If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
Thom Donovan and Brandon Brown dive deep into the realms of literary theory and leftist politics in their epistolary exchange. They continue their conversation in the fourth of four exchanges.
Enframing the Brink is an ongoing exchange of letters between poets Thom Donovan and Brandon Brown.
Your response is not “long and self-centered” at all, especially as I am always slightly relieved when The Hole is not under discussion, as if we should better talk around these things than about them strictly. Or they can be points of departure for conversations about what is happening, what is on the mind.
Your impulse to call friends after the events at Oakland last weekend, I identify with completely. The way you put all this … how wonderful! And it leaves me wondering what a resistance movement would be—especially in Oakland—that did not court violence from the police, who are obviously thuggish and rogue. Maybe it demands a different set of experiments? Not that I necessarily know what these would be. However I have to say, it does/did make sense strategically to want to draw out this aporia of our property system; that there are all these people without homes and who are losing their homes while these major corporations and banks benefit from the all-too-convenient (and contradictory by Neoliberal rhetoric) socialization of wealth. Maybe the problem is with scale? Were we only able to tempt the law to our side by making ourselves more desirable? Or by playing on their capacities for empathy? The resistance to objectifying police has been something interesting I have witnessed in OWS NYC, to make police recognize you as a person, to experiment in this way. But conditions are different here, I’ll leave it at that. The systematic violence of the police department in Oakland obviously has to be totally uprooted, which means officials like Quan with them, anyone who has supported this intolerable cycle of violence.
To change gears a little—and of course I am always game to continue this conversation with you about pure means and the use of violence (if I could try to name what I think is at stake in what we’re discussing)—I am thinking about the uses of art again for politics after a show I saw this past weekend at the Austrian Cultural Forum, put together by Gregory Sholette and Oliver Ressler, It’s the Political Economy, Stupid. So many of the pieces—many of which were videos—were quite educative about the political economy since 2008. In one video, economists break down the bail-outs amidst animation of bears with swinging gold chains (reference to a bearish market) and other bling. Another video features a forum with economists and artists in Mexico City. Were these only to gain a more public audience, I feel like people would know better how this situation all came about and what is at stake in opting out of Neoliberalism. The thing I was most moved by, however, had very little to offer by way of information/pedagogy, yet rather featured Spanish Flamenco dancers demonstrating, flash-mob style, in various banks, flo6x8. What was moving was to see this deep cultural knowledge (Flamenco) performed virtuostically in public places (banks) explicitly against capital (clear in the songs they sing and signs they hold up to spectators/video cameras). I wondered what the folk equivalent would be in the U.S. if there is even an equivalent. Country line dancing? B boy battles? In one video a dancer continues dancing while pursued by a bank security guard, twirling away from him. flo6X8 uses art to channel cultural immanence, the refusals latent in all cultural forms (as though the inverse of Benjamin’s equation, that all cultural products are documents of barbarism, all cultural products too, have a potentially resistant if not redemptive aspect). All of this goes back to our previous discussion of appropriation and recontextualization where it is not only technique that is at stake, but to what use these techniques and forms are put, into what contexts they are placed at certain points within history.
Thank you for breaking down the lineage of Oscar Grant Plaza and for parsing differences between OO and Paris Commune, an important thing to do, to historicize these terms we are using—occupy, commune—, which have so pervaded the collective imagination. I love too how you come at pop music, through Rihanna and Ted’s and Jasper’s debate, so familiar to both of us, and a debate that will no doubt recur until music and art are produced and received through a totally different set of conditions. I can’t wait to read Flowering Mall, which sounds amazing, flights about vampires always being welcome, our national pastime it would seem. And with so much extolling of “evil” and “amorality” among various contemporary poets, it will be no doubt refreshing to see how you encounter these questions.
It’s admittedly been a challenge to continue with what I was doing before—via The Hole and a subsequent manuscript—since the occupations began. Time is marked differently, and I feel that different marking of time. As Filip Marinovich of Zucotti Park noted to me when it was still occupied, the limits of the park are (or rather were) the spatial limits of now time (Jetztzeit), a sense of all possible futures and pasts moving within and through the present. I think what I most want is to write something that will not so much compete with the feedback loops and circuits established by the occupations and other political emergencies, so much as aspire to it, taking something from its exigencies.
Hosting a reading series at Pete’s Candy Store in Brooklyn last fall and this winter, I have witnessed quite a few writers taking to forms of poetic journalism: Erin Morrill, Stephanie Young, and Anne Boyer in particular. This movement rhymes with other historical moments, like for instance the ’60s / ’70s when poets felt compelled to mediate their sense of present differently. Beats, New York School, Black Mountain, all are obviously inflected by traces of this. I wonder how to mediate that sense of time compression that one feels when they are participating in something that seems overwhelmingly sensible as a social movement, which may fit Kant’s definition of the sublime in this sense. I realize to re-feel these events (or these feelings for event?) requires a very artificial writing; not spontaneity alone, but a framing and construction of spontaneity that does not completely destroy the original impulses and circumstances through which events came into being.
I have been thinking a lot about this tension between spontaneity and mediation in the transition from say a figure like [Allen] Ginsberg, a poem like “Wichita Vortex Sutra” specifically, to Hannah Weiner’s Clairvoyant Journals and other works in which she uses the typewriter to negotiate her three voices. And I think this problem, neither purely one of expression or construction, occurs in your work, Dana’s, Suzanne’s, and others in want of spontaneity, but no longer innocent to the feedback loops of media, the kinds of community- and self- management that social media entails (and I owe this last thought to a recent email with Dana).
So that is what I am exploring. The results so far are three poems, using the sentence as its basic unit, though not really like ’90s prose poetry. In each there is a sense of time—the momentary, fleeting instant—but also the construction of moments (a moving through frames of reflection upon various moments). I am resisting irony in this mode but sometimes feel the pull towards irony. Because irony has something to do with reflexivity, it is perhaps the dominant rhetorical mode of reflexivity. I am also wondering how to extend the problems of The Hole and a subsequent manuscript—“Withdrawn”—which are so much about moving amidst community and coterie formations at this micro-political/allegorical level outwards towards larger social movements and discourses, something I think “political” poetries have often tried to do.
Part of this book (or whatever to call its ultimate manifestation) may involve what I was previously describing to you as a re-appropriation of my email archives. It will also possibly use materials culled from the Internet and Facebook, which obviously grow in strangeness as we exist further from their original contexts. Letters, questionnaires to friends, on-the-fly essay writing/notation may also lend materials to this epically minor project. Whatever the outcome, I hope that—as in the case of The Hole—we may find ourselves in a situation where it becomes difficult to remember why it was important to us to write these poems and books in the first place, which were/are obviously articulating a desire for a different world. Or perhaps as you say, contra avant-gardism, to “enframe” and model worlds that are already here in our midst, albeit unrecognized. To enframe the brink of those proximities, too. Which all sounds a bit like Shelley, or George Oppen doing the voice of Shelley, when I really want to sound like Fred Moten or Anne Boyer or Brandon Brown doing the voice of Oppen doing the voice of Shelley.
Today I walked around my office and thought, this is what contemporary capitalism looks like, I mean, from the crudest, most painterly subject position. Subjects absorbed in rectangles. The perfect fit of our bodies and the rectangles, Bifo’s warning (full of pathos) concerning a world marked by connection replacing one that doesn’t fit, that conjuncts, that meets but doesn’t quite fit. I think “enframing the brink” is a key tactic—a parataxis of forms desperate to make themselves known to us, only available to sense perception on the brink and only representable by finding ways of framing the brink.
Much of what you say above reminds me again of the way the AG has villainized “the lyric,” then “narrativity,” and so on, as a way of insisting on the exclusion of the subject. Now this has been more or less accomplished—I mean, we’re really merging with machines! This is not some sublime ’60s sci-fi sentiment but the obvious data of contemporary life. I think we have to reconsider all of the supposedly stable tropes of poetry—voice, narrative, expression, all of it. I know this is all strikingly simplistic in reference to what sounds like a very nuanced, complex project that you’ve got brewing, but I wanted to finish by wondering about the knowable form it reminds me of most: the anti-autobiography.
What I really value this morning about the term might simply be that striking prefix anti. If “autobiography” can be said to maintain a coherent meaning as an activity (life that writes itself) and a genre (the works of our literature known as autobiographies), the places from which this can be taken up oppositionally seem so diverse, so full of potential. I dunno. That seems to me to be the unfinished work of the 19th century in some ways, or at least the contemporary implication of its most extravagantly untimely thinkers.
I know that’s a potentially annoying thought on which to conclude—but actually the affective atmosphere of the last few months, which include the Occupy stuff, which include Greece in flames, which include my reading The Hole and My Common Heart and Save the World and This Can’t Be Life and Amazing Weapons, which includes the death (for both of us) of dear friends. If I’m able to say ANYTHING as a gnome about what all this “means” for me right now, it’s in the form of an imperatival or exhortatory subjunctive: do not forget. Try as hard as you can to not forget.
Brandon Brown’s first two books were published in 2011, The Persians By Aeschylus (Displaced Press) and The Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus (Krupskaya.) Poems and prose have recently appeared in Postmodern Culture, Model Homes, Poetry Project Newsletter, Swan’s Rag, Try!, and Art Practical. He has programmed literary series at New Langton Arts, 21 Grand Gallery, several consecutive living rooms, and published small press chapbooks under the imprint OMG! He lives in San Francisco.
Thom Donovan edits Wild Horses of Fire. His criticism and poetry have been published in BOMBlog, PAJ: performance + art, Modern Painters, and at the Poetry Foundation. His newest book, The Hole, is available for purchase at SPD.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.