Flames, Too, Are a Form of Literacy

By Zac GunterAugust 23, 2015

THE DEDICATION in Jasper Bernes’s new book of poetry We Are Nothing and So Can You reads “for the partisans,” making clear its commitments. The paths taken in Bernes’s serpentine poem lead the reader through riots, communes, confrontations, and antagonisms in the projected past, lived present, and imagined future. The partisan — less party functionary than militant — is a figure who takes sides, and this new work is emphatically on the side of the riots and rebellions of our time. We Are Nothing and So Can You exemplifies the aesthetics of uprising, taking seriously the social form in which the prevailing conditions are rejected in favor of an as-yet-unformed future.

When moving with a protest, one catches verses from different chants, discerns the writing tagged on walls, and glimpses the signs and banners of demonstrators. Like this protestor, readers of Bernes’s poetry will catch glimpses from recent cycles of struggle. Bernes draws his material from contemporary radical political practice, from the UC student movements of 2009–’11, to Occupy, the global wave of anti-austerity politics, Black Lives Matter, and related anti-police movements. This fidelity to the antagonisms of the present is decisive for Commune Editions, the AK Press imprint based in Oakland, California. Poetry and politics often run together in Oakland, a city home to both a deeply rooted radical history and intense waves of gentrification mixed with police violence. Started by Bernes and his co-conspirators Joshua Clover and Juliana Spahr, Commune Editions is the latest collaboration between the three writers. In a contentious series organized for the poetry journal Jacket2, the trio thought through the “intersection of poetry and communist/anarchist activity.” Insistently writing with the pronoun “we,” they investigated the present imbrication of poetry and politics as well as the future of poetry “beyond poets and poems.”

Bernes takes up these concerns in We Are Nothing and So Can You. The poem’s content was gleaned from nights spent circumventing lines of riot cops and overtaking freeways, while its form alternates between prose poetry and lineation, wavering between different registers of historical time. The lineated sections address the present state of social movements while the prose sections speculate on a future after the fall of our late capitalist social order. Both inevitably draw upon the historical past as the force that conditions the present and from which the future can be imagined.

We move through the sewer system
gingerly, sketching on the underside
of the surface of the world
a map of the city to come, with brackets
holding in place the things we can’t
begin to begin being
perhaps because we were
unwilling to count ourselves
among the things of the world
or perhaps because we did.

These lines sketch out the development of a “we” in the present, a political collective left undefined and without qualification. This “we” is caught between the desire to plan a new world and the final limits placed on the ability to imagine a future without capitalism. The brackets suggest the difficulty of thinking a life outside — or, here, on the other side of — the forms of life currently available to us, and suggest that the role of poetry is to hold open spaces for thinking and being otherwise.

They had been barricaded inside the Louvre for a length of time you could not measure in time. Sandbags, maybe, or candles. Something gravitational. Or wind, you could measure it with miles of wind unwinding through the galleries […] Everywhere we went, carved and threaded through the blind stone, the coolly rational waves of stone pushed us forward, pushing the past behind even when it was in front of us, room after room gone dark for good, as if the dark were a kind of combustion, slower than fire but faster than rust.

This prose section takes up the figure of a political community situated in some speculated future after a critical crisis of capitalism. Once again the poem takes up the problem of envisioning a “we,” a subject whose experience of time is different than that of the market and the workday. Without the organization of time into the rhythm and flow of capitalist production, the partisans depicted here find measure in forces and resources, as well as the alternation of light and dark, wind and stillness. Poignant here, too, is the reclaiming of the space of the museum. The Louvre becomes the space of contestation, resistance, and social recomposition. The prose imagines — rather than programs or plans — a future in which a time and space for politics is reopened. This point is crucial: Bernes and his comrades at Commune refrain from any avant-gardist pretensions that poetry could direct or give form to emergent political practice. And instead of charting poetry’s shortcomings, We Are Nothing and So Can You thinks through the clamor of radical political movements and the sounds of bodies in streets and squares to reassemble, distill, and represent these dynamics for the partisans of our time.

The following interview was conducted via email and then developed in person at a cafe in Oakland, California in July 2015.


ZAC GUNTER: Let’s start by talking about Oakland. Apart from the specific references to geography (“the Footlocker on Broadway boarded-up / once again”), Oakland’s recent political history seems to haunt the pages of We Are Nothing and So Can You. How did your experiences with Occupy Oakland shape 2012’s chapbook version of the book, and how have the last three years’ political developments influenced the new book?

JASPER BERNES: I couldn’t have written this book anywhere else. This is a poem of political experience, in one way or another, a meditation on the social forces that have swept through Oakland and its environs, for better or worse, in the past several years: the ongoing economic crisis that began in 2008, the Oscar Grant movement of that same year, the UC student movement of 2009 and 2010, Occupy Oakland, and all sorts of important events between and since. The poem is fueled by the enthusiasms and fervors and prospects generated in these moments, and one of the reasons it took me so long to finish is that the world (not to mention Oakland) wasn’t really cooperating with me. I had a hard time writing the book in 2013 and 2014, when all I could see was a landscape of defeat. Some of the more pessimist sections come from that time, as rent soared, friends served time in jail, and the forces that once set themselves against the party of order turned on each other in increasingly petty ways. I was able to finish the book in late 2014, with the emergence of the Ferguson protests and Black Lives Matter, events which seemed to indicate that some of the lessons of defeat had been learned, and the sequence begun in 2011 had run its course.

Oakland, it goes without saying, is a special place with a decades-long radical history and culture that continues to inform the things people do today. There is a culture of confrontational resistance here, uncharacteristic for the US, that has strengthened despite the police repression and despite the infighting mentioned above. And yet, Oakland is also a metonym for a set of conditions that are increasingly global, and the most intense moments here were always in response to and in solidarity with events elsewhere in the country and the world — in Ferguson or New York, Cairo or Longview, Washington. The more Oakland draws upon and withdraws into its specific regional character, the weaker that character is, paradoxically. In We Are Nothing and So Can You, I’m interested in the way that particular places like Oakland reflect, refract, condense, and displace these global unfoldings. In other words, as much as I owe to Oakland, the book is more about a particular time than a particular place.

You’ve written in the past about how the changing character of work in capitalism in the 60s and 70s inflected the era’s poetry. We’re witnessing another restructuring of the capital-labor relation today toward financialization and immaterial labor in the capitalist heartland and intensified resource extraction and precarious labor elsewhere. Was this new restructuring a concern while writing We Are Nothing and So Can You?

It’s hard to know what’s happening with the restructuring of labor right now. Some of the things you describe seem like the intensification or extension of the processes I write about in my academic criticism: the expansion of work such that it fills up all 24 hours of the day; the demand that workers offer themselves up body and soul to the workplace, performing feeling as well as bodily action; and finally, an increase in various forms of precarity and contingency: part-time work, informal work, uncontracted and indefinite work (zero-hour contracts, all-purpose assistantships). The poets of the 1960s and 1970s that I write about were developing models for alternate ways that people might work together, or be together, that eventually got incorporated into this nightmare world. Poets today therefore confront a variety of work formed through a counter-revolutionary appropriation of the critical imagination of their forebears, an appropriation which neutralizes in advance many of the challenges poets might address to this state of affairs.

In one section of the book, I describe this as “a James Franco-based mode of production,” by which I mean a world in which the only person who labors is James Franco (or someone like him), a person who through his zealous and infinitely flexible mediocrity manages to do all of the things that need doing. To get from the place we are now — where the “smile scanners” mentioned in the beginning of the section check to make sure that train workers are sufficiently cheery — to the farcical James Franco mode of production, billions of workers would need to be expelled from the labor process. In the 1960s and 1970s, everyone thought that this scenario was right around the corner, that rising productivity would usher in a new age of mass unemployment and falling work hours, one that might lead either to liberation or to catastrophe. But things didn’t really turn out this way: a glut of new, low-paying service jobs absorbed the workers expelled from manufacturing, and although precarity seems to have increased, labor market participation hasn’t fallen very much. There are limits, however, to how far wages can fall in order to keep people working, and we seem to have reached those limits. Real unemployment now seems to be rising in the US, and we may be on the verge of a new technical reconstruction of service sector jobs. So, some less hyperbolic version of the James Franco scenario may be in the cards. In such a state of affairs, the poetic critique of labor and its alienation will appear increasingly limited, and instead poets will need to situate their critique elsewhere, beyond production. Does We Are Nothing succeed in this regard? I hope so.

The problem of the future is a touchstone of radical thinking, with visions abounding from “radical democracy” to “fully automated luxury communism.” The prose sections of the book map out a kind of collective political subject that is undoubtedly historical, but the sections’ shifting tenses suggest that what’s being presented is neither an account of politics hitherto nor a program for a politics to come. How are these sections temporally situated?

My initial plan for the book was that the prose sections would be situated in some sort of future, while the lineated sections engaged the present. But I was also reading quite a bit of history, particularly French revolutionary history, when I wrote some of the first sections of the book, and so that history suffuses both the lineated and prose sections (speculative fiction, it seems to me, almost always draws upon the past in order to build its futures, as there is no other place to find images of a life lived otherwise).

So yes, there are lots of shifting tenses and scrambled temporalities, but present and future nonetheless form the temporal dominant of the lineated (verse) and prose sections, respectively. In the verse sections, the past is intermixed with the present because, as Marx notes, the new can only emerge under cover of the old, and therefore “epochs of revolutionary crisis […] anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.” The future in these lineated sections is a sort of everyday futurity, the kind one encounters in new technologies (drones, wearable computers, etc.) or in the portentous revolts, disasters, and crises that welcome us to the 21st century. With the prose sections, the operative futurity is different: it is a future after the fact, on the other side of an unnamed event, and often one approached from within a narrative past tense.

All of this is perhaps a long-winded preface to the most important point I can make about time in the book, which is that the prosimetric form is designed to model the dynamic movement of history itself. The alternation between lines and sentences, between present and future, presents a decomposition of historical change into its linear and the elliptical determinants, where “verse” turns and returns upon itself, moving in circles, and “prose” moves forward in a straight line. History, encompassing both of these forms of motion, moves in a spiral, producing the genuinely new through a recycling of elements of the old. The shuttling between verse and prose (and between a present and a future described in a narrative past tense) explores as form the ways in which antagonist forces in the present, projecting themselves into a future, end up producing a past, a history. And perhaps, also, I’m saying something about the ultimately “negative” character of utopia — that the function of futures like this is to trace out what we can’t imagine; the conversion of future into story has something to do with the epistemological poisoning of the future by what we know and live now. I think I do succeed in providing little glimpses of a life lived otherwise, of communism even, in between the horror and disaster, but it can really only be gotten at obliquely, something you see out of the corner of your eye. That’s why it’s important that the future of the prose sections itself has a future (the time of the act of narration). Perhaps it’s there, in that open space of telling, where revolution really unfolds.

The last section rehearses a central question of communist theory, “Can a class, acting strictly as a class, abolish all classes,” without the direction of a vanguard, party, or artistic avant-garde. Is this why, in the search for a radical poetics, you seem to have opted for a sampling of language and themes from existing politics?

That’s a good way to put it. I am interested, here and elsewhere, in what people are doing and saying and thinking. “I wanted to speak the beautiful language of my century,” writes Guy Debord. By which he means, I think, that his own art and theory is a distillation and formulation of social experience, a way of capturing in phrases and images a structure of feeling developed through the antagonistic practice of the proletarians of his time. In this view, theory of the sort Debord produced is not a way of telling people what they don’t know (as a vanguardist view might have it) but making clear to them what they do. Poetry, too, emerges from this social experience; I couldn’t have written this book independently of what millions of people did over the last seven years, in the streets and plazas, at great risk. It’s not just my title that is “sampled” from the streets; at every turn, my poem transfigures the things people have done or said in revolt, either in recent or distant history.

A recurrent concern in We Are Nothing and So Can You has to do with the relation between the radical desire for another world and the search for words adequate to realize that desire. It seems that much of the language of the book borrows imagery both from recent cycles of struggle (“I never saw the panda punch the cop”) as well as features of contemporary capitalism (“baroque interest rate swaps”). Is this poetry addressed to the present, or to a politics yet to emerge?

Both, I guess. Or rather, my hope is that the poem hails in the present those elements and forces likely to compose part of a politics yet to emerge. The “we” of the title and the book — a “we” that absorbs a hailed “you” — doesn’t really refer to a definite group of people. As I note in the acknowledgments page, I stole the title from an anonymous graffitist. In this regard, the book is addressed to anyone who happens along and identifies with it. “Myself and strangers,” answers Gertrude Stein, when asked for whom she writes. I might adapt this to the first-person plural point of view of the book: myself, my friends, and strangers.


Zac Gunter works and writes in Oakland, CA.

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