On Enough and Not Enough
"As poets, we need to pursue our own forms of ethical and aesthetic response rather than engage in the sort of pronouncement by fiat and moral presumption of President Bush and his partisans." - Charles Bernstein, "ENOUGH," NYC, 09 March 2003
Who wants to engage in pronouncement by fiat and presumption? Not me. But then. Maybe I do. That is to say, as the Right Wing establishment in America marches onward, meeting with success after success via the use of effrontery, why don't I take back that ability to be offensive? Why don't I co-opt what the Right has co-opted from artists: the right to be offensive. Charles Bernstein's apparent position in "ENOUGH" seems to completely marginalize anti-establishment invective while being an accurate reflection of the unwillingness of the left to put its own moral egoes on the line in exchange for a more positive outcome. Satire itself becomes an impossibility under such a linguistic regime as the one apparently purported and advocated by Bernstein in this quote.
Fortunately invective is not only possible but one of our only efficacious means to derail the horrific radicalist right government in the US. Invective is doubly efficacious in that not only is such vituperative language innately disarming, but it also packs a direct wallop against the careful ultra-stultifying pseudo-moralistic politesse of the American right wing ruling elite. Such invective is surely a product of victimization; our poetics are indeed becoming "compromised" by the radicalism of the current US government, but then, why should poets try to float god-like above the current state of the world when we are wholly in it?
For example, how can one NOT resort to calling the Bush administration and the Republican-dominated Senate "a pack of motherfuckers" after passing the partial birth abortion bill? They are, after all, the worst sort of cretinous low-brow kiddie pornographers ever assembled into one ruling body.
Just yesterday, I saw what seemed to be John Ashcroft in an alley way in the West Village, beating a brown child with the spine of a Bible. The child's clothing was torn to shreds; the man who looked like Ashcroft had his pants down and was singing some song about "Where Eagles Dare to Fly." I showed him a photograph of a vagina and lit an American flag on fire while singing Marilyn Manson, and this guy who looked like Ashcroft looked like Dracula in the sunlight. Out came this horrific flatulent noise and he just vanished. I guess he vanished into the noxious void from where he came.
There is simply no incentive for those wanting to derail the current draconian right wing movement in America to use courteous formality. None. Being nice won't work; look at America's Democrats...John Kerrey, Tom Daschle, or John Edwards? People are listening to them? No. They have nothing critical to say, at least not in any way that allows us to recognize that they are stemming the tide of Neanderthal USA. Edwards did not vote on the Partial Birth Abortion Bill; he wanted to remain above it. Far be it from Edwards to show any consideration for a woman to have a choice of who goes and who stays during a pregnancy-induced medical crisis; far be it from Edwards to show his opinion as to whether a woman has a choice when her life and the life of her baby are both on the line, far be it from her to be able to weigh the calculable and distinct risks to mother and child and make a rational choice. Besides, these people like George Bush or John Edwards have simply not earned my courtesy; rather, they have earned my recurring urge to show them my dick and piss on them. Fortunately I don't have a dick. I rather consider this rude urge of mine to be rational and wholly unconfined by some artificial bifurcation of means and ends (re: process and results). It is perhaps the ONLY efficacious recourse to dissuade supporters of this din of piggies, these monied vermin rutting around in their starched white shirts, memorized Biblical citations, and offshore bank accounts. Presenting more polite critical approaches to our current regime only leads to dismissal.
And how are we to reverse the effects of the hijacking of political language in America by the FUX network, the Bill O'Reilleys, the Rush Limbaughs? They have won the battle for the minds of America by changing the word "conservative" to represent not "someone resistant to change" but "right wing radical cretinous fuck." And in the process, they made it reasonable for the average American to support right wing regressivist radical positions. What's worse is that they invoke the necessity for politesse whenever it is to their advantage.
How else can we as artists counter this horrific trend? How else can we reverse the tide of blind hatred, dismissal, and its ultimate product, mass murder? What can we do to make a change NOW? Even if vituperation is a morally questionable approach to addressing "the issues of the human condition," it still ain't nothing but a thing compared to lobbing 2000 pound bombs on the heads of children.
We are wholly IN this world, OF this world, COMPLICATED by this world, and SUFFERING FROM this world.
Fundamentally, I do not write out of personal concern or of some economic precondition that necessitiates regular poetic production. I wait for something to come to me, or rather, something comes to me, I disappear, and the next thing you know, it is written. That is to say, my writing follows a course of inspiration (whether or not that inspiration is facile is a wholly separate, though relevant, issue). I cannot decide in advance whether writing something like "Blood Spatter'd Banner" is acceptable in advance. It was written, and I distribute too quickly to have the opportunity to become all ego-centric and retract it. Such a retraction would be an egotistical response and in this case, decidedly amoral. OK, the language is overblown, ridiculous, violent, reductionist even, but it needs to be out there regardless of what people think of me, Lester Oracle. It is politesse that is the function of radical self-regard; it is politesse that helps people protect their own self-images at the price of art and humanity. It was Judas who so loved the world he betrayed Jesus in trade not for a few bucks but for his eternal damnation; in doing so Judas fulfilled the prophecy. Perhaps the ultimate apocryphal selfless act.
This age-old argument of "means to an end" underlying Bernstein's appraisal of political poetics is an unresolvable and stultifyingly abstracted one. The bifurcation contained therein is an exaggerated point of view wholly remote from the world. On the one end we have the Germanic rationalist abstractions of someone like Kant, someone trapped in an infinite universe of moral considerations, paralyzed by deliberation, weighing an endless series of moral considerations, and ultimately unable to act. On the other, we have the radical pragmatism of Generals devising strategies for war, who must implement policies of "shoot first, ask later," people who must get results at all costs, even the cost of millions of lives. In between these two travesties of rationalism and pragmatism are the conditions of life, the very context of people who have been damned to live on planet earth and weigh on a daily basis a myriad of conditions, who must make complex decisions quickly and regularly pursue theoretically contradictory courses of action. Invective is one such conflict-ridden approach, but it is an approach that engages in and indulges in the realities of life *not* experienced by someone like either an Immanuel Kant or a General Sherman.
The world and its biological participants is decidedly not like a chess game, with black and white pieces, with rules that are clearly defined, with actions that add up to victory or defeat. Life is more like a good poem; it neither resolves neatly nor fractures completely; it is tenuously held together by things that only when expressed in language begin to contradict themselves. Life is a Zen koan and more; it explodes its own explanation, and any poem inevitably deals with that inherent problem. Life may have within it chess games and theoretical discourse and "pragmatic" ends-justify-the-means people like the current US Administration, but life has so much more that spills out of these abstractions and floods them. Confounding the dangerous (ridiculous?) paired abstractions of Kantian ethics and results-driven military-industrial strategy, the abstractions that dissolve proximity to the flesh and breath of real human beings, is a mission *essential* to poetry, a means wholly inclusive of invective, insults, derision and all other forms of criticism of America's current government.
We live neither in a kingdom of ends nor a world of means and ends. We live in both, and we live in something more than, means and ends, more than process and results.
Art may surely be for art's sake. The Victorianesque art-moralism lightly suggested by Bernstein's argument is a wholly acceptable means for artistic production. But similarly permissable is the position that art may engage in a sequence of "compromises" that depart from theoretical (re: aesthetic) concerns, and achieve proximity to the human condition (whatever that is) and all of its labyrinthine contradictions. Either path is ultimately an aesthetic path: any reasonable discussion of aesthetics is conducted not from a normative position but from a descriptive one. And Bernstein's position of circumscription is equally contradictory--what distinguishes it from the more apparently compromised path of political engagement in poetics is that it contains quite an immense load of self-delusion and other puritanical & reductionist impulses. To say that politically-engaged poetry departs from aesthetic concerns is to twist aesthetics into a prescriptive and proscriptive pursuit. We can only pull away from "our poetics" if our poetics are proscribed, if our aesthetics are normative. Maybe Bernstein's are, maybe yours are, but mine are not. They cannot be. I barely exist enough to even dictate what my next poem should be, let alone prefigure my own artistic production into some theoretical template. Let the poetry come, I say, and if it has to take a path such that its end justifies its means (not as a rule, but merely to some degree) then so be it, then let it be.
I have little doubt that Bernstein and I agree that the current Rulers of America are assholes, but Charlie, why shouldn't a poet SAY that? How is that a compromising of aesthetics, which are not forward-looking but hindsight-driven? Why can't we engage in the consideration of results as something at least relevant to poems? Why can't we say, "Bush, you're an asshole" in a poem if we simply say it to achieve results? What if the results imply not destruction of human lives but the prevention of such destruction?
NYC 13 March 2003