Monday, September 29, 2014

Chinese Democracy: A Report from Hong Kong's Occupy Central

This just in from my pal Lucas Klein, who is on the scene in Hong Kong where people are in the streets in vast numbers protesting for democracy. Reporting has been suppressed in China, but the word is getting out elsewhere.


I went to the Occupy Central demonstrations this afternoon. I had previously been annoyed and disappointed that the movement’s messaging and organizing had been so deficient in English and Mandarin, resulting in my never knowing where or when their actions had taken place (certainly it makes sense that the primary language of the events is Cantonese, but particularly when up against media representation in Mandarin that’s almost exclusively negative, having a comprehensive campaign that includes explaining to mainlanders what our goals are and how we’re actually on the same side as you becomes all the more important).

Finding the action was not difficult, but it wasn’t exactly straightforward, either. It’s called Occupy Central because it had been, in the days of Occupy Wall St., primarily in the Central district; it’s now moved to Connaught Road, a stretch of highway linking most government and administrative buildings along the northern coast of Hong Kong island. The occupation this afternoon stretched from roughly Statue Square to past the Academy for Performing Arts (red and blue on the map; a distance of a little over a kilometer, or three-quarters of a mile), but the first challenge was getting there: in part because so much traffic has been obstructed, and in part out of fear of traffic being obstructed, most of the bus lines had been rerouted or halted. I took a tram, which terminated a good three kilometers from where I wanted to go.

I could see no signs of any demonstration going on at first, but then I realized that Des Voeux Rd Central, one of the main thoroughfares of that part of Hongkong, was all but devoid of traffic—no cars, no buses, no trucks, no taxis… By the time I got to the primary intersection of Central (Des Voeux, Pedder, and Chater) I saw that two of the streets had been blocked off by police, but protesters were nowhere to be found. This continued as I walked past the former Legislative Council building and the HSBC headquarters, whose gates were lowered and locked—though I saw no one demonstrating yet, it was clear that the official establishment of Hongkong, the government and the financiers, were terrified. Only a few minutes later, though, I found the crowd.

Last night I saw the images of police launching teargas into crowds of demonstrators, but the tears that caught me were on seeing so many people—as thick a crowd as I’ve ever seen, as far as the eye could literally see. Mostly wearing black (in the sun, on a day that reached 34°C, or about 93°F), mostly in their twenties, and, I think I’m right about this, more young women than young men. There were a few people with megaphones making speeches, echoed by what seemed to be Zuccotti Park-style people’s microphones, and a few people with signs sponsored by official labor unions (the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions) or political parties, but mostly it was young men and women sitting in groups while others gave out free bread, bananas, water, wet towels, and cooling packs (the kind I stick on Quentin’s forehead when he has a fever). The atmosphere was lively, joyous, and generous.

Walking up to the protest, I saw a woman selling water bottles at 7 HKD each (a little under $1 USD); there seemed to be enough water being distributed for free at the demonstration, but I had expected price-gouging. The closest thing to negativity I saw at all was when I was part of a crowd pushing west on Gloucester Rd. toward Wan Chai to expand the area of occupation: where Gloucester met the off-ramp from Arsenal, some police vehicles led a few other cars past what I took to be their own blockade uphill; as the police drove past the demonstration, protesters booed at the cop cars (one police vehicle even found itself obstructed by particularly zealous occupiers. I do not believe the protesters would have had so much antipathy toward the police if it hadn’t been for the tear gas last night.

 I ran into two people I knew there, one former colleague of mine and another current student in the class I’m teaching this semester. Before the student strike, she had said she hadn’t made up her mind whether to boycott her classes the following week; a week later, she did in fact attend class; today, though, she was on the street—I take it that the police escalation last night contributed to her will, and she fortified her resolve, just as I imagine the resolve of many other demonstrators to have been fortified, as well. One thing she said to me, though, I almost wish she hadn’t: “Stay safe.” It’s something I’ve heard or read from any number of friends in Hongkong and around the world, and of course it’s generally good practice as well as something of a filler when you don’t know what else to say. It’s also a reminder that we’re dealing with a police force that has used brutality already, and that behind that police force is a national government that has called the military and their loaded and aimed weapons onto peaceful demonstrators in the not too distant past. And yet. “Stay safe” verges on blaming the victim: it puts the responsibility on us as politically active individuals acting collectively in solidarity to temper our demands and actions so that they don’t provoke violent retaliation. That, I think, is wrong. It’s the job of the police and the state that employs them to keep us safe, and when they fail at their job, we need to stop their vehicles and halt the economy that offers them legitimacy. And when that happens, well, I’ve rarely felt safer than I did today, walking as part of Occupy Central with Love and Peace. And in fact, a part of me is not sad to see that the police resorted to brutality so early and easily. Obviously I don’t want anyone to get hurt, especially people whose goals I support. But by engaging in violence the way they did, the police, and the structure of the state behind them, lost a lot of support in the court of public opinion. And that is a good thing.

This doesn’t mean necessarily that we will win and the PRC will agree to have not only universal suffrage in Hongkong but a nomination process in which it isn’t tipping the scales, but it does mean that I can envision such an outcome, because the state has shamed itself in its actions. Against that, a movement such as this one, defined by youth, by love and peace, by aspiration and inspiration, will always find a way to win.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Abject Sublime, or: Jean Genet's Vaseline

Like many people of my generation (I am, God help me, 46) I came to admire French theory in my grad school years.  One thing that puzzled me back in the early 1990s, when as a doctoral candidate in English lit I was happily chowing down on fricassée Foucault, bouillabaisse Baudrillard, and délice de Deleuze, was the relative lack of enthusiasm for these thinkers in American philosophy departments.  Outside of the New School and Columbia—where the legacy of European émigrés was strong—and the Catholic universities—where theology kept philosophy wedded to continental traditions—the thinkers my friends and I found so congenial were often treated with suspicion by American professors of philosophy.  Of course the question I should have been asking wasn't "why do the philosophy departments shun this stuff," but "why do we in English take to it so readily?"  It is not obvious, after all, why a love of the poetry of Seamus Heaney should lead to an appreciation of Luce Irigaray.  François Cusset traces the particulars of how the works of these thinkers traveled from France to the United States via various channels (notably French and comparative lit departments) in his wonderful study French Theory, but I think there's a core affinity between literary study and French theorists, something that lies behind the particulars of cultural transmission across the Atlantic.  In the French tradition, theorists tend to arrive at their ideas by extrapolating from works of literature.  That is, their concepts are, to a degree unmatched in Anglo-American philosophy, created from sorting through and regularizing the observations of poets, novelists, and playwrights: taking just the major works of Deleuze and Guattari as examples, we can point to their use of Artaud as the basis from which they elaborate the notion of the "body without organs" in Anti-Oedipus, and Karl Phillip Moritz as the basis of the idea of "animal-becoming" in 1,000 Plateaus.  They begin where we begin, with a passage of literature, even though they tend to head in different, perhaps more ambitious, directions.

It should come as no surprise, then, to find Julia Kristeva basing her notion of abjection on the writings of Céline.  In her classic book on the subject, Powers of Horror, Kristeva speaks of those who encounter the abject as feeling "a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable."  The abject thing—be it an object, an urge, a person, a class of people, a bodily function, what have you—is something we scapegoat, that we try to throw out as something we cannot accept and don't want to have any relationship with.  But we inevitably have a relation to the abjected, despite what we'd like to think—and when we make something abject we still sense it as something "quite close" even though "it cannot be assimilated." It "fascinates desire, which, nevertheless, does not let itself be seduced." And our "desire turns aside; sickened."  Our conscious minds cling to the (false) certainty the this abject thing is shameful and has nothing to do with us, even as unconsciously we are drawn toward the abject, which is "as tempting as it is condemned." The abject "has only one quality of the object—that of being opposed to I"—that is, to the ego's sense of itself.  It is what we define as not-us, what we have subdued and expelled. "And yet," Kristeva continues, "from its place of banishment, the abject does not cease challenging its master."  So what does this mean, specifically?  I've seen enough people whose religious background has led them to reject and deny their own homosexuality to know that there are many people who turn their own sexual identity into something abject, and suffer a deep and unhealthy split between their conscious sense of who they are, their "I" or ego, and their rejected but ever-present sexuality—a version of the attraction-repulsion Kristeva describes.  Or, moving to an even grimmer example, we could think of what the Nazis did to Jews (and others) as an extreme form of abjection: a casting out of people, an assertion that there is no connection between them and us, and yet a fascination, an unconscious sense of kinship that needs constant denial, a lurking sense, constantly in need of being suppressed, that the dark qualities attributed by us to them might also belong to us.  The core chapter of Powers of Horror is an analysis of Céline's writings, in which Kristeva notes that Céline presents himself as "the only authentic one" who recognizes that which society abjects, and who will guide us through the underworld of abjection in his Journey to the End of Night.

If I were betting on who would be elected to the laureateship of abjection, though, I wouldn't back Céline.  I'd place my chips on the spot marked "Jean Genet," and I'll tell you why.  He understands abjection from the inside: born to a prostitute, raised in foster homes, prone to petty theft, and homosexual in a hostile time and place, he lived abjection, and not as a voluntary tourist in the realm of the abject.  What is more, he found something in abjection that Céline never found: a kind of sublimity.  He turned rejection into a sign of strength and even glory.  The best way to understand this is to take a look at a passage near the beginning of The Thief's Journal, where he writes about a tube of Vaseline.

Genet describes an early experience in Spain, where he'd been arrested.  The police have him empty his pockets, and it is revealed that he was carrying a tube of Vaseline, which the police correctly understood as a sexual lubricant, and a sign of Genet's homosexuality.

I was dismayed when, one evening, while searching me after a raid — I am speaking of a scene which preceded the one with which this book begins — the astonished detective took from my pocket, among other things, a tube of vaseline. We dared joke about it since it contained mentholated vaseline. The whole record-office, and I too at times, though painfully, writhed and laughed at the following:
            “You take it in the nose?”
            “Watch out you don’t catch cold. You wouldn’t want to give your guy whooping-cough.”
            I translate but lamely, in the language of a Paris hustler, the malicious irony of the vivid and venomous Spanish phrases. It concerns a tube of vaseline, one of whose ends was partially rolled up. Which amounts to saying that it had been put to use. Amidst the elegant objects taken from the pockets of the men who had been picked up in the raid, it was the very sign of abjection, of that which is concealed with the greatest of care, but yet the sign of a secret grace which was soon to save me from contempt. When I was locked up in a cell, and as soon as I had sufficiently regained my spirits to rise above the misfortune of my arrest, the image of the tube of vaseline never left me. The policemen had shown it to me victoriously, since they could thereby flourish their revenge, their hatred, their contempt.

The object itself is neutral, of course: it is what the police do when they discover it that renders Genet abject: they need to re-enforce their own sense of difference and superiority, their brotherhood in the confraternity of the norm, by using the object a as a focus for revenge, hatred, and contempt.  But watch the alchemy by which Genet redeems the despised object, and with it himself:

But lo and behold! this dirty, wretched object whose purpose seemed to the world — to that concentrated delegation of the world which is the police and, above all, that particular gathering of Spanish police, smelling of garlic, sweat and oil, but prosperous-looking, stout of muscle and strong in their moral assurance — utterly vile, became extremely precious to me. Unlike many objects to which my tenderness gives distinction, this one was not at all haloed; it lay on the table, a little grey leaden tube of vaseline, broken and livid, whose astonishing discreetness, and its essential correspondence with all the commonplace things in the record-office of a prison (the bench, the inkwell, the regulations, the scales, the odor), would, through the general indifference, have distressed me, had not the very content of the tube, perhaps because of its unctuous character, by bringing to mind an oil lamp, made me think of a night-light beside a coffin.

A night light beside a coffin!  Great!  And the description continues:

Lying on the table, it was a banner telling the invisible legions of my triumph over the police.  I was in a cell.  I knew that all night long my tube of vaseline would be exposed to the scorn—the contrary of a Perpetual Adoration—of a group of strong, handsome, husky, policemen.  So strong that if the weakest of them barely squeezed his fingers together, there would shoot forth, first with a slight fart, brief and dirty, a ribbon of gum which would continue to emerge in a ridiculous silence.  Nevertheless I was sure that this ridiculous and most humble object would hold its own against them…

There is a great deal one might say about this passage—including something about how the erotic way in which the police and the tube are depicted is a kind of revenge against aggressive heteronormativity.  But the thing that I'd like to note is the resemblance between the passage and Kant's description of sublimity in Critique of Judgment.

It's uncanny how well Genet's passage maps onto Kant's notion of sublimity.  For Kant, we get a sense of the sublime when we encounter something grand and vast, something that seems as though it could destroy us: a storm at sea, say, or a volcanic eruption, or a tornado near at hand towering above us into infinity.  We experience these as sublime not because we are afraid of them (although we are certainly fearful) but because of something they call up within us.  Such things, when we observe them and do not flee or faint, "raise the energies of the soul above their accustomed height and discover in us a faculty of resistance… which gives us the courage to measure ourselves against the apparent almightiness of nature."  We feel not only fear, but our own capacity to stand tall against the fearsome world, small though we may be.  For Kant, this awareness of our own miraculous endurance in the face of vast powers is the essence of the sublime.

The despised, abjected tube (and the Genet who becomes despised and abjected by virtue of association with that tube) stands in relation to the police as the small but undaunted human stands in relation to the vast natural forces of which Kant speaks.  It endures, in danger, and so gains a kind of dignity, a sublimity in its abjection—in fact, a sublimity by virtue of its enduring of abjection.

Soldiers have a certain sublimity for Kant, because they do not "yield to danger," but go forth "to face it vigorously with the fullest deliberation"—and it is significant, I think, that Genet turns to military language when, continuing his description of the vaseline tube on the police station table, he says "I would like to hymn it with the newest words in the French language.  But I would have also liked to fight for it, to organize massacres in its honor and bedeck a countryside at twilight with red bunting." Genet even adds, in a footnote, that he "would indeed rather have shed blood than repudiate that silly object." Genet would stand up for the tube of vaseline just as it, on the police table, stands for him: defiantly there despite its abject status, despite its vulnerability.  It asserts its being and resilience—and by extension, Genet's—in a world of powers that could easily destroy it.  It is, in some profound sense, his comrade in arms.  No one understands abjection as well as does Genet, perhaps because no one had to search within it so hard to find the dignity of the sublime.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Futures of Poetry!

Perloff, Kirsch, Nikolayev, and a full house at the Grolier

How many different timelines can we spin out for the future of poetry? The Grolier Poetry Bookshop in Cambridge, Massachusetts has decided to find out! They've been hosting a series of talks on the topic—the first set by me, Ben Mazer, and Stephen Burt, and the second set by Adam Kirsch, Philip Nikolayev, and Marjorie Perloff. You can check them out here:

Robert Archambeau, March 14, 2014 

Stephen Burt, March 14, 2014

Ben Mazer, March 14, 2014

Adam Kirsch, Philip Nikolayev, Marjorie Perloff, September 12, 2014

I’m not sure who will be involved in the next installment of the series, but I’ve got a pretty good idea where you can hang out with them after their talks. Here’s a hint.

A secret location on Harvard Square

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Poetry and Masculinity

Poetry and masculinity have a complicated relationship.  In most times and places, the poetic canon, and the institutions supporting poetry, have been dominated by men.  This is certainly true in the United States now, as the good people at VIDA have helped make plain with their quantitative analysis of who gets published where.  There’s also a strong sense in which masculinity is associated with power, even in the world of poetry—an issue I tried to assess in this essay for Poetry’s website.  But there is also a feeling, in many quarters, that poetry is in some sense emasculating, as if it were somehow the antimatter to football or the Ford F100 pickup truck.  This goes deep: back in 1958, when the sociologist Robert Neal Wilson interviewed scores of poets for his study Man Made Plain: The Poet in Contemporary Society, one of the complaints that came up frequently was the sense that men who became poets were looked down on as not being sufficiently manly, for letting down the side of masculinity.

Clearly there is a lot of untangling to be done if one wants to approach the Gordian knot of poetry and masculinity, and one thread I want to start with when I take up that attempt again is the one offered in Diederik Oostdijk’s study Among the Nightmare Fighters: Americans Poets of World War II. The book came to my attention in a review in the William Carlos Williams Review by the wonderful Brian Reed, who describes it thusly (with a nice little shout-out to one of my books):
Among the Nightmare Fighters offers an illuminating if partial survey of World War II’s importance in the history of American poetry and poetics. Oostdijk argues that, despite their stereotype of belonging to a “silent generation,” mid-twentieth-century poets who experienced the war either first-hand or on the home front did in fact speak out, albeit often “in a quiet and undemonstrative way” and sometimes years afterward. Their reticence, he explains, stemmed partly from having witnessed “events… too devastating to capture in words” but also from a belief that “the history of World War II was already fixed in the American imagination and that their personal musings would have no major impact.” To illustrate the value of what soldiers, veterans, and conscientious objectors did manage to write, he focuses on a single “tight-knit circle of poets,” “a generation of white, male, so-called academic poets who published their poems in the Kenyon Review, the New Yorker, and Partisan Review” and who “came to prominence in the 1940s and 1950s.” These writers—including John Ciardi, James Dickey, Anthony Hecht, Randall Jarrell, Lincoln Kirstein, Robert Lowell, Howard Nemerov, Karl Shapiro, and William Stafford—“collectively… show that the effects of war are ultimately shattering to all individuals caught in it,” especially any simple “equation of war and masculinity.” 
…. Among the Nightmare Fighters will likely interest any literary or cultural critic who studies warfare, gender, and trauma, especially anyone concerned with the Holocaust and its aftermath. It also deserves to be placed alongside other recent, first-rate works on masculinity and Cold War-era American poetry such as Robert Archambeau’s Laureates and Heretics (2010), Rachel Blau duPlessis’s Purple Passages (2012), and Michael Davidson’s Guys Like Us (2003).
If, like me, you’ve got to have this book, you can order it here.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

"Imagine What It Does to Americans!": Kenneth Goldsmith and Advertising

Often - mostly unconsciously - I'll model my identity of myself on some image that I've been pitched to by an advertisement. When I'm trying on clothes in a store, I will bring forth that image that I've seen in an ad and mentally insert myself and my image into it. It's all fantasy. I would say that an enormous part of my identity has been adopted from advertising. I very much live in this culture; how could I possibly ignore such powerful forces? Is it ideal? Probably not. Would I like not to be so swayed by the forces of advertising and consumerism? Of course, but I would be kidding myself if I didn't admit that this was a huge part of who I am as a member of this culture.

The paragraph above, and the picture that goes with it, together constitute a recent Facebook update by Kenneth Goldsmith.  Like much of what he does, it is interesting and a little troubling (at least to me).  He’s right, of course, about advertising influencing who we wish to be: that is, after all, the goal of the whole industry.  But we knew that.  What makes it interesting is the deliberate acquiescence, the acceptance, with a bit of a shrug and perhaps a bit of an eye-roll, of the power advertising has over our values and, indeed, our identities.  It’s unusual for a poet or artist to simply embrace these values: in fact, advertising-based mass culture and the modern idea of high culture come into being at the same time, in the late nineteenth century, and there’s a powerful sense in which the latter doesn’t make sense except in relation to the former.  The aesthetes and decadents turned their back on commercial culture, hoping to carve out a little space for something not linked to getting and spending.  The modernists, even when at their most apolitical, asserted values other than those of advertising—from James Joyce’s hyper-crafted and hopelessly uncommercial Ulysses to Robert Smithson’s virtually uncommodifiable  Spiral Jetty, we see the realm of the aesthetic set up against the values of the marketplace.  So when Goldsmith describes his interpolation into the world of commercial values, he’s going against a whole established tradition in the arts (and, like a true Conceptualist, taking the history of the arts as his medium).

Of course the closing of the distance between the fine or high or non-commercial arts and the world of popular culture is old hat: it’s one of the main moves of Ye Olde Postmodernism, with its embrace of everything from Donald Duck to the Campbell’s soup can.  But in much of Postmodernism there’s a kind of distancing from the world of commerce, even a kind of parody of it: Andy Warhol’s Factory as a site of cultural production was, even in its name, a kind of parody of commercial culture, and the star system he willed into being for his friends was a kind of echoing of the commercial culture, with all of the uncanniness we expect from an echo.  Is there, one wonders, any real critical or parodic take in Goldsmith’s approach to the values of advertising?  If not, is there a value—honesty, maybe—to his acceptance of those values even while he while regrets that acceptance?

One also wonders where Goldsmith finds his minimal resistance, his wish that he wasn’t so swayed by the values of consumerism?  In the past, resistance to commercial culture has come from many sources, not all of them healthy.  Folkloric culture gave Yeats a point from which to be critical of commercial culture, for example, but it shaded off into aristocratic snobbery.  T.S. Eliot found in his version of Christianity an antidote to modern commerce, but we all know the ugly side of that equation.

The broader question, perhaps, is what remains possible as a source of ballast or resistance to he values perpetuated by advertising.  I don’t know, but I sense that the problem may be particularly acute in America—in fact, I’m reminded of something Martin Amis once said in a little bookstore in Chicago, something about how corrosive modern advertising was, and how he tried to imagine what it would do to people who, unlike him, hadn’t spent four years in a medieval university reading Milton.  “Imagine,” he’d said, perhaps forgetting where he was, “what it does to Americans!”