The Anomaly Contains the Homily :: Placebo & Poiesis

In an essay called “Witches and Shamans,” Carlo Ginzburg recounts a story he heard in graduate school about two professors of grammar. The one was bearded and had a soft spot for irregularities, those legendary hapaxes: cases that only occur once in the extant record. The other was completely bald and a fastidious stickler for the rules. On encountering a grammatical irregularity, the first professor would stroke his beard and joyfully pronounce “c’est bizarre,” while the second would spend hours until he finally succeeded (by whatever means necessary) in reconciling the freak with the regular, upon which he would announce “C’est satisfaisant pour l’esprit.”

Ginzburg confesses his affinity for the first of these positions, preferring to place a premium on the anomaly over its analogical rectification:

[M]y impulse is to identify with the bearded philologist, the one who loved anomalies: this is due to a psychological inclination which, however, I would consider justifying even on rational terms. The violation of the norm contains even the norm itself, inasmuch as it is presupposed; the opposite is not true. Anyone who studies the functioning of a society beginning from the entirety of its norms, or from statistical fictions such as the average man or the average woman, inevitably remains on the surface of things. I think that the in-depth analysis of an anomalous case is much more fruitful, though the contemplation of an isolated oddity does not usually interest me.[1]

Here is where a tale of two professors becomes two tales of two professors. In his largely admiring review of Threads and Traces in the London Review, entitled “The Force of the Anomaly,” Perry Anderson rebukes Ginzburg on both logical and ontological grounds:

In historical research, [Ginzburg] has often contended, the anomaly tells us more than the rule, because it speaks also of the rule, whereas the rule speaks only of itself: the exception is thus always epistemologically richer than the norm. This, however, is not so. By definition, an anomaly is only such in terms of a rule, which ontologically commands it. If there is no rule, there can be no exception to it. But the converse does not hold. A rule does not depend for its existence on an exception.[2]

“The violation of the norm contains even the norm itself”: thus Ginzburg. But under Anderson’s jurisdiction, the rule “ontologically commands” the exception: “If there is no rule, there can be no exception to it.” The blunt confidence of Anderson’s rebuttal (“This, however, is not so”) — vexed as it may be by a genuine appreciation for Ginzburg’s gift — can be diagnosed as a specimen of the scholastic fallacy Pierre Bourdieu called epistemocentrism: Bourdieu’s fancytalk for that bananapeel you skateboard around on when you mistake the laws of logic for the order of things.[3] How do we determine the laws of logic in the first place? And how do we enforce them? Sometimes I think the singular of loss is law. More startling, perhaps, is the fact that Anderson’s counterargument to Ginzburg can be found verbatim in a book called Modern Thomistic Philosophy: An Explanation for Students (1934) by Richard Percival Phillips, a schoolboy’s guide to the Schoolmen: “If there is no rule there can be no exception: if there is nothing essential there can be nothing accidental or by chance.”[4] I can’t imagine Anderson had this exact argument in mind — this comes, after all, in a chapter called “The Demonstration of the Existence of God” — but it does allow us to hear a theological accent in his critique. Perhaps it is even a latent political theological accent.

I propose we take these different ways of framing the anomaly — these arguments on both sides of the case — as an opportunity to ponder the relation between “rules” and “exceptions,” between “norms” and “violations.” What is the substance of these distinctions and these relations? The best answer to the question as I see it can be established by deciding the following: are “rules” to be understood as metonyms or symptoms of a steady-state totalizing law of nature to which the analyst has privileged access — the domain of ontology or theology, as you wish, which in turn gives them a commanding or prescriptive force? Or might “rules” rather be considered human descriptions of states of affairs — which is to say, phenomenological (experienced) and pragmatic (actionable) accounts subject to adjustment when more information (feedback) comes in?

As sometime purveyor of an organ called A Fiery Flying Roule (however that noun may be pronounced), I confess I have a special interest in this topic…


Placebo makes nothing happen

Let’s consider the paradoxical phenomenon known as the “placebo effect” as a fruitful case in point for the ways in which it interrupts a widely subscribed schedule of cause and effect. From the perspective of normal science, a sugar pill has no intrinsic medicinal properties: it “makes nothing happen,” to use a famous phrase that we’ll return to. And yet, when prescribed under the right circumstances as medicine, the sugar pill notoriously not only makes something happen, but produces the desired result. The medical anthropologist Daniel Moerman has a nice way of illustrating how strange this is:

Consider a thought experiment: we fabricate some placebo socket wrenches. They look like socket wrenches, sound like them, feel like them. But we design them so that when you put the socket over the loose nut and tighten it, the nut will stay loose. We secretly place these wrenches in the toolboxes of a randomly selected set of mechanics at the car repair shop. Now if we discovered that the nuts these mechanics were working on really did tighten up, we would have good reason to be surprised. The only thing that can tighten up nuts is a (real) wrench.[5]

When the sugar pill relieves symptoms and cures disease, it confutes a dominant cosmology of cause and effect and achieves what normal science says it couldn’t: it performs the impossible. If we remember (a) that placebo is (according to some recent studies) more effective than the going “antidepressants” and (b) that 11 billion dollars per year are made in that pharmaceutical market, this anomalous blip turns out to be no small matter.

Nicholas Humphrey and John Skoyles have asked a useful question about “the placebo paradox” (as they call it):

When people recover from illness under the influence of fake treatments, they must of course in reality be healing themselves. But if and when people have the capacity to heal themselves by their own efforts, why do they not simply get on with it? Why ever should they wait for third-party permission — from the shaman or the sugar pill — to heal themselves? How strange that people should be condemned to remain dysfunctionally sick just because — as must still often happen — they have not received permission.[6]

If it’s the case that the doctor and the sugar “make nothing happen,” why don’t patients skip the appointment (and the bill it comes with), cut to the chase, and heal themselves by their own efforts? But the very grammar of the question misunderestimates (if I may use that presidential verb) the relational substance of the process at hand. The placebo’s power — its capacity, we might say, to anomalously conjure a return to health — is a distributed accomplishment, contingent on the circuits of trust at hand. It follows as a consequence of “a social fact,” as Durkheim would call it. The shaman heals you because you believe the shaman can heal you. It’s not a private property but a relationship that does the deed, and what the deed indicates is not a shortcoming in the patient’s way of knowing — their failure, as Wittgenstein might put it, to “follow the rules” (Philosophical Investigations §125) — but rather the limits of Western medicine’s empiricism and the cosmology of cause and effect it purports to command. The rule is not that Western medicine has a comprehensive conceptual and practical monopoly over the laws of health, but rather precisely the opposite. The distributed conjuration of health that we call the “placebo effect” is experienced as an exception only to the believer or devotee of the system that cannot explain its operation. The anomaly points to that larger scheme that eludes the grasp of what presumes to be a comprehensive system of explanation. In this sense, as Ginzburg suggests, the violation of the norm contains the norm, precisely to the extent that it reveals the limits of the norm’s application.

I think of the relation like this: the system of rules is a grid that makes legible the anomaly that in turn renders the grid obsolete once the anomaly is properly perceived for what it is. The anomaly, we might say, once it is understood, absorbs the grid it evades by making visible the grid’s provisional character while indicating a larger scheme in which the anomaly both makes sense and is quite simply indicative of the way things are.

If I may hazard a thesis: phenomena do not follow rules because rules are modelled after a transcendental truth (theological, ontological, or otherwise). Rather, phenomena follow rules because our descriptions and demonstrations and the actions and events they describe are in agreement. And perhaps we could also say that phenomena follow rules to the extent that we, the makers and exchangers of descriptions and demonstrations, agree that they do — because we are in the practice of saying, and agreeing with each other when we say, that phenomena follow the rules. This is not to say that phenomena don’t have tendencies and regularities that characterize and perhaps even define their behavior — “norms,” to use Ginzburg’s term — but only to insist that our experience of their unruliness is in direct proportion to the stories we tell about them. Clever as we are, I think we’ve yet to remember that this is the case, that we have the power to tell different stories if and as we need to — to perform actions and precipitate events that swerve against the grid of expectations, and which invite us to compose more deliberately new sets of habits of thinking and feeling, and of trying and doing.


Turn it upside down

The placebo effect’s improbable power inverts the action of the panopticon as Michel Foucault describes it. The “panopticon effect” (if I may call it that) depends on the fact that humans tend to behave as if we’re being watched by a guard if our cell is in view of the watchtower, which need not in fact be occupied for this effect to take hold. “A real subjection is borne mechanically from a fictitious relation,” Foucault writes.[7] With the placebo effect, by contrast, a real liberation is instantiated — a liberation from the symptoms of disease (from pain, for instance) — but the fictitious relation is interesting to specify. After all, the relation between the healer and healed is a real one; the “fiction” lies in the swapping of the sugar pill for the pharmaceutical. As Michael Taussig suggests, “patient and shaman conduct on behalf of society a joint interrogation of their ideological environment.”[8] It’s as if all the doors in the prison swung open suddenly not so much to the touch as to the very thought, revealing that they were never locked in the first place. What was Blake’s phrase? “Mind-forged manacles.” What were walls and barriers turn out to contain windows and doors. The enclosures turn out to be what Emily Abendroth calls “exclosures.”[9] Miranda observes a bird in the yard and says, “That one always lives outside.” Maybe we’re not as stuck as we think we are.

What other forms and structures might we imagine — whether actual architectures or social infrastructures — that could produce not the “real subjection” Foucault describes but rather a “real liberation” of the sort the placebo supplies, forms and structures whose design is aimed at producing not “the homogenous effects of power” (200) but rather a heterogeneous unleashing of potential?

What needs to be the case for things to be otherwise?

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The poem is that which does not fit the measure

Paul Celan in his notebooks defines the poem as “that which does not fit the measure.”[10] The poem in this sense is immune to regulation, an incommensurate anomaly that fails to comply with the going metric. Carl Schmitt, for his part, famously decreed: “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.”[11] With Celan in hand we might rejoin: poets are — or could be — those who produce the exception by performing the other side of the normal form, metabolizing impossibility and thereby transforming conditions of possibility in the first place.[12] We might imagine here the potential of poetry as sovereignty’s solvent, as a tool for re-imagining our forms of belonging over and against Schmitt’s one-seater model. By failing to “fit the measure” or “follow the rules,” a poem can succeed in refuting what Anderson claims is an “ontological command,” and can contain, to use Ginzburg’s verb, the measure it exceeds. Like the power of the placebo, this potential is not a private property but a substance that transpires in relation, a common ground of language in action. The poem is at last between two (or more) people, as Frank O’Hara once decided, and not between two pages.[13]

Here’s an early modern description of poetry’s improbable action that aligns with Celan’s late modern definition:

[Poetry] commonly exceeds the measure of nature, joining at pleasure things which in nature would never have come together, and introducing things which in nature would never have come to pass; just as painting likewise does. This is the work of the imagination [which] at pleasure makes unlawful matches and divorces of things.

This is Francis Bacon’s fretful account of poetry’s extravagant and antinomian combinatorial power in the Advancement of Learning, as cited by Richard Halpern in The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation (Cornell 1991), 55. Halpern is describing the radical transformations that took place in the humanist classroom in the early sixteenth century, and is particularly interested in a primary contradiction that Erasmus (and others) articulated in the theory and practice of rhetoric. On the one hand, the study of rhetoric leads to a value-neutral power to persuade; thus Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric as “the faculty of observing in any case the available means of persuasion” (50). On the other hand, it is possible to “subordinate this persuasive force to socially orthodox purposes” (53). These imperatives operate at cross-purposes in persuasion’s favor: “the cultivation of the first [persuasion] has a tendency to impair the second [orthodoxy]” (53). And it is here that we catch sight of poetry’s power as power’s solvent, capable of promoting “the unlawful matches and divorces of things.” Here’s how Halpern describes the crux:

Poetry foregrounds the breach between these two instrumentalities [persuasion and orthodoxy] and also introduces a new breach, this time within the technical instrumentality that is persuasion. For rhetorical persuasion itself effects an (immanently unmotivated) unity of linguistic pleasure and discursive aim, thereby investing the pleasure with a certain direction. But as Longinus (for instance) insists, poetic sublimity carries the listener not to persuasion but to ecstasy and it thus detaches linguistic pleasure from even a discursive instrumentality. [ … ] Its specific gift is to reveal that the articulation of these discursive elements is immanently unmotivated and that they therefore have the potential, if not the tendency, to separate. Persuasion can free itself from “true” or dominant values, or it can devolve into linguistic pleasure without direction or purpose. (53)

“Joining at pleasure,” Bacon tells us, in excess of “the measure of nature”: that’s what poetry does. I like this, in spite of (and perhaps even because of) Bacon’s censorious intent.

Lauren Berlant has described the way in which “a situation […] that feels like a massively genre breaking one can become the kind of event whose enigmatic shape repels being governed by the foreclosure of what has happened before.” [14] Das Ungemäße is Celan’s original German noun, translated by Pierre Joris as “that which does not fit the measure”; the root term here, das Gemäß, is “that which corresponds,” “that which matches,” or “that which is in accordance or in compliance with” — that which is, we might say, in accordance with “what has happened before” (to use Berlant’s terms), or “the measure of nature” (to use Bacon’s). Celan’s radix, Mäß, was some kind of Swiss measure, I gather, which surely has traveled the same route as our word “mass,” from the Latin massa, “lump, bulk, parcel of land, dough.” I admit that I want “mass” to do too much work here, to have the standing of expectation on the one hand, and of something like gravity on the other, so that the poem can become a vehicle in which to achieve a kind of escape velocity — a means by which to exceed, evade, or transform the resistance of norms that have forgotten their origins in practice. How does the Law of Mass Action go again?

Let’s put poetry to the side for a moment and ask: Are there undecideable exceptions to the rule that says “sovereign is he who decides on the exception”? That is, are there exceptions that exceed the power of any one sovereign to “decide”? These questions concern jurisdiction, the area in which a law can be spoken — or better still: heard. The zone in which law is audible.

Here’s a stark and simple-minded version of the kind of question I’m asking: can the sovereign “decide” on an exception to the law of gravity? Of course not. Humans don’t suddenly acquire the power of flight because some primate wearing a suit or a cape declares it so by the power of speech and the wave of a wand.[15]

And yet, as we know, human beings do indeed have the ability to fly. I just got from Bergen to Seattle, for instance, in less than 17 hours door to door. I like Richard Lewontin’s way of describing this exception:

social organization can actually negate individual limitations. I mean this negation in much more than the sense that ten people can lift a weight ten times as great as can one person. None of us can fly by flapping our arms. That is a biological limitation. Yet we do fly as a consequence of the social organization that has given rise to airplanes, airfields, pilots, controllers, fuel, metallurgy, hydrodynamic theory, and organized economic activity. It is not society that flies, however, but individuals. Thus, the constraints on individual human beings have been negated by social activity, and they have become new individual human beings with new properties and abilities.[16]

The airplane thus flies into view as an emblem of individual impotence transformed by means of something we might call collective expotence. A law of nature — the human animal cannot fly — is transformed by a law of culture — the collective power of the human animal to subsume the individual human’s inability to fly. (Surely I don’t need to add: the sovereign has had nothing to do with it.) This is not the same as the causal force of the placebo effect, exactly, but it is not unrelated, insofar as the human power of flight — which is to say, the power to produce and sustain the anomaly, to compose what at first blush looks impossible — is a distributed, not a private, property.


Poetry makes nothing happen

It didn’t come from nowhere. If it came from nowhere, if it came from nothing, it is basically trying to let you know that you need a new theory of nothing and a new theory of nowhere.

—Fred Moten[17]

Sometimes the impossible is the missing ingredient.

—Miranda Mellis[18]

Such anomalous collaborative accomplishments — the placebo effect, the human power of flight — allows W.H Auden’s famous definition of poetry to take on a new shape. “Poetry makes nothing happen”: this line from his 1939 elegy for William Butler Yeats could well be taken as a confession of impotence.[19] But it could also be taken as an affirmation of poetry’s potency, its dynamic capacity to actively make nothing happen. I have in mind here the fact that the root of the word “poem” reaches back to the Greek word poiein — “to make.” What could this mean, to make nothing happen? If we take “nothing” to mean that which is denied existence by a standard model or rulebook — that sugar pills can’t cure disease, that humans can’t fly (“This, however, is not so,” as Perry Anderson avers) — then the sentence would appear to describe a rare and forgotten kind of power: the power to perform what is said to be impossible.

What’s more, “make nothing happen” is a fantastic description of what a general strike could accomplish: an active negation of our status quo (and psychotic) schedule of production and consumption. The general strike in this sense constitutes a maximal instance of sabotage as defined by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn in the wake of the 1913 Paterson Silk Strike: “the conscious withdrawal of the worker’s efficiency.”[20] I am aided and abetted in my recycling of Auden’s line in this militant vicinity by a poem by Anna Louise Strong that prefaces a pamphlet describing the Seattle General Strike of 1919. ”They Can’t Understand” is its title, and its first two lines read as follows: “What scares them most is | that NOTHING HAPPENS.”[21] Workers encounter the possibility of their greatest power by removing their efficiency, indulging in a hyperbolic impotence that flips over into a demonstration of otherwise foreclosed forces that frighten the powers that presume themselves to be in command.[22]

Auden’s definition repurposed thus puts an earlier poet’s account of what the poet does and does not do into a new light: “Now for the Poet,” Sir Philip Sidney says, “he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lyeth.” Not bad for a get-out-of-jail-free card against Plato’s indictment of poets for stimulating heresy and revolt among the masses by telling lies about the gods. We could, however, take Sidney’s claim that the poet affirms nothing as a description of a speech act in the concrete and practical sense of making something firm, endowing it with the force of substance. It helps here to remember that practicing Quakers who find themselves in a court of law to this day refuse to swear to tell the truth but rather affirm that they will. And surely Sidney invites us to do just that — to make the truth substantial — when he declares, at another moment in his brief on poetry’s behalf, that “it is not gnosis but praxis that must be the fruit” — not knowing but acting, not thinking but doing. This requires us to consider not only cognition but also action as the appropriate measure of a poem’s accomplishment — its capacity, we might say, to bear fruit, to reproduce itself in the form of seeds (data packets) coated in irresistible flesh, so attractive that you want to get as close to them as possible, to put them in your ear, your mouth, immediately… What figments become radical? Who put the root in fruit? At stake here, I think, is a relationship between negation, truth-telling, and desire. A desire to articulate felicity conditions for utterances that on the face of it make no sense but nevertheless manage against the odds to hit their mark. As Omar says to Brother Mouzone (in the prelude to their shootout deferred): “At this range? With this caliber? Even if I miss I can’t miss.”[23]


From “affirm[ing] nothing” to “affirming the consequent”

Thus far I have been talking about “poetry” in the abstract. Let’s see if we can affirm, or at least firm up, some of these claims in relation to an actual poem written by Robert Creeley as a birthday present for Stan Brakhage, a filmmaker who sought, and achieved, an outlaw undomesticated way of seeing in his films.

Two sentences from the beginning of Brakhage’s 1963 manifesto, Metaphors on Vision, can help us better understand Creeley’s poem by giving us a taste of his target audience’s wild-eyed utopian aesthetic program:

Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. […] Imagine a world before the “beginning was the word.”[24]

A world, in other words, before visual and verbal logics enclosed what can be perceived, before concepts dominated the objects of perception.

Many of Brakhage’s films are handpainted — produced, that is to say, by subtracting the camera, and applying pigment directly to the film strip, thus sabotaging or short-circuiting the normal form of the apparatus. One of his more extreme investigations of “unruled” images came in the early film Mothlight (1963), which he made by gluing and taping flowers, moth wings, seeds, dirt directly to blank leader, giving us not a picture or a story about such things but an accelerated projection of the things themselves. It’s one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen. It gives viewers the chance to recognize something we’ve never perceived before. Not at that speed. Not together. Not at that scale. Which is to say: Brakhage’s willful misuse of the apparatus reveals not only a potential the medium contains, but also a potential contained by his audience. The conscious withdrawal of efficiency reveals a hitherto foreclosed co-efficiency.

Creeley’s poem addresses this improbable success.


for Stan’s birthday

if we go back to where

we never were we’ll

be there. [REPEAT] But


How are we supposed to read these lines? It’s like a self-licking ice-cream cone spliced with the river Herakleitos says you can’t step in twice. The poem registers an objection to the prelapsarian logoklasm of Brakhage’s program, his desire to go back to before “in the beginning was the word.” But in so doing it inadvertently metamorphoses into an acknowledgement, even a celebration and performance of, the accomplishment it seeks to deny. Is it too obvious to note that the subject here is plural?

The poem’s logic articulates a Möbius Strip that flips back and forth between affirming nothing and actually doing it, between doubting and making nothing happen althesame. Crude paraphrase: if we do what can’t be done, then we’ve done it. We project possibility by projecting impossibility. I take this to be a successfully experimental poem in the primary sense that its effects can be repeated, just as the stage directions in square brackets command. We end where Creeley began, in the adversative: “But” — which the verse that is about to repeat has just converted into the affirmative. The beginning of this objection is also the title, which initiates the circuit that leads to the accomplishment that obviates the exception by making it the norm — a norm that may well await subsequent containment by the anomalies that emerge in its light.

Creeley’s unusual poem performs “an abduction” in the special sense that Charles Sanders Peirce gives that term. In Peirce’s technical vocabulary, “abductive judgment” is a form of logical rapture that dissolves the presumed two-party rule of “induction” and “deduction.” Rather than moving from facts to theories (induction), or from theories to facts (deduction), abduction invites us to invent theories that can help us make sense of strange facts encountered. What swerves and falls allows what is given to leap out of a defaulted and foreclosed understanding. Abductive reasoning used right helps us make sense of such surprising information that cuts against the grain of our tacit expectations. As Peirce puts it:

The surprising fact, C, is observed;

But if A were true, C would be a matter of course,

Hence there is reason to suspect that A is true.[26]

Or to translate this logical operation into the letters of the alphabet and the format preferred by logicians:

1. If P, then Q.

2. Q.

3. Therefore, P.

When abduction occurs in scholarly disputation, it is often called out as a fallacy — the fallacy of “affirming the consequent,” to be precise. One person’s judgement is another’s error. If you’re wrong, I’m right. Creeley’s poem is my favorite instantiation of this problem, not least since it transposes the force of logic to the more slippery slopes of space and time on which Brakhage’s forceful example is projected and refracts verbally into unexpected potential.


Extraordinary investigations

[…] it is just by such difficulties as the one now in question — such roughnesses — such peculiarities — such protuberances above the plane of the ordinary — that Reason feels her way, if at all, in the search for the True.

Edgar Allan Poe, Eureka

I’ve been helped in my thinking about these things that do not fit the measure by Thomas Kuhn’s reckoning of the relationship between paradigms and anomalies in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago 1962), which I suspect has guided Carlo Ginzburg’s work as well. On Kuhn’s account, the paradigms of “normal science” generate “a strenuous and devoted attempt to force nature into the conceptual boxes supplied by professional education.” Such paradigms, moreover, supply the answers to all sorts of interesting questions:

What are the fundamental entities of which the universe is composed? How do these interact with each other and with the senses? What questions may be legitimately asked about such entities and what techniques employed in seeking solutions? (4-5)

Anomalies come into view when those “conceptual boxes” and “techniques” can no longer contain all the evidence encountered:

Sometimes a normal problem, one that ought to be solvable by known rules and procedures, resists the reiterated onslaught of the ablest members of the group within whose competence it falls. On other occasions a piece of equipment designed and constructed for the purpose of normal research fails to perform in the anticipated manner, revealing an anomaly that cannot, despite repeated effort, be aligned with professional expectation. In these and other ways besides, normal science repeatedly goes astray. And when it does […] then begin the extraordinary investigations. (4-6)

Those “extraordinary investigations,” properly conducted, generate new understandings of the way things are, a radical epistemological transformation with consequences that go all the way down. The logic of the successful new paradigm, in this sense, would at once contain and exceed the earlier paradigm’s ontological command, insofar as those “conceptual boxes” of “professional expectation” made the stimulating anomaly visible in the first place, which in turn renders those boxes obsolete, at least as truth containers (they could well be repurposed to other ends).

The anomaly etymologically is that which is uneven, irregular, or rough — quite literally “the unsame,” from the Greek an- “not” + homalos “even,” with homo “same” at the root. To out this in the syntax of Ginzburg’s topology (“The violation of the norm contains even the norm itself”) we could say that the unsame contains the same. Playing further with these radicals can allow us to capture a piece of the “collective expotence” I’ve tried to describe. The English word “homily” comes from the Greek homilia, the term translated in the New Testament as “sermon,” but which also means “discourse” or (better still) “conversation,”[27] and derives from homilos “an assembled crowd,” which of course shares the same root as anomaly: homo. The anomaly can thus be said to contain the homily in the sense that the conversation reveals the limit that the contagious irregularity shows us how to exceed. We’ll be there!


Earlier in this essay I noted an inadvertent congruency between Perry Anderson and Thomas Aquinas. And so in closing, for the sake of balance if nothing else, I’d like to invoke a more contemporary theologian. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written in April of 1963 (the same year Brakhage made Mothlight), Martin Luther King, Jr. employs an interesting analogy to distinguish the activist early Christian church from the more passive role the church played in his time:

In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.

A thermostat is not just a dial on the wall, but a dial capable of setting the temperature — of exceeding the measure, as Celan might put it — as a consequence of its ability to record it accurately in the first place. Another way of putting it: where the thermometer pays attention, the thermostat makes a tension. Mind the verbs. It costs to do the one, while the other involves a making, a poiesis. I freely admit that the etymology is whimsical. But it’s also not far from the mark: a tendon is what we control our muscles with, a crucial component in our relation to power. When we pay attention, our cognition stretches out to the object of our interest. And perhaps we can say, using King’s modifier, that when we merely pay attention, our muscles are at the ready to do someone else’s bidding: that’s what we are paying for by being at another’s command. When we make a tension, on the other hand, we acquire for ourselves the privilege of setting the temperature and the tempo, composing the tempest, even (if I may activate the radix). No doubt that takes a lot of coordination: so many parts involved, ro(u)les to play, coupling an improvisatory understanding of the fleeting situations we find ourselves in with a metabolically competent infrastructure. Not just a sly dial on the wall, but a dial wired to furnace with a steady power source. There’s no joke about the stakes involved. When the set-up malfunctions, at best you’re in the cold; at worst your house or neighborhood burns down. But when your neighborhood is already burnt to the ground, or torched before it even got started, well then, you’re already embarked: the coin is in the air; all that remains is for you to decide. Which side are you on? Pay attention or make a tension. Stick with the environment as it is, repeating it blankly, or rise above or below it, collectively composing the poem Celan describes: the one that does not fit the measure. One nice thing about the choice is that there is no zero-sum here. Just as the anomaly includes the rule it breaks, a thermostat includes a thermometer — which is of course itself a useful device: something the proverbial frog in the pot is lacking.

“Orders are sometimes not obeyed,” Wittgenstein correctly observes. “But what would it be like if no orders were ever obeyed? The concept ‘order’ would have lost its purpose” (§ 345). Such a loss of telos, far from signaling the end of the world as we know it, would contain the limits we have the power to exceed. What has more power, anyway: a command or an invitation? “Abduction merely suggests that something may be,” Peirce writes. “Its only justification is that from its suggestion deduction can draw a prediction which can be tested by induction” (CP 5.171). What are we waiting for? Or if all this puts too optimistic a spin for you on the work to be done, then perhaps I should end instead by saying that maybe it’s time for us to conduct what Anne Boyer, following Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, has described as “a form of sabotage in which you follow the book of rules exactly.”


[1] Carlo Ginzburg, Threads and Traces: True False Fictive, tr. Anne C. Tedeschi and John C. Tedeschi (California 2012), 222.

[2] Perry Anderson, “The Force of the Anomaly,” LRB 34:8 (2012).

[3] Pierre Bourdieu, Pascalian Meditations, tr. Richard Nice (Polity 2000 [1997]), 50ff.

[4] Richard Percival Phillips, Modern Thomistic Philosophy: An Explanation for Students, Volume II: Metaphysics (The Newman Bookshop 1934).

[5] Daniel Moerman, Meaning, Medicine and the ‘Placebo Effect’ (Cambridge 2002), 137.

[6] Nicholas Humphrey and John Skoyles, “The evolutionary psychology of healing: a human success story,” Current Biology 22:17 (2012), R697.

[7] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, tr. Alan Sheridan (Vintage 1977), 202. Cf. the first chapter of Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain (Oxford 1985): “The Structure of Torture: The Conversion of Real Pain into the Fiction of Power.”

[8] Michael Taussig, Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing (Chicago 1987), 460. Taussig is discussing Claude Levi-Strauss’s description and analysis of New World shamanism.

[9] Emily Abendroth, ] Exclosures [ (Asahta 2014).

[10] Paul Celan, The Meridian: Final Version — Drafts — Materials, tr. Pierre Joris (Stanford 2011), 165.

[11] Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, tr. George Schwab (Chicago 1985), 5.

[12] “The other side of the normal form” is Niklas Luhmann’s definition of chance.

[13] I explore this hypothesis at greater length in an essay called “Making nothing happen: poetry and sabotage,” forthcoming in postmedieval (2015), 6:4, which (as the title suggest) also intersects with my recycling of Auden’s famous definition of poetry in what follows.

[14] Jordan Greenwald, “Affect in the End Times: A Conversation with Lauren Berlant,” Qui Parle 20:2 (2012), 72.

[15] We could think here on the parable of King Canute, who set his throne on the beach below the high tide line and commanded the sea to halt before it wetted his shoes, which in turn might put us in mind of Cuchullain’s fight with what Yeats nicely describes as “the invulnerable tide” — even as their exertions reflect quite different purposes.

[16] Richard Lewontin, Biological Determinism (Tanner Lectures 1982), 179; cf. his discussion in Biology as Ideology (Harper 1991), 121.

[17] Fred Moten, “The General Antagonism,” in Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, The Undercommons (Minor Compositions 2013), 129

[18] Miranda Mellis, The Spokes (Solid Objects 2012), 19.

[19] See, for instance, the discussion by Keston Sutherland and Joshua Clover in “Always totalize: poetry and revolution,” in Claudius App 5 (2013):

[20] Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Sabotage: The Conscious Withdrawal of the Workers’ Industrial Efficiency (I.W.W. Publications Bureau 1917).

[21] Anise (Anna Louise Strong), “They Can’t Understand,” in The Seattle General Strike (History Committee of the General Strike 1919; reprinted by The Shorey Book Store, 1971). More recently, Jasper Bernes has published a collection of poems called We Are Nothing And So Can You (Tenured Ninja 2012), whose title, among other things, negates the Occupy slogan (“We are the 99%”) to mash it up with Steven Colbert’s I am America and So Can You (2007). Juliana Spahr’s contribution to a portfolio of poems on “The Insurrectionary Turn” in The American Reader (November 2012) offers a more tentative affirmation of nothing: “I could tell you of the other things too. | A European influence. | A Middle Eastern influence.| A list of skirmishes. | A feeling of it being nothing. No wait, something. No see, nothing. Possibly something. No. | Nothing.” Bernes: Spahr:

[22] I explore Flynn’s strategically capacious definition of sabotage further in an essay called “The difference is spreading: sabotage & aesthetics ~1913,” forthcoming in the first volume of Black Box: A Record of the Catastrophe.

[23] David Simon, The Wire (2004), Season 3, Episode 11.

[24] Stan Brakhage, Metaphors on Vision [1963] in Brakhage Scrapbook: Collected Writings 1964-1980 (McPherson 1982).

[25] The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley: 1945-1975 (California 1982), 551. First published in Thirty Things (Black Sparrow 1974).

[26] Charles Sanders Peirce, Collected Papers: Volume 5 (Harvard 1935), 189.

[27] I myself prefer conversation, which is a “turning” | verse we do “together” | con, to sermon, which is too often something done to us.

Trans-formation: The Poetic Machines of Alexander Vvedensky

in memory of Arkadii Dragomoshchenko
Translated from the Russian by Lucas Stratton and Lyn Hejinian

“The dictionary of rhymes is a certain type of logic machine.”
– Fritz Mauthner

To begin, I’ll briefly outline six primary principles of Alexander Vvedensky’s poetic system. It is precisely these constructive principles that make Vvedensky’s work acutely contemporary, not only in the narrowly aesthetic sense but also in a broader theoretical, not to mention historical and literary, sense. The later emergence of an independent cultural movement in Leningrad, including the phenomenon of samizdat, would be unthinkable without the existential and poetic positions articulated by Vvedensky and his allies, known as the “chinari” (“titled ones”). The group emerged from efforts by Daniil Kharms and Vvedensky to unify the Leningrad avant-garde, forming OBERIU (Ob’edinenie real’nogo iskusstva, the Association for Real Art) in 1927.[1]

One more indispensable remark: so as to avoid some of the murkiness that often obscures accounts of Vvedensky’s methodology, we must (at least temporarily) set aside the categories (such as the nonsensical, absurd, irrational, alogical, etc.) that have tended to crystallize around the poetics of OBERIU. Instead, we will concentrate on formal—and formative—aspects of its members’ poetic technique.

  1. Heteromorphousness: Vvedensky’s verse is programmatically heterogeneous, or heteromorphous, which is to say that it is constructed by means of constant alternations and sequences of replacements, so that within the confines of a single poem, there’s a great diversity of structure-creating elements, such as lineation, type of verse, stanza structure, meter, catalexis, rhyme.
  2. Heteroglossia: the explosive dramatization and hybridization of forms and genres, the incorporation of “conceptual” personae, and the strong “specific gravity”—given the historical background of a homogeneous, primarily traditional and monological lyric—of impersonation and indirect speech.
  3. Desubjectification: the dispersal of the speaking subject into a multitude of “voices”; its decentralization, additionally accentuating the suspension, displacement, or misidentification of the “I” (or authorial agency).
  4. Poetic machines: use of recurrent folkloric models, with their “chirring rhythms” and “circus-booth rhyme schemes,” as a generative model; use of vulgar punning and other word-play, which undermines habitual and axiomatic verse-writing.
  5. The metapoetic function: criticism of the poetic mode of expression from within and by way of poetry itself—that which, elsewhere, paraphrasing Vvedensky (who was paraphrasing Kant), I propose we call the “critique of poetic reason.”[2]
  6. Trans-formation: Vvedensky’s poetic machines are configured in such a way that they accelerate progress vertiginously, forcing language to act deliriously and to approach its very limits (producing asyntactical, agrammatical, asemantic enunciations).

Separately or sometimes all at once, all of the elements above can be found in the works of other poets (for example, in the work of Alexander Blok, Velemir Khlebnikov, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Konstantin Vaginov), but only in Vvedensky’s case do these elements form a system in the proper sense. That is to say that these characteristics are interwoven, complementary, and function meta-poetically, as a critique.

Heterogeneity, heteromorphousness

The term heterogeneity, as applied to Vvedensky’s poetry, first appears in Iurii Orlitsky’s lecture “Alexander Vvedensky’s verse in the context of OBERIU’s verse poetics,”[3] and the second term appeared in an article that came out a year later, called just that: “Heteromorphous (Disorderly) Verse in Russian Poetry.”[4]

In this second article, the scholar bases his account of “heteromorphousness” on a large group of poems and excerpts from Khlebnikov’s work of 1920-1922: “We propose calling such disorderly verse heteromorphous, which means that as the text unfolds there is a constant fluctuation of structural patterns; rhyme ‘gets lost’ and then resurfaces, some lines have one discernible rhythmic structure and others another; and both rhyming and free verse occur. The number of feet varies, as does the number of rhythmic units, modalities of rhyme, and stanza form. All the while, similarly-structured lines are, as a rule, grouped into smaller units (“stanzoids) of two to five or more lines, which encourages the reader to anticipate one or another type of verse—an expectation which is systematically undermined.”

In Khlebnikov’s case, we can speak of heteromorphousness as a persistent strain that is especially apparent in his later work (there were around fifty works written in properly heteromorphous verse between 1920 and 1922). With respect to Vvedensky, heteromorphousness is characteristic of practically all of his poems, as is polyrhythmia, which is already markedly present in an early cycle called “Divertisement” (November-December, 1920). Four years later, in “10 Alexandervvedensky Verses,” the emphatically heterogeneous work included the incorporation of visual elements into the text, harkening back to the Futurists’ experimentation with typeface and the graphic design of the text. And by 1926, in a work titled “Minin and Pozharsky,” verse, prose, and drama are getting interwoven to create mixed-genre works.

“Four Descriptions,” written in the early 1930s, brings almost the full array of Vvendensky’s poetic modalities into rapidly changing interplay. It is ostensibly a conversation about death and dying, involving eight speakers named Zumir, Kumir, Chumir, Tumir, and the First, Second, Third, and Fourth Umir(ayuschiy) (umirayuschiy means “dying man” in Russian). Phrases like “I’ll interrupt you” and “Interrupt me” provide a leit motif throughout. For the longer speeches, Vvedensky draws from a wide array of verse cultures, from classical poetry to folklore, doggerel, and nursery rhymes, to create passages without predictability. Hopefully this is apparent even in English translation:

Interrupt me.
So I one day
took up this occupation.
I understood. How pointless is life,
upon this wide dark earth
there is no place for me.
So I grew lucid,
exclaimed, Farewell forever deputy’s daughter
and mineral water,
there will never be me again.
I was sitting in my cabinet
the trigger was glinting
of my handgun.
I put the gun between my lips
like a bottle of red
and in a second I felt
the bullet knock on the back of my head.
My skull split
Into five and six parts.
It happened in the year 1911.[5]

The heteromorphous character of the verse sharply increases its unpredictability and, as a whole, is meant to defamiliarize perception through disruptions to the writing process itself. The refusal of prepared, “lullaby” metrical-rhythmic patterns produces an unhinged, heterogeneous composition that is potentially capable of admitting any material and thus dynamizing the relationship between text and reader; such a composition subverts the boundaries not only of different types of versification but also those defining disparate modalities of speech and literary genres.

In Vvedensky’s poetry the heteromorphous works not simply as to unsettle metrical-rhythmic patterns. One should conceive of it more broadly as a structural principle with a tendency to totalization, capable of subordinating all other constructive elements and, to a certain extent, approximating what Mikhail Bakhtin termed heteroglossia (polyphony, multi-voicedness).

And thus we arrive at the second of the elements I see as central to Vvedensky’s heteromorphous verse. As we know, Bakhtin examined multi-voicedness and polyphony only in the novel and in prose, virtually denying poetry this “privilege” and disqualifying poetry as “naïve monologism” (and this in spite of a close relationship with Konstantin Vaginov and, perhaps, a familiarity with the work of other OBERIU writers). However, this does not prevent us from extending the principle of heteroglossia into poetry, especially since Bakhtin himself, writing under the name of his friend V.N. Voloshinov, encourages us to do so. In the essay originally titled “The Word in Life and the Word in Poetry” and first published in the journal Zvezda (1926), the theorist writes: “A form especially sensitive to the position of the listener is the lyric. The underlying condition for lyric intonation is the absolute certainty of the listener’s sympathy. Should any doubt on this score creep into the lyric situation the style of the lyric changes drastically. This conflict with the listener finds its most egregious expression in so-called lyric irony (Heine, and in modern poetry, Laforgue, Annenskij, and others). The form of irony in general is conditioned by a social conflict: It is the encounter in one voice of two incrnate value judgments and their interference with one another.”[6]

The clash of different judgments (points of view) is the very phenomenon I deem the dramatization of the poetic utterance, that by which the traditional lyric mode is shattered. In at least half of the extant works by Vvedensky, heteroglossia provides the poetry with multiple voicing sites. Discordance reigns and the lyric “I” moves in multiple directions, taking rhetorical masks (third persons), proliferating identities, and taking up residence in conceptual characters.[7] Thus, for example, we find in “God May Be Around” more than a dozen characters, including a “Flying Maiden,” a “Tsar,” a “Crowd,” someone named “Ef,” some “Cows,” someone called “Fomine,” and someone called “Stirkobreyev.”[8] Or again, in the relatively short “Twenty-four Hours” (in Eugene Ostashevsky’s translation, it takes up only four and a half pages of An Invitation for Me to Think), an “Answer,” a “Question,” a “Swallow’s Non-existent Answer,” a “Swallow’s Answer,” and a “Questioner” carry the poetry forward via rapid-fire interchanges.[9] And in “The Witness and the Rat,” we encounter a succession of speakers called “He,” a character (or characters) identified as “Lisa or Margarita” and later as “Lisa or Margarita, now become Katya,” “Grudetsky the Steward,” “ Stepanov-Peskov,” “Kostomarov, Historian”, “Griboedov, Writer”, and “Fontanov.” In these and similar works, Vvedensky carries dramatization to an extreme.

We should also note that in many of Vvedensky’s works, hybridization is concurrent with dramatization: lyric forms interlace with dramatic and prose forms, while heteroglossia predominates as an overall interruptive force, facilitating the collision of various characters’ speeches but also producing “the finest details” in the “microscopic structure” of the separate utterances.

I see all and speak
And say nothing by speaking.
I’ve figured it all out. I understand
I extract thought from my body
lay this serpent on the table
Mine and its own contemporary.
I dash empty across Poland
Yelling sometimes God, sometimes more
I was generally much like a madman,
behind me only paradise could be seen
and each dove, each lion that went by
screamed go on and die
Where will you die?
And what will you devour nearby?[10]

Here the internal discordance reaches a breaking point, with the near disintegration of the speaking subject and his/her total disorientation. Truly, in Vvedensky’s case it is impossible to speak of either a “lyric hero” or a lyric “I.” His poetry is the poetry of radical desubjectification and disorientation, poetry “of the mind’s night”:

It gets dark, it gets light, not a dream to be had,
where’s the sea, where’s the shade, the notebook, the word,
one hundred and fifty-five is nearly at hand.
(“The Gray Notebook”)[11]

soul come here I
come to me I.
it’s a burden without you,
like the self without itself.
tell me I
what time is it?
tell me I
which of us is I?
(“Fact, Theory, and God”)

A detailed analysis of the (meta)linguistic effects of desubjectification would require a another long essay, but two points are worth pointing out here. First, desubjectification is always accompanied by—or initiated by—doubt as to “our logic and our language,” both of which “slip across the surface” and do not correspond to the (profound) experience of lived time, space, and objects. In “The Gray Notebook,” Vvedensky writes:

“Before every word I put the question: what does it mean, and over every word I place the mark of its tense. Where is my dear soul Masha, and where are her wretched hands, and her eyes and other parts? Where does she wander murdered or Alive? I haven’t the strength. Who? I. What” Haven’t the strength. I’m alone as a candle. I’m seven minutes past four alone, 8 minutes past four as, nine minutes past four a candle, 10 minutes past four. A moment is gone as if it had never been. And four o’clock also. The window, also. But everything remains the same.”[12]

Paradoxically, it is precisely through his radical disbelief that the poet finds sufficient ways to verbalize his experience, to represent it in a textual form that can shatter the unconscious axioms and expectations of cultural consciousness—and to return it to “savage misunderstanding.”

The second point concerns tonality, or what Heidegger would call Stimmung. If in Vvedensky’s earlier works desubjectification stands under the sign of emancipation from conventional poetic forms and a reckless “disorganization of the senses,” while in his mature works desubjectification is directed at the destruction of normative protocols of communication, the destabilization of classic subjecthood and the readerly stance, then in his latter works the tonality changes, giving way to the dominant emotions of despair and immobilization. This marks an end to the poetic experiment and, moreover, casts a shadow of “universal revulsion” over the poetic tradition itself:

“Here he remembered, he recalled the entire instant of his death. All these sixes and fives. All that—running around. That rhyme. Which had been his faithful friend companion, as Pushkin said before him. Ah, Pushkin, Pushkin, the very Pushkin who had lived before him. Here the shadow of universal repugnance lay upon everything. Now the shadow of the universal lay upon everything. Here the shadows lay upon everything.” (“Where. When”)[13]

Let’s now turn to the principle of the “poetic machine,” the fourth in the list near the beginning of this essay. At the end of his unfinished excerpt “clearly, / tenderly / and brightly…” (1938-1939), we find a curious self-reflexive remark. According to his account, in response to questions asked by one of his “friends” about the poem he had just finished reading, “the poet” remarks: “I’m sorry if there is something here that could astonish. I myself am astonished, in a not-so-pleasant way, at the presence of national sentiment in my writings.” His contemporary, Yakov Druskin, sees the “end of this unfinished excerpt” as “autobiographic”: “friends” refers to Druskin himself, Leonid Lipavsky, and Daniil Kharms, while “the poet” is Vvedensky. Whatever Vvedensky may have felt about “the presence of national sentiment” in his work, its presence is incontestable. Moreover, starting with the poem “RURal and BLANKED. aNEGDOTE,” the “OBERIU-ter’s authority of absurdity” is based on certain structural features of folklore, and on the elements of glossolalia that are rooted in a folk poetry of “charms and spells.” This poem, like others dating from the 1920s, belongs to the period of Vvedensky’s involvement with the State Institute of Artistic Culture’s Department of Phonology and his short-lived rapprochement with the “Chairman of Global Trans-sense,” Alexander Tufanov.[14] Although he did not consider Vvedensky’s poems “trans-sense” in the strict sense of the term, Tufanov’s reaction to the poems Vvedensky sent to the Leningrad section of the All-Russian Union of Poets in 1924 is of interest. In part, Tufanov writes:

“In trans-sense there is a transition to new culture by way of self-destruction. It [trans-sense] should be organically linked to the elemental force of ta proto-language or of one’s native tongue. It should flow from the fundamental biogenetic law of philogenesis; it is impossible to skip over Pushkin and go straight to trans-sense. That is why I think that there is still no trans-sense in Vvedensky’s poems. <…> This is not trans-sense, not imaginism, not classicism, but rather a neutralization of the verbal layer, a carnival booth from the words of a seeker of “Lef-ish” adventures who has not accounted for the demands of an organic link to language and its past.”[15]

Let’s juxtapose that statement with the following excerpt from “RURal and BLANKED. aNEGDOTE,”:

DRIPPED THE FAT AND flowed and fleet
while his majesTY rasPED at fleas.
To the FLEA on his spine
as cranes fly
MI rrored swallow
shows its BEhind

Certainly this is not trans-sense as the Futurists understood it, but here Vvedensky nevertheless adheres to the “biogenetic law” of his native tongue, alert to its carnivalesque combinatorial force. Similar “carnival booth” tones inaugurate many of Vvedensky’s poems:

I regret that I’m not a beast / running along a blue path (“Rug Hydrangea”)
The sun shines forth in disorder, / flowers on the flowerbeds fly (“God May be Around”)
to make everything clear / live backwards (“The Meaning of the Sea”
the joyful man Franz / maintained protuberance (“The Joyful Man Franz”)
snow lies / earth flies / lights flip (“Snow Lies”)[16]

Just as frequently, folkloric modes—riddles, toasts, cries of traders and hucksters, rhythmic apostrophes, counting rhymes, tongue-twisters, etc.—come to the fore and take on various forms within the text, which allows us to speak of a constant or generative matrix in Vvdensky’s poetry. A high degree of parallelism sustains the generative force propelling the verse. As the linguist Roman Jakobson argues, the essence of the poetic craft consists of periodic returns (from the Latin versus– “turn,” “return” [17]) of phonemes and their sequences: morphological, lexical, syntactical, and phraseological units that end up in metrically and stanzaically analogous positions. As Jakobson notes:

Any form of parallelism is an apportionment of invariants and variants. The stricter the distribution of the former, the greater the discernibility and effectiveness of the variations. Pervasive parallelism inevitably activates all the levels of language: the distinctive feathers, inherent and prosodic, the morphologic and syntactic categories and forms, the lexical units and their semantic classes in both their convergences and divergences acquire an autonomous poetic value. This focusing upon phonological, grammatical, and semantic structures in their multiform interplay does not remain confined to the limits of parallel lines but expands throughout their distribution within the entire context.[18]

Versification mechanisms as they occur in folklore and various other “low” forms often so seem exaggerated, even bordering on (self-) parody. Popular puppet and peep shows can be seen as a transitional link between somewhat improvisational folk art and a style-free graphomania. It is the latter that serves as one of the models for the poetic machines of Alexander Vvedensky.[19]

Daniil Kharms generalizes from the insight of many of his predecessors, including Edgar Allen Poe, Baudelaire, Gerard Manley Hopkins, as well as the Dadaists (viz. Schwitters’ Mertz-machines or Duchamp’s assemblages) and Surrealists (viz. automatic writing and the “exquisite corpse” games), when he writes in his journal: “For now I know four types of verbal machines: poems, prayers, songs, and spells. These machines are built not by way of calculation or reasoning but in another way, the name of which is THE ALPHABET.”[20] And Kharms’s contemporary, Leonid Lipavsky, in his “Theory of Words,” extends the machine principle to the structure of language as such: “The laws of language are extremely simple: a symmetrical table of source elements, rotation and crystallization, the maintenance of a weight ratio, the triangle of conclusive meaning, the disintegration of meaning during rotation, the likelihood of the word. Such are all of the laws, and they are the same for all sorts and series.”[21] However fantastical such “law-making” might seem in the light of linguistic evidence, it fully “works” (with a correction to the terminology) when describing the poetic function, which “disassembles meaning,” as, for example, with rhymes, as a reflexive mechanism producing returns.

Jakobson virtually subsumes any structuralist basis for poetic techniques under a machinal definition: “Poetry sets off the structural elements of all the linguistic levels, from the network of distinctive features to the arrangement of the entire text. The relation between the signans and the signatum (or in Saussure’s translation of the traditional Stoic terms, signifiant and signifié) involves all of these levels and acquires a particular significance I verse, where the introverted nature of the poetic function reaches its apex. In Baudelairean terms, it is a complex and indivisible totality where everything becomes significatif, réciproque, converse, correspondant and where a perpetual interplay of sound and meaning establishes an analogy between the two facets, a relationship either paronomastic and anagrammatic, or figurative (occasionally onomatopoeic).”[22]

Vvedensky’s poetic techniques are built on the mobilization of recurring folkloric series (linkages of signifiers), with their “universal chirr of rhythm” and their “carnival-booth rhymes,”[23] which launch the machine of punning permutations—phonetic, syntactic, phraseological, grammatical, and semantic: “The reverse of the mirror / thunders. The haughty chair / takes a walk.” (“God May Be Around”).[24] As we recall from our initial discussion, dramatization, with its invisible—but implicit—scaffolding, is a fundamental facet of heteroglossia. A parodic-mysterial act, a dramaticus logico-philosophicus, unfolds on this scaffolding, which bears the masks of conceptual personages in clowns’ apparel: Wittgenstein is discussing the theory of wordplay with J.L. Austin, who is declaiming, in response, passages from Benjamin’s “About Language As Such and the Language of Man” to perform speech acts, the orchestra is trimming carcasses, Benveniste enters the menage on a motorcycle, screaming “Unthinkable!”, Jakobson goes tumbling out of a carriage with the manuscript of “A Theory of Words” in hand, a fountain of tears erupts from Heidegger’s eyes, Bakhtin and Buber together chant “while the flea tickled his majesty,” bears on bicycles are making salto mortales, and the Tsar Fomine descends on a trapeze from under a dome carrying his head (it was chopped off by an ax) which is reading the balance-programof paronomasic machines: Every machine, in the first place, is related to a continual flow of the material-corporeal lower stratum, from which it cuts slices. It functions like a machine for slicing ontological ham, removing portions from the associative flow: from the anus and from the flow of shit meted out by the anus, for instance; from the mouth and from the flow of milk but also the flow of air and sound; from the penis and from the flow of urine but also the flow of sperm. Each associative flow must be seen as an ideal thing, an endless flux, flowing from something not unlike the immense thigh of speech genres. The bodily lower stratum suggests the pure uninterruptedness that any poetry ideally possesses. [25]

And now we’ve gently made our way to the principle of the metapoetic function. Usually scholars see in Vvedensky’s work a critique of discursive thought, mechanisms of language, and so on, but they fail to specify just what type of language and discursive mode is in question: is it scientific, religious, philosophical, artistic, or the “language of everyday life”? Yet, Vvedensky questions not merely “concepts,” “conclusive generalizations,” continua, time and space as a priori intuitions of perceptual faculties—in other words, the study of nature, logic, mathematics, and so on—but also, and above all else, art. In particular, Vvedensky questions poetry, which—alas—pertains to subjective and produces only verbal, rather than real, miracles. In almost all of Vvedensky’s comments recorded in Lipavsky’s “Conversations,” we encounter his critique of poetry’s limited means for producing meaning, its problematic aesthetic conventions and norms, and their bankruptcy. Here is the most characteristic example of such: “[Inspiration] does not protect us from mistakes, as is normally thought; rather, it spares us only from particular mistakes, but the general mistake of the text cannot be glimpsed in inspiration’s grip, which is why inspiration allows the possibility of writing. Even a day later I see that I’ve written neither what I wanted nor how I wanted to write. Anyway, can one really write as one desires to write? Daniil Kharms once said that art should operate in such a way that it penetrates walls. But there is no such thing.”[26]

The end and/or death of poetry and art is overtly thematized in Vvedensky’s later works, as, for example, in “Elegy” (“Eradicated inspiration / now visits for almost no duration, ‘ orient yourself by death by death, / singer and poor horseman”[27]). But in Vvedensky’s earlyworks it is also easy to discover the motifs of mockery, vanity, impossibility, the devaluation of verbal art, alongside, of course, other “feelings.” Hence, “Excerpt,” dating from 1925, is now thought to be one of the very first examples of Vvedensky’s debunking of canonical belles-lettres:

It happened near Poltava
no not it but a medal
when we fought a Swedish woman
a bit to the right we to the left
shhh we see she’s escaped
and torn her blue skirt
I scream stop
a bit to the right we to the left
behind a pine tree near Poltava
Mazepa sits naked
says he would have been Fyodor
would have been happier
at this point my whole army
starts sobbing violently
screams out, starts speaking
there’s an unfortunate one
ever since there’s a pub there
(Vvedensky, “Excerpt”)

Riddled with a multitude of voices and with crushing self-irony, Vvedensky’s heteromorphous verse processes and deconstructs stereotyped modes of verse-making and poetic formulas and thereby entails an implicit critique of the poetic mode of utterance as such.

Finally, we come to the principle of trans-formation. Beyond the constant and already habitualized—to the point of monotony—drone of what is called the absurd, the collapse of communication, the discrediting of linguistic mechanisms, apophaticism and alogism, and so on, we hear the scrape of high-velocity poetic machines. They must be distinguished both from abstract schizoanalysis machines and Kharms’s verbal machines. Kharms believed, or wanted to believe, that the power with which words are endowed, given proper deployment, could move objects and go through walls (or break windows). Vvedensky had no such belief. He didn’t trust memory, didn’t believe in the imagination. His word machines are also worm machines—they consume the carrion of dead devices and techniques, and set a limit to the possibility for bodily transformations of conceptual personae; only after this is it possible for an authentic metamorphosis to begin. For the “star of meaninglessness” to ascend, for the “dead citizen” to dash in to announce that time will be no more, it is necessary that the materials of poetry contract to the point where the world becomes a corpse. And you yourself have to become a corpse.

The dining table lets survey
the world cadaver’s crème brülée.
It stinks of rot around.
Some dummies practice
others drink poison.
The dry sun, light, and comets
silently sat down on objects.
Oaks lowered their crowns.
The air smelled abject.
Motion, heat, and density
have lost their intensity.
Hope flaps its shivering wing
alone above the human world.
A sparrow by a pistol hurled
barely holds the tips of ideas in its beak.
Everybody’s gone insane.
(“God May Be Around”)[28]

Not the end of time but the time of the end—a monstrous reduction of the history of the creation of the world and the entirety of human history to mere “tips of ideas,” to the infinitely divisible rhythm of poetry (which also requires time to reach its end), and to the delayed eschatological moment—a moment that is as if arrested and reversed by a release of rhythm. “Time is endless. You’ll say: it’s endless since it’s always been there and it has no end. No, it’s endless between two moments.”[29]

Thus speaks the dead man, who says: “The world is heated by God, and this God is from a machine. He also finds it unbearable. But something makes language stutter, rave—that is, strive to the limit of its own elements, categories, and forms—to that which is on this side of language and beyond. There is only one salvation: a trans-formation, when the meanings of words are taken up in the process of disintegration with a small margin of error. Machine, you are self-denial. The more rapidly language errs under the influence of a reflexive mechanism, the closer it is to the ‘stopping of the world,’ that is ‘infinite between two moments.’ The notorious ‘poverty of language’ is nothing but the limitations of phonetic, phraseological, and syntactical constants, something like table-turning or overload, sweeping away all poetic nutrients, all the components of normative constructions. An analogous overload is parataxis, paraphrase—which manifests the presence of the other’s speech in any utterance.”[30]

In concluding, I should briefly note some of the lines of continuity between Vvedensky’s poetic principles and more recent Russian poetry. During the late Soviet era, heteromorphous verse was picked up and developed formally by such representatives of unofficial Leningrad poetry as Elena Shvarts, Vasily Filippov, and then Elena Fanailova. The folkloric, “trans-sensical” substratum emerges as one of the most important elements in the work of Aleksey Khvostenko and Henri Volokhonsky. Dramatization and conceptual personages, in line with the carnival-populist impulse, became a distinctive feature of Khelenukty poetry, as well as that of several other authors from the “Malaya Sadovaya” (Little Garden) circle, and also (in a more reservedly ironic, intellectual register) of Moscow Conceptualism. For example, Vvedensky’s interest in subversive combinatorial possibilities is continued in the works of Dmitry Prigov; Prigov’s poetic machines construct a logic for utterances of different types, from the artistic to the ideological, from the religious to the scientific, while still keeping the critical function in the foreground. Desubjectification and/or the problematization of the subject’s position is most vividly expressed in Arkadii Dragomoshchenko’s work and in that of those young poets who emerged in the second half of the 2000s (Nikita Safonov, Denis Larionov, Evgeniya Suslova), and who have taken Dragomoshchenko’s writerly experience into account. As a form of critique, “desubjectification,” as a method for the self-denial of poetic thought or of its self-withdrawal, emerges as the most promising and the most worthy area for further scholarly investigation and aesthetic practice.



[1]Translator’s note: Along with Alexander Vvedensky and Daniil Kharms, prominent members of “OBERIU” included Yakov Druskin, Nikolay Zabolotsky, Nikolai Oleinikov, Yury Vladimirov, Leonid Lipavsky, Igor Bakhterev, Daniil Kharms, and Konstantin Vaginov

[2] Alexander Skidan, “Kritika poeticheskogo razuma” (“A Critique of Poetic Reason”), Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2011. No. 108.

[3] A. Kobrinsky, ed., Alexander Vvedensky i russkii avangard: Materialy mezhdunarodnoy nauchnoy konferentsii (Alexander Vvedensky and the Russian Avant-Garde: International Scholarly Conference Proceedings, Saint Petersburg, 2004.

[4] Iurii B. Orlitsky, “Geteromorfny (neuporyadochenny) stikh v russkoi poezii” (“Heteromorphous (Disorderly) Verse in Russian Poetry”), Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie, 2005. No. 73.

[5] Alexander Vvedensky, An Invitation for Me to Think; selected and translated by Eugene Ostashevsky, with additional translations by Matvei Yankelevich (New York: New York Review Books, 2013); 94-95.

[6] Pam Morris, ed., The Bakhtin Reader: Selected Writings of Bahktin, Medvedev, Voloshinov (London: Edward Arnold, 1994), 172. Again, writing from a slightly different perspective in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Bakhtin speaks of polyphony as a prerequisite to the vitality of human thought: “The idea lives not in one person’s isolated individual consciousness—if it remains there only, it degenerates and dies. The idea begins to live, that is, to take shape, to develop, to find and renew its verbal expression, to give birth to new ideas, only when it enters into genuine dialogic relationships with other ideas, with the ideas of others. Human thought becomes genuine thought, that is, an idea, only under conditions of living contact with another and alien thought, a thought embodied in someone else’s voice, that is, in someone else’s consciousness expressed in discourse. At that point of contact between voice-consciousnesses the idea is born and lives” (The Bakhtin Reader, 98; emphases in original).

[7] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari introduce the idea of philosophic conceptual personaeas the name of thought formation(Plato’s Socrates, Nietzsche’s Dionysus, Nikolay Kuzansky’s Idiot): “In philosophical enunciations we do not do something by saying it but produce movement by thinking it, through the intermediary of a conceptual persona. Conceptual personae are also the true agents of enunciation. ‘Who is “I”?’ It is always a third person.” (Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What is Philosophy?; Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell, trans. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 64-5.

[8] Alexander Vvedensky, An Invitation for Me to Think, 25-65.

[9] Alexander Vvedensky, An Invitation for Me to Think,116-120.

[10] From Alexander Vvedensky, “Fact, Theory, and God”; translation directly from essay by Lucas Stratton and slightly revised by Eugene Ostashevsky.

[11] An Invitation for Me to Think, 71.

[12] An Invitation for Me to Think, 70-71.

[13] Eugene Ostashevsky, OBERIU: An Anthology of Russian Absurdism; translated by Ostashevsky and Thomas Epstein (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2006), 59.

[14] Translator’s note: What we are here translating as “trans-sense” is sometimes rendered in English as zaum, a transliteration of the Russian neologism that combines the preposition za (beyond) with ym (mind, reason). The term was coined in 1913 by the poet Aleksei Kruchenykh.).

[15] Alexander Tufanov, “O stikhakh A. Vvedenskogo, in Vvedenskii, A: Vsye(“About A. Vvedensky’s Verse”)in Alexander Vvedensky, Complete Works (Moscow: Publishing House O.G.I., 2010), 732. (Translator’s note: Lef, or Left Front for Art, was founded in 1922 by former Futurist and Russian Formalists; Vladimir Mayakovsky was a founding member.)

[16] All from An Invitation for Me to Think.

[17] Also compare with verto, meaning to turn, to turn over (with a plow), to loosen up. Is this not the origin of Mandel’shtam’s assertion: “Poetry is a plow, churning up time in such a way that the deepest layers of time, its humus come to the top?”

[18] Roman Jakobson, Language in Literature (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1987), 173.

[19] For his part, Yakov Druskin spoke of “mysteria-acts,” of “an abstract theatre created by Vvedensky 20-30 years prior to that of Ionesco and Becket”; see Iakov Druskin, Stadii pominaniya (Stages of Understanding) // “…Sborishche druzei, ostavlennikh sud’boyu”: “Chinari” v tekstakh, dokumentakh i issledovannyakh: V 2 t. M., 1998.T. 1., 644.

[20]Daniil Kharms, Zapisnye Knizhki (Notebooks; Journal), vol 2 (Saint Petersburg: Akademicheskii proekt, 2002), 174.

[21] Leonid Lipavskii, “Teoriya slov” (“Theory of Words”), Issledovanie uzhasa (Studies in Terror) (Moscow: Ad marginem, 2005), 255-256. Lipavsky’s emphasis.

[22] Roman Jakobson, “A Postscript to the Discussion on Grammar of Poetry,” in Diacritics 10, No 1 (Spring 1980), 23.It is curious that in this “Postscript” the Russian linguist cites—without citation—Baudelaire’s “Poem of Hashish” as a confirmation of his own strictly scientific formulations. Notably, the famous utterance “Grammar, the driest grammar, becomes a bewitching incantation,” taken from this poem describing a drug-induced state of consciousness, is similar to ideas expressed in Vvedensky’s “The Gray Notebook.”

[23]“Circus-booth rhymes are provided, however, by language’s word-bank, with its cheap puns and, at times, the universal chirr of rhythms of old-timey opera bouffe texts—all of this is intimated through   the nature of language itself, and this leads to the thought that linguistic play is a means to revealing and harnessing a metaphysics that is lurking the depths of language.” (A Nikolev, Predislovie k poeme “Bespredmetnaya Iunost” (Foreword to the poem “Pointless Youth”), in G. Morev and V. Somsikov, eds., Wiener Slawistischer Almanach, Vienna, 1993. Sbd. 35, 223.

[24] An Invitation for Me to Think, 62.

[25]The reader may correctly guess that this passage borrows parodically from Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of “desiring-machines.” For the original passage, see: Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia; trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane (New York and London: Penguin Books, 1977), 36.

[26]Leonid Lipavsky, “Conversations,” in Alexander Vvedensky, Vsye (Complete Works), 607.

[27] An Invitation for Me to Think, 126.

[28] An Invitation for Me to Think, 64-65.

[29] Yakov Druskin, “Prisnaki vechnosti” (“Evidence of Eternity”), in Sborishche druzei, ostavlennikh sud’boyu: “Chinari” v tekstakh, douymentakh i issledovaniyakh (A Group of Friends Abandoned by Fate: The “Chinari” in Texts, Documents, and Papers), Vol. 1, 822.

[30] For “overload” and the departure of language from its own confines, see Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, “Linguistic Postulates,” in One Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia; trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 164-175.

Abluesurdity: The Ethics of Absurdity in the Aesthetics of Hip-Hop

Outro as Intro: The Ethical Response to Absurdity in “The Message”[1]

The absurd has a meaning for someone. Fate does not precede history; it follows it. Fate is the history of the historiographers, accounts of the survivors, who interpret, that is, utilize the works of the dead. The historical distance which makes this historiography, this violence, this subjection possible is proportionate to the time necessary for the will to lose its work completely. Historiography recounts the way the survivors appropriate the works of dead wills to themselves; it rests on the usurpation carried out by the conquerors, that is, by the survivors; it recounts enslavement, forgetting the life that struggles against slavery.
– Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity (1961)

The pressure to be broken by incredible odds, by the poverty, ignorance, violence, indifference, that is one’s day to day environment in the town (Newark, NJ) is immense. It’s like a grey haunting presence one feels pushing against the outside and inside at the same time. But even so, a few fortunate people like Woody Shaw who are not stronger or brighter than the struggling masses of the city, but simply more consistently focused in a direction that can provide a shield and exit from the ghetto horror, do manage to make it out. And many times the stories they carry, told through whatever medium or form, are staggering in their brutality and shattering in their beauty!
— Amiri Baraka, Liner notes to the album Woody III, Columbia Records (1979)

Nietzsche began writing by calling for the rebirth of tragedy from the spirit of music. But that had already happened, as drama lost the use of poetry and turned to music.
– Stanley Cavell, Disowning Knowledge In Six Plays of Shakespeare (1987)



Even if we accept Shakespeare’s self-reflexive analogy that “all the world’s a stage,”[2] we still recognize that the props and sets and plots are not all the same. There are many stages and many theaters, and each one becomes a confining globe. The stage delineates the boundaries within which characters act and are acted upon. When characters confront these existential limits, they usually discover—or, at least, the audience apprehends—that their actions and words cannot change their circumstances. They are not real after all. They stand before us in the flesh and prove their insubstantiality, provoking an essential confrontation with absurdity, since the absurd is what turns reality into unreality, meaning into nonsense, belief into doubt, hope into despair.

“The Message” (1982), hip-hop’s first anthem, ushered in a political aspect to hip-hop that remains in the genre’s DNA. Responding to the political and social realities that eviscerated black and Latino communities in the Bronx during the 1970s, “The Message” is widely recognized for its searing poetic rendition of ghetto life. Yet, the song renders the ghetto in two distinct ways. The first part is a lyric, which displays a powerful poetic vision of the speaker’s experience “in the ghetto living second-rate”; the second part is the outro, a convention that has been used in many rap songs but rarely with such philosophical force. Dialectically opposed, the lyric presents the ghetto in a theater of sincerity; the outro re-presents it in the theater of the absurd. Taken together, this dialectical representation of the ghetto forges a trenchant ethical response to intractable social absurdities.

As Richard A. Cohen argues in his introduction to his translation of Emmanuel Levinas and Philippe Nemo in Ethics and Infinity, “Ethics occurs…across the hiatus of dialogue, not in the content of discourse, in the continuities or discontinuities of what is said, but in the demand for response” (12). If this is so, then the very mode of “The Message” as a message counters the oppressive yet unassailable forces educed by the song with an ethical call that demands a response. The lyric illustrates Cohen’s insistence that “Ethics is forceful not because it opposes power with more power…but rather because it opposes power with what appears to be weakness and vulnerability but is responsibility and sincerity” (13). The outro goes even further by representing individual lives who must confront an absurd situation and to whom we must respond directly. By creating conditions for us to respond, the outro rebuts the machinations of the absurd by restoring in us, the audience, the potential for meaning, the possibility of belief, and the capacity for hope.

For all of its sincerity, the lyric, nevertheless, conveys its message through modes of poetic form; the outro, on the other hand, exists outside a manufactured lyric space, outside the meanings that poetry imposes on poverty and powerlessness through the force of the imagination. Therefore, while both the lyric sincerity and the dramatic absurdity register as authentic renderings of the ghetto, the latter—the rendering of the ghetto absurd—remains more attuned to the real. Shifting from the poetic to the dramatic, where the anonymous speaker is replaced with a cast of characters who appear to be none other than the rappers responsible for the preceding rhymes, the outro comments on the song’s message from the outside, playing out the repressive dynamics of power that make up the conditions out of which the lyric is uttered. Stanley Cavell’s suggestive distinction about the nature of the dramatic as opposed to the nature of the poetic in Disowning Knowledge applies here: “It is different from the experience of comprehending meanings in a complex poem or the experience of finding the sense of a lyric. These are associated with a thrill of recognition, an access of intimacy; not [as it is in drama] with a particular sense of exposure” (85). The seductive poetics of the lyric offer access to the lived experience in the ghetto (especially for those outside of it) through the emotional and psychic states of the speaker as the verbal ingenuity and deft wordplay imaginatively transform these psychological pressures and existential perils into a potent artistic portrayal of ghetto life. In contrast, the outro’s dramatizations of the same existential contingencies unsettle and ultimately destabilize the lyric’s eloquent and potentially transformative rendering, lest we mistake Melle Mel’s eloquence for a kind of control or, worse, an aestheticization of poverty and struggle through the poetic word’s facile mastering of insufferable social conditions.

The song begins with a beat that is both funky[3] and austere, an ominously methodical bass and drum counterpoised with the subtle uplift of ethereal, even spacey[4] arpeggios, all shattered too soon by the sound of broken glass.[5] The crashing glass cues the lyric and Melle Mel launches into a highly sensory poetic flite about the abysmal conditions of the ghetto: “Broken glass everywhere / People pissing on the stairs, you know they just don’t care.” Sound becomes word. Beginning with “broken,” Mel collages together images of destitution with a series of rhymed lines. The images are sutured together with consonance and an explosive alliteration on the “p” that interrupts the rolling “r”s and “s”s. Like the exquisite, disjunctive glitter of broken glass, the sonic poetics evokes claustrophobic conditions—“Rats in the front room, roaches in the back.” The lyric is a contradiction in itself: like an urban American Rilke, Mel makes something beautiful at the edge of what is, truly, an abyss. The absurd hovers at the edges of his speech, and Melle Mel staves off its meaninglessness by the sheer force and flow of his rhymes.

In these first lines, Mel conjures the absurdity of the situation, the almost unreal, nonsensical, hopelessness of it all. Things are worse than bad and there’s no escape. Just tracing the vehicular metaphors, we see Mel move quickly from the fact of having his car towed to the fantasy of hijacking a plane, moving from paralysis in the face of unalterable circumstances to an escapist fantasy that is only empowering in its absurdity; imagining himself as the agent rather than the recipient of terror, the desire to hijack a plane reverses the power dynamics inherent in his circumstances and amplifies them while the hyperbole shows the extremity of his desperation. In the course of this trajectory from reality to fantasy, Mel remains immobilized, “hanging out the window / Watching all the cars go by, roaring as the breezes blow.” In reality, Mel’s left to contemplate the deafening vicissitudes of the erratic winds, since he “can’t take the train to the job, there’s a strike at the station.” Before the paradox of underpaid workers preventing others from getting to their exploitative jobs can sink in, and before the oxymoron of an idled train can fully undercut an image that has remained a powerful symbol of mobility and social uplift at least since the Great Migration, these piling ironies collapse in on themselves and give way to another absurdity: “They pushed that girl in front of the train.” The train goes from a contradictory state of inertia to its incongruous function as a weapon. Meanwhile the speaker “can’t walk through the park… ‘cause they got me on the run”—another paradox that captures the paralysis as well as the inescapable terror resulting from his chaotic circumstances. The speaker must flee what he can’t escape, and in this we might also hear the spectral history of the slave narrative constructed out of similar contradictions: the need to find freedom even when, as Frederick Douglass pointedly put it, “We could see no spot, this side of the ocean, where we could be free” (123).

The four stanzas of episodic poetic narrative get resolved by a parable, a major tonal shift in the song marked by a rhetorical turn from ethos to logos, from a descriptive narrative to a philosophical moral and ostensible message. Through an intolerable prolepsis—where the speaker must imagine his son raped in prison as “a Maytag” before being found “hung dead in a cell”—the speaker warns his son against adopting any of the ghetto’s interchangeable, and ultimately subjugating, masculine identities:

all the number book-takers

Thugs, pimps, and pushers and the big money-makers


Smugglers, scramblers, burglars, gamblers

Pickpockets, peddlers, even panhandlers

The intense repetitions through alliteration, consonance, and assonance help reinforce the point that these identities are one and the same: they seem to guarantee power and respect on the street, but they are really nothing more than a death sentence. This inevitable outcome recalls the earlier scene of “hanging out the window” where, through a series of double-entendres, there is rapid regress from “standing” to “stooping” to “hanging.” The repeated images of hanging conjure a grim and longstanding legacy of lynching and the continuing cycle of vicious entrapments. However deeply painful to hear, the parable stands in ethical defiance of the destructive aspects of the ghetto. The parable rips a scrim of hope from a hopeless situation by revealing the speaker’s protective care for his son amidst ever constricting circumstances, chaotically hostile social forces, and an inventory of destructive identities that everywhere threaten to dehumanize. The insistence that nurture overwhelms nature—“A child is born with no state of mind / Blind to the ways of mankind”—becomes a defiant stand against the ghetto’s capacity to misshape and distort identities. Even as economic opportunities evaporate and possibilities for social uplift vanish, the speaker intimates that the moral force of his vision can change the situation, render something beautiful from the ugliness, and give his son a positive alternative to what’s out there.

The power of the lyric derives from its sincerity. This is the source of its realness, Mel’s empathic and authoritative witness of the stress and his moral insubordination to its rules. His sincerity is what also makes him vulnerable—“broke my last glass jaw”—to the dangers of the “jungle.” As powerful as it is, this penetrating, intimate act of bearing witness leads, as sincerity does, to reasoned argument. It is not an accident that the form of this lyric is more like a sermon or an essay than pop song, beginning with acute, experiential descriptions raised to the level of consciousness through a turn toward more abstract, philosophical conclusions. Following the long-standing dichotomy in African-American culture that the hip-hop scholar Imani Perry limns as “the division between the respectable and the funky stuff” or “the respectable and the rough” (4), the lyric of “The Message” represents, even with its grim images and mordant episodes, a “respectable” (because poeticized) ghetto; that is, it presents the speaker’s ennobling confrontation with denigrations of ghetto life. However noble, Reason is clearly no match against the Absurd.

But the song continues even after it ends, taking yet another unexpected turn, and, like a trickster, signifies on itself, flipping the genre from the poetic to the dramatic and shifting modes from a sincere rendering of absurdity to challenging the absurd on its own irrational grounds. The outro dramatizes the arrest of the group members in a random but all too common deus ex machina of a police raid on the corner. The raid rescinds any and all control over the crew’s autonomy to assemble, hang out, and make plans to go to a club in their pursuit of “the funky stuff.” The outro gives the lie to the promise that the celestial orders and beatific visions of art can overcome social chaos through the force of its vision. In this respect, Mel’s assured rhymes fail. They leave him exposed and vulnerable, while we are lead away from this theater of sincerity into a theater in the rough. Here in the outro, the reasons for the repressed rage (“Don’t push me, I’m close to the edge / I’m just trying not to lose my head) come to the fore, and the son’s protests against his dysfunctional, ill-serving school system, as well as his attraction to the litany of hard identities his father so adamantly warns him against, are cast in a starker light. By now we understand too well that the school is not a real option but a mere façade, a false exit to another dead end. We know, too, that the hard identities in the song are as destructive as they are seductive, not only because we’ve just heard the lyric but also because we listen retroactively. For better and worse, hip-hop has disseminated the thugs, pimps, and pushers through American popular culture for more than thirty years.

But this knowledge, this easy disapproval, can also make it more difficult to recognize the utility of these identities, the real if elusive option they offer a kid who knows that “to be a street sweeper” would be a better option than “a bum education.” At least then he’d have the satisfaction of cleaning up the broken glass and getting paid for it. The only other alternative—to “dance to the beat, shuffle my feet / Wear a shirt and tie and run with the creeps”—smacks of minstrelsy. In contrast to these limited alternatives, the hard identities draw on earlier prototypes designed to make intolerable oppression tolerable; like the traditional Stagolees and other Badmen, these identities mask the emotional, psychological, and physical vulnerability that come from incessant exposure to white supremacist systems. They are versions of a mask, as Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote, “that grins and lies”; they are an embodied means of protecting oneself from and even resisting denigrating policies enforced from the outside. As the son concludes, “You got to have a con in this land of milk and honey.” But built on “cons,” these hard identities usually default on their promise of power because they derive from, as the scholar Joshua Clover notes, “the tribulations of living in land where the property and power are always elsewhere” (39).

The parable forecloses hope with an ecce homo image of a boy who “lived so fast and died so young,” but this is only an imagined fate, and the prolepsis of the last line forestalls closure even as it anticipates this terrible end. [6] So while the parable resolves what has gone before, it also serves as a preamble. The speaker is not only prophet but also “chorus to this history”[7] that is about to play out as he sets the stage for the outro: “The places you play and where you stay / Looks like one big alleyway.” Like God “smiling” and “frowning,” fate still hangs in the balance, and the tonal pun in the parable is both a plea to and a sly giving up on God, as in the exasperated idiom, “God only knows.” The pun recalls both the African American spiritual “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen” and the cagily hidden blues within Bert Williams’s minstrel performances of “Nobody”:

When life seems full of clouds and rain

and I am filled with naught but pain,

who soothes my thumpin’ bumpin’ brain ?


There is solipsism here, a sense of abandonment as well as abdication, and a renunciation of the absolute and of absolution. As prologue, this no-body-ness is a kind of disappearance or erasure that anticipates what happens to the crew in the outro and that the Badmen and other antiheroes associated with hip-hop were conjured to overcome. There’s defiance as well as despair in the conclusive line, “And your eyes will sing a song of deep hate,” an insolence that weathers into a blues: “But now your eyes sing the sad, sad song.” Taken as prologue rather than the moral to the story, the parable pushes us to the edge of absurdity and, as in Shakespeare’s Henry V, the lyric speaker becomes the Chorus who gives us only a poetic rendition of real events.

Now enter the “ciphers to this great accompt.”



Fundamentally interrogative, the outro begins and ends with a question, cycling through who (“that sound like Cowboy, man”), where (“Hey, where’s Creole and Rahiem at, man?”), what (“What?”), when (“When this happen?”), and, finally, why (“Why he doing this?”). Throughout, the questions frame a discourse of relationship and power, setting the terms of inquiry that either serve to acknowledge or to preemptively interpret the interlocutor. The drama of the outro is also organized around a crisis, a key turning point that transforms the questions from one thing into another, flipping their function and causing the outro, which is already signifying on the lyric, to equally signify on itself: half way through the drama, an impromptu gathering sours into a situation of malevolent threat when a police officer enters the scene to repeat, redact, and reinterpret the meaning of what is said in order to enforce an external system of control.

The outro starts with Melle Mel and the rest of the crew gathering and greeting each other. Coming after the lyric concluding with the boy “hung dead in a cell,” this continuance revives hope and contains the lyric by making it feel a little less imminent, a little less inevitable. It makes the lyric into what we want to believe it to be: a parable, an allegory, a metaphor; in other words, “just a poem.” It is a lesson but not an event, artistic expression but not an actual incident. The song is grim, but now that we see the crew who raps it materialize on the corner, we have a verifiable afterlife to the lyric’s fatal conclusion. The outro presents young black men not just surviving in the ghetto but making their struggles into art. What’s more, their pseudonyms—Money, Cowboy, Cooly, Rahiem—personify some of the things that the song has been about, and offer masculine identities distinct from the pimp list tetanized in the parable. Although they inflect American masculine stereotypes, these are playful, generally positive, and individualized alternatives. [8]

The outro begins innocently enough with what sounds like Scorpio telling Mel to check out a girl. The comment clearly defines a masculine space and perspective. Although fairly innocuous in this context, it is worth noting that Scorpio’s “see that girl” has its darker counterpart within the lyric as the peepshow and the grim circumstances of the Zircon princess. The juxtaposition makes clear that, despite the masculine space, the song articulates the distortion of both male and female identities by the pressures of the ghetto. In any event, the question instigates an interrogative mode that will continue until the end. After Scorpio points out the girl, the focus immediately shifts to the crew and again we see a move from sight (“see that girl”) to sound (“that sounds like Cowboy, man”) which echoes the “see-saw” pattern in the lyric: from watching the cars to hearing them roar; from watching the creeps at the peep show to telling stories “to the girls back home”; from watching TV to hearing the phone ringing; all of these resolved in the synesthesic act of witness, “your eyes will sing.” A flurry of acknowledgements follows, all phrased as questions:

Yo, what’s up, Money?


Hey, where’s Creole and Rahiem at man?

These greetings are familiar, a means of collective recognition and, in the ease of their salutations, a sense of acceptance of things as they are. As Cavell emphasizes, “The world is to be accepted; as the presentness of other minds is not to be known, but acknowledged” (95). What is at stake by the end of the outro is this very ability to acknowledge and accept; it is also what, in the end, might stave off the imposing absurdity of a solipsistic authoritarian system, where nothing makes sense nor can sense be made, where no one can acknowledge or be acknowledged, and where acceptance gets crushed under the boot of intolerance.

We find out that Creole and Rahiem are “upstairs cooling out” before Scorpio asks, “So, what’s up for tonight, y’all?” The thing to note here is the repetition of “up,” which is quickly followed by “down”: “Yo, we could go down to the Fever, man” (emphasis mine). These spacial idioms take on particular significance if we hear the resounding rhetorical reverberations from Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up”[9] to the theme song for the popular mid-seventies TV sitcom The Jeffersons[10], and all the way back to Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative of the Life, “my tendency was upward” (122). Unlike these earlier evocations of upward mobility that resist a downward arc, “up” and “down” here are not opposites; they are aligned through the power of their idiomatic usage, so that “up” and “down” become two powerful ways of saying the same thing. “What’s up” and what’s “going down” are both positive. There’s mention of the “Fever,” a reference to the club Disco Fever, a club in the Bronx considered to be the mecca of early hip-hop; there’s the suggestion to “check out Junebug,” a famous local deejay.[11] If we think about lyrics like “Take the A Train” preceding “The Message” or Gang Starr’s “The Place Where We Dwell” coming afterward, we might also glimpse how “The Message” is part of a lyric continuum that denies reductive notions of ghetto life by making its assumed marginality into an artistic mecca, a central site for cultural pilgrimage.[12]

But almost predictably, it is at this ebullient moment where the drama takes its fatal turn and violence bullies in:

Hey, yo, you know that girl Betty?

Yeah, man

Her mom’s got robbed, man


Not again!

She got hurt bad

When this happen? When this happen?

Like the Zircon Princess, we hear about another episode of violence toward a woman. The gossip redacts the Zircon Princess’s “stories to the girls back home.” Where the Zircon Princess tells stories to impress the friends she’s left behind with her glitzy albeit fake identity, the story here passes on vital information about what’s happening in the neighborhood. This gossip intends to elicit concern, compassion, and care. We’re reminded that despite the easygoing joy expressed among the crew, violence is a repeated occurrence and, in the quick move from “what” to “when,” it has happened again. The fact that this time the assault is on a girl’s mother only makes it worse. The occurrence not only a more menacing rendition of the earlier scene where the brother steals his mother’s TV, but it also trounces the sacred, inviolable place mothers have in the culture.

The dialogue also gives an edge to the outro’s opening remark, as we move from “see that girl” to “know that girl.” Coming in the wake of the crew’s greetings and setting up the relaying of violence, the verb “know” here marks a phenomenological shift from noticing to recognizing, a form of acknowledgment that implies responsibility. William Jelani Cobb’s exegisis on the idiomatic and philosophical use of “recognize” in hip-hop culture, a word that literally means “to re-know,” can help explain the significance of this shift from seeing to knowing:

Thus the fact that the word recognize—meaning to “identify as previously known, take notice of, acknowledge, especially with appreciation” according to the books—takes a whole ‘nother level of connotation within this culture. On this street, to be told to recognize is to be issued an injunction, given a warning, schooled to the fact that there are consequences and repercussions for whatever has been said, done, or forgotten. (109)

This idiomatic intensification of the word takes the conventional meaning of “recognize” as “to acknowledge” and raises the stakes by emphasizing that this acknowledgment is a form of intimate awareness of another that has indelible ethical consequences.

Cobb’s description of the word “recognize” puts Cavell’s observations about the reality of the theater in a starker light. Here, Cavell rejoins those who insist that characters in a play are “not persons” and, therefore, while they are seen, they cannot be acknowledged:

Am I to remember that I am not responsible for those people up there? Presumably this is not a way of saying that they are none of my business or that they have not been made real for me by their creator. But what else is it a way of saying? Am I to remember that I do not have to confront them, give them my warnings or advice or compassion? But I am confronting them (unless my head or heart is lowered, in fear or boredom) and I have this advice or warning or compassion or anxiety; if you haven’t, you don’t see what I see. But I cannot offer it to them or share it with them. That is true; they cannot hear my screams. But that is something else; that is something I do not have to remember, something I know as I know that I cannot chose the content of my dreams or suffer my daughter’s pain or alter my father’s childhood. (90)

Applying Cavell to the outro, we must not simply relate to the characters as we relate to ourselves (as we are encouraged to do in the lyric) but put ourselves in relation to them independent of ourselves. Although we cannot offer or share with them our compassion or anxiety, as Cavell says, there are still consequences for us and for them; as we are in their presence, we remain responsible for what happens, although we cannot change the outcome. In fact, our situation as an audience is hardly distinguishable from their own. They, too, feel “compassion or anxiety” for another’s pain, and in their recognition of what happened to Betty and Betty’s mom, they feel responsible for them, even though they “cannot offer it to them or share it.” It’s a paradox we might associate with the absurd. Simply put, when the violence turns on the crew, it is our turn to feel at once responsible and powerless.

Cobb calls this confusion between the factual and the representational, hip-hop’s “asphalt naturalism” (109). Hip-hop, and “The Message” in particular, are not the first to express a radical realism. Writers like Douglass, Dunbar, and Chesnutt, and later Wright and Baldwin, had already confounded the literal and the literary in similar ways; yet, this particular tradition of American realism comes to a poignant extreme in hip-hop’s idea of “keeping it real.” The sense of the real in “The Message” has something to tell us about Cavell’s distinction between acknowledgment and knowing. In “The Message,” we assume to know the lyric speaker better than the crew dramatized in the outro, even though we understand the crew to be an “actual” representation of the Furious Five and Mel’s speaker to be only a persona. Again, this confusion results from the shift from a lyric mode to a dramatic one. We have less access to characters in a drama; they seem more distant, separated from us by the theatrical space and the proverbial fourth wall. As noted earlier, they are not to be known but acknowledged. This is a supreme irony of literary modes of representation: the characters who are more real—who are in closer proximity to the factual—are recognized as such because they remain less knowable. The crew in the outro appears to us like those actual others whom we pass on the street. Cavell explains the paradox by suggesting that we experience drama “more directly, without interposed descriptions or explanations.” However, this does not make dramatized characters more present. Rather, the unmediated aspect of the drama leaves characters “free from the necessity to describe or explain,” so they are more “opaque” (105). We know them as we know others and not, as the illusion and power of the lyric offers, as we know ourselves.

We can’t really know them, and our inability to intervene in any way forces us to grapple with the limits of our ability to change situations. As Cavell argues, “They are in our presence. This means, again, not simply that we are seeing and hearing them, but that we are acknowledging them (or specifically failing to)” (103). For Cavell, “Tragedy shows that we are responsible for the death of others even when we have not murdered them, and even when we have not manslaughtered them innocently” (103). If it seems absurd to think that listening to a song dropped over thirty years ago somehow makes us responsible for what happens to the people in what is at most a dramatic recreation of real events, then you get the point. This sense of absurdity inherent to the experience of listening to this song is what threatens to erode our ethical resolve. Absurdity has a way of presenting us with this philosophical loophole that can reduce “The Message” to an artifact of entertainment. It tells us that the song is just a song, and it isn’t real, that the crew and the officers in the outro are just characters in a drama. It disorients us by shattering our moral compasses until we are addled enough to forget that the song is “The Message” and, as such, means by making us aware of what is happening. And to become aware of what is happening is to reject notions that the song is from “back in the day” and accept that what is happening is still happening. Whether we decide to act on this knowledge or to ignore it is another matter, but either way, there are consequences: “avoidance of the presence of others is not blindness or deafness to their claim upon us; it is as conclusive as acknowledgment that they are present as murdering them would be” (Cavell 103).

So what, then, might be the measure of our obligation? In his philosophical dialogue with Philippe Nemo, Emmanuel Levinas considers the human face, echoing Cavell’s sentiment and adding another valence to this distinction between the act of acknowledgment and that of knowledge:

The face is meaning all by itself. You are you. In this sense once can say that the face is not “seen.” It is what cannot become a content, which your thought would embrace; it is uncontainable, it leads you beyond. It is in this that the signification of the face makes it escape from being, as a correlate of knowing. Vision, to the contrary, is a search for adequation; it is what par excellence absorbs being. But the relation to the face is straightaway ethical. The face is what one cannot kill…. Murder, it is true, is a banal fact: one can kill the Other; the ethical exigency is not an ontological necessity. (86-87)

For Levinas, acknowledging is other than knowing. Knowing intercalates between self and other what one already believes to be true (the officer, we’ll soon see, does this). Acknowledging, on the other hand, destabilizes our sense of self (and thus what we know) by putting us in (an ethical) relation to others, which makes us responsible for what happens to others while simultaneously freeing them from our imposed idea of who or what they are. In recognizing another’s autonomy and capacity for self-determination, we claim the same for ourselves, which, again, means we become responsible for what we do and do not do.

Among the many philosophers he names, Cavell does not mention Levinas, but there remains a strong correlation between Levinasian ethics and what Cavell calls the “tragedy in a theater and tragedy in actuality”:

In both, people in pain are in our presence. But in actuality acknowledgment is incomplete; in actuality there is no acknowledgment, unless we put ourselves in their presence, reveal ourselves to them. We may find that the point of tragedy in a theater is exactly relief from this necessity, a respite within which to prepare for this necessity, to clean out the pity and terror which stand in the way of acknowledgment outside. (104)

It is not the characters, then, that we must respond to. We do not have to decide how real or unreal they are. Rather, our paralysis in their presence rehearses and challenges our response to the real events represented in other more “real” theaters, such as the media. Listen to “The Message” and then ask, “How should I respond to the news of young black men killed by police over the last year: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Tony Robinson, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray?” Cavell acknowledges that art “can be motivated by a thirst for social change. But in an age in which the organs of news, in the very totality and talent of their coverage, becomes distractions from what is happening, presenting everything happening as overwhelmingly present, like events in old theater” (118). Cavell might conclude that if we do not “reveal ourselves” but rather “keep ourselves in the dark”—and I take Cavell to mean this both figuratively and literally—then “the consequence is that we convert the other into a character and make the world a stage for him” (104). Because, as Levinas concedes, “the ethical exigency is not an ontological necessity,” we are not required to act, although there are ramifications either way. In an age mediated by such a deluge of news, our ethical failure can seem almost inevitable. Absurdity has become our demiurge.

If, as Cavell seems to insist, “the intention to serious art can itself become a political act… because it is the intention to make an object which bears one’s conviction and which might bring another to himself” (118), then the lyric displays one individual’s courageous response to absurdity. Might we be more like him? Cavell’s observations again apply:

But we had hardly expected, what now is apparently coming to be the case, that the ordinary citizen’s ordinary faithfulness to his children may become a radical political act…. (118)

The speaker of the lyric presents us with a virtuous response to oppressive circumstances, emboldening us, and, perhaps, even giving us faith. But obviously our voyeuristic experience of the speaker’s struggle is not enough. We must go further, because it is when the lyric gets rescinded and replaced with the outro that the song makes demands on us in a way a lyric alone cannot. In the outro, it is us as well as the crew who are arrested when with “screeching tires—Police enter scene.” The first thing the officer says, a typical cop-show trope, resonates painfully with where we’ve been: “Freeze / Don’t nobody move nothing.” This is exactly the problem. It is exactly what the speaker has been fighting from the beginning and now what we, too, are recognizing as our own struggle. Paralysis. Immobility.

The officer continues: “y’all know what this is!” Out of context, this almost sounds like the MC’s first salvo to get the party started. It would, in fact, mean this if it were said in the first half of the outro by one of the crew. One of the crew immediately responds, “What?” The response answers a question with a question. It echoes the officer’s injunction in an attempt to keep open the interpretation of “what this is.” But we know as well as they that the scene has already been scripted. The officer assumes. He assumes that they’ve all been through this before. The scene has been rehearsed although it hasn’t yet happened. They know how to perform their roles as he does his, and the crew’s attempts to flip the script, to engage the officer, and to say “what this [actually] is” won’t change the narrative.

As suggested before, this is in part a problem of knowledge. The officer already knows “what this is” and his knowledge prevents him from seeing the crew for who they are as they are (“You are you”). The officer is not present to the crew and uses his preconceptions as a replacement for both recognition and acknowledgment.[13] He commands, “Get’em up.” When the officer says this, it is the first step toward arresting the crew; ironically, though, the phrase is exactly what the song has been attempting to do the whole time. To get up. To get over. The speaker of the lyric wants to get out from under the “neon King Kong” and no longer “stoop” and to “keep from going under.” The officer’s use, though, is in line with being “sent up for a eight-year bid.” This is the kind of reverse signifying that re-transfigures an apotheosis back into base matter. From Douglass’s insistence “My tendency was upward” (122) to Mayfield’s and Brown’s inspiring “move on up” and to “get on up” a hundred-and-twenty years later, the officer stops this progress dead in its tracks with his orders and screeching tires. Suddenly, the desire to hijack a plane—to take hostages rather than be the hostage, to get up, up, and away—doesn’t seem so extreme.

The harmony between opposites no longer holds: Get’em up…Get’em up!—We’re down with Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five—…Look, shut up!” The signifying “down,” what was just a moment ago aligned with “what’s up,” is back to expressing an opposition; yet, it is a verbal defense insufficient to overturn the official command. In fact, it enforces it. The reason for making the crew shut their mouths and put up their hands is to bring them down, literally and figuratively. It is both arrest and erasure. What could be worse than telling poets not to speak? When they identify themselves as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, an opportunity briefly opens for the officer to acknowledge them; instead, in a self-justifying interpretation, the officer superimposes what he already knows them to be: “What is that, a gang?” It is not a question. The officer imposes one discourse on another in order to decipher (as well as de-cipher) the responses of the crew. In doing so, the officer maintains a brutalizing system of control.

Robin D.G. Kelley gives an explicit account of the interpretive consequences of such imposed perspectives, even when well intentioned:

[T]he culture concept employed by social scientists has severely impoverished contemporary debates over the plight of urban African Americans and contributed to the construction of the ghetto as a reservoir of pathologies and bad cultural values…. When social scientists explore ‘expressive’ cultural forms or what has been called ‘popular culture’ (such as language, music, and style), most reduce it to expressions of pathology, compensatory behavior, or creative ‘coping mechanisms’ to deal with racism and poverty…. Few scholars acknowledge that what might also be at stake here are aesthetics, style, and pleasure…. By conceiving black urban culture in the singular, interpreters unwittingly reduce their subjects to cardboard typologies who fit neatly into their own definition of the “underclass” and render invisible a wide array of complex cultural forms and practices. (120)

The officer’s reduction of the crew to “cardboard typologies” is exactly what the outro of “The Message” exposes and contests, as the ebullient “Yeah, man” now becomes “Naw, man!” In the beginning, questions served as a call and response; now, the questions are rhetorical, and, like the train, they have gone from modes of conveyance to a strange kind of weapon: “Look, shut up! I don’t want to hear your mouth.” The pattern of watching followed by speaking or hearing threading through the song gets repeated—“Look…shut up”—and then negated.

As reciprocity gets undermined, the members of the crew are made to disappear even before they are taken away in the police car. Their retorts to the officer’s assumptions, their attempts to define themselves, their effort to get the officer to recognize, all fall on deaf ears. “What’s the problem?” slips from a question of social decay and political neglect to a question of identity. We can imagine that fixed list of thugs, pimps, and pushers the lyric speaker so desperately wants his son to avoid replaying in the officer’s head as he stutters, “Ain’t no—You the problem.” Antithetical to the Levinasian notion of “You are you,” the officer’s statement objectifies and reduces the crew “to cardboard typologies who fit neatly into [the officer’s] own definition” (Kelley 120). The officer starts to say that there is no problem, but stops short. It is too evident that there is a problem; yet, to articulate the problem the way the lyric does would obligate the officer to question his role in a system of surveillance and control, and this would, in turn, require him to take personal responsibility for the members of the crew standing before him. In his inability to articulate what the problem actually is, he projects the problem onto them. The victimized become scapegoats for the more complex systemic injustices that get obscured, ignored, and even reified by the officer’s insistence on playing out a set script. “You know what this is,” because not to know would thrust the officer into the same ethical quandary in which we find ourselves.

Instead of entering into a personal relation with the crew, the officer quashes any ethical obligation with physical force. By arresting the crew, the officer enacts the very thing the song is meant to stave off: “You ain’t got to push me, man.” This precariously loaded statement gets quickly punctuated with a starkly ironic command: “Get in the car.” An unraveling and then a reversal. A ride out of the ghetto finally appears at the moment we are all pushed over the edge. But it is a ride in the back of a cop car to the very place where the lyric ends. A cell. Whatever innocence and revived hope the outro offered at the beginning is entirely snuffed out. Going down to the Fever is now a trip down to the station. Theme and variation get reduced to violent repetition. And yet. The outro doesn’t end there. In his increasing agitation, the officer again interrupts himself in an attempt to maintain his composure, even as he shoves the crew into the car. The officer stutters, “Get in the god—I said get in the car!”[14] Where before the officer’s “self-restraint” allows him to substitute the crew in place of the circumstances, now, the officer’s attempt to keep his cool emphasizes how emotionally charged this scene has become. The officer’s authoritative rhetoric cannot conceal his personal investment in the role he plays.

But if justice is to prevail, this can’t be. As Levinas emphasizes, “Justice, exercised through institutions, which are inevitable, must always be held in check by the initial interpersonal relation” (90). Especially at the point of arrest, the officer must maintain a compassionate disinterest that suspends any personal investment he might have in the situation: “[J]ustice only has meaning if it retains the spirit of dis-interestedness which animates the idea of responsibility for the other man” (99). He must respond to the situation as it is and not just play a predetermined role. The officer’s apparent moment of verbal restraint reverberates back through the song, from the religious allusion in the reference to All My Children, to the Old Testament reference in needing “a con this land of milk and honey,” to the address to God “smiling” and “frowning” in the parable. However accidental, the officer forges an apt link between “God” and the cop car. All authority remains outside, uninvested, and amoral. “God” is simply another name for the use of force.

It is a fatal irony that the outro can only achieve the lyric’s expressed desire for escape by ending up at the same place where the son is left “hung dead in a cell. ” The two ghettos have merged. In fact, they were always one and the same, even if at times the two ghettos, to borrow again from Cavell, “do not occupy the same space”:

There is no distance between [them], as there is none between me and a figure in my dream, and none, or no one, between me and my image in a mirror…. [They] occupy the same time. And the time is always now; time is measured solely by what is now happening to them, for what they are doing now is all that is happening. The time is of course not necessarily the present…. But the time presented, whether the present or the past, is this moment, at which an arrival is awaited, in which a decision is made or left unmade, at which the past erupts into the present in which reason or emotion fail…. (105)

By coming together, the song’s two ghettos emblematize the way the space of the song and the space we occupy as listeners is one and the same as well. The lyric and the outro are existentially as well as aesthetically interdependent, but they implicate us in “The Message” even as reason fails to explain what happens. It fails because the outro, unlike the parable, which can explain the causes and the effects, cannot take account of what occurs. No matter how staged, the arrest just seems random. We’re left asking, “Why he doing this?”

This lingering question makes it crucial to hear that the song does not end when the drama resolves. The song continues, and in this case, the looping cyclical beats that have become essential to the aesthetics of hip-hop, have existential as well as a temporal effect. Although Bradley and Du Bois end their transcription of the lyric with the officer’s command to “get in the car,” the officer does not, in fact, have the last word. In an urgent plea that gets swallowed by the noisy mayhem during the arrest, a member of the crew—Scorpio?—speaks up: “Why he doing this?” This reopens the song to the ethical question that the officer himself could not ask but that we must hear while the crew gets carted away and the dopplering sirens fade out. We watch the officer act, and we are left asking, “Why?” Do we absolve ourselves from responsibility because we are more like the officer than we might want to admit? Or does absurdity triumph by virtue of the fact that we cannot make sense of what happened and, therefore, are made to feel helpless? How do we account for the fact that the officer acts and we do not, especially when Cavell argues that the point of tragedy is “to make us practical, capable of acting” (118). Is it enough to say we not actors; we’re just the audience?

The absurdity played out in the song would seem to abjure any ethical action and foster a free-for-all, which could only manifest as either social chaos or riotous rebellion. The ethical imperative Levinas lays out, though, means to endure circumstances that remain unstable, unpredictable, and even irrational. When pushed over the edge of reason, ethical action becomes the only viable response to the absurd, the only response that is humanizing, self-sustaining, enduring. In his study of the absurd in literature, Neil Cornwell asks “If the world, or indeed the universe, is an absurdity, why should its existentialist or absurdist proponents trouble themselves to offer coherent artistic or philosophical accounts of this phenomenon (although some at least, it may be claimed, at times do not)?” (np). One reason would be to counterpoise absurdity with an artistic order that contains it, even if the artistic expression is premised on and presents us with an absurd reality. “The Message” as a song exemplifies such an ordering of the intolerable: the song is a constrained channeling of energies and emotions that, if not transmuted into art, would make us all go insane.

In the “Translator’s Introduction” to Ethics and Infinity, Richard A. Cohen says, “Ethical priority, according to Levinas, occurs as the moral height of the other person over being, essence, identity, manifestation, principles, in brief, over me” (10). Consider the myriad, mutually destructive masculine identities proffered by the song along with the officer’s failure to acknowledge the individuals he is about to arrest. In light of a Levinasian ethics, these identities, both the thugs and the officers, are mirror images of one another and want to wrest power for themselves alone. They even create each other and, mutually reinforcing, perpetuate another vicious cycle. The tolerant response of the crew to the officer, while it falls short of changing the outcome of the drama, does present an ethical position bulwarked against the encroachments of the licentious self-legitimization of power. They vociferously protest but keep their cool. They attempt to explain and, in doing so, try to put themselves in relation to the officer. The contrast between them and the officer is revealing. As Levinas insists,

It is extremely important to know if society in the current sense of the term is the result of a limitation of the principle that men are predators of one another, or if to the contrary it results from the limitation of the principle that men are for one another. Does the social, with its institutions, universal forms and laws, result from limiting the consequences of the war between men, or from limiting the infinity which opens in the ethical relationship of man to man?” (80).

Representing “the social, with its institutions, universal forms and laws,” the officer exposes the limit of ethical action by intruding on and curtailing the corner assembly where “the infinity which opens in the ethical relationship of man to man.”

This is what makes “The Message” tragic in Cavell’s sense: “Tragedy was the price of justice, in a disordered world. In a world without the hope of justice, no price is right” (114). In the song, we must bear the fact that the deft ethical eloquence of the lyric is coopted by forces that want to make its sincere regard into theater. Our temporary relief at the beginning of the outro that the lyric is just a poem makes us complicit in this conservative blowback because in this response we deny the reality of what is being said: “Tragedy has moved into the world, and with it the world becomes theatrical” (115 We set ourselves up to mistake the individuals apprehended on the street for characters in a drama who fulfill their subjugated roles as statistics for a police blotter. The world becomes real not despite but because it is the absurd. So what hope do we have? Cavell gives us Kierkegarrd and Kant:

In the realm of the spirit, Kierkegarrd says, there is absolute justice. Fortunately, because if all we had to go on were the way the world goes, we would lose the concept of justice altogether; and then human life would become unbearable…. What is necessary is [the soul’s] own coherence, its ability to judge a world in which evil is successful and the good are doomed; and in particular its knowledge that while injustice may flourish, it cannot rest content. (81)

This uneasy conclusion sounds very much like a testament of faith if not a giving up on the world as presented to us in the here and now. But then returning to “The Message,” it is hard to refute Cavell’s observations. Is it any accident that the only thing on the move, that can move and “cannot rest content,” is the cop car?

And yet, even accepting Cavell’s de-moralizing conclusion, we still might find hope. In referring us to the resources offered by African American culture that can help us “figure out how to live under duress with a sense of possibility that does not deny the suffering of the present,” the scholar Tricia Rose asks, “How could you possibility have a hopeful disposition in the face of [a horrible] reality?” Rose answers:

Well, that’s the only kind of hope African Americans have had a long time cultivating…. The embrace of a kind of tragic/comic sensibility. The ability to see in tragedy, in suffering, in negative conditions a kind of critical, sarcastic, satirical comic response to it… [and to]…recognize the tragedy of it but not be consumed by it.

Is it possible to see “The Message” as operating in such a comic mode, a comedy masked as tragedy, a potent reversal of the mask Dunbar described in “We Wear the Mask” almost a hundred and twenty years ago?” The question returns us to the music. We can hear how “The Message” as a rap song, as a music played in the club or at a party, its ebullient and affecting beats buoying up a penetrating message, is its fiercest form of protest. This creative energy is an enduring form of hope in the face of terror. We feel it when the crew greets each other, an infectious joy emerging from relationships based on mutual respect and care. As suggested before, the question for us is whether to use this moment as a means to turn tragedy into theater (i.e. as proof that things really aren’t that bad), or to recognize in these interactions an alternative way of being in the world, despite a social reality based on the consequences of limiting, if not predatory, institutional forms and laws.

The agitated cop car does indeed drive off with the crew inside; however, here, as with the proleptic conclusion in the lyric, the end is forestalled. We anticipate what will happen to them, but it has yet to occur. It may seem inevitable, but, as Levinas reminds us, it is not: “What goes on to happen is not inevitable; but anything that goes on to happen inevitably bears marks of what has gone before” (113). History repeats. It is the function of art to make it repeat with a difference. Listen again to the chorus:

It’s like a jungle sometimes it makes me wonder

How I keep from going under repetitions

In the Bradley and DuBois transcription, there’s a comma after “jungle” which I’ve left out because the grammar enforces one reading of these lines, and we need to hear the if we are to glean what hope there is in the hook. With the comma, the chorus says that the ghetto is like a jungle. This condition makes the speaker wonder sometimes and wonder in particular how he keeps from going under. This reading begs the question, “Why only sometimes?” Sometimes it makes him wonder. And at other times is he too overwhelmed by the struggle to even think, let alone wonder? Are there times when he, like the Zircon Princess, loses his senses? Perhaps there are times that even he, a poet, can no longer think to feel.

The other reading would put a semi-colon after “sometimes.” In this reading, which is also substantiated by the way Mel delivers the line, the simile of the jungle becomes provisional while the speaker’s wondering remains constant. The ghetto is like a jungle sometimes. And other times? Having used Cavell thus far as a means to examine “The Message,” the parallels between the song and Lear naturally spring to mind. When Lear dies heartbroken, Kent wonders: “The wonder is, he hath endured so long.” This is the same tragic wonder we hear in the chorus of “The Message.” Albany’s response attempts to sum up the horror of what’s occurred:

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

Despite the anachronism, it shouldn’t be hard to see how these lines have an analogue in hip-hop, a genre that arises in response to a extreme social crisis and continues to speak what it feels and not what it ought to say. But in either context, whether Lear or “The Message,” is it that easy to “speak what we feel”? Even when we can find the words, do we always know what that is, especially when “it’s like a jungle sometimes”? If the phrase heard without the comma suggests that the wondering reaches for what else “the jungle” could be, what other simile might allow the speaker to (re)imagine his situation so as not to succumb to the absurdity of it all? The song answers by leaving a fissure of space, a temporal delay, even at the very end, for us to try and imagine an alternative before turning fate’s wheel. Although there are many others, this may be the ultimate message of “The Message.” Even at this final moment of the outro when everything seems said and done, we are left with the incitement that we can still intervene if we can only figure out how. As Cavell might insist, the capability of acting begins with acknowledgment, making others real to us, and not giving in to the debilitating self-justifying conditions of absurdity. We remain responsible for what happens: “Fate does not precede history; it follows it.”



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Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five. “The Message.” The Anthology of Rap. Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois, Eds. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. 73-77. Print.

Kelley, Robin D.G. “Looking for the ‘Real’ Nigga: Social Scientists Construct the Ghetto.” That’s the Joint!: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader. Eds. Murray Forman & Mark Anthony Neal. New York: Routledge, 2004. 119-136. Print.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo. Trans. Richard A. Cohen. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1985. Print.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1961. Print.

Mayfield, Curtis. “Move on Up.” Superfly. Curtom, 1972. LP.

Orejuela, Fernando. Rap and Hip Hop Culutre. New York: Oxford UP, 2015. Print.

Perry, Imani. Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop. Durham: Duke UP, 2004. Print.

Pound, Ezra. The Cantos of Ezra Pound. New York: New Directions, 1996. Print.

Rose, Tricia. American Studies Day: What’s Up America? Eberhard Karls University. Tübingen, Germany. 5 July 2014. Keynote Address. Web.

Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1997. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Henry V. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1995. Print.

Senger, Travis Gutierrez, dir. White Lines and the Fever: The Death of DJ Junebug. Lincoln Leapord Films, 2010. Film.

Whitman, Walt. Song of Myself. New York: Penguin, 1995. Print.

Young, Kevin. The Grey Album. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2012. Print.



[1] This is a riff off the title of Amiri Baraka’s collected poems, Transbluesency (1995), which is a play off Duke Ellington’s tune “Transblucency” (1946).

[2] As You Like It, 2.7

[3] LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Blues People: Negro Music in White America (New York: Harper, 1963). In his discussion of hard bop, Baraka argues, “the adjective funky, which once meant to many Negroes merely a stink (usually associated with sex), was used to qualify the music as meaningful…. The social implication, then, was that even the old stereotype of a distinctive Negro smell that white America subscribed to could be turned against white America. For this smell now, real or not, was made a valuable characteristic of “Negro-ness.” And “Negro-ness,” by the fifties, for many Negroes (and whites) was the only strength left to American culture” (219-220); Kevin Young, The Grey Album (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2012). Young updates Baraka’s sense of the word by citing Susan Willis: “‘Funk’ is really nothing more than the intrusion of the past into the present. It is most oppositional when it juxtaposes a not-so-distant social mode to those evolved under bourgeois society” (291). Young then brings us back to Jones by adding his own gloss: “Funk goes even further, a fourth world and term that plays with both respectability and being outré, if only by reveling in the body and black being…. [F]unk, named for the ‘stank’ of dance and sex and work, emphasizes the moment’s journey beyond even the body, a physicality that mirrors spiritual motion….. Recall too that a funk is another, Africanized word for the mood we call having the blues” (292).

[4] Kevin Young, The Grey Album (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2012). In its associations with the transcendent, Young, at least, sees outer space as an extension of funk: “But we also may see in funk a broader notion of space—what critic Fredric Jameson views as one of the postmodern era’s dominant features. Just as Jameson sees space as taking over from a previous paradigm of time, let’s stick with space here too—but we need not see it as simply a negative aspect of late capitalism…. [S]pace in all senses not so much as negative as negative capability—a new resource to be played with. Such play is freeing, fun, funky…” (294-295).

[5] The broken glass is the intrusion of the literal and, as the sampling of an actual sound rather than a musical phrase insists, the introduction of “the real.” Kevin Young again explains: “The sound of smoking and hits from the bong in Snoop and Biggie, not to mention the sounds of oral sex or other fluids, were ways of hardcore rap’s further declaring its verisimilitude – often literally pissing on its territory. This is real, the songs insisted, and realness was, just like the broken glass in ‘The Message’ everywhere.” (ibid. 368)


[6] The last line of the parable, and the lyric, ends on the word “so”—“Of how you lived so fast and died so young, so”—and there is no period. The line is an enjambment that flows fluidly back into the chorus (i.e. “so / Don’t push me ‘cause / I’m close to the edge”). But thinking about other significant open-ended poetic endings, like the absence of the period in Walt Whitman’s 1855 version of “Song of Myself” or the last line of Ezra Pound’s first “Canto,” which ends with “So that:.” This “so” signals a powerful continuance in its own right, a refusal of closure, and an insistence on our response (So…?).

[7] Henry V, 1.Prolgue.32

[8] Rahiem might seem like the outlier here, a name rather than a type like Cowboy or Money or Creole; yet, it is the exception that makes the rule. Given the content of the song, Rahiem, meaning “merciful or compassionate,” may be most significant and most allegorical name of all.

[9] “Move on up, and keep on wishing / Remember your dream is your only scheme / So keep on pushing”

[10] Well we’re movin’ on up, /To the east side / To a deluxe apartment in the sky.”

[11] A painful instance of life imitating art that can remind us how the line between the representational and the real is hard to draw. DJ Junebug is slain the year after the release of the “The Message.” For more information on DJ Junebug:

[12] For example, as Fernando Orejuela writes in Rap and Hip Hop Culutre (New York: Oxford UP, 2015): “New Wave pop-crossover sensation Blondie recorded ‘Rapture’ in 1980 and introduced the hip hop scene to a new set of consumers. The tune was the only ‘rap song’ to reach number one on the Billboard chart during the 1980s…. The song lyrics celebrate two icons most notably, Fab Five Freddie and Grandmaster Flash, and the video includes Fab Five Freddie and Lee Quinones writing graffiti, as well as a young Jean-Michel Basquiat as a DJ” (77).

[13] As Cavell puts it: “For its characters, having for whatever reason to forgo presentness to their worlds, extend that disruption in their knowing of it” (95).

[14] Bradley and DuBois transcribe it as “Get in the godda—”; but I hear it as only “god” and, as I argue, this hearing is far more resonant with the way the song signifies on itself and extends its meaning to the larger systems of belief imposed on the crew.

Snagged Epistolary

The fairytale is a traditional form significant in its artful capacity to alternately mask and reveal dynamics of power and desire. It leaves its traces in the hidden messages, warnings, auguries, rants, citations, footnotes, obscure references, commands, translation effects derived from techno and house music, skipped beats and irregular rhythms, annoying rhyming, projective fantasy, sheer nonsense, redundancy and noise of legalese and police interrogation in the following prosoid stanzas.


My Dear Nice my dear Neptune Dear Son Dear Tip of the Dawn and Pencil of the Sunk Dear and Dear Person Who is Always about to Stand Trial Whether It is Apparent or Not Dear Echo in Experience and Dear Daughter Dear Water Light and


Hair Dear Justice Plus Injurious and Dear Air and Finally My Dear Receding Horizon Limit and What No One knows including All Who Shall be Forgotten and Dear that Who Befriends and Other Recipients of These Epistles, it might take an effort


to discern which sentences now belong to whom.
Shall this be kept a secret? I mean what is then aimed at others.
And who are we separately?


Dear me, (I am writing to myself as well). A diary falls open and we are in it together! Did you know? A drawing on the margin shows our divergent BODIE molded in the form of a ball, the mythic work of a precision machine I believe


No, not that. It’s the work of an exacting artist last seen escorted by Square Pusher through the entrance to electronic parts. Yes, What No One Shows, I can NOW almost read your thoughts THEN but ask you to nevertheless consider. An outline of a fleshy


Grasping Hand1 on our paper-nowhere seems to be positioned in the direction of that image, the ball made of us I described to you. I described to you I described to you the ball made of us described to you I described to you the ball made of us


My Piety Punched. Who is never confused. I’m throwing you a bonus, a ring to the tone. What no one will hear but. Is that not the m-m-message Who Is Always About To Stand recorded? What no one will hear but? But you? Yes Yes Dear Prison Sentence


It was just as it had been explained: the language was not convicted whose tongue was not confected Dear Prison Sentence. A candied sentence is intended as a gift, to be swallowed in an abstract social arrangement sense and Dear Traipsing


Weather when the tape plays back freeze in the after-breeze of a pelting rain Memory trembles with soft corrections. Statutes harness documents again. With punctuality, sounds wearing crash helmets slip out with punctuality, memes


wearing crash helmets slip out of symbols dressed up with punctuality dreams wearing crash helmets slip out of symbols dressed up in DNA: what No One shows, it can NOW. Burrrrr, cold. NOW proceeding


from these actions—speaking, stroking, sleeping and slipping, recalling, traipsing, irrigating, and time wasting—we derive the regulations for Intelligence that clarify (after the 13th c. concubine Lady Nijo’s Confessions) time management among


“Our hard working
Enforcements” patting
The innocent’s cut


Rootless [flowers] though you are (Nijo), Salute! –when an event is never here or when it is in jury’s ear. A midnight stranger arrives again at the bedside cradling Porthole to the Spill in her arms. The phantom was near your bedside too


And one of you knows this.
And some of us are yet-to-meet.
Now Stand—


Do you recall when we opened the diary a second time the Profile of Note had been redacted? Is this not a mystery No One has time for? Is this not a mystery No One has time for here? Here a Dying Song shells obdurate therefore. Consequently


a criminal lineup makes an arrangement cut on the bias of mass incarceration. In a maze of cookie-cutter houses, there are stories 2 B told, Dear Hair. Lock up!. Is this not a mystery No One has time for? Or is this Not a Mystery No One Has Time For?


Here! Here!
There is city in the country and country in the city too.
Dear Next to Be Tried.


Was that you arriving from the Township with a new drop of white hearts? Then the cop was the robber and the robber was the crop. Redactions took place in the summer and fall. A round item crowded with figures in a tangled mesh might


conceal an impression. Who knew? And can’t tell. Turnips remain silent in the urban farm. Echo primes a lyric: In the summer and fall, we’ll nourish your spring. Will the nourishment get to you? Postscript: Seeking good souls above reproach and the


delight as well as complexity of communion somewhere in the labor.
Yours as ever. Dear Next. Play the game trademarked
It’s a Game. Win the game and pay it back. Now. Lawyers move to the next. Screen


glowing in Anasemia. A moth slides on a blue moon. Next a witness is dismissed for dreaming blood type O. Everything once was as clear as Iceland, according to Feral Pencil’s Stalemate. That sly one has turned child’s play into a problem for Poets!


“Even the silliest dreams exist as foam”
which gives all that we’ve conjured just in fun
an objective requirement: accurate aim and a tree frog


Either True Blue, swaddled under the spank of Northern Lights, crashed into a symbol stained on the parchment of mesmeric thyme or a spun gun is a knife stolen by rhyme. (Dolls echo and toys mimic). Be my infant. Just pull the string!


“Erroneous content” is the opinion of the courts while ships! Blister with truth, truth up to its knees in a pond. Dear Tip. Nature burns its image into the face of old weapons. At dawn you are who you really are and others a little less so. Dear


Brevity, there are more shadows in those time slots than anyone can ferry in a letter. (You sly one). And the sentences have yet to be dollied out, our dear Reseeded Harvest. Sometimes one must speak for oneself alone. Who is Anyone or A. Sun.


Dear Maudlin Recollection. You are who you really are and others a little less so. Pitched voices swirling “around Ferrand’s ears repeat meaningless jumbled words and confused tones.”2 Dear Warmer is it hotter than me. Wait. Then get it on. Oh,


frame that sentence switched for rushing streams, steamy air, climbing daisies, flora that grows so high you have observed blooms resting their heads on shields raised against Anyone. Nobody’s nature plus nurture thesis is burned onto the face-weeping


drone. Big Babies shred light over the spilling-over. Please do not repeat, whining dog! Stay. A little longer. Drone Babies Army shreds light over the pranks spilling over onto banks slurping up houses, hurling promises across surfaces that had


once been immune from creative destruction. Then, the true canine of floods went with people to Earth. Nature itself amplified Ferrand’s perceptions of the jumbled worlds, whether these were anomalous or merely rumored. Dear Provider,


The sentence is yours for a hush. A Quill should exact something from a joyous person, even as we have recently arrived at the point where one of us appears to be dead and impossible to trace. Might I pause? The sum is


greater than the total of
its blind alleys.


Nulling and Voiding reach deep into the grab bag of mechanical activities. Signing off and waiting for Girls Gone Vinyl. Yrs, Snagged. P.S. “This waiting will not go to sleep, however many times it has been buried”!!


P.S. “This waiting will not go to sleep, however many times it has reached deep into the grab bag of mechanical activities and Snagged. By Yrs. Waiting for GGV and high growing flora facing outwards. Dear That’s Foam, we recommend: deliver the diary




1. “A child grasps at everything to find out what it means” (Ernst Bloch, “Much Tastes of More” in The Principle of Hope).

2. Ferrand is a character in “The Symbol,” a chapter in a fairytale novel by Amelie von Helwig. In it, he is guided by the female spirit Welleda into a womb-like region where he loses his orientation. The allusion to male sexual inauguration and the womb space of mystery and knowledge in von Helwig’s tale has seeped into an anti-narrative writing in which the female author identifies with Ferrand.

Where is Our Absurd?

There is nothing but. Not this end the ocean of one’s pause. I’m out of the held begins, for must it could. For I may after that will. I need about what but the end that sound. Stick I need, felt be another to me. The old all alike there some. Not this I’m not. It can’t be it will it how will it. All the sorts and that’s but now. Our eyes only swing. Every but on word alone.

—Clark Coolidge, “Beckett,” A Book Beginning What and Ending Away

When Lyn and I thought of the organizing idea for the issue, absurdity in contemporary life, we were drawn to the idea in part because of our sense that absurdity hardly seems like some modernist pre-history to our present situation but rather an ever-encroaching, encompassing condition of our everyday engagements with a finite “reality,” whatever one takes reality to mean.

One apologizes for such flimsy rhetoric hedges—whatever we take reality to mean—but trying to assimilate “the absurd” provokes such equivocations, digressions, willful courting of the anomalous. Is the “absurd” an attitude or a condition, a way of life to be embraced or a historical impasse to be resisted? That contrived common sense of an Internet search suggests “the absurd” has come to mean anything silly, non-sensical, or ridiculous, that one thing that does not belong to the others. And there is delight in this. As the New Yorker says of Ron Padgett’s Collected Poems: “Padgett’s plainspoken, wry poems deliver their wisdom through a kind of connoisseurship of absurdity.” Everything is a cartoon of perfection!

Absurdity has a dimmer and more caustic history, too. The absurd was something of an obsession for European and Anglophone modernisms, particularly postwar drama, but the seeds of that obsession were planted much earlier in debates about how one persists in, and invents new forms of engagement with, realities that seem increasingly irrational, hostile, or pitched to a perpetual state of emergency. In thinking about how “absurdity” might have shifted between “then” and “now,” it also seems important to recognize that we are all limited by how or where we come to recognize what might be glibly generalized as an “absurdity of existence,” particularly when the uneven distribution of environmental and economic risks create new possibilities for solidarity but also make us more aware of our distances from each other.

Implicit in my formulation of the title—”Where is Our Absurd”—is the matter I want to pursue here, particularly the problem of registering both the contemporary character of absurdity—what it is—and how to place it—where it might be—and who belongs to its formulation—mine or yours or ours.


Dialectical Absurdity

Perhaps the most famous philosopher of “the absurd” working in the vein of 19th-century Western philosophy, Søren Kierkegaard, defined “absurdity” has been taken up as a willful impossibility of belief in the face of an intractable, and perhaps radically hostile, reality. Kierkegaard developed this notion of “absurdity” in his “dialectical lyric” titled Fear and Trembling (Copenhagen, 1843)—published under the pseudonym of Johannes de silencio—at a time when he felt that the systemic thought of German idealism and the spurious public of political consensus (see Kierkegaard’s The Present Age (1846)) had diminished the individual’s capacity to have a singular relation to one’s convictions. Kant’s categorical imperatives and Hegel’s Sittlichkeit (usually translated as “ethical life”) had overshadowed the local and irreducibly idiosyncratic problem of pursuing a purpose that no one else can recognize and thus suffering the consequences of deliberately acting in a vacuum of recognition or understanding.

The question of what absurdity might mean, then, was caught up with this broader question of how we differentiate between fanaticism and obstinate belief or individual imperatives and social responsibilities, precisely at times when we might doubt the legitimacy of a sovereign state or “public opinion.” For Kierkegaard, it was actually crucial to resist the force of consensus. In both Fear and Trembling and his later opus, Either/Or, a willful impossibility of belief doesn’t manifest through sublime catharsis but through diminished characters whose passionate “outpourings” are everywhere blunted or misconstrued by their interlocutors. And these outpourings can look like delusional prophecies, as when Abraham believes he has been commanded by god to kill the child him and his wife struggled so hard to conceive. He is committed to carrying out this purpose, his “calling,” without the language to communicate it, and therefore share it, with others.

Without a language for one’s convictions, one finds themselves both out of place and out of time. Borrowing from medieval romance, Kierkegaard defines the absurd artist of everyday life as a Don-Quixote-like figure, an anachronistic “knight of faith,” for whom the “deep sadness of existence” is provoked by a 19th-century reality uncannily like our own: the false public of mass media, the reduction of art to consumer taste and self-affirmation, the allure of total accessibility. But the “knight” remains part of this estranged order of “faith” not because it blesses him in his resignation, like Hegel’s “beautiful soul,” but because it can channels its “worldly sorrow and joy” into the absurd practice of locating “infinity” in the finite, secular, and pedestrian. And Kierkegaard delivers us this absurd character in a signature tone of reprobation and jealous appreciation:

[The knight of faith] lets things take their course with a freedom from care as if he were a reckless good-for-nothing and yet buys every moment he lives at the opportune time for the dearest price, for he does not do even the slightest thing except by virtue of the absurd. And yet, yet—yes, I could fly into a rage over it, if for no other reason than out of envy—yet this person has made and at every moment is making the movement of infinity. He empties the deep sadness of existence in infinite resignation, he knows the blessedness of infinity, he has felt the pain of renouncing everything, the dearest thing he has in the world, and yet the finite tastes every bit as good to him as to someone who never knew anything higher, for his remaining in finitude has no trace of a dispirited, anxious training, and yet he has this confidence to delight in it as if it were the most certain thing of all. And yet, yet the whole earthly figure he presents is a new creation by virtue of the absurd. (Fear and Trembling, 34)[1]

“The absurd” comes to mean not only the anachronistic and misplaced persistence of the knight’s “faith,” but also a rhetorical strategy, lets call it a situation, that presents a variety of passionate figures through the voices of partial and tendentious judges. Unlike a Socratic scene, there is no cool anchor of reason or confident posture of self-knowledge from which to reflect on these swings of pain, sadness, and passionate commitment. It matters too that the tendentious character of this “dialectical lyric” is ascribed to a writerly persona, Johannes de silentio, who declares himself, in third-person, to be a writer who “has not understood the System” and who “already has enough for his weak head in the thought of what huge heads everyone in our age must have since everyone has such huge thoughts” (5). A diminishment of mind is Silentio’s strength because it is enough for his thought, his rebuke to unwavering credulity in “the System.”

Anticipating the present precarity of creative economies, “Silentio” describes his relation to this overwhelming “System” as a “extra-skriver [free-lancer]” who writes because “for him it is a luxury that becomes all the more enjoyable and conspicuous the fewer who buy and read what he writes” (5). We may not trust his assessment of those “others” who read, just as we may not trust the way Abraham heard god’s command, but what I take Kierkegaard to be asking us, as readers, is how we recognize the singular persistence of belief in a climate of mutual resentment, hostility, and suspicion. Absurd belief, we might say, is a way of weathering a deeply polarized world (something that clearly resonates with the current landscape of political rhetoric in the United States).

In undermining the intellectual force of his persona, Kierkegaard is not only pulling our credulous legs—who should we believe?—but also staging a sly critique of those idealist philosophers and public officials who act as if their heads are big enough for a thought that contains “the world.” Conversely, the text never offers us the right response to Abraham’s sacrificial act but rather a partial judge of parabolic episodes we too must contend with. We are caught up within the textures of belief. Explaining away absurdity by naturalizing it to an intellectual or political system comes to seem like an evasion of what is most important of all: paying the “dearest price” of having a conviction.

For Kierkegaard, then, coming to know absurdity is not just about holding a belief, but paying a singular cost for holding on to it. Perversely, it is the cost of losing a son, a community, or a discernible place in the world, that gives one the idiosyncratic measure of what those things truly mean to you.


Theatre of the Absurd

It is this question of how we recognize both the persistence and costs of belief that I take to be most resonant with contemporary questions of how one makes absurdist art today or, for that matter, simply gets through the “pedestrian” absurdities of a day. In the spirit of historical fidelity, I want to take up this question now in relation to Martin Esslin’s The Theatre of the Absurd (1961), his now canonical take on the absurd tradition in theater during the postwar productions of Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, Harold Pinter, among others.

What struck me in re-reading Esslin in preparation for organizing this issue of FLOOR was how far the literary and dramatic techniques of registering the absurdity of contemporary social and political life have shifted from Esslin’s prewar contexts and postwar examples until now. The purpose of Esslin’s text was not only to argue for a distinct generational “significance” of absurdity for dramatists but also to account for how their interpretation of “absurd” traditions of thought provoked distinct shapes of speech and gesture in response to the traumas of recent war, genocide, and ideological struggle.

Where Kierkegaard countered the exploitative character of systemic thinking through a series of passionate believers and voices, often producing rather florid or devotional prose, Esslin’s dramatists seem to take absurdity as a condition of expressive and epistemological privations. The language of their characters, Esslin argues, is resolutely “anti-literary” and “anti-logical,” so as to register a “radical devaluation of language” in all spheres of private and public life. And where romantics and modernists might have relied on the force of poetic images, there is a commitment in these “playwrights” (with “wright” linking the act of playmaking to a pre-history of physical artificers and journeyman) to the gestural concretions of the stage. As Esslin writes: “what happens on the stage transcends, and often contradicts, the words spoken by the characters” (Theatre of the Absurd, xxi.). Highly symbolic plays, like Eugène Ionesco’s “Rhinocéros” (1959), took their allegories literally, in the sense that the rhinoceroses rampaging the streets are both symptomatic expressions of mass delusion and real threats to individuals within an urban context.

Many critics have contested the coherence of Esslin’s postwar paradigm of the “absurd,” largely because it emphasizes negativity, death, and silence over other aspects of the plays, including their dark humor and sense of play.[2] Surely not every writer shared Esslin’s underlying conviction in a universal humanism or individual psychology beleaguered by mass movements and communication. But even if we read a play like End Game or The Chairs as farces without a metaphysical message, the question remains how we account for repeated, almost ritualistic turns towards questions of reverence and ritualistic devotion (picked up and expanded by Michael Bennett in Reassessing the Theater of the Absurd: Camus, Beckett, Ionesco, Genet and Pinter (New York: Palgrave, 2011)). The “absurd” need not be read as an exclusive category shared by each of its practitioners, but rather a set of formal and gestural responses—iterability, seriality, mnemonic failures, communication breakdowns, comedic transpositions—to measure the gap between one’s idiosyncratic belief and one’s social or historical knowledge. Errant absurdities parade in the grammar of absurdisms, or, as Clark Coolidge shows in his clustering of parts of speech in the shape of a grammatical expression: “I need about what but the end that sound.”

For Esslin, it is no coincidence that “absurdity” seemed to consolidate into a dramatic style or aesthetic condition around the same time that writers were facing a world that had been violently reorganized by the atrocities of the Holocaust, fire bombing and nuclear decimation in the Pacific “theater,” the carving up of the Middle East by European powers, and beginnings of struggles towards the decolonization of Africa. Being “anti-literary,” then, didn’t mean eschewing language for gesture entirely, but that speaking (and responding to speech) had to make incomprehension palpable, often by way of serial repetition and nonsensical transitions that mimicked breakdowns in discursive formations. There was hope in absurdity, too, in that one could make a speech out of a “human condition” (Esslin’s takes existentialism and absurdity to be motivated by a version of humanism) that seemed punishingly irrational and dissociated from both the practical realities of living. By way of idiosyncracies—”idiosyncratic” being perhaps the adjective, along with “sparse,” most often associated with the postwar eras of Anglophone and Francophone absurd theater—one could hear and feel the disjuncts between an individual life and a history of cruelties it may or may not be complicit with. Esslin cites as a processor to the “Theatre of the Absurd” the work of Antonin Artaud (in Theatre de la Cruaute (1935)), who used ritualistic chanting and repetitive gestures to push dramatic action into a more impersonal or transpersonal terrain.

Esslin gives as his opening example a performance of Waiting for Godot in 1957 by the San Francisco Actors’ Workshop at the San Quentin maximum-security prison. What is striking, Esslin notes, is the difference between how the convicts and critics responded. A reviewer for the prison paper noted: “[Godot] was an expression, symbolic in order to avoid all personal error, by an author who expected each member of his audience to draw his own conclusions, make his own errors. It asked nothing in point, it forced no dramatized moral on the viewer, it held out no specific hope… When the scenery gets too drab and the action too slow, we’ll call each other names and swear to part forever—but then, there’s no place to go!” (Esslin, xvi).

The lack of psychological interiority, plot, and character development as well as the mechanical quality of gestures bemoaned by contemporary theater critics was for this prisoner (and others) a kind of realism, albeit of inhuman subjects. That prisoners might be the ideal audience for Beckett’s “anti-literary” style was reflective of the kind of “absurd” position they literally occupied: placed “outside” of social life yet still treated, by way of the rhetoric of rehabilitation, as a potential member of a “human” community. We can see this also in the work of Jean Genet and Harold Pinter, where the overtness of violence paralleled by a slow deadening of the senses extended the poles of captivity to every intimate encounter and walk of life. For example, interior domestic spaces, as in Pinter’s “Birthday Party” (1957), became porous sites in which characters are exposed to intrusion, surveillance, or physical threat but also reflect a more personal struggle to claim or remember the most basic facts of their lives and surroundings. The grounds for resisting these conditions becomes more and more ambiguous as bodies, spaces, and histories unsettle each other. In Beckett’s Godot, there is also the striking moment when Lucky is commanded to “think” by his master (and former slave), Pozzo, mixing rhetorical gestures, academic jargon, and non-sensical grunts into a cascade of language that captures the deeply physical sense of a person struggling to communicate through verbal and mental remnants:

The “devaluation and disintegration” of language, to use Esslin’s terms, reflect a failure to perceive the outlines of this totalizing violence and the agents who perpetuate it. But it also reflects the fact that property or individual right offer no practical reserve from these intrusions (Esslin, 296). The line between being free and being captive, being safe and being violated, are continually overturned.


We Are Proud to Present…

When thinking about examples of where, or what, absurdity might be now, and who might be invested in its relevance, absurdity seems less and less to do with a deliberate impoverishment of language (to match the impoverishment of the world). And it almost goes without saying, in the world of extensive social mediation, that public opinion and mass belief constantly produce dangerous forms of immediacy and consensus. Regardless of whether we periodize our present situation as an ongoing modernism or post-postmodernism, cultural production has and will continue to shift in the face of an economy driven by big data, global supply chains, debt service, risk management, and financialization. One is probably more likely to hear the word “precarity” than “absurdity” in contemporary art and criticism.

For these reasons, the commitments of Kierkegaard and these absurd dramatists might seem rather anachronistic. Few bemoan the loss of a sense of the “infinite” or the “absolute,” precisely because these are the kinds of scales that these socio-economic processes aspire to (yet, as the physical limits of micro-trading evidences, can never wholly approximate). Yet, if there is a value to thinking of or practicing “absurdity” now, it would lie in the possible connections between absurd belief and the ways in which these structural realities mediate and migrate through our seemingly private languages. “Absurdity” might help us talk about the nature and costs of belief in the face of the militarization of police, ongoing wars against amorphous targets, climate change, austerity economics, and enduring physical and psychological traumas that demand new ways of speaking and practicing culture.

The closing question we might ask, then, is how the character of impossible belief has changed? And what ways have the usages of language and gesture in “absurd” drama, if we can call it that, shifted to meet the “absurd” character of early 21st century life?

The example I have in mind is a fairly meta-critical play by Jackie Sibblies Drury first staged in New York at the Soho Rep in 2012 with the absurdly long title of “ We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915.” In fact, the play is billed simply as “We are Proud to Present…,” with the ellipse doing both the work of conversational or industry shorthand and notation of historical aporia. Drury notes as much in interviews about the coincidental origins of the play, which she developed as a side project to address a gap in her own knowledge of the events after a Google search for “Black people in Germany” while writing another play.

The play is ostensibly about a genocide undertaken by colonial Germans, in collaboration with another tribe, Nama, of the Herero people in Namibia during the years mentioned—1884–1915. Historically, it offers an African pre-history to World War I in Europe, the conflict ostensibly ending in the same year that W. E. B. Dubois would publish his “African Roots of War” in the Atlantic Monthly (see: Most of the Herero were killed and the remaining members of the tribe were forced into unpaid labor. But as Charles Isherwood pointed out in his review of the Soho Rep show ( in November 2012, the action of the play is not the “presentation” itself but rehearsals for the presentation. These “live” rehearsals are framed by a narrator/director armed with clunky note cards and a Powerpoint slideshow, and undertaken by actors with generic titles: “white man,” “another white man,” “black man,” “another black man,” etc. The irony is, of course, that racialization often functions on this level of abstraction, even if those abstractions operate largely unconsciously.

The stage direction, too, feels like a practical joke about the experience of learning “history” in an elementary school classroom, itself a campy departure from the austere stage conditions we might expect from, say, a Beckett or Pinter play. The “script” for their individual improvisations is somewhere between researched content—the white actors, playing “German soldiers” read from letters home, just as the black actors portray historical aspects of the two tribes—and historically exacerbated stereotypes—every actor, regardless of their personal attitude towards the genocide, slips in and out of hetero-normative, national, and racial ideologies to fill in the general absence of historical documents. Their interpretive and dramatic solutions become increasingly “absurd,” in that they become increasingly divorced from the historical reality they set out to “present.”

I take the core intelligence of the play to be in its insistence to keep with these aporias, adding on multiple levels of mediation, prejudice, and obstruction without settling off into a formuliac postmodern comedy about the endless instability of texts and production of meta-languages. The fact that the play sticks with the conceit—a “blueprint” for a play that never comes but is, at the same time, already happening—foregrounds the struggles these actors have in deciding between how they feel about genocide, colonialism, its racial afterlives and how their characters might best respond, either in fidelity to a largely non-existent historical record or the expectations of dramatic realism. Not surprisingly, the actors’ own sense of their racial position effect the way they approach dramatic techniques, making visible a range of blackness and whiteness caught somewhere between “real life” and “in character.” But there is also a professionalism that borders on liberalism, in that every actor/character, despite their disparate motivations, wants to see the play performed and consistently subordinates their frustrations to the abstract authority of “the director” and “the play.”

But no one ever gets the atrocity right. And rarely one has the same atrocity in mind as one’s fellow players. Watching “We are Proud to Present…” performed at the Shotgun Theater in Berkeley, CA in March 2015, it not only felt like an exercise in absurdity, but a reminder that “absurdity” was not only a diverse fact of productions attempting to represent the problem of historical violence but a resolutely non-generalizable phenomenon. Unlike some postwar absurdists like Ionesco, Genet, or Pinter, there is no background of universal human dignity or hope that this “Presentation” about genocide will produce a special language or psychology from which to address, in this case, the historical oblivion to colonial violence. Neither will it address head on the commensurate inability to imagine a more ethical present or future. Drury consistently plays with the notion of a historical impasse—how we incorporate the internal and external effects of racism and settler colonialism—precisely because these effects seem so unstable in time and space. This instability is heightened by the fact that these actors are being asked to not just reproduce racial examples (German soldiers, tribal warriors, “Africans”) but to use their personal sense of contemporary racial violence to interpret these types. And despite the insistence on typology, there is a persistent emphasis on how the difficulty of mediating between these roles manifests as a physical struggle, as the performers who always seem on the verge of collapse.

Perhaps the hardest note to swallow in Drury’s version if absurd theater, if we want to continue calling it that, is that the absorptive actions of the stage cannot produce some collective change or catharsis. Rather, the play seems more of an interlocutor in an ongoing problem than an expositor of some violent past. Similarly, the absurd conceits of the performance are not about putting aside racial stereotypes but about going inside of them, pursuing their attendant components of sentimental romance, caricature, even slapstick comedy. To call the play absurd, then, is not to say that it repeats the postwar fascination with gestural force, serial repetition, and discontinuous speech but rather experiments with how speaking and acting involve a deep complicity with history. We are endlessly citing crimes we can neither name or remember. But the play also shares a concern with postwar absurdists about how and why one can still believe in the efficacy of speech and actions, particularly in conditions where expression seems increasingly difficult, problematic, maybe even impossible.


Society of the Absurd

What hides under the spectacular oppositions is a unity of misery. Behind the masks of total choice, different forms of the same alienation confront each other, all of them built on real contradictions which are repressed.

—Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle #63

It was the absurdity of belief that offered, paradoxically, a consistently skeptical attitude toward static notions of public opinion or individual right, what Debord would bemoan later as “spectacular” society, precisely because these coherent illusions had nothing to do with the peculiar way that each person was called to action, survived captivity, or maintained even the clunky semblance of mobility. When Esslin wrote “Theater of the Absurd,” he framed the absurdist mode as not just a revolution in

dramatic communication but also a response, however negative and obscure, to the failures of social imagination. In ways that anticipated the present situation of heightened social mediation and economic precarity, Esslin remarked that absurdist authors turned against not only the commodification of mass communication but also the “growing specialization of life” that isolated members of a society to their own “specialized jargon” (Esslin, 299). It doesn’t take too much of a leap of faith to extend this problem to our present situation where such euphemisms as “the sharing economy” or Amazon’s cynical riff on dehumanizing labor, “Amazon’s Mechanical Turk” (, take the notion of a “specialized” labor and industrial jargon to perverse ends. One can’t make this stuff up. On Amazon’s website, Individual tasks are described as “Human Intelligence Tasks (HITs)” performed by “an on-demand, scalable work force.”

One of the most enduring “virtues of the absurd” is that it served as an internal check on the ability to take “the social” or “the individual” or even “the human” for granted. And precisely because it eschews these assumed unities, absurdity demands radical and constant particularization. Both the social whole and the lives that made it up were presented as a series of opposing parts and abandoned possibilities, as if one leg was working against the other. One thinks of the tortured gait of Beckett’s Watt as an expression of just how hard it is to move when no relation is known or assumed between past and future, a thing and its shadow, one direction over another:

Watt’s way of advancing due east, for example, was to turn his bust as far as possible towards the north and at the same time to fling out his right leg as far as possible towards the south, and then to turn his bust as far as possible towards the south and at the same time to fling out his leg as far as possible towards the north, and then again to turn his bust as far as possible towards the north and to flight out his right leg as far as possible towards the south, and then again to turn his bust as far as possible towards the south and to fling out his left leg as far as possible towards the north, and so on, over and over again, many many times, until he reached his destination, and could sit down. (Watt, 23)[3]

What Watt shows us is still a life, but a life lived through an unknown series of parts. Even in this intricate state of exhaustion, one goes on thinking and speaking anyways, with the hope that we will get something right by being or acting wrong, as in Beckett’s Molloy:

All I know is what the words know, and the dead things, and that makes a handsome little sum, with a beginning, a middle and an end as in the well-built phrase and the long sonata of the dead. And truly it little matters what I say, this or that or any other thing. Saying is inventing. Wrong, very rightly wrong. You invent nothing, you think you are inventing, you think you are escaping, and all you do is stammer out your lesson, the remnants of a pensum one day got by hear and long forgotten, life without tears, as it is wept. To hell with it anyway. (Molloy, 27)

Always under intense self-revision, Molloy sets as his aim of his actions neither invention nor escape. From the standpoint of a radically dissociated personality, one body appears like a series of parts arrayed upon a continuum that is at turns impossibly rich or vast and utterly devoid of purpose or content. Like many of Beckett’s nomadic protagonists, Molloy seems homeless in both a practical and spiritual sense, moving from one abuse to another, and yet he can’t shake the feeling that he is at home wherever his dilapidated bicycle carries him: “But Preferred to abide by my simple feeling and its voice that said, Molloy, your region is vast, you have never left it and you never shall.” (Molloy, 60). The feeling of belief persists, it places and traces him, even while he seems to lose every external guarantee that he is moving in a definite direction, that he is real, and that he is a part of some meaningful shift in history.

When compelled to describe the ludicrous, ridiculous, or nonsensical state of affairs as “absurd,” we might think too of how absurdity has and continues to be mobilized not just to make a comedy of our confusion but to show the personal and social costs of inhabiting a violent order of things—and still keeping some semblance of belief. Acting absurdly is not an evasion, a giving in to a state of resignation, as Kierkegaard reminds us, but a conscious decision to dissemble and reassemble the very tissue of social life. Like Coolidge’s long poem on Beckett, one seeks something like a “word” to stand on by taking apart the very structures in which speech happens, showing how something as simple as pointing toward a thing in the world can involve a tremendous series of contortions: “There is nothing but…”



[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, eds. C. Stephen Evans and Sylvia Walsh, trans. Sylvia Walsh (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006). For his take on the instrumentalization of ideas of “the public” for political interests, see The Present Age, trans. Alexander Dru (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1962). Perhaps his best example of his dialogic style by way of a series of textual personas, is: Either/Or, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987).

[2] Albert Bermel, for example, published an article about humor in Ionesco in 1975 called, “Ionesco: Anything But Absurd,” Twentieth Century Literature Vol. 21, No. 4 (Dec., 1975), pp. 411-420.

[3] Samuel Beckett, Watt (New York: Grove Press, 2009) and Three Novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable (New York: Grove Press, 2009). The English edition of Watt was published in 1953 and the English edition of Molloy was published in 1955

The Eigner Sanction: Keeping Time From the American Century

Whoever dwells everywhere, Maximus, dwells nowhere at all.
—Martial, VII, Ixxiii.

Early in Clint Eastwood’s 1975 film The Eiger Sanction, his character, Dr. Hemlock, an art historian, collector, and retired government assassin, is summoned to a darkened room to meet with Dragon, the albino mastermind of the secret government agency C2, who mentions that a rare Pissarro will soon go on the black market. When Hemlock fails to bite, Dragon turns on the pressure, reminding the underpaid professor that his phenomenal art collection—now 21 world-class canvases kept in a secret vault below his otherwise unassuming Alpine hut—would “make interesting material for the internal revenue people,” and walking him through an imaginary auction of his holdings in which a particularly thuggish C2 nemesis of Hemlocks’s, Mr. Pope, winds up with one of the connoisseur’s precious canvases. This cruel coming to the point is a carefully chosen payback for Hemlock who, on being explained initially that the darkened room was necessary because of Dragon’s medical condition, had cut short their conversation with a cruel rhetorical question, aimed at what he took as an embodiment of the lame and increasingly untrustworthy state, from whose Cold War imperatives Hemlock wished to disaffiliate himself: “Does your physical disability preclude you from coming to the point?”

Two years earlier Leonard Henry and Jan Boon produced “Getting it Together: A Film on Larry Eigner, Poet.” Because Eigner’s speech was affected by his cerebral palsy, the filmmakers decided to have Allen Ginsberg do most of the reading, in some cases followed by Eigner. After one poem and a brief scene setting on Eigner by the narrator, Ginsberg offers his own framing of Eigner’s work:

“Ah, obviously the form of the verse is dictated by his physical condition of slow hesitancy and difficulty in maintaining his hand steady to write words. And as the words come swiftly through his mind he has to stop his whole thought process to write down a word while thoughts are going on still.”

Two temporalities, then, in Ginsberg’s reading—a fast time of thought, and a slow time of difficult key pressing. Eigner’s particular aesthetic, his version of an open field poetics, is produced by the irreconcilable conflict between them. He cannot come fully to the point because the physical labor of registering a single word is so great, and the time of his thinking necessarily so much faster, that his forlorn lexemes, out in their vast expanses of white pages, will always remain but romantic ruins of the richer internal thought processes out of which they emerge. When the transcript of this film was later published, Eigner added a note to Ginsberg’s statement, hinged on the word “obviously.” “Obvious,” it reads, “but not too good a guess” (ibid.).

On September 22, 1965 Eigner, then living in his parents’ house in Swampscott, Massachusetts, started one of his over 1700 poems, beginning with the line “those planes were loud.” First published in the 1980 chapbook Flat and Round, by Lyn Hejinian’s Tuumba Press, Eigner’s poem would thus travel both 3000 miles across the country to Berkeley and 15 years into the future—from the beginning of escalation in Vietnam to Reagan’s first year in office—before its odd, recalcitrant temporality would claim readers’ attention. References to the sonic dimension of air travel were a common feature of Eigner’s poems. He lived less than ten miles away from Logan airport in Boston and undoubtedly heard planes low in the sky on final approach and takeoff. We think of Eigner, perhaps, as the most minutely focused of the New American poets—the most attuned to his immediate environment, an environment that consistently includes the language of its description, doubling back and complicating easy picturing. Both these features of his poetics—insistence on the contingent surroundings and their reflexive unfolding in language—suggest that the larger, exterior world of airports and transcontinental flight might seem alien to the second-to-second unfolding of perceptual effects among the trees in Swampscott. But there is also an outside to Eigner’s poetry, and it can help give us a richer sense of why its inside was, and remains, so singular.

If not quite at the pitch of the Cuban Missile of 1962, the Cold War was in 1965 nonetheless beginning again to simmer. Air and space were the domain, even the medium, in which this agitation registered most clearly. On March 18, the first person to walk in space had been a Soviet cosmonaut. A month earlier, U.S. bombers from aircraft carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin began operation Flaming Dart in Vietnam; a week later President Johnson authorized operation Rolling Thunder, an even larger scale bombing mission; then in April the U.S. began dropping napalm throughout Vietnam, where the Johnson administration now—that July—sent 50,000 additional troops, increasing the total to 125,000. In October, the U.S. would test a hydrogen bomb in the Aleutian Islands equal to 80,000 tons of dynamite. And, closer to home, on July 11, a U.S. surveillance aircraft crashed off Nantucket, killing 16 of the 19 crew aboard.

Developed in 1963, this plane, the EC121H Warning Star, was charged with monitoring the eastern seaboard; a sequence of the aircraft flew continuous missions over the Atlantic coast 24 hours a day for a decade. Producing photographic documents that would be beamed across the United States and interpreted by specialists at the North American Air Defense Combat Operations Center in Colorado Springs, the Warning Star sought out singularities in its assigned neighborhood, tracing in particular Russian aircraft and naval vessels cruising off the east coast of the U.S. While other jets of this same make provided surveillance for atomic testing in the Pacific, and for the war in Vietnam, this squad remained in a kind of permanent holding pattern whose center was less than 20 miles from Eigner at another local airport, Hanscom Field in Bedford, Massachusetts.2

“The plane sounds protective,” Eigner writes in a May 1960 poem. That October, an Eastern Air Lines flight landing at Logan airport crashed into the sea, killing 62 of the 72 passengers aboard. Eigner writes directly of the accident: “planes again hove by / the corridors light above / sirens, after the crash / this wall off toward the bay.”3 If Eigner’s house in Swampscott was nominally protected by the Warning Star, it was also, however, an around-the-clock center for a very different kind of information gathering. Connected by radio to the outside world, even introduced by radio to the field of poetry, news for Eigner both comes through the air and is often of the air: rockets and jets are launching satellites, dropping bombs, testing nuclear weapons, spewing exfoliates, and crashing into the sea close by. And yet “news” in Eigner’s poetry would seem to be a direct rejection of these kinds of drama, even when highlights of this drama occur within earshot. Rather, Eigner FM tended to register events that could not be noticed, let alone broadcast, by major stations, central among these what he calls “tides of the air” (419) or elsewhere “the inrolled / maps in the sky” (425). Eigner’s attention gravitates toward the air in part because it is an undomesticated, fluctuating space that will not permanently retain man’s physical or linguistic imprint: “no axiom exists / in the air” (428).4

But if air is the constantly mutating and refreshing medium of freedom, it is also the permeable membrane through which his research radio station gets linked to, even harnessed by, the rest of the world, which is why manned flight becomes such a crucial seam within Eigner’s poetics of air. Many of Eigner’s poems from the late 1950s and 60s explicitly reflect on space travel and the possibility of airborne nuclear destruction. But this engagement is typically understated, superimposed as one among several interpretive registers: “That the neighborhood might be covered / by one roof, occurred / this morning,” Eigner writes in a 1959 poem, morphing this image of a dome into a mushroom cloud with the lines, “And death when you don’t want it what you like / is a plain object // the long-trunked clouds / a weltered event” (305). Again, most long-trunked clouds and weltered events in Eigner’s poetry are less about singular tragic occurrences—like nuclear strikes—than about the ongoing perceptual possibilities of clouds transforming in time. But the fact that there is quiet commerce—or perhaps we should call it air loss—between the durational neighborhood diorama in which Eigner labors and the outer world of nuclear strikes and airline crashes helps us understand the degree to which the former is not so much a repression of the latter as it is a patient and radical re-modeling of it with the materials at hand. Or, to put it sonically rather than physically, the slow process poetics of air always available on Eigner FM was a dramaless, eventless broadcast that achieved its traction dialectically as a aural oozing below the frequency of administered news—even public radio.

Like Henry Darger taking daily meteorological data and comparing it to the weatherman’s predictions, or Georges Perec making the micro-occurrences of a single Parisian apartment building the whole story of a gargantuan novel, Eigner’s attention to his occasionally domed domain should also be understood as an intentional and carefully framed project. As Eigner himself put it: “In order to relax at all I had to keep my attention partly away from myself, had to seek a home, coziness in the world.”5 And yet this physiological constraint does not dictate the kind of attention Eigner will lavish on the surrounding world. And this is why he objects to a reading like Ginsberg’s that sees Eigner’s singular open field poetics as a direct mechanical consequence of his cerebral palsy. The type of exterior home Eigner will construct is not a given; nor is his patience, either in Swampscott or in Berkeley. The poem with which I began helps to draw all this out.

+++those planes were loud

+++++++the degree+++with my head down
++++++++half-way to my lap

+++++++what bird’s call
++++++++sounding close
+++++++I haven’t
++++++++learned+++a flute

+++++++++to match silence
+++++++and the sea’s sound

+++there’s nothing like music
+++++in the street

+++++++out the opposite window
+++++++++along through trees

+++++a piano hoisted up-
++++++level storey

+++fire sire
+++++the hot night
+++++++++still to draw

+++the passing earth
+++whirls out (671)

Here the external world of planes is a prompt—an alarm clock even—that as ambient sound often does for poets (think of Wordsworth) begins the focusing process: first, on a rare image of the speaker’s body, and then on a series of less dramatic, less loud, sonic occurrences that organize the neighborhood. The failed identification of a birdcall here is also a rejected identification with birds, say famously melodic nightingales, as idealized figures for poetics. Similarly, the role of the as yet unlearned flute would only be “to match silence / and the sea’s sound.” Another celebrated melody maker, producer of expressive musical figures, must for Eigner compete against the equally fascinating ground of silence (more Cagean than absolute) and sea murmur. Here as elsewhere in Eigner the received hierarchy of event over condition is first challenged and then exploded—as conditions themselves become micro-events. When Eigner writes that “there is nothing like music / in the street” he means not that literal music beyond his driveway would be the asymptote of excellence but that the actual sounds of the street—on which he’s just reflected—would be poorly described by analogies to music. And so flutes and bird songs are poor figures for the poet’s self-assigned role as reflexive transcriber of local audio effects. As he continues, the piano is similarly of interest not for the music that might come out of it, but for the sound its hoisting makes. In the distance fire fathers (or sires) a siren, and crickets fill the subsequent gap, as the poet both draws and draws from the earth, before drawing his poem to a temporary close, which the next poem of his street will quickly open again.

Eigner was not unknown at the time this poem was composed. And yet, his most sustained reception would occur at least a decade later, in the 1970s and 80s, when he was taken up by poets associated with Language writing. Barrett Watten published him in early issues of This, brought out a book of Eigner’s prose in 1978 (the long, elegant sentences of which casually explode Ginsgberg’s claim), and then wrote on Eigner in Total Syntax. Hejinian, as I mentioned, published her Tuumba press Eigner chapbook in 1980 and Ron Silliman dedicated his 1986 anthology of Language writing, In the American Tree, to Eigner. So there was both significant interest, and significant lag time: the odd temporalities of Swampscott in 1965 getting re-released, rebroadcast, in the atmosphere of Berkeley in the 1980s.

But it was not primarily time that caught the attention of the Language writers. Rather, Eigner was recuperated mostly for his rejection of a speech-based poetics. Following the blast of Robert Grenier’s “I HATE SPEECH,” the first line of Silliman’s introduction to In the American Tree, the rest of this essay proposed a re-reading of one wing of the New American poetry, now claimed as the radical wing, in which Creeley and Eigner became “two early ‘projectivists’ whose writing transcended the problematic constraints of that tendency.”6 But did the negation of speech in fact require 1777 poems over the course of roughly 50 years? Either it was a very eloquent and protracted renunciation, or speech kept breaking out, like small fires or insect infestations, on Eigner’s street, thereby requiring his continual attention, his patient acts of sequential shushing. Understood solely as the sanctioner of speech, then, Eigner’s poetics becomes that of the cranky octogenarian neighbor who has always just been woken up. And yet we see, even when he is actually woken up, as in the poem we just read, his poetry performs a range of far more specific sonic, temporal, and conceptual operations than can be conveyed by the raised finger to lips commemorative statue fashioned for him by Silliiman in his Language writing wax museum of literary history.

I’ve suggested some of these already; but by way of conclusion I’ll readdress this problem at larger scale by sketching, very roughly, another way of understanding Eigner historically, one in which his insistence on conditions rather than events might better register as the event it has already become in literary history. Eigner occupies an extreme position within New American poetry not just because he undermined a poetics of speech, but because, unlike Olson, the field of his field poetics was comparatively purged of diachronic references, of collage historicism, and was, instead, identified with an unfolding empirical situation—his Swampscott porch and the street scene beyond it over three decades—that he nonetheless refused to “capture” in pat vignettes. The project of his projectivism was at once to insist upon and destabilize this literal field, by testing relations between its fleeting effects—sonic, visual—and the field of the printed page, where Eigner’s lexemes invariably uncouple themselves from any simple, instrumental roll and begin to take on reflexive relationships only possible on this second field. But it is the dose of empiricism within this otherwise reflexive textuality, the continued, iterative framing in relation to the porch and its surround, that turns Eigner’s writing into such a conceptually unified and in fact singular project: an experimental research station, observation outpost, durational diorama.

What emerged from this diorama was, however, more than a subtly reflexive discourse on the depiction of space. Eigner’s attention to minor time, to “another / time / in fragments” (357)—to non-monumental unfolding, to a micro-temporality diametrically opposed to the would-be major events of Cold War time was in some ways the clearest and most compelling version of a larger project shared by most of the New American poets, in their various ways, through the poetics of daily life: O’Hara, Creeley, Olson, Whalen, Kyger, Baraka, Spicer, Mayer and, in fact, Silliman, among others. Silliman would put his and the larger project of Language writing negatively as the critiques of representation and speech rather than as the positive experimentation with the poetics of daily life because he saw the New American version of this later project as entailing a commitment to representation. But if daily life becomes not merely a spatial picture but a contestatory time, a time below the radar of history with a capital H, then we can begin to recognize a vast project of the New American poets that put them all, in different ways, in dialog with official modes of time keeping, and measuring more generally. More, and this is the rub for Silliman’s reading, we see a continuity rather than a break between New American poetry and Language writing. Both seek another time in fragments—a slowing down. If Language writing proposed a higher degree of reflexivity, still the implied liberation to be wrested from disjunction was not merely an anatomized space of representation, or the suddenly activated co-producer of meaning. No, disjunction was also a temporal project that sought authenticity in a micro-temporality of unfolding linguistic complexity that could be positioned against the rush of administered time.

We can see this now because for the last 25 years or so, since perhaps the late 1980s or early 1990s, since the end of the Cold War, let’s call it, experimental poetry has not been able to position the temporalities of daily life or disjunction as effective antidotes to administered time. While we can acknowledge that avant-garde devices of defamiliarization have half-lives, and thus cannot work their offices indefinitely, this process of exhaustion has been affected more radically from the outside—by the fact that time is now administered very differently from how it was from the 1950s to the 1980s. With the effective obliteration of the opposition between work and leisure, in short, the dialectical temporal frame that guided New American poetry and, yes, Language writing looses its traction. As bleak as this sounds, poetry’s just fine. I can’t tell you now how it’s survived and even prospered, which is another story; only that, with the temporalities of these now classic modes of daily life and disjunction now become the geologic recent past, it’s had to go in search of other times.

So Much Depends

What’s left unsaid and undone could be a future too. — Les Wade

Last fall, Christian Hawkey invited a number of writers worldwide to participate in an experiment based on Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (trans. Marc Lowenthal, Wakefield Press, 2010, original French publication 1975). Over three days in October 1974, Perec sat in Place Saint-Sulpice, recording “everything” he saw, in an attempt to capture what he called the “infraordinary” — “what happens when nothing happens.” So, over the same three days in October of last year, less than a week before the one-year anniversary of Occupy Oakland, I made four visits to Oscar Grant Plaza, the location of the Occupy Oakland camps, General Assemblies, and many related actions. I was most interested in how one might even begin to describe/document a place (much less “exhaust” it) so laden with history and memory, not just any history, but a very raw and loaded history of violent contestations over the very public space I was now attempting to observe/record, histories increasingly under erasure as the city worked hard to remove any visible traces of Occupy’s presence in the plaza and downtown environs. Needless to say, the challenge to keep my writing aimed towards the “merely” descriptive/objective would be impossible, just as it would be difficult to document the “what’s-no-longer-there” that is still very much present and palpable in the landscape for those of us who experienced so much time, energy, and collective action at Oscar Grant Plaza.

Six months later, I typed up my notes, cut them into groups of 1-2 sentences, & then went back to Oscar Grant Plaza to “(de)compose” this report. During the middle of a “normal” downtown Oakland workday, I used my strap-on lecturn to perform a mobile site-specific “reading” of the fragments, sprinkling them on the lawn in order to re-order them, to disrupt the chronological, to further shuffle the observational notes already cut-through with all that has happened at OGP (& all it continues to represent) & yet is no longer visible to the kind of infraordinary optics Perec’s project attunes us toward. This is not to suggest that the banalities of everyday life & public space are somehow “less so” than the more extraordinary events of Occupy Oakland & its related offshoots & actions, but rather that the absence of the extraordinary — the events deemed worthy of writing about — still infuses the ‘merely’ ordinary with a kind of tangible vibration beyond what the simple practice of focused (“writerly”) attention already adds to the sensorium. In other words, there’s no longer any presence of Occupy to observe/write about at OGP, & yet I can’t not at all times write/think about Occupy at OGP.

Thus perhaps between every line — in the parataxic scissors cut between each sentence — breathes all that remains unsaid, unwritten, erased, yet still alive & potent, & in the same way, perhaps within the infraordinary of as-yet uncontested/unliberated spaces we might begin to see the potential for extraordinary possibilities.

Oakland : June 2013
[transcript of video text]

People continuing to enter Rotunda. Some big event. Somebody yelling across street in front of Rite Aid, seemingly to no one in particular. Two bikes locked up next to BART stairs. But – what kind of task – meaningless? vs. tasks with use value (cleaning dishes, serving food at the BBQs…). On screen is PDF of Perec’s “Approaches to What?” Said “Controlled burns & formally [formerly?] prohibited plant matter” then repeated it louder. One other person sitting on amphitheater steps, looks like B—, there was sound of loud voice speaking, first I thought he was on the phone, then someone further away, then kept looking around, now realize it’s him, talking to himself. Said “Controlled burns & formally [formerly] prohibited plant matter” then repeated it louder. Walk around perimeter of plaza to front steps. More trash than last night. Security car still parked on ‘stage’ but no one in it. What’s needed perhaps is finally to found our own anthropology, one that will speak about us, will look in ourselves for what so long we’ve pillaged from others… Sit on plaza steps, two people come up from BART and get on their bikes, one looks like X— from OO/FTP, he seems to recognize me too, but it’s dark, I say hey, he seems to say hey back or the other way around. Otherwise all quiet in plaza. If I turn 150 degrees to my right I can see the Frank Ogawa bust. Getting up to move locations. 8:30 pm.

Pass another guy in dark recess in front of whatever that building is, going through his things. Over to my right a few signs — tho again I know to look for them since I know they’re there, & curious why none over near where I sit. Another couple approaching, he’s white with shorts, in those awful feet-bootie shoes or whatever, in his hands a pair of what look to be climbing shoes. Black guy with black hoodie pulled tight over his head (to stay warm, it looks like) passes, asks me for a cigarette, then as he turns to walk away says, it’s not safe to have that thing out here (meaning my laptop I assume), then later, you could be the police. ‘Nothing’ going on. “Controlled burns & formally [formerly?] prohibited plant matter.” Black man walking slowly by, large green pack, 4 full plastic bags, backwards cap, sets all his shit down on bench. Guy still talking to himself, smoking cig, turns to look at me, wondering if he’s paranoid about me writing & watching. Almost stepped on dead rat, which I didn’t see til I had to turn around to pull PJ, who’d stopped to sniff it, thus pulling on her leash. Now walking behind me, towards BART. She has red hair & a shoulder bag. It’s like the crosswalk beeping never stops — since one way is always green, perhaps. Security cop texting across lawn. But where is our life? Where is our body? Where is our space? (Not what but where). (Crosswalk light beeps go). Speakers over by ‘the plaza steps’ (of all the steps those are the steps) — Now out of view so I can’t describe. Noticeable difference b/t who walks thru plaza & who hangs out here. The latter seemingly w/ nowhere else to go. I have a subjective experience. Is that the endotic? Feeling this (writing) is boring — & not ‘good boring’ — & not ‘boring enough’ to become something else — What we need to question in bricks, concrete, glass… Describe your street. Describe another street. Compare. Getting colder. 8:58 pm. Late for the reading.

Crosswalk signal beeps green. Passing woman kicks bottle cap & it registers as sound, 20+ yards away. There’s a party horn in the distance, some kids at the bus stop talking shit, bicyclist goes past. BART is closed. Writing on laptop. Rat runs across lawn to oak tree. Security cop’s car was running. Why. So much depends / on the gray / metal fence / alongside the plaza. To my left sitting on lawn steps, black man w/ plaid flannel shirt, blue cap, with black woman, her sliver bag on ground. I take them to be a couple. The oak tree is lit up from beneath. Get to that later. I ask if he wants me to let them run on lawn so he can chase them, earn his $, he sez “I’m at work, not looking for work.” Sitting on bench alongside OGP lawn / facing south / slight breeze, overcast, colder “than usual” (?), wearing two layers & AK hoodie, jeans & boots. Rat scurries beneath my feet. Emji sits down next to me. 12:55 am.

Want to write that she’s ‘non-descript’ but only cuz they’re now out of view so I can’t describe. &/or maybe ‘non-descript’ means just that – once out of view, hard to recall anything to describe — nothing ‘stands out.’ But the endotic… Partly cloudy. Cold breeze rustling leaves on ground. Maple, I think — lightly brown, gives a little taste of autumn tho not much with the min-palms & oaks. Green tea resting on large concrete planter box to my right, strong smell of piss. ‘T-money’ on bench in black markers. Lots (?) of flies nearby, makes me look for garbage/attractions. This time around, red converse hi-tops, black tights rolled up calves (gray under), red shirt, black leather bag w chain or rhinestones, looks to be either side of 18 (?), walks by me a 3rd time & around corner. (But the humanist focus here? why ANTHROpology?). One approaching me, goes under bench. More arriving — most on lawn — some pecking — sod food? grass seed? They all leave in a flurry but one, who lingers then splits after the rest. Dogs stand up, are curious. Someone walking across plaza with slight limp, walking very fast then slows down. Rat runs out from under tree. Can’t tell if flowers still there. No one has features. Sorry this is so uninteresting. 2:48 pm. Unclear what event might be. Flip side of card is ad for “fashion forward show for the community” Oct 28 @ Oak Metro Opera House $40 turn the card back again to see an OO insignia in corner, above the FB & twitter logos. How phone makes for blinders (obvs). There’s an orange cone on its side 15 yds to my left. Writing with pencil that says THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS. No idea where they are parking cars downtown Sat night. Various lights no in surrounding buildings, but most if not all appear empty of people. Clear sky, cold but not freezing. Don’t recall how crowded any of these places got pre-OO around weekday lunch times, but always shut down on weekends. Have seen 3–4 private security cops. Presume they are protecting lawn & not policing behavior/’lifestyle crimes’. Tho I knew this already so perhaps am ‘seeing’ it now as such only for knowing — & knowing that it’s off limits currently — & that the fence only recently came down — Sprinkler on in 3 corners of lawn, of course brings to mind Lake Quan. Across lawn, next to the oak tree, flowers — shrine? — basket, some sort of vase, one plastic cup w flowers, spilled onto side, maybe a candle? Can see lights on inside 6 different CH windows but no evidence of anyone inside. Wondering if Radio is bugged upstairs. At what point do paranoia jokes become possible? White woman with nametag on black jacket walks by behind me. Small prop plane flies overhead. Man goes downstairs into BART station. They’ve each finished the small rawhides I gave them, it’s 5:15 & there are 10 windows open in City Hall, 25% of total, & the crosswalk is beeping go. Immediately fighting off the objective, as well as memory. White pickup goes by, reminding me that R— called earlier, ½ moon up in SE, vertical sign that reads (vertically) “Oakland City Center” — I’ve pissed there during GA, on building next to it a For Lease sign. I thought he was on the phone, then someone further away, then kept looking around, now realize it’s him. Dogs’ ears are up & rotate to follow sounds in multiple directions. I’ve not exhausted this place. 5:30, took 5 min. break on phone.

Tweet from M— about GA/OOFC but not clear what went down. There are 3 ‘floorlights’ shining up onto the bust of Frank Ogawa. Weird effects. 2 boys on bikes. No one has features. Cloud cover thinning so a bit sunlight, find myself squinting — & thus scowling? — w/o sunglasses, which I didn’t pack. Maybe ‘non-descript’ means just that – once out of view, hard to recall anything to describe — nothing ‘stands out.’ Passed woman w pink bike, Polynesian I believe, one shoe off, black sock, pink h2o bottle that looks like a child’s. 4 different sprinklers now on. Too cold to #makenothinghappen. At least not solo, not now. The amphitheater really does amplify sound, even tho it doesn’t look like it would. He’s got black hair, pants, bubble jacket, backpack, glasses, “it’s like watching the grass grow” he sez (to himself?) — (!) Dogs tied to handrail. Woman w pink bike sitting across corner of lawn, 2 women walk by, blues sneakers maroon pants, both w h2o bottles, green shoulder bag, jeans, red back pack, too far gone, that’s it, that’s — them? Mail truck drives by. Buster yawns. They both turn heads when someone drops something. Now 3 guys at gazebo. ‘Hanging out’ & shooting shit outside door. 5:05. Going to stand & move.

The couple continues on, chatting, she’s shorter than him, red shirt, her hair’s up, he’s got a h2o bottle, she says “no” but I can’t make out the rest, someone whistling in the distance, yelling, from where I sit I count 62 lights on in the plaza, plus 4 beneath oak & one turned off/not functioning. I’ve not yet exhausted this place. Kid walking by talking on phone. “Cartoons can take you places.” Man sleeping in same spot as last night, wrapped in blanket, lying flat on back on pavement next to lawn. “Sketchy” is not an objective description. Difference between bodies in public spaces in day and at night. Walk around CH to piss, through sliver of space between City Hall and Clay St parking garage can see sliver of moon. Flowers are still there. Writing as an aid to presence? Seeing? But then — toss the writing if/since it’s just a tool? Walked to amphitheater. Maybe he’s actually white or mixed, salt-n-pepper beard, my phone vibrates in my jacket pocket. PJ’s sniffing the air. 4:55. 2:44. Feel like I’m just getting started but ‘need to’ (‘should’) split.

Next to me on bench is colorful card for “The Sophisticated Hyphy Show.” & look at that — hosted by Shake Anderson. Asian guy returns, turns out he’s the security guy, gets in his car. Then comes over & asks to pet the dogs. Suddenly pigeons, at least 30. One approaching me, goes under bench. Bright Red shirt on kid — not a kid — man in 40s? — w blue backpack & weird mismatching tie, shirt untucked, long arms, brief eye contact — he half-signs? — is this parataxis? It’s now 1:56. “Get Up, Stand Up” on radio now — does not pass my attention that we’re at OGP listening to this — (who’s ‘we’ Are ‘we’ all ‘listening’ — in the same way?). Man sleeping in sleeping bag on pavement 2 feet from lawn. 2 of the security cops just stand, the other walks around, more social. He has white earphone in one ear. Walkie talkie strapped to belt on side hip. And how to describe what’s not here. It’s 2:18. Dude stops & I turn to watch dog roll on its back, as if scratching on the ‘ground’ — cement? plaza-street? — wrong order — I turn to look, man stops — either way, no causality — Security cops have black caps that read SECURITY in big white letters. Yet resistant to categorize. Sound of bus stopping, that burst of expressed air — brakes? Brief eye contact — he half-signs? — is this parataxis?

Wrong order — I turn to look, man stops — either way, no causality. Had been putting off describing woman sitting nearest me — at 90 degree angle, in red, occasionally talking on earpiece (?) phone – mic — ‘handless mic’ (?) but now she’s gone. Black woman w black jacket, gloves, & wool cap jogs up CH steps & goes inside. It’s not just the tents & camp that are gone, but the smell. My fingers hurt from so much writing. Just realized I am sitting about 10 yards from where I was arrested, almost exactly one year ago. For everything I write — SO WHAT? Why does it matter? Security cops have black caps that read SECURITY in big white letters. Large woman on large bike, smiling. Old Asian woman ‘shuffling’ — red rain jacket, with hood pulled tight around face. Breeze picks up, smell of piss stronger. Watching myself (‘watching’?) as I ‘decide’ who is & isn’t likely homeless among folks here — ‘Nothing’ going on. Woman walks by behind me. Single small bike locked up. Woman asks two other passersby for a light. They have one. Now — ‘back to normal’ — ? No pigeons, no tents. And what counts as ‘objective’ description — or, since I obvs don’t believe in ‘objectivity’ — something approximating ‘mere’ description. Sound of crosswalk signal — ok to cross. Using gender for short hand — why not just person — since for sake of ‘record’ doesn’t matter. Want to put pen down & ‘just’ observe, though then I’d likely daydream or check out. Man walks by reading his cellphone. Security guard talking to 2 other guys outside door. Oh, Running Wolf does have his sage stick burning. Want to write ‘hate that shit.’ Am wearing the same thing I wore this afternoon, tho I did bring another layer if it gets colder. Observation & documentation requires some degree of focus & presence but it’s not like I feel more alive. Dude bikes by CH. Have to text myself or I’ll forget —

What is presence. City Hall — no sign of people. I have a flask of bourbon in my backpack. Just noticed there are 5 flags on CH, not 3. So ‘little activity’ today — compared to what? Not sure if I’m ‘present’ but focus on description — even if ‘soft focus’ — does keep my mind off other shit — the shit week, stress of to-do, fatigue, depression — even now, just making a list doesn’t necessarily trigger them — fire truck sirens approaching. Parked in garage & walked down concrete stairs where I’ve pissed during GAs & nearby #OO actions. Couple is back, woman with red shirt now has h2o bottle, she sez “dude I get you” & “I feel so good right now.” They walk across the lawn, both in short sleeves. Noise amplified by reflection of City Hall, ‘amphitheater’ — sounds reverberated somehow. Dude w red bandana, masked up. Why. Observing myself being observed. Not the same as ‘self-consciousness’ — I’m object, just information, data. As if Perec’s model is the model to work from. “After” P — Am I ‘noticing’ anything? Noting? or just ‘jotting notes’. Why write self-reflection now — it’s happening, always, but not ‘part of the project’. There’s not really shadows here. 2:36. Something approximating ‘mere’ description. Cop car on 14th in front of Walgreens — sticks out as til now been ‘ignoring’ traffic. Get to that later. 2 boys, one woman. young. Leader does the talking. Woman trails behind, seems more aware of immediate surroundings. I’m not stoned, so I’m seeing/sensing this way & not that. Doubtful that these descriptions would give any reliable ‘picture’/map. Clock tower bell tolls 12:45. Emji’s standing & taking notes. There’s not really shadows here. But it’s not like I feel more alive. If you’ve not been to OGP, doubtful that these descriptions wd give any reliable ‘picture’/map. But it’s not like I feel more alive. 3 flags on City Hall — US flag, gold/green OAKLAND flag w/ oak tree and 1838 (?) & what looks like CA state flag — not enough wind. So much I’m leaving out — but not conscious of why choosing what — other than cops, bright clothes, loud sounds, pigeons fly by again, movement. Walking back to truck, pass alley where two women in full-length saris are smoking, what appears to be a pipe or joint, but can’t tell. Someone walks in front of City Hall. Man sleeping in same spot as last night, wrapped in blanket, lying flat on back on pavement next to lawn. No pigeons. No tents. 12:25.

Need to think about why avoiding people. So much minor activity / So much to describe / yet why choose what — in what order? Security cop texting across lawn. What is presence. Am I ‘noticing’ anything? Or just ‘jotting notes’. Looks like maybe some chalkupy — going to walk by before I split. Meanwhile crazy guy split — didn’t notice. Warming up (the weather, not me). Bus on 14th heading E, stops in front of Walgreens. Today — compared to what? Something about this weather, location, guy sleeping near me, the lawn. Immediately fighting off the objective, as well as memory. Guy bikes by behind me, trailing what looks to be a ladder about 12-15’ long, resting length-wise on an apparatus w/ wheels, a large ‘ski bag,’ odd silver/metal ‘fans’ hanging off ladder in back. Polly Jean & Buster here w/ me, leashes tied to bench, we’re facing west, sitting on plaza to north of lawn, near steps where we gathered pre-2nd raid and NYE pre/post Bring the Noise/FTP. They all leave in a flurry but one, who lingers then splits after the rest. Now — ‘back to normal’ — ? Private security guy alone in car parked on amphitheater ‘stage’. Have to remember to soften my gaze. Yet resistant to categorize in writing/describing — it’s shorthand — Reflection of passing car lights on glass doors to City Hall make them appear as if opening. Pigeons back. Dog barks behind me. And how to describe what’s not here. Going to stand & move.

Overcast, w dark orange glow. Getting colder. Black guy walking by, rat runs out in front of him, guy stomps foot and laughs “did you see that?” Grass is spotty — mostly green & trimmed/cut, but some lighter almost-yellow. Otherwise all quiet in plaza. Across 14th woman in a high-waisted long skirt, looks by the way she’s walking that she’s in uncomfortable heels. 12:39 — time goes by ‘quickly’ — compared to — ? Cliché but plaza does feel stagey. The security guards look bored. 2:04. Taking break to trade texts w/ J— about X.

I don’t recall rats at the camp but there must have been? Need to think how/why Perec’s ‘isn’t’/ ‘What he leaves out makes the music’. “14th & Bway” will always signify to me in very specific ways. Is that the endotic? My phone sez Berkeley considering ban on homelessness. Double long bus drives down 14 towards Bway, stops in front of Walgreens, another behind it. Still ‘putting off’ describing people. Observing myself being observed. Not the same as ‘self-consciousness’ — I’m object, just information, data. Banner hangs over front door: Oakland Fire Dept / Salutes / Fire Prevention Week. Sorry this is so uninteresting. Brief eye contact — he half-signs? — is this parataxis? OGP only exists as a potent site after the event. The rats are always larger than I think they … ‘should be’ — ? As if life reveals itself only by way of the spectacular… W/o the camp some of the cats ‘back to’ crazy hippies. Sod is fairly new — tho I knew this already so perhaps am ‘seeing’ it now as such only for knowing — & knowing that it’s off limits currently — & that the fence only recently came down — & that it might go up again pre-#O25 — nobody knows tho that’s the word —Hella pigeons, all clustered — maybe guy sitting there just threw them something? Plane overhead. Lone Asian woman now walking other way — ‘back’? — across plaza, white plastic bag swinging from left hand. 2 guys open door to green gazebo. Somebody coughs — a ‘hacking cough.’ Continually comparing this writing to similar models/styles. 8 Asian women walk by, in clusters of 2’s & 4’s — just off work? It’s 4:48. Holding Perec booklet between left forefinger & middle finger, left thumb holding notebook open. Noticed her — or decided of all the people to ‘write about’ (v ‘describe’?) her 1st cuz she strode on grass. Thought for a sec I saw Melvyn. Wanted to go talk w/ him, get a temp check. Black woman w shorts & holding plastic bag talking w/ security cop. Pigeon wings flapping — they’re gone. There’s Running Wolf. No sign of sage. Again, feels like this is uninteresting but it’s something to focus on. Tasks. The sound of my backpack zipper reminds me of camping — opening the tent ‘door’ — very slight breeze — more like the moderate chill in the air is just letting itself be known as such — as the night air around me. Have to text myself or I’ll forget — dogs seem bored — &/or I’m projecting. Kids gone from amphitheater. 2 men exit City H while I’m describing sign & flags but in both cases I miss seeing them ‘actually’ exit. How to describe what’s not here — not just the camp, but ‘everything’ that could be but isn’t. Sadness. Or: saudadé. Still curious why OPD never staged raids from down there. Lots of folks ‘lingering’ — hanging out? On or around ‘main steps’. Person of indeterminate gender walks by, swinging arms. So much minor activity / So much to describe / yet why choose what — in what order? Sound of bird or rat nearby.

Loud car engine draws my attention — then another — it’s a truck on Bway, now a large US Food semi going south on Bway. Asian man sweeping leaves out from of (closed) Rotisserie Deli. Red light flashing slowly on top of building one block or so ‘over’ (14th & Clay?). Taking break to trade texts w/ J— about XX. Unclear what event might be. Trying to figure out how to describe the music now — I think it was the trumpets that drew my attention to it. Then he splits to go on his rounds. Why write self-reflection now — it’s happening, always, but not ‘part of the project’. Now — ‘back to normal’ — ?


(Outside, glorious illusion)

A Collaborative Experiment in Discomfortable Writing


Original lines:

Virginia Lucas: Afuera la ilusión gloriosa cometa reventando el viento / diciendo en sacudidas; afuera la libertad

Rachel Levitsky: At the boundary / where they meet. // Rooms lost and stolen / dirty under the desk.

Improvised interpreted poem:

glorious illusion
a comet exploding
in the wind
shaken things—
out with liberty!
—lost things
under the desk.
Today I want
to feel. Today
I want to kill.
Outside. Outside
the prisoners
against the wall.
The repeated wall.
The wall
of repeated
action. The wall.
I want to get rid
of education.
I want to get rid
of bad manners.
a wall. Today
I would like for us
to share
that thing
that is
to flee.

This improvised discomfortable text-generating experiment is based on a repeating, spiraling practice of collaborative interpretation and addition, for which we invented a few key constraints to guide us. We began with one text fragment in Spanish, chosen by one of us without the other’s knowledge: in this instance, by Uruguayan poet and queer studies innovator, Virginia Lucas. This text was immediately interpreted into English by the listener, who then added one text fragment in English—in this instance, by New York poet and recuperative strategist, Rachel Levitsky. After the reading and initial interpretation of each of our “found” texts, every time one of us “interpreted,” we added a line or two of our own devising, for a total of five sets of improvised “interpretations.” Our rules were that we had to take new notes on a new sheet of paper or cover our old notes every time we were interpreting (to avoid simply transferring notes and/or memorizing text blocks) and that we could return to the same original text by Lucas or Levitsky if we wanted to include more lines of theirs rather than improvised lines of our own.

While this experiment is grounded in interpretation techniques, it differs significantly from professional interpreting and in fact violates many of the central guidelines of the practice. In our professional lives, we would never perform live interpretations of poetry—it’s just impossible. Rather, if a speaker is going to read a poem as part of their presentation, we request that they provide a translation of that material to us in advance. Additionally, in almost all instances of interpretation, we’d be aware of the context of the speaker’s comments, which would usually follow a basic logic and create a fairly legible linear narrative; context and logic are turned upside down when we oblige ourselves to interpret improvised lines that may or may not have some relationship (often neither logical nor linear) to the preceding lines. Finally, in our practice as interpreters, we would never, ever embellish or improvise based on what we are interpreting—quite the contrary, we would do our very best to transmit the message as directly as possible, and as closely to what we heard as possible, with no omissions and no additions.

We broke key rules of interpreting. We invented new constraints for the experiment. The process was eminently discomfortable. And the result: a discomfortable text.

We are the ones in question

An experiment in CALLING TO SITE by Lyn Hejinian and Christopher Patrick Miller

A Note on Procedure: What follows is an experiment in call and response.  The basic constraints were that one of us could ask the other a question and the other would respond in five lines followed by another question.  The impetus was to have the opportunity to ask and respond to questions at once intimate and expansive that don’t seem accessible in ordinary conversation,  perhaps because it seems too much to ask of another.  To remain in the question, we found, is a difficult process and often leads us to places, attitudes, or styles of discourse where, some time later, we don’t recognize the person who troubled to speak and be present there.

Does your place of birth suit your imagination of yourself?

My stone, my stanza, my heap of salvage metal. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall. We sank beneath your wisdom like a stone. The way I would walk around the edge of our property, or what I thought was our property, trying the gaps and recombinations the weight of a certain person may cause. Whatever I was born into, I always had the sense that it was falling apart, that birth was falling apart with the people who willed it into being, and now I call that birth New England and describe its various qualities of superstition, reticent candor, and narrowed vigilance from the stranger who visits, who is always visiting, for longer than he may have been willing to admit at the outset.

Do you find the personal wherever, or whenever, you resist it?

The personal was what I was educated to become, myself, albeit nameless, as a personal person, though not my own. We have and get had, and acceding to that is a social bargain I personally can’t ascribe to. As of when, you ask (or might ask)—you, a person, particular and unique and known to me with a pronounced name—when did I resist it, but that assumes that I do. “I” could be anyone’s, anyone—the sort of thing John Wayne might say, though not of a river crossing or mules. The interiorization of self-reflection is a political, social, thing.

What is required for you to feel that you are somewhere?

Lamps seem the closest thing we get to living with apostrophe, vital animations we come home to, watch others approach, and reach to quiet when our bodies would love something other than this day. I mention this about lamps and apostrophe because they are a mere coincidence—light and the things it lights occurring together—which is the shortest definition I can manage for home. How we feel light is another question and gets us into the fray of skin, memory, entropy, time travel, etc. Driving up the dark road we may be surprised so few people are home at 7pm on a Tuesday evening and then maybe we realize that the power is probably out on the road and that we are confident the sun must rise tomorrow so everyone is new to the habits they have waiting in the form of furniture and music and food. Feeling this one is our home, feeling for a switch, our bodies hum with the decadent rhythms of hope and explanation.

Has there ever been a moment when you have doubted the continuity of who you are?

I don’t see how anyone who has consciousness of history, or consciousness of being a participant in the eventfulness of reality, can avoid experiencing him- or herself as becoming, at key junctures, markedly and perhaps lastingly discontinuous with whom he or she had been. Indeed, according to Whitehead’s metaphysics, we (along with all other real things) are each a sequence of events, and different at each site of our eventfulness. The real question is, how does one feel for the switch, the event-shift switch, which is not connected to a lamp, but to circuits of the brain, the mind, the social, the senses. I switch to a different language, and to a different sensorium.

The language of poetry is a language of metamorphosis. If so, what can or do you, as yourself, believe in?

Belief is looking into the multiple faces or stomachs of doubt as they surface recurrently, like objects you thought were drifting in someone else’s ocean, with some errant race of alligators, but float back and show us the swollen bellies of their numbers, cluttering the coasts. We learn how to talk to them, to instruct them, and to strain them from the waters and then, in turning, mistake this process for some personalization of such doubts and the waters as safe for swimming. Leviathan into a behemoth, mermaids into priests or professors. Isn’t it funny too how well crowded our coasts are, how we set up overlooking the oceans in houses that, like Nietzsche’s gay real estate, draw as much color from the monster of the sea as they do from the shifting cataclysms and buckles of land. I myself have never lived in such a house, only visited them, and often dream of the discarded lives revolving in the oceanic vortices of garbage and such privileged vantages of faith.

Can one visit a friend, a home, or a place, that one believes in and still address it as a doubt?

I believe in almost everything that exists in the present and almost nothing in the future. I’m rampantly gullible, but everything projects its own doubt forward and into its path. The significant events in the life of the perceptions unfold as experiences of belief or of doubt, but doubt isn’t the same as disbelief; doubt doesn’t negate belief (though it does make fun of gullibility), it isn’t even a failure of belief. Doubt expands belief into its ramifications. During the visit you ask me to imagine (to “a friend, a home, or a place”), belief and doubt are bound together in the fact that the visited scene has the holding power that we call temporality.

Do you ever feel that you are being visited by ideas?

In fact, by which I mean in bone the being of spirit is, that is the only way I feel by way of ideas: visited, alongside, with, inaccessible in part. Cora Diamond has this notion of companionable thinking, a thinking with or alongside something (in her case with “animal life” that is not antagonistic or at variance from human life) that may still be sought as company because its consumption or reproduction lies outside of reasonable bounds. We seem to believe that ideas are much more easily reproduced, made self-identical. Listening to a program this morning where economists were anthropomorphizing the market all over the place, even describing its “psychology,” and spinning prognostications from Ben Bernanke and the Fed Reserve’s recent announcement to stop buying assets, I was struck by how ideas like inflation or cash reserves are for them not companionable figurations/ideas but markers of how their expertise is generative of their realities, the reality they take everyone else’s necessities to be dictated by. As Marx taught me, I do not just believe in a different premise for social reality, but I believe that being social enables me to be visited by ideas from other forms of life, realms of necessity, and tremors in the voices that would declare them.

Given your gullibility, a quality I think we share, do you ever worry that you (and I) lose (y)our ability, at times, to sort the concretions of the present from the seductions of endless indeterminacy?

Why make a distinction between the “concretions of the present” and the “seductions of endless indeterminacy”? Aren’t the former the very sources and terms of the latter? This may be precisely what the Federal Reserve and the other makers and mongers of monetary policy don’t understand—or won’t: that the present is the site at which history presents the future as what might be, and as what might be beyond determination. All the present is is things changing, shifting position, becoming and ceasing to be eventful, etc., but also with the peculiar characteristic that, despite its momentariness, nothing of or in the present disappears, no true negation of event is possible, whatever happens will never not ever have happened, etc.; all closures are illusory, all compensation is futile—or am I being gullible? Well—no need to answer that question—more pressing is the awareness that one would have to be gullible indeed to believe that yielding to the seductions of endless indeterminacy is entirely distinct from a death wish. W.J.T. Mitchell (in What do Pictures Want?) says that the term totem, derived from Ojibway, properly means “a relative of mine,” and with that in mind, I ask you this, my real question:

Insofar as you undertake “companionable thinking,” are there terms/images of thought that are totemic for you?

Maybe the strongest totem for me, what I have been calling lately my tendency toward a community-effect, is the collective pronoun: we. And maybe there is a death wish lurking in this social positivism, what Lee Edelman-via-Freud might call a drive that leads us to act the unraveling of normative reproducibility of nature by a non-reproducible discontinuity, an impersonal rift in the archive, that can also lead to disastrous moments of shared desire amidst linguistic and representational ruin. But this too seems a fetish of non-reproducibility and non-normative response, a denial that we don’t act beneficially, for ourselves and others, as we “ought” to act all the time, sometimes knowing full well such a normativity is provisional at best. What seems to me lacking in so many accounts of the turns to a productive confusion, shifting revaluations of the present, and truth-as-suspension of coercive and exploitative social mechanisms (these being examples of what “indeterminacy” is sometimes a short-hand for) is an account for how such revolutionary potential enables direct responses to our varied, but shared, histories. The fact that I so often rediscover my totem, “we,” signifies for me both a desire and a failure to not explode indeterminacy but apply it, set it to work, so that elaborate compacts like trust can have a more definite speech.

If we were to end here, how would I know where I began and you ended?



People on Sunday (1930)

Now they really are involved, drinking
Coffee with the elms behind them. The trick
To wet the coiled paper slowly so the day
Expands like a writhing insect
As trash is swept up and the resultant street
Hosed down, not everyone is free to brag
In the black and white sunshine.
It gets in the eyes of the mechanic during his
Rotations of the left front wheel
Spinning like the crowds around a monument.
Okay, fine, but what about tomorrow?
Done. The rest is knitting outdoors
Or no, she was petting a struggling cat
That from a distance looked to be
Complacent wool while she stood there.
Barge after barge follows this mistake
Along the major river she considers
While getting ready, starting with her nails,
But maybe she doesn’t want to go out
Yet, ambivalence of lying back down
With one’s shoes still on. Jacket off,
He’s proud of his surroundings, the two
Bottles on a table by a single glass.
Amazingly, they are in the same apartment
Reading parts of a single paper
By the inadvertent clock of a faucet
Leaking. It’s not even Sunday yet
Nor are they actors, but it’s time to change

Clothes, sweep the face with a lathered brush
By a wall with photographs of film stars on it.
You use a scissors, I’ll use razor and soap
And for some reason we’ll both go to work
Destroying their faces after having gone
To great lengths to collect and mount them.
It’s a prelude to going out in our best
Or will they, maybe an argument about
How she’s chosen to wear her hat first,
A bit of a scene in which more photographs
Get destroyed. Or forget photos actually,
We can play cards now that there are two men
Present and she’ll have to watch
Sunday punish her without access to its images
Of smoke from a chimneystack, a man asleep
On a park bench, collective living
Pursued in a single bed. Only now
Is it Sunday. He wakes first and washes up,
Tries to rouse her somewhat roughly
But she is not yet there in the way he is
So he leaves a note by the cards and glasses
On the table at which he’d sat with the other
Man and goes. There are so many like him
Outside, and monuments, arches to be
Passed through in a car, and of course
The bridges, the smoke. That which can’t be
Passed through or under can still be passed by,
Advertisements on the sides of apartments,
Windows, trains, and trees. They’re all going
To the same unrevealed place, half an arrow.
Shy in the best friend role, she looks down
Suddenly interested in tree-filtered light
On pavement. You go on, I must make
A phone call, walk down these endless stairs,
Buy a postcard, order a drink, pair off as
The whims of the atmosphere demand,
Carry a suitcase through the park
To its less populated places. In fact,
That’s what my silent phone call is about,
That and whether she’s even gotten out
Of bed or whether her shoes are still
Unoccupied. It turns out you can walk
All the way to a beach, where you’d take them off
Again to become the postcard of a bather
If no one saw you undress and change.
Now the suitcase makes sense, but not
That kind, it seems to be a portable
Device for playing music, music to change to
With clouds as inspiration. This is
Working out, there are definite foregrounds
And backgrounds, each composed
Then dissolving or stopping abruptly

Starting up again as though continuous
And yes, she’s still in bed so you’ll have to
Enter the water without her, a splash of white
Where you just were. You, if you are still
The man on shore, help the other
Woman with her impossible suit and now
Your friendliness has a touch of eros to it,
You would wake her much less roughly
On that same part of the back of the shoulder
You targeted unsuccessfully this morning,
But this one’s already awake and away,
You share a single body with the water
And forget. Swimming from becomes
Swimming towards, a flirtation through
The awkwardness of the element, and walking
Down steps requires they be walked back up,
Agreeable fate they greet as though air
Were water and vision. Whose desire
Is this anyway and is it a cloud or the boat
Beneath the cloud, the blanket or the sand
Beneath that or the thermos and bottles, etc.
If he won’t move the other man will and if
He won’t serve them sausages the other
Does till everyone is restored—losing some
Is okay because there’s enough and it’s not
Ever lost—he cleans it off and eats it anyway.
Coughing and laughing, each can cause the other
But laughing may last longer in a moment
While coughing goes on intermittently for days
Like a group of boys in ties who take turns
Striking each other. Who’s next is more painful
Than the blows themselves, the same with goals
In sports or growing up into shame about
Your nakedness. Swimming the distance
From birth you’re now used to experiencing
As water or Sunday, those two girls at a window
Fringed by oak trees. The other method to fall
Asleep on a park bench so that while clothed
You have no sense you are, or your trust in others
A nakedness your clothes wear and for a second
We can lie back upon the grasses partly
Naked, taking liberties we won’t push too far.
We are as asleep as she who never left the bed,
Who sleeps for us all like a perfect actor.
Now the mid-afternoon when storefronts thrive,
Fountains rise a little higher, vision pans
Always to the left across construction sites,
Laundry hung out windows, public statues
(Men or animals) and even an obelisk
Crowds rotate around rather than confront
Their obvious destination. In time
It’s all sand, even the marble, so smile
While holding still whether naked or not,
Knowing or not, fat with discomfort
Or aware it’s a trap even when surprised

To know this. Those in front of a camera
Are missing in a saintly way, statues with lives.
Their smiles carry injury, their sadness a power
To adapt, say thank you to the worst of it,
Make a game of snatching its hat and running off
Throwing it till it lodges in one of the oaks.
This precipitates a whole other serious game
Of cooperation—at least three will be required
To spend time getting back the hat of only one,
An inefficiency permitted on Sunday,
The day groups form and learn from,
Deciding where within the frame to go next.
Before choosing a path touch your mouth
Looking sadly at the available options
Then take none at all except the space
Between young trees. Here you’ll meet him
For a second but keep going, there are better
Places to stop for what will happen, and act
Surprised, even discouraged, when he behaves
Predictably; you do too, and where you touch
Each other proof will bloom, you aren’t trees
Growing out of sand. Head back to the right,
You can’t go left forever; go up even, up and right
Then down to where he’s standing while you
Fake sleep and waking from it. He looks like
He’s getting ready for work, holds a pinecone
Like it’s an ancient tool. Others are similarly
Strewn through the instant’s overexposure,
Sprawled or walking, trudging down embankments
Or headed back to the starting point. It’s a huge park
Filled with time they are going to convene
Drowsily, close the musical briefcase, no, not yet,
First a kind of modular pairing-off known
As where are the others—it feels good to say
Finally, even if no answer is immediately
Forthcoming or has stopped to take something
Out of its shoe. The answer is they are here
One at time. That feels good too, slanted
Light to play a last song on the portable
While the final straggler makes her reluctant
Way across involuntary terrain
Over to the fact of the rest. She almost got lost
And that almost is crucial, with its being time
To return, the blue of the afternoon darker
Or deeper, a fight about to break out. Pleasures
Have to be shared, and the grimness thereof
When they’re about to fade. There are many
Others afterwards; they keep falling through
The speed of any one activity’s end
Into a paddleboat either sex can power

Without shame; it’s even enjoyable to move
From passenger to operator and back,
Thinking or doing, melancholy or magnanimous.
The four have forgotten about those who are not
In their boat but are surrounded all the same
By shoreline with unlimited populations
Maples by the water represent; the men
Start play-hitting her, taking fake turns
As they near the shore, and she is mad and happy,
An oar in their water. It’s time to remember, talk
Across greater distances, cooperate with strangers
Stranded nearby. We’ll go over there and retrieve
For them what they can’t get for themselves
Even if it makes us jealous of each other.
Sad to be connected to somebody by so little
So briefly, a note thrown in the water
Unfolds faster. Pedaling hard now they reach
A mooring that leads to others, to a structure
Of some kind where they will have to part
If not all have the money to go on, no, they can
Lend him the money to ensure they meet again.
And he is there, they’re four and one,
It’s still Sunday, full and orchestral if right
About to wane as well. The four become two
Men and two women thinking of the next
Sunday, and probably lying to each other
About this so their bodies will part for real.
One man breaks his cigarette in two to celebrate,
Gives half to the other man. They ride the tram
Like boys without jobs but even they are parted
By the numbers waiting on their buildings.
Back in the apartment the two bottles there
On the table and she still asleep in the bed
As though no time has passed, she refused it,
Nothing has happened but the empty beer.
It’s morning for her but not in the world
That can trade a night for another day
Simply by lifting an invisible hand.
Full morning already, fog in the park
Transported by the many coming off
That double bridge, determined again
To block out the thought of four million
Doing Monday likewise out of sight.
And the cabs that stop almost as often
As they start, bottles packed in crates
On the beds of passing trucks, the rhythm
Causes trivial forgetfulness, white sky.
She leaves her purchase behind in the shop
But it catches her up at the door.