This Thin Memory A-Ha

Eric Elshtain chose a fine title for his book, This Thin Memory A-Ha.We say “A-Ha” when something’s revealed. The exclamation may indicate a object–found it!–or a moment of enlightenment–the little bulb over the head that accompanies a personal enlightenment. Elshtain’s title reflects upon the thinness of these moments. It calls attention to how quickly we forget what we thought we’d found. Memories of our “a-ha” moments are thin.It also suggests the moments when we dimly remember what we’ve learned. The weak memory of lesson’s learned, as when we feel haunted by prior resolutions, commitments, or understandings.

The entire book meditates on the dual feelings of surprise and recollection. Elshtain does not treat these seemingly antithetical states as alternating modes of experience, but as overlapping resonances that structure lyrical epiphanies. I use this word because the merger of expectancy and repetition Elshtain explores derives in large part from the Christian celebration of Ephiphany: a ritual that commemorates the first manifestation of Christ. Looking back to looking forward. The European poetry tradition (along with others) includes a long history of experiments with lyrical epiphanies. The metaphysical poets, the romantics, the moderns: each movement established a new relation between lyric form and the moment when a truth is grasped. My sense of the ‘contemporary poetry scene’ isn’t strong enough for me to say with any certainty whether or not many twenty-first century poets care about the lyric epiphany, but I suspect that many do.  My guess is that many cherish the aesthetic experience (they like the feeling when some essence is intuitively grasped) but would be skeptical of the concept, with its emphasis on essence, intuition, enlightenment.

Elshtain is skeptical, but not because he doubts the concept. He believes in philosophy, rationality, the unconscious and grand narratives. He’s not out to satirize, sabotage or otherwise deconstruct the lyric epiphany. But he doesn’t think they’re easy to come by. He acknowledges a myriad of false starts, stutters, missteps and hesitations. Ultimately, he’s attempting to reconstruct a relationship between lyrical forms and moments when intuition reverses into truth.

The primordial representation of the title phrase is the ocean wave. Each a minor surprise—A-ha!—as it breaks to slither ashore; each a “thin memory” as it withdraws into the sand and sea. In “Averting the Way Inside a Tide,” the poet meditates on the failure to memorize a wave: “How could I ever have / the middle of your memory? [. . .] idealized fluids’ un-erotic swerve?” Nature is motion beyond recollection; it’s a movement we can’t know precisely because it’s “un-erotic.” It transmits affects–a pulse, a crash, a retreat and re-absorption–but without meaning. Nature as drive: the inhuman, unceasing push-pull.

Like many writers before him, Elshtain regards the seashore as a thresh-hold: a liminal zone where human knowledge touches (not quite connecting with) meaning’s limits. Stephen Crane, Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop come to mind. Like them, Elshtain explores this zone as an analogy for the poet’s effort to compose at the edges of intelligibility. The poet balances reason and rhythm, as the seashore balances our world with the other. In “Ocean’s Preposition,” the poet, swimming in coastal waters, encounters an octopus:

The octopus locked itself to a spell of leg

and lightninged from moss and bronze

to pulsing red before briefing me–

one billowing writ saying “See!”

The “billowing writ” is also the poet’s gesture. The poem calls attention to its subject by obscuring it with ink. This makes the otherworldly creature a kind of fluctuating mirror; the writer catches a glimpse of himself in the creature’s ability to displace its presence, to make itself obscure. The poem ends with these lines:

Coral brained me for deigning a finger

into the inky deceit; the only signature left

of the elusion.

Note the difference between the event–the swimmer jabs his finger into the ink, striking coral–and the metaphorically dense and alliterative language that describes it. The poet, like the octopus, composes a “billowing writ” that shows itself off in order to make us miss the encounter with the other it describes. Elshtain never forgets the poem’s capacity to generate an “inky deceit.” But this gesture, while ostensibly “poetic” brings us closer to the natural event. “Signature” and “elusion” are not gestures that belong to humans alone. The cephalopod is here to reminds us that deceit, including ‘written’ forms of it, doesn’t require sophisticated psyches. Sophisticated camouflage–therefore aesthetics–is not an exclusively human gesture. In another poem about the same encounter Elshtain uses the phrase “legendary unfunny slug” such that it refers to either poet or octopus.

We get to this epiphany through a combination of naturalism and aestheticism. On the one hand, the naturalist’s description of real-time phenomenon; on  the other, the craftsman’s consideration of form. The first depends upon humble, sincere explorations of phenomena; the second upon wit (metaphor and allusion) and rhythm (the beat, the rhymes, assonance and alliteration). Consider the opening stanzas of “When You Punctuate the Equilibrium”:

only then the men smile over the coelacanth,

cover themselves with sea-made

clays. Suddenly shells will be patchworks of male

and female; our world will be

loaded between rock-beds and will avoid the

flood by being flood; there will be no

more swimming with stones; no more death

circles for wind to wear off the rocks.

Poetry as philosophy. The poem begins with a proposition: human knowledge is predicated upon the “punctuation” of an imagined time of flux and equality, an age without distinctions. A psychological structure projected onto a poetic history of events. Each subsequent phrase tests the proposition against another kind of phenomenon, as they appear in the natural world. First we get the coelacanth. In 1938 this “living fossil” was discovered in the Indian Ocean by Rhodes university ichthyologist, J.L.B. Smith. One “smiles” over this ugly old fish only when regarding it as a confirmation via negation of evolutionary theory. Soon we get Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, a “punctuation of the equilibrium” because it genders shells. The stanzas conclude with an allusion to Charybdis, once a sea monster living under rocks on the Strait of Messina, now the meteorological outcome of wind & rock. These examples are knitted though enjambment. Many individual lines are miniature poems: “and female; our world will be,” “flood by being flood; there will be no,” “circles for wind to wear off the rocks.”

The poem concludes with these lines:

Convince yourself you have a backbone

while I invent another device that

hisses at extinctions; I shiver because that is my

inheritance. Gather your optical

illusions into one last attraction so we’ll never

know whether your down was up,

or your up with just another sham.

Fierce writing. A snarl, a sob.In the present now, we anxiously remind ourselves that “backbone” and fear are the animal in man. These encounters with our bodies’ own waves are gathered into “one last attraction”–an epiphany–that impacts us by swerving away from truth. We are left with reverberations. The past discovered by the present, the present discovered in the past.

I’ve focused on the ecological, but Elshtain tackles politics, both public and domestic, as well. In these poems he mixes slang with theory. Here are the opening stanzas of “Ended Seriously Loco”:

and way off the register

it did having

involved corpses

in their own portrayal.

Rendered hypothetical

blues quantified history’s

long-ships; maundered the brassy oaths

kinked the secret code having kicked

K to reach unity, humped

the edges of citizenship

In this poem, the American state does its “having” “way off the register” (which also refers to the radio), through lynch mobs, the photographs of which bring into documentary time the brutality of slave ships otherwise “quantified” in the blues. (Elshtain knows the blues well, as a verse form and subjective stance.) It’s the contemporary police state that, “having kicked” the Klan in the 60s, now “hump[s] / the edge of citizenship” by stopping, searching, arresting and shooting black men. The poem ends “seriously loco,”

having blazoned culture

in its brag having fattened

on twenty-eight anthems

sung way off and

written, hammered,

codicils to the people’s will.

Note the Objectivist density, reminiscent of Louis Zukofsky’s or Basil Bunting’s verse. Slowly but surely the wave washes back upon itself, “fattened” calves, “anthems / sung way off [key]’ and “codicils to the people’s will” that are not just “written” but “hammered” returns us to the inhuman rhythms of American racism, via its European cousins. Again the swerve away, following aesthetic intuitions, yields the epiphany, the painful “braining” that turns reflection toward glimpse.

Eric Elshtain. This Thin Memory A-Ha. Chicago: Verge Books, 2014.

Kenneth Fearing’s Jocularity (Part I)

One goal of this blog is to make public & hopefully generate some responses to a current research project, a collection of essays about machismo in twentieth-century leftist poetry. In these posts, I will leave key terms (‘machismo’; ‘leftist’) undefined, focusing instead on particular passages of poetry & scholarship. Very briefly, then, my four initial propositions are that:

  • machismo is a script that coordinate affective responses to narrative strategies through the re/fguring & re/positioning of bodies; the script is learned through socialization and enculturation & is constantly re-learned as new events provoke new responses & dominant/subordinate performance modalities slide across each other;
  • in twentieth-century U.S., a macho culture industry organizes and genres of macho affect; these are so entwined with popular genres of narrative–the Western, the Gangster genre, the Detective story, the Swashbuckling Romance, the War story, and so forth–as to be unfeelable without reference to the various narratives, scenarios, idioms and atmospheres;
  • sometimes countercultures and intimate public cultures politicize machismo, either as a bulwark against unwelcome changes in labor & culture or in the interest of finding new ways to be or not be macho; in practice, these movements change some aspects of the macho script while retaining others;
  • poets are, by their labor, highly sensitized to affects and narratives & many poets have written about shifts in macho culture or used machismo to construct a lyric subject; a close reading of key poems may provide insight into the politics of machismo.

Kenneth Fearing was born in Oak Park, Illinois in 1902. Basic professional & biographical information is available through The Poetry Foundation website and excerpts from Robert Ryley’s Introduction to The Complete Poems (1994) on the Modern American Poetry webpage.  A few details are worth reviewing..

In 1924, after attending the University of Illinois and the University of Wisconsin, Feeling moved to New York, where he increasingly found work by writing for the pulp magazines, a thriving industry in the 1920s. According to Ryley, his original specialty was “soft-core pornography” published under the name “Kirk Wolff.” This began his successful career as a writer of genre fiction that culminated in The Big Clock (1946), a noir thriller. Paramount gave the film adaptation a wide release the following year. Nearly all of Fearing’s novels were written using the same modernist formula. A chain of events in the lives of several characters is described by multiple narrators. The effect is a patchwork of partially overlapping perspectives, a kind of narrative cubism. William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930) is probably Fearing’s prototype. Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon (1950) shares this design, and the “Rashomon effect” describes a plot device in which multiple eye-witness testimonies contradict each other. In Fearing’s novels, the plot usually conforms to the generic conventions of a thriller. a murder has or will be committed, and the protagonist races against a deadline to gather evidence about the crime. In The Dagger of the Mind (1941), the setting is an artist’s colony and the primary narrator, an alcoholic, proto-expressionalist painter, plays both detective & murderer. This is a device similar to one Jim Thompson uses in several thrillers, most notably, The Killer Inside of Me (1952, although Thompson doesn’t employ multiple narrators. In Loneliest Girl in the World (1951), Fearing features a female protagonist & complicates his multiple narrations by having her use a futuristic, computerized recording device that allows her to access multiple conversations & monologues recorded by family members & co-workers.

Before his novels gave his some popular recognition, Fearing’s poetry (beginning with Angel Arms in 1929) garnered praise from more particular audiences. In the 1920s and 1930s he published frequently in leftist journals, such as The Partisan Review and New Masses, and his books were reviewed favorably in such periodicals. By the 1940s he’s become a “darling of the popular front” (Ryley). Clark Gifford’s Body (1942), uses the “Roshomon effect” to narrate a modern version of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. In Fearing’s story, the abolitionists seize several radio stations & broadcast a (somewhat vague) Socialist/Communist message that precipitates a second Civil War. He poetry also earned him considerable praise from significant cultural institutions; he received a Guggenheim, Poetry magazine’s Guarantor’s Prize, and recognition from the National Academy of Arts & Letters.

Fearing’s lifework placed him on a dialogical terrain organized by three audiences. A national public of consumers with a fetish for a particular genre, the thriller. A radicalized public eager for poems that advanced a proletarian/abolitionist view of the world. And a literary public interested in the craftsmanship & originality he brought to the lyric. Fearing developed a macho style that resonated with each of these sometimes overlapping, sometimes disparate publics. A few of Ryley’s observations about Fearing’s childhood help to identify this script. Fearing apparently preferred the company of his father, a successful lawyer who was “often playful” and “surprisingly tolerant” of his son’s “bohemianism.” By contrast, his mother was “almost wholly without humor.” Boyish admiration, jocularity, impish irony, “aww shucks” humor, the impetuosity of spoiled child–all contribute to Fearing’s “hard-boiled” lyricism and feature prominently in his construction of characters, scenes and plots.

“They Liked It,” a poem from Angel Arms (reproduced here from The Collected Poems, p. 73-4), reveals Fearing’s primal montage. In alternating shots, it contrasts a view of Manhattan from the upper floors of an office highrise with conversation bandied between coworkers. The atmosphere is jovial, but tinged with anxiety as the darkness descends.

They watched the lights go on when night fell.

Away below them streets glowed up like topaz necklaces on black silk.

They liked the red eye in the Metropolitan.

And they liked Broadway.

Blake had nothing to do for a while. He talked.

No one in the office paid attention.

“Listen,” he said, “I want advice.

You remember that Swede I was telling about?

I saw her again last night.

I’m going crazy.”

They like the muffled hammer and rasp of the city’s life.

They liked size.

They liked to hear liners in the harbor howl at the sky.

“We went to a flat on Sixty-second.

There were a lot of her friends along, and she took on six of them right under my eyes.

But when I barely touched her she laughed in my face.

‘I’ll take any man in the world,’ she says, ‘but never you.’

I’ve followed her around for two years.

She’s driving me crazy.

What should I do?”

Blake wore checkered socks, carried a cane, had a wife in the Bronx.

No one knew where he lived.

“You lying half-wit,” said one of them, “the last time you told that story the girl was a wop.

Before that she was Irish, and it happened in Brooklyn.

You don’t have to tell us, we know you’re crazy.”

Blake laughed.

They liked to feel the city, away below them, stretch out and breathe.

They liked the Metropolitan’s red eye, and Broadway.

They liked to hear liners on the river baying at the sky.

They liked it all.

Four subjects perform in this momentary drama: a “they” that enjoys watching the city light up at night; Blake, who is not part of the office “in-crowd”; the anonymous, quasi-fictional woman who rejects Blake’s advances; and “one of them,” a hipper colleague, who calls Blake a liar and then commiserates with him. The romantic triad–male rivals, a mysterious, imperious woman–is a convention of the pulp thriller. The anonymity of the coworkers extends into the city they enjoy. “They” are the consumers, a faceless multitude, in love with the city’s entertainments–“topaz necklaces on black silk”–but also its inhumanity–“They like the muffled hammer and rasp of the city’s life. / They liked size. / They liked to hear liners in the harbor howl at the sky.” Sexual banter is another pleasure the city offers, both entertaining & alienating. The poem’s form is precisely calibrated to draw us into the scene; as readers we become the co-workers, consumers of the ordinary spectacle. At first no one listens to Blake, but he keeps talking until they do. The poem uses stanzas to dramatize the accumulation of attention as our gaze of the city is increasingly interrupted. Blake is annoying.

When collective attention finally rests upon Blake, we are given one of the few concrete visual images in the poem: “Blake wore checkered socks, carried a cane, had a wife in the Bronx. / No one knew where he lived.” The specificity tapers off immediately. The poem offers no actual judgment regarding Blake’s appearance; Blake is unremarkable. It’s up to us (the readers, the “they) to interpret his style as evidence for or against his sexual frustration. The aesthetic judgment is a moral judgment. In making the choice to laugh at Blake or not, we, the readers, either align ourselves with the in-crowd, or align ourselves with the self-proclaimed loser.

In any case, Blake is not called out because a coworker has intimate knowledge, but because of inconsistencies in his story: “‘the last time you told that story the girl was a wop. / Before that she was Irish, and it happened in Brooklyn.'” Although the wag depends entirely upon superficial–indeed, interchangeable–details of Blake’s narrative, its these consistent inconsistencies that reveal the truth of Blake’s condition. Blake laughs when his anxiety is partially relieved. On his account, it’s love that’s making him crazy. He’s infatuated with the Swede; she’s an impossible object; he can’t give her up. The co-worker reassures Blake by pointing out the fictional nature of the object. In the macho script, this drama is about the restoration of superficiality. Blake is allowed to return to obscurity; he is brought back into the fold. The object that threatened to materialize is banished back to the zone of anonymous city life. The thing that temporarily inhabited Blake, causing him to complain, returns to Broadway. In this ritual, the jibe is an extension of brotherhood. Competition between dissolves via the expulsion of desire. The “all” in the closing line includes Blake, who was, it turns out, worth a laugh & a poem.

As a literary object, the poem is elegantly crafted. Fearing demonstrates a mastery of the “chops” required for writing free verse in the American idiom. Stanzas construct the drama, the language is idiomatic, the lines balance rhythms and phrasing, not a word is wasted. The modernist sensibility expressed by the form contributes to the political affect the piece conveys. For a poem, its surprisingly coarse. It’s vulgarity resonates with Carl Sandburg’s proletarian city–a husky style, born of the city’s “rasp.” Of course, the poem takes place far above the sprawling dockyards, in an office where bureaucrats enjoy an entirely different pace of labor. In this regard, the poem participates in a mode of muckraking commonly deployed in pulp stories, most notably Dashielle Hammett’s detective fiction. In numerous Continental Op stories and the Thin Man series, Hammett provided a “working class” perspective upon the intimate lives of the leisure class. Like those stories, Fearing’s poem offers working-class readers a view of daily life in the upper offices. But its not likely that the dock workers will encounter Angel Arms–although they may have read Fearing in the pulps. It’s easier to imagine it circulating among a leftist intelligentsia, most of whom work in modern offices, & who could catch a glimpse of themselves in the poem. From this perspective, the poem teases its readers. This jocularity largely defines Fearing’s poetic style.

1.5 x Stein O’Hara

On Wednesday 10 December I joined some other members of the Next Objectivists @ “Lunch Buttons,” a performance event that celebrates the anniversaries of two books of poetry that have been important to me: Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (now 100 years old) and Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems (still fresh at 50). The event, organized by Dan Godston of the Border/Bend Arts Collective, took place @ Beauty and Brawn Art Gallery & Think Space (3501 W. Fullerton Ave). I pieced together passages from several texts by Stein & O’Hara, but not the ones being feted. My recipe called for mixing passages with approximately 1.5 times more Stein than O’Hara. Here are the results:

Through all that surgery I thought

I had a lot to say, and named several last things

Gertrude Stein hadn’t had time for.

–O’Hara, “Memorial Day, 1950”

I. Just So

Now the relation of human nature to the human mind is this.

it isn’t that simple but it’s simple enough

In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is.

the rock is least living of the forms man has fucked

And everybody does say what they do say.

“he isn’t under there, he’s out in the woods”

Any little dog says so.

(from The Geographical History of America, p. 45-55)

(from “Ode on Causality,” Selected Poems, p. 135-6)

II. A Manifesto for Americans

There are so many things to say. But that’s not why you fell in love in the first place, just to hang onto life, so you have to take your chances, and avoid being logical.

If there was no identity no one could be governed, but everybody is governed by everybody. I’m not saying that I don’t have practically the most lofty ideas of anybody writing today, but what difference does that make? Everybody is governed by everybody and that is why they make no master-pieces, and also why governing has nothing to do with master-pieces. Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to. And that is why governing is occupying but not interesting. There’s nothing metaphysical about it. Governments are occupying but not interesting because master-pieces are exactly that they are not.

There is another thing to say.

I think it appears mostly in the minute particulars where decision is necessary. When you are writing before there is an audience anything written is as important as any other thing and you cherish anything and everything that you have written. It dos not have to do with personality or intimacy, far from it! After the audience begins, naturally they create something. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages. That is they create you, and so not everything is so important. In all modesty, I confess that it may be the death of literature as we know it. Something is more important than another thing, which was not true when you were you that is when you were not you as your little dog knows you.

And so there we are and there is much to say but anyway I do not say that there is no doubt. The recent propagandists for technique on the one hand, and for content on the other, had better watch out. Master-pieces are master-pieces in that way and there are very few of them.

(from “What are Master-Pieces and Why Are there So Few of Them,” in Selections, p. 318)

(from “Personism: A Manifesto,” in Selected Poems, p. xiii-iv)

IX. Any German Girl

any German girl

listEn.

Bob and Ralph and Don, and there was Brock,

how is faTher and mother moved

what floweRs

bUt they did like him that is to say

he was interesteD in

Everything
I rise into the cool Skies

with the simple idenTification

of my collEagues

I do not hear

moNey flutters from the windows

(acrostic from “In Memory of My Feelings,” Selected Poems, p. 105)

(acrostic from Brewsie and Willie, p. 3-6)

IV. Regarding Men, Women & Children

If men have not changed women and children have.

So the rain falls

Geography does not look like it does in relation to the human mind.

tenement of a single heart

Men have not changed women and children have.

it fills it up with dirt

Anybody with a human mind can say I mean and they can say I forgot and mean that.

for Old Romance was draping dolors on a scarlet mound

Men have not changed women and children have changed.

and the corn grows

As I say so tears come into my eyes.

(from The Geographical History of America, p. 45-55)

(from “Ode on Causality,” Selected Poems, p. 135-6)

(from Lucy Church Amiably, p. 177-8)

(from “Cornkind,” Selected Poems, p. 181-2)

V. Regarding Relationships between Men, Women & Children, Part I

When I am. When I am I I am.

I am feeling depressed and anxious. I am sullen when all you. When all you have is to have to do what you do when and if you please as I please you do what you do is take off, your clothes off. And all is wiped away.

Away revealing life’s tenderness.

When all that we are is what we are as I am is what I am when you are what you are, we are flesh. Flesh and breath. When I am feeling and. And when and what. And are. Near us as you are.

Really.

As you are I become as I am.

Really.

Alive and knowing vaguely.

What is and what is important to me. To me above. Me above me. When I am sullen when you are sullen, our clothes our sullen. And what is important to me. Important that is to say if you please important above the intrusions. When the I of incident and the I of accidental.

Relationships.

Which have nothing to nothing nothing to do with life. With my life.

VI. Any German Girl

any German girl

listEn.

Bob and Ralph and Don, and there was Brock,

how is faTher and mother moved

what floweRs

bUt they did like him that is to say

he was interesteD in

Everything
I rise into the cool Skies

with the simple idenTification

of my collEagues

I do not hear

moNey flutters from the windows

VII. Regarding Relationships between Men, Women & Children, Part II

When I am I am in your presence. I feel life is strong. Life and will. And will will defeat all its enemies and all of mine and all of yours and yours in you and mine in me. All of mine in me and all of yours in your me and all of mine in my your me. Sick logic.

And feeble.

Feeble and.

Feeble reasoning and you are cured by being you.

This is according.

To me this is according by. The perfect symmetry of your arms and legs. I am spread out. I am spread making an eternal circle out of together. Creating.

I am a golden pillar beside.

The Atlantic. The faint line.

I feel I am the faint line of hair dividing I are. Your torso gives my mind rest. And I am when and where. Emotions and emotions. Emotion and emotion released. Mind rest which is the mind at rest and emotions their release into the mind rest. The infinite air where since once.

We are where together you are feeling off. And when and what. Since what. Together we always will. Always will will. In this life. This come what. This is what may.

(Steinian transcription of Poem “À la recharche de Gertrude Stein,” Selected Poems, p. 169.)

VIII. It is Not Mayakovsky’s Birthday Today, but It Could Almost Be

A gun is “Fired.”

One of me Rushes to window #13

And one of me raises his whip

aNd one of me flutters up

masKed in dirt’s lust
if the hOrrible happened

How about it.

Yes but you never can tell in a wAr.

we’re here all Right, you betcha we’re here

And they all will

I think we are all Funny, pretty funny

any anti-fRaternisation ruling

Although the Germans did their best

No

I Know what I don’t want them to be like,
Open mouths gasping

the lungs of eartH

my trAnsparencies could not resist the race!

TerroR in earth,

pink feAthers
like a Gondola

through the strEets

seveRal likenesses, like stars and years,

My quieTness has a number

pistols I have boRrowed to protect myselves

mUrder in their heart!

in the Desert

chillEd
LiSten, said Brewsie, listen to me.

I wanT to know

as shE is

whIch she does

a maN-eating dog.

(acrostic from “In Memory of My Feelings,” Selected Poems, p. 105)

(acrostic from Brewsie and Willie, p. 3-6)

III.

That is what I mean to be I mean to be the one who can and does have as ordinary ideas as these.

as maps change & faces become vacant

Extraordinary ideas are just as ordinary as ordinary ideas because if you please everybody has to have or have had extraordinary ideas.

the ugliness we seek in vain

What is the use of being a little boy if you are to grow up to be a man.

(from The Geographical History of America, p. 45-55)

(from “Ode on Causality,” Selected Poems, p. 135-6)

We Jam Econo

Last Wednesday I caught John Akomfrah’s The Stuart Hall Project at the Gene Siskel. It is always a pleasure to exit the Red Line so close to one’s destination; makes me feel urbane (i.e., still urban, but wealthy). The film was amazing. It made a labyrinth of my thought & feeling, rearranging neural circuits, combating the apathy of routine visual consumption.

My immediate reaction was deep melancholy, a mood which overcame me a few hours before I left for the screening, was exacerbated to the extreme by watching the film, and slowly leaked out all night via a series of gloomy comments. My sadness involved a nostalgia for a way of relating to Stuart Hall, which recalled a way of being in the world most simply described as “being a graduate student.” I wanted to relate to Hall through texts & frequently found myself wishing the movie was less visual; that it could include more of Stuart Hall’s words, his patient explaining, careful elaborations (but it’s a movie, my friends patiently reminded me). I also felt angry with myself for being such a fuck-up & angry at Hall for not being one, despite what were apparently much more demanding conditions. I identified with Hall as a fellow laborer & alternately blamed myself & my circumstances for my failure to live out a similar professional/personal trajectory. To use my favorite Stuart Hall term, my feeling involved an articulation of my relation to the marketplace, one that bound together the commodity—Hall’s texts—with an economically determined, “structural” position, in this case a fantasy about finding an ethically & economically comfortable place within the professional class. Akomfrah’s movie dispelled this fantasy; this act of dissolution provoked my foul, i.e, nostalgic mood. (Nostalgia as foul via corruption via a loss of traditional moorings via madness, depravity via hollowed out by worms.)

One cure for nostalgia is to confront the objective reality of the thing you regret losing; there’s nothing like going home to make you wonder what you were missing. To this end I devote this post to my favorite of Stuart Hall’s texts, “The Problem of Ideology: Marxism without Guarantees.” Akomfrah’s film nicely emphasizes the importance Hall put upon patiently sorting out of what should be retained and what should be let go. This is the basic method of analysis to which he implies himself in “The Problem of Ideology,” in which he argues that it is “possible to ‘re-read’ [Marx] . . . in such as way as (a) to retain many of the profound insights of the original, while (b) expanding it, using some of the theories of ideology developed in more recent times” (35). There is something in the fetish object worth defending & another something it would be better to give up. This balance between things as they are and things as they might be is one way in which I come to terms with the Stuart Hall I am not or will be.

For me, blogging involves the construction of thought patterns over time, points of interest conceived of in terms of weaving: the integration of strands. To this end, this post, like every fourth or fifth one following, intertwines some of the ideas that proceeded it. In this way, the blog finds its subjects through a gathering of the future into the past, a new future determined by a new past. The first two posts involved populist ideology, the third punk nostalgia. This one reads Stuart Hall while listening to the Minutemen. It may or may not be immediately apparent what the greatest postwar British intellectual on the left has to do with the California Punk trio, other than worldly co-existence. Hopefully, articulation of one with the other generates a productive f(r)iction.

Reading Stuart Hall

Hall’s essay is available in Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, edited by David Morley & Kuan-Hsing Chen (London: Routledge, 1996). It tackles “ideology” as “a general problem—a problem of theory, because it is also a problem of politics and strategy” (25). In populist terms, the problem can be restated: how should Marxists assign value to the contributions of “the people”? One aspect of Hall’s thought I love (in retrospect) so much is his lack of anxiety about who/what constitutes “the people.” For Hall, this concept is “practically” self-evident: he carefully defines the concept (relying on Gramsci, Althusser, Lacan) but doesn’t dramatize the struggle to conceptualize it. “The problem of ideology,” he writes,

concerns the ways in which ideas of different kinds grip the minds of masses, and thereby become a ‘material force’. [. . .] the theory of ideology helps us to analyze how a particular set of ideas comes to dominate the social thinking of a historic bloc . . . and, thus, helps us to unite such a bloc from the inside, and maintain its dominance and leadership over society as a whole. It has especially to do with the concepts and the languages of practical thought which stabilize a particular form of power and domination; or which reconcile and accommodate the mass of the people to their subordinate place in the social formation. (27)

I agree with these terms but want to reverse their polarity: to put the accent on how “we” “unite such a bloc from the inside” when the bloc is not the dominant culture/class, but an emergent counter-culture. Hall’s analysis points me neither toward or away from this inflection. He regards the problem of ideology as an effort to decode “practical as well as theoretical knowledges,” i.e., those forms of knowing that “enable people to ‘figure out’ society, and within those categories and discourses we ‘live out’ and ‘experience’ our objective positioning in social relations” (27). The little quotation marks are worth noting as textual ‘gestures’ that point to something beyond the “scientific” “limitations” (Hall’s terms, magnifying Marx’s) of this essay—the ‘scare quotes’, like little fists raised above the text, indicate practical or popular ways of knowing; in this sense, Hall’s greatest accomplishment is to conserve, through his words, his performances on late-late-night TV, his work toward the institutionalization of “cultural studies,” a space within the British/Caribbean/American left for thinking and writing about the “daily” rhythms, postures, neighborhood dynamics, accents, and other cultural enclaves that reproduce/reject our various, often habitual, relations to market forces.

Hall attacks the concept of “false consciousness” while continuing to ask “how does an economic structure generate a guaranteed set of ideological affects?” (32). As regarded by Marx, the problem involves a question about whether or not “spontaneous thought” should be regarded as leading toward the truth of the encounter between capital and its various discontents. It’s fairly obvious and no surprise to learn that most people relate to capital through the marketplace relations—buying commodities and selling one’s labor, i.e., working—that define daily life. The goal is to develop a ‘science’ that corrects for the “distortions” that are generated, spontaneously, by the ordinary lives of capitalists and laborers (of all kinds, need it be said). Hall agrees with Marx in arguing that the general mode of distortion involves the fetishization of a particular position within the social; a certain class perspective succumbs to “eternalization” and “naturalization,” which Hall conceives of as “effects” which allow us to “treat” the “products of a specific historical development as if universally valid,” thereby liquidating the desire we organized in association with an earlier market structure. Hall describes the Marxist concept of reification in practical terms that designate hegemonic aesthetic categories: the freezing of the event in scenic time and the gluing of the subject to its objective environment.

While Listening to the Minutemen

The California punk trio the Minutemen were inspired in the sense that they spoke the language of the people. “Spontaneous thought” was simultaneously practical and theoretical in their lyrics & song forms. They conceived of the punk song as correcting the distortions produced by the culture industry and the marketplace fetish more generally.

Little Man with a Gun in his Hand, when we first encountered it in the late 80s / early 90s, astonished because of its aesthetic structure. It began with a long lead in, followed by one verse, a solo, and one chorus. It was, to use a term they would emphasize, economical. In public interviews, such as on Sound Opinions, Mike Watt defines “econo” as being willing to live with what you can get away with. To “jam econo” was to make the most of what you found around you. It was a philosophical expression of what was often referred to at the DIY aesthetic of the punk movement. To “Do It Yourself” meant insisting upon difference, upon making something new, but not accepting a lack of qualifications to making the new world now, today. Because it was “econo” it didn’t sound like most punk songs, which more rigidly relied upon the pop-culture formula (Stooges, Sex Pistols, Ramones, etc.) The lyrics were non-narrative, and directly addressed nostalgia:

The highest love, a woman’s touch
Harmony, a strong mind, a strong body
Beauty all the things he couldn’t be,
All the things he couldn’t have.

The first two lines sketch objects of desire regarded as gendered ideals. The third line diagnoses these as aesthetic forms, which are in the fourth line redefined as lost in advance. Macho melancholy understood as the fixation upon the idealized other and idealized self. After a musical interlude these lines are juxtaposed with the chorus, song by all band members:

Little man with a gun in his hand

Little man with a gun in his hand

Little man with a gun in his hand

Little man with a gun in his hand

Little man with a gun in his hand

Little man with a gun in his hand

The effect is to draw an analogy between the subject of desire in the lyrics and the figure disdainfully dismissed in the chorus. The Minutemen definitely turn away from the aesthetic ideas of the culture industry, at the same time performing their own right to remake basic generic categories of popular forms. The music video of This Aini’t No Picnic may help to explain my point; the lyrics voice a popular working-class complaint, while the video depicts the band playing among a ruined industrial zone and being strafed by a U.S. fighter pilot whose related to Reagan at the end. Again, thinking economically is key to understanding the totality of the piece. The video was a low-budget version of popular music videos at the time, the early days of MTV. The video is not a spoof or farce; it earnestly participates in the music-video genre, but it maintains a dark humor by foregrounding its own lameness–not with a knowing wink, but as an earnest demand.

Such as world is inevitably “hybrid” to use a term frequently associated with Hall’s work. It is world in which identify is allowed to remain unsettled, a world in which shame is not allowed to have its way with you; consider how in I Felt Like a Gringo the public expression of shameful feelings is contrasted with D. Boon’s exuberant bouncing–there is an optimism of form that adds buoyancy to the painful encounter with cultural boundaries as encountered in ordinary life.

Reading Stuart Hall

Hall makes the case for the value of appearances. Re-reading Marx’s distinction between “the ‘surface forms’ of the capitalist circuit” and “the critical domain—the ‘hidden abode’– of capitaist production itself” (33), he argues that “key political themes,” such as “’Freedom’, ‘Equality’, ‘Property’ and ‘Bentham’ (that is, Individualism),” while not in themselves “adequate” explanations of the social circumstances produced by capital “derive from the categories we use in our practical, commonsense thinking about the market economy,” & thereby reveal that aspect in which a particular mode of critical analysis might be “universally encountered and experienced” (34). Marxists need to recognize their own fetish object (the reification of ‘economic determinism’, according to which either syndicalism or academic deconstruction should be regarded as the singular way forward) as one of multiple ways to recognize a problem we all have in common. Hall exemplifies this problem by observing how “the concept ‘democracy’ does not have a totally fixed meaning” (41). He argues that the contradiction or ambivalence inherent in this highly contested concept should not dissuade Marxists from organizing (theoretically & practically) in its name. “We cannot allow the term to be wholly expropriated into the discourse of the right. Instead, we need to develop a strategic contestation around the concept itself” (41).

Here is some of what I learned from Stuart Hall:

that “The expropriation of the concept has to be contested through the development of a series of polemics” (41)

that “No ideological conception can ever become materially effective unless & until it can be articulated to the . . . struggles” faced in ordinary life (42)

that “Ideas only become effective if they do, in the end, connect with a particular constellation of historical forces” (43).

Ultimately, there’s another thing I (once) love(d) about Hall: his closing commitment to the “openness” of the struggle to secure an ideological synthesis capable of becoming eternal and natural. “The effective coupling of dominant ideas to the historical bloc which has acquired hegemonic power in a particular period is what the process of ideological struggle is intended to secure,” he writes (44). The basic formula is Althusser’s, but the optimism for a future that is never limited to reproduction, but instead subjected to a making new, is all Hall’s. As Akomfrah so well documents, he contributed optimism to the otherwise cold calculus of BBC interviews,while lending optimism a science: the oh so necessary calculus by which we might disentangle what shall continue from what should be left behind.

While Listening to the Minutemen

The Minutemen wrote “our band is scientist rock,” referring to the theoretical bent of their lyrics. Like the Dead Kennedies, Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, they used the quasi-popular form of punk lyrics to analyze cultural traditions, finding in them forms of inculcation but also resistance. An obvious example is the critique of the childhood game in another low-tech music video, King of the HIll. This is a critique of appearances in the language of the same; by juxtaposing various scenarios while foregrounding the DIY aesthetic of the whole, the Minutemen poise themselves in the borderland between “as it is” and “as it might be”; like Hall, they sort through the available psychic /objective material, taking what they can use but rejecting an aesthetic predicated upon ideals. This is the legacy Hall leaves in the form of public interviews, public lectures, textbooks, institutions: the intellectual’s goal being to build new structures (of feeling, but also new practices, no spaces in which new practices might survive or even flourish).

The song that best captures their popular/theoretical relation to the culture industry is probably “Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing.” The idea as Mike Watt says in the Sound Opinions interview, was to get into the public realm lyrics that the King of Pop might actually record. In other words, the song was both a Minutemen song and a Michael Jackson song which the Minutemen were covering in advance of Jackson’s version. Listening to it involves hearing the Minutemen’s version of MJ’s version:

Iron-fisted philosophy…
Is your life worth a painting?
Is this ‘girl vs. boy’ with different symbols?
Being born is power
Scout leader nazi tagged as ‘big sin’
Your risk chains me hostage
Me, I’m fighting with my head, I’m not ambiguous

I must look like a dork

Me, naked with textbook poems
Spout fountain against the Nazis
With weird kinds of sex symbols
In speeches that are big dance thumps
If we heard mortar shells
We’d cuss more in our songs
And cut down on guitar solos

(guitar solo)

So dig this big crux

Organizing the boy scouts for murder is wrong
Ten years beyond the big sweat point
Man, it was still there ever without you
Coming back around, look!
Coming together, for just a second
A peek, a guess
At the wholeness it’s way too big
At the wholeness it’s way too big

The final lyrics are perhaps the best antidote to nostalgia: the dream of “wholeness” leaves us facing a world that is too big for us; a world in which the self aspires to harmonies it will not achieve. The other way to do it, as Hall and The Minutemen articulate so well, involves sorting through what is available in ordinary life–not to the neglect of other, more ‘scientific’ or ‘theoretical’ approaches, but without seeking the ‘purity’ they often appear to harbor.

“I Belong to the Blank Generation & I Can Take It or Leave It Each Time”

In college, my friends & I were way into what at the time was called “alternative” radio. We listened to the latest albums & read the reviews, played what we liked. It was all in the music. Alternative Tentacles. Sub Pop, etc.

Our tastes were educated by older students, the seniors teaching the juniors & sophomores, the juniors & shop-mores teaching the newcomers.

When we heard Richard Hell & the Voidoids’ Blank Generation our collective ears pricked up. (Joe Orton’s Prick Up Your Ears was already important to us.) It spoke to us for reasons we didn’t understand. It spoke of this failure to understand. We understood the “blank” in “I belong to the blank generation” to be a ______________; a space in which anything might be filled in. This affective realization may be understood according to Raymond Williams’ notion of “structures of feeling,” which (as Shianne Ngai observes) refers to a feeling that sticks without clear ideological reasons to back it up. It marked us as all potential, no possibility.

We were not wrong to feel for this song. I am reminded of it today as I hear on the radio (NPR) another report comparing the “I generation” to the Baby Boomers. The millennials come across in glowing terms, being more ‘diverse,’ more ‘liberal’ than their grandparents. Missing are the parents, uncles, godparents, big brothers & sisters who were born in the late 60s, early 70s.

In the mid-1990s, around the time we were meant (according to the narrative of continual progress that so frequently determines US nationalism) to come into our own, there were a number of stories in newspapers that observed how we had failed to ‘make our mark’ as a generation. We were at the time referred to as the X-generation, a term which balanced our collective incapacity to live up to our parents’ expectations & our collective interest in punk/alternative culture, symbolized by the band X.

What was the blank generation? Affective theory provides one answer. Raised in the 1970s we grew up in an age of agitation & revolutionary dreams, only to come of age during the Reagan revolution. Like the “lost generation” that came of age during WW I we were largely obliterated by technological changes, which were accompanied by a fundamental shift in public/popular cultural perceptions. In this sense, the X-generation does not indicate all members of a generation, but an ideological split, both sides of which were lost to history–the Young Republicans dissolved into the prosperous public sphere of the Clinton era, making big bucks in digital/financial start up, while the majority took temp jobs.Either way, we were dismissed: as ‘good sons’ who followed the right-ward trend or ‘bad/riot girls’ who bucked it but were not able to resist the cultural tide.

We were, in short, a queer generation. A group who defined ourselves primarily as outsiders, & whose outsider status came without rewards.

A few personal anecdotes (unnoticed by the “mainstream” who we learned to reject at a young age, what else have we?) will help to explain our situation:

  • I’ve worked full time or 3/4s time (when in school) since i was 16; I’m now 44. In the last 28 years I’ve never been fired from a job, never been disciplined for poor work, and NEVER BEEN OFFERED A PERMANENT POSITION. We are a precarious generation.
  • Leaving college in 1992, I remember being told that my best bet for employment was to seek out the new ManPower Inc., one of the first “temp” agencies. I dutifully went to a large downtown office building, where I was given a typing test on one of these new personal computers. I’d taken a year of typing in high-school, prided myself in being able to type about 85 wpm. But the computer’s keyboard was subtly yet substantially different from the one I’d grown used to, banging out my senior thesis on an IBM typewriter. There was a “back key’ & no reason to hit return at the end of the ‘page’ (the screen). I messed up pretty badly, leaving large gaps in the ‘page’ every time I tried to make a new line. My testers shook their heads, confirming themselves that I’d been lying about my abilities. They denied me an office job, sending me to manual labor pools, which paid minimum wage.
  • I didn’t just write my BA thesis on a typewriter, I wrote my MA thesis on one as well. I simply couldn’t afford the $2,000 for a PC. That was 1995.
  • Shortly thereafter I managed to get a temp job at a major university, working as a functionary in the Chemistry department. My job was to enter numbers on a web page that connected the local Chemistry journal (JACS) to its national organization offices. My manager, a Professor at the University, warned me not to spend my down-time “surfing the internet.” I had no idea what the “internet” was but surfing sounded fun, so I tried it out. It seemed to mean clicking on various words in order to move from one page to another. It was NOTHING LIKE SURFING. To this day, I’ve never understood what the big deal about the internet might be. I’ve joined the ‘conversation’ because no other options seem available. Pulled into a subjectivity we never accepted, the blank generation wails, as Richard Hell put it, “get me out of here!” “It’s such a gamble when you get a face.”

The X-generation has so much to offer generation Y/I. We remember what it was like back when interpersonal/bodily/queer relations organized our subjectivity. But no one listens to us; we are invisible, the ‘left-behinds’. It’s a (non)subjectivity we grew into, learned to live with, but on we must resist if we are to impart our knowledge, based on continual loss. Among our observations, a few key points stand out:

  • There is no significant difference between male & female.Everyone in our generation wore pants (jeans or corduroy). Sometimes we wore them under skirts, both men & women. We talked to each other w/out a sense of intellectual/emotional/cultural difference. We were not a trans generation in the biological sense–we didn’t know of & didn’t need physical transformations of our bodies. Girls could be fem or macho; guys could be macho or fem. “It’s all cool with me” was the predominate ideology.
  • Nothing was more important than “authenticity,” which meant being true to one’s own desire, not capitulating to “the mainstream.” This was regarded by the mainstream as a collective effort to hold ourselves back; we were the original “slackers.” We refused the bullshit they offered us in our continual critiques of ourselves & each other. We disdained anything that resembled “selling out.” How times have changed; now it seems that “selling out” is the sole goal of up-&-comers, & everything that makes one more ‘marketable’ is praised.
  • Subjectivity located in bodies can’t be commercialized in the ways that subjectivity located in spectral images can be. Every generation chooses an efficient mode by which to mediate itself to itself. We insisted, perhaps for the last time (until the zombie apocalypse, an X-generation genre if there ever was one), that bodies in proximity was the best way to gain friends & get laid. We approached each other face-to-face, tasted each others juices before making an ultimate decision. Nothing was check off because there was no conception of boxes to be checked.
  • We located our problems in collective, rather than individual accomplishments. This post & this blog are testimony to this affective stance. The blank GENERATION will rise or fall (mostly fall) collectively. We did not assume the perspective, so prominent today, that each person is responsible for his/her (note the gendered dimorphism, which we did not accept) destiny.

I remember the summer when Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit” his the mainstream radio. Kathy, Chuck, Ethan & I were driving north to see Camper Van Beethoven play songs like “Mao Reminisces about his Days in Southern China” & “Take the Skinheads Bowling” when we heard it on FM radio. Some of us thought it was a good sign: as a generation we’ve begun to be accepted! Others, included myself, thought it marked the end of an era: the ultimate sell-out.

We argued about it; argument is something the X generation is very good at. We were never afraid to disagree.

In retrospect, it’s an understandable shame that Cobain died, but it was shame, not Courtney, that killed him in the end.