A Party, and You're Not Invited

The ‘I’ is disappearing. Individuals count only as part of the whole.”
-                                                                                                                         -Ludwig Bauer, 1932

In more rational times, America’s ultra-right, proto-fascist Tea Party might be deemed too miserable a target for sober critique.  The speech and actions juxtapose too neatly, the arrogance registers too palpably, the ignorance waltzes confidently in double-time.  In more rational times, we might shake our heads and laugh at the insanity of it all – the jingoistic name-calling, the vitriolic protests aimed at nonviolent Muslim-Americans, the racist hypocrisy.

If you count yourself among my feeble readership, you will suspect that we do not live in rational times. Stupidity abounds. But it’s not the kind that easily lends itself to jest, or even to passive observation. Take away the spittle-laden podium desks, the spunky housewives, and the nauseatingly legitimizing 24-hour Fox News coverage, and you are left with a fairly barefaced platform of xenophobic syncretism.  The Tea Party philosophy is a perverted cocktail of classically liberal populism blended with a pan-continental anti-socialist mobilization. The movement’s appeal to the working class is entirely undermined by its flat-out rejection of socialist considerations, by the reality of its financial support, and by its implicit racial exceptionalism.

This strain of racism manifests itself in various ways, and in reaction to ostensibly unrelated non-white communities. Tied into the movement’s message of economic self-sufficiency and self-governments is the militantly uninformed notion that whites have historically proven to be the most capably independent of American races.  Though sheer numbers indicate that more whites than blacks receive Welfare checks in the mail, a popular myth among Tea Party groups tells a different story. Professor Dorothy E. Roberts notes that, though “much of the American public now views welfare dependency as a Black cultural trait, the welfare system systematically excluded Black people for most of its history.” Indeed, the Progressive welfare movement serves in some ways as an illuminating historical counterpart to the current Tea Party: a movement purportedly orchestrated by the lower-middle-classes, it was fundamentally “flawed by the elitism of the privileged, white activists that led it.”

Much has already been made of the Tea Party’s strained relationship with African-Americans. Given the chance to defend themselves on national news outlets, the movement’s leaders have consistently asserted that there is no racially dubious element to their anti-tax, anti-government platform. Actions, as ever, speak louder than pundits and figureheads.  The Tea Party’s aggravation with the black community mostly boils down to a fundamental assumption that blacks are simply lazy, or that they lack the intelligence or self-discipline to achieve sufficient levels of economic independence. Take this leaked e-mail, in which Tea Party Express leader Roland Martin pretends to speak for African-Americans in a post-Civil-War-era letter to Abraham Lincoln: “We Coloreds have taken a vote and decided that we don’t cotton to that whole emancipation thing. Freedom means having to work for real, think for ourselves, and take consequences along with the rewards.

Countless other examples, voiced during political rallies or in ass-headed youtube videos, prove that this is not an isolated grievance. There is, in fact, a pervasive belief among economically-conservative groups that America suffers at the hands of its black population. As America’s first black president who happens to preside over a budget crisis of historic proportions, Barack Obama plays an important role in the advancement of the Tea Party’s racist agenda.  Though he is a right-centrist politician at best, his economic policies provide a ready-made sieve through which much of the Tea Party’s racist vitriol can be filtered. Would a white president have received the same reaction to the passing of a moderate health care bill? Would his face have been painted with crude makeup reminiscent of 1920s minstrel shows in posters that bear the word “Socalism” yet manage (rather impressively, I’d say) to make no political statement whatsoever?

For all the obvious reasons, I am wary of unfounded comparisons to National Socialism – especially those made in earnest when assessing one’s rival political factions. Such comparisons are nearly always in bad taste and show fantastic disregard for the world-historical singularity of the Nazi program. That being said, I think the Tea Party’s meteoric growth bears comparisons to the successes of other wide-scale nationalist movements, early Nazism (and importantly German Communism, for that matter) among them.

Despite its lukewarm early attempts to enlist the sympathies of working-class supporters, the party of Hitler was fundamentally positioned to appeal to Germany’s upper-middle, pro-business classes who would benefit from governmental and currency stabilization after the hyperinflation of 1923. Those lower-class members that the Nazis won over benefited from some of the socialist policies of the early regime (homeless shelters and food handouts chief among them), which quickly disappeared after Nazi control had been consolidated and the Weimar Republic effectively eliminated. In the destabilized, unpredictable climate of Weimar Germany, it paid to be an extremist. With no strong centrist voice to draw the warring factions together or present a viable alternative for the populace, the political spectrum widened and its human middle hollowed out.

I do not make this comparison to say that the Tea Party’s treatment of black Americans is in any way akin to the Nazi doctrine of anti-Semitism. That is, of course, an absurd claim. I would instead like to focus on a more universal element of the equation – one too often ignored in contemporary analogues of political fanaticism. Above all, I think, what the American Tea Party shares with Nazism, German and Stalinist Communism, and other prominent examples of 20th century political fanaticism is a total lack of empathy.
When sensationalist, apocalyptic proclamations invade national discourses – as they certainly are now in relation to our debt crisis – there is the tendency to forfeit a basically human compassion for one’s fellow individuals in favor of a single-minded, pitiless focus on the goals of the collective.  The “I” is effectively erased, the individual devalued to the point of obsolescence.

It is my opinion that this kind of transformation is currently unfolding within the bitter ranks of the Tea Party. It is apparent when protesters should “Go Home!” to peace-minded Muslims attending a charity fundraiser in their home town. It is apparent in the cruel confidence of crowds, growing larger each day, demanding that Muslims be deported or Blacks be stripped of their right to vote. I doubt that any single one of these people would have the audacity to shout “Muhammad is a pedophile” to a group of Muslim children were it not for the sneering cheers from their companions surely waiting to greet them.

If I recall correctly, it was Hegel who said that “The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.” Perhaps this is so in a grand sense, but as individuals we cannot let it be. We must respond to the Tea Party’s xenophobic structures of belief, but we must avoid the temptation of reactionary diatribes in doing so. They, after all, are the reactionaries. History will surely close the books on these asshats, but we must lend it a hand regardless.

I'll leave you with this: Do not sacrifice what makes you human, reader, whatever the cause or complaint.



On Cities

This is the paradox of life in a modern American city: that the vast swathes of humanity pressing against us on the avenues and in the subways teach us new ways to be alone.  In the hyper-saturation unique to this urban milieu, we relearn aloneness as something to achieve – the idealized state of being we regretfully disengage with at the beginning of each day when we trade the comfort and perceived privacy of apartments for the cold stares of the morning commute.

I was compelled to take up residence in my inner city neighborhood by a variety of practical factors, though none of these carried more authority than the remote promise of an existential, even historical connectedness to other people.  I had not met any of these people, but that was no matter; I could imagine in acute detail the conversations about Kafka I would strike up with pretty girls on the bus, the private art museum exhibitions I would attend on Friday evenings, the hard-to-understand cab drivers I would befriend on late-night rides home.  A product of the suburbs, I mostly lamented my childhood and teenage years for the inspirational paucity their locales afforded me.  Convinced that nothing truly interesting – that is to say, nothing literary – could possibly occur amidst the tract homes and impeccably landscaped yards, I developed well-tuned internal mechanisms of projection to infuse my young life with a sense of world-historical purpose.  To overcome the handicaps forced upon me by the bland and too-familiar neighborhoods in which I came of age, I learned to pretend that I was not of them. I came to see the city as a welcome contrast to the cramped quarters of suburbia's wide open spaces, and then as the dynamic backdrop to my daring future exploits, a place onto which streets my internal aspirations could be mapped and, finally, realized in the flickering lights of downtown during rush hour. 

Even in a century defined by the extreme interpersonal connectivity allowed by the web and our mobile devices, cities maintain a distinctive allure as places of sublime contact.  Technology, for all its awesome magnitude, cannot adequately satiate the instinctive desire in many of us to submit to a something beyond what our minds can easily grasp.  What separates the city, in terms of social potentiality, from online networks such as Facebook or even its own projections via Google’s Streetview is the physicality of our relationship to it. As immeasurably vast as we know the internet to be, we navigate its depths primarily in two dimensions; its experiential sublimity suffers from its confinement to the screen.  The city, conversely, is something that envelops us when we venture out into it.  This is a result not so much of its crowds, which one can brush past and ignore with only some care, but of its architecture – an unavoidable fact which commands our attention and, in moments of heightened perceptivity, our awe.

In the weeks following my move here, I was struck by how quickly and how naturally I accepted my aloneness in the crowd.  At first my heart would break six times a day, one for each cute girl I saw with headphones plugged in on the train heading in the opposite direction, away from conversations over coffee and matinee movies, away from the potentiality which drew me to the city in the first place.  That potentiality has dissolved, and yet I am still here.  I joke about those missed connections now with friends, none of whom I met on trains.  I look out my window on a clear night (almost morning, now) at the Willis Tower and its surrounding structures and I know that these are part of what has kept me here, in the absence of so much human contact.  I am developing a relationship with the buildings here.

  Though it generally aspires to permanence and solidity, architecture is in fact a kind of performance art.  It is a performance of one historical instant, now long gone, but also of many others.  I am engaging with this performance now, each day I walk out the door of my converted Czech community center apartment building and past the neo-Gothic church on 18th to wash my clothes at the decrepit lavanderia with light-up neon bubbles in the window.  I am realizing that the most meaningful relationships I have so far established in Chicago are with mostly inanimate objects and structures, and I am realizing the almost embarrassing intimacy of a hand-written letter from a friend in Virginia.  Intimacy. It’s more than one bargains for, living in a city.  And less. 

- C.T.


Aching to be Fucked

(As an addendum to my previous post on the nature of poetics moving forward, I provide this example of a poet and a text that manages to retain meaning whilst interrogating its nature.  To construct a more adequate relationship between linguistic interrogation and an aesthetics not in opposition to the pleasure-seeking reader is poetry's challenge, and this is largely what Ted Berrigan's The Sonnets achieves.)

The most striking and obvious realization one makes when first approaching Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets may be that the seventy-eight poems contained are not sonnets after all – at least not in the formal sense. Published in 1963 and widely considered Berrigan’s greatest work, The Sonnets offer a vast majority of poems that do adhere to a fourteen line format, though most are composed in free verse rather than the traditional iambic pentameter and a number of exceptions are scattered throughout. These exceptions, along with the extreme experimental methods Berrigan used in composing each poem, point to a higher sense of poetic purpose than that which can be derived from a strict adherence to form (this has proven to be true, at least, in much of contemporary poetry). Indeed, it seems as if by crafting his collection within the context of such an archaic poetic form, Berrigan is inviting the reader to reconsider the usefulness and implications of form itself in post-modern poetics.

The disjointed syntax and schizophrenic nature of The Sonnets can be attributed to the unorthodox process of composition that Berrigan implemented in writing them. The individual poems are for the most part a mish-mash of lines copped from other poems and strung together to form surprising new meanings. While this seems to have potential for disaster, it never comes across as if Berrigan went about this haphazardly – every line feels as if it serves a purpose in its place and they rarely feel alienated from one another, even if there is a general lack of grammatical sense and cohesive narration. Many of the same lines are recycled and reappear in different poems, giving the collected poems a rare and unified nature. It is one of many happy surprises in The Sonnets that the lines that do appear multiple times have taken on widely disparate meanings in their respective contexts, so much so that when we come across them again they still manage to feel strange and exciting. And the novelty never wears off, partly due to the fact that there are several sonnets that do not adhere to this cut-it-up formula (though it is almost hard to recognize familiar sentence structures when one has been deprived of them for so long) and partly because the individual lines carry such vivacity.

A representative instance of two poems speaking to one another can be drawn up in comparing “Penn Station” to Sonnet “XXI.” The two poems share fourteen identical lines and vary only in their titles and the order in which these lines are presented. Still, these few distinctions remarkably manage to create entirely fresh environments for the reader. “Penn Station” is one of the few poems in the collection that is given a name other than the typical Roman numeral. Berrigan makes sure that these titles count; in this case, the title lends the poem a visual template on which to sketch an incoherent narrative. Then again, it is hopeless to completely trust the title to make sense of everything, as the poem’s first line, “On the green a white boy goes,” presents an image that contrasts with the indoor bustling one might associate with a place such as Penn Station. The same is true for images such as “the green jungle” and “a sky of burnt umber.” Adding to the confusion are rhymes that come at the end of several lines but do not coalesce to form a rhyme scheme with any recognizable pattern. In throwing away the narrative and replacing it with such a collage, Berrigan succeeds in creating a poetic situation in which the reader is forced to give paramount importance to the words themselves. In doing so, the reader must develop his own meaning and is therefore allowed a chance to participate in the poem’s actual creation. 

Perhaps what strikes one most about The Sonnets is how entirely pleasurable they are to read. They are infused with such abundant life and energy that, to employ an apt cliche, each nearly jumps off the page. This kind of energy is what poets should seek to instill in their own work and Berrigan’s work provides another template – along the lines of Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery, whose work bore considerable weight on Berrigan's – on which they more effectively release it.



Poetry, and its Discontents

To read Vernon Shetley’s “After the Death of Poetry” eighteen years after its publication is to arrive at the funeral right on time.  Shetley assumes this death as a precursory fact and he’s right to do so.  Not much has changed in the survivalist discourse of poetry since 1993 and his argument remains topical enough, but his autopsy of the subject bears insufficient consideration for the effect of consumer markets not only on poetry’s demise, but on its fledging propagation even in intellectual circles.

The argument more or less shapes up like this: Poetry died of this nasty virus called progress, which replaced it with other artistic forms more of this moment, i.e. more accommodating to today’s consumer.  This virus took a long time to act and, well, poetry isn’t actually dead in the medical sense – it’s just on this permanent life-support device in the room next to figurative painting.  The bad news is that poetry’s days of promenading down Fifth Avenue in the sun are long over.  But the good news is that, if we treat it with the most accommodating technologies available to us, poetry can still be revived and enjoyed by an increasingly small and privileged sect of humanity known as the “intellectual community,” which is itself distinct from the academic community in unclear (read: probably imagined) ways.

Shetley presents three recent poets - Elizabeth Bishop, James Merrill, and John Ashbery – whom he believes offer the best templates for poetic survival in the 21st century.  He signals out several distinctive characteristics of each poet’s work and suggests that these are examples of what can make poetry compelling even after its popular death.  Bishop employs simile paradoxically to expose difference, Merrill explores with form and reference the boundary separating private and public, and Ashbery deliberately fractures his voice to save his poems from sentimentality.  These are all ways to subvert the polemical debate between hard Formalist and Language poetries (a debate which interestingly aligns itself politically), neither of which Shetley claims offers a viable way forward.

My claim is that there really isn’t a way forward - as in following the same trajectory - at least not in the way Shetley believes.  As a poet I would certainly like to believe such things, and I think Shetley is blinded by a dedication to the form that I can sympathize with but that not many others share.  This includes even the serious intellectuals Shetley imagines would be more receptive to a poetry that “combines a fundamentally lyric apprehension of experience with an intense, and intensely self-aware, skepticism about …poetic enterprise” (192).  Even if it acknowledges its diminished stature and manages to do so in the most interesting way possible, I am not convinced that this will be enough to win back anyone who wasn’t already partial to the cause in the first place.

In fact, though the demands of the audience should figure centrally in any prescription for poetry’s health, it is the poets themselves who are more in danger of extinction.  It is strange that Shetley gives extremely little thought to this, seemingly assured that serious poets with serious intellectual concerns will continue to write poetry in the conventional sense long after the thrill of living is gone.

An opinion piece entitled “Would the Bard Have Survived the Web?” ran this week in NYT.  Though we here at The Cola Wars would like to distance ourselves from any fundamentally pro-capitalist claims, it’s hard to disagree with the authors’ notion that commerce fuels the development of those arts it finds most agreeable.  Exhibit A: the three-minute song – a format created explicitly for ease of consumption, whose commercial viability has proven so pervasive that even punk and other genres fashioned around the Anti-Social continue to willfully shape their contents around its form.

The forms that commerce has chosen, it has chosen for a reason. Though they may be co-opted by artists whose intents are anti-capitalist or anti-social, they are fundamentally structured to provide the type and level of discourse that do not pose a threat to the dominant ideology.  This threat is not thematic; it is existential.  If poetry is to survive in any real capacity, it must abandon Shetley’s vision of an accommodating-though-intellectually-challenging art for the niche crowd and take up in full-force the kind of radical program that is behind the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school.  I am not saying that Language poetry presents an entirely adequate program, but it does pose a more workable template than Shetley’s: Use the market’s rejection as a recruiting device as well as a philosophical tool in the restructuring of the form.  Derive potency and meaning from combat.  

The key component here is recruitment.  It is not a pipe dream to imagine that poetry can recruit new and exciting writers from the ranks of leftist, politicized intellectuals, many of whom would be enticed by the pitch of creating work as far removed from the traps and snares of capitalism as possible.  This of course alienates a potentially vast audience, but an art's pulse is not measured merely by sales and consumption.  Rather, it is measured by its vitality as a platform of ideas, whether such ideas reflect popular, dominant discourse or not. 

At a recent New York reading, the conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith referred to poetry as a “gift economy,” divergent from the other arts in its inability to function as an economic as well as a creative entity.  Goldsmith asserts that poetry “is one of the last places in late hyper-capitalism that allows non-function as an attribute,” alluding specifically to modern poetry’s unconcern for a traditional value-system as the aspect which frees it from the context of the dominant capitalistic ideology of [labor = value].  Hence, if a modern poet is to go to the extreme that Goldsmith has in alienating himself from a context which even permits ideology, he might find success only due to the fact that poetry in the 21st century is the first art form ever to exist in an operative economic vacuum. 

The judgment has been passed on both sides and one thing is apparent: There is no longer a place for poetry in a capitalist economy. At least not a poetry in the conventional sense that Shetley would like to see evolve into something more compelling, tough-minded and self-referential.  That kind of poetry will always exist, but it can only be said to be of this time if we are referring to the latter 20th century.

For now, the least compromised and most compelling programs of poetry exist in opposition to Culture, intellectual or otherwise.  Poetry cannot regain traction or viability within this current culture’s framework, so it is best that it prepare itself to assume the voice and mantle of an altogether new, post-commercial ideology.  Whenever that might come.


American Water

The problem with history is the people
tied up in it. The problem with people
is the history tied up in them. 

If  the U.S. of A. is not to blame for the transcendent meditation on democracy currently unfolding in Egypt, it is assured to play several uncomfortable roles in its future.  The formulation of these roles represents nothing less than an existential valuation of democracy as an actual system of government rather than as a purely virtual entity.

I emphasize the word “actual” because it is a vague and paradoxical notion that Zizek treats effectively enough in his recent lecture “The Reality of the Virtual.” One of his early points is the well-trodden one that symbolic authority, in order to be operative, has to remain virtual.  The first example he uses to explain this is that of Christmas, and one has no real gripe with the idea that Santa Claus maintains his strength as an operative fiction because “we only have to presuppose another person to believe” in him for it to be so.

His next example (the one relevant to this discussion) reflects a delightfully practical Eastern European sensibility:

“I don’t think anyone believes in democracy, but nonetheless, we want to maintain appearances…there is some purely virtual entity whom we do not want to disappoint, who has to be kept innocent, ignorant…the paradox is that although nobody effectively believes, it is enough that everybody presupposed someone else to believe. The belief is actual.  It structures reality.”

It is a true minority of Americans who have similarly resigned democracy to the virtual, so for many of us this argument loses a degree of authority here.  Who is anybody to say that our belief in democracy, of all things, can be questioned?  At the very bedrock of Americanism is the notion of democracy’s unquestionable legitimacy; any attack on it is not likely to be met on this side of the Atlantic with a bouquet of roses.

Which is what makes our perceived role in Egypt’s transformation so damn interesting.  Politicians on the hill have been grumbling privately (and somewhat publicly) about the potential for the Muslim Brotherhood to seize the opportunity of a fair election to win seats and establish a threatening Islamist state.
This, to quote a popular chant of late, is what democracy looks like.  Actually looks like. The U.S. government does not have the same luxuries of popular ignorance it had in the past when displacing or replacing democratically-elected leaders abroad with those more sympathetic to its goals.  The internet for now has changed that, which means that the next few years in Egypt could end up being the most strenuous tests of democracy in the modern era.  If the Muslim Brotherhood does in fact become the largest party in a free and fair election, and if the MB’s ability to turn Egypt into an Islamic state is not checked by the army and a strong opposition, and if after all that the United States still decides not to intervene to protect its interests, then democracy will have been proven as something more than a purely virtual, symbolic authority in our estimation.
We will see shortly if Zizek was correct in his casual supposition.

I’ll leave you with this: the peculiarity of David's response when asked about the issues addressed in this post.  A visual artist whose primary medium is found objects, his only point of reference was a blog post displaying D.I.Y. helmets worn by revolutionaries on the streets of Cairo.  All in all, a much more fascinating summation of “radical” disconnect than I could here provide.

- C.T.

Remarks on my Disfigurement

Hello again.

First, to address any standing questions of my whereabouts: I have returned to you with a new name and to a new address. C’est tout.  I had foreseen that some of you would attempt to contact me and fail; to those who did, I apologize and thank you for your strange persistence.

It’s too bad I can’t offer more than a stronger commitment to regularity now that my travels seem to have slowed down.  Preferring a degree of anonymity – most attractive parts of my persona would suffer without it – I trust it will suffice to say that I take the train two times each day and  write mostly in a coffee shop that plays music along the early-80s Factory Records line with the occasional track of top-40 synth-pop.

Allow me, while these words retain the fizzing sparkle of my return, to introduce you to The Cola Wars.  These are the anointed battlegrounds for a fresh discourse on pop and place and populace.  One may provide the endnotes for another, and so on.  In fact, this will often be the case. 

As for you, reader, as has always been the case, I ask and expect nothing of you.   

That’s fine for now.