Saturday, 25 May 2013

J. Katko: Blame Solidarity Etc.

Hence forward, the interest of one will be the interests of all, for in concrete fact everyone will be discovered by the troops, everyone will be massacred – or everyone will be saved. The motto ‘look out for yourself’, the atheist’s method of salvation, is in this context forbidden.[1]

Authorship is a non-militant practice. Militant action requires the dissolution of individual poetic authority. Militant action requires poets to collectivise their imaginative powers. No element of a poem belongs to its author. Poetry is the category signifying that which is ours


There are four consoles in The Simpsons arcade game, corresponding to the characters Marge, Homer, Bart, and Lisa. Any two players may form super-character fighting machines (aka zords) by mashing the buttons while positioning themselves over the same piece of ground.[2] Just a few minutes into the game, on the first level, which begins outside a jewelry store on a Springfield high street, the Simpson family comes across an object which can be lifted and destroyed if at least three players cooperate in the act. The object is a cop car, and once it is lifted, it is tossed and bounces on the street, then flickers away into non-being. But two of its four wheels briefly retain their existence, or stay on the screen, and they proceed to bounce down the street, lethal to any of the enemies of the nuclear family. There’s a video on the internet of some kids doing a walk-through of the cop car prank, and one of them giggles ecstatically as they do it, exclaiming: “You know what? It doesn’t really do anything. It’s just cool to do.”[3]
Well pranks are obviously cool to do, and they can be important exercises in critique and cooperation. We should pull more pranks. But if pranks are just comedy, if their satire can be forgotten once the mess is cleaned up, then no one is obliged to learn from them.[4] The intended moral of a prank is neutralised as mere “vandalism”, but for the discerning observer, it is the specific object of vandalism that decides the moral fate of the prank. When does comic vandalism intensify into tragic violence? The burning of the SONY warehouse during the 2011 riots was beautiful and hilarious; but the burning of a Croydon flat containing a collection of rare flutes was painful, gut-wrenching news.[5] While dissecting riot fire into fires, distinguishing one arson from another, and picking out a matching genre of affect for each one seems like a kind of moral shopping spree, such choosy specification might be instructive as an analogue for tactics.
As poets, what collective work can we do that will oblige our audiences to learn from what we have done? How can we build language-artefacts that will deny our readers the option of turning around and going out the way they have only halfway proceeded? How can we prescribe a complex of one-way passages, each proceeding through the full construct of an entropic language situation, of a poetry that steals from its audience that which they never imagined it were possible to lose? And if this is instrumentalist thinking, then how can we build an instrument which, under specific conditions, is incapable of not being played? Out of what can we build a neo-Aeolian harp?
There must be special functions that poetic work is capable of in a modality of explicit multi-authoritative cooperation, even if those functions are limited merely to experiences and affects undergone privately through the course of the public work of the cooperative actors. Those private experiences could harbor revolutionary truths, and I am sure that even private truths will have public analogues as well. There must be a difference when a poem or language-artefact is the work not of one but of two, three, four, or many. I want the category of multi-authoritative poetic work to remain abstract and more broad than what is designated by ‘collaborative writing’. The category is maximally inclusive, and these two practices participate within it:
1. Blame Solidarity, where we participate in taking the blame for what you have written. Now here are some quick action points regarding blame solidarity.  Let’s find the most extreme truths of our poetry and reproduce them: aggrandize them, extend them, generalise them. If one of us might be arrested for inciting riot or regicide, let’s all make the same incitements. Let’s collectively own each others’ most aggressive, psychotic, and desperate claims. Let’s build a shared vocabulary of demand and critique, stealing each others’ words to build a looping wall of positive feedback, reinforced not by book reviews or like-apparatus of support, but by the primary and savage activity of reproduction and adoption.
2. Lexical Open-Sorcery, where the repeated usage by multiple authors of highly specific vocabulary, idiom, or repertoire-structures results in the accumulation of new semantic identities, where otherwise anodyne usages become powerfully unstable. This is emergent code-writing, particularly useful for speaking in a language that the enemy cannot understand.[6]    


I want to elaborate on a reading of Cervantes that I make in an essay called “Incredible Style”.[7] At the beginning of the second book of Don Quixote, when Quixote is trying to convince Sancho Panza to accompany him on a new round of adventures, Sancho begins an appeal to his master with these words: “I am so fossil—”. At the word “fossil”, Sancho is cut short by Quixote before he can explain the ramifications of this condition. Quixote claims that he doesn’t understand what “I am so fossil” means, and he decides fairly quickly that Sancho meant to say: “I am so docile”. This is of course a very different proposition. To be, in one’s own eyes, “so fossil”, is to imagine oneself as having once been an organic, physically pliable body, but now petrified into a posthumous antiquity, powerless to a new kind of pliability: being valued into a role in a pseudo-historical fiction. For Sancho to know this of himself is radical self-knowledge, and Quixote transforms Sancho’s meaning from a radical expression of social truth into an expression of loving servility. This transformation strips away the organic radicalism of Sancho’s speech. His mistakes are de-weaponised by Quixote. In this modality, the heroes are a retrograde social machine, instructive only negatively, as an image of counter-revolutionary anachronism.
            But if we look again at this passage, we are told that it is “a discussion which the history records with great precision and scrupulous exactness”.[8] In the course of their conversation, Quixote and Sancho each repeat the phrase “so fossil”, so that it is given three voicings in all. When Quixote then decides what Sancho meant to say, he corrects Sancho, and thereby voices what is a rhyme in both the Spanish original and American English: through the mouth of Quixote, “soy tan focil” comes to rhyme with “soy tan docil”.[9] The heroes are a ridiculous anachronism, but through the poetic thinking immanent in their dialogue they generate historical social truths. Quixote and Sancho are an embodied dialectic, a living image of class warfare.
We learn from this that multiply-authorised poetic work is necessarily relational and inter-subjective, demanding something like a lyric intimacy between comrades, which relation mediates the greater work of imagination that is an address to the world. 


A more popular literary malapropism can be found in the first Back to the Future film. The character of George McFly is played by Crispin Glover, who has written a number of appropriative illustrated novels, writing between and over the lines and of otherwise obscure texts. The classic moment happens in the town diner, when McFly, speaking to his future wife Lorraine, proclaims: “I am your density.”[10] This means two things at once. It means: ‘I am the degree of your compactness, your quantity’, which can be read as a declaration of solidarity and fundamental co-dependence.  It also means: ‘I am your stupidity’, which can be read as a declaration of ecstatic and dialectical devotion, of the overcoming of oneself by sacrificial absorption of the stupidity of another.
If George McFly was not Lorraine’s “destiny”, he would also not be her “density”.   Is a mutually-inclusive stupidity the fate of collectivization? And is this weighing-down of the otherwise buoyant the price of a collective future? Is this price actually not a price at all, but a necessary stage in the process of a social organism’s development of poetic authority?


If we are going to be revolutionary poets, then we cannot be like other poets. Our poetry has an obvious readership in the militants with whom we have organised, demonstrated, and occupied. Next to our lives, our poetry is the most radical gift that we can give to revolutionary struggle. It is a weapon, which, at its most powerful, will be forged in the shared heart of many.

[1] Frantz Fanon, “1. Concerning Violence”, The Wretched of the Earth [1961], Translated by Constance Farrington (Penguin Books, 1983), p. 37.
[2] Marge can hold either Bart or Lisa over her head and launch them out, doing superhero flights through their enemies back and forth across the screen. Marge and Homer lock together to form a deadly rolling sphere. Either Bart or Lisa can climb onto Homer’s shoulders and fight from there in tandem with Homer. Bart and Lisa hold hands and run around clothes-lining their enemies. But timing is everything: there isn’t time to make the combination if an attack from the enemy is too imminent.  ¶ What is the analogy for button-mashing in the work of poetry and poetic thought?

[3] (circa 4:10)
[4] See Keston Sutherland, The Odes to TL61P (London: Enitharmon Press, 2013), p. 42: “a tragedy is something you are obliged to imagine must be capable of teaching you something, and a comedy is something you are not obliged to imagine must be capable of teaching you anything”.
[6] See Sean Bonney, Happiness: Poems After Rimbaud (London: UnKant Publishers, 2011).
[7] See Justin Katko, “Incredible Style (Cervantes—de Sade)”, in Epsians 3, ed. Ou Hong (Sun Yat-sen University, P.R. China, March 2013), pp. 79–120.
[8] Miguel de Cervantes Saaverda, Don Quixote: The Ormsby Translation, Revised [1605/1615, 1885], edited by Joseph R. Jones and Kenneth Douglas (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1981), Pt II, Ch. VII (“Of what passed between Don Quixote and his Squire, together with other very notable incidents”), pp. 457–62 (458).
[9] Don Quixote de la Mancha: An Old-Spelling Control Edition Based on the First Editions of Parts I and II, prepared by R.M. Flores, Vol. II (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1988), p. 59.
[10] This is preceded by: “My density has popped me to you.” A year prior to Back to the Future, Crispin Glover appeared on an episode of the sitcom Family Ties (1984), starring Michael J. Fox as the teenage Republican son of liberal parents. Glover and Fox are at a table in a bar, pretending to be military pilots in order to impress some ladies who are their dates. Fox announces that he will be flying a solo mission into enemy territory, and Glover retorts: “Yeah, and I’m going with him.” (

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