In the 1990s, the pragmatist philosopher Richard Shusterman proposed an account of art-making and the reception of art as a function of our experiences. His was a more socially-informed inquiry than that of post-structuralism, which posited a constant flux of texts that remains open to changing language contexts or the interplay between a text and other texts. Shusterman theorized against such fragmentation, arguing that aesthetic unity could be a part of our experience of the aesthetic and offering a potent critique of ironic, distanced contemplation and conceptualist formal experimentation and play (often features of post-modern and post-structuralist aesthetics) in favour of art that encompasses social conditions, real life experiences and the emotive appeal of ordinary life.
In his discussion of rap music, Shusterman dismantled the traditional separation of art from ethical and political interests and scientific knowledge by showing rap and hip-hop cultures to be disseminators of knowledge—the rapper is considered a teacher of truths and knowledge. Such a role devalues the distanced perspectives of avant-gardism, for example, by expressing real social conditions and political realities on the ground. Into this dispensation, enter poet and filmmaker Shane Book, whose Congotronic, as the volume’s description states, “[harnesses] techniques of the cinematic and audio arts…[the poems] splice, sample, collage and jump-cut language from an array of sources, including slave narratives, Western philosophy, hip hop lyrics and the diaries of plantation owners.”
In the sampling/splicing of “Mack Daddy Manifesto,” a triple-breasted track suit interrupts thoughts of the ‘spectre that haunts Europe;’ the speaker name-drops everyone, beginning with a Marx and Engels epigraph and moving onto the phrase “Baby got back!” and the vernacular turn of phrase “Sho’nuff.” The latter begins a thought that includes “longing for the father” two lines later, and the poem’s penultimate line is Marx and Engels again: “I’ll make / all that is solid melt into air.” The poem “They Cannot Be Taken to Bits” is even more fragmented, but I had a vague idea it might be referring to a penis. “Chinese Blow Up Doll” engages a jump-cut style too, mentioning voodoo, juju, Ramallah, “washed out baggy faced whores,” “Lunchmeat on the first day / of Ramadan. / West Side, West Side, bro. / Westbank, bra.” Since it ends with a reference to the CIA and the rest of the poem alludes to black America and Palestine either through utterances or references, I wanted to interpret it as a voice speaking about America’s political oppression of blacks and Palestinians, but I am hesitant to make such a sweeping statement given that the language is an unreliable pastiche.
That may be the nature of Congotronic’s political engagement: it doesn’t tell us what to think, it alludes to social conditions and political realities using a variegated aesthetics, in order to develop a kind of negative capability based on the experiential. This is also potentially true for “Flagelliform 19: ‘Snake Foot That Does Not Walk.’,” with its mentions of battle chants, Gettysburg, Vimy, “we were fewer,” Fallujah, My Lai and other battle scenes. Yet taken as a whole, in all their compelling cinematic and frequently beautiful, palpable sound gambits and arresting variety, the effect of these poems is the opposite of experiential. Rather than find aesthetic unity based on the poet’s use of diverse experiential or political phenomena, we are thrown back into a kind of aesthetic alienation from real social conditions. That makes me—to use the now somewhat outdated but still reasonable term—essentialize all this into one big maelstrom of misery. This is an undesirable side-effect of reading a variety of brief allusions and samplings of oppression, war, poverty, racism, apartheid, child soldiers and other horrors in such diverse places as Ramallah, Freetown (Liberia), the antebellum South and present-day Harlem, to name a few. There is no subject—just an unnamed entity in the midst of strife. The risk of Book’s aesthetic is a kind of dehumanization of real subjects. It’s as if the words don’t do what they could be doing in the service of political change, yet do too much to distance us from empathy.
Nyla Matuk is the author of Sumptuary Laws (Vehicule Press, 2012). Her poems have appeared recently in PN Review, The Fiddlehead, Prelude, and the New Poetries VI anthology published by Carcanet Press in 2015.