Monday, April 17, 2017

Chris Nealon, The Matter of Capital in 2016

I think what’s struck me most about poetry and capitalism since I published The Matter of Capital in 2011 is how much more explicitly anti-capitalist poetry has been published in the last five years. Also, of course, we’ve had five years to deepen our understanding of the global coordinates of capitalist crisis, as well as the way long histories of racial exploitation and colonialism continue to shape the trajectory of capital down to this day. There has been a wave of exciting new scholarship on these questions. And of course there have been fresh waves of struggle since 2011, too.

Just to start at random – five years ago we didn’t yet know how to say “undercommons.” There was no Commune Editions, which has since published a range of great anti-capitalist work, and received wide notice. There was no Citizen – not itself an anti-capitalist book, but one that expands Claudia Rankine’s study of media spectacle and racial violence in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely to include the trope of the micro-aggression – which to me, at least, allows us to think about how day-to-day life exists in immediate proximity to deep histories of capitalism’s manipulation of race. The pushback against police violence and the prison-industrial complex, meanwhile, has been accompanied by a new round of scholarship linking early American capitalism to the profitability of slavery. Whatever the limits of this scholarship (of neglecting earlier work on this question, or of not quite grasping the specific dynamics of capital), it has given students of the history of American capitalism much to work with, as we try to make more emphatic and historically grounded connections between the histories of racism and of capitalist accumulation.

Then there’s just the sheer number of poetry books published since 2011 or so, across a range of styles and left political orientations, that have turned explicitly to the destructiveness of capitalism. I have hardly been able to keep up! There are books by well-known writers like Rae Armantrout’s Money Shot; or books by emerging writers like Sandra Simonds, whose Steal it Back has several masterpieces in it. Then there’s something else, a whole sea-change that allows certain fleeting gestures to appear in a poem and be legible as part of lyrical speech, for instance. Just the other day I was reading a poem online at PEN America by Alli Warren, called “Scrambled Eggs,” and came across this cluster of lines:
The earth bows under no geographic surveillance
Unemployment is built into the fabric of the wage relation
Flyknit health core, green juice purgatory
I love this little run of lines (as I love the poem as a whole). Their contemporaneity, if you want to call it that, is interesting, too. The movement from line to line is downstream from the “new sentence” of the language writers, of course – where “the new sentence” was “new” partly because of the associative variety a ways sentences could move from one to the next. You see it here especially in the way the metaphorical “fabric of the wage relation” gets literally realized in the “flyknit” of the latest Nike shoe construction technology. But there are a few things here that I rarely saw in the new sentence of yore – the unabashed romanticism of the first line, and the unconcerned with ironic torqueing in the second. The candor of those lines is part of another sea-change in post-crisis poetry, in which avant-gardist techniques are no longer seen as necessarily anti-capitalist, even as they remain in affectionate, enthusiastic use in anti-capitalist poetry. But the very 80s “critique of the subject,” along with a critique of romanticism that the language writers shared with much more conservative writers – this has fallen away.

I can also say that my own understanding of capitalist crisis has deepened since I wrote The Matter of Capital. I’ve heard it said that that book “isn’t Marxist,” and I think I understand what that means – I quite deliberately kept my frame of reference centered on a reading of how poets thought about capitalism, remaining largely descriptive – I really just wanted to point out that there had been a long and persistent tradition of writing poetry about capital, one that had gone un-named. I kept the further task of asking whether poets’ sense of capitalist crises matched up with a Marxist one off the table. So there is no Marxist analysis of crises of accumulation in my book. But in the meantime, I’ve been lucky to read around in classic and recent scholarship on just this question, and am glad to be able to pass on whole syllabi to others, now, who are getting up to speed. The excellent books and articles are too many to name, but I would say that I find it most productive to read and write out of a triangle formed by 1) histories of capitalism in a Brennerian vein, including histories of the recent past that lay emphasis on the possibility of a secular stagnation in capital’s ability to expand; 2) value-theoretical writing that supplements the Brennerian mode with a study of the challenges to value-production, with the abstraction amped up just enough for us to see commonalities across different national capitalisms; and 3) feminist and anti-racist scholarship that re-opens the question of the relation between capitalist accumulation and older or other modes of social reproduction. Twisting the dial among these overlapping bodies of scholarship – especially in reading with friends and students – has helped me develop the beginnings of a picture of capitalist history that doesn’t fall prey to the stark either-ors (either theory or history; either “class” or “identity”) that bogged down anti-capitalist thinking in the past. I am hopeful that a generation of us (or, really, a generation younger than me) will get the word out about this more historically capacious, factually accurate, and politically flexible way of studying and opposing capitalism.

A final note – I was on a poetics panel at the MLA in Vancouver in January 2015 with two fantastic scholars, Joel Nickels and Margaret Ronda, and as soon as we finished presenting, the conversation with the audience – composed largely of very young people – kicked off with questions about Giovanni Arrighi’s The Long Twentieth Century, as though it were perfectly normal to think about poetic history and poetic form alongside detailed histories of the ebb and flow of capitalist accumulation. We’ve come a long way!

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