Poetry Against Neoliberal Capitalism in Ali Alizadeh and Melinda Bufton

By | 1 October 2020

Intermingled with Alizadeh’s explicit criticism of capitalism and the academy’s complicity in ridding language of its power is an aside concerned with desire and its impact on the notion of labour. For Alizadeh, desire is complicated under capitalism in two ways which read as extrapolations of Marxist commodity fetishism and the system of ‘material relations between persons and social relations between things’ (Marx 78). This firstly manifests in ‘What We Want’ where Alizadeh ingrains desire for things into interpersonal relationships. When remembering a boxset of toy soldiers he wanted as a child but his mother couldn’t afford to buy, the speaker remarks, ‘Don’t / laugh / to hear me say this lack defined the nature of desire / for me’ (Alizadeh 38). From the musing ‘Is affection an object?’ the poem pivots to a childhood heartbreak at the hands of a schoolgirl, which added to the speaker’s ‘matrix of unfulfillable wants’ (38—39). Adding another desire to this, ‘Fame, glorification’ for literary work is lumped in as ‘fetishistic, false disguises / of the original emptiness where / desire was born’ (39). Alizadeh’s list of unfulfilled desires circles through Freudian connection between mother and child, romantic love, consumer commodity desire, and then into a desire for professional recognition by the literary establishment. This fluid movement through different desires sees the many variations of commodity desire displaced from objects and on to people or constructed social relationships through material objects. Alizadeh calls it the ‘empire of shit’ for the ‘bourgeois (consumerist, sex-obsessed, fame-lovers)’ (39) equating these desires as all serving the same system of class inequality. And it all returns to the body, specifically the primal connection between mother and child in ‘the womb of detachment’ (39), the original site of longing and the tool of human labour.

Alizadeh goes further in ‘Thus Capital’ to personify capitalism and take commodity fetishism to the extreme: sexual subjugation to capitalism. The speaker seeks an encounter with ‘power’, a force built out of ‘polyamorous porn / & vegan lingerie’ (Alizadeh 28). The speaker imagines another world in risqué terms: ‘I’ll serve the society / of the disrobed spectacle. I must see the really naughty bits’ (28). Commodity fetishism becomes sexual desire while, at the same time, Alizadeh mixes in considerations of ethical consumption when the speaker ironically notes ‘Ethical consumers / fumble with fig leaves’ (28). In a fetishised capitalist system, ideas of ethicalness or modesty are laughably insignificant. The speaker announces his desire to submit to power, the market, using images like boot-licking and kissing rings as particularly vivid representations of worshipping power systems and their symbols. At the end, Alizadeh’s speaker turns suddenly, as though being reminded of the purpose of desire, and asks, ‘But what if / even that / doesn’t make me happy?’ (28). This shift in the tone from carnality, desire, and sexual satisfaction to the much more innocent and even honourable consideration of happiness is startling not least because it recalls the childish innocence in ‘What We Want’. Retrospectively this line rewrites the rest of the poem as sordid and dirty without any sense of decadence or luxuriating in submission. But more interestingly, it directly challenges dissatisfaction with the capitalist regime by asking, if you were to completely buy into capitalistic desire and success, would it fulfil you? From this point, with the dissatisfied consumer and the disillusioned poet, Alizadeh begins to offer strategies or resistance.

In ‘The Point’, Alizadeh returns to the question of poetry and its relation to power and begins his interrogation of language as meaning-making. At first a slew of rhetorical questions gets to the centre of academic and professional writing culture before the speaker begins musing on his plans for literary success:

                                    I hope
it’ll get published, 

                                    announce its maker’s cleverness
                        which may then be

                                                            (apparently) for kudos (Alizadeh 43)

Alizadeh makes clear the way that art has been co-opted by capitalism to turn poetry into another product, produced in exchange for social or intellectual capital. It calls back to Alizadeh’s earlier criticism of academic and literary performative fame in ‘The Academy’ and ‘What We Want’. But at the same time the terminology of exchange value and commodities is ironic when applied to poetry, an art form notorious for its low economic return. Alizadeh asks,

what’s to determine
the quantity of kudos

afforded to a poem
like this?                  Labour-time? Aesthetic judgment? (43)

This musing about the quantifying of poetry is deliberately unanswerable to illustrate the impossibilities of fitting poetry squarely into the capitalist labour market. He calls on the names of theorists like Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno to re-enliven the poem ‘because a poem is not, finally, an inert thing … Isn’t it?’ (44). Once invited in, the voices of Adorno and Benjamin begin again the argument of what poetry can do for the world. Alizadeh sets up the ultimatum ‘From Baudelaire to Celan / it’s either the totality / of exchange-value commodity / or the horror of post-experience’ (44). From this point each theorist restates his argument for or against the death of art before Alizadeh draws on Adorno’s 1949 statement with the line:

poetry’s pointless after Auschwitz
                   ‘cos the camps’ satanic mills
are far eviler
                  than a linguistic semblance

of (e.g.) the body (45)

The concern shifts to this specific example from the mid-twentieth century of the place of poetry after the horrors of World War II. Many interpreted Adorno’s statement against lyric poetry after Auschwitz as a ban, a death knell, but John Zilcosky reframes Adorno with consideration of his further writings in 1944 and 1966 and argues that Adorno was issuing more of a challenge than a ban (Zilcosky 672). Zilcosky states,

Adorno first addressed the question of poetry after Auschwitz [in Dialektik der Aufklarung (1944)] and already came up with a response whose basic structure he would never reject: only formally innovative art can speak truthfully about historical catastrophe (Zilcosky 678).

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