Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Notes on Militant Poetics 2/3

I have completely repressed all emotion; have learned to see myself in perspective, in true relation with other men (sic) and the world. I have enlarged my vision so that I may be able to think on a basis encompassing not just myself, my family, my neighbourhood, but the world. I have completely arrested the susceptibility to think in theoretical terms, or give credence to religious, supernatural, or other shallow unnecessary things of this nature that lock the mind and hinder thinking.

This, from the earliest letter in George Jackson’s Soldedad Brother, might be read as the negative expression of the famous statements in Rimbaud’s letters of May 1871. Where Rimbaud proposed an expansion of vision whose negation of privatised consciousness would permit entry into a transformative collective that would challenge and ultimately shatter the constrained possibilities of bourgeois consciousness-as-usual, Jackson’s expansion of consciousness is made necessary and also possible through a maximum tightening of those same constraints. Jackson writes from solitary confinement, where the almost total annihilation of his subjectivity forces an expansion of “vision” so that it includes “not just” himself and the “family” and “neighbourhood” that he is separated from (ie the content of a denied memory) but also “the world”, a “world” that Jackson believes he can see with absolute clarity because through his enforced separation from it he is able to reject the “unnecessary things” that define and “lock” it. Whereas Rimbaud believes he can achieve clarity through a flight from bourgeois constraints, Jackson is forced into that clarity by the very impossibility of that flight. But more than Rimbaud, Jackson’s early letters resemble the writing of the revolutionary psychopath Sergey Nechayev, whose 1869 Catechism of a Revolutionist was reprinted by the Black Panthers in 1969:

The revolutionist is a person doomed. He has no personal interests, no business affairs, no emotions, no attachments, no property and no name. Everything in him is wholly absorbed in the single thought and passion for revolution . . . . The revolutionist knows that in the very depths of his being, not only in words but in deeds, he has broken all the bonds which tie him to the civil order and the civilized world with all its laws, moralities and customs, and with all its generally accepted conventions. He is their implacable enemy, and if he continues to live with them it is only in order to destroy them more speedily.

Where Rimbaud also wishes to liberate himself from the “laws, moralities and customs” of the bourgeois civil order, Nechaev refuses the ecstasy of that liberation and bolts himself to the cruel centre of that same order. In seeking to express through his person the absolute negation of everyday reality, Nechaev becomes the personification of its basic banality and brutality. The “passion for revolution” into which Nechaev must eradicate his being is only the negative expression of the “passion” for money to which any bourgeois will ecstatically sacrifice their person. Jackson is forced into a more radical position than either Rimbaud or Nechaev precisely because of the forced eradication of that passion. Jean Genet, in his introduction to Jackson’s book, claims that the arid zone this necessary (self-preserving) refusal of passion gives access to is the place from which a new, militant poetics can emerge. Genet says of the writings of Jackson, and of the writings of other imprisoned black militants:

(T)heir voices are starker, more accusing and implacable, tearing out every reference to the cynical conjuring of the religious enterprise and its efforts to take over. They are more singular, and singular too in the way they all seem to engage a movement that converts the old discourses, in order to denounce the curse not of being black, but of being captive.

Genet insists that Jackson’s letters be read as “poetry”: his use of the word, like that of the Situationists, is symptomatic of a crisis in the artform - a crisis expressed most forcefully in the fact that it remained an artform - that in part arose from the failure of Surrealism to achieve their much advertised synthesis of Marx and Rimbaud. It is an understanding of the possibilities of poetry that sounds almost hopelessly utopian now. The writings of Genet, the Situationists and Jackson, even given the pitches of rage and icy violence each of them reached, are soaked in revolutionary optimism. Victory, as far as all of these writers were concerned, was inevitable. From the standpoint of our own apocalypse such optimism reads, at best, bitterly. But maybe an icy bitterness is just what we need. The violent austerity of Jackson’s writing, and thus Genet’s claims for it, may have managed to smuggle some of that revolutionary charge into our own historical position. The austerity of the language means that everything must be laid bare. Genet notes that in order for his letters to get past the prison censor, Jackson must conceal all of his passion within a language in which the only permitted emotion is hatred. Poetry, the “slandered, the reprobate words . . . . the words that don’t belong in the dictionary” becomes so much contraband. Forced to speak the language of the captor, the captive is only permitted to speak in a way that is absolutely comprehensible to that captor. All of the many things the word “poetry” is supposed to mean begin to buckle and come apart under this kind of pressure. Genet elsewhere speaks scornfully of the well-made poem or artwork: “the closer a work of art is to perfection, the more it is enclosed within itself”. That aesthetic enclosure is, obviously, the counter-prison. The reactionary esotericism of remarks such as George Steiner’s “Celan’s poems take us beyond what we already know”, or Mario Vargas Llosa’s “we remain in the dark, unable to penetrate that mysterious aureole that we feel to be the secret of (Vallejo’s) poetry’s originality and power” conceals the social pain, hunger and rage contained in that poetry. Anyone who has suffered the gross humiliation of being left out of the “perfection” of bourgeois reality knows all too well what that “beyond”, what that “secret” is, and they know it because they are it. Contemptuous of a poetics that is only ever an aesthetic parody of the commodity form, Genet implies that we need to think in terms of a poetry that can be somehow prior to itself, and can thus force that “secret” into the raw light of day.

to be continued


Robert Bond said...

This is brilliant and useful.

But I still worry whether this sort of thinking is simply nihilism.

I gave up on academic Marxism because when my academic career was destroyed all the academic Marxists looked the other way. No comment. So Benjamin-type 'destructive nihilism' began to look like no more than the mirror-image of the capitalist destructivity which destroys lives and looks the other way. Academic Marxists, in their coldness and brutality, simply replicate and prop up the wider societal brutality: this is contemporary nihilism. No values, no hope, if you become a victim of the system you can just crawl away and die.

This is why I worry whether there is anything more than nihilism being proposed here. You say:
'The “passion for revolution” into which Nechaev must eradicate his being is only the negative expression of the “passion” for money to which any bourgeois will ecstatically sacrifice their person. Jackson is forced into a more radical position than either Rimbaud or Nechaev precisely because of the forced eradication of that passion.'

But if Nechaev chooses to eradicate his being (rather as I chose to no longer communicate with any of my former so-called colleagues, when my career was destroyed), and Jackson's revolutionary passion is eradicated by capitalist society, what is the difference between the two? Ultimately, both are/have been reduced to nihilism.

Having said all this, I do sense real potential for hope here - if only because you have the courage to confront the issue of contemporary nihilist drift - which defines today's beaten-down, hopeless academia/intellectual non-life - head-on. I think this is a brilliant and necessary post.

Sean Bonney said...

Hey Robert - really good to hear from you, & thanks for the amazing comment. Gotta admit, I'm feeling fairly nihilistic - but my answers to what you say will be there in part 3 of the essay, which'll be up in the next week or so.

In the meantime send me an email. It'd be good to catch up.