OK, context: Black Sun by Toby Martinez de las Rivas (TMdlR henceforth, obvs) is one of the five books nominated for the Forward Arts Foundation’s Poetry Prize for Best Collection, to be awarded (at the time of writing) tonight. Back in the spring, my review of it was published in The Scores. Last week, poetry blogger extraordinaire Dave Coates published his own excellent take on it; in its wake, my own review found itself – gratifyingly – being shared and apparently enjoyed alongside it. You’ll need to read both reviews to understand what’s coming next.
I’d also encourage you to read this essay from last year by Joe Kennedy – and, if the time and inclination takes you, his recent book Authentocrats which extends its argument (as well as being really properly good and deserving of a far wider platform than it’s likely to receive). Part of the reason I’m writing this now is to acknowledge, as I didn’t at the time, the debt that the beats of my argument in Scores owes to Joe’s in the New Socialist, particularly his reading of Adorno; another is to start the process of talking more about how Joe’s thinking has influenced my own, in relation to a number of cultural phenomena important to me that he doesn’t dwell on (specifically, contemporary British theatre and poetry, and public religion).
I’m writing this as it’s not entirely clear whether people are enjoying and endorsing my review as a straight corroboration of Dave’s argument, or as a softening or even tacit critique of it, so I want to spell out my sense of my relationship with it explicitly. My local readings of Black Sun and its concerns differ from Dave’s, in some cases quite sharply, but I believe that they add up to different ways of approaching the same crisis. I want to stand with Dave in acknowledging what’s politically at stake here – what it might mean for UK poetry, and culture more generally, that Black Sun has been nominated and might win (and I agree with Dave that we shouldn’t have reached this stage) – but I see the work that needs to be done, or perhaps the work that I can best do, slightly differently.
I thought long and hard about agreeing to review Black Sun: I was already familiar (I think) with the various interviews and reviews that Dave quotes in the first half of his review, but such views could not really have been gleaned in full from a reading of his first collection Terror, which I and many others whose poetic and political views I trust enjoyed; I wanted to give the benefit of the doubt to see if the same would be true of Black Sun, and to write about it accordingly. I was also conscious that a lot of the debates surrounding his work had been at the level of hearsay and “controversy” rather than sustained critique. (As a side-note, I was (immediately) blocked by Todd Swift on Twitter back in April for politely suggesting to him that Faber might not be ‘trying to tell us something’ just because Black Sun had the same cover colour scheme as their edition of Ezra Pound’s Personae, as if this was all some cackling conspiracy theory. Of course, this treatment of political “controversy” as a kind of currency that it’s somehow intrinsically worthwhile to circulate, regardless of the material hurt it emerges from, is par for the course for a guy who’s happy to tout a victim of sexual assault as “a poet of the #MeToo generation”.) It’s clear from anecdotal evidence I’ve heard since that TMdlR’s personal views are as bad as Dave suggests, and that these alone would give anyone an adequate reason for not wanting to engage with him – but the work is out there and platformed now, and I still think it’s a leap to describe his aesthetics as fascist in quite the way that Dave suggests, and that it might not be the most useful way of contextualising his work within wider trends in contemporary culture. This is one way of saying that I don’t retract any of my original review; indeed, some of the readings I’ll go on to make here were cut from it for space.
Anyway, my tl:dr on TMdlR is: I think the more useful description of his poetics is ‘post-liberal’ rather than ‘fascist’ – but this doesn’t necessarily stop us from declaring it an act of fascist appeasement, and, in its own way, as dangerous as fascism. (This is a very long, rather grim post, so I’ve put a musical interlude in the middle to give us all a break…)
Dave writes at great length, to great effect, about the ways in which TMdlR is ‘a tendentious and damaging thinker’. I want to take a different tack here and try to articulate better versions of his thinking, versions that I and I hope others can get behind. In some cases, these are the arguments I think that TMdlR thinks he’s making; in others, they are vaguely adjacent to it, or could be confused with it. I’m doing this because fascist thinking is reliant on fiction and abstraction, but abstraction still implies some kind of minimal real evidence to be abstracted from. My aim is to highlight how, if fascism is simply execrably bad thinking, post-liberalism is giving execrably bad answers to good questions.
Firstly, it’s fair to say that the word ‘radical’ is overused too loosely, co-opted by contemporary capitalist liberalism to describe a variety of works and experiences that have no meaningful relation to political radicalism; that it’s still easy for both poets and critics to fall into a mimetic fallacy whereby (increasingly popular and normalised) strategies for formal radicalism are used as a shortcut to signal political thinking where little is happening, or it is happening badly. This means that the left-wing politics implicit in formally traditional poems can get overlooked and, more significantly, that the poetic avant-garde has failed to acknowledge obfuscations or straight-up injustices in its own politics. (The gold standard for analysis here remains Sandeep Parmar’s “Not a British Subject”, to be bolstered no doubt by the forthcoming edition of JBIIP on race that she’s editing.) Linked to this is the fact that much contemporary radical politics now proposes solutions that might be considered “small c-conservative” (just as the libertarian right keeps swinging towards a fetishisation of unchecked risk that owes more than a bit to punk). The most literal of these solutions might be environmental ones which emphasise conserving resources, and a return to slow, local or traditional practices – some of which have found artistic analogues in radical ecopoetics – but it’s also there in arguments, say, for increased state provision for low-income or vulnerable parents without sliding into “family values”. Dave has written well, and promoted good writing by others, about how care and security might constitute the new shock. And there’s plenty of other good writing on how to be a radical poet when radicalism gets co-opted: John Ashbery was doing it in the 60s with “The Invisible Avant-Garde” and, last week Chris Goode’s Twitter account pointed me towards this crunchy piece by Peter Larkin on ecology and acceleration.
Of course, TMdlR’s writing in PN Review has nothing like this level of nuance, and indeed repeats the mimetic fallacy by eliding the politics of (whatever he means by) “neo-Georgian ruralism” into a return to (whatever he means by) Georgian form.
It’s fair to say that one of the side-effects of the rapid and important diversification of voices in British poetry, most notably in relation to race, has been – in those areas of poetry production and reception most under the sway of contemporary capitalist liberalism – something of a tendency to celebrate the diversity of voices per se, without enough attention to the content of the poems produced or the historical oppressions from which these voices have emerged. To a certain eye, the impression given by a rampant rhetoric of “expressing yourself”, “speaking out”, a fetishisation of the “new authentic voice” might start to look like what TMdlR calls being ‘ostentatiously tolerant’ – a kind of glib pluralism that simply multiplies voices at the expense of any consideration of what is being tolerated. Such ‘ostentatious tolerance’, for example, seems to be Eyewear Publishing’s raison d’être if its wildly incoherent editorial policy is anything to go by: standing up for diversity while simultaneously promoting Claire Fox-style free speech and concluding that a revolutionary anti-racist, a drug user or two, a victim of domestic violence, a couple of fascists, a more-or-less compromised Jewish lesbian heiress living in Nazi-occupied France, and James Baldwin(?!) were all ‘far from perfect’ but merrily united in ‘bravely pushing the boundaries of thought and feeling’.
Of course, if this is what TMdlR believes, it betrays a skin-deep engagement with the work actually being done, almost exclusively by marginalised British poets, journalists and organisations themselves, to take a stand against this kind of blandly diversifying liberal discourse, even as this is the discourse within which their work must often be published and promoted. The fact that some of TMdlR’s fellow nominees of colour have expressed genuine doubts and fears about the complicity of being selected for and attending the Forwards this year tells you more than you need.
Finally, it’s fair to say – and this is trickier, slightly more implicit, and may get more of its pay-off in a later post – that TMdlR’s misgivings about ‘tolerance’ also might be justified if you define it as a belief that a poem should primarily be judged by the concrete ethical and political effects that it has within the material world. TMdlR’s association of his writing with ‘despair’ and ‘disintegration’, a sense that he has to work out what he is doing as he writes, his relief at discovering ‘an objective expression of something intimately mine’, all speak to a belief that producing aesthetic works is not a matter of having an idea and then finding ways to apply it. It is, instead, a simultaneous working out of idea and expression, which complicates any claims that a poet can make to political commitment. Dave’s moving and stirring conclusion suggests that he basically agrees with this, in his assertion that ‘poetry is not truth’ and that we need to retain a (properly) radical doubt that allow us ‘to forge better tools for understanding each other and the world we inhabit, in all its messiness and compromise’. But I’d argue that both he and TMdlR make a similar kind of rhetorical slippage, although in Dave’s case it’s benign and I think unintended whereas in TMdlR’s it’s so telegraphed as to be in bad faith. In each case, doubt and despair ultimately gives way to something like certainty. For TMdlR, it’s a definitive certainty, in which the composed poem provides as sure a resolution to personal despair as an established church and unified State would to political despair, and even somehow magically brings that political union about. For Dave, it’s an implicit sense that if poetry is not truth then maybe criticism should be, and that he ‘cannot read [a] poem critically without acknowledging the poet’s beliefs’ and their consequences.
I say this not to argue too forcefully against Dave, but want to make space for an alternative – not, I hope, mutually exclusive – kind of politics to his go-to model of the critic as someone who identifies and presents the context necessary for making a poem’s meaning and political operation clear and transparent, one which always risks straying into what Veronica Forrest-Thomson calls “bad naturalisation” or Rita Felski has called treating context as “a box”. The model I’m proposing is one of keeping your mind in hell and despairing not; of recognising, and mourning the fact, that the gap between aesthetic object and political significance will never be closed, even as one attempts Dave’s messy compromised stopgaps. What this forces you to confront is that there might be something fundamentally wrong or unforgiving with the very business of writing (about) poetry, that it exposes you to your own need to work out your own ethics as you go and the shameful histories in which you are complicit. The only good thing that a poem can do – but this is, nevertheless, still a good thing however apparently ‘disinterested’ or apolitical – is to remind you that this is the case. This, as I say in my original review, is Adorno’s theory of lyric, itself an explicit response to fascist genocide, which TMdlR acknowledges only to brush aside. It’s also, incidentally, the closest thing ‘the Cambridge school’ has had to a governing aesthetic theory, for anyone foolhardy enough to want to find one. (If you’re interested, or confused, by the argument I make in these paragraphs, you may wish to read this other stab I had at articulating it, in relation to John Wilkinson’s recent work.)
Of course, this negative model is only valuable insofar as it is not mutually exclusive with Dave’s affirmative one, and this balance has rarely been achieved. Adorno himself was notoriously more-or-less nakedly racist in his views on jazz, and called the cops on students in 1968, and can be more broadly accused of a failure to situate his critique of capitalism in an imperial context: it’s all very well to say that all culture is corrupt in its ‘appropriation’ of nature if you’re largely removed from the effects of what we nowadays think of cultural appropriation. (Less discussed, but also I think useful, is the fact that a persistent political commitment to Adorno’s negation can put kinds of pressure on one’s mental health that subjects will be unevenly capable of bearing.) As I suggested above, the purported radicalism of ‘the Cambridge school’ has frequently been just as guilty of this failure (to the point that a better way of summarising it than Adorno might well be Andrea Brady’s offhand description of it as a bunch of ‘boys and their party games’). But there are contemporary poets and critics doing it better, including Brady herself. Others will have better thought-out examples than this but, to stick with the Forward nominees, Will Harris strikes me as someone whose critical writing in Mixed-Race Superman hinges on a doubtful, radically dissolute conception of selfhood – which he links, interestingly for my purposes, to saintliness – and which seem to be complicatedly carried over in the hermetic formalism of some of his poems.
Right, here’s a fun and vaguely relevant song if you need a break:
What I’ve attempted to do thusfar is to suggest that there might be a line of continuity – however jagged, and dependent upon overlooking TMdlR’s bad faith, prejudice and wilful ignorance – to be walked between TMdlR’s right-wing opinions and a series of other more palatable ones that might be described as ‘radical’, ‘left-wing’, ‘emancipatory’ and so on. I now want to spell out the hinterland between these positions. On the one hand, coterminous with Dave’s and my position but pretty firmly to our right, stands a loose cluster of opinions that I’ve been calling contemporary capitalist liberalism and get condemned by TMdlR as ostentatious tolerance: a willingness to celebrate the “radical” even when it’s not that radical, not least out of a belief (with varying degrees of regret) that no alternative to capitalism is possible; to diversify without decolonising, to pinkwash and call it LGBT activism; to be vocally committed to free speech and pluralism without really considering the historical conditions within which they operate, because we’re all post-political now. Opposing them, coterminous with TMdlR’s position but perhaps largely to his left, stands a loose cluster of opinions broadly described as post-liberalism, but dubbed authentocracy by Joe Kennedy: a worry that all this liberalism has gone too far, that the UK has lost touch with its “roots” and “common history”, that white working-class people with “legitimate concerns” have been “left behind”, or stopped from speaking freely out of fear of taboo from “illiberal liberals”, and so on. You’ll know the rest from Dave’s review, and no doubt from elsewhere.
Together, these sets of opinions occupy the land of lost content formerly known as centrism. Joe’s key argument in Authentocrats is that they have always been two sides of the same coin, but that their dialectical relation is only now being exposed. Its “liberal” formation was the supposedly history-ending, consensus-building achievement of Blair’s Third Way, which sustained Thatcher’s neoliberal economics while shedding its cultural conservatism. With the crises of 2008 and 2016 exposing the failures of this triangulation, many of Blairism’s adherents found themselves falling back on the pious traditionalism that much of Nineties and early Noughties culture had spent ridiculing rather than properly unpicking, precisely because it was the only readily-available conceptual solution left in town. This rightward shift is now so complete that it’s very hard to identify individuals who continue to identify explicitly with what I described as post-political capitalist liberalism (the closest I could get was Todd Swift…), even as it defines many of the wider political structures within which we all continue to operate. Whereas you can’t move for public intellectuals, unwilling to join the Labour leadership and membership in shifting more firmly to the left, in presenting themselves as architects of post-liberalism: David Goodhart – whose crass ethnography of Somewheres and Anywheres basically coincides with TMdlR’s pitching of urbane metropolitans against English ruralism – Mark Lilla, John Harris, as well as “Blue Labour” types like Maurice Glasman, Adrian Pabst and assorted Milbanks. Then there’s Jordan Peterson, who shares TMdlR’s taste for weirdly doctrinaire mythopoeia and a fetishisation of “Order” in the face of distintegration.
Joe makes the important point that post-liberals aren’t themselves fascists, even as they are distressingly happy to platform them. Most of the examples have at least some form of allegiance to the Labour Party, and many would describe themselves as keeping alive certain forms of “socialism”. While I think Dave cuts out quite a few middle men in describing TMdlR as a fascist, I also think that Joe’s framing of Authentocrats as essentially a story about the Labour Party means that there’s more to be said about the dialogue or porosity between the soi-disant centrists that he focuses on and more unapologetically right-wing figures like Douglas Murray, Melanie Phillips and Nigel Biggar. (In this respect, and as I’ll hopefully start to sketch out later, I think there’s something to be gained by cross-hatching Authentocrats with a version of the same story about changes to the Church of England…) And I think that TMdlR’s politics as expressed in the interviews puts him somewhere between the two.
One thing that unites all of these individuals, TMdlR included, is their identification of themselves as anti-fascist (or anti-totalitarian), albeit fascism understood in ahistorical terms as “that foreign thing we all worked together to defeat in the Second World War”. One poem from Black Sun that both Dave and I haven’t mentioned is its elegy to the Spanish poet Miguel de Unamuno, whose theology of ‘intense hope and intense anxiety’ (as summarised by TMdlR in his notes) is an abiding influence on the collection as a whole. Unamuno is described, at the end of the relevant poem, as heading into his ‘final sleep’ a ‘broken moderate’. My understanding is that this is a reference to Unamuno’s death, while under house arrest, shortly after taking a public stand against the fascist rhetoric of Franco’s government, having previously expressed general support for it, despite his distaste for extremism, because it was a way of preserving an authentic Spanish culture that the socialist Second Republic had risked destroying. The only kind of anti-totalitarian who TMdlR deems to be worth mourning as ‘broken’ is an intellectual punished for making latter-day rhetorical statements against fascism, regardless of their efficacy – not, for example, the scores of international Republican street-fighters whose earlier readiness to die for their cause are the grounds which quietly made resistance to Franco “common sense” enough for someone with Unamuno’s privilege to articulate it. This is of a piece with the authentocrat myth of the Second World War in which we all spontaneously and simultaneously came together to kill Nazis out of sheer British virtuousness – rather than because of a complex tissue of factors including the pressure exerted by the non-parliamentary left through events like the Battle of Cable Street and, as Joe and Dave acknowledge, the need to secure Britain’s own totalitarian control of its empire.
Compare TMldR’s stance in that poem to this tweet by my problematic fave authentocrat:
As I’ve suggested, I agree that there is such a thing as ‘totalitarian liberalism’ which various parts of the ‘democratic left’ have been fighting as part of its ‘pivotal anti-totalitarianism’. We might prefer to describe it, like Joe, using the late Mark Fisher’s term capitalist realism: that there is simply no alternative to the multicultural consumer sunshine under which we burn. Like all totalitarianisms, defeating it is fucking hard work: it requires the real hard sacrifice of both bodies-on-the-line action and a perseverance in developing modes of thought that place a real psychological burden on us insofar as they resist common sense; the bits of Fisher’s thinking that Joe mournfully quotes in Authentocrats are notably the ones that take their metaphorical cues from Adorno, and particularly from the Messianic final paragraph of Minima Moralia, which is itself often read as an elegy for Walter Benjamin. Milbank, TMdlR and the rest of the authentocrats want, perhaps understandably, a way to shortcut all that sacrifice and despair – and they do this by subscribing to a myth of ‘anti-totalitarianism’ as a process whereby public intellectuals, and the establishment politicians whose ear they have, convince opposing intellectuals and politicians that they were wrong, mobilising the rest of the public (and perhaps themselves) into more serious forms of action only when this fails. But their attempt to perform this kind of anti-totalitarian manoeuvre on liberalism falls into a kind of shadow-boxing, precisely because there are vanishingly few people who consciously subscribe to and articulate that kind of liberalism for them to oppose as one intellectual to another: it is no longer an intellectual project and, if it ever was, they were its architects (though, again, I think there’s more variation among individuals than Joe suggests: the basic tenets of Milbank’s thinking have been pretty consistent since the 1990s). In their frantic attempt to make liberalism cohere, it becomes a kind of chimaera of any and all positions to its left. It is, I think, the glue that holds the myths and fictions that Dave identifies together: Marxists, poststructuralists, SJWs, deconstructionists and so on are all just people who disavow their own bondage to liberalism, which the authentocrats are wise enough to identify for the rest of us.
As a concrete example, take the claim made by Milbank and Pabst among others, that the increasing visibility of trans people in the West is the consequence of an extension of consumer logic to (literally) the sacred matter of the gender binary: I customise my gender expression, and call it my gender identity and expect people to ‘tolerate’ it, in much the same way that my iPhone allows me to freely change its settings in a way that superficially makes me think of myself as creative. While there’s a grain of truth to this in the way that some elements of the popular media present trans people and issues, it overlooks how this has only come about because of the uncelebrated, often unremunerated labour of queer scholars and activists rigorous in their anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism and in some cases religious faith; it also overlooks the fine-grained ways in which big capitalist behemoths like Marvel and Amazon Studios and, closer to home, Faber and Faber, find themselves being called to account by, and having to catch up with, communities of consumers who are invested in thrashing out these questions and whose enjoyment of their products is partly bound up in having arguments about how they should be interpreted. For all their conspicuous displays of wide reading and defences of scholarly liberty, this is stuff that the post-liberals have not read and have no desire to.
That last bit is key. I believe, with a degree of trepidation and a willingness to be called out, that we can apply pathological metaphors to the post-liberals (they certainly like applying them to the rest us…): that Milbank and TMdlR and so on are fundamentally addicted to forms of bad thinking. They seem fitfully aware that the habits they have formed are stopping them from being perceived by parts of the wider world in ways that they’d like, but they are unwilling to face up to the shame that they’d feel as soon as they try to change those habits, because other parts of the world that they’ve made for themselves are made more comfortable by those habits: it might even award one of them a prize tonight. And this kind of fitful awareness is, I think, the minimal gap separating them from more conscious fascism. And – as we’re often told by the authentocrats themselves – it can be dangerous to try to reason someone out of their addiction, as their immediate response is to raise their defences and double-down on a yet more incoherent justification of their addiction. All told, it wouldn’t surprise me if elements of Black Sun (particularly “To a Metropolitan Poet”, and particularly when set alongside his first collection Terror) are TMdlR more or less consciously doubling-down on some of the criticisms of his behaviour since: an urge to make a kind of “no-one likes me, I don’t care” gesture. I’ll admit to occasionally knowing how that feels; I, quite sincerely, pity him.
This looks like it’s coming round to a kind of critique of Dave’s decision to write what he wrote: he himself acknowledges that his writing will be dismissed by many as overstatement and conspiracy theory. What I’ve been writing here, at such length and with so much name-dropping, bears a rhetorical resemblance to how post-liberals treat those to their left: “Calm down, and let me be the sensible grown-up doctor here. You can’t just tell people they’re fascists and not expect them to get angry.” (I’ve had the last thrown at me a couple of times on Twitter…) I really, really don’t want to do that, and I hope that this post and Dave’s can be read as companions. For one thing, his interpretation serves as a reminder that addicts don’t just hurt themselves, that they don’t necessarily hurt themselves more than others, and that it shouldn’t be expected that others police their own expressions of hurt or anger or whatever in the face of addicts’ bad behaviour. I’ll repeat that my pity isn’t enough of a qualification to claim that TMdlR deserves anything like the platform that a Forward nomination (or even publication with Faber, really) gives him; there is still justice to be done. For all that the myth of the centrist intellectual defeating totalitarianism is a lie, it’s true that large-scale anti-totalitarian victories have only come about by a building of coalitions, and a changing of the Gramscian “common sense”, that has required certain forms of compromise between people who think of themselves as reformists and revolutionaries, as well as the swathes of people who are still working out what they think they are: I think you can see some of the latter in Dave’s own oscillation in his writing between righteous anger and a willingness to embrace pragmatic messiness; no doubt others will spot the same in this. The reason that the right are in the ascendance now is precisely because a happy compact has been made between people who have long and genuinely believed that “you deserve to take pride in Britain, whiteness etc.” and those who have reasoned themselves round to saying “well, actually a bit of pride in it is legitimate and healthy and the best chance we have of ultimately all coming together again”, such that any gap between them is now, as with TMdlR, pretty porous. The task of the left is to achieve a similar compact, without deeming either side more “sensible” than the other, between those crying out that “nationhood, whiteness etc. are shameful, violent problems we have to solve” and those who have reasoned themselves round to saying “well, OK, a bit of shame is legitimate and healthy and the best chance we have of all ultimately coming together again”. Until the left can do this – and Corbynism at its best is, to lift Joe’s conclusion, just such a process of allowing multiple people to ‘work out vows without committing to them’ – staking any claim on centrism is pointless.
What would a culture that allows people to achieve this kind of healthy, flexible, moderated relationship with shameful histories look like? Joe implicitly argues that developing such a culture is the ball that we effectively dropped during the early Nineties and are only now starting to pick up, but doesn’t elaborate any further. I hope to write a bit more about the way in which such a culture might have to be structurally ecclesial, and that there might even be a helpful role to be played in it by an Anglican Church reimagined along counter-post-liberal lines; I’d also like to pick up on some slight issues I have with how Dave reads TMdlR’s Anglicanism.
But until (unless?) I get round to that, I’d like to stress that this culture is already being made visible in some of the other poets up for the Forward Prize tonight. As I say in more detail in another forthcoming Review 31 piece (hint hint lads; the cermeony’s tonight, remember? ;)), Vahni Capildeo’s Venus as a Bear is a collection which, with a deftness that is genuinely Blakean, manages simultaneously to acknowledge the extent of our common complicity in the structural violence of patriarchy, empire and speciesism and to give a real foretaste of the joys that can come when such violence is acknowledged and atoned for. And from the little I’ve managed to read of Danez Smith’s (superb) work, they’re clearly doing something very similar. All my wishes are with them tonight, in the hope that the award is a sign of better things to come.