Sunday, November 23, 2008

revolutionary writing

In a used bookstore near where I live, I was given the first number (novembre 2008) of a little ‘underground’ magazine called géographie nocturne. Géographie is 16 pages (8 normal printer sheets folded in half and stapled) of poetry, photography, prose art, and Marxism. It begins with three paragraphs of manifesto. Then there are some poems and another manifesto on role of the poet in the contemporary world. The middle of the magazine is occupied by 11 “thèses” on the proletariat—in the next number we are promised a treatment of ideology. The last pages are filled with free-form prose of several kinds.

The tone of the magazine is in general that of the uncompromising Marxist revolutionary, with a heavy dose of ecological awareness and—which I found distasteful, but which is no doubt emotionally necessary for even the pretense of revolutionary action—spiteful disdain for the “esclaves” of the bourgeoisie.

It is perhaps indicative of my reading of the magazine that the first poem, which is called ‘philistins,’ reminded me of nothing so much as Apollinaire’s ‘Zone.’ A very modernist coloration of crisis, necessary revolution, and elitism, is the main stylistic point of reference here. We are certainly on the familiar terrain where avant-garde politics and art overlap.

Unless I missed something, then only four authors are mentioned anywhere in the magazine: Marx, Lukacs, Debord, and Foucault. The first three appear in the central text on the proletariat, the main concern of which seems to be to argue first against altermondialisme or tiers-mondisme (the logic of capitalist development may be temporarialy geographically uneven, but we are all moving along the same developmental track, so the most important division is that at the heart of the nord), and then against the idea of the ‘middle class.’ Objectively, the proletariat includes all those who are not the bourgeoisie, even those who appear at first (and indeed are) in a position of power and benefit from the exploitation of others. In the end the argument seems to be that anyone whose psyche is not distorted by the need for money, anyone for whom money as limit does not exist, must be a part of the super-rich bourgeoisie at the very top of the ‘pyramidal’ structure of power.

I am not really ‘up to date’ on my Marxist theory, indeed I will admit to never having read Debord. Still, all the above seems hasty and not very considered to me. The goal here is to establish a line of battle, not to make the current configuration cognitively graspable. I find unsettling, actually, the need to fuse personal (aesthetic) liberation and the radical break of Revolution. I would have thought we could learn from the many generations who posed themselves this problem and failed, sometimes catastrophically, to answer it. This paradigm is not only Marxist, and Marxists aren’t always trapped within it. In France, it seems to me that this problematic tortures certain people beginning at the latest in the 1860s. I wonder if an analogous argument could me made in the United States, though organized around varieties of Christian fundamentalism rather than ‘secular’ revolutionary politics, and therefore concerned with the state of the individual’s soul rather than their aesthetic fulfillment—could we begin with John Brown? In this particular magazine, it seems to me that we see quite well—despite the fact that none of the particular texts are signed, although the thing as a whole is—the linkage between the struggle for aesthetic liberation (which is always about some kind of self-fulfillment), and the necessity for hatred of those functionaries or enforcers of the global order who are imagined to represent the impossibility of Revolution, and therefore the impossibility of this personal fulfillment.

It may, once again, be my formation, but it seems to me that this is to displace the central problem. As is only too clear at the moment, what is missing for revolutionaries (for the left generally, I’d say) today is a principle of intelligibility. Marx offered this for his readers in the late 19th century, and it is one reason for the depth of his impact on the intelligentsia. In a smaller way, I believe that much of Alain Badiou’s appeal comes from a similar ability to apparently render intelligible (which is to say, describable) the radically fractured phenomenological world that one has no choice but to encounter and admit. The only kinds of intelligibility that I think (or if you prefer, believe) are in fact available are not ones which will be emotionally satisfying to those inclined already toward revolution. I have not yet understood why there should be any rationality to human history taken as a whole, the best arguments for such a position that I have yet heard are grounded in despair: because if there is not reason in history, they say, there is no reason or meaning at all. The premises and conclusions both seem wrong to me.

Géographie nocturne has been successful at least in riling me up. I quite like some of the prose pieces, possibly because I am less familiar with the traditions from which they draw than I am with the poems. It is easy to be mean and small in criticism—I will praise, then, the aim of such a project. I suspect that it is linked to a series of posters that have gone up recently in the neighborhood. Public art, guerilla art if you like, is generally a good thing, generally makes the world more interesting. I wish only that there was less nastiness and bitterness in it, less venom. This aspect of what I take to be a roughly unified project makes me think that the whole effort, although played out on public walls and in this magazine presumably intended for distribution, is really aimed inward, really a project of self fashioning. There isn’t anything wrong, exactly, with revolutionary self fashioning, but it does require some kind of engagement with the world one is ostensibly hoping to change. If that world is allowed to remain completely virtual, then the self fashioning takes place in a void and is at best a self-indulgent piece of performance art that washes over its audience without touching anything. Since hatred and fear are already the currency of the world, since disdain and contempt are already what individuals, qua individuals, largely receive from society, then deploying such postures hardly seems like a good strategy for those who would like to be revolutionary.

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