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

Joshua Clover

Dear Chris,

I am glad you raise the place of the party, that great political question of the last century or more. Though that sounds like a quippy double-entendre, I don’t quite mean it that way. First of all, I do think that the question of the party remains incredibly vivid for political organizing and militancy. “The party,” within what is known broadly as “anticapitalist” space, stands almost absolutely for Leninist state communism (with a soupçon of Mao). But these in turn are religiously identified with Marxism, which transitively comes to mean The State, The Party Form, and so on. Obviously I think this is a mistake; I don’t think opposing the state in any way implies opposing Marxian modes of critique. That’s just a false equivalence. As is well-known, for better or for worse, Marx did not offer a theory of the state, and for me the heart of his critique concerns political economy — something that comes in handy even for the most anti-statist sorts.

That said, in the context of the current anti-Party sentiment, two things have been striking. One is the efflorescence of groups that insist both on their existence as something like a party but not. “The Invisible Committee” is the obvious example. “The Imaginary Party.” “The Imaginary School.” And so on. Ranciere has that appealing formula for the dispossessed, “the part which has no part.” It won’t do. But we seem to be in a moment also of “the party which has no party.” I’m sure someone has already said this. I am only trying to capture the current status of being betwixt and between, concrete and abstract, material and ideal — and how important it feels for so many people to stay in that space of both/neither/nor. It feels beautiful and bewildering.

But there is also the prevalence of parties, like, let’s party. Not just in pop, which as you note, has really given itself over to the ambiguity of “the party” — ambiguous not just because it’s both delirious and corrupt, but because it was that already, last Friday night and the Friday before, all the data is on the table, but we still aren’t making a decision yea or nay, we’re just doing it again. That seems like a deft naming of the situation.

Meanwhile over here on this side of the YouTube mirror there is also the noted preference for the dance party, the street party, as an element of militancy. Those occupations you mentioned had, with great consistency, dance parties as part of the action. “Electro-Communism” was the watchword. They were tactical: a misdirection, a way to draw a crowd, a way to keep a moving and occupied mass between antagonists: occupiers and police. They were also celebratory and fun, a pleasurable and exciting part of it all. Indeed, the crossing of wires between tactic and pleasure made them even more compelling and ecstatic, the synecdoche of a tragically temporary communalization. And sometimes they were just ways to pass the time. It’s amazing how much time you have when you don’t show up for your job.

And then the dance party leapt from being something one did inside or outside the occupation to being a street party, and a mode of indirect (sometimes not so indirect) confrontation with cops. Hip-hop started to replace electro. Post-millennial tension increased. The party was a riot as tactic, as interruption, its own occupation of an intersection, party as militancy. This place about to blow. This moment has not yet exhausted itself as the latest form of the ambiguity, the aspect shift of betwixt and between, visible and invisible, confunkshun and conspiracy: Street Party, or Party of the Streets?

What has this to do with poetry? Nothing and “dreadfully much.” This insistence on the invisible and imaginary, on the preservation of the non-concreteness of the party, strikes me as temporary — as a fact of our current moment, matching up with, say, the ambiguously abstract concreteness of finance, the way that fictitious capital both is and isn’t imaginary. But it also strikes me as the zone of poetry. I’m not persuaded, as you know, by most comparisons of language and money. I don’t believe in the materiality of the signifier. But I do think that poetry, where its physical distribution on the page and its appearance and so forth matter — well, for this and many other reasons, I do think that poetry is the literature of this ambiguous zone, material and not, invisible and not, the party which has no party.

I am being optimistic today. And that’s the story of how I was elected to  the Parliament of Uzbekistan.

Love, 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