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Rob Halpern: on “Somatics”

By Thom Donovan

For my final few posts at Harriet this month, I would like to present a series of poets in succession who consider the term “somatics” with regards to their work and contemporary poetry at large. “Somatics,” which has for awhile referred to disciplinary work around movement/dance, bodywork, and exploratory uses of language for the purposes of healing and therapy, has recently become a popular place holder for a variety of poetic and aesthetic practices.

I wanted to ask poet/critical theorist Rob Halpern about the term because his work strikes me as a fully committed engagement with the problems that have beset specific bodies in a time of ongoing and residual US military conflicts, amplified economic disparity, and an accompanying aesthetic and ethical bad faith on the part of mainstream and ‘avant garde’ poetries alike. What would it mean, Halpern’s work asks again and again, to write through ‘lyric’ modes of address towards new “organs of sensation”–perceptive faculties that might help us to see and feel our way beyond Empire? How also might “affects” (pre-/post- discursive states of emotion) be mobilized against established forms of subjectivity and processes of socialization? Halpern’s poetics is a hyper-vigilant exploration of the fate of the subject during a period in which the role of biopolitics (the management of bodies by state and corporate entities) in the constitution of subjects continues to intensify. It is also–in a tradition of such writers as Robert Duncan, George Oppen, Kathy Acker, Dodie Bellamy, and Bruce Boone–a relentless meditation on the contradictions of eros where personal desires insistently push and grind against those of larger socio-political apparatuses.

Halpern’s long-awaited third book of poems, Music for Porn, is forthcoming with Nightboat books. He is currently a professor at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, where he teaches a range of courses around poetry/poetics, visual art, critical theory, and performance studies.

1. What, if anything, does the term “somatics” mean to you, and how might you relate it to your work?

To be honest, Thom, I don’t know what “somatics” means. And if “somatics” means something to me and my work, this can only be because it has some collective resonance, if only as a provisional frame of loose reference for investigating together the relationships between body, language, and social space. Somatics seems to be about working collaboratively in a range of areas to link very different practices by way of some shared concerns around embodiment: from poetics to choreography, psycho-geography to medicine, body work to translation, community history to political militancy. I’m thinking here of CA Conrad’s somatic exercises, Daria Fain and Robert Kocik’s Phoneme Choir, as well as Kocik’s architectural research for a Prosody Building in Brooklyn; or Eleni Stecopoulos’s poetics of healing and Brandon Brown’s embodied translations; and I’m also thinking about David Buuck’s performance research in duration, Brenda Ijima’s site specific dance improvs, and David Wolach’s militant patiency, among many others. Crucial literary antecedents for my own approach would stretch from Whitman’s Drum-Taps to Genet’s Funeral Rites; and from William Burroughs’s The Wild Boys, to Robert Glück’s Jack the Modernist, Dodie Bellamy’s Cunt-Ups, and Kathy Acker’s Great Expectations (which includes her translations of Pierre Guyotat’s Tombeau pour cinq cent mille soldats).

It might be worth mentioning that when “somatics” came up as a point of focus in the Nonsite Collective—where we try to sustain discussion and collaboration across disciplined divisions of culture work—we were simply trying to find a way of addressing embodied dis-ability and social dys-function, specifically in relation to various language practices, without taking a free ride on terms already in circulation around “disability studies.” An important exchange between Amber Dipietra and Eleni Stecopoulos was critical here. (The Nonsite discussion around somatics, disablement, and aesthetic practice, including this exchange, is archived here.)

But now that I’m thinking about it—and this may begin to get at something more meaningful regarding my own work—“somatics” might be no more than a placeholder for this desire to return the body to social/aesthetic practice where it seems to have disappeared despite its apparent self-evidence, despite its false immediacy as some sort of phenomenological plenitude; that is, to return the body, if only as a question or a problem or a conduit of social sense, to scenes of engagement where it seems to have gone missing, despite our recourse to words like “the body,” which may have hemorrhaged its living content and become an abstraction of the very thing we want to believe is most concrete and inalienable. I’d like to think of “somatics” as taking aim at some of these problems.

So much has been made of “the body,” and yet it feels as though it’s always about to become a bland fetish, a hygienic fixture, an allegorical trope, rather than a set of messy stakes and real consequences. Brian Whitener and I were talking about this on Sunday afternoon at the “Movement, Somatics, and Writing” Symposium. What is not being talked about when we talk about “the body”? Whose body? Can it ever be definite? Can it ever be singular? Brian was referring to false intimacy, and the porousness of skin, and I was thinking about our vulnerability to penetration—be it by flesh, prosthetic, or bullet—and an unsettling line at the limit of Music for Porn: “My cock hardens in a soldier’s wound.”

Brian and I were also thinking about the importance of social movements that have enabled us to imagine “the body” as a critical obstruction in social space, not as a transparency, but as something opaque and resistant. Civil Rights. Feminism. Gay Lib. I’m thinking here, on the one hand, of a line from MLK’s Letter that you often refer to, Thom: “As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community.” But I would also draw attention to work by gay New Narrative writer Bruce Boone, whose Century of Clouds insists on the body as a location of radical praxis: “My sense of community began to take on the limitations of real bodies.” This is a body whose subjectivity is a function of “the always immanent possibility of disaster, a peril that implicates each of [the community’s] speakers collectively as a disaster common to all” (Boone). The performance art of Adrian Piper, Carolee Schneemann, and Marina Abramović, among others, seems crucial to mention here, too.

As for my own work, I’m interested in the way an intractable body—a body resistant to social apparatuses that would harness it to ends not its own—nevertheless gets caught up in processes of militarization that often escape perception, despite those processes having shaped our environments. Music for Porn gets totally obsessed with this. Current conditions are so unbelievably bad, and I want to locate the writing in the cleavages and faults where my body collides with these conditions, and where the poems become sensory organs in the process of perceiving them. We’re all longing to find a way beyond the current crisis, as if our sense of normality were not itself a state of crisis, and we encounter nothing but blockages and impasses: both materially, politically, and affectively. The obsessively recurrent figure of the masculine soldier in my recent work marks an obstruction in sense as the poems struggle to imagine what a demilitarized world might feel like. The most despairing result of my investigation has been that this can’t even be imagined, and my soldier’s hard muscle concentrates and allegorizes one of the obstacles. But there’s also a hazy eros permeating the soldier’s appearance. My body channels so many contradictory feelings and affects around this eros—rage, longing, sorrow, shame, anxiety—as the soldier becomes an object of violence and lust. I’m hung-up on him. The poem wants to kill that soldier for standing in the way of a demilitarized future; but the poem also wants to be fucked by him because the repressive sublimation of whatever eros clinging to his body has become unbearable just as the realization that I, too, stand in the way of that other future has become unbearable. These may be amplifications of subcutaneous feelings that the writing senses beneath our social skin. But for me what’s important is the way the poem is able to make these contradictory affects audible, as if for the first time. Are they potent or impotent? My poems seem to want to arouse this affective material—what can it do?—at a moment before it hardens around familiar social feelings that can be made useful in ways that lubricate the reproduction of our stupid militarized machine.

I guess what I want to ask is, how might our work as artists, writers, or teachers probe the submerged relations between our bodies and the social forces that channel their potential? How is the fate of my body intimately linked to the fate of other bodies we’ve failed to recognize, bodies our frames of reference can’t even admit, bodies lost in scenes of global conflict and other social occlusions: be it a dead child in Gaza, or even a dead U.S. soldier (insofar as images of their corpses are withdrawn from circulation)? And how might a poem reconfigure these frames and the embodied relations that fail to appear within them?

So I’m thinking about how something called “somatics” might help us address the fate of our geopoliticized bodies by elaborating a set of practices for investigating, thru physical, aesthetic, and linguistic experiment, the relation between language, body, and social space in order to activate and organize sensation against the grain of a dominant common sense.

2. To what extent does your work relate to the Spinozan proposition: “we have not yet determined what a body can do” as a kind of slogan for bioethics and –politics. In much of your work, I think that you are addressing biopolitics as a way we have come to see (or been forced to conceive) of the contemporary subject. Could you comment on the role of this discourse in your work?

I want to take Spinoza’s proposition seriously, but it becomes a useless diversion — or even an apology— if it’s not guided by the realization that we do know what has been done to bodies. I mean, what is being done to them now?

Maybe the passively voiced question, “what is being done to bodies?”—together with our potential resistance to that—helps get at what you are referring to, Thom, as the “biopolitical” in my work? And I’m thinking here not only of incarcerated bodies, but our own bodies as well. What is being done to them? It’s a question that complements the question What is to be done? For me, to think this question requires a shift from an emphasis on an over-valued notion of agency toward a very different idea I call patiency, which has less to do with the body as the sovereign scene of its own actions, and rather with the body as scene of disabused sovereignty. Patiency refers to the suspension of our proprietary relations to our and others’ bodies and life processes, the recognition, and perhaps even the affirmation, of the corpus as open, disarmed, and vulnerable. I want to find in this figure of the patient not only passivity and submission, but the latent material—affective, erotic, and social—for movement just waiting to be aroused by uncoded sound and unanticipated touch. Maybe this is “somatics”?

This idea of the patient body helps me rethink “my body” not as a self-enclosed and self-evident fact, but rather as a social process—or a convergence processes— extending in time and space, in excess of my skin and skeleton, my orgasms and DNA, and always becoming part of larger assemblages together with other bodies both locally and trans-locally, sometimes in zones that seem very far away. Moreover, patiency challenges the delusion of mastery over our own body’s borders, a delusion that often converges, both semantically and materially, with a policing function.

While thematizing these conflicts in sense, my writing in Music for Porn lends perceptible form to the militarization of our intimate longings. At least this is how I’ve come to read one thing the poems seem to be doing. What comes to mind here as being most pressing concerns the way in which my own well-being—the integrity, the pleasures, and satisfaction of my body—depends on others’ losses, an incommensurate vulnerability, an unevenly distributed and unshared exposure to geopolitical violence: so many disavowed intimacies. How might a poem register “intimacies” for which there exists no proper discourse? How might an artwork interrupt the ease—because unthought—with which one body buries or eclipses another body in geopolitical space where a militarized imposition of democracy and the “management of populations”—i.e., biopower—holds sway? I guess I’m wondering what a poem might sound like were it to perceive or instigate a rupture in the continuity of suppressed sensation—“history”— that makes these constitutive intimacies imperceptible.

I like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s thumbnail sketch of biopolitics as an embodied refusal—echoing MLK above, perhaps—not the blank refusal of inoperativity (“I would prefer not to”), but rather “a partisan relationship between subjectivity and history that is crafted by a multitudinous strategy, formed by events and resistances, and articulated by a discourse that links political decision making to the construction of bodies in struggle” (that’s from page 61 of their most recent collaboration, Commonwealth). What really interests me, however, is the moment that precedes the hardening of language into discourse. And this is where the critical work of the poem comes in. What might a poem sound like as it struggles to make audible the sound of passing into some as yet unimagined form of social being (say, demilitarization)? What might it feel like to sense this passage in a poem that also registers the blocks and obstructions in that utopian longing? This feeling is what I’d like to think a poem can potentiate, stimulate, or arouse (and this is something that can’t be cited, expressed, or appropriated). Can a poem arouse a form of embodied social sense whereby a body’s relation to its occluded intimacies becomes perceptible? I want to know.

3. By way of lyrical modes of address, your work often seeks to do something with affect, to organize affect in a particular way. Could you briefly talk about the role of affect in your work with regards to how you see affect being organized among a larger socio-political body?

It was Paolo Virno’s discussion of cynicism in “The Ambivalence of Disenchantment” that first had me thinking about the importance of “affect” in relation to contemporary social movements. Right after my introduction to Virno, it was Sianne Ngai’s and kari edwards’s work—and a lot of conversation with both of them around their writing—which, in very different ways, moved me to begin thinking about the importance of affect for lyric.

From different angles and projects Sianne and kari both refer to Brian Massumi’s discussion of affect in Parables of the Virtual. In particular, kari and I spoke often about Massumi’s notion of “the interval,” by which he seems to mean the figural space between an unsettling perception and a delayed response. For kari, one such troubling perception was the encounter with a transgendered body. kari would often refer to a desire/need for the poetry to really fuck with the material of this interval, what I like to think of as “the fault,” or that imperceptible moment of spacing between sensation and response where one’s feelings remain sort of unidentifiable. It’s the moment before one’s sensation has hardened around overcoded feelings in relation to which we might claim some proper relation, by way of locutions like “I feel” or “my emotion.” In other words, the interval, or the fault, is the moment just before indeterminate sensations get harnessed to determined ends. How might a poem activate and channel those affects differently?

I think kari took the body as a model for what a poem might do in the space between improper and proper feeling: always fucking with dominant regimes of visibility by arousing the raw material of representation before it freezes or coagulates. This is how a poem might make legible the vectors of force that organize sound and sense, forces that channel affective intensities and render them as predicates or properties attached to particular individuals. I want a poem that works against the grain of whatever common sense makes these properties meaningful.

Affect is a fuzzy concept but I think of it as the raw social matter, the stuff of emotive sensation before it gets attached to cooked feelings. I imagine affect circulating somewhere in the space between the physiological (pre-linguistic) and the properly social (discursive). This has to do with the way I’m channeling rage, longing, sorrow, shame, and anxiety around the figure of the soldier, as I mentioned earlier, and it’s why I think it’s a crucial resource for a lyric mode that desires to sense the conditions of its own social attachments. Affection is critical, not in its hardened form as cultural product, but rather as the material of a social process, whose ends are open. Attention to affect allows us work with the improper material of social feeling before that stuff gets hardened in foreclosed identities and voices. I want to think that prosody—as a technology of organized stress—can participate in the work of loosening that affective material from its “proper” ends, which often materialize and reproduce linguistically. I want to believe that a poem can help undo the capture of our own embodied positions in social space, positions whose ongoing reproduction aids and abets the obstructions in our own utopian longing for a habitable world.


Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, April 26th, 2011 by Thom Donovan.