Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Occupy's Poet Laureate: Keats

I am still having difficulty getting back into my exam reading after the quarter (not that Caleb Williams and Althusser aren’t super exciting), so I will procrastinate by blogging about why the Occupy poet laureate should be Keats. Yeah, ode-on-a-grecian-urn Keats as a radical leftist.
            The modern playbook on avant garde and politically subversive poetry comes, in large part, from Wordsworthian Romanticism. Not only was Wordsworth’s second preface to Lyrical Ballads one of the first literary manifestoes, it established the poetics of subversion as rooted in Romantic irony. Such irony stipulates the near impossibility of any truly meta-perspective (i.e. the Burkean sublime) outside one’s embeddedness within a phenomenological and moral environment. Romantic irony marks the site of one’s encounter with the other, who is, within this space, never truly other. Accordingly, Wordsworthian romanticism is all about relations – self/other, human/nonhuman, middle class/peasants, etc. This is precisely why Whitehead’s process theory jives so well with both Wordsworth and Percy Shelly (the hyper-Wordsworth). In sketching the genealogy of his Organic Theory of Nature (all reality is a process of becoming composed of events, realizations, and relations wherein entities bind together through prehension and patterns), Whitehead calls Wordsworth his a nineteenth-century predecessor not only because “he dwells on that mysterious presence of surrounding things, which imposes itself on any separate element that ewe set up as an individual for its own sake,” but primarily because Wordsworth “exhibit[s] entwined prehensive unities, each suffused with modal presences of others” (Science and the Modern World 83-84).
            Whitehead’s deference to Wordsworth indicates not only the prevalence of Wordsworthian poetics, but also the operations of its political subversion. As a political act, Wordsworthian Romanticism proceeds by reconstructing a profuse environment (not only “natural,” but also socio-economic) outside of which the poet seemingly offers a meta-position (that place where the environment is known fully, as if the reader-perceiver were some Burkean sovereign) only to undercut any such position.
“The Old Man Travelling” is a prime example of such a politics of subversion. Wordsworth opens this poem with what appears to be a nicely poetic description of an old man wandering, an opening seemingly ripped from the pages of a sentimental poem by, say, William Cowper. We see the old man and his poverty from a vista removed from the action – the abstraction of this gaze seemingly isolates the political content (poverty and class inequality) so that we the privileged reader (both epistemologically and economically) can abstractly understand that content. Such sentimentalizing (or more precisely, pastoralizing) is ironically sketched in the lines, “He is by nature led/ To peace so perfect, that the young behold/ With envy, what the old man hardly feels.” Here we already get a sense that the joke is on us, who have up to this point assumed the position of “the young” by presupposing our own epistemologically privileged perspective – we know what the old man feels better than he can know because we have attained our nicely distanced gaze.
However, by giving the old man the final word, the poem undercuts this meta-position by forcing the reader into an undue intimacy with the old man. What a sentimental gaze led us to believe (the old man is a poor-in-world primitive) is completely shattered when the old man reveals his “real” feelings: anxiety over his son, who is “dying in an hospital” following a Napoleonic war “sea-fight” This rug-pulling maneuver places the reader face-to-face with the other. But the encounter is uncannily ambiguous: where is the line between self and other when the coordinates of that division have been seemingly obliterated? Locked in such an undue intimacy, the reader becomes aware of his/her embeddedness in an economic and moral environment and hence ethically responsible for the alterity that, as Whitehead stipulates, “imposes itself” on us.
While such an undue intimacy is the initial, experiential task of Wordsworthian political poetics it is a controlled intimacy. If on the one hand Wordsworth seeks to toss the reader into a radical intimacy with the other, he does so by also implicitly assuring his reader that in the last instance this is only in one’s mind. The entire subject-forming, ethical machine of Wordsworthian poetic experience is predicated on the possibility of “world making” – or, the suspension of one’s immediate experience of the real through an abstracting prehension that translates the always incomplete real into a fulfilled phenomenal Real. If Wordsworth pulls the rug of sentimental poetry from under our feet, in the end he does so not to obliterate our phenomenal distance from our surroundings, but rather to upgrade our prehension of those surroundings. The problem with the sentimental gaze isn’t that it is world making; the problem is that is merely too abstract. As Wordsworth famously claims, “We murder to dissect” – an inescapable operation poorly managed by sentimental poetics. Luckily for us, Wordsworth has the solution. Sure we murder with our dissecting gaze, but we can do it with feeling – which makes everything okay. By attuning ourselves to our surroundings, the violence of phenomenal prehension (murdering to dissect) becomes tempered, which then allows for a more authentic relation to our surroundings. By being attuned to the old man’s true feelings, we enter into a more ethically efficacious relationship with him. As a political-ethical procedure, Wordsworthian Romanticism serves to upgrade our consciousness of our relations with the other so that we can then, perhaps, change those relations for the better. As a political action, however, such a political poetics ­– which stretches from Wordsworth to Shelly to the Realist novel to Dada to Modernism to certain David Lynch films – operates to the side of the political “reality” it comments upon. Just as we never actually enter an undue intimacy with the old man (Romantic irony protects us from a full immersion into our environment), Wordsworthian poetics never enter into a lived political struggle.
Keats’s poetry, on the other hand, is all about the actual immersion within an aesthetic, political, ethical world. As poems like “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (and its precursors “Lines to J.H. Reynolds, esq.” and “Sleep and Poetry”) are not only about relations (they are object-lessons detailing our capture by the kitsch dispositifs of capitalism), but also participate in relational actions, albeit in a truly subversive manner. The poles of Keatsian object lessons stretch from a meditation on the poet’s desubjectifying experience of apparatic capture (see my previous post on apparatuses) to the poet’s construction of an object that will operate exactly as the object within the poem acts on the poet. As the poet is “teased out of thought” by a profusion of capitalist kitsch – it is incredible how many of Keats’s objects are kitsch: a reproduction Portland Vase, busts of poets in Leigh Hunt’s library, reproductions of paintings, mass-print translations of Homer – he simultaneously reenacts the same operations to capture the reader. Keats’ poems work in a totally different register than Wordsworthian Romanticism. Instead of upgrading our consciousness of relations, Keats seeks to place us on the very gears of capitalist relationality – in the hiatus opened by each object of a capitalist economy and our selves.
But this is not critique. Keats does not say, “Because you now know how dispositifs operate you can be more effective participants in society.” Rather, he actually renders the mechanisms of capitalist capture inoperative. By reproducing an object that functions according to the same operations as an imitation Portland Vase, Keats profanes the very operations of capitalist sacredization (the jettisoning of living being into a separate sphere, here the teasing of thought by consumption), returning to free, poetic use the faculties of living being previously appropriated by capitalism. This is the meaning of the famed lines “Beauty is Truth, truth beauty.” Keats is not evoking some auratic universalism – one that would merely fetishize the procedures of sacredization – but rather stressing that the aesthetic encounter – one’s capture by a dispositif – is the condition of any encounter with any object and that the modality of that encounter is completely contingent. These lines say, simply, "You cannot escape apparatic capture, but you can reconfigure the modality of that capture just like this poem’s profanation of a capitalist dispositif does." Hence Keats’s indefatigable stress on inoperativity: apparatic capture suspends living being in a certain modal relation, but there are also subversive reconfigurations of those relations. That is what Keats’s object poems are all about. They mediate and construct new modal relations with the objects of capitalist consumption, therein doubly suspending the apparatic suspension of living being. If kitsch teases us out of thought, then it is also possible to tease kitsch out of thought. Keats’s poems do this in reality
And that is precisely how the political activities of Keats and Wordsworth differ. While Wordsworthian Romanticism seeks to upgrade our consciousness, Keatsian poetics actually changes our imbrication within our environment and is, accordingly, politically subversive in actuality.
The tactics of the Occupy movement share the political operations of Keats’s poetry. At bottom, the Occupy movement is about one’s simple existence in space and how that act renders the operations of hypercapitalism inoperative. By refusing to participate in the mechanisms that appropriate vital functions of living being by capitalism’s dispositifs, an occupier radically suspends the efficacy of capitalism – which is predicating on the abstraction of productive vitality (labor, consumption, thought, language, etc.) from one ontological layer (individual being) to another (field of capitalism). The occupier’s mere existence in space – his/her inoperativity – is the most radical form of revolution possible under the existing conditions of biopolitical hypercapitalism. Quite literally, the inoperativity of protesters across the world consists in the placement of their bodies on the gears of the apparatus such that those apparatuses cease to function. That is why the recent west-coast port shutdowns are radically violent: by placing their bodies within the space capitalism needs to distribute its goods, the protesters actually strike a blow against that system.
Wordsworthian models of political activism are absolutely impotent in this regard. Predicated on consciousness upgrading, Wordsworthian subversion can be heard in the persistent entreaties that the occupiers formulate demands or offer nuanced philosophical explanations of their movement. Such formulations are nothing more than a reinscription of a potentially revolutionary energy within the very operations the movement seeks to overthrow. That is why I personally find the conciliatory rhetoric of certain strains of the movement worse than pointless. By calling for ethical openness for the other, such strains merely recapitulate the assimilationist logic of capitalism. While being open to the other is ethically correct, it is merely a precondition for the actual revolution and not itself revolutionary. Rather, the revolutionary work of the movement happens at the level of inoperativity – the port shut downs and building occupations – wherein the operations of capitalism are suspended. The occupy movement isn’t, in the last instance, an upgrading of our ethical consciousness. The occupy movement is about the revolutionary overthrow of capitalist relational in actuality. Keats provides one model for such revolutionary inoperativity. 

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