Capitalism has turned us all into migrants. Not just geographical ones—though few these days do not travel for the sake of their work—but migrants of capitalist possibility. Many are innocents who walk out of school with neat and poignant folders, and who dream of becoming heroes of the interview, aristocrats of the gun CV—people who intend to go somewhere. Not everyone takes such journeys, of course. One can be disqualified before one starts: poverty, disability, lack of education. But the capitalist migration is widely portrayed as the shape of hope in a modern society. The search for the means by which as many people as possible can participate in such journeys is regarded as a central equity issue by all political parties, though they might approach the problem in different ways. It is one of the great matters of unfinished business in our democracies: the fitful, half-hearted attempt to give everyone a chance to participate.
What shape a life might take beyond that is a different question. It is one that gets asked too rarely, largely because our migrations—and the anxieties that accompany them—so dominate our imaginations that we think of it as a secondary matter: no point in wasting time on hypotheticals. We have to engage with the circumstances we find ourselves in: we have to survive and to work with the possibilities that present themselves. Ubiquitous as these journeys are, however, the mindsets required to manage them are neither innocent nor straightforward. For all their capacity to engender achievement, they also generate perspectives that are limiting and even self-destructive, and unless we can learn to think past them as well as within them, we will find ourselves trapped in the stagnant paranoias of the status-obsessed.
Central to the problem with capitalist narratives are the enthusiasms that emerge once the issues of survival have been solved. All too rapidly—as if without effort—the needs of security segue into enlargement narratives, conceived primarily in terms of status: stories in which going somewhere can only mean somewhere relative to others. Once set in motion, this status anxiety is chafed so relentlessly—by one’s peers, one’s bosses and, not least, by one’s own imagination—that it is all but impossible not to surrender to its judgements. By placing the self at the centre of the universe, moreover, the narratives minimise the importance of all those others—other selves, other creatures, other ecosystems—that must be set to one side if their goals are to be attained. It is one of the strengths of capitalist democracy that it has put more selves at the centre of ‘transformational’ stories than any other system we have thought of. But in doing so it has narrowed the perspectives of participants to the point where the individual can be in danger of losing as much through the necessities of focus as can be gained in reward and opportunity.
To maximise the efficiency with which we undertake these migrations, we exclude whatever impedes them. One of the first impediments removed is our engagement with others. Others, seen through the lens of one’s needs, only require consideration if they are allies or enemies: in all other respects they are incidental, and ultimately irrelevant. We do need to interact with other parties: we must negotiate, for the sake of our interests. But this is a different matter to those less calculated engagements—underpinned by pleasure and affection—by which our more meaningful relationships
The deal does not require us to acknowledge other parties as entities in their own right. As long as the objects of the discussion have been translated into suitable terms, and providing expectations of reliability have been met, we do not need to ask to whom we are talking. What we do have to do is to create a currency in common. We have all become experts at the translation of materialities into terms—a translation so habitual we barely notice ourselves performing it. The shorthand has taken over, and the thing itself has been relegated to a background whisper. From a capitalist point of view, an object hardly exists until it has a price. Without a price, it cannot take its place in the world’s numerical conversation—and it is there, increasingly, that the key negotiations occur: the play of words having been relegated to an earnestness on its periphery.
Not everything translates readily into terms. Plants, animals and ecosystems are notoriously difficult to place a value on, unless they can be conceived as tourist dollars, or coefficients of carbon absorption or wellness—unless, that is, a use can be found for them. Nor are the majority of experiences ever translated into currency: most qualia and interiorities still remain sequestered from our markets. Ultimately we value such useless things precisely because they don’t have a price, because they speak to that part of us which needs to see the world as itself and untranslatable. Sometimes one’s terms of trade can feel like the conditions of one’s imprisonment: it is good to know there is a world out there that resists them. It may be our most important freedom, this stubborn wonder—this refusal to translate—at the centre of our imaginations. Capitalist narratives can hardly be avoided when it comes to the articulation and achievement of goals. But by turning everything into the terms of a self-based story, they also quietly steal the world away.
One of the principal counterweights to this process of reification lies in the way the arts maintain an ongoing meditation on the terms of representation. One might say that much of their project nowadays revolves around trying to find some way of representing the world that still allows the world to exist. The arts are not alone in balking at the overwriting that our capitalist efficiencies create: all activities that engage with the world for its own sake share this reticence—science, for instance, and sometimes, even religion—as well as the things that we do just for pleasure. Nor can one say that the arts necessarily operate as counterweights: many films and texts are just practice versions of self-aggrandisement. Thoughtful texts, however, either critique the stories they are shaped by, or turn their attention from, the management of status and look for alternatives.
One could argue that artistic interest begins at the point where the text is not simply an uncritical expression of enlargement: when it begins to resist power rather than embody it. There isn’t, however, a simple dichotomy between those texts that are rituals of enlargement and those that aren’t: many enactments of enlargement contain layers of critique, and many critiques exhibit an incompletely distanced fascination with enlargement (Pride and Prejudice is a romantic fantasy inflected by critiques; Maldoror is a critique obsessed by the images of power it denies). Allowing for variations in degree of distancing or embrace, art has nevertheless become one of the main repositories of the useless: of attempts to respond to the thing itself, as opposed to the terms it might yield. And poetry, which tends to look outwards into the moment, rather than towards an ending where status is either achieved or restored, is one of our strongest expressions of this. ‘Plum Trees’ is by
What the plum trees were doing
was loading galaxies of flowers
like night sky’s sprawling fire
in the middle of daylight.
Space turned into bloom and fruit.
Soil rose into juice and scent.
Electric, shaken, utterly still,
unpruned wands thirsted for Spring.
Like gluttons, the trees sucked everywhere
from hidden water, seemingly nowhere—
that was the ground inside the dark
as we walked dry earth, dead grass.
Unreasonably, not beyond forgetting,
it’s that year’s dry light which falls away
as if plum trees flare in unfenced shadow,
momentary as thought, or as a trace of thought.1
These trees are not being turned into anything useful. Harrison simply wished to make them available to the imagination: for the reader to be able to see how miraculously they dispel the ‘dry air’, even though they ‘flare’ only briefly—‘momentary as thought, or as a trace of thought’. It is a response sourced in fascination with the tree itself, rather than in an enquiry after advantage. And rather than leading towards the benefits of the deal, it offers only the fragile and unstable communion of the reading.
In JS Harry’s ‘A Sunlit Morning, Labor Day, Late Twentieth Century’, Peter Rabbit watches his friend, a magpie, which has succumbed to the sealing cap on a milk container:
He does not sing
though Peter squats beside him, waiting.
His friend’s mouth & tongue
are torn & black; old blood
has set & cracked: the flesh
that’d set in jagged peaks
has been re-opened scarlet.
A white ring
jags into the magpie’s flesh
at the back of his beak — too hard & stiff
for him to close it. The ring
nooses his head, burying itself
in the neckfeathers’ snowcape.
It’s shortening his neck. Peter sees
why, yesterday, when he tried,
couldn’t scoop up drink
from the swimming pool, & why
for days, when he flies
he’s been dropping the spiders.2
The magpie has no economic value. In economic terms, its death is only an unintended consequence of a useful process—just visible enough to be labelled ‘unfortunate’. Usually, wild animals only participate in the capitalist story when they develop a taste for something that humans also want—at which point they are labelled ‘pests’, and enter the system as debits. Mostly—as here—when writers engage with such subjects, they are not suggesting that the object of their poem has no value. They are really saying it has an absolute value, one that cannot be translated into human terms: an otherness that invites only the ever-tentative, ever-resisted alternatives of representation—phrases such as ‘the neckfeathers’ snowcape’, which attempt to ‘capture’ the magpie, without taking anything away from it.
Both of the preceding examples are attempts to make the natural world visible. But poets also try to think past the terms of utility in the human world. If there is one topic that has attracted more tendentious representation than any other, it is female sexuality. In ‘Sidonie’, Kate Lilley plays with Freud’s attempts to translate this most dangerous of qualities into a terminology that can manage it:
A single case not too pronounced
a misfortune like any other
a cocotte in the ordinary sense
a severe beauty mature but still youthful
a well-made girl intact unversed
she did not scruple to appear
in the most frequented streets
she was in fact a feminist3
Lilley selects phrases from Freud’s analyses and uses them to challenge his reading of Sidonie’s behaviour. She doesn’t have to add a layer of commentary: it is enough to isolate Freud’s terms and to give them a space to be visible in, as there is a world of alternative interpretations in the reader’s mind that will do that for her. Her purpose is to make Freud’s lugubrious disapproval disintegrate, under the pressure of implied comparison, so that Sidonie might be freed, at least in retrospect, from the judgements that oppress her. Lilley can only do this because she can imagine Sidonie without Freud’s oppressive abstractions: without, that is, her being burdened with the uses the male emotional economy has found for her. The poem is an attempt to restore Sidonie to something like her original uselessness—a uselessness that Freud is uncomfortable with. As so often, however, with our most potent and unstable signifiers—death, sex, love—the attempt to manage them is unsuccessful: above all because they rarely fit into the categories we prepare for them. One finds it hard to believe, despite his ponderous relegations, that Freud wasn’t as obsessed by her—or figures like her—after his analysis as before. His language might have provided him with a performance of disavowal—a certificate of distancing—but it resolved little for him, and created only damage for Sidonie.
‘The Weighing’, by South Australian poet Peter Lloyd, is another poem in which object and value are set side by side:
Where, on a stone wharf,
a white shark,
a long red flower in its mouth,
is being weighed and foto-flashed.
Two men, with the air of those who have returned from a voyage round the world,
or some vast enterprise involving the moon,
stand ankle-deep among fish-blood and guts,
their arms raised in victory.
Sun glitters on chunky male jewelry and the universal brotherhood of man …4
Lloyd’s fishermen are barely aware of the shark, excited as they are by the meaning of its death. The poet, despairing of this, can only separate the shark from its interpretation, and imply that it did once have a life of its own, independent of what the men’s imaginations have done with it. As Lilley did with Sidonie, Lloyd returns us to a point prior to that in which the object of attention was converted into currency. Over and over, in the arts, we see the uninterpreted object being placed against its meaning, and the consequence of its meaning: the cumulative effect is of a long, troubling revelation of the things we have done.
Few, if any, art forms are less seduced by enlargement than poetry. This is not simply because of the distancing effect of its critiques. Most poetry begins in an engagement with an other—a person, situation or idea—rather than in the management of an anxiety towards an advantageous position. In this respect there are radical differences between narrative forms and the lyric poem and its equivalents. Although some poets display an ongoing interest in narrative, most poems are either lyrics or collagist or other attempts to articulate an alternative. Looking outwards into the situation rather than towards an arrival, any interest they may have in the point of arrival is in terms of its meaning, which is quite distinct from the narrative’s desire to arrive irrespective of what that might mean. Arrival is the point at which the story loses interest. A little idiosyncratically, one might describe it as the point at which the poem becomes engaged—the point, that is, at which story has paused long enough for the subject to
Enlargement is meaningless in terms of the present and its situations. It can only be defined by the measurement of changes within the story: once one has entered upon one’s migration, one must gauge how far one has travelled in order to measure and define success. The anxieties this generates overrule everything else in narrative forms. The author may surround them with critical meditations, but they are the engines that drive the text. The lyric and its alternatives, however, not having invoked such anxieties in the first place, are free to engage with the others the moment presents, as in the examples above. This engagement with the others that story finds problematic marks a key difference between literary or poetic interest, and interest based on the needs of narrative. And it finds a significant echo in the way capitalism—the system based on transformational story—finds it so difficult to maintain a respectful or just engagement with the world it has relegated with its management.
There is much here that has been simplified for the sake of argument. A great number of non-poetic texts obviously share that fascination with the strangeness of things that prompts so much poetry. There are, moreover, many forms that, despite being based in narrative, do not make it their focus: short stories often behave more like poems than stories, meditating on situation rather than pursuing resolution; even novels can be more like poems than novels (David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life, for example).5 Memoir too is often as interested in personality and event as it is in the development of narrative—one might cite Romulus, My Father, where Raimond Gaita is more concerned with the intractability of the father’s sorrow than with the mechanics of story.6 The key point, however, is that the needs of story can inhibit engagement with the others that lie beyond it, and that this effect is as ubiquitous in real-world behaviours as it is in literature. One implication of this is that we need stories that pay attention to their others, rather than stories that interpret their others in terms of their narrative needs.
For all the satisfactions they might generate, seeing the world only through the lens of narrative convenience is inadequate and reductive. It cancels the first response, wonder, and casts a mist of valuations in front of it. We have language, we have a need to get things done, and therefore, it seems, we will go on reifying and negotiating until we ourselves are in danger of vanishing into the reductiveness of our energetic careers. In this light, the practical people of the world are actually some of the dreamiest: they are the ones subsumed by their currencies, while the poets—the ones with the reputation for unworldliness—are much more likely to have their imaginative feet on the ground, to be fighting to maintain their engagement with their others. Increasingly, too, those old divisions between science and art look out of date: the writers are closer to the observers of the world—the scientists and clinicians—than they are to the fantasists of status and arrival.
There is a battle going on between the unreified, unsubsumed world and those stories of triumph and enlargement that, while no doubt initiated with the intention of allowing their subjects more opportunities to engage with it, too often only render it invisible. At the moment, the stories are winning. Which is why, just now, it is more important than ever that we keep a space for the uselessness of the poem.
1 Martin Harrison, Wild Bees, UWA Press, 2008.
2 JS Harry, Not Finding Wittgenstein, Giramondo, 2007.
3 Kate Lilley, Ladylike, UWA Press, 2012.
4 Peter Lloyd, The Stone Ladder, Wakefield Press, 2008.
5 David Malouf, An Imaginary Life, Picador, 1980.
6 Raimond Gaita, Romulus, My Father, Text, 1998