Problems are flowers and fade
In philosophy and art humanity is no longer worthy of our enquiry or representation. Philosophy as an attention to human problems must yield to science dealing with mechanical masses of non-human material. The questions of medicine, hygiene and psychology are being relegated gradually to physiology. Art no longer attempts to mirror man, or the things in nature as seen by man, but depicts unrecognisable patterns which are like nothing on earth—lines, cubes, inhuman designs. The art of representing visible likeness is relegated to the science of photography. The philosophies and arts of one age are the exact sciences of the next. Philosophy, searching for what is true, and art, searching for what is new, may be discovered as being always out in front of society, in the vanguard; while the sciences and industries—the more utilitarian and moralistic activities—may be considered as forming the main body of the army, moving into the positions the spearhead establishes. This division of labour is rarely seen operating on a large scale, but viewing the world as a whole it will be seen that the humanism which has inspired so many of the great philosophers and artists of the past is a goal attained. We have arrived at humanity; there is work for science, enormous work—but the vanguard has to look to new goals ahead. — Harry Hooton, excerpt from "Problems are Flowers and Fade," from Things You See When You Haven't Got a Gun, self-published booklet, 1943.
Over the last few months, Harry Hooton has been on my mind. His name has been mentioned a number of times as I have progressed through this archival project, and on my first visit to Amanda Stewart's house she lent me a copy of Poet of the 21st Century: Harry Hooton, Collected Poems, selected and introduced by Sasha Soldatow and published by Angus & Robertson in 1990. I didn't open the book until I knew I could take it to bed and read it entirely. My gut told me Harry and Sasha would eat me, my night, my bed, effortlessly. And they did!
Harry Hooton was born in England in 1908 and sent to Australia at sixteen, during a campaign that relocated young people to healthier colonies. Not much is known of Hooton's earlier years in Australia, though it is suggested that he had family in Maitland, NSW, and ended up in Newcastle, north of Sydney. In Newcastle, he became active: identifying initially as a Trotskyist, then getting involved with the Internationalist Industrial Workers of the World, and later with the Peace Pledge Union. Hooton was a pacifist anarchist with no money: landing him in gaol for an unarmed robbery, which in turn named his second self-made booklet, Things You See When You Don't Have a Gun. His first, These Poems, was a collection of parodies, critiquing bourgeois, boring, self-important, politically anaemic, overwrought, nationalist and parochial poetries (of which I am quite certain there will be no shortage, ever, to critique).
Hooton was critical of modernism (he takes every opportunity to shank Joyce and Pound), and especially so of its nascent local branches that were grafted onto a suspect foundation of Australian nationalism. Hooton's auto-select poetic predecessors were Lawson, Shelley, Whitman, Wilde and Sandburg. He also, evidently, read Epicurus, Spinoza and Wittgenstein. He named his politico-philosophical investigations "Militant Materialism," and "Anarcho-technocracy":
Anarcho-technocracy is the theory of Direct Action on Things. It is anarchist, insomuch as it states that all government over men must be replaced by the administration of things; it is technocratic, in that it contends this administration can be encompassed, in this era of increasing technological complexity, only by the technicians. It comprises the other political theories, which in reality, if not avowedly, all have the same end in view. In particular, it comprises and furthers democracy, our own brand of political theory.
Democracy is not the rule of the majority of people over a minority, which inevitably becomes the rule of a minority over a majority, a rule over the people; it is not self-government, the rule of the people over the people, which is a physical impossibility--it is the rule of all the people, over something else, something other than and outside the people. There is only one thing outside the people to be ruled--that is their material enviroment, that part of that enviroment transformed in industry, the machines. Democracy becomes inevitably Industrial democracy. In doing this it transforms political terms, methods, institutions. It transforms politics itself--from politics, which is a matter of the government of men, into technics, which is a matter of the Government of Things. ("Anarcho-Technocracy: The Politics of Things, c. 1951, reproduced in Poet of the 21st Century, p.88)
Later in the essay, Hooton recognises that the fear inherent in his programme is the fear of a ruling class of technicians: this is something that must be resisted, he says, for no one need be ruled. Collective campaigns to organise and move matter, under the direction of technicians (those who can "make a pot, grow a turnip, open an atom" (p.90)), will manifest the modern utopia: an industrial co-operative democracy.
Hooton's politics is a toughnut. His futurist, tech-fetishist materialism, combined with his thoroughly Romantic conviction in an abstract, prior-to-the-social, perfection of "man" (unforch HH is very attached to this gendered subject), combined again with his reification of the Thing AND his call for human domination of the non-human, produces a confusing polemic that doesn't quite fit anywhere. (An aside: Soldatow tells a great story of Hooton defending his use of the word "man" to Miles Franklin at a party: he tries to argue that he uses the word "man" to signify a certain subject in a certain power relation who might be the only chance for emancipation, that is to say, the freedom of both men and women. He follows this up by assuring that he's a feminist; Franklin is unconvinced.)
But all this confusion must surely be precisely what he means by anarcho-technocracy: incommensurable, unfalsifiable, methods for arranging and rearranging relations between things (but not the things themselves?) that will come to replace the structural institutions that have acquired, naturalised and enforced relations at the level of the state, the military, the economy, the school, the family. If you could imagine what graphic representations of these methods might be, Hooton seems to say, then you can see them already appearing in modernist art: "The whole tendency of recent works is an endorsement of my thesis that the focal point of modern art is the inhuman world. Cubes, vortices, cylinders, lines are the ‘unconscious’ selection of subject matters as far as possible outside man’s mind that I posit as worthy only of our attention." (Hooton, cited in Soldatow's introduction to Poet of the 21st Century, p. 14) It is here that Hooton aligns himself with a modernist conceit, but his broader programme is clearly one of the twenty-first century, and not of the twentieth. Writing in 1955, in the first issue of '21st Century: The Magazine of the Creative Century,' Hooton declares:
We are sick of the past. London, Paris, New York, Moscow, are dead. Like Rome, Athens, Babylon, they have had their day. The sun has indeed gone down on the west, and on the east. You could knock on the doors of the old world with a new idea till your knuckles were red-raw and bleeding, through all eternity; they would not hear you—there is no one at home. (p.22)
How much of Hooton's tongue was jammed tight in his cheek at any one time is unclear. What is clear is that Hooton's speculative intuitions about the possibilities for anarcho-poetic take-ups and distributions of "things" are apt. Hooton was a hacker. And though there's a lot of devastating tripe in this century that would have kicked holes in all of Hooton's weak spots, I want to honour his conviction that it is the poet -- the one who is invested in the construction of language events in the most minor circumstances -- who might both exemplify and interrogate the possibilities of acting on matter, acting on matters. When the smallest unit turns on the smallest unit, there's action: the consequences are never neutral. Are poems bit torrents? No doubt.
When the students of syntactics stop worrying about
subjective things like communication, meaning,
interpretation, and look at words OBJECTIVELY we will
have some logic. Words have weight, move. Grammar is
dynamic or at least mobile. One can observe and measure a
thing moving. What does a thing do when it means—
wriggle, flap wings, quadrepedally locomote? When we
replace to mean by to move we shall be scientific. A scientist
is not concerned with the essence of a thing—the thing in
itself—a static entity; he is concerned with motion—the
relations of things—events, processes. He does not want to
know what a thing is; he wants to know where it is going.
No thing is going to itself—it is there already. There are no
instransitive verbs, all things are in transit. No thing just
goes, it always goes somewhere. That somewhere is other
things. To speak grammatically, and that is to speak
logically, a subject moves to an object. What I wish to point
out is that the OBJECT OF MAN’S EXISTENCE IS NOT
MAN—IT IS SOMETHING OTHER THAN MAN, IT IS
NON-HUMAN. In the sentence I am forming, man, the
subject doing something, does not move to man, he moves
to something different, the OBJECT. I call it the world. What
is important is to realise that the subject does not move to
the subject. One word does not make a sentence.
(From "Very Words (NOT A POEM)", Proems in Pose, first published in Number Two, 1944, collected in 21st Century Poet p.79-80)