Attention Span 2011 | Tim Shaner
Slavoj Zizek | In Defense of Lost Causes | Verso | 2009
In Defense of Lost Causes has been my favorite of Zizek’s books so far. I admit that this may be due in part to his prose’s public mode of address, but more importantly it is due to the political timeliness of his project: to establish some kind of universal, leftist response to the universality of capitalism, late or not. It’s the risk suggested in the title that makes this ambitious volume such a thoroughly engaging one. Rather than accepting Fukuyama’s thesis of “the end of history,” which Zizek claims the left has effectively done—”the task today is to resist state power by withdrawing from its scope, subtracting oneself from it, creating new spaces outside its control” (339), In Defense looks back over the failed revolutions of the not-too-distant past—from the French Revolution to the Chinese Cultural Revolution—in order to discern where they went wrong and how we might “redeem the emancipatory potential of these failures through avoiding the twin trap of nostalgic attachment to the past and of all-too-slick accommodation to ‘new circumstances’” (3). With chapters provocatively titled “Radical Intellectuals, or, Why Heidegger Took The Right Step (Albeit in the Wrong Direction) in 1933,” “Revolutionary Terror from Robespierre to Mao,” and “Why Populism Is (Sometimes) Good Enough in Practice, but Not in Theory,” Zizek argues in the “Afterword to the Second Edition” that it may be “Better to do nothing than engage in localized acts whose ultimate function is to make the system run more smoothly (acts like providing space for the multitude of new subjectivities, etc.). The threat today is not passivity, but pseudo-activity, the urge to ‘be active,’ to ‘participate,’ to mask the Nothingness of what goes on” (476). He cites José Saramago’s novel Seeing in which the population, en masse, decide not to vote in the country’s latest election, as an example of the ways in which “violent subtraction” can undermine the seemingly all-powerful state by refusing, like Bartleby, to participate in legitimizing rituals of power. Whether or not one agrees with Zizek’s take on things is less important than the text’s persistent provocation to thought.
Kit Robinson | Train I Ride | BookThug | 2009
Books of poetry are not usually considered page-turners (and all the better for them—isn’t all poetry slow, even fast poetry?). But this volume I found difficult to put down. I say this because the book arrived in the mail just when I was busy preparing to host a poetry reading in Eugene and was in a hurry to bone up on a poet whose work I was largely unfamiliar with at the time. In other words, I was “supposed” to be reading something else (which, needless to say, I found compelling, as well). Not that Train I Ride takes much time to read; at thirty-eight pages, it can be polished off in an afternoon or evening (if “pigging out” is your thing—I preferred to linger in the text as long as I could, not wanting it to end, yet feeling a sense of urgency to read it cover-to-cover rather then in the collage-like, disjunctive manner in which I usually read: hopping from this to that to this and that and so forth, maybe finishing this or that, maybe not, for now). The book—a low-budget gig from Book Thug (a feature that adds to its charm)—arrived in the mail with Robinson’s latest book, the more professional-looking Determination, out from the excellent Cuneiform Press, which I have yet to fully read. Formally, the two texts contrast with each other—the latter more in the minimalist mode we find in The Crave (including some his “Ice Cube”-like, one-word line poems) and the former more along the lines of the new sentence. Sentence after sentence, Train I Ride is full of gems, like these randomly chosen nuggets: “A lost week. I remember everything that happened. But nothing was said.” “The sadness of stadiums. Public life packaged.” “The space inside a lower-case e. You could set up shop there.” Of course, it’s not the cleverness and insight of such lines that ultimately stand out but the masterful way they are assembled that makes them resonate and “pop” off the page (I’ve been watching too much of the Food Network—when exactly did “pop” become part of our TV vocabulary?). Kit Robinson is writing some of the best stuff around these days, in my opinion.
Hannah Arendt | Men in Dark Times | Mariner | 1968
I first came across Arendt’s writing when reading her introduction to Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations back in the mid-80s. I remember at the time thinking that I was as inspired by the introduction as I was the writings of Benjamin himself. But it wasn’t until, years later, when, thanks to a friend and colleague in graduate school, I was recommended The Human Condition (1958) that Arendt became a critical component of my theoretical thinking. Her discussion of labor, work, and action was crucial to my dissertation on poets and their jobs. There was thus a real sense of urgency when I learned, while listening to a recording of Kathy Acker’s talk at Charles Bernstein’s poetics seminar in Buffalo (available at her web page at the EPC), that Men in Dark Times was one of Acker’s favorite books (along with Deleuze and Guatarri’s Anti-Oedipus). The title, which is somewhat misleading since the book is composed of essays on women as well as men (though mostly the latter), comes from the excellent opening essay “On Humanity in Dark Times: Thoughts About Lessing” which offers up some important advice for our own dark times: “Pleasure, which is fundamentally the intensified awareness of reality, springs from a passionate openness to the world and love of it. Not even the knowledge that man may be destroyed by the world detracts from the ‘tragic pleasure’” (6). But it is her discussion of Lessing’s valorization of friendship (our desire to “share the world” with others) over fraternity (our allegiance to a truth that binds us to like-minded thinkers) that makes this chapter (and the book) so relevant to our increasingly polarized society. Noting that “for the Greeks the essence of friendship consisted in discourse” (24) about the world (the “world” being that which “lies between people” ) rather than “the intimate talk in which individuals talk about themselves” ), Arendt writes that when it came down to choosing fidelity to truth (doctrine) over friendship, Lessing critically chose the latter: “Any doctrine that in principle barred the possibility of friendship between two human beings would have been rejected by his untrammeled and unerring conscience” (29). I tried to keep this in mind while visiting with my (Tea Party) in-laws over the summer in Indiana.
Eileen Myles | Inferno: A Poet’s Novel | Or | 2010
Reading Inferno: A Poet’s Novel during my daughter’s soccer season, her team’s name “The Inferno,” the parents at the games commenting on the irony of it, not that they’d think to read it—we complain of our children not reading, but where do we find adults today who take reading seriously (outside of academia)
The print is not justified, hence the prose’s jagged right margin gives off a hint of poetry with its line breaks—this is a “poet’s novel”
The vagina passage is what draws the most attention, perhaps, and certainly the most laughs at readings, but it’s just one thing
Myles prose is sometimes deliberately awkward, disjunctive, even though mostly it’s quite fluid and loose
I love novels about poets, especially the kind of poets Myles writes about; it’s all so much fun
So much of my reading comes from what I’m reading, where Myles will mention Acker who will mention Arendt who mentions Broch and so forth
Zizek will mention Agamben who will mention Robert Walser and so forth
I’d list the two Kathy Acker novels I’m reading—My Mother: Demonology, a novel and Empire of the Senseless—but they’re currently on hold (for some reason); my favorite so far is Blood and Guts in Highschool, which I mistakenly recommended to the pregnant bartender at The Bier Stein in Eugene—she was reading Bukowski at the time and so I thought she might like Acker (not that I meant to suggest an equivalency) what with her tattoos and the punk-like air she projected
Kaia Sand | Remember to Wave | Tinfish | 2010
Remember to Wave is an inspired book and Tinfish Press has done an equally inspired job of publishing it, which is no easy task, considering the formal inventiveness of the text. It’s like a cross between Susan Howe and Muriel Rukeyser, combining the documentary spirit of the Proletarian poets with the Situationists’ derives. Sand’s poetics is grounded in ethics and in the idea that poetry cannot but be political. In Remember to Wave, this means mapping the ground she literally walks on: Portland, Oregon with its buried histories of Japanese-American Internment camps during WWII and institutionalized racism. As we learn from the book, it was only in 1925 that Oregon “repealed from its constitution: ‘No free negro, or mulatto, not residing in this State at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall come, reside, or be within this State.’” Yet, if we learn a lot from Sand’s investigative poetics, we do so as much through the information Sand digs up as through the artistic play she brings to her construction of the book. Just flipping through Remember to Wave is a visual delight.
Paul Lafargue | The Right to be Lazy | Kerr | 1989
Speaking of visual delights, Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company’s paperback edition of (Karl Marx’s son-in-law) Paul Lafargue’s The Right to be Lazy, “Produced by 100% Union Labor,” is a sight that sores the eyes, at least its cover. (I’ll explain shortly.) I stumbled upon this book, though I had been meaning to read it in its entirety (which is not much, running at approximately fifty pages) for some time, while trying to track down Arendt’s Men in Dark Times and anything by Robert Walser, a writer (greatly admired by the likes of Kafka, Musil, Walter Benjamin, and W.G. Sebald, as it says on the back of The Assistant) I had never heard of until I read Agamben’s The Coming Community, and finally Foucault’s The Care of the Self at Eugene’s Smith Family Bookstore, which reminds me of the Strand Bookstore in Manhattan. (We’re fortunate to have a number of quality used bookstores in this town.) This was one of those good days when everything I was looking for I found, with the added bonus of Lafargue’s little text which I came upon unexpectedly, the goofy, cartoonish lettering of this paperback standing out amid the spines of the larger hardbounds. This last little find made my day; it’s not often you walk into a bookstore these days and walk away with such a treasure. Now, as alluded to in the comic book-like lettering found on its spine, the front cover, with its cartoon drawing of a worker laying in a hammock strung between two factory smokestacks, snoring away (“zzzzz”s bubbling out of his mouth) with an open book dangling in his hand below the hammock, his boss, with his fist raised, ineffectively shouting something up at him, makes you think you’re reading a comic book, like something from the comic strip Andy Capp. But once you get past the cover and open the book, you find that the aesthetics have changed quite dramatically. Above the print, which consists of a quote from Lafargue’s pamphlet, is a naturalist drawing of a Meadow Lark, its genus name italicized beside it in parentheses. The quote below it reads:
A strange delusion possesses the working classes of the nations where capitalist civilization holds sway. This delusion is the love of work, the furious passion for work. The proletariat, the great class embracing all the producers of civilized nations, has let itself be perverted by the dogma of work. Rude and terrible has been its punishment. All its individual and social woes are born of its passion for work.
It turns out that these naturalistic drawings of birds are littered throughout the text, which includes both an introduction called “The War on Leisure” by Joseph Jablonski and a “bio-bibliographical” essay by Fred Thompson. Yet, from my examination, there’s no explanation to be found for the inclusion of these naturalistic drawings. I love this aspect of the book. In fact, the entire book is worth reading, not least Lafargue’s essay. I enjoyed delving back into the Marxist, revolutionary rhetoric I read so much of when combing the old, crumbling editions of The New Masses and other Depression era publications at SUNY-Buffalo’s main library. You just got to love the confidence of such statements as: “Social discords will vanish. Bond holders and capitalists will be first to rally to the popular party, once convinced that far from wishing them harm, its purpose is rather to relieve them of the labor of over-consumption and waste, with which they have been overwhelmed since their birth.”
Giorgio Agamben | The Coming Community | Minnesota | 2007
I started The Coming Community (originally published in 1990) a couple years ago but wasn’t ready for it. For some reason, this time around I found it, like Kit Robinson’s Train I Ride, difficult to put down, which is perhaps due to having been primed by my reading of Agamben’s The State of Exception, an important book but one I found somewhat burdened by the necessity of historicizing and hence theorizing its subject. (The gist of the book can be discerned from reading the first chapter.) In contrast, The Coming Community reads like poetry, much of it centered around the task of reconstructing our notion of subjectivity away from the specificity of identity toward what Agamben, in a somewhat unfortunate, though unavoidable translation, calls “whatever being,” a mode of “being-in-language” (and in the world: “being-such”) that moves beyond singularity and, its opposite, the abstract universal:
The Whatever in question here relates to singularity not in its indifference with respect to a common property (to a concept, for example: being red, being French, being Muslim), but only in its being such as it is. Singularity is thus freed from the false dilemma that obliges knowledge to choose between the ineffability of the individual and the intelligibility of the universal. The intelligible . . . is neither a universal nor an individual included in a series, but rather “singularity insofar as it is whatever singularity.” (1)
This rather difficult concept, which, admittedly, I have not done a very good job of explaining here, inevitably leads to the discussion of its political significance in the final chapter—though not the last, which consists of an appendix—of this short, though dense, book called “Tiananmen.” Suggesting that identity works to the advantage of the State in terms of controlling people, Agamben writes: “What the State cannot tolerate in any way . . . is that the singularities form a community without affirming an identity, that humans co-belong without any representable condition of belonging (even in the form of a simple presupposition)” (86).
Peter Clark | The English Alehouse: A Social History 1200-1830 | Longman | 1983
“One does not need to adopt an alcoholic interpretation of history to appreciate the contribution of drinking houses to the social development of premodern Europe and North America.”
If poets and their jobs—the dilemma livelihood presents for the writer—was the focus of my dissertation, which is also the focus of Wig, the magazine I edit with Kristen Gallagher, my real interest has always been leisure, or, as I prefer to call it, loafing. As such, I decided that I’d spend the summer break (financed, I should add, by my industrious wife) working on a project begun last summer called “The Institute of Loafing.” Seated one day in mid-June, at my favorite bar in Eugene, the Bier Stein, thinking and talking about loafing to one of my Bier Stein friends, who being a Eugenian, naturally shared an interest in loafing, it suddenly occurred to me that bar life is most certainly a part of the loafing life. And, in fact, this is confirmed by Peter Clark’s book. Over and over again we read of workers heading to the bar at day’s end. While the alehouse—to be distinguished from the Inn and the Tavern in regards to class, with the former at the top of hierarchy and the alehouse at the bottom—was first and foremost a drinking establishment, it served many other purposes, as well, from lodging to commerce to reading room to what amounts to an employment agency. As Clark writes in the introduction, the alehouse was also a prime source of revenue for the government, noting, ironically that “the American War of Independence was fought by British troops and mercenaries heavily financed by a tax on domestic alehouse drinkers against colonists whose military headquarters, as at Boston in 1774-75, were often taverns” (3).
Tim Shaner’s work has appeared in Word for/Word, Jacket, Kiosk, P-Queue, Shampoo, 88: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry, The Portable Lower Eastside, Ambit (UK), The Rialto (UK), and other magazines. He is the co-editor of Wig, a magazine devoted to poetry written on the job, and curates A New Poetry Series in Eugene, Oregon. He has a Ph.D. from SUNY-Buffalo’s Poetics Program and works as a full-time part-timer at Lane Community College and Umpqua Community College.
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