Spectral rescue

On Jeff Derkson and Louis Cabri

Note: above, a video of Louis Cabri giving a talk, coauthored by Jeff Derksen, at Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries, a conference held at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, November 4–6, 2014. Tyrus Miller responds to the talk in the essay that follows. 


In “Immanence and Affect in Post-Avantgardism: Imagining the Social Subject,” Jeff Derksen and Louis Cabri argue that the contemporary social forms through which “the revolutionary imperative” (Neil Smith) expresses itself compel avant-garde poetry to rethink its historically inherited modes of address, formal organization, and function. Early in the twentieth century the avant-garde had tapped the effervescent energies of social revolution as the driver of aesthetic innovation, and returned back to the social world — in a whirlwind of new sounds, images, and words — its marvelous surplus of utopian impulses and ideals. But this virtuous circle of artistic avant-gardism and revolution was accompanied by its vicious shadow: the tempting convergence of the organization of aesthetic avant-gardism with the authoritarian forms of the revolutionary vanguard party and the consolidating revolutionary state, and the progressive narrowing in both of the aperture of freedom they had originally intended to open in the world. “The idea of an intellectual vanguard does not sit at all well in the poetry world of today,” note Derksen and Cabri. They go on to attribute this uneasy status to the cunning dialectic of the avant-garde I have sketched above, the undeniable imbrication within avant-garde expressions — in their organizational as well as formal characteristics — of emancipatory intentions with a compulsive mimicry of the gestures of political authority and domination. 

They suggest breaking this self-manacling through a post-avant-gardist “spectral rescue” of avant-garde emancipatory poetics. They would reorient poetry that employs techniques from the historical avant-gardes — such as the homophonic translations of Vancouver-based poet Catriona Strang — away from the representation of received collective identities and towards the adumbration of new, fluctuating, emergent collective forms not readily subordinated to the powers of representative party and state. In particular, they look to “populism,” as formulated by the political theorist Ernesto Laclau, as possessing an organizational and signifying logic (“populist reason”) on the political plane that might be understood as homologous to the formal and rhetorical dimensions of contemporary post-avant-garde writing. Summarily, Laclau sees populism as a paradoxical generalization of heterogeneous demands that cannot be met by the reigning political and social system; though irreducible to a common “cause” or “last instance,” under particular circumstances these excluded demands can become loosely enchained to form a kind of ragged text that enunciates a “People,” its suffering and resistance, its defeats and victories. The “People,” however, is not so much a social subject whose saga expressively flows from its inner essence (for instance, a nation); nor even is it the epic tale of recapture of its alienated essence, the arduous adventure of relearning an inner truth long ago dispossessed by a hostile master (the Marxian working class coming to class consciousness). Rather, it appears as an experimental montage of discrepant social fragments that composes, willy-nilly, a serial text for which the “People” might eventually serve as its entitling caption. In turn, Derksen and Cabri speculatively venture, might we not allow avant-garde techniques of montage and linguistic experimentation to resonate with populist reason’s yoking of heterogeneous collective actions, meanings, agencies, and motivations, for a contemporary repurposing of the avant-garde’s historically deflected utopian politics?

I am sympathetic to this argument, and elsewhere, in a different context, I utilized Laclau’s “populist reason” to reframe Lukács’s antimodernist defense of realism in the novel. “Not only,” I argue, “for the realist novel, but also for a much vaster span of novels this logic of populism, this problem of constituting ‘the people,’ would be at stake. Lukács’s focus on the novel, including the realist novel, remains timely, insofar as the logic of populism increasingly defines the political and cultural horizon of our day. What is no longer timely, however, is his exclusive valorization of realism in the articulation of populist reason.”[1] Derksen and Cabri boldly extend this argument, going well beyond the modernist and postmodernist montage narrative I had in mind, into the far reaches of avant-gardistic “shiftology,” zaum, and linguistic reconstellation. Yet their argument does not just provide an interpretive frame for contemporary post–avant-garde practices, despite their manifest concern with the ways in which revolutionary politics might be remade under the pressures of globalization, neoliberalism, and planetary technologies of computation and communication. It also performs, implicitly, a “spectral rescue” on the avant-garde of the past, allowing us to read in it, in shades, the not-yet of our particular community to come: 

Whorlen of the worldwide will,
the otheren of graygrow time,
stillfallen blanketing the field —
the selven that are names of mine.[2


1. Tyrus Miller, ed. and trans., “Editor’s Introduction: The Phantom of Liberty: György Lukács and the Culture of ‘People’s Democracy,’” in The Culture of People’s Democracy: Hungarian Essays on Literature, Art, and Democratic Transition, 1945–1948 (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2013), xxxvi.

2. Collected Works of Velimir Khlebnikov: Letters and Theoretical Writings, trans. Paul Schmidt, ed. Charlotte Douglas (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1987).

mantra of no return

a dialogue with Lee Maracle's keynote address

Note: above, a video of Lee Maracle giving a talk at Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries, a conference held at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, November 4–6, 2014. Kaie Kellough’s response to the talk appears below. 



too much has been made of origins
                                              all origins are arbitrary
too much has been made of others                       
                                              all others are arbitrary
too much has been made of outbreaks                             
                                              all outbreaks are arbitrary
too much has been made of outcomes                              
                                              all outcomes are arbitrary
too much has been made of outfits                                               
                                              all outfits are arbitrary
too much has been made of outlets                                   
                                              all outlets are arbitrary
too much has been made of outlines                                 
                                              all outlines are arbitrary
too much has been made of outlooks                                
                                              all outlooks are arbitrary

people arrived from portugal. people arrived from africa. people arrived from india. people arrived from england. people arrived from china. people predated arrival. people arrived from predation. people were arrayed. people populated. whips patterned rays into people. people arose. people rayed outward to toronto, montréal. people raided people. people penned the past. people roved over on planes. people talked over people. people rented places. people planted people in people. people raided plantations. people prayed. people refried. people died and didn’t get second glances. people won scholarships and vanished. people lived atop people. people represented people. people brain-drained. people studied for the common entrance. people paraded to new york, chicago, boston, miami, los angeles. people stumbled and tranced. people took two steps backward. people simmered and boiled over. people plantain. people orphan. people sugarcane. people stole knowing. people plantation. people horizon. people done run from people. people arrived not knowing their patterns. people arrived riven, alone in the world. people made their way from time. people hailed from climes. people fanned their spreading. people cleaved unto people. people writhed over/under people. people arrived over/under people.      


the rainforest is a mixing board with infinite inputs and infinite outputs. holes and plugs. male/female. slithering, electric water. liana cables. bloodline is a wire entering. plugging arrival in. current will be routed through the circuit. you are an overproof, alcoholic signal. outputs reach to the distillery at the airport that spills you back across the world. the wires crisscross and multiply. male, female, splitters, turn the dial on the mixing board, increase the gain. we will be hovering in the mid-range. boost the lower end, swell the lower end, theorize the lower end, occupy the lower end, the 99%, the undertone, the southern hemisphere.

too much has been made of outputs                                 
                                              all outputs are arbitrary
too much has been made of outsiders                              
                                              all outsiders are arbitrary
too much has been made of ovens
                                              all ovens are arbitrary
too much has been made of owls
                                              all owls are arbitrary
too much has been made of owners
                                              all owners are arbitrary
too much has been made of ownerships
                                              all ownerships are arbitrary
too much has been made of oxygens
                                              all oxygens are arbitrary
too much has been made of ozones
                                              all ozones are arbitrary

a body, a gathering of waters, a continental jut. i near who parents? foreign, afar, not nobody. could be anybody. know my privilege, and is this grandparents? i know where they home, can fingerprint from immigrant map. guyana is the elsewhere, on whom i have never landed. everything guyana may me unwritten, may be. south of the equator, family hemispheres. i knew my great-grandmother, and only knew stories of my great-grand. master narratives, i don’t know any further, grand, mother, slave, or father. i know 2.5 generations, and? i have glimpsed the blistered, creased photographic evidence. fermented sugar has spooked the oral history. speech distilled in my grandfather. in guyana the bloodvines line-out, windward, leeward, radiate, trade routes across a fingerprint. in guyana whorl. guyana the pool,  last sojourn of the motile, last truth, don’t know, before setting foot into space. walking on the moon. upside down. spinning, atomizing, becoming no return. sometimes blood spoils when i try to tongue my lines. i can’t tell, can only vernacular contour, toil, circumnavigate anonymous drift, swarm the dark. delineated back to guyana, there is arbitrary origin. i could been anyone, searching backward into no return.    

with thanks to margaret christakos for editorial assistance.

Angel's Basic School

d'bi.young anitafrika and black queer divinity

Note: above, a video of d’bi.young anitafrika giving a talk at Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries, a conference held at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, November 4–6, 2014. Alexis Pauline Gumbs responds to the talk in the essay that follows.


In the beginning there was the word. And the word was “she,” born from her mother like so many other public prayers. 

d’bi.young anitafrika, daughter of foundational dub poet and scholar Anita Stewart, stands at a lectern that transforms into a pulpit by the first move of her hands (Mac laptop not nearly withstanding). At the same time that anitafrika offers a critique of the repressed lust in the life of the common homosexually active and actively homophobic preacher, she creates a new congregation. She populates the room with young queer beings like her adolescent self, rich with longing and questions, but ignored, when not directly attacked by the figure at the pulpit. anitafrika’s congregation moves out of the church, walks all through the streets, makes out with other little girls at Angel’s Basic School, and bears the internal and external heat of the sun without social recognition, until now. There is transubstantiation here.

Standing, chest open in a conference room, anitafrika has traveled home to Kingston and stolen back her local pulpit into cosmic significance. And then she shifts from her dub conjure voice into an explanatory tone. Describing her own journey from Angel’s Basic School (where the angelic work was the work of girls touching each other and knowing themselves) to this moment of annunciation, weeks after the launch of the the Watah School in the distillery district of Toronto, anitafrika lets us know she has effectively reclaimed pedagogical and spiritual space. This is a pilgrimage from a spiritually violent and homophobic church to a sacred performance space where intersectionally oppressed young people speak their truth and heal each other. From a basic school where girls find each other secretly to a performance incubator where artists use anitafrika’s decade-tested Sorplusi method to learn themselves and their purpose in the context of community and commitment. 

Listening to d’bi.young anitafrika describe the guiding principles of her method (self-knowledge, orality, rhythm, political content and context, language, urgency, sacredness, and integrity), I applaud her for the work of what she calls “redefining performance education.” She honors the elders in her Toronto community of artists of color and her mother’s distillation of the four elements of dub poetry (nation language, music, politics and performance) for allowing her to create a process that empowers artists from multiple oppressed communities. Rejecting an approach that would privilege inclusion in an existing white-dominated theater world, Watah encourages artists to take the stage as themselves. And due to the practice of self-reflection they engage as they work through the questions associated with each of the eight elements of the Sorplusi method, they emerge more clearly in relationship to their own experiences, their purpose on the planet, their role in their communities than they ever could have imagined was permissible or possible.

What would happen if every preacher on every pulpit engaged in equally rigorous self-reflection, dared themselves to risk self-knowledge, and accounted for their impact on their communities? Could homophobia, sexism, internalized racism, even capitalism survive the implementation of the Sorplusi method by the weekly performers on the pulpits of the world? I think of the work of queer black community-accountable preachers like Marvin K. White, who ministers at GLIDE Church and leads poetry workshops on moving trains. I think of Sangodare Julia Roxanne Wallace, who creates sermons in the Southern black Baptist tradition about an infinite inclusive god informed by the tenets of black feminism, afrofuturism, and soul music. anitafrika’s work highlights spiritual conjure work as the legacy that queer black diasporic artists inherit and activate. This is sacred work. It makes another world possible. 

“I will close with a poem,” anitafrika informs the audience. And as she moves away from the lectern into the realm of the gathered chairs to enact “blood.claat,” one of her best-known poems, I can finally see the actual congregation. There are some visibly black people in the front row, leaning forward, and then rows and rows of white people, sometimes shifting nervously in their seats as anitafrika walks up to them and looks them directly in the eye, speaking of the intimacy and power of menstrual blood and the creative power of black women. She names goddesses and remedies and calls multitudes of feminine warriors into the space with her voice. And I remember at this moment, years after this performance, Watah has recently launched another crowd-fund campaign to finance its space after citing racism in its rejection from several important grants that it had depended on for operating costs. I wonder about the disconnect between arts funding and self-reflection. Between sacredness, urgency, and the short attention spans of tokenizing allies. Between the creative power of menstrual cycles and the limitations of funding cycles. 

With that specific performance of “blood.claat” d’bi.young anitafrika sought to enact a chosen creative blood relationship in the pale and climate-controlled space of the conference room. Did it work? I can see from the video that the people are moved. At the moment of this writing the fundraiser is about halfway to its goal. And the sustainability of spaces like Watah beyond their novelty will let us know when the church finally says, AWOMAN, ASHE, so be it, so it is.  

Social media, for social justice

On Erin Wunker's 'Technological Subjects'

Note: above, a video of Erin Wunker giving a talk at Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries, a conference held at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, November 4–6, 2014. Lori Emerson responds to Wunker’s talk in the essay that follows. 


The moment I sat down to write this response to Erin Wunker’s talk “Technological Subjects: Framing McLuhan in the Twenty-First Century” delivered at the November 2014 Avant Canada conference, I caught myself beginning by half-consciously composing tweets instead of carefully crafted, scholarly sentences: “wishes she could time travel back to nov. ’14 as she reads @erinwunker’s provocative piece on McLuhan & social media.” No, no … how about “grateful for the chance to time-travel back to nov. ’14 — watching & responding to @erinkwunker’s smart talk on McLuhan.” And so on. The point is partly that, precisely as Wunker points out in her talk, “technologies create our relating and they do so quickly and profoundly,” and we are all perpetually in the midst of shaping and being shaped by digital media writing technologies. The point is also that we’re now living through a strange, accelerated, emergent, and flexible kind of temporality, one that makes it possible for me to watch videos of conference talks from over a year ago and feel as if I were in fact able to attend this conference I yearned to go to; to feel as if I were a respondent for one of the papers, and even to write a response to a paper that is, first, a response via Marshall McLuhan to work by photojournalist Rita Leistner that is also a response to McLuhan via the social media platform Instagram, and that is, second, a response via Leistner’s work to a particularly troubling period in time on Twitter (that continues to this day). The circularity, the extent to which we move back and forward in time, reading ourselves into and out of each other and into and out of media, is astounding. And, if I’m understanding Wunker’s paper correctly, the circularity is precisely the point. There’s a porousness now — between us, between us and the media we’re enmeshed in on a daily basis, and between us and institutional structures — that is not only difficult to see and track but that also demands we see ourselves as (sorry) always already impure and implicated.

Let me see if I can be more methodical and less infected by this circularity in my response to Wunker and in laying out what I see as so important in her talk.

She begins by talking about how she proposed a beautifully simple paper for this conference — one that would read particular instances of photojournalism through McLuhan — and about how, in the end, she could not write this paper because the complex reality of the time prohibited such a straightforward analysis. From there, her talk shifts to a discussion of the relevance of McLuhan’s dictum that “all new technologies bring on the cultural blues, just as the old ones evoke phantom pain after they have disappeared” to, first, understand the tension between nostalgia for the old and celebration of the new in Leistner’s Instagram photos of her time spent embedded with the United States Marine Corps, First Battalion, Eighth Marines. Leistner has written that even at the time of taking these iPhone photos she felt as if she were “photographing a memory that wasn’t a memory [she] actually had.” Wunker echoes this sentiment when she describes the strange collapse that exists on Instagram between fiction and reality, past and present, subject and object; she says these photos don’t capture an object so much as they act as poetic, McLuhanesque probes into the difficulty of tracing inside and outside, figure and ground, each a part of a “resonating relationship.”

But the most provocative turn in Wunker’s talk comes when she shifts her discussion of photojournalism via Instagram and McLuhan to that other, only apparently text-based social media platform: Twitter. After observing that Twitter functions much like a photographic image generator in its supply of a never-ending stream of image-texts fit into a rapid succession of regular, rectangular rolling snapshots, she reminds us of the McLuhan dictum she opened with to consider the following: in the wake of the latest round of cultural blues brought on by the misogynist backlash against feminism that’s made itself most visible through vile hashtags such as #gamergate, #antifeminist, #feminazi, #sjw, #cuck (and I don’t recommend researching these hashtags too thoroughly), what constitutes an effective intervention? Is any attempt on Twitter to thwart further gender- or race- based violence by appropriating hashtags or staging crowd-sourcing projects only an enactment of yet more cultural blues? If Leistner’s photographs are the ideal, images self-consciously poised at the boundary of any number of resonating relationships, what might be the equivalent on Twitter?

After listening to Wunker’s talk, I think one solution she points to — simply and brilliantly echoing Donna Haraway’s work on “Situated Knowledges” from the late 1980s — is that perhaps we should concern ourselves less with tit-for-tat tactics and more with situating ourselves on social media, as beings utterly entwined with social media. Taking account of the way we exceed any boundary is a strategy that does not naively limit itself to trying to win an unwinnable debate at the level of pure content, but instead disrupts the entire structure supporting such “debate” by operating on a more wide-seeing register where form and content, medium and message, sender and receiver are constantly shaping and informing and implicating each other. As Haraway herself puts it, if we have, finally, “no clear and distinct ideas,” then our work instead is to track how the technologies we use are themselves “skilled practices” which should in turn lead us to ask ourselves: “How to see? Where to see from? What limits to vision? What to see for? Whom to see with? Who gets to have more than one point of view? Who gets blinded? Who wears blinders? Who interprets the visual field?” If we can answer these questions, maybe, just maybe, we’ll have a cure for the cultural blues.

Theorizing the alphabet

On Steve McCaffery's 'Nichol's Graphic Cratylism'

Note: above, a video of Steve McCaffery giving a talk at Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries, a conference held at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, November 4–6, 2014. Rachel Blau DuPlessis responds to McCaffery’s talk in the essay that follows. 


Whenever Steve McCaffery talks, he opens areas of and occasions for research into poetry and poetics. Here he enters simultaneously into the career of bpNichol (his sometime collaborator until Nichol’s untimely and tragic death in 1988) and into the fraught question of the origins of written language. Nichol, a prodigiously creative poet and performer, original and boundless, seems to have cultivated a wild and naïve persona, and a casual, open-hearted approach to his multifarious creative occasions. McCaffery’s goal (here and elsewhere) has been to articulate the informed, analytic, and theoretical claims that — he avers — were always present in and underlying Nichol’s work. In this suggestive intervention, McCaffery proposes that Nichol drew upon Alfred Kallir’s Sign and Design: The psychogenetic source of the alphabet — a book to which Nichol alludes on two occasions, and one that McCaffery and Jed Rasula include in their dazzling Imagining Language: An Anthology. McCaffery proposes that Kallir’s psychosexual theories of visual origins of writing informed Nichol’s experiments with concrete poetry and vispo, with wordplay, with the translation of letters into words, and essentially infused his “Cratylan” propensities to claim that names (words) were natural, not conventional signs. That last alludes to a much-debated dialogue in the Socratic canon concerning the origins of names and the relationship of word and thing. Nichol tried always to reject any split (some kind of original fall or flaw) between word and world (word and thing), and to affirm the Cratylan position — that words and things are originally the same. In all his work Nichol was “prelapsarian” — he attempted to reunify signifier and signified by (in McCaffery’s mot) “playfulness as epistemology.” Among these efforts, visual text work was essential to the deep materiality of language in and as writing.

McCaffery’s appeal in the name of Nichol to the hermetic (McCaffery would say “natural”) wing of linguistics has been an aspect of his work for years: the paragrammic claims of Saussure, the sexualization of the alphabet and its basis in our organic body beyond the eye-ear split (as in Kallir), the ludic charms of Nichol’s generative experiments with the “patter of letter feet” are all swirled together in a deft metonymic chain of linguistic speculation. The Cratylan nugget — that words are not conventional sounds attached to things, but instead had their long-ago origins in things (tracked via etymology) — is highly debatable, half-plausible, and magical.

The way Kallir seems to cover (in both senses) the discrepancy between word and thing is to propose that writing emerged from a collective unconscious as a “magical chain of procreative symbols necessary for human survival.” Anything appealing to a collective unconscious is both a yearning point and an unprovable one. Here is the moment for a timeline, extracted from the Smithsonian’s timeline of humans: 1) emergence of the first humans 1.8 million years ago, along with control of fire; 2) homo sapiens and Neanderthals [among others?] 800,000–200,000 years ago, and a period of rapid brain expansion; 3) 250,000–30,000 years ago “symbolic culture” emerges, illustrated by a fertility icon; 4) 12,000 years ago emergence of agriculture; 5) 4,500 years ago — writing emerges. The gap between human beings and then symbolic culture and then writing is such that almost any theory of writing’s origins could be hypothesized. Symbolic culture is attached to fertility — but also presumably to burial and to certain crafts (pots for storage of grain and of the dead). 

McCaffery’s short essay is quite culture-bound, but charming in its arousing feeling that McCaffery, or Nichol, or Kallir, or someone has finally activated ultimate ground, ultimate origin, in evoking the origins or basis or primal necessity as implicit in every alphabetic sign. This means a symbolic reading of alphabetic signs as if pictographs: in the manly tip of impregnation (the upside down A), the open womb of the letter C, the pregnant woman in letter D, the swollen breasts of the letter B, the cunt-cuneiform of the letter V, and the penis and balls (or was that the moment of impregnation?) of letter Y. When you are inside these claims, it’s a bit like reading your horoscope or wearing healing crystals — every speculation always seems right. Or, to say it another way — how can wrongness or rightness ever be proven? There are both other languages (many) and other sign systems for conveying language (many). If the theories are suggestive and have given “metaphors for poetry” to the fecund and important creator Nichol, why not? We must be happy that Kallir was on Nichol’s shelf and that years later McCaffery discusses, as relevant to Nichol, the mysteries of our medium, starting with the alphabet and going into rare points of allegorical reading and pictographic magic. We watch (on YouTube) the McCafferyian philological and bibliomantic sleight of hand, temporarily disinterested that this claim is bound to one linked version of the origins of our letters (in Egyptian-Hebrew-Phoenician-Greek-Latin) and that it is so culture-bound to our writing system as to constitute an explosive blind spot. And why not “the English letter as a medium for poetry”? Happy, happy Anglophones! That this theorizing about the alphabet is cheerfully sexual just makes Nichol’s own lowercase initials interestingly androgynous. Good for him, one wants to say. Let that penis inseminate as many womb-breasts as it wants! No little puppies were hurt in the making of this movie. It was only, sadly, much too short. One remains free to speculate about the very dazzling, startling, and probably unfixable origins of languages, writing systems, and all their human varieties from evidence of all kinds. And we can give thanks for all kinds of poetics drawing on many theories of language while at the same time thanking McCaffery for his always generous and emancipatory reading of Nichol’s work.