a translation collective

Applied social poetry

Dmitrii Golynko

Applied social poetry: Inventing the political subject


In his programmatic manifesto «Applied social art», Artur Zmijewski writes about the «possibility of using art for the most diverse goals: as an instrument of receiving and disseminating knowledge, as a factory of cognitive procedures, based on intuition and imagination, as an occasion for learning and for political action». Paraphrasing that definition by Zmijewski, it is possible to suggest and legitimize the term «applied social poetry». It is meant to demote that sphere of contemporary poetry, which serves for the production and dissemination of knowledge, included in the global cognitive industry, and also calls for the study of reality and its political reorganization. Initially that term appears disputable and somewhat paradoxical, in so far as the second half of the twentieth century poetry has achieved the states of a marginal and practically unfinanceable occupation, cultivated by a small number of professional communities or closed academic elites.

The contemporary poet wages image politics, which presupposes either his following the romantic myth of the solitary genius, producing the otherworldly voice of the Muse; or the heroic assertion of aesthetic autonomy and the hermetic closedness of his creations; otherwise entering the system of specialized literary events (along the lines of local or international festivals, artist residencies, competitions for awards with rich or poor prize funds). At times the role strategy of the poet is based on a combination of all three, and also a number of other factors. The point of view, expressed by the contemporary poet, even when critical and hostile to the existing social order, nevertheless remains the expression of an individual view. Others may pay attention to his private option, but it hardly can grow into incremental leadership towards action, into an instrument of practical transformation of society and for the righting of social injustices.


In order to give the poetic utterance an applied character, the poet with a radical gesture renounces the principle of aesthetic autonomy, and also from the use of the stereotypical (Romantic and modernist) character of the poet-prophet, demon or eccentric. At the same time he is compelled to free himself from the illusion of artistic independence and to admit his absolute dependence on antagonistic social codes, and on a number of contradictory social voices. Applied social poetry arises in that moment when the poet delegates his unique authorial voice to that mass of disenfranchised and downtrodden, which has been stripped of the possibility to speak in the field of contemporary culture industry.


At the same time the poet not only speaks from the point of view of the destitute and cast aside, but also allows their segregated and often clumsy, unpleasant to the ear voices to sound and be transmitted through his lines, through the very politicized form of his protest statements. For the sake of the transformation of the text into an applied social realia, the poet is forced to renounce the habitual and traditional aesthetic categories, from the Kantian dichotomy of the beautiful and the sublime, and in general from value judgments about the beautiful and the ugly, the authentic and the sham. In his texts distinctly comes out that ethico-political measurement of the current day, which can be justly described only in the language of direct and immediate intervention in current events (when those current events cannot leave one indifferent and do not allow for non-action at an ironic distance).


My personal interest in «applied social poetry» is motivated by the fact that I grew up and was educated in the late Soviet epoch. Then nearly every written poem was treated not as a self-forgetting linguistic game, but as dangerous and risky, but necessitated by social behavior (this related both to superficial entertainment and to lyrical-metaphysical utterances). To be sure, we are talking about, first of all unofficial culture, the Petersburg underground with its solemn imperial-classical rhetoric, or about the literary flank of Moscow conceptualism with its imitations of down to earth, quasi-conventional speech, riddled with ideological cliches. But even official Soviet poetry also admitted and propagandized (at times with too much pathos) its intention to become the optimal means of bettering social reality.


In the post-soviet period, the poet can produce international ressentiment on the topic of inflation, hopelessness, and the catastrophic social inequality; he can speak out collective traumas linked with the waste of the imperial historical perspective; he can step forward into a civic pose, breaking out with angry sarcastic attacks or even extremist pronouncements. At the same time he has the possibility to react to current events, to pass moral or legal judgment, to expose the hardened criticism, etc. What is categorically not still possible for him is a function of active and effective social intervention, in which, at times, soviet official and unofficial poets took such pride. It is notable that the realization of poetic labor as a pressing transformative activity was accompanied by ideological and world outlook complications of the entire antagonistic literary field. For two decades after the collapse of the USSR, that world-contemplative complexity slowly, but inexorably transformed into its opposite, into advertising-marketing «simplicity». Evidently, the death of contemporary culture’s higher complexity and ambiguity partly explains the interest today’s leftist intellectual community has in the universalism of the soviet civilizing project.


It is understood that political regimes with totalitarian or authoritarian forms of government are prone to see in the written word a concrete physical danger for the ideological stability of society. In turn, liberal-democratic government compares the written word to private self-expression, granting ideologic power to commercial profitable media culture. The global financial crisis, that has placed under question the very infrastructure, and media rhetoric of post-industrial capitalism, it is possible, creates the conditions for the re-actualization of social poetry, which carries in itself a revolutionary avant-garde impulse and presents a thought-through political program.


It is unlikely that such poetry will correspond with some sort of stable cliches of the civic lyric; or if it will even include an agitational component or commonplace «poster truths», they will bring about attentive intellectual reflection, taking into account their historical genesis, their class identity, their role in the system of social differentiation. The poetic gesture comes about by means of social behavior namely thanks to a fast, if not instantaneous, response to significant social events. Thanks to the emotional immersion in that event and the readiness for a real inclusion in its configuration, and also a sober and attentive intellectual understanding of the reasons and consequences, that forms the essence of the social process in a given unique moment in time. Social poetry calls the poet to be a bit of an anthropologist, an ethnographer, a political thinker, to do journalistic investigations, and, if need be, to become a fighter on the barricades, whether imaginary or real.


What differentiates applied social poetry, is the particular relationship to the poetic language, which does not belong to anyone and at the same time belongs to all, which is not subject to the one writing and at the same time is devoted to the authority of the millions of the voiceless and suffering. The experience of such poetry is the experience of the defamiliarization of the language from itself: language ceases to be a modernist «house of being», a postmodernist stream of floating signifiers or a virtual «cosy ??». Language is made into the space of an ongoing battle, a battle that is ideological or class-based, developing into a inter-subjective field or into the plane of individual psychology.


In such a space of battle, elements of varied forms of social languages come into collision, professional slang, computer or criminal jargon, urban Volapuk, national dialects etc. They are all pushed out or drawn out of their habitual contexts of commonplace or public usage. They all borrow correspondingly from disparate fragments of social discourse, which become objects not of private, but collective ownership of language, those bricks from within the text of which is formed a new explosive and unpredictable social reality.


Aside from that, from the point of view of applied social poetry, any private history (be those the facts from the biography of the poet himself, heightened to the scale of heroic myths, or the twists and turns of life of a character invented by them) can be retold only in terms of social experience, more often negative than positive, the experience of habitual disorder and the corresponding inequalities. In other words, the structure of the individual experience (put simply, «nightingales and roses») is retold exclusively with the help of precisely accurate social analysis; the private and intimate, by this means, reveals itself to be a projection of the social. Only the categorical understanding of the fact that «there is nothing outside of the social», allows the poet to accomplish a hard political diagnosis of contemporary man—his tendency towards social justice and at the same time lack of faith in the possibility of accomplishing such a thing, his syndromes of melancholy and existential lostness, his atrophied desires and the total deficit of futurity.


In order for social poetry to really be considered applied and, functionally applicable to a concrete social context, it most create a narrative within the poem, that tells about the journeys and stages of building subjectivity within the circumstances of global capitalism. A narrative about the ways that the bourgeois subjectivity reigning throughout the last half-century, with its complexes of hedonistic consumption, conformism and apathy to transform primarily into a subjectivity that searches and doubts ( ready for countercultural work against the bourgeois consensus), and then into a revolutionary subjectivity, incapable of making peace with the existing status quo. The practical result of the development of social poetry must be the literal growth of a new revolutionary subjectivity, adequately expressed in a textual format. Which brings along with it the creation of new parameters of social experience, the experience of ethical striving and political non-compromise, the experience of labor solidarity and mass enlightened resistance.


It is worth noting, that in place of the postmodernist position of profanation and reduction of the poetic utterance, the transformation of the poetic text into an entertaining eccentric show, applied social poetry (once more) demands of the poet an expansive intellectual preparation, and the work itself of writing poetry comes closer to intensive intellectual research. The effectiveness of social poetry, that is the success of its applied character, depends on how much the poet is able to masterfully unite the intellectual search with the detailed fieldwork of contemporary social dispositions. Applied social poetry translates utopian drives and liberating tendencies of the revolutionary avant-garde into the language of an epoch of failing cognitive capitalism. Because of that, it becomes an intellectual industry for the production of a «new man», a new political subject and a new subject of study.


May 1, 2011. Berlin


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