We are all witnessing the effects of capitalism over our present times in the forms of abstraction of work, the disembodiment of the conscience, and the dematerialization of the commodities. The Italian Marxist Franco “Bifo” Berardi attributes the origin of this great transformation through abstraction to the development of finance:
Finance is the most abstract level of economic symbolization. It is the culmination of a process of progressive abstraction that started with capitalist industrialization. Marx speaks of abstract labor in the sense of an increased distancing of human activity from its concrete usefulness. In his words, capitalism is the application of human skills as a means to obtain a more abstract goal: the accumulation of value[i].
On this particular situation he states that the most important changes in societies due to the dematerialization and the general abstraction of the economic rules and procedures are the disembodiment of the “general intelligence”, a concept he uses sometimes in terms of a representation of the cognitive group of workers whose labor is now exploited; the deterritorialization of labor and productivity, that ignited a process of pulverization and precarization of work and worker; the end of growth as a concept related to the “increase of social happiness and satisfaction of the basic needs of people”, but instead the expansion of financial profits and the expansion of the global volume of exchange value. He talks about “the new alienation” occurring in the cognitive worker by precarization and the acceleration of the information flow and productivity. All of these transformations are symptoms of the general intelligence as disembodied, taken away from its own social and erotic body.
Bifo defines poetry as that kind of language that will save us from the doom of abstraction in the unreferential world. Bifo speaks of poetry as a part or figure of language that has the ability to make us regain sensibility by connecting the cognitive worker, the general intellect or collective intelligence to its own social and erotic body. In this way he describes poetry as the
Language [that] exceeds economic exchange. Poetry is the language of nonexchangeabilty; the return of infinite hermeneutics, and the return of the sensuous body of language. I’m talking about poetry here as an excess of language, a hidden resource which enables us to shift from one paradigm to another.[ii]
In an attempt to prove or disprove the latter, this paper reviews Bifo’s proposal through the careful reading of one contemporary poet through her most recent poetry collection: Citizen, by Claudia Rankine. Her concerns are very diverse, while they could be referring to the very same thing if we choose to follow up with Bifo’s statements. Citizen addresses human conflict in one of its most painful manifestations: racism. This conflict, although there have been very noticeable efforts to eradicate it, is still constant and relentless in the present time in a lot of societies around the world.
How could the general intellect come back if as for today the sensual collective body is fragmented, mutilated by social phenomena such as racism? This is one of the questions that Claudia Rankine addresses in her very recent poetry collection Citizen: An American Lyric (2014)[iii]. Born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1963, poet Claudia Rankine earned a BA at Williams College and an MFA at Columbia University. Her work often crosses genres as it tracks wild and precise movements of mind. Her work also relies on borrowed, docummentary, and fragmentary sources. Citizen is a very good example of that.
Citizen is a piece of writing that addresses the racial gap in contemporary America. By using the stream of consciousness the voice in Citizen speaks of the everyday stress stemming from racism. It accounts for all the times when it had to sit in silence in order to avoid confrontation at all costs. The awkwardness of seating in commercial airlines. The dealings of white people with affirmative action and minority issues regarding jobs, education. The speaker gives account for every aggression based upon race in the everyday life.
A man knocked over her son in the subway. You feel your own body wince. He’s okay, but the son of a bitch kept walking. She says she grabbed the stranger’s arm and told him to apologize: I told him to look at the boy and apologize. And yes, you want it to stop, you want the black child pushed to the ground to be seen, to be helped to his feet and be brushed off, not brushed off by the person that did not see him, has never seen him, has perhaps never seen anyone who is not a reflection of himself.
Rankine is not talking from Uncle Tom’s cabin. The poet is talking about right here, right now. In the now. The book begins with a phrase that links the piece directly with the techno-linguistic automatisms found in The Uprising: “When you are alone and too tired even to turn on any of your devices, you let yourself linger in a past stacked among your pillows.” Rankine is shutting down the devices of the 21st century. The same devices that, According to Bifo, are shutting us down, preventing the comeback of the general intellect. The poet is asking for a chance for reflection. A chance to think about things. She addresses memory since the factual things that the book is talking about are based upon historical events.
Through the long enumeration of aggressions based on race, Rankine poses the question: are all these events the manifestation of the fear of the other? The fear of otherness? Is this fear preventing the comeback of the general intellect? Is this fear one of the consequences of “the new alienation” occurring in the cognitive worker by the precarization and the acceleration of the information flow and productivity?
Rankine addresses the politically correctness that is expected from the subjects of racism. In the second section of the book she poses a reflection on “the anger of the successful black artist” as proposed by Hennessy Youngman in Art Thoughtz:
Youngman’s suggestions are meant to expose expectations for blackness as well as to underscore the difficulty inherent in any attempt by clack artists to metabolize real rage. The commodified anger his video advocates rests lightly on the surface for spectacle’s sake. It can be engaged or played like the race card and is tied solely to the performance of blackness and not to the emotional state of particular individual in particular situations.
The speaker in Citizen is talking about the anger built up through experience and the quotidian struggles against dehumanization suffered by all subjects of racism of any kind of discrimination for whatever reason. She is talking about anger as knowledge that both clarifies and disappoints: “It responds to insult and attempted erasure simply by asserting presence, and the energy required to present, to react, to assert is accompanied by visceral disappointment: a disappointment in the sense that no amount of visibility will alter the ways in which one is perceived”.
This is when the speaker begins to address a crucial matter that is closely related to the ideas of the sensuous body that Bifo poses in The Uprising. Rankine begins to talk about the body of Serena Williams as fixated on the tennis court. The poet attempts to portray Williams’s black body through black text against the sharp page-white background of a tennis court while she narrates injustice in the rulings of world open series in 2004, 2009, and then again in 2011. Rankine addresses the issue of this “real” anger:
it is difficult not to think that if Serena lost context by abandoning all rules of civility, it could be because her body, trapped in a racial imaginary, trapped in disbelief—code for being black in America—is being governed not by the tennis match she is participating in but by a collapsed relationship that had promised to play by the rules. Perhaps this is how racism feels no matter the context—randomly the rules everyone else gets to play by no longer apply to you, and to call this out by calling out “I swear to God!” is to be called insane, crass, crazy. Bad sportsmanship.
To what Rankine is saying that this anger is not commodifiable, market anger. The memory in Serena’s body outbursts in anger that cannot be digested by the general (white) audience. Could Serena’s anger be a consequence, an expression proper of a tired body due to the new estrangement provided by deterritorialization and precarization?
By addressing these concerns through lyric poetry, Rankine is dealing with historical selves as well as with racial selves. Angry selves. Historical selves, because racial concerns have a history. Racial interaction is historical. There is a very strong presence of the “I” as opposed to the “we” and to the “you”. It is a reaffirmation of the self as much as an epic that gives account for the historical position of the African American communities in western culture. It offers a way out, through art, beyond any rationalization of racism in our time. It is non apologetic, and provocative at the same time. She makes a reflection on Judith Butler’s idea of hurtful language as well, on its power to inflict pain:
For so long you thought the ambition of racist language was to denigrate and erase you as a person. After considering Butler’s remarks, you begin to understand yourself as rendered hypervisible in the face of such language acts. Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that you are present. Your alertness, your openness, and your desire to engage actually demand your presence, your looking up, your talking back, and, as insane as it is, saying please.
So, according to Citizen, language needs a body. Language is looking for referenciality in this piece. So that is perhaps what Bifo is talking about poetry providing that language that will save us from the doom of abstraction in the unreferential world. Poetry as a part or figure of language that has the ability to make us regain sensibility by connecting the cognitive worker, the general intellect or collective intelligence to its own social and erotic body.
As a very quick remark I would like to echo what Dan Chiasson appreciates of this work and how it talks about technology in the now: “Citizen conducts its business, often, with melancholy, but also with wit and a sharable incredulity that sends you running to YouTube. These kinds of errands into the culture could not have been performed before the Internet, which provides, for all of us, the ultimate instant replay[iv].” So as Bifo had said before[v], “techno-linguistic automatisms” work both ways: they are the reason for estrangement, for swarm behavior; but when used in poetry writing, they are also the occasion for the generation of singularities that only poetry can make possible.
Poetry is the part or figure of language that can provide social movements with the spirit of reactivation of the social and erotic body that has been estranged from the general intellect since the turn of the millennium with appalling consequences.
Bifo states that “only an act of language escaping the technical automatisms of financial capitalism will make possible the emergence of a new life form”. Poetry escapes this automatisms since it relies on sensibility rather than on referentiality. While Bifo doesn’t trace a manual to experience change through a certain and effective method, he instead offers a general view of what is going on with reality through abstraction of language and economics, by the new alienation. It is possible that Bifo is relying on the poets to answer to the question on how humanity is supposed to provide the conditions for poetry to enable the comeback of the social body to the general intellect.
Marco Antonio Huerta
La Jolla, California
[i] Berardi, Franco. The Uprising. On Poetry and Finance. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2012. p. 14
[ii] Ibid. p. 140
[iii] Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014
[iv] Chiasson, Dan. Color Codes, in The New Yorker. October 27, 2014 issue. Wednesday December 10, 2014.
[v] Private conversation with the author in La Jolla, California on December 2014.