Julian Murphet | “Wide as Targes Let Them Be,” or, How a Poem Is a Barricade

Tõmatsu Shōmei


The commons are what capitalism has always been committed to enclosing within its apparatus of accumulation.1 On their violently vacated place arise the motley privacies of individual contracts, rents, factories, banks, police, and all the interrelated paraphernalia of capital’s machinery of valuation and surplus. The commons themselves cannot be valued—they are beyond, prior to, value. Common land, common air, common water; but also, horticulture, animal husbandry, grain storage. The collective practices developed over millennia to harness the resources of our planet, and maximize human potentiality, form a sometimes vicious, sometimes virtuous feedback loop with the commons and dynamize their metabolism with our species. Innumerable cultural endowments, the accumulated traditions of the general intellect itself, permit the commons to descend deep into our mental perceptions and our physical competencies. Among them, language must be understood as the paradigmatic medium of the commonality of the commons, because in language the common modulates from an an sich to a für sich; it ceases to be lived in animal immediacy, attains to a transmissible self-consciousness, resounds with names, and becomes sacred “in the/splayed plumage of our shared brain.”2 It widens for us enough “open space to realize in simple form the ordinary identity we have as one multicellular culture of thought that is always there.”3

To perceive language as part of the commons—or what Badiou calls “an absolutely common good,” bound up with other goods4—leads to two consequences. First, it sensitizes us to the historical fate of that “common good” since the enclosures of capitalism began in earnest in the sixteenth century; that is, to the kinds of enclosure to which language has been subject. And second, it moves us to identify and name strategies comparable to the enclosure riots, Luddite activism, wildcat strikes, and other tactics adopted by working people to protect the commons over the course of that history, only specific to the linguistic domain; that is, acts of resistance to the enclosures of language.

What, in the first case, are the enclosures of language? There is a long list of such market-driven privatizations, from the development of intellectual copyright and libel laws, through the limitations placed on free speech by acts of parliament, the corporate trademarking of various brand names, to the selective censoring of certain publications and the banning of others, and beyond. The Enlightenment’s insistence on literacy and education via state schooling is equally a strategy of enclosure of language as a lived oral property of commoners; a displacement of the socially valorized aspects of language toward the professional urban middle class, a privileging of “received pronunciation” over dialects, and a standardization of spelling and definition in literary forms. But this partial list of legally sanctioned enclosures is only the most superficial level at which language has been subject to capitalist subsumption, whose more egregious dispossessions have taken place at the level of daily speech. What a hydra-headed tangle of bureaucratic obfuscation, corporate double-speak, party-political rhetoric, financial reporting, positivist jargon, public-relations propaganda, routine polling, journalistic oversimplification, statistical predetermination, advertisers’ slogans, and throwaway copy does over many decades to the linguistic substance of a shared critical intelligence is beyond calculation. That their combined effect is to depress the capacity for unrestricted intellectual intercourse and, by prefabricating the very building blocks of daily speech, largely to determine in advance the matter of what gets communicated as thought is a certainty. “We’ve got thousands of people in this country,” boasts a Doctorow character, “whose vocation it is to let us know what our experience is.”5 The result is an accelerated enclosure of the linguistic commons:

And words, words, words all over everything
No eyes or ears left to do their own doings (all
invaded, appropriated, outraged, all senses
including the mind, that worker on what is.6

Adorno was exquisitely sensitive to such unwelcome intrusions upon the medium of thought. He heralded the “catastrophe,” “decay,” and “devastation” of language in the twentieth century, evinced “not merely in its individual words and syntactical structures,” but in recurrent “clumps” of words, pulled together by the gravity of mass communications, “prior and contrary to all meaning.”7 In what he called the “jargon of authenticity,” just one species of this general catastrophe, “[l]inguistic components from an individual sphere – from theological tradition, existential philosophy, the youth movement, the military or from Expressionism – are institutionally absorbed and then … placed back in the possession of the individual person, who can then speak with ease, freedom and joy about mission and encounter, about authentic pronouncement and concern, as though he himself were pleased.”8 The sketch captures with grim salience the process of linguistic enclosure. The resultant “tendency to operate with ready-made linguistic clichés” means that stereotypical phrases and slogans routinely “obtrude into the spoken language like enclaves.”9 Such enclosures, and speech’s tendency to assume “the coldness which hitherto was peculiar to billboards and the advertising sections of newspapers” (135), result in a situation where the “supposed opinion of the individual repeats the congealed opinion of everyone” (120). Homogenized into an on-tap repertoire of privatized phrases and prefabricated sentiments, language abdicates its function of mediating experience and calcifies into “the reified and banal, the sign of commodities, falsifying thought from the start.”10 “Corresponding to it is a reified, largely manipulable consciousness, hardly capable any longer of spontaneous experience.”11

Though we may be inclined to dismiss, or at least qualify, Adorno’s mandarin shudder at the tendency of language to “decay” under mounting pressures of the capital-relation, a conception of language as common property under constant threat of privatization crystalizes some uncomfortable thoughts about the continuation of these tendencies after his death. Since the shift in Western economies toward more affective and immaterial labor processes and flexible accumulation, the “new spirit of capitalism” has tried to counteract the falling rate of profit by appearing to legitimate oppositional discourses of critique and creativity; but all that has happened is that these previously autonomous, exogamous uses of discourse have been absorbed into the mode of social domination itself. The innumerable articulations of resistance, authenticity, care, and solidarity are privatized into a sticky web of neo-managerial solicitousness and liberal public relations.12 Speaking against translates into speaking for; as vodka companies shamelessly promote Bolshevik iconography to promote sales. All the time, the corporate prattle of a widely disseminated culture— “a world of violent intrusions of insubstantial messages”—continues unabated and on a vastly expanded scale; Mark Greif call this “the distant soft tyranny of other men, wafting in diffuse messages, in the abdication of authority to technology … gutless, irresponsible, servile, showing no naked force,” yet throbbing with an acephalous imperialism.13 As human consciousness atrophies into malleable matter subject to the capital-relation, even the best poets are subject to the obscure disaster of a thoroughgoing dejection from language:

This year I am sick of language

what if language is the suppression
of vitalist vocal co-movement
by the military-industrial complex?
What if language is the market?14

The relationship between the language arts and attacks upon the commons has a long history, achieving emblematic form in the first major literary work to treat the processes of mass displacement, improvement, and enclosure in a critical vein: Sir Thomas More’s Utopia. In a determinate manner that has still not adequately been appraised, More (a major landowner and personally implicated in the enclosures his text denounced) established a fulcrum between the satiric characterization of enclosure (as “sheep devouring men”), and the imaginative elaboration of a place where the commons have been radicalized and extended across social space. A Humanistic complaint against the disappearance of the vestigial commons led, dialectically we may say, to a critical image of their political stabilization in the communist polity of Utopia itself.

Satire thus enjoys pride of place in the historical relationship between the language arts and the dynamics of enclosure. But what of other modes more directly concerned with the enclosures of language itself? The relationship between enclosure and modern lyric form has only recently begun to be thought in a fully historical sense, by Walt Hunter above all, who has written:

An alternative genealogy of lyric poetry, scarcity, and precarity remains unwritten – one cauterized by the legal and political enclosures that drive
the late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century expansions of the modern
world-system, and thus by the precarity that accompanies the elimination of the space of the commons, and the language that describes the actions that
are possible in the commons.15

The inherent plausibility of the proposition—something around which Adorno’s great essay on lyric dances tantalizingly16—opens lines of inquiry that radical scholars of modern poetry will want to explore in earnest over coming years. A mode of accumulation that depends upon the privatization of common land and the proletarianization of the peasantry should logically enjoy deep and lived connections with a poetic mode that exploits bucolic and agricultural topoi to shore up a rhetoric of inner liberty and the egalitarian community of souls. The argument has powerful repercussions across the long arc of modernity.

The idea is that “lyric” develops as more than just a compensatory or imaginary corrective to the corrosive effects of the value form on lived social relations; rather, it preserves in its tradition and its evolving formal language something like the embodiment of a linguistic common that has never yet been surrendered, never evacuated. When the commons as such—the means of production held in common for collective labor unalienated by the capital-relation—are enclosed, fenced off, and rendered legally out of bounds, poetry flips the fence and extends “the commons of sensation and desire,” as Keston Sutherland puts it, inward.17 Or, at any rate, it activates the commons of language, since “all affect … is grounded in shared language.”18

It does so by way of what we might call a formal prophylactic. That prophylactic has been called by many names, but the name that has stuck longest and struck the deepest roots is, simply, poetry, of which “lyric” is just one mode among others. Poetry has not always been construed as a prophylactic against the predations upon public language by reified dis- course; but in the period governed by capitalist social relations, a reactive imperative to protect and “purify” the common languages has been felt, and responded to, above all in poetic modes of discourse, and in theories of poetry as much as in actual poems themselves. For Sidney, of course, there was as yet no thought of such purification; poetry gave rise to the “golden world” by virtue of its moving imagery. By the time of Wordsworth, however, we find the need to resist the ruling class’s “poetic diction” through recourse to the “low and rustic” language of rural laborers, who “convey their feelings and notions in simple and unelaborated expression” and work among “the best objects from which the best part of language is originally derived”19; and Shelley’s “unacknowledged legislators” must similarly marshal poetry’s sublime forces against “the decay of social life” and the official jargon that sustains it.20 The burgeoning speculation about the origins of language in primordial social relations and uncorrupted folkways, from Rousseau, through Herder, Emerson, and Nietzsche, to Saussure, is the manifestation in philosophy and social science of this same poetic impulse: to shore up the primeval commons of language, upon which elite discourse and mandarin science can be said to descend in a kind of intellectual enclosure act.

It is in the modern period proper, once the previously listed phenomena of linguistic alienation have been fully installed, that poetic prophylaxis comes into its own. Here, it is not so much the “language of men really spoken,” the common language of labor and the land, that offers the critical resource, as it is the besieged sensuality of language itself. Ezra Pound’s fulminations against the baleful influence of the “fogged language of swindling classes” on the “main means of human communication,” and his expression of the “impersonal indignation that a decay of writing can cause men who understand what it implies, and the end whereto it leads,” was of a piece with his cadre’s war of position against jargon, cant, and cliché21:

[O]ur concern was speech, and speech impelled us
To purify the dialect of the tribe
And urge the mind to aftersight and foresight.22

T. S. Eliot drew here on Mallarmé, recalling his generation’s resistance to the ascension of what Pound called the “looseness and blowsiness” of “sloppy writing” (34). The bridling hostilities we can chart in so-called modernism against the commercial and bureaucratic degradation of the medium of speech are legion. In more academic circles, the contemporary movements behind “basic English” and Esperanto, or even Orwell’s campaign for a return to clear Anglo-Saxon root words, reflect a similar concern with linguistic protectionism. But such purification campaigns did not always turn on clarification or simplicity.

Roman Jakobson’s influential account of the “poetic function” of language emphasized the formal opacity that results from foregrounding the signifier over the signified, the interruption of any too-facile reduction of the former to the latter, and so the promotion of a barrier or gap between the “what” and the “how” of discourse.23 This interval’s opacity is, as all the Formalists concurred, a material corrective to the routine abstraction of the means of expression in capitalist daily life; for it is nothing less than the accentuation and partial autonomization of the medium of language itself, reactivating the essential strangeness of the relationship between words and things, and revitalizing sensory experience. Inasmuch as linguistic enclosure—abstraction, promotion, command—afflicts the ability to identify and name, transforming it into an impersonal process of “automatized perception,” the poetic function intervenes with the stroke of liberation. “In our phonetic and lexical investigations into poetic speech, involving both the arrangement of words and the semantic structures based on them, we discover everywhere the very hallmark of the artistic: that is, an artifact that has been intentionally removed from the domain of automatized perception. It is ‘artificially’ created by an artist in such a way that the perceiver, pausing in his reading, dwells on the text.”24 That dwelling amounts, in our terms, to an occupation of the commons of language, not for profit or information, but for its own sake.

In a more contemporary context, the LANGUAGE writers of the 1970s and 1980s tended to portray the “universalized, commodity-like qualities” of contemporary public speech as “tyranny, as The Law, The Letter,” and recommended that poets “disorient them.”25 Profoundly interested in “the impact of emergence of capitalism on language and the language arts,” these poets assailed the referential function especially as the instrumental minimum to which the given mode of production has reduced linguistic materiality, and bewailed the “mass aphasia” that has resulted from the repression of the gestural and physical components of our linguistic commons.26 “Every major western poetic movement has been an attempt to get beyond the repressing elements of capitalist reality, toward a whole language art” (130), or in other words, toward the com- mons of language. This movement’s formal prophylaxis took the style of “post-referentiality,” a heightening of the non-denotative materiality of the letter, so “placing the issue of language, the repressed element, at the center of the program” (131). Decimated by formal pressures, the lumpy phrases and slogans of the market would yield to a molecular domain of linguistic struggle, irradiated by political passions: “Phonemes of the Word fragment! You have nothing to lose but your referents!”27

The “poetic function,” then, has been a paradigmatic means, for over a century, of defending the commons of language against the myriad enclosures fostered by the capital-relation. Any time words are forestalled by a poetic act of estrangement from their prototypical reification under capitalism into what Nietzsche called “metaphors that have become worn and stripped of their sensuous force, coins that have lost their design and are now considered only as metal and no longer as coins,”28 the shop-soiled currency of daily speech is deposed and the commons replenished. Poetry, so understood, is implicitly communist in the sense that it resists the privatizations of language and seeks to restore a vandalized and suborned common property. This has nothing to do with the relative levels of “subjectivity” or “objectivity” in a poem, and everything to do with the formal interface it offers to the flows of routinized utterance: what is communist about the poetic function is its subtraction from the logistics of communication in capital’s service des biens. Such subtraction is always attended by a string of potential disasters. But every poet is acutely sensitive to the micro-aggressions of linguistic enclosure, to the calamity of being spoken rather than truly speaking; in Denise Riley’s terms, “These sentences [which] come fast” have a tone that “is false and … their flow slid out / of some cheap ease machine.”29 The poet is constantly at war with her own propensity to deliver the frictionless verbal commodities demanded by the market, moved to smash the “cheap ease machines” that run like a Wal-Mart conveyor belt through the mind. Internalized prophylaxis is constitutive of the poetic process: words here must necessarily resolve themselves into non-iterable constellations, the way a crowd can suddenly coordinate itself into a phalanx when faced by police, or face immediate subsumption. Absent that excruciating process of subtraction and withdrawal, the poet’s position is untenable; verse that clings to the prevailing values, to value as such, “makes the poet a predictable stupid rake, a programmed profligate courtier, his lyric on the fucking make, his infancy a mucked up fake, all ugly sex and textbook camaraderie and floor, and all the more derisory for sadly being poor.”30

This is the sense in which “poetry is mainly about supporting the status quo. Or 90 percent about this.”31 It is indisputable that poets have, by and large, endorsed capitalism, sung the praises of political regimes that shore up its social relations, mocked and vituperated communism, recirculated the otiose opinions of the marketplace, and signed their names to verses unworthy of the name of poetry. Doubtless, the worldwide congregation of fêted poets resembles “a hellfire crucible of many vainglorious mediocrities.”32 But that changes little or nothing about the proposition that the poetic function, as a formal prophylactic, defends the linguistic commons against the automatizations of privatized speech, the encroachments of the capital-relation upon language. Poems and poets can and often do fail in that function, betray it, or renege on it, because it is easier to feather a nest made of puffery and prizes; but as Eliot, Pound, Yeats, and many others make clear, it does not take a communist to enact the communist aspiration of the poetic function. To “purify the dialect of the tribe” via the poem is two parts reaction, one part utopianism; even with its august conservative credentials, such an initiative works to throw up formal barriers around an embattled language such that its subsumption is partially resisted, and new expressive capacities are engendered.

Another way of conceiving of this relationship between the poetic function and the commons of language was coined by John Cage, in an inter- view from 1974:

[W]hat was interesting me was making English less understandable. Because when it’s understandable, well, people control one another, and poetry disappears – and as I was talking with my friend Norman O. Brown, and he said, “Syntax is the army, is the arrangement of the army.” So what we’re doing when we make language un-understandable is we’re demilitarizing it, so that we can do our living.33

Here the idea of prophylaxis is modulated into an idiom of linguistic demilitarization, where the imperial forces of enclosure are resisted via tactics of estrangement and nonsense. It is a not altogether successful image, since in fact the confrontation of colonialist discourse by poetic incomprehensibility is a priori a militant, avant-gardist gesture. As Keston Sutherland puts in in his incendiary Odes to TL61P, “What the fuck are you on about the demilitarization of syntax?”34 Yet, as his harangue continues, the voice enacts the very principle at issue: “What escape fuck are you on TL the demilitarization of syntax? … What fuck you, the demilitarization syntax bun escape? … Fuck you, demilitarization” (27–28). The problem resides in the attribution of a pacific metaphor to a defensive military maneuver whose purpose is to secure a moment’s respite from the fray: the temporary sacrifice of an outer layer of scrambled discourse in order that the common wealth of language be made available anew, for us to “do our living” in.

Perhaps a preferable way of conceiving of this vital link between poetry and the commons is to appropriate a metaphor from the domain of politics itself, and specifically the tactics of the Paris Commune of 1871, whose efforts to wrest a space of freedom and self-determination from out of the administered space of capital and State retain significant inspirational force today. Poets Sean Bonney, Sara Larsen, and Stephen Collis explicitly revert to the Commune, and the example of Rimbaud flaring out from its midst (“trailing sparks of madness and outrage”35), as a touchstone for contem- porary acts of poetic militancy. The success of working-class radicals and their organic intellectuals in proclaiming and defending a city-wide Commune during the collapse of the Second Republic and the incoherent construction of the Third, and enacting progressive decrees (such as rent remission, abolition of night work, and the expropriation of church properties), with minimal preparation and ammunition, is one of history’s great anomalies. A key tactic adopted as Thiers’ army descended on the besieged city from Versailles was the overnight erection (far too late, as it turned out) of many hundreds of street barricades across the newly Haussmannized cityscape. With the thunder of the enemy’s munitions in their ears, the Committee of Public Safety declared: “TO ARMS! Let Paris bristle up with barricades, and from behind these improvised ramparts still hurl at her enemies her cry of war, of pride, of defiance, but also of victory; for Paris with her barricades cannot be wiped out.”36

Cobbled together with amazing speed out of paving stones, rubble, and sacks of earth, almost a thousand of these makeshift enceintes transformed the streets of Paris into an exoskeleton of militant repulsion. Not merely functional constructions, the barricades were invested with all the concerted utopian hopes of the Commune itself, aesthetic and political at once, in its dying hour. This was more than provisional architecture, it was soaring aesthetic labor. Recall the posture of Napoléon Gaillard, chief architect of the barricades, “so proud of his creation that on the morning of May 20, we saw him in full commandant’s Uniform, four gold braids on the sleeve and cap, great riding boots,” posing for a photograph because he understood his colossal edifices to be “works of art and luxury.”37 Such pride was warranted, if terribly premature. As Lissagaray points out of Gaillard’s greatest effort:

[The barricade] of the Rue de Rivoli … was erected at the entrance of the St Jacques Square, at the corner of the Rue St Denis. Fifty workmen did the mason-work, while swarms of children brought wheelbarrows full of earth from the square. This structure, several yards deep, six yards high, with trenches, embrasures and an outwork, as solid as the Florentin redoubt, which had taken weeks to raise, was finished in a few hours – an example this of what an intelligent effort at the right time might have done for the defence of Paris. (255)

This magnificent final flourish, writ large on the streets with such acephalous spontaneity, is a testament to the revolutionary fervor that rallied to the effort of the last stand.

What are the lessons of the Commune and its barricades for construing the “poetic function” as a prophylactic against enclosure? Translated into this overtly political idiom, the prophylactic assumes a much more obvious military role: to arms! Let the linguistic common bristle up with poems, and from behind these improvised ramparts still hurl at its enemies its cry of war, pride, defiance, and victory! For the common language with its poems cannot be privatized! As Shelley wrote in his great ballad on the Peterloo massacre, configuring his metric and his idiom to the communal posture of his thought,

Let a vast assembly be,
And with great solemnity
Declare with measured words that ye
Are, as God has made ye, free—

Be your strong and simple words
Keen to wound as sharpened swords,
And wide as targes let them be
With their shade to cover ye.38

Without a declaration, “in measured words,” that we are free, the ground cannot be claimed for the “vast assembly”; but with it, forged of “strong and simple words,” it becomes a commune, both armed and defended by the militarized canopy of a language in an auto-immune relationship with itself. A poem permits a collective to rise “like Lions after slumber,” not only because of its detachable slogans—“Ye are many – they are few”—but also because of the way its measures forge a militant phalanx out of a multitude, “With folded arms and looks which are / Weapons of unvanquished war” (325).

Perhaps the most advantageous aspect of this transposition from a medical to a fully military idiom is the sense of the Commune as a reinvention or sublation of the commons: thrown up by the vagaries of political, economic, and military crisis, displaced into one of the epicenters of capital, and raised to a new level of self-consciousness. Whereas the initial round of enclosures in the sixteenth century had subsumed the immemorial commons, enclosure henceforth meant rooting out and eradicating communes appearing like pockets of futurity within the administered grid-works of modernity. A commune is an expropriation of alienated, privatized space by a passionate communist militancy, reactivating the commons through a mode of reclamation. It is a reversal of the law of enclosure, and, critically, its chief defensive tactic is the construction of barricades designed to repel the return of private property, or the coming wave of new enclosures.

The common on the far side of enclosure is dialectically transformed by this passage through the negative into the commune. The commune is not a nostalgic return to the primordial commons; it is an expropriation of the expropriators that extends the law of commonality in all directions. The common instituted by the commune is thus not what is left over, “terra nullius,” on the outside of property; it is what turns property itself inside out, what threatens private ownership, absolutely and in its essence, from within. So too, the barricade is much more than just a bigger fence: it is the joyously erected rampart whose purpose is to prevent the construction of any further fences. The barricade is an ornament and armament of utopia; something to swagger along the length of, dreaming healthy visions, in the din of the enemy’s advance. It is not patrolled by the police; instead, it is staffed and maintained by the entire populace, swarming along its embrasures and repairing it with newly prised-up cobblestones.

As far as language is concerned, there is no question of any return to some unspoiled aboriginal ur-tongue as spoken before the encroachments and debasements of privatized speech genres; no readily available “basic English” or Esperanto of utopian planning; and finally, no “purification of the dialect of the tribe.” Instead, there can only be a communization of the domain of speech and writing as it is, in all its heteroglot confusion, its babel of discordant tongues under capital. And such communization can take place thanks to those barricades thrown down across the boulevards of verbal intercourse that we dignify with the name of poems. A poem’s poetic function is a barricade, beautiful and aleatory, engineered to resist the incursions and rout the enclaves of privatized speech (even, and perhaps especially, when it appropriates the enemy’s inert phraseology and puts it to work against itself39), so allowing us in the meantime to collect and to deliberate in true intellectual freedom the terms by which we will agree to “become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.”40 This is critical: a poem is not itself (or only rarely) the medium of our discursive struggle; it is the apotropaic device that temporarily halts the advances of enclosure, permitting us, here and now in this instant of time, to avail ourselves of the communized linguistic medium protected by these improvised ramparts of the word.

As a verbal force field that pulverizes cliché, any poem is communist to the extent that its language is irresolvable into either exchange value or the pragmatics of organized communication. This is not the same as saying that a poem resists communication per se; indeed, we will want to say that poems need more than ever to foster communication among the “vast assembly” of those interpellated as its commoners. But communication is not its purpose, and the poetic function remains indispensable in that it stages the materiality of language as an active opacity, a physical barrier, preventing the gears of capital and the State from engaging the teeth of consciousness. Because it runs interference with the routine broadcasts of sanctioned ideology, jams the dominant signals, a poem can offer just enough “shade to cover ye,” that we might work collectively on the immensely consequential task of elaborating a class consciousness to contest the tenacious hold of the value form over all life. Such class consciousness can only ever be a product of language, but never the language of opinion or mere doxa. It must be confabulated whole cloth, from the common ground up, by all those with a stake in its ultimate victory. To draw freely upon the common wealth of language out of which it will be constructed, barricades must be erected to protect it from enclosure. Poetry has the vital political function of raising the formal barriers necessary for the communal production of revolutionary class consciousness— by commoners, for commoners—on our own terms and in our own time.

A barricade is, of course, only a metaphor for such formal shielding, but it is one of which poets themselves appear to be increasingly availing them- selves, as a figure in their work. Fred Moten articulates the conceptual underpinnings of his politico-poetic militancy in the “black undercommons” through similar terms, albeit tactically inverted:

The fort really was surrounded, is besieged by what still surrounds it, the common beyond and beneath – before and before – enclosure.

Our task is the self-defense of the surround in the face of repeated, targeted dispossessions through the settler’s armed incursion. … Politics is an ongoing attack on the common – the general and generative antagonism – from within the surround.41

Moten imagines the privatized space of capitalist imperialism as a besieged “fort,” and locates our imperiled commons in the ambiguous space of the “surround”—thus reactivating the slumbering political energies of Adorno’s image of reified clusters of words as so many “enclaves” of the enemy in our linguistic midst. To perceive our situation as comparable to the indigenous inhabitants of a boundless common, prey to the malicious incursions of an encamped enemy, is to configure our place as limitless and primordial. We play unwilling hosts to a settler colonialism that we nevertheless surround. The enemy’s enclaves are active and pernicious; the surround is infiltrated by their infectious toxicity, like measles in our blankets. What matters is “to find out how the commons cuts common sense – the necessarily failed administrative accounting of the incalculable” (557)— and thereby, “set[ting] up roadblocks and offer[ing] workshops” (993) in our implacable “resistance to enclosure” (152), repel the insidious linguistic paralysis of “politics.”

“The antistate, antidemagogic, and anticapitalist … aspirations that have emerged in, around, and as Occupy-style activism,” writes Lyn Hejinian, “have eschewed labeling. Likewise, the Occupy movement has refused to stay ‘on message’ or even to ‘send a message’ – as politicians or ‘the markets’ are said to do.”42 This aversion from “politics” and “message,” which we hear loudly in Moten’s work, may or may not be defensible in the domain of active struggle; but it plausibly offers strategic advice to a poetics intent more on repelling Thiers’ forces than on asking recognition from them. The poets’ task is neither that of communication nor that of spin, but the emergency defense of the linguistic commons. Acknowledging the situation as it is entails an a priori linguistic response: “you should erect a barrier, even of repeated minimal words, or the assertion of a ‘we’, to protect yourself.”43 The commons insists here, in this minimal demand; from it spread the radiant shafts of a communism to come, coiled in this “we” like the oak in its seed. In it, “the world of thought [is] given integrally to all, becoming no longer the property of a few but the common good of humanity as a whole.”44

Having “something to say,” as Moten points out in a superb poem, is always subordinate to the process itself, “handing saying / what we want for one another to one another in and out of words.” Proposing that poetry is “what happens on the bus,” surrounded by the working commuters who are not in poems or into poetry, Moten insists:

What I want to say is that having something to say is subordinate in the work of being true to the social life in somebody else’s sound and grammar, its placement in my head, my placement in the collective head as it moves on down the line.45

It is not the overseer’s “sound and grammar” that usurps the lyric temptation; it is the linguistic undercommons, in the name of which the anonymous somebodies on the bus absorb the poet into their “collective head” via some “kinda subtle transmission” or “slow symposium,” and make him over into their agent. So “everything I want to say eludes me,” since poetry is the craft of “being true to the social life” of language; which ends up being the very “something” the subject has to say. In its refusal to amount to a private message, the poem transmogrifies into a rhythmic anathema of the general catastrophe of language under reification and command; it sets singing “the pure, multiple speech of impure release”46:

For when they pen us in the enclosures, we will need to have already become a coven of women, a coven that includes those with penises and those with cunts and those with both, who will have begun to dismantle the blockades and the fences, salvaging the metals to later melt into slugs.47

So writes Juliana Spahr, providing yet another related metaphor for the poetic function under senile capitalism: a communist smelting of the “blockades and fences” of linguistic enclosure, that we can reissue as “slugs” or whatever is most useful to the present state of the struggle. The poem expropriates its adversary’s divisive barriers and repurposes them for the communal exigencies of the frontline. It is thus not unlike Freud’s sensory organs in the apparatus of consciousness, which “possess special arrangements adapted for a fresh protection against an overwhelming amount of stimulus, and for warding off unsuitable kinds of stimuli. It is characteristic of them that they assimilate only very small quantities of the outer stimulus, and take in only samples of the outer world.”48 So too the poem “samples” and “salvages” the hostile stimuli of the invading force, turning them outward against the barrage, becoming hard as a barricade to protect the linguistic commons: “the outer layer has by its own death secured all the deeper layers from a like fate” (ibid.). It is just as Marx writes of the working class: “This class must always sacrifice a part of itself if it is to avoid total destruction.”49 The membrane of linguistic autoimmunity is the line at which the metabolism that a language must entertain with the forces of linguistic imperialism encrusts into a “sacrificial layer,” so that a healthy homeostasis, or linguistic common, can be preserved. The name of that layer is, simply, poetry.

Sara Larsen’s Merry Hell forges a witty amalgam of the Helen of Troy story, the 1871 Commune (with “Paris” as the paronomasiac hinge), and political turmoil in present-day Oakland, to carve out a pan-historical place for the incendiary figure of the “pétroleuse” or “resistance arsonist” who streaks across the poem’s vertically aligned pages.50 The “communard arrondisement” that the poetic voice evokes for itself (10) logically requires a system of a much more obvious the incursions of the enemy:

no cop can enter        periphrasis periphery perineum
of this poem.
and damned if i might judge        a course of hell        i hear sirens beyond
whatever barricades
appear or Dis
where arrondisement        ends       where arrondisement       begins
rather, keep me away from justice        in oak land
or wherever.      (12–13)

The shade of Rimbaud stirs in the spastic rhythm of these jagged lines; his testy engagements with the Commune endowing the contemporary poet with an inexhaustible resource. If “I is another” here, though, the other is irrepressibly multiple, Whitmanesque, feminized: “pétroleuse i contain multitudes / me and all my ladyfriends” (15). The wedge driven by this verse into the corporate terrain of banks and states—“as we build / barricades push out the cannon and self-govern” (17)—clears the perimeter of an irrevocable common:

I never even looked back for pairs or banks or cash or
marriage        or recognize any boundary that divides bank        from
water on the brain        all ground is henceforth holy ground
includes every living being & body
what they didn’t want me to sing        i sing.        (15–16)

All such collective militancy of the singing word is undertaken in the name of this “holy ground,” where we can take refuge and immerse ourselves in the “impermanence of identity” (15) that a linguistic commons enables, grammatically, aesthetically, politically. As one graffito reads, in italics: “language wants some space to move around in” (67).

It is a line attributed to Larsen’s comrade-in-arms, the poet David Brazil, and it specifies the function of a poetic barricade. To find for language some space to “move around in” so we can “do our living” (Cage)— it is for this that poetry militarizes its interface with the forces of enclosure. Brazil explains:

bad times beget bad laws, bad
laws beget bad measures,
but our wedge within this shall be of
song, and song’s how long it takes and
what time seems to be inside such taking,
what’s the frame we build to stand in &
to be your hosts inside of, where we can
get a mind to think an other place, our
first homes, toward which we’re ineluctably / advancing.51

Song (poetry by any other name) is the “wedge” driven into the edifice of accumulation and dispossession, a formal negation of the belligerent prose of the world. Its purpose is to conjure good laws out of the self-sustaining artifice of its own better measures. Song offers a redoubt, full of the humming multitudes of nameless commoners, “where we can / get a mind to think an other place.” It makes utopia thinkable, leads us back to “our / first homes,” our inalienable linguistic heritage, and propels us toward the commons-to-come (the commune) that song has made singable:

Let this letter be
a warning that we must not conform ourselves to this world’s
ways, I say this to move you to
shame, to a picture in your
esemplastic faculty that
fountain forming borders
inbetween facticity and the
thing I’ve been trying to tell you about. (33)

Song—a barricade against “the world’s ways”—replenishes Coleridge’s esemplastic faculty and with it melodiously pieces the commons back together; it restores to us the requisite synthetic intelligence, the sprung linguistic wherewithal, to “think an other place” out of the chaos and savagery of this one. Brazil’s “thing I’ve been trying to tell you about”— God, or communism—is entirely immanent to this eruption of commonality out of song’s fair measures. Without song, such conviction in our own limitless capacities is neither discernible nor transmissible. With song, it leaps into being like a fountain in our “splayed brains”:

you will have shimmering
a language of the barricades.52

So writes Sean Bonney in his Letters Against the Firmament. This blister- ing suite of verses, a rollicking gothic phantasmagoria of street-fighting and agonized metaphysics, aligns its diverse formal impulses with Rimbaud and Blanqui—savants of the riot and the barricade—to issue a cacophony of imprecations and incitements against capital and the State. Here the civil war is already well underway, the combatants are dead or dying, and the rubble is rising sky-high in the streets. Enclosure is not an abstract force but a constant, excruciating physical extraction of living substance from our bodies:

Say they have enclosed us in blank stone. You wake up, you open your eyes, is simple: we have been consumed like blood and water, and our language – you wake up, sibilants and syntax a jet of bleach and concepts. Think stuff up: the enemy is non-material, we are not. (loc. 122)

Language is “consumed,” like the lifeblood of the commoners, by the enclosures of the vampiric enemy. The subject’s response is spontaneous and corporeal, “a jet” of liquid retched up from the body, language as projectile vomiting against the stone of State. As it dematerializes the enemy through acts of scabrous imprecation, language concretizes our own rage in sibilant phrases of fractured syntax. Felt in the body as a wrenching series of spasms, poeticized language rushes to barricade the body against its most intimate occupations by capital; what Keston Sutherland calls “the subject who is right now daily destroyed in the consumption of his life in the form of the commodity, labour-power: the laboring subject within the capital-relation”53 is immunized from within by the prescriptions of the “poetic function”:

& then there’s the side effects –
for starters the skin spreads,
sidesteps the brain dutifully
bends to its own symbolic self
redistributed / knotted / closing
its vision canal, entryway to
doctor or cop or whatever
the prescription parses you
diagonally, & you feel it
as barricades / internalized
masked up / sloganised
a lawful voice on distort gap
in the housing alphabet, a
public service / description. (loc. 737)

Even as the “doctor or cop” forces his way in through the passive sense organs, metastasizing his hostile takeover through the nerve ends and synapses, the poetic “prescription” manifests itself internally “as barricades.” The war is brought home to the most private precincts of the body, where introjected slogans in balaclavas contest the right of control over the organism subject to language. The invasive “lawful voice” is so distorted by the poetic prophylaxis that it forces a “gap / in the housing alphabet,” language is deranged and released from its usual functions, and the syntax of these lines performs the homeopathic remedy that “parses you” even as it shears through straightforward semantics “diagonally.”

“In the enemy language it is necessary to lie. & seeing as language is probably the chief of the social senses, we have to derange that” (1480). But this marks a shift away from the “un-understandability” of Cage and the rebarbative nonsense of LANGUAGE writing. For to “derange” the official lie is not to terminate any chance of communication: “simple anti-communication, borrowed today from Dadaism by the most reactionary champions of the established lies, is worthless in an era when the most urgent question is to create a new communication on all levels of practice, from the most simple to the most complex” (1480). Instead, what is most urgently required is what Silvia Federici calls commoning, “the production of ourselves as a common subject.”54 Bonney writes approvingly of “the ‘we’ in these poems, as against ‘them’, and maybe against ‘you’, in that a rapid collectivizing of subjectivity equally rapidly involves locked doors, barricades, self-definition through antagonism etc.” (loc. 1448). The barricade-poem is that behind which the common subject, Shelley’s “vast assembly,” the true being of communism, shelters in order to produce and define itself under the ravages of the capital-relation.

The poets of today who labor in the sun of the communist idea do so to protect this common subject against any further despoliation of the linguistic heritage that is its spiritual and material birthright. The privatizations of our linguistic common are legion and ever multiplying; the daily enclosure of our collective powers of intellection and affection in language, by those who seek only to profit from our extensive and intensive misery, amounts to a crime so vast, so imponderable, that it avoids detection—like the large capital letters spelling out the continent’s name while we’re focused on a map’s towns and villages. Our poets, whose work so often meditates reflexively on its prophylactic function in the figure of a barricade, write with the primary purpose of improvising some serviceable verbal ramparts, behind which we, the common subject, may still hurl at our enemies our cries of war, pride, defiance, and victory. So might the poem secure some momentary peace of mind, that we might treat our wounds, embrace one another, and “do our living” on the occupied common as the darkness gathers against it.




  1. “The commons – a vehicle for meeting everyone’s basic needs in a roughly equitable way – is being annexed and disassembled to serve a global market machine which treats nature as a brute commodity. Commoners become isolated individuals. Communities of commoners are splintered and reconstituted as armies of consumers and employees. The ‘unowned’ resources of the commons are converted into the raw fodder for market production and sale – and after every last drop of it has been monetized, the inevitable wastes of the market are dumped back into the commons.” David Bollier and Silke Helfrich, “The Commons as a Transformative Vision,” in Bollier and Helfrich, eds., The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market and State, e-book ed. (Amherst, MA: Levellers Press, 2012), loc. 350 of 11,127.
  2. Amy De’Ath, from Caribou (Bad Press, 2011), reprinted in Emily Critchley, ed., Out of Everywhere 2 (Hastings: Reality Street, 2015), 22.
  3. E. L. Doctorow, City of God (London: Little Brown: 2000), 243.
  4. Alain Badiou, “Poetry and Communism,” in The Age of the Poets: And Other Writings on Twentieth-Century Poetry and Prose, ed. and trans. Bruno Bosteels (London & New York: Verso, 2014), 94.
  5. E. L. Doctorow, Lives of the Poets (New York: Random House, 1984), 76.
  6. Charles Olsen, The Maximus Poems I.13, ed. George F. Butterick (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983), 17.
  7. Theodor W. Adorno, Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 3; Notes to Literature, Vol. II, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), 198, 306.
  8. Adorno, The Culture Industry: selected essays on mass culture, ed. J. M. Bernstein (London: Routledge, 1991), 108.
  9. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), 135.
  10. Adorno, quoted in Susan Buck-Morss, The Origins of Negative Dialectics: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and the Frankfurt Institute (New York: The Free Press, 1977), 175.
  11. Adorno, Critical Models, 222.
  12. “Because critique makes it possible for capitalism to equip itself with a spirit which … is required for people to engage in the profit-making process, it indirectly serves capitalism and is one of the instruments of its ability to endure.” Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, trans Gregory Elliott (London & New York: Verso, 2007), 490.
  13. Mark Greif, Against Everything, e-book ed. (London & New York: Verso), loc. 1695, 1878.
  14. Lisa Robertson, 3 Summers (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2016), 70.
  15. Walt Hunter, “Planetary Dejection: An Ode to the Commons,” in symploke 24:1–2 (2016), 226.
  16. See Adorno, “On Lyric Poetry and Society,” in Notes to Literature, Vol. I, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 37–54.
  17. Keston Sutherland, “Statement for Revolution and/or Poetr y” (October 15, 2013), at https://revolutionandorpoetry.wordpress.com/2013/10/15/keston-sutherlands-statement-for-revolution-andor-poetry/
  18. Andrea Brady, “The Principle of Song: Denise Riley’s Lyrics,” in Amy De’Ath and Fred Wah, eds., Toward. Some. Air.: Remarks on Poetics (Banff: Banff Centre Press, 2015), loc. 331 of 6608.
  19. William Wordsworth, in Wordsworth and Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads 1798 and 1800,  eds. Michael Gamer and Dahlia Porter (Toronto: Broadview, 2008), 178, 174.
  20. Percy B. Shelley, “A Defence of Poetry,” in Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, ed. Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat (New York & London: W. W. Norton, 2002), 520.
  21. Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading (London: Faber & Faber, 1951), 33, 32, 34.
  22. T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” ll. 73–5, in The Poems of T. S. Eliot, Vol. I: Collected and Uncollected Poems, ed. Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), 205.
  23. See Roman Jakobson, “Linguistics and Poetics,” in Language in Literature (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987), 71–94. I should state that I do not here wish to identify the poetic function with Jakobson’s famous definition of it: “The poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination” (71). This definition is perfectly compatible, as Jakobson himself makes abundantly clear, with Republican political campaign slogans and advertisers’ jingles.
  24. Viktor Shklovsky, Theory of Prose, trans. Benjamin Sher (Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive, 1991), 12.
  25. Bruce Andrews, in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, eds. Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein (Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984), 55.
  26. Ron Siliman, in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, 123.
  27. Steve McCaffery, ‘The Death of the Subject: The Implications of Counter- communication in Recent Language-Centered Writing,” Open Letter 3, no. 7 (Summer, 1977): 70.
  28. Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense” (1873), in Writings from the Early Notebooks, ed. Raymond Geuss and Alexander Nehamas, trans. Ladislaus Löb (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 257.
  29. Denise Riley, “A Drift,” in Selected Poems (Hastings: Reality Street Editions, 2000), 69.
  30. Keston Sutherland, The Odes to TL61P (London: Enitharmon, 2013), 29–30.
  31. Jos Charles, interview with Juliana Spahr, Entropy, December 11, 2015, https://entropymag.org/interview-with-juliana-spahr/
  32. Justin Katko, “On That Which Must Be Stopped,” in Fred Wah and Amy De’Ath, eds., Toward. Some. Air.: Remarks on Poetics, loc. 930 of 6608.
  33. Cage, quoted at http://www.futuristika.org/john-cage-and-the-demili-tarization-of language/
  34. Sutherland, Odes to TL61P, 27.
  35. Stephen Collis, in conversation with Sean Bonney, in Toward. Some. Air., loc. 5528.
  36. Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray, History of the Paris Commune of 1871, trans Eleanor Marx (London & New York: Verso, 2012), 254.
  37. Contemporary observers quoted in Kristin Ross, Communal Luxury (London & New York: Verso, 2015), loc. 970 of 2985.
  38. Percy Bysshe Shelley, “The Mask of Anarchy” (1819), ll. 295–302, in Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, eds. Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat, 2nd
    Ed. (New York & London: W. W. Norton, 2002), 324.
  39. As Keston Sutherland writes, “No poem contains any language that is never exhausted, and the best poetry is also invariably the best at using exhausted language.” In “Poetry or Emptying,” in Wah and De’Ath, eds., Toward. Some. Air., loc. 2867.
  40. Karl Marx, “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy” (1859), at https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol- economy/preface.htm
  41. Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, The Undercommons: fugitive planning and black study, e-book ed. (Brooklyn, NY: Minor Compositions, 2013), loc. 138 of 2251.
  42. Hejinian, “The Sneeze: Oversignification, Protest, Poetry,” Contemporary Women’s Writing 10:1 (March 2016), 44.
  43. Greif, Against Everything, loc. 1907.
  44. Badiou, Age of the Poets, 94.
  45. Moten, “it’s not that I want to say,” The Service Porch (Tucson, AZ: Letter Machine Editions, 2016), 98.
  46. Moten, The Service Porch, 85.
  47. Juliana Spahr and David Buuck, An Army of Lovers (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2013, loc. 1184 of 1345.
  48. Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, sec. IV (1922), in The International
    Psycho-Analytical Library, Vo. 4, ed. Ernest Jones, at https://www.libraryofsocialscience.com/assets/pdf/freud_beyond_the_pleasure_principle.pdf
  49. Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844,” in Early Writings, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton (London: Penguin, 1992), 284.
  50. Sara Larsen, Merry Hell (Berkeley: Atelos, 2016), ff.
  51. David Brazil, Antisocial Patience (New York: Roof Books, 2015), 18–19.
  52. Sean Bonney, Letters Against the Firmament (London: Enitharmon, 2015), loc. 754 of 1522.
  53. Keston Sutherland, from “Joshua Clover and Keston Sutherland, Always Totalize: Poetry and Revolution,” at http://theclaudiusapp.com/5-clover-sutherland.html
  54. Silvia Federici, “Feminism and the Politics of the Commons” in David Bollier and Silke Helfrich, eds., The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market and State, loc. 1591 of 11,127.



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