Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Orono was so much fun even if I felt ornery occasionally because in the 1970s the coffee is extraordinarily weak and the panels started at 9:00 a.m. and the readings ended at 1:30 or 2:30 a.m., history doesn't work like that, and I don't drink alcohol and it was difficult to fill my body with enough sleep and food and caffeine to reproduce my labor power every day and I didn't know who I was working for maybe Barrett Watten who in his plenary speech talked himself right into a corner, O good antinomy, O parallax, claiming both that language poetry had technical, direct effects, constructivism, its formal antagonisms de facto politics, rubbing blood on the fragments and chanting the magical words which, as we learned from Lytle Shaw's talk on Amiri Baraka were "up against the wall, motherfucker" but then also claiming that langpo reproduced intentionally, through allegory, with its liberalization of the signifier, the liberalization of capitals in the 1970s, which story got told many times, David Harvey was a favorite, and therefore the guilty passive subject of Adornian melancholy climbing in through the window to print THIS on the same machine that printed TELOS, voila, a kind of rationalist Blake, guilt by association, a kind of reverse red-baiting, I had a terrible headache, but what an amazing poem he could write climbing into the computer's window to turn the X into a T, into time, which he kept trying to abolish in 2008, byte by byte, like Case in Neuromancer, the dates are close, Watten comes first, thank god for Progress, which disrupts such genealogical manias and eternizing heroics, I think, but comes many centuries after Anne Boyer, history doesn't work like that, have you read her book, it is like a new NATURE without nature, it has stories and workers and liberation and sex and no telos only a tendency for the rate of affect to rise contra exploitation, and who I could only talk to for like five minutes last time we met and who is even more charming in person than on the internet and so we skipped some things and sat outside with Sandra Simonds and David Lau talking about feckless unions and the casualization of academic labor and parents and also gossip which is what gets left out of the internet, where was Tim Kreiner, where was Sophia, and so wells up as violent emotion coursing through the channels eventually Joshua showed up and Chris Nealon and then, in the bathroom, Rod Smith said nice talk and I didn't know who he was but then he introduced himself and it seemed like the right place to meet Rod Smith, a bathroom, he has an excellent deadpan sitting in the back of the auditorium while Tom Raworth blitzed for twenty five minutes without pause line after line measured to the micron and Clark Coolidge bobbed in front of the mike all twisty phrases, spelunking horns, topologies, vanishings and floaters I met Bernadette Mayer who showed up to read at the Colby College museum in the midst of Alex Katz's profoundly boring paintings, against which her exuberance shone, the sound was muddy, I had to stand up to see her reading sitting down, and there was so much critical attention devoted to Bernadette and now I realize I have to try and get those books back in print and get a copy of the digital installation of Memory, the photographs were surprisingly good, a chill ran through me both times when the pictures of the second WTC tower going up flashed on the screen, urban renewal, the building raised up and moved, the empty lots, the whalebone steel exoskeleton, twins of twins of twins, I want to do a real installation of Memory, just like it was the first time, maybe a fortieth year anniversary edition maybe the BAM will let me do it or even SFMoMA, Stan Apps and I exchanged books, a kind of peace offering, he seems like a nice guy with whom I could disagree or maybe even agree sometimes in peace, Kasey and Rodney were our roommates, a real mensch, Rodney, a real mensch, Kasey, so likeable in person and together and Kasey's book which I brought half-read and read no more of on the trip because I was being stuffed by living poetry, Kasey's book is so amazing, it doesn't work to talk about in the ways that flarf stuff gets talked about usually, there's a self-organizing autopoetic subject in there, in the materials, like Rod Smith's spiders, I want to say it's like Hardt and Negri's multitude and maybe I will some day, Anne Boyer doesn't like Ashbery, what do you say to that except uh-huh and I think maybe we'll play Debord's kriegspiel online and I will be Ashbery crossed with Brecht and she will be Machiavelli crossed with Rosa Luxemburg and who will win, where was Tim Kreiner, he was in his room finishing his paper, which was awesome when he spoke it and provoked an actual real honest-to-god discussion about language poetry, which somebody claimed doesn't exist, like Lacan, his dissertation's gonna rock, friends are great, it's easy to forget that sometimes when you live with books, which are not your friends, really, maybe I'm a humanist, what else, we got a ride back with Patrick Pritchett, Linda Russo, Tim and Chris Nealon and I, we were on the same plane to Dulles, all three of us, to dullness, leaving all out including all, I barely got to talk to Franklin Bruno which reminds me to buy his chapbook, but then on 95 at the rest stop we ran into Dodie and Kevin, it was like San Francisco had gotten collaged into Maine for a second, there were millions of poets on the interstate, trying to live the whole decade in a few days, it's called real subsumption, it's called neoliberalism, Reagan and Bush and Clinton and Bush, fuck that, we stopped at a restaurant called Silly's where the food was good and we had our first real cup of coffee, it was father's day, I had to bring Noah something back but I had barely even been into town so I went to the Asian market and bought him a bag of cream candies from China, and in the airport a pair of lobster socks which I couldn't give him, the candies not the socks, because I was being absent-minded and forgetting about his cavities and Tim said it was like a poem by Joshua or Frank O'Hara or a poem by Joshua about Frank O'Hara and globalization, not the cavities, what great conversations, so many things to read and think about, Jennifer Moxley told me I looked like her brother, Marjorie Perloff said the NPF conference had turned corporate which is like Warren Buffett complaining about market deregulation, it was the 21st century again, history doesn't work like that

Bernadette Mayer and the Capitalization of Everyday Life

Talk for National Poetry Foundation Conference “Poetry of the 1970s,” June 11-15, Orono, ME

John Ashbery’s famous aesthetic opposition in the first lines of Three Poems, balancing a desire to “put it all down” against another desire to “leave all out,” gets taken up, not incidentally, in the penultimate sentence of Bernadette Mayer’s loosely contemporaneous Memory: “what’s there,” she writes, “as a piece, to mesmerize, to suck you in to leave all out to include all” (Mayer, 195). [1] There is no punctuation in Mayer’s version, just the run-together infinitives, waiting to be conjugated. If Ashbery’s formulation is a dilemma, an either/or, then Mayer’s is an inclusive synthesis, a both/and. Arguably, such a synthesis is what Ashbery, that virtuoso of vacillation, eventually manages in Three Poems. By tracking back and forth between the two alternatives, the solution Ashbery devises is a rather Stevensian one: he decides by refusing to decide. Ultimately, we might think the same of the synthesis that Mayer improvises. Along the way, though, she adumbrates a way to leave all out and, at the same time, include all. Timing is everything here. If you do it at different moments, it isn’t quite the same.

“To put it all down” or “to leave all out.” Ashbery’s dilemma involves in many respects a distinction between modernism (totalizing, world-building, encylopediac), and the avant-garde (relentlessly negative, anti-traditional, ironizing). As the inheritor of both Stein and Stevens, Roussel and Williams, Ashbery felt this a choice not worth making. The upshot has been that Ashbery is one of few figures able to speak, seemingly, across the fissures in the landscape of American poetry. But there is also another divide to which this phrase attends, a temporal divide. It is significant that these two highly significant writers pose this question at this time because the early 1970s are a time when economic, social and cultural fortunes were very much up for grabs. As the Vietnam War drew to a close, the 1973 oil embargo, the collapse of the Bretton Woods currency exchange markets and the resulting recession and high inflation in the US meant a precipitous shift away from monopoly capitalism, Fordism and the Keynesian welfare state, and toward the new, highly variable economic structures which David Harvey calls “flexible accumulation,” the result of which has been forty years of deindustrialization, wage stagnation for the working class, and a financial sector that operates with increasing autonomy from real economy of production. Whatever the precise relationship of determination, these powerful transformations in the way that people work and live occur, in the last instance, alongside momentous changes in the arts, in popular culture, and in the very way that the world is understood and represented. The 1970s are, arguably, the moment in which modernism becomes residual and the formerly incipient forms of postmodernism come to dominate. To put it bluntly, postmodernism in the largest sense (and not merely the slick, cynical products of the 1980s) attempted to mediate between the avant-garde and modernism in a historical moment in which neither really seemed like a viable possibility. Essentially, the crisis in representation that the changing social ground of the 1970s engendered meant that neither modernist totalization nor avant-garde futurism seemed sufficient. Something else was needed: “To leave all out to include all.”

The Apparatus

By memory, I mean less the retentive, the fact-storage faculty than the associative faculty. From the arts we are learning to make connections, jumps, through cues and clues that come to us in fragments.

—Lucy Lippard, from the Index for Information (MoMA, 1970)

Reflecting on Memory in the first pages of its sequel, Studying Hunger, Mayer counters A.D. Coleman’s description of it in The Village Voice as “an enormous accumulation of data” by writing that she considered it, rather, “an emotional science project.” In fact, her goal in Studying Hunger, and implicitly in Memory, was “to do the opposite of accumulate data, oppose MEMORIES, DIARIES, find structures.” One of the chief conflicts in Memory, then, is that between mechanical remembrance (data, information) and human remembrance (emotional science). Memory attempts to humanize the technological apparatus of film and audio tape, to modify or even undo the social relations that these technologies support. Because Memory was first a work of conceptual art and an installation, and only later a book, the text we have is, really, a memory of Memory, the documentation of a project of documentation that is—and here is where we truly lose ourselves in the hall of mirrors—itself documenting documentation. The details are as follows: for the entire month of July, Mayer documented her experiences with photographs and audio recordings. She then made a seven-hour taped narration, “which took the pictures as points of focus, one by one & as taking-off points for digression, filling in the spaces between” (Studying Hunger, 4). Both the 1200 photographs and taped narration were part of an installation at 98 Greene St. But because the print version references events that occur after August, 1971 (e.g. the Attica prison riot of September, 1971), she must have been revising the work through the fall of 1971.

Memory is thus memory thrice removed, memory made to spool through various types of technology and language—it is “experience . . . increased by addition of observations which were future, down the road & reflections to infinity.” The writing in this sense is a form of “double exposure,” a term that occurs frequently in the book. While the addition of the technological apparatus allows for an enlarged experience, a redoubling of experience, such mechanically recorded experience must be made to come alive once again, lest it become not memory but forgetting: “we seek,” as she writes, “once more to order in the same manner our increased volume of experience.” The apparatus threatens to consume the poetic work, the open present of writerly performance, and to suck the writer and her associates into the quicksand of entropic data from which she can’t escape. There is thus a double articulation of memory—rememberer and remembered—with the result that Mayer stands both inside and outside the work, both inside and outside of memory. For instance, on the first page, Ed Bowes, her boyfriend and assistant, “leans against the machine” (presumably, the Nagra recording device) but he is also inside the machine: “He leans against the machine, reels, & while it’s on I’ve turned we are now in an image sound . . .” Given these problems, her strategy in Memory is to use the technology without being captured by it, to give order to experience without fixing that experience. As she says later in Studying Hunger: “It’s not the whole story, I’ve left out the motives, the history & the memory, the parts that have direction, I’ve left them out because in that way I could be pinned down, possibly tortured.” In Memory, though, what is left out seems to inhere within the data itself—as a possible relation within it. It is left out because of the inclusion of everything. Like Poe’s purloined letter, it is hiding in plain view. And this totality threatens, I think, the bad eventuality of the machine itself including everything and leaving out Mayer.


Memory includes a foreword from Mayer’s psychoanalyst, David Rubinfine, whom she later describes as “perhaps the only person in the world who ever did know how much I want to eat every thing & one up” (Mayer-Berkson, 162). Rubinfine identifies the writing of Memory with the primary process of the unconscious; in his words, “she has somehow found the means to recreate archaic modes of representation, of inner and outer sensory data” and to bring this into language without the censorious effect of “present day ego structure, defenses, interests, needs and moral values” (5). Like the unconscious, then, Memory frequently observes neither negation nor chronology.

In the Interpretation of Dreams, which Mayer cites as one of the “novels” that have changed her life, Sigmund Freud uses the photographic apparatus as a metaphor for the psyche and as a way to think the complex interrelation of memory, perception and the unconscious. In the final section of the book, Freud, attempting to synthesize his dream researches, describes the unconscious as follows: “we shall . . . accept the invitation to think of the instrument which serves the psychic activities much as we think of a compound miscroscope, a photographic camera, or other apparatus” (Freud, 456). As if through the aperture of a complex camera, perceptions enter consciousness and leave a permanent memory-trace in a “location” within the psyche. These traces accumulate such that new perceptions, passing through this location on their way to the conscious mind, set off processes of association. These associations are purely qualitative, sensory, pre-verbal and do not demonstrate the logical relations—subordination, negation—of the conscious mind. All new perceptions must traverse the unconscious but there is also a vector that operates in the opposite direction, where consciousness exerts pressure on the associations (and, as we’ll see later, the drives) in the unconscious. This creates what Freud calls the secondary process, which does include verbal and logical relations.

Mayer’s installation thus seems to me an ingenious attempt to literalize and model Freud’s psychic system. The 1200 photographs represent the preverbal sensory contents of the memory-system, atop which, or among the traces of which, the tapes (as verbal representations of the preverbal) model the associations and interrelationships of primary process. Finally, the transformation of these tapes into the codex form effects the transition from primary to secondary process. Undoubtedly, the tapes, by virtue of their being language, must exhibit some of the censoring, criticizing backpressure Freud associates with secondary process. “We’ll think of talking backwards,” she writes, “I’m talking backwards, I’m working more the way students in a science are working in a lab.” Indeed, the final words of the work, “can I say that,” both statement and question, seem to foreground the presence of a criticizing superegoic voice, the stakes of which criticizing are often, in fact, the distinction between totality and negation with which we started:

what would you do? create laws? discuss the purpose of them? disorder the order that has already been established? Order the increased volume of experience? or reject it altogether leaving nothing to be ordered & everything lax in a mess in chaos in a muddle out of place cluttered in a maze. . .

In this, we see the double bind that faces Mayer. Leaving the totality of memory-traces as they are means, especially if this work is to occur at the behest of the superegoic injunction, annihilating them, “leaving nothing to be ordered.” But, of course, laws and orders are also a form of destruction.

Access to the unconscious comes, then, as the result of a transgression, a negation rather than a leaving be. Consequently, it should come as no surprise that the unconscious is characterized as a bank (a financial bank, but also a memory-bank) which she fantasizes robbing:

written fast, an emergence at the bank: something was accepted there & now I cant remember if I had the car with me at all, K must have had the Cadillac & they say no pictures here, I might have been planning to rob that bank that beautiful old bank at bowery & grand street I'll tell you one thing I photographed the windows with just a little thought to the builtin alarm system, like the antennas built in to the window of your car, if you happen to own a buick electra, mourns: death, for which reason I deny autobiography, or that the life of a man matters more or less & someone said we are all one man & someone said I count the failure of these men, whether they are jews or chinese or whether they are me or my sister, R., I count the failure of these people as proof of their election, they are all divine because they die, screaming, like the first universal jew the gentiles will tell you had some special deal: the end, not by a long shot: one chinese boy holds out his hand to one chinese girl about seven or eight years old in a short dress in the bank.

The logic of association is, I think, rather clear. Her photographic and writerly project is an attempt to rob the memory-bank, to gain access to its fund of unmediated sensation and association. But the thought of such transgression immediately produces another thought about alarm systems, and even more transparently a “buick electra,” and then, subsequently, the thought of death. Her father’s passing while she was a teenager figures prominently in the book, and so we can assume, perhaps, that the connotations of “electra” is meaningful. The autobiography, and with it the self-identical speaker, also means death. Consciousness, too, means leaving some memories behind.

There is thus a constitutive tension in the Memory, one present throughout her writing of the 70s. She wants a writing, a technique of documentation, adequate to the whole of experience, leaving nothing out and including all, agile enough to catch every nuance of experience. But because her writing is not a neutral prosthesis, not a passive reflection of experience but an intervention within that experience, there is always some remainder: the time spent writing down experience comes at the expense of experience itself. (Not incidentally, this is a key feature of the pathos of representation in Ashbery as well). These two problems—the problem of the censor and the problem of time—crystallize in the figure of Ed, Mayer’s lover and assistant. Mayer delights in punning on his name, so that he represents, as suffix, a kind of pure participle, a participle without substance, the very pastness of the past: “I feel sick & am not interested I'm arrested, ed, we waterproofed till dawn & K came bravely through the trail to see us doing it with tom still with us with him with us what does that mean he loves us too much.” At the same time, he stands in for the editorial interventions which transform that past: “& the head headed with leader edit a magazine I'll tell show see it & say it, Ed.”


On the first page of the coda to Memory, a section entitled Dreaming which recounts some of her dreams from the month of August, Mayer writes that “memory stifles dream it shuts dream up,” drawing a distinction that should already be familiar and to which she adds: “What’s in sight, it was there, it’s over, dream makes memory present, hidden memory the secret dream, it’s not allowed . . .” This echoes, in general, a depressive and anxious tone that has progressively risen in the book since the halfway mark. By the time of the July 30th entry, there is the sense that the work is a form of prostitution—“a trick”—that the writing renders the speaker a commodity, and that the dissipation of the poetic materials is near-total. In other words, things fall apart. Such a mood is well-conveyed by Mayer’s punning use of the word over in the long entry for July 31st:

& she spread the frosting over the cake & he cast a spell over our group & he will preside over the lake & the city’s over the border. . .& you make your property over to her & the game is over & how I got over & he is three hours over for the week & that shot hit over & that bomb explodes over & we were over against them from end to end. . .

In the two passage from the July 31st in which over plays a strong role, Mayer employs every possible meaning of the word (as preposition, as adverb), creating networks of clauses held together by the relationality of prepositions and the agglomeration of conjunctions: more than, above, beyond, in excess of, during the course of, and finally, the adverbial sense, as said of an action, finished. The main opposition in these passages devolves upon the difference between excess, a sense of more, and delimitation or termination.

If there is a sense, by the end of the book, that the project has failed, its meaning is this: that the experiment has bifurcated into, on the one hand, a series of techniques (which stand over, which delimit) and, on the other hand, a neutral, intractable material (excessive, surpassing):

Apology in rest: research isn’t festive, looking for names, burning down piers & papers & scoring the time I’m translated to shore on the back of a whale. . .a knife for the course that ends like this not like that & they’ll all come to orbit, arbit, exhibit in the courts by force, we’ll make exchange & to count, continue to embrace, forgetting parts important to ‘in concurrence.’

Failure is not the only way to read the ending, and it isn’t even right way, but it is an important part of the work’s self-consciousness, and a measure of the risks it skirts.

For many reasons, and not least because Dan Graham appears, in the Dreaming section, as an amalgam of musical conductor and torturer, experimenting on Mayer and her friend Grace, I want to suggest—and this is, alas, a rather abbreviated form of a larger argument—that this final movement of Memory is a reflection on the troubled fortunes of conceptualism in art and writing: that is, a reflection on the aesthetic movement to which the magazine O To 9, edited by Mayer and her brother-in-law Vito Acconci, was central. Even if, because of its writerly emphasis on sensuous language, Memory must be seen as anomalous within the typically arid and deadpan language-use common to conceptual art, as with much of the work that falls under this rubric, Memory does ask us to consider its own techniques and processes, its ideas, as more important, in some senses, than the products thereof. It participates in the reduction of the aesthetic object to a transportable idea or technique—loosely, the idea that a combination of writing and image could offer an expanded life—which can then be easily shared, taken up by others. Conceptualism and, more broadly, much of the art that follows after minimalism, proceeds by leaving all out, by reducing art to a typescript, map or operation, hoping thereby to escape the commodification of art objects—that is, the exchange value which inheres in sensuous artifacts—and make art a pure appropriation of uses by individual participants, a pure use-value that can’t be traded on the market because its predicates are so abundant as to be, essentially, free. The result, though, is the bifurcation discussed above; art in this time becomes on the one hand, a series of dematerialized techniques or concepts, and on the other, deformed, entropic ‘piles’ of materials, whether social, linguistic or physical. Conceptualism requires a leaving all out that has, as its other, an included/excluded everything. And because so often the material is unable to exert any kind of counter-pressure on the techniques themselves, conceptual art, in its formalization, diagrammatization and reduction of art experience to a series of protocols often ends up mimicking, as both Jeff Wall and Benjamin Buchloh indicate in their critical histories of the movement, the bureaucratic and technocratic culture of art publicity and art administration which it would, ostensibly, transcend. Lastly, as it turns out, and as Lucy Lippard indicates in her Postface to her annotated bibliography of the flood years of conceptualism, exchange-value is a far more tenacious social form than many of these artists could have expected. Because, as the growing turn to financialization in the US economy makes clear, surplus-value need not always route through the dialectic of capital and labor but can be had by enclosure, seizure or direct appropriation of socially abundant materials, collectors, as it turned out, would, as Lippard writes, “pay money. . . for a xerox sheet referring to an event past or never directly perceived, a group of photographs documenting an ephemeral situation or condition, a project for work never to be completed.” Conceptual art, in attempting to escape the commodity form and the gallery system ends up participating in that commodification and rationalization of previously free processes, services and cognitive functions which is, as I see it, the hallmark of capitalism over the last thirty years. Conceptualism carried the germ of exchange value into the social field at large. There is a clear line of development from conceptual art and writing to what the writers associated with the French journal Multitudes call “cognitive capitalism.”

The final pages of Memory dramatize this bifurcation into signal and noise, those two senses of “over.” On the one hand, the acknowledgment that “research isn’t festive, looking for names” and on the other the exclamation “far fucking out what a gas explosion that was, the crowd’s still steaming all energy is loose. . .” But as with the system that Freud elaborates, there is a third element in Mayer’s poem, and it is what separates Mayer’s work from much of the conceptualism of the period. We might call it drive—that latent and primordial force, dwelling amidst the primary process, which is neither the product of conscious thought or new perceptions but instead continuously re-activated by them. In Memory, such a drive is marked not only by the obsessional motif of fire but, at the broadest level, by the relentless, headlong impulsion of the poem, its continual tracing of the surfaces of embodiment and sensual experience. It is this which, in Mayer, opposes the mere “accumulation” of data, and it is this which distinguishes her work in the 1970s from the gray aridity of some of the work in, say, 0 to 9. It is this, also, to which she will more fully attend in the other long works of the 70s. As embodiment, drive allows her to include all and leave everything out—not as two opposed alternatives, but as the same thing. Rather than a pregiven formula, it is a force which, from below, from within materials themselves, arranges and synthesizes.

[1] Mayer’s book, based upon an conceptual project executed during the month of July, 1971, and exhibited as an installation in 1972, wasn’t published until 1975. Three Poems was published in 1972, but “The New Spirit,” the poem from which quote derives, was released as a chapbook in 1970 by Adventures in Poetry. I am assuming, therefore, that Mayer knew the work, and that her variant is a citation and not an accident

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Text in Question

I'm still not convinced, from the comments on the post below, that I have at all distorted the statement Stan Apps and Matthew Timmons wrote for Fold. Indeed, everything Stan says here, in response, only convinces me of the rightness of my reading. Perhaps I might have better avoided talking about their intentions and merely discussed the ideological positions that are suspended, as it were, within the text. As for my concluding that the piece was about the internet, its invocation of a vast, perduring cultural archive that need be merely replicated or re-distributed for the purposes of art (not to mention its ennui with the book) makes my deduction a rather elementary one, I think.

If I had it to write over again, I would probably put in something about how, problematic though it is, there is something to be said for their imagination of a world without scarcity. Indeed, in the essay for Action, Yes where I first set out some of these ideas, I wrote the following:

5.1 The point, then, is that to the extent that the internet fails to thrust me back onto my own lap, to the extent that it fails to render crystal clear the ugliness and smallness of the life I lead in all its terrible complicities, and to the extent that it fails to fail to escape these conditions, it is a vicious augmentation of the spectacular aerosolization of all that’s solid, a burp in the calculator. We must build a here there, and a there here. To the extent that it fails to remind us of this need, and that it pretends to satisfy it, it is a gorgeous, bourgeois lie. It may be the best bourgeois lie ever, but it is a lie nonetheless.
* * *
5.2.1. Secondly, though, the positive aspect of the internets—of hyperlinked blog conversations, of the endless lateral arrays of information—must also be stressed through a sufficiently dialectical account. Like all utopias, the internet provides us with a ideological model, a vision—crude, blind in places, yes—of a classless society, a system of voluntaristic affiliations, confederations and recalibrations, a labile performance of self as internalized otherness, citation. Nor can we discount the possibilities it has allowed for the author as producer, self-distributing her self-designed books by word-of-keyboard. We can applaud this. Applause, too, to the presence here of intellectuals and artists outside of traditional academic and cultural institutions, who can discuss the philosophy of Condillac, labor strikes in Egypt, and the latest volume of The Grand Piano. And since we like things that are free almost as much as we hate capitalism, we cannot but cheer at the presence of www.ubu.com or www.marxists.org. It is undoubtedly a fine thing that the training or development of writers can now take place, nearly completely, outside of formal institutional space. What we must take measure of, however, is the extent to which such institutions persist in dematerialized forms.

5.2.2 But the extent to which I experience these enthusiasms must be the extent to which I need them as fantasy. The ungraspable, bodiless utopia of the internet, inside the pores of which circulates the same sad non-communication as before, allows for a view of the virtual whose actualization it, in fact, thwarts. We need an internet of the streets. An internet with bodies.
This still seems, essentially, correct. I like Jameson's account of utopia--that its value is that it throws us back upon the present, and shows us the difficulty (though not impossibility) of imagining a future which doesn't, ineluctably, reproduce that present, while at the same time driving home ever more clearly the unbearability of such a present. I don't think I necessarily get a pass here. I don't have all of the answers, and many of the answers I do have are likely to be wrong.

Still, Stan's post clarifies, as have all his remarks, the substantial difference between our positions. It's certainly right that scarcity in late capitalism is largely manufactured. The problem, though, with the utopian imagination he sets out there is that it conflates productive capacity with the products themselves. He's right that there is sufficient productive capacity to meet the entire planet's needs, let everyone work twenty hours and devote the rest of our hours to time travel. But this does not imply, however much this is a truism on the left, that one can simply redistribute the existing products and meet everybody's needs. There may be adequate productive capacity, but there are not adequate products. A post-capitalist and truly post-scarcity world would need to radically recast production. In many cases, there is enough of a certain product (say, wheat) for everyone's needs, but in other cases there isn't anywhere close to enough of what people need, because capitalism only produces things that are profitable. Since Stan likes to use agriculture as an example, let's take the current food crisis. Although it's true that a good part of the crisis has to do with commodities speculators driving up prices, as well as the agribusiness scam known as biofuel, it also has to do with a restructuring over the last 30 years of the kinds of things people grow (and eat) that is completely inconsistent with existing needs (except for those of Monsanto and Cargill). For instance, in the Philippines, as it tells you in this article, there is simply not enough rice. And there isn't enough rice anywhere else. This is because the IMF and the WTO forced the Phillipines to liberalize their economy, transforming them into importers of rice and exporters of cash crops like flowers and asparagus. Similarly, capitalism currently devotes an incredible amount of labor capacity to prospecting for, and developing industries dependent upon, fossil fuels, and ridiculously small amounts to developing alternative energy sources. The people of the earth, especially those who live near sea level, have a need for clean energy, but clean energy doesn't, currently, exist. These problems don't have to do with distribution, but with the kinds of things that are produced. You can't just re-distribute resources that don't exist. As I said in the comments below, the problems with capitalism have to do with contradictions between production for profit and the needs that people actually have; and this means there will be an ample supply of Viagra but a less than ample supply of drugs for easily treated tropical diseases; lots of McMansions, but not enough affordable housing, etc. You can call this lecturing, but somehow I don't feel that this point is well-understood.

Secondly, most products are perishable, or will quickly wear-out. So any plan to merely distribute existing products will require that people continue to work the same shitty, body-destroying and soul-crushing jobs that they work now. Merely focusing on distribution means, in effect, saying that everybody should continue doing what they are doing now, a proposition that a majority of the world will likely (and should) find intolerable. This focus on distribution strikes me as the kind of position that somebody like me, somebody whose job it is to reproduce the relations of production, is much more likely to take when considering the weaknesses of capitalism. But I dare say the maquiladora worker, aside from wanting access to affordable food, health care and housing, also wants a better job.

Trust me, no one will be happier than me when robots do all of the work and the only problems are those of distribution, but that's not what we're looking at now. For now, any kind of alternative to capitalism will have to reform the relations of productions, and overcome the division of labor, so that some of us don't have to do shitty work for twelve hours a day until they die while others of us argue about it on the internet. This is not a problem of distribution. And it brings us back to the question of the revolutionary seizure of the means of production. I don't find Stan's bromides about the impossibility of overcoming the "spine" of capitalism or his worries about the violence that accompanies such radical measures all that compelling, needless to say. Some large measure of responsibility for such violence surely has to be placed on the shoulders of the counter-revolution. I, for one, would first go blaming Reagan and his death squads for the tragedy of Central America in the 80s rather than Marxist ideology, personally. Not incidentally, in my view, the problem with past Marxisms--in, say, the Soviet Union for instance--is that they weren't radical enough. For the most part, while production in the Soviet Union wasn't production for profit, and the masses had more access to the surpluses produced, the relations of production remained, by and large, what they were elsewhere. The same division of labor obtained.

It's almost needless to say, but whether you think I'm right or Stan's right (if either of us are) will mean, if you care, that the current historical moment demands a very particular kind of response. And that matters. At least it matters to me.

Monday, June 02, 2008


Here is a petition to restore funding to the UC Berkeley English Department. You should sign it and help save my friends' jobs and keep it so that undergraduates can get the education they pay for and graduate on time.

For people in the UC Berkeley community:


For everyone else:



We, the undersigned, protest cuts to the UC Berkeley English Department that will leave hundreds of undergraduates without the classes they need to graduate.

Despite the state’s longstanding commitment to the “access, affordability, and quality”1 of public higher education, and its recent renewed promise to “provide students... access to the classes they need to graduate,”2 the May Revision of the state budget proposes to make up for a budget shortfall by cutting the UCs, CSUs, and Community Colleges. UC Berkeley has shifted the cost and burden of these state cuts directly and disproportionately onto students, so that even while tuition goes up by 7%, UC Berkeley is cutting classes, such as Reading & Composition (R&C), which are required for nearly all undergraduates.

Last year, nearly 500 students were turned away from already over-full R&C classes across the university; next year, dozens more will be eliminated. In 2008-09, the English Department alone will have to discontinue 17 R&C classes—meaning more than 300 students will be turned away. At the same time that they are paying an increase in tuition, many undergraduates will have to either pay to take R&C at Community Colleges, or, enroll for a 5th year to graduate.

These cuts also threaten to dismantle graduate programs by cutting off funding for PhD students who teach to pay their tuition. With these cuts, 17 out of 140 students in the English Department alone—more than 1/10th—will lose their means of support. The English Department (#1 in the country3) has taken decades to build its reputation; these cuts will decimate the department, reduce its ranking, and undermine Berkeley’s overall ranking. And English is just one example; the cuts will also affect other departments, such as East Asian Languages & Cultures, which will have to cut 19 teachers, and eliminate places for as many as 1700 students. These cuts threaten to undermine the quality of both teaching and research at UC Berkeley, and diminish the value of a Berkeley degree.

Therefore, we, the undersigned faculty, staff, students, alumni, family, and friends of UC Berkeley, ask Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost George Breslauer, Executive Dean Mark Richard, and Dean Janet Broughton to honor UC Berkeley's commitment to the students it admits, and restore funding to the TAS (“Temporary Academic Staff”) budgets at UC Berkeley.

Also, we, the undersigned faculty, staff, students, alumni, family, and friends of UC Berkeley, ask Governor Schwarzenegger to rescind his cuts to state-funded higher education. We also ask the Assembly Members on the Education Committee of the California State Assembly—Assembly Members Anthony J. Portantino (Chair), Shirley Horton (Vice Chair), Juan Arambula, Jim Beall Jr., Paul Cook, Cathleen Galgiani, and Ira Ruskin—and the Senators of the California State Senate Standing Committee on Education—Senators Jack Scott (Chair), Mark Wyland (Vice Chair), Elaine Alquist, Jeff Denham, Abel Maldonado, Alex Padilla, Gloria Romero, Joe Simitian, and Tom Torlakson—to work to restore funding to higher education in California.

1 from California’s 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education

2 from California’s 2004 Higher Education Compact, signed by Governor Schwarzenegger

3 according to US News & World Report, 2005