Poems for the Millennium Volume Three edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Jeffrey C Robinson
(University of California Press, 2009)
Reiner Schürmann, in his Broken Hegemonies, has divided the history of “The West” into three “broken hegemonies”: the Greek, the Latin, and the vernacular (which can be construed as all the stages of modernity). Each hegemony has a ruling fantasm: during the first, it was the One; during the second, it was Nature; during the third, it was Man [sic] / Consciousness / the Subjective Self; the third, of course is the one in which we (now perhaps only barely … and yet … still) recognize ourselves.
There, that mountain! There, that cloud! What in them is ‘real’? Merely eliminate from them the fantasm of any human addition, you sober ones! If only you could! (Nietzsche, The Gay Science II, 57, as quoted by Schürmann)
As Schürmann has it, “A fantasm is hegemonic when an entire culture relies on it as if it provided that in the name of which one speaks and acts …” But of course it’s “only” a fantasm (ah, that “only”!), and “Immediately it becomes clear at what price fantasms render the world livable. Life is paid for by denying the singular … [and] by subsuming it under the figure of the particular.” A singular is the unnamable as-is. A particular is “a unit or one among a number” (OED), i.e., no longer the as-is as such, but rather the as-is considered under the comforting fiction of a class. And classes struggle.
Friedrich Kittler opens his Discourse Networks 1800 / 1900 with a description of an attempt to insert man [sic] / consciousness / the subjective self into “the empty slot of an obsolete discourse network”, i.e. that of the ruling Latin fantasm. He identifies this attempt with the beginning of [modern] German [and, perhaps, therefore, all modern] poetry.
The attempt, of course, is made by Faust.
His first strategy is to read a text by an author he can name. Faust attempts to conjure the author (Nostradamus) into being, via an imaginative act. Though Faust is working with an autograph MS, and hence with traces of the singular, he finds that the author has withdrawn behind the text, which consists solely of signs. Kittler: “… Faust, the interpreter of signs, is once more robbed of what his experiment meant to introduce into the configuration of early modern knowledge: Man standing behind and above all bookish rubbish.”
Kittler continues: “The second [strategy] takes the opposite path: the consuming reader, rather than a productive author, is introduced as Man into the heap of books. For once, Faust does not just glimpse and gaze at signs. The first unperformable stage direction in European theatrical history declares that ‘he seizes the book and mysteriously pronounces the sign of the spirit.’ Mysteriously indeed.” This fails, too, because “Faust’s drinking of signs is an ecstasy and production that exceeds his powers. Instead of remaining master of the conjured sign, the reader disappears into the weave or textum of the signified.”
The third [strategy] introduces “man” more subtly. Faust neither “liqu[ifies] archaic ideograms with his … orality”, nor conjures by name the authors of his text. Instead, he translates, i.e. interprets, it. “Man”, at last, is introduced by a hermeneutic act, which, for various reasons, Kittler designates a “free writing”. Thus, the transition from the second fantasm to the third is made.
I would like to suggest that the transition from an outmoded fantasm to a new one more in step with existing social conditions does indeed feel free, but it’s not.
Fantasms may make life livable; as noted, they also classify everything, and thereby structure relations. Yes, I’m talking about power. To put it negatively, that which puts at least an illusion of ground under our feet, that which turns the singular into a particular, pins it like a dead insect. So: to live under a fantasm is to die to one’s wordless being. Schürmann (and Nietzsche) suggest that the human condition is tragic, in that there’s no way out from under: “… Merely eliminate … the fantasm of any human addition, you sober ones! If only you could!” And yet … And yet … The poets in whom Rothenberg and Robinson are interested have at least this in common: they beat against the bars of the reigning fantasm. I will call this the “As if” … As if … it were possible to break free … or to at least make habitable this jail.
What makes it possible for us to know this? That we’re so trapped? If we’re so trapped? Let’s turn for a moment to Werner Hamacher on Hegel’s totalizing philosophy (which, of course, comes into being at the same time Faust is hard at work), a totalization that signifies the end of history (sometimes the birth of a new fantasm feels like the end of history). When history ends we are indeed trapped, eternally trapped, aren’t we? Isn’t this one meaning of Nietzsche’s “eternal return”? Hamacher, from p. 261 of Pleroma – Reading in Hegel:
Even there where the … Logos turns from nausea and grasps itself as such, it is ‘conceptually caught up in the imminent threat of loss.’ In truth it does not lose itself – true loss would already be made good through the truth of the Logos – but [it] … is caught up in the imminent threat of losing itself to something heterogenous, something which promises no gain, something in which the absolute absolutely escapes its own grasp.
Meaning, to me at least, that any totalizing, any system (which must exist under the silent sign of the fantasm), even Hegel’s, isn’t “equal, that is, to the real itself.” And all who live under such a system know it. The ship itself is a fool. And the real is a rocking sea. (Cf. early Marx’s alienation).
I think here of Zizek’s discussion of the master signifier, and his point that, well, I’m going to have to work up to it. I quote from Rex Butler’s “Slavoj Zizek: What is a Master-Signifier” at lacan.com. What is described is the limit to all ideologies under a given fantasm:
Zizek begins his theoretical project in Sublime Object by taking up Laclau and Mouffe’s notion of ‘radical democracy’. As he admits in his Acknowledgements there, it is their book Hegemony and Socialist Strategy that first oriented him in the use of the ‘Lacanian conceptual apparatus as a tool in the analysis of ideology’ (SO, xvi). What is the essential argument of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy? Its fundamental insight, following the linguistics of Saussure, is that there is no necessary relationship between reality and its symbolization (SO, 97). Our descriptions do not naturally and immutably refer to things, but – this is the defining feature of the symbolic order – things in retrospect begin to resemble their description. … it is not simply a matter of seeing which account of reality best matches the ‘facts’, with the one that is closest being the least biased and therefore the best. As soon as the facts are determined, we have already – whether we know it or not – made our choice; we are already within one ideological system or another. The real dispute has already taken place over what is to count as the facts, which facts are relevant, and so on. …
The same ‘arbitrariness’ applies not only to reality but to those [terms] by which we construct reality … meaning is ‘quilted’ or determined by [the limit to all ideologies under a given fantasm] … to which they [the terms] must ultimately be understood to be referring. … [all thought under a given fantasm plays the same game].
Here’s where it gets good:
But, again, why do all these attempts to ‘quilt’ society fail? What is this ‘impossible-real kernel’ that is a sign of their inability to attain closure? It is not, Zizek insists, a matter of some imaginary ‘fullness’ of society that is unable to be taken account of, some empirical 'richness' that is in excess of any attempt to structure it …. Rather, it is because whatever it is that quilts the social is itself only able to be defined, re-marked, stated as such, from somewhere outside of it.
The fantasm, and all who “inhabit” it, can’t quiet that rocking sea …
The problem is, we don’t know how to live a-fantasmically, not really, or, to use another Schürmann-ism, an-archic praxis is non-hegemonic, and when have we ever lived non-hegemonically? But, as noted, we do have some sense that we’re inside a fiction and that it’s the (heavily-armed) fiction that keeps us (inner and outer) slaves.
And yet … and yet … As if … As if … there have always been those among us who have shouted out, “I can no longer stand this queasy feeling!”
… The first we know to have tried to get out from under was, perhaps, the great Eve. And then there was Prometheus, who wanted to bring the rest of us with him …
But those shouters, let’s call them poets, let’s call them visionaries, let’s call them, yes, revolutionaries: the revolutionary doesn’t have to win … the revolutionary doesn’t have to lose, either. At least not entirely. Eve’s brave act gave us the hint that something scary called Knowledge was out there … Prometheus’s daring gave us fire …
During the epoch with which this volume of Poems for the Millennium is concerned, during the first century of so of the nightmare era of Man [sic] ruled by the hegemony of Man [sic], what happened? This is just off the top of my head: The American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, 1830, 1841, the Commune, the end of legalized slavery in the Anglophone world, the first steps in the serious organization of labor, the first stirrings of (organized) feminism … there were advances in urban sanitation, advances in medicine … not only “the horror, the horror.” Though there was more than plenty of that.
And along with all this, a suitable poetry.
Much of this, both the positive and negative, is what’s addressed and struggled with and for by the poets gathered by Rothenberg and Robinson in the three volumes of Poems for the Millennium. These poets take sides. And this third volume is really the first. From the Introduction:
Lying behind the present gathering is a sense that the most radical and experimental works of our time – in poetry and across the arts – belong to a continuity that stretches back two centuries and more …
In contrast, then, to the once standard accounts of Modernism’s dramatic break from a rebellious and chronically immature Romanticism (thus, T. S. Eliot and other “high modernists” and once “New Critics”) or from a Romanticism in its tamed and enfeebled later forms (by Russian Futurists and assorted Dadas), we are proposing that [there is no break] between the most vital strains of nineteenth-century poetry and the Modernism and avant-gardism of the twentieth century …
Indeed, any reader who recognizes us in Walter Benjamin’s Passagen-Werk (and who doesn’t?) will recognize us here as well.
Though this volume is somewhat international in scope, its focus is in fact European, as has been the case, though much less so, with the other volumes. I include all non-native North American writing as (more-or-less post-colonial) European, as well as all “native writings” included, since they are, here at least, as-seen-through-EuroAmerican-eyes, in fact, many would never have been written had it not been for Europeans. That Euroslant may be inevitable, since the 19th century is the European century par excellence, the age of utmost European world-damage and domination. Asians and Africans and other “indigenes” fought back during the 20th century with much greater success than during the 19th, thus the greater world-flavor of the first two volumes. This is not a complaint. Given our present post-post colonial globalizing moment, when we are all beginning to wear the same mass-produced mind-forg’d manacles (and it no longer matters where they’re produced, they were created in early-modern Europe), perhaps its particular focus helps make this volume even more meaningful than it otherwise might be. As the editors note,
The nineteenth century begins again*: nationalism, colonialism, and imperialism, ethnic and religious violence, growing extremes of wealth and poverty, all reemerge today with a virulence that calls up their earlier nineteenth-century versions and all the physical and mental struggles against them …
*I would phrase this differently; it’s neither a case of the eternal return of the same nor of Marx’s first time tragedy, second time farce; the way I read history, “the nineteenth century” has yet to even begin to approach its end.
So: these are our poems as much as are the poems written yesterday.
I would suggest that the continuity proposed by the editors persists, even into the “post-avant” and after; I would suggest that we are still governed by the man [sic] / consciousness / subjective self fantasm, even if, per my reading of Lyotard, we have no utopian “master narratives” left in which we can truly believe wholeheartedly; I mean, we may no longer quite know what’s meant by “man [sic] / consciousness / the subjective self” … and yet … and yet … we’re still underneath ...
What we have here, then, are the first shouters who came to “speech” under the fantasm Faust recognized, from Rousseau, and Goya, and Blake and Burns, through the Romantics, through a concurrent “return to roots” (every attempt at forward seems to involve a look all the way back), through Hugo and Emerson and Kierkegaard, through Baudelaire and Dickinson and Christina Rossetti, through the Shakers and Martí and Akiko and Mallarmé, as far as Jarry and Apollinaire and Stein (where Volume One picks up the story) … and all stops in between, some rather surprising, but none out of place. And, as with the other volumes, a selection of “manifestos” is provided, as well as absolutely fascinating commentary.
I’m not going to bother to prove to you that this is the shit. If you need to ask what diddy-wha-diddy means …
Maybe we were better off as typical primates. “But you and I, we’ve been through that, and that is not our fate / So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.”
We need these shouters more than ever, obviously. Five stars. Ten, maybe. Two thumbs up. Or three. Essential reading.
John Bloomberg-Rissman is the author of a number of chapbooks, most recently World Zero and A Spectrum of Other Instances. He is also the author of the full-length No Sounds of My Own Making, the editor of 1000 Views of ‘Girl Singing’. His work has appeared in numerous journals and in several anthologies. His current project is Flux, Clot & Froth, which will probably top out at 700+ pages, and for which he hopes to find one reader, please. He is part of the team (title: editor or something) at Leafe Press. His ongoing efforts can be seen at Zeitgeist Spam.