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

Chris Nealon

Dear Joshua,

Your beautiful description of parties-as-tactics helped me see one more reason why I was feeling so strongly tugged in your-all’s direction last year – “street party as militancy” is how I was raised, in queer politics. I read your letter and I smacked my forehead. Pride! Raggedy, less-emulsifed Pride. Robin S. Feeling curious about how the cops who’d been paid to watch over us that day would behave when it wasn’t Sunday.

I was also reminded how deeply a certain arc of queer politics in the Anglophone world since World War II has shaped how I feel historical time. I say “reminded” because the domestication of queer politics, and the loss of its utopian impulses except inside the academy, have left me feeling cut adrift from the political dreams I grew up with, coming out in the late 80s, which were linked to poetry. Like Adrienne Rich’s 21 Love Poems, with their sense that a single love-relationship could mark the beginning of a new era, a sexual Germinal, and retroactively re-write all the sonnets ever written. Or like the manifestos of the first wave of the AIDS epidemic, which I read as poems: found ferocity in the midst of a harrow. There were nights at clubs where you really felt like people were dancing for their lives.

Even so: much in the way you don’t believe in the materiality of the signifier, I’ve never been able to get behind the idea of “biopolitics.” This is mostly because in the French context of its conceptualization, “biopolitics” has always been offered as a supplement or a chastisement of the idea that class politics are the real politics. But I’ve never taken Marx to be saying that class politics trump other politics, and so the so there! biopolitical theories direct at Marxism has always seemed to me beside the point: one more excuse not to think about political economy. I’m even less excited about theorizing the “post-human,” for the same reason. For me, Latourian theories of the agency of objects, and Spinozan monisms that emphasize our interconnectedness, while obviously correct – and even beautiful – as far as they go, blow up into an ethics of humility whose organizing claim is that human species-arrogance is destroying the planet. Which doesn’t seem like the problem. Isn’t it rich people who are destroying the planet?

Meanwhile out on the street: if I can no longer see in gatherings of my fellow queers the ferocity that might have built a more revolutionary movement, I still see in their eyes the silent flash of recognition that links us, that makes me feel I’ve got your back. I feel like, much in the way feminist politics and the politics of Black Power had so much to teach a nascent queer movement in the 70s, AIDS-era queer militancy has rubbed off in certain tones and styles of later activism, in some of its flavors of militant playfulness and joy. I’d love the young to re-teach it to 90s queers …

Oh, and what this has to do with poetry – I think it’s this political matrix, as well as the wish that I’d been a dancer, that makes me conceive of poetry as rhetoric first and signification, or grammar, or “language,” later. As a way of moving people; of making them feel in lightness how our lives, as shared destiny, are always fluctuatingly at stake. Even if my sense of historical urgency has shifted from one that was centered on the epidemic to one that’s centered on the crises of capital, poetry for me is still ideally that: a light and forceful rhetorical question, posed from the place of collective fate I still can’t help but think of as the land of the living.




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