Entry 3

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.