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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Resisting Neoliberalism in Contemporary Lima: A Poetics of Vulnerability

By Ilka Kressner, University at Albany, State University of New York

Poetry is a compelling voice to help us gain insight into the massive political and urban changes that took place Lima, Peru, during the last thirty-five years. After the Communist Party of the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) had launched its armed phase in 1980 in the highlands of Ayacucho, the Andean country suffered a civil war with serious human rights violations committed by guerrillas as well as the armed forces (1980-92). It was followed by the repressive regime of Alberto Fujimori, who only fled the country in 2000 during the third (illegal) term of his presidency, as the massive corruption of his government had become too visible. Starting in the 1990s, Peru saw the implementation of a series of extreme neoliberal policies that led to drastic demographic changes, such as rural exodus to the Metropolitan Lima region during the last 20 years.

Peru has a vigorous lyrical tradition marked by a keen awareness of everyday life, the fundamental impact of the daily grind for self-reflection and/as artistic creation. In this context, César Vallejo’s oeuvre, and in particular its inclusion of minute observations and everyday facts remains inspirational for today’s artists. The following strophe from his “Espergesia”/”Have You Anything to Say in Your Defense?” (Los heraldos negros/The Black Messengers; trans. James Wright, Neruda and Vallejo) illustrates a poetic stance of existential disquiet, rooted in, and deeply shaken by everyday life that resonates with contemporary poetic production:

They all know that I’m alive,

that I chew my food…and they don’t know

why harsh winds whistle in my poems,

the narrow uneasiness of a coffin,

winds untangled from the Sphinx

who holds the desert for routine questioning. (Neruda and Vallejo 216)

(Todos saben que vivo,/que mastico… Y no saben/por qué en mi verso chirrían,

oscuro sinsabor de féretro,/luyidos [sic] vientos/desenroscados de la Esfinge/preguntona del Desierto; Vallejo, The Complete Poetry. A Bilingual Edition 160)

With its entwinement of objects, human movements, spatial conditions, abstract terms and figurative images, this passage highlights vulnerability as a key characteristic of human life in the rapidly changing city (in the context of Vallejo’s work, that of Lima of roughly 1915-18). Now, a century later, in the context of a blatant neoliberalization, vulnerability remains key: it is both an immediate bodily experience of the individual and strategy to link and connect us with others. Thus, the awareness and articulation of vulnerability can become a source of interconnectedness toward a shared responsibility (in the sense of an ability to respond). I propose to read vulnerability as a strategy of resistance in the context of neoliberal realities in the Peruvian capital.

In her presidential address at the 2013 convention of The Modern Language Association, Marianne Hirsch spoke on “connective histories in vulnerable times.” Hirsch places vulnerability as a connector and link at the center of her analysis. For her, “vulnerability… can move us toward an ethics and politics of open-endedness and mobility, attuning us to the needs of the present…” (330). A theorist of trauma, the concept helps her to expand the retrospective view of trauma toward alternative temporalities that might “galvanize a sense of urgency about the need for change, now” (337).

Vulnerability as a shared presence of communication, attunement to the needs of the present in view of a traumatic past, and as an ethics of connectivity and relationality (Butler 99) help me to approach contemporary Peruvian poetry marked by a past traumata, the violence of the years between 1980 and 1992, the time of the armed conflict that was fought among the Shining Path, Peruvian armed forces, and the peasants of the highlands surrounding the region of Ayacucho (Theidon 5), and the violent silencing of that trauma during the Fujimori presidency. This poetry aims at connecting troubled perceptions and responding to shifting realities—from rural to urban, and from a past urban reality to that of the neoliberal megalopolis that developed during the mid to late1990s. In her study Intimate Enemies. Violence and Reconciliation in Peru, Kimberly Theidon notes that in Quechua, people oftentimes use the wod “the Sasachakuy tiempo (difficult time)” to describe the armed conflict, a time “bracketed as a finite period” (3). The general, vague term is a telling example of the lingering trauma. The “difficult time” is still in need of its verbal expression, particularly by those most affected by the armed conflict: almost 80% of the 69,280 people who had died during the years lived in rural areas and spoke Quechua. Contemporary poetry written in Spanish proposes a strategy to the lingering trauma, which I describe as that of a voiced vulnerability of the human body that connects beyond age, race, class; at times, it connects the living with the dead via the shared violability.

Among the poets whose works I study are Roxana Crisólogo, Miguel Ildefonso Huanca, Victoria Guerrero Peirano, and Carlos Villacorta Gonzáles. All reflect on the experience of coming of age (and rage) during the eventful 1980s to 2000. For instance, Crisólogo’s Ludy D (the title refers to the nickname of a guerrilla militant of the Shining Path movement) is written from the perspective of a young student in Lima of the 1980s. It centers on her conflicted relationship to the militant party; on the one hand the attraction of its intransigence, and on the other her repulsion to its cruelty. The context of Guerrero Peirano’s El mar, ese oscuro provenir (The Sea, this Obscure Future), on the other hand, is the Fujimori regime.

In her book The City at its Limits: Taboo, Transgression, and Urban Renewal in Lima, Daniella Gandolfo describes the mood in the Lima of the mid-1990s as that of “euphoria. Imported vehicles had flooded the streets, high-rise buildings rose at breakneck speed, and while weekly bombings of electric towers in the outskirts of the city had for years kept entire neighborhoods in a recurrent state of darkness, the streets now seemed to glitter in a continual parade of light. Businesses had opened or reopened their doors, invigorated by foreign capital that poured into the country with Peru’s reinsertion in the international financial community…” (1‒2). Guerrero’s voice brings the urgency of the moment into the poetic realms and helps reflect on what lies behind the glitter and bright lights. While they refer to, and cite the discourse of publicity, many of her poems invoke the dark spaces of the brightly lit city, and describe for instance the solitude of the stars that have become invisible as a result of the light pollution. This poetry is marked by metaphors that stress the vulnerability of the human (and posthuman) body in the neoliberal city. In Guerrero Peirano’s poem significantly titled “ciudad sumergida” (submerged city), the lyrical voice describes how

a little boy felt the breath of the city

on its lonely walkways

nobody knows what those eyes have seen

but there are shoes, there is blood, there are kisses

on the dead ground… (my trans.)

(un niño ha sentido el aliento de la ciudad/por las azoteas solitarias/…/nadie sabe lo que han visto aquellos ojos/pero hay zapatos y sangre y besos/sobre la tierra muerta… (Guerrero, El mar 25)

Guerrero’s poetic city is depicted by a haunting image of a barren earth, with bodiless eyes that register human remains, such as shoes, blood, and kisses (or maybe remembrances of the latter). There are no bodies to be touched or voices to be heard. There is nothing but a verbal enumeration of a few material objects that point to those who were disappeared during the years of human rights violations from the 1980s to 2000. With the exception of the earth’s respiration, the scene is unanimated, posthuman and even spectral. Guerrero underscores the connecting power of vulnerability that links human bodies, abandoned objects and mutilated space. Space does not only reflect the memory of a massacre in an image of desolation. Moreover, it is connected to the body, being a requirement of the body to live. Here, I refer to Judith Butler’s description of space as “an infrastructural necessity and public good” (101). The juxtaposed portrayals of the human body, inhuman body and of the body of the environment underscores the connectedness among them. The act of mutilating one of the elements has a direct impact on the others. In the poem cited above, this shared vulnerability becomes an agent to mobilize, relate and recount.

The agency of the lyrical voices in the works by Crisólogo, Huanca, Guerrero Peirano, and Villacorta Gonzáles is far from that of a stable subject position. Oftentimes, poems become the sites of verbal enumerations of disposable items, gestures, glimpses, urging their readers to rearrange them. Words have no more healing power (I interpret this as a comment on the limitations of the various Truth and Reconciliation Reports). They are fragile, and similar to the human beings and the surroundings they describe, the words in Guerrero Peirano’s poem themselves face dismemberment, explosion or satiety. Vulnerability is explicitly put as a mode of relationality. It extends from, and joins the body of writing with the human body and the body of the city. In this way, vulnerability can connect and mobilize and, to return to Hirsch, “galvanize a sense of urgency about the need for change, now” (337).

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. “Bodily Vulnerability, Coalitions and Street Politics.” Differences in Common:

Gender, Vulnerability and Community. Ed. Joana Sabadell-Nieto and Marta Segarra.

Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2014: 99-127.

Crisólogo, Roxana. Ludy D. Lima: Ediciones Flora Tristán, 2006.

Gandolfo, Daniella. The City at its Limits: Taboo, Transgression, and Urban Renewal in Lima.

Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2009.

Guerrero Peirano, Victoria. El mar, ese oscuro provenir. Lima: El Santo Oficio, 2002.

Hirsch, Marianne. “Connective Histories in Vulnerable Times” PMLA. 129.3 (2014): 330-348.

Neruda and Vallejo: Selected Poems. Ed. Robert Bly. Boston: Beacon Press, 1971.

Vallejo, César. The Complete Poetry. A Bilingual Edition. Berkeley: University of California

Press, 2007.

Theidon, Kimberly. Intimate Enemies. Violence and Reconciliation in Peru. Philadelphia:

University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

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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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Re-launching Poetics of Resistance: On Porous and Relational Autonomy

Re-launching Poetics of Resistance: On Porous and Relational Autonomy

Cornelia Gräbner, Lancaster University

The network ‘Poetics of Resistance’ is back. After organizing symposia in 2007 and 2008 in Leeds and Santiago de Compostela, and after two collective publications in 2010 and 2011, we dispersed and found each other in smaller projects on specific elements of the Poetics of Resistance, such as poetry in public spaces and non-lyrical poetry. In spring 2015 we resurfaced at the Annual Conference of the Society for Latin American Studies in Aberdeen with a panel on the Poetics of Resistance and Autonomy, organized by David M.J. Wood and myself. We are now initiating a new phase of regular and sustained activity. As part of my intellectual contribution to this new beginning, I will here suggest a few inroads to a sharpened theoretical engagement with a concept we left undertheorized when we dispersed: ‘autonomy’.

Porous Autonomy

‘Autonomy’ was one of the key themes that ran throughout most articles included in the 2010 special issue ‘Poetics of Resistance’, published by Cosmos and History and edited by David M.J. Wood and myself. In the ‘Introduction’ we coined the term ‘porous autonomy’ because we found that most authors treated contexts such as academia or the art world as part of neoliberal hegemony. Since neoliberalism co-opts almost every resistant articulation, we suggested that ‘spaces of resistance can … be thought of as being lodged within hegemony’, and that ‘the social and political configurations with which artists interact, and the creative process itself, are not necessarily ‘pure’ of the hegemonic ideological structures that they resist, and therefore ‘outside ideology.’

The networks’ thinking on the relationship between the work of art and social movements we also conceptualized through this term: ‘porous autonomy is developed through a relationality between the work of art that maintains its autonomy, and the social movements or political groups that articulate similar demands on a political level. The issue here is … to what extent a committed work of art or aesthetic practice maintains its critical distance from the social movements with which it sympathizes while at the same time productively interacting with them from a critical perspective.’ After years of working on committed writing and on tact and the haptic, of learning from non-academic epistemologies, of life experience, I’m now struck firstly by our omission of critique, and secondly by the association of the ‘critical’ with ‘distance’. Sure, critique needs space – but I would now think of ‘space’ as a shared space in which different agents interact through critique, and where critique is one of the ways in which these agents work with closeness, encounter, touch, and breathing space.

Finally, we suggested that ‘porous autonomy … becomes a very useful position of resistance in situations in which aesthetics and aesthetic communities become the carriers of political demands in the absence of carriers of real political power.’ We were referring to situations where the State had proved ineffective, or where political parties no longer functioned as carriers of oppositional and contestatory power. We did not make explicit what we knew: that there were carriers of real political power such as neoliberalizing States, corporations and the global apparatus that supports them. While they ravage spaces and people inside and outside the academy, they were – and still are – making the most of our openness, conceptualized as porosity.

Porosity, Relationality, Autonomy

And now, six years later? The openness we had envisaged for critique has been appropriated into the neoliberal porosity of academia, which resembles the porosity of borders between neoliberal nation States: whatever creates value (money, prestige, fame, an appearance of morality,…) may travel; everything and everybody else is turned away, ignored, interned, expulsed, or left to drown. Life within the reduced and constrained area enclosed by the border has become a negotiation of regularly and (seemingly) arbitrarily tightening and loosening rules, expectations and frameworks. Sure, there are temporary autonomous zones within academe. Sure, if we don’t lose focus in spite of the marking, the meetings, the grant applications, emotional exhaustion and intellectual attrition, we can make the most of them before they are co-opted or absorbed quickly or gradually, at a pace and in ways not always obvious, or easy to track. Whether it is desirable or coherent for us to continuously move the poetics of resistance from one such cycle into the next, is an ethical and a strategic question. Until we answer it, I’m limited to tactical considerations on how we can maintain the possibilities of resistant encounters without entrenching ourselves, walling ourselves in, or shutting down.

The concept of relational autonomy – as distinct to porous autonomy – has been helpful in thinking through these challenges, and I will share some thoughts with reference to some of the points made by Andrea C. Westlund in her article ‘Rethinking Relational Autonomy’(2009).1 Relational autonomy is rooted in feminist thought, and it provides an alternative to traditional notions of autonomy – tied in with sovereignty – by conceptualizing relationality as constitutive of autonomy.2 For Westlund, relationality is constituted by several elements: ‘Autonomy in choice and action – and hence, derivatively, in its other senses – relies (at least in part) on the disposition to hold oneself answerable to external critical perspectives on one’s action-guiding commitments. … Autonomy, on this view, requires an irreducibly dialogical form of reflectiveness and responsiveness to others.’ (28) When the agent’s reflective capacities are constrained, her commitments and actions act out ‘essentially monological functions such as endorsing or rejecting lower-order attitudes from elsewhere within her own hierarchy of attitudes, … .’ (33)

A challenge to the commitments or actions of an autonomous agent – and I understand ‘critique’ as a non-aggressive challenge – must meet two conditions in order to be legitimate: it must be ‘relationally situated’ (ie.embedded within what Westlund describes as a sense-imparting relationship), and it must be context-sensitive (ie. open to a range of responses): ‘Autonomous agents will, in one way or another, manifest responsiveness to justificatory challenges, and their disposition to do so is partly constitutive of their status as self-governing. But they can manifest such responsiveness even while disvaluing and refusing to engage in certain practices, including practices in which they are pressed to cite their reasons in the face of direct questioning.’ (40)

I want to take elements of Westlund’s argument as springboards to think about the first two aspects of autonomy that Dave and I had identified in our 2010 Introduction: the relationship between critique and the academy, and – slightly shifting our focus – the relationship between the institutionalized thinker and her interlocutors outside the academy. My reflections refer to the conditions for critique, rather than the finished art work or work of critique. This is because if, as we put it in the ‘About Us’ of the network, critique nurtures resistances of others and increases literacies of resistance, then I cannot sequentially place the terms of my critique before building a relationship with my interlocutors.3

Through the Poetics of Resistance I can build sense-imparting relationships with roughly three groupings of people by way of responding to their work or by using academia to create shared spaces: with artists, community groups and social movements who appeal to public awareness and visibility; with groupings who form part of autonomous publics; and with groupings who share with those who practice the Poetics of Resistance a critical relationship to the normative public.

In the first case, a sense-imparting relationship exists when academics serve, or interact with, the public interest. Collaborations activate these relationships, and ethics regulations, Social Impact and Knowledge Exchange validate and regulate them within the frameworks provided by the institutions involved. Challenges and responses to them will be expressed in a way that is acceptable to normative public discourse and will probably be mindful of its hierarchical structures.

In the second case a sense-imparting relationship on the terrain or on the terms of academia is not usually possible because these groupings consider academia as linked to conservative elitism, a hostile normative public, neoliberal capitalism and/or authoritarian State power. Recognition or acceptance by the normative public is of no or little interest to them. A tenuous sense-imparting relationship may be possible if I personally am at all times critically self-aware about the implications of my role as an academic and respect their autonomy by responding to (not evaluate, assess or judge) material that they themselves have released into the public domain. They will respond on their own terms and when and if they consider it appropriate, often indirectly, in forms as varied as critical engagement, irony, or strategic mockery or offense.

For the third grouping – for example, journalists, some media activists, committed writers or artists – the type of critical analysis carried out within the academy can be useful and important. A range of sense-imparting relationships are possible if all parties involved are critically self-aware at all times, if the relationship is on equal terms and based on trust, and if each of the partners can let go of it for good reasons. The wide range of possible responses often include or imply a shared critique of normative discourses, and the construction of alternative ones. The Poetics of Resistance can become one of the building blocks of all sorts of relationships, including alliances, and of shared processes and projects.

The crux of the matter lies in my insistence on the ‘self-aware’ and the ‘self-reflective’ which refer, of course, to the role of the academic. Our notion of porosity was meant to refer to conditions under which someone with a dialogical disposition has the space to act on it. Many of us are now in a situation where the academic is turning into a functionary in the service of the neoliberal forces that have channelled themselves into the institutions. Those of us with an open disposition are useful in that we may be able to mine areas of potential profit which are foreclosed to those without that disposition; but this means that our disposition has been converted into a function. This has been done through the combination of over-regulation and arbitrariness in the Research Excellence Framework, which defines what type of outputs are acceptable and which creates a fixation not only on producing ‘outcomes’ and ‘outputs’, but on turning everything into an ‘outcome’ or an ‘output.’ Policies on Social Impact and Knowledge Exchange force relationships and interactions into compliance with assessment frameworks which are in turn linked to authoritarian power structures and capitalist ideology. So-called ethics regulations impose the terms of the institution on the ways in which I speak with others and create something shared with them, no matter whether these terms are appropriate to the context. The endorsement of open access to intellectual property circumvents the debate over whether the intellectual is a commons, or property. Thus, ideology and policies within academia co-opt and instrumentalize my relational disposition towards others, while they constrain the relationality I can exercise within academia by normativizing and hierarchizing formerly sense-imparting relationships and by turning my relational disposition into the function of producing ‘academic currency’.

If I conceptualized my autonomy in traditional masculinist notions tied to sovereignty, I could now claim my ‘quiet corner’ and ‘save myself’ (to paraphrase Mario Benedetti) by handing over my Self. Relationality then turns into an optional add-on to expertism; moreover, the type of relationality is up to the sovereign. Many colleagues choose this option, and many non-academics appreciate the combination of prestigious credibility, personal glamour and gestures of rebelliousness that come with it. But this is not an option if the Poetics of Resistance entail a commitment to the anti-patriarchal. Moreover, if the Poetics of Resistance have anything to do with resisting – as distinct to writing about other people’s resistances – then resigning the relationality of my autonomy constitutes, on the political level, a deference to all the equivalents of Margaret Thatcher’s ‘There is no alternative’, and my resignation turns me into a deferential agent (Westlund): ‘By “deeply deferential agents” I mean those who endorse their deference but have no basis for doing so that is not itself deferential. Pressed to explain why they always defer, such agents simply persist in referring their interlocutors to the perspectives of those to whom they defer.’ (Westlund 2009: 32) If I chose this option I would turn the Poetics of Resistance into a pseudo-critique that paints the status quo a pseudo-democratic colour and endorses negativity as gesture – to establish a connection back to Adorno, whom we once moved away from.

A Compromised Position

We are re-launching the network Poetics of Resistance from a compromised position. From my part I’d suggest that there are three challenges for us to meet immediately: Firstly, our critique has to be be more committed and more incisive; secondly, we have to be critically self-aware about which types of relationships we maintain with whom, and for which reasons, and our relationships can be dialogical but must never, ever, be porous; thirdly, in our historical moment the integrity of our critique is tied in with our commitment to principles and relationships on equal footing. To do this, I suggest that we move from porous autonomy to relational autonomy. Right now, the attempt to mobilize institutional porosity locks us into what I once called the SafeSpace. Relational autonomy maintains a bit of breathing space and opens up a tiny chance to help build that durable encounter that someone once located ‘beyond resistance.’

1Andrea C. Westlund, ‘Rethinking Relational Autonomy.’Hypatia 24:4, Fall 2009, pp. 26-49.

2On the level of governmental autonomy, Mara Kaufmann and Alvaro Reyes have made a similar argument on the Autonomous Zapatista communities. Alvaro Reyes and Mara Kaufman, ‘Sovereignty, Indigeneity, Territory: Zapatista Autonomy and the New Practices of Decolonization.’ The South Atlantic Quarterly 110:2, Spring 2011, pp.505-525.

3This does not apply to my commitments, which may be the reason to strike up such relationships.

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