My Remains: poetry, art, and the emergence of the subject

For the past couple years I have been working on a book of poems that deals with a certain model or mode of subjectivity. I am not sure what to call this book yet, though I have a few titles in mind. The specific model of subjectivity I am working with (I hope at the level of the poem's language) involves a conception of the individual as a kind of remains; something "leftover" or "subtracted" from its participation and/or relation with others—a group, community, or larger social formation. Seeing a show of Adrian Piper’s at Elizabeth Dee gallery in Chelsea this past fall, Past Time: Selected Works 1973 – 1995, I was reminded of the concept behind this book again.

In one room of the show (the installation The Big Four-Oh [1988]) was a television set playing footage of Piper dancing to various pop songs (Michael Jackson, for instance) as well as African, Latin American, and other ethnically inflected musics. As though to objectify herself, Piper forced her audience to view her choreography from the backside, so that her footwork and “moves” were more pronounced than her subject/person. On the exhibit floor were scattered baseballs and pieces of Medieval armor. On the floor was a notebook opened to two pages consisting of Piper’s reflections on herself, voicing feelings of aggression towards others. Seeing the show I was immediately reminded of a line of Jack Spicer’s from The Holy Grail, “If one doesn’t fight me I’ll have to wear this armor / All of my life." I am attracted by the idea in Spicer and Piper that the person is the remains or result of a process by which they are attacked. Through combat, both for Spicer and Piper, a subject comes into being and becomes.

In Fred Moten’s critical work, In the Break, similarly, he conceives Black subjectivity and group formation through what he calls “the resistance of the object.” His work is a reminder that if a commons will exist for the Black subject, the subject of African-American discourse, it will be one conceived through a negative formulation of commons by the fact that the Atlantic Slave Trade historically treated Africans and African-Americans as a common property/commodity. Following Moten’s work, if there is to be a commons at all it will have to be one radically different from that conceived through English and European culture, if not largely against these cultural traditions. The commons, in other words, becomes more particularized, and aporetic. Yet, at the same time, something I also find attractive about Moten’s formulation of a Black commons and subjectivity emergent through practices of commoning is that it invites non-Black singularities to occupy such a subject position. Moten’s references to Hughson’s tavern in his book by the same name is exemplary of this fact, inasmuch as the revolts around Hughson’s tavern, documented in Marcus Rediker’s and Peter Linebaugh’s The Many-Headed Hydra to which Moten makes reference in his own book, foreground the efforts of subaltern groups across ethnic backgrounds to take power from a dominant social class (the capitalists and slave holders of colonial New York City in the early 18th century specifically). How to extend Moten’s formulation of a Black subjectivity that correlates submerged forms of commons — commons that have not had a future yet, though one can see them peeping out through certain social dynamics in the past?

After the armor has been forcibly removed by an adversary, after one has become vulnerable to attack — this is the moment when the “real” subject would seem to emerge, or at least a subject with more reality than it previously had. This subject is both more collective and more singular paradoxically, for it having given itself to a relationship of combativeness. What remains is something between what it was before that having become vulnerable to attack, and the armor scattered around it afterwards. Perhaps the art object or poem is the residue or remains of this event? This is at least something my book-to-come is attempting to explore.

While our society is founded on any number of forms of violence, what it does not invite or promote are the kinds of symbolic violence that both Moten, Spicer, and Piper show it necessary to produce (or catalyze, to use a term of Piper’s) the interactivity and participation of a commons founded upon antagonism, dialogue, confrontation, critique. What we get instead is the mere appearance of these forms of social relation. The talk show, the political debate, the letter to the editor, etc. Rhetorically circumscribed, such formats do not remain faithful to the spontaneousness artfulness/artifice of subjects nor the consequences of subjects producing one another/each other through a dialogic contest.

In terms of the rhetorical use of art, poetry, music, etc., aesthetic expressions can produce a means by which one engages in a dialogism unmediated by official cultural forms — forms defined by their potential to be read, communicated, decoded, represented, distributed widely — contingent upon discourses liminal to sanctioned sites of cultural and socio-political production. Often I think of the poem not as an autonomous entity — something created by “myself,” in “my” imagination, through a liberation from daily responsibilities, cares, burdens — but rather as a subtraction or determination from various, often conflicting modes of sociality. The poem is what comes before and after the events of “my” sociality — of a continuous sense of being autonomous or being capable of acting autonomously among other subjects.

The poem, on the one hand, readies me to be among others. It also expresses or composes what it has meant to be in relation to others. In this way, any poem can express a feeling for being subject, that is, for being in or after a set of relations. Addressees erupt throughout the poem. So do the denotations of particular subject formations that I feel “myself” to be longing for, or to belong to, however briefly. At a micro-social level, my remains are of friends, or lovers, or neighbors, or the person I shared a train platform with for a moment. It is of those I count my colleagues, or co-workers, or students. My remains are also of ways that I have been positively and negatively socialized within an economic and socio-political framework I feel is unavoidable, especially working and living within New York City currently. The daily striving for want of income; the bad faith of certain compromises with authority; the many injustices that one daily overlooks, or simply does not have enough time to attend; the wars that I haven’t seen (except through media). The poem organizes the affects, sensations, and ideas that are a result of these larger forms of sociality, from which I feel I am both constantly fugitive and recalled.

Originally Published: April 12th, 2011

Thom Donovan lives in New York City where he edits Wild Horses of Fire weblog ( and coedits ON Contemporary Practice with Michael Cross and Kyle Schlesinger. He is a participant in the Nonsite Collective and a curator for the SEGUE reading series (NYC). He holds a Ph.D. in English...