Joshua Clover and Chris Nealon / Letter Five: on Value and Poetry

Joshua Clover

Dear Chris,

this is my last letter to you in the sequence; if I understand aright, after your response, we are going to collaborate on a poem as a final post. So I will end with a little personal report. I am just back from spending some time in what is occasionally called an intentional community; a largish group of people who share a political orientation, and live a semi-communal life in and around a small town in another country.

I am inclined to be skeptical if not indeed cynical about such things, not because I believe in the practical virtue of conventional social forms but perhaps because it is too easy to see how other unfreedoms present themselves once you have shrugged off the conventional ones. And equally easy to see how those old unfreedoms, moreover, preserve themselves underneath the performed liberation in which so many intentional communities have shrouded themselves. But let me not strike that skeptical note here. I don’t think my comrades in this little town are making particularly grand claims for what they have achieved. I didn’t stay on the farm, which from descriptions sounds a but like a secular kibbutz. In many ways for me it was much like living in a small European village with the exception that, at the bar, paying seemed to be optional once you are recognized as part of the, um, community. I don’t much like that word because everybody loves it without much thought, but I will hazard it here; I am interested in community if it is moving toward communization, or not at all.

What interested me, in relation to our previous discussion, was something about visibility and invisibility, which here will start to get transcoded into form and content, though with a twist, as it were. As I said, the group (I am not quite sure of the size, but it ranges into the three figures) shares a kind of political orientation, much of it organized by a collection of documents co-written by various residents and others. There was some discussion of these texts and ideas when I was there; it seems part of daily life, as much as building new dwellings and cooking and playing football and so on. And it would be easy to say that the ideas and the political orientation are the content, while the social arrangements that are still developing around these ideas are the form — especially since the texts make some propositions about social form, albeit in mostly abstract ways.

In the end I felt the reverse was the case: that the shared texts and ideas and propositions were a kind of form which was itself fascinating but which had as its most important function the extent to which it allowed a content to flesh itself out around this form. The content was the village. But that’s not right. The content was the social life of the village and the farm (really multiple farrms), the daily life of it, the relations among people and place and things but mostly people. And the form allowed for this. Here I must aver that I don’t think the form produced this content, really. What I am calling the form is not much of a program; it never really dictates what daily life or social relations should look like, or even what would be workable, preferable. Nether was it purely negative, an annihilation of convention and constraint. It is not Aleister Crowley. Nor is it Thomas Müntzer, though that would be a more relevant coordinate.

But the form allowed for trying out this different social content, and in my brief visit this social content had two notable characteristics. First, it was not (as I have suggested) radically transformed or utopian. I looked a lot like a little town and farms, which is what it was. You could sit at a table at a bar and drink coffee and wine; you could get licorice at the store, bread at the bakery. The folks at the farm worked in the day and put on nice clothes for a party. There were cars. This familiarity was in some part a measure of the extent to which this was not a total withdrawal from the net of capital, the extent to which it isn’t possible now, and is always a partial withdrawal until it isn’t. But it was also a measure of how small the change has to be for everything to feel different. It doesn’t have to be gleaming towers two miles high and nanotech whispering to us as we hover above the titanium skin of the new world; neither does it have to be sackcloth and bicycles made exclusively from driftwood gathered at the beach. It is a disposition toward time when time is not a unit of value, more or less.

But I am in some sense doing the folks there a disservice. I have just rendered the content of the town in Marxist terms, and I don’t think very many of the residents would identify that way, or feel particularly pleased with that. I accept that; the description is my own, not theirs, and if I stayed longer I might describe the difference very, well, differently. But this leads me to my second notable characteristic: I found the what I am calling the content more compelling than the form. That is, while I have been very moved the texts and thinking shared by many of the locals — most particularly, The Call and The Coming Insurrection — I also have some differences with that thinking. Its analysis of the situation is not quite my own. Its sense of strategy, of what would need to be done to undo the current dispensation of power, is not my own. As I suggested in the last paragraph, its account of what would make for a different daily life is not quite my own. But the striking thing is that this doesn’t seem to matter so much. That is to say, and this will be my moment of greatest optimism, that it seems quite possible to me that even if the form is not quite right, or by my lights disattuned, or is brilliant but with a big hole where the question of production rests…even against all this, a rather remarkable content can arise.

That is the anti-Platonic moment. Form is not a perfect version, a limit toward which the content will always strive, imperfectly but eloquently and urgently, never arriving but making itself in the asymptotic movement. This is the Platonic conception which underpins much recent discussion of “horizons,” as in “the communist horizon” and so forth. No. The form is not a horizon. It is more of a grain of grit around which content accrues, bit by bit, by person and stone and bale of hay. And content, I think — the life that accrues around these propositions — can exceed the propositions themselves.

It can also go wrong, awfully wrong. That is always a risk, and because it is always a risk, it must be ignored.

Coda: I was reminded today that Spicer published his “Three Marxist Essays” in 1962, the year of my birth, in George Stanley’s journal N—San Francisco Capitalist Bloodsucker.

Love, your friend and comrade, Joshua


Never miss an issue

Get a subscription to three issues per year. Cancel anytime.

Donate to TCR

Support one of Canada's longest-standing publishers of contemporary writing and art

Advertise in TCR

Download our media kit to find pricing and specifications