Can poetic opacity answer the non-consensual gaze?
One of the most significant contradictions and ironies of the contemporary moment is that the proliferation of so many devices and programs devised for orienting ourselves has increased our sense of disorientation. In On Malice, Ken Babstock confronts this dialectic of disorientation by taking his cue from Walter Benjamin, the modernist cultural thinker who devised critical-aesthetic devices for re-orienting cognition in the modern period.
Registering the apocalyptic tone to which the present is attuned, Babstock braids together the various strands of anxiety running through the subjectivity, philosophy, politics, and poetics pervading our current condition of constant surveillance. Admirers of the directness of his earliest works, Mean (1999) and Days into Flatspin (2001), may find the obliquity of this work unrecognizable.
However, Babstock’s general shift to a more cryptic voice finds a meaningful impulse within the context of surveillance and the attendant issues surrounding transparency and security from the unwanted gaze. Modern poetry has a long history regarding figurative language as a mask, in Yeats, or a persona, in Pound and Eliot, for the dual purposes of concealing and revealing. In Babstock’s case, condensed figuration can be construed as a corollary to encryption, protecting against invasive surveillance. Note the cumulative way in which figures tumble out of the many fissures between the syntactic and semantic orders:
She pulled faces from the various
performances. Aria or folk
embroidery, as might labour in ditches
during no time. You split lip.
You contusion, cannot bear Lord
under circumstance indexed as grievance.
“SIGINT,” the first of the five parts that make up On Malice, is indeed an index of grievances with the contemporary moment of surveillance. As a whole, On Malice is a retro-futurist post-apocalyptic drawing of the extended lines of this moment’s mangled logic—as re-fashioned from the American and former West-German surveillance of the former East Germany in the 1980s.
The intricate embroidery of Babstock’s folk-aria is indeed bewildering. He responds to the mystifying über-disorientation of contemporary modernity by seeding “SIGINT” with vocabulary from German modernist cultural critic Walter Benjamin’s notebook entries. Those entries focus on his young son’s word play, misunderstandings, and neologisms. Among the many critical-aesthetic figures that he developed, such as the dialectical image and the constellation, Benjamin also sought in para-literary forms of the book, such as the index, models for exposing hidden social forms. His son’s misunderstandings represented a productive means of short-circuiting the overly antiseptic discourse of bourgeois polish and reactionary non-sequitur.
These distortions of misunderstandings took the world apart for him, and paradoxically gave him a foothold in it. From out of these, linguistic fault-lines scrawled and oozed new formal and semantic creatures that exposed misleading or impenetrable appearances and carried potentially revolutionary energies.
Another thematic from Benjamin emerges in the form of the creaturely throughout the world of On Malice. The opening stanza sets an elegiac tone for our lost contact with the creaturely aspect of human existence in modernity, as well as its more recent permutation in the face of digital disembodiment:
Yes, these are conquests from the castle. I washed
my neck and my main source of food. Unfortunately,
I also washed my supplementary animal.
With allusion to Kafka’s moles, apes, and vermin crawling through the enigmatic castle, Babstock sets the tone for the creaturely as a now-distant supplement of the human. To apply Benjamin’s projective logic, Babstock’s lament registers the angst over technology becoming the main event, with the human as merely a supplement to it. While such alarms were already sounded by contemporaries of Benjamin such as Rilke and Heidegger, Babstock is suggesting that the point of no return may have already been passed:
certain urge plainly alleged
in the shadow of type.
I meant to celebrate the ground, to forbid
no precept, no fire, to extol
the history of instinct.
Whether or not instinct can survive on the threshold of total surveillance, as depicted in the cliché of Orwell’s Big Brother, is the urgent question that Babstock poses to his readers. Readers who admired him for his direct delivery on the part of the personae in his earlier collections may now find themselves wringing their hands at his Orphic turning away from them. His readers must now recognize that Babstock is mapping those earlier characters onto the “immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history,” to cite Eliot’s reckoning with the ruins of culture in modernity. Babstock’s perspective in On Malice is much larger now; consequently, his readers cannot be faulted if they feel lost without recognizing the logic of indexicality as the code to the poetics of On Malice.
The Non-Consensual Penetrative Gaze
Language is a response to the erosion of private life
The problem is not so much Babstock’s stylistic turn to opacity. It is, instead, the non-consensual penetrative gaze with which we all now contend. “I and everything / have a limit,” he asserts, suggesting the rapacious appetite with which information is devoured, and the attendant consequences for subjectivity and society. More than a mere lament for technological overdrive or political despair, Babstock’s pronouncement carries the vatic weight of poetic-philosophical truth. The pervasive vacuuming of information is indicative of the death drive channeled in a grotesquely perverse manner to keep feeding the Moloch of surveillance-capital.
This insight is where Babstock goes to the limit. The eros that Babstock identifies as driving contemporary surveillance (as suggested in the title) is refracted through the projected future authorities balancing their account of power in the following manner: “great estimates by individuals high / on malice, constantly juiced on malice.” The intoxication deriving from internet surveillance activity in the various forms of private and public voyeurism turns out to reveal a non-consensual sadistic digital libido. Taking his own survey of the land with such a purified critical perspective reveals an ethical genealogy that traces its roots back to Les Fleurs du mal, and from the author that Benjamin considered the archetypal modern poet, Charles Baudelaire.
In Heidegger’s existential terms, the defining concern of being, and therefore of the limit as finitude in terms of mortality, is the question of ownership. According to Heidegger, death is the only property that belongs to a person. The question of ownership finds its tangible manifestation in language.
Suppose one rips up the blue, one takes
away the quiet, the pealing
in the ears, and is ashamed of something.
No, but … There … I have just thrown
the feeling into your mouth. Now you tell it.
Perhaps you truly don’t own it but it’s
in your mouth now so take it
for a walk.
In their currency, words are subject to ownership, appropriation, debt, and theft in the phenomenological economy of language. Reading, for instance, is a process of attempting to appropriate the meaning, value, and orientation of text. At the foundation of the surveillance apparatus in which personal text is subject to interception at the moment of inception, the issue of ownership over language and being is at stake.
The stakes for language and subjectivity are philosophical, economic, and political—that is, they are set according to the way in which society responds to the erosion of its private life by states and corporations that do not have the public interest in mind. No matter how much talk is made of protecting so-called security, “We can claim indifference but that only makes us into / a bargain.” Wisps of acrid smoke from Faust’s pact linger around this line. Not having or taking ownership of our language and of our political and economic selves makes us into the bargain of indifference. Within this context, taking ownership of the political and economic subject does not whet the insatiable appetite of the surveillance apparatus. The apparatus must also verify, reinforce, and measure subjection.
By taking indexicality as the instrument through which to de-code the apparatus of surveillance in On Malice, the reader will find the way to finitude:
Loving ourselves as
we do, hanging in
directions, the force of accepted order. I intend
to answer to fact by dying.
What at first sounds like the resignation of a long-developed philosophical apologia for suicide is instead a plea for finitude and mortality as the last remnants of the creaturely within digital post-human existence. And yet Babstock remains upon the Orphic threshold regarding poetry: while he critiques the naked self-regard and self-promotion driving expression in the contemporary moment, Babstock cannot help but go public with his own image in verse. If he does not do so, no else will—the vice of which he is also potentially not above:
We may eat better from prison,
may pay virtue’s debts by refusing.
I may be possessed of death and still neglect
to prefer another’s opinion.
The dirty secret that Babstock exposes regarding the taboo of technology is that living in malice means no longer living in cooperation.