43.2 Feature: Craft Essay by Liam Swanson

Mar 20, 2017Archive, Feature

Liam Swanson‘s writing has appeared in Sonora Review, Platypus Review, Cloud Rodeo, New Delta Review, Cartridge Lit, Deluge, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere both online and in print. He holds an MFA degree from the University of Arizona, where he was co-head editor of Sonora Review. If you’re interested in insects, communism, or/and video games, follow him on Twitter @liamsswanson, or/and find him on Facebook.

The X Files and Poetry, or, Spectacle Valuation from the Perspective of the MFA

by Liam Swanson


The trick, the danger, the organizing tension is I’m trying to write cute little poems, little breaths from the unconscious, but the unconscious is political. I hope my best poem function like Freud’s dream accounts, where the dream is the thing, all there is, but then the analysis comes in like surplus enjoyment. And I really do dream so often in video games, tv shows. Not just the scenes and characters, but the form, too: “The Dream Work in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”.

David Harvey in his “Visualizing Capital” lecture says that the production-distribution-consumption of spectacle is becoming dominant in capital. And as such, I hope, spectacle opens itself to resistance — this has long been articulated in various fields (for example this is an organizing tension in Amy Ongiri’s study Spectacular Blackness, or in the Godard and Miéville film Ici et Ailleurs).

As a poet trained in and produced by a system creating surplus populations of intellectual laborers, i.e. the debt creation system called the university, I and so many others are specific, overdetermined nodes in this overarching spectacle (the art world as a managed site of spectacular value production). Thus, watching 4 hours of The X Files every day while in my MFA programme (a particularly exploitative segment of this debt system — see Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young’s piece in the LARB on the MFA and finance/race/gender) seems in retrospect apt.

So my immediate attempts to eke out enjoyment and reproduce myself crystallized around or through binge-watching a horror-mystery serial and then “filling in the gaps” of this experience through aesthetic production. In this sense I have produced MFA poetry, specifically, in terms of conditions of production and subsumption (the making-real through formal overdetermination). I say this without shame, as my art is a segment of petit bourgeois art necessarily wracked with crisis (vomitus, shaking, sickness of the gut) in a bourgeois literary context, always split between its corpse-excess and its voice-excess.

The postmodern drive for art to be self-critical, in light of this split, is an attempt to reinvigorate art’s always already flagging ability to reproduce humanity, i.e. affective existence and persistence. I do not think I am being idiosyncratic when I say that the incessant demand of the spectacle means art is never finished in itself (Hegel is an optimist on this question), hence the nausea, aftertaste, burping up the bird miasma into the miasma sky, the sense—sometimes good, sometimes bad—that one’s voice is not one’s own.

I will turn now to, perhaps, where I should have began, with some programmatic pronouncements and questions brought up for me recently by both the pleasure-paranoia of The X Files and the drive to produce poetry.

We can beware of metaphor, the infinite playground of “there is only surface”; words can betray like anybody else. And words do betray, later, taking on (in)human qualities — anxiety, comfortable detachment, knife out of place, poetry. Of course there is only surface, but this position is more or less dangerous based on the circumstances of its enunciation.

One may say, there is no difference, no you to be addressed, just a field of infinite I.

Or one may say, there is no I, just a field of Others, and thus the hazy metaphors of corpses, field of corpses, emerge: the immediate, lived ideology of today, which Badiou calls “democratic materialism”, and a prominent image of The X Files, as well.

There is something sickening in the specific kind of jouissance-confrontation of this field certain artists take.

To counter this position, we must, I think, learn to be responsible even for the content of our own dreams. And to be serious with or around language: the dead are not equal to dead labor; the undead/living dead is not living labor. To say the world suffers means just that.

So there ought to be serious examinations of and confrontations with the subjective and objective conditions of poetic/artistic production. I have outlined certain preliminary thoughts on this above, and there are those who bravely engage in this activity on multiple fronts.

This brings me to a point of almost naïve optimism. And naïveté may be a necessary condition to fight for history’s lost causes: come on, artists, let’s build up and join the Party, etc!

This naïveté arises in a condition of cynicism and wariness/weariness regarding art.

On one side, the cynicism of rejecting human connection.

On the other, the cynicism of rejecting the overdetermination of every human gesture by the ossifications and processes of Empire.

Above and against this, if a poem loves and serves the people then it is the beginning of something true and good.

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