A thimbleful of cultural heat
The Modern Languages Association is large enough that it is districted into divisions, like “American Literature to 1800” or “Women's Studies in Language and Literature.” This year, the “Literary Criticism” division's special panel at the big annual gathering (a brutal job fair veiled by an ever more threadbare academic conference) was on “Marx and Poetry.” This may be for the simple reason that the division’s head gets to choose the topic: Kristin Ross has written one of the great works of Marxist poetry criticism, The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud and the Paris Commune.
But it may be a measure (one might admit to optimism) of some cultural heat, perhaps a thimbleful, gathering around poetry and around historical materialist approaches thereto. After all, Ross got elected. And the Rimbaud book, her debut three deacdes ago, is recently back in print. The panel was well-attended. Despite perfervid dreams to the contrary, Marx has not been a major theme of the academy in recent years, but that may be changing, and not just in the academy. Indeed, the point here is not to capture some sea-change in the MLA, but to discover in it traces of a broader shift.
As many have noted, Marx has returned to broader discussion since the 2008 crisis, returned in a cloud of capitalist anxiety if not yet with a vengeance. And poetry too. Well, that is simply an opinion, but poetry of late seems to us reinvigorated and filled with interesting poems, poets, and developments. One might also note it seems to have done a better job than prose of carving out spaces online; after all, like the single song, the poem is well-formed for the disaggregations typical of netspace, the slicings and dicings of digitality. Poetry likes the mix-taping of the world.
There are doubtless several ways to think about this general motion of "Marx and poetry," and several scales in which to think. The great economic crisis of 1973 stoked an already extant North American poetics loosely (sometimes closely) tied to New Social Movements and the new left in general, explicit in its political content. This made a sort of pair with an emergent poetry claiming a form-based "politics of the referent" — a pair not always as frozen in static opposition as we sometimes recall. Regardless of their real relation, these are examples of a moment in which Benjamin's "politicization of aesthetics" (itself proposed in the midst of a global economic crisis, increasingly political in character) was explicitly on the table — in some way exceeding the bromide that all poetry is political.
But we would also note the particular set of propositions accruing over the last few years which go beyond simply relating poetry to political economy or vice versa, beyond suggesting one should speak to the other. Instead, we have seen the ascent of a line of thinking wherein poetry and finance are one and the same — or at least, have a shared (as opposed to merely congruent) nature. Perhaps the most striking of these has been Franco "Bifo" Berardi's The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance. This is not the place for a full review, but the brief book is odd and ambitious. It was mentioned multiple times at the Literary Criticism panel. In brief, it makes a two-way claim about the relationship of political economy and poetry. In the first motion, contemporary finance is understood as a set of operations for reorganizing signification intensively to yield its results: "semiocapital," wherein "finance is not the monetary translation of a certain amount of physical goods; it is, rather, an effect of language." But in finance's internalization of poetry's logic, poetry — now a kind of synechdoche for cognitive, linguistic work in general — is captured, divided from its rightful terrain, and neutralized.
Financial power is based on the exploitation of precarious, cognitive labor: the general intellect in its present form of separation from the body....signs fall under the domination of finance when the financial function (the accumulation of value through semiotic circulation) cancels the instinctual side of enunciation, so that what is enunciated may be compatible with digital-financial formats....The subsumption of language by the semiocapitalist cycle of production effectively freezes the affective potencies of language. The history of this subsumption passes through the twentieth century, and poetry predicted and prefigurated [sic] the separation of language from the affective sphere.....The financialization of the economy is essentially to be seen as a process of the subsumption of the processes of communication and production by the linguistic machine.
But it will turn out, thusly, that poetry offers the great weapon against the reign of finance. "Poetry is the language of nonexchangeability," after all, and it is poetry's specialization in nonexchangeability, in highlighting the gap between the signifer and referent, that it retains political force.
Digital financial capitalism has created a closed reality which cannot be overcome with the techniques of politics, of conscious organized voluntary action, and of government. Only an act of language can give us the ability to see and to create a new human condition, where we now only see barbarianism and violence. Only an act of language escaping the technical automatisms of financial capitalism will make possible the emergence of a new life form. The new form of life will be the social and instinctual body of the general intellect, the social and instinctual body that the general intellect is deprived of inside the present conditions of financial dictatorship. Only the reactivation of the body of the general intellect — the organic, existential, historical finitude that embodies the potency of the general intellect — will be able to imagine new infinities.
This gap in poetry, which Bifo in a final move identifies as irony, becomes thusly the instrument of finance's overcoming.
Irony suspends the semantic value of the signifier and chooses freely among a thousand possible interpretations. The ironic interpretation implies and presupposes a common ground of understanding among the interlocutors, a sympathy among those who are involved in the ironic act, and a common autonomy from the dictatorship of the signified.
If we have quoted at length, it is because the arguments are worth engaging. One can see rather easily how this argument is exquisitely flattering to poets: not only is what we know the secret of the global economy, but also the secret of its defeat! The unacknowledged legislators of the romantic era have nothing on us.
Of course there are still reasons to be skeptical. The first skepticism would surely be the way that such an idea — we won't need a revolution, nor direct struggle, just a change in our thoughts leading to new forms of life — is the very definition of idealism. Soothing no doubt to those for whom broad and likely bloody turmoil means the loss of something aside from their misery and their chains, but no more plausible for that. A second skepticism might involve the unstated provincialism: for all the ballyhoo, the idea that labor these days has become linguistic might not be a great story about much of the globe. Third, and perhaps a bit more technically, we might pause to consider the fact that there's no such thing as semiocapital. It turns out that finance's operations rest pretty heavily on quite non-semiotic things. The claims on claims on claims on claims of, say, a note entitling one to a portion of the senior tranche of a collateralized debt obligation synthesized from the right to lots and lots of different mortgages...well, that financial instrument's value collapses for rather prosaic reasons. Mostly the fact that the original mortgage holders start defaulting because they have shitty jobs that can't keep pace with the housing bubble, or don't have jobs at all.
But perhaps that is a perfectly poetic reason. Perhaps one of the things we might expect to see is not the ongoing dereferentialization of poetry, but a poetry of unemployment, a poetry of dispossession, a poetry of ecological catastrophe. And perhaps we won't confuse it with forms of struggle which, we expect, will not be routed around — no matter how devoutly some of us may wish.