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The Poetry of Destroyed Experience

By Mathew Abbott.

Keston Sutherland, The Odes to TL61P, Enitharmon, 2013

One of the essays in Keston Sutherland’s Stupefaction insists we reflect on what Karl Marx means by Gallerte. The word appears several times in the first volume of Das Kapital, usually after bloße (“mere”), and always in the context of Arbeit or labour. It is the German for the gelling agent obtained by boiling bones, skin, and other animal products (and which is used not only in food but also in stage lighting, pharmaceuticals, some types of glue, film and – because it can be made to simulate muscle tissue – terminal ballistics). In English translations the word has generally become “congealed” (as with, for instance, Ben Fowkes’s ‘congealed quantities of homogeneous human labour’); Sutherland argues this seriously fails to capture Marx’s intention. Congealment means solidification. A liquid or gas that is heated or (especially) cooled and in the process hardened has congealed. Now Sutherland’s beef is not with the basic Marxist tenet that under capital the value of a commodity is determined by the amount of socially necessary labour time that has “congealed” in it. But he challenges the implications of the metaphor. Unlike congealing, gelatinising is irreversible: one can thaw ice and get water, but there is no getting back to skin and bone. Which chimes with the second point Sutherland makes about Gallerte. It’s disgusting. What Marx wants to capture with the word is not simply the idea that the flow of living human labour is frozen by capital, but that ‘human brains, muscles, nerves, hands, etc.’ are irreversibly and disgustingly transformed by the capitalist into an object to be consumed. This may help explain the text’s famous images of vampirism; it also sits neatly with the idea, central to Marx’s account of fetishism, that capital’s systematic exploitation and abstraction of labour is not readily apparent in the commodity itself (there is nothing particularly disgusting about gummy bears, despite what has gone into them). Before it is a theoretical treatise, Sutherland argues, Das Kapital is a work of satire, a work meant to do harm to someone in particular: it is designed to disgust the reader, and specifically to provoke a kind of self-disgust in the bourgeois reader. He writes: ‘William Burroughs did not go far enough. The point is not to make “everyone see what is on the end of every fork,” but to make you see, as Kafka attempted, that no one but you could eat from this fork, since this fork was intended for you.’

It is an unorthodox (though arguably quite plausible and powerful) reading of Marx. It’s also a way of describing what happens in The Odes to TL61P, an oft-disgusting book replete with images related to eating, labour, discombobulated human bodies and, on a few occasions, gelatine. Such and similar references are especially common in Odes 1 and 2, in which we find ‘a pyramid of rigid meat’, ‘dead meat bunged in oil’, ‘congealed… white blood cells’, ‘a dream of every man I ate in/ all my life’, ‘yards of cooling lard’, ‘natural right whose aspic and preservatives sustain neoconservatives’, a ‘brain crushed… like upstart lard’, ‘a spent horizon dripping its limbs, parts and labour, transacted to a cosmetic mouth’, a demand the reader ‘[e]at courtesy of nausea eight hours a day’, ‘a grated shin or inimitable chewed-up spat-out shining spine’, ‘blood sucked in sucked out sucked off’, a demand the reader ‘[h]appily eat the boiled hyenas but omit to suck dry their dark alarming skulls’, etc. Perhaps the clearest (and in some ways most disgusting) instance comes in the prose opening to Ode 2, which presents eight satirical explanations for what police “commander” (Sutherland’s quote marks) Bob Broadhurst really meant when he tried to justify cops’ vicious treatment of Trafalgar Square demonstrators by calling them criminals:

What the public hears from the police on TV is the voice of police management. Everyone who has a manager knows what that litotic brachyology always sounds like. You learn in the end to pick out the buzzwords like hairs from a dessert you only think you don’t want to eat now, whereas in truth it is what you have paid for in order that you can be too intimidated to complain about it or send it back, by way of sending yourself back instead, and though the mouthfeel is like a grease-filled crack except astonishingly ugly you study to roll your eyes, pucker as if embittered, and furtively smirk at the gelatine soufflé with the other patriotic bulimics.

The writing renders at least four things: (1) the subdued and masochistic but nevertheless ambivalent acceptance that Sutherland thinks has been (and is being) provoked across Britain in response to the “austerity measures” taken after the financial crises of the mid to late 00s; (2) the scary confluence of idiocy and barely concealed brutality typical of contemporary management speak and which, this Ode argues, turns up not only in the workplace but now also in the more explicitly militarised registers of police repression, war, counterterrorism, pre-emptive counterrevolution, etc.; (3) a rather menacing picture of what it can be like to read “difficult” poetry, including the Odes themselves; and, of course, (4) the particular experience of alienation and exploitation that Sutherland thinks Marx thinks proletarians undergo when their labour power is commodified. These four ideas (along with a pivotal fifth, about which more later) crisscross through the Odes, surfacing at different points for longer or shorter periods and with different levels of intensity, sometimes in conflict, sometimes in tandem, sometimes becoming conflated.

Yet the basic conceptual and linguistic field of the book – the horror and fascinations of late capital, and the possibility of an authentic, irrecuperable response – has been Sutherland’s literary terrain for years: Hot White Andy spat the languages of finance, spam, and geopolitical paranoia (especially regarding the rise of China); Stress Position riffed on the pornographic tortures unveiled at Abu Ghraib, its title punning shockingly on the notion of stress in prosody and, probably, the author’s fervent heptameter; ‘The Proxy Inhumanity of Forklifts’ – the long poem central to The Stats on Infinity – tracked via the figure of the forklift the vicissitudes of the commodity form and what it does to the human:

just hacking up the ringbinders you burn
not holding out for the one ringbinder that will not burn: the dark
indelible human pallet, unloaded now for rising,
seen to by the penetrating forklift,
says penetrate you break in on the air
lock stuck in your skin, into the vacancy in the stack,
the memory foam disaggregating warehouse,
trying to want to let me pull it out.

In fact this poem provides the clearest precedent for the Odes in that it refers repeatedly to a particular ‘door closer assembly for a household refrigerator’ and its US Patent, just as these poems ostensibly praise the (now defunct) TL61P Hotpoint dryer. Formally too this work extends the techniques employed in these earlier books, with sections of prose intercut with metrical, sometimes intensely lyrical stanzas (though here, it should be said, the prose parts are longer – and now there are sections of metrical and semi-metrical prose). All this is to say that the book feels like something of a culmination of Sutherland’s previous work, its central procedures mostly similar, its ideas less new than updated. But to leave it at that would be misleading. This is the culmination not simply of previous work but of a set of astonishing poems; their Aufhebung gives the most unsettling but also authentically hopeful account in verse of what it is to be human now of which I am aware. This is Sutherland’s most expansive, confronting, politically intransigent, funny and – in its best moments – convincing encounter with the destruction of experience yet.

What is it to encounter the destruction of experience? In 1978, Giorgio Agamben published a work channeling Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Storyteller’ (which essay opened with the claim that men returned from the catastrophic traumas of Word War One ‘not richer, but poorer in communicable experience’):

Today, however, we know that the destruction of experience no longer necessitates a catastrophe, and that humdrum daily life in any city will suffice. For modern man’s average day contains virtually nothing that can still be translated into experience. Neither reading the newspaper, with its abundance of news that is irretrievably remote from his life, nor sitting for minutes on end at the wheel of his car in a traffic jam. Neither the journey through the netherworld of the subway, nor the demonstration that suddenly blocks the street. Neither the cloud of tear gas slowly dispering between the buildings of the city centre, nor the rapid blasts of gunfire from who knows where; nor queuing up at a business counter, nor visiting the Land of Cockayne at the supermarket, nor those eternal moments of dumb promiscuity among strangers in lifts and buses. Modern man makes his way home in the evening wearied by a jumble of events, but however entertaining or tedious, unusual or commonplace, harrowing or pleasurable they are, none of them will have become experience.

It is this non-translatability into experience that now makes everyday existence intolerable – as never before – rather than an alleged poor quality of life or its meaninglessness compared with the past (on the contrary, perhaps everyday experience has never been so replete with meaningful events).

This is a pathos-laden passage. It may seem hyperbolic. The distinction working implicitly here, however, is less intuitive in English (or, for that matter, Italian) than in German, which distinguishes between Erlebnis – or experience as the undergoing of events, one’s mere capacity to register what happens – and Erfahrung – or experience in the emphatic sense, experience from which it is possible to learn and perhaps gain wisdom. It is the latter that Benjamin thinks is destroyed in modernity – and it is no doubt this that Agamben has in mind when he claims that modern man [sic!] is wearied by a jumble of events that cannot be translated into experience. Of course, there is a difference between Benjamin’s and Agamben’s accounts: the paradigm of the destruction of experience for the former is catastrophic trauma; for the latter it is ‘humdrum daily life’ itself. For Agamben then there is something catastrophic or at least extreme about everyday life as we know it: the ordinary is, in late capitalism, only minimally comprehensible and communicable – which is to say that we are dumb in a particular, quite literal sense of the word (or, if you like, we are stupefied). One thinks here of the sentimental narratives characteristic of reality television game shows: with their obsessive emphasis on the personal development of contestants – often culminating in the explicit demand that they confess what they have learned and how it has changed them – such programs fail incessantly in their mawkish hunts for experience. In their attempts at recovering the lost, they inadvertently demonstrate how far gone it is.

The problem turns up in the Odes on the levels of both form and content. Long, relatively simple descriptive sections repeatedly give way to bursts of nearly meaningless (I want to say signal-less, as though this language approaches noise), often rhythmically taut lines and prose sections, as the text articulates (and/or fails to articulate) political polemics, the outcomes of economic crisis, gnomic utterances and aphorisms, sexual fantasies and memories, grabs of news and other debased discourses, lyrical meditations on love, etc. The events described shift from the shocking to the banal and back with unnerving rapidity; indeed the book sometimes succeeds in making the very distinction seem quaint. This lack of consistency means any subjective clarity experienced in reading it will likely be relatively brief – just when you think you’ve settled into its rhythm, style, or tone the text will shift. From Ode 3:

The point is not to unlearn love, try to love nothing. It stops too strictly infinite: attrition must be sung fuck that: each and every loss of it will mean the edge away: mean your life but nothing else, love for nothing gets it true. Passion must be learned back start to end infinitely or your life will end without you.

The ratings cut to junk PDD-NOS ratings triiodothyronine parts shortages, it shall be you lashed naked short; a tight borrow fire engineering Lehman pre-junk libidinous prongs, solid waste TDO PID 6 ratings go gloat fit to fringe;

The heightened language of the statements about love is no parody: it feels self-aware but not ironic for that. We have no reason to think Sutherland doesn’t really mean what he says; it is simply that such moments must be interrupted with cuts to junk, lest perhaps you forget the kind of world you’re in. From Ode 5:

There is something we need to do about everything, something it is always hard to be. Career poets are part of the problem, smearing up the polish, drying out the fire; chucking shit all over the place; not being party to the solution; banking on the nodding head “the reader” saying “yes, that’s what it’s like” so as not to know what it’s for, since meaning is easier that way, gaped at through the defrosted back window of the Audi, hence the spring for a neck; we all know where that shit got us: being what we eat.

Sutherland resists the poetics of recognition, the program that takes the epiphanic aha! as its paradigm of poetic experience. The affirmation “yes, that’s what it’s like” is posited here as a flight from the reification and abstraction of daily life perpetrated under late capital, a denial of the sheer opacity of what it’s really like (I think here of the stupor and astonishment with which contemporary philosophers of mind deal with the problem of qualia – now often referred to in terms of what it is like-ness – the apotheosis of naturalistic explanation coinciding nearly perfectly with the becoming-intractable of the problem of experience). As John Armstrong has pointed out, the image here is of one of those nodding dog toys that started turning up in the back windows of cars some years ago; the point, I take it, is that Sutherland’s is not the kind of verse before which “the reader” nods along, as though “the author” has deftly illuminated in language some nagging feeling that has been worrying the former for years. In pandering to this, career poets pander above all to a dishonest concept of experience, and to an easy but in the end reactionary attachment to the forms of authority – the forms of authoring – that made it possible. Resisting this program means: refusing the idea that poetic language should tell us what we know; refusing the notion of the poet as possessing some uncanny ability to distil experience; refusing any concept of poetry as the art of beautifully communicating imperfectly acknowledged but nevertheless fundamental human truths. This is of course political: it also means attacking the material and ideological structures that make such a model seem so intuitive. For Sutherland, failing to acknowledge what we eat is a kind of complicity with eating and indeed being it. What it is always hard to be is honest with ourselves.

Yet one might suspect there is a kind of performative contradiction here. Must not the destruction of emphatic experience itself be an emphatic experience, in that it has deep consequences for the life of the one who undergoes it? Isn’t this the kind of event through which one not only lives but learns (if bitterly)? Part of the significance of the Odes is not only how they answer such questions in the affirmative: it is that they demonstrate this is no real contradiction. In late capitalism, they show, we emphatically experience the destruction of emphatic experience. Here is the source of their undeniable cruelty but also of their hope. Lyric poetry is now turning the liquidation of its previous condition of possibility – the communicability of experiences undergone in subjective epiphanies – into a new condition of possibility. It cannot but emerge transformed from that. In fact this is a way of accounting for the differences between Sutherland’s program and certain American Leftist experimentalists writing in the wake of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry: the latter do not think, or do not tend to write as though they think, that the loss of the lyrical subject is itself a problem for subjectivity. For Sutherland, on the other hand, emphatic experience is not simply cancelled in late modernity – rather, we live through – we experience – its being cancelled. Which means the lyric must continue (Blanchot: the human is the ‘indestructible that can be destroyed’). In an interview for Naked Punch, Sutherland said:

The commodity is a form of human experience which has been – I’d like to be quite careful about the metaphors here – not in fact ‘congealed’, as Marx’s English translators have rendered Marx’s word, that is, not petrified, nor frozen, quite – I think the best gloss in English may be something like “industrially processed and reduced irreversibly into a tremulous digestible lump” – so there is a form, a definite and measurable loss of humanity and paralysis of living human experience in the form of the commodity.

The commodity form – with its irreversible gelatinisation of the lived experience of labour, and its subsequent reification of everyday life – represents a definite and measureable loss. The Odes themselves are an attempt at that definite measuring. The fact that they exist is the cruel hope of them.

Hence perhaps the importance of sex in the poems. I take it as part of Sutherland’s inheritance of English romanticism: save the odd starry sky, there are few images of (what we call) nature in Sutherland; yet perhaps this is, for him, the rhetorical function of fucking. If this is right it must be true of these poems in particular, whose speaker turns repeatedly and inevitably to sex, and often to childhood sexuality, frankly recounting a series of fantasies and fraught encounters. It is more than a deranged appropriation of confessional poetry, and more too than a confirmation of Alain Badiou’s claim that ‘[c]hildhood is a golden age for sexual experimentation in all its forms’ (though it is both of those things). Part of why sex is crucial in the poems – it’s the idea (5) I flagged earlier – is that they take it as the site of our deepest ties to power. The Odes’ returning to sex can feel like the response to an authoritarian demand, the speaker under that compulsion to confess which Foucault identified as central to modern subjection. There is shame and sometimes violence in it. From Ode 3:

we look at each other’s parts under the table, Jackie and I, hiding our eyes in the heads we come with, so as by the beautiful misidentification of excitement with fear to remain children forever, a proof of endurance that entitles us to be only now for the first time disconnected from one another, anywhere on earth; I don’t know who she is or what she amounted to, I haven’t seen her since then; she may be tied up in a Fallujah basement in nothing but a hood, toe-separators and a face dildo; but whatever she is thrilled by now, and whatever she lives in fear of, I trust in truth that somewhere beneath all the real objects there still shines to her distraction the first image of the male genitals I gave her, wrongly flickering, spitting blanks, preserved in trailing clouds, tiny and perfect, the origin and corner of my love.

Yet this is not just disturbing: it is also idyllic. It ambiguously posits a tenderness always already traversed by power and pornography, the cheap thrill of having got there first giving a grim picture of male sexuality even as the subsequent profession of love comes across as largely genuine and moving. On the one hand, then, the work is in agreement with the LIES author who wrote that ‘[i]f it was once radical and marginal to assert an essential… goodness to sex, it is now central, institutional’; on the other hand the poems imagine sex as something that could – in an absolutely underdetermined way – be or become impervious to commodification and brutality. ‘But fuck’, Sutherland writes in Ode 5, ‘[h]ow fucking fuckable I was before I fucking fucked up fucking by becoming fucking fucked.’ Though they recognise the violence in its contemporary forms, the poems will not completely relinquish the notion that human sexuality contains within itself a kind of political potential, a version of the old New Left idea that, if repression and neurosis could be eradicated, we might find something in it that wants to set us free. It is because ‘all sex is barbaric’ that it appears to contain such a promise: ‘We are the pleasures we enjoy, the blisses we admire; and all sex is a text, wingbats in gaping slang.’ Or as J. M. Bernstein writes: ‘[A]ll human sexual practices worthy of the name contain moments of objectification, aggression, dismemberment, and animal solitariness, and it is via those moments alone that our animal bodies receive an emphatic moment of independence from cultural norms, or, what is the same, it is only through those moments, through dismemberment, that embodiment can be nontransitively experienced as the source of a claim.’ This nontransitive experience of the claim of embodiment sits uneasily with the career poet’s program because it is quite literally barbaric: it cannot be turned entirely into sense or sensibly recognised. The inevitable presence of sex in the Odes is thus and nevertheless a kind of counterpoint to the particular way in which experience is destroyed for them. It is not set up as a bourgeois refuge, as the last vestige of the private sphere, but as the site of a subjection that is also public and political. The fact of our being alive in common is expressed in sex; in its resistance to full articulation or appropriation it could open a different, adamant and utopian obtuseness. Sexuality’s experiential promise is in that resistance to meaning, in how the claim it makes cannot be fully translated into another register.

Doing justice to these ambiguities may be the real achievement of the Odes. It is what makes them so brilliantly discomfiting. The poems accept and are genuinely horrified by the fact that pleasure has been inhumanly distorted, yet refuse the idea that we could get it or the human back in their previous (“natural”) forms. Despite everything, then, Sutherland is still insisting on irreversibility. It is not possible to return to any golden age of experience, sex, or labour – but the very ubiquity of the modern, reactionary notion of a golden age itself reflects the fact that their current forms are paltry shadows of what they could become. These poems do not protest inhumanity as much as think it through: they want to understand it, and can only do so by going through it. Because this thinking takes place as poetry, it challenges the alienated forms of rationality that destroy emphatic experience in the first place; yet it does not simply rail against destruction but explores its aesthetic – and by extension repressed political – potentials. Like Marx’s, Sutherland’s romanticism is anti-romantic: the nature he is after is not the one we have destroyed but the one that does not yet exist. These are odes, not elegies. With their idiosyncrasy, cruelty, music, and derangement, the poems are also our contemporaries.

Mathew Abbott is Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Ballarat. His book on Giorgio Agamben and political ontology is out soon with Edinburgh University Press. Australian Poetry published wild inaudible last year.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, June 20th, 2013.