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The Language Activism of ‘The Aleksandr Technique’ by Gareth Twose

By Dylan Williams.

Aleksandr Orlov meerkat

From Sven Types of Terrorism by Gareth Twose (Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2017)

‘The Aleksandr Technique’, from Gareth Twose’s poetry collection Sven Types of Terrorism, was inspired by email updates “written” by a toy meerkat during its shipping to the poet’s home. The meerkat in question, named Aleksandr Orlov, is a recurring persona deployed across media platforms by the car insurance company comparethemarket.com. As one of the company’s marketing tactics, a toy meerkat is sent to every customer that buys car insurance online. In response, Twose’s sequence cannibalises the affective appeal of the company’s gimmick – its ‘Aleksandr Technique’. Turning the faux-update on its head, Twose appropriates the meerkat’s narrative for a bewilderingly Dadaist odyssey through consumer society on the levels of system and language:

  1. Landing at Dover, Aleksandr notices the slippery when
    wet quality of five day old English consonants. In the
    corporate hands.

Discussing Rimbaud, Sean Bonney has pondered the political upheavals of the 2011 riots: “How could what we were experiencing, I asked myself, be delineated in such a way that we could recognise ourselves in it. The form would be monstrous.” With some irony, Twose’s sequence of updates offers this monstrous self-recognition, deploying the persona of Aleksandr the meerkat as catalysis – as a proxy experiencer. Through the voice of Aleksandr and his imagined travels, Twose exposes a continent that is far from well:

[…] he describes noticing during his travels across
Europe how the skies are full of Farage balloons,
modelled on an antique dirigible.
[…] the word ‘businesskat’ is mentioned 2030
times, nearly as many times as the word ‘choice’ is
mentioned in the Health and Social Cattery Act 2012.

Twose’s world is beset by right-wing miseries and Aleksandr, the furry face of media-savvy capital, is perfectly placed to whistleblow. But Twose’s poem is more than an affirming litany of political grievances. Co-opting the marketing device as a poetic persona empowers an intelligent, focussed critique of capital on the linguistic and formal levels. Twose’s first update gives a clue towards this particular function of the text:

  1. The meerkat is not cited in any of the case studies that
    form part of the research used to justify the complete
    synthetic personalization of language.

“Synthetic personalization” here refers to an idea from the sociolinguist Norman Fairclough. A disingenuously “strategic” communicative technique, it gives “the impression of treating each of the people huddled en masse as an individual”. Twose’s experience of personal address delivered by an inanimate, inbound toy would certainly qualify Fairclough’s term; it is this disingenuous linguistic manipulation which is targeted for subversion by Twose. By de-familiarising and parodying the Aleksandr persona, Twose disrupts its ability to carry a disguised marketing agenda. The persona and the language it uses are liberated from domination by capital. This liberation is performed through the recuperative elevation of Aleksandr’s language as a specifically poetic language – a metamorphosis carried through by three poetic modes (all traditional enough in the field of “linguistically innovative” poetry): ironisation, what I will call “hyper-realisation” and the decoupling of narrative sequence.

Firstly, we see Twose inject a postmodern formal self-consciousness into the sequence:

  1. A strategic listening pause.

and

  1. Skip ad.
  2. Skip ad.

In turn, the formal artifice of expression is foregrounded against the core impulses of any marketing text (where unconscious ingestion of content is paramount).

Twose also ramps up the over-arching tone of the original Aleksandr advertisements to a ridiculous pitch, with the poet’s meerkat becoming a hyper-real parody of its original self:

  1. Fleeing Meerkovo as a result of some local ethnic
    cleansing and visiting Monaco for the first time rubbing
    fur with the riches and famous, Aleksandr’s smoking
    jacket bursts into flames of caustic love.

Framing Aleksandr’s adventure against a background of ethnic cleansing and migration adds moral gravity to the situation (Meerkovo = Kosovo?). This impinges upon the comic book adventure style utilised by the original advertisements, folding its appealing escapism back onto the political structures of the real world. Additionally, Twose pushes Aleksandr into ideological positions and forms of knowledge laughably at odds with the interests of a car insurance company. Aleksandr, for instance, becomes “leader of the Meerkovan Liberation Army”, and is imbued with a visionary sort of structural insight:

  1. I am a refugee from la langue, a linguistic
    migrant. You have a choice.

Twose cuts up and frustrates the smooth flow of narrative sequence. Between updates, Aleksandr continuously shifts location, context and company without any sense of firm trajectory or geography. The meerkat-as-marketing-tool has gone rogue.

Through these interventions the poem subverts capital’s instrumentalisation of language in favour of a language that runs free and causes problems. Passive ingestion is impossible – the interpretative problems of the text call upon the reader to become decidedly active. Aleksandr is appropriated by the poet and transformed into a trace liquid, exposing the topography of the flows of capitalist Europe in which it travels. Changing from an object to a perceiving subject, the persona becomes liberated enough to perform its symbolic exposé of capital and state.

That said, one obvious problem of Twose’s poem is that we are not entirely sure what is being critiqued. A right-dominated system, certainly, but how can we be more specific? Finance, politicians, austerity, neo-colonialism are all blurred together chaotically. Remembering Bonney, however, we understand this to be the experience of the capitalist simulacrum at ground level. In this, ‘The Aleksandr Technique’ takes an obviously modernist urban aesthetic – experiment and gyre – and applies it to the twenty-first century’s eminently virtual topography. This is the value of Twose’s text: the militation of “innovative” poetry’s trademark neo-modernism into a tool for focussed linguistic critique. In creating poetry from advertising-speak, language is seized from the jaws of domination. As a collection Sven Types of Terrorism carries this further, rattling off multiple poetic sequences, of which ‘The Aleksandr Technique’ is only the first. All find and disturb different areas of contemporary life drowned by capital.

Twose’s innovative and humorous subversion of comparethemarket.com’s email updates echoes other attempts to claim the forms of contemporary media as poetic forms. Roger Whitson’s intriguing work with Markov chain algorithms (which transform the tweet into a site for a unique form of poetry) comes to mind. The value of ‘The Aleksandr Technique’, then, is that it shows how poetry has a social role in making us conscious of contemporary language and its hidden ideologies. If “linguistically innovative” poetry is to avoid accusations of elitism and ludic irrelevance in the face of crisis then attention should be paid to this poem. With it we see how poetry can be put to work in a legitimate, socially useful way: as an interruption in the silent flows of nauseating capital.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dylan Williams is a Welsh writer and poet currently living in London. He recently completed an MA at Birbeck with a dissertation on the poetry of Maggie O’Sullivan. He is currently interested in modes of refusal in contemporary poetry.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, June 29th, 2017.