Caleb Beckwith: “desire for a poetics adequate to the present, the world since the 2008 economic crisis . . . construction of a network of practices adequate to writing the present, the post-crisis period in progress.” These are the opening and closing statements from your recent essay on Post-Crisis Poetics, written for the University at Buffalo’s Poetics: (The Next) 25 Years conference and your magazine ARMED CELL. In that essay, you define these broader strokes in contrast with brief close readings from ARMED CELL, defining post-crisis poetics by way of a family resemblance. Before discussing that family, could you tell me more about ARMED CELL, its history/founding, and how you see the magazine as helping to define what exactly you mean by the term “post-crisis poetics.”
Brian Ang: I launched ARMED CELL in 2011 at the Durruti Free Skool, convened by Joshua Clover and Juliana Spahr in Berkeley. Our projects shared a desire for a social poetics, a poetics resonant with social struggles. The magazine’s first poem, David Lau’s “Communism Today,” takes as its context the California anti-austerity university struggles that began in 2009, the first significant resistance to the 2008 economic crisis in the United States, as Jasper Bernes has argued. Joshua, David, Jasper, and I were participants in those struggles; responding to the crisis was central to participants’ practical understanding, that the crisis crystallized the secular stagnation of systemic capital accumulation projecting an absent future of exacerbated dispossession, exploitation, and unemployment, and we extended our investigations through poetry. My editing has emphasized a multiplicity of writing attuned to senses since the crisis; I first named “post-crisis poetics” in my analysis of “Communism Today” and extended the term in my essay analyzing writing from every issue to date. My essay closed with an invitation to readers for further views for a series that I’m editing in order to continue developing this historical perspective’s suggestiveness for writing.
CB: Your reading of “Communism Today” ends with another statement of definition, positing—then for the first time—post-crisis poetics as “organizing materials that could be useful for immediate struggles and in combination with materials to be produced in the struggles to come.” Forgive me if I answer my own question below, but what sort of material is this?
Lau’s poem is very much about a real act of resistance. One of the most striking parts of your analysis is the way that it traces that poem’s deep rootedness in the lived struggle that was the 2009 UC protests. You bear this out not only in opening (“Communism Today” refers to . . . ) but also throughout, from Lau’s reference to the particular rooms and hallways of his reference to the collective sense one derived while occupying those spaces. As you note, collapsing the space of the poem with that of the protests themselves, “the experience of the accelerated ‘time window’ was proximate to one of psychoactive drugs ‘in the dime bag // near our distant sun / of fungal alphabets,’ present at the politically galvanizing dance parties, the experience of creative and primal energies released by the protests.”
While other pieces appear to engage resistance more obliquely. What about Ara Shirinyan’s “Stalin is Great,” also from ARMED CELL’s debut issue? Where Lau’s poem is about communism in a spatial sense—detailing active resistance down to its material spaces—Shirinyan’s deals with a failed revolution as material. Working with what appears to be message boards or another internet database, Shirinyan assembles a series of statements containing the trigger phrase “Stalin is great” into what I read as a striking examination of revolutionary fecklessness—detailing, among other things, the way that State communism in the Soviet Union all but determines the reception of Marxist thought in popular spheres, i.e. outside the academy of Lau’s protesters. Consider the very important context of Shirinyan’s Armenian heritage, and the poem falls into a sophisticated series of turns and reversals that don’t so much galvanize a revolution as embody a very real obstacle faced by its prospect.
So, if the materials assembled by a post-crisis poetics can be so dissimilar in kind (not to mention form), what is/are their organizing principle(s)? How do we know what material might be useful for immediate struggle when the criteria for usefulness is always defined in use? Put another way: most critics assemble movements or schools based on fixed criteria such as poetic form or social coterie, but you’re pursuing something that appears, at least at first, much more opaque. Both practically and conceptually, how do you hold this disparate coalition of writers and writings together? How do you bridge what a number of poets and critics might consider fundamental differences?
BA: When I started ARMED CELL, the California university struggles that began in 2009 had been repressed through 2010, and participants were struggling to both continue and extend the struggle through anti-austerity actions in Oakland, with a backdrop including the Arab Spring, the European “movement of the squares,” and the Wisconsin capitol occupation. Against repression in the streets, I wanted a social project for sustained investigation and assembled a combination of practices for their multiplicity of investigations, from “Communism Today”‘s preservation of dynamics of the California university struggles to “Stalin is Great”‘s estrangement of Stalin in ideology that the construction of a communist politics today confronts.
A month later, the Occupy movement started, influenced by communities, knowledge, and extended actions produced through the California university struggles. When I first posited “post-crisis poetics” in my analysis of “Communism Today,” the Occupy movement had been repressed through 2012; I wanted a poetics for investigating what post-crisis struggles were revealing about what could be useful for immediate and future struggles within indefinitely continuing post-crisis conditions, as knowledge produced through the California university struggles had proved useful in the Occupy movement as a dynamic among many. Developing this poetics through editing and analyzing writing led me to clarify that what “could be useful” for struggles is knowledge of the post-crisis world-system that struggles confront. Post-crisis poetics connects a network of practices investigating multiple dimensions of the post-crisis world-system in order to suggest extensions in every direction.
CB: Can you tell me more about the social bonds forged during those foundation struggles—first the UC protests, later Occupy? “Communism Today” in particular explores the role of solidarity in any such resistance movements, and I wonder how, if at all, those original bonds of political solidarity continue to inform the social and aesthetic solidarity I notice both in ARMED CELL and among many of the poets that it features. That is, what are the ties that bind Post Crisis Poets beyond their poetics? And, looking outward, how do those bonds compare with the radical poetic cadres of previous generations, particularly the Language writers, many of whose projects seem to be in dialog with the work you publish.
BA: In the California university struggles, as preserved in “Communism Today,” building occupations and fighting the police radicalized a current of anarchist and communist comrades antagonistic to the privatizing university administration, forging a solidarity of common political values. ARMED CELL drew from this current’s concerns in beginning to assemble its committed multiplicity and continued to do so as this current extended connections in the expanded field of the Occupy movement. My editing has extended connections with a multiplicity of aesthetics and social groups, with concentrations in the San Francisco Bay Area, New York, and Vancouver, publishing fifty-five writers over eleven issues to date. I see plural, overlapping aesthetic and social solidarities in ARMED CELL, reflecting both the communities it’s drawn from and the connections it’s helped constitute. The writers I analyze in my “Post-Crisis Poetics” essay, being drawn from ARMED CELL, therefore reflect these plural, overlapping solidarities; my committed analysis emphasizes their radical political values in connecting their various aesthetics in order to orient extensions of post-crisis poetics’ network of practices with radicalism.
To compare these social bonds with the Language writers, they came of age during the Vietnam War’s political crisis and that period’s civil rights and university struggles, influencing their political critiques of language and reference related to the government and the media’s administration of information, and matured into an recognizable, organized group in the post-1973 economic crisis period; the 2008 crisis crystallized the stagnation of systemic capital accumulation since that crisis. Also comparable are the New American poets’ emergence in the post-World War II period and the Objectivists’ emergence in the post-1929 economic crisis period. Magazines such as This and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E were significant in connecting the Language writers’ multiplicity of aesthetics and social groups, with concentrations emerging first in San Francisco and then New York and with extended influence in Vancouver, similarly developing plural, overlapping solidarities; the dialog with Language poetics in ARMED CELL reflects these common concentrations, and I’ve published Language writers in it as an engagement with their prior poetics toward investigating a poetics adequate to the present, as the Language writers published and engaged prior writers and poetics toward investigating a poetics adequate to their time.
CB: I wonder about the phenomena of branding and the way that it so often transforms collective publication into a “movement.” You mention the New American Poets, so-named for Donald Allen’s 1960 anthology of the same name, which attempted to gather a generation of innovative writers across a number of largely counter-cultural traditions—Black Mountain, Berkeley Renaissance, and New York School to name a few. As effective a signifier “The New American Poets” proves in signaling a cultural moment (as you use it above), it also raises the follow up, “which New American Poets?” to which forty-five answers hardly seem sufficient. I’m interested in your invocation of the New American Poets because ARMED CELL and your concept of Post-Crisis Poetics strike me highly-conscious of both the flattening that often occurs around collective publication as well as the role that establishment forces often play as the flattener.
Post-Crisis Poetics can be defined by the example of poets from ARMED CELL, just as ARMED CELL can be described as a publication espousing Post-Crisis Poetics. I see two ways of seeing this, both as reductive syllogism and active resistance. On the one hand, your concept and publication form a sort of feedback loop. In their referential interdependence, ARMED CELL and Post-Crisis Poetics justify each other—first as interlocutors, and more recently, as subjects of academic study at Buffalo’s Poetics: (The Next) 25 Years conference. On the other hand, this interdependence also functions as an act of resistance against the flattening that avant-garde has always experienced. In this way, ARMED CELL also strikes me as attempting to carve a space outside the models of cultural capital and academic legitimization on which so many small presses thrive. You may be at Buffalo, but ARMED CELL isn’t getting anyone a job. Instead, it seems aspirant of the fleeting occupation of a literary and academic space not unlike that of “Communism Today.”
Do you sense the double-bind that I just described: between branding and resistance? And if so, how do you navigate it? That is, how do you ensure that your resistance does not accidentally become a type of branding? Is this a concerted effort? Must it necessarily be?
I’m tempted to again recall Language Writing here—specifically Bruce Andrews’ preferatory so-called—though the conversation around branding and Language Writing somehow remains contentious enough that I fear it might overtake us. Instead, I’ll simply note that I’ve heard a lot of political commentators attribute the rise of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary to the efforts of Occupy and other related movements. Something tells me that news wouldn’t have proved welcome in 2011.
BA: ARMED CELL and post-crisis poetics navigate the double-bind you describe through their multiplicity of investigations and open-ended extensions. Each issue of ARMED CELL is aimed at first extending connections at a particular event, from nonacademic projects like the Durruti Free Skool to academic conferences like Poetics: (The Next) 25 Years. Their network of practitioners traverses the university’s boundaries, which I’m outside of, having exited after the California university struggles’ repression. “Communism Today”‘s first section ends “Occupy everything, including Humanities,” an extension of the university struggles’ slogan that influenced the Occupy movement from the communization of space and time toward the communization of knowledge, starting with the humanities within which poetics is governed, a slogan for post-crisis poetics as a historicized critical poetics responding to the university’s exacerbated post-crisis privatization. Sanders articulated desires from the Occupy movement into an electoral campaign; after its defeat, investigations toward constructing struggles adequate to the present and not limited to elections continue, including by practices analyzed in my essay into communism, violence, signification, the police, ideology, abolition, the future, capital, infinity, and the state, suggesting lines for multiplying the communization of knowledge within the unfolding present. To continue construction of post-crisis poetics’ network and encourage discussion, the series that my essay calls for will consist of views from thirty writers of what writing can contribute to further investigating the post-crisis present, serializing a piece per day over the course of a month.
CB: Tell me more about this series. Throughout our conversation, I’ve tried to push past the logic of a family resemblance that we started with—not for lack of interest in that constitutive modality, but out of a desire to conceptualize and frame the work done in ARMED CELL for those less familiar. I now notice, however, just how much heavy lifting gets assigned to your sense of curation, which argues for the social and political as the force determining how we conceptualize aesthetics—not the other way around. So, in the interest of this pointed particular, Who is in the post-crisis poetics essay series? What are the subjects of these essays? And what does their pairing by social and political criteria make you notice?
BA: The series includes Andrea Abi-Karam, me, Olive Blackburn, Chris Chen, Dereck Clemons, alex cruse, Jeff Derksen, Justin Desmangles, Helen Dimos, Lara Durback, Tongo Eisen-Martin, Rob Halpern, Roberto Harrison, Angela Hume, Carrie Hunter, Brenda Iijima, Josef Kaplan, Michael Leong, Trisha Low, Chris Nealon, Robert Andrew Perez, Mg Roberts, Anne Lesley Selcer, Oki Sogumi, Christine Stewart, Angelo V. Suárez, Wendy Trevino, Cassandra Troyan, Maya Weeks, and Steven Zultanski. The series’ multiplicity of concerns, approaches to which traverse boundaries between creative and expository, may be reflected in some pieces’ titles: “Writing the World-System,” “BODY NEGATIVE,” “The Militant Word,” “I Do Not Know the Spelling of Money,” “THE WOUND AND THE CAMP, or FANTASY AND FORENSICS (SOME NOTES & QUESTIONS FOR ARMED CELL),” “tecumseh republic,” “Towards a Disorientalist Poetics,” “The Matter of Capital in 2016,” “On Productive Ambivalence, Or Liminality, Or 27 Notes on Butch Kween Poetics,” and “WHO SURVIVES THE CRISIS?” Connecting each piece in post-crisis poetics’ network adds more practices and further investigates more dimensions of the post-crisis world-system, constructing a common sense of the post-crisis present opening possibilities for the communization of different kinds of knowledge and for different groups to come together.
Brian Ang’s current poetic project is The Totality Cantos for Atelos. Recent essay is “Post-Crisis Poetics”: desire for a poetics adequate to the present, the world since the 2008 economic crisis. Current editing project is a series on post-crisis poetics (postcrisispoetics.blogspot.com) and he continues to edit ARMED CELL in Oakland.