where's the politics? - introduction and background, decontextualised aesthetics

Where's the politics?

Introduction and background

Thinking about the upcoming Poetry Emergency festival (Wordpress, Twitter) has also made me think about the relationship of my work to politics.

In particular this, from the description of the event focussed my mind: 'we ask how poetic art can intervene against passivity and fear in order to agitate and inspire. In the emergency-prone moment of anxiety and disaster-creation, how can the mini-revolutions of language art snowball into communities of support and resistance?'

I've never really been much of an activist for a number of reasons, but primarily for the same reasons I don't have a lot of friends, don't socialise much, haven't promoted my work or myself to the extent I could, and am generally poor at DIY publishing/event organising etc. My autism makes communicating with other people extremely challenging, and (whether or not they're connected) I have poor organisational skills. Plus I'm kind of lazy and I don't like doing research.

I'd also observe that for me, since at least the late 1980's, I've found engaging with a lot of left and anarchist organisations intimidating and off-putting. Even from the inside there seems to be a lot of needless factionalism, special points for how many obscure historical European anarchodudes you can quote from, and a sense that you're being judged on every damn thing you say or do.

On that last point, which may rightly raise some red flags for you, I'm not talking about the usual right-wing gripes about political correctness, trigger warnings, safe spaces, no-platforming, intersectionality, cultural appropriation or whatever they're moaning about today. I'm fine with all those things. What I mean is the sense that you're expected to be all-right all the time, and that people are more willing to condemn and excommunicate you than help you.

That is more of a perception than a reality, but it's how things can seem at times. Especially if like me you lack confidence, don't have a wide circle of friends, and already spend a lot of time judging yourself against impossible standards.

Just to clarify: I'm not saying any of this about Poetry Emergency, its organisers or participants. These are merely observations sparked by thinking about the event and my role as one of the many performers. And they relate much more to my experiences across the last 30 years.

They also serve as an essential background for why this matters to me.

But let's come up-to-date. Over the last couple of years my YouTube watching has shifted from mainly film reviews and music to mainly LeftTube and music.

There are the more mainstream type people whose channels mostly still deal with media and 'geek culture', like Folding Ideas, Kyle Kallgren, Lindsay Ellis and Renegade Cut.

There are people who mainly deal with politics now, but who still engage with gaming or film, like hbomberguy and Shaun.

And there are those who primarily or exclusively address politics or politicised areas like philosophy and science, like ContraPoints, Drallasta, For Harriet, Rational DisconnectT1J, Thought Slime and Three Arrows.

I'm aware that this is a dude-heavy list, and that there are only a couple of people of colour in there, but that'll change. Even so, there's still a range of perspectives and approaches there. And these YouTubers (some of whom, like For Harriet, are also activists) explain the topics they address and mostly provide sources for your own reading and research.

The reason I mention them is that along with doing some (negligible) independent research for my own interest they've helped me understand a lot of concepts better and engage in debates in an online forum.

Those debates are an important driver. The forum seems on the surface to be a pretty enlightened leftist place, but it's very heavily white middle class cis male space with some serious blind spots around feminism and race.

In particular around the time of Gamergate a number of women were effectively driven away from the forum by a constant undermining of their experience where it was listened to at all. And that's despite everyone agreeing that Gamergate was a toxic garbage fire of bad ideas promulgated largely by straight cis-gendered white men feeling threatened at having to share a space with people who weren't other straight cis-gendered white men.

Even with that in common women on the forum felt ignored and devalued. So referring back to my fourth paragraph where I said '[I have a] sense [in some leftist spaces] that you're expected to be all-right all the time, and that people are more willing to condemn and excommunicate you than help you' I understand why that rubs people up the wrong way:

  1. It isn't their responsibility to educate me or anyone else.
  2. 'Just asking questions' is frequently - probably more often than not - code for trying to divert attention from the argument and raise a lot of spurious objections.
  3. Tiring and boring to deal with.

And I have both a fairly major reason to identify with that frustration, and a relatively trivial one.

The major reason won't impact much on the rest of this piece, so I'll get it out of the way first. It's my Autism Spectrum Condition.

At least now I have a name that I can give to my experiences, and resources I can point others towards (and refer to myself). For years as a child and adolescent, and into my mid-twenties I knew something was different about how I interacted with the world, but I had no idea what it was. Then for around the next 20 years until I finally managed to persuade my GP to refer me for diagnosis I had a vague idea that autism might be the cause, or maybe not. I'm still by no means an expert on the condition, or even on my own feelings and behaviour.

But despite that I still find myself having to identify that there's something wrong in a given situation, work out what it might be, think about what I or others can do about it, and only then try to communicate what I think might help. That can be pretty exhausting.

The more trivial reason to identify with the frustration at having to explain arguments is that forum again. In the last year I've had two debates there that felt like hammering my head on a brick wall. One was around cultural appropriation, the other was around racism - specifically that you can't be racist to white people.

In each case there was a knee-jerk pushback to the idea that either argument might have validity, there was a reluctance to actually read even into the surface of ideas that have been explored over decades, there were demands for clear empirical evidence, and there was hair-splitting over terminology.

The nitty-gritty of these arguments isn't relevant here, but in summary the majority decided there was no merit to most claims of cultural appropriation; and in the racism debate a flat-out refusal to accept that racism in the academic (not colloquial) sense meant systemic racism - the idea that the US and white European countries are set up to benefit the indigenous white populations.

Now in the latter case the claim was usually that they accepted the argument but that they disagreed with the terminology. That racism should just mean racial prejudice and that systemic racism should be a separate thing. But that ignores that racial prejudice + systemic racism is far more disadvantageous to people of colour than racial prejudice + privilege + a system that automatically benefits you is to white people, so it makes sense to treat it differently. Quibbling over existing established terminology can look like you're trying to avoid the point.

I guess the purpose of this digressive introduction is to show that while I wouldn't claim to be in any way woke, and while I have a lot of privilege, I do try to be politically aware and keep abreast of some current conversations. But that brings us back to the start, and my art.

Decontextualised aesthetics

Most of my art - in particular my vocal improvisations, which are what I've done most this year, and which I'll bring to Poetry Emergency are most easily read as just sound. Just an aesthetic experience which decontextualised of any other signifiers might as easily be far-right. After all Marinetti explored visual and sound poetry and could be considered avant-garde, but he was also a fascist.

In my case it's even worse, there is very rarely any language present, meaning no obvious guiding philosophy. I mean I know where I'm coming from, and so do my friends and family, but how does anyone else know? Does it matter?

I honestly don't think I have any answers to these questions, but I'll try to dig into them next time as I continue this part of the discussion.


Popular Posts