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