Monday, 27 May 2013

THE WRONG WRONGNESS: Excerpts from Email Correspondence, 27.05.13

[These slightly re-written excerpts from emails written at various points today are here posted as an expansion of and sequel to the 'RADICAL MURDER' piece from a couple of days ago.]

Well, I put 'RADICAL MURDER' up on my blog. Half-entertained the thought of posting it in the comments section of the Guardian or the Evening Standard website, but chickened out in the end. I was wondering about what kind of audience it addresses itself to; and as someone said to me, you have to be careful to pick your battles, otherwise you just end up in the Evening Standard pictured as some crazy fringe lunatic “with a personality defect,” who's cheering on terrorism. Which, just because it's the sort of thing that the essay itself talks about, doesn't make it any easier for that essay to escape in either its form or its various potential arenas of reception. Or maybe it's important to keep it out there given the fact that the Woolwich murder was such an intensely media-tized event – an event which set itself up as a media spectacle in the first place, as if in a kind of anticipation of its own reception, an attempt by the murders to speak for themselves rather than be endlessly ventriloquized by assorted herds of news-readers and the government figures they represent, rubbing their hands with glee as they get to play up the dangers of all the non-white terrorist crazies from whom we must protected by repressive measures, for our own good. Of course, that attempt to speak for themselves is just more grist to the mill for that ventriloquization, perhaps more so, even, providing shock images of blood-stained hands and street-ranting, the surreal juxtaposition between a kind of discourse or debate that occurs after the action has occurred (passers by engaging in dialogue with them after the murder has happened), the banality of the setting barely disturbed by the murder that has just taken place, a little afternoon sensation, filmed on around 60 different mobile phones by citizens keeping their distance, dinner-table conversation-fodder. In fact, the murder reveals the actual violence at the heart of that setting, just down the road from the barracks. This actual violence is not only the legalized and patriotically-praised violence of the military, but the sense of racial and class oppression which might lead the murderers to act as they did, as Richard Seymour sketches it, with geographical specificity, in a blog-post from 23rd May; as if one actually has to inhabit the caricatured position into which one has been painted (crazy radical Islamist murderer), reportedly tortured or at least harassed by MI5, assumed to have some stake in religious extremism because of one's racial background or religion); the endless acting out of pre-planned roles into which one's pre-emptive performative justification all too easily falls. Which applies not just to the murders themselves, but to any of us claiming to be radical poets, or just 'radicals' per se: how far does being 'radical' in that sense lead to a position which is already a recuperated parody of itself (as in Baader-Meinhoff, etc), and how far does second-guessing the recuperation of positions lead to the prevention of any real radical opposition to the actually radical propaganda which government and media pump out every day, and particularly around an event such as Woolwich? For the government, Lee Rigby's murder was the perfect advertizing opportunity – where what you are being sold on is repressive government policy, not as some commodity you actually desire, but as that which you need if bad things are not happen to you. To combat this without falling into some form of self-proclaimed extremity, itself a form of advertizing as guilt-palliative, is, then, what is required.

In the light of this, and the paper on Force and Wrongness, I've been thinking about various kinds of wrongness and the line between a useful offensiveness which reflects the actual offensive uses to which things are put / events are exploited and something which crosses that line. How to use the death of David Cameron's disabled son in poetry, for example, and if that's even possible. And I keep thinking about the increasing extremity of the coverage of Woolwich, an extremity which has increased even since I wrote that essay just a few days ago, with mooted website-crackdowns and paranoia-fostering about 'terrorism' – though, as Glenn Greenwald points out in his article for The Guardian, to describe the murder as 'terrorism' is inaccurate; you might as well describe homophobic murders or murders of black people or Muslims as 'terrorist', because they also act on the basis of a political ideology; 'terrorism' is not here an abstract category, but one used to suggestively pin particular forms of behaviour onto particular individuals from particular racial and socio-economic categories, as both their latent and actual tendency, role and goal in life. FEAR OF A BLACK (MUSLIM) PLANET. And then there's the EDL reaction, fascists on the streets of London and Woolwich, attacks on Islamic cultural centres and mosques, the return of that fought so hard against in the 1980s under a different guise – though a guise in line with government propaganda; 'we don't disagree with the ideology, it's the method of which we must be seen to officially disapprove.'

Of course, we have to combat that reaction as strongly as we can, whether in rhetoric, the role our writing might play in public debate, alongside Greenwald or Seymour or Terry Eagleton, and as bodies in the streets, stopping the fascists from occupying those streets. 'WHOSE STREETS OUR STREETS.' Where 'our' includes those communities under explicit attack from the EDL and implicit attack from the government, communities within whom we must be in a real solidarity, as opposed to the fake solidarity offered by David Cameron's official speech, its military-patriotic rhetoric (“brave soldiers,” Cobra Meetings) sugared with politically-correct truisms, its speedy anticipation of accusations of Islamophobic fear-baiting by placing itself on the side of “Muslim communities” and of “Islam” per se. “This was not just an attack on Britain and on the British way of life, it was also a betrayal of Islam and of the Muslim communities who give so much to our country. There is nothing in Islam that justifies this truly dreadful act.” Such anticipation paves the way for the actual Islamophobia present within the increasingly vociferous paranoiac attacks on 'radicalism' which proliferate in the days following an event such as the Woolwich murders, and thus gives them the appearance of being 'reasonable', 'common-sense' precautions, appealing to the liberals who would normally condemn them, just as so many supposedly left-wing commentators and writers eagerly jumped on racist, neo-imperialist and repressive right-wing bandwagons during the events of the Iraq War or the 2011 Riots.

In our opposition to the 'commonen-ness' of this sense, it's necessary to prevent our taking of extreme positions and 'wrong' positions from being merely co-opted into a role which seems to have already been written for them: a role which is essentially the same whether it's condemned by the centre-liberal-to-far-right wing, that wing which constitutes the political mainstream, as somethin terroristic and evil, or praised by those on the far left or bohemian avant-garde as something shocking and 'transgressive' in a simplistic Bataille-type way, or as something akin to the 'filth politics' of Divine's speech in John Walter's 'Pink Flamingos': “Blood does more than turn me on, it makes me cum. And more than the sight of it, I love the taste of it. The taste of hot, freshly killed blood...Kill everyone now! Condone first degree murder! Advocate cannibalism! Eat shit! Filth are my politics! Filth is my life! Take whatever you like.” The Woolwich murders are an entirely different thing to Margaret Thatcher's death, it seems, because the stakes in criticizing Thatcher are so much lower, to some extent, in that no one was going to be arrested en masse for having a 'death-party' or for making a satirical 'memorial' pamphlet, whereas we'd all be carted off to some secret interrogation cell if we held a public celebration of the deaths of British soldiers or made a similar pamphlet about their deaths. Not, of course, that we would ever think of doing the latter, for to do so would be to completely misunderstand the difference between a soldier just as much manipulated by the propaganda of patriotism as anyone, and the prime minister who ran the country for years and actively dictated the policies in and of which the soldier is a pawn as a much as a controlling or active enforcer. My point is, rather, that even just reacting against the extremity of reaction which constantly reinforces patriotic normative narratives, which insists that Drummer Lee Rigby could was not and could not ever have been anything other than a saint, “an heroic soldier,”1 and that the murderers were nothing other than completely pathological figures acting out of either (a) childhood trauma (b) some innate racial or religious evil, comes to be seen as tacit support for terrorism and murder.

But I suppose if you spend the whole time worrying about how the liberal and right wings are going to receive your work, whether or not it has 'gone too far', you just get hamstrung.

One more thing: I mentioned the death of David Cameron's son, and I'm also now thinking of the coverage of Lee Rigby's family and of his memorial spot, at which 'the community' – white people, children, Christians, Sikhs – is seen to be united in grief. It's like the sites of murdered teenagers or the victims of racist attacks; but of course it's not, because this grief cannot help but be part of a propaganda push whose ultimate aim is to de-legitimate the grief of a majority by promoting and encouraging the grief of some. Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (a.k.a. Tommy Robinson) of the EDL has promised to walk 17 miles in order to lay a wreath for British troops, but he will never lay a wreath for the victims of drone attacks, for Muslims murdered by white racists, for all the victims of homophobia.

The co-option of grief was something I really started thinking about when I was on a six-hour ferry journey a couple of years ago and sitting in front of a bank of about 30 different news screens, trying to read 'The German Ideology', but all the screens were showing the same footage of the 9/11 Ten Year Anniversary Memorial Ceremony, with Paul Simon and Yo-Yo Ma and victims' wives and so on all lining up to be looked seriously at by Barack and Michelle Obama and by various military and police figures and by the whole mourning Western world, united as that entity, 'the West', by this ceremony. And so I was thinking about how that spectacular co-option of the victims' actual grief prevented that grief from being accessed as grief in itself in any way, because it had already (always-already?) been turned into propaganda, turned into a giant display of grief which could be used to cover the grief of the many more numerous victims of the American atrocities for whose perpetration 9/11 had been used as justification. Which is where Judith Butler's phrase 'grievable life' comes in handy. An excess of mourning for a certain, very small sector of the population (I mean, people working at The Twin Towers are already on a fairly high-up rung on the class ladder, hence their place in the sky) preventing the possibility for any other kind of grief. Like condemnation of the Woolwich murderers' act of murder being used to forestall the possibility of any condemnation of governmental acts of murder (whether in wars or benefits cuts which cause actual death), such condemnation being painted as murder in itself.

The question is, if grief is so radically co-opted, how could one figure it or recuperate it back in any way? The death of Cameron's son has unquestionably been put to propaganda uses, in a manner very different from Thatcher's tears on departing 10 Downing Street, having been ousted from power, or Chancellor George Osborne's tears at her funeral. In both cases, that public display of grief does not quite fulfil the basic levels of humanity that Cameron's does: Thatcher's, because she is crying at the loss of a position of power, crying for herself rather than for any other human being; Osborne's, because he is crying for someone with whom he had very little personal connection (“the chancellor, whose father-in-law, Lord Howell of Guildford, was a member of Thatcher's first cabinet, admitted last week he had little personal connection with the late prime minister. But he did recall taking his young son to meet Thatcher for tea.”) Displaying grief, or being presumed to display grief, at the death of one's disabled son, is an entirely different matter; indeed, it is the very real display of Cameron's humanity. At the same time, it might be said to reveal his very real inhumanity, the extent to which he can grieve for his son at the same time as putting into legislation, with no sense of grief or guilt, benefit cuts which will lead to the deaths of many more disabled people across the country. If, then, Cameron's grief is a propaganda tool, to use his son's death as a kind of counter-propaganda risks merely mocking that death, or seeming to mock it, for boring shock value, to go so far outside the boundaries of 'common-sense' that there's no possibility of 'mass appeal'. Ivan Cameron becomes a political football, when perhaps it would be best to leave him out of it, to let him rest in peace.

But is this actually right? Perhaps 'mass appeal' here means something like the sort of middle-ground masquerading as 'the public sphere' defended by various publishers and practitioners of poetry and theatre, which disguises its class limitation by a kind of spurious anti-elitism – the 'public' as the broad (rather than squeezed) middle of the middle class, its belly bloated, but not bloated too much – watching its weight. It's just hard to judge how far that 'wrongness' might find an audience outside the already-receptive avant-garde or political far left, i.e. how effective it actually is as a counter-force to the disgusting wrongness of government and media discourse and the action that sugars and enables; i.e. how effective it is as propaganda. But perhaps it's still useful to have something which forms part of a dialogue in a small group; as Jow Lindsay puts it in a recent paper: "these are dark times in which, paradoxically, citizenship is possible only on the margins, only underground." Yet this kind of citizenship can only expand beyond being a kind of small and extreme fringe community when the right social moment offers itself. So Thatcher's death offers an opportunity for a genuine celebratory-yet-angry citizenship. Like the feeling you get from Will Rowe's poems, poems which at points seem to be driven by extreme fury and rage, but a fury and rage that (a) emerges from a passionate concern for actual communal justice and that (b) manages to be a sort of exhilarating act of community and solidarity in itself. “Margaret Thatcher died today / long live death i shouted / that’s a fascist slogan you said / it’s ours today i said.” Yet the Woolwich murders or Ivan Cameron's deaths don't work in the same way. And in some way there's no way we as poets can have real control over this: we have to work with what we're given, as it were, we can't actually effect that kind of moment, which flashes up and then disappears as a kind of buried latent energy. Which makes speed of reaction super-important, if we're to avoid just fetishizing past events and selling our 'radical reaction' back to our own community, rather than entering into a wider community through that tin temporary tunnel that opened up for maybe just one or two days, or a week – say, from the day of Thatcher's death to the day of funeral. The pamphlets made after Thatcher's death were sent round to the UK Poetry list, but they didn't go out to anyone on the ground at the funeral or at the Trafalgar Square protest; the 'RADICAL MURDER' essay went up on a blog and got e-mailed to a few people. We need to do more.


[1] See Keston Sutherland, from 'Ode to TL61P 5': “a huge rope of / blood the width of a golf bag falls out of his eye when / you shoot into him, you are an heroic soldier.”

Saturday, 25 May 2013


A cluster of three or so words forms itself as an ear-worm in conjunction with speculative rolling coverage, on a quiet news day, of yesterday's 'TERROR IN WOOLWICH', the public murder, in Woolwich, South-East London, of an off-duty soldier wearing a 'Help for Heroes' T-shirt by two men filmed with the machetes and kitchen knives they had used to commit the attack and with blood on their hands, the men justifying this action verbally, in this fully visible video coverage, as an act of revenge for those acts of bombing and killing of civilians carried out by the British army and their collaborators, acts for which the soldier, as that army's specific representative at that conveniently accessible moment, was taken by his murderers to be directly or indirectly responsible. The cluster of words heard in the coverage exerts a kind of suggestive force which correlates to the specific meaning of the word 'magic' or 'spells', or poetry, the poetry of the news media which is equivalent to the poetry of advertizing, the ability to enact a particular mental attitude through a kind of suggestion which has not quite burrowed down to the level of the subliminal but is still sly enough to resist an immediate or obviously accessible recognition of the particular power thus exerted.

For example, the term 'radical' becomes associated with the terms 'Islam' and 'terrorism', thus conflating 'Islam' with 'radical', 'radical' with 'terrorism', and 'terrorism' back with 'Islam', in a kind of feedback loop, or, more fancifully, an inescapably circular Ouroboros-structure. Develop your own metaphor as you will. It also becomes associated with murder in general, so that to be 'radical' is taken to be an implicitly terroristic stance. This is a means of normalizing reaction and manufacturing assent or consent for a particular normative narrative in which the heroes and villains are clearly delineated, and your own position in relation to them must also be clear: for or against, a murderer or one who condemns murder, some sicko getting visceral thrills off an objectively evil action or the beautifully tender Cub Scout leader who attempted to protect the mutilated body of the soldier in the street after he was dead. To say that there is a truth to the murderers' public assertion, that the murdered soldier did tacitly or actively participate in the killing of "Muslim people in Muslim countries[...]all the bombs dropping and blindly killing women, children," is thus to be radical and to be a murderer, even if one is not a Muslim or an 'Islamist' per se, merely their misguided or actively malicious apologist.

This absolute condemnation of violence, this insistence that any justification for this particular act of violence must be inherently and automatically false, does not move the other way: the English Defence League's reaction, in which an individual enters a Woolwich mosque "with a knife and an incendiary device" only makes it to page 8 of the London Evening Standard the following day, and the words 'incendiary device' are placed in inverted commas to suggest a scepticism towards the official report. This scepticism, which implies a potential falsity of the word thus bracketed and enclosed, exists nowhere in the main page reportage of the soldier's murder, with its non-scare-quoted usage, for example, of the adjective "chilling" in relation to the footage of that murder.

Meanwhile, the news-readers' and papers' worry at acts of 'lone wolf terrorism' such as these - see, for example, p.14 of the Standard - fosters a state of complete paranoia in which we all (but most particularly, those of us with non-white skin) are regarded as being potentially recruitable, all potentially 'radical', and thus all potentially murderers; and any deviation from the circumscribed methods and modes of reaction or opinion is thus inherently suspicious. To deviate from these norms is to make oneself a murderer, guilty of thought-crime, your hands covered in mental blood. Indeed, the norm itself is stretched so that what might previously have been regarded as an extreme, as 'radical' in itself, becomes that which all right-thinking, compassionate people who are in solidarity with the victims of murder must do and think. "The most positive response is to show support for the armed services. [...] The victim was wearing a Help for Heroes T-shirt; it should be widely worn. The organisation's website temporarily crashed under the weight of visits; we should donate money to it and to the Royal British Legion." The "compassion" and "solidarity" by which the writer of this opinion piece characterises such actions, which he urges "Londoners" to adopt, thus establishes a group defined in terms, not only of city or of nation, but of a specifically militaristic and militarized nationalistic sentimentality. To love a man in uniform, or in uniform's civilian stand-in, the Help for Heroes T-shirt, is to be against murder, and to suggest that that uniform, that T-shirt, that website or those stickers might themselves to some extent be associated with the murder of those not fortunate enough to be white English men or women, becomes unthinkable and unspeakable. There must be tears in your eyes, even, when you think back to the parades in the recently-renamed 'Royal' Wootton Bassett. These thoughts must be internalized and externalized in a condition of total and unswerving belief.

Further, the use of the term 'terrorism' to describe the attack, which perhaps implies political motivation, rather than, say, a crime of passion or a purely 'random' attack, overlooks the inescapably political dimension of many more crimes that are not given the term 'political', the gender roles or tendencies to misogynistic violence that might lead a man to beat or murder his wife, Danny Dyer's 'joke' that a 'wronged' boyfriend should cut his girlfriend's face. Those who are 'radical' by dint of their opposition to the murder of civilian bombing-victims, the death of the disabled individuals who have had their welfare cut, the death of the homeless, the death of those driven to suicide out of sheer despair - who are against those specific and traceable murders - are thus themselves murderers. In a bizarre reverse process, to oppose murder is to be a murderer. Don't get me wrong, I am not reaching for my machete or for my kitchen knife, though your magic word-cluster, extra-legal but with the power to affect the decisions made by those with legal powers, and thus, with the power of law itself, suggests that I am. This is your poetry, your magic spell, your curse, the hymn-sheet from which we birds must sing, enmeshed in this sung spell you have given us, barbed wire necklace, bands around the throat. Its content is so firmly welded to its form, its affect so deliciously precise, as to make anyone consider writing no more poems. For what could these poems be, except the murderers' kitchen knives, their machetes, their incoherent but intensely concentrated and specific justificatory words on the street after the murder? Against the poetry which stigmatizes opposition to specific forms of sanctioned state and imperial violence with the charge of endorsing and thus participating in non-sanctioned violence, what can my thrill-seeking appeals to a 'legitimate' violence in poetry do but fall into the trap that has been set for them by the news-readers' and reporters' magic spell? Or, as Amiri Baraka puts it, "what will be / the sacred words?"

[Thursday 23rd May, 2013]