Blog [reviews, reports, retorts]

  • Jeremy Hardingham's Shit Theatre [David Grundy, 07.10.2013]
  • The Inhumanity of Keston Sutherland's Odes to TL61P [David Grundy, 23.05.2013] 
  • Report from The Odes to TL61P (London Launch) [Lisa Jeschke, 23.05.2012] 

Jeremy Hardingham’s Shit Theatre

“I’m like your sphincter and I’m forcing the shit out of you.” Jeremy Hardingham’s play-text ‘Shit’, published in the 1996 b/w paper-&-staples photocopied-magazine ‘SPORT IS FOR FAGGOTS’, features a combative dialogue between characters monosyllabically named, not quite boiling over into the physical violence or act of love-making that at least one of its characters would seem to imply or desire in the ‘exchange’; that love-making, or, rather sexual power game-release as brutally present as undercurrent in the constant reiterated frustrations of ‘fuck’ in its various permutations as verb and adjective. The dialogue-exchange is not so much an exchange as a debate on the coercive force in all relational interaction (not necessarily gendered; indeed, the sex mentioned would seem more likely homo- than hetero-sexual, featuring ‘fags’ and ‘your fist’), and specifically on the question of being ‘moved’ by a piece of theatre; this notion of ‘movement’ developing into the crude base materialism of the shit metaphor of expelling some innerness out, as in shit, not by ‘having’ a shit, that term implying possession or at least control of that which is expelled, but by having a shit forced out of one by uncontrollable muscular contraction, forced out like the stream of words and shit that breaks the desired self-enclosure of the scatological failed solipsism of Antonin Artaud’s late work, but in this case forced out by another human figure, figured, in this metaphorical instance, as that muscle inside one over which one has no control, theatre-maker as sphincter ‘moving’ the shit or tears out of the moved audience member, abusing the erotic valency of their charge. (Indeed, consider the fact that ‘sphincters relax at death, possibly releasing fluids’; that loss of control of the dying or the very-young, as the body’s un-willed operation, pre- or post-individuation, acted on unceremoniously by an internal assertion that seems external, in that one has no control over it, that breaks down or pre-dates a conception of one’s self as a separate and controllable or controlling entity, leading one to exist in a state of horrific un-differentiation that might be echoed in the inter-personality and shared physical inhabitation of the erotic, but which is far more abject than that consensual ecstatic sharing, is closest, if anything, to rape.) The name of one of the characters in Hardingham’s play is ‘Drane’: filtering out the shit, not drowning in moved sobbing, the naturalized dirt of rainwater tears. Theatre as shit and waste, not so much as the cathartic purification the metaphor of the drain might imply, but as an actual assertion of and participation in the material ephemera, the ephemeral material, of a live performance that is nonetheless a participant in, and inscribed with, history, that does not imagine relation to exist in a clean vacuum, flushing the shit of history down the participatory toilet, that insists on a messy and potentially problematic work and working.

And so, the statement ‘I can’t help but be moving’ isn’t to imply the straightforward worthiness of theatre as some kind of transparent medium for a truth it un-problematically presents, in bite-sized little shit-cakes we can cleanly digest and consider ourselves well-fed by, 100% organic, ‘illusionism and simple morality’, that kind of shit. ‘I can’t help but be moving’ leaves open the question of whether or not that ‘movement’ is inevitable, bad, good, a particular structural model, and so on. But, you say, “that does not yet solve the question [of] whether [theatre] should be […] so moving […] Violently moving.” (What Would Bertolt Brecht Do?) This all perhaps implies a none too-happy ethical charge, which the play does not condescendingly ‘resolve’, and which theatre itself, in its most rigorous forms, thus far does not or has not resolved; yet the play also has a second half or epilogue in which (these the days of ‘Jurassic Park’), Jeff or ‘Geoff’ Goldblum notices a pile of “dinosaur doo doo”, shit here become, in a dialogue between a ‘young one’ and a parent, a child-like joy in wastage and in throwing away, expelled ephemera, solid enough, deliriously happy in that loss of control, that shit cray. [To be continued, perhaps…]

[David Grundy, 10.07.2013]
The Inhumanity of Keston Sutherland's Odes to TL61P


This poem, or series of poems, is an ode -- rather than the song of praise that implies, a love-poem, perhaps, but more or most likely a lament for TL61P, the code for a now-obsolete replacement door for a Hotpoint Tumble Drier. It is an attempt to write a poem directed towards a non-human object which exists, not as some spurious 'object-oriented ontology', some 'ethical' attempt at bringing into being fantasized 'inter-objectivity' between the human and non-human words that tries to escape human mediation and thus overlooks the actual real of material human labour, the actual mediations we live inside, but as a means of relating to objects produced by humans which does not give them an agency of their own, as Bruno Latour, having internalized the logic of capitalism which Marx satirizes, would have us believe, but realizes them as living, or, more accurately, dead, because these objects contain the dead labour of those exploited under capitalism and as capital itself.

TL61P is at a triple remove: it is a code which stands in for that which it exists as a replacement product-part for - code stands in for replacement door stands in for door stands in for the dead labour that produces it and that it reproduces. The obsolescence of TL61P, turned into the 'inhumanity' of non-meaning letter-number code, a 'word' or series of signifying objects turned into affect-less code, the arbitrariness of the sign, is a deadness like the deadness of dead labour, a mere statistic. As a specific object, the tumble-drier door is in part chosen for its deliberate arbitrariness, or the gesture of choosing it is made to seem that way - pick an object and fix on it as if it meant more than it did (like your comment about constantly wanting to mean more than the shit you do mean, poetry's poverty aspiring outward in teenage belief). Or, as Sutherland puts it in an interview in Naked Punch, “seizing on a very improbably specific detail of consumer society and trying to make from that some image of the whole” -- which is, after all, what consumer items, commodities are, encapsulations of the labour that produces them, the products of a complex (and now global) system of exchange and exploitation which they both cover over with their shiny desirability and embody. 

But it (the hot-point dryer door) also comes to take on specific qualities, not as an exact 'symbol' so much as being forced into a certain level of metaphorical affect by the pressure being placed on it to be 'worthy' of its centrality to the poetic project, to 'live' up to the attention violently or lovingly directed at it. Thus, the tumble drier dries out the wetness and sweat of dirty clothes and turns them once more into new and gleaming objects, as if just taken from the rack, though at the same time it wears down and fades the colour of those clothes with repeated usage, giving the lie to its own re-birthing function; just as the commodity tries to dry out the blood and sweat and wetness of the dead labour that produces it, makes that undead labour non-human. Addressing the ode to it doesn't quite attempt to make it human again, because that would just be a parody of the process of dead labour's congealing, but suggests, by imparting it with that trace of humanity, the displacement of real needs and desires onto fictitious or all-too-real material objects, and thus, implicitly, how love might be re-directed from the object-made-human to the human, which, under capital, is made object. Not to consume or 'exhaust' that object, but to realize the inexhaustibility of it, in Adorno's terms: not that TL61P is that which to which one must direct an inexhaustible love, but that the conditions in which that love might so be directed to the human could be thought, against and out of a visceral, strenuous and comprehensive attempt to live through the wrongness of relation which gives rise to Sutherland's project.

This has, of course, has been a part of Sutherland's work for several years now, from Hot White Andy and Roger Ailes ("Roger are you there", "Hot white Andrew Cheng"), the displaced figures of love - Chinese middle-ranker, nefarious Fox News figure - but, in the Odes, it is taken to a non-human extreme. Giving oneself up to an inhuman object, to the totally other, is what we are required to under capital every day; the condition of sacrifice, of human blood, of human flesh, propitiation to the money-god. Through an absolute attempt to inhabit and make potently manifest this state, Sutherland attempts to move through that condition into a place where it might be possible to imagine some other condition -- somewhat akin to that state Will Rowe discussed in his paper at the Militant Poetry and Poetics conference at Birkbeck this past weekend, in which one would have to live and feel and think as if one had completely inhabited and passed through the condition of absolute, paralyzing fear which at times seems to psychologically prevent the thought of any kind of resistant counter-action to prevailing internalized propaganda.

It is another question whether or not we find this project to be successful or not, and whether or not we believe that poetry per se, or a particular kind of poetry, or this particular poem, is the place for this attempt, an attempt which can clearly not exist without the movements for social change with which it seeks to act, both existing as the conditions of possibility for the other. And it is another question even whether the poem itself does want what it, and its title and general schematic framework, claims. In that sense, perhaps the above is merely a ventriloquization of certain theoretical positions which exists as a merely conceptual, rather than imminant-critical approach: no praxis here. But perhaps this can be a start towards thinking outside these boundaries, towards a properly close reading that challenges the claims made above.

[David Grundy, 23.05.2013]

Report from The Odes to TL61P (London Launch)

On 14 May at Cafe Oto in London, Keston Sutherland read from The Odes to TL61P (Enitharmon, 2013). If poetry readings are - among other things - live performance, they work as a kind of poor theatre, with little material means to support it: sort of as if you wanted to make a vast heterogeneous theatre performance but the only means of production or channel you had was a telephone line, so you call someone as an attempt to compress EVERYTHING into that one call. The Odes are super-restless, they're SUPER with all that term's implications of trash  and globalised minimal-maximal communication - and yet, as either words on a page or a voice in a room on a surface level sensually unproviding and unconsoling, like a mono-channel. But this mono-channel is not entirely limited by the walls of, in this case, Cafe Oto, just as a telephone line might in fact evoke a whole theatre or, the reverse, a theatre performance evoke a mere telephone call, as in, say, Beckett's Not I. This reading in particular, but really perhaps all readings, felt/feel super-concerned with the fact that we form material co-extensions not only of the spaces we find ourselves in, but also of several simultaneous historical periods past and present - for example as numerically visualised by the sequence '2013', or as conceptually apprehensible as 'late capitalism'. Not that 2013 or late capitalism are imaginary conceptions, rather we see them as we look at each other, in our voices and physiognomies and bodies: 'I am a real hole for you, not a barely noticeale flimsy crack; David had a stupid way of laughing and a fucking ugly blush. Hasten defections. I swapped stickers with him, [...]' (p. 64). The hegemony of life lived in its time might relativise - though not erase - the problem of authority in the reader-audience relation: if there are all sorts of exterior factors and hegemonies running through and exceeding the time and the structural politics of the occasion of the reading, the authority of the poet might (also) seem miniature. One of these exterior factors is the textual material: if the words already exist on the page and are to some extent pre-recorded, of the past, then the now of the live situation is kicked in its back from behind, and past and present double, exploding the limits of that now; like when recorded voices of the dead haunt us as ghosts which are materially present, in exactly one voice that struggles to speak them all.

This is what the Odes seem - partly - concerned with: the question of containment, and who is contained by what, and what is excessive of whom, that is: what is the relation between poetry and everything else, naively to be called, perhaps, the world? The Odes seem to demand to be more than poetry, and they demand of the world to be more than the world. There is an attempt at absolute and excessive openness, where the word and the world would spill into and over one another swallowing, exceeding, incorporating, intruding upon, violating [without object]. Which one is smaller? And which one is a co-extension of which? In terms of size and scope, what is our beginning reference point, if poetry is one material form forming part of further material forms, sort of in a relationship of geometric translations? But: before this poetry can contain the world or be contained by the world or all and both at once, the Odes are bound to struggle with reaching the excessive openness they gesture towards in the first place; the demand is not yet its own fulfilment, and it is their necessary and pathetic struggle with what they propose that defines the Odes as _work_. The Odes work, but perhaps less like humans than like fleshly virtual computer game worms advancing slowly eating their way through everything and anything that crosses their way:

'Pope's descents to Beckett's dips, Keats astride a grave betimes, a Nigerian sex slave. A Nigerian sex slave plying its overstretched, hedged, oily ass at the dusty fringes of the Biennale to drunk sponsors of the European tents. Or what will not debase so much as shatter, or what will not rejoin but soon rip up, or rearrange with gratuitious violence, undo savagely primp or outright annihilate. Our amity is fitted for division. You won't say anything more radical than sex.' (p. 29)

The prose line eats through the boundaries of poetry, only to be contained within the boundary limits of the prose line itself: i.e. where prose initially seemed to test the limits of poetry, suddenly the occasional bouts of verse and mock-verse in turn seek to question the limits of prose. As do those prose lines standing out beyond the mostly standardised page margins: 'the poor should live where they can afford to / not where they are, redistributive justice; it became a country / full of torture, omnivorous ravenous gut for riveting blood' (p. 37)). Sometimes a spade needs to be called a spade, i.e. a grave needs to be called a grave. These passages of direct and violent accusations against this state/State of things are mixed with long sections of lingusitic parody: where 21st century language is extremely rich and testifies to an, to our, extreme poverty of thought and experience, virtuosically:

'Besides paedohilia, which now means the sexual love of prepubescent individuals in particular, we now have hebephilia, a diagnosis for the sexual love of individuals in the early stages of puberty, but not earlier; ephebophilia, a diagnosis for the sexual love of individuals lately progressed out of puberty (these last two are sometimes also called korophilia and parthenophilia.' (p. 55)

It's like we can be anything we want to be, but only 'Reactionaries think life should mean life.' (38) Which might be an echo of Adorno's epigraph to Minima Moralia, Life does not live. Which, in turn, seems like a weird and condescending thing to say to people who might feel a mistrust of metaphorical (?!) accusations of not being alive, when they do have the subjective impression of being alive. But like in Adorno, deadness in the Odes is not morally assigned to ennui or spiritual emptiness in the bourgeoisie - which has been the gesture and accusation of some earlier 20th century avant-gardes - but is concretely and analytically linked to capitalist forms of wage labour and production, as well as to this government and this day's day-to-day politics. This is about how we are hurt and dissected and killed in our day-to-day lives, and in fact about how we hurt and dissect and kill, sort of as if the active and passive voice all melted into one another: the argument implies it is our reps (politicians and artists! structurally) who suicide society, not the other way round.

The Odes feel like that absolute - and absolutely ugly and megalomaniac and even ridiculous(ly) teenager-like longing in Kleist's 'Michael Kohlhaas' - where the hugeness of the demand is itself something that might threaten the order of the state: the state of things, but also specifically the State. This seems like a massive demand for and of poetry: the desire for all wrongs to be righted. But regardless of the individual's desire: 'If there will be a revolution in the UK, it will require the army.' (p. 65) Here suddenly the revolution is small (limited to this UK kingdom and its army), and, even worse, poetry is tiny, toying, poor, removed - quantitatively. But qualitatively it fights against its poverty by channeling a huge world (involving the sun, the moon, the stars, the revolution, every single fucker who dares to be happy, every ghost of a life hovering around unhappily, every dialect spoken anywhere, every word dead and alive) into a single line of speech. Which is all asymmetrical: this poetry is fucked.

[Lisa Jeschke, 23.05.2013]