“Still Clinging To Disaster:Reading Rob Halpern’s Disaster Suites”
“Where the pain is physical, it must be of an intensity akin to that which accompanies serious physical injury such as death or organ failure” Jay Bybee (qtd. in Sands 22-23).
“What the administration is trying to do is create a new legal regime” John Yoo (qtd. in Sydney Morning Herald).
Day 18, 10 December 2002
0400: Lead established control over detainee by instructing him not to speak and enforcing by playing loud music and yelling …
1930: Medical Representative weighed detainee and logged detainee’s weight at 119 pounds …
Near the beginning of Rob Halpern’s 2009 collection Disaster Suites a voice confides to us:
They say organ failure is the limit nowBut I can’t say where it hurts so I am notTortured one forgets too easily the things
We feel inside the numbered words I amA colored dossier singing, ‘Once a littleSteamboat,’ but I can’t see any smoke—means the ship must be on fire.2
To read these lines is to be solicited by the affectless and self-cancelling presence of someone who continues to live but no longer feels herself to be perceived as a fully human being (“but I can’t say where it hurts”); a torture victim, perhaps, rendered into a world in which torture is no longer understood to be torture (“they say organ failure is the limit now”) but “enhanced interrogation”; a spectral inhabitant, perhaps, of one of those exceptional and yet all-too-representative disciplinary spaces, like Guantanamo [End Page 117] Bay, like Abu Ghraib, in which the invigilation of suspect foreign bodies was remorselessly maintained. The unsettling sense these lines give of a kind of life that is no longer recognised as fully human life is reinforced by the poem’s implicit contrast between the persisting imprint left by the “numbered words” of secret memoranda and official policy documents and the now barely perceptible trace (“I can’t say,” “so I am not”) of a once autonomous subject who is now upon the point of being transformed into a manipulable object for judgment and classification by the things “they” say about him. In public readings of the sequence Halpern accentuates this terrifying glimpse of the tortured body’s juridical and political nullity by imposing a caesura between the conjunctive phrase “But I can’t say where it hurts so I am not” and the accompanying but quasi-independent verbal phrase “Tortured one forgets too easily the things we/feel” which has the effect of inscribing the living death experienced by those incarcerated in undisclosed “black sites” at the very heart of the poem. Conversely, Halpern’s writing attempts to restore some measure of voice to a subject simultaneously figured within, and disfigured by, a new biopolitics of extra-judicial scrutiny by folding the image of the tortured body back upon the body politic in whose name this violence is done. The thickening effect of ethical implication engendered by this superimposition of bodies and scenes is subtly registered in the fluid, but nevertheless uneasy, modulation of subject position and mood between lines two and four of the poem. Here the movement into the subjective mode inaugurated by the independent clause “But I can’t say where it hurts” actually fuses three very different but interrelated subject positions: the numbed response of the torture victim for whom it hurts not just here, or there, but everywhere; the sullen irritation of the torturer asked to estimate how much pain may be too much pain; and the bad faith of the unresisting American citizen willing to avert his eyes to the political violence undertaken by his own government in concealed locations beyond the regulatory reach of domestic supervision. In the last instance what begins as bad faith quickly becomes bad conscience: if it is true that “I am not/tortured” by the ethical implications of events whose historical reality I stubbornly refuse to acknowledge, then why, the poem slyly demands, am I troubled by a continuing sense of impoverishment (“one forgets things too easily”) in my response to the world around me? By this point in the poem, however, it is no longer possible to speak with any confidence of “my” or “your” responsiveness because Halpern’s seamless transposition of subject positions—which carries us almost imperceptibly from the first person of “I am not” to the first-person plural of “these things we feel”—consistently underscores “our” collective responsibility for this new and shadowy phase of the War on Terror. The blurring of boundaries between public and private worlds produced by the calculated indirection of Halpern’s handling of subject positions, his artful use of line-break and his restless shuffling of subordinate clauses is further exacerbated by his deployment of conjunctive phrases that do not do the proper work of conjunctions either by failing to suture phrase into coherent statements or exposing these statements to multiple and potentially contradictory interpretations. Several of these techniques [End Page 118] combine in the closing movement of the poem (“but I can’t see any smoke / means the ship must be on fire”) which inaugurates a dizzying interplay between blindness and insight: the fact that I can’t see any “smoke” or discern the true state of things does not guarantee the integrity of the ship of state or absolve me of responsibility for the crimes it commits in my name; instead my failure to see into things, my conviction of the unreality of the things I am shown or told, is instead the precondition for their existence in the first place. In the absence of smoke, we might say, our best idea of ourselves goes up in smoke; or, as Halpern implies with icy and equivocating brilliance, in this case there really is no smoke without fire.
Reviewing his friend and fellow poet Taylor Brady’s Yesterday’s News the year before Disaster Suites appeared, Halpern observes that Brady’s “sustained meditation on the conditions of lyric poetry under conditions of unending war and global disaster has been for me both a guide and goad” (“Sensing the Common Place”). The distinctive achievement of Brady’s most recent work, Halpern suggests, is the way it “weds new feeling-tones and cognition, doing the emotional and intellectual work of moving concrete thought towards new sense the body as conductor of local and global meanings in a world where sense is under siege” (43, italics in original). Emerging as it does from the ongoing “disaster” of our unending social crisis, the triumph and exemplary lesson of Brady’s writing is to retain its faith in lyric’s capacity to “make the present legible, audible and sensible” in the “interest of another future whose conditions of possibility are here, now latencies in the present however submerged they may be” (43, italics in original). By continuing steadfastly to trace the lineaments of another possible world concealed within the disaster of the world we have failed to make, Halpern concludes, Brady’s poetry recalls us once more to lyric’s double vocation both “to sense what is not yet common lyric as a haptic organ even as our common places harden into the opposite of living feeling” and “to sing common sense, as if for the first time” (44, italics in original).
In the remarks that follow I want to suggest that, beyond its arresting local insights into Yesterday’s News, Halpern’s review-essay upon Brady’s work offers a number of crucial insights into the nature and stakes of his own poetic project. Certainly what Halpern describes as Brady’s skill in exploring the body as the conductor of local and global meanings in a world where sense is under siege captures precisely the disturbingly doubled scene of the poem from Disaster Suites discussed above in which the disorientation of the exposed and vulnerable subject seems simultaneously to embody the effects of a radical transformation in both the structure of the geopolitical order and the social conditions of everyday life. Halpern provides an intermittent glimpse of this double scene in the afterword to Disaster Suites enigmatically entitled “Post-Disaster” where he self-consciously rehearses various possible implications (“Maybe this is the disaster?,” “If not, what do I mean by disaster?”) of his own titular term: [End Page 119]
I wrote the first of these poems on October 16, 2005 in the long shadow of Hurricane Katrina. The final poem was written in the weeks following the passing of my friend and fellow poet, kari edwards, on December 2, 2006. In between, an endless war.
So this is post-disaster, and still the thing has yet to come. Will this have been it?
When I begin this project, reports about the erosion of wetlands along the Gulf Coast were converging with the erosion of democracy’s myth about itself. But this was just a vanishing moment.(79 DS)
This passage, in its imbrication of “disaster” with the ongoing devastation of an “endless war,” is both deeply affecting and troublingly opaque. It is clear that for Halpern the pathos of the experience these words describe lies principally in the combination of personal loss with the prolonged agony of post-Katrina New Orleans where the convergence of natural and political disaster precipitated a human tragedy of almost biblical proportions. At the same time, however, it remains difficult to fathom how a subject or event could be both “post-disaster” and yet somehow still awaiting its appearance or what might connect the phenomenon of “endless war” to the ruins of New Orleans. To elucidate these issues we need first, I think, to understand the phrase “endless war” in a double sense as a synonym for both the ongoing and seemingly interminable “War on Terror” through which the state seeks to recalibrate its power by means of a range of overt and covert procedures—including the regulatory protocols of homeland securitization, the practice of mass electronic surveillance and the policy of extraordinary rendition—which conserve “democratic” values by suspending key elements of the juridical order upon which they rest and that broader war waged upon any notion of a cooperative social commons which for Halpern increasingly determines the forms and possibilities of American life under advanced capitalism. The point of fusion between these continuing conflicts at home and abroad lies in the systematic blurring of the boundary that separates democracy and war which has its roots for Halpern in the gradual elimination of the shared space of a participatory public sphere within which it might be possible to communicate and contest the disastrous state of our social commons and the disaster of our common state. That this disastrous loss of the commons now constitutes the ground of our common affairs without being recognised for what it is: this is the disaster; to live where there is no break between war and peace is to inhabit a disastrous parody of that dream of a democratic world which once seemed to promise us a different common future.
In his essay on Brady’s poetics Halpern develops his sense of the connection between the loss of our social commons and the “disaster” of contemporary life by reading Yesterday’s News alongside the work of Antonio Gramsci and Paolo Virno. Despite the differences between them, these thinkers are linked in Halpern’s mind by the emphasis they both place upon the constitutive role of common sense—or those reciprocal and shared modes of feeling and cognition which make social cooperation possible—in [End Page 120] enabling us to recover a sense of being-in-common and our sense of our common place. Gramsci’s work, Halpern notes, finds its horizon in its concerted political resistance to the rationalization of social relations by the hegemonic form of the state; thought, action and feeling only truly become common for him by way of a struggle to “organize a public” from the state of reactive and alienated individualism such rationalization produces (45). In order to activate the syntax of a common sense, Gramsci counsels, it is first necessary that thought and action “potentialize both the reorientation of the senses in the process of becoming their own theoreticians and the elevation of a common sense to new levels of critical self-coherence” (45, italics in original). Within Gramsci’s dialectical schema common sense therefore prepares the ground for both the orientation of the senses in the form of social cooperation and the critical reorientation of the senses in the name of their own transformation and overcoming. This dialectic of public forms, it should be stressed, necessarily encompasses the body which, far from being bracketed from social and material contingencies, is enveloped and penetrated by common forms of thinking, speaking and feeling; to undertake the labour of transforming the horizon of common sense is always also, potentially at least, to shift the modalities of feeling and cognition in relation to this struggle so that they might act as the “contingent foundation” for a newly emerging social commons.
The influence of Gramsci’s thought upon Halpern’s work can be perceived in his identification of the “disaster” of contemporary social experience with the extension of the governmental and corporate apparatus into the heart of everyday life. What lies behind Halpern’s remark that the “disaster” is synonymous with the “erosion of democracy’s myth about itself” is the insistence that what we call “democracy” is now primarily enacted in merely formal, rather than substantive or fully cooperative, terms. Disaster Suites is partly set in motion by the paradox of a culture which pays ritual obeisance to “democratic” values while systematically blocking the emergence of those collaborative and communicative networks and forms of social life which might mobilise a potentially democratic commons. At a time when the abiding threat to democratic values is a staple of every news cycle, the disastrous destitution of democracy is already apparent, Halpern maintains, in the conflation of the democratic norm with homeland securitization and the continuing political emergency of the “War on Terror,” the seemingly inexorable passage from the welfare to warfare state, the relentless channelling of political debate within narrow and policed boundaries, and the reduction of political agency to the conditioned reflex of focus groups so that it may safely be (dis) counted in advance. Against this bleak background, he ruefully observes, the body politic is no longer experienced as a common that allows the multitude to communicate and act together but rather as the “nonsite” of a “public” without a public sphere.
As this last phrase suggests, Halpern’s quest to establish the foundation of an emerging commons is also indebted to those elements of Paolo Virno’s work which identify the roots of our current social crisis in the subjection of public life to a new regime of advanced or “postmodern” capital. The promise and provocation of Virno’s project for his own work, Halpern explains, is that it “addresses a situation our own where language [End Page 121] and thought function as a new form of wage-labor immaterial production of surplus-value, which organizes expropriates social cooperation in the interest of capital when what is being expropriated is the very possibility of there being a commons.” (Ibid 52, italics in original). What distinguishes our social situation today, Virno declares, is that we no longer merely face “the rationalization of the state;” on the contrary, we must instead acknowledge “the achieved statization of the intellect” or the transference of resources from the general intellect to the state administration (Virno 67). Crucially for Virno the “general intellect” is the basis of a social cooperation broader than that cooperation specifically related to labour; as such it embodies that realm of immaterial and affective labour developed from the preliminary sharing of communicative and cognitive abilities which might constitute the basis of an autonomous public sphere. Insofar as this general intellect potentially engenders forms of civic cooperation in excess of the technical and hierarchical division of labour which underpins state power, it represents an eminent resource for the production of new communications, relationships and forms of life. Unfortunately, two developments have combined to prevent the realisation of this progressive scenario: the seamless integration of communicative procedures and immaterial labour into general commodity production; and the internalisation of the productive power of life, labour and language within a burgeoning state bureaucracy of surveillance and control. With the general integration of immaterial labour and mainstream commodity production the realm of work penetrates the innermost recesses of workers’ private lives: “Now their entire life is live labour,” Sylvére Lotringer laments, “Today all the multitude does is monitor signs on a screen” (12). Meanwhile the developing nexus of surveillance and control created by the transfer of immaterial labour to the state administration reactively reconstitutes the creative sovereignty of the multitude in the image of sovereign power.
Yet by means of a dialectical reversal for which his reading of Gramsci and Virno may have prepared us, it is exactly here, in the disastrous situation where the immaterial production of surplus value continues to expropriate both social cooperation and therefore seemingly the very possibility of a commons, that Halpern traces the utopian outline of his own poetic project. The key to this reversal lies in an exorbitant element, a surplus or excess beyond surplus value, which reveals itself in those moments when the immaterial production of labour as linguistic collaboration recreates language use as a form of virtuosic performance irreducible to exchangeable ends. To the extent that the emergence of immaterial labour as aesthetic poiesis prevents the expropriation of public language, it offers Halpern a possible model for lyric as a mode of counter-communication which might reorient our sense of the common to everything that is missing from the common places of thought and speech:
Just as production comes more and more to depend on the effective use of language human labor becoming linguistic collaboration, the service economy bears more and more resemblance to forms of aesthetic poeisis language use as virtuosic labor with no actually exchangeable end product but whose value is internal to linguistic utterance. [End Page 122] Under these conditions, lyric, whose very materials are those of the economy itself, re-emerges with the potential to mobilize social cooperation otherwise, blocking the expropriation of public language the separation of human beings by what unites them not by insisting on lyric’s unexchangeable opacity, nor by reducing expression to a common denominator of ‘accessibility,’ but by reorienting our relations to the common places of language and thought counter-communications lurking just below the threshold of articulation.(46, italics in original)
What is at stake for Halpern in the phrase “language use as virtuosic labor” is not that “servile virtuosity” by which linguistic collaboration becomes a “primary lubricant of post-Fordist capitalism” but rather a “re-publican virtuosity language as eminent public resource of living labor stimulating the place of political community, anticipating a sphere of common affairs no longer dominated by corporatist state interests.” (52, italics in original). The exact point at issue, as Virno reminds us, is “the surplus of knowledge, communication, virtuoisic acting in concert, all presupposed by the publicness of the general intellect” (Virno 71). Recalled to its beginnings as a “haptic organ,” Halpern maintains, lyric has the potential to grasp what is not yet common because its basic materials emerge from the common place of “language, emotion, body” even as they threaten to “harden into the opposite of living feeling” (“Sensing the Common Place” 44). Yet this possibility remains open only insofar as contemporary lyric renounces the consolatory fantasy of a voice that would return us to ourselves in a subjective form unmediated by exchange or the remaking of the public sphere as a “prosthetic extension of governmental and corporate apparatuses” (46). With this in mind, Halpern’s own version of lyric defects from that address which, substituting the illusion of private consonance for the reality of public dissonance, reinscribes our loss of common in the very act of returning us to ourselves, by beginning instead from the continuing disaster of the world we failed to make. Far from existing as a form suggesting or staging the presumptive unity of self and world, Halpern instead envisages lyric as a “nonsite” which relentlessly dispels the illusion of a common place by displacing sensation and cognition onto their mediating conditions so that the vectors of poetic language reproduce the “anguish of not feeling at home” that haunts modern social experience (46). Sedulously cleaving to the social contours of the world it mirrors and mourns, the scene of Halpern’s poetry is simultaneously formed and deformed by the struggle for common sense as it confronts “the expropriation of public language the separation of human beings by what unites them.” Time and again in the paradoxical movement of these poems their yearning for a commonality that enables us to communicate and act together is countered and checked by the circulation of negative affects like fear, paranoia, resentment, hopelessness, shame, self-disgust and abjection which today conceals an entire topography of social relations engendered by poverty, racism, the emergence of a new “precariat” characterised by casualised and temporary employment, the collapse of local communities, the circumscription of social production by the permanent war economy and the remodelling of the commons according to the dominant prerogatives [End Page 123] of multinational and postmodern capital.3 But at the same time, however, the radical mimesis of Halpern’s poems attempts to enact “a public intellect in the absence of a public sphere for which it nevertheless strives” by attuning thought and feeling to the social void of our cancelled commons. Unflinchingly aware that there is no route beyond the “disaster” except back through it in order to make perceptible everything that renders our sense of the commons such an uncommon experience, Halpern’s poetic response is to construct a lyric language from all the degraded materials, cancelled longings and blocked attachments which distort our collective image and constitute the familiar void of our war-torn social spaces. Abjuring both the redemptive solace of a lyric plenitude hollowed out in advance by the things it routinely disavows and the ironic detachment of a postmodern common sense already synchronised with advanced capital’s medium of linguistic and conceptual exchange, he locates lyric’s place in the future anterior and “blank unguaranteed nonsite” of that space which is no common space, seeking to find amidst its remains the lost trace of “that still smouldering promise of real futurity” which might yet hold in common the people who will have been here to share it (50).
In the remainder of this essay I want to read a number of lyrics from Disaster Suites to consider Halpern’s poetic response to our disastrous loss of commons. Take the following brief lyric:
Now my thing on screen relievesThese organs wasted war resolvesTo breathe just turn a knob for time
Lags suspend my hole in spaceBetween the ends of our produceAnd the stench of—has no body (DS 23)
This poem offers a synoptic introduction to the doubled scene of Halpern’s writing in which the loss of democratic commons is always also the effect of the global disaster of the permanent war economy. Halpern delineates this double scene by means of a structural confusion between inside and outside, active and passive, agent and spectator, which simultaneously locates the poem in the skies above Iraq or Afghanistan and the confines of a domestic environment where images of the war are relayed and consumed. His aim in doing so is to create a reactive feedback loop between the rhythms of war production and the production of negative affects which sustain the war economy by marshalling feelings and sentiments hostile to social cooperation and civic [End Page 124] solidarity. This doubling of scene and sentiment begins in the opening line which imbricates the technological transcendence of the fighter pilot framing his target on a cockpit console screen with the narcotized gaze of a private citizen deriving resentful pleasure from the same mediatized image as it is beamed into his living room. Momentarily adopting the perspective of the fighter pilot Halpern’s lyric fastens immediately (“Now”) upon the instantaneity of technological power: at the very moment the enemy is glimpsed the weaponry at my disposal “relieves” his “organs” of life (the undifferentiated noun “thing” doubling here as weapon and target); far below me the target’s body is “wasted” by a force it never even sees or hears. The destruction of enemy life offers a very different kind of “relief,” Halpern’s scenic superimposition suggests, to a domestic audience which appears to find perverse satisfaction in the prosecution of a “wasted” war (the adjective now suspended ambivalently between two bracketing nouns). Throughout the sequence, however, Halpern works assiduously to eliminate the geopolitical and social distance between “here” and “there” that underwrites these voyeuristic satisfactions by bringing the war back home into the “nonsite” of our own civic space. Thus as the poem proceeds the presiding image of the ruined and dematerialised body comes simultaneously to connote the physical leavings of flayed and wasted flesh and the destitution of the domestic body politic by an ideological nexus which reorganises the defence of democratic values around the conceptual merging of war and security. The extent to which, in the conceptual blurring of war, democracy and securitization, there is, as Hardt and Negri maintain, “increasingly little difference between outside and inside, between foreign conflicts and homeland security” is captured in the halting yet nevertheless ineluctable transition between the poem’s two stanzas: even if we resolve to change the channel and avert our eyes from the conflict undertaken in our name (“To breathe just turn a knob for time”), the war economy and the affects it generates are now fully integrated into mainstream social production; implicit in “the ends of our produce” or the destruction we produce for our own interested ends, Halpern bleakly reminds us, is the “suspension” of any collective movement towards a new democratic polity (“has no body”) (Hardt 14).
In Halpern’s repeated blurring of the distinction between geopolitical locations and between the biological and biopolitical body we see the global reach and disastrous effects of that ongoing war on the commons which frustrates our desire for a democratic world. The affective and political charge of lines like “I swear there’s no corps propre in here / No real body in the bag” is generated by the ghastly elision of the obliterated “real body” of the enemy combatant with the devastated “proper body” of our democratic commons which might have redirected social energies towards another vision of life (DS 50). Concurrently the sensations of powerlessness and disorientation the sequence exudes are constantly magnified by the continuing disaster of a seemingly endless social emergency which routinely effaces the distinction between war and politics: “To say it’s endless whether the endless / ends or not there will have been no end/—to what it means to bury” (DS 20). In some of the sequence’s most despairing lines this interminable conflict finds its echo and ground in that war on the commons which [End Page 125] alienates us from ourselves and one another by remaking social cooperation in capital’s degraded image:
Everyone out there listening knowsMy body feels so way off the groundAs all the big stores go reaching for me
I’m a zero-degree in global productionWhose real event’s what no one hearsA structure of value as it decays in time (DS 19).
Here the private costs and social consequences of the emergence of a public without a public sphere are visibly displayed. While it may be true that “everyone out there” is increasingly vulnerable to the feeling of vertigo which accompanies the loss of one’s common place and the experience of being reduced to a demographic fraction or market projection always already anticipated and discounted in advance as a “zero-degree in global production,” the loss of any commons that might enable us to communicate and channel our oppositional energies into mutually sustaining praxis also means that “no one hears” or responds to us as a “real event” in social and political time. Halpern’s own dissident energy expresses itself in the artful duplicity of a phrase like “zero-degree in global production” where “global production” encompasses both “a new global order of dominant nation-states along with supranational institutions, major capitalist corporations, and other powers” and the utopian desire for another future free of the repressive networks of power which reproduce social life in their own distorted image (xii). The furtherance of this utopian project depends, Hardt and Negri argue, upon the “global production” of a new democratic multitude capable of challenging the hegemony of a “regime of biopower” which manifests itself as a “form of rule aimed not only at controlling the population but producing and reproducing all aspects of social life” (13). This project must today challenge the consecration of war as a general matrix for relations of power and techniques of domination, whether or not bloodshed is actually involved (13). War, as Hardt and Negri observe, seems now to be heading at once in two contrary directions: raised up to an absolute, ontological level by technologies of global domination and imperial expropriation while being internalised at the domestic level as a form of police action which works to block new forms of social production and expression (17). The domestic recasting of politics as police action, whether it manifests itself in the curtailment of civil liberties, the securitization of spaces, the regulation of the limits of permissible speech or the relentless extension of the prison-industrial complex, helps consolidate the transformation of the civic state into a state of exception which routinely suspends democratic principles and procedures in the name of preserving them. Indeed, the tendency of political authority to free itself from both democratic oversight and the rule of law is one reason why torture can so easily become a hinge-point in this new disciplinary matrix (19). It goes without saying, although [End Page 126] it needs continually to be said, that the warfare state of the state of exception has little time for democracy: “War always requires strict hierarchy and obedience and thus the partial or total suspension of democratic participation and exchange (17). The state of exception as the constitutive principle of the civil state, war as the primary organising principle of social life: this is the nightmare vision that envelops Disaster Suites where
We’re a living effect ofWaste these synchronies of organizationAnd command (see I’m finally opening up
To you alone at the time of sentencing thisNot being ours with a wage you can live on (DS 21; italics mine).
To be a living effect of synchronies of organization and command is to be overlooked in a double sense: both surveyed and ignored. Because these “synchronies” are the structural linchpin of an emerging global order which is fundamentally hostile to national sovereignty and borders, Halpern once again blurs the geo-political co-ordinates of his “suites” so that Iraq does time for America, America doubles as Iraq:
There being no natural catastrophes the marketNature’s driving force my body being its ex-Tension and another disaster this one
Absence being outmoded thoughtMaterial waste sounds I can’tHear the things I see:- no wood, no work, no water—
The drowned and the bombed- what don’t exist can’t be buried. (DS 55)
These lines take shape around the linguistic remains of several devastating events. The first is the global rise of what Halpern refer to as “the specious though frighteningly real discourse” of “phynance” which treats “the unnatural disaster of postmodern capital as though it were part of nature’s innocent design” (DS 80). Halpern’s own work moves in precisely the opposite direction by focusing instead upon the ways in which market forces inscribe themselves on both the physical and social body. His handling of lineation and enjambment underscores the point that the condition of the world around us is no “natural catastrophe” with exemplary concision by removing any substantive distinction [End Page 127] between nature and the market; instead we must reckon with the evolving synthesis of the unnatural natural in the conjunction “market / nature” which is now the ground and horizon of the global social order. Halpern captures the global dimension of this emerging social order in affecting but placeless phrases like “the drowned and the bombed” and “no wood, no work, no water” which, by insistently linking the unnatural depredation of “phynance” to the establishment of war as a permanent social relation, read the invasion of Iraq and the social catastrophe of post-Katrina New Orleans as common effects of the hollowing out of democratic space by imperial bio-power.4
Typically for Halpern, however, these unnatural catastrophes are always also both the cause and effect of “another disaster” which takes the form of widespread obliviousness or indifference (“outmoded thought”) to the expropriation of our commons by this emerging model of biopolitical production. The signs of this disaster lie all about us in our collective subservience to a global “monetary circuit / Breaching spans of life whose measures can be / traded” (DS 21). By a strange temporal dislocation these global circuits of capital annul time in the act of generating a future that will always be the same as today: “The cash / describes our future place here at / my exhausted point of reference” (DS 34). In the bleak light dispensed by the disaster of this futureless future we “stink of value” as capital becomes the final expropriating measure of human worth (DS 32). Left fearful and resentful by the expropriation of common sense and common wealth, the danger that confronts us, Halpern cautions, is that through our necessary “work” of striving towards another and better future we will “incline / Toward what disaster rends” by reactively identifying with the power that threatens us (DS 28). Yet for us to seek solace and security in this way, as Halpern’s savage pun makes clear, is to reduce our “crude demands” for autonomy and social inclusion to a contingent effect of the ceaseless battle over minerals and resources (or crude oil) which habitually sacrifices democracy to the permanent war economy that reproduces and regulates the structure of global capital:
“Drop yr price my crude demands“I’ve peaked below the capital gains“Dollars heat my pumps things up“Yr softened profits pimp me out
“Strikes withhold inflate the goods“For bad supplies rig shortage mine“I want yr crude without design con-“Trols hold down my meat for homes
“Embedded crude I’m half excess“Margins munch yr turn for good capa- [End Page 128] “City’s one poor putsch for profit now“Reduce so I can need more funds” (DS 35).
To find ourselves embedded within this “crude” economic matrix is to inhabit a version of the common in which our “capacity” for self-actualisation and social solidarity is, as Halpern’s lineation suggests, hollowed out from within by the “city’s” implacable pursuit of profits (the phrase “poor putsch” deftly linking the flow of transnational capital to the erosion of democratic sovereignty). Because we are constantly encouraged to express our individuality and capacity for human feeling in commoditised terms, a paradoxical feature of the recasting of civic space in capital’s own image, Halpern points out, is the emergence of a public sphere devoid of the relative autonomy from economic and political control the term usually implies. What appears as “public,” in other words, has already been privatised and divided from within by forces that jeopardise the very possibility of a public sphere:
These sounds control a public sphere where there’s no morePublic no place uncontested nowhere to caress my stick in youCan be the dove I’ll be the agent of my own liquidation I
Dreamt a conquistador & his top ground meat cruising aisleEight singing I want this one skinless that one on wheels I hearMyself saying as we scuffle along so hedged about the social
Technicians of my utterance adjusted claims hooked intoSpeech being full of minor incidents all contested spaces sortThe rules of place enclosing units transcendent words go- the way property threatens those who’d rather picture (DS 62)
Here in the contested and bounded space of a “public sphere where there’s no more public” we are always upon the point of becoming the “agent of our own liquidation” by synchronising our desires (a process simultaneously incarnated and ironised by the carnal verb-phrase “cruising aisle /Eight”) with the rhythms of commodity production (“I want this one skinless that one on wheels”). “Hedged” in by forces and funds that operate in ways inimical to my actual needs, I hear my voice reconfigured by “the social technicians of my utterance,” vectors of power which relegate all my interests to minority interests as they sort the “rules of place” that underpin the social system. Alternatively manipulated and menaced by the investments that underwrite this asymmetrical power relation, the response of the social subject of Halpern’s poetry is all too often to seek restitution in an objectified version of its own desire or those “things” that promote my self-expansion” in a system where “The endless glamour of pro/duction” is “taken [End Page 129] as the whole of being” and “Domestic oil turns disaster into peace-making / Opportunities, renewed production, settlements /—and money” (DS 71).
The fear that the “rules of place” governing contemporary social relations will increasingly be determined by a new network power formed by transnational capital, a global state of political emergency and emerging styles of biopolitical production runs deep in Disaster Suites, contributing to the poem’s dystopian air of a world without exits where the vestigial experience of the commons is inseparable from alienation, violent antagonism and a pervasive sense of anxiety. At critical points in the sequence, however, Halpern’s writing is crossed by a utopian yearning for a living alternative to the transcendence of this power network which begins from a vision of a democratic multitude organised around new forms of common sense and new modes of social attachment. Both the peril and the promise of this utopian desire are the subject of the following passage:
So then I woke up wondering about the multitudeAnd whether I could ever really be a part of that i-dea or thing or whether I’d get stuck just trying to
Recall what GNP really means the old harmoniousEquilibrium models even harder cores and moltenTerra incognita feeling like these little twizzle turds
Of being being sucked absorbed into ever vasterNetworks where history’s still being taped and re-ality tested oh y’re just suffering the old imperial
Nostalgia he said but the neo-con retards fucked-Up my spin without me and I guess I don’t knowHow to criticize democracy value or to just say no!(DS 39)
The political drama of these lines lies in the implicit tension between Halpern’s yearning for some possibility of the common irreducible to the transcendence of a being or value supposedly immanent to a community—such as a hypostastised version of “the people” or the collective faith reposed in the self-evident superiority of a Western democratic model (“democracy value”) which too often doubles as the ideological screen for a play of technical and economic forces increasingly freed from democratic scrutiny—and his agonised awareness that his own subaltern appeal to an alternative vision of the social commons risks reinscribing the force of this reactionary transcendence. What Halpern’s speaker comes to grasp, against all his settled hopes, is that to conceive of the “multitude” as an “idea,” “thing” or common substance to which we might subsequently attach ourselves or “really be part of” is to translate the work of the common into the form of a common commodity and thereby reinforce the general [End Page 130] productivity principle that dominates the entire spectrum of social existence. The presentation of the “multitude” as a product or essence is therefore always synonymous for Halpern with the closure of the political, a block upon, rather than a shock to, thought which leaves us stuck in the same old circuits, “just happy to recall / what GNP really means,” or trapped within the “old harmonious / equilibrium models” where “harmonious” ironically registers the calibration of our historical self-image to the “old imperial nostalgia” of global resource colonisation and great power prestige. To exist in such harmony is to find ourselves “still clinging to disaster,” our social relations wholly determined by the value that the market accords them (“the way / you play the market becomes what I’ve become”), reborn and put to work as “old cronyism’s phony double” or our own private New Orleans (DS 44).
Is there any hope or bond capable of countering the disastrous destitution of our common life? What hope Halpern imagines lies, seemingly paradoxically, in clinging to disaster in another sense by seeking restitution in the destitution of a politics which stems from the will to realise some essence, no matter whether that essence reveals itself in productive, technical or communitarian terms. Instead of pre-emptively closing the political by assigning to the common a common being, such thinking would follow Jean-Luc Nancy in envisaging community as “something quite different, namely, of existence as much as it is in common, but without letting itself be absorbed into a common substance” (Nancy xxxviii). Being in common in the sense implied here has nothing to do with fusion into an already constituted body or substantial identity; rather being in common means both no longer having such substantial identity and sharing this lack so that community is defined by what retreats from it. This other sense of the disaster, the possibility of the disaster as an opening to another kind of sense, glimmers fitfully at the core of stanzas which tune elegy to the pitch of utopian affirmation:
Missing in the count now counts as one—counts as if one weren’t alreadyCounted others missing being shows
One counting things abducted statesArms ears whose hearing’s hulking massCan’t hear the excess of our industry
— selling senses counting bodies we canEat these grids of recognition mangleThings count what counting can’t have
Been inducted into what this cantCan’t mean yr touch yr tongue the proof— my body will have been this place DS (49) [End Page 131]
Here Halpern’s lyric ambitions require us to see that we are held together by our dissolution in a double sense. To the extent that the commons today is constituted by shared experience, these lines suggest, it is the experience of no longer counting where it matters, of having gone “missing in the count” by being left out of account and therefore being always accounted for insofar as we are discounted in advance. In times like these the common of our community assumes the form of an “abducted state” whose “missing being” Halpern grotesquely materialises in the scattered fragments of a devastated and war-torn body. Yet at precisely the same moment the poem is exposed to a counter-movement which conceives a new form of political community in the fact of exposition itself. The possible form of this politics originates in “what counting can’t have,” in that “politics of the political” Nancy identifies with “the moment, the point, or the event of being-in-common” which only emerges in the retreat or subtraction of something from managed and administered life (x1). The subtraction of life from managed and damaged life, the retreat of being in order that it might “count as if one weren’t already / counted,” is for Halpern the work of community, the “excess of our industry” that composes itself in defiance of the “grids of recognition” which subordinate the commons to the management of power and the power of management. By so closely correlating his faith in a new political common with the “missing being” that makes being-in-common possible as such, Halpern turns the experience of disaster to another and better account which discerns a utopian horizon in the apparently ruinous perception that “what don’t exist can’t be buried” (DS 55).
Because Halpern’s lyric project invests so much imaginative energy in attempting to break the “spell of resemblance” between the contents of common life and the systems of power that work to reproduce those contents in their own distorted image, he has sometimes been critical of a tendency in his own writing towards “an all too familiar irony” which “dispenses fatally with the promising gap between tenses” through which we might discern the outline of another possible community by projecting his poetic statements into a terminal future “as if what will have happened were what is already happening now” (DS 81). If the best of his work outflanks this disastrous ironic impulse, it does so by triumphantly vindicating his hope that lyric might work as “what Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers call a ‘dissipative structure,’ that is, a form of provisional and unstable order that emerges as an effect of ever-increasing disorder and dislocation” (DS 83). To seek the possible form of a poetics and politics of social redemption in disorder and dislocation is, of course, a risky business; but in the context of our unnatural catastrophe, Halpern’s poetry continues to remind us, it may be disastrous to think of our common future in any other terms.
Dr. Lee Spinks is Associate Professor of English Literature at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of Friedrich Nietzsche (Routledge, 2003), James Joyce: A Critical Guide (Edinburgh University Press, 2009), Michael Ondaatje (Manchester University Press, 2009) and numerous critical articles on modern and contemporary poetry and prose fiction.
1. Interrogation Log for Detainee 063 at Guantanomo Bay.
2. All other references to this edition are incorporated into the text as DS. [End Page 132]
3. For a fuller discussion of the emerging social formation of the “precariat,” see Guy Standing’s The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (London: Bloomsbury, 2011).
4. Following Hardt and Negri I use the adjective “imperial” rather than “imperialist” to describe an emerging global political order no longer based upon the sovereignty of the nation-state which sustains its hegemony through multinational corporate resource extraction, the reproduction of the permanent war economy and the concomitant use of a domestic state of exception to hollow out the commons from which social resistance to its power might be organised. See Multitude 3-24.