SEPTEMBER 27, 2019
THERE WAS A PERIOD during the flush of globalization studies in the late 1990s and early 2000s when it was common to see the same books about economic supply chains on bookshelves and course syllabi. These books examined everyday objects and commodities to reveal the unexpected paths they had traveled and the people who were exploited for their labor along the way. In the preface to Pietra Rivoli’s The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy (2005), for example, Rivoli, an economist, notes that a “story, whether of a person or a thing, can not only reveal a life but illuminate the bigger world that formed the life.” The frisson of interest in books like Rivoli’s came from the increasingly popular idea that one thing could “illuminate” everything precisely because every thing was globally connected. This synecdochal logic found its primetime audience in Salt: A World History (2002) and A History of the World in 6 Glasses (2006).
Some of the best genre fiction of this period also responded to economic globalization by tracing the paths of objects, costs, and companies off-shored. In Henning Mankell’s The Man Who Smiled (1994), for example, Detective Kurt Wallander traces a small piece of a broken chair to uncover the machinations of a global financial archvillain. Fiction and nonfiction about economic globalization took the style of an investigative journalism that, in its most compelling forms, was on the side of the workers, often women, who were forcibly displaced, used, and discarded by the relentless transformations of capital. The investigative work of globalization studies has moved largely out of the spotlight, though Chiwetel Ejiofor’s film Columbite Tantalite (2013), Saskia Sassen’s study of “expulsions” (2014), and Jasper Bernes’s article on the “Green New Deal” (2019) are examples of its continuing relevance and intellectual heft.
Jacob Edmond’s Make It the Same: Poetry in the Age of Global Media picks up the story where the T-shirt, the alcohol, the salt, and the coltan left off telling it. His literary history takes as its “master trope” not a commodity per se, but a device of poetic production, the copy. “Everywhere the same story: our world is full of copies,” Edmond begins. Edmond’s goal is not to write a new world history based on the copy, nor to uncover the plot twists of supply chains, but to describe the global proliferation of iterative technology, from the tape recorders to translation apps, in an unlikely source — poetry.
Poetry has rarely been the primary genre used to justify a periodizing claim about literature from the second half of the 20th century. Make It the Same presents the post-1950s as a rejection of the “mot juste and radical particulars” of modernism in favor of “the iterative poetics of textual processing, networking, and translation.” In doing so, Edmond’s book renews the promise of a comparative poetics that combines expertise in multiple languages. Beginning with Kamau Brathwaite’s anticolonial experiments with tape, Edmond moves to Dmitri Prigov’s homemade reproductions in Moscow in the 1980s. The book turns next to a collaboration between a Chinese poet and a Canadian “programmer-poet,” Yang Lian and John Cayley. In the fourth chapter, the book ventures to the United Kingdom — but even then, in its analysis of the French-Norwegian Caroline Bergvall, English-writing poetry is not the only protagonist.
Poetry from the United States occupies the balance of one chapter of Edmond’s book, the fifth, which focuses on Kenneth Goldsmith, Vanessa Place, and the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo. The book ends with multiple examples of contemporary “Chinese-English translation poetry” by Yi Sha, Brandon Som, Jonathan Stalling, and Hsia Yü. The adoption of iterative poetry by British and American poetry, Edmond argues persuasively, “came partly from elsewhere: from feminist theory, and from the mix of new media and cross-cultural poetics seen in both Brathwaite’s poetry and Yang Lian and John Cayley’s collaboration.” By staking the origins of his study outside the United States and United Kingdom, Edmond compels attention to the wayward itineraries by which poetic devices, forms, and strategies make their way to and from Anglophone centers of economic and cultural power.
Despite its impressive range, the book nevertheless leaves a slight impression that media technologies lead most naturally to experimental poetries, some of which are quite hard to make out, even with Edmond’s guidance. Edmond is careful to note that “[c]opying has always been a catalyst of literary evolution.” But I miss at least some attention to more mundane uses of these reproductive technologies and to more traditional varieties of poetry, like ballads, that Maureen McLane has discussed with the help of German media theory and that Susan Stewart has analyzed as a “distressed genre,” a copy that invents a fiction of originality.
Make It the Same is a rare book — it’s difficult to find a work of literary history that tells such a compelling story across decades using a comparative method and drawing on the knowledge of multiple languages — though I should also mention fellow travelers such as Rachel Galvin’s News of War, which comprises French, Spanish, and English poetries; Marijeta Bozovic’s work-in-progress on Russian avant-gardes; and Ama Bemma Adwetewa-Badu’s Global Poetics site. While the deficit of books on global poetry calls for much more work across languages, material conditions make it ever more difficult to do this kind of research, as language departments continue to be massively underfunded and overworked.
The poets in Make It the Same are probably somewhat new to many contemporary readers; the corpus of scholarship that exists for each of them is less bulky than for some of their peers. For Edmond, the progress of style in the careers of individual poets takes on unity and coherence through their sustained work with copying. His chapter on Bergvall is a showcase for his overall argument and for his dexterity at embedding poetry in its political and social contexts. Here copy poetry emerges from an unlikely event — the Thatcher government’s Education Reform Act in 1988 — and its consequences — the transformation of “higher education institutions into body corporates” and the rise of performance writing at the Dartington College of Arts. In Edmond’s account, Bergvall’s self-conscious deployment of repetition and iteration is a complex response to the demands of neoliberalism. Edmond shows how Bergvall’s interest in “acts of repetition that produce or deny recognition” connects not only the parts of her poetic career but also the earlier 20th-century iterative poetic to contemporary conceptual writing.
The problem with a “master trope,” however, is that the desire to see it everywhere can have both defamiliarizing and distorting effects. The book loses some of its power when it draws a line from Brathwaite to US conceptual writing in the 2010s by Goldsmith and Place. Edmond is right to point out that too much attention has been paid to the poetics of Goldsmith and Place and too little to the Mongrel Coalition’s stylistic inventions. In a field that continues to publish academic books populated primarily by canonical white male poets, Edmond’s is the only book of poetry scholarship I know that discusses the Mongrel Coalition at considerable length. But Edmond is wrong to claim that “the same poetics of repetition used by Kamau Brathwaite to combat racial stereotyping and the degradation of black experience […] came to be publicly associated with the exploitation of black lives” in works by Goldsmith and Place. After all, Goldsmith’s performance, Place’s Twitter, and the Mongrel Coalition’s manifestos are manifestly not “the same poetics” as Brathwaite, nor do they all demonstrate a “shared commitment to the copy,” except in the very broadest sense of what a copy might be. This chapter does not so much reveal the political drift of the copy-as-poetic-device as it exposes a limitation of the book’s organizing logic.
An opportunity is passed up to shift attention away from the white center of poetry studies, which Edmond does elsewhere in his chapters on Brathwaite and on Chinese poetry. It’s unfair for a book review to lament the absence of a book that wasn’t the one written. And yet, if the chapter’s goal is to place the Mongrel Coalition in a global history of copy poetry by attending to their poetics, why not use the chapter to situate the Mongrel Coalition in aesthetic relation to the eclectic set of poets whom they cite — a list that ranges from Daniel Borzutzky and Dionne Brand to jos charles and Sherwin Bitsui, all of whom engage with a politicized concept of the “copy” in one sense or another?
The politics of the copy concept can have a critical, revelatory force, as it does in poetry from M. NourbeSe Philip to Robin Coste Lewis, and from Solmaz Sharif to Layli Long Soldier. Far from emphasizing the flattening of cultural difference, their work denaturalizes the literary and juridical texts that assist the ongoing economic and military work of globalization and settler colonialism. Charting the period from decolonization to the fractious multipolarity of the present, Make It the Same highlights the ambivalent political force of the copy in a changing global setting. But in order to do so, the book makes recourse at the outset to a limited and outdated, if convenient for its purposes, definition of globalization: “[G]lobalization is often conceived as the reproduction of the same culture throughout the world.” In other words, globalization is presented in its guise as “McDonaldization” — a thesis that, when floated in the early 1990s, produced a lot of handwringing over the putative loss of cultural difference. What has actually happened is not the “elision of difference,” but something like the reverse: the monetization of difference creates an endless demand, among borderless elites, for more Instagrammable local color.
At this point in time, globalization has quite evidently succeeded as a long-term strategy for the violent redistribution of wealth upward. An enduring question for poetry studies is how, exactly, poets might exert some countervailing pressure, if at all, against such a bleak reality. In Edmond’s book, the word “authority” appears several times as a placeholder term for a more exacting analysis of global politics and economics. On one hand, contesting authority fits snugly within the reasonable ambit of what literary works have sometimes been able to do. On the other hand, authority is a fuzzy metonym for the myriad processes of extraction, expulsion, and speculation that make up the politics and economics of late-20th- and 21st-century globalization.
There is a strong sense, however, in which Edmond’s book makes a radical contribution to poetry studies. For Edmond, the agent of poetic change is not the individual, but rather the shifting collaboration between technology and politics that produces different kinds of copies. Poetic style has sometimes been read as the development of a poet’s mind as it self-consciously struggles with the conditions that shape it. In Make It the Same, the history of poetry comprises a large cast of nonhuman actors. The implication is that the poetry scholar might not know in advance all the factors that contribute to the emergence of poems. Poems, in turn, might reveal more about the political laboratories of globalization than has been widely understood. The publication of Make It the Same should be celebrated not only for what the book does well — its subtle analyses of poems, its detailed knowledge of technology, its easy movement between English, Chinese, and Russian — but also for what it makes possible for scholars of poetry to do next.
Walt Hunter is an associate professor of world literature and Associate Chair of English at Clemson University. He is the author of Forms of a World: Contemporary Poetry and the Making of Globalization (Fordham, 2019) and the co-translator, with Lindsay Turner, of Frédéric Neyrat’s Atopias: Manifesto for a Radical Existentialism (Fordham, 2017).