Monday, June 22, 2015

 Learning to live with Ghosts

© Ger Killeen

Thinking Through ‘Arco Iris’ by Sarah Vap, Saturnalia (2012), ISBN 9780983368649. $15

 I remember once waking up in a town in Guatemala after a night of fitful sleep which had been, on and off, punctuated by automatic gunfire which seemed to come from right outside the window of my hotel. I was assured that it was nothing “political”, but arose out of “a fight about women.” I had a long journey ahead of me that day and I went in search of coffee to get myself going.  The hotel’s coffee was almost undrinkable, so I searched out a cup at a little café down the street. It was worse than the hotel’s. I remember getting on a bus in a towering rage, incredulous that here of all places there wasn’t a decent cup of goddamn coffee to be had.
 Such, Sarah Vap might say, is an emblem of the common lot of privileged white people like ourselves, traveling on the cheap through “other people’s misery”[1], and in one of six poems with the title “Travel” the speaker unleashes a tirade against the frustration of her needs:
I need a cup of coffee why’s it so hard to find coffee it’s fucking grown here where’s the fucking coffee. Are you kidding me Nescafe and white powder?—why don’t they drink South American coffee in South America—I’m crying again I have no coffee, twenty hours on a fucking bus and there’s no coffee, wait here’s a café for tourists they must have some fucking coffee—and you have ordered me three tiny sweet coffees!
Now get me some eggs and bread. (p.30)

 Coffee, of course, is more than just a drink that gets us going in the morning. It is the second most traded commodity (after crude oil) on the global market, and as a commodity in the strict sense it is an element in the modern global capitalist system which constantly remakes product images to obscure the realities of commodity production: all of the sensuous human experiences, the lives and struggles of the men and women who are the growers, the pickers, the transporters, the roasters, the brewers, the servers... all that has led to the coffee in our cups is secreted under the “commodity-sign”[2], becoming “coffee” as a lifestyle ingredient, as much symbolic marker as consumable product.
 What happens when we become conscious of all this and keep it in our consciousness? In Vap’s book Arco Iris the woman speaker who narrates her travels through South America becomes haunted; haunted by history and histories, by the political and the deeply personal. She is haunted by travel itself as a commodity. But in this book’s most brilliant insight she herself haunts, conceives of herself too as a spectral presence in landscapes and among people who have long been haunted by imperial adventures and their consequences. To read this book is to become implicated in both narratives and ultimately to experience a thorough exorcising of the last refuges of travelers’ self-deception—sentimentality and nostalgia. And, it implies, if there’s any escape from this world of mutual haunting it could lie in an ethic which, as Levinas might have put it, comes from looking into the human face of the Other, the faces of these strangers among whom we travel and to whom we are strangers.
 But what does “haunting” mean? In the context of Sarah Vap’s book it is particularly relevant to recall the profound meditations of Jacques Derrida in Specters of Marx[3], not just because he opened a new philosophical space for the concept of haunting but because he clearly articulates the political impulse behind such an opening. That impulse is to contest the bizarre triumphalist rhetoric of neoliberal philosophizing found in terms like Francis Fukuyama’s “the end of history”[4]: the worldwide triumph of liberal democracy and the final banishment of the specter of communism in a world where all is going swimmingly, or soon will be. Derrida argues that the concept of such an “end” is based on a philosophical “sleight-of-hand” whereby a specific, empirical, historical event (the fall of the Berlin Wall) is conflated with the arrival of the liberal democratic ideal. So, on the one hand, the fall of the communist bloc is portrayed as signifying an empirical event that genuine democracy as such has finally come. But when we look to the empirical world to see how liberal democracy measures up to its own ideal, we see that all is far from well in the capitalist world. As Derrida puts it
in the name of the trans-historic and natural ideal, it discredits this same logic of the so-called empirical event, it has to suspend it to avoid chalking up to the account of this ideal and its concept precisely whatever contradicts them in such a cruel fashion: in a word, all the evil, all that is not going well in the capitalist States and in liberalism, in a world dominated by other forces whose hegemony is linked to this supposedly trans-historical or natural (let us say rather naturalized) ideal.[5]
 In coming to a point where oppositions such as the empirical and ideal cannot be traced to unambiguous and exclusive origins we come up against an impasse in meaning. But rather than leading to some kind of relativistic undoing of conceptual distinctions, Derrida posits another logic:

once the limits of phantasmogorization can no longer be controlled or fixed by the  simple opposition of presence and absence, actuality and inactuality, sensuous and supersensible, another approach to differences must structure (“conceptually” and “really”) the field that has been reopened. Far from effacing differences and analytic determinations, this other logic calls for other concepts.[6]

  And this is the logic of hauntology, the ghost,or spectrality. Hauntology as a logic stresses the disruptive capacity of ghosts within a metaphysics of presence, including their undoing of any linear, chronological concept of history. Ghosts come from the past, but their effects are in the here and now, troubling such binary distinctions as past/present, living/dead, being/non-being. Though Derrida’s specific concern is to undercut Fukuyama’s and similar attempts to lay to rest Marx’s ghost, to exorcize a specter from whom there is nothing to learn, the logic of hauntology opens up a much broader critique. He asserts that the possibility of living “justly”, now and in the future is dependent on our  “learning to live with ghosts”:
The time of the "learning to live”, a time without tutelary present, would amount to this[...]: to learn to live with ghosts, in the upkeep, the conversation, the company, or the companionship, in the commerce without commerce of ghosts. To live otherwise, and better. No, not better, but more justly. But with them. No being-with the other, no socius without this with that makes being-with in general more enigmatic than ever for us. And this being-with specters would also be, not only but also, a politics of memory, of inheritance, and of generations.[7]

 There is a way in which Sarah Vap’s book is a series of  meditations on how one might possibly travel as an ethical being with and among ghosts, and as a ghost. How might one respond to the weight of being-with others whose present lives have been shaped by real systemic political and economic forces of which the speaker in the poems is both the real and symbolic bearer? She herself, of course, is also shaped by these forces but possesses a kind of privileged agency denied to most of those around her, especially the women. This woman traveling through South America with her lover on boats, trains, and buses, through cities and villages is no “innocent abroad”, and yet there are many times when the effort to be ethical threatens to undo her.
 Poem after poem gets under your skin, shakes up any well-meaning liberalism with the moral shock of self-observation and self-analysis that feels painfully authentic. Every jab and poke at her own self-deceptions jab and poke the reader too, as every moment of insight and unexpected grace makes us feel like we’re part of that hard-won accomplishment, or ought to be.
 From the beginning we know that we are about to leave behind any political self-satisfaction we might have, as in the earliest of the poems named ‘Travel’ :
The continent spread apart then the continent condensed around us. Like the continent, we made an effort to remember. Memory, we thought at first, was something like pathos—and at the infinite remove—
but memory was weight. Memory was the heavy mirror of history was shadow falling at your face—falling at your face. (p.2)

 As soon as one grasps that pathos isn’t enough, that there’s a sense in which we always relate to history voyeuristically, we become weighed down by our own belatedness in the face of what remains of others’ projects (both intimate and social, for good or ill), and we are likely to be haunted by specific historical turns which undid all kinds of possible futures. And, of course, we ourselves encumber our world with our own incomplete and incompleted praxis and understandings. But history is as specific as geography, a North American traveler’s backpack weighs differently than a South American peasant’s pannier, and the difference opens a space for mourning. As Vap writes in the brilliant poem ‘Heave’:
We joined the tangle of heavy ghosts moaning out the strength of the patriarchs. Moaning out the impossible weight. Then we pulled the ghosts up by their chains to say: we will hurt you. We will tear you the fuck apart. We will hunt down your children we will hunt down your children’s children. We will never stop the ghosts wailed. (p.3)

 Who, though, is this we, who are these we-s? Vap does an astonishing job at unweaving and reweaving the threads which make up the “we” who are the traveling speaker and her lover, the “we” who are those readers who share her array of privileges, the “we” who are the indigenous others on whom those privileges are based, the anonymous “we” of consumers in a globalized market-purgatory, and the “we” yearning for a better future from out of a common humanity that “groans and travails in pain together.” [8]  And so, in this book, the fragments of a travelogue become the records of a deep examination of conscience as “we” are brought face to face with all that haunts us as moral beings, including our capacity for moral evasion:
            We move slowly across the continent, up and down,
            across and diagonally, in boats and in airplanes,
            in trains, in cars, in bicycle taxis, in buses.
            We are feeling good. We aren’t hurting anyone.
            We are feeling good. We aren’t hurting anyone.
            Everywhere we go, our minds think, we aren’t hurting anyone. (p.48)
 But we are, in spite of our best intentions, hurting, being hurt. In Arco Iris there is no straightforward way in which all these hurts can be explained by their supposed origins, or even mourned in any way which finalizes the speaker’s relationships of understanding and contrition. Rather, they are constantly reexamined and reconfigured by the speaker as landscapes and people and modes of travel and memories and history thwart every yearning for the comfort that is arrival, stasis, firmament, certainty. Thus there are six poems with the title ‘Ghost’, five named, ‘Travel’, six called ‘Market’ or ‘Hypermarket’, four called ‘The coca leaf fortune teller’... Up and down and back and across-- this book is a moaning ark for which there is no Ararat, and where a rainbow is as much the reflection coming off an oil-slick on a river as a transcendent sign sealing a covenant.
 And so we travel. And right from the beginning the speaker in Arco Iris gives us a double vision of herself as spectral and embodied stranger encountering spectral and embodied others. Vap’s poems, while asserting the ethical and political claims which the dead and the living dead have on us, keep bringing us back to the body because without holding on to the bodily intimacies which, in important ways, are our world, we are in danger of falling into a facile discourse of transcendence which would seek to redeem the bodily only by devaluing or even erasing it. Hand to hand and face to face, such are the encounters which vivify the language of Arco Iris. The verbs “touch”, “fuck”, and “move” in all of their many senses are keywords in the book because their uses demarcate both deeply personal and broadly social power relations. And as touching is the proof that the specific way of being which is “my body”  is deeply dependent, in an authentically erotic or convivial space, on another’s body, there are forms of touch in a colonial context (including its sexual dimension) which have always been the means of dominating, violating and possessing others. Remarkably, Vap’s poems manage keep the intimate body, others’ bodies, and the body politic in constant, if fraught, conversation, without reducing them to mere metaphors of each other. Their interdependence is crucial, as in the poem ‘Market’:
When the rainforest unfurls from its coil around us we arrive at the market. We eat breakfast, we kiss again.
White kiss. Cuban music. Instant coffee, travel agency—you insist that our kiss be quiet. Be this please. Please, say something important to me, I am quiet—and left alone with this quiet trajectory— I say: what do you think about that.
You say: we won’t be able to touch everything and all along.
You say: we won’t be able. I say the cruelty of our common life. The ghosts, we say, are not that long line behind us. (p.15)

 This “cruelty of our common life” is as much an aspect of the speaker’s relationship with her lover as it is the very matrix of the system by which we’re constituted as beings in real economic relationships. The question becomes a question of how to love. And this woman who obsessively tests if her own adult soul’s aspirations are as brittle and predetermined as a music-box ballerina from her childhood, is haunted by love’s destructive potential, whether that be the erotic love of another or the “love” we might claim for “humanity”. Daringly and subversively, as if poking at and complicating the question of what kind of hearts “do in the faces rest”, Vap meditates on these loves by rewriting Donne’s ‘The Good Morrow’ in her poem ‘As if we are hemispheres folding onto each other’:
            And where the deepest impressions made. Where
hurt most—you and I are two people who have always wanted to be right. We are two people who have never wanted to be wrong or to think anything wrong
or to say anything wrong and now all we do is smash continents and bodies together to see what will remain. Now we try to pull our impression apart from the great impression just to see if one can
now understand that that great impression is everywhere around us and also inside of us and we smash smash at each other—like this—to get it out—   (p. 27)

  This poem is especially interesting because it connects obliquely with one of Vap’s epigraphs to the book from Levinas’s ‘Totality and Infinity’, where she quotes the phrase “ water gushing forth from rock washes away that rock.” It is worth, actually, putting that phrase back into its original context as follows:
The intentionality of enjoyment can be described by contrast with the intentionality of representation; it consists in holding on to the exteriority which the transcendental method involved in representation suspends. To hold on to exteriority is not simply equivalent to affirming the world, but is to posit oneself in it corporeally. The body is the elevation, but also the whole weight of position. The body naked and indigent identifies the center of the world it perceives, but, conditioned by its own representation of the world, it is thereby as it were torn up from the center from which it proceeded, as water gushing forth from rock washes away that rock. The body indigent and naked is not a thing among things which I "constitute" or see in God to be in a relation with a thought, nor is it the instrument of a gestural thought, of which theory would be simply the ultimate development. The body naked and indigent is the very reverting, irreducible to a thought, of representation into life, of the subjectivity that represents into life which is sustained by these representations and lives of them; its indigence—its needs—affirm "exteriority" as non-constituted, prior to all affirmation.[9]

 Here Levinas is laying the groundwork for what will later become a fully developed ethic arising from the fact of our embodiment. This body, for Levinas, is not reducible to thought, but is the fundamental means by which we orient ourselves on the earth as beings whose being is lack, who must eat , and therefore be bound to exteriority, before constituting ourselves as subjects capable of interiority. This contingent, fragile bodily existence operates in the mode of what Levinas calls “enjoyment”, which is actually the use of, the living off of, the other. But since since the others fragile bodily life is already in-carnated in ones own bodily life we are confronted by an unavoidable moral demand when we confront the fragile face of the other. This demand is mediated through our bodily and sensual experience and not through our consciousness or any rational acceptance of a philosophical principle. This is where Levinas’s thought differs from traditional theories of ethics: instead of our moral acts arising from our free and autonomous acceptance of an ethical principle, for Levinas ethical action is spurred by the authority of the Other: our moral choices are not ones arising from autonomy but from "heteronomy"[10].  So, when confronted with the face of another human being who is hungry, we are immediately morally urged to feed her. And what we make a gift of in such circumstances are bodily-nourishing material things like food, clothing, and shelter: "No human or interhuman relationship can be enacted outside of economy; no face can be approached with empty hands and a closed home".[11]
  Many poems in Arco Iris engage with this ethic of the human face, and consistently as readers we feel the weight such an ethic places on us via the speaker’s unsparing honesty, enmeshed as we all are in an economy which constitutes everyone as face-less. We know what we ought to do, but so often faces become enigmatic bearers of economy, so that even our face-to-face interactions are constrained by the actions of invisible hands. As in the stunning poem ‘Sphinx’:
You, woman selling cloth at the market—I like to think of you as someone I can buy something from. And your little girl asleep beside you—I like to think of her as my—with what material do I attach myself to you—with ghosts thickened up into money, money thickened up into bodies thickened up into information and information thickened to—hold my attention—hold my attention—
you won’t be able to love it—
do you want to say something here. (p.39)

  I do want to say something here, need to say something here, because despite the deep melancholy tone of much of this book there are flashes of color, inklings of a very hard-won hopefulness. The time horizons of Arco Iris—a  personal and historical past, an anxious postmodern present—all haunted by what we do and fail to do—open to a future that is possibly pregnant with a little piece of light. For, in a very Levinasian sense, to read this book is to be approached by an other, to have one’s own present disrupted, to be so unsettled by the speaker, by her language, by her voice that we are shaken into attentiveness. For Levinas the other’s word comes to me as a Said, the mere remnants of a Saying that persists only as a trace. In order to attend to the other I must listen for the Saying which the Said almost drowns out. Thus I become alert to a world where this I  resounds to the call of suffering from the other and takes on  "total responsibility, which answers for all the others and for all in the others, even for their responsibility."[12]  I want to say I don’t know if that is even remotely possible, but to have it raised as a question in the way it is raised in Arco Iris, to be invited to hear through to the Saying, is a poetic and ethical accomplishment of a high order. The book’s final poem, ‘The coca leaf fortune-teller’, brings us to a point where we’re enlisted in the hard work of embodied thinking if there’s ever to be a human future:
That darkness on the other hand seems to come from almost everywhere that darkness holds us that darkness is what is inside of us where—did anyone touch anyone else—

what do you think about that.
What are we supposed to think about that. (p.72)

For a start, I want to say, we’re supposed to think.
© Ger Killeen, 2015

[1] “Holiday In The Sun”, The Sex Pistols, ‘Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols’ (Virgin Records, 1977)
[2] see Baudrillard, Jean, “For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign” trans. and intro. by Charles Levin (USA: Telos, 1981)
[3] J. Derrida, P. Kamuf (trans.), ‘Specters of Marx: The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International’ (New York: Routledge Classics, 2006)
[4] Fukuyama, Francis, "The End of History?", The National Interest (Summer 1989)
[5] Derrida, ibid., p. 86
[6] Derrida, ibid., p. 163
[7] Derrida, ibid., p. xvii-xviii
[8] Romans, 8:22
[9] Levinas, Emmanuel, ‘Totality and Infinity’,  Duquesne University Press, 1969, p.127
[10] Levinas, Emmanuel, ‘Otherwise Than Being: or, Beyond Essence.’ Trans. Alphonso Lingis. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1981. p. 88
[11] Levinas, Emmanuel, ibid. p. 172
[12] Levinas, Emmanuel, ‘Ethics and Infinity’, Duquesne University Press, 1985.  p.99

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Number You Have Called Is Not Available: Time and the Work of Poetry

The Number You Have Called Is Not Available: Time and the Work of Poetry

  In spite of my personal distaste for the shady politicking of a man whom Dryden called “a well-mannered court slave”, I have admired the poetry of Horace, particularly his Odes, ever since as a schoolboy I struggled with translating him; I discovered, to my chagrin and, later, delight, that my English often floundered in wordiness and muddle where his Latin was crisp in expression, nuanced in meaning, and grammatically supple inside an unyielding metrical shell.
 “Up to this day”, wrote Nietzsche, “I have not had an artistic delight in any poet similar to that which, from the beginning, an Ode of Horace gave me”, and he goes on to praise “[t]his mosaic of words, in which every word, by sound, by placing, and by meaning, spreads its influence to the right, to the left, and over the whole.” In the hands of Horace, the flexibility of Latin syntax allows for a verbal structure where the poet is in absolute control of the order in which the reader receives perceptions and the order in which meanings unfold;  and all the while, the sentences are prevented from flying into dissolution by the exigencies of the meter.

Solvitur acris hiems grata vice veris et Favoni,
trahuntque siccas machinae carinas.
ac neque iam stabulis gaudet pecus aut arator igni;
nec prata canis albicant pruinis.

These opening lines from Odes I, 4 were translated as follows by one of Horace’s best modern translators, David Ferry:               

 Now the hard winter is breaking up with the welcome coming
 Of spring and the spring winds; some fishermen,
 Under a sky that looks changed, are hauling their caulked boats
 Down to the water; in winter stables the cattle
 Are restless; so is the farmer sitting in front of his fire;
 They want to be out of doors in field or pasture;
 The frost is gone from the meadow grass in the early mornings.[1]

Now, you don’t need much Latin to see that the English strophe is considerably longer , that there are words and phrases here that are not to be found in the original. Yet, Ferry, in my opinion, made the right critical decision to amplify the Latin, to tease out its implications in an English that uses the resources of the free verse line to catch some of the syntactical complexity of the Latin.
 There are some things, though, which operate at an almost unconscious verbal level in the Latin and which would probably be impossible to get into English and still produce a coherent poem.  Take, for example, Horace’s opening line  Solvitur acris hiems grata vice veris et Favoni : by placing the verb solvitur (“is dissolved”) as the first word in the line not only does Horace emphasise the change from winter’s stagnation to spring’s movement, but the verb also echoes the word sol (“sun”) and brings warmth and heat into the poem from its first syllable. Horace does things like this all over the place, and his serious verbal play must surely be one of the reasons why poets and poetry readers in every generation for the past couple of millennia have been compelled to return to him and learn from him.
 An unkind reader, though, might say that Horace’s enduring  attraction has more to do with how accessibly commonplace are the sentiments in much of his poetry and the ease with which his outlook can be assimilated to the ideological needs of empires, ancient and modern.  It is a viewpoint with which I have some sympathy, and yet I can’t think of it as being anything like the whole story.
  For years lines like those above have accompanied me as, by mid-March, with the daffodils igniting along the edges of my fields and skunk cabbage thrusting its spathes out of the drainage ditches, I pull the shovels and saws and clippers and mower from their storage shed and survey what needs to be done: the vegetable beds need to be weeded and planted, the small meadow needs  mowing, blackberry vines and salmonberry branches need to be cut back, perhaps a small tree needs to be cut down. In my mind the pleasures of the poetry and the pleasure of the manual labor can sometimes overlap each other so much that I can almost persuade myself that Voltaire’s Candide was literally right when he said that to be happy “We must cultivate our garden”.
 Almost. It is a fantasy to think of my garden as being too much more than a hobby. Should my potato crop fail the consequence for me would be annoyance, not starvation. If the weather turns suddenly cold and rainy I can just put off that weeding I’d planned to do. If my shoulder aches because of over-zealous digging or chopping, I can simply stop. The economics of my life are connected to the city, to a university, to the global connectivity of the internet, to my wife’s business as a glass artist. My rural life could not exist without these, and at their best they mutually enrich each other. The worst temptation of the rural part of my life is that it sometimes gives the illusion of retreat.
 Horace often writes about the pleasures of his own farm in the Sabine hills. He, of course, was not a farmer— the Sabine farm was a fairly large country estate bestowed on him by his phenomenally wealthy patron Maecenas; it was run by slaves and had additional income from five tenanted properties. The secure space from which he was able to compose poems, to philosophize, and to satirize the pretensions of some of the Roman elite was underwritten by slavery and more generally by the transfer of wealth from the expansion of the empire under Augustus. Horace is always up front about how much his good life as a poet is dependent on Maecenas, but still his celebration of the stoic virtue of equanimity can seem inauthentic when read against the background of his security; in Ode 3, 16 he addresses Maecenas:

             The more a man will deny to himself, so much
             the more is given by the gods: stripping myself,
            I seek the camp that knows no greed, a deserter
            longing to leave the wealthy side,

a more glorious master of things I reject
than if I were said to have buried in my barns
harvests from all the plowed fields of Apulia,
and had no good of all my goods.

A brook with clear water, a few wooded acres,
and confidence in my crops: a happier life
than fertile Africa's glittering governor
was given -- not that he knows it.

Although no Calabrian bees bring me honey,
and no wine is mellowing for me
in Formian jars, and no fleeces of mine
grow full in the pastures of Gaul,

still poverty stays away, with all its troubles,
and if I wanted more, you would not refuse it.
As my desire for things is lessened, I stretch my
little income even further

than if I were to join Alyattes' kingdom
to the plains of Phrygia. For men who seek much,
much is never there; a man is well off when the god
gives him, with frugal hand, just enough.[2]

 Clearly, what constitutes “just enough”  and “little income” is relative.  Similarly when we read in Odes 1, 1:

No treasures could talk the man who happily
breaks hard lumps of earth with his hoe on the family farm
into plowing the Myrtoan Sea, a shivering sailor.
The trader, scared by rough-housing winds and waves,
sings in praise of the peaceful country town
where he was born; soon he refits his ships,
a lower standard of living is not for him...[3]

one is inclined to scoff at the phrase  “happily breaks hard lumps of earth with his hoe”, given that Horace was not known to have broken much earth with his own hands, happily or otherwise; there were slaves for that.
 And yet. Time and again Horace returns to the themes of frugality, of country living, of friendship, of love, of pleasure, of poetry, of work, of transience. Obviously these are not themes particular to him, but once we know how he expressed them in his own particular way, in a sweet and compelling pithiness, his lines have the ability to structure our own thoughts and feelings on these things, to become part of the process by which we begin to live an examined life.  “Carpe diem”—seize the day;  “eram quod es, eris quod sum”—I was what you are, you’ll be what I am; “Dulce est desipere in loco”—it’s lovely to kick back at the right time; “Exegi monumentum aere perennius” – I have raised a monument more lasting than bronze; “Populus me sibilat at mihi plaudo ipse domi” – people hiss at me but I applaud myself at home; “Nunc est bibendum” – now it’s time for a drinking spree;  “Ibit, ibit eo quo vis qui zonam perdidit” – whoever loses his wallet will go wherever you wish; “Omnes una manet nox”—the same night awaits us all...
Commonplaces? No doubt. But they niggle at you, and I want to suggest that read a certain way, paying attention to both their art and their import, the dulce and the utile,  many of Horace’s poems have a special relevance for us (hyper)moderns and our prospect of living a good life. And the reason for this is that underlying these poems is an attitude towards Time which is radically different from that of the early 21st century, no matter where we live; radically different and radically connected to poetic language itself.
 I am borrowing here some ideas from Italian theorist Franco “Bifo” Berardi who in several books, but especially in ‘The Soul At Work’[Semiotext(e), 2009] and  ‘The Uprising’ [Semiotext(e), 2012], provides a number of conceptual tools for thinking about this strange, new world of ours.  According to Berardi the technosocial mutations which first appeared  a generation ago (he has in mind the ways in which production became highly automated, and the networking of humans and computers), these technosocial mutations produced irreversible changes in how we live. In Berardi’s analysis language itself is absolutely crucial to contemporary capitalism, and he uses  the term semiocapitalism to describe the centrality of the semiological dimension of production. “Semiocapitalism takes the mind, language and creativity as its primary tools for the production of value. In the sphere of digital production, exploitation is exerted essentially on the semiotic flux produced by human time at work”(‘The Soul At Work’, p.21-22).  In our time, he says,

 “[t]he present emerging uneasiness originates from a situation of
communication overload, since we, the assembly line, once linking
workers through the movements of a mechanical apparatus, have been
replaced by the digital telecommunications network, which links people
through symbols. Productive life is overloaded with symbols that
not only have an operational value, but also an affective,
emotional, imperative or dissuasive one. These signs cannot work without
unleashing chains of interpretation, decoding, and conscious responses.
The constant mobilization of attention is essential to the productive function:
the energies engaged by the productive system are essentially creative, affective
and communicational.
 Each producer of semiotic flows is also a consumer of them, and each
user is part of the productive process: all exits are also an entry, and
every receiver is also a transmitter.
 We can have access to the modalities of digital telecommunication
 from everywhere and at all times, and in fact we have to, since this
is the only way to participate in the labor market. We can reach every
point in the world but, more importantly, we can be reached from
any point in the world. Under these conditions privacy and its possiblities
are abolished...
 Everywhere attention is under siege.
 Not silence but uninterrupted noise...a cognitive space overloaded with
nervous incentives to act: this is the alienation of our times.”
(‘The Soul At Work’, p.107-108)

 When we move into the sphere of info-labor, Capital no longer
recruits people, it buys packets of time, separated from their inter-
changeable and contingent bearers. De-personalized time is now
real agent of the process of valorization, and de-personalized time
has no rights.
               Meanwhile, the human machine is there, pulsating and available,
like a brain-sprawl in waiting. The extension of time is
meticulously cellular: cells of productive time can be mobilized in
punctual, casual and fragmentary forms. The recombination of
these fragments is automatically realized in the digital networks.
The mobile phone makes possible the connection between the
needs of semio-capital and the mobilization of the living labor of
cyber-space. The ringtone of the mobile phone calls the workers to
reconnect their abstract time to the reticular flows. (The Soul At Work, p.192-193)

   We are all caught up in this in obvious ways and in ways that are far from obvious:
  I am having dinner with friends at my house; it’s late in the evening, the food has been good, the wine has flowed, the conversation is bright and challenging; someone’s cell phone goes off—she apologizes, she’s “on call” this weekend, she talks for a few minutes and then returns and says she has to leave because of a “network issue” in Mumbai.  Or a friend who teaches an online class on Psychology tells me how he opens his email some mornings and finds irate messages from a student who is annoyed at having waited half a day for an answer to a question; the email was sent at midnight in my friend’s time zone, he gets up at 7a.m., and is at his desk shortly after 8a.m. Clearly he sleeps too much.
 Less obvious, perhaps, are the ways in which these “reticular flows” impact workers who are not part of the contemporary “cognitariat”, the “knowledge” workers. Take, for example, a contractor who builds houses around Portland, Oregon. He and his crew have skills as carpenters, concrete-pourers, electricians, etc., without which nothing would get built. However, when the so-called housing bubble burst in the USA around 2008, and this contractor finds himself with no work, and even goes out of business, the destruction of his livelihood is directly related to forces operating within the cognitive economy. I’m actually making a stronger point here than simply saying he fell victim to a downturn in the business cycle; I’m saying that the economic collapse was caused by the financialization of the economy operated by the cognitariat according to semiocapital’s own, internal, abstract logic, indifferent to consequences outside of itself. Berardi puts it like this: “In the world of financial capitalism, accumulation no longer passes through the production of goods, but goes straight to its monetary goal, extracting value from the pure circulation of money, from the virtualization of life and intelligence” (‘The Uprising’, p. 23-24). Thus the actual value of the physical and mental skills of the carpenter (or the barista, or the cab-driver) gets entangled in a virtual system for which the “real” economy is only relevant to the degree to which its products and operations can themselves be digitized and virtualized. The physical house or physical cup of coffee doesn’t matter—it’s the mortgage on the house, “bundled” with other mortgages into an abstract financial “instrument” which can circulate digitally, that matters; it’s the credit card charge for the coffee, combined with all the other charges that produce financial assets which can then be used by a bank for loaning and trading, entering into digital circulation, that matter. The cognitariat itself, of course, are just specialized functionaries in all of this; even when operating as managers, they are not in any sense in control.
 In the universe of semiocapitalism there are three things to which we stand in a completely different relationship than that of human beings even fifty years ago: space, time, and language. (I almost laugh, rereading that last sentence, a little voice in my head saying “oh, is that all?”). In The Uprising Berardi comments on how members of the cognitariat don’t need to be in any specific place physically to perform their labor.  Because of networked technologies, cognitive labor can be done from any location.  And “socially necessary labor time”, that hardy Marxist perennial, has become cellular.  The capitalist no longer needs to buy workers’ time in totality: he just buys cells of time, as needed, just-in-time.
 It is worth thinking about the specific consequences of this revolution in the experience of time for our real, everyday lives. Helga Nowotny in her wonderful book  Time: The Modern and Postmodern Experience, (Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 1994) uses the word Eigenzeit, “self-time” or “proper time” to analyze the individual’s relationship to the various time regimes that have come into existence with technological shifts. There are a large number of these time regimes—natural time, clock time, personal time, biological time, social time etc. And each of these has its own logic and scale: this is proper time. In earlier, simpler societies, all time was collective, a proper time shared by all members of a coherent community. In postmodern society, people have many different individual proper times, and they do not mesh easily with each other either in an individual’s life or collectively in social life. All kinds of strategies have to be used to coordinate them, but, like the example of my friend at dinner, they are not all equal when it comes to chosing between their demands. One of the consequences of the contemporary networked, just-in-time world, Nowotny says is that “Time in which empathy, affection and solidarity can be expressed only through personal presence is on the retreat.... All time of caring, occasions for mutual joy or mourning, time which is qualitatively tied to particular individuals . .. are simply remnants.” I don’t believe this is overstated.
 What interests me about Berardi in all of this is that he enunciates our contemporary sense of economic precariousness and collective sensuous impoverishment in terms that open a space for poetry as a vital tool of resistance.  In contrast to the semiotic flux exploited by semiocapitalism, “Poetic language is the occupation of the space of communication by words which escape the order of exchangeability”.  Poetry, Berardi says,  “is language's excess: poetry is what in language cannot be reduced to information, and is not exchangeable”.
 Anyone who engages with and has grown to love poetry will understand the almost gravitational pull of that excess, the ways in which a good poem can undo one’s pragmatic automatism towards reading and language, can summon your best acts of attentive listening, can persuade you, for the duration of the poem (and perhaps longer), of the rightness of its vision, no matter how uneasily that vision meshes with your own habitual orientation towards the world. The poem is always demanding an answer, your answer to the question of who you are, eliciting a sense that in you there’s more than you; in face of the poem, you are exposed—because the order of language which is your deepest reality exposes itself. And sometimes, even, because of this, “you must change your life”.
 Berardi quotes Félix Guattari’s assertion in Chaosmosis that in the conditions of neoliberal globalization with its fake celebration of individuality
[s]ubjectivity is standardized through a communication which evacuates as much as possible trans-semiotic and amodal enunciative compositions. Thus it slips towards the progressive effacement of polysemy, prosody, gesture, mimicry and posture, to the profit of a language rigorously subjected to scriptural machines and their mass media avatars. In its extreme contemporary forms it amounts to an exchange of information tokens calculable as bits and reproducible on computers.
 This might almost be thought of as the genuinely “perverse other” of poetry, the letters that kill as opposed to the “spirit” that gives life: Slavoj Žižek says that “the pervert’s universe is the universe of pure symbolic order, of the signifier’s game running its course, unencumbered by the real of human finitude.” In poetry, though, the signifier with its games is always looking over its shoulder towards the “real of human finitude”;  “polysemy, prosody, gesture, mimicry and posture” , these are the stuff of poetry, the non-Euclidian coordinates of that space which is the human lifeworld uttering itself in all its individual and collective struggles to be, to know, to become.
 Berardi, by the way, when he says things like “Only the conscious mobilization of the erotic body of the general intellect, only the poetic revitalization of language, will open the way to the emergence of a new form of social autonomy”, is quite unconvincing, to me, at least, as a theoretician of actual political praxis. Is he not just giving us an updated version of the Romantic critique of “progress” and industrialization?  One recalls Marx’s statement in the Grundrisse that
“It is as ridiculous to yearn for a return to that original fullness as it is to believe that with this complete emptiness history has come to a standstill. The bourgeois viewpoint has never advanced beyond this antithesis between itself and this romantic viewpoint, and therefore the latter will accompany it as legitimate antithesis up to its blessed end”.
 Nevertheless, I would argue that one of the things the romantic critique did best was to actually articulate in sensuous detail the trauma of the advent of modernity. That articulation, though partial and often backward-looking, is surely a necessary precursor to the dialectical understanding of alienation. What Berardi does, and why I’ve referenced some of his ideas at length, is articulate the fact that there is, structurally, a linguistic/symbolic engine driving the present state of capitalist crisis, and he identifies in very compelling ways the range of socially and personally destructive consequences which accompany this. And if that is so, poetry, we can agree with him, can be one remarkable tool, one spanner in the works of pure exchangeability, illuminating  the semiotic exchange process as such and imagining its alternative through language which radically contests its operation.  But surely this must be accompanied by the other tools of political praxis—organization, agitation, building solidarity etc. Berardi might argue that the systematic fragmentation of social groups through the workings of the system itself make these latter very difficult or impossible. I think he’s wrong about that, but even if he were right, poetry couldn’t possibly replace these other forms of praxis which is what he seems sometimes to suggest, at least in The Uprising. Poetry can make things happen; but very obviously it’s not the only practice that can make things happen and  doesn’t make the same things happen, either.
 What does poetry accomplish, what can it accomplish? In The Uprising Berardi uses such phrases as “poetry is the erotic body of language” and “poetry opens the doors of perception to singularity”. I wonder if what lies behind these lovely characterizations of poetry and all his earlier struggle to understand what semiocapitalism is doing to us is the sense of a special kind of Eigenzeit, to use Nowotny’s word, the self-time, the proper time of the experience of the poem as such.
 How to describe the proper time of the poem’s experience? I think it is the time which actively removes itself from the possibility of depersonalized exchange and in so doing asserts the priority of time “qualitatively tied to particular individuals”; or, to use a central concept of Giorgio Agamben, the proper time of the poem is inoperativeness in its linguistic dimension. To write a poem or to engage fully as a reader with a poem is to actively interrupt at the level of language the coercive time regime that valorizes instantaneity, simultaneity, generality, and seamless exchangeability; it is to be inoperative, to be use-less to the work of semiocapitalism. A poem is the hardest un-work, the unworking  of the linguistic homogeneity of semiocapitalism and the repersonalizing  of time.
 I love how Berardi and Geert Lovink declare in their manifesto A call to the Army of Love and to the Army of Software that
“we have lost the pleasure of being together. Thirty years of precariousness and competition have destroyed social solidarity. Media virtualization has destroyed the empathy among bodies, the pleasure of touching each other, and the pleasure of living in urban spaces. We have lost the pleasure of love, because too much time is devoted to work and virtual exchange. The large army of lovers have to wake up...Our intelligence has been submitted to algorithmic power in exchange for a handful of shitty money and a virtual life.” [4]
 A poem by itself is not going to change that situtation, but it is a way of reactivating the language that allows us to ask questions about the contours and meaning of our feelings, our desires, our thoughts, our conversations, our identities, our bodies, the hours of our days. I cannot exist on this earth without being enmeshed somehow in the global economy of semiocapitalism, but that is not the meaning of my existence. The time of the poem is a time where my attention is not commoditized and cellular; the time of the poem is where I’m given time to reframe my cognitive space in ways that allow my communal lifeworld the eloquence of its standing forth in all its sensual thickness, its history, its potential.  As Rilke in his 9th Duino Elegy wrote:

Here is the time for the sayablehere is its homeland.
Speak and bear witness. More than ever
the Things that we might experience are vanishing, for
what crowds them out and replaces them is an imageless act. (trans. Stephen Mitchell)

 This is the poem’s proper time, and it is desperately vital to live inside it from time to time; because as Rilke says in the same poem

Perhaps we are here in order to say: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window–
at most: column, tower. . . . But to say them, you must understand,
oh to say them more intensely than the Things themselves
ever dreamed of existing. Isn’t the secret intent
of this taciturn earth, when it forces lovers together,
that inside their boundless emotion all things may shudder with joy?

  This is the poem’s No! to the language of counter and signal, an intense and questioning Bartleby among the blips. This is the time that ought to be on our side.
 It often amazes me how unaware the culture at large is of the ultimate consequences of being structured by language that is reduced to bits of information (which is not the same as “truth” or “fact”) and instantaneous exchangeability. But Paul Celan has warned us in poems that smash the circuits of “blipspeak” in order to expose their ubiquity, and help us find our way out:

Die fleissigen
Bodenschätze, häuslich,

die geheizte Synkope

das nicht zu enträtselnde

die vollverglasten
Spinnen-Altäre im alles-
überragenden Flachbau,

die Zwischenlaute
(noch immer?),
die Schattenpalaver,

die Ängste, eisgerecht,

der barock ummantelte,
spracheschluckende Duschraum,
semantisch durchleuchtet,

die unbeschriebene Wand
einer Stehzelle:


leb dich
querdurch, ohne Uhr.
The industrious
mineral resources, homey,

the heated syncope,

the not-to-be-deciphered

the completely glassed in
spider-altars in the all-
overtowering low building,

the intermediate sounds
(even yet?)
the shadowpalavers, 
the anxieties, icetrue,

the baroque cloaked,
languageswallowing showerroom,
semantically floodlit,

the uninscribed wall
of a standing-cell:


live yourself
straightthrough, without clock. (trans. by Pierre Joris)

 To spend time with this poem is to be drawn into undoing  the linguistic complicities leading to the industrial production of death in “the concentrationary universe”, where human beings are an expendable resource no different from coal or iron.  Here, time itself is marked not by the hours of the clock but is out of joint and dissolves into a timeless anxiety. The icy, paradoxically obfuscating clarity of the language that efficiently orders the turning of humans into smoke is really an anti-language, blanking out, swallowing up the semantic richness of individuals and their speech communities. Inmates are numbers, minerals are numbers--  the foundations of a homey world whose existence relies on their destruction, whose warmth conceals the chill of impersonal killing, whose idle talk wards off the reality of what is happening. Celan’s poem is an education in listening for the meanings beyond the deafening noise of our own time.
 Today, where I live, it is raining after almost a week of snowstorms and icestorms. I have had to split firewood this morning since I’ve used up a lot of the smaller logs over the last few days in keeping the house warm. I have some nice dry alder and fir stowed away in the back of the woodshed and when I pull it out the air takes on an earthy, loamy smell. Then, as I split the logs, there comes the satisfying crack of wood and the tang of fir sap rising from the small pile. But the rain isn’t letting up, and soon I am uncomfortably warm and wet. A varied thrush calls nearby.
 Today I have Paul Celan’s words with me as I work. I mull over his lines “das nicht zu enträtselnde/
Halljahr” which defeat my basic German, and in translation trouble my understanding: the compound “Halljahr” more literally means something like “echo-year”, but structurally it mimics “Jobeljahr” (Jubliee) and echoes its sound. And I am led to the word’s evocation of fake celebration, of an anniversary that memorializes an empty, inhuman time. And so I am led back to this time of now, this work of splitting firewood in the rain, this life which right now, today is full and rich through the senses of the body and the senses of words. The time of the poem has intersected my private time and I am infinitely richer for it.
 Already I am thinking about tomorrow’s work  when I have classes to teach, emails to write, meetings, a long commute. Until then, I have turned off my cell phone; I admit I worry that I might miss an important call, but I’m not going to lose sleep over it. Someone who calls my number will hear a standardized message saying something like “The number you have called is not available...” I am working, though. And I am unworking. I am thinking of Horace, the poet in whose name time itself, as he well knew, is inscribed: Hora, meaning “hour”.
Dum loquimur, fugerit inuida
aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.
While we’re speaking the envious age is flying off:
Seize the day, don’t put much trust in tomorrow.

Today, that might be much more radical and dangerous than Horace could ever have imagined.

(c) Ger Killeen

[1] David Ferry, ‘The Odes of Horace’, 1997, p.15