Closing Remarks: The Poetic Word as a Form of Resistance in the Neoliberal City (Series)

Cornelia Gräbner, Lancaster University

Ilka Kressner, State University of New York

Anne Shea, California College of the Arts

Over the past two months we have maintained on this virtual location an exchange about the poetic word in contemporary neoliberal cities. Contributors have looked at some of the many facets in which neoliberal capitalism, its structures and its agents shape, change, appropriate, and colonize cities and their inhabitants as individual and as communities. We have also explored some of the many facets of the resistances of the poetic word.

In some case the city dwellers themselves use the poetic word as a form of resisting the erosion of their dignity, as in the cases studied by Ilka Kressner and Carlos Minchillo; in other cases, they are participants in the resistant scenarios or city-scapes envisioned by writers. In others again (Kressner, Hu, Shea), the poetic word serves as a reminder of urban environments that have been demolished or otherwise phased out and with them, the socialities and cultures that they gave space to. Sometimes this is done by speaking about the urban environment and the ways in which people perceive and inhabit it; at other times, this is done by inserting the poetic words to challenge, defend, or bring to life a past that the neoliberal status quo is trying to get rid of.

Three types of city dwellers feature throughout these contributions: the disorientated, the disaffected, and the dispossessed.

One thread that connects all these case studies is an awareness of urban temporality as a thick, textured enmeshing of past and present, and the refusal to simplify, unravel or render transparent this temporality which seems to be intricately linked to people’s experience of space. When people are forced into crazy schedules that leave them not a second to pay attention to, or deal with, the unforeseen or the out-of-the-ordinary, when people’s attention spans are subjected to a carpet bombing campaign that shatters them into a myriad of smithereens, when people don’t even have the time to ask someone for directions and listen to someone’s speech pattern and accent and instead, turn to their GPS – in such life-worlds the unravelled, transparent and easily accessible city-scapes and urban topographies of neoliberal cities appear to be a seductive (and often, the only) way of making it into the next moment. What has become clear in these posts is that such urban environments are lethal for difference.

Apart from destroying social territory and cultural space, in such urban environments the needs of the disorientated are played off against the claims, challenges and defenses of the disaffected and the dispossessed. In the contributions of Minchillo and of Gräbner we see how the dispossessed turn the poetic word into recuperated terrain and change the terms of appreciation. In Minchillo’s case studies in Brazil this happens in the thickly interwoven terrain of the favela and in Gräbner’s, it happened in the overlooked urban jungles of Northern England. While spoken word poetry in the favelas resists, in the case discussed by Gräbner the (possibly well-meaning) marginalized members of the establishment proceeded to collaborate in the cultural dispossession of the territorially dispossessed. Within a wider context these case studies touch on the pivotal role that the creative industries and the creative class have all too often played in the gentrification of cities and in disguizing the lack of imagination and creativity when it comes to building worth-while alternatives that genuinely improve people’s lives. These case studies also touch on the role that cultural analysts and critics have and still are playing in the justification of such processes and policies.

The neoliberal city is an assemblage (Saskia Sassen) that moves in and out of social and territorial spaces in the contemporary city; and following on from the above the city-as-assemblage clearly differs from the city-as-texture. The assemblage is one-dimensional in its topographical, temporal and political arrangements. It relies on enforced transparency and uni-dimensionality. The relationship between past and present is linear, and the legacy of the past is either musealized or, when it does not qualify for or resists musealization, it is suppressed and its legacies in the present, often criminalized. The exploration of this relationship between assemblage and texture is one that we take from this exchange for further analysis and exploration.

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An Aside from the Series: Online Symposium on Academic Freedom in Turkey, 25th August

Academic Freedom and the Turkish Turmoil: Symposium on Academic Freedom in Turkey.
 
The symposium will be held on Thursday, 25 August, 2016, at 13-17 in the lecture hall Porthania II (Yliopistonkatu 3) in Helsinki. It will be simultaneously streamed online, welcome to listen to the speeches online wherever you are situated in the world!
 
Please share the link below in your own networks!
 
Online video streaming:
 
Programme:
  • 13:00 Opening words: Academic freedom and autonomy  
    Chancellor
    Thomas Wilhelmsson, University of Helsinki  
    13:20 KEYNOTE: Quo Vadis Turkey?
    Professor
    Umut Özkirimli, University of Lund
    14:00 Turkey, EU and the narratives of emancipation: a reality check
    Senior Research Fellow
    Toni Alaranta, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs
    14:30 Putschists vs. Populists
    Professor
    Mahmut Mutman, University of Tampere

    15:00-15:30 Coffee Break
  • 15:30-16:30 PANEL:
  • Panel discussion Chair: Research director Juhana Aunesluoma, University of Helsinki
  • Research Fellow Halil Gürhanli, University of Helsinki
  • Professor Hannu Juusola, University of Helsinki
  • Research Fellow Johanna Vuorelma, University of Warwick   
 
 

 

Neoliberal Racism and Black Poetic Forms of Resistance

Anne Shea, California College of the Arts

As theorists have shown, neoliberalism entails, not a shrinking of the State, but its reconfiguration. While regulations on corporations have contracted, laws targeting the poor and people of color have expanded along with the penal system. Neoliberalism works within the law, not outside it, shaping legal categories to its own end. In this short essay, I read the song cycle, Zong!, as M. NourbeSe Philip’s critique of legal reason. If the Law is a form of social ordering, then Philip’s formally experimental text disturbs this order, mobilizing history against neoliberal erasures of white supremacist violence.

In many studies of neoliberalism, race hardly figures. But as Omi and Winant, along with a host of scholars in African American studies demonstrate, neoliberalism is a racial project as much as it is a strategy of capital accumulation (Omi and Winant 211). In the 1970s, neoliberalism mobilized white reaction against gains made by the liberation struggles of people of color in the two previous decades. Emerging within the post civil rights era which had expanded democratic participation and discredited overt racist discourse, neoliberalism employed code words such as taxpayer, as a strategy to mobilize white racism and resentment while disavowing racism itself (Omi and Winant 218). Setting about to dismantle the gains made by anti-racist, democratic movements of the previous era, neoliberalism criticized affirmative action by deploying mutations of the movement’s own rhetoric. If liberation movements had attacked racial oppression, neoliberalism now made the category of race itself an illegitimate category through its insistence on “colorblindness.” Within this frame, any mention of race could be construed as racist; this twist on the anti-racist movements’ own rhetoric served to advance first the neoliberal strategy of crying “reverse-racism” and second the more effective, long-lasting strategy of what Bonilla-Silva terms “color-blind racism.”

Because, in the United States, the working class has been structured by patriarchal white supremacy, its representational forms have taken these characteristics. Thus, representations of deindustrialization have often focused on the white working class man, reproducing the hierarchies and exclusions that marked working class formation and representation. If we look at Ferguson, Missouri we can see how neoliberal racism works within the deindustrialized city. Clarence Lang tells us that the St. Louis City metropolitan area, of which Ferguson is a part, “has been a national laboratory of residential segregation” (Lang). As black residents, many working-class, fought against historical segregation in the ‘60s and ‘70s, whites left (Lang). These changes shaped present-day Ferguson as a suburb of 21,000 where 85% of its residents are black while the city council and police force are overwhelmingly white (Cohen). In this deindustrialized Rust Belt city, marked by inadequate housing, unemployment, and decaying infrastructure, the neoliberal rhetoric of color-blindness serves to mask on going racial inequality in the United States.

In Ferguson, law enforcement has used aggressive ticketing for minor offenses to extract revenue from its poor residents, such that “court fines and fees” constitute the city’s “second-largest source of income, generating over 2.4 million in revenue in 2013”  (“Policing and Profit” 4).  Unlike Fordist economic strategies that required wages to be high enough for workers to buy consumer goods produced in the factories in which they worked, “neoliberalism relies on the inequality of the rich and poor” (Dean). Along with economic dispossession, criminalizing populations serves to constitute social inequalities as natural and inevitable.

It’s within this context that Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, was shot to death by a white police officer, Darren Wilson, on August 9, 2014. The grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown.

In the months following Michael Brown’s murder, the Caribbean Canadian poet, M. NourbeSe Philp, wrote: “Zong! Ferguson, Ferguson Zong!, Zong! Ferguson, Ferguzong, Fergusong, Fergusing, sing a song of Zong, a song of Ferguzong.” In Philip’s message, sent as a tweet, she brings together the slave ship (Zong) and the neoliberal city (Ferguson). Her words render the neoliberal city as slave ship and grave, revealing both as sites of racial terror and murder. Katherine McKittrick has written “the [slave] ship while materially and ideologically enclosing black subjects” is also “a location of black subjectivity” and “black resistance” (McKittrick xi). McKittrick shows us how to understand the slave ship as a material, discursive, and imaginative site that enables stories that emphasize both the devaluation of black life and, paradoxically, the valuation of black life in struggle. Neil Smith and Cindi Katz remind us of the “imbrication of material and metaphorical space” and the poet enters into this imbrication in order to resist neoliberalism’s dominion over contemporary spatial stories (McKittrick xiii).

Philip uses the slave ship as an imaginative site in her Ferguson tweet and in her book-length poetry cycle Zong! (2008) based upon the legal document Gregson v Gilbert. In 1781, the captain aboard the Zong ordered the murder of nearly 150 African captives so that the money for which they were insured might be collected. Because the insurance claim provoked a legal dispute, the conflict ended up in the English court as Gregson v Gilbert. Making the decision to  “lock[ed] myself in the text” as a means to uncover what “remains hidden below the surface of the legal document,” Philip created the first cycle of poems in the book using words found within the text of Gregson v Gilbert.  After composing that first set, Philips began to manipulate or, in her words, “mutilate” the legal document, by “whiting and/or blacking out words.”

Zong!’s structure resists order – the order of the court, law’s order – and the linear narrative form with its implications of a beginning, middle and end. In this telling of the story of the Zong which is simultaneously an untelling of the story of the Zong, Philip opposes the “marking of slavery as an archaism, destined to be superseded by the emergent history of freedom” (Johnson 222). Rather, in Philip’s text the relationship of slavery to freedom is that of “dynamic simultaneity” (Johnson 227). This story, if we can call it that, hasn’t concluded. Zong’s resistance to closure is not a formal interest in the open-ended text as much as it is a political insistence that the devaluation of black life, the global capitalist systems of exploitation, and the Law’s deadly reason remain with us.

The Law is a form of social ordering. Philip disturbs this order; she tears at Law’s taxonomies. She unloosens its sentences and sets words adrift across the page: “suppose the law/is/not,” she writes (Zong! 20). Philip’s text mourns diasporic Africans subjected to dehumanization through Law’s reason – those aboard the Zong and those whose lives the Law continues to discount in our own time, like Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Mya Hall, and Trayvon Martin. Zong! shows us the past in our present, but also, implicitly, it reveals how the past’s deadly logics might be undone.  Philip recounts a history of white supremacist violence, but also she illustrates “the rhetorical structures by which the languages of supremacy are uttered, rationalized – and ruptured” (Sandoval 2). Chela Sandoval, in Methodology of the Oppressed, asks that we

…not lose sight of the methods of the oppressed that were developed under previous modes of colonization, conquest, enslavement and domination for these are the guides necessary for establishing effective forms of resistance under contemporary global conditions: they are the key to imagining “postcoloniality” in the most utopian sense (Sandoval 9).

As an aesthetic work with its roots in de- and postcolonial movements, Zong! creates textual passage-ways between temporalities in order to expand the vocabularies of resistance to contemporary white supremacist violence. In this song cycle that demonstrates Law’s power, Philip manages to, paradoxically, shrink its dominion by bringing us to its limit.

In her solo readings, Philip performs the text in multiple ways, at times reading only individual poems, other times readings sections or the entire book over multiple hours. She reads at different paces, sometimes reading so slowly that the performance becomes one of silence interrupted by words or silence erupting through words. She stretches words, releasing them into sound or splintering them into percussive beats. Vowels open out into the air, linking insides to outsides, one body to another. Even when Philip reads alone, she seems to be reading with other voices. For Philip, the “public genealogy of resistance’ which her work makes audible has always entailed challenging “the singularity of the lyric voice” with a “multiplicity of voices” (Genealogy 115).

Fred Moten teaches us to pay attention to sound, to the way it might help us hear what he calls “socialities” other than the ones in which we’re entangled. Sound arranges an other order, another sense, through song: “Zong! is song – the song we have always sang,” says Philip, “particularly when we were brought here to the land of untelling.” Zong! understands the normative order of the neoliberal city as a “war on Black life” (Moten). At the same time, through its radical form, the book and its various performances offer a “lawless freedom” (Kant qtd by Moten) that “challenges…the many ways of death that globalization offers” (Philip “Song Lines”). In forming her critique of neoliberalism, Philip taps into the aesthetic strategies and the political imagination of the twentieth century anti-colonial movements and theories that set about to dismantle Western rationality and the European imperium.

Collective and durational readings include the “audience” and/or other artists. Watching and listening to these performances, we note moments of singular voices, cacophonous eruptions of sound and words, chants, joined voices, disjointed voices. Some people stand, others sit or walk, some dance, others read. If the poem can be understood as a kind of tool for gathering people together, this gathering is not organized exactly. It’s something I can’t quite describe which seems important. Because it might be gathering us together in ways we don’t quite have words for or can’t quite name. And in this way the text points toward a future, a search for something which isn’t and which might be if we stay in this space long enough to be transformed by it.

 

Works Cited

Cohen, Cathy J. “From Ferguson to Flint: Race, Neoliberalism and Black Politics.” African American Studies Lecture. Princeton University. 5 Apr. 2016. Web. 27 May 2016.

Dean, Jodi. “Complexity as Capture: Neoliberalism and Communicative Capitalism.” Neoliberalism, Crisis, and the World System Conference. York University. Aug. 2013. Youtube. Web. 27 May 2016.

Developments in the Law. Policing and Profit. 128 Harv. L. Rev. 1723 (April 2015): Web. 27 May 2016.

Johnson, Walter. “Slavery.” eds. Glenn Hendler and Bruce Burgett. Keywords for American Cultural Studies. 2nd ed. New York: New York U, 2014. 224-27. Print.

Lang, Clarence. “On History, Protest, and “Respectability”” Labor Online. The Labor and Working Class History Association, 17 Aug. 2014. Web. 27 May 2016.

McKittrick, Katherine. Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2006. Print.

Moten, Fred, and Robin D.G. Kelley. “Fred Moten and Robin D.G. Kelley in Conversation.” Do Black Lives Matter? Bethany Baptist Church, Oakland. 13 Dec. 2014. Vimeo. Web. 27 May 2016.

Philip, Marlene NourbeSe. A Genealogy of Resistance: And Other Essays. Toronto: Mercury, 1997. Print.

—–. “Song Lines of Memory in a Globalized World.” Insurgent Cross-Cultural Conversations in the Expressive Arts: Contesting Notions of Transnationalism and Citizenship. Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York. Mar. 2006. Lecture.

—–. Zong! Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2008. Print.

Sandoval, Chela. Methodology of the Oppressed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

Spence, Lester K. Knocking the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics. Brooklyn, NY: Punctum Books, 2015. Print.

 

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