WHY POETRY / Reading Walter Benjamin

These are early sections for a new text I'm working on, borrowing from Walter Benjamin's work (on the concept of history; the false narrative of progress; the fascism of the introduction of aesthetics into politics; the author as producer; the co-optation of leftist writers by institutional publications; etc) and finding parallels in those 80-100 year old texts with the writing I've been doing on neoliberal poetry and publishing abolition. This isn't complete, sections 4-5 especially which will not be the last, but the events of today, when a Black man experiencing a mental health crisis named Walter Wallace Jr was murdered by the police and West Philly came out on the streets in his memory (it is only just now quieting down at 3am) made me want to put these fragments out. I'll step away from this writing after posting and rejoin the march in the morning.  


WHY POETRY / Reading Walter Benjamin
-In memory of Walter Wallace Jr. 


It was in March, at the height of the lockdown, that I wrote into a poem, "just now / the comfortable people / begin to feel vulnerable / they are right / there is no turning / back. today / the cherry tree blossoms / for no one / the hammer in its drawer / resonates. the calendar / tells such absurdities / as days and weeks..."; like a mass of well-worked dough stretches to a translucent gauze and yet still pulls back to its center, it seemed like time might finally tear apart before it didn't. It had become possible in that new way of living, where idleness and (collective) action clashed so intensely, to see through the social construction.

Why didn't the strands of time tear free between the spring lockdown and the summer uprising when it felt like anything, the end of work and time and the racial capitalism at their root, might happen? Instead, at the decisive moment, every element snapped back into place with the discipline well-practiced by responsible citizens of a police state -- we survive, after all, by internalizing the thousand social constraints that apply to us at any moment; just how far we can move, if at all, before violence comes to bring us into line.

The jobless, without collective aid from the ones who never lost work, were forced back to jobs that might kill them or any strangers they shed virus on. The tenants with nothing to fear paid their rent on time and ignored our pleas as always, and even those who had begun to organize withholding payment -- there were many dozens, perhaps a hundred of us, who attempted a rent strike in my city -- moved out or made peace with the landlords. The white allies who marched in the first weeks after George Floyd's murder stayed home, they haven't been seen since.

Was it exhaustion? Was it the promise of the election coming up that killed the revolution? Was it the failure of organizing that kept the different struggles taking place from joining together to strike collectively at our common enemy, the ruling classes of (mostly white) bosses and landlords and their genocidal structure through which they manage us? Was it self-interest and fear of retaliation? Was it the culture of collaboration with the ruling classes (the aspiration of making it to comfort), was it the fantasy of inevitable progress, was it the absence of a memory of a thousand years of class struggle? Yes and yes and yes and --


This is an ancient story. If it was happening now, we'd recognize it and spring into action. We would look for a rupture. We would not believe that time will bring us anything different. We would learn there cannot be any progress under a system that welcomes a reactionary backlash to eliminate every reform and its radical potential. The way every coin flip calls for a settling of accounts; every election (any action within the system) calls forth another to balance it out, so that nothing changes in the long run. Things would be different if the disaster were unfolding now, which it is.


It happens now that there's such a thing as a Graywolf Press. A press like any other that publishes in Minneapolis. Year after year they publish their books. They believe in uplifting diverse and underrepresented voices; it's in their mission statement. I'm sure they think they're doing something.

But nowhere does Graywolf Press acknowledge the contradiction between publishing (as an above-ground, credentialed, grant-funded, state-sanctioned activity) and the survival of the diverse and underrepresented people it claims to support. This will condemn them.

It happens that the Target Corporation is also based in Minneapolis, and as part of its commitment to the public Target grants a small portion of its profits to what it calls its community. Graywolf Press is part of that community and it has received what appears to be (there is a decided lack of documentation available) an amount in the hundreds of thousands of dollars from Target -- a vast sum of money for a small publisher, which may be why every book I've ever seen from Graywolf Press has had a Target logo on its copyright page and a note thanking the corporation for its support.

Target also includes the police department of Minneapolis in its community. It spent $300,000 purchasing surveillance cameras to "enhance" law enforcement efforts in downtown Minneapolis, part of a broader partnership it maintains with the police. Target wanted to clean up the area and make it more appealing to (white) suburban consumers who get to browse their shelves and linger in the book section where they can purchase titles from Graywolf's diverse catalog. And the police were thankful for the assist. 

They're all part of the community, you see. Target. Graywolf Press. The suburban, middle class consumer. The police.

Who does not belong to the community? Not the people who were already transformed by the community's gaze into criminals without having done anything against the law (much less against any just law), who were described by a subsequent Target report on the surveillance effort in these terms: “Panhandlers, people drinking alcohol on the street, and other ‘lifestyle offenders’ roamed the streets. Even though there was relatively little violent crime in the downtown area, people tended not to feel safe or comfortable there.” And not our comrades (poor people, Black people, young people of Minneapolis) who responded to the murder of George Floyd in May by burning down the 3rd Police District and looting an adjacent Target store that five months later is still being rebuilt.

In other words, the less palatable of diverse and underrepresented voices are incompatible with this community. The vast majority of them, in fact. They belong out of sight, only as a memory of everything wrong and deficient, they belong only in the holding cells and prisons of the community, and they belong there simply because they're not white, not middle class consumers, not exceptional people of color who are worth something to the community.

You can read about racism in the diverse books Graywolf publishes. Claudia Rankine, Graywolf darling, professor and poet par excellence, will tell you everything, except that Target partners with police departments to help them carry out these anti-crime campaigns across the country, through which crime and criminals are themselves invented (as well as class divisions, anti-Blackness, race, and gender regenerated). At the same time, Target funds arts and civic organizations that must try to make sense of and repair that anti-Blackness, those class divisions, and on and on; but they can never come close to making any repair because the one thing they can't do with their funding is risk losing it by saying what's really going on here: that it is complicit with genocide and doing more for the oppressors than for the oppressed.

What are we to do with the knowledge that Graywolf Press is not even one step removed from the Minneapolis Police Department and the continuous surveillance of downtown Minneapolis that is disproportionately destructive of Black lives? What happens when even Claudia Rankine, author of Citizen (“Part protest lyric, part art book... a dazzling expression of the painful double consciousness of black life in America,” says The Washington Post) has her advance paid by the same entity which is a partner to the police, which was able to support the police because it runs its own private security detail, complete with plainclothes guards, and its own in-store surveillance systems?*

To think that Graywolf Press and the names of such poets as Claudia Rankine, MacArthur Genius grant recipient, surely the best among us, may be trotted out by Target whenever its detractors raise alarm about the way it seeks to transform every downtown core inhabited by poor and working people of color into open-air shopping centers, sanitized by police violence, a vision of a eugenicist ideal that's echoed by Target's stable of arts organizations which in their regular practice filter through pools of artists searching for geniuses to pluck from obscurity rather than provide to marginalized people in need who would, yes, make public art if the boot were to lift from their necks.

If the choice is between human life and safety for Target's community, there's no choice: end their community, abolish it. There's no choice but to abolish the police departments and arts organizations when their success requires (is) the destruction of vulnerable classes of people. To call for the abolition of Graywolf Press and its writers; for Claudia Rankine the Poet to abolish herself by smashing her awards and retiring, so that every Black and Brown woman gets to live. The abolition of every Press and every Poet.


What is interesting isn't the facts, those are innumerable. They proliferate every day under racial capitalism; like needles to a magnet wherever they are they point to the contradictions between life anywhere (rendered now into property, labor, resources) and the health of this inhuman system.

What would be interesting is a new way of thinking that cuts through the cognitive scaffolding of fantasies and rationalizations that holds up the entire edifice.

For example, to point out the contradictions between human life and publishing in order to abolish the presses (as well as the notions that animate publishing, which like the vines of the extraterrestrial pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers wrap around our living bodies to assimilate us into the inhuman project the second writers stop to rest; and haven't the poets who accept fellowships from institutions like the Poetry Foundation described their act of crossing over to enemy lines as one of desperation, exhaustion, as that which they would have rather not done but that they were tired of struggling and deserved a break; even if it was a break won at the expense of others who will never, even in death, have a chance to rest).


The author is a producer, as Walter Benjamin reminds us: "[I]nstead of asking: what is the relationship of a work of art to the relationships of production of the time? Is it in accord with them, is it reactionary or does it strive to overthrow them, is it revolutionary? – in place of this question, or in any case before asking this question, I would like to propose another. Before I ask: how does a literary work stand in relation to the relationships of production of a period, I would like to ask: how does it stand in them? This question aims directly at the function that the work has within the literary relationships of production of a period."

It's not just a question of content or technique, as he writes, although there's much to be said about the ways that certain aesthetics or modes with apparent revolutionary potential have been suppressed by literary institutions -- political poetry, poetry with a social commitment, for example, has since the Harlem Renaissance and the workers movement of the early 20th century been maligned for its supposed lack of literary quality while literariness itself has remained an unexamined, fraught concept that has resulted in a contemporary poetry utterly hostile to the social, the very reader who has naturally returned the favor by abandoning poetry -- while others deployed with reactionary aims have been elevated to official status, as a result of which they could receive funding from nonprofits and government agencies. (See: The Cultural Cold War)

But Benjamin wasn't a militant. He wasn't connected to the struggle against fascism in the streets in a way that would have made central the physical, mechanical process of production and reproduction of texts. While Benjamin wasn't an academic, his work was published and funded in part by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt. He wasn't a designer of books, he wasn't a publisher or printer; Benjamin wasn't even much of a working writer for much of his life. I believe he lived on money from his upper middle class family. 

However, this is the question that is clearest to me as a writer-printer: it's that just as Benjamin demands of us that we "brush history against the grain" so should we also brush every aspect of publishing against the grain. Doing so means not only critiquing via the written word, it requires us to establish alternate, collective forms of printing and digitally reproducing our texts, taking none of this for granted. And, especially today, moving with an awareness that the same printers that can create copies of our poems can create flyers in remembrance of the victims of anti-Black violence, to publicize an action against the police, or help neighbors organize mutual aid during a time when we can't meet face to face. Working against, in contravention, of the pristine community and its law. Which is exactly what the presses can't do. 

*Thanks to Isobel Bess for telling me about the plainclothes officers at Target; they're one of the only stores that has undercover private cops in addition to uniformed ones. 

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