Poetry After Trump

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To write poet­ry after Trump is bar­bar­ic (to para­phrase an oft-quot­ed apho­rism so deeply felt, even though some have argued that we still do not well under­stand it). Indeed, Theodor Adorno, the Ger­man philoso­pher and cul­tur­al the­o­rist, once famous­ly remarked: “To write poet­ry after Auschwitz is bar­bar­ic.” Of course much ink has been spilled over what, exact­ly, he meant by this state­ment – a state­ment that even Adorno him­self par­tial­ly retract­ed. We take Adorno to mean that poet­ry after Auschwitz could not exist as such (i.e., poet­ry qua poet­ry), since poet­ry was a part of, even com­plic­it in the very cul­ture that pro­duced the apo­r­ia of Auschwitz, not to men­tion set­tler colo­nial­ism, slav­ery, the mid­dle pas­sage, so-called “Man­i­fest Des­tiny,” and the geno­cide of mil­lions of indige­nous peo­ples. For Adorno, then, poet­ry would have to be made anew.

The bar­barism of the Nazis at Auschwitz, how­ev­er, should not be con­fused with those to whom the descrip­tive and pro­scrip­tive term “bar­bar­ic” has his­tor­i­cal­ly been anchored. Sup­pos­ing that the word “bar­bar­ian” is con­tained in bar­baros (or “for­eign”), then there is in the ety­mol­o­gy of the term a dif­fer­ent sense of which the mean­ing would seem to refer to the unin­tel­li­gi­ble speech or lan­guage of for­eign­ers. In part this is because here we have most­ly the ancients to thank—indeed, the word bar­baros was wide­ly used to dis­cern between Greek-speak­ing and non-Gre­coph­o­ne (and espe­cial­ly Per­sian) peo­ples of the ancient world. The bar­bar­ian, then, was she or he who sound­ed “for­eign,” “strange,” “igno­rant,” “rude” and/or “wild.” Alas, this orig­i­nary encounter of lin­guis­tic dif­fer­ence, of unin­tel­li­gi­bil­i­ty and non-trans­lata­bil­i­ty, seems to have had a last­ing impact on the long, slow, vio­lent, and mod­ern his­to­ries of human suf­fer­ing men­tioned above. In a sense, poet­ry and pol­i­tics after Auschwitz must be bar­bar­ic – that is to say, they must be for­eign to the hege­mon­ic lan­guage and cul­ture that pro­duced the Holo­caust. Indeed, poet­ry after Auschwitz is bar­bar­ic. Poet­ry after Trump is bar­bar­ic. This is a clar­i­on call to poet-bar­bar­ians every­where – espe­cial­ly to our read­ers in Mex­i­co and Syr­ia, and here at home in Flint, Michi­gan, in Fer­gu­son, Mis­souri, and at Stand­ing Rock.

Poet­ry has always been the domain of the bar­bar­ian – again, even though there is in the pop­u­lar use of the term a pejo­ra­tive sense not uncon­nect­ed to oth­er con­ser­v­a­tive key­words – “ille­gal alien” and “ter­ror­ist” both come to mind. Poet­ry is, quite lit­er­al­ly, bar­bar­ic: as art, poet­ry relies on a par­tial turn away from total com­pre­hen­sion – what Gior­gio Agam­ben has called the “rec­i­p­ro­cal cat­a­stro­phe of sound and sense.” In its bar­barism, poet­ry stretch­es the voice to make it seem “oth­er” than itself; the poet, while writ­ing, becomes con­scious of the mul­ti­ple selves her voice inhab­its, the long and com­plex his­to­ries of lan­guage and being that com­prise the indi­vid­ual self – “an aes­thet­ics of the earth,” as Édouard Glis­sant once put it, or the rhi­zomat­ic poet­ics of rela­tion. Walt Whitman’s “bar­bar­ic yawp” was not the cel­e­bra­tion of a naïve authen­tic­i­ty. It was the capa­cious voice of a bar­bar­ic democ­ra­cy speak­ing against walls, check­points, bor­ders, and detain­ment cen­ters. He ampli­fied this bound­less­ness through his long lines and end­less cat­a­logues. A bar­bar­ic poet­ry ded­i­cates itself to trans­la­tion rather than to self-preser­va­tion. A bar­bar­ic poet­ry does not claim to stand in for oth­ers, as Whit­man is often mis­read as doing. It denies all claims to a sin­gle voice, and rejects fic­tions of puri­ty, suprema­cy, and orig­i­nal­i­ty.

Today such claims are ram­pant, and poet­ry is per­haps unique­ly poised to defeat them. It is impor­tant not to see Trump as an excep­tion, but instead to under­stand him as part of a wider demo­c­ra­t­ic and dem­a­gog­ic cri­sis in the Unit­ed States and in Europe. The Europe of Nigel Farage, François Hol­lande, and Angela Merkel is the Europe of tech­no­crat­ic oli­garchies that serve the caprices of finan­cial dic­ta­tors. Trump’s lin­eage con­tin­ues with Marine Le Pen; it begins in Atwa­ter and oth­ers whose racism and xeno­pho­bia Trump no longer has to hide. Against Trump’s per­ver­sion of the demos, there­fore, we assert the bar­baros. Liv­ing and teach­ing in the Upstate of South Car­oli­na, we have wit­nessed first hand the poet­ic license giv­en to the ene­mies of the bar­baros: the Ku Klux Klan, for exam­ple, recent­ly dis­trib­uted recruit­ment fliers at the uni­ver­si­ty cam­pus where we teach. The oppres­sion of oth­ers occurs not only through vio­lence, how­ev­er, but also through the sys­tem­at­ic deval­u­a­tion of thought and knowl­edge, forms of expres­sion, and ways of liv­ing. Against that vio­lence, poet­ry is aligned with the his­tor­i­cal strug­gles by Amer­i­can and Amer­i­can-based artists and activists of bar­bar­ic democ­ra­cy: Ida B. Wells-Bar­nett, W. E. B. Du Bois, Claude McK­ay, Clau­dia Jones, James Bald­win, Fan­nie Lou Hamer, Amiri Bara­ka, Fred Moten, Don Mee Choi, Juliana Spahr, Daniel Borzutzky, Nathaniel Mack­ey, Bhanu Kapil, and Sol­maz Sharif to name a few. Against that vio­lence, poet­ry is aligned with con­tem­po­rary bat­tles for the resti­tu­tion of land and repa­ra­tions for unpaid labor to the bar­baros, who live in inter­nal and eter­nal exile. “The need to let suf­fer­ing speak,” wrote Adorno in 1966, “is a con­di­tion of all truth.”

Author of the article

are assistant professors in the Department of English at Clemson University, where they co-direct the First Book Series and Radical Methods Working Group. Walt’s work has appeared in ASAP/Journal, Cultural Critique, the minnesota review, Modern Philology, symploke and elsewhere; his translation (with Lindsay Turner) of Frédéric Neyrat’s Atopies is forthcoming from Fordham University Press; his current book project is tentatively titled “Ecstatic Call: The Uses of Global Poetry.” Garry’s work has appeared in Anthurium: A Caribbean Studies Journal, the Journal of Popular Music Studies and south: a scholarly journal (formerly The Southern Literary Journal); his most recent article (with Marina Bilbija) on “Teaching Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction” is forthcoming in an edited volume on Reconstruction from the University of Virginia Press; his current book project is tentatively titled “The Black Charismatic: Demagoguery and the Politics of Affect.”