Interview with Joshua Clover
Gopal Balakrishnan: Your latest collection of poetry is entitled The Totality for Kids. Could you explain what you mean by “totality,” and its relevance for understanding the history and situation of contemporary poetry?
Joshua Clover: The first thing I should do is admit that I don’t think I’m using the term “totality” with the rigor of a philosopher. It’s a necessarily vague term that indicates for me the category of thought that is open to understanding the innumerable interrelations among humans. I understand individuals to have agency within this at least in part; we’re both determining and determined by the relations. But I take those relations to be a significant object of thought. I believe there are desirable totalities and bad totalities, certainly false and perhaps even real totalities—even, paradoxically, I believe there to be partial totalities.
But mainly, “totality” is a term which takes on some utility and historical particularity for me in the context of political economy, and then with differing valences regarding modern poetry. In political economy, “capitalism” is one form of totality...or maybe it’s several. The caricature of folks who are interested in capitalism-as-totality is that they believe it to be dumbly deterministic, which I can’t say is my sense of it; I find the operations of global capital to verge on the mystical, as much beyond the horizon of pure thought as history itself. But it’s certainly also a way of understanding how, in the most material ways, my life is connected to the lives of people in Juarez and Port-au-Prince and Guangdong, via global flows of capital and labor, of alliance and conflict, of stacks of infrastructure that are always rising and rotting (and I suppose I include my beloved cities in that). These are the things I want to think about in my poems, these systems that we’re consistently advised not to think about, lest our poems become too abstract or preachy. I get accused a lot of the former, but not so much of the latter, which may simply be because no one wants to say what the poems are about. But it may also be because the preachy is rarely as dialectical as I’d hope to be.
It’s funny how easily the elision works: totalitarian, totalizing, totality. The prohibition on the second is justified by the first and equally rules out the third. The field of totality has been abandoned as a space of thought. It has been irreparably tainted by vast world-historical array with an increasingly brief name: now I think you just have to murmur the phonemes “Stalin” and all thoughts involving the term “total” must cower.
GB: Many of the poems in The Totality for Kids’ seem to address the inauthentic and formulaic structure of personal experience in contemporary capitalist society.
a) Do you see the latter as our “Wasteland?”
b) Do your poems aim to heighten or deconstruct this experience of the capitalist spectacle?
JC: Can poetry get us closer to authentic experience, as the lyric tradition seems to believe? Can poetry be a critique of “authentic experience” as an unequally-distributed currency, per the suspicions of language writing? Maybe both. That seems like the first step toward keeping faith with dialectical thought. I worry about poetry trying to keep faith with the possibility of real experience in our debased age. The idea that there are irruptions of the real, of authentic Events to use Alain Badiou’s terminology, strikes me as not finally dialectical. I don’t think of real life as suppressed underneath the crushing weight of fake life. Each present within the other.
One of the things I suspect is that the experiences to which we most need access are neither destroyed by modernity; nor are they found elsewhere, in the last autonomous spaces, each remaining real moment a little Ishi always about to wander down from the hills and into the city of spectacular late capitalism where it will be utterly consumed. If these things were true, I would have no way to make sense of the delight in Frank O’Hara, or Apollinaire. I love your almost-stated idea that “the spectacle” is our Wasteland, a barren and broken empire that still presents itself as the only possible everything, as still lush and sensual and coherent. But I also think that whatever needs to be salvaged or discovered or reimagined is present within the spectacle, within even the worst totality, and that we must seek it there. I guess that’s why my poems spend so much time drifting through late modernity, through corrupted phrases and commodified experiences. I think what we’re looking for is there: sublated, abjected, too glossy and too gross but there. I guess I’d like to imagine poetry as a form of thought that can see what’s unruined in the ruins, urgency in the new cliché, utopia in the pricetag—without misrecognizing ruination, dead language, the money form. I don’t believe in art for art’s sake, exactly, but I do think that art can’t be handled by a Maxwell’s Demon that greets every poem at the entrance to social thought and puts it either in the category of Ideological Reproduction or of Critical Negativity. What would it mean to think about the stuff of our history, without falling into the frozen forms of thinking our history prefers? That seems like the question that to which poetry could be an answer.
GB: How would you situate your work in relation to Language poetry?
JC: To answer that I’ll need to tell a story about the scene onto which Language poetry, later called “Language writing,” appeared. I read the 20th century, while lacking in linearity or simplicity, as seeing a general increase in the belief in the magical force of the individual, both as a virtue and a fact. Poetry’s thought (here I speak mostly of U.S. poetry) regarding this has become progressively less dialectical—less interested in tracing the complexities of the arrow that points both ways (or all ways!) at once, drawn between the “I” and the everything. That’s not to say such thought vanishes entirely: Williams’ “Paterson” is remarkable about this, and in a very different way, Stevens too—and so, strangely enough, is Ashbery. But since, say, the Thirties, such thought has spent the era mostly ebbing away. That’s one way of naming the end of Modernism.
I think this eventually produced a crisis, at the point when poems singing the force of the individual spirit (in agitation, generally) had to do the work of thinking big, standing in the place of actual systemic thought. So the lyric “I,” trying to contain the multitudinous world, ends up blotting it out. Moreover, it starts to seem like a pretty overtaxed tool; it can’t possibly do the work being asked of it, and so diminishes the world down to a size it can handle. The popular poetries of the Fifties and Sixties were marked by the increasing centrality of the single subject, the lyric “I” who, while pseudo-sublimely connected to (a vaguely hovering) “humanity” by shared emotions—by compassion and a generalized opposition to suffering and other bad stuff—nonetheless made the world important insofar as it happened to them, or could be imagined to happen to them. There are exceptions (“Wichita Vortex Sutra” springs to mind, and some Objectivist poetry) but there was also a clear trend.
We as readers identified with Significant Personal Experience X (“SPEX,” the holographic fragment of the spectacle) or we didn’t, and since identification was the only way to bridge the gap between atomized humans, the pressure to present “universal” experiences increased. Problematically, some people’s experiences seemed more universal than others’. The individual occupied the sphere of meaning almost entirely; it was in effect the only mode of thought that poetry seemed to have at its disposal.
In this worldview, the wholeness of the world could only be an effect of the wholeness of the individual who had gone through a significant experience and emerged somehow more complete and wiser. This is the “epiphany” poem, which becomes the cliché or straw man of our poetic history...but exists nonetheless. However nuanced the aesthetic, however gritty the details, the mechanism of resolution risked caricature: problems of the world seem to be solved by individual transformation. An analogy can be found in the way that social conflict is resolved in the movie Mean Girls via Lindsay Lohan deciding to be a better person at the end (ditto Alicia Silverstone in Clueless, Winona Ryder in Heathers, and a zillion other movies; in this regard, the commercial conveniences of Hollywood movies are not so different from the dominant poetic tradition, which insists that the largest problems can be solved by the self-reflective “I” committing to being a kinder, gentler prom queen).
This is the kind of poem that Adorno seemed to have in mind when he wrote that “to write poetry after Auschwitz would be barbaric.” Formally, this poem of recovered wholeness signals itself with a completed arc and a final closure, a suturing of the wound which a skeptical critic might read as a suturing-closed of ideological space.
So that’s the scene into which Language writing emerges. It was by far the most ambitious and significant retort to a tradition sorely in need of one. It posed itself as a challenge to many things, including the singular self as a position from which to make claims; and the idea that language was a neutral instrument which everyone could use equally to describe a world which was also finally the same for everyone. It was a rebuke to the formally closed poem; to the idea of universality; to the possibilities of identification; to any uninterrupted, specious whole. It proceeded by fragmentation, syntactic disfigurement, refusal of rational Cartesian stance. It was suspicious of emotional conveniences, personal revelation, aesthetic prettiness. Though never as popular or institutionalized as the dominant tradition, it has made significant inroads, and right now is as much a wellspring for current poetry of interest an any other tradition.
We’re past that moment now, but we’re not over it. The question before a generation of thoughtful poets is what to make of this history of lyric and antilyric. Neither seems sufficient unto themselves, but “synthesis” as its usually practiced in culture would mean little more than pouring some of the more appealingly “new” features of Language writing into the jeroboam of the lyric tradition, so as to make its champagne bubbly again. This would be a great betrayal. At the same time, accepting uncritically that language writing had somehow obviated the lyric tradition, as has sometimes been claimed, doesn’t seem to honor its own oppositional spirit. Thus one clear task is to forge a critical history of language writing which avoids falling back into the tradition it justly unsettled.
My own leeriness regarding the Language writing tradition makes sense to me in parallel with some ideas about recent critical thought and political history. Language writing posed itself as an attempt to disassemble the singular subject who made the world whole through his or her own wholeness—and huzzah for that. This is part of a poststructuralist critique which rejects the eminence of the total category “History” as having a particular privilege; it’s one story among many. It refuses all “grand narratives” as totalizing accounts.In place of such things we see an interest in the ethics of the encounter, of micropolitics and rhizomes and temporary autonomous zones: local thinking, every location different. I am happy to sing the praises of much of this thought. I wouldn’t not have it for the world. But “the world” is what’s lacking in it. Finally, it’s category of thought that is, much like the personal lyric that helped conjure it forth, unable to think from the position of totality.
That brings us to today, and our fundamental problem to solve. In poetry, the rise of the emotion-drenched, transcendental-yet-atomized subject blots out all other thoughtforms. The oppositional form in turn abjures a way of thinking about the world systemically or collectively, as a set of relations and interconnections and forces and flows which might have a nameable set of qualities, directionalities, even causes. Both traditions have abandoned the terrain of totality.
As it happens, this double abandonment is transacted and completed in the historically decisive passage from 1973-1989, the hothouse era of globalization for any number of reasons. This leaves the actually existing totality—a swiftly globalizing capitalism—unchallenged and unchallengeable as such. Barry Watten has an extraodinarily smart essay that makes this matter manifest clearly enough in the title: “Radical Particularity, Critical Regionalism, and the Resistance to Globalization.” (http://www.english.wayne.edu/fac_pages/ewatten/) Language writing helps us rethink what might be revealed and concealed by the phrase “act locally”—but, and this is my concern, at the expense of truly thinking globally. That’s another way to phrase the demand on contemporary poetry, rather than simply posing it as a matter of aesthetic development.
That doesn’t make Language writing somehow wrongheaded, or a failed project, or bad poetry. It’s neither of the first two, and as for the last, as mixed as most any other poetry. What I mean to do is understand the historical limits of the movement. For me, the return to totality (hopefully with a far better sense of subjects, positions, language, and poetics’ role—things made available by Language writing) is a central demand for poetry now. Not the only. Never the only. But inescapable, necessary. I am certain that, before it finds poetic forms, “totality” is something like a worldview or a thoughtform of which poetry is one expression. So how to address totality in poetry, without simply making the very kind of broad, universal claims that seem both implausible and vacuous?
I’m not quite sure of what the orientation to “content” might be, and am in a great minority in thinking that content is both important, and an after-effect of form. My shorthand axiom is that everything in a poem is form; its content is our experience in reading it. That’s a first step toward a poetics. I don’t think that the category “poetics” has remarkably special access to the personal, the meditative, the meaning-rich, or even necessarily to critical negativity. But I do think it’s a privileged category in relation to totality (and thus to history, and to the spectacle). Poetics, after all, wants to see the fullness of relations between things. It’s the search for a form adequate to the social relations an era, or to a historical conjunction. There’s a reason that Fredric Jameson calls his multi-volume opus The Poetics of Social Form, after all.
No textual form has poetry’s capacity to think synchronically: to take the measure of the arrangement of things within a moment, how each relates to the others, the experience of that set of relations (you can feel Proust reaching after this and that’s what makes him Proust: his heroic, immiserated attempt to think the synchronic and diachronic at once). By a “moment” I don’t mean a micro-instant; Perry Anderson’s term “conjuncture” seems useful. It’s regularly proposed that poetry mediates between individual and collective experience, or between the particular and the general; I’m more interested in the negotiation between the affective and the structural, the feeling of the world system, which is equally out there and in here. I think that reaching after that is difficult, and important, and political, and an effort for which poetry has an unmatched grasp. I guess I would want to call this model something like “conjunctural poetics,” with nods both to Perry and to Fredric Jameson.
And the poets I am most moved by seem to me to be the ones who take this up in various ways: Kevin Davies, Juliana Spahr, Lisa Robertson, to offer some examples. Not that they have invented such conceptions out of nothing; in the next generation up, I think the macroquotidian of Bernadette Mayer, and the neo-epic of Alice Notley, can bear a lot of revisiting—just to name a couple. I’m not sure I could, or would want, to write “like” any of these folks. But these are poets I see as struggling with a similar issue of poetic history, which is what to make of the two strong traditions of the lyric and the anti-lyric, without simply applying the hipper elements of the latter so as to put new bubbles in the old champagne of the former. And in their own ways, Kevin and Juliana and Lisa all seem to me of late to be reaching after vast, systemic thought as a situation for consciousness, including individual consciousness: the totality as a third term, to go with lyric and language writing.
So that’s a story of poetics in the 20th century. But “century” seems to have other valences for you; is it meaningful, and particular for you, as a historical category beyond literary historiography?
Well, of course it’s a kind of shorthand, and as such, always subject to slippage and sloppiness. I do think it’s possible to see “the 20th century” as a meaningful category to contain a certain intensification of capitalism as well as the greatest counter-experiment. Maybe from the perspective of political economy, the century wants a negative definition: the period that has wrestled ceaselessly with the threat that there would be no next leap in the subsumption of labor equivalent to that of mass industrialization. The century when the colonial had to reimagine itself as the transnational, which is to say in which the state-corporate alliance shifted irrevocably in its balance. Enter neoliberalism.
I say this all out of something like intuition. I’m not an expert in political history, and moreover it’s certain that my thinking here is strongly inflected by literary historiography. Maybe what’s most important for me to affirm is just the importance of thinking about these things, of understanding poetry’s existence and possibility as part of all of this. These intensifications of capital’s struggle and self-concealation, seen from here, really do seem to shift phase pretty close to the fin de siècle. And poetry looks that way too; we can argue stylistic innovation and avant-garde negation and so forth, but from here the sense that perception itself would be reconfigured happens around that moment, around Stein and Khlebnikov to choose just two poles. By 1912—before the first World War, which is important, since it’s often given so much explanatory power —the deal is done, and something like Apollinaire’s “Zone” already seems like a naturalistic account of a no-longer-alien modernity. His poem begins with the sense that it’s not only no longer alien, but already over: “In the end you are tired of this modern world.” That’s how it begins! In 1912! It’s a century that ended even as it began.
In addition to his interview, Joshua Clover provides the following links to non-poetical texts that inform and expand his views:
Translation of text: http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/debord.films/ingirum.htm
Poems by Joshua Clover:
- Walter Benjamin, Theses on History
- The film Band of Outsiders by Jean-Luc Godard
- The music of Hole
- T.J. Clark's Preface and Introduction to the second edition of Painting of Modern Life