Monday, June 09, 2008

Rob Halpern's *Imaginary Politics*

Attending the George Oppen Centennial Symposium this past April at SUNY-Buffalo with Rob, I was reminded of many affinities between Rob and the figure of poet George Oppen. While the affinities between these two exemplary poets are too many to think about adequately here, one way to think their works in relation is through the terms “guilt” (Oppen) and “shame” (Halpern) as the recognition of guilt and shame may be constitutive of a certain form of responsible (i.e. ethical) subjectivity, and not merely a shibboleth for bad forms of liberalism and religious morality.

For there to be “shame in simply being here” I do not read negatively, that is I don’t read it in terms of a damaged or pathetic subjectivity (a figure of trauma per se), but as one of the most fundamental propositions of ethical subjectivity. Not unlike Emmanuel Levinas, who in his '61 work *Totality and Infinity* recognized “I” not to begin in Being (capital B), but in an inexhaustible and unpayable debt to other beings, nearly every sentence and line of Rob’s work articulates a subjectivity completely related by others, and committed to an acknowledgement of complicity with violences major, minor and in between. So that to “simply be here”—that is to simply exist in relation to other beings and objects—is to be hailed by power itself, whether, and however inadvertently, we heed that call or not.

Rob’s newest chapbook, *Imaginary Politics*, clause after clause responds to the calls of this hailing through critical investigation, emotional interjections and addresses, and autobiographical modes too allegorical to ever be called confessional, that don’t resort to narcissism as such. And yet *Imaginary Politics*, like much of Rob’s work and as the work’s title suggests, not only concerns things as they are, but things as we imagine them and would like them to be. Whereas the goal of Lacanian psychoanalysis specifically is to bring the subject from an imaginary position wherein a navigation of the real (small “r”) is tenable, to one in which the illusory subject breaks upon the rocks of the Real (capital “R”) and can thusly be transformed thru psychic disillusionment, Rob’s work enacts thinking towards a place that is possible inasmuch as it is unthinkable—a non-place (i.e., utopia), or place of the imaginary unidentifiable with the psychoanalytical type.

The place of this imaginary I identify principally with thinking as an action in itself, as thinking may begin in using and being used by language. I believe Leslie Scalapino may articulate such a notion of thinking where she writes: "Movement (or shape in writing) is a knowledge that isn’t one’s thinking per se. One’s thinking by itself is movement that is knowledge." When I think of Rob’s work in general, beyond any concrete detail, thematic concern, or subject it is this essential movement of thinking that I recall, and which makes me want to return to the work. While certain terms from Rob’s poetics may point at this movement of thought—“event”, “situation”, “withdrawal," “disaster”—the one I think most of is “blank,” a term that recurs again and again.

Never knowing quite how to take this term, it would seem to indicate a limit of sorts in substance which provides for new psychic configurations and interpellative circumstances: “you no longer being, my abundance, a blank the world keeps repeating, such pure situation.” Insofar as “blank” evidences the sublime, it also challenges one to act before a real too large to be encompassed by the understanding: “—yr role in something boundless makes me impotent, a blank the war keeps repeating, a bad infinity gone sublime” and “such clean subordination. broken subjects, surface areas and coastlines now contiguous with the vastness of that blank, repeating what won’t go down.”

I bring up Rob’s *blank* because I think blank is meant, in some way, to indicate a space of potentia, if only in negative, and it is such spaces that Rob’s work is principally concerned with. By taking the high-road of the negational, abstract, erased, absent, and occulted Rob constantly brings us back to our senses. To an actual commons, a common sense, where one might gather again, feel, touch, commune and coappear. Somehow through distance we have closeness, sense thru nonsense, sound through inarticulation, silence. “Now undo this habit. It won’t take long, and then we’ll emerge, together, in a hole blast thru the audio feed, our ears, at last prepared to hear, discovered in the mud…”

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