On poetry, politics, a palindrome and perfection

Sarah Posman (nY) in conversation with American poet and critic Joshua Clover. This interview was conducted in November 2011 in Berkeley, California, and first appeared in a Dutch translation in the Belgian literary journal nY #12 (January 2012). This issue also contains a Dutch translation of Clover’s poem ‘Spring Georgic’, by Els Moors and Piet Joostens.


Sarah Posman: Let’s start with where we are: Berkeley, California. You tend to get characterized as a Bay Area poet. Your work features in Dana Gioia’s anthology Californian Poetry: from the Gold Rush to the Present (2004) as well as in Stephanie Young’s Bay Poetics (2006), and you have also published the work of young Californian poets. How important is the Bay Area and its literary tradition to you?

Joshua Clover: In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, the press I run together with a friend, has so far been Bay Area focused but it’s not officially our mission to publish only Bay Area poets. We tend to publish who we know and whose work we believe in. We’ve published the work of Jasper Bernes, who’s from Berkeley, Kevin Killian, who’s from San Francisco, Stephanie Young, who’s from Oakland, Uyen Hua who’s from the South Bay, but also of the Indian poet Vivek Narayanan.

The Bay Area tradition is important to me but I actually never had a strong relationship to the Beats. When I was young one of the most important poets for me was Michael Palmer, whom I still love very much. His work comes out of various traditions: the Bay Area Language tradition, Robert Duncan and the San Francisco Renaissance. Michael Palmer’s poetry is a place where several traditions come together that matter a lot to me even though Palmer himself doesn’t feel particularly hybrid. When I read especially the works from the 1980s, it feels actually very – and I use this word advisedly – pure. He was in some ways the most important Bay Area poet for me. This is true both aesthetically and, eventually, personally. I used to be very shy and not know any poets, so before my first trip to France I asked Michael Palmer if we could have lunch. We had never met but I could tell from his books that he knew all about France. I went to his house and said ‘what should I do there’ and he made an amazing list for me. He said, well of course you should call Steve Evans and Jennifer Moxley. So I did and they became close friends. Many of the poets I know, I know through that moment of Michael giving me a list of people worth talking to. So that is my entrance to the Bay Area poetry tradition. Stephanie Young is really the great communitarian. I tend to be more stay-at-home, although I’m also involved in political organizing that doesn’t have very much to do with poetry. That occupies a lot of my time.

Why call a press In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni?

I know, it’s a huge pain in the ass to call your press that. The goal was to not get any publicity whatsoever, to make it impossible to be listed. This has mostly worked, although Jasper Bernes’s book, which is the first we published, ended up being very popular. It got reviewed in a fine journal called The Believer and then it got reviewed on Salon.com. People really were very excited about it and started using it for their classes. So the press became more successful than it had wanted to be. I had wanted it to be a very temporary thing. We’ve published six books and I don’t know how many more we’ll do. It’s hard work and expensive. The name of the press is a palindrome, coined by the 4th-century Roman poet and theologian Apollinaris, after whom Apollinaire named himself – Apollinaire is a favorite of mine.

Could you elaborate on not finding yourself in the Bay Area? On your travels to France and other places and on how those experiences have informed your work?

My first travelling was political. The first time I left the US was to go to Mexico, shortly after the Zapatista uprising in 1994. I lived in San Cristóbal, where it happened, for a good while and I tried to help, delivering medicine to the jungle and writing poems. That’s where I wrote my first book, Madonna anno domini. Later on I went to France, largely because the thinkers who mattered most to me had all spent time in Paris. Walter Benjamin is the most important of them. In fact the first time that I went to Paris, in 1998, I undertook a sort of Benjamin pilgrimage. I’d been extremely influenced by The Arcades Project as well as by his other writing. So I went and visited the arcades and the hotel he stayed in, Hotel Floridor. It was very romantic but while I was there many other things happened to me. I met many poets: Steve and Jennifer, Norma Cole, the Waldrops, Peter Gizzi. That gave me a different and new community, which was more interested in the kind of writing I was moving toward at that time. And I’ve kept going back to France since then. Some pretty strange things have happened over the years. One of the first French friends I made was from the banlieues rouges, with a communist family background. When she finished her degree at ENS, she got a teaching job and started doing some translation work for the government. She became increasingly involved in working for the government and the next thing I know is she’s Sarkozy’s number two speech writer. She remains one of my best friends in France even though now we have strong political differences.

My closest French friends now live in Rouen and in Tarnac where the ‘Tarnac Nine’ are from, the young people who were accused of sabotaging the train line some four years ago. This was in the wake of this quite well known publication called The Coming Insurrection (L’insurrection qui vient) by the Invisible Committee, a group of radical young French thinkers, some of them students of Giorgio Agamben. They in turn are descended from Tiqqun. I like them a lot, their thought, but at a bit of a remove. They’re in fact not Marxists. Agamben’s way of thinking – which comes down from Heidegger and Foucault – is not mine. Regardless, my friends there are remarkable. I must say that when I stay with them I feel happy. They have figured out something about living collectively that doesn’t seem desperate, it doesn’t seem fake or intentionally stupid.

The book that I’m translating, by Jean-Marie Gleize, is called Tarnac, un acte préparatoire. He’s an older writer but he’s very engaged with the Tarnac commune, if I can call it that. He lives there half the year. His book is in part a history of the events in which the Tarnac Nine were arrested by paramilitary forces and spent time in jail.

Who else, apart from Benjamin, is in your pantheon?

In the European theory category I’m most sympathetic to Deleuze. Although I would have differences. For me he’s not finally a dialectical thinker. But his ability to describe situations, including political-economical situations, is brilliant. I see him as a kind of painter or photographer – this may sound demeaning but it’s not meant to be. Deleuze provides ways of seeing a situation that bring forth what’s at stake more effectively than anyone else. Deleuze departs from what I see as the limits of poststructuralism.

I have a piece coming out in the PMLA journal – which is like the Reader’s Digest of US academia – in which I propose that poststructuralism is the theoretical form of the era of financial capital. It’s roughly contemporaneous with the reign of finance capital, from the crisis of ’73 to the crisis of 2008. But more significantly, its mode of thought, particularly its attempt to found a new materialism (and thus a new model of production itself) that is within language rather than within the class relation, corresponds exactly to the dream of the New Economy, unbounded by old ideas of productive labor.

For me poststructuralism was a thought-form that was adequate to that moment and should be understood in those terms. But my piece will probably annoy a lot of people. But again, I don’t want to include Deleuze in this too easily. Though he too resisted totalizing thought, he did not do so in the craven and shameful way of his worst contemporaries. He accurately called the nouveaux philosophes, for whom all totalizing is a kind of Stalinist gesture, ‘bouffons.’ The problem I have with their work, and with a thinker like Lyotard, is that it isn’t thought that totalizes. Capital totalizes, power totalizes, and one has to have ways of describing that. If, at the exact moment that the world is being totalized – because that is what the process of globalization and financialization is, the totalizing of the world along the axes of space and time by capital – the issue of whether you or I want to totalize doesn’t matter. There’s this thing out there that totalizes and we have to have the language to describe it.

Lending force to the unfortunate idea that we should abandon the very conceptual framework that allows us to describe what is happening in the world — for this I think Lyotard is culpable. That idea is really disastrous. And of course, to return to Deleuze, like many people, I mourn the absence of that last book. He said he was writing a book on Marx, finally, and then he died. I’m obsessed with lost books. ‘Spring Georgic’ is in a way about lost books and almost lost books or books that are lost and found. And for me that last Deleuze book is one of the great lost books.

I remain a sort of modified Marxist in that I no longer entirely believe that the working class is the engine of history, but I do believe in Marx’ analysis of political economy, and his value theory is central to my thought. So people who think about that are the people I pay most attention to. I love the Italian feminists associated with the autonomist tradition: Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Silvia Federici, Leopoldina Fortunati. And Selma James, Maria Mies. These Marxist feminists are some of the most important thinkers for me.

What do you think of Alain Badiou’s take on communism?

I think it’s not communism. I respect him, but communism without political economy is not communism and he doesn’t think about political economy. He associates that thought with state communism and I think that’s a mistake. I think that political economy is not an artifact of the state and that you have to think about it if you want to think about changing the world. For me, Badiou becomes pure formalism. He has formal ideas about communism. Necessarily, for him history is a series of events in which the causes can’t be described. And that’s the thing about ‘the event’, it’s profoundly underdetermined. Things just push outward into history. I understand why you want to describe things in that way and I think it’s affectively accurate in many ways. But such an account makes it impossible to think diachronically, to think about dynamics that move throughout history and organize things around them – that dynamic is for me the content of history. As a formalist, in his thought concerning what the synchronic relations of communism may be, Badiou is a genius. But he has no content.

And what do you make of Slavoj Žižek’s analyses?

He’s a little better, but that’s because Žižek, if you wait long enough, will say everything – and sometimes he gets it right. But I don’t think he has much coherence. I think he’s the greatest reader of culture that we have, more than a virtuoso political thinker.

The Occupy movements have this thing called the Human Microphone, have you seen that? The phenomenon started in New York. The protesters weren’t allowed to use amplification by the city so someone would say something and the assembled folks would shout it back. It moves very slowly but it’s a shared experience that allows you to communicate to an entire crowd. In many ways it’s interesting because it effaces the distinction between the speaker and the spoken-to. But it’s also a little strange since it forces you to say things you might not believe. After all, you’re repeating someone else’s words. Žižek’s talk to Occupy Wall Street was in that respect very ironic. He said many things he had said before, he actually repeats himself all that the time, and in a way the human microphone was a funny echo of that – the idea that everything you say gets repeated, said at least twice and echoed back by many different voices, louder and slightly changed. That’s Žižek’s entire career. He’s like his own human microphone. But sometimes it’s quite superb. And the chapter ‘Che vuoi?’ in The Sublime Object of Ideology is a very important text for me.

I think what’s happening now is very interesting. People are actively involved in a struggle, they are occupying streets and squares and buildings to change the world. Now the philosophical accounts of communism seem less interesting. They seem transitional objects before people moved back to practice. People are moving back to practice right now, and that’s very powerful for me.

Any more key-texts, apart from the The Sublime Object of Ideology and, in a way, Deleuze’s lost book?

Giovanni Arrighi’s The Long Twentieth Century. Arrighi was an Italian economist who ended up as a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University. He’s in the tradition of Fernand Braudel and the Annales School, of history as longue durée. He’s one of the great thinkers of world systems theory. Without The Long Twentieth Century, which is the best history of the last six centuries that I’ve ever read, I could never think. That book made it more possible for me to think than any other book I’ve ever read – apart from maybe Wallace Stevens. And Thomas Pynchon. And Gertrude Stein. My favorite thing I get to do in life is teach Gertrude Stein to undergraduates. I give myself four days. On the first day they hate her writing but by the fourth day I usually can get them to like it. I always have them write imitations of Tender Buttons and that helps them to understand that she’s really up to something, that it’s not just nonsense. Not that I am opposed to nonsense!

In your book 1989: Bob Dylan Didn’t Have This to Sing About you deal with the relations between popular music and historical events. nY #10 featured a special on the nineties as a peculiarly empty decade. What’s your take on that decade?

That’s interesting, that you did that special. When my book came out I gave a series of talks about exactly that periodization, the nineties as the period from ‘the fall of the wall’ to ‘the fall of the towers,’ and about the ways in which such a periodiazation didn’t work. My study concerns pop music, and mostly teenpop —so Britney Spears and ‘N Sync and Backstreet Boys — which was the most popular music of that era, by a substantial margin. And it ended very suddenly. Teenpop ran out of its charisma like falling off a cliff. Everyone said that that was because of 9/11: the national mood had changed, people were more somber and more serious, the time for this juvenile diversion had come to an end. That became the official story. The problem is that this isn’t what happened. I studied the sales figures for these bands as carefully as I could. The purchasing public is quite young, the people buying this music are between the ages of 8 to 16, with some exceptions. Most of them are spending their parents’ money. The sales track almost exactly to the stock market and how it’s doing, especially to technology stocks which were undergoing a great boom in this period. The tech bubble burst in late 2000 and that’s when teenpop starts to collapse. By the time the NASDAQ has gone to its minimum point, in 2001, teen pop is dead. So it turns out that the period was not a period to be understood by affect, ending with an affective event. It’s an economic period.

I’m interested in the ways that wanting to periodize by political events rather than by economical events leads us towards mistakes. So when I was trying to think about 1989, I wasn’t trying to diminish the political importance of that sequence of world-historical political changes. But one of the characteristics of that sequence was that it marked the disappearance of the broadest and most serious debate about economics. There could no longer be a debate about which economic system we should be living in; there was rather a general agreement that there was one economic life for us, forever. And the secret sadness people felt around that, that is what the book is about. It’s about the way in which the ‘end of history’ took away an option for imagining a different kind of life with a different set of arrangements. That was celebratory, it seemed like every border had gone down, but the freedom it entailed was also potentially an empty freedom. It was a freedom without the possibility of change.

Why, as a music lover, would you want to devote your time to Backstreet Boys?

Well, this is you and your bourgeois prejudices! I take everything seriously. I was a professional music critic for a long time. I remember being assigned to cover a Backstreet Boys concert and watching these girls, they were probably twelve or thirteen or fourteen, who were too far away from the stage to really see anything. They were holding pictures of the five Backstreet Boys and they were crying and tearing at each other’s clothes in misery and ecstasy. It’s easy to make fun of but I know that’s what my mom did when she went to her first Beatles concert. To think that my mom’s experiences were real but these kids’ experiences were fake, that seems like the worst kind of snobbery and hubris and I wouldn’t do it. That doesn’t mean that I like all the music, just as I don’t like all of The Beatles.

Would you say that the Occupy Movements signal the end of ‘the end of history’?

I’m interested in what you think of them, being young and coming from Europe.

I admire the energy the Occupy Cal stirs up but I’m also disappointed in the quality of the speeches and the critical thinking that, I feel, should be the motor of those activities.

I think a synchronic thing and a diachronic thing. The synchronic thing is very much as you say about the problem of the movement’s thought, its basic analysis. But I think I’m a little more sympathetic. We live in a country where talking about social class has been disallowed. Just now, as it reasserts itself as a vital matter that needs to be addressed, we no longer have the language for it. So people come up with this terrible fake language of the 99% and the 1%, which presents all kinds of difficulties, all the worst reductionisms of class without much of the analytic yield. One problem is that it quickly becomes theological. On the one hand you have strange absolutist, quantitative debates like ‘this person earns 311.000 dollars a year – are they the 99%?’ ‘Is there a perfect quantum we can know?’ But at the same time it takes the form of a qualitative, humanist theology, in which a few bankers have mysteriously traduced the human but everybody else finally is on the same side, a potential ally. Even the police. There will always be somebody captured by the theology of humanism and individualism, somebody who says ‘but every cop is different, and some of them smile sometimes!’

Either Marx or Foucault could give you a pretty good account of who the police are, and what they do, and why they’re really not going to help you change the structure you find intolerable — and provide ways in which they should be understood as part of the terrain of the fight that has to be dealt with in a sort of pragmatic way. But the theology of the 99% makes such practical thought impossible. We remain in an era where thinking about strategy and tactics is ideologically foreclosed. So this is one of the difficulties I have with the though of the Occupy movement. But I will defend it by saying that, even if it’s somewhat limited and banal and liberal-humanist, moments like this have always been the enabling condition for something more interesting to happen.

In his speech at Occupy Cal on 15 November 2011, Robert Reich also staged ‘moral outrage’ as a first step.

Yes, but I have great difficulties with Reich’s speech. For him the outrage comes first, specific demands come later. This narrative means to explain the current lack of demands. I think the refusal to have demands is perhaps the most profound and serious thing about the movement. Reich’s idea is: first you’re angry and then you see what kind of deal you can cut. That is to say, we must all accept the moment when, with absolute inevitability, the possibility of social change is folded back into the logic of trade, bargains, marginal utility — the exact logic that has summoned forth the moral outrage! Well, a couple of things. One, I think that a lot of people involved in the larger occupations movement have far more than moral outrage: they have sophisticated analyses, and a political outrage. The other is that it doesn’t always go the way he imagines.

In Reich’s vision, these mass movements inevitably become less radical, as outrage yields to calculation. Yes, as I said, these mass movements, not just heterogeneous but incoherent and very limited, are the enabling conditions for more radical things to happen later. I’m not convinced that that will happen at all, but I can hope. I’m old enough to hope. So that’s my sense of it, analytically. But I have a strange historical relationship to it, which is that the Occupy Movement in some sense didn’t start with Occupy Wall Street in the fall. It’s important to remember that there was a wave of campus occupations, starting in New York in 2008 and then moving here to the University of California in 2009. Their tactic was occupation. Their slogan was ‘occupy everything, demand nothing,’ which turns out to be the slogan of the Occupy Movement now. So in many ways, historically, my relationship to this Occupy Movement is one of understanding it through the lens of that moment, which I was very involved in and for which I ended up in jail for a couple of times. But of course there’s no real origin story. As global economic crisis has burst forth and deepened, the necessity of struggle has also circled the globe, trying to find the right social form to confront austerity programs in different situations. The way it looks at Occupy Wall Street is very different from the building takeovers that were happening at Davis, Berkeley, Santa Cruz and UCLA. In between those was Tunisia and Tahrir Square, massive fightbacks in London, the ‘movement of the squares’ in Madrid and elsewhere; even before, there was the street fighting in Athens, in Paris, and so on. Ongoing struggles in Chile, to name just one. For me it’s not a sudden flowering but more of a circling around and coming back, changed. I said as a joke that I’m old enough to hope but I actually mean that. Having watched the campus movement in 2009 fail miserably and be crushed, watching this occupy moment in the US start to collapse, which it is doing right now – if I was 25 I’d be consumed by despair. It would have crushed me. But now I actually think that history is going our direction. I think the protest movement will keep cycling and will keep coming back stronger.

That’s a surprising optimistic note in a time where more and more budget cuts are announced. How to give young people a framework and a language to make sense of their historical moment when education is becoming ever more expensive and less available?

That’s true, but I think that extracurricular education is getting more serious. People who can’t go to college are having the opportunity and the impulsion to start gaining language and ideas to start thinking about this problem on their own. I’ve never met so many young, angry autodidacts as in the last two years. I wish it were true that the university would afford us a revolutionary stronghold. But college, even though it’s filled with amazing and brilliant and committed people, doesn’t seem to radicalize. The universities in the US have become so much part of the market that we have to change the system in order for the universities to be given the chance to change. I think that for the university to do what I believe it should be doing, which is helping people move from necessity to freedom, the larger situation will have to change.

The US public education system has been increasing in price and has been privatizing steadily, not since the crisis but since the late 1970s. It’s a long ongoing program associated with the era of neoliberalism. As I see it, it has everything to do with declining rates of industrial profits. There was less money to go around and people started fighting harder for it. Here in California the home-owners had a lot of political power and organized to change the tax codes for their benefit; concomitant with that, there has been a long and ongoing defunding of public goods including education. That process has happened in the UK in the space of 24 to 30 months. The increase in fees by 500%, that happened here over a few decades was in the UK pushed through in two years. So of course there were riots. And the fact that people will riot is one of the reasons why I have hope. And not just students angry about being excluded from education. I am sympathetic to the other London riots of this summer. I don’t care that they didn’t articulate some elegant critique. I realize that the idea of an uneducated riot is a frightening one but I take looting to be a reasonable political decision to rearrange the division of goods.

But the people looting weren’t reasoning.

I don’t care. I don’t require people to change their lives with the correct consciousness. I want people to change their lives. And the order they’ll install next? Still up for grabs. I’m not calling for a permanent regime of looting but I think that the thought that private property should not be recognized is entirely the right thought. It’s an anti-capitalist thought. And that’s what you can read in those riots. We don’t have to worry too much about the authors but focus on the text, which said ‘no, I don’t accept your ownership.’

You say you think the system should change for education to change but you’re very much part of the system, as a tenured professor at UC Davis. How do you see your own position in the system? And how do you negotiate the system in your reading and writing?

Yes, I’m a tenured professor and I love the classroom experience. I love teaching Gertrude Stein. But it’s important to remember at every second that you’re engaged in a practice which is putting your students deeper and deeper in debt, which is decreasing the number of hours in the rest of their lives that they will have the choice over what they will do, and that this is paying your salary, and you can never forget that. I talk to my students about that on the first day of classes in every class. It’s always an enlightening conversation for me. I get to find out what jobs they have, that are making school possible except for the ways that they also make it impossible, leave them exhausted and falling asleep. I don’t believe that teaching in the university is a magically nobler task than most other jobs – although there are jobs that are so obviously terrible, investment bankers and other career criminals. Teaching is something I’m good at. I used to assemble office furniture for a living. I was not very good at that. I used to summarize legal documents, I was not very good at that either. I used to be a DJ. I was very good at that but it doesn’t pay very well. But my mission is not just to provide a good education, it’s to struggle with the students to change the entire world.

Even though I think the system has to go, I can see the beauty of it. Late capitalism is terrible and ruins people’s lives but it also produces astonishing, beautiful things. That kind of ascetic person who has to insist that those things are of no interest because they’re the enemy, that’s just not quite right to me. Do you know that Frank O’Hara passage about never wanting to be too far from a record store or a subway entrance? I feel that very strongly. Marx’ idea that the civilization of the bourgeoisie is the greatest civilization that was ever raised, I think that’s true even though I think it’s got to go. The great political poetry criticism we have in the twentieth century, of which maybe Adorno is the most significant figure, is really committed to driving everything to two margins. At the one end we have the poetry we like, which is poetry of radical negativity, in absolute refusal and rejection of the world as it is. And at the other margin is the poetry we hate, the poetry of ideological reproduction that just sings back the naturalized truths of bourgeois capitalism as if they were universal. But that doesn’t make sense for Apollinaire, or O’Hara, or Stein. They were incredibly critical of their world but also recognized the texture and the sensual and intellectual experience of being alive in it. I think that the Apollinaire poem ‘Zone’ – which I’m always trying to translate, it has a beautiful translation already but it’s not perfect – is the poem of the twentieth century. It comes at the beginning of the century but it sets forth a map and a model that I think is still unparalleled. And it just can’t be handled by that Adornian model of radical negativity or ideological reproduction. So my dream is to live in that place while retaining my political theory, right? Or maybe vice versa: to theorize in that place while retaining my political dreams.