Clint Burnham / Precarious Labour, Conceptual Poetry, and Work Writing

precarious labour, not precarious life, bare life…

well there aren’t any factories anymore – Fredric Jameson

Žižek says somewhere that it is easier to imagine the end of the world, an apocalypse, an asteroid destroying the planet, than to imagine the end of capitalism, or an alternative to capitalism. We can also say, perhaps unfairly, that it is easier for Christian Bök to imagine inserting a poem as DNA code into an extremophile than it is to imagine a socialist poem. Or perhaps we can bring back that old category of work poetry – you remember work poetry, don’t you, poetry about labour, tirelessly anthologized by Tom Wayman in the 1970s and 1980s, poetry about labour, be it blue collar or white collar or pink collar (or now, as Andrew Ross put it in the 90s, no collar)? Poems like “A Government Job at Last,” or many of the poems in the East of Main anthology that Wayman edited with Calvin Wharton in 1989 … or perhaps Christian’s poetry is a kind of work poetry? (first acknowledgement: some of these thoughts on work writing come out of conversations with Scott Innis, Lariassa Lai, Glenn Deer)

So that’s where I’m starting, that is, as a way of wondering if conceptual poetry – if that’s what Bök’s poetry is – if conceptual poetry is the only work poetry possible to write in the age of precarious labour. I started thinking along these lines last Friday, at the concrete poetry symposium at UBC’s Belkin Gallery, when I asked Lori Emerson why poets started using the typewriter to make visual poems in the 50s and 60s – what was it specifically about the technology of the typewriter itself? What was its political economy? The typewriter as a technology used in particular by feminized labour, by women in the office (I remember my mother working on getting her typing speed, her words-per-minute, up to par when she returned to paid employment in the 70s). And the art historian Jaleh Mansoor helped me out, reminding me of the state of precarious labour that the typewriter was associated with (and yet, of course, concrete was mostly done by men, as Judith Copithorne affirmed to her chagrin).

But viewed historically, precarious labour refers specifically to a post-fordist model of production, a shift from the welfare state governmentality on the one hand and the “historic compromise” that saw post-war trade unions exchange activism for well-paid jobs on the other hand and that, as Angela Mitropoulos neatly summarises, can be viewed dialectically in terms of “the various social movements, migratory movements, the flight from the factory and the nuclear family, [which] forced capitalists to resort to precarisation so as to renew accumulation and re-impose discipline and control….[but also:] the anti-Hegelian turn – often rendered as a critique of linear, progressive, binary, or dialectical paradigms of history – might be read as a shift away from Fordist norms of production and reproduction …” (second acknowledgement – these conversations on Autonomia with cris costa, Roger Farr)

So the reading I want to propose in terms of Christian’s poem then is in a genealogy that begins, as it were, with the work poetry that Tom Wayman did so much to anthologize and provide a critical framework for in such collections as Going for Coffee, A Government Job at Last, his own poetry, and his monograph Inside Job: Essays on the New Work Writing (1983). By “new” here Wayman in particular meant writing that wrote from “inside” work, as opposed to from the outside (pp 21 ff), but it is surely telling that this work writing, this new work writing, began to be collected and anthologized at the very time when traditional blue collar labour of the Fordist variety was beginning to disappear from North America: work writing was a symptom of the disappearance of work, of the factory. (In much the same way, Jameson has recently argued, in his book on Marx, that Capital is a book about unemployment.)

But that truth – or Real – of history is there in the work poetry that Wayman has written and collected: take the poem “Manual Action 1,” in the East of Main anthology edited in 1989 by Wayman and Wharton, where Pam Tranfield writes about the computerized or coded work of an unemployment office

… we must code your questions
onto forms called Pinkies:
Claimant disagrees with D3. Please Advise.
Cheque sent week code 528-3. Not received. Please Trace. (p. 88)

Now, what is interesting is that both Tom Wayman and the theorist of conceptual poetry, Kenneth Goldsmith, have talked about the importance of realism: Wayman specifically locating that “inner realism” in terms of precarious labour and educational practices (“young people moving back and forth between technical schools, community colleges, universities, and the workforce” [40]); Goldsmith, in turn, will argue that Vanessa Place’s transcription of indigent sexual criminals’ trial documents [her white-collar work writing] constitutes a “realism beyond realism – it’s hyper-realist, a literary photorealism” (Uncreative Writing 101).

So if my argument – and I am aware that this is very schematic – if my argument is that conceptual writing responds to precarious labour, to post-Fordism, in a way analogous to how the “new” work writing responds to the transition to this present crisis, I want to point to some specific features of Christian Bök’s “The Extremophile,” or, rather, two specific features: first, its extreme rhetoric, and second, the rhetoric of that rhetoric, which is to say its repetition (its compulsion to repeat, or death drive). Thus the poem begins – after the first two sentences, every sentence begins – with “it” and proceeds to continually up the ante with the very (Goldsmithian) hyperrealism that is also a (Waymanesque) inner realism: “It inhabits a seam of gold on Level 104 of the Mponeng Mine in Johannesburg. It lives in alkaline lakelets full of arsenic …. It breeds, unseen, inside canisters of hairspray” … “It resides on the surface of a heat shield in the clean room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It does not die in the conflagration during the collapse of the World Trade Center. It does not die in the crucibles of Treblinka.” The death drive of Bök’s (again, also semantically: Death Valley, the Dead Sea…) connects sites of labour (the Mponeng mine, the Jet Propulsion laboratory, but also the World Trade Centre, and, indeed, Treblinka – here Jameson reminds us, in Representing Capital, of the political work we can do if we think of these as sites of labour or even unemployment). That is to say, not my paper’s title: precarious labour, not precarious life, bare life… but rather, bare life IS precarious labour

And so the extreme rhetoric – but also semantic content – of Bök’s “The Extremophile” should be viewed dialectically, then: on the one hand, it is a way for the text of getting noticed – like the durational angst brought on by listening to Vanessa Place or durational ennui suggested by the mere idea of reading all of Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day, this extreme quality is a way for the text to be read – not unlike, of course, the performative but also competitive qualities of so-called spoken word: a way of getting noticed being a key paradigm for conceptual poetry in the neoliberal age (see Jeffrey Williams, in the minnesota review linking such rhetoric to the precarious labour of academia). But those extreme conditions are also, it should be noted, utterly of a place with the material conditions of precarious labour: from the suicide-preventing nets outside windows at Foxconn’s factory dorms in Shenzhen, China (just north of Hongkong, where iPads and smartphones are assembled) to the levels of corruption that drove Mohammed Bouzzizi to set himself on fire in the town of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, the work of the poem, the poem at work, to remind us of the precarious labour that sustains the work we do and, indeed, constitutes for many of us, that selfsame labour.
(Third acknowledgment: this post comes from a panel I participated in on Friday, Feb. 17, on the ecologies issue of TCR, with Sharon Thesen, Larissa Lai, and Roger Farr. Thanks to Brook Houglum for the invitation.)

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