View from Montmartre hill, Paris, France. Photo by Bruno Monginoux.

The text of “Democracy” was delivered as a talk at Oxford University’s La Maison française, as part of the colloquium “Littérature, espace(s) public(s) et démocratie” — Literature, Public Space(s) and Democracy — held November 1–2, 2013. For me, it concerns raising a voice of resistance to the illusions of capitalist “democracy,” which is the air we breathe. And evoking an experimental poetic practice that contributes to the permanent invention of a truly democratic space. — Jean-Marie Gleize

There is, in Rimbaud’s Illuminations, a text called “Democracy.” We know little of this text’s composition, as the manuscript is lost. It was published belatedly in a journal (La Vogue, 1889), but we are scarcely surprised to encounter a text of this title from the quill of that democrat Rimbaud, virulently hostile to Napoléon III’s dictatorship, radically aligned with the insurrectionary movement of the Paris Commune — with, one might say, an insurgent, revolutionary democracy. As Bernard Noël has suggested, Rimbaud is a communard “not only in his opinion, but in his being.” Now the particularity of this poem is in being the only one in the collection entirely within quotation marks. It is democracy who speaks. It concerns prosopopoeia. Upon recognizing this, the Rimbaud specialists are perplexed, their opinions contradictory.

To revisit the formulation of one (Pierre Brunel): “Rimbaud’s intention seems particularly difficult to grasp.” In effect, the text expresses imperialist and capitalist violence, announces the massacre of the “logical revolts” … Does Rimbaud affirm and take up the mantle of a conquering warrior for democracy, a manifestation of the people’s power (according to his native, regular scheme: the necessity for destruction/detonation toward a regeneration or a later reconstruction)? Does he take a malign pleasure in transcribing the caricature of democracy delivered by his bourgeois adversaries, evoking the horror and terror it inspires in them? Here we must return to the quotation marks. If Rimbaud expressed himself in his own name, as he does in all of Illuminations’ other poems, he would do so without divagation. In this poem it must be democracy who speaks, saying that which it is and does, its fearsome civilizing program. The result is finally that the reader is led to transfer the quotation marks to the only word in the text which does not bear them: its title.

“Democracy” is by no means the power of the people but the instrument of the people’s domination and oppression; “democracy” is not democracy. This fact allows us to return to the ambiguity of the writer’s gesture, ambiguity that is at once voluntary (the rhetorical work’s deployment of prosopopoeia as concerted device) and inevitable, already having happened: the Illuminations speak at once the unacceptable character of “the rest of the world,” of the world as it is, its violence and the counterviolence necessarily entrained, the more or less utopic visions that it arouses, etc. If something like democracy exists, it doubtless supposes other struggles, other forms of life of which the labor of poetry can make only confused or oblique reports. Exigency, malaise, anxiety, anger, semantic and rhythmic troubles, critical opacity: such are some of the symptoms of this state of discomfiting resistance where one finds the “horrible workers” to whom Rimbaud is brother.

For those who persist “like” Rimbaud, after the flood, in the hive-chaos of big cities, modern industrial and postindustrial societies, those of the western “democratic” empire, the leading sentiment remains that results from the fact that democracy signifies for the moment capitalism, the regime of liberty and liberalism (work, finance, exploitation, profit) — and this democratic capitalism, the polluted air which we breathe, moreover appears as the ultimate and definitive, and for that matter “natural,” form of social life. There is, there will have been, no alternative. Thus the necessity to qualify, to specify: parliamentary, or rather, today, mediatic-parliamentary, democracy, liberal democracy, but also, because quotation marks are there if we try to retrieve, that is to say reappropriate, the word and the thing, “true democracy,” as Marx said, or “wild democracy,” or “radical democracy,” or “insurgent democracy” (as Miguel Abensour suggested, democracy in a permanent state of emergence and constructive critique), or even “democracy without limits” as proposed by Rosa Luxemburg in opposition to “bourgeois democracy.” She subjected “democracy” under quotation marks to an examination of limits and internal contradictions wherein she observed, as did Rimbaud, two closely linked antidemocratic dimensions: militarism and colonialism, the importance of the military apparatus being linked on the one hand to the containment and repression of popular insurrectionary movements, and on the other hand to imposing on the colonized by force of arms the benefits of western economic exploitation and domination.

Thus there is for those, among whom I am one, who continue to read and write within that which we name poetry (that is to say, who situate themselves marginally within the practice of literature itself grown culturally secondary and minor), essentially the consciousness of not being much in phase with democracy as ambient value, as political ideology and as form of government, the feeling of being in no regard represented by the professional politicians and others who themselves are manipulated and ventriloquized by the holds of real power (that of the globalized economy), and with an insuperable sense of paralysis or choking powerlessness. The words slide around, it is enough just to listen. For example this kid from the Maghreb who participated in the 2005 banlieue riots around Paris: he speaks of his parents and the society which would “incarcerate” them. He means to say “integrate” them. This slip understands that such integration might be felt as a process of confinement and violent maintenance of inferior social status. It’s all too evidently symptomatic when some contrarily affirm (against all visible evidence, in situations of extreme material and mental precarity, in the suffocating context of our quote-unquote “democracy”) the actuality of their emancipation. I want to underscore indelibly this phrase in the contemporary poetry journal Nioques from poet Christophe Tarkos, who died prematurely in 2004: “I am not squeezed, I do not choke myself, I am not shattered, I am not buried, I am not surrounded, I am not crushed, I breathe.” He personally supports this affirmation, based on the denial of crushing in its many forms. And if he can support this position, if he can affirm so strongly the negation of the negation, it is because he writes, and because this practice of poetry he understands and lives as insurgent and emancipatory. This incites us to grasp precisely that what initially renders poetry political for Christophe Tarkos is that it is an act, and that this act of language is (or at least may be) singular affirmation, demand for autonomy, form of life and of survival in hostile surroundings.

We must perhaps return swiftly to some naïve distinctions. There has been in our recent history something like a poetry engagé, that of the Resistance, committed to direct communication (simple forms, combat lyricism) with a people awaiting democracy. Before this, when surrealism had wished to articulate itself seriously in the real movement of history, it declared itself “in the service” of Revolution (without retreat, nonetheless, from the ardent necessity of transgression or formal subversion). After the war we see Paul Eluard publishing a book called Political Poems, with a preface by Aragon. The communist poet does not neglect to underline what “politics” means for Eluard, for himself, for his comrades, and the sense of the slogan “from the horizon of one to the horizon of all” (which could equally be the broad slogan for a “democratic poetry”). He does not omit Isidore Ducasse’s encouraging watchword: “poetry must take for its goal the practical truth,” interpreted as enunciating or announcing the passage of eras (a romantic thought) from utopias to that of “human efficiency.” It is patently obvious that the standard poetic ideology, from historical avant-gardes to the neo-avant-gardes of the sixties and seventies, from lyricism engagé to political poetry or the theorization of the “revolution in poetic language” consonant with the desire for Revolution, is one of “efficiency” (to reclaim Aragon’s word) for poetry, more or less immediate or oblique, more or less direct or restrained. 

Yet it is no less clear that around the eighties there was what I shall call a sequence of burgeoning euphoria (combinatorial transgression, subversion, experimentation, invention, action), thanks to varied collapses of that to which it would be anyway pointless to return. The field of contemporary poetry then reconstituted itself (as do families) around two principal poles: that of return (what I call re-poetry) to the fundamentals of a poetry restored to itself, and thus restored to the public, to the common reader, after the disfiguration and aggravation of divorce, and that endeavoring not to break with the heritage of research and adventure, recusing itself from the dogmatic stances and political illusions of the night before and the night before that. We note then the emergence of a generation of poets, published in journals such as Java, or Facial, or Quaderno, or even the Revue de littérature générale of Olivier Cadiot and Pierre Alferi, clearly experimental in orientation but also clearly apolitical, practicing criticism (that of social and/or genre conventions) via modes of ironic distance or parody and derision. Poetry or more broadly forms of critical art in effect posed particularly the question of the cultural hierarchy separating the major from the minor or “popular” modes of expression. An “eccentric essay” (as the author himself defined it) titled “Parodic Art” (published in 1996 under the name Arnaud Labelle-Rojoux) tried to describe and theoretically legitimate some of these practices of a systematic reversal of values (or of confounding registers and genres) that spread in this period of a post-avant-gardism that was a bit skeptical, or at least suspicious regarding the high seriousness of previous generations. 

It would likely not be mistaken to say that the poets of preceding generations took somewhat for granted (against divergent strategic choices regarding the logic of their practice, their modes of realization, etc.) an adherence to a principle, explicitly formulated or remaining implicit, something like an ideal of real democracy, while accepting as largely inevitable the fate of renouncing a large audience, and the much-hurled accusation of “elitism.” The poets of the generation whereof I speak, those I have just said have taken their distance (and not ordered their work according to the expectations of some given belief), found themselves to be subjects of a sort for a practical “democracy” in the sense that they actively refused to ignore the current modes of expression and mass culture (media, screens, collections of official statements, assemblage, sampling, various détournements, etc.). The great question is whether the apparent ideological “retreat,” which at first glance characterizes this body of text, indicates a neutral stance, an indifference to concerns of content (even an unspoken adherence to what they do convey), or whether to the contrary these poets subscribe to a perspective comprising a form of active “resistance” to these formats, these contents, these modes of circulation and public display, etc. These “after-writings” — after the dissolution of dogmas, after the last wave of avant-garde theorizing and sectarians, with faces both of the “ironic” and of the “serious” (collage-writing, investigative or documentary writing) — can doubtless be read as critical but no less as preserving for the reader their share of ambiguity and constitutive undecidability. 

What can be seen, in these writings “after” (and the occasional taking of certain concrete positions on social struggles or alternative movements), is a definite return of the notion of resistance. As all around us gestures of “civil disobedience” develop (from Athens to Tunis and to Cairo, from New York, Occupy Wall Street, from Tarnac to Notre Dame des Landes …) which are like mass protests in the name of democracy without quotes against the decisions or “laws” or official conditions imposed by the police and the court of “democracy,” that Rimbauldian prosopopoeia within which we are always citizens, we notice, in the regime called the poetic, or post-poetic, the fact that the imaginary of resistance continues to resist. It may be necessary here to revisit Francis Ponge’s propositions announced in a number of his “proems” from the thirties — so near us today where we see democratic elections bringing to power religious fanatics, where left governments are anxious to expel foreigners, what is basically a “democratic” progression toward municipal fascism. Ponge, rather than suggesting to his surrealist friends of the time the pseudo-“liberating” whisper (automatic writing) advocated “resistance against words,” that is to say we ought not speak the ideology that speaks us (doxa, stereotypes, clichés conveyed by the mediasphere) but contrarily to work contra-words, on contra-usage, to practice, if needed, “the art of violating [words] and the submission to them.” Such a poetic remains fresh, in the face of the “order of things,” which he qualified as “monstrous” and “sordid,” wherein he said that people kill themselves “having been ruined” by these “governments of wheeler-dealers and merchants,” the very “democratic capitalism” that I mentioned earlier. 

Resistance against words, therefore, opposes the silence of writing to the noise of words, or even unmaking and remaking the ceaseless superflux of immaterial information to recover if possible the meanings of the words, the meanings of things and situations and events. But resisting just the same images, the ceaseless flow of images, those which “occupy” our space and our eyes, screen-walls that separate us from each other and from reality. Bearing in mind that these images “constitute part” of this reality from which they also separate us. And therefore it is a matter of working with and on and against these images through superimposition, overprinting, decomposition, etc. Finally, the resistance against images means equally — and I revisit here the “position” of dislocation according to diverse variations and stances of commitment — renouncing the narcotizing magic of nationalist visions, those which nurtured and carried our imaginary political utopia. We renounce this so as to confront clearly our lot: the traversal — using for our writing the contingencies of terrain, of context, of circumstance — of the opaque thicket, that of real contradiction, conflictual and violent. This is one meaning of the phrase borrowed from an artist and installation or intermedia poet (Philippe Castellin): “Poetry isn’t a solution.” If we understand the enduring and insistent and even resistant practice of writing poetry (in the context where it has become a socially minor practice) as a critical and restricted contribution, half-blind, to the permanent invention of a democratic space, we know quite well that there is no solution, and that writing has no purpose but to intensify the questions.

This hypothesis makes sense only if we think of democratic space (the possibility of democracy) as outside of political institutions bearing the name, and if we imagine the concrete reality here and now of autonomous, self-managed “communes” where we can experiment freely with new forms of sensory experience, new forms of exchange, expression, communication, collective activity, life. Such islands of life and action, moreover of reflection and struggle, exist already. Experimental politics, at significant distance from political institutions, are or should be in principle like experimental art and poetry, by definition. It is for us to build our own cabins and the paths which connect them (these may be journals, editorial microstructures, alternative circuits of distribution), and if our cabins are destroyed, we rebuild them elsewhere without becoming discouraged.

And since I began this text with Rimbaud, I end within those quotation marks and logical revolts. The question, poetic and political, is that of words’ meanings. Those given them, or those inflicted. And that which we would like to make. It can arise from this long and “ferocious” sequence (that which develops the Rimbauldian prosopopeia) called by the poet the “logical revolts,” those of the colonized, the exploited, the displaced, the oppressed, then, and now, and everywhere.

Logical, that is to say, inescapable.

Logical as well because that names a return, a reversal, an overcoming, in language, in words, in writing, in traces.

Translated from the French by Joshua Clover.