This interview concerns Rob Halpern’s book Common Place (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2015), and was conducted over phone and via email throughout the winter of 2015/2016. In it, Halpern discusses poetry, war, biopolitics, utopian longing, and the ethics of appropriation—all of which are concerns central to Common Place and to Halpern’s general writing practice.
Cosmo Spinosa: Thanks so much for agreeing to this interview, Rob. I have a lot of questions for you and I hope we can get through them all! If it’s alright, I’m just going to dive right in with some questions that I hope will situate Common Place within the larger context of your writing.
One thing I noticed while reading Common Place is that, much like Music for Porn, it is concerned with biopolitical themes, and specifically with how bodies are used and treated in the context of war. Although one text deals with the body of the soldier and the other deals with the body of a detainee, both figures are addressed not only as biopolitical subjects, but also as the object of sexual desire. How do you perceive this link between soldier and detainee? How does Common Place fit in with the larger ongoing work of your poetry?
Rob Halpern: These are great questions, Cosmo. What’s the best place to dive in?
CS: I’d actually like to hear about Common Place and how you see it figuring in with the rest of your work first, how it’s related to Disaster Suites, Music for Porn, and other works that you’ve done.
RH: Well, just as Disaster Suites moved me toward a more direct interrogation of my relation to ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Music for Porn moved me toward new questions—like, What does it mean to desire “community” under current conditions of geopolitical crisis?, and, How can I feel, by way of my own body, the relations between a US soldier killed in Iraq and a Yemeni detainee dead at Guantánamo Bay?—and these questions became the seeds for Common Place. When I began this new work in earnest, my hope was that it would complete what I was then thinking of as a serial project that traversed the space of four books, beginning with my first book, Rumored Place. I guess I was hoping that I might finally grasp some of my own questions—about social disaster and embodied history—that needed the space between books in order to come into focus. But really, and this is something I can only say retrospectively, the figure of the “common place” has a point of origin, for me, in the bracketed blank ([ ——- ]) that appears throughout Rumored Place, often inexplicably. I mean, I didn’t know what I was getting at with that, it was pretty intuitive, and the writing has only slowly come to reveal this blank to me as visual prefiguration of that so-called “common place.”
Before I recognized what I was embarking on in Common Place—and what would be at stake in the writing—I was anticipating that it would be the consummation of my suite of books, like a clarification of a certain longing and rage. At least that’s what I wanted. Hence, the title, which I had decided on long in advance, as if I were setting up the problem for myself, as if I were asking how “this place rumor’d to have been Sodom” (that’s Robert Duncan) the rumored place of utopian desire whose potential is both promised and blocked by the same historical-material conditions—conditions of unprecedented wealth and environmental catastrophe and endless war—how does the proverbial “common place” at once create and enclose our shared resources, our commons? And that question transported me from accumulation to incarceration, from the container ship to the detention center, from the Pacific Trash Vortex to Guantánamo Bay.
CS: So, how did you actually get there?
RH: I think I mention this in the post-script to Common Place, but while I was completing the work for Music for Porn, which is obsessively focused on the bodies of US soldiers killed in Afghanistan or Iraq, I knew I needed to locate language that might actually denote the bodies that I was fantasizing about so intensely. It didn’t take me long to realize that the only language that could literally denote these bodies would be the language of their autopsy reports. And it didn’t take me much longer to learn that such documents are withheld from public circulation as matter of state policy. They are withdrawn like all representations of dead US soldiers.
In the process of looking for autopsy reports that were not available to me, I did locate autopsy reports that the ACLU requisitioned from Guantánamo Bay by way of the Freedom of Information Act. The ACLU got involved because there was a lot of suspicion around cause of death. Often, cause of death will appear as “suicide,” and there was a period in 2008 when there was a sequence of these alleged suicides that the ACLU was questioning. This would eventually become the point of departure for Common Place, although I hadn’t completed Music for Porn when I accessed them. At the time, I thought it would be inappropriate—or “unethical”—to make use of autopsy reports denoting Guantánamo detainees while writing specifically about fallen US soldiers. And so I filed these reports away, thinking I would never use them. It wasn’t until I began to question my inclination to segregate these documents that Common Place began to emerge in earnest.
You know, all the autopsy language in the concluding section of Music for Porn is language that I found in mediated reports (journalism, etc.). But as you can probably imagine, the language of an autopsy report is the most fungible, institutional, medicalized language imaginable—a language often pressed into the service of state power—and there’s really very little to distinguish one report from another. This language—its diction and its syntax—is so hygienically abstract, its units so substitutable from one report to another, and this quality informed a need to interrogate my initial decision not to use the Guantánamo reports. And it was only in the process of this questioning that I began an early experiment transcribing one of those reports by hand, an experiment that would eventually yield most of the work for a book that I had already titled Common Place. That was a very long answer to part of your question! [laughs]
CS: No! That’s a great answer! Actually, I do have a question relating to that answer, which is: you use the word “utopian”, and I’m wondering in what sense you’re using utopian. How does your definition of utopia fit into the concept of the common place?
RH: That’s a great question, Cosmo, and difficult! Honestly, though, I have no definition. I don’t believe that one can have a definition for “utopia.” But when I think about something like utopian desire, well, most simply that would be a desire that orients itself toward a horizon of radical social transformation, the beyond of which might be entirely unrecognizable in relation to anything intelligible to us now. This can mean nothing less than a livable world, a world without the intersecting violences of capitalism, militarism, racism, and gender. The question is, what kinds of relations do we need to imagine into being in order to orient our desires and practices toward that horizon? And how might a poem facilitate our ability to imagine those relations? In this regard, I like the phrase “common place” a lot, in part because it shares a paronym, “commonplace,” and yields connotations that are at once the most radical and the most banal. Also, since “common place” also gestures toward a commons, I think it’s important to underscore the fact that this utopian desire refers ultimately to a transformation in the organization of our social relations. In other words, just as the commodity is a kind of social relation—exploitation—the commons is too, as it refers to a set of relations that are non-exploitative. Anyway, it’s this kind of dialectic between the radical and the banal that’s at the crux of what I think of as utopian desire, and I think it’s this tension, say, between a transformed social world and the banalities of everyday life that Common Place is most intimately engaged with. Often, however, those banalities are so degraded and so prosaic that they paradoxically escape everyday perception, that is, they disappear in the reproduction of our social world. I think the material of the autopsy report in some ways becomes that kind of common place—one that’s comprised entirely of commonplaces—the way its language becomes routinized and institutionalized to such a degree that it can be used faultlessly, not so much as evidence of the things they appear to reference, but as verification of the fact-making apparatus itself and the violent production of “truth”.
But you know, Cosmo, now that I’m thinking about it, the autopsy report can also be thought of as the documentary trace of a common place—the prison or the camp—where social relations are systematically negated. In this way, the body of the detainee literally becomes “re-markable”, that is, marked and erased and then marked again by this apparatus of power, which always reminds me of the “exceptional apparatus” of Kafka’s “Penal Colony” that transfigures the body as waste, the body as expense—the expendable body—into a written fact.
I don’t know, maybe a poem can be thought of as a kind of commonplace, too.
CS: So what do you think the link is between the soldier and the detainee? Do they occupy a common place?
RH: I’m curious–can I throw this back at you, Cosmo? I mean, what do you think? What’s your sense?
CS: When I think about it in terms of biopolitics, in some ways these two figures occupy a similar space in that they are in a position of risk, of losing life. They are involved in the violence of militarized, colonialist state power; but they occupy inverse positions in this relation—one working as the perpetrator of violence, the other a silenced product of this violence.
RH: Yeah, maybe you’re right, and the soldier and the detainee are the agent and the object of a biopolitical, global organization. I can’t help but wonder, though, what are we really talking about when talking about “biopolitics”? Or are we talking about “necropolitics”? In either case, it might be worth thinking about your question through the lens that determines what bodies count as bodies, what lives are worthy of protecting, what incarnate beings bear the sign of social death and can be killed without being murdered. But you know, considering how Foucault’s analysis of “biopower” develops in tandem with his History of Sexuality, it’s even more interesting to take your question as an opportunity to think about how sex becomes another “common place” where soldier and detainee meet, or interpenetrate (sorry, terrible pun!)— at least in my sexual fantasies. Yet the way each figure invites a kind of sexualization, the way each is subjectified or objectified, is consequentially different, and the difference, of course, is profound. I mean, the soldier is an iconic figure, one whose image saturates the cultural imagination in ways that are often rendered to be desirable as an idealization of masculinity, or whatever. That image is sedimented inside my own identity as a “man”, even as I wish to negate it—(I played with fucking G.I. Joe dolls as a little boy!)—and there’s something formative about gender identification here that’s hard to root out, however totally banal. By contrast, the detainee is arguably a feminized figure, and one for which there is no adequate representation at all—visually, but also legally. And while there might be representations of detained persons in camps like Guantánamo, those representations don’t bear a status anything like the iconic status of the soldier. The representation of the detainee barely registers in the cultural imaginary. He’s a shadow figure. And I think that’s a fundamental difference. But then again, one could point to the recent spectacularization of ISIS beheadings as an indication of precisely this kind of iconization (the orange jumpsuit, you know).
One of my concerns here is that we do in fact have meaningful, if not intimate, relations with both the soldier and the detainee, if only because our socio-economic production reproduces them, and these relations are consequential, yet they aren’t recognizable as relations. We don’t even have the representations of these figures as material to feel with, you know, to desire or be repulsed by. Indeed, all such representations of fallen soldiers and deceased detainees fail to appear, let alone circulate.
I guess this is where the stakes are at, at least for me, and it suggests a little thought experiment: What if whatever livable future we might imagine for ourselves were to depend on our desire to recognize persons and bodies currently unrecognizable within our worldview as persons and bodies worthy of care. I mean, what if the body we need to imagine caring for—if not loving—in order to imagine a livable future is a detained body at Guantánamo Bay, or a body imprisoned at San Quentin? And that’s not to say this is the only figure: no doubt we can name dozens of analogous sites, zones, where bodies are subjected to a form of social death. But Guantánamo is arguably paradigmatic of that class of places, just as the detainee is paradigmatic of that class of bodies, insofar as its representation is so occulted within our social imaginary.
I guess the critical question then is: What does it take to actually imagine such a relation? In some ways, it’s an impossible question to answer, and I think that’s what both Music for Porn and Common Place are trying to do, to imagine a social relation precisely where that relation has been negated. And the degree to which both the body of the fallen soldier and the allegedly suicided detainee are rendered inaccessible, unimaginable, unrepresentable, is the degree to which I found myself needing to find a commensurate “reach”. That’s where the erotic register of my writing comes in. It’s like I need to find a source of energy to propel my body—in a sentence or a line of verse—across an otherwise untraversable divide that separates me from them—in the imaginary space of fantasy as it corresponds with geopolitical space. The specificity of my subject position as a queer guy whose desire inclines in specific ways allowed me to draw on that erotic dimension to “heat-up” the space of relatable bodies, and in Common Place I realized that it’s precisely this dimension that I needed to amplify in a way that was commensurate with the amplification of that body’s absence.
CS: Do you feel like your desire to create a relate-able body in the figure of the detainee is what drives you to compose this figure in an erotic register? And, in turn, do you think that this eroticization is a way of creating an identity around the detainee, and giving him some form of agency?
RH: Hmmmm…. I don’t think it’s possible for one individual to grant agency to another individual. I think agency—as well as what I’ve often referred to as “patiency”, or the suspension of agency—is socially organized, historically situated, unevenly distributed, and institutionally reproduced. And under current conditions, the uneven distribution of agency is pretty extreme.
As for my erotic fantasy, well, I’m trying to think reflexively about the uses to which fantasy might be put—for both reactionary and radical ends—I mean, I’m trying to attune my writing to the way fantasy allows me to feel, through my body, real relations that might be otherwise imperceptible. I don’t know, maybe the fantasy of Common Place is just an inverted reflection of the dominant socio-political fantasy where the body of the detainee is already a sexual object lodged inside a ban that prohibits it, a prohibition in excess of any real need. And if the dominant fantasy is just another imaginary resolution of real contradictions, what would a fantasy be like that made these contradictions irresolvable at the level of my own body, its feelings and sensations? Obviously, real social relations of domination and exploitation map all too easily onto sexual fantasies, but in doing so, such fantasies strangely materialize in these contradictions, allowing them to be felt, and responded to, as if for the first time.
In a piece like “Opinion” in Common Place, for example, the “I” is being fucked—fisted, actually—by a detainee, and as ridiculous as this might sound, I want to feel this as tenderness and care. I guess it’s only by way of what looks like a total exaggeration that I’m able to arrive at this place in my body where the ego and all its defenses—defenses that only serve self-preservation—fall away. Or where the fiction of immunity gives way to an imagined community that doesn’t share the logic of the nation state. I don’t pretend this is any recipe for transforming social relations, but it is a way of embodying in the writing an intense desire for relation at the place of relation’s prohibition. The reproduction of that prohibition is inseparable from the reproduction of our whole fucked-up social order. And where’s my body in that? So the utopian horizon here would no longer be a prohibited place but rather a common place, a place where our everyday relations are no longer exceptional, no longer remarkable. Is this making any sense?
CS: Yeah, that makes sense to me. And I think that in some ways, this brings us to the question of Kenneth Goldsmith and the “Body of Michael Brown” performance. So I’m just going to read this question to you and you can answer if you’d like: In the erased performance of “The Body of Michael Brown” by Kenneth Goldsmith, a similar procedure and material are used to construct the text. This is not to invite a comparison between Michael Brown’s wrongful murder or Kenneth Goldsmith’s performance of Michael Brown’s autopsy report and your treatment of the detainee’s body in Common Place, but there is a procedural similarity and also a risk that your text will be perceived in a similar way, because it does rehash violence done as the result of a system of white supremacy and colonialism. So, how do you view your text in light of Goldsmith’s performance? How do you view the treatment of the detainee in light of Goldsmith’s performance, or how do you view it differing from his performance?
RH: You know, Cosmo, I was totally freaked-out by Goldsmith’s performance of Michael Brown’s autopsy report, but for reasons that might be a little self-centered. The launch date for Common Place was May 1, just a few weeks after “The Body of Michael Brown” exploded on social media and I was mortified, not only by the performance but because I was anxious that my use of these Gitmo reports would get conflated with Goldsmith’s spectacle. I just couldn’t get beyond the superficial—and I’m a little embarrassed to say—but, you know, like What’s going to happen to my book in the wake of this?! And while I knew that there was little to warrant a meaningful comparison, I was still afraid that I might be called out, especially given the current climate.
Anyway, one of the many problems with Goldsmith’s performance is its total failure to demystify the autopsy report itself or to foreground its politics or draw attention to all the antagonisms around its production. I mean, there were three different autopsies conducted on Michael Brown’s body, yielding three different reports, and the contestations around the production of “fact” is what’s critical here, right? First, there was the official St. Louis County report, followed by a private autopsy commissioned by the family, and a subsequent third ordered by the Justice Department under federal investigation headed by Attorney General Eric Holder, and that one was conducted by the military, which in itself brings the whole devastating saga full circle, insofar as it began with a militarized police force. But all this was obscured in Goldsmith’s performance.
Obviously, I’m interested in the way autopsy reports are used to “document” casualties of racialized violence, and the way those documents turn bodies into so much human material to be processed into facts that service, justify and defend the same institutions that are responsible for abandoning—and banning—those bodies in the first place, that is, for allowing them to be killed without being legally murdered. Whether Goldsmith’s performance extended the violence of that institution, or if it made “poetry” a prosthetic of that injury, these are questions that have been taken up elsewhere, and I want to comment here more personally.
When the discussions and debates and accusations began to spin out on social media platforms like Facebook, I think within two or three days of the event at Brown University, someone posted something in a comment thread to the effect of, “Well, if you really want to know how to engage with autopsy reports ethically in your writing, then you might want to look to Rob Halpern’s work,” and I was disturbed by that comment in part because I don’t want to place my work under the sign of an ethical engagement with anything, let alone the autopsy report of a detainee, or any militarized and institutionalized violence. And I certainly don’t want my work to be the “ethical” counterpoint to Kenneth Goldsmith’s “The Body of Michael Brown.” Really, the point of departure for my whole project was to question precisely what it is we mean when we say that we are working with our materials “ethically”.
It’s too easy to fall prey to delusion when we claim that our work is “ethical,” especially under conditions such as ours. But what made me most uncomfortable was my fear of being in a position where I’d have to justify what I had done by situating it next to Goldsmith’s project—as if my book weren’t already excessively self-critical—and what was most unnerving to me was the thought that Common Place would only be legible within this polemically inflamed framework, as if the work were taking a position within a set of antagonistic debates and terms that are not the book’s own. I guess I was afraid that my book would get drawn into that void, and either be used as a counter-example, or be damned and called out on similar grounds. I’m relieved to say that my fears have proved to be unrealized, in part because the book hasn’t generated a lot of public response at all beyond a small but very supportive readership (laughs). But ours are very different projects and I have to believe that what I am doing with the autopsy reports that have come out of Guantánamo Bay is very different from what Goldsmith did with Michael Brown’s. In some ways, the differences are obvious. For example, I think that I struggle in my work to risk the specificity of my own embodied position in relation to the materials that I am working with. Hence, the intensification of eros. This doesn’t solve the ethical conundrum, but I am attempting as honestly and as vulnerably as I am able to embody these relations. And the book never ceases to interrogate itself about this. I mean, the writing is constantly looking back over its own shoulder, and asking itself all these critical questions, often because people—friends and audiences—were asking me these same critical questions over the three or so years during which I was writing the book, and I was bringing those questions back to the work-in-progress, as if Common Place were an organism whose response-ability (not to be confused with ethics!) is always evolving in process. It was an ongoing inquiry whose dialectical reflexivity became its compositional mode, which I hope keeps the writing grounded in the social world that it is struggling to feel.
CS: When I was reading this book, I did feel you struggling and wrestling with these questions of ethics, and the book is obviously very self-aware, and raw, and vulnerable and in a constant state of questioning itself. And I think that that is one of the big differences, but as you said, it shouldn’t be put up next to Kenneth Goldsmith’s work and it’s so much more aware of what’s going on in itself than anything I’ve seen of Kenneth Goldsmith’s.
RH: Thanks for saying that, Cosmo, and as I say in my postscript of the book, I was thinking about something related to conceptual writing practices when I began the project, and that concerns how Conceptual Writing, if only in its representation of itself, sometimes seems to want to monopolize or claim the practice of transcription as if it had invented it. Now Common Place began with a transcription, too, and I wanted to think about how transcription might be faithful to a genealogy that exceeds any art historical context, let alone a much more insular vision of contemporary poetry and poetics. I wanted to situate my own transcription practice within a history of practices around copying sacred texts, for example, the transcription of Torah or the transcription of illuminated manuscripts, etc., and I wanted to make explicit the implications of bringing one’s body into contact with the materials that one is transcribing so that transcription is not just a matter of cutting and pasting text and then rearranging some words, but a consequential engagement of the scribe’s body.
The first long piece of the book that engages with an actual autopsy report is called “Hoc Est Corpus”—or “here is the body”, and it’s biblical, as in “here is the body of Christ”—and it’s the text of my hand-written transcription of that first Gitmo autopsy report. And that piece really began as an experiment, like I needed to know what might happen—physically, somatically, phantasmatically, unconsciously—when I would sit down and sustain, almost as a project in duration, the very tedious work of transcribing that autopsy report. In many ways, it was a terrible process, I mean, you’re dealing with material that is terrible and in doing it, you end up sort of numbing yourself. And it’s also very boring, and I found that I was constantly seeking some kind of distraction as I was transcribing while also trying to induce a hypnogogic state, a trance-like state where the film separating conscious intention and unconscious material would become more porous so that those scenes of distraction would actually arouse these errant phrases and wayward thoughts and rather than bracketing them, or remaining as if oblivious to them, or censoring them, I found ways to allow all of that otherwise unconscious stuff to come into my text. So in my transcription, the autopsy report undergoes a total transformation as the process slowly begins to metabolize its material. While making tenuous contact with my unconscious, that material becomes volatile. Maybe for three pages it’s just the language of the report straight up, and then slowly, as if fading into a dream, all this other stuff starts to happen or seep onto the page in a way that has this transformative effect on the text, so that by the end of the piece, you’re no longer reading an autopsy report, it’s been completely transfigured. For example, since I have it open here, “It’s really Flaubert’s Julian I want to be, the way he lies full length atop the leper, mouth to mouth, chest to chest, compassion being an act of the whole body.” Or, “I want to keep myself hard while doing this so that every line bears some direct relation to arousal. I remember Delany writing something like this about Hogg, though it’s not like that at all, as if transcription could animate the dead.” Sentences like these, though I realize there may not be a good example by itself. And whether or not it’s a successful piece, it certainly showed me that there was a lot that I needed to explore in relation to the document. And so I began the book in earnest then.
CS: It’s interesting that you’re talking about this as an illuminated text, or transcribing the Torah or something similar because it brings up religious themes, like religious devotion, which I think might have something to do with what you refer to as “devotional kink,” although we’ll get into that a little later. But also, there’s a question of whether this erotic urge is also some form of sublimation, or a form of ecstasy in a religious sense. I think that’s something that’s interesting to consider.
RH: I actually do think about it in terms of sublimation, Cosmo, and not only with respect to the way the writing sublimates my own experience of loss, which it no doubt does. But if you want a theoretical term that has been useful for me, well, Herbert Marcuse talks about “repressive desublimation,” which I think of (perhaps wrongly!) as the way in which otherwise sublimated or disembodied cultural material becomes embodied, only in a way that yields another kind of repression inseparable from gratification, or “liberation.” I think this is part of his critique of the sixties’ counter-culture, the way the desublimation of sexuality, for example, still functions in repressive ways, reproducing a set of social apparatuses of power and control. This may be the lesson of William Burroughs, for example, like in The Soft Machine, and it’s also illustrated by ongoing gender oppressions within so-called “sexual liberation.” I guess what I want to ask along these lines is this, and it is a question I think Common Place might be posing: What would a non-repressive desublimation sound like, look like, feel like? I’m not saying that the writing answers this question successfully, but it is a question I’ve kept close while thinking about the violent sexuality of the camp and how it gets sublimated in ideas like “security” while reproducing that violence. What would it mean to desublimate that “security” non-repressively? Or would it simply mean destroying the ruse?
But maybe I can make the stakes of that question more transparent by pointing in the direction of my “Devotional Kink,” which you suggested, while also pointing back to Kenneth Goldsmith. There’s one significant detail I haven’t mentioned that was also very disturbing to me, and that was the way in which Goldsmith exploits the phrase “unremarkable genitalia” in “The Body of Michael Brown,” a phrase that also circulates throughout Common Place. Now this is just standardized autopsy language and might appear in any coroner’s report, but Goldsmith edited his material in order to exploit the connotations of the “unremarkable genitalia” in the specific context of Michael Brown’s black body, redacting and reorganizing the report, as he himself says, “To make a dry text a little more interesting,” but in doing so he’s grossly exploiting aspects of the cultural imaginary when it comes to African American male sexuality, reproducing those racialized dynamics that are also violently sexualized dynamics. Maybe that’s an illustration of repressive desublimation, if only at the level of representation. And of course I panicked when I read about how he manipulated that phrase and spectacularized it, because it’s precisely that language that I have intentionally eroticized in Common Place, but in a way that I do not want to be repressive. I don’t know if I’m able to assess this myself, but I’m not using that language simply to present material otherwise embedded in our cultural imagination. I’m actually trying to bring my own embodied sexuality into relation with that language, for better or worse, in the interest of really feeling those dynamics in order to desire them otherwise. I mean, I want to resurrect the “unremarkable genitalia,” and make them remarkable. I want to give them life by putting them in my mouth, caressing and caring for them, together with the vulnerable body to which they belong. I know this probably sounds ludicrous, but it’s not gratuitous. For me, this is the most vulnerable dimension of the book, those moments where the language attempts to achieve a non-repressive relation through an erotic exchange—however impossible that might be. And even if my gesture remains contained by the violent regimes it longs to exceed, I don’t believe the writing is reproducing the terms of that violence. It’s rather feeling those terms as the limit of my own embodied capacity to relate.
CS: Well, in my opinion, you aren’t reproducing those terms. And I don’t think that there are very many people that would make the argument that you are. Obviously, there’s an excavation happening here. You’re bringing to light a body that wouldn’t enter our consciousness otherwise, at least not in this way.
RH: Yeah, and that’s really interesting, too, because now we’re sort of pointing back to some similarities and differences with Music for Porn. And in that book, one of the nemeses that haunts the writing is Walt Whitman, and the way that Whitman treats the fallen bodies of male soldiers in the Civil War—in the poems of Drum-Taps—using his Eros as a kind of lubricant not only for the redemption of a singular fallen body, but for redeeming the nation. And that’s one of many things that Music for Porn takes critical aim at. Like, how can one enter into relation with these bodies in a way that is not pressing that relation into the service of nation-building? And Whitman’s crisis was the crisis of a broken nation and he wanted to imagine that his poetry could be a healing agent for that crisis. So the figure of the fallen soldier and the erotic charge that he is able to bring to bear on that fallen body becomes part of an ideological project and I want to critique that project in Music for Porn. So the work is very critical of “redemption,” and specifically of a poetry that imagines it can somehow redeem itself, or anything at all for that matter. So in Music for Porn, Whitman is my foil. In Common Place, Jean Genet’s Funeral Rites offers more of a positive model because Genet is trying to find a way to mourn that would not be in the service of nation-building, which always needs dead bodies, grievable bodies. In Genet’s case, it’s France after World War II. Genet’s strategy is to risk the most inappropriate erotic object choices as part of his work of mourning, but this would require a whole other discussion, one that is quite important to me in the context of my book. In any case, this is related to Simone de Beauvoir’s idea in her essay, “Must We Burn Sade?” that it is “better to assume the risk of ‘evil’ than subscribe to this abstract good which drags so many abstract horrors in its wake.” And while proponents of certain trends in Conceptual Writing might cite the same argument, I’d like to think that the use to which I put it is more faithful (laughs).
CS: Now that we’re considering the topic of mourning and what it means to mourn, I wonder if you feel that you are mourning the detainee in Common Place, and how that mourning fits into the larger framework of the book.
RH: Your question touches a real emotional nerve for me, a nerve that I think I reveal at several moments in the book. But first, yeah, beyond my effort to destroy the frames of war that render so many bodies expendable and ungrievable, there is a desire to recognize an otherwise unrecognizable other, while scrutinizing the terms of that recognition. Again, what if the body we need to see, embrace, kiss, love, in order to ensure that there is a livable tomorrow, is a body withdrawn, negated, and “socially dead”? One could of course ask the same question regarding incarcerated bodies here in the US, the main difference for me being that those bodies are already so deeply entwined in our social imaginary. “Like the lovers we already are,” James Baldwin writes in The Fire Next Time, which I quote in “Devotional Kink”: “And I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense,” Baldwin says. I want to stress that we might need to feel this love relation concretely—even under conditions when that relation has become most abstract—if we’re going to have a future that’s other than a miserable extension of a miserable present. So certainly there’s this attempt to mourn and an effort to find the means in which to embody an otherwise proscribed relation.
But I think what I’ve learned during the work of completing this book, and this is something I draw attention to in the book itself, is that all of this work I’ve done with fallen bodies, be it soldiers in Afghanistan or detainees at Guantánamo, has been to a certain degree, for me, a strategy of avoidance. And I say that not to diminish the specific integrities of both Common Place and Music for Porn, each on its own terms, but to draw attention to what is for me a more submerged, psychical motivation—psychical in the sense of pertaining to my own history and its unconscious.
What I’m getting at is that I’m still struggling to learn what it might mean to mourn bodies and losses from 20 years ago, from the 90s. My first love, James, died in 1995, and when he died, I never saw his body after he passed. I never saw his body. And not only the death, but the loss, the withdrawal of that body, was traumatic for me and continues to reverberate together with many other losses during that period, to AIDS, etc. But most specifically for me, that one body, James’s body, has cast a shadow on my writing for the past 20 years, although I’ve barely been able to address it directly. So I feel like in coming through the process of writing Common Place I’ve managed to create new conditions for myself where I can’t in good faith continue this project of indirection any further. I feel this in part because I’ve exhausted all of its tropes. What I mean to say is that once I figured out what I was doing in Music for Porn, there was a set of tropes—representational strategies and prosodic devices—that I managed to refine, I think, and there was a particular moment of crisis in the early stages of composing Common Place where I was afraid that I was doing nothing more than repeating what I had already done with those tropes in Music for Porn, and I actually considered abandoning the whole thing. You know, it was as if to say, well, if I’m only able to engage with this new material, that of the Gitmo reports, in ways that I’ve already prepared for myself, I mean, if I’m taking for granted my own modes of composition and not finding a prosody and form that is specific to new materials; if I’m actually using a prosody that I developed to metabolize other content and am now merely importing it for the purposes of an entirely new set of relations, well, this seemed entirely inadequate.
So I had to ask myself, “What do I do? Do I abandon the project? Do I abandon my tropes, my strategies, prosody?” That was a devastating and consequential question to ask. But then I thought, what if I were rather to amplify, exaggerate, magnify my own devices and tropes, rather than discard them? I mean, if you think of a trope as a little engine, you can rev that engine up, right? Like a trope is just a turn, or a little machine for making turns, for making verses, that is, for making difference, and like Stein writes in Tender Buttons, “When there is turning there is no distress”. That’s kinda it, yeah, a trope is a “difference engine”—it makes meaning happen by making differences. So, I thought, what if I revved up all of my tropes and I sent them into the equivalent of a wall? Like the wall my utopian desire continuously runs into throughout the book in its effort to reach negated bodies. And I thought about revving them up so high, and getting the things to turn so fast, so that when I let them go, they’d crash into that wall, and they’d burn in flames and I would never be able to use them again, nor would I desire to. That’s what I wanted: to create terminal conditions in this work. To put my own compositional devices out of their misery, so to speak. That’s another way of accounting for the excesses of Common Place. They’re an effect of a formal amplification consonant with the work’s material content. I think I knew unconsciously to a certain degree that I could not repeat, or even risk repeating this process in my next serious writing effort where I already sensed what I’d have to do—and this is what I’m finally doing now—and that is to return to those bodies that I mentioned just a moment ago, James’s body, and the bodies that were part of the texture of my life and history in San Francisco in the 90s, and the trauma that I’ve until now only obliquely managed to make contact with by way of so many proxies: fallen soldiers and deceased detainees. So, in answer to your question, yes, I guess it’s all about learning to mourn.