“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.
Are restless; so is the farmer sitting in front of his fire;
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,
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…
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…
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,
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)
recruits people, it buys packets of time, separated from their inter–
Meanwhile, the human machine is there, pulsating and available,
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
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
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
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)
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?
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 geheizte Synkope
das nicht zu enträtselnde
Spinnen-Altäre im alles–
die Ängste, eisgerecht,
der barock ummantelte,
die unbeschriebene Wand
querdurch, ohne Uhr.
mineral resources, homey,
the heated syncope,
the completely glassed in
spider-altars in the all–
overtowering low building,
the intermediate sounds
the baroque cloaked,
the uninscribed wall
of a standing-cell:
straightthrough, without clock. (trans. by Pierre Joris)
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”.
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.