Call for Participation (edited volume) Poetic Words in the 21 st Century Neoliberal City

Which alternatives to the capitalist and neoliberal status quo is the poetic word involved in constructing, by participating in expression, response, spatial occupation or collective organisation? Conversely, in what ways has poetry in public spaces become a tool for readying urban spaces for gentrification? Which strategies do poets and cultural organizers employ to resist such a re-signification of poetry by those in power, and to defend and recuperate poetic words as processes that practice radical democracy and are committed to social, political and spatial justice?

We invite essay proposals that explore the ways in which poetic words engage with the material and the immaterial in the contemporary urban world, marked by spatial injustice (in lines with Edward Soja’s “thirdspace”), racism, sexism and the related phenomena of segregation, marginalization, gentrification, or deliberate decay. This specifically includes essays that pick apart neoliberal and authoritarian mystifications and instrumentalizations of ‘Poetry’ in the contemporary urban context. We welcome investigations of the relationship between poetry and the city’s role in producing categories, such as “illegal” immigrant, that criminalize and exclude, as well as considerations of poetry generated in response to the production and policing of “internal borders” within the cityscape. We are looking for research on poetry and the city’s complicity in neoliberal legal, carceral and penal systems that have targeted migrants, the poor, and racialized populations. How has poetry participated in discourses, or been instrumentalized by forces, that have remade the city as a zone of privilege, homogeneity, and wealth?

Our planned edited volume seeks essays that explore the role of the poetic word as a critical response to, as an engaged critique of and intervention into, the social, affective and political realities of today’s cities that are marked by post-industrial, neo-colonial and neoliberal structures. We are looking for analyses and experiential engagements of a variety of poetic expressions from diverse urban zones, and particularly invite research on cities and towns that are not capitals, a relatively less studied topic in the broader area of investigation.

Many examples of contemporary urban poetry speak about, and from within, spaces marked by the watershed of neoliberal policies and beliefs, and the financial crises of the beginning of our century. The short form, read, performed, exchanged, written on the urban surface, or hidden within the palimpsestic layers of the city, can challenge notions of possession or productivity. This world-making poetic expression, which is sometimes the fruit of cooperative or communal endeavors, and sometimes the cherished hidden gem in a hostile environment, furthermore problematizes traditional ideas of the public and the private and reexamines conventional notions of enunciation and authorship. In the best of cases, it is an exercise in democratic, urban imagination that allows for an active, sense-imparting relationship with the environment.

Studies may include, but are not limited to, strategies of writing against monumentalization, poetry in relation to the city as tourist attraction and object of consumption, street art’s sensory responses to urban rhythms (in line with and beyond the historical vanguards), poetry and touch in an urban context, poetry of resistance to the language of advertisement, art in relation to an economy of sharing, and lyrics of dispossession and discarded objects. Other possible topics include: poetic resistance to, and defense against, neoliberal violence, and poetries of occupation and solidarity, what Kristin Ross (along with the Communards) calls “communal luxury.”

Please send your 3-4 page proposal (max. 1100 words, MLA style) to ashea@cca.edu, ikressner@albany.edu, c.grabner@lancaster.ac.uk by October 31, 2016. The deadline for submission of complete essays (max. 8,000 words) is Jan 31, 2017.

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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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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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Live Poetry and the Seizure of Literature in São Paulo, Brazil

Carlos Cortez Minchillo, Dartmouth College

In Brazil, Neoliberalism, and even before it, elitist state-led policies of industrialization since the 1950s have generated abnormal levels of wealth concentration, migrant flows to urban areas, and quasi-legal social segregation. In poor, underserved areas of Brazilian big cities, dwellers have been abandoned to their own devices, living for decades now in the crossfire between a frequently abusive, corrupt police and murderous criminal gangs. Under such circumstances, citizenship must not be taken for granted: it is never an undisputable right, but rather something to fight for, against hegemonic sectors of society. Just to give a more precise idea of how resilient these social actors are, as I write this post conservative politicians representing the traditional elites in Brazil have overthrown a democratically elected president and retaken the power. Emblematically, one of the first decisions of the new government was to abolish the Ministry of Women, Racial Equality, and Human Rights. Also, all members of the new cabinet appointed by the acting president are white men.

This political setback runs counter a long and steady struggle of marginalized people in Brazil for social visibility and political voice. Literary venues that have mushroomed in poor areas of Brazilian metropolises in the past fifteen years have a lot to do with that. When I first started studying this cultural movement in São Paulo, I was particularly interested in checking how the controversially labeled “marginal literature” articulated a political and aesthetical counter-discourse. By attending poetry slam events, and through textual analysis and interviews, I wanted to examine the social dynamics and political impact produced by slam poetry, as well as the ways it potentially challenges aesthetical assumptions and well-established literary appraisal criteria.

As Brazilian geographer Milton Santos explains, in Brazil, the possibility of being a citizen depends, to a large extent, on where he or she lives. This perverse cartography of citizenship and the corresponding spatial segregation perpetuates educational, occupational and economic disparities and produces phobic symbolic representations. Very little room is left for positive roles and expectations. The underprivileged is depicted (or sometimes self-depicts) as illiterate, ignorant, idle, socially unadapted, threatening, violent. Often, they are seen as lazy “welfare scroungers” by those who oppose governmental social programs that in recent years were responsible for lifting about 40 million Brazilians from the poverty level.

The media and the arts contribute to consolidating many of these stereotyped identities, even when they expose Brazil’s societal flaws by adopting an empathic attitude toward those oppressed and vulnerable. A recent study by Regina Dalcastagnè shows that in a corpus of 258 Brazilian novels all Black characters are poor, and 58.3% of Black male teenagers are criminals. Thus, in Brazil, literature –or, at least, mainstream literature– does not necessarily reconfigure bigotry, despite potential good intentions underneath the lines of its often brutal realism.

But by using alternative channels, new voices are telling different tales of the city, and they are being heard. Frequently connected to hip-hop culture and social activism, a vibrant literary scene has been gradually expanding in marginal spaces of Brazilian metropolises. In the last years of the 20th century, initiatives like the communal organization of public libraries in poor neighborhoods or the distribution of poems written on recycled cardboards and attached to light poles prepared the ground for major changes. Since 2001 two types of spoken word events emerged in the peripheries of São Paulo: saraus and slam poetry. In common, both saraus and slams first occupied marginal and popular spaces not traditionally associated with literature: cheap neighborhood bars, abandoned squares, and unused areas inside metro stations. Also, they both rely primarily on oral performances, a largely neglected form of literary art. Even when printed, literary texts previously performed in saraus and poetry slams seldom circulate through conventional channels like mainstream publisher houses and bookstores. In other words, to some extent “marginal literature” redefines where and how literature circulates, and who creates, controls and consumes it. That’s what I have been calling the “seizure of the literary” by those who until recently were largely ignored as producers and recipients of literary texts. The casual and inclusive social space of slam poetry and saraus is a key leverage factor in a country where, according to a recent survey, 30% of the population has never bought a book, public libraries are inaccessible or in poor conditions, and schools are uninspiring or even hostile spaces.

Through literature performed in poor neighborhoods, marginalized subjects have been developing a stronger sense of citizenship and political agency. Especially among underprivileged youngsters, a sentiment of entitlement has recently surfaced, giving birth to deviant discourses and self-representations. As “marginal” writer Alessandro Buzo puts it on a poem, for affluent Brazilians a favela dweller carrying a book is a “contraindication”. The association between a favelado and a book represents a symbolic shift whose magnitude can only be assessed if we accept, together with Gramsci, that hegemonic confrontations are not limited to traditional political institutions. They require the deconstruction of common sense and the formation of new subjectivities. Literature, of course, plays a crucial role here. That explains why it is so remarkable that many marginalized Brazilians have elected literary gatherings as the embodiment of a distinct ethos and an alternative strategy for a non-partisan political struggle. Alternative spaces for experiencing literature, non-printed texts, and heterodox ways of circulating and trading printed materials are the foundation of an original literary system, providing room for non-professional authors, new audiences, and unusual poetic discourses. Not only do they stimulate literature as a vehicle for political messages, but equally importantly, they can transform the politics of literature and the aesthetic features of the literary object.

For those who live in the peripheries and favelas of São Paulo, saraus and slams establish a social and emotional network that can partially compensate for the lack of supporting institutions and services. They not only bring the same old literature to new audiences but also, most importantly, stimulate authorship among those who are usually considered uncultured. In saraus and poetry slams, people perform for their fellow neighbors, but as imagined communities, they create, perform and spread new images of themselves. In doing so, they consolidate a collective voice against a society that despises them. One may recriminate them for perpetuating a binary discourse in which the world is simplistically divided in two: on the one hand, “playboys”, “the system”, the rich, police officers and politicians; on the other hand, them, the marginalized. But who is to be blamed for using this binarism as a segregation tool in the first place? Before things can get better, peripheral citizens have to teach in very simple yet poetic terms what is like to be on the other side of society.

 

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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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Linearity and Cyclicality in Jia Zhangke’s 24 City (2008)

By Jasmine Hu, PhD Candidate at Harvard University

Jia Zhangke, leading filmmaker of the Sixth Generation movement of Chinese cinema, features in his work the urban spaces and dispossessed populations of contemporary China. His 2008 film 24 City examines a physical site in Chengdu City, the capital of Sichuan Province, caught in a moment of transition from the state-owned and managed Communist aircraft manufacturing “Factory 420” to a privatized deluxe apartment living complex called “24 City.” This site’s material transformation bears witness to various thematic narratives of a society in the midst of rapid change: from Maoism to state capitalism, from the collective to individual, from production to consumption. Here I will argue for a re-interpretation of the film to forefront a heretofore neglected discourse — poetry — that is at the crux of the film’s relationship to memory, time, and space.

24 City takes on an unconventional narrative strategy of docufiction, a strategy that film critics by and large did not respond favorably to. The film follows a documentary format, interviewing eight men and women spanning three different generations, each with a personal connection to the aeronautics factory. Echoing the Deleuzean “power of the false,” Jia intersperses footage of real life interviewees and inhabitants of Factory 420 with performances of famous Chinese actors and actresses. These actors who have played legendary emperors, empresses, and warlords, are instead reenvisioned as the former worker-inhabitants of the factory, members of a dispossessed group that the historical narrative of a rapidly developing China leaves behind.

The film’s most obviously self-referential instance of “docufiction” is the interview of former factory worker Gu Minhua. In her youth, the other workers of the factory nicknamed Gu “Little Flower,” based on an observed resemblance to the actress Joan Chen, who plays the Communist revolutionary heroine “Little Flower” in her 1979 film debut. The interviewee Gu Minhua, however, is not a real life person, but a fictional character played by the very same actress, Joan Chen.

This docufictional moment acts as a microcosm of the film’s greater narrative about competing visions of temporality: from socialism to state-sponsored capitalism, from ideal to real, from filmic time to biological time. The film’s ideological slant regarding these lapses, though, is difficult to pin down: is this blending of fiction and truth a subtle condemnation of and resistance to a popular capitalist culture’s encroachment upon the everyday, and of cinematic fiction’s inability to live up to its promises? Or is simply a more neutral observation on the prophetic and inevitable power of both pop culture and the act of naming?

To further develop the semiotics of 24 City’s “docufiction,” I turn to an underexplored discourse that nevertheless suffuses the film: poetry. While the 24 City’s blending of truth and fiction is frequently discussed, less noted is the discursive hybridity of the film, as a text that is an accumulation of diverse media — equal parts documentary, cinematic fiction, portraiture, still life, and, in particular, poetry. Jia’s choice of cowriter for 24 City is not a fellow filmmaker but the poet, Zhai Yongming, a Chengdu City native who was rusticated during the Cultural Revolution in rural Sichuan. Poetic citations of their mutual choosing are interspersed throughout the film, displayed in Godardian intertitles that transition the film between interview subjects. These intertitles feature modern Chinese poets, some older imperial Chinese poetry, as well as translated Western ones like Yeats.

Close reading reveals that several poetic intertitles share the same strategy of “docufiction.” In reading them against the original text of the poems they cite, the quotations of the intertitles often don’t match the original. Instead they freely modify and particularize the original lines:

Take the first line quoted, from Ouyang Jianghe, from the poem Boli gongchang (Glass Factory:

整个 造 飞机 的 工厂 是 一 个 巨大 的 眼球 ,劳动 是 其中 最 深 的 部分 。

The entire aeronautics factory is a great eyeball, labor is its deepest part.

The original reads:

整个 玻璃 工厂 是 一 只 巨大 的 眼珠 , 劳动 是 其中 最 黑 的 部分

The entire glass factory is a great eyeball, labor is its darkest part. Not a huge change: “glass factory” turns into “aeronautics factory,” and “darkest part” becomes “deepest part”. The situational context of the poem is remade to correspond directly to the film’s subject matter. Here’s another, more drastic case of modified citation: The final shot of the film is the city of Chengdu’s skyline. Projected onto it are the final lines by Sichuanese poet Wan Xia, in the poem Benzhi (Essential Nature):

成都 , 仅 你 消逝 的 一面 , 已经 足以 让 我 荣耀 一生 。

Chengdu, even your disappearing aspect, is enough to glorify my existence.

The original reads:

仅 我 腐朽 的 一面 就 够 你 享用 一生。

even my decaying aspect, is enough to enrich your life.

Here the lines are more actively rewritten. The original poem, an address to an unspecified “you,” most likely Wan Xia’s reader, is about life, aging, and questions of truth and the “essential nature” of things. In the film’s epigraph the pronouns are inversed, and the line is instead changed to an apostrophe to the city of Chengdu, the same skyline shown behind the text. A poem that was originally not about urban space or place, but instead about the figure of the poet himself, becomes instead reoriented into a direct address to the city. In the original lines, the subject is aging and undergoing the natural process of decay. In 24 City, the subject of the city is instead vanishing, suggesting a more sudden material obsolescence. The modified lines better capture a motivating fear of the film, of a state capitalist progression that marches forward while erasing and obliterating the past, substituting natural, biological rhythms with artificial demolition. The new lines resist the narrative of history as natural progression. But another poetic citation potentially undermines this narrative of resistance, rendering this device more ambivalent —  perhaps the most significant citation, as it gives the film its title of 24 City. This is a couplet, from an unnamed “ancient poem” quoted early in the film: “The cherished hibiscus of 24 city, in full bloom/ Chengdu shone and prospered.” But so far as I’ve researched, this couplet does not actually exist. It does not come from any existing premodern poem, and has no precedent. Nevertheless the lines are later recited by the real estate agent at the housing development of the new apartment complex, 24 City. The couplet thus becomes a commercialized language, poetry used in the service of advertisement: the prophetic language of Chengdu’s “prosperity”— and its potentially totalizing erasure that comes along with it — is thereby fulfilled through the construction of 24 City as both space and film.

The number “24” is the most prominent “fiction” that the couplet generates– unlike the hibiscus flower, the number 24 is not associated with Chengdu, and instead seems like a deliberate attempt at commercial branding to evoke a sense of modernity and urbanity. 24 immediately suggests the hours in a day, and the constant commercial activity and rapid pace of life of the modern city: “24/7 service,” “open 24 hours.” The digital clock moves linearly, forward, up to the number 24, but then immediately erases and forgets its progress by going back to 1. Yet this number can also speak to an alternate, more ancient system of temporality: the 24 solar terms of the ancient Chinese lunisolar calendar, a cycle that reflects the passing of the seasons through tangible natural phenomena.

Perhaps these two systems of temporality suggest a resistance to the easy narrative of rapid urban transformation that 24 City’s subject matter, and the story of modern China as a whole, too readily invites. Rather than a linear progressive trajectory from socialist factory to urban development complex, Maoism to state capitalism, collective to individual, industrial to neoliberal, these temporalities exist simultaneously within the urban landscape, interacting and circulating within each other. Rejecting synchronicity, the film demonstrates the urban topography’s harboring of not merely the diachronic, but the polychronic. Far from what the obvious metaphors of old buildings reduced to rubble would suggest, the “past” may be dispossessed, but it is never actually fully obliterated or demolished; rather, it lingers on concurrently with and within state capitalism’s aggressive futurism. It only seeks a poetic that recognizes it.

The film’s final interviewee is presented as an archetype of the modern state capitalist consumer: a young, fashionable personal shopper who plans to buy a glossy new apartment in 24 City. But this illustration of consumption is ultimately revealed to be an act of filial piety: she wants the apartment not for herself to live in, but for her mother, who was a worker at Factory 420 and will return to live at 24 City. What appeared to be a narrative of linear progression is really one of circular return, and as Factory 420 transforms into 24 City, 24 City cycles back.

Works Cited

24 City. Dir. Zhangke Jia. The Cinema Guild, 2008.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinéma II. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1985. Ouyang Jianghe. Doubled Shadows: selected poetry of Ouyang Jianghe. Trans. Austin Woerner. Brookline, Mass.: Zephyr Press; Hong Kong: Chinese University Press of Hong Kong, 2012.

Wan, Xia, ed. Hou meng long shi quan ji. 后朦胧诗全集. Chengdu: Sichuan jiao yu chu ban she, 1993.

 

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Invitation and Introduction: The Poetic Word and Urban Resistances to Neoliberalism

Please join a conversation about resistance, dissent and creativity in contemporary neoliberal cities. Anne Shea, Cornelia Gräbner and Ilka Kressner started this conversation in 2014 during a panel organized by Cornelia Gräbner and Constanza Ceresa at the annual meeting of the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) in New York, continued it among the three of us over the following two years, and opened it up again to a wider group of people in a second panel at the Annual Meeting of the ACLA at Harvard in March 2016. The initial posts on this theme are written by the participants of this second panel.
Our panel was titled “Creative Alternatives to Neoliberalism: Poetic Word in Urban Spaces.” While we knew that we wanted to invite contributions on the neoliberal city, we weren’t initially sure what type of resistances we wanted to talk about. In the end we agreed on ‘creative’, notwithstanding the role that the creative class has played, or rather has been made to play, in gentrification. Both terms ‘resistance’ and ‘creative’  were up for discussion; we wanted to give ourselves and the panel participants the chance to look at them and explore them from different angles, cautious and aware of their significance in the contexts of gentrification and urban repression.
One point we took from the panel concerns the role of dissent, which is often identified with resistance – an identification that we wish to question. Many of the contributions indicate that a small dose of dissent is great for the neoliberal city and from a capitalist mindset. For the purposes of marketization and urban culture it makes a city all the cooler, especially when it is articulated in culturalized and arty forms and thus manages to bring together the cutting-edge and the aesthetically pleasing, when it is well-spoken, recognizably intelligent, and unthreateningly self-confident (or self-assured?). For neoliberal urban politics, dissent can be employed to manage just the right changes and to navigate all the invisible and intangible structures that hold the status quo in place. It justifies labels like ‘democratic’ and terminology like ‘participatory’ or ‘consultation’ – and those are crucially important to the neoliberal system because the educated middle classes, who are so crucial to neoliberal capitalism, shy away from situations and places where they feel – we emphasize ‘feel’ – disempowered. 
With regards to resistance, many of the presentations indicated that those in power and the privileged in cities welcome a little bit of resistance. After all, resistance brings a lot of energy to the urban mix, and as long as those in power can channel this energy and use it in their favour, it strengthens a city’s edge and attractiveness. This does not de-value the resistances in themselves, on the contrary — but it does make it clear that critique, ethical principles, listening, response, respect for Otherness and difference, and solidary forms of organization are not second-rate to expression.
Several presentations refer to the resistances of those who David Harvey with Fiona Jeffries in Nothing to lose but our Fear (2015) has described as the ‘disaffected’, those who are in a relatively privileged position. Among the topics discussed in this context are shifts of sociopolitical roles of different classes, ways of forming alliances and the question of how to talk over others. 
For those who identify as the urban dispossessed, culture, memory, and art – whatever they create or make with their own hands, their own voices, whatever they share and what binds them together – are most precious. This and their collective and individual subjectivities is what they have salvaged, cradled, nurtured, clung to, hidden, smuggled, defended, re-created and clawed back over long and at times unmeasurable periods of repression and/or attrition. Such co-created, often collective, communal, communized cultures are irreplaceable, and they can only live and thrive when they have breathing space on their own terms. That predatory capitalism wants to steal even them and re-make them in its own image is the ultimate offense; it is a reason to defend then, not to dismiss them or give up on them. But in order to do so, one has to decide on, and commit to, a stance.
Part of feeling ourselves into that stance was defined by our practices of listening and of speaking, of paying attention to the opaque without exposing it to a hostile limelight and doing favours to those who want to know so that they can constrain and repress, of being mindful of the practices, dynamics and structures of authority that we ourselves are part of in sometimes complicated ways and that we sometimes do not know how to not replicate, of not isolating an academic paper from the neoliberal context in which it was researched, written, presented and listened to; of being clear and committed without being judgmental. This need of continued examination is part of our decision to continue working on this project. We will start this next round of work with the fairly open form of a collaboration with the Poetics of Resistance, which consists of us ‘curating’ the blog Poetics of Resistance for about two months. However, this will not be the only venue for the project, as we agree that this topic needs to also be explored in a more traditionally academic format, such as that of an edited volume.
We welcome contributions, suggestions, and comments, as long as they are not sexist, racist, classist, or discriminate, violate or abuse. Anyone is free to reply to any of the posts; if you would like to contact us then please do through the form of the Poetics of Resistance blog, or find our university email addresses – it’s easy.
Anne Shea, California College of Art
Cornelia Gräbner, Lancaster University
Ilka Kressner, State University of New York
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