In one of the few short prose poems (not quite two pages) in this book, Borzutzky writes, “I deserve to be dumped into the sack with the other sick bodies.” This self-flagellation is, of course, another performance of the poet becoming human—the valorization of guilt—but it captures the dilemma of the stakes Daniel Borzutzsky has raised for himself over the past several years and books. The voice and prose have gotten both shriller and funnier, as Carmen Gimenez Smith rightly notes in her blurb. More important, this tension between outrage and jocularity is less a function of intention than an effect of the logic of capital (which generates resistance and, as one of his books notes, capitulation). For poets, then, resistance may indeed be futile since they provide, however unwittingly, the catharsis of self-righteous anger without which the streets might erupt in violence directed at the state. Of course, the resisting poet is not alone in his and her good-cum-bad faith, but there is no consolation in knowing that one’s body is no more or less “sick” than the others in the sack. Moreover, the absurdity of life under the thumb of neoliberal globalization can never appear as such. The logic of development generates its own anti-logic (nostalgia as conservation and vice versa), neutralizing the very value of absurdity. Borzutzky’s solution, a risky one, is to inhabit the forms of comedy, e.g., the one-liner (“Did you hear the one about” is a kind of leitmotif throughout the book), forms through which the absurd “appears” as gallows humor. However, this strategy is hampered by Borzutzky himself: he can’t help lashing out with anger and frustration at the too-many emblems of injustice. When he has given you a verbal whiplashing page after page it’s hard to laugh when he starts telling “jokes” that are only performing the form of the joke.
Borzutzky is, of course, well aware of the traps that reroute agitprop back into the circuits of its own logic. He is also wary of the other common response to social and cultural conformity: novelty. As Paul Mann and others pointed out long ago, novelty greases the wheels of production and consumption. Borzutzky co-signs this critique: “The stories they are there but we need a bit more wit.” Thus, The Performance of Becoming Human takes on the form Borzutzky believes most appropriate for our age: the virus, in its digital, biological and aesthetic forms. These are not, however, separate pathogens; the logics of capital and agitprop presuppose ruthless competition for “attention” among these and other modes of socialization and acculturation. Thus, in “Archive,” Borzutzky writes, “I am writing a story of love in the time of data fascism.” Elsewhere, his use of parody allows him to showcase the limits of previous responses to the crises initiated and mirrored by modernism (e.g., cultural literacies) and postmodernism (e.g., existential withdrawals from any mode of a “commons”). In Borzutzky’s mock homages “The Mountain At The End Of This Book,” “Dream Song #17” and “Dream Song #423,” Stevens and Berryman are not happenstance targets; the temptations of withdrawal into an ‘I” via the imagination or subconscious are facilitated by an entire history of aesthetic conformity. Not surprisingly, then, Borzutzky is particularly scathing on the workshop poem:
Imagination challenge #1:
Imagine there is a matzah-ball bandito in your house
But the workshop poem is merely the aesthetic/cultural side of the financial/political annexation of the public. In poems like “The Private World,” “The Privatized Waters of Dawn,” and “Lake Michigan Merges into The Bay Of Valparaiso, Chile,” Borzutzky excoriates the neoliberal apotheosis of private ownership: “the rotten carcass economy” is another leitmotif coursing throughout the book. The centrifugal sweep of Borzutzky’s rage culminates, finally, at the global: ecological disaster. His stance is EarthFirst! radicalism:
Listen: the sky is screaming at the ash-bodies
And the bodies are little stains in the sky of ash
And these bodies belong to the terrorist group that’s called: humanity.
In the end there is, for Borzutzky, only one “solution”:
A glitch in the system
Nothing that can’t be fixed
By a full-scale overhaul
Of absoloutely everything