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I is not a subject: Part 1 of 5

By Vanessa Place

This is the first part of a five-part paper, a version of which was given April 26, 2013 as the keynote address at the symposium, “Lament of the Makers: Conceptualism and Poetic Freedom,” hosted by the Princeton Graduate Colloquium on Contemporary Poetry. Other symposium participants were Timothy Donnelly, Jena Osman, and Kent Johnson. Monica de la Torre was the featured poet. Parts 1-5 may be found here.

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Thank you to the Contemporary Poetry Colloquium, the Program in Latin American Studies, the Princeton University 250th Anniversary Fund, Roy Scranton, Sarah Case, and the other members of the Graduate Colloquium for their invitation, Professor Josh Kotin and the English Department for their support, and particularly to my fellow speakers—without whom I would not exist.

Put another way:

I is not a subject.

What I is, is a context. In this particular context, I exist as a speaker, as the keynote speaker, if I read my invitation correctly, at this Poetry Colloquium. Representing some part, I suspect, of an argument. An argument about what? If I take my cue from the title of this event, it is an argument about poetic freedom. For, I suppose, or against. It was suggested in my invitation that conceptualism might challenge the—and here I quote from the email description sent me that may or may not still be accurate: “very notion of poetry, the lyric ‘I,’ the autonomous speaking subject, the voice, the human, perhaps even our ideas of creation, creativity, and freedom.” Where, one might add, do I sign up?

But of course I already have. As have you. We are here, all of us volunteers, some paid, some paid better, enacting our particular form of capitalism that rewards the trade in signs and signification, where value is measured in bits and bites of attention. Where what is current is currency. For attention, it need hardly be said, is measured, like each of us, in the moment. The moment being, like each of us, terribly singular and absolutely fungible. Put another way, today’s widget is the eternal soul. That is to say, the transcendent image of the unique individual who thinks carefully, yet collectively. I say transcendent meaning transferrable, I say collective meaning with an eye towards the whole.

And here we are, a veritable tasting menu of poetry personalty. If, as The New York Times has recently noted, “the dominant question in American politics today is the relationship between democracy and the capitalist economy,”[1] and if, as Wittgenstein and Rancière say, for every aesthetic there is an ethic and vice versa, then the question becomes, what is the ethic, revealed in the politic, of the various aesthetics here on display? Assuming that we care, and given that we live in this era of what has been called semiocapitalism, otherwise described as a technology-based enterprise whereby, as noted, “the soul itself is put to work”[2] in a “new affective/cognitive/project-form capitalism.”[3] Most popularly emblematized by facebook, where we are both producer and consumer of attention spans, our net worth counted in our stock of friends, a network of net worth, so to speak.

Whereas Warhol celebrated the close celebrity, creating the cozy illusion that you too could be a superstar’s best friend and get into all the right places, we are our superstars, lending our faces to product placements, branding ourselves via various creative vehicles, whether authored by us (here’s my new book) or others (here’s the Vimeo I just clipped), endorsing (liking) the vehicles for our fellow demi-celebrities. In art, it has been noted that semiocapitalism is literally characterized by the return of the figure as ostensible point of focus. In poetry, and here we prove Aristotle right again, people or their artefactual substitutes never left the room.

Too, in addition to the semiotic labor done by the poetic “I”, there are all those rooms such as these, occupied by workers such as us who have earned their share of institutional capital and attention, sometimes in the form of a chair or scholarship with someone else’s name on it. How much is made in the name of the name, how much movement fueled by letters of recommendation, given and received, how nominal cache translates to cash via blurbs on a book or C.V. It’s a comic enterprise, this ideological engagement, by which I mean to say that it enacts the comedic formula—going from the universal to the particular.

Whereas tragedy is always the move from the particular to the universal, Oedipus to his Complex, comedy is the eternal return to the persistently puny self. Which always announces itself as the exception to the rule: the safe bounces merrily off the cartoon skull, Fogel becomes McLovin (Superbad). Repetition, in this case, being not difference, but rather the pure repetition of pure distinction, the kind that happily smoothes over the hole in the symbolic fabric, that assures you you’re you. The beauty of ideology, as you know, is that if it’s working right, you think you’re above it.

But getting back to poetry, getting back to us. As I mentioned earlier, I look at my fellow speakers, and I applaud the efforts of the organizers at polarization on the issue of the unified or fragmented subject. It doesn’t matter which. What matters is that we are here, now, acting as if we are such subjects. That we stand for something in an argument about the very notion of poetry. But what is this very notion of poetry? Who—or rather, what—is the autonomous speaking subject? What falls under the sign of the poetic “I”?

We all know that signs are not what they are, but what they mean to signify. And that the lyric “I” is not I, as every poet and critic here would agree, but if not I, then what? What does the “I” signify? Which “I” do I set in quotations, and which real me, comme le fromage, stands alone? Put another way, at what point does the false become real? It is perhaps the dream of all art that through the artifice of art—the way art works on and through its material—that art goes beyond art, into a greater reality that could be called, for lack of a better word, Truth.

Now I am not so stupid as to believe that you believe in Truth. I am not even so stupid as to believe that you believe in Truths, though we might be able to agree, at least as a matter of speculation, that there could be, and is, a Real outside our comprehension, and that this categorical albeit speculative Real is integral, that is to say inheres in, our spiritual and corporeal composition, that is to say, the meat and mentality of us, not the least of which is our persistent refusal to appreciate our own immateriality, i.e., the non-genetic pointlessness of us. But for this, of course, we need to confront the fantasy of the non-ideological subject, the subject that is subjected to the Real.

Let me put this more in keeping with my part in this play: the lyric “I” is as fundamental to poetry as a pig to a sty.

To be continued.


[1] Jennifer Schuessler, “In History Departments, It’s Up With Capitalism,” The New York Times, April 7, 2013. [http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/07/education/in-history-departments-its-up-with-capitalism.html?hp&_r=0]

[2] Franco Berardi, The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 2009), 116.

[3] Martin Saar, Introduction to “New Spirit of Criticism? The Biopolitical Turn in Perspective,” Texte zur Kunst 81 (2011): 132.

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Posted in Featured Blogger on Friday, April 26th, 2013 by Vanessa Place.