Follow Harriet on Twitter
I is not a subject: Part 3 of 5
This is the third 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.
So now that institutional critique has become the institution of critique described by Andrea Fraser and celebrated by Kenneth Goldsmith, and poetry is ensconced more or less popularly in art galleries and museums, and we—or rather you—poets provide a soundtrack to that form of institutionalized cultural capital, just as we provide fodder for this one, how do all these threads tie so that a small ship springs suddenly to life inside this bottle?
As another aside, and at the risk of suggesting conspiracy, which is always too elegant a solution, it is amusing to note that the Republican National Convention’s platform last year called for consideration of a return to the gold standard, favored by ultra-conservatives as a systemic bar to taxation. Meanwhile, it could also be noted, gold has lost approximately 40% of its market value in the past 2 years.
But you see where this is going: the lyric “I” is the gold standard of poetry, the presumptively inflexible ingot that is believed to be the purest of the pure, the surest of the sure, the thing that both permits poetry and makes semiocapitalism totally legit. For one thing about today: we of the Western world must believe in the good that we do: if there is no “just” war, there is always justice, as Shakespeare knew.
But back to you—for have you not also been taught that you are precious, that your studies are a path to self-fulfillment, that your writing is a light in the darkness, that you are here, as you are everywhere, because of the ever-loving uniqueness of you? That poetry, that art, that life itself is a path of self-divination and metaphysical massage? That literary “culture,” that which is duly recognized and protected by copyright, is perforce diverse and thus democratic?
Or, as a Facebook friend recently noted: “Just heard Anne Carson read. For a moment, revived my sense of self. Left as quickly as I could, for fear of losing it again. But here I am!” At that time, 64 people liked this.
Believe none of it. Look at yourselves. Are you not all walking citations? To the extent you see yourself and your Duracell soul as snowflakes, crystalline, fragile and exquisitely and individually wrought, recall that snowflakes seem quite different shoveled en mass on the sidewalk, that they melt on the tongue to no one’s satisfaction, and that they are, in essence, water briefly clustered around dust. And the “I” of poetry is the essential “I” of semiocapitalism, that core unit which must persist if the sign is to exist as a unit of trade.
This is important, so let me reiterate. The “I” of poetry is the distilled “I” of capital, its rarest essence, its singular flower. And we all believe this, and daub ourselves with its perfume. Even Franco “Bifo” Berardi, one of the leftist theorists of semiocapitalism, champions poetry as the saviour of the singular soul based on its properties of rhythm, refrain, of linguistic excess to the precise point of absolute singularity, of fundamental “nonexchangeablity.” He cites Rainer Maria Rilke. He quotes his Elegies. He fails to notice that Rilke is also a favorite of self-help authors, New Age theologians, and Hollywood when it reaches for poetry. And is, naturally, a best-selling author. Or that Rilke himself famously infused the human with Dinge (Things).
Which is the semiotic turn of capital, and the state of today’s sobject. But that is another topic.
In other words: believe, as you must, in the reality of the market.
Put another way, I is not a subject.
But, as the joke goes, if all is not lost, where is it? I am about two-thirds of the way through this talk, the point at which the dictates of plot and politeness mandate a narrative turn. Too, I am an American, a people known for their love of problem-solving and a robust futures market. So I will tell you how to thrive in the current semiotic market while, if I’m any judge of horsemeat, retaining some kernel of self-regard. For that is, as you know, important.
First, to quickly dismiss false hope, or, to quote lyric poet Joshua Clover, who recently remarked about the false economic choices currently on hand: “The idea that profitability may not be a social good is literally unthinkable.” I would turn this ever so, to note that the idea that social good may not be profitable is figuratively unthinkable. Whatever you do, you will be done for.
But let’s consider the us here and now. As I said, we here are now performing a part or parts in a pretty play about poetry. Whatever we may say is as authentic as Wittgenstein’s man sitting on a stage eating lunch. He may be a real boy with a real sandwich, but he is facing the other way from those called the audience.
You listen to me, then to another, who will doubtless contradict or agree with me, perhaps vehemently, or maybe just slightly, and something may well come of it, some more papers perhaps, an online rejoinder—we could, as has been illustrated by one of our company, perform the institutional engagement of selecting an article by a famous critic, criticizing the article for failing to mention a prominent post-colonial author
—though it could easily be a woman or another Other, any partial object will do—
thus generating a new demand for a rejoinder from the critic and the critic’s critics and defenders, and look how the machine goes not of itself precisely but with the comedic faith and immortality of the character who runs off the cliff and as long as his legs go round, and he does not look down, he will not—as he must
—plunge to the ground.
But when he does, rest assured, he will rise from his singular hole, his singularity intact.
 Nathanial Popper, “Gold, Long a Secure Investment, Loses Its Luster,” The New York Times. April 11, 2013. [http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/11/business/gold-long-a-secure-investment-loses-its-luster.html?pagewanted=all]
 Franco “Bifo” Berardi. The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance. (Cambridge, MA: Semiotext(e)/MIT Press 2012), 129-140.
 Joshua Clover, “Pop, Charts: On Paul Klugman,” The Nation. April 29, 2013. [http://www.thenation.com/article/173763/pop-charts-paul-krugman]. I am as tired of commenting parenthetically as I am of irony. Perhaps I am simply tired of asides. Though, like ribs, the spare often leads to another delicious figure altogether.