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Crossing Cali’s Wires

The num­ber you have reached is not in ser­vice. If you’d like to make a call, please hang up and try again.” The mes­sage was fol­lowed by a series of clicks and buzzes and a final pop like the line was actu­ally being cut. Cali imag­ined a black cable the thick­ness of her thumb sev­ered […] Con­tinue read­ing

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To The Telling

I was look­ing at my news­feed and I saw this embed­ded video of a tele­vi­sion adver­tise­ment for vit­a­mins. In short, it showed a cou­ple of cou­ples play­ing strip poker; glow­ing young folks, fully devel­oped and semi-clad. One volup­tuous female loses the hand and begins unclasp­ing her radi­ant red brassiere, but is frozen mid reach by […] Con­tinue read­ing

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The Number You Have Called Is Not Available: Time and the Work of Poetry

The Num­ber You Have Called Is Not Avail­able: Time and the Work of Poetry

  In spite of my per­sonal dis­taste for the shady pol­i­tick­ing of a man whom Dry­den called “a well-mannered court slave”, I have admired the poetry of Horace, par­tic­u­larly his Odes, ever since as a school­boy I strug­gled with trans­lat­ing him; I dis­cov­ered, to my cha­grin and, later, delight, that my Eng­lish often floun­dered in wordi­ness and mud­dle where his Latin was crisp in expres­sion, nuanced in mean­ing, and gram­mat­i­cally sup­ple inside an unyield­ing met­ri­cal shell.
 “Up to this day”, wrote Niet­zsche, “I have not had an artis­tic delight in any poet sim­i­lar to that which, from the begin­ning, an Ode of Horace gave me”, and he goes on to praise “[t]his mosaic of words, in which every word, by sound, by plac­ing, and by mean­ing, spreads its influ­ence to the right, to the left, and over the whole.” In the hands of Horace, the flex­i­bil­ity of Latin syn­tax allows for a ver­bal struc­ture where the poet is in absolute con­trol of the order in which the reader receives per­cep­tions and the order in which mean­ings unfold;  and all the while, the sen­tences are pre­vented from fly­ing into dis­so­lu­tion by the exi­gen­cies of the meter.

Solvi­tur acris hiems grata vice veris et Favoni,

trahuntque sic­cas machi­nae carinas.

ac neque iam stab­u­lis gaudet pecus aut ara­tor igni;

nec prata canis albi­cant pruinis.

These open­ing lines from Odes I, 4 were trans­lated as fol­lows by one of Horace’s best mod­ern trans­la­tors, David Ferry:               

 Now the hard win­ter is break­ing up with the wel­come coming

 Of spring and the spring winds; some fishermen,

 Under a sky that looks changed, are haul­ing their caulked boats

 Down to the water; in win­ter sta­bles the cat­tle
 Are rest­less; so is the farmer sit­ting in front of his fire;

 They want to be out of doors in field or pasture;

 The frost is gone from the meadow grass in the early morn­ings.[1]

Now, you don’t need much Latin to see that the Eng­lish stro­phe is con­sid­er­ably longer , that there are words and phrases here that are not to be found in the orig­i­nal. Yet, Ferry, in my opin­ion, made the right crit­i­cal deci­sion to amplify the Latin, to tease out its impli­ca­tions in an Eng­lish that uses the resources of the free verse line to catch some of the syn­tac­ti­cal com­plex­ity of the Latin.
 There are some things, though, which oper­ate at an almost uncon­scious ver­bal level in the Latin and which would prob­a­bly be impos­si­ble to get into Eng­lish and still pro­duce a coher­ent poem.  Take, for exam­ple, Horace’s open­ing line  Solvi­tur acris hiems grata vice veris et Favoni : by plac­ing the verb solvi­tur (“is dis­solved”) as the first word in the line not only does Horace empha­sise the change from winter’s stag­na­tion to spring’s move­ment, but the verb also echoes the word sol (“sun”) and brings warmth and heat into the poem from its first syl­la­ble. Horace does things like this all over the place, and his seri­ous ver­bal play must surely be one of the rea­sons why poets and poetry read­ers in every gen­er­a­tion for the past cou­ple of mil­len­nia have been com­pelled to return to him and learn from him.
 An unkind reader, though, might say that Horace’s endur­ing  attrac­tion has more to do with how acces­si­bly com­mon­place are the sen­ti­ments in much of his poetry and the ease with which his out­look can be assim­i­lated to the ide­o­log­i­cal needs of empires, ancient and mod­ern.  It is a view­point with which I have some sym­pa­thy, and yet I can’t think of it as being any­thing like the whole story.
  For years lines like those above have accom­pa­nied me as, by mid-March, with the daf­fodils ignit­ing along the edges of my fields and skunk cab­bage thrust­ing its spathes out of the drainage ditches, I pull the shov­els and saws and clip­pers and mower from their stor­age shed and sur­vey what needs to be done: the veg­etable beds need to be weeded and planted, the small meadow needs  mow­ing, black­berry vines and salmonberry branches need to be cut back, per­haps a small tree needs to be cut down. In my mind the plea­sures of the poetry and the plea­sure of the man­ual labor can some­times over­lap each other so much that I can almost per­suade myself that Voltaire’s Can­dide was lit­er­ally right when he said that to be happy “We must cul­ti­vate our gar­den”.
 Almost. It is a fan­tasy to think of my gar­den as being too much more than a hobby. Should my potato crop fail the con­se­quence for me would be annoy­ance, not star­va­tion. If the weather turns sud­denly cold and rainy I can just put off that weed­ing I’d planned to do. If my shoul­der aches because of over-zealous dig­ging or chop­ping, I can sim­ply stop. The eco­nom­ics of my life are con­nected to the city, to a uni­ver­sity, to the global con­nec­tiv­ity of the inter­net, to my wife’s busi­ness as a glass artist. My rural life could not exist with­out these, and at their best they mutu­ally enrich each other. The worst temp­ta­tion of the rural part of my life is that it some­times gives the illu­sion of retreat.
 Horace often writes about the plea­sures of his own farm in the Sabine hills. He, of course, was not a farmer— the Sabine farm was a fairly large coun­try estate bestowed on him by his phe­nom­e­nally wealthy patron Mae­ce­nas; it was run by slaves and had addi­tional income from five ten­anted prop­er­ties. The secure space from which he was able to com­pose poems, to phi­los­o­phize, and to sat­i­rize the pre­ten­sions of some of the Roman elite was under­writ­ten by slav­ery and more gen­er­ally by the trans­fer of wealth from the expan­sion of the empire under Augus­tus. Horace is always up front about how much his good life as a poet is depen­dent on Mae­ce­nas, but still his cel­e­bra­tion of the stoic virtue of equa­nim­ity can seem inau­then­tic when read against the back­ground of his secu­rity; in Ode 3, 16 he addresses Maecenas:

             The more a man will deny to him­self, so much
             the more is given by the gods: strip­ping myself,
            I seek the camp that knows no greed, a deserter
            long­ing to leave the wealthy side,

a more glo­ri­ous mas­ter of things I reject

than if I were said to have buried in my barns

har­vests from all the plowed fields of Apulia,

and had no good of all my goods.

A brook with clear water, a few wooded acres,

and con­fi­dence in my crops: a hap­pier life

than fer­tile Africa’s glit­ter­ing governor

was given — not that he knows it.

Although no Cal­abrian bees bring me honey,

and no wine is mel­low­ing for me

in Formian jars, and no fleeces of mine

grow full in the pas­tures of Gaul,

still poverty stays away, with all its troubles,

and if I wanted more, you would not refuse it.

As my desire for things is less­ened, I stretch my

lit­tle income even further

than if I were to join Aly­attes’ kingdom

to the plains of Phry­gia. For men who seek much,

much is never there; a man is well off when the god

gives him, with fru­gal hand, just enough.[2]

 Clearly, what con­sti­tutes “just enough”  and “lit­tle income” is rel­a­tive.  Sim­i­larly when we read in Odes 1, 1:

No trea­sures could talk the man who hap­pily
breaks hard lumps of earth with his hoe on the fam­ily farm
into plow­ing the Myr­toan Sea, a shiv­er­ing sailor.
The trader, scared by rough-housing winds and waves,
sings in praise of the peace­ful coun­try town
where he was born; soon he refits his ships,
a lower stan­dard of liv­ing is not for him…[3]

one is inclined to scoff at the phrase  “hap­pily breaks hard lumps of earth with his hoe”, given that Horace was not known to have bro­ken much earth with his own hands, hap­pily or oth­er­wise; there were slaves for that.
 And yet. Time and again Horace returns to the themes of fru­gal­ity, of coun­try liv­ing, of friend­ship, of love, of plea­sure, of poetry, of work, of tran­sience. Obvi­ously these are not themes par­tic­u­lar to him, but once we know how he expressed them in his own par­tic­u­lar way, in a sweet and com­pelling pithi­ness, his lines have the abil­ity to struc­ture our own thoughts and feel­ings on these things, to become part of the process by which we begin to live an exam­ined life.  “Carpe diem”—seize the day;  “eram quod es, eris quod sum”—I was what you are, you’ll be what I am; “Dulce est desipere in loco”—it’s lovely to kick back at the right time; “Exegi mon­u­men­tum aere peren­nius” – I have raised a mon­u­ment more last­ing than bronze; “Pop­u­lus me sibi­lat at mihi plaudo ipse domi” – peo­ple hiss at me but I applaud myself at home; “Nunc est biben­dum” – now it’s time for a drink­ing spree;  “Ibit, ibit eo quo vis qui zonam per­didit” – who­ever loses his wal­let will go wher­ever you wish; “Omnes una manet nox”—the same night awaits us all…

Com­mon­places? No doubt. But they nig­gle at you, and I want to sug­gest that read a cer­tain way, pay­ing atten­tion to both their art and their import, the dulce and the utile,  many of Horace’s poems have a spe­cial rel­e­vance for us (hyper)moderns and our prospect of liv­ing a good life. And the rea­son for this is that under­ly­ing these poems is an atti­tude towards Time which is rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent from that of the early 21st cen­tury, no mat­ter where we live; rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent and rad­i­cally con­nected to poetic lan­guage itself.
 I am bor­row­ing here some ideas from Ital­ian the­o­rist Franco “Bifo” Berardi who in sev­eral books, but espe­cially in ‘The Soul At Work’[Semiotext(e), 2009] and  ‘The Upris­ing’ [Semiotext(e), 2012], pro­vides a num­ber of con­cep­tual tools for think­ing about this strange, new world of ours.  Accord­ing to Berardi the tech­noso­cial muta­tions which first appeared  a gen­er­a­tion ago (he has in mind the ways in which pro­duc­tion became highly auto­mated, and the net­work­ing of humans and com­put­ers), these tech­noso­cial muta­tions pro­duced irre­versible changes in how we live. In Berardi’s analy­sis lan­guage itself is absolutely cru­cial to con­tem­po­rary cap­i­tal­ism, and he uses  the term semi­o­cap­i­tal­ism to describe the cen­tral­ity of the semi­o­log­i­cal dimen­sion of pro­duc­tion. “Semi­o­cap­i­tal­ism takes the mind, lan­guage and cre­ativ­ity as its pri­mary tools for the pro­duc­tion of value. In the sphere of dig­i­tal pro­duc­tion, exploita­tion is exerted essen­tially on the semi­otic flux pro­duced by human time at work”(‘The Soul At Work’, p.21–22).  In our time, he says,

 “[t]he present emerg­ing uneasi­ness orig­i­nates from a sit­u­a­tion of

com­mu­ni­ca­tion over­load, since we, the assem­bly line, once linking

work­ers through the move­ments of a mechan­i­cal appa­ra­tus, have been

replaced by the dig­i­tal telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions net­work, which links people

through sym­bols. Pro­duc­tive life is over­loaded with sym­bols that

not only have an oper­a­tional value, but also an affective,

emo­tional, imper­a­tive or dis­sua­sive one. These signs can­not work without

unleash­ing chains of inter­pre­ta­tion, decod­ing, and con­scious responses.

The con­stant mobi­liza­tion of atten­tion is essen­tial to the pro­duc­tive function:

the ener­gies engaged by the pro­duc­tive sys­tem are essen­tially cre­ative, affective

and com­mu­ni­ca­tional.

 Each pro­ducer of semi­otic flows is also a con­sumer of them, and each

user is part of the pro­duc­tive process: all exits are also an entry, and

every receiver is also a transmitter.

 We can have access to the modal­i­ties of dig­i­tal telecommunication

 from every­where and at all times, and in fact we have to, since this

is the only way to par­tic­i­pate in the labor mar­ket. We can reach every

point in the world but, more impor­tantly, we can be reached from

any point in the world. Under these con­di­tions pri­vacy and its pos­si­b­li­ties
are abol­ished…
 Every­where atten­tion is under siege.
 Not silence but unin­ter­rupted noise…a cog­ni­tive space over­loaded with
ner­vous incen­tives to act: this is the alien­ation of our times.”
(‘The Soul At Work’, p.107–108)

 When we move into the sphere of info-labor, Cap­i­tal no longer
recruits peo­ple, it buys pack­ets of time, sep­a­rated from their inter–

change­able and con­tin­gent bear­ers. De-personalized time is now

real agent of the process of val­oriza­tion, and de-personalized time

has no rights.
               Mean­while, the human machine is there, pul­sat­ing and available,

like a brain-sprawl in wait­ing. The exten­sion of time is

metic­u­lously cel­lu­lar: cells of pro­duc­tive time can be mobi­lized in

punc­tual, casual and frag­men­tary forms. The recom­bi­na­tion of

these frag­ments is auto­mat­i­cally real­ized in the dig­i­tal networks.

The mobile phone makes pos­si­ble the con­nec­tion between the

needs of semio-capital and the mobi­liza­tion of the liv­ing labor of

cyber-space. The ring­tone of the mobile phone calls the work­ers to

recon­nect their abstract time to the retic­u­lar flows. (The Soul At Work, p.192–193)

   We are all caught up in this in obvi­ous ways and in ways that are far from obvi­ous:
  I am hav­ing din­ner with friends at my house; it’s late in the evening, the food has been good, the wine has flowed, the con­ver­sa­tion is bright and chal­leng­ing; someone’s cell phone goes off—she apol­o­gizes, she’s “on call” this week­end, she talks for a few min­utes and then returns and says she has to leave because of a “net­work issue” in Mum­bai.  Or a friend who teaches an online class on Psy­chol­ogy tells me how he opens his email some morn­ings and finds irate mes­sages from a stu­dent who is annoyed at hav­ing waited half a day for an answer to a ques­tion; the email was sent at mid­night in my friend’s time zone, he gets up at 7a.m., and is at his desk shortly after 8a.m. Clearly he sleeps too much.
 Less obvi­ous, per­haps, are the ways in which these “retic­u­lar flows” impact work­ers who are not part of the con­tem­po­rary “cog­ni­tariat”, the “knowl­edge” work­ers. Take, for exam­ple, a con­trac­tor who builds houses around Port­land, Ore­gon. He and his crew have skills as car­pen­ters, concrete-pourers, elec­tri­cians, etc., with­out which noth­ing would get built. How­ever, when the so-called hous­ing bub­ble burst in the USA around 2008, and this con­trac­tor finds him­self with no work, and even goes out of busi­ness, the destruc­tion of his liveli­hood is directly related to forces oper­at­ing within the cog­ni­tive econ­omy. I’m actu­ally mak­ing a stronger point here than sim­ply say­ing he fell vic­tim to a down­turn in the busi­ness cycle; I’m say­ing that the eco­nomic col­lapse was caused by the finan­cial­iza­tion of the econ­omy oper­ated by the cog­ni­tariat accord­ing to semiocapital’s own, inter­nal, abstract logic, indif­fer­ent to con­se­quences out­side of itself. Berardi puts it like this: “In the world of finan­cial cap­i­tal­ism, accu­mu­la­tion no longer passes through the pro­duc­tion of goods, but goes straight to its mon­e­tary goal, extract­ing value from the pure cir­cu­la­tion of money, from the vir­tu­al­iza­tion of life and intel­li­gence” (‘The Upris­ing’, p. 23–24). Thus the actual value of the phys­i­cal and men­tal skills of the car­pen­ter (or the barista, or the cab-driver) gets entan­gled in a vir­tual sys­tem for which the “real” econ­omy is only rel­e­vant to the degree to which its prod­ucts and oper­a­tions can them­selves be dig­i­tized and vir­tu­al­ized. The phys­i­cal house or phys­i­cal cup of cof­fee doesn’t matter—it’s the mort­gage on the house, “bun­dled” with other mort­gages into an abstract finan­cial “instru­ment” which can cir­cu­late dig­i­tally, that mat­ters; it’s the credit card charge for the cof­fee, com­bined with all the other charges that pro­duce finan­cial assets which can then be used by a bank for loan­ing and trad­ing, enter­ing into dig­i­tal cir­cu­la­tion, that mat­ter. The cog­ni­tariat itself, of course, are just spe­cial­ized func­tionar­ies in all of this; even when oper­at­ing as man­agers, they are not in any sense in con­trol.
 In the uni­verse of semi­o­cap­i­tal­ism there are three things to which we stand in a com­pletely dif­fer­ent rela­tion­ship than that of human beings even fifty years ago: space, time, and lan­guage. (I almost laugh, reread­ing that last sen­tence, a lit­tle voice in my head say­ing “oh, is that all?”). In The Upris­ing Berardi com­ments on how mem­bers of the cog­ni­tariat don’t need to be in any spe­cific place phys­i­cally to per­form their labor.  Because of net­worked tech­nolo­gies, cog­ni­tive labor can be done from any loca­tion.  And “socially nec­es­sary labor time”, that hardy Marx­ist peren­nial, has become cel­lu­lar.  The cap­i­tal­ist no longer needs to buy work­ers’ time in total­ity: he just buys cells of time, as needed, just-in-time.
 It is worth think­ing about the spe­cific con­se­quences of this rev­o­lu­tion in the expe­ri­ence of time for our real, every­day lives. Helga Nowotny in her won­der­ful book  Time: The Mod­ern and Post­mod­ern Expe­ri­ence, (Cam­bridge, MA: Polity Press, 1994) uses the word Eigen­zeit, “self-time” or “proper time” to ana­lyze the individual’s rela­tion­ship to the var­i­ous time regimes that have come into exis­tence with tech­no­log­i­cal shifts. There are a large num­ber of these time regimes—natural time, clock time, per­sonal time, bio­log­i­cal time, social time etc. And each of these has its own logic and scale: this is proper time. In ear­lier, sim­pler soci­eties, all time was col­lec­tive, a proper time shared by all mem­bers of a coher­ent com­mu­nity. In post­mod­ern soci­ety, peo­ple have many dif­fer­ent indi­vid­ual proper times, and they do not mesh eas­ily with each other either in an individual’s life or col­lec­tively in social life. All kinds of strate­gies have to be used to coor­di­nate them, but, like the exam­ple of my friend at din­ner, they are not all equal when it comes to chos­ing between their demands. One of the con­se­quences of the con­tem­po­rary net­worked, just-in-time world, Nowotny says is that “Time in which empa­thy, affec­tion and sol­i­dar­ity can be expressed only through per­sonal pres­ence is on the retreat.… All time of car­ing, occa­sions for mutual joy or mourn­ing, time which is qual­i­ta­tively tied to par­tic­u­lar indi­vid­u­als . .. are sim­ply rem­nants.” I don’t believe this is over­stated.
 What inter­ests me about Berardi in all of this is that he enun­ci­ates our con­tem­po­rary sense of eco­nomic pre­car­i­ous­ness and col­lec­tive sen­su­ous impov­er­ish­ment in terms that open a space for poetry as a vital tool of resis­tance.  In con­trast to the semi­otic flux exploited by semi­o­cap­i­tal­ism, “Poetic lan­guage is the occu­pa­tion of the space of com­mu­ni­ca­tion by words which escape the order of exchange­abil­ity”.  Poetry, Berardi says,  “is language’s excess: poetry is what in lan­guage can­not be reduced to infor­ma­tion, and is not exchange­able”.
 Any­one who engages with and has grown to love poetry will under­stand the almost grav­i­ta­tional pull of that excess, the ways in which a good poem can undo one’s prag­matic automa­tism towards read­ing and lan­guage, can sum­mon your best acts of atten­tive lis­ten­ing, can per­suade you, for the dura­tion of the poem (and per­haps longer), of the right­ness of its vision, no mat­ter how uneasily that vision meshes with your own habit­ual ori­en­ta­tion towards the world. The poem is always demand­ing an answer, youranswer to the ques­tion of who you are, elic­it­ing a sense that in you there’s more than you; in face of the poem, you are exposed—because the order of lan­guage which is your deep­est real­ity exposes itself. And some­times, even, because of this, “you must change your life”.
 Berardi quotes Félix Guattari’s asser­tion in Chaos­mo­sis that in the con­di­tions of neolib­eral glob­al­iza­tion with its fake cel­e­bra­tion of individuality

[s]ubjectivity is stan­dard­ized through a com­mu­ni­ca­tion which evac­u­ates as much as pos­si­ble trans-semiotic and amodal enun­cia­tive com­po­si­tions. Thus it slips towards the pro­gres­sive efface­ment of pol­y­semy, prosody, ges­ture, mim­icry and pos­ture, to the profit of a lan­guage rig­or­ously sub­jected to scrip­tural machines and their mass media avatars. In its extreme con­tem­po­rary forms it amounts to an exchange of infor­ma­tion tokens cal­cu­la­ble as bits and repro­ducible on com­put­ers.

 This might almost be thought of as the gen­uinely “per­verse other” of poetry, the let­ters that kill as opposed to the “spirit” that gives life: Slavoj Žižek says that “the pervert’s uni­verse is the uni­verse of pure sym­bolic order, of the signifier’s game run­ning its course, unen­cum­bered by the real of human fini­tude.” In poetry, though, the sig­ni­fier with its games is always look­ing over its shoul­der towards the “real of human fini­tude”;  “pol­y­semy, prosody, ges­ture, mim­icry and pos­ture” , these are the stuff of poetry, the non-Euclidian coor­di­nates of that space which is the human life­world utter­ing itself in all its indi­vid­ual and col­lec­tive strug­gles to be, to know, to become.
 Berardi, by the way, when he says things like “Only the con­scious mobi­liza­tion of the erotic body of the gen­eral intel­lect, only the poetic revi­tal­iza­tion of lan­guage, will open the way to the emer­gence of a new form of social auton­omy”, is quite uncon­vinc­ing, to me, at least, as a the­o­reti­cian of actual polit­i­cal praxis. Is he not just giv­ing us an updated ver­sion of the Roman­tic cri­tique of “progress” and indus­tri­al­iza­tion?  One recalls Marx’s state­ment in the Grun­drisse that

“It is as ridicu­lous to yearn for a return to that orig­i­nal full­ness as it is to believe that with this com­plete empti­ness his­tory has come to a stand­still. The bour­geois view­point has never advanced beyond this antithe­sis between itself and this roman­tic view­point, and there­fore the lat­ter will accom­pany it as legit­i­mate antithe­sis up to its blessed end”.

 Nev­er­the­less, I would argue that one of the things the roman­tic cri­tique did best was to actu­ally artic­u­late in sen­su­ous detail the trauma of the advent of moder­nity. That artic­u­la­tion, though par­tial and often backward-looking, is surely a nec­es­sary pre­cur­sor to the dialec­ti­cal under­stand­ing of alien­ation. What Berardi does, and why I’ve ref­er­enced some of his ideas at length, is artic­u­late the fact that there is, struc­turally, a linguistic/symbolic engine dri­ving the present state of cap­i­tal­ist cri­sis, and he iden­ti­fies in very com­pelling ways the range of socially and per­son­ally destruc­tive con­se­quences which accom­pany this. And if that is so, poetry, we can agree with him, can be one remark­able tool, one span­ner in the works of pure exchange­abil­ity, illu­mi­nat­ing  the semi­otic exchange process as such and imag­in­ing its alter­na­tive through lan­guage which rad­i­cally con­tests its oper­a­tion.  But surely this must be accom­pa­nied by the other tools of polit­i­cal praxis—organization, agi­ta­tion, build­ing sol­i­dar­ity etc. Berardi might argue that the sys­tem­atic frag­men­ta­tion of social groups through the work­ings of the sys­tem itself make these lat­ter very dif­fi­cult or impos­si­ble. I think he’s wrong about that, but even if he were right, poetry couldn’t pos­si­bly replace these other forms of praxis which is what he seems some­times to sug­gest, at least in The Upris­ing. Poetry can make things hap­pen; but very obvi­ously it’s not the only prac­tice that can make things hap­pen and  doesn’t make the same things hap­pen, either.
 What does poetry accom­plish, what can it accom­plish? In The Upris­ing Berardi uses such phrases as “poetry is the erotic body of lan­guage” and “poetry opens the doors of per­cep­tion to sin­gu­lar­ity”. I won­der if what lies behind these lovely char­ac­ter­i­za­tions of poetry and all his ear­lier strug­gle to under­stand what semi­o­cap­i­tal­ism is doing to us is the sense of a spe­cial kind of Eigen­zeit, to use Nowotny’s word, the self-time, the proper time of the expe­ri­ence of the poem as such.
 How to describe the proper time of the poem’s expe­ri­ence? I think it is the time which actively removes itself from the pos­si­bil­ity of deper­son­al­ized exchange and in so doing asserts the pri­or­ity of time “qual­i­ta­tively tied to par­tic­u­lar indi­vid­u­als”; or, to use a cen­tral con­cept of Gior­gio Agam­ben, the proper time of the poem is inop­er­a­tive­nessin its lin­guis­tic dimen­sion. To write a poem or to engage fully as a reader with a poem is to actively inter­rupt at the level of lan­guage the coer­cive time regime that val­orizes instan­ta­ne­ity, simul­tane­ity, gen­er­al­ity, and seam­less exchange­abil­ity; it is to be inop­er­a­tive, to be use-less to the work of semi­o­cap­i­tal­ism. A poem is the hard­est un-work, the unwork­ing  of the lin­guis­tic homo­gene­ity of semi­o­cap­i­tal­ism and the reper­son­al­iz­ing  of time.
 I love how Berardi and Geert Lovink declare in their man­i­festo A call to the Army of Love and to the Army of Soft­ware that

“we have lost the plea­sure of being together. Thirty years of pre­car­i­ous­ness and com­pe­ti­tion have destroyed social sol­i­dar­ity. Media vir­tu­al­iza­tion has destroyed the empa­thy among bod­ies, the plea­sure of touch­ing each other, and the plea­sure of liv­ing in urban spaces. We have lost the plea­sure of love, because too much time is devoted to work and vir­tual exchange. The large army of lovers have to wake up…Our intel­li­gence has been sub­mit­ted to algo­rith­mic power in exchange for a hand­ful of shitty money and a vir­tual life.” [4]

 A poem by itself is not going to change that situ­ta­tion, but it isa way of reac­ti­vat­ing the lan­guage that allows us to ask ques­tions about the con­tours and mean­ing of our feel­ings, our desires, our thoughts, our con­ver­sa­tions, our iden­ti­ties, our bod­ies, the hours of our days. I can­not exist on this earth with­out being enmeshed some­how in the global econ­omy of semi­o­cap­i­tal­ism, but that is not the mean­ing of my exis­tence. The time of the poem is a time where my atten­tion is not com­modi­tized and cel­lu­lar; the time of the poem is where I’m given time to reframe my cog­ni­tive space in ways that allow my com­mu­nal life­world the elo­quence of its stand­ing forth in all its sen­sual thick­ness, its his­tory, its poten­tial.  As Rilke in his 9th Duino Elegy wrote:

Here is the time for the sayablehere is its home­land.
Speak and bear wit­ness. More than ever
the Things that we might expe­ri­ence are van­ish­ing, for
what crowds them out and replaces them is an image­less act. (trans. Stephen Mitchell)

 This is the poem’s proper time, and it is des­per­ately vital to live inside it from time to time; because as Rilke says in the same poem

Per­haps we are here in order to say: house,
bridge, foun­tain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, win­dow–
at most: col­umn, tower.… But to say them, you must under­stand,
oh to say them more intensely than the Things them­selves
ever dreamed of exist­ing. Isn’t the secret intent
of this tac­i­turn earth, when it forces lovers together,
that inside their bound­less emo­tion all things may shud­der with joy?

  This is the poem’s No! to the lan­guage of counter and sig­nal, an intense and ques­tion­ing Bartleby among the blips. This is the time that ought to be on our side.
 It often amazes me how unaware the cul­ture at large is of the ulti­mate con­se­quences of being struc­tured by lan­guage that is reduced to bits of infor­ma­tion (which is not the same as “truth” or “fact”) and instan­ta­neous exchange­abil­ity. But Paul Celan has warned us in poems that smash the cir­cuits of “blip­s­peak” in order to expose their ubiq­uity, and help us find our way out:

Die fleis­si­gen
Boden­schätze, häuslich,

die geheizte Synkope

das nicht zu enträt­sel­nde

die vol­lver­glas­ten
Spinnen-Altäre im alles–
über­ra­gen­den Flachbau,

die Zwis­chen­laute
(noch immer?),
die Schat­ten­palaver,

die Äng­ste, eis­gerecht,

der barock umman­telte,
spracheschluck­ende Duschraum,
seman­tisch durchleuchtet,

die unbeschriebene Wand
einer Ste­hzelle:


leb dich
quer­durch, ohne Uhr.

The indus­tri­ous
min­eral resources, homey,

the heated syncope,

the not-to-be-deciphered

the com­pletely glassed in
spider-altars in the all–
over­tow­er­ing low building,

the inter­me­di­ate sounds
(even yet?)
the shad­ow­palavers, 

the anx­i­eties, icetrue,

the baroque cloaked,
lan­guageswal­low­ing show­er­room,
seman­ti­cally floodlit,

the unin­scribed wall
of a standing-cell:


live your­self
straight­through, with­out clock. (trans. by Pierre Joris)

 To spend time with this poem is to be drawn into undo­ing  the lin­guis­tic com­plic­i­ties lead­ing to the indus­trial pro­duc­tion of death in “the con­cen­tra­tion­ary uni­verse”, where human beings are an expend­able resource no dif­fer­ent from coal or iron.  Here, time itself is marked not by the hours of the clock but is out of joint and dis­solves into a time­less anx­i­ety. The icy, para­dox­i­cally obfus­cat­ing clar­ity of the lan­guage that effi­ciently orders the turn­ing of humans into smoke is really an anti-language, blank­ing out, swal­low­ing up the seman­tic rich­ness of indi­vid­u­als and their speech com­mu­ni­ties. Inmates are num­bers, min­er­als are num­bers–  the foun­da­tions of a homey world whose exis­tence relies on their destruc­tion, whose warmth con­ceals the chill of imper­sonal killing, whose idle talk wards off the real­ity of what is hap­pen­ing. Celan’s poem is an edu­ca­tion in lis­ten­ing for the mean­ings beyond the deaf­en­ing noise of our own time.

 Today, where I live, it is rain­ing after almost a week of snow­storms and ices­torms. I have had to split fire­wood this morn­ing since I’ve used up a lot of the smaller logs over the last few days in keep­ing the house warm. I have some nice dry alder and fir stowed away in the back of the wood­shed and when I pull it out the air takes on an earthy, loamy smell. Then, as I split the logs, there comes the sat­is­fy­ing crack of wood and the tang of fir sap ris­ing from the small pile. But the rain isn’t let­ting up, and soon I am uncom­fort­ably warm and wet. A var­ied thrush calls nearby.
 Today I have Paul Celan’s words with me as I work. I mull over his lines “das nicht zu enträtselnde/
Hall­jahr” which defeat my basic Ger­man, and in trans­la­tion trou­ble my under­stand­ing: the com­pound “Hall­jahr” more lit­er­ally means some­thing like “echo-year”, but struc­turally it mim­ics “Jobel­jahr” (Jubliee) and echoes its sound. And I am led to the word’s evo­ca­tion of fake cel­e­bra­tion, of an anniver­sary that memo­ri­al­izes an empty, inhu­man time. And so I am led back to this time of now, this work of split­ting fire­wood in the rain, this life which right now, today is full and rich through the senses of the body and the senses of words. The time of the poem has inter­sected my pri­vate time and I am infi­nitely richer for it.
 Already I am think­ing about tomorrow’s work  when I have classes to teach, emails to write, meet­ings, a long com­mute. Until then, I have turned off my cell phone; I admit I worry that I might miss an impor­tant call, but I’m not going to lose sleep over it. Some­one who calls my num­ber will hear a stan­dard­ized mes­sage say­ing some­thing like “The num­ber you have called is not avail­able…” I am work­ing, though. And I am unwork­ing. I am think­ing of Horace, the poet in whose name time itself, as he well knew, is inscribed: Hora, mean­ing “hour”.

Dum loquimur, fugerit inuida
aetas: carpe diem, quam min­i­mum credula pos­tero.
While we’re speak­ing the envi­ous age is fly­ing off:
Seize the day, don’t put much trust in tomorrow.

Today, that might be much more rad­i­cal and dan­ger­ous than Horace could ever have imagined.

© Ger Killeen

[1]David Ferry, ‘The Odes of Horace’, 1997, p.15




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Falling Forward

You are walk­ing. It is late morn­ing. The sun has that decep­tive mid­win­ter angle to it that makes every­thing look as though it should be warm and invit­ing, but it is not. It couldn’t be more than twenty degrees. The shad­ows are sharp-edged, and the air is crys­talline. There are no clouds; just a broad […] Con­tinue read­ing

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