Response – Steve Collis

I’ll just begin by acknowledging the unceded, never surrendered territories that we are upon tonight. And I’ll also follow up by acknowledging the space we were in last time and just highlight the mining plunder in part shaping that space: the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts. It’s always good to remember where names come from and the actual destruction of bodies and environments that result in ‘gold bricks’ accumulating in Vancouver, allowing these kinds of spaces to be built.

When I first thought about what I would do, I thought I would jump off of the last two questions that came from the audience at the end of Berardi’s talk. The second-to-last one was about poetry, and the last question was about the colonial and reproductive outsides of immaterial labour and semio-capitalism. Jaleh and Enda did such a great job with that, taking apart, semio-capitalism and relocating it in a broader and more material context. So I’m freed up, like Cecily, to think about poetry and talk about poetry tonight. So what I’ll do then is begin by reading a poem called Come the Revolution, from a recent book of mine called To the Barricades. Actually, it’s my first response to Berardi, because when I was writing this poem in December, I guess it was 2012—it was when I first got his book, The Uprising, and I think when I wrote this poem, all that I’d read was the back of the book. So it’s a very superficial response, I’m sure, to Berardi; and it was purely that kind of “that sounds pretty” kind of response. I especially picked up the phrase: the “sensuous body of language.” There was also the title of the poem, and another refrain of the poem that came cycling through it, “come the revolution,” which I got from Larissa Lai, on Facebook, who said something like, you know, “how come people never use the phrase ‘come the revolution’ anymore?,” as though we used to say things like, “well, come the revolution, these assholes will get theirs,” or “come the revolution, that’s when we’ll really get to do X.” But it’s got that wonderful, confident futurity—it’s inevitable, right? “Come the revolution, this will happen….”

So I was playing with those phrases, and actually, wonderfully, on December 21st, 2012, the so-called Mayan apocalypse, another interesting thing happened: the Zapatistas made another very public and sudden appearance; not that they’d really disappeared, as they were careful to say in a press release they put out. Nevertheless, they did want to acknowledge what was going on, and why they, the Mayan, were arriving on that date to silently walk through many of the towns of Chiapas. So another thing that comes in this poem is some language from that communiqué.

OK, that’s self-explanatory. I’m gonna read the first section of the poem, and then skip to the end and read a part concluding the poem. It’s a little bit different, but….

Come the Revolution

for Larissa Lai


Come the revolution
we will the revolution
we will return to the
revolution return to the
sensuous body of language
come the revolution
we will return to the
sensuous body and
sound will propel us
through the barricades
of others the revolution
through the barricades
of otherness and come
as mere sparks will
spark us come
the revolution anew
and we will the
revolution come anew
and irony will no longer
bind us the sensuous
body of language lift us
fringe to feather to fold us
the sensuous body of
our methods
singletogetherness and
come the revolution
we will have time
the revolutionary time
to live the silent lives
of animals the revolutionary
animals we have lost
that is animals we have
killed the extinctions
corrupt economies come
the revolution throwing
off sparks and
new economies and throwing
sound will propel us through
the revolution sensuous
the animal walls we are
as producers and consumers
as time and sound and
the sensuous body of language
will come the revolution when
banks will have shaken
banks shaken to shivers
shivers come the revolution
all fossils fuel for their
own revolution will come
and walking as sound
through sensuous bodies
formed we will walk
through an endless park
sensuous a park we will
walk and each of our abilities
to each of our needs
through sound the revolution
come sensuous come stroll
come the revolution we will
roll through bird song and
singular birches come
the transformations of home
and together the revolution
this echo will ecos the
sensuous body I speak of
together the revolution
through this other’s
effulgence so
come the revolution
we will echo new limits we will
wrap self-governance in limits
wrap the sensuous body
of human tongue in animal revolution
self-governance in bios in animal
wrap sound all lifted to be level
to small habitations and
habits to be level
animal and sound and sensuous bodies
small hearths of animals own
all of us all animals
come the revolution we will
come to be animal to be sound
sing the revolution we will
sing the swords out of songs
sing swords into songs
songs through flowers through fields
sing bees through these fields
sing chemicals out of oceans
sing economies capacities even
sing balance sing home sustainable
sing sustainable come sound
sensuous bodies sustainable
sing songs of the absence
of oil and death in the oceans
of tanks and guns and airstrikes
of endless colonial occupations
profit motive and equity investments
sing come the revolution
sing a jubilee for all the revolution
sing come hammer come storm
the revolution will come and we will
as animals as sensuous bodies
begin to be born


[Jumping to the last part…]


Come the revolution
I will lift a voice of everyone
And in the poem everyone
Will be listening and I will say we are
Free or a force and we will be
Saying this and we will be
Free and we will be a force and
I will say we are broken but whole
And equally and differently so and we will
All be broken but whole and equally
And differently so and
I will say I am with you and we are
Rising and I will say this in the form
Of a poem and we will be
Saying this and we will be together and we will be
Rising in the tireless forms of our poems

Come the revolution
Culture flourishes not in isolation
But enriched by the simple connection
Of our belonging to the
Belonging to the land so that
Everywhere we are the animals
That know too well we are the animals
That must find our limits and love them
And we will govern ourselves within them
Seeking agreement before confrontation
Without government a political class
Or the media that accompanies them

Come the revolution
Shit will no longer be
Fucked up and bullshit
And that which is loving in our hands
Will touch that which is loving
In each and every others’ hands
And while reading this poem still wont be the same
As storming a bank or a parliament
You may yet be reading this poem
To a group of people with whom you will presently
Be storming a bank or a parliament

OK, Bifo round 1!

Franco Berardi tells us, “money and language have something in common,” although their destinies do not coincide. As language exceeds economic exchange, poetry is the language of non-exchangeability, the return of the sensuous body of language.” As is the case with Berardi’s recent book The Uprising, as well as his talk in Vancouver a few weeks ago, he leaves us with very suggestive propositions that, in their vagueness, remain in need of elaboration and critique. I’ll offer a little of that here as I work my way to—all the way over to—poetry and its potentiality and limits read as some sort of barricade against rampant capital, which is where Berardi ultimately leads us. I fear my paper’s being very circular, but that’s what it’s gonna be. A reduced version would simply be, “if you’re hoping poetry’s gonna save the world, then good luck.” But that doesn’t necessarily make me take the two words, poetry and politics, and shove them off the table right away, because I think there’s still something to be looked at there. And I start and go by the simple fact that we constantly encounter poetry in spaces of struggle, and in movements of struggle. It’s all so often met there, so what is it doing there? I’m curious what it is doing there? I don’t think it’s doing what we often think it’s doing, which often is an over-inflation of what we think poetry can do, but I’m curious about what it might be doing. That’s the short version.

Language and money are symbolic systems for the circulation of information. Money is obviously the younger cousin, but it has come to wield a stronger influence, consuming other forms of exchange and symbolisation. Capitalism is the system in which money becomes the primary form of symbolic exchange, the form value takes, and the medium through which the more crucial information flows: information relating to surplus value being extracted by the capitalists.

If at some level poetry, as a particular form of linguistic exchange, intersects with finance, as a network of money that begets more money, then we can certainly ask what sort of financial transaction occurs in poetry. The standard joke, of course, is that there’s no money to be made in poetry. Poetry is the death of money its erasure, or maybe its zombie form. Discourses of symbolic or cultural capital are introduced to keep the ghosts of money alive in poetry, because poets are, of course, exchanging something for something.

I think primarily of two “somethings” here. First, the self-reflexive something that, in poetry, whatever its content might be, we witness the fact of exchange. I think this is what Berardi is getting at in his comments on enunciation: co-presence and relationality, generally. And second, the something that forms the waste of linguistic and symbolic exchange, the semiotic detritus, cast off along the pathways of production and circulation. These two somethings often coincide. With poetry perhaps being one marker of their convergence. In other words, in poetry we come to our co-presence on the waste just outside of production.

The poet Lisa Robertson, in her recent book Nilling, writes, “political space is in effect an historical accretion of linguistic circulation. Arendt, following Aristotle, argues that Polis is the exchange of speech, it arises anywhere and each time this free exchange takes place.” We’re in the realm of enunciation here, of the social circulation of signs in, and as formative of, public space. But the agora is a market, too, and money isn’t far behind. Robertson continues: “now language and money circulate using the same medium, a grammar which is digital, horizontal and magnetic and politically determined. The digitization of value could mean that language, in its vernacular expression, can infiltrate and deform capital’s production and limitation of social power.” Robertson isn’t exactly specific as to how poetry, circulating in the digital soup, along with money, might perform this infiltration and deformation. Therefore she’s not much different from Berardi here in offering us a tantalizing but still vague sense of this. Though, when money becomes common, that is, when we come as close as we have to, forget real, but total subsumption, other less productive commons may come into view, as more and more waste is produced.

I will circle about. If language is man’s nature, as Robertson suggests, what is money? As systems of symbolic exchange, money has come to occupy a space similar to that of language, a circulatory and relational space. It is the very environment that conditions the possibility of embodiment. Money has been, as it were, modelled on language. On our propensity to exchange signs through speech, money is speech; and corporations are people when socio-biotic processes have been enclosed and chained to the production of surplus value. But, whereas linguistic exchange can draw bodies towards one another, monetary exchange dissolves use-values. And the atomized bodies that become the interchangeable and temporary bearers of labour-time—that’s Berardi—are dissolved into mere units of exchange and measurement. Value is the body—the presence of bodies brought together, their reproductive social activities and effects. Exchange dissolves bodies, as production does, too—this is much of what Marx is focused on in Vol. 1 of Capital. Linguistic exchange evolved to facilitate social co-existence; it depends upon the presence of bodies to each other. Money evolved to facilitate markets, replacing embodied co-existence with surplus value.

Berardi perhaps offers a version of Robertson’s infiltration and deformation when he writes, ‘from a linguistic and affective point of view, insolvency is the line of escape from the reduction of language to exchange.’ Poetry, Berardi contends, is this insolvency, a symbolic production that does not pay off. Poetry for Berardi is the lever by which we wedge poetry free of finance.

Cutting to the chase somewhat, I might rather suggest that poetry, shoved off to one side of the circuitry of linguistic and financial exchange, provides, not a lever, but a junk space in which we might stumble upon one another. Thus poetry is not a defaulting on a linguistic debt, but simply the garbage thrown off by exchange; not the empty account itself, but the waste bin beside the bank machine filled with cast off receipts, indicating the fluctuating levels of despair in other people’s accounts. What I want to claim is that, while there is a significance in the waste poetry occupies, at the same time, I want to warn against the over inflation of poetry’s potential to be able to cause a critical default in capital’s system.

Berardi definitely courts the latter: “only the conscious mobilisation of the erotic body of the general intellect, only the poetic revitalization of language will open the way to the emergence of a new form of social autonomy.” This is a dangerous “only,” and we need to bear in mind that Berardi’s excessive focus on immaterial labour, and semio-capitalism, is paralleled in the inflated hope for poetry to counter the existing logic of finance. Semio-capitalism is simply capital viewed from the office, from the design suite, and as Jaleh and Enda made clear last week, there are still other points from which to view the totality of contemporary capital: the site of colonisation and extraction, the site of factory production, the ports, where commodities come ashore, etc. But, regardless of what part of the production process we’re staring at, poetry is no solution. Here are three more of Berardi’s statements about poetry: “poetry is the excess of sensuousness exploding in the circuitry of social communication. Poetic language is the insolvency in the field of enunciation. It refuses the exaction of a semiotic debt. Poetic language is the occupation of the space of communication, by words which escape the order of exchangeability.”

For those of us familiar with the history of avant-garde poetry, this sounds a lot like 1970s and 1980s language poetry: the materialisation of the signifier, the refusal of easily consumable meaning, the production of poetic non-commodities, whose messages cannot simply be purchased, no readily identifiable and/or stable subjects/points of sale. Which is merely to say, the move Berardi imagines poetry to be capable of making­—despite the fact that his only poetic citation is from Rilke; I think he’d have done better quoting from Charles Bernstein, or someone like that—has been with us for some decades now. It hasn’t exactly proved itself to be particularly emancipatory. “I do think poetry can engage,” this is Berardi again, “the excessive sensuousness, exploding into the circuitry of social communication.” Thus, so can certain other cultural and social performances—so can a song, so can a militant protest, so can a riot. I don’t think the problem is with poetry as such; I think the problem lies rather with how we imagine the role of poetry in social dynamics, in social transformation.

I think probably just maybe yesterday, even today, Joshua Clover, at the end of this conference they just had on Oakland and poetry and/or revolution said something like, “the social role of the poet is a disaster.” All roles are a disaster, I think; that’s what we need to get away from. I mostly agree. If I’ll say anything about the role, it’s the role of the poet I’d be looking at, and probably I’d say that that role is “rolelessness,” it’s waste, which is what I mostly wanna talk about here in just a little bit. What’s a poor, under-read poem to do, when it sees its semiotic reflection in the glimmering digital circuits of semio-capitalism? In Berardi’s imaginary, it’s what we always imagine good art doing: throwing a wrench in the conceptual, if not the material, works. Unfortunately, as far as I know, there have been few instances of such wrenches causing actual material, mechanical breakdowns.

Last week, Jaleh quipped, “in place of the street, there’s Facebook.” This is exactly the same problem with over-inflating poetry’s political potential: in place of the street, there’s poetry. But, just as Facebook is supposed to facilitate our getting to the street, and sometimes I’ve seen it do that, sometimes, many times, I’ve seen it obstruct that. So poetry, when produced and deployed in social contexts, can, though not always, be a part of how we get to the street, or at least part of how we feel and what we might do when we get there. We cannot forget that poetry is small, and of highly limited consequence. It is not a broadcast mechanism, or effective mode of outreach; poetry often circulates the most difficult types of information to interpret or reduce: affects, phatic exclamations of ontological immediacy, and relational co-presence. But, we nevertheless see poetry deployed in social struggles, called upon there again and again. Why? I think it may be because of its affective power, because of its ability to punch holes through the everyday, to the outsides we desire, and because it materializes the singular voice calling out in common cause—that’s the Romantic part.

But it’s also due—and this is the more realistic part—to the simple fact that it is part of the culture and history of resistance and oppositionality; we simply are used to encountering poetry in sites of struggle. So that’s part of the process and apparatus.

I’m gonna talk about the Zapatistas now—I’m hoping in this room I don’t need to explain much. I’ll just say Zapatistas and hope you know what I’m talking about. I think we see some of this culture and history in the adoption of a particular mode of address by the Zapatistas. To call this mode “poetic” is to court some of Berardi’s vagueness, I fear. However, I’m interested in an expanded sense of the poetic when we are considering the space of poetry and social struggles. This expanded sense of the poetic appears in the Zapatistas’ communiqués, where it becomes the mode of expressing global solidarity: a vocal reaching out to, and in the form of, a new revolutionary subjectivity, and the enunciation of this common subjectivity. The Zapatistas aren’t obviously attempting to write poems; they are attempting to evoke or create a new collective subject standing outside of capital and its colonizing apparatus. A subject comprising those who’ve been for the most part dumped, as unnecessary, redundant, expendable, unproductive, etc., under the various wastes and down the various sinks capital everywhere produces.

Poetic speech is the modality of this evocation. This is our simple word. The 6th Declaration of the Selva Lacandona proclaimed in 2005, using this phrase as its opening refrain, “this is our simple word, because it is our idea to call on those who are like us, and to join together with them, everywhere they are living and struggling.” It is, of course, not insignificant, and definitely not lost on the Zapatistas, that this call for a new common subject is coming from a marginalised and almost eradicated indigenous community.

Our most common spaces now, really our only common spaces—that is, not productively privatized spaces—are waste spaces, where waste peoples and redundant populations are left on deserted islands in the capitalist, colonial sea. So maybe it is only fitting that this poetic call for a common subject comes from such spaces and such communities. Indeed, with the Zapatistas we’re witnessing the re-emergence of the historically subalternized knowledges of indigenous cultures (those are Kara Zigman’s words) as the rallying point for land-based struggles, against a still—despite digitization and the information boom—land-based capital constituted around resource extraction, industrial production, and fossil fuel-powered shipment, however unevenly globally developed and digitally administered. So that’s again talking about some things Enda was talking about last time, really. Thus, it is also significant that the call is not one which asks for the Zapatistas to be let into a dominant system that has marginalized them; it’s not a call for rights, and for access, or for the State to do its job and take care of its citizens. Rather, it’s a call for everyone to join the Zapatistas, to come outside of capital, onto the wastes, into the commons. “We think that perhaps our ‘we’ will include all those rebellions stirring in the world,” the 6th Declaration opines, inviting the world to compose the new subjectivity they’re preferring in that call.

I return for a moment to Berardi. In Vancouver, he said that he was “trying to find a way out, to escape.” Viewing capital from the design suite and digital office, it is indeed hard to see a way out. But the outside is in fact all around us, in the detritus and wastes formed around capitalist extraction, production and circulation, including that detritus accumulating in the bodies struggling collectively to ensure their daily reproduction, between shifts, or in the absence of shifts, in those pockets of time capital doesn’t pay for, but relies upon. We need a theory of such an outside space, of what I sometimes call ‘the beyondary,’ ‘cause it sounds kind of sci-fi or something…. so I’m digging that title right now—it’ll be something eventually!

Poetry can’t provide this, but as a saying of the unsayable—that’s an old cliché—it might help us think towards the outside. Now to counter one Italian Marxist Autonomist with another, Massimo De Angelis, in a book called The Beginning of History (I think from 2007 or so), also sees the Zapatista struggle as one “for a dimension outside capitalist markets.” De Angelis purposefully turns from the view of immaterial workers and, essentially, semio-capitalism—he sort of dismisses some of the other Autonomist Marxists, mainly Negri. So he turns from looking at that, and that idea of the immaterial worker as the vanguard of revolution, to the Zapatistas, and “other similar commoners, especially the indigenous, peasants, the just-in time factory workers in the free-trade zones of the Third World, the peasant mothers, slum communities, etc., etc. Because the struggles of those commoners point with maximum clarity, for all of us, at the ruptures between capital’s values and other values.” De Angelis reads the space of capital as one filled with little rifts and gaps: commons upon which capital relies, between rounds of intensive production. This is the detritus thrown off by capitalism. But it is also where the majority of the people on this planet live their lives and pursue their reproduction. The detritus of capitalism is “the common material condition in which the problematic of social reproduction is in the hands of the dispossessed. In other words, social reproduction outside capital dramatically depends upon the effectiveness, organisational reach and communal constitution of struggles and the ability to reclaim and constitute commons in conditions of detritus.”

I speak as a poet. Other values circulate, form, and are deployed in the detritus in and around capital. Poetry is a very, very small part of the circulation of these other values. Those working in the detritus often speak a form of poetry in their daily, reproductive lives. They live stories, they live the expressive co-location of their struggling bodies. I think now, to get outside of capital, we have to get outside of the colonial tide that has swept over the world for so many centuries now, and we can only do this by going into the detritus, a place that capital has itself formed as human and ecological tailings, the sink capital pours its waste into.

The Zapatista uprising is not about poetry in any sense, nor does it need poets. It is, however, about something I might want to call the poetic thought. And that’s a thought that comes from the detritus of production and the noise of linguistic communication. A thought that comes obliquely, across the common wastes of this age, and which invokes our common condition as redundant beings, fragments of labour power, a fractal array that can and needs to be articulated materially through the sensuous body of social language.

Poetry will not crash capital’s network, but poetry—amongst other forms of social co-embodiment—might help direct us towards the waste in the system. Poetry bears a relationship to the material, but it does not replace the material. Poetry might bring us into the streets or onto the wastes of the world, it might help us articulate the nature of these wastes, it might allow us to meet them in solidarity and recognise our place in them. And so it might be part of the process of the waste coming to visibility, to the self-recognition of their common condition, just so long as we don’t rely upon poetry alone to do this work.

OK. A brief quote and then I’ll finish off. Berardi links our lack of a common revolutionary subject to our lack of a future. “We are experiencing a crisis of imagination about the future,” he writes. “The future is over, and we are living in a space that is beyond the future.” If we indeed exist, in some sense, after the future, if we are, in Neil Smith’s terms, like neoliberalism itself—dead but still dominant—than we are zombies. Ours is a zombie culture, and we are propped up by layer after layer of dead labour, which capital, feasting on the remnants of the general intellect, just manages to re-vivify enough to suck a little more surplus value from.

Now in the fashion of negating the negative, the zombies have to kill themselves in order to live again. This is the hard thing: letting go of our zombie life, the dead way of living and making a living that we cling to and to which we append digital extensions to obscure its greedy power. “Hic Rhodus, hic salta,” the zombie has to jump. When the zombies are gone, a new future after the future can begin to be seen. What we see then, as De Angelis suggests, is not the end, but the beginning of history. It just looks a little different than what we’d expected. It comes out of forests something called “progress” drove it into.

On December 21st, 2012, the day of the supposed Mayan apocalypse, that historical beginning came back out of the Lacondon jungle; it wore black ski masks, and it was tens of thousands of men, women, and children strong.

In September of 2012, I can’t help but read this as a sort of something the Zapatistas in December were responding to a couple months later: the indigenous president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, addressing the United Nations, directed us to the real meaning of our being now, after the future. He called for the end of the zombie life, of dead but still dominant capital. And for the beginning that comes when we take up the poetry of Zapatismo. I will end with his words, because in these dark times, it is good to end with idealism. Because as Evo says, there is a theme here still to be developed. So this is Morales’ speech: “I would like to say, that according to the Mayan calendar, the 21st of December is the end of the non-time and the beginning of time. It is the end of the Macha, and the beginning of the Pacha, the end of selfishness and the beginning of brotherhood. It is the end of individualism, and the beginning of collectivism. 21st of December this year: the scientists know very well that this marks the end of an anthropocentric life, and the beginning of a biocentric life. It is the end of hatred, and the beginning of love. The end of lies, and the beginning of truth. The end of sadness, and the beginning of happiness. It is the end of division and the beginning of unity. And this is a theme to be developed.”