This essay ruminates on the interstices between politics, critical theory, and experimental writing which structure much of my own writing, and my engagement with Aboriginal and settler poets in the ambit of an unethically constituted nation state.
According to the British poet Keston Sutherland, radical thought begins with two linked questions—what size is the human subject, and what size is its world. This is a helpful starting point. Any discussion of revolutionary thinking—whether political or aesthetic—must begin by addressing the question of our capacity to affect change in the world, and the scale of the world we intend to change. Yet, we immediately encounter a problem: by drawing on existing understandings of concepts like self and world, we predict and restrict the answers that become possible. Marx identified this paradox pithily:
To be radical is to grasp things by the root. But for man the root is man himself.
Fortunately the other end of equation was cheerily dissected by Derrida in The Ends of Man:
Man is that which is in relation to his end
This dichotomy has the conceptual difficulty of a Mobius strip: what we can think or write is structured by what we are, but when we think or write we reinvent or reinscribe the structure of whatever we are. At various influential points in history radical thought, or invention, has been associated with experimental or avant-garde writing, and classical forms like realisms or lyricism—per se—have been associated with a more inscriptive model of praxis.
In literary terms this problem bears complex fruit. Since the early twentieth century at least Radikalismus has been associated pretty much exclusively with experimental or avant-garde writing. There are variously good reasons for this association at certain times, Beckett was a partisan, and according to Cixous Joyce was a pioneer of écriture feminine. But then you have Pound’s fascist leanings and Eliot’s libidinal fantasy of return to an agrarian aristocracy free of Jews and people of colour. A few short years after Rimbaud declared himself the prophet of the absolulument moderne he was fighting for the Dutch colonial army and smuggling guns through Africa. While the dubious lustre of resistance follows the experimental writer, meaningful commitment to an ethics or politics isn’t implied by slipshod punctuation. This was recently illustrated by the American ‘conceptual’ poet Kenneth Goldsmith when he read a found poem taken from the autopsy report of Michael Brown, whose murder by a white police officer sparked the Ferguson protests, and crystalized the Black Lives Matter movement. The poem itself was a gauche demonstration of indifference, but Goldsmith’s self-piteous ecce homo performance of persecution when he was called out eloquently demonstrated the warped moral imaginary of much of the contemporary avant-garde.
So, if experimental writing is still stuck within the closure of social history, and literature’s allotted function within it—what Jameson called the symbolic resolution of material contradictions—what does radical, or politically experimental writing look like? I think solid answers or pronouncements would miss the point, so instead I offer some hypotheses and examples.
An old Gallic sense of the verb experiment signifies ‘experience, feel, suffer’, to which the OED helpfully cites Hamilton’s A New Account of the East Indies I. viii.86: ‘Having experimented the Turkish wholesom Chastisements of plundring and bastonading.’ The other illustrations are less fun, but they too indicate a purgatorial seam in the substructure of the modern, abstract sense of the term. Modernist artists concentrated protean instabilities of form that had probably always been there and emphasized them as a fulcrum through which to reckon the conditions of a vertiginously accelerated present. After all, how could any classical notion of form—all of which imply a stable or cyclical entity called history—describe a world in which, as Marx had it in The Communist Manifesto:
All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
Under late capital, or in Jameson’s instantly superannuated term, the postmodern, the first part of Marx’s equation has never been easier – the meaning, structure, and value of the new product, relation, or word is reinvented multiply during a single transit between consumers. The second however might not even be properly possible now, or only at hazard. All great changes, revolutions or rebirths have drawn their poetry from the future, to quote Marx again. But from which future can we drink when, as Mark Fisher so bleakly put it, it’s become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism?
The tentative answer might lie in another kind of apocalypse. Returning to one of our questions: what’s a world after all, and what would it mean to end it? In a late lecture Derrida asked, ‘have you ever come across the world as such?’ Derrida here highlights the reality that our world is an idea, a habit, a convenient bit of magical thinking like Socrates’ situation of discourse in The Phaedrus, allowing us to hold the illusion, almost, that we know how and where we are together, together. The power of this provocation, I think, comes from its familiarity: Derrida is speaking to what all of us know is true, but something most of us don’t want to know. And if this illusion barely manages to cover the present, it smothers the past, ossifying contingency into necessity, chance into fate, whim into system, space into time &c &c.
The way out requires a bit of creative destruction, and to actually tear down the master’s house, rather than just shuffling some of the furniture, you have to risk it falling in on you, and the chance that someone else, someone radically other than the self you recognise will rise from the rubble. As I understand it this is what’s going on in the vertiginous shift in the poetics of German modernist and Holocaust survivor Paul Celan signalled by his 1967 collection Atemwende (Breathturn) away from his earlier lyricism and towards the radical experimentalism of his late style. Wende: reversal or pivot, revolution, also used for the solstitial point of an eclipse, and solstice in an old figural sense connotes a furthest limit or crisis. There’s plenty of other examples in the work of Sutherland, J.H. Prynne, and Antonin Artaud among others, but you get the point.
Well and good, but what for? Pragmatically, it’s about critical distance. Capitalism—or patriarchy, eurocentrism, ableism, the Œdipal law of the father, choose your own symbolic order—replicates itself by maintaining rigid definitions of the possible and the desirable. Wriggling, clawing, or grasping your way out of those definitions—to whichever limited extent possible—estranges the extant in all its contingent, arbitrary stupidity.
So where we’re heading with this is the hypothesis that the radical poem is one that risks not knowing something about itself and its world. If you’ll bear with me for one more thorny quote, Derrida said as much in a 1991 interview with Derek Attridge:
a work laden with obvious and canonical ‘metaphysical’ theses can, in the operation of its writing, have more powerful ‘deconstructive’ effects than a text proclaiming itself radically revolutionary without in any way affecting the norms or modes of traditional writing… the experience, the passion of language and writing can cut across discourses which are thematically ‘reactionary’ or ‘conservative’ and confer upon them a power of provocation transgression or destabilisation greater than that of so-called ‘revolutionary’ texts which advance peacefully in neo-academic or neoclassical forms
Elsewhere I’ve called this dynamic a form of negative lyricism, rather than a wholesale rejection of the lyric impulse, with the general idea that staging, putting in question and deconstructing the scenes and conditions of discourse affords the experimental poet critical political possibilities.
But so much for the philosophy. In the context of Australian poetics, I often notice this particular emphasis of experimentalism in approaches to cultural boundaries, or ongoing forms of struggle against settled language, particularly, but not exclusively, in the work of Aboriginal poets. The oscillation and destruction of syntax in Lionel Fogarty’s ‘Weather Comes’ exemplifies this approach through what David Brooks calls negative suggestion. Alison Whittaker’s lyric deconstruction of Picnic at Hanging Rock: ‘MANY GIRLS WHITE LINEN’ is a superb recent example of political, rather than depolitical experimentalism. Through stark lineation and ruminant diacope Whittaker anatomizes the genealogy of traumatic association woven by colonial symbols. Where Whittaker’s linguistic innovations are jagged and precise, Peter Minter’s dialogic poem ‘Everything is Speaking’ approaches the resistance of Country as a form of messianic excess overwhelming the grammars of subjectivity through an interplay of fractal lyricisms. John Kinsella’s oeuvre explores these questions abundantly. Historically the tensile balance he straddles between the early ecological lyricism of Night Parrots (1989), the stark, Prynne-reminiscent ironies of Syzygy (1993), and the deconstructive pastoral confessions of The Silo (1995), exemplify the fundamental paradoxes of negative lyricism. As I’ve explored in more detail elsewhere, this contradictory position entails both formal violence, and the foregrounding of poetry’s own limits and complicities. The entangling absurdities of this predicament is skewered in all its bourgeois illusions of symbolic resistance in Corey Wakeling’s ‘Alfresco Dining Area Dining Alfresco’ from his recently released collection The Alarming Conservatory (2018):
to expand the alfresco dining area. I sit in the alfresco dining
looking for the alfresco dining area, which can’t be seen for the
I’m going to end this fragmentary survey with some thoughts on the work of my colleague and collaborator Evelyn Araluen, which exemplifies some of the future possibilities of critical, political poetics. Araluen’s first published poem ‘Learning Bundjalung on Tharawal’ is a complex meditation on the world-disclosure of language and utterance, both its traumas and its restorations. The poem striates a pattern of dislocation and dissociation within and without Culture, none of which are foreclosed or given false catharsis, but the temporal and spatial inflections in which those wounds inhere are restructured, and partially rewritten by reascendant language. In 2017 she was awarded the Nakata Brophy prize for ‘Muyum: a transgression’ a vivid narrative poem, or lyric essay, or not quite either. Without hyperbole, the conceptual and linguistic ambitions of this piece recall Alexis Wright, and complicatedly, Patrick White. ‘Muyum’ is the kind of work that gets labelled ‘magic-realist’ by critics too lazy to situate it philosophically and historically. One could read it as a kind of culturally symbolic bildungsroman in reverse, in that the European icons of ‘experience’ are exorcised and plucked out like thorns, or as a performative meditation on Derrida’s aphorism that you can only deconstruct what you’ve loved. The pronoun traverses the palimpsestic ruins of the colonial project:
The homestead Muyum at the edge of this hill Slaughter which presides over the valley Caanan, baptised by the waters of Kings and christened by parochial charm and local gazettes.
To briefly dip into theory again, the power of this work sharpens in the context of Lefebvre’s theory of the social production of space, and then of Bertrand Westphal’s Geocriticism. The narrative’s vocal texture forms a melodic litany of colonial tropes which rise to parodic excess and tear at the seams, revealing the continuity of Country beneath veils of semiotic ghosts, when the waters of the Hawkesbury River drown Looking Glass Rock, and we transitory Europeans leave Country to its peace. There’s plenty more to say about ‘Muyum’, and Araluen’s other work, but for now suffice it to say that the force of its moral imagination manifests the Joycean idea that literature is an uncreated conscience.
Jonathan Dunk is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney, his fiction, criticism, and poetry have been published in Southerly, ABR, Cordite, Australian Poetry, Tripwire, Plumwood Mountain, shortlisted for the Overland VU prize, and awarded the A.D. Hope prize. He lives on Wangal country.