Frances Richard's George Oppen Memorial Lecture

For some years now, I've tried to make it to The Poetry Center and American Poetry Archive's George Oppen Memorial Lecture. Often they are thrilling, intellectually rigorous, surprising, provocative. This is certainly true for Frances Richard's talk "The Mind's Own Place and Feminine Technologies: George Oppen and Possibilities of the Political" delivered on December 17, 2016.

Frances has generously shared her inspiring talk with us. It was accompanied by a series of images of the Oppens, various publications, and art work. You can also listen to and watch recordings of her talk from The Poetry Center here. I highly recommend it!

Here is one of the images from Frances's talk, William Blake's "Satan Exulting over Eve" from 1794.

Blake's "Satan Exulting over Eve" 1794

Frances Richard

Frances Richard is the author of Anarch. (Futurepoem, 2012), The Phonemes (Les Figues Press, 2012) and See Through (Four Way Books, 2003), as well as the chapbooks Shaved Code (Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, 2008) and Anarch. (Woodland Editions, 2008). She writes frequently about contemporary art and is co-author, with Jeffrey Kastner and Sina Najafi, of Odd Lots: Revisiting Gordon Matta-Clark’s “Fake Estates” (Cabinet Books, 2005). Her writing on visual art has appeared in Artforum, The Nation, BOMB and exhibition catalogs from the Whitney Museum of American Art, Guggenheim Museum and Independent Curators International, among others. She teaches at California College of the Arts and San Francisco Art Institute.


Dahlen, Gevirtz and Shufran at The Green Arcade

Quick! Before 2016 is over--there are several noteworthy Bay Area events that occurred in the last half of December. Here is one:

On Tuesday December 16th, after a long hiatus from readings, I ventured out to the Green Arcade, a San Francisco gem, one of our community-oriented bookstores which hosts numerous literary readings and events, to hear Beverly Dahlen, Lauren Shufran, and Susan Gevirtz. What a good choice I made. In the midst of so much shock and horror and the struggle to figure out what one should be doing in the face of our current and ongoing post-election crisis, there was something powerful about being in a room with others committed to the thoughtful, exploratory, nuanced engagement with language, with thinking, with making.

Beverly read from some new work which struck me as painterly, sculptural, lyrical. I love it. Here is one of these new pieces, "The Thrushes of Egypt."

Lauren Shufran then read three recent poems all of which are part of a project that writes in tension with Whitman's Leaves of Grass through contemporary politics, a trip to India, references to Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, the Bhagavad Gita, Richard Spencer's National Policy Institute speech in DC, and more. This work was mesmerizing and I hope we'll see it out in the world here or elsewhere soon!

Lastly, Susan Gevirtz read from her new book, Hotel abc, just out from Nightboat Books.
Gevirtz  closed her reading with this lovely poem, "The Birdhandlers." And thus here on the blog page, we have a  bird theme, though the evening included a variety of themes, references, topics.

The Birdhandlers Jan2017word, PDF (1) by Susan Gevirtz on Scribd
Thanks to these three writers for an evening of hope.


Remembering Francesca Rosa

It is with sadness that I learned today of the death of Francesca Rosa, writer, activist, and publisher. I met Francesca in Bob Glück's Saturday house writing workshop in the mid-1990s where she worked tirelessly on her book The Divine Comedy of Carlo Tresca, a book she finished and published with Ithuriel's Spear in 2012. Francesca was instrumental in bringing my book Dear Reader into the world.

In honor of Francesca, I am reprising an interview I did with her in January of 2009--how swiftly time escapes us.

Francesca Rosa: From The Angels of Light to New Narrative and Labor Activism


Barbara Jane Reyes and Robin Tremblay-McGaw Reading at the San Francisco Public Library

Back in mid-May I read in the Local Poets Series at the San Francisco Public Library in the Civic Center with Barbara Jane Reyes and Eleni Stecopoulos.

A portion of the event was recorded. Eleni elected not to be recorded, but here is an an excerpt of Barbara reading and one from me.


Conference Report: PhiloSOPHIA’s Poetry, Politics & Feminist Theory

On  PhiloSOPHIA’s Poetry, Politics and Feminist Theory Conference
Hosted by the University of Colorado at Boulder and the University of Colorado at Denver

Organized by Julie Carr and Sarah Tyson 
March 9-12, 2016


What a pleasure it was to be part of this conference bringing together scholars and writers from the worlds of philosophy, poetry, feminist theory, and literature.  The conference offered a rich set of readings, talks, panels, workshops and a closing dance party. 

On Thursday evening Lisa Robertson and Cathy Park Hong read in Boulder, sadly an event I missed though both Lisa and Cathy, along with Laura Moriarty, Dawn Lundy Martin and Lyn Hejinian read Saturday night at CounterPath Gallery in Denver and I had a chance to hear them then.  People read from old and new work, mesmerizing the audience. Then, the chairs were moved and the music and our bodies thrummed.

Leading up to this grand finale, there were a host of panels. On Friday I attended one that was supposed to include Mary Hickman presenting “‘Thigh to thigh’: Trans-Life and the Arena in Anne Carson’s ‘Antigo-Nick’ and the Paintings of Jenny Saville,” though Mary’s plane was delayed, leaving Bryan Kimoto from the University of Memphis to fly solo. And fly Bryan did! Thrillingly unfolding “Trans* Poetics, Erotic Embodiment, and Self-Love: A Response to Talia Bettcher’s ‘When Selves Have Sex,’” Bryan’s talk was a critical engagement with Bettcher’s piece (which I haven’t read but am eager to) and traversed a number of arenas including, erotic structuralism, Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, Gabe Moses’s poem “How to Make Love to a Trans Person,” and more.
Friday afternoon I was part of a collaborative panel organized by Karen Lepri and Andrea Quaid which also included Madhu Kaza, Margaret Rhee, and Sueyeun Juliette Lee.  For our panel, “Alarming Logics: Feminist Poetics as Discursive/Pedagogic Intervention”:

We return to Rosmarie Waldrop’s “Alarms and Excursions,” published in The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy (1990).  We ask: how does the form of Waldrop’s essay invite us to reframe our approach to the thesis-based college essay that we teach as scholars and poets working in academia. Waldrop’s form occasions a feminist critique of ensconced methodologies based in rationalism, logic, evidence, and single-stance argumentation (Lepri & Quaid).

Based on Waldrop’s essay, we provided panel attendees with note-cards with the headings “alarm,”  “excursion,” “thesis,” and “counter-alarm,” and invited participants to write on these note-cards and to interrupt our performance with their own alarms, excursions, theses. At various points, we moved around the room, improvising with our bodies in the space. This was one of the most enjoyable and engaging presentations I’ve ever participated in. People seemed to take to it and entered into the conversation while it was happening. Their contributions added to the fabric of our work, deepening it. It was exciting and generative.

Later that afternoon Lyn Hejinian gave a wonderfully absorbing plenary talk entitled “The Intimate Excess of Philosophy: Dear Sophie,” in which she discussed the epistolary in the work of Margaret Cavendish and Virginia Woolf. Cavendish’s letters are a philosophic project while Woolf’s, interestingly, are not. Lyn pointed out that Woolf uses her diaries to work out intellectual and literary concerns but her letters are a kind of phenomenology of the sociability of everyday life. Hejinian noted that Woolf is interested in not only the stuff of life but also the life of stuff.

Saturday morning I speed read through three papers—Ella Longpre’s “The Wanting of Disaster: A New Erotics of Writing and Performance”;  Katherine Davies’ “The Poetry of Gender; Anne Carson, Sound, and Language”; and Beata Stawarska’s “Language as Poeisis, Linguistic Productivity in Kristeva and Saussure,” so I could attend this workshop on poetry and philosophy moderated by Lisa Robertson. Rather than read through their conference papers, these writers presented a brief sketch of their work and Lisa established some contextualizing and initial observations and comments. Robertson noted the historical tension between poetry and philosophy, the current global state of crisis around borders, refugees, and race, and then urged us to nuance and keep complex some of the terms that get taken for granted or remain uninterrogated—the political, the social, eros.

As Lisa parsed the three papers, I scribbled this:

Ella Longpre
Beata Stawarska
Katherine Davies











S  P  A  C  E/

S  P  A  C  I A L




There was a rich conversation during this panel which it is impossible to render effectively, but I will say Stawarska’s paper generated interest around a new understanding of Saussure’s work based on materials from his Nachlass, “some of them recently discovered and published in Writings in General Linguistics (2006)” (Stawarska 1). Based on these materials, this version of Saussure attests to the importance of speakers, asserting, “a speaking collectivity [masse parlante] is part of the ‘very definition’ of language itself” (Saussure qtd in Stawarska 5). Stawarska went on to explore Kristeva’s work and to argue that "linguistic productivity....offers a strategy of resistance and revolt against normalization within individual and social life" (2).

Longpre’s interest in the disaster and diagrammatic representations of the circuitry of erotics and disaster was thought-provoking as was Katherine Davies’ fascinating thinking about sophrosyne (Greek virtue of self-control), logos, and ololyga “a ritual shout peculiar to females. It is a high pitched piercing cry uttered at certain climactic moments in ritual practice [e.g., at the moment when a victim’s throat is slashed during sacrifice] or at climactic moments in real life [e.g., at the birth of a child] and also a common feature of women’s festivals” (Carson qtd in Davies).

Later Saturday afternoon another plenary session included talks by Dawn Lundy Martin, Elena Ruiz, and Rachel Jones.  Dawn’s awesome talk was entitled “Discomfort as Feminist Poetic: 7 Short Lectures.” In it she proposed, via Kathleen Fraser, a “laboratory,” a reaching toward “ragged bits” as she thought about race, discomfort, silence on the internet, the accident and failure as swerves which, with respect to Kara Walker’s 2014 Domino Sugar Factory installation, “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby,” reveal violence. Lundy Martin proposed mobilizing discomfort rather than silence and began to ask what might be possible regarding re-conceptualizing feminist poetics outside of the sphere of the female body; she also opened up the possibility of re-consideration of the term "feminist."

Rachel Jones’s talk, “The Relational Poetics of Barbara Köhler: Weaving a Grammar of Singularity, Solidarity and Difference” was engaging. She presented the work of Köhler, a German writer who reworks the Odyssey and whose writing mobilizes some interesting properties of German grammar which make it possible to read “sie” as [she-they-you].

Last but not least, Elena Ruiz presented a talk “The Aesthetics of Resistance: Poetic Language, Trauma and Feminist Narratives of Selfhood.” Her sharp and incisive paper focused on Latin America, state-sponsored violence, the challenges of history and memory in a totalitarian state and the problematic of European philosophical concepts  and methodological strategies emerging out of them as a basis for praxis in Latin America. She reminded us of the erasure of Mesoamerican scripts, of the violence of the alphabet, of the fact that when there are more than 30,000 people disappeared, there is no time for syntax, that European ontology and epistemology articulates a historical horizon of continuity, continues to construe universality and presumes a baseline stability of experience. Thus, disciplinary paradigms emerge out of, reflect, and re-enact various violences and oppressions.

In short, I attended just a few of many provocative and wide-ranging panels and workshops that left us with a lot to think and write about and much to reflect on.   

One challenge that emerges out of this conference is thinking about how we work with materials from multiple disciplines. Sometimes philosophy uses poetry as an illustration, seeming to simplify what poetry and the poetic is or can be and what its work and other possibilities are. I am sure philosophers probably find the use of philosophy by poets and others to be similarly odd angled. I don’t think there are rules for how one can make use of materials across disciplines and life worlds, but it is certainly worth endeavoring to continually seek the complex and nuanced for the most capacious, or to use a Lisa Robertson term—the most commodious--investigations; simultaneously, as Elena Ruiz argues, we need to consider the historical, political, and ideological foundations of the concepts and practices we use and engage.

As always, these reports are my renderings of presentations based on scanty notes. Of course, for the real thing, you will want to contact these writers and/or look for the publication of these papers elsewhere.



S P A C E S  O F  D I S C O M F O R T

Public Lynching 
August 30, 1930.
From the Hulton Archives.
Courtesy Getty Images (Image alteration with permission: John Lucas)from Citizen: An American Lyric

On not just any Sunday, but yesterday, the 6th of December, California College of the Art's Timken Hall was filled beyond capacity. Oversold.

After being introduced by CCA MFA student Rachel Kass, Karen Green, whose recent book Bough Down has garnered many accolades, including winner of The Believer Poetry Award 2013, sat cross-legged on a plastic chair on stage and read, beginning with this:

The doctor wears his pink shirt with the sleeves rolled up. I see his flaws clearly before he gives me the shot which will put me to sleep until after the holidays. He is making a mercy call, and the needle is part of my invention. Pink is a new color I am seeing.

The Googled pills are all different colors.

I don’t know how not to imagine submission, even after all this. Someone says I need to be contained but I think he means constrained. I let him take away my sight and my hearing while he applies pressure in another language. He is very kind about assessing my needs, but there is a strident protestor type inside who recoils and starts assembling contempt and mirrors.

What dreams the support guys have:

Their sensible shoes wear out, they have the code blues, patients eat their own fingers down to the first knuckle; there are contraptions to keep hands down, mouths shut. They dream of consequences. They have their McSanctuaries to dream in, and yet. Faux-science is replaced with newer, quieter faux-science. The machines chirp like fledglings, they don’t beep. Some souls are so lost they make their own privacy, they don’t need walls. The support guys are trained to say, Why do you ask? They are trained to know when to train a patient to say, Why do you ask. In their dreams they forget how to treat people, they forget how to work the machinery, how to deflect, manipulate and regurgitate accidents, they kiss their patients on the gurney while it rolls away, they run in slow motion to catch up, there is nudity under the lab coat, they beg for forgiveness in tongues. They remove the wrong eye, the one that sees.

The movers say it is fire season, they’re used to it. Acres are burning and the concierge comments on the beauty of the sunset, the eye shadow palette of the apocalypse. I took ashes to the hotel in a hatbox. I left the murder of crows rotating from the studio ceiling, I left too many holes in the wall. The support guys have replaced the cells in my brother. I’m coming, wait for me. I’m sorry I missed your call. I have to make a stop to drop off paperwork. I cut my hand and the papers are bloody. I tell the life insurance guy, It’s not what you think.

 Green's text is punctuated by her collages like the one above. She didn't include images of these at the reading, but I wish she would have, particularly since both Green and Rankine's books--though in different fashions--are engaged with text and images. You can see more of Green's poem here at BOMB magazine.  About Green's book in the Los Angeles Review of Books Maggie Nelson has written:

Karen Green’s new — and incredibly, her first — book Bough Down, from Siglio Press, is an astonishment. It is one of the most moving, strange, original, harrowing, and beautiful documents of grief and reckoning I’ve read. The book consists of a series of prose poems, or individuated chunks of poetic prose, interspersed with postage-stamp-sized collages made by Green, who is also a visual artist. Collectively the text bears witness to the 2008 suicide of her husband . . . and its harrowing aftermath for Green. The book feels like an instant classic, but without any of the aggrandizement that can attend such a thing. Instead it is suffused throughout with the dissonant, private richness of the minor, while also managing to be a major achievement. 

I am looking forward to reading more of Karen's book.

"In the Hood"

After Karen, CCA MFA student Melissa Josephine Ramos introduced Claudia Rankine. On-screen, Rankine projected images from her book Citizen: An American Lyric, beginning with David Hammons' "In the Hood," made in 1993 after the LAPD beating of Rodney King; this image graces the cover of Citizen.

She also showed us a photograph of Hammons in New York City as he sold snowballs, which you cold hold and then "feel whiteness melt in your hands."

David Hammons

Opening her reading with the statement that "Citizen came to me through community," Rankine explained how she asked numerous friends to recount an experience when each was doing something ordinary and suddenly something was said that reduced the person to his/her/their race, and racism entered the discourse.

Reading from the first part of Citizen, comprised of some 12 separate sections and anecdotes, Rankine began with:

When you are alone and too tired even to turn on any of your devices, you let yourself linger in a past stacked among pillows. Usually you are nestled under blankets and the house is empty. Sometimes the moon is missing and beyond the window the low, gray ceiling seems approachable. Its dark light dims in degrees depending on the density of clouds and you fall back into that which gets reconstructed as metaphor.

The route is often associative. You smell good. You are twelve attending Sts. Philip and James School on White Plains Road and the girl sitting in the seat behind asks you to lean to the right during exams so she can copy what you have written. Sister Evelyn is in the habit of taping the 100s and the failing grades to the coat closet doors. The girl is Catholic with waist-length brown hair. You can’t remember her name: Mary? Catherine?

You never really speak except for the time she makes her request and later when she tells you you smell good and have features more like a white person. You assume she thinks she is thanking you for letting her cheat and feels better cheating from an almost white person.

Sister Evelyn never figures out your arrangement perhaps because you never turn around to copy Mary Catherine’s answers. Sister Evelyn must think these two girls think a lot alike or she cares less about cheating and more about humiliation or she never actually saw you sitting there (5-6).

Displaying a number of other images from her book, Claudia talked about where in the book they appear and what she was interested in doing with them. Among these were Michael David Murphy's "Jim Crow Rd," a screen shot from Hennessy Youngman's ART THOUGHTZ: How to be a Successful Black Artist," photos of Caroline Wozniacki imitating Serena Williams, and from the Hulton Archives at the Getty Museum, the photograph, "Public Lynching" from August 1930 (pictured above), and others. About the latter image, Rankine said that the Getty initially was somewhat reluctant to let her use it but once permission was granted and Rankine asked to alter the image, to remove the hanging bodies, they were somewhat relieved since one of their concerns had been that the image would be an incitement to re-enactment. Rankine noted that she is interested in the crowd of onlookers, the spectators, since "they are us," pointing out that violence happens because we let it and because we benefit from it.
Rankine read from a variety of sections of her book and then, because she needed to catch an early plane, she left us to watch a draft of a short film she is working on with her husband John Lucas; the piece is a meditation and deconstruction/interrogation of beauty as whiteness, by way of, among other things, various advertisements for skin lightening products from a diverse array of countries.
Claudia Rankine has a deep and pleasing reading voice and I enjoyed hearing her read and discuss her work and its relationship to the images in her text. I included the first section of Citizen in my Art Culture and Social Justice class at Santa Clara University this fall and I've been thrilled to be working with this text, witnessing how it engages students, particularly as we've been in conversation about how Rankine's text works, how it uses form--not just its complex deployment of pronouns, shifters that engage and implicate the reader, but also, in this first section, its attention to setting, to the diverse array of public and private, urban and suburban spaces in which racism is enacted. We noticed how victims and bystanders, perpetrators and witnesses in these scenarios are inescapably bound together in these scenes that reveal each of us is playing a part. These poems, in other words, make textual and perform in their formal architectures, that crowd beneath the tree in 1930. Only it is 2015 and there are crowds on subways, in Starbucks, in front of storefronts in Ferguson, in the streets, and in these crowds people of color are the narrators. Sometimes the crowd is a crowd of two. These are crowds that are doing a variety of things and are comprised of a variety of people--sometimes standing by, sometimes protesting, sometimes unaware, sometimes speaking and not hearing and sometimes hearing and pretending not to have spoken. Claudia Rankine makes legible and audible spaces of discomfort, because, as she said yesterday in Timken Hall, the space of discomfort is a more civil space, maybe she said more civic space, than what we've been living in--that space that pretends we are a post-racial society, that space in which white imagination projects any number of fantasies onto the black subject become once again, object; that space in which, as one of the pieces and narrators in Citizen frames it: "Americans battle between the 'historical self' and the 'self self'" (14).
Other xpoetics posts regarding Citizen include:


The Instead--Emily Abendroth and Miranda Melllis

Emily Abendroth and Miranda Mellis in the California Native Garden
at the Arboretum in San Francisco hosted by the Carville Annex

On Sunday November 1st, I spent the afternoon sitting in a stone circle in the Arboretum basking in the pleasure of hearing Diana Block read from her new novel Clandestine Occupations, a book built around 6 female narrators, all involved in social justice advocacy, and Emily Abendroth and Miranda Mellis read from their ongoing exchange or correspondence project--The Instead--due out from Carville Annex Press in the spring. They've described it below.

But first, I can tell you that their constraints and considerable intellectual and creative powers/prowess have produced a beautiful, whip-smart piece that traces thought's and advocacy's engagement in the daily; the piece explores, among many other things, the overlap of sod and fracking and prison sites, Kendrick Lamar's "Alright," workout boot camp, Brian Massumi, and Gregory Bateson on play, authority and discomfort in pedagogies, shifts/splices/changes.

Miranda's close-reading of Lamar's video and Emily's reading of boot camp pedagogy through the bridge of Lamar's song blasting in the studio was particularly pleasing and densely layered. These close-readings reminded me of the many communal readings performed by the band in the novels comprising the ongoing series From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate by Nate Mackey. In Bedouin Hornbook, for example, the band is in San Francisco when they come across some graffiti on a boarded-up storefront. It reads: “‘Mr. Slick and Mister Brother are one of the two most baddest dude in town, and Sutter Street’” (26). Each band member interprets the message differently. Their conversation, a performative debate or critical dozens if you will, occurs before a crowd, one that participates with laughter and critique of their own.

To the pleasures of reading--on our own and with others, in humor and horror, criticality and hope--as provided to us by Emily and Miranda!

The Instead [24/48/72/96/120] is a record of a series of five email dialogues conducted during prearranged, bracketed time periods between two time zones, states, years, and people: Emily Abendroth & Miranda Mellis. The first dialogue unfolded over 24 hours between 11/18/1411/19/14; the second over 48 hours between 12/29/1412/30/14; the third over 72 hours between 4/11/154/13/15; the fourth over 96 hours between 6/27/156/30/15; and the fifth over 120 hours between 9/1/159/5/15. The dialogues are punctuated by pauses during which each person went to work, or off the grid, or to sleep or . . . to wake up/return to new thoughts, notes, and questions.

The selection that follows below is a short excerpt from Emily and Mirandas second 48 hour dialogue session.

EA: I think its interesting to think about how writing or other art practices might at the very least endeavor to de-mask relations even if they cant, all on their lonesome, change them. In other words, we might not be able to write the undoing of prisons or the dissolution of militarized borders but we can use our writing to unleash questions and activate inquiries that might assist in bringing the necessity or efficacy of said systems into such a deep position of suspicion or destabilization that the writing participates in collectively motivating or propelling acts that push us closer toward that undoing. This is the work that language can potentially do when it refuses to demurely accept the naturalized or the normative protocols of its eras status quos.

For instance, what happens when we replace the phrase police violence” – which is critically at the forefront of so many peoples minds right now with the phrase the violence of policing? A lot happens actually! Suddenly were training our eyes and minds to look, not for a few individuals who exhibit exaggerated acts of aggression within an otherwise functional system but, at a system whose very existence is predicated on the violent enforcement of restrictive codes of behavior meant to protectthe property, lifestyles, wealth, and political ideology of a very specific segment of the population only (along very predictable and historical! race, class, and gender lines).

What about when we speak not of prison violencebut instead the violence of prisons? Not about gender violencebut the violence of gender? Again, I think a lot of important work can potentially take place in those re-framings. Perhaps even exactly the kind of labor that your vision of the archer conjures in aiming their arrow at a specific point where the intersectionality of various systems of oppressions is made legible and the depth of the reverse engineeringrequired reveals itself.

I think the word decarcerationis and can be powerful in that way and Im glad whenever I hear that it successfully strikes as such to othersears. When the Philadelphia-based group that I work and organize with, Decarcerate PA[1], first named itself several years ago, we were excited to have generated a moniker that was also a verb/an action, embodying a demand for the reorientation we were seeking and not just a description of the problem we were confronting. But while I definitely agree that prisons are a striking locus point for viewing the intrinsic violence, disequilibrium, neglect/abuse, and deeply rooted supremacist/imperialist tendencies of the nation as a whole in an amplified state, I think that folks who are closely and critically examining the relations at play in schooling, health care, gender inequality, transphobia and militarism, etc. are also doing the work of mapping many of these same dynamics and intersectionalities. I think that maybe the task for each of us, in our various counter-power organizing efforts, is to turn what were working on into a keystoneof that kind (whatever its focus), so that it becomes a vehicle of transport for drawing connections to other people and struggles and disparities, rather than one that isolates (y)our organization from others or puts it in a position of fighting for its unique priority on a scale or ladder of issues that are actually all deeply linked.

Im curious if you think of that kind of intersectional mapping work as something that fiction can also do? I certainly think of your fiction as often achieving or making room for something like that a kind of intricate tracing of complex links and dense connections that in other forums or arenas sometimes get designated as having to be ignored or left behind because it all gets too messyor too hard to articulate in the form of a single slogan or request/demand. And I definitely think I frequently go to poetry or to a writing practice in general with the personal need to open up that kind of space, whether or not I actually succeed each time in creating it. A space to not have immediate or correct answers, a space to rest in and wrestle with indeterminacy. In that vein, I wanted to offer this other passage, also from Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, in their essay Politics Surrounded:

In the clear, critical light of day, illusory administrators whisper of our need for institutions and all institutions are political, and all politics is correctional, so it seems we need correctional institutions in the common, settling us, correcting us. But we wont stand corrected. Moreover, incorrect as we are theres nothing wrong with us. We dont want to be correct and we wont be corrected. Politics proposes to make us better, but we were good already in the mutual debt that can never be made good. We owe it to each other to falsify the institution, to make politics incorrect, to give the lie to our own determination. We owe each other the indeterminate. We owe each other everything.

I love how the indeterminateand the everything(at least in terms of whats of consequence) become parallel terms in this closing, each understood as something that we owe one another, coupled with an obligation to give the lie toinstitutions and cry wolf on the weak to non-existent forms of self-determination that were consistently bribed with as compensation for our obedience.

Its interesting to consider that one of the important spaces/uses of fiction or poetry might not be so much to invent, but rather to try to pull the wool off of current conjuredor fabricatedrepresentations of the daily real politic. And that this effort to comprehend those forces of the mundane, both banal and fantastical and frequently monstrous, might require powers of mind that weve been explicitly encouraged to leave uncultivated or underdeveloped. The novelist/essayist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o has written: I most seem to understand the inner logic of social processes when I am deep inside imaginative territory.

Where do imaginative territory and the inner logic of social processes come into contact as you are writing or conceiving of a written piece? Or, to take it out of the realm of writing alone, when you are making breakfast or brushing your teeth or teaching?

MM: The inner logic of social processes which are misogynist and ageist will tell me when I am brushing my teeth to lament their condition. Sure: my teeth are not new. They bear the signs of the passing of time! And various other signs. Once my front tooth was knocked out. A friend picked it up. At the emergency room, the attending physician asked if anyone had the tooth. My friend held it up. This doctor, whose hair went down to her waist, put that tooth back in. It didnt re-rootit was dead, unplugged from my nervous systembut it has dwelt, if not lived in my mouth ever since, magically holding up, a little tomb, and its discoloration tells the story of the sudden flight it took! I can laugh nowthat happened when I was sixteen. It was a waking nightmare at that age of intense facial self-consciousness. One is so out of control when it comes to the face. People socialized as female are taught to obsessively try to control what others face when they face our face. Theres that trope of the dementedly made-up female face, exaggerated eye make-up, smeared lipstick, when the face becomes abject, pleading for a rest from all this impression-control. Some kind of long-term experiment is being performed on how much mental space people will devote to trying to control something that (a) cant ultimately be controlled and (b) doesnt matter.

In J.M. Coetzees novel Elizabeth Costello there is a scene in which the main protagonist analyzes an animal experiment such that it becomes an exemplary parable of the stupidity of reductivism, as well as the damage done when the unexamined assumptions of power go untested. Elizabeth Costello (I think of her as Cotezee’s avatar) rejects the idea that animals do not possess reason. She recounts an experiment that was conducted in the 1920s by Wolfgang Kohler with an ape named Sultan who was deprived of bananas until he figured out a way to get them. He stacks crates to reach bananas suspended beyond his reach. What Costello emphasizes is the stupidity of setting the stupid task, which by its very structure precludes a real exploration, and ignores the pain and confusion of the context. She imagines Sultan thinking: “What is wrong with him, what misconception does he have of me, that leads him to believe it is easier for me to reach a banana hanging from a wire than to pick up a banana from the floor?” That is, the experiment asks the wrong questions: “a carefully plotted psychological regimen conducts him away from ethics and metaphysics toward the humbler reaches of practical reason.” This is like the corporatization of education. This is like the mercantilist policing of bodies that teaches us to focus on appearances rather than experiences, on controlling impressions rather than reveling in the sensuous immanence of our bodies, of textures, colors, the play of forms. So rather than proving or disproving the question, the experiment does a third, unintentional thing: it sabotages intelligence, structurally reducing us to the less interesting thought. Reducing my relationship to my teeth when I am brushing them, to worrying about how they appearwhich I am inculcated and invited to do by the misogynist, necro-politicking patriarchy that precedes mewould be to think the less interesting thought.

Excursions into imaginative territory can instead make me wonder at the fact that teeth are an extension of the nervous system, that they are solid, immersed in the fluidity and space of my mouth, that they show me the inside of my body, that they allow me to eat, and they also show me my innards logic as death, my skeleton. The inner logic of social processes, such as the structure of health care, insofar as I have access to it, can allow me to imagine that the socius thinks my teeth matter, and therefore that my life matters (in that having teeth allows me to eat and continue to live). That inner logic, since health care and dentistry are not accessible to me unless I can fulfill the condition of earning sufficient amounts of money, also tells me that if I stop fulfilling that condition, stop earning money, that my teeth, and by extension my life, dont matter. I have to keep earning my teeth, so I can chew up the commodity world. This thought is the end point of a possible, as yet, unwritten parable in which from the state of someones teeth we can extrapolate the teeth of ones state. We can look into the inner logic of social processes, and see intertwining systems. Parables are compressed, distilled versions of complex logics that imaginatively counsel us as to their effects. I love Kafkas parable about the leopards breaking into the temple. But lately, I have had this Kafka parable on my mind a lot:

I can swim like the others only I have a better memory than the others. I have not forgotten my former inability to swim. But since I have not forgotten it my ability to swim is of no avail and I cannot swim after all.

On the one hand, no justice without remembrance. On the other hand, no change without forgetting. If our memory of our former inability to swim is stronger than our  knowledge of how to swim, even if we know how to swim, we wont be able to swim. Sometimes one has an idea for how to solve something and one sets out to enact changes and bring about a solution and one is confronted by treatises on The Hopelessness of Changing Anything and The History of Impossibility In General. That wont work, because when we tried to do that before…” The memory of the former inability to swim prevents swimming. This is of interest not only with regards to learning but with regards to social change. We think of learning as remembering, but the parable says, remembering may also entail forgetting. This parables root system is connected to the story of Lots wife, Edith, as well as to the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Both are told not to look back. Edith (my grandmothers name) looks back and becomes a pillar of salt. Orpheus looks back and loses Eurydice. On the one hand, fuck you Hades, etcetera. On the other hand, the moral of the story is, know when to look back, and know when not to.

[1] decarceratepa.info