Commentaries - January 2014

More on Orono

Joshua Clover has written a response to my previous post on the Orono decades conference, titled “Baraka/the divide,” that warrants one in return. In it, he describes his own positionality in relation to Amiri Baraka’s intevention at my plenary talk at the Poetry in the Sixties conference, and draws conclusions about the disconnect between academic Marxists and Third-World liberationists that persist to this day. Score a point for my argument on presentism and historicism: there is no pure present to which politics or poetry may lay claim. But first, a nicety of protocol: when I agreed to write this commentary for Jacket2, I did not imagine a debate among contributors as one of its concerns. The open comment line on poetry lists and blogs, infested by the perennial oedipalism of the sub-sub world, is now a thing of the past; it would seem the moment I put my head above the trenches in virtual space, it would be on me in a flash.  The position of the editor of Jacket2, Jessica Lowenthal, is that the commentary streams should be discrete, and I do not want what I write to be restricted by an obligation to keep my dukes up over a period of months. That said, I will answer this one time, but not in the future. 

What is most annoying in Clover’s compulsion to respond is the immediate elision of what I brought to the conference, what I said, and even my name as one component of the split he experienced at the event. I am being objectified and elided from a history I partly made — one needs to take seriously the politics of that. I came to Orono with great expectations, wanting to make a connection between the experience I had during the student protest and antiwar movements at Berkeley and the Language writing that emerged in the following decade. I set out a series of texts; researched the Ansel Adams, Allen Ginsberg, and People’s Park photo archives; made a series of clips from the film Berkeley in the 60s (dir. Mark Kitchell, 1990; more here), and came with a theoretical argument that would tie them together. Of all the talks I saw at the conference, mine was the only one to create a broad account of the 60s as necessary for reading its poetry — and this in a multimedia display that alternated between Powerpoint slides and video clips and text. For the time, this was somewhat ahead of the curve, and I got a lot of positive feedback (and looks) as a result — and published the piece in Critical Inquiry (“The Turn to Language in the 1960s,” vol. 29, no. 1 (Fall 2001), pdf here). What I presented was a complex and multimodal argument, hardly possible to fit into the time allotted (“Cut,” I can still hear the moderator from the front row), that brought into play as many aspects of the 60s as I could manage — verbal, visual, poetic, theoretical.  

The reductive response was stultifying. From the back row, Baraka could only see one thing — this was not the history that he had made, nor could he identify with it. By a logic informed by his poetics, he assumed his history was simultaneously being kept out of it while the substance of my argument purported to cover up, lie about, the truth he represented. What he missed was the substantial argument about “liberation” per se, after Ernesto Laclau, that was meant to distinguish between the aims and contradictions of various aspects of 60s movements, each seen on different terms. Liberation for the Free Speech Movement, for Allen Ginsberg in India, for the Black Panther Party, and for the People's Park protest were each seen as having differing, if related, dynamics — there is not one standard of liberation, like the one standard of truth represented by Englightenment, to which all should adhere. (This is precisely the problem Clover has not dealt with, and that compels his account of a “split.”) Baraka, rather than “not having it,” simply did not get it — nor get why an argument would be made with such distinctions. For him, either the 60s was a baseline history, beginning with the Civil Rights movement and developing toward Black Liberation, or it was a matter of fellow travelers or plain denial. The key moment for Baraka was the Bobby Seale clip, from Berkeley in the 60s, in which Seale recounts selling The Little Red Book to unwitting Berkeley students, like myself I would add, to raise money for guns. Laclau’s account of the “empty signifier” seems to me perfect in this case, and I will continue to claim that there are many empty signifiers being traded, even now, as symbolic content with liberationist ends: Commune Editions, for one. For Baraka, the symbol meant revolution, without content —the spirit of revolution itself. Details about the actual course of events in China — the Cultural Revolution or later--were nonidentical with the hopes or beliefs congealed in that opaque symbol, even as those events are preserved in a nonsignifying object. History is messy, symbols are clean: this is indeed a split worth thinking about. 

Back to Baraka, who countered what I think was very good theater with some theater of his own. Like many of his generation, Baraka had a seasoned intolerance toward outsiders to his aesthetic and political community that came with the hard-won sovereignty of artistic accomplishment in the period. Many of the New Americans of my acquaintance could be aggressive and intolerant when they felt their turf was being questioned; Baraka continued in the period style, as it were, with additional edges concerning Black mastery and authorship. Baraka asserted his truth on principle, I countered with a restatement of mine, and neither of us were going to give in. This was in no sense a “war” — except in the psychic fantasy of those unprepared to deal with two statements of difference, with race as a differential term. It was a principled discussion. The deep structure of racial projection was a component of Baraka's intervention, and my optimism was that it was possible to put that in play within the contending voices of the 60s — as irreducibly different. Some of this play began immediately, with my ludic proposal, which Baraka took up, to continue the conversation at another site (this was not the organizer's initiative; they had to be talked into it). An anecdote must be told: coming out of the men’s room, Baraka encountered my then-16-year-old son, Asa. “You got my dad wrong,” he said. Our first communication was about that remarkable gesture; Baraka’s later comment, after our cafeteria venture, was “I don’t know about you, but your son’s all right,” and then went on with stories of his own son, Ras, now a city council member in Newark. Masculinity was on the table when we took over the university cafeteria; boxing metaphors (and nightmares about going into the ring with Ali) were in play. Maria Damon tried to moderate; I proposed to Baraka that we each restate our arguments, but in this case he would have none of that. He launched right in; it was loud and incoherent; when I countered in like terms I got called a “diva”; Baraka was disclosing the stuff of racial nightmare with no holds barred. There was not, however, a stack of books on the table that I used for my defense — possibly a copy of Ginsberg's Indian Journals or Ernesto Laclau's Emancipation(s). As theater, it was messy and incoherent; in my defense, I took my punches and got off a few of my own. Coming out of the event, we were cordial and Baraka made the remark about my son that I mentioned. Amini Baraka chatted with Carla Harryman, who was working on a performance of Dutchman for later in the conference. Though it was not a successful exchange intellectually, it was an event — and that’s what I wanted to bring to a conference on the 60s. For members of the audience, however, and by hearsay, it was psychically turbulent: a racial primal scene of finger-pointing confrontation. 

There was not only a cultural, or racial, or political problem here — there was an intellectual one. It was not a question of academic versus activist; Baraka had taught at Rutgers and Stony Brook for twenty years, and I am on no account a traditional academic. But the “turn to language” that took place both within the arts in the 60s and then in theory in the 70s was discontinuous with the projectivist and expressivist basis of Baraka’s poetics. Even here, there is more to say about the “empty signifier,” which functions, pace Laclau, not as a purely arbitrary placeholder (like a national flag) but as the displaced counter of that which it does not represent, organize, or bring to view. The empty signifier is “haunted” in this sense, the clarity of the symbol by the messiness of history. The Little Red Book was, at the time, haunted--by the Viet Cong who were the unnameable antagonists of the Vietnam Era; but later by the bloody history of the Cultural Revolution and continued acts of social violence in China. Baraka's turn from his “aesthetic” period (as LeRoi Jones) through a well-documented series of stages (in his Reader, these are the “transitional,” “Black nationalist,” and “Third World marxist” periods) not only allow us to read his work as significantly concerned with preserving the nonidentical (as in the two names: Jones and Baraka, both of which he continues to publish under), but to provide symbolic framing for a whole lot of messy historical content. I have read the Autobiography, and it is an impressive document of psychic turbulence that is in no sense reducible to the neat positionality of "Baraka is a Marxist" (I develop some of the aesthetic and gender implications of this as a critique "from below" in "What I See in How I Became Hettie Jones," Poetics Journal 10/soon to be republished). This leads me to my sense of the profundity of Baraka's poetry: it is haunted by what does not come under the rule of the signifier (including any particular political position, Marxist or otherwise). This is not to say that Baraka does not have the politics he says he does, but that the poetics of what counts as political are indissociable. Reducing Baraka to a political position — or worse, a symbol — is overly simplistic: politics is constituted by poetics, and vice versa.  

What is really of concern is the reception of this event. I would certainly like my argument, easily accessible in print, to be taken up, rather than the psychic fantasy of white poet/critic going head to head with black poet/radical — which is what is preserved and recirculated, indeed called up by my note on the Burton Hatlen festschrift. A bit of Language baiting, a bit of generational oedipalism, a hint of volatile racial politics, grandiose political claims, pre-MLA audience development. All of that is life as we know it, or at least I have known for some time. But there is a counternarrative that I would develop to this particular, male-centered reception history. It concerns the staging of Baraka's Dutchman as staged reading at the 60s conference, directed by Carla Harryman and featuring Mark McMorris, Lee Ann Brown, Steve Benson, and Lorenzo Thomas (who also served as dramaturg), performed to a packed crowd, many sitting on the floor, with Baraka and Amina in the front row. This was to die for!  In her language-centered interpretation, Harryman had performers pay close attention to the text and downplay expressive theatricality. What resulted was a remarkable unpacking of the text's nuances through the physicality of the performers: Lee-Ann (as Lula) and Mark (Clay), backed up by the Meyerholdian comedy of Steve as subway drunk and Lorenzo as step-n-fetchit derelict. How I wish those days were back, and Lorenzo with them! The conference rumbled on; blog posts were posted; a tape of the performance exists somewhere; Baraka was appreciative; and very little has been said about it since. Two forms of theater: which one hit the weak spot of the racial unconscious, and for what reason? I will leave my disquisition here, with the hope that there will be other opportunities for this kind of work. 

Moyra Davey's 'The Problem of Reading'

MOYRA DAVEY Dictionaries, 1996 C-Print, 24 x 20 inches

Recently, on a frigid winter day, she found herself in her studio surrounded by layers of books and papers. From this mass of paper strewn all over the sunlit floor, she began to conjure up an image of it all coming together, the parts knitting themselves into a web or net capable of holding her in a sort of blissful suspension.

At the end of Moyra Davey’s The Problem of Reading, she changes from the first person to the third person, to talk about herself, her own habit and narrative of reading. The move from essay to narrative struck me. How does this work in a photograph, in which you can’t change pronoun but you can have both essay and narrative?

In the first image of the book, two walls meet at a right angle and books are on tall, long metal shelves. A florescent light hangs overhead but it is off. Natural light pours in from a window we cannot see. There is no pronoun in these images of books; or it’s the third person and first person at the same time. Davey’s images progressively move in on the shelves, and then in on books in a way where it's the clutter on the shelf, not just the book. The subject becomes dust or the way the books lean or even little bookmarks of scraps that look ripped out from books. The last image shows the library from the first image disassembled, bare, a seeming match for the excerpt above. As if the books all entered an invisible subject. The variations on how to look at reading materials keeps the adventure wide, how you can enter.

Davey’s “problem of reading” is not the problem of close reading but rather the problem of the habit of reading. In particular reading choices. Davey’s essay is a progression of thought and collected research through that progression. The essay is embedded in a volume in which the text takes turns with Davey’s photographs as well as photographs by JoAnn Verburg and James Welling. Verburg’s subjects are overshadowed by the newspaper in their hands and Welling’s are close-ups of intimate scripty handwritings with leaves and feathers as their flattened companions. The photographs are all “about” reading, but what do they do in terms of the progression of the essay, how they more than lend a claustrophobic atmosphere, remains suspended.

I’m reading Damnation by Janice Lee, an ekphrasis of Béla Tarr’s films. It is a book that among other things addresses time and cinema, or image, against the time of narrative. Both of these writers pose the question of correspondence between the time of writing and the time of image. Take for example the case mentioned above, in which Davey switches from talking generally about the subject to talking about herself as the subject invoking herself by using a “she” pronoun. We know that the position of interpretation has shifted. You cannot make a pronoun of a character change in a photograph as you can in a progression of sentences. You can’t represent the writing in the photograph or the photograph in the writing but what Davey does do in both is produce a corresponding or same time, speed, and affect. Deeply contemplative. Sort of slow. At least steady. There is a trust to the next footfall, like a walking meditation. It’s a modernist time. Virginia Woolf. Calvino. I have no patience for Harold Bloom and I was interested in Davey’s patience with him, the crotchety adult with mean requirements versus pleasure, play, politics.

Additionally in both the photographs and the essay, Davey is tracking a sense that proliferation exceeds the measure of her (attempts at) steadiness, progression, control. At the limit between her work and the place of its making is a feeling of out-of-controlness, i.e. the ever-present horror: how much there is to read. Her work pronounces (confesses?) with humble honesty while indulging in the narrative of process. Photographs serve as the intermediary. Holding space, keeping horror at bay.

Inside The Problem of Reading lies a critique of how in our present, everything is planned, announced. There is intentionality in doing a project and then there is the unplanned present of something you cannot predict. Davey both maintains a Kafka-esque, absolute enrapture with a text, while muddied by the curiosity into any possibility, what she might miss, what may not have place. The contradiction of mastery and childlikeness.

 The essay builds up to the question of how the writer and reader are in a welcome conflict and how that is distinct from when these two tandem forces work symbiotically. Time is kindling this writer/reader conflict. Davey writes: "...I don’t mean to suggest that reading and writing are one and the same—writing is infinitely harder." There is a tempting conflation between reading and writing at various stages of defining these forces; the conflation is perhaps a stand in for childlike play, a form of escape by way of how productive a sometimes contradiction can be.

Reading as a writer necessitates the risk of possibility: maybe writing will happen and maybe it won’t. Either way you’re screwed. When I finally write something I have to cut myself off from whatever reading was necessary to write it. The reading I set out to do before the writing is always incomplete and perhaps that is why reading occupies both spaces, the intentional reading space and the unintentional writing space.

The reading material always sneaks back in, or stares at you on the desk, the shelf. Calls to mind Julie Patton who in her apartment reverses all the spines of her books because she is overwhelmed by the clamoring and competing voices of spine faces.

Davey has a series of pictures of people writing in many different ways on the subway, which she has turned in to the posters she mails to friends and family that are then hung simply on a gallery wall with tacks.

I accept that as writer I am reader. Conversely, I take pictures to document my life; I don’t think of myself as a photographer.

I am amazed that you will take any pictures without anxiety.

But as a writer it would be impossible to me to read without anxiety.

From Jacket #28 (October 2005)

Robert Duncan, with cat, San Francisco, 1985 (photo by John Tranter).

On a morning of slow grey drizzle in the southern spring of 1976, at Robert and Cheryl Adamson’s living room table at Lane Cove, Sydney, between bites of a late breakfast and occasional snatches of quiet conversation, Robert Duncan began writing “An Alternate Life,” a poem that evolved from and partly recounts his experiences whilst visiting Australia. He was here on a reading and lecture tour. He’d brought with him the booklets and manuscripts that later became Ground Work: Before the War, his first major collection since Bending the Bow, though it didn’t yet have that title (he referred to its contents generically as “ground work”) and wouldn’t be published until 1984. “An Alternate Life” turned out to be the start of a new book, his last, Ground Work II: In the Dark. [continue here]

Baraka w/ microphone
Baraka w/ microphone

At the first poetry conference I ever attended, war broke out. It was the National Poetry Foundation’s  North American Poetry in the 1960s, in 2000. Barrett Watten, fortuitously also providing Commentaries for Jacket2 just now, gave a plenary on “The Turn to Language after the 1960s,” which in my memory charted a two-way street between campus radicalism at UC Berkeley (both the Free Speech and anti-war movements) and a politics of form foundational to what would be “language writing.” In Watten's own words, “In my multimedia presentation, I tried to reconstruct a context for the poetry’s “turn to language” in the conditions of public discourse of the period, focusing on Berkeley as a site and Allen Ginsberg’s Indian Journals as a text, using Ernesto Laclau as theorist.”

From the back of the hall, Amiri Baraka wasn't having it. There are varying accounts of the debate, though few understate the vituperation. I was sitting just a few feet from Baraka and he was pissed. For some, the bone of contention was whether the FSM and the purportedly petit-bourgeois concerns of students offered a serious politics, and thus a serious way to understand the historical period, in comparison to the Civil Rights Movement, for example. Alongside this, there was a more immediate insistence that the militancy of the era was being recuperated into academicism: “Baraka...finally lashed out at Watten for being a ‘hyper-rational pseudo-radical’ and for ‘pimping‘ radical politics for his own academic benefit.” The argument might have gone all night but for the hasty intervention of the organizers, who arranged for the two to continue matters the next day during a special lunchtime debate. 

Of that latter event, I recall largely the set-up. Watten arrived loaded with books to argue his position, which he built into a fortification of texts on the folding table: here, surely, was the materiality of the signifier. Baraka, in counterpoint which would have been comedic but for the charged atmosphere, pulled from various pockets some wadded notes. The divide between the two could not have been more decisive. In memory, it reduces easily to clichés: the militant and the scholastic, town vs. gown, raced and classed, divided by irreconcilable structural positions. 

The tension nested most dramatically in one exchange. Watten had shown a clip from a PBS dcumentary in which a former Panther claimed that they had raised money for guns by buying Mao’s Little Red Book cheap in Chinatown and selling it dear on the Berkeley campus; the Panther claimed not to have read it himself. For Watten, this made of the celebrated text an empty signfier. For Baraka, this move effaced one of the signal political events of the century. “And besides, this is just one man who said he hadn’t read the book. We read Mao, Baraka insisted.”

I was put in mind of this as Baraka has been in the news of late; he turns 80 this year, and his health has been uneven. The prospect of living in a world without Baraka is a bleak one. He is not without failings — human, all too human — but he wrote eighty great poems and he wrote 

you cant steal nothin from a white man, he's already stole it he owes you anything you want, even his life. All the stores will open if you will say the magic words. The magic words are: Up against the wall mother fucker this is a stick up! Or Smash the window at night (these are magic actions) smash the windows daytime, anytime, together,  lets smash the window drag the shit from in there. No money down. No time to pay. Just take what you want.

There is something from that 2000 debate which seems paradigmatic, if misleadingly so. The skepticism about university leftists in relation to communities of color and political organizing casts a long shadow in the Bay Area, where Commune Editions lives. The contemporary association of Marxism with whiteness, bourgeois hypocrisy, obfuscatory theory, and scholasticism is not universal, but not uncommon either. In this context it is salutary to be reminded with a start that Baraka is a Marxist, was one in 2000 as he pulled the scraps of paper from his pockets, was one when he joined the Congress of Afrikan People, which would become the Revolutionary Communist League. 

It is difficult now to imagine the commingling of cultural nationalism and Maoist thought, to imagine its prevalence in the sixties and seventies among intellectuals and militants, to imagine the synthesis of positions to which this tradition aspired — a systemic critique of capitalism staged from the position of the peripheral, the colonized, the underdeveloped world, the subjects of empire domestic and global. Perhaps it is easier to see in France for example, where past and present Maoist intellectuals remain international figures: Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Badiou, Julia Kristeva. Jean-Marie Gleize, just translated into English, is scarcely the only poet who identifies thusly. In the United States, a set of phantom oppositions render such a confluence practically inconceivable. It has for the most part been forgotten that the Panthers themselves, adopting and adapting elements from Mao, moved from black nationalism toward revolutionary internationalism, much as did Baraka. 

It would be easy enough to reflect on that world’s  passing away — there’s always room for more left melancholy! Moreover, the limits of Maoism and third-worldism deserve attention. But not here, not now. The document that I have found most moving in the last year is the list of books taken from George Jackson's cell in 1971, after his shooting by prison guards. It has its oddities: Euell Gibbons? And so few women! But I wish that my friends had read half of these books. I wish that I had. This is part of what Baraka means. For the present I want to hold on to the possibility that we are at a divide, that the moment in which the opposition between clichés of intellectualism and clichés of militancy might dissolve is both behind us and ahead. 


There is a cunning of reason in the deployment of the negative, in that sooner or later it's going to all work out (or not). Having invested my '50s contribution in the spectral image of Bettie Page, I was able to recoup when offered a plenary role at the Poets of the 60s conference (2000) — and I decided to make maximal use of the occasion. Stopping off to visit Maria Damon on the road up to Orono, I remember telling her — as I previewed the documentary Berkeley in the 60s and Michelangelo Antonioni's Zabriskie Point — that I wanted to restage the '60s, as part of the conference. . . . I thought an immediate return to the politics of the '60s, in actual practice, was more than required (doubly so in the face of persistent demands by neoconservatives that it be eradicated from our history). In my multimedia presentation, I tried to reconstruct a context for the poetry's "turn to language" in the conditions of of public discourse of the period, focusing on Berkeley as a site and Allen Ginsberg's Indian Journals as a text, using Ernesto Laclau as theorist.
          From the back row, Amiri Baraka launched an impassioned attack on my claim that the politics of the student movement was any kind of politics at all, and that went as well for the antiwar movement (which Baraka associated with his own debate with Allen Ginsberg). And the rest is history — Baraka and I agreed that we would hold an impromptu debate in a student cafeteria, which we located for an unauthorized event . . . . As it happened, the discussion turned into a high-volume, low-content wrangle, so that the tape recording my son Asa made of it is destined straight for the archival vault — there will be no transcription or circulating of that! In defense of this misfire, I can only say that I am sure Baraka and I had the same goal in mind — to encourage debate and to decrease fear of confronting, particularly, race as a public issue. Was I prepared to do so, at that level? Yes and no. I learned a great deal of what I did not know of the '60s and about race from the encounter.
          — from "Thinking Through Orono," Sagetrieb 20/Paideuma 40 (2013): 99-100

The first mail of the New Year brought the special double issue of Sagetrieb/Paideuma, a well-edited and moving festschrift in honor of Burton Hatlen, whose contributions to poetry are well known to readers. What is less recognized about Hatlen are his populist/Left sympathies, which helped overturn (or at least substantially rethink) the author-centered modernism of the Pound tradition, and that is not nothing for poetics. The lore of "the tale of the tribe," so stultifying as a context or tradition in which the so-called "New"is guaranteed to have occurred, transformed quickly into a real-time poetic community as the legacy of textual innovation. Literary movements "newer" than modernism, Language writing for instance, certainly were a part of this moment. My contribution to Hatlen's memory was to recount my experience of the first five "decades" conferences, four of which he organized: Poetry of the 30s, 50s, 60s, 40s, followed by Poetry of the 70s, after his death.

The issues of "presentism" and "historicism" are signally engaged in this series of events, with revisionist poetics as their platform--but with arguably greater stakes. A conventional definition of "presentism" is "the application of present values and perspectives to events of the historical past," while that of "historicism" is "the necessity for historical context and motive for interpretation." Books have been written on both topics, and I do not intend to rehearse them. The agenda of the Decades conferences, in their prime time, was clearly a mix of both. The canon was opening, the recovering of poetries that had been misunderstood, undervalued, and repressed was under way. These acts of recovery, at the same time, were being undertaken for present motives — for one thing, a more accurate view of the literature, culture, and politics of the given "period," and even more to the point the making of literary history "from below" — taking into account the interests of those who were not, in official verse culture or otherwise, represented. Race, class, and gender, in other words, were at the center of the Decades' presentism/historicism, not only leading to a revised account of literature and the arts, but opening the prospects of an "academy of the future" in which a much broader horizon of cultural politics is available and operative. That, in a nutshell, is my pedagogy.