Cultural Dispossession by Validation: Poetry, Literary Criticism, and Urban Capitalism in Northern England

By Cornelia Gräbner, Lancaster University

When in our roles as cultural and literary analysts we engage with themes related to oppression, dispossession or resistance, we encounter cultural disdain. This element of symbolic violence is crucial to creating conditions under which populations are exposed to neglect and physical violence, and are rendered vulnerable. In the face of disdain, we often choose for ourselves the role of cultural advocates for an art form or a sector of the population. But what exactly are we doing when we raise the respectability of a population, or the prestige and the market value of an art form? What are the implications of making a population more knowable and less threatening on the terms of hegemonic society? With this post I want to initiate a reflection on, and a problematization of, the dynamics between validation, disdain, and territorial and cultural dispossession. While I will focus on a case study that goes back to the 1960s, this is only the initial research sparked by the contemporary experience of living in North-West England, where urban regeneration has focused on the cultural heritage and the peculiar and particular temporalities of de-industrialized cities like Liverpool, Manchester, and Sheffield.

The ways in which these ‘re-valued’ cultural identities have been made part of capitalist regeneration projects is by residents often experienced as cultural dispossession. Indeed, those who came to populate these urban centres in the 19th and 20th century were marked by previous experiences of dispossession: of the enclosures in England, Wales and Scotland, and of colonial land robbery and cultural genocide at the hands of the British in Ireland and the former colonies in Africa, the Americas, and Asia. These populations did not base their identities or cultures on ownership; instead, they appreciated internalized or skill-based forms of creativity, and (often ephemeral and autonomous) practices of communality and commoning such as carnivalistic partying, shared musical practices, or storytelling. To people with a historical experience of dispossession, all things and practices cultural are precious in ways which are difficult to appreciate by propertied members of society: only what you carry in your mind and in your body cannot be taken from you. When such non-capitalist practices are inserted into commercial exchange, and value is assigned to them on capitalistic terms, a constitutive feature of these cultures is appropriated and compromised.

Cultural Dispossession1 by Validation: The Mersey Poets

Disdain or contempt as a cultural force initiates a dynamic by which the disdained are made vulnerable to direct or indirect violence wielded out by the hegemonic society. Validation is often an attempt to remove people or practices from this vulnerability. But the price is that they are being inserted into the system that disdains them in the first place, and that their autonomous practices as an ‘Other’ are not respected on their own terms. A case in point is that of the so-called Mersey Poets, or Liverpool Poets, who flourished in the 1960s as part of an autonomous cultural scene in Liverpool often labeled the ‘Liverpool scene.’ The Liverpool scene brought together art, poetry and music on equal footing. Coffee houses, bars and clubs provided autonomous and semi-autonomous spaces for regular or one-off poetry performances and readings, the format of many of which was modeled on one-night acts of musicians or the collective performances of bands. Among the core poetry performers and cultural organizers were Adrian Henri, Roger McGough, and Brian Patten. They contributed to the scene in multiple ways, and created multi-faceted, mostly live and ephemeral forms of expression that drew on poetry, performance, music, performance art, painting. Their work expressed an ethos that Richard Craig in New Formations has described as a ‘fellow-feeling between author and other people’ (p. 259), and that Edward Lucie-Smith in The Liverpool Scene called ‘a real sympathy for their environment, but an even greater loyalty’ (p.6). What they were loyal to is the physical, social and cultural context of ‘Liverpool’, understood as a geographical location as well as a social construct and a cultural identity. Because ‘Liverpool’ had been disdained and therefore largely left alone by the establishment, the Liverpool scene could develop its own approach to all matters cultural and artistic. As Adrian Henri described it: ‘Art could go into the streets, be a political act, take away the barrier between fantasy and reality, affect the quality of daily life, seek inspiration from humble and despised objects, create an environment of its own’ (p. 27). Another element of such autonomy was the poets’ irreverence towards authorities put in place by somebody else, expressed by McGough to Lucie-Smith: ‘We’ve got no literary or dramatic heritage. We try out what we’re doing, and we test it on people, and people react, and we sort of go on from there. We haven’t got people to bow down to’ (p. 3).

Many did not take kindly to this attitude, and in one case the Liverpool poets were dismissed precisely on the basis of a metonymy that was established between dispossession and their use of language. The term dispossession was deployed by Jonathan Raban in response to the Liverpool poets in The Society of the Poem (1971). Raban dedicates several pages to poets from Liverpool, Newcastle and San Francisco, describing their style as that of ‘whimsically impoverished speech, an attempt to get a local, private, dispossessed language into verse, to talk straight, bypassing poetic convention, to the audience’ in what is to him ‘a curiously bastardized style’ (p. 116). He contrasts the subjectivities expressed in this ‘whimsically impoverished speech’ with the – for him, acceptable and even admirable – poetic voices that speak ‘as if one of the dispossessed people in the crowd of a nineteenth-century novel, or a twentieth-century newsreel, had been suddenly enfranchised, licensed to speak, not from a dominating, romantic notion of selfhood, but from a humble, unillusioned position in the ruck of a large community’ (p. 125). Raban treats ‘ impoverished’ and ‘dispossessed’ as completed processes without questioning who was dispossessed and impoverished why, when, and by whom; or how (and if) such injustices can be redressed or atoned for in the present. He expresses pity for and even sympathy with the dispossessed, but only when their dispossession results in servile and submissive attitudes that perpetuate the status quo, expressed in them speaking only when enfranchised and licensed to speak by those in power. If they do otherwise, he despises and disdains what characterizes them. His unquestioning acceptance of the patriarchal male lineage turns into judgment when he describes their style as ‘curiously bastardized.’ He either cannot conceive of, or cannot permit, that the Mersey poets’ poetic practice was driven by the desire to create and to share, and devoid of the desire to possess by means of ownership or consumption; and he cannot conceive of a humbleness that is neither servile nor submissive.

Then and now literary critics set themselves the task to counter such disdain. This was often done by validating the poetry on the grounds of its embeddedness in the ‘local culture’, or its popularity (understood as expressed by the market). This approach seemed to be supported by the fact that their anthology The Mersey Sound (1967), part of Penguin’s well-respected Modern Poets Series, became a best-seller. But the poets themselves often felt that validation on such grounds was insensitive, inattentive and denigrating towards the poetic and linguistic elements of their poems. Moreover, on a political level, addressing disdain with a counter-movement distracted theorists and readers from the autonomous alternatives to classism and capitalism that the poetry of the Liverpool poets carried within it, and which the response of theory thus failed to learn from, to grow, and to nurture.

Predatory Assemblages: Regeneration and Cultural Dispossession

In the culture-based, neoliberal ‘regeneration’ of the post-industrial city the validation of disdained cultures or populations on hegemonic terms becomes an element of what Saskia Sassen has called ‘predatory assemblages.’ In her analysis of contemporary expulsions and enclosures, Sassen argues that ‘we are seeing the making not so much of predatory elites but of a predatory “formations”, a mix of elites and systemic capacities …, that push toward acute concentration.’ (14) Those who are benefitting from this process, she argues, ‘could not have achieved such extreme concentration of the world’s wealth. They need what we might think of as systemic help: a complex interaction of these actors with systems regeared towards enabling extreme concentration.’ (13). This includes the help of national governments, with ‘enormous capacities for intermediation that function as a kind of haze, impairing our ability to see what is happening – but unlike a century ago, we would not find cigar-smoking moguls in this haze. Today, the structures through which centralization happens are complex assemblages of multiple elements, …’ (14). To have what one most cherishes become a valued and effective part of what has dispossessed one’s ancestors of their livelihoods and their territory in the past, and what encloses and oppresses oneself or others in the present, and to then be told that one should feel complimented and honoured, is surely one of the most heart-wrenching, most demeaning and undermining experiences that human beings can go through – and this is what I mean by ‘cultural dispossession.’ It is one more prove that capitalism cannot abide what refuses to be in its likeness, even and especially when it is peaceful – so this is what we have to appreciate, love, defend and nurture on its own terms.

Works Cited

Craig, David, The Real Foundations: Literature and Social Change (London: Chatto & Windus, 1973)

Henri, Adrian, Environments and Happenings (London: Thames and Hudson, 1974)

Lucie-Smith, Edward, ed., The Liverpool Scene: Recorded Live along the Mersey Beat (London: Donald Carroll, 1967)

Raban, Jonathan, The Society of the Poem (London: Harrap, 1971)

Sassen, Saskia, Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy (Cambridge and London: Belknap Press, 2014)

Smith, Stan, ‘ “Every Time a Thing is Possessed, It Vanishes”: The Poetry of Brian Patten’, in Michael Murphy and Deryn Rees-Jones, ed., Writing Liverpool (Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 2007) pp. 117-137

1 I have first come across this term in Stan Smith’s contribution on the poetry of Brian Batten in Writing Liverpool. Whether ‘cultural dispossession’ is Smith’s term, or whether it is one commonly used, I have not been able to ascertain. It is certainly a term that resonates with realities and experiences, and that I here turn into a concept.

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