Friday, 26 July 2019

"Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City"

The opening sentences of Baraka’s 1960 essay “Cuba Libre” get to the heart of what, if we are to follow the standard periodisation of Baraka’s trajectory, was the poetics of this first period.

If we live all our lives under lies, it becomes difficult to see anytvhing if it does not have anything to do with those lies. If it is, for example, true or, say honest. The idea that things of this nature continue to exist is not ever brought forward in our minds. If they do, they seem at their most sympathetic excursion, monstrous untruths. Bigger lies than our own.

The essay was written immediately after Baraka’s visit to Cuba with a group of other prominent African-American intellectuals and activists, including Harold Cruse and Robert Williams, at the invitation of the newly formed revolutionary government. Although he said that upon arriving he was determined not to be taken in by what was clearly a propaganda exercise designed to counter the false reports - the ‘lies’ of tbhe quotation above - about the Cuban situation in the US press, Baraka was impressed, in particular by what a group of ‘young radical intellectuals’ (ie Castro, Che etc.) had managed to achieve. By contrast, the achievements of his own milieu of ‘young radical intellectuals’ - the radical poets associated with The New American Poetry - seemed paltry indeed. In the essay he reports on an argument he had got into with a group of Mexican poets and economists. The argument began with a Mexican accusing the US of being imperialist. Baraka was in agreement, but it seems tired of continually having to defend himself:

I tried to defend myself, “Look, why jump on me? I understand what you’re saying. I’m in complete agreement with you. I’m a poet . . . .  what can I do? I write, that’s all, I’m not even interested in politics.”
    She jumped on me with both feet asD did a group of Mexican poets later in Habana. She called me a “cowardly bourgeois individualist”. The poets, or at least one young wild-eyed Mexican poet, Jaime Shelley, almost left me in tears, stomping his foot on the floor, screaming: “You want to cultivate your soul? In that ugliness you live in, you want to cultivate your soul? Well, we’ve got millions of starving people to feed, and that moves me enough to make poems out of.”

The poets Baraka meets in Cuba are like signals from another dimension, demanding a poetry that rejects narcissism, that grows instead out of a merciless negation of bourgeois culture, and the attempt to transform a privatised aesthetic into a social one. Consequently, Baraka’s work for the first half of the 1960s would be a harrowing account of his own attempts to come to terms with the demands placed on poetics by political commitment and, to a degree, the demands a commitment to poetics placed on revolutionary practice. i.e. what would be the specific contribution poetic writing / thought could bring to revolutionary discourse, and to the actual practicalities of the struggle, outside of a merely decorative, rousing people up type of thing. Larry Neal, in the afterward to the 1968 anthology of the Black Arts Movement, Black Fire, that he edited with Baraka, is clear what is at stake:

New constructs will have to be developed. We will have to alter our concepts of what art is, of what it is supposed to “do”. The dead forms taught most writers in the white man’s world will have to be destroyed, or at best, radically altered. We can learn more about what poetry is by listening to Malcolm’s speeches, than from most of Western Poetics.

Baraka’s beginning point are the “lies” that transform the reality of the western world, not least the “lie” that claims that the West is the entirety of the world. When Baraka claims that “we live all our lives under lies”, he is saying rather more than that ‘we’, the ‘people’, are being lied ‘to’.  Rather, the ‘lies’ that we are under have squashed any bit of truth, or reality, out of us. A similar point was famously made in The German Ideology: there, Marx pointed out how the dominant ideas of any one era are those of the dominant class:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.  

Marx goes on to show how the ‘ideas’ of the dominant class are expressed as an “eternal law”: that is, a particular set of ideas becomes a “law”, and consequently, a social truth.  Baraka, even though he was not to become a Marxist for another decade, created in the 1960s a profoundly Marxist poetry of consciousness, of the crisis to the personality implied in the achievement of revolutionary consciousness, which is expressed via a struggle to seize the production of meaning, to wrest back from the “lie” its monopoly on reality.

From the early to mid-60s Baraka’s poems become full of self-loathing and self-accusation, but one remarkably free of narcissism. In “An Agony. As Now”, he describes his alienation:

I am inside someone
who hates me. I look
out from his eyes. Smell
what fouled tunes come in
to his breath.

Ultimately, the “someone” Baraka is inside moves to destroy him:

It burns the thing
inside it. And that thing

Baraka’s poetry, in these first mature works, then, becomes an analysis of that scream. He constantly accuses himself of being a liar, as if the “lies” that we all live inside, or below, or both, can only be negated if the force of those lies is itself grasped, seized, even ingested. Poems like “A Short Speech to my Friends” and “A Poem Some People Will Have to Understand” are merciless, icy, unforgiving, both to himself and to the society, the Lower East Side “bohemian” “community” he belongs to:

A compromise
would be silence. To shut up, even such risk
as the proper placement
of verbs and nouns. To freeze the spit
in mid-air, as it aims itself
as some valiant intellectual’s face.

It is a choice between “silence” and “screaming”. The “placement / of verbs and nouns” - the geometry of poetic feeling - is only valid if it can conjure the force of a spit in the eye, but at the same time is suspect because the poetic act works to freeze that spit, and thus prevents it from actually hitting its target. “A Poem Some People Will Have to Understand” goes further, sees a terrible solution to problems of prosody and of “truth”:

    We have awaited the coming of a natural
    phenomenon. Mystics and romantics, knowledgable
    of the land.

    But none has come.
        but none has come.

Will the machine gunners please step forward?

In “Cuba Libre”, following the account of his own dressing-down by the militant Cuban and Mexican poets, Baraka becomes critical of the apolitical surface rebellion of his friends and associates in New York. He reports with disgust a friend of his dismissing what was happening in Cuba with the remark “I hate guys in uniform”. He concludes with a withering condemnation of himself and the entire “scene”:

The rebels among us have become merely people like myself who grow beards and will not participate in politics. Drugs, juvenile delinquency, complete isolation from the vapid mores of the country, a few current ways out. But name an alternative here. Something not inextricably bound up in a lie. Something not part of liberal stupidity or the actual filth of vested interest. There is none . . . Even the vitality of our art is like bright flowers growing up through a rotting carcass.

“The Politics of Rich Painters” is one of the poems of this period where Baraka explicitly directs his disgust at the artistic, social and supposedly radical milieu of which he is a part. The politics of the rich painters is that they have none. Their Bohemian position, supposedly on the outside of conventional society, is possible because they are “rich”. They have bought their way out of convention. Baraka’s poem situates him as a member of the painters’ coterie, sitting in the bar with them, exchanging and sharing their opinions:

  [. . .]There are movies, and we have opinions. There are
regions of compromise so attractive, we daily long
to filthy our minds with their fame. And all the songs
of our handsome generation fall clanging like stones
in the empty darkness of their heads.

“Movies” and “opinions” are the closed circle of what passes for conversation, that is to say, clusters of convention through which the liberal “rebel” can negotiate the accepted limits of thought. Baraka doesn’t bother to give the content of these opinions, or to say what “movies” these opinions are about. That surface content is irrelevant and trivial. Instead, Baraka points to what the forces of these opinions and movies produce: “regions of compromise”, a bland and fashionable geography.

Cultural opinion is a gated community, a repulsive cycle of exchange between something called “us”, and something called “fame”. “We” are allowed to occupy somebody’s “fame” (“I am inside someone who hates me”) and in return we will fill that “fame” with songs. Except the songs are empty,  and are transformed into “stones” that will clang and rattle inside the “empty darkness” of those famous people’s heads. That is to say, “our” heads. Conversation becomes the empty rattle of stones inside someone’s skull. But by the end of the poem, Baraka has some suggestions to make about what the real content of these “songs” and “opinions” may be, as well as a brief geography lesson for the inhabitants of the “regions of compromise”:

The source of their art crumbles into legitimate history.
The whimpering pigment of a decadent economy, slashed into life
as Yeats’ mad girl plummeting over the nut house wall, her broken
knee caps rattling in the weather, reminding us of lands
our antennae do not reach.

And there are people in these savage geographies
use your name in other contexts
think, perhaps, the title of your latest painting
another name for liar.

Outside of the circles of chatter and art there is something else, says Baraka. To which, of course, any one of his Bohemian friends would readily agree. What they might not agree with so easily, however, is the intensity of their own complicity. If their art is broken down, it recalls its sources in “legitimate history”, that is, the “history” that bohemian vanity imagines it has found a way out of. But it is not so. The “pigment”, the actual material basis of the paintings themselves, as physical and as economic objects, is a “whimpering” acquiescence to actual social conditions, conditions that are produced - or at least decorated - by the products of the artists with their opinions, their monads of apolitical rebellion. Meanwhile, the content of the art - “Yeats’ mad girl”, in the poem - leap out of their enclosures, their forms, and smash themselves to pieces on the history that exists outside the “nut house wall”, which might as well be the wall of the artists’ studio, the artists’ bar, the conventions of painting and poetry, the conformity of bohemia.

We have “opinions”, and they rattle around like stones inside empty skulls. That “rattling” has now become the sound of the mad girl’s broken body, tapping out bizarre signals on the walls of “legitimate history” and its “decadent economy”. That is, the “rattling” now does not now simply sound inside empty heads: those heads are transformed into “antennae”, which pick up signals from other “lands”. These other lands, Baraka tells us, are “savage geographies”. The rattling of stones becomes universal, picking up signals from elsewhere, an elsewhere that the rebels of Baraka’s generation would prefer to pretend do not exist. Because within these savage geographies, there are another set of opinons, and those opinions are direct, and incisive, and damaging (ie Hegel 291 - it has in its own self the principle of otherness). They look at the paintings, they read the names of those paintings, and know that the names with which those paintings are signed, from their own perspective as a humanity denied, can mean only “liar”. That is, radio signals are coming in from outside the falsely universalising lie of bourgeois American culture. They are obviously coming in from sites of struggle around the world, be that Cuba, or the independence movements in Congo and Algeria. They are also coming in from the centre of the city where the rich painters live. They are coming in also from further afield: Henry Dumas, in the sleeve-notes for the Sun Ra album Cosmic Tones For Mental Therapy - and Ra was a central figure for Baraka throughout his mature writing life - outlines the sheer distances involved in mapping the radio signals coming in from the “savage geographies” of elsewhere:


The perception of the city is transformed: liberation struggles and intergalactic physics become part of the landscape, a “black hole” at the centre of our speech. Joseph Jarman titled a poem - a poem heavily influenced by Baraka - “Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City”, that is, it is as if the city is a network of dialectically warring gravitational signals all of which deny the rights to legitimacy claimed by the dominant culture’s system of lies. This is a city lacking memory, understanding, visibility or history. These are “aspects” of the city, not areas, meaning that these are not only geographical but also psychological zones, zones patrolled by domestic-imperial policy, zones defined by racism and debt, zones that extend backwards and forwards into history. Frantz Fanon described it thus: “a zone of non-being, an extraordinarily sterile and arid region, an utterly naked declivity where an authentic upheaval can be born”. Its intensity is apocalyptic, and it is the source of the scorched desperation of the best of Baraka’s work from this period. He will no longer write from within bohemian pads and literary parties (however wild these parties might get), but rather from the portion of the city to be found “in back of the / terminal / where the circus will not go. At the back of the crowds, stooped and vulgar / breathing hate syllables”.

In terms of art, or poetic production, this sets up an atmosphere of deep forboding, and menace. Not only Baraka’s work is doing this in the early 60s: it is there in Grachan Moncur’s trombone sound, in the really “out” Sun Ra albums, in the poems of Lloyd Addison, David Henderson and Diane diPrima. It is the artistic expression of what Frantz Fanon called “atmospheric violence”, a dense sense of unease that settles over social existence prior to the insurrectionary moment, when violence is “rippling under the skin”, breaks out sporadically, interferes (like static) with all normal networks of social reality, and breaches the frontiers of the limits of that social reality with “news” and “rumours” from elsewhere.

How to make a poetics that registers these “news” and “rumours”, and the vast scope of the varying negations of official reality that they consist of. On one level, the content is simple, it is the “scream” that is forced out of the poet at the end of “An Agony. As Now”. But the scream is neither simply nor, poetically, easy to control. In the 1974 memoir 6 Persons, Baraka wrote about the processes of communications being transformed into a “high-pitched radio whine”, into a “message” that “came on a knife delivered without warning directly into the centre of the skull”. For Baraka, all artistic production becomes potentially an alibi for violence. The famous soliloquy from the end of Dutchman runs in part:

Charlie Parker? Charlie Parker. All the hip young white boys scream for Bird. And Bird saying “Up your ass, feeble-minded ofay! Up your ass.” And they sit there talking about the tortured genius of Charlie Parker. Bird would’ve played not a note of music if he just walked up to East Sixty-Seventh Street and killed the first ten white people he saw. Not a note! And I’m the great would-be poet. Yes, that’s right. Poet. Some kind of bastard literature. All it needs is a simple knife thrust.

In response to the bohemian cliches about the “tortured genius” we ask who is it doing the torturing, and would it not be better to take revenge on that torturer than for Bird to transmute the wounds of that torturing into the beauty of his music. It is a hideous nihilism. In 6 Persons Baraka describes the psychological and poetic results of allowing himself to express violent desire, the attempt to intercept the various signals from the various “savage geographies”: it is a cacophony, a terrifying parade:

The skull crazies - old skulks - demons - red eyed jaw wagglers - screechers - howlers - black devils - spook worshippers - “voodoo priests - strange islamic sects - back thru - whoosh - spaceless history - red diarrhetic images of bloody haints - bald head zombies

The violent reproaches to the lies we live beneath have opened out into their own flood of nightmares, as if truth had mutated wildly inside its enforced inaudibility and invisibility. Speech itself becomes murder:

The Revolutionary Theatre must teach them their deaths. It must crack their faces open to the mad cries of the poor. It must teach them about silence and the truths lodged there.

Baraka’s attempts to conduct terror. It is less a matter of simply countering the lies of official America, nor even wholly a matter of speaking the truth to power, but of making all that has been made invisible - that which itself may no longer be able to be called truth (return to this) - speak and screech. And if it is horrible, then it is nothing compared to the vicious brutality inflicted daily by official society:

The “turn the other cheek”, “non-violent” approach to the struggle for democracy we rejected. We did not understand why we must continue to let crazed ignorant hooligans attack us to show we were noble or that we deserved to be citizens. The endless television horror shows of Black people being water hosed, beaten, dogged by two and four-legged dogs, lynched, jailed, got our jaws tight not only at the scum who did this but the negroes who accepted it.

Baraka created from this a new form of political poetry, one that refused protest, moving instead into a literature of resistance and assault. But this was not, as the caricature goes, a high-metallic screech of simplistic hatred. To claim that Charlie Parker would have played no music if he had simply gone out and killed white people is not to say that he would have been better off not making music, but rather to point out that, perhaps, murder - political, ultimately revolutionary murder - was one “aspect” of the content of Parker’s music, a secret hidden inside it that, given the context of the liberation struggles of the 1960s, would best be made clear. Similarly, the role of the Revolutionary Theatre is to “murder” by teaching “about silence and the truths lodged there”. The work becomes a meditation on the interplay of silence and scream, of truth mutated, of lies tearing themselves apart under the weight of their own brutality. In one of Baraka’s earliest publications he wrote of the need to “reach the silence at the top of our screams”, and in the well-known short story aptly called “The Screamers” he talks about the trajectory those screams will need to follow in order to be able to reach the audible content of that silence:

The repeated rhythmic figure, a screamed riff, pushed in its insistence past music. It was hatred and frustration, secrecy and despair . . . There was no compromise, no dreary sophistication, only the elegance of something that is too ugly to be described, and is diluted only at the agent’s peril . . . Ethnic historians, actors, priests of the unconscious. The stance spread like fire through the cabarets and joints of the black cities, so that the sound itself became a basis for thought, and the innovators searched for uglier modes.

“If you know how to hear” these unspeakable things (in both senses of the word) are also sober historic fact (ie the skull-crazy monsters can become ethnic historians and priests of the unconscious), Leadbelly Gives an Autograph “the possibilities of statement” - but the power of the Leadbelly poem is that he doesn’t say what he is saying, it is silent, and we are expected to recognise it ————- radio in Fanon

The “new basis for thought” means a new poetics, a poetic that makes Larry Neal’s remark about learning more about poetry from the speeches of Malcolm X than from Western Poetics comprehensible. But what exactly is supposed to happen when the voice of Malcolm X and the voice of a poet encounter each other, when they meet like matter and anti-matter, is perhaps not so clear. Baraka continued to be aware of the traps that a primarily revolutionary poetry can become emeshed in; and not only in terms of a simplistic, one-dimensional content (its never the case with Baraka, despite what the caricature says), but with the fate of the poem itself, with how it is used, with what its afterlife is once the social constellation that produced it is past (not as literary quality, but as cultural position). In the early 80s, Baraka wrote in his Autobiography that

The words of an incendiary poet are finally less frightening than a political organiser. They can be used merely to titillate, the other assumes a functional presence in the world that can intimidate.

Baraka is not only making a point about the shortcomings of would-be revolutionary poetry in comparison with other forms of revolutionary communication. He is also making a point about reception: “incendiary” poems are too slippery, and their attack modes too quickly become a source of entertainment. Its a real question. Who, for example, were Baraka’s notorious “kill whitey” poems written for? What does it mean to be discussing them in a seminar room? Can they still contain the kernel of the screams, silence and obscure signals Baraka seeks to analyse.
Black Magic Poetry is Baraka’s most horrific (at its worse, simply offensive), and also his most programmatic volume. Highly complex and tortured, with Baraka channelling the most terrible signals from the “skull crazies” and “spaceless history” and “bloody haints”, it is structured around Frantz Fanon’s account of the development of transformations and developments that the intellectual will go through as their relationship to the liberation struggle is altered. The book is divided into three parts - “Sabotage”, “Target Study” and “Black Art” - that describe Baraka’s own trajectory from Bohemian rebellion through to actually military preparation for revolutionary struggle. In the brief Preface Baraka explains that in “Sabotage” details how he “had come to see the superstructure of filth Americans call their way of life, and wanted to see it fall.” The poems included in that first part of the book, he says, are the product of him thinking that simply “talking bad” about said “superstructure of filth” would be sufficient. But he then moves on to “Target Study”, which he claims is where the poems are attempts to really examine the system, “like bomber crews do the soon to be destroyed cities”. He claims the poems become “less passive now, less uselessly ‘literary’”.   Finally, the “Black Art” section is supposed to be “the crucial seeing, the decisions, the actual move.” Black Magic Poetry, then, is a record of Baraka’s struggle through the intensities struggles of the mid-60s to develop a poetry with a “functional presence in the world”.
For Fanon, as outlined in the section on the role of the colonised intellectual in The Wretched of the Earth, there are also three stages. Firstly, the writer will show “he has assimilated the coloniser's culture”. The “inspiration [will be] European and [the] works [will] be easily linked to a well-defined trend in metropolitan literature”. This is the Baraka of “Sabotage”, the hip young writer who in the early 1960s was most certainly “linked” to famous trends in metropolitan literature, and now is trying to scratch at the limits of those trends, in order to begin writing what Fanon calls a “precombat literature”. This will, however, be insufficient, says Fanon, because the writer will still not be “integrated with the people”, and so the writing will continue to be intensely expressive of a preconscious bourgeois self, albeit one now expressed negatively through “anguish, malaise, death and even nausea”. Finally, the writer will pass reach a stage where this expression, essentially the death-gasps of the colonised, or bourgeois, self, will be overcome, and the writer will turn into “a galvaniser of the people”. At this stage, the writer will be able to produce what Fanon calls combat literature, and further, the idea of a writer as specialist will disappear. Fanon continues:

During this phase a great many men and women who previously would never have thought of writing, now that they find themselves in exceptional circumstances, in prison, in the resistance or on the eve of their execution, feel the need to proclaim their nation, to portray their people and become the spokesperson of a new reality in action.

At this stage, ideally, the writer becomes simply a member of the collective. Poems and novels, in the bourgeois sense, have less validity than the interpretations of the “exceptional circumstances” that all of the revolutionaries find themselves in. They produce bulletins and slogans. They produce poems also, but these poems are not intended to be read in books. It is what Fanon calls “combat literature”. Walter Benjamin, in the well-known opening section to One-Way Street had made a similar point:

Under these circumstances, true literary activity cannot aspire to take place within a literary framework; this is, rather, the habitual expression of its sterility. Significant literary effectiveness can come into being only in a strict alternation between action and writing; it must nurture the inconspicuous forms that fit its influence in active communities better than does the pretentious, universal gesture of the book - in leaflets, brochures, articles, and placards. Only this prompt language shows itself actively equal to the moment.

For Benjamin, the writer still has a specific role to play in the revolutionary struggle, but if it is to be equal to the struggle, it is absolutely transformed. Fanon warns that, even having achieved revolutionary consciousness, the writer risks being “out of step” and “behind the times”, opportunistically responding to revolutionary events, still with an eye to the production of works of literature.  Literature ceases, to be replaced by “writing”, and that writing must always tightly alternate with “action”, until the two become indistinguishable. Poems become slogans and placards, of only temporary significance, and whose only meaning comes from the revolutionary demands of the moment. In the face of the downturn in the struggle, the ultimate failure (or otherwise) of the revolution, how to these signals, fragments from the struggle reach us. Merely historical interest, or can they still alter our relationship to poetics, our attitude towards art as a social event, an act of communication

Fanon’s work in A Dying Colonialism, in particular, deals with the transformations that take place as the revolution, the liberation struggle, gains in velocity and intensity. “This Is the Voice of Algeria” charts the relationship of the colonised people with the official statements of the colonised. That relationship is similar to the relationship of the inhabitants of the “savage geographies” with the “rich painters” in the poem we were thinking about earlier. Fanon charts the status of radio - that is, of antennae - within occupied Algeria throughout the 1950s. For years the colonised, according to Fanon, had been indifferent to the broadcasts from Radio-Algeria, which as far as they were concerned were nothing but “Frenchmen speaking to Frenchmen”: the entirety of the broadcast was a system of lies (again: “we live our lives under lies” / “the name of your latest painting another word for liar” etc.). At first, this network of lies seems simply irrelevant (i.e it was a “truth” that did not relate to the situation of the colonised, a “truth that they were denied access to), but in the early stages of the liberation struggle, those lies become the site of the first battleground. Faced with the necessity of communication, of the need for a news source, the meaning of the coloniser’s broadcasts change, even if their content does not (just as the being of the coloniser changes, from coloniser to liar to simply enemy, without the content of the social relation changing, just becoming more clear):

The Algerian found himself having to oppose the enemy news with his own news. The “truth” of the oppressor, formerly rejected as an absolute lie, was now countered by another, an acted truth. The occupier’s lie thereby acquired greater reality, for it was now a menaced lie, put on the defensive.

That is to say, the lies of the colonised become activated, becoming therefore an element of a “truth” that is reaching a boiling point, shimmering, becoming unclear in some places: monstrous and hallucinatory as well as reaching a heretofore impossible clarity (the social relation laid bare in all its vicious modernity). The coloniser contributes to this boiling and intensifying of “truth” (which, of course, also is a source of a wild, un-nerving “poetry”), by pitching an attack using “lies” as its battleground. The colonisers jam the radio signals of the colonised. That is, the “lies” of the colonisers become less language itself than pure noise, sonic warfare. In turn, the voices of the colonised become shattered until no solid meaning can be reached. The expression of meaning, and truth, becomes a hideous, inaudible hiss. It is here that we see a revolutionary poetic in one of its many forms, its many aspects (non-cognitive) as preparatory study:

The programmes were then systematically jammed, and the Voice of Fighting Algeria soon became inaudible. A new form of struggle had come into being. Tracts were distributed telling the Algerians to keep tuned in for a period of two or three hours. In the course of a single broadcast a second station, broadcasting over a different wave-length, would relay the first jammed station. The listener, enrolled in the battle of the waves, had to figure out the tactics of the enemy, and in an almost physical way circumvent the strategy of the adversary. Very often only the operator, his ear glued to the receiver, had the unhoped-for opportunity of hearing the Voice. The other Algerians in the room would receive the echo of this voice through the privileged interpreter who, at the end of the broadcast, was literally besieged. Specific questions would be asked of this incarnated voice. Those present wanted to know about a particular battle mentioned by the French press in the last twenty-four hours, and the interpreter, embarrassed, feeling guilty, would sometimes have to admit that the Voice had not mentioned it.

But by common consent, after an exchange of views, it would decide that the Voice had in fact spoken of these events, but that the interpreter had not caught the transmitted information. A real task of reconstruction would then begin. Everyone would participate, and the battles of yesterday and the day before would be re-fought in accordance with the deep aspirations and the unshakable faith of the group. The listener would compensate for the fragmentary nature of the news by an autonomous creation of information.

Everything becomes strange. What is at first revolutionary strategy regarding the distribution of information, the endurance that accurate information (“truths”?) can still be passed on, experiences a kind of implosion, whereby the accurate information becomes an obscure signal from elsewhere, where the “operator” of the radio set becomes instead the “interpreter”, and as the radio itself becomes the Voice, that “interpreter” becomes the incarnation of that voice. Strategy and rationally turns inside out, becomes seance, irrationality, even madness (skull-crazies).

But this is not the disaster it could be, is not an absolute collapse into a superstitious false consciousness thus making an expropriation of the colnoisers’ monopoly on the word “truth” impossible. The opposite is in fact the case. The struggle to hear the “choppy, broken voice” of the radio leads to a intensification of revolutionary collectivity, and makes the reality, the truth of revolution tangible: “The nature of this voice recalled in more than one way that of the Revolution: present ‘in the air’ in isolated pieces, but not objectively”:

Every evening, from nine o’clock to midnight, the Algerian would listen. At the end of the evening, not hearing the Voice, the listener would sometimes leave the needle on a jammed wave-length or one that simply produced static, and would announce that the voice of the combatants was here. For an hour the room would be filled with the piercing, excruciating din of the jamming. Behind each modulation, each active crackling, the Algerian would imagine not only words, but concrete battles.

The “piercing, excruciating din” is the whirring, necessary psychopathology of revolution consciousness coming into being made material by the modernity of the radio set. The static is not only the sound of the enemy jamming our signals, but the sound of our own thinking as it moves outside of what official language permits, into the “silence at the top of our screams”, “the new basis for thought”: the attempt to make sense of the static, via the development of a new language, forces the formation of an altered stance toward social realities, an altered stance that enables the revolution, at first only a notion scattered in “isolated pieces” to exist objectively as a collective, a whole. In Six Persons, Baraka describes the “excruciating din” of the crisis which is necessary for revolutionary consciousness as an active reality, as a process, to emerge:

What they thought of as their life, was actually several lives. All jammed together, happening simultaneously, and separate. And at some pts, what was raised, by undersea contradictions, forced into the light wild contrasts, extremes.

The problem is how to make those “wild contrasts” absolutely intelligible to us, but unintelligible to the enemy i.e. how to make the excruciating din work as a strategy, as a means of infecting the “lies” that we live under, and make them visible, to translate this dialectical nebulae made up of static and screams into clear speech.

Mark McMorris, in an excellent essay on avant-garde poetics in the Black Radical Tradition, cites an account by Edouard Glissant of the strategic necessity of making communication incomprehensible to the enemy:

Since speech was forbidden, slaves camouflaged the word under the provocative intensity of the scream. No-one could translate the meaning of what seemed to be nothing but a shout. It was taken to be nothing but the call of a wild animal. This is how dispossessed man organised his speech by weaving it into the apparently meaningless texture of extreme noise [. . .] Creole organises speech as a blast of sound.  

Glissant implies that language, for dispossessed peoples, is a conspiracy and, also, a barricade. Inside its structure of “apparently meaningless noise” is the chance for the development and organisation of meanings that run counter tuo the official definitions of the reality of property and slave-ownership. When the time comes, official reality will be destroyed by a “blast of sound” - that “blast” being the sound of “apparently meaningless noise” becoming the instant of meaningful social truth, where all social antagonisms are made visible, audible and intelligible, where meaning is expropriated and the definitions that sustain the reality of property are negated. The void of incomprehensibility is filled by the self-consciousness of the dispossessed as antagonists to those who would “possess” them. In terms of a poetics, McMorris claims to find analogies in the early European avant-garde:

. . . . at the very least we recognise in Glissant’s speculations the chaos and bewilderment attendant upon the early demonstrations of Dada and the Surrealists, with their simultaneous poems for multiple speaking voices closing out the audience from discursive meanings; and the genre, in particular, of the sound poem that, including the scream, shout, grunt and testing other possibilities for paralinguistic utterance, manages to suggest alternative modes of communication and communities.  

McMorris quickly admits that Glissant has far more in mind than innovation in poetics: he is talking about revolution, the seizure of the means of meaning and of intelligibility. I would go further than McMorris, though, and claim that the “provocative intensity” of the scream makes avant-garde “alternative modes of communication” trivial and bourgeois. Glissant is not suggesting that “extreme noise” is a mere “alternative” to “official speech”: it is an active principle - like Fanon’s radio signals, it contributes to the formation of a revolutionary collectivity via the creation of a cluster of meanings the enemy cannot access. This “organised speech” is not so for the purposes of new forms of art, it is political organisation in the interests of a fight to the death that is played out in language as well as everywhere else. Avant-garde poetics are, undoubtedly, a part of this, but only if the blasts of organised sound and “paralinguistic utterance” can not only “suggest” “alternative modes of communication and community”, but actively force new grounds for thought, from which new forms of communication can not only be suggested, but built.

For Fanon, before the “texture of extreme noise” can be transformed into expropriated meaning, the dispossessed exist within what Fanon called “atmospheric violence”, which may be expressed in a social domination, in street thuggery, in the secular claustrophobia of the best of Baraka’s work of this period, where social antagonisms are able to go unnamed but are everywhere apparent.  The crucial moment, then, is the irreversible moment of naming, where the “atmosphere” of violence is made audible, graspable, comprehensible, truthful, and breaks out into actual social convulsion. In Wretched of the Earth Fanon uses the example of what happens to the networks of superstitions that he says keeps the colonised peasants subjugated:

The magical, supernatural powers prove to be surprisingly ego-boosting. The colonist’s powers are infinitely shrunk, stamped by foreignness. There is no real reason to fight them because what really matters is that the mythical structures contain far more terrifying adversaries. It is evident that everything is reduced to a permanent confrontation at the level of phantasy.

In the liberation struggle, however, this people who were once relegated to the realm of the imagination, victims of unspeakable terrors, but content to lose themselves in hallucinatory dreams, are thrown into disarray, reform, and amid blood and tears give birth to very real issues

The dispossessed recognise that their superstitions (ie the lies they live under) are metaphoric expression of social monsters that are all too real, and the cosmo-dialectical cluster of magic, superstition, phantasy and imagination transform “unspeakable terrors” into “speakable strategy”. The social lie is forced to speak, to reveal itself, and only then can be destroyed.

For Baraka, the bourgeois aesthetics that he continues to right from within have come to themselves be a network of superstitions in the moment of transformation into a system of laws. In the very early work, before the visit to Cuba, he had been able to think that poetics might provide an “alternative”, a “refuge” from the metallic screeches of the social lie: an early poem sees him feeling “safe now, within the poem”, and noting that “the walls of these words protect me”. The crisis comes when Baraka notices what he is being protected from, and who those walls are also protecting. The well known poem at the end of Black Magic Poetry proposes new uses for those walls:

All the stores will open if you
will say the magic words. The magic words are: Up against the wall mother
fucker this is a stickup!

And in 6 Persons, the excruciating radio din that communicates the facts of the social lie is also activated:

All the screamin’ didn’t go out into a void. It hit the VanAllen belt and came back. The lumpen raised, the metaphysical Blacks + Idealist Blacks screamed on of war cries. In Finland Station the ground caught fire.

Naming. It is at this moment that poetry re-emerges, not via screams as the inaudible centres of the poetry, but as real, urgent tasks. The form and content of artistic forms must become indivisible from the form and content of social forms in crisis. In an attempt to realise this, the collective of Black Artists who founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre in Harlem, 1965 (note the move from individual artist to collective of artists) organised massive street performances, moving African-American avant-garde out from its Bohemian “regions of compromise” and into the “non-cognitve” streets of Harlem:

We brought street-corner poetry readings, moving the poets from by truck from site to site. So that each night through that summer we flooded Harlem with new music, new poetry, new dance, new paintings, and the sweep of the Black Arts movement had recycled itself back to the people. We had huge audiences, really mass audiences, and though what we brought was supposed to be avant and super-new, most of it people dug. Thats why we knew the music critics who put the new music down as inaccessible were full of shit. People danced in the street to Sun Ra and cheered Ayler and Shepp and Cecil and Jackie McClean and the others.

Artists become collective, the boundaries between artforms are also disintegrated into an endlessly variable but unified vortex of revolutionary expression, where the supposedly “difficult” art of the black avant-garde becomes immediately accessible to the people of Harlem, contributing to and strengthening radicalism and collectivity, enabling the communication of information, of the screams at the centre of official life. The nightmares - the “skull crazies” - of the work are translated into the terms of a new and direct poetics supposed to be able to communicate on the street:

The Black Artist’s role in America is to aid in the destruction of America as he knows it. His role is to report and reflect so precicely the nature of the society, and of himself in that society, that other men will be moved by the exactness of his rendering and, if they are black men, grow strong through this moving, having seen their own strength, and weakness; and if they are white men, tremble, curse, and go mad, because they will be drenched in the filth of their evil.

And this in action: the re-emergence of a new, public avant-garde art after its decoding of the “silence at the top of our screams”. Lorenzo Thomas describes a reading given by Baraka (the changing of the name) in Newark, 1967. He has driven in from Manhatten with Ishmael Reed:

We walked through the cold quiet streets a few blocks to a union hall or community centre sort of place where Amiri Baraka was reading feverish political poems to a few cheerful working class black folks [. . . ] Baraka was dressed in a flowing big-sleeved dashiki and a Moroccan knit cap. He was shouting and singing his poems [. . .] The audience, just like a church congregation, said “Amen” when the poem was finished [. . . ] Ishmael Reed and I sat there with our eyes bugged out, wondering if the brother was mad. Talking like that. Talking that talk [. . .] The people were saying “yeh, uh, huh”, laughing and bopping their heads. Like in church. I was amazed at what the poems were doing.

1 comment:

  1. amazing work sean. now get a copy editor haha there's a bunch of mistakes!!


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