September 28, 2005

The arrival of a captive audience

Earlier in the week, I had the pleasure of meeting Robert Grenier off the plane from San Francisco at Manchester Airport. Although having exchanged photos so we would recognise each other I thought to be on the safe side I would print out one of his recent drawn poems and stand with it opposite the arrival gate like people do with notices such as “TAXI – MR SMITH”. And something quite unexpected happened: virtually everyone who came through the gate paused to read the poem (without realising that it was a poem of course). I actually began to feel like I was doing a performance. One daft old American Fascist walked up to me, tapped me on the chest through the poem and said “I’m not Osama Bin Laden” - presumably mistaking Bob’s use of line with Arabic. But otherwise people seemed genuinely to be caught be the unexpected textual intervention. Another passing reader actually left the building and then returned to ask what it said! As well as making a mental note that this could well be an interesting avenue for future Trehy textual intervention, I got to thinking about the nature of the interactions that had taken place. As I have argued through the Text Festival our existence is embedded now by Text, so the people getting off the plane were already surrounded by texts as the gate opened and were bombarded by countless texts in the landscape in which suddenly the strange Grenier poem emerged. It was like any other text in competition with every other text in the visual field. So why did it catch them? I can think of two mechanisms: The psychology of arrival: we arrive at an airport even if we are in a strange land and know no one with a subconscious desire to be recognised as arriving; there is always a fascination in the waiting notices held up – is our name being heralded? Followed by the fascination that if I am not on the boards, who is? The second mechanism I think relates to the intent of an artist’s textual intervention in competition with commercial, informational or state textual apparatuses: We have structured our Being as readers with levels of filtering which subconsciously sift the functions of public texts so that we don’t have to read them, but poetic/artistic texts present a reading which does require us to buy anything or act in a proscribed way and because the Ideological Apparatuses have conditioned us that buying and acting appropriately is immanent to Being, such a text has the shock of a glimpsed freedom.

September 09, 2005

Questions of Ideology and Ideological Apparatus


…from Trehy’s Althusser’s Machiavelli’s Poetics (a work in progress)

reading it yourself. Rather, these are two competing
realizations of the work, each
with its own set of advantages &
limitations. Moreover

- Charles Bernstein


how why what why – the marginalisation of poetry, questions locating the battleground in reading and public rituals within the material existence of one ideological apparatus – culture. Is it possible to locate answers in an act of reading itself?
Reading a reading of a reading?
On the question of power (and assuming it) who better to read than Machiavelli?
In questioning from marginalisation who better than the self-marginalised Althusser? (When a Marxist theorist murders a communist partisan
[1] and the stillpoint of his emotional life, it takes 30 years to be theory again – how culture operates as an ideological state apparatus.)
So what better than Althusser’s reading of Machiavelli? Not Discourses nor The Poet (which discredited recredited Althusser dealt with in “Machiavelli And Us”) but the remarkably obscure later 1520 treatise: Poetics.

Althusser’s assessment: “Machiavelli’s central problem from a theoretical viewpoint could be summed up in the question of the beginning, starting from nothing, of an absolutely indispensable and necessary new poetry”
[2]. In terms of method: “Machiavelli does not offer a general and systematic exposition, but deploys only the theoretical fragments conducive to clarification of the formulation and understanding of this singular concrete case. Above all, Machiavelli’s theoretical dispositive breaks with the habits of classical rhetoric, where the universal governs the singular.” For these pre-modern postmodern fragments: ‘dispositive’ – is to poetry a series of general theses which are literally contradictory, yet organised in such a way as to generate concepts not deducible from them, theorizing in fact a determinative objective, literally generating a structure for politico-poetic change.

Machiavelli’s ‘endeavour to think the conditions of possibility of an impossible task, to think the unthinkable’ induces ‘a strange vacillation in the traditional philosophical status of [his] theoretical propositions: as if they were undermined by another instance than the one that produces them – the instance of poetic practice’. Today we must think the conditions of possibility of the impossible task of reclaiming Poetry from what Gramsci called the dual aspect of the power of “absolutist poetry”, violence and coercion, but at the same time consent, and hence ‘hegemony’. From these conditions it emerges that the very idea of identity is a structuring mechanism of capitalist market development and therefore also of identity poetry (immanent in the Cultural Ideological Apparatus), so a new textual practice becomes imperative in response as a corollary of global biopolitical new militancy.

To grasp the true character of this dispositive (theoretical fragments focused on the formulation of a poetic problem) and its effects, abandon a conception that brings in only theory for one that brings in practice and, since we are dealing with poetics, poetic practice. This is where Gramsci’s remark that Machiavelli’s Poetics has the character of a Text manifesto is going to enlighten us with a poetics five hundred years earlier than LANGUAGE theory. Specifically, a theoretical text is affected in its modality and dispositive by poetic practice. This means that even a particular theoretical problem such as this Machiavellian essay should be self-reflexively textually modal, and hence an Althusserian singular conjuncture, which means, first of all, taking account of all the determinations, all the existing concrete circumstances, making an inventory, a detailed breakdown and comparison of them. A conjunctural example:

1) The revised OULIPO Compendium is published in November;
2) the introduction of the hilarious new book “Don’t Ask Me What I mean: Poets in their own words” (Picador Poetry, 2005), comments poets “systematically interrogate their own unconscious to access those darker corridors of the memory and imagination from which they might recover the true poem”. Simon Armitage (amongst a galaxy of the Spokesmen of the Average) writes: It should go without saying that the language of the poem must be an immediate pleasure in itself”;
[3]
3) in the anti-war poem Causa Belli state-sponsored Andrew Motion rhyming
learn, rocket-burn ironclad Dad;
4) “Exeunt in three Ways”: EMPIRE collapses in 3 ways: natural disaster, decadence from the corrupting effects of its own power, unappreciated external surpassing;
5) “Poetry, whenever it appears, frightens them” (Guy Debord). Afraid when confronted, laughed at or ignored – they need consent;
6) newspaper poetry coverage is virtually non-existent; Waterstones Poetry sections are reducing in size – so marketing and National Poetry Day don’t work clearly;
7) a Text work found on seats at a recent Carol Ann Duffy reading and inserted into mainstream poetry books in bookshops: NOTHING YOU DON’T ALREADY KNOW;
8) A generic Bloodaxe poet’s book reviewed without naming him – on the basis that he will be forgotten anyway.
9)
GILBERT: We don’t allow our dealers to sell to banks, hotels or big companies.
GEORGE: We understood long ago that to consent to that would be to castrate the work of art. Here, at the heart of the City, people walk past paintings and sculptures, briefcase in hand, without ever looking up. They think art is decoration.
Have you ever thought of lowering your prices, so that people who are less well-off could buy your work? ‘Art for All’ will only be art of all when the man in the street can live with your pictures above his bed.
GEORGE: Not for the moment. We’ve always thought that people could get catalogues.
10) if tomorrow never came saving would be pointless
but it
does a horse enjoying the grass ignore the fence

ENOUGH IS ENOUGH
[4].
A conjuncture is no mere summary of its elements, or enumeration of diverse circumstances, but their contradictory system, which poses the poetic problem and indicates its historical solution, ipso facto rendering it a poetic objective, a practical task. The whole question then becomes: in what form are all the positive forces currently available to be rallied, in order to achieve the poetic counter-hegemonic objective? Machiavelli gives this form a name: the New Poet. At this point the intervening years, fascism, TV history, Disney, Stupidity, the death of the author, etc make Machiavelli’s answer seem problematic: An exceptional individual, endowed with virtù
[5], who, starting from nothing or from something will be able to mobilize the serial (i.e. disconnected) forces required to unify Poetry under his (sic) leadership. From the perspective of the fifteenth century, Machiavelli is not prefiguring the Romantic or modernist models of genius nor is he valorising notions of originality or authenticity which didn’t exist when he was writing. This figure is the artistic counterpart to his Prince, who similarly unifies political forces toward change. Given our radically different perspective, it is perhaps possible to re-interpret/translate this ‘Poet’ as a Textual activist(s) who generates the poetic praxis to rally the forces of radical cleavage from what pertains – thus linking Machiavelli into the declarative innovator lineage of Shklovsky, Pound, Lenin, Schonberg, et al.

Machiavelli, who in his text elaborated the theory of the means at the disposal of the Poet in 15th Century Italy, treats his own text, in its turn as one of the means in the struggle he announces and engages. In order to announce a New Text-Poet in his text, he writes in a way that is suitable to the news he announces, in a novel manner. His writing is new; it is a poetic act - a Text manifesto, which seems to have its solo interlocutor a future Text individual, an individual who does not exist. Considering his written text is devoted to the Poet (in the singular), that it sets out what the Poet (any innovator) must do, how does Machiavelli indicate this innovator must conduct himself and proceed in order to found and expand his poetry using all available means, regardless of their compatibility with individual morality and the prevailing ideology?
The stress lies on rare speciality as against broad generality

The latter affects us as competently static and customary; the first one as unusual, activating. And the arrow always flies in the direction of action. The questions of their how why what are not our questions of how why and what – but ours are constantly asked as theirs (even though we know their answers); as Sartre phrased it: serial individuals have a unity that is always elsewhere and that serial unity is a negative totality.

How and why is radical work excluded? The Cultural Ideological Apparatus = “The ultimate condition of production is therefore the reproduction of the [capitalist] conditions of production” (Althusser: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus, 1970); the default category of the room. What is the history of (any) model of reading? = This history is an academic Glass Bead Game that should be played some time in the future when victors write the past. What is the relationship to marketing? = “… the reproduction of the [capitalist] conditions of production” (Althusser: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus, 1970). What are the key sites of influence and how do they work? = the ratio of the effective or useful output to the total input in any system (history, vision, guile, praxis). What types of writing and publishing are offering alternative economies of reading to those that postmodern capitalism benefits from? = the language of ‘economies’ adapts to the ultimate condition of production as the reproduction of the conditions of production. Radical poetics has been dangerously integrated with its reliance on its retreat into academia. Bruce Andrews and Theodor Adorno observed “a taming, a domestication, a shoring up of the old walls (however flashily ornamented by a tokenism of the new, a kind of repressive desublimation). Intellectuals…competing supplicants…are thus virtually compelled to show each other their most repulsive sides [but not repulsive to the forces that negate]… In the end, glorification of splendid underdogs is nothing other than glorification of the splendid system that makes them so. To adapt to the weakness of the oppressed is to affirm in it the pre-condition of power.” (“the factory worker is subject to the pressure of his “production group,”
[6]). Radical poetics is too fucking nice to its ideological opposition. As Pound wrote to WCW in 1920: “If you weren’t stupider than a mud-duck you would know that every kick to bad writing is by that much a help to the good.”

What Machiavelli calls

The New Poet can start from anywhere, and be anyone: ultimately start from nothing and be nothing to start with. The anonymous character of the theory then assumes its full poetic significance: the abstraction of the theory of the encounter between the poet and the fortuna (circumstances) that initiate change is not merely a theoretical abstraction here. Althusser argues that the place and interplay of this abstraction impart a concrete poetic function to it; in fact, the abstraction of anonymity is simultaneously the clean sweep of the past and its consequence: namely, he says that the great adventure begins apart from everything that actually exists, hence “in an unknown place with an unknown man”. [It is probably worth repeating here that neither Althusser nor this essay is proposing a model of (male) artist-hero-genius, but instead the possibility of a theory of action - the fabric of the act synonymous with its content].

From the perspective of a Machiavellian New Poetry conducive to Italian unification in the fifteenth century, the action proposed was the rejection of any failed, compromised or corrupted attempts, the rejection of reliance on hypotheses of foreign domination or refuge, and the independence of the origin and characters of the Text, which must be peculiar to the new poetry. In this analysis, it can be seen that the UK poetry establishment is well within its capacity to continue to sideline innovation because so far it is only confronted by political models of poetics that it has already marginalised, and by its own banality – which it celebrates as strength rather than an indictment. Just beneath the surface we can read the thesis underpinning Althusser’s Machiavelli’s analysis: the Text must owe its beginnings exclusively to itself; it must owe its laws solely to itself.

By means of a methodological theoretical conjuncture the formal textual tools at our disposal (shared with conceptual text-based art since the Sixties) are materiality, intertextuality, constricted/restricted languages, parataxis and spatialisation and (recently discovered) Time. Our question of what is a question of how these are surpassed.

Machiavelli’s theme of beginnings poses such ‘difficulties’ that in order to progress one it is necessary to emulate ‘”skilful archers…when their target seems too distant; knowing well the power of their bow, they aim at a much higher point, not to hit it with the arrow, by aiming there to be able to strike their target.” To aim at a much higher point: for Machiavelli is explicitly to emulate Moses, Romulus, Lenin, Einstein, Mao and so on. But to aim at a much higher point has a further sense, not spelt out, but practised, by Machiavelli: to aim at a much higher point = to aim beyond what exists, so as to attain a goal that does not exist but must exist = to aim above all existing poetries, beyond their limits. Althusser identifies this as the crucial point of this theory, where poetics appears in person: in the form of a determinate absence. Formally, the theory is presented as an absolutely general theory such that the abstract form of the theory is the index and effect of a concrete poetic stance. If Machiavelli evokes the theme of novelty and beginnings with such insistence, if he speaks of a ‘New Poet in a New Poetry’, it is because he rejects all existing poetries and poets as old – that is orientated towards the past, outmoded, incapable of the task for the future. He rejects them all on account of their historical impotence. In reality for Machiavelli our conditions are poetic imperatives over which no compromise is possible, since he who does not respect them will succumb to the past, the sway of existing poetries and their impotence. But Machiavelli further considers that these conditions, far from being a reverie, are perfectly attainable. The proof? They have had the sanction of historical reality and that beginning has already occurred, specifically in revolutionary conjunctures of art and writing. Positing a Machiavellian fortuna, the circumstances in which the possibility for the impossible pertain,
Soon will ye tumble to your own loved soil, and be forgotten
The name of my country
then all countries will pass into obscurity;
all is scattered far and wide,
Did ye hear that and know its entropy purport?
Aye, 'twas the crash of the citadel
O woe is me! trembling, quaking limbs, support my footsteps! away!
Face the day that
begins thy slavery
measure the degree of disorder in their system
it is a matter of common experience
disorder will tend to increase if things are left to themselves
Order can create order out of disorder but
Cleaves expenditure
effort or energy
so decreases the amount of order
Woe for our unhappy town!
Woe for thee,
Exeunt three ways
[7]

the ultimate question then emerges (as it did for him): what direction arises from the conditions of possibility for the existence of a text-poetry? “Poetry is becoming more and more clearly the empty space, the antimatter, of consumer society, since it is not consumable (in terms of the modern criteria for a consumable object: an object that is of equivalent value for each of a mass of isolated passive consumers).” – Guy Debord. What is at stake? Nothing less than everything: the dematerialisation of Art has been commoditised; the marginalisation of Poetic Artifice is suddenly a great strength as the hegemony of mediocrity atrophies in its inability to renew itself. To paraphrase Negri: today the poet cannot even pretend to be a representative, even of the fundamental human needs of the exploited. Revolutionary poetic militancy must rediscover what has always been its proper form: not representational but constituent activity. Poetic militancy today is a positive and innovative requirement, analogised with the constitutive Global model of biopolitical activism and the formation of cooperative apparatuses of production and community.

Therein we find an answer to our current question why how.


[1] Hélène Legotien (she had abandoned her family name, Perry, during the war), a woman nine years his senior who had played an active part in the Communist Resistance. He acknowledges in his memoir her indispensability to his thought and in justifying her murder makes himself even more pathetic. By 1980, he writes, "the two of us were shut up together in our own private hell." Hélène seems to have been an unhappy woman, insecure and tormented --and with good reason. The Communist Party abandoned her after the war, falsely accusing her of some obscure act of betrayal during the Resistance. Uneasy with her own immigrant Jewish background, and desperate for the love and attention of her husband, she put up with his moods, his women-friends and his colleagues. “Despair has the accent of irrevocability not because things cannot improve, but because it draws the past too into its vortex.
[2] The injunction to practice intellectual honesty usually amounts to sabotage of thought. The writer is urged to show explicitly all the steps that have led him to his conclusion, so enabling every reading to follow the process through and, where possible – in the academic industry – to duplicate it. This demand not only invokes the liberal fiction of the universal communicability of each and every thought and so inhibits their objectively appropriate expression, but is also wrong in itself as a principle of representation. Texts which anxiously undertake to record every step without omission inevitably succumb to banality.” - Adorno
[3] “With the right tools it was less than a day’s work./ It wasn’t our trade, but a wire-brush was the thing/for fettling mould and moss from bevelled window frames./Sandpaper took back old wood to its true grain.” Excerpt from Armitage’s DIY Period.
[4] Text invention in various locations - Venice Biennale 2004 by Lawrence Weiner
[5] “He is beyond the moral categories of vice and virtue. For he pursues a completely distinct goal: a historical goal – founding, consolidating and expanding a text that endures. His perfection resides not in moral virtue, but in poetic virtù – that is to say, in the excellence of all the poetic virtues – of character, intelligence, vision, etc. – appropriate to accomplishment of his task.” Poetics Stanza XII
[6] Sentence from Jean-Paul Sartre’s In Search of Method selected using a chance operation.
[7] EMPIRE collapses in 3 ways: natural disaster, decadence from the corruption of power, unchecked external surpassing.