Whether matter (prima materia, language, or the logic of metaphor) can “think” is a pressing question for our times, as writers, poets, and citizens engaged with the long-deferred threat of emancipatory modernism: actual upheaval. For social revolt against rigged, multibillion dollar elections, and corporate racketeering by pharmaceutical giants, oil companies, and multinationals to occur, however, requires concerted action and community building, as well as an elevation of imagination beyond the reflexivities of corporate capitalism, the immediacy of the commodity form, and other post-empire imaginaries.
In 2013, we labor for our most basic rights to a living wage, retirement security, and freedom of choice, increasingly usurped for the 99% while tax shelters, offshore banking, and corporate bailouts are readily farmed out to the elite. The cost to the citoyen moyen is steep. As Jean-François Lyotard remarked: “Whoever is the wealthiest has the best chance of being right.”
The end of metaphysics coincides with what Jean-Lucy Nancy and Phillipe Lacou-LaBarthe call the “retreat of the political”: the withdrawal of contemplative space for a recognition of injustice stalling agitation for change. As poet Laura Goldstein says, in “Awesome Camera”: “Across the calm world, small battles, people playing . . . for a few fraudulent months, the debate followed the election . . . on the surface a language replicates itself for a republic, under the ashes the other is whispered, spreading waves through a community. The leaders are stronger than ever.”
In our post-industrial service economy, few goods are actually “made” (or, new language coined) yet the frenetic speeds, exploitative structures, and assembly-line homogenization of productive capital retains its hold. Cognitive capitalism within a commercialized urban landscape and, virtually, cyberspace, have made irrevocable changes to how and where we think: the very neuronal plasticity of our brains has been reformed, and artists of all mediums transfixed by and nostalgic for an escape from image-driven culture. Baudrillardian simulacra and depthless surfaces have become Harlow’s wire monkey, supplanting the “authentic” so fully that most poets writing in globalized English can’t remember an “outside” grounding referential language, so chimerical, or threatening, has the “real” (the other, or non-Western paradigms) become.
For Heidegger, the “not-yet-thought” of an author’s work was its greatness. Derrida calls this trope “unknowledge,” an ante-epistemology not haphazard but following its own schematic progression (the logic of the unconscious, perhaps): “The unknowledge that will know where and how to exceed science itself . . . it will not be circumscribed by the history . . . of dialectics, but will be the absolute excess of every epistemē, of every philosophy and every science.”
Time-as-event: the felix culpa of rupture between kairos and chronos, unknowledge and its coming-into-form?
Modernity’s “messianic future,” as spoken of by Walter Benjamin (reframed in Lucy Biederman’s poem “My Walter Benjamin” as “The carnivality of belonging to an epoch”) overwrote a missing present: the material and ideological structures built in its wake are a colossus of temporally and spatially ungrounded ruins, and thus “unsustainable” as dwellings for both body and mind.
The writing of difference (post-modernity’s unthought thought), and teleological pursuits beyond a continually regressive present, is contingent upon self-possession, and resistance to the “order of the same”: essentializing, pre-packaged “norms” based on white, male, or heteronormative experience. Bearing witness to the differend reanimates the relationship between aesthetic labor and the evacuation of political praxis: the slow work of critical assessment amid streams of liquid capital and pop culture. We undergo this work conscious of the legacies of scientific rationalism and deconstructionism on our thinking and language use, poetic and discursive. While Derrida saw deconstruction as a creative act of “liberating” language from accrued connotations and an unmediated relationship between signifier and signified, post-deconstructionism (a double-negation) invites self-erasure by the affixing of “post” to all identitarian claims. For any subject who has experienced hegemonic censorship, these terms still clearly have weight: Deborah Copaken Kogan’s essay, “My So-Called Post-Feminist Life in Arts and Letters” in the April 2013 edition of The Nation, in which she describes being forced to title her memoir as a war photographer Shutterbabe, as one recent example.
In an age when flarf and digital poetics constitute the final flourish on post-lyric democratization (to quote Vanessa Place, “when The New York Times is generating haiku algorithmically, it’s time to hang up your dancing shoes”), is it no longer useful to distinguish between visual and textual fields of reference (“surface reading” versus abrogated “depth hermeneutics”), aesthetic and ethical orientations, or Clement Greenberg’s abrogated “kitsch” and “avant-garde”? What language acts comprise today’s vanguardism (“post-avant” as the the revolutionary cadre within the academy, and neo-absurdism or surrealism, from without)?
In a poetics fueled by oneiric desires, does no one, not even the jailed or oppressed, “need” to make their voices heard, hear those of others, or attempt to represent the alienated “selves” of those silenced by the ruling class or dominant discourse?
Philip Metres, in his essay “‘Under the Bombs’: On the Failure of Protest Art, and Why We Still Need It,” speaks to the importance of continuing the legacy of resistance literature, spurred by Walt Whitman, Muriel Rukeyser, and Denise Levertov, despite the failure inherent to representing violence, war, and the ideological terrorisms endemic to “politics”: “ . . . This is why protest art—art whose allegiances to the actual often come at the cost of its art—is still necessary, and sometimes a vital supplement both to the historical archive and to the history of art. It says: this happened, in the way that Herodotus—the father of history—begins: ‘I Herodotus of Halicarnassus here set down what the Greeks and Persians did so as to prevent these deeds from drifting into oblivion.’ Though we think of protest as a sort of negation, the word protest, after all, comes from the Latin for ‘to testify before,’ meaning a public witness.”
Matter contributor Gabriel Gudding, on the 20th century swap of the linguistic for the ethical turn: “the way we excite the political and invest the excluded is precisely via insistence on ethical reparation. That is necessarily its function: ethics is the means by which we pull the abject into the light of consideration, into the light of the political; its purpose is to argue on behalf of those who are not even considered ‘those’ yet.” Acknowledging the incapacity of object-oriented-ontology’s “radical democracy of objects” to grant subjectivity to “non-human” others, Gudding insists that speculation about ontology must be done in concert with ethical practice and empirical verification. The subjectivity of animals must be properly and carefully represented in how we think about Being if we are to move beyond an “already incomprehensible calculus that has transmuted the very limit of ontological reality – suffering – into a commodity itself.
The commodification of human and animal capital is a legitimate fear, given language’s instrumentalization by communist and fascist ideologies, and the shotgun wedding between technoscience and capital, yet deranging language’s ability to communicate (or declaring language’s communicative function obsolete) are not the only solutions. If the novel is the site of world-making, according to Lukács, poiesis is the province of self- and place-making as well as, since Homer and Hesiod, valuation. Without an ethics of solidarity, a competition-driven market may continue to fuel aesthetic production (e.g. a book a year, in a market where opportunities for publishing, print and online, proliferate apace with the viral speed of production) but not necessarily a meaningful, embodied connection with the past, future, or each other.
As Susan Bordo said, critiquing culture doesn’t keep us from enjoying its problems. Form anesthetized of risk, affectual content, audience sensitivity, or subject “matter” is a linguistic game began in the absence of no descriptive “real” on which to found a unifying meta-discourse. Yet, the belief that shared language has no real-time, intersubjective consequences if not able to be totalized as “real,” keeps writers from speaking out against terrorist insurrections erupting the wake of identifiable “authority”: the delusional ideologies of those who try to mete out “justice” through destruction (often instigated not by vengeance, but motiveless violence).
Matter is space where visual artists, poets, and writers of all genders, races, and ethnicities can contribute work without first bleeding it of subjectivity and criticality (whether of social and financial institutions, the other, or ourselves). We hope what transpires will be an evolving forum for desired change, humor, and provocative art that transcends the false binary between politics and aesthetics, as well as lyric, language and conceptual antimonies based on perceived inabilities of those discourses (musical prosody, semiotic play, and formalist abstraction, in turns), for structural critique.
We thank you for reading.