Abjection as It Appears: Notes on Johannes Goransson's Use of the Word 'Anarchy'

Since the concept of 'anarchy' necessarily can have no content, what then is its true function in an academic discourse on poetry? How is the use of the concept obscured by its meaninglessness, and what political position is supported by such use?

1.

I wanted to take the opportunity of a recent blog post by the poet Johannes Goransson on Larry Levis to make some very general comments on the use of 'anarchy' (and its poetic-conceptual synonyms [some of which Goransson has used explicitly] 'abjection,' 'wildness,' 'affect,' 'heterogeneous,' 'excess,' 'ecstasy,' etc.) in the discourse around poetry. Goransson has been working through his interest in Levis for a while now, and it provides for me an interesting window into some dominant threads in American poetry that I have willingly ignored for the past 15 years I've been chipping away at this stuff myself.

My interest stems in an abiding personal concern for how the concept of 'imagination' has come to valorize certain poetic choices and to circumscribe what can be said about poetry, keeping in mind the dominance in this context of the MFA. I see the concept of 'anarchy' functioning in a similar way, similar enough in my view to align with that dominance rather than to oppose it. That both of these concepts often serve to mystify a practice that already has mystifying ties to the academy (these concepts only have power in relation to the academy that authorizes them), makes me question the recourse to 'anarchy' in such a context. It seems to want to displace the hegemony of taste or imagination or craft (that medieval alembic of skill and je-ne-sais-quoi) as that which is more mysterious or more 'radical' than imagination; that is to say, it performs the same function as imagination—that of valorizing certain poets and poems under an inscrutable criterion—yet claims to be quite against such obfuscations and insists on its bona fides.

Goransson's issue is with the general dismissal among academic poets (e.g., Terrance Hayes and Tony Hoagland) of Levis's first book, Wrecking Crew, in favor of his later, more “mature” style. Goransson sees this as exemplary of a general turn in American poetry toward interiority, which he also, interestingly, characterizes as a turn away from the foreign, especially the surrealistic influence of French and Latin American poetries.

What gets me thinking, when I read Goransson's piece, is the equations he sets up between privacy and interiority versus explicit politics and mass media, quietism versus the “spasmodic,” plain style versus the baroque, with the emphasis always on the latter. And while these distinctions seem to obtain in practice, they do so really only within a very small conversation in the world of poetry, specifically that of the academy and “academic poetry,” by which I mean MFA poetry. On a more philosophical level, the implicit valorization of excess and abjection as a politically charged characteristic of the surrealist-inflected and baroque style Goransson promotes seems to me to be self-contradictory as well as aesthetically (and perhaps, politically) irresponsible.

To cut to the chase, I mainly want to explore the proposition, counter to Goransson and other poets that share an affinity of thought, that abjection (or anarchy or excess) is not a value and cannot become a value, social or political. And by extension, I want to question the way the political is imported into the aesthetic as a replacement for outmoded or inconvenient criteria for judgement (usually criteria of a more explicitly romantic bent).

There is a minor thread in contemporary American poetry that distinguishes itself based on a certain accent it puts on abjection and on a kind of improper excessiveness in general. This style is championed by Goransson and Joyelle McSweeney, but it can also be seen in the poetry and writings of Lara Glenum or Lucas de Lima or Daniel Borzutzky, among others, and in the editorial practices of Action Books. There have been some arguments by these poets linking a thematics of abjection and excess (what I'm just calling “abjection” for now, and later, 'inconsistency' and the 'heterogeneous') to an anti-colonial stance, which has merit in the context of U.S. poetry (as explicated in Goransson's posts on Levis) but is perhaps ultimately undercut by the philosophical inconsistencies of their general use of these concepts.

But it is an affinity I feel for some of these same ideas and issues that drives me to put my thoughts down here and to draw out the consequences of my contention that abjection cannot be a value, an end, or a criterion of judgement.

2.

The interest in Bataille (or in a Bataille-ish excess) among these poets always seems to take the form of a unary trait, that which sets this brand of poetry apart. Bataille as a sort of mascot; his name has a kind of cachet to it—it's theoretical, though not particularly academic; it has a complex relationship to surrealism; it values poetry; it has a non-philosophical vagueness that allows it to be put to strategic uses. But, to return to my thesis, how can abjectness, as that which is absolutely without value, be made into a value except through the process of ressentiment, of projecting one's feelings of inadequacy onto the perceived malevolence of an Other in order to ascribe evil to that Other and to oneself good?

In the case of ressentiment, what becomes a social value is thus not abjection, which as absolutely worthless could never be an object of worth, but a narcissism asserting itself through a perceived slighting. Thus, Goransson's introduction of Brian Massumi's distinction between affect (anarchistic and dynamic) and emotion (bourgeois and ego-centric) is ironic—since it is precisely ego that ressentiment produces and sustains. Now, I haven't read the Massumi in question, so I can't speak to his theory of affect, but I do think that the binary Goransson introduces is meant to valorize the kind of poetry he likes (and presumably that he writes) against the “quietists” who want to “capture this force” of “asubjective, anarchic” affect and “[make] it recognizable, easy to understand.” It is plain to see that this capture is exactly what valorizing the “asubjective” and “anarchic” does, making Goransson a kind of quietist against his will.

That is why one sees a kind of glorification of the sensational in the work of Goransson et al., but even he cannot help but admit that this kind of writing made possible by the ideology of quietism. He writes that because of the “plain style” promoted by “quietism,” the “foreign [meaning Lorca and the Surrealists, etc.] becomes associated with the sensationalistic, with violence, because—in part at least—it "demands the movement across borders.” The baroque and 'anarchic' style of Goransson and his contemporaries springs from the hinterlands already demarcated by the school of poetry it pits itself against, such that it remains within its orbit, dependent on it, despite its antipathy toward it.

Goransson's baroque is simply the mirror in which quietism contemplates its vacuity. The two are easily reconciled, because they are already one. I will henceforth refer to them both under the name 'academic poetry.'

3.

As I've already stated, abjection cannot be made a goal. Bataille's entire project was the elucidation of this impossibility, which brought to light a mode of existence that had no value, no appeal, and this could not be assumed in an intentional way, as a kind of personal conviction, but is nonetheless lived every day by everyone. All of our meaningful activities are structured in relation to this absence of significance, or rather, in relation to their own insignificance, their own failure finally to mean. The absence cannot be reified into an object or aim, and so all activity is in some way is a manifestation of the lack of necessity, not simply certain privileged activities. Abjection is everywhere even if (and because) it cannot ever be grasped as such.

And while the appearance of what is inconsistent or anarchic, in as much as it can appear, must appear as some thing (or rather as a kind of deformation of some thing), that thing is always situated, so that whatever activities might be privileged sites of an encounter with inconsistency, that privilege is historical and relative to a situation. There is no inconsistency-as-such—we can refer to it only by establishing a rule of discourse whereby we bar any mention of inconsistency-as-such, describing only situations and how they fail to justify themselves, styling our discourse to allow inconsistency to manifest in the silence of its interdiction. In this way, The Road Not Taken is as 'expressive' of anarchy and inconsistency as any poem considered more radical. It is is this very way that inconsistency undermines a valorization of an aesthetic in political terms.

In this sense, pure inconsistency, pure anarchy (and not its ideological phantasm), already obtains everywhere in all things. But it is not a property, a substance; it is not itself a thing. At the same time, since inconsistency cannot be encountered as such, we could say that pure inconsistency is nowhere. Every being we encounter is by definition a consistent being (at least, insofar as we do encounter it). So what is inconsistency itself, since it makes no sense to speak about it as such?

It is best to think of inconsistency not as something “out there” in the form of a reified otherness—instead, inconsistency is the incompleteness that haunts every attempt at consistency, the fact that any being, any thing, is conditioned by what it is not, by others, as well as by its own powerlessness to account for its conditions, for its coming-to-be. Thus any attempt for a being—a situation, a system, a thing, whatever—to authorize its own existence is hindered by what within that being signifies (without manifesting) that which outside of it makes it possible.

Bataille writes in Inner Experience of the horror induced at the thought that his very being is wholly the result of the random accident of what sperm met what egg on what day of what month of what year. This horror has nothing to do with the facile disgust at imagining one's parents in flagrante delicto, but of realizing in one's own life the ridiculous precarity of one's coming-to-be. Like Tristram Shandy, one is entirely determined by the exigencies, contingencies, and accidents that accompany one's conception, not to mention the phylogenic accident of sexual reproduction, to the point where any account of oneself is rendered nearly nonsensical.

A facile aesthetic example of such a logic is the novel-form, which requires a certain kind of suspension of disbelief (that there are omniscient narrators) or a certain benefit of the doubt (that the narrator is recounting a story in the past tense, the end of which is yet unknown to that narrator). The text itself, or rather the story, cannot manifest its meaning without relying on these extra-textual, extra-diegetic, conditions. As readers, our situation includes both the story and the appropriate behaviors and assumptions for understanding the story, yet within the narration itself, the story cannot fully account for itself.

In this example, what is inconsistent for the narrative is not the behaviors and assumptions of the reader, since those are obviously consistent. What is inconsistent is that within the story, there is always a point that cannot be made explicit, that cannot be “accounted for,” that is blurred or overlooked or distorted or hidden, and this point is precisely where its powers fail, and how its inconsistency manifests—not in itself, but in a nearly illegible inscription within the story of its outside and its powerlessness; one could say, its abjection.

At this point, within the bounds of the narrative (or the being, thing, system, whatever, I mentioned above), inconsistency is experienced as powerlessness, as a diminution of potency. In this way, we can see how inconsistency is not a substance or object (or position, in the case of poetry's internecine struggles), but is instead a potentiality for any system and one that is more intimate than its own self-identity.

To the extent that wild, ecstatic, stereotypically 'poetic' language is communicable, to the extent that it communicates its “wild, politically charged affect,” it presents a consistent meaning, perfectly assimilable to Goransson's concept of 'quietism'. The brand of anarchy that Goransson deploys to set apart the poetry he valorizes from what he considers 'quietist' cannot be anarchy (or chaos or abjection or wild affect or what I've been calling “inconsistency”) in any rigorous sense. To the extent that his concept of anarchy can become a use-value (to create clear and consistent cultural distinctions), it buys into the same form of communication as quietism, even if its content is slightly different, and is in that regard no different than “establishment US poetry” at best; at worst, it is its inverted reflection.

To put all of this in terms that might be more sympathetic to Goransson's project, the concept of 'communication' in Bataille does offer us ways of thinking about communication outside of what Goransson sees as establishment poetry's emphasis on the “communication of interiority” or Goransson's own emphasis on communicating (or demonstrating? exemplifying? performing?) the “spasmodic” or the "asubjective."

Bataillean communication is the exposure of a consistent world to heterogeneity. As in my discussion of “inconsistency,” this heterogeneity isn't something "out there," reified in the figure of the Other. Similarly, in Bataille, the heterogeneous is always situated, because it can only appear in the decomposition of a consistent situation yet by definition can never appear as such.

For Bataille, particularly in his late-early period (focused on “inner experience”), the heterogeneous is only experienced as pain, horror, delirium, laceration (which is not to say that a representation of such delirium "communicates" such an ecstatic state), and its forms for Bataille are particular to the situation of haute bourgeois culture and education in early twentieth-century France: shit, spit, genitalia (especially the vagina), blood, images of torture. While these objects are themselves not heterogeneous, they are avatars of it, ways of figuring within bourgeois society the objects that are necessary to its functioning (e.g., disposal of waste, sexual reproduction) but must be suppressed as indecent in order to maintain a consistent concept of society.

For example, a glob of spit is not heterogeneous, but it provides Bataille the opportunity to discuss l'informe, the formless. As he writes in the “Critical Dictionary” entry for "Formless," published in his journal, Documents:

A dictionary begins when it no longer gives the meaning of words, but their tasks. Thus formless is not only an adjective having a given meaning, but a term that serves to bring things down in the world, generally requiring that each thing have its form. What it designates has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm. In fact, for academic men to be happy, the universe would have to take shape. All of philosophy has no other goal: it is a matter of giving a frock coat to what is, a mathematical frock coat. On the other hand, affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit.

To say that the universe is formless is not to make a verifiable statement about objective reality; it is instead to call attention to the limits of our ability to represent anything (the universe resembles nothing) without, like psychology, turning that ability into an object. Bataille's whole project is based on the impossibility of objectifying the systems we inhabit, that shape us, and instead is focused on inscribing within those systems their limits and charting the effects of such an inscription: horror, maniacal laughter, "falling into the void of the sky." 

By applying the notion of l'informe to the universe, Bataille suggests that the impossibility of transcendence and objectification does not imply solipsistic subjectivism. The universe is that which has not outside, no boundary, and thus no form. The universe is pure internality that figures the formlessness that is the (ultimately unrealizable) destiny of every consistent being. (Most of Bataille's concepts attempt in different ways to describe the impossible appearance of formless inconsistency, for example, the impossible experience of one's own death.) A universe without the possibility of transcendence is nothing more than the formless non-totality of its writhing constituents.

Being nowhere in particular, the heterogeneous is ever-present even though it can never become present as such. An encounter with the heterogeneous can only be situated—so it is not encountered as a thing but as a torsion in experience. What is shaken in the experience of heterogeneity is not the individual subject but their capacity to represent themselves as a truly consistent subjectivity.

Being ever-present and formless, the heterogeneous is essentially the same (without being one), indifferent, and being a tendency of any consistent being is indifferent to consistency. Thus, the subject is itself a mode of the heterogeneous, a temporary node in the unpresentable anarchy of groundless being, which in Badiou can only be figured as void. Communication is what overflows the subject both from without and within, from the without that is within. It is the ever-present but never presentable threat of decomposition.

The theory of poetry espoused by Goransson et al. attempts to marshal anarchy and the heterogeneous into the service of a social value, that of a strategic dichotomy between quietism and surrealism, which amounts to an internecine struggle within academic poetry. The only value of such concepts, as the discussion of Bataille demonstrates, is that of value's lack of value. By bringing the concept of anarchy into the discourse on poetry, Goransson has opened up an entirely unprecedented possibility for poetics, one that escapes the impasse of a subjective poetics of imagination, which claims exclusive right over the interior of a poem, and the objective poetics based on political theory and social reality, which dismisses the poem's interiority and thus sees a poem only as a social fact. Yet, Goransson immediately forecloses such a possibility by making it into a mark of distinction, whose value is realizable only under the unforgiving gaze of the tenure committee.

To take a different position, one that does not abide by such a dichotomy, Levis appears to me as the sort of figure, like Frank Stanford, that mainstream poetry trots out to prove it has done its due diligence when it comes to so-called out-there poetry (saying, “see, we're not prejudiced against weird stuff!”) so that it can further buttress its norms. The truth is, Levis, even early Levis, is for all intents and purposes fully mainstream and fully in keeping with its principles of subjective autonomy and expressive originality. And I would argue that this is as true of his work at the time of composition as it is now.

Nevertheless, discoursing on such poets absolves the mainstream of any criticism that it is purposefully neglectful of peripheral poetries. Levis serves as an alibi, a token, giving the mainstream enough cred that it appears fair and balanced. It becomes clear that such squabbling over a poet like Levis as nothing other than internecine academic jockeying.

In fact, it is this very act of parceling out the abject and the inconsistent that is political. Without time to go into this any further, this is similar to Bataille's later theories of expenditure and social organization. Waste (as the inconsistency of economic value) is not political; it is how a society disposes of its waste that is political (variously hiding it, fetishizing it, or, in our case, 'managing' it). 

But the reading of Bataille that I've broached here, which I think is more accurate and tenable than most aesthetic interpretations of his work, doesn't provide the kind of criteria needed to make a certain kind of distinction that would only have traction in an academic context—which is essentially how I think Goransson et al's appropriation of Bataille functions or is meant to function. What is political about their particular appropriation is how it instrumentalizes anarchy and excess toward an obfuscation and recuperation of both radical politics and avant-garde literature by the academy.

Because the heterogeneous, the inconsistent, is ever-present, any claim of exclusive access to it is at best false, at worst a kind of demagoguery proffering the pure figure of a vital origin, the fullness of a prelapsarian enjoyment, an amniotic utopia. This is perhaps why some artworks with apparently bad politics are preferable to those that might be explicitly politically correct but remain formally reactionary. It's the reason we continue to read Baraka as well as Pound. Poetry can be read against its denotative significance because poetry is the displacement of denotative significance and the tendency of language toward inconsistency.

4.

We feel harried always by the specter of Adorno, for whom the semi-autonomy of art was always a kind of negation of the lie of bourgeois individualism that as such can never become a positive image of freedom—that is, art's promise of freedom is sensical only in the context of our particular historical unfreedom and that to actually abolish this unfreedom would render art's promise illegible. Of course, it would be barbaric to side with art against the abolition of unfreedom, but if my choice is between poetry and academic political theory, you can find me with the Vandals and the Sodomites.

I think there is some sort of a political value in the work of Bataille—he certainly thought so—but I'm not certain that it can be put to any recognizable uses, and if it can serve us in the construction of aesthetic understanding, I'm not sure that whatever political certainties it may express will survive intact the mediations required to apply it to poetry.

If in my own work, I appear to align myself poetically with a certain avant-gardism—that of a kind of permanent revolution—then I must be careful not to let that revolution become central but always remain a means to an end (one that will never arrive) in the faith that such revolution is merely making a space for what might arrive in our stead, a future that cannot follow from current conditions, displacing us absolutely.

For now, we can at least affirm that this desire—for an unimaginable future—can never appear in the guise of a single form, a recognizable and repeatable aesthetic tendency, a particular set of generic devices, a particular and exclusive school. 

But I do think that is the true meaning of abjection, to desire a future that will break absolutely from our present, leaving us among the rubble. Trying to destroy poetry from within might make it that much easier for our utopian usurpers, who can only embrace us in the manner of Rilke's angel.