Monday, 3 June 2013

Chen, Clover, & Spahr: Letter to UK Comrades

 this received in response to David Grundy's paper

We would be unwilling to give such tawdry and trifling material as David Grundy’s
“Practice Run” the time of day, but for the hope that there will be comrades, friends
in the UK with a more serious sense of politics; a real curiosity about what has
happened here in Oakland; and a less self-serving account of the relation between
poetry and militancy. We also hope rather urgently that it isn’t indicative of the race
politics around the “Militant Poetics” scene.

Much of Grundy’s spume escapes us. We apologize for getting lost among the drifty
sentences and Thatcher apologetics, unable to make sense of the “politicallycorrect”
or the force of rectitude in “really being a citizen.” But we must be grateful for
these cloudy moments, given what is to be got from the moments of clarity: the
rehearsal of received and banal slurs of reaction.

Let us go immediately to the moment when Grundy most evidently sells himself to
readers of the Daily Mail, complaining of “the poets who came into Occupy Oakland
advocating various forms of escalation then left black people to swim again in their
own shit once the movement had ruptured.” We will pass over the unfortunate
history of racialized fantasies white people like to have about black people and shit.
Behold instead this interesting dichotomy: poets or black people. Perhaps this
division is the rule at Cambridge; we could not claim to know. In Oakland, it is non
sequitur. There are enough black poets and poets of color that some opposed the
tactics of Occupy Oakland, some fomented them, and some did other things

The racial heterogeneity of “poets,” however, pales before the political heterogeneity
of “black people.” Smugly alluding to a 1970 Gil Scott-Heron performance about
white college activists not only erases the heavy participation of nonwhite political
actors in Occupy Oakland, it recycles an ignorant view of Oakland’s complex racial
politics in 2013 — a city riven by non-white intraracial and interracial antagonisms.
Present day Oakland is presided over by a Maoist-turned-neoliberal Asian American
mayor, and a fully multiracial city bureaucracy and police department at war with the
city’s poorest black and brown residents.

Against this Grundy, content to be a blank bearer of official ideology, resurrects the
crude fearmongering about the “outside agitator.” It is a figure with deep historical
roots in white liberal reaction to increasingly militant veterans of the civil rights
movement and to the urban race riots which spread through cities like Harlem,
Watts, and Philadelphia in the 1960s. It is a term not of description but of crowd
control. The invention of the “outside agitator” as hybrid legal/moral category, and of
the duped and docile black and brown communities that this stereotype
presupposes, has always purposed to justify state violence against unruly and
“illegitimate” political antagonists. It was repeatedly invoked by the Oakland Police
Department, city politicians, pro-police clergy, business leaders, and news media in
order to justify the violent eviction of the Occupy Oakland encampment. It is the
official lie about what happened.

Occupy Oakland’s general assemblies, hundreds and sometimes thousands of
people, voted overwhelmingly to support tactical escalation week after week. That
this could be so easily be chalked up to the machinations of a few outsiders (or in
this case, Bay Area poets — feel the power!) is particularly revealing of the dream
logic of this liberal race fantasy. The awesome, almost supernatural political
influence over non-white communities wielded by the modern day “white outside
agitator” is simply the flip side of the benevolent paternalism defining what Teju Cole
calls the “White Savior Industrial Complex.” That this fantasy is spontaneously
regurgitated by Grundy, following the noble path of left-liberal pundits like Chris
Hedges, underscores the extent to which denying the political agency and diversity
of political opinions of nonwhite people remains a kind of racial “common sense.” It is
a fantasy which has become a peculiarly vicious and effective tool of state power.

It is a strange ideology that fetishizes black militancy in legend and effaces it in
practice, sets militancy as an ideal while condemning it in the streets. The curious
consequence of such contradiction is that it authorizes poetry as the appropriate
space for white militancy — a happy outcome indeed! If that is to be the conclusion
of “militant poetics,” as a limit of struggle, we hope you will keep it as far away from
us as possible; we have more pressing things to do than to discover at windy length
that our poetic practice was the best possible politics all along.

But we would be surprised if this is generally held to be the case. We have great
respect for many of the UK poets. We would assume that they would wish to
renounce such dire and derelict positions publicly, lest the title of “militant” be
emptied of whatever honor it retains.

Chris Chen, Joshua Clover, Juliana Spahr


  1. Hi! Haven't had time to properly digest everything here but want to register my strong sense of a lot of crossed wires. Maybe people should Skype more.


  2. Thank you, chaps: I was at the event and I have to say I agree for the most part, especially with your broader diagnosis at the end of the dangers of the type of 'poetic militancy' being espoused.

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    2. With the right kind of magnifying glass you can apparently enlarge a single sentence of contentious information to the point that it encompasses & blots out all the rest of the text; tilting the glass just so, you can ignite the paper & relieve yourself of any further burden of thought.

  3. How crossed wires, Jo? Care to elaborate? I mean, I took two things away worth meditating on:
    "Mass-produce, you got printers, photocopiers, intended for what, lecture handouts, power-point presentations, conference programmes, tea and biscuits, directions, sympathy, bureaucracy. We didn’t hand out the ‘memorial booklet’ at Thatcher’s funeral, at the celebration. We didn’t hand out the poems we wrote out of that movement of marches those few years ago, though we gave them to ourselves, to each other, email, fugitive copy, accumulating status for rarity. Like, literally flood that fucking street, all these trees have died for this moment, their beautiful sacrifice for this which you can only consent to betray."
    Yes, we need more audience. I mean, the review-culture idea is great, but what's the point if the review culture is posted from Brighton to a select few? And I think Jo's paper elaborates on that admirably; we should try to get some top-down activism alongside bottom-up activism, marxism for dummies in your daily newspaper, alongside marches.
    And secondly, I for one was very perplexed by the guilt-complex over celebrating Thatcher's death, and the relatively trite comment on misogyny. I understand that the word 'cunt' is and retains a history of sexism, but can't I just use it this once to describe that man over there, or that woman, or that transgender person? Please? The very word 'nature' bears the stamp of the lamentable history of misogyny. (This is not a retroactive defence of certain idiotic comments on Fiona Sampson by a certain person on a certain mysterious listserv, though if you think it can be used for that I may need to retract this point, and swiftly).
    Even if this is a Bloomian, de Manian misreading, and I think it is at times ungenerous, this letter still makes some important points. I mean, Grundy's point that "Though obviously, none of this really means anything unless the poetry we’re writing is good poetry. And that itself is equally a part of our political task." seems to suggest that writing good poetry is inherently political! This is terribly naive. Nor do I understand the passing sneer in Grundy's paper at The White Review, if he could substantiate it would be nice. Here Grundy worries that poetry is an ego-massage: "Wanting otherwise, so that poetry wouldn’t be shit, wouldn’t just be ego-massage, observance of the world unfolding especially for you, for your specific keenly attuned descriptive eye and I; supercapitalist collusion but without any of the bright shiny sheen that implies – coke for breakfast, hilarious unreal brilliance of neon, Daft Punk’s latest album, skyscrapers in New York – instead just the pure dreariness of not even exhilarating compromises." And I can't help but ask if and how his tightly-refined wit isn't itself acting as an ego-massage. This paper is, to some (and to the writers of the letter I assume), a series of wittily expressed non-sequitur observations. We should skype more, because in conversation people don't PERFORM their intelligence in this way, and when they start to the party moves elsewhere, coz that guy is a bore. Oh dear, I've written too much now.

  4. Boom shake shake shake the room!

  5. Feel better now that you have demonstrated the proper racial attitudes? Get off the identity politics; it's bogus, self-satisfied, self-righteous indignation that benefits no one more than yourself -- with self-flattery and feel-good liberal bullshit. The flip side is guilt. Thou dost protest too much.

  6. Wait, MR, are you accusing Chen, Clover & Spahr of identitarian political correctness? Seems to me they base their claims on material realities of the racial & political composition of OO as they observed it directly (I believe). They draw what seems to me a spot-on critique of the reactionary history of the notion of the white outside agitator. Given your comment's lack of specificity & sneering tone, I'm suspicious that it's coming from a certain kind of doctrinaire Marxist place of automatically attacking anyone who addresses race as a PC liberal. Perhaps you can prove me wrong, but I find your attack needs to go beyond name-calling in order to be at all constructive.

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