten, Bill Howe, Bill Luoma, Bill Mohr, Brian Kim Stefans, C.S. Giscombe, Carla Harryman, Christian Bok, Chris Stroffolino, Dale Smith, Craig Perez, Dan Featherston, David Buuck, Dennis Barone, Donna de la Perriere, Durriel Harris, Dodie Bellamy, Elizabeth Hatmaker, Etel Adnan, Jasper Bernes, Jeffrey Robinson, Javier Huerta, Jeanne Heuving, Jennifer Scappettone, Jerry Rothenberg, Joe Amato, John Emil Vincent, Joseph Lease, Joshua Clover, Joshua Marie Wilkinson, Julian Brolaski, Kasey Mohammad, Kass Fleisher, Kazim Ali, Kevin Killian, Kit Robinson, Kristin Prevallet, Lisa Howe, Lisa Robertson, Lorraine Graham, Maxine Chernoff, Michael Davidson, Norma Cole, Paolo Javier, Patrick Durgin, Paul Hoover, Philip Metres, Rob Halpern, Sarah Schulman, Rusty Morrison, Standard Schaefer, Stephanie Young, Stephen Cope, Suzanne Stein, Timothy Yu, Tom Orange, Tyrone Williams, Walter Lew and more!

Poets in Masks! Refreshments! Books! Books! Books!

Books by the readers for sale from Small Press Distribution.

Small Press Distribution, 1341 7th Street, Berkeley, CA 9471

Thursday, December 18, 2008


Noah turned five on Tuesday. It's impossible to believe that Anna and I have survived parenthood this long; impossible, too, to imagine a world before Noah. Not that I lack for selfishness as a parent or think about him every second of every day but, you know, it's as if he has threaded through every capillary of my sense of the world, stamped every thought with some peculiar cast, expanded to the limits of my (dim) memories of things, even if only as a faint trace, a whisper. It's terrifying to love someone so much and to think what I think of the future, of the world we live in. And, of course, it's that anxiety, that certainty of the limits to present society such as it is constructed, which makes ninety percent of the parents I meet, when they are being parents, so unbearable to be around. . .

[Noah, right, and my nephew Asa, left, in a gold mine turned museum.]

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Baselessness of Idealism


"The halls rose in a pyramid, becoming even more beautiful as one mounted towards the apex, and representing more beautiful worlds. Finally they reached the highest one which was the most beautiful one of all: for the pyramid had a beginning, but one could not see its end; it had an apex, but no base; it went on increasing to infinity. That is (as the Goddess explained) because amongst an endless number of possible worlds there is the best of all, else would God not have determined to create any; but there is not one which has not also less perfect worlds below it: that is why the pyramid goes on descending to infinity."

Monadology, Leibniz

"Some persons are so troubled by some effects of the market order that they overlook how unlikely and even wonderful it is to find such an order prevailing in the greater part of the modern world, a world in which we find thousands of millions of people working in a constantly changing environment, providing means of subsistence for other who are mostly unknown too them, and at the same time finding satisfied their own expectations that they themselves will receive goods and services produced by equally unknown people. Even in the worst of times something like nine out of ten of them will find their expectations confirmed."

The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism, Hayek

Friday, December 12, 2008

Tragedy, Farce

Surely, in the good state of California, we can note, now that Gov. Schwarzenegger has declared the imminence of a "financial armageddon", and given the disastrous state of the news industry, that the front-page and the entertainment section of the papers have become virtually indistinguishable. . .

This is why Schwarzenegger is the perfect front-man for his good (and goodly dead) friend Milton Friedman's ideology. As Naomi Klein makes clear in The Shock Doctrine, neoliberal restructuring has always depended upon the manipulation (and outright creation) of crisis conditions, has always depended upon the melodrama and hysteria of the disaster movie. This is not to say that conditions are not dire, nor is it to say that the new economy which will emerge from this crisis is likely to follow the lines of neoliberalisms past. Only that we are, indeed, under the spell of a disaster politics, and we should be mindful of the messages borne aloft by the waves of affect now pouring from our television sets.

The solution here is, of course, rather simple: Gov. Schwarzenegger should go back in time, Terminator-style, and undo the tax cuts that he and his Republican buddies pushed through during the fat years of the 90s and 00s. Oh yeah, and it's probably cheaper to help poor people with food and housing by some other means than putting them in jail.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

I wanna' be Exarchy (remix)

for DZ Brazil, classicist extraordinaire

You know what's really great about running street-f
ights between Greek radicals and Greek police? Well, aside from the obvious, there's the vision of root-words and concepts central to the great diseased career of Western thought blazoned on the shields of riot police.

(αστυ + nómos = ???)

It is almost as if the illuminating but politically unconvincing etymological divagations that form the m
etier of Giorgio Agamben had suddenly taken on material form and force, become actors in history. Archos and nomos vs. the ex-'s and the an-'s. I mean, where is this Exarcheia place (related to archos only by a false etymology, and all the more Heideggerian for that), land of anarchists and bohemians and cafes and street riots and universities that police are forbidden by law to enter, and can we move there now?

(sun at noon)

(better than the hora at your bar/bat mitzvah or wedding)

Well, it's time to start a celebratory meditation on the political saliences of the bankrupt "Republic Windows and Doors," whose workers, occupying their shuttered factory, have forced Bank of America to stand down and extend their employer a loan to fulfill its obligations for severance pay, accrued vacation time and health coverage

Monday, November 24, 2008

Sunday, December 14th, 2008
in girum imus nocte et consumimur igni press presents
Kevin Killian & Stephanie Young
and the release of their books Action Kylie and Picture Palace
6:30 pm, 5 USDollars
Special guest appearances by Jasper Bernes and Joshua Clover...

KEVIN KILLIAN, born 1952, is an art writer, poet, novelist, critic and playwright. He has written two novels, Shy (1989) and Arctic Summer (1996), a book of memoirs, Bedrooms Have Windows (1989), two books of stories Little Men (1997) and I Cry Like a Baby (2001) and a collection of poems, Argento Series (1997). With Lewis Ellingham he has written a biography of the poet Jack Spicer—Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance (Wesleyan University Press, 1998). For the San Francisco Poets Theater he has written 37 plays, including Stone Marmalade, with Leslie Scalapino, and Often, with the late Barbara Guest. His most recent book, from Hooke Press, is a volume of his Selected Amazon Reviews, edited by Brent Cunningham, and now there is Action Kylie.

STEPHANIE YOUNG lives and works in Oakland. She edited the anthology BAY POETICS (Faux Press, 2006) and is currently at work on the collaborative website DEEP OAKLAND. Hey, you should propose a project for DEEP OAKLAND! Her books of poetry are Picture Palace and Telling the Future Off. She is here very sometimes:

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Pessimism of the Internet, Optimism of the Nil

Many of you have no doubt already seen this, but it bears widespread linkification.

I love The Yes Men so much it’s not funny.

In particular, this recent hoax, in contradistinction to their earlier and nonetheless exemplary infiltrations, marks out rather clearly the boundaries beyond which organs of left-liberal humor like The Colbert Report or The Onion will not or cannot venture. Don't get me wrong: I think Colbert and The Onion have worked up some of the finest ideology critique of the last decade, but their stance is, for all that, the opposition of the weak, of irony contingent upon the iron-clad immovability of the status quo. They cannot directly name their own (doubtless tepid) desires, and so must ultimately concur with Adorno: "A cryptogram of the new is the image of collapse; only by virtue of the absolute collapse does art enunciate the unspeakable: utopia."

With the exception of their brilliant Union Carbide impersonation, the Yes Men's previous stunts are mostly close enough to Colbert and Billionaires for Bush and Sanguinetti and other left-wing parodies hinged upon a politics of satirical hyperbole. But the affirmative or perhaps neutral lineaments of this latest project bears note. However inadequate we might think its inability to see past a social democracy doomed for not posing the problem of capital as such, the special edition is nonetheless a negation potent precisely because it is the afterblow of an affirmation. To follow a useful distinction Jane once made, this paper is a détourning-forward, and so runs no risk of providing the illusion of critical distance, or freedom from ideology, that so often results from the weaker negations. You can’t live there. It is, thus, instead, a way of conserving, of suspending, of carrying forward certain heretofore sadly radical propositions like single-payer healthcare and a living wage and full unconditional withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, by placing them in a new context where they might continue to breathe. Debord’s films are perfect examples of this. As is Rene Vienet’s film Can Dialectics Break Bricks? And it is no doubt telling that, late in the life of the SI, René Vienet returned to Eisenstein’s proposed film of Capital as a model for the future of détournement. This is what is too often missed by Debord’s inheritors: he is not ironic. Sardonic, yes. Vicious, certainly. But he is as sincere and as sentimental as they come. Irony is environmental in Debord. It’s the resistance of the given.

For all its foibles, the Yes Men’s special edition shines some welcome light on the current cynical enthusiasm for Obama and his crew of free marketeers, Wall Street insiders, union-busters, charter-school enthusiasts, lawyers for paramilitary-backed banana companies and military adventurists. But it does so by taking the enthusiasm and wishes of the electorate seriously: this is what the majority of Obama voters mostly really almost want. We should not deny the meaningfulness of the election in terms of ideological positions vis-à-vis class and race. But the meaning of ideology here cuts both ways, as weapon and smokescreen, and it is to me an open question whether the people who celebrated in the streets on Nov. 4th are willing to do the much harder work of forcing the US State away from its commitment to immiseration, xenophobia, racism, militarism and general fuckery, just as much as it's an open question whether instruments like The Onion and Colbert and John Stewart, whose entire premise is staked upon the existence of the Republicans as comedic foils, will be able to make fun of the Democrats.

And this is why there are ironies and then there are ironies. And I guess there’s an almost ontological irony to talking about equality with a straight-face in a culture in which not giving a flying fuck is a form of currency. It’s the fine grain of the paper’s impossibilities that gets me, right down to the hilarious ads for De Beers diamonds and American Apparel (themselves the negative detournement couched within the positive one), right down to Thomas Friedman's lovely admission of his own irremediable stupidity, right down to the comment boxes where people can take political positions with regard to a world that does not exist.


And so it was yesterday therefore not at all incidental that, after my students presented on De Certeau, and some other students introduced me to parkour, and I decided against mentioning how the IDF cuts right through walls and houses and buildings and makes you want to stop loving Gordon Matta-Clark, and after I did lay on them my critique of micropolitics and differences that make no difference, and asked them to consider whether and how this might apply to Breton and the SI, and my architecture student said, yeah, but isn’t détournement still really effective, and I said, yeah, well, maybe, sometimes, but not always, and I talked too much about neutralization and recuperation and forgot to deploy the phrase the spectacle of negation ‘cause we were rushed for time but did mention The Yes Men—it was, then, yes, more than incidental, even an example of l’hasard objectif when, leaving the class, I ran into my to-remain-unnamed friend who is a total badass and whom you want with you on the barricades, I ran into her and another one of my friends who you want with you always, and they said let’s go see the improvements made to the giant outdoor feel-good yearbook-wall thingie in Dwinelle plaza, with black-and-white lifesized headshots of happy UC Berkeley students and faculty and staff and inspirational messages of enjoyment and privilege and ain’t it all fucking great in printed cursive next to the heads, itself borrowed it seems from the playbook of activisms past and present, and there it was, the counter-counter-détournement, a giant banner with all the facts about the multiple, 39, between UC President Mark Yudof’s and the below-living-wage wages of UC service workers, and headshots of UC workers keeping it real about what it’s really like to try and live on what they pay you here, and the fonts were all fucked up and different sizes because of all the inequality and I wanted to take it back then and I felt bad for maybe discouraging my students who were maybe going to vandalize something for their final project and you can be too smart and sensitive and too subtle of a thinker about the vicissitudes of ideology and sometimes I wish yes I could just shut up yes I said maybe I will yes.