There appears to be an anaesthetic edge to the conceptual, as the concept’s generality implies an inactuality that thwarts the presence presupposed by the here-and-now of aesthetic experience. Conversely, things that exist but cannot be encountered are nothing but pure concepts to us. As the concept of an ecosystem, for example, is not exemplified by anything you may encounter wandering through it, it escapes our aesthetic faculties entirely.
I am interested in what the engagement with pure concepts entails for the conceptuality of poetic practice in the case of the Anthropocene. Geologists propose the Anthropocene to be the current geological epoch — implying that the Holocene, the interglacial epoch outlasting the last 11,700 years of Earth history, has already been shattered by a sudden geological event called industrialized humanity, or capitalism. That humans today modify the majority of the Earth’s surface through agriculture and urbanization, move around more materials annually than all other terrestrial processes combined, with their livestock make up more than ninety-five percent of the biomass of all vertebrates, produce a climate not encountered on Earth since the Tertiary period, and likely will cause the sixth mass-extinction event in Earth history, suggests that the whole Earth is no longer a background upon which human history unfolds. Pushing the definition to its core, the Anthropocene may be called that terrestrial regimein which any possible value of any possible parameter characteristic of the Earth system as a whole as well as of its nested ecosystems and biogeochemical circles can, in principle, be brought about anthropogenically. This amounts to an absolute geological performativity of the Earth, or an absolute interiority of the Earth to a biosphere in which humanity plays a key role.
Now, of course no one has ever seen this with his or her own eyes. Unlike some strands of ecopoetry that feature human encounters with animal and plant life in settings of outdoorness, and focus on visible environmental damage, there is no outdoors in the Anthropocene, which is made up of ecosystems, populations, and flows of matter and energy — not individual nonhuman objects — while the scope of its devastations requires quantitative expertise to be gauged. If it wants to pursue a terrapoetics that is true to the Anthropocene condition, poetry has to familiarize itself with, and choose as its own habitat, the conceptual spaces, datascapes, and terrains of technoscientific knowledge that (by way of its capabilities) have brought about the current status in the first place, and are today involved in its self-reflection under the rubric of the Anthropocene concept. Such poetry would be conceptual first and foremost; note, however, that it would not have to be entirely anaesthetical: it may well draw some aesthetic traits from the diagrammatic and quantitative aesthetics of those spaces, scapes, and terrains which themselves are, of course, perceived firsthand.
I am not entirely sure what to look for here. But one may look for example at Eugene Thacker’s poem “The Subharmonic Murmur of Black Tentacular Voids” (in the eponymous chapter of his 2011 book In the Dust of this Planet) and the ways in which it lays out the ecological thresholds of bacterial life under extreme living conditions: “The amoeba Echinamoeba thermarum grows / Optimally at Topt > 50°C” — thresholds corresponding to those towards which efforts of Anthropocene governance are directed in order to construct a “safe operating space for humanity.” We need to stabilize the extremely unlikely living conditions of an artificial Holocene. Furthermore, one could read Evelyn Reilly’s Apocalypso, and the chapter “Dreamquest Malware” in particular, the reports and communications of which — “I am writing regarding our disposal procedures / especially for large containers / rigid with organic grief” — provide us with a sense of the terrestrial indoorness of the spaceship that Earth has become (Buckminster Fuller), implying the necessity of life consciously operating every aspect of its metabolism onboard. And one could analyze Juliana Spahr’s “Gentle Now, Don’t Add to Heartache” (in Well Then There Now [Black Sparrow Books, 2011]) which, in its unnatural exuberant listings of things, displays the anthropogenic taxonomic permeation of ecosystems as superseding any sense of scene and location, which exist no more in the global Anthropocene commixture of everything.
But this is not even a starting point; we will have to go further. This will be the future Conceptual poetry, which will certainly startle and skid, slide, trip and fall: because, how to imagine a conceptual that would not be general? But the Anthropocene, and the whole Earth at its core, are concepts, but not general — but singular — as there are no multiple Earths, and nothing on Earth is more concrete than the whole Earth? How can there be something conceptual in the face of the singularity of the whole Earth, where singularity signals: facticity, fate? Maybe we can think about this.
2. Johan Rockström et al., “A safe operating space for humanity,” Nature no. 461 (September 24, 2009): 472–75.
I am writing this two days past Independence Day, a national holiday that witnessed anti-imperialist rallies organized by a broad multisectoral alliance that critically involves the Philippine Left to combat bureaucrat capitalism of which expansionalist efforts by China and the US are symptoms and operations. On the days leading up to this, my Facebook newsfeed has been hijacked by much of the Filipino middle class dripping and hardening with celebration over the partnership between the Department of Transportation and Communication (DOTC) and Uber, as well as similar profiteering app-based vehicle-hailing ventures like GrabTaxi and Easy Taxi, for what this government agency views not only as a solution to present public transportation woes but a challenge to taxi operators to update their services and compete with innovative new players in the industry. Secretary Jun Abaya — head of the DOTC and pawn of the Aquino regime whose advance of neoliberal policy manifests in its defense of and insistence on an iteration of a corrupt pork barrel system that advances patronage politics characteristic of the semi-feudal haciendero class the president belongs to — has in several statements to varying news agencies expressed pride in his collusion with the private sector that monetizes the present breakdown in public transport.
The said breakdown could be ascribed to the privatization of public transport at large. Gaining the most attention in media of late has been the MRT, of whose twenty trains — all in varying stages of dilapidation, which is expected of them for carrying almost 900,000 passengers daily (that’s around 450,000 in excess of their daily maximum capacity at optimum performance of only 350,000) — only seven are in operation. The situation has been the outcome not only of private maintenance deals that have been anomalous, to say the least, but of a stand-off between complicit government officials supposedly regulating public transport and opportunistic oligarchic players who possess true control and ownership of the train lines that has made the acquisition of new trains more daunting than it should be — a labyrinth of red tape and legal one-upmanship wrought by a bureaucracy of struggle between public and private.
Not to mention that sometime between the diminishment of the number of functional trains and the struggle to acquire new ones occurred not only the derailment and shooting of a train off its elevated terminal to land onto the country’s busiest intersection below, but also the implementation of a malicious, unwarranted, and much-protested fare hike across all train lines that doubles the cost of travel for those who commute from one end terminal to another — and it bears mentioning that those who rely most on this mode of transport are minimum wage workers and casual laborers, peppered in between with a range of urban professionals from white-collar cognitariats to the salaried bourgeoisie. To say that lines just getting through the turnstiles have gone kilometric despite the discouragement posed by the increased fares is no exaggeration, and so many have come to rely on pricier alternatives just to avoid getting physically mauled in and out of the trains as well as evade the uncertainty of how long it might take them just to step inside a coach.
Of these alternatives, the buses are the more affordable option, owing to the necessity of keeping to their designated routes made sluggish by legendary Manila traffic during rush hours. They have also acquired notoriety for being tin-can perils on wheels — either spontaneously combusting on the road out of lack of maintenance by their private operators, or colliding with other vehicles from their drivers’ hustling practices necessitated by the oppressive boundary system that works by way of commissions in excess of their daily fare quota instead of regular wages. Those who can afford to evade the urban terror of highway traffic resort to cabs, notorious for their outlawed practices of rejecting passengers whose desired destinations are out of drivers’ more convenient routes as well as padding costs way over the government-approved fare matrix — all in view of meeting the quota imposed on them by a similarly exploitative boundary system in lieu of a fair wage system, which demands maximum hustling for any driver in such precarious circumstances to bring home decent earnings.
These are the conditions that have primed the landscape for the opportunism of Uber and its ilk: matters of labor whose worsening conditions are simultaneously symptomatized and compounded by privatization as a neoliberal operation of bureaucrat capitalism. What should be no more than a symptom of breakdown in public transport as an outcome of state abandonment and government neglect has been reframed by the Aquino regime in cahoots with profiteers as not even a palliative but a solution to problems they themselves have constructed for the benefit of the ruling elite. This partnership institutionalizes exploitative labor practices left unchecked due to the relegation of public transport at large to a business-minded private sector — exploitative labor practices that themselves have created the conditions propelling profiteering app-based vehicle-hailing services to prominence for the few who can afford them, exploitative labor practices not only reproduced but heightened by these same profiteering app-based vehicle-hailing services in their reliance on casual laborers whose earning a living precludes disenfranchising the majority of commuters while leeching those who have extra to spare.
How absolutely deplorable it is — if not criminal — to valorize the smartphone-enabled institutionalization of exploitation as social innovation in a milieu that finds three hundred contractual workers on strike for receiving less than minimum wage with no promise of regularization in sight being water-cannoned by hired paramilitary personnel backed by the repressive state apparatus of the police for picketing at the union-busting distillery of the country’s leading brand of rhum, and seventy-two contractual laborers making flip-flops for a manufacturing company burning to death in sweatshop conditions behind chicken-wire-sealed windows in the biggest factory fire in Philippine history — both within the same month, both stemming from the deep-seated problem of inequality. Needless to say, public transport is hardly the only field in which privatization, as the deepening and expansion of the structural problem of private property, wreaks havoc.
Workers in protest being water-cannoned from Arkibong Bayan. Image courtesy of Southern Tagalog Exposure and Pamantik-KMU.
It is in this context of flagrant privatization that appropriation in constructivist poetic practice becomes necessary, even inevitable, emphasizing the need to keep a commons intact in the same manner public services, utilities, and infrastructure must be kept intact. By constructivism here I mean Conceptualism that foregrounds the insistence on autonomy as its political edge (faktura in the featuring of the infrathin, tectonics in the defamiliarization of faktura, construction in the positing of a world that refuses the monetization/instrumentalization of tectonics), and by appropriation I mean as much a technique where composition consists of reusing a found object — be it situation or sentence, shit or shovel — as a Conceptualist ontology that is founded nevertheless on the technique.
When Douglas Huebler articulated his now-anthemic aesthetic refusal — “The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more” — it wasn’t so much to call for a halt to object-making as it was a call to conceive of art as a heuristic object that exists simultaneously with what it frames, though the latter often comes by way of the former. One could, therefore, create multiple art objects out of a single object — and not in the sense of taking a sheet of paper, folding it into a crane, then burning it to ashes, but in the sense of taking a sheet of paper, taking a sheet of paper, and taking a sheet of paper. The heurism of the art object is what makes possible John Cage authoring nothing in 4'33" in 1952, the fictitious Jacques Cégeste authoring nothing in Nudisme in Jean Cocteau’s Orphée in 1950 before Cage, José Garcia Villa authoring nothing in “The Emperor’s New Sonnet” in 1942 before Cocteau, and Fray Manuel Blanco authoring nothing in El Indio before Villa, rumors about the existence of which had been circulating by 1877.
Jose Garcia Villa’s “The Emperor’s New Sonnet.” Image courtesy of Bibliotheca Invisibilis.
This is also the principle that makes possible, decades later, the emergence of a fantasmatic and fragmentary Fernando Pessoa from Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles’s erasure of Rene O. Villanueva’s memoiristic essays in his work Pesoa; the emergence of choreography in documentary bookmaking from Donna Miranda’s durational revision of John Cage’s lecture on silence in her work I have nothing to dance and I am dancing it; the emergence of poetry from Oliver Ortega’s gradual substitution of exhibition notes with top ten trending searches in 2014 in his work Spam; the emergence of an assemblage from Conchitina Cruz’s anthology of lists by Villa in the first volume of her ongoing work The Uncritical Villa; the emergence of comics posed as soliloquy from Josel Nicolas’s transcription of exchanges in panels of chat boxes with sexbots luring him to adult websites in his work Wooty Baby; and the emergence of an unveiling from the Pedantic Pedestrians’ detournement of Senate Bill No. 2758, or the “Artist’s Welfare Protection and Information Act of 2015,” authored by Senator Grace Poe, which institutionalizes the patronage politics on which the artworld subsists in the face of worsening labor conditions at large and the general lack of access to public services such as healthcare in their work PROVIDING PROTECTION / PROVIDING PURPOSE. It bears mentioning that all these works are, if not freely downloadable or readable online, self-published without profit or published by small presses that operate at a loss.
Conchita Cruz’s The Uncritical Villa and Josel Nicolas’s Wooty Baby. Image courtesy of Angelo Suárez.
The same principle also makes possible the emergence of criticism in Adam David’s Hi Ma’am Sir, and one of its resultant collections of collages, It will be the same but not quite the same. The former, described as an online randomizer that takes copyrighted excerpts from the flash fiction anthology Fast Food Fiction Delivery from Anvil Publishing, had been the center of a heated discussion (that is, if a clash between echo chambers, one with more [financial] power and [institutional] influence than the other — one party on the side of enriching literary history and another on the side of protecting of private property — with opportunistic instances of fence-sitting marauding as nuanced participation scattered in between, could pass for discussion) that was catapulted to a measure of public attention by a request signed by lawyers sent David’s way, mentioning the threat of potential legal action for copyright infringement as an offense that could result in jail time and an exorbitant fee, to take down the site within a designated time span; the latter had been a downloadable .pdf gathering numerous outcomes of the randomizer — which anybody could replicate, in a sense, using the same source text from himaamsir.blogspot.com. In effect, anybody could author such a randomized collection, provided they use the construct authored by David, with It will be the same but not quite the same as the first and only collection to have been publicly declared authored (unsurprisingly) by David himself.
Both works were extensions of, according to the notice on David’s blog after taking them down, “a microreview focusing on what I perceive to be the anthology’s lack of an acute curatorial framework. HMS was the second part of this critical response. It was meant to demonstrate what I think is a flattening of aesthetics, politics, language, and form in contemporary English-language short story writing in the Philippines.” By authoring an electronic platform through which he had authored a collection of collages of randomized fragments which anybody else could also generate and author, David was, without question, guilty of creating a platform that called attention to a split in Fast Food Fiction Delivery that might as well as have been in any textual corpus — its status as an object, and its capacity to be reframed, heuristically, springing directly from its object status, into a new work even while keeping the originary object as source text intact. For in Conceptual art, it is art itself that is the concept.
Introduction to Adam David’s It will be the same/but not quite the same. Image courtesy of Angelo Suárez.
That the appropriative core of Conceptual practice features that the found object can be reused without any diminishment in its object status towards the production of another art object constitutes its resistance. Conceptual practice not so much reflects as directly enacts the making accessible of what it would make no sense to keep inaccessible — from knowledge and information to medical assistance and sustainable energy. To foreground appropriative resistance in Conceptualism makes Conceptualism constructivist, energized by the same utopian drive that animates the fight against privatization in the specific and bureaucrat capitalism in general.
1. Adam David, thirty minutes or less (blog), April 19, 2015.
On canon, Kenneth Goldsmith, and reading
I pitched this piece before Kenneth Goldsmith’s March 2015 performance at Brown University, and I wrote the interlinking reflections that follow the first section right after Goldsmith’s performance, so the progression of my thinking within this reflection is contorted and strange, especially now that I’m writing this preface months later. My piece feels a bit out of time, and while the intention of its content holds true, the reference points and ongoing discourse around the politics of Conceptualism (for example, reactions and performances made in spring and summer 2015 by Vanessa Place, Ron Silliman, and other poets and thinkers) make portions of it feel a bit outdated. From the outset, even before issues of race and appropriation set afire the poetry community, my intention was to discuss how canons are framed in deeply exclusionary ways, even within some of the portions of the canon that seem settled. I tend to think such exclusionary practices are just reinscribed across spaces — people seem to prefer there to be a telos in which a handful of contemporary writers “descend” from another handful of writers, all of whom look, and think, and sex, relatively the same. To be blunt: it is a bad way of looking at the world.
My initial intention with this reflection was to approach a transhistorical and transnational reading of a handful of canonical poets as a subversively amateur practice in order to intimate how the same structures of exclusion that reify a handful of white, heterosexual poets to privileged positions within Conceptual poetry are extant across temporal and national borders even within some of the more seemingly formed and settled historical sites of canonicity, sites that themselves can often be expanded via comparative lenses and contemporary theory. The aesthetic preferences that prop up a blank, white, able-bodied, heterosexual version of Conceptual poetry overlap, for instance, with the aesthetic preferences that exclude Richard Crashaw from the canon for being too femme, too excessive, too foreign. T. S. Eliot described Crashaw’s poetry: “Subtract from Donne the powerful intellect, substitute a feminine for a strongly masculine nature, posit a devotional temperament rather than a theological mind, and add the influence of Italian and Spanish literature … and you have Crashaw.” Given the dominant Anglo-American aesthetic, it’s no surprise that until 2013 there hadn’t been a critical edition of Crashaw’s poetry published in over forty years. Aesthetically queer, femme, excessive, foreign: erased.
To turn this toward the personal (because maybe the personal is still political): while a young, tender, and impressionable student in MFA school, I included an epigraph from a Rilke poem at the top of one of my own poems, and a doctoral student there looked at my poem and said, “Rilke, really? That’s sentimental rubbish.” A dull, offhand comment, but I respected this person, and his comment became a kind of strange, worm-like thing in my brain that bothered me for months. I deleted the epigraph. I read Rilke with more critical-tinted glasses. I pushed Rilke away from me. Why? Why did I listen to this person? How strange that while thinking about Conceptual poetry now I stumbled across a scholar who described the contemporary critical discourse surrounding Rilke in these terms:
One can remark that the critical discourse on Rilke runs to the homophobic without oneself attributing homosexuality to the poet. Instead, the point is that the professional stricture that readers should not get too personally stimulated by the caress of this seductive voice is structurally like, and probably is, prophylaxis against too-great intimacy with the sissy poet.
What is implied in intimacy? What should we be intimate with? Within such structures as the ones that exclude Crashaw and contain Rilke, to be called serious, to be allowed rigor easily, is to be bound inside an immunological border that elevates a handful of poets who are easily incorporated into white, cis, heterosexual, privileged, and able-bodied positions. Even these poets so seemingly canonical get cut out, excised. Other bodies need not apply — or, rather, there is no application process: there is a self-reproducing canonicity-machine reinforced by certain aesthetic proclivities and institutions written into those aesthetic proclivities. There are efforts at tokenistic inclusion, but the center rarely shifts; the world, the body of literature framed as being important to being in the world, rarely refigures itself deeply and inextricably. The question is: how can one change disciplinary and institutional spaces in order to make them more inclusive? What is being included on syllabuses? What theory is being read? How are you talking about the object in front of you? These spaces and canons are not going to disappear in a puff of smoke, but we can question what we’re including, and how we’re looking at it. In a way, this feels like a regressive suggestion of a return to warring over what should be included and excluded from the canon — but it feels clear to me from my everyday interactions within graduate school and within the wider poetry community, that we need to keep returning to these discussions within the institutional spaces we occupy. We need to look again at syllabi, at reading series, at journals, at conferences, at hiring practices, at the very lenses we use to approach texts in order to ask: “what is being left out?” Why has the center of this discourse settled here? What can I do as a student, teacher, writer, person, activist in order to make this better, to make it more inclusive? Such work is inescapable even when one sits down with metaphysical poets to pray to some dirty and erotic version of the religious, even as one is abstractly trying to navigate the relationship between the spiritual and the profane.
Against Conceptualism as a center
My initial intention was to provide a space strangely out-of-time and out-of-contemporary-poetry to think about how pervasive all of this is, but my initial intention was framed before Kenneth Goldsmith’s performance “The Body of Michael Brown,” before what some people considered the center of contemporary “Conceptual poetry” collapsed on itself, became nothing more than an echo that I hardly remember as much more than an empty space, an opening to be left for a multiplicity of poets. I take a bit of joy in this breakdown, and I want to caution against an attempt to recuperate certain writing practices under the singular banner of Conceptual poetry. I don’t think, nor do I think anyone should think, intertextuality, erasure, pastiche, performance, docupoetics, neobaroque poetics, ecopoetics, ethnopoetics, experimental lyricism, and so on, are practices that need to be included explicitly under the banner of “Conceptual poetry.” At best, Conceptual poetry is just one practice amid these other practices, and that’s fine, and that shouldn’t even be the center of our concerns because there are structures of exclusion that are much more insidious, of much greater import, than the mode or style a text was made in. And I ask quite simply to Conceptual poetry: what are you really adding to Warhol, and why won’t you let him have his femme shoes, male bodies, blowjobs, and erotics? Better yet, why are you even trying to add to Warhol? What do you have to say about systemic violence, systemic death? What do you wonder about as bodies around you are dying and you are surviving? I hope, for all our sakes, it’s not just the reproduction and representation of text.
Tentative closing thoughts
Proximally and for the most part, unless explicitly poked, poked the way I felt poked by Kenneth Goldsmith’s performance, I’m not a polemical person. I’m too bad at my own life, at being in the world myself, at coping with my three courses and teaching and my desire to be engaged in local politics. So, instead of giving you an epiphany, I just want to ask you, reader, to pressure your reading practices and the reading practices of the communities you occupy, because reading is a demanding practice that can help you find a way to be in our shared, complex, violent, political given. Seek out books that can provide you with an ethics in this sea of carnophallologocentric violence that is bound into all of the light bouncing off of all of the material that is entering your wounds, your eyes. And maybe your reading practices are even better than mine; in fact, I hope they are, and I hope you’re asking others to read different things too as an act of love, and that you’re loving those people so much that you help them push that reading into change at the site of politics, and at the site of the institution, and at the site of all that is dying outside of the text. This world, this world and the things we read within it, will be all the better for it; it will let us see how we might survive.
2. For a detailed description of the critical reception of Crashaw’s poetry see the introduction to Richard Crashaw, The English Poems of Richard Crashaw,ed. Richard Rambuss (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).
4. Kenneth Goldsmith, “The Body of Michael Brown” (reading, Interrupt3: A Discussion Forum and Studio for New Forms of Language Art, The Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, Brown University, Providence, RI, March 13, 2015).
5. I was asked to respond to Goldsmith’s performance “The Body of Michael Brown” on the last day of Interrupt3. A version of this response titled “The (Dis)Embodied Voice” is available online at The Offing with an introduction by Michael D. Snediker. The short response was originally performed using a feminine electronic voice in a form of drag.
I’M A REAL ARTIST
I’M A REAL MAMMAL
I’M A REAL SON
I’M A REAL AMERICAN
I’M A REAL HOMOSEXUAL
I’M A REAL BROTHER
I’M A REAL HOMINID
I’M A REAL CREATOR
I’M A REAL THIRTY-YEAR-OLD
I’M A REAL FRENCH
I’M A REAL UNCLE
I’M A REAL COOK
I’M A REAL MASTURBATOR
I’M A REAL DESCENDANT
I’M A REAL PRACTITIONER
I’M A REAL READER
I’M A REAL POET
I’M A REAL WORKER
I’M A REAL SLEEPER
I’M A REAL LOVER
I’M A REAL OMNIVORE
I’M A REAL PLAYER
I’M A REAL COUSIN
I’M A REAL EMPLOYEE
I’M A REAL STUDENT
I’M A REAL PISSER
I’M A REAL STEP-SON
I’M A REAL RESEARCHER
I’M A REAL NEPHEW
I’M A REAL DREAMER
I’M A REAL WINE DRINKER
I’M A REAL BIKER
I’M A REAL NON-DRIVER
I’M A REAL MYSTIC
I’M A REAL PEDESTRIAN
I’M A REAL NON-SMOKER
I’M A REAL WHITE MAN
I’M A REAL PRIVILEGED PERSON
I’M A REAL COMPUTER USER
I’M A REAL DIRECTOR
I’M A REAL SEDENTARY MAN
I’M A REAL ADULT
I’M A REAL LOVER
I’M A REAL FELLATOR
I’M A REAL QUÉBÉCOIS
I’M A REAL SWALLOWER
I’M A REAL SON-IN-LAW
I’M A REAL INSOMNIAC
I’M A REAL DRINKER
I’M A REAL VOYEUR
I’M A REAL VIDEOGRAPHER
I’M A REAL LITTLE SON
I’M A REAL SPENDER
I’M A REAL COLLECTOR
I’M A REAL CATHOLIC
I’M A REAL MAN
I’M A REAL ANIMAL
I’M A REAL VISITOR
I’M A REAL HEIR
I’M A REAL OBSERVER
I’M A REAL STEP-BROTHER
I’M A REAL WESTERNER
I’M A REAL SHITTER
I’M A REAL TOURIST
I’M A REAL SPITTER
I’M A REAL LIVING
I’M A REAL LITTLE NEPHEW
I’M A REAL SLOBBERER
I’M A REAL MONTREALER
I’M A REAL HOMO SAPIENS
I’M A REAL FUCKED
I’M A REAL SUPPORTER
I’M A REAL FUCKER
I’M A REAL CONTINENTAL
I’M A REAL FEMINIST
I’M A REAL BELIEVER
I’M A REAL LISTENER
I’M A REAL BOURGEOIS
I’M A REAL BUYER
I’M A REAL PILGRIM
I’M A REAL ISLANDER
I’M A REAL SPEAKER
I’M A REAL SCREWER
I’M A REAL SAVER
I’M A REAL CLEANER
I’M A REAL ASSISTANT
I’M A REAL PERFORMER
I’M A REAL ESSAYIST
I’M A REAL BORROWER
I’M A REAL PAYER
I’M A REAL FAN
I’M A REAL PLAYER
I’M A REAL SPEAKER
I’M A REAL CONSUMER
I’M A REAL MOVIE BUFF
I’M A REAL PARISHIONER
I’M A REAL EATER
I’M A REAL PAPIST
I’M A REAL SUBJECT
I’M A REAL SCHOLAR
I’M A REAL TAXPAYER
I’M A REAL CUSTOMER
I’M A REAL FRIEND
I’M A REAL TENANT
I’M A REAL SPECTATOR
I’M A REAL LEFTIST
I’M A REAL CITIZEN
I’M A REAL THINKER
I’M A REAL UNKNOWN
I’M A REAL CHILD
I’M A REAL MORTAL
I’M A REAL EARTHLING
I’M A REAL TRAVELER
I’M A REAL SINNER
I’M A REAL JOKER
I’M A REAL DESPERATE
I’M A REAL LUNATIC
I’M A REAL MESS
I’M A REAL PLAGIARIST
I’M A REAL ARTIST
“I’M A REAL ARTIST (JE SUIS UN VÉRITABLE ARTISTE)” was first published in May 2012 in French by No Press.
CODA: In 1972, the conceptual artist Keith Arnatt was photographed as a sandwich man, holding a placard which read “I’M A REAL ARTIST” to create his Trouser-Word Piece. This photograph was accompanied by a philosophical text that questioned the term “real.” However, Arnatt’s piece remained ambiguous: Was it simply tautological (an artist says that he is an artist within a work of art …), or was it ironic? Forty years after the creation of Trouser-Word Piece and in a similar spirit, my poem “I’M A REAL ARTIST (JE SUIS UN VÉRITABLE ARTISTE)” questions the possibility of having a “real”/stable identity.
A way to begin is finding a way to begin without. Writing with brown
outs and without internet on this island is to begin without access to
the etymology of the word begin. On this island you learn to live off
scraps washed up from where. The word begin is made of scraps
washed up on fishermen’s shore. The words are plastic post
apocalyptic bits: a pink child’s wallet, soda bottle wrappers, Shoe
Mart shopping bags. The scrap collector fisherman was bent over
picking through whatever could support his life and house. Things
around here begin like this — salvaging second and third things from
an unknowable life before.
When the Spaniards came, they brought cocks. They trained native
islanders to train the cocks to fight. They brought money, Santo Niño,
cholera, and their language of science that could not be translated into
native tongues. They brought a brain, a globe, and a golden future of
extraction with a pope that would keep returning for his knuckles to
be kissed by a girl who asks “why does god allow so much
prostitution in my country?”
The salty air eats away at things from before, mostly metal: tricycle
jeepneys, motorbikes, window frames, sinks, shower faucets, light
fixtures, Spam cans, pambot motors. Decay and unfinished concrete
structures appear “site-specific,” a tropical minimalist afterthought in
the context of privileged art. This unfinished building will remain
outside, thousands of miles outside of Noah Purifoy, unlocatable,
unnamable, unarchivable, unremembered, and therefore, free.
In Olango everyone and everything is hashtagless. Crab and fish
variants circulate in the wider sphere of ghostly friends and followers.
Simulacra here is useless. Everyone might be related somehow. There
are only two different kinds of beer, San Miguel and Red Horse.
There are several videoke machines and American lyrics housed in a
binder filled with individual plastic sheets to keep the fantasy clean.
Just before someone wants to become Mariah Carey, cocks crow
biblically like everyone is Peter in denial of their Lord. So deep in my
day dream but its such a sweet sweet fantasy baby.
If a life might begin with/through/because of romance (as a genre),
does it ultimately begin with empire? As visitors we witness a
succession of beginnings that depends on continuous replenishment
and repair. There is no single solution for how to build a home
resistant to salt, typhoons, and earthquakes. Like romance, there is no
single solution for how to buy and sell imaginary love. Can you
imagine a Danielle Steel narrative taking place in a matriarchal post-
apocaplytic minarchy littered with plastics, coconut trees, and a
language with no word for kitsch?
To begin to exist to others you have to create yourself to receive the
false shine of information, however true. First and last name. Email or
mobile number. New password. Birthday. Female or Male. Sign up. I
drew the internet on the sand, bottle caps for log-in buttons, starfish to
like and share. Crabs crawled out of the screen, water a natural mode
of erasure. Of course this never happened but it’s like so easy to do.
At the height of night, something circles outside of time, dogs and
cocks screaming. Wind the shape of angry wind. There must be
another way of putting it, not exactly bolo knives. You leave the
bathroom light on so the ghosts won’t come to wake you. At least
one’s already there in the room but you pretend you’re better than it.
There’s some kind of telephone in your chest and you call on the
Virgin Mary who might as well be a fair skinned Maria Clara, a
whitening bleach soap commercial, but definitely not a barrio
girlfriend, to come help you. When she doesn’t come, you switch
back and forth between the triangulation of benevolent protectors:
US, Spanish, and pre-colonial gods. Japanese gods didn’t penetrate
hard enough to make you call on them. Which one will come? Which
one will stay? Only sleep can begin to save you.
The screen was small enough to imagine actually being here. There
were no photos of this island, only a nipa hut deep in Surigao del Sur
surrounded by unrecognizable hues of green. On this mangrove
beach, there’s a white raft that could become a façade of a house.
Local children play house on it. Who knows what they imagine. But
without façades, in what direction would paranoia go? Would it go
back home or to a grave? Between the screen and raft is a kind of
heterotopia — not entirely elsewhere nor here too.
A village shares a portable videoke machine. You must slip pesos into
the coin slot to turn it on. You must pay to partake in a journey of
culturally specific repetition and mimicry. No one can tell you which
song to sing, only you can choose which one to lend yourself to. Like
your Filipino father, you give yourself over to a distant yet present
empire: Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, The Beatles. (Mimi)cry is also
an intimate relation to an object, one step removed from becoming
that object. This is why impersonators are so powerful; they get to
marvel in the space between relation and becoming. Their becoming
is continuous and meant to never be fulfilled which is why the
machine is full of money.
Press 0 to speak to a customer service agent. You are caller number 2,
therefore, forced to get lost in Für Elise. As you look beyond the half
open window slats, the stupid notes carry you into a hallucination of
bleach white wigs copy and pasted over barrio kids running around a
mangrove. Someone with a neutral accent politely asks what your
technical problem is. You begin to forget what the problem was. Was
it about data roaming on a tropical suburban tourist island, was it
about data charges for photo uploads on instagram? You begin to hear
the neutral accent of millions of voices spread across a thousand call
centers in the Philippines. In trying to remember why you called in
the first place, the neutral accent asks how they can assist you. You
begin to sense that neutrality is a polite way of meaning assimilation.
The question of why anyone would want to sound like you ultimately
points toward a skill set, therefore, a wage. That someone might need
to sound like you is merely a means of survival.
Here there are no communication machines no “assist relations”
between family and friends but there’s a sari sari store filled with
decades old computers and television sets. Media relics undergo slow
and continuous makeovers to unknown ends. Cognitive enslavement
hasn’t begun. Reflected from the dim and lifeless screens are young
men hammering local trees into boats and those boats will have blue
painted windows to imitate a reflection of the sky or sea.
What happens to the code of beheadings or dick pics that have been
scrubbed into nothing? Does it disappear forever or take up space in
the mind of content moderators? Here is one kind of emotional labor.
Here is a different kind of erasure. Human invisibility in the
Philippines is a requisite for the production and flow of palatable
images on US screens. Eat your green beans, it’s good for you. Finish
your rice, it’s a sin to waste food.
What they brought was a holy child or infant. After all, a child or
infant could mean no harm. The twelve inch figure from Belgium was
code for empire; the child armed in a velvet robe holding a gold globe
in its left hand and right hand raised in benediction as if to say “you
can be saved by the monarchy if you let us destroy you.” The tiny
figure just kept multiplying from Prague and reached the Visayas.
Just imagine Humaway, after being crowned queen, receiving this
most sacred code meant to annihilate; a ticking bomb that would keep
exploding for the next several hundred years in the form of feast days
or quietly in the mind.
They went to an underground river tour in Palawan to feel some finite
darkness inside the earth. The feeling could be rented for 45 minutes
with strangers. As the plastic orange canoe moved further into
absolute darkness, the remnants of capitalism stayed bright outside.
The underpaid tour guide yelled from the back of the canoe and
pointed out concrete projections as a way of communicating with the
tourists; the ability to be relatable as a banana leaf motif of emotional
labor. Stalactites and guano accumulated into bratty amorphous
figures that resembled a food market, cathedral, movie star, hot dogs,
Pegasus. Regardless of how far into the darkness they went, an
audience remained inside them, wondering if they got their money’s
worth. When they returned to their Airbnb, they read philosophy and
watched The Butler and Julia & Julie from the dvd library. “The
thinking mind […] is that work which produces reality, that is to say
work as projection” summed up the underground river perfectly.
Like any beautiful self-similar pattern, the young Filipina held hands
with a much older white man. For generations of Spanish and
American empire, their relationship resembled a Koch snowflake.
There’s no snow in the Philippines but infinite iterations of this type
of always oppressive relationship rich with gray areas.
Note: The complete document from which this piece is taken is a collaboration with Ben Segal forthcoming from Urgeruge Books. Photos taken in Cebu, Philippines, by Feliz Lucia Molina.