Joshua Schuster

Notes on war aesthetics

We know of course that war demolishes the field of aesthetics, but this destruction occurs not without an aesthetics of its own. The war machine uses any available means at victory, raiding the icebox of art whenever it is deemed necessary. Most infamously, the Nazis aestheticized their military regime to extremes, harnessing total social and cultural control to the cultivation of a Reich, generating brutal energy with a dialectic of myth and war. But the Nazis were not an aberration in aestheticing the war machine, and probably since the beginnings of organized warfare the two spheres have been coupled not only for expedience but also in the name of enhanced experience. War has always needed a vision of future aesthetic harmony for it not to cycle into chaotic bloodshed, and art has been deployed for furnishing creative battle schemes to developing the character of a soldier (the "art of war" is not a paradox). In this tradition, Homer is the first major war poet. Dactyllic hexameter is good for chanting and as a mnemonic technique, but perhaps such rhythms also correspond or derive from marches or other war rituals (at least Plato wished it so). A second lineage of war poetry begins with Sappho's "To an army wife, in Sardis" in which she claims perhaps for the first time in the Western tradition that the highest praise in poetry is not for heroism in war but for fleeting beauty. But in sum the majority of war poems memorialize some version of bravery in battle that correlates with social order. Dryden appreciated the epic and lyric potential of Hobbes' Leviathan, whose war of all against all is actually a matrix for understanding all human affairs, as if war was a principle of our being. If after World War I the true trauma of battle shattered any easy collaboration between war and art, the links still remain latent in the very idea of an avant-garde, which is after all a military term that puts art on the offensive. The avant-garde mounts a militant aesthetic, proposing a cultural war of social and poetic means. If poetry were to totally dislocate itself from a war aesthetic, it also would have to go beyond the premise of an avant-garde. Thus it seems not at all obvious that war can do without poetry, nor can poetry do without war.

Today it is hard to tell whether a poet practices subversion by throwing herself on the gears of the machine, or whether it is the machine that lubricates itself with the grinding up of poetry. Whichever the case, for now it seems that the very goodwill of poets and the promise of a better world through aesthetics has been deftly infiltrated by the war hawks who say they plan to delineate some vision of human order. The most interesting poets now are developing creative counter-strategies that erect barriers against the further aestheticizing of war. The poetry that seems most prescient right now is work that sucks the aesthetics out of war. If war necessitates a co-optation of aesthetics, the best anti-war poetry of the last century has set out to de-aestheticize or even sabotage the poetic strategies that are employed by the war powers. The poetic tropes that have now been swallowed in the routines of normalization and the juridics of violence are not to be liberated, but to be dismantled and disarmed in the name of a different kind of poetry. Poetry is not fate; the taking apart of poetry does not portend an end to poetry but a process by which the field of poetry regenerates itself, unweaving the veils the moment they are in the politicians' hands. The intended end effect is to render the concept and techniques of poetry as something wholly alternate to the poetics of war, such that over time the masters of war will find themselves with one less weapon. And those who try to use the previous poetics in service of propaganda will find only that they have swallowed their own mouths.

Many dissenting poets feel that the most powerful critique to be made is to expose the disconnection between what the government says it accomplishes versus the tremendous violence it delivers in localized zones and across international lines. Poets recently have keyed on the difference of language used in reporting on multiple realities between huge capital-driven media outlets and smaller alternative media practices, but this conflict should not be allegorized into a war. Alternate medias can supply previously suppressed data, yet the glaring abuses of the U.S. government are not due to ignorance but to reckless use of power. The problem of the relation of media to the public is less a struggle over information as it is over attention. By and large, the public is aware of how the major media businesses offer one-sided coverage, especially when it is often the side they wish to hear. The public also knows it is not a stretch to find alternate media sources, though many do not bother to listen because it seems boring, too negative, or too plaintive. A manipulated public that knows itself to be manipulated is no longer alienated in any simple formula, but has deemed receptivity to manipulation as a concession for an overall sense of convenience and security.

To repeat, the crisis is not over information but attention. In recent conversation with Louis Cabri and Jeff Derksen, they advocated a poetics based in part on holding close to a statement from Louis Zukofsky that "Poetry is information." Though Cabri's granular lines of poetry posit a very different visual and verbal apparatus from Derksen's narrative sentences, I understood both to be arguing for a poetry that is supported by irreducible facts of world socio-economics, which poetry accesses at the level of formal structure as well as educative content. Though Cabri's work is deeply intensified by his reading of Zukofsky in connection with contemporary social metrics, it is hard to make the case that Zukofsky meant his statement in terms what has become the current landscape of information, alternate medias included. Zukofsky's generation witnessed the corporatization of information in the U.S. where "news that stays news" became most apt as an advertising slogan. It is of little importance what Zukofsky thought of the phenomenon of "the media," though his poems reflect a hunger for information that is akin to Ezra Pound's eye for detail despite the delusions of grandeur. What Zukofsky's poetry evokes (and what Cabri also engages) is an attention to that which lacks information, fails to make news, or slips through the grids of any report. Yet the value here is not in moving such information from lost to found, but in the way poetry intensifies the relation of both lost and found. In the poem from the early 1960's "THE OLD POET MOVES TO A NEW APARTMENT 14 TIMES", Zukofsky writes 14 window-like sections, through which one gets a glimpse of poetry like this:

                                                                  to La Paz, Bolivia
                                                                  that Peace
                                                                  where students shouted
                                                                  in the court of a hospital to
                                                                  a doctor on call-
                                                                  treating victims,
                                                                   "Their names,
                                                                  give us Their names,"
                                                                  were shouted at from inside:
                                                                  "They're poor people
                                                                  we cannot identify them
                                                                  they do not have documents." (229)

The location of poetry is somehow between the missing or failed information and the urgency of knowing "Their names," capitalized and italicized with the hot breath of the students but still left in anonymous collectivity. Information as such does not contain within the seeds of conflict resolution or social transformation. Information posits both loss and gain, knowing does not always breed action, concentration seems to be the dialectical link between the two. Poetry has an addictive relation to information but its ability to strain, magnify, and recompose allow it to separate itself from the arena of competing information systems, in the way that a thief, once hold of his bread, slips away to share the food with his shady company.

With the onset of the current war in Iraq there has been a proliferation of anti-war poems, most employing the value of the poetic as the very base of protest. En masse these poems imitate a kind of public march. At the same time these mass conscriptions of poets form a density of dissent that is intended to jostle consciousness, they also conjure other collective symptoms, the obvious one being the reduction of critique to streamlined slogans. One trend within poetry (avant-garde or conservative) has been increased reliance on repetition and the rhythm of rallying. On the one hand these tropes help intensify the collective attitude of protest, yet there is simultaneously an indication that such repetition carries its own sense of security. One expects poems against the war and one is not to be denied, as if it were as important to confirm this expectation as it is to dissent against the war. The institution of opinion has not been violated, yet the war is fought in the name of respectful differences.

A familiar anxiety permeates the pamphlets of the Marxist critic Paul Goodman, who wrote on the crisis of war and capital at the later stages of World War II. Goodman comes to mind in particular because I think he offers further analysis of some of the things at stake in the "Social Mark" gathering. Goodman, eyeing how the closing chapters of the war indicated that what was mostly at stake was not saving innocents from the death camps but the solidification of new world power regimes, lashed out against war as an extension of state policy that had long been disconnected from human needs. In response to the growing sense that the government and big business intended to convert the social into an empty form of group identity evacuated of any autonomy, Goodman converted the term "sociolatry" from August Comte into a critique of the ideology of public manipulation:

Sociolatry is the concern felt by masses alienated from their deep natures for the smooth functioning of the industrial machine from which they believe they can get a higher standard of living and enjoy it in security. The revolutionary tension of the people is absorbed and sublimated by the interesting standard of living;... it is a sociological standard energized by emulation and advertising, and cementing a sense of unanimity among the alienated....
On the part of the political elite: sociolatry is the agreement of the bourgeoisie to become rentiers of the industrial corporation in whose working they do not interfere; and the promotion of the more dynamic bourgeoisie to high-salaried, prestigious, and powerful places at the controls of the machine. Sociolatry is therefore the psychology of state capitalism and state socialism.

Part of the critique here is that any mass movement has given itself over to a collective ideology that cannot fail to be somehow alienating in its very "unanimity". This is not to deny global movements of social change, but to admit that mass speech also carries within itself a kind of mass logic prone to be muted or stuck in echo. Sociolatry is how the bourgeoisie reproduces and strengthens itself within real yet false forms of collectivity. The large corporate office is as collective as the street protest (here the objectives are widely different but often the methods are similar), but Goodman warns that both are relatively distant from the bonds of friendship, personal responsibility, and the fulfillment of basic human needs that always fundamentally unite people. Goodman then advocates forums of intimacy and clusters of close relations as the sites from which to build social change: "Then, as opposed to the radical programs that already presuppose the great state and corporative structure, and the present social institutions in the perfected form of Sociolatry, we must ­ in small groups ­ draw the line and try action more directly satisfactory to our deep nature" (35).

One of the most menacing recent developments in sociolatry has been to yoke social needs to "security" as defined by the state and now is proliferating into previously private transactions and generating business based on fear (thus the maintenance on elevators becomes a question of security, meaning you should contact the large company that made the elevator so you can purchase a new one). The idea of "social security" suddenly takes an ominous turn. The modern welfare system grew out of the practice of actuarial studies of risk analysis of accidents and death rates. One of the more critical operations within aesthetics is to dislocate the idea of welfare and redistribution away from the current militarization of government. The social is not the security. The social grows out of the life of humans who share needs and concerns; radical action does not grow out of collectivity in the abstract but inter-personal responsibility. Poetry is not a competing form of information so much as it is a corridor between information and human needs, somewhat akin to the fluctuating shore at seas' edge of a different world.