Drone Poetics

August 02, 2013

In 1906 Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, a novel concerning the abysmal treatment of immigrants in the emergent labor class. The book’s readers, however, were outraged by the graphic depiction of unregulated meatpacking. In response, the government—which had been dragging its feet despite being aware of the industry’s stomach-churning practices—established the Food and Drug Administration, confirming Shelley’s claim, made early in the previous century, that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Sinclair’s art had forced bureaucracy’s hand.

The NSA is monitoring Americans’ emails and phones, and the scheme’s whistleblower, Edward Snowden, is in a desperate search for asylum on a planet cowed by the United States. We mindlessly plug reams of personal information into a website that, according to its terms of service, owns this data, and which will eventually make it available to data brokers. President Obama recently signed HR 347 into law, a bill that, according to the ACLU,expands “the Secret Service’s authority to regulate protests in and around areas where persons under Secret Service protection are located,” and that “could be abused to interfere with lawful protest.” The hard-won Voting Rights Act of 1965 has recently been gutted. The value of American voices and lives has diminished in favor of paranoia, suspicion, and rabid capitalism.

I often struggle with how I might best use the privilege I possess as a middle-class poet. I’m afforded the platforms of professor and writer, platforms I don’t really utilize to effect change in the world. This might be due to a cultural indoctrination suggesting that poetry is a marginal practice, yet poets such as Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov, Gary Snyder, Brenda Hillman, and, more recently, Mark Nowak, Shane McCrae, Jena Osman, and Craig Santos Perez have utilized their privilege and platform to uncover, expose, and counter accepted narratives about living in a declining empire in which our agency as citizens is shrinking. While the government watches us, more and more poets and writers are watching back, documenting the injustices that stain our present moment. We need more of that. I should be doing that.

I want to imagine myself as the Julianne Moore character in Children of Men (2006), a sleek revolutionary who takes a bullet for the cause. But the truth is I’m bookish, I’m nervous, and I hate confrontation. I must use the only tool I have, poetry, to participate in this struggle. Although that may sound like taking a feather to a gunfight, history has shown that artists can threaten, and even topple, tyrannies. Behind every book banning or burning is a text that has terrified the powers that be. A revolution has many moving parts, and art is one of the most fundamental because it provides a subjective entryway into what otherwise may remain too remote or abstract. It is of great urgency that we participate in this battle, not through Facebook re-posts, but through an active poetic engagement with our present political circumstances.

Kent Johnson’s chapbook Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz (2005) is a critique of both a government whose officials claim, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality” and of the liberal humanism that dogs the avant-garde set, the very group Johnson argues should be contributing to the protest against war. As Dale Smith points out in his review of the book, “Such a ‘revolt’ for Johnson is centered predominantly on how collective ideologies and national narratives shape artistic, moral, and social values.” Johnson asks, according to Smith, “that [artists] adapt their words and images to the particular requirements of social and political situations.” With Johnson’s exhortation as a lens, we might consider using documentation and vigilance as a mirror for our institutions. We should be writing not only about how it feels to be surveilled but also about our own surveillances into government. Urgency and immediacy should replace affect and fashion. Poetry should live past the fear of the political and the aesthetic quibbling that divides us.

In her new book, Apart (2012), Catherine Taylor considers the implications of post-apartheid South Africa. Using sources as far ranging as Gayatri Spivak, George Bush, Chris Marker, Frantz Fanon, police blotters, and newspaper articles, the book is a personal and political meditation on race as well as a theoretical consideration of the problematic evolution of a state. She writes:

Surely there is a place for testimony beyond its initial telling, its initial transcription? Maybe now, with so much wreckage piled behind us, events might be able to be ‘intelligible’ and also maintain what Feldman calls the ‘unassimilable shock of history.’ I’m hesitant to give up completely on the value of reportage’s legacy, to say that is inevitably ineffectual.

In Apart Taylor implicates herself through witness and her own reportage, but she also synthesizes the data that explain or describe post-apartheid South Africa. Her subjectivity makes the subject and its ephemeral contexts more “intelligible.” I’ve read some of WikiLeaks, but I want to read about someone else reading WikiLeaks, unpacking its implications, because an aesthetic lens enriches, transforms, and deepens a subject. Poets are scary, but we can be scarier. We need to watch them, record them, poeticize our watching and recording. We need to take their data from them, reshape it, deform it, defamiliarize it. We have to respond to government surveillance with our own forms of surveillance. We have to watch them back.

Photograph: John Brosz/flickr


"I must use the only tool I have, poetry, to participate in this struggle."
It would seem to me that you have some measure of time, probably some money, and a least a little bit of operating intelligence. Plenty of ways to make that politically valuable that aren't as self-aggrandizing (or rarely heard) as (lyric) poetry.

Thank you for this, Carmen. You've clearly expressed that which has been weighing on my mind for the last year.

What a refreshing article! I wholly agree with your analysis and conclusion that we need to "watch them, record them, poeticize our watching and recording". And how disarming to hear someone say they could do more! Where I'd raise a question is over the question of how this poetry engages to do the work proposed. Obviously there are the excellent pages of the Boston Review, but the way poetry was used by the likes of Amin Haddad in Tahir Square suggests that ther is a wider range of channels. So I am slightly mystified as to why Facebook re-posts are set against poetic engagement, rather than being considered a viable channel for that very engagement. I'm not suggesting Facebook as the the only online channel. The right poetry, written on a site like www.poetryzoo.com and disseminated as a link on Twitter (which is NOT limited to micropoetry) has the potential to articulate and distribute the power of the very ideas you propose. The 'unassimilable shock of history' requires a means of expression that is not...er...predicated on assimilation and poetry provides a brilliant such medium, in a way that traditional history books don't and can't. Poetry disseminated by the internet not only provides the capacity but (most importantly) can generate and accommodate the kind of surges which are required to trouble the status quo.

To Smith's list must be added Peter Dale Scott, whose Seculum trilogy so exposes the reigning narrative, the first volume Coming to Jakarta had to be reviewed by lawyers and was allowed to appear in only a redacted version in the U.S.

very well: let's play-out the premise of attempting to apprehend the subconscious/poetic mind of Big Brother. 
here's a possible approach: the Guardian recently broke a story, revealing the complicity of telecom companies "--secretly collaborating with Britain's spy agency GCHQ... --(giving) GCHQ secret unlimited access to their network of underseas cables." this story is particularly interesting, from a "poetic" slant, in that it reveals the GCHQ codenames for each of these telecoms-- thereby providing us with a "window" into the imaginative vocabulary of GCHQ's decision-making authority: BT="Remedy",  Verizon Business="Dacron", Vodafone="Gerontic", Global Crossing="Pinnage", Level 3="Little", Viatel="Vitreous", Interoute="Streetcar".  
(of course: any attempt at poetic/pscyhological analysis, on the basis of these "cracked" codenames, will most likely be an act of pure speculation--perhaps like trying to divine the future, by scrying in a mirror or a bowl of water-- we are more likely to latch-onto a distorted reflection of ourselves, than to catch the coat of Big Brother and/or Chesteron's "Sunday"-- but i suppose a central assumption of any poetics is that: words and meanings will resonante beyond an author or reader's immediate intentions/conscious control... and therefore any critical effort towards "grasping the harmonics" of a given word or poem, will perhaps unveil a range of relevant associations and meanings, despite the critic's inevitable mistakeness as to the full range of meanings.)
BT="Remedy": the codename begs the question that unlimited surveillance HAD to be implemented to counter a "--disease" or "--malfunction." the rhyme-scheme between BT and Remedy, also suggests the influence of cockney slang-- implying that surveillance is a sort of hard-nosed london native's natural game, an extension of the "london knowledge"-- working-class, common-sense, an everyman's/local policeman's occupation. 
Verizon="Dacron": the codename references a type of polyester fibre (many fibres woven together to make a solid whole-->the datastream of many fibreoptic cables collected into a database that is a single whole) and apparently this particularly fabric is often used for sailcloth, which suggests that: Big Brother has an interest in seamanship (pun, see-manship) and in capturing the errant wind to navigate to a strategic destination. 
Vodafone="Gerontic": the codename literally means the old man, but suggests a connection to TS Eliot's poem "Gerontion", which contains highly resonant quotes to the purpose of widespread surveillance:
"--Signs are taken for wonders. 'We would see a sign': /The word within a word, unable to speak a word,/swaddled with darkness."
and:  "--After such knowledge, what forgivenss? Think now/ History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors/ And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,/ Guides us by vanities. Think now/ She gives when out attention is distracted/ And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions/ That the giving famishes the craving. Gives too late/ What's not believed in, or if still believed, /In memory only, reconsidered passion. Gives too soon /Into weak hands, what's though can be dispensed with/ Till the refusal propagates a fear. Think/ Neither fear nor courage saves us. Unnatural vices/ Are fathered by our heroism./ Virtues are forced upon us by our impudent crimes..." 
(conclusion: if the TS Eliot connection were at all relevant, then we can estimate that some faction of Big Brother is actually somewhat ambivalent about the whole enterprise.)  
however: i fully stand by the initial disclaimer, that these attempts at analysis are more likely to have been an excercise in foolishness and shadow-casting, than to yield any actual insight into the internal (half-conscious) mytho-poetics of the surveillance apparatus. 

Well, my answer--nothing overt, but intentional--is this:  http://www.spdbooks.org/Producte/9780988275515/american-drone-new--selec...
Thanks for your article.

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