I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
An invitation to disorder: poetry, insurrection, and concrete utopia.
On November 11, 2008, the French government stormed what they called an “anarcho-autonomist cell,” a group who had set up a store in the small village of Tarnac in central France. Accused of “criminal conspiracy to commit a terrorist act,” the members of this group were suspected of having sabotaged the catenaries of a high-speed train. Although most of those arrested were released fairly rapidly, Julien Coupat, the presumed leader of the cell, spent more than six months in jail without trial, under “preventative arrest.” What is particularly striking about this situation, and generally in line with the effects of increasingly liberticidal antiterrorist laws, is that part of the accusation included the presumption that Coupat belonged to the anonymous collective that had written The Coming Insurrection, a handbook on active exile from capitalism. The presumption of authorship as a political crime is perhaps something we thought ourselves safe from in our so-called Western democracies. Jean-Marie Gleize’s book Tarnac (Kenning Editions, 2014) arose as a response to this situation, as an act of friendship, and as an experiment in what he calls another form of politics.
Noura Wedell I’d like to begin with a question about context—the way you conceive of what’s possible for writing today and, more generally, the role of intellectuals.
I often find myself caught in something of a quandary about production, since everything inevitably seems to be recuperated by the capitalist machine. I wonder if it wouldn’t be best to stay silent, not to produce, to refuse to participate. This is what the Tarnac people did, in a sense. I feel haunted by certain questions: How can we not contribute to the ambient noise? How do we continue to contribute to a culture that does not address its financial contradictions, one that is encountering a severe failure of its institutions (think of the crisis in the university), or whose production of theory and knowledge is often seen as elitist?
I think Andrea Fraser’s text, “There’s No Place Like Home,” is eye-opening in this regard. In it, she discusses the economic inequalities underlying the boom in prices of a certain art world, and the widening gap between the material conditions of art and its symbolic systems. I’m interested in the contradictions that plague educational and cultural institutions. If writing is fundamentally linked to this context, how can we react to its crumbling? How do you write in a situation of crisis?
There might be two moments to this question: the first in relation to our contemporary context, and the second concerning a structuring moment for your political imaginary—that is, 1968.
Jean-Marie Gleize Can I answer somewhat in disorder? I mean, not in an ordered and consecutive way, but freely, through a series of touches, as I go get some orange juice in between?
A few days ago I was attempting to write a text to present a young comrade, a woman who writes somewhat riotous texts in our journal Nioques, and who draws the images for the cover. I think of them as a form of innocent and obscene graffiti. Her name is Élodie Petit. She likes birds and writes this about one of the birds she likes: “Its song sounds like a threat or an invitation to disorder.” Invitation to Disorder would be a good title for an interview, especially now that a recent election, in France and in Europe, has placed very sinister partisans of order in positions of leadership. They are xenophobic, anti-semitic and racist, and openly proclaim their doctrine of “national-populism.” So what follows is in disorder, and probably also partly for disorder, since it’s about being able to have some breathing space.
I don’t have much to say about the role of intellectuals in today’s French context. You don’t hear them very much in contemporary debates—but who might them refer to? In fact, there isn’t really any debate at all. Instead, what we see is the acceleration and omnipresence of media flows. We are far from the Camus/Sartre moment, the Althusser/Derrida moment, the Foucault/Bourdieu, Deleuze/Guattari moments, and so on. Those who visibly intervene are ideologues, without any true legitimacy, summoned for the needs of current affairs: the political commentators, economists, legal experts, criminologists, Vatican experts, terrorism experts. The intellectuals (they exist) are working in their laboratories, they are writing science, and are activists—or not.
As the post-Pongian I am, I don’t know if I should consider poets and artists as intellectuals. Not necessarily. They do other things, which of course has to do with the current crisis and the feeling of trying to change the context, to act, directly and indirectly, on this global atmosphere and the more or less asphyxiating constructions that surround us.
NW When you say that Francis Ponge did not consider poets and artists as intellectuals, what do you mean exactly?
JMG After the Second World War, Francis Ponge used to say that he preferred the company of painters and sculptors to that of philosophers. He felt most at home in their studios. He was quite distrustful of ideas, which he thought relatively “inconsistent,” and of handlers of ideas, ideologues, specialists of the concept who write and express themselves to expose or illustrate knowledge. The artists of language—or poets, who look at words as things—write in order to know, to produce knowledge, and consider writing as practical labor.
NW Right. Ponge calls for a “refounding of logical industry,” that is, a renewal of categories of representation through process, fragmentation, the inscription of the body in writing. Your own work continues this refounding, through montage, the use of a variety of media, a way you have of borrowing from a constellation of writers and artists.
But Ponge is only one figure of a poetic lineage to which you belong, and which you’ve done much to renew. It has its roots, at least in part, in the great French experimenters of the late nineteenth century. There is of course Rimbaud, and the notion of the literal encapsulated in his well-known statement “literally and in every sense.” Mallarmé’s problematics of place is important in the current of your writing, his “nothing will have taken place but place” from Un coup de dés, which you transform into the advent of place, the event in space, and also a concrete practice of writing that works with the accidents of the ground—those chance encounters with physical materiality that produce symbolic effects. This is a way to revise the way we understand the emergence of symbolic functions: through a direct relation to the concrete and the material, again a refusal of abstract systems, or a priori logic. But there is something else that transits via Mallarmé, which is the question of death, silence, the way death is transmitted (for example in your father’s trauma during World War II and his muteness upon his return). In Tarnac, you take up this question with quotes from A Tomb for Anatole, written at the death of Mallarmé’s eight-year-old son.
The current or river of your poetic lineage continues through a series of poets of your own generation—Claude Royet-Journoud, Anne-Marie Albiach, Emmanuel Hocquard, Denis Roche—and some younger than you are—Nathalie Quintane, Christophe Tarkos—as well as the writers you’ve connected around the journal Nioques.
If you’d like, this is a question about quoting and friendship.
JMG All of the elements you cite are part of the landscape—at once material, theoretical, co-textual, and human—in which I circulate, and which I compose, put together, of which I make a montage, in the different books that form the cycle seemingly inaugurated with my book Léman (Seuil, 1990). I say seemingly here because I think the first act is instead to be found in my book Simplification lyrique (Seghers, 1987). I speak of a series of acts, not in a theatrical sense, but as a reference to the idea of a concrete practice, featuring real situations, physical movements, and gestures that might lead to a certain number of effects. That book was an inaugural act that had something of a programmatic and prescriptive meaning for me. The idea was to simplify, even to be done with the posture and procedures of lyricism—no more musicalization, expression, sublimation, aestheticization of the sentimental, and so on.
But just as it was a deconstructive or negative operation, the idea was also to acknowledge the way close friends of mine—Anne-Marie Albiach, Claude Royet Journoud—had each, in their own way, subjected the labor of poetry to a very rigorous therapy by inserting all that was referential into the literal, through erasure, removal, subtraction, and abstraction. This conferred an incredible weight to the textual remains and their configuration on the page. In a sense, they cleared the air, and in my book I was acknowledging the work they had done. It served as a launching pad for me, because I wanted to reintroduce not the real but what I refer to as “the name of things.” We must call things by their names, proper names—Léman, Tarnac—and also by the narratives they partake of, their circumstances, and so on. The cycle I am referring to sets up the work of inquiry and documentary investigation in a number of settings: lakes, torrents, screens, hallways, hotel or hospital rooms, in China or in the thickness of a French landscape.
NW I’d like to add to this constellation of influences the importance of literalism and the index in the visual arts, starting with minimalism and conceptualism. And then of course there is the proliferation of images in the media, but also via cinema and video. Can you speak to this a little?
JMG Yes, this writing attempts to situate itself in an objectivist and literal movement, documental and dispositival [from dispositif: apparatus or technique] as well. I could add here to the names of the younger generation you’ve cited, those of Christophe Hanna and Olivier Quintyn, whose contributions and theoretical-critical inventiveness are for me fundamental.
As for the image, it is an extremely important issue for me and warrants specific treatment here. In my writing, I don’t establish any a priori difference between photography, video, and film. What is pertinent is the issue of reversing the image into text and the issue of the literal treatment of text, which can be understood as a cancellation of the image. A book of images without images is something of an obsession, where images are put in a permanent critical situation of apparition-absorption, emergence-erasure, and conversion. Inasmuch as the image has become, since the end of the nineteenth century, the exponent of poetry from Baudelaire to surrealism, it goes without saying that what occurs in the space of a critique of poetry—or as the radically post-poetic, or as the continuation of poetry by other means—must necessarily entertain a critical relation to the image, to what pertains to a figurative, mimetic, or analogical economy.
It became progressively clear that I had to try to establish the configurations and situations that gave rise to, or gave a place to, a process of disfiguration, to this disappearance or reversal of images, into holes, or onto a more or less layered series of screens: the surface/hole of the lake, the surface/hole of the page, the surface/hole of the television or computer screen, the surface/hole of the wall. I had to turn the configurations that implied this passage from disfiguration to literalization into text—this passage to the literal, to literal writing, though the expression is a bit too tautological. It is a kind of writing that is not re-figurative or decked out through poetization, metaphorization, or the rhetorical play of images. It’s a dry, naked writing that strips everything away, and that I call “prose in prose.” Narrative and descriptive writing, documentary fragments, textual or other kinds of sampling.
I should emphasize the importance of the notion of screen (phonically close to the notion of writing, at least in the French écran-écrit) as the plane, the flat surface that is at once the place of appearance and proliferation of images as well as the place of their disappearance. Screen-black, black on white—this is the process or series of acts through which the screen-black image can be erased, and that I call “literalization.” In this sense, the act, whether it is the physical act of performance or the act of writing, is opposed to the image, figurative or not, formal or informal. Such a position clearly implies an ambiguous, ambivalent relation to the image.
In almost all the books of the cycle, there are photographs, either reproductions of old photographs—more or less dirty, gray, erased, selected from the archive—or produced images, taken while the text was being written. In the latter case, they are most often Polaroid images. Polaroids allow for a mechanical capture of the real, without a negative. They are single, instantaneous, immediately available images that permit a simple visual acknowledgment without any added aesthetic coefficient. Incidentally, the Polaroid image has a very relative presence and consistency. It is fragile and has a tendency to disappear. It barely exists. It’s an image-nonimage, if you wish. And with a Polaroid, the act of shooting, framing, capturing is clearly much more important than the image-object that results, which brings us back to my earlier remarks.
NW There is another version of this story—a history of resistance to the image and to the proliferation and predominance of screens, which has been told via the Situationsits and the notion of alienation through spectacle. You rewrite their materialism according to a different set of terms. They came out of revolutionary praxis, lettrism, collage, architecture, sociology, and philosophy, as well as a classical notion of rhetoric and writing evident in Debord’s late texts. Your lineage is quite different—Ponge, the Maoists in 1968, and what we’ve already discussed. With Tarnac and the meeting with the Invisible Committee, authors of The Coming Insurrection, you are bridging these different histories. What do you think is the effect of this bridging, if there is one?
JMG When I started to write, I knew about the political stakes of the work the Situationsits were doing in regards to the society of the spectacle and the becoming image of the real in that society. I was also aware of their propositions for concrete action on the imposed and proliferating images, notably through the practice of détournement—the subversive reinterpretation of collage and montage, techniques that have today become quite commonplace in the field of experimental poetry with a critical aim. But it is also true that I was mostly informed by the judgment against the poetic image, or metaphorism, by an “objectivist” like Francis Ponge.
Despite the lucid and severe warnings by the revolutionaries of the Situationist International, at the time, I was sensitive to the “beautiful images,” or icons, of the Chinese revolutionary legend, the images of a fiction of equalitarian communism. I was, in a sense, conflicted between an iconoclasm in principle—an essential part of my literalist position—and the more or less blind submission to a political imaginary of a quasi-religious nature. I was prey to a certain number of contradictions. I am not sure that I am more coherent today in my relation to images, especially because there is another decisive tension in my relation to them: the one I sense in my violent taste for Cistercian nakedness, as in Le Corbusier’s gesture at La Tourette—a vessel of unadorned concrete. Also in the imagery that surrounds and accompanies the Franciscan legend, associated in my mind, and in Tarnac, to the concrete utopia of a primitive communism or communitarianism.
Again, the question of the image and of images at the heart of my writing practice is marked by a strong ambivalence and powerful contradictory pressures against a base of certainty. We cannot escape analogy. We live and work within walls of images, inside and in front of them, against and with screenic reality, and we must answer to this condition.
NW In addition to your books, you’ve had a very long practice of teaching, establishing filiations without the hierarchy of age or knowledge. I feel lucky to have been one of your students. For me, that meant friendship, protection against institutional violence as much as your power within the institution allowed, and also the invitation and encouragement to write. What is important for you in this?
JMG I should tell you first that within the very constrained, normative, and extremely hierarchical French academic system, I’ve always considered that teaching was a question of style: that is to say, a question of playing with the norm, of the light transgression of sharing an emancipatory—and as such clearly political—practice with students. Among the consequences is the fact that I consider the teaching of reading—of reading know-how and a desire for that know-how, or, in other words, teaching the fact that no text, even the simplest one, is immediately given to reception but instead always requires discovery and the establishment of a certain number of takes—implies, as if by ricochet, the incitation of a desire to write. People have often asked me why I never exhibited a great interest in “creative writing” classes, though I never opposed them in any dogmatic way. The reason is that the notion of “style” that I’ve just evoked implies this incitation, this invitation. “I am an inciter,” as Ponge would say. And when I look back, or simply around me, I see that a great number of my students have decided to write, to start journals, alternative editorial structures, and so on. In other words, my pedagogical utopia had some effect.
The other important aspect of this dimension of my work is an institutional and emotional relation with the people involved. All of it circles around the notion of friendship that concerns at once the simple fact of living and doing something in common—aside from what is planned hierarchically and determined by the institution—and the slow and haphazard construction of personal ties between the actors. These ties are essential to the self-liberation and self-realization of each of us. The ideal would be to have a community of living and active reflection that preserves the maximum of autonomy for each. I don’t know if I was able to realize that ideal, but I can say that I set everything I could in motion to try to succeed.
NW In response to this asphyxiation you are talking about—the bankruptcy of institutions, contradictions in the cultural field, the rise of the extreme right, and so forth—there is the possibility of gestures of anonymity, poverty, retreat, or exile. Do you agree with these modes of action? How does your response differ from what the people from Tarnac are trying to do?
JMG The unpublished sequel to Tarnac, a Preparatory Act, is called The Book of Cabins. A formula returns throughout the book: “Yes, we live in your ruins, but.” Everything is in that “but” and in the place we give these ruins, their ruins, in our texts and in the other practical work that we do.
Descriptions of the recent transformation of regimes of authority and of new apparatuses of domination impel us to reflect on new forms of resistance to these same apparatuses: the inventive exercise of our capacity for autonomy, for self-governed and self-managed “pockets,” open associations, egalitarian, left-libertarian, and so on. I call such pockets “cabins”; they correspond to temporary autonomous zones that are something like forms of realized concrete utopias, or permanent autonomous zones—spaces of communal life, the lived forms, in the here and now, projects of collective emancipation.
There is no indication that permanent structures aren’t in fact temporary, and that temporary structures may perhaps aspire to a measure of stability. The aims of the artistic or writing practices that I’m talking about are centrifugal, but just like all projects of autonomous expression, they are always in danger of being recuperated into the great machine of integration called “empire,” or simply, and more immediately, as concerns our singular and marginal activity, of being caught up into the structures that manage artistic and cultural production. We have to be very vigilant. And we also have to be lucid about our capacity to remain at a critical distance.
Does poetry, understood as one of these forms of activity, practice, or writing, require some form of retreat? It seems to me that all artistic practice implies a form of retreat—a chosen and provisional solitude, a necessary distance for a right vision of things, to establish the conditions that might favor concentration and reflection. Of course, this retreat and solitude does not imply a rupture with reality, context, and others. On the contrary, it is a modality of our presence. It is for us the real way to face things, to maximize our capacity for intervention, action, and activation. I am not really in any position to distinguish a movement toward the inside from a movement toward the outside.
NW The notion of poverty you develop in the book could be understood in a positive way—as a refusal of consumption, a way to emancipation through the reduction of needs, and also the nakedness that allows for greater possibilities and depths of experience. It opens onto a form of ethics that escapes productivism and spectacle. Where does the notion come from for you and why do you invoke it? Could you also speak a little about the word communist?
JMG In Tarnac there is an axis that concerns my personal history—Tarnac as a place where I spent my childhood—and an axis that relates to an objective history—Tarnac as the place where a left-libertarian community was established. The primitive Franciscan utopia of poverty, wild community, and cabins belongs to my personal context. My grandfather was a Franciscan “tertiary,” an order filled with legends of Saint Francis speaking to the birds.
The communist utopia belongs to my activist past, which I have not disowned in the least. Communism is a word with an open meaning, one that must be reinvented. At the same time, having the axes of personal and objective history intersect requires that I establish certain formal procedures—the practice of experimental poetry. And the contemporary political situation cannot be distinguished from the contemporaneity of this commune whose practices clearly partake of a form of experimental politics. In reality, all of these connections are interdependent, and none of this, even if it is as remote as this village in the middle of a plateau in central France, is outside of the contradictions that are inherent to our society, or to the struggles it is full of.
NW Tarnac is subtitled “a preparatory act.” What does this refer to, for you and for the French police?
JMG On this question, I can only repeat what I said during a meeting at the University of Nanterre: the notion of “preparatory act” belongs to the juridical arsenal of the state of exception that has progressively been elaborated in the context of the prevention and repression of terrorist attempts on French territory. It is a notion that is pointedly undefined, allowing for the detention of people for supposed intentions and not for acts or proven facts. “Tarnac” in this title designates both the village where arbitrary arrests occurred because of this political legislation and the book that readers hold in their hands, since books are themselves acts, I think. The formula “preparatory act,” detourned from its initial context, reoriented or rearmed, concerns a certain conception of time as it is deployed in the textual regime, in this type of post-poetic regime: I am not trying to evoke the past—as poetry does sometimes in an elegiac mode—or to sing the future—as poetry does sometimes in a committed mode—but to engage with what I might call an anterior present, mnemonic traces, the present of childhood that persists in a very sensible and material way, and with a present to come. It is in this sense a stratified present, a present in acts, waiting and preparing for what is to come.
NW Tarnac is made up of seventeen parts, spaces, or planes, followed by an index and a chronology. These zones are lists that seem to mark the edges of a territory. But these parts are also repetitions and reprisals of themes you’ve been developing for a long time. They are ways to start again, to integrate process, the unfinished, the non-totalizing. In that sense, they seem to resist what orders us to silence, through fear of what is different and what refuses to align itself, what you might call insurrection. We might also call them plateaus of pleasure, of freedom. This always happens with something that is very concrete for you: the insertion of your Polaroid images of Tarnac, the writing of formulas such as “I’ve decided to choose my dialect,” or (here I’m opening the book at random) “the question of revolution is from now on a musical question.”
JMG Yes, the space of Tarnac is composed of titled spaces and sequences that are like the different spaces that compose Tarnac the village. As the map reproduced in the book shows, Tarnac is the central node of a swarm of villages or hamlets that are all connected to each other by roads, country lanes, and paths. It is a pulverized space, the dust of places, localities with given names, sentences, motifs, nakedness, dust, the tree, the river, lines, paragraphs, photographs, and so on.
All the books in this cycle revolve around a node that is difficult to grasp and that relates to death. You saw this when you cited the presence of the Tomb for Anatole, Mallarme’s son, but there are other dead here, my dead, all of them buried in the earth of Tarnac. In fact, the book proceeds via repetitions, reprises, variations, cross references, self-quotations, thematic dissemination, so that the total space could never be conceived as total, especially as that space also overflows in time—see the offbeat chronology—and in space—China, United States, Italy. Toward the end of the book, there is the description of a notebook and this sentence: “On the very last page, the definition given for the word ‘scraps’ seemed an allusion to cutting, pasting, placing, juxtaposition, this settling of matter in suspension, in a state of slow decomposition.”
Clearly this composition, through de-composition, also carries with it the history of a re-composition, the ground base of that hidden story of a possible insurrection, the revolutionary question.
NW To finish—and I’m not sure you will agree to this—I was wondering if you could elaborate a bit on this revolutionary question?
JMG You are right to suppose that I can’t really answer this question inasmuch as it presents itself to us as an open one. Or re-opened, since it has been somewhat pushed aside by many. In the Arab world, we have recently seen that popular movements, independent of all constituted organizations, could topple dictatorships, or locally bar destructive projects. As a writer, I can’t elaborate on the subject of concrete contents that can be given to the project of emancipation in which we want to participate. I am simply saying that my work of writing includes this desire in each of its lines—includes that possibility. It is, here again, something like an invitation.
Noura Wedell is a writer, scholar, translator, and an editor for Semiotext(e). She edited Investigations: the Expanded Field of Writing in the Works of Robert Morris (Presses Universitaires de Lyon, 2014), and has translated six books, including theoretical texts by Toni Negri and Guy Hocquenguem, and two autobiographical narratives by Pierre Guyotat. Her book of poetry, Odd Directions (Opera Prima, 2009), replaying certain conceptualist investigations of space and meaning, ended up being about God. She lives in Los Angeles.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee