Aase Berg, trans. Johannes Göransson
Black Ocean, $14.95 (paper)
In 2017 all of us—whether we acknowledge it or not—are forced to engage with and depend upon the project of global capitalism. Purchasing clothes, buying groceries, drinking clean water, and owning Apple products all exemplify our connection to vast networks of exploitative labor and gendered, racialized, and environmental violence. Combating this can feel daunting: how are we to dismantle systems to which we are parasitically linked? How can we fight a network that not only demands our consumption, but which in fact conditions our bodily and psychological existence? According to Hackers, a recent collection by Swedish poet Aase Berg, we “fuck up the system from within”—that is, we hack. Berg depicts hacking as a literal act, but also as a figurative gesture of political subversion, of inhabiting oppressive systems with the intention of disturbing and destroying them. These systems might be social, economic, or both. As Swedish reviews of the book have suggested, Berg enacts a “hacking” of the system of patriarchy. Further, Berg’s language itself—with its embedded capitalistic and gendered hierarchies—becomes hackable material, restructured to signify in disruptive ways. To read Berg’s writing is to engage with poetry’s malleable, ecstatically self-cannibalizing potential; we watch language turn itself inside out, reprogramming narratives and creating its own rules.
To read Berg’s writing is to engage with poetry’s malleable, ecstatically self-cannibalizing potential.
Berg is one of the most acclaimed and innovative writers in Sweden and her oeuvre is marked by a frenetic, continually evolving approach to form. While each of her collections approaches language differently—from the violent and grotesque With Deer (1997), to the sparse and self-reflexive Transfer Fat (2002), to the cosmic and ambient Dark Matter (1999)—they all share an investment in interrogating the intersections between bodies, gender, genre, and language. As a poet who approaches language in a malleable, “hackable” way, Berg is particularly compelling to read in translation. As her translator Johannes Göransson notes, Berg already “defamiliarizes” Swedish, approaching writing as a kind of translation in itself. Göransson’s translations, therefore, are not so much attempts to render “faithful” versions of Berg’s Swedish, but, rather, to foreground, embellish, and mutate its already-weird characteristics.
Hackers touches upon many of Berg’s frequent preoccupations—feminism, mutation, animalism, and corruption—but diverges in its specific representation of the infrastructural, technological, and geopolitical realities of late capitalism. Compared to, say, Dark Matter, which manifests a mythic, vaguely sci-fi landscape where organic bodies merge with industrial machines, the world in Hackers feels frighteningly similar to our own. It is a world of endless highways, of surveillance and countersurveillance, of fascistic patriarchal violence, of hard drives and Lexus cars and global capitalism:
The human race is worried.
The big question is: Can we make it?
16 Gigabyte insane memory?
Through the blood-brain barrier, reconfigure the signal substance?
While Berg writes from an insurrectionary standpoint, the most compelling element of Hackers is its anti-puritanical approach to rebellion. For Berg the hacker—or perhaps more pointedly, the poet, the language-hacker—does not stand outside the hegemonic system, but rather, is caught up in its violence, forced to fugitively use its tactics and vernaculars. In this way, Hackers foregrounds a characteristic of postmodernity that critics like Fredric Jameson frequently emphasize—the sense that in a time when selfhood is inseparable from the forces of late capitalism, personal agency is a fiction. “Pure” subjectivity is impossible. As Berg writes, evoking the trope of the Trojan horse, which recurs throughout the text, “there is no escape, not even inside horses.”
In a time when selfhood is inseparable from the forces of late capitalism, personal agency is a fiction.
Hackers engages with the problem of agency in multiple contexts. Most compelling, perhaps, is Berg’s evocation of surveillance culture. When surveillance is everywhere—in both our governments and our homes—how do we distinguish friend from foe? More specifically, how do we respond to governmental surveillance without reifying the same kinds of paranoia that motivate these structures in the first place? The book’s opening epigraph, the manifesto of Anonymous, foregrounds many of these anachronisms. As a (generally) leftist hacktivist organization that infiltrates governmental and commercial websites, Anonymous ostensibly opposes the kind of neoliberal capitalism that motivates government surveillance. Their actions, however, rely upon similar tactics, and further, their calls for “Internet freedom” are inextricable from the desire to use the Internet as a tool for unregulated economic exchange, echoing the neoliberal call for a “free market.” Throughout Hackers Berg illuminates this uneasy agency between individual and system, oppressor and oppressed:
CIA nabs FBI
Who could have guessed
that Dread Pirate
owned Silk Road
You don’t ever know
who’s on the other end
You don’t know who
In moments like these, Berg’s writing can feel paranoid, inducing the reader’s anxiety. But unlike paranoia in the ordinary sense, which attempts to distill the complexities of reality into a pattern (as in a conspiracy theory), the anxious energy of Berg’s writing threatens to disrupt the rationalism embedded within language. While the writing in Hackers is often strikingly cold and declarative, it does not easily gesture toward a singular meaning. Rather, the stripped-down lines give the impression of a poetics disclosing its own seams—the cracks through which the reader can view the innards of language, its energies, and the possibility of a different reality:
It is a horse and it says No.
But the human says Want you.
If you’re an animal here you are either alive or dead.
Either healthy and hearty or a bullet in your forehead.
Civilization means to love fiercely.
Here, the half-rhyme of “No” / “Want you” and the perfect rhyme of “dead” / “forehead” juxtapose a sing-songy, almost child-like tenor with bleak, fatalistic content. This disjunction, though, is not merely ironic. Within the larger context of Hackers, loving “fiercely” and the possibility for renewal are directly related to language’s subversive potential—sonic agency, a fierce music, sound and meaning working with and against each other to reshape how we view existence.
‘There is a female freedom. Found inside a feeling you don’t know exists.’
Over the course of Hackers, Berg suggests that her complex version of agency—which disturbs systems from within—is directly related to femininity. In the first poem, she writes, “There is a female freedom. Found inside a feeling you don’t know exists.” Femininity in Hackers is tied to patriarchal, capitalistic networks, but is also diffuse and decentralized, allowing for divergent realities and forms of agency. For example, at various moments throughout the text, Berg writes from the perspective of Natascha Kampusch, an Austrian woman who was abducted as a child, spending nearly a decade confined in a basement. While Kampusch was forced by her captor to take the name Bibiana, Berg suggests a kind of ghostly feminine solidarity with the martyred Saint Bibiana: “At night I dreamt that I belonged to a basement-flock of girls just as terrified and feverish as me. We could communicate with each other by knocking on the walls.” Despite Kampusch’s literal confinement, Berg foregrounds a symbolic agency through transhistorical identification.
Berg frequently associates feminine agency with her trope of the Trojan horse, referring to both computer viruses and the Greek invention to enter Troy. The figure of the “Trojan” becomes an action, a praxis:
Private Manning trojanizes, then changes sex in jail where she will spend the rest of her life for aiding the enemy. There is a female freedom. If you boil anything long enough, it will turn into steam, nothing remaining, translucent horse corpses rearing in hot air.
As Berg has suggested in an interview with Paul Cunningham, whistle-blowing (such as Chelsea Manning’s) is a form of hacking that is necessary and “healthy” for society. Manning thus finds agency within confinement—within jail, capitalism, patriarchy, and the military—and through infiltration. By betraying both the state and cis-normativity, Manning exemplifies the possibility of a “female freedom.”
For Berg, corruption is freedom.
The larger structure of Hackers echoes this relationship between confinement and subversion. Making heavy use of white space, Berg juxtaposes sparsely lineated poems with single lines occupying their own page. Each section of the book loosely circles around a specific thematic thread (e.g., stalkers, automotive culture, horses, etc.). If With Deer is like thrash metal and Dark Matter is like symphonic death metal, the experience of Hackers is akin to dark, minimalist electronic music. It evokes a kind of ambient coldness (“the drone will boil”), a simultaneously organic and inorganic circuitry threatening to corrupt its own logic at any moment:
Now the sperms are dead
You don’t exist
For Berg, corruption is freedom. To a reader, lines like these feel startlingly liberatory, somehow both dark and optimistic, giving us the sense that violent systems contain the materials for their own destruction. But like postmodern agency, “freedom” itself is a murky, problematic concept. What does “freedom” look like, within poetry, within biopolitical life?
It’s the space of action. That which is called freedom. The gallop-handle, stomach pumps, the rushing G-force of rushing air.
What is called freedom is a frozen freedom.
Contrary to the “freedom” rhetoric of liberal capitalism, Berg’s freedom is a kind of autonomy that, while birthed from hegemonic systems, reserves a right to refusal. Through its reprogramming of violent systems, it allows for “strange forms of beauty and pleasure,” as Alexis Almeida writes in an insightful review of Hackers in EuropeNow. Through hacking different visions of reality arise (is this not why we write poetry?).
All of Berg’s texts translated into English are brilliant in their own way, but in its thematic ambition—and, in particular, its merging of economic realities with Berg’s trademark posthuman tenor—Hackers is perhaps her best collection. Through its unsteady subjectivity and its anachronistic logic, Hackers depicts the feeling of late capitalism—the emotional condition of being confined within networks of highways, underwater cables, data banks, pollution, global commerce, outsourced labor, war, and agribusiness. Hackers is a dark read, but it realizes language as a site for disturbance and potentiality.