If militant artistic commitment has emerged in the present global protest, then the old debates and controversies won’t be far behind. As Adorno argued in his famed criticism of Sartre and Brecht, commitment in literature and art, as opposed to political “tendency,” works not by way of “ameliorative measures, legislative acts, or practical institutions,” but at “the level of fundamental attitudes.” For Sartre, committed literature—necessarily ideational prose—eliminates neutral spectatorship, turning audience into agent of authentic existence and free determination. Raymond Williams—more explicitly political than Adorno, with a nod to actually existing socialism (e.g., Brecht’s Party alignment)—wrote: “commitment... is conscious alignment, or conscious change of alignment.” A committed creative practice antagonizes formal or “autonomous” literature and art. Adorno defended the latter against the dangers of psychic drift and debasement in the culture industry and against political propaganda: “this is not a time for political art, but politics has migrated into autonomous art, and nowhere more so than where it seems to be politically dead.” His position, insufficient for the 60s, today will not suffice.

The two poets discussed below particularly renew commitment’s antagonism today. (They are not alone.) Jeanine Webb’s recent poems exemplify radical left feminism. Taking sides, they seethe with the spirited atmosphere of the globe’s movement of the squares. Joshua Clover’s recent poems too smell of fires, flash-bang grenades, clouds of CS Gas. One poem from his “Fire Sermon” concludes: “The poem must be on the side of riots looting barricades occupations manifestos communes slogans fire and enemies.” Williams again: “it is literally inconceivable that practice can be separated from situation.” The Guy- Debord-influenced Clover consciously dedicates himself and his poems to the present’s global wave of struggles against the bankrupt political (authoritarian) and economic (neoliberal) order. This neoliberal economic turn needs political comprehension in the final analysis. The restoration of upper class power explains the creeping authoritarianism of our increasingly reactionary political order, even if society has changed immeasurably in other ways. The rightward drift (“market orientation”) of liberals, dictators, even revolutionary parties (Brazil’s Workers’ Party), is a nearly universal phenomenon of the period. In places with solid traditions on the right, like the US, the drift to the right has been even stronger. Struggles against this order of things continue to concatenate across huge sections of geopolitical terrain, most recently in Quebec, Chile, Turkey, Brazil, and again in Egypt. Taken together, these recent poems have some of the mercurial presence of the militant demonstrators. 

Exemplifying the new left-wing turn in North American avant-garde poetry, Jeanine Webb’s poesis of youth revolt, “Poem [#Feb11]” (first printed in Lana Turner 4), shares a certain métier with contemporary political “tendency” poetry (poetry about Occupy, for instance). But in its revolutionary aplomb this poem surpasses others. Its interconnected tropes and epigrams distill and line up scenes of struggle with instances of solidarity. Check the conclusion of her homage to the 2011 Egyptian revolt and the social media icon and activist Mona Seif, herself the typification of the many militant young Egyptian women:

what we have is sheet metal and helmets
thousands of honeyed locusts
[made of streetlights and burning chassis]
and everything we can upload before dawn
you can shatter our skulls

with armored cars but we
[will be back to hold the ]
sniper rooftops drink fresh
water and “mark out the word
‘Mubarak’ at the metrostations
and replace it with ‘martyrs’” #MonaSeif
for 18 days this square was

a skull [one eye out for the revolution]
and we were [the turning

globe] inside it

This poetic glimpse of street-fighting scenes transforms into a startling swarm: “honeyed locusts.” Vivid consciousness begins in this dedication of a life, overcoming fearfulness of harm, even death. “Shatter our skulls,” but we remain undaunted, at the very core of the global struggle. This fable of the locusts extends to technological revolutions in communications encoded in hashtags and a key term: “upload.” Struggle’s dissemination online has been crucial to the development of global solidarity, the topic of this particular poem (itself a far cry from Egypt). The trope of a “turning globe” visible inside a reconstructed skull of web-based communication furthers this theme, imaging a global audience for instantaneous images of revolt. The passively interactive subject structured by web technologies isn’t the end of this particular story— some historical agent has broken out. It’s kicking off and “[we will be back to hold the]”—as the bracketed, journalistic fill-in line breaks off in a capaciously underdetermined fashion. The definite article fails to produce a name for the new ground of struggle, the positive political forms to come. But it continues as well—and resolves in “sniper rooftops,” suggesting the unarmed movement’s ability to overcome violent repression. 

In Joshua Clover’s recent poetry, there has been a frank irruption of “the dry, indecorous vocabulary of dialectical economics” (Brecht), a kind of systematically Marxist invective, a montage of street scenes and theoretical fundamentals. The latter include the extraction of surplus value through the exploitation of global labor power; the growth of capital’s organic composition; and overproduction and breakdown at the capitalist mode of production’s long term outer limits. “Je Est Un Autre Tranche De Mezzanine.” Economic motifs of financial collapse and persistent stagnation intensify in recent poems, as relations of production themselves undergo another reorganization in the ongoing employers’ offensive. This economic vocabulary finds common cause with motifs out of recent struggle, like this memorializing line, a condensed narrative of a Bay Area micro-collective, from “Gilded Age”:

Tim On The Cover Of The Chronicle

“Gilded Age” is a study in contrasted axioms, and a portion of its conclusion raises directly our theme:

The best poetry will have contempt for its era but so will the worst
It must be made from everything
including text—this is the minimum formula for realism—
but it does not align itself
with texts—it must align itself with work—meaning hatred 
of work—it must desire
change so much it is accused of being in love
with annihilation—

must in fact love annihilation—the rest is sophism— 

Set against a decades-long and ongoing employer offensive, intensifying in our present, the passage (and others in Clover’s recent poems) has a historically strong sense of the abstractive force of totalizing global production and commodification corresponding to a regime of unprecedented financialized immiseration: this is poetry as transformative “realism.” Clover calls poetry’s emphatic wager into resistance, as with this passage of Williams-like lines from “Spring Georgic,” 
 
you and I of the dispossessed
                                                    and free and doubly free 
                                                                                                 to haul their
flesh to market
                             why would we not call those others

                                                                                            within whom moves the spirit of
money
                 why would we not call these
                                                                            the possessed 
 
These global workers, personified bearers of the social relations of capitalism, possessed by them, separated from subsistence to find tenuous employment or surplus population status, are grasped as such in the enormous flows of circulation. Clover extends a poesis, across many recent poems, of ineffectual market coordination. Actual rhythms of accumulation, the agony and ecstasy of today’s broken markets (QE’s money over everything), are set by attempts to realize an average rate of profit, and the consolidation of this average by expansion—under conditions of increased competition and widespread overcapacity in global manufacturing of true historical significance.

Protest may heat up again in the US as the full effects of sequester cuts (example: nearly a billion dollars cut from Federal housing subsidies) set in alongside this decade’s new mutant form of stagflation. Here and there, we’ve already seen signs that the situation might necessitate deeper and more extensive modes of political development, as with the righteous anger in Joshua Clover’s line: “Seize the banks.” Clover recently remarked: “For all their failings and desperation, the last five years of global crisis have seen the most disparate, distributed and charismatic anti-systemic struggle in living memory.... we should be very attentive to the kinds of thought that arise from these struggles. They will not be default positions.” A certain kind of poetry is now exacting attention to the moving contradictions of the living present, partial views arising immanently from class struggle—poetry that is the linguistic practice of working their implications all the way out. 

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