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Charles Bernstein Close Listening Interview

Dmitri Golynko recorded a a Close Reading interview and conversation during a visit to the University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House is November 2009. Both programs are available at  Golynko’s Pennsound page.

This is the transcript of the interview

1. First, a very American question. You turned 20 in 1989, the date we nowgive as the end of the cold war. Do you think of your work as coming out of (orgoing into) a post-cold-war context. Is that a meaningful term for you? How hasthe field or poetry, I would even say the role of poetry, change in Russia in thispost-1989 period.

Right, I turned 20 in the end of 1989. Butsymbolically this date meant for me (and means now) not only a mark in thecalendar indicating the end of the Cold War or the Soviet Empire or whatever.This date is also a historic moment encompassing the highpoint of the heat ofcatastrophic socio-political changes, as well as a melting-pot momentcharacterized by a huge influx of novel cultural influences and vast amounts ofknowledge that had been kept in secret by official party censorship in theprevious epoch. The dare-devil turmoil of the post-Soviet nineties’ resembled adeliberate abandonment of the myths of the Cold-War or bipolar world, in orderto arrive at a reconciliation of multiple political choices, culturaltraditions and deviant behavior patterns. The carnivalesque multiplicity of90ties disarmed the mythological enmity of the Cold-War period and brought tolight an apotheosis of peaceful coexistence of antagonistic models, modes ofliving, writing and coordination in a hostile but dramatic reality.Paradoxically Russian postmodernist literature in the early 90ties soughtmotivations to bring together as many disjoint contexts as possible and toignore the intrinsic task of Western postmodernism—the debunking ofpost-Kantian Enlightenment and the critique of knowledge. In contrast, theRussian postmodern functions as an attempt to conciliate and recoverflourishing zones of cultural information which were totally restricted andruled according to the needs and wishes of the Party nomenklatura.

But this doesn’t meanthat the state of war and emergency was banished from Post-Soviet culturalprocess. Quite the opposite is true: language itself turned out to be a battlefieldwhere a fierce contest between controversial layers of everyday speech resultedin the effect of immersion in incessant warfare. As the bearer — andsimultaneously enemy — of sovereign power, language itself constantly exceedsthe limits of grammatical and aesthetic legitimacy and thoroughly surpasses itsown normative basis, being transformed into a tool of revolutionary potentialand ethical openness. Is the Cold War historically finished in the trenches ofsuch a language in revolt (against itself)? — Not at all: this languagecondenses historical experience under the aegis of unresolved trauma, andthat’s why it appears as vehement warfare, which not only exaggerates but alsoheals profound historical wounds. This warfare embedded in contemporarylanguage is also the instrument of a powerful and provocative therapy — thetherapy of addiction to the past, which hasn’t been properly articulated inhistorical memory.

2. Do you see your poetry as political? Interms of content? Form? Social discourse? In terms of local/global contexts:here you are talking to me in Philadelphia inEnglish, so far removed from the local site of your native language and theplace you live, St. Petersburg.Does your poetry speak across these boundaries or does it resist thosecross-national currents? Or something else?How is this related to theutopianism of the Futurists or the cosmopolitism of Mandelstam, to read back tothe modernist period?

Yes, I see my poetryas political in general. Sometimes it’s political in terms of content (I depictthe concrete circumstances on which the hypocritical life standards of themodern city bourgeoisie are founded), or in terms of form (I use socialdialects and echoes of indirect speech as fragments of aleatoric montage) or interms of social discourse (my poems inquire into social inequity andinvestigate common responses to it). More importantly: it’s political becauseof two intrinsic factors. The first factor — the political itself takes shapewithin every poetic utterance and originates a rupture in subjectivity, a constitutivebreach which sustains the breakthrough of the subject to the Truth-proceduresor to adherence to the Truth-Event (which is the gap itself) in Alain Badiou’sterminology. A politicization of poetry is equivalent to the search for aninward subjective truthfulness that surmounts the outward objective ambiguityin the shape of endless affective speech, speech without canons, limits andbounds. Second factor — poetic expression demands immediate emotionalinvolvement in the socio-political tissue of contemporaneity, i.e. each gestureof intimacy, compassion, inclination or disenchantment can be treated as thebearer of overwhelming political references and nuances. Therefore, the innerhuman life is a political venture oscillating between animalization andsublimation — and poetry sets private and social existence in thecontemporary global environment as an extension of political discourse, asproducts of political matters.

Besides, if we speakabout the political ground of my poetry in terms of local/global contexts, weshould keep in mind that I was born in a country that deliberately renouncedits former geopolitical name and invented a new name for itself based on theideas of socialist internationalism. Obviously, I’m mentioning the USSR with itsutopian linguistic potential. This internationalist unification broke down, butleft behind a powerful historical lesson about the caprices of naming – a placeor person can freely change names according to claims to global significances(open, international) or local significances (closed, isolated). The relationsbetween the local and the global are strictly dialectical, especially forpoetry: the more you are focused on the specificity of your local context or oninvisible intimate communities, the more you are in fact appealing to theglobal audience. But this doesn’t presuppose that your local context should benecessarily convenient or acceptable for you – it’s merely a pack of memorytraces which are so familiar and so native that they can be explained only inthe language of the globalized public sphere. And my answer to you question – Doesyour poetry speak across these boundaries or does it resist thosecross-national currents? – will be ‘something different”; speaking withinunstable boundaries gives my poetry force to insert itself in a cross-nationaldialogue.

Technically this meansthe (eternal) return to the roots, to the progenitive source ofinspiration— which is located in themidst of wasted land, burnt by the deconstructive demarche of post-modernaesthetics. Contemporary poetry turns back in the direction of Futuristutopianism or the acmeists fascination with cultural heritage – but this returnto high modernist values (which are really strong in modern Russian poetry)signals more certainly the sublime impossibility ofevaluation or axiology after the postmoderndissolution of hierarchies, as well as the impossibility and unsustainabilityof the poetic utterance that is founded as an abrupt ethico-political effortundermining its own premises.

3. Is gender an active issue for you aspoet; do you think of yourself as a “male” poet? What about other ethnic orcultural affiliations?

Growing up in asituation when postmodern theories became increasingly significant, during the90ties I constructed the main character of my poetry as a core of smashed andblurred gender identity. In correspondence with fashionable media, feminine orgender superstitions of this time, I depicted the human body in the process oftransformation into liminal and transitive inhuman conditions. Appearing as acyborg or androgyn, replicant or android, flat interface or floating electronicdata, the human body, digitalized and subversive, tended towards its fataldissolution in a myriad of unpredictable transformations. Gender identity wasdiminished to an unstable category, which dignifies the loss of sexualdistinctness in order to embed itself in the fluidity of desire and language.In the current decade I focus more on the tendencies towards a new sincerityand a reborn reality, which means that gender itself, previously problematizedby postmodern variations, appears as the unbearable and importunate traumaticquestion for the human being. Spurred by the demands for hedonistic enjoymentand consuming all possible materialistic pleasures, this human being encountersdisturbing internal hindrances, which prevent him or her from drowning infeckless enjoyment and return him or her to the sad unsolvability of his ownexistence. A new character appearing in my poetry balances at the edge ofdemasculinization and defeminization, and as such eludes strict gender linkageswhich gives it the power to disdain the mythology of male dominance andfeminine obedience and to invent new psychological alternatives to oldpatriarchal stereotypes. Are these alternatives just a dream or are they newtrajectories of liberation? — This is an unresolved question so far. But thatmakes me intentionally suspicious regarding the productivity of gendercategories — to say ‘male’ and ’female’ strictly means to disclose the socialties which enhance and restrain human activity.

4. I know that you are interested in thetension between the poetry archive – something we are creating now with thisrecording and that we represent also having read from your book – and other nonor even anti-archival sites for poetic thinking and action? What are suchsites? What is their significance?

The Russian theoristBoris Groys (probably in connection with Baudrillardian insights) describes thecultural archive not only as the collection of aesthetically evaluated objectsbut also as the legal code regarding art, which aims to prohibit the repetitionof accomplished masterpieces. In this version the archive is twofold: it is astimulus and also a prohibition. Today, art museums, huge archives oftraditional or contemporary art, turn into tourist spaces for globalentertainment —- and alternative sites, zones of autonomy and territories offreedom, are spread out beyond these established commercial archives. It isprecisely the sub-divided institutional system of contemporary art whichradically differs from the free-market community of poetry. The compilation ofany poetry archive is generally based on ideas of free access and open source,of non-commercial distribution and share-holding of information that isextremely useful in that it provides for dialogue between poets. I’m reallyfascinated with poetry archives like Pennsound and consider this to be fruitfuland fantastic work. My question, however, is more metaphysical: does writingitself tend towards the further archivization and retention in cultural memoryor does it tend towards a spontaneous emergence from an inexplicable source? Myanswer is dubious and controversial:poetical utterance stretches between archivization and spontaneity andthe site for its occurrence resides at the point of the elusiveness of poetryitself, which could disguise it in vernacular language or in the idiosyncraticvoice of a phantom authority, but cannot be caught in its force field

5. I know you work as an art critic. Tellme a bit about your engagement with the visual arts and its connections to yourwork as poet?

For me, poetry andcritical-academic activity—these are two completely separate professionalfields, two crafts which in principal cannot be mixed together. I see criticismas a form of work which is predominantly discursive and functional. Poetry, andhere we can refer to Giorgio Agamben, appears to me as the expression of “ahigher, divine inactivity,” inconceivable and unpredictable. Of course, certainformal elements and even personal stylistic markers may migrate from the poetictext into the critical and vice versa, which places one in the awkward positionof not knowing whether to resist this effect of the commonalities of poetry andcriticism or to indulge it. A completely different question here would be: why,and as a result of what historical and personal reasons, did I at the start of the1990s turn to art criticism as the most necessary form of intellectualproduction? The cultural-historical reason is obvious: visual art at thatmoment became an instrument, on one hand, of daring and future-orientedaesthetic search, and on the other hand, of immediate reaction on socialcatastrophes. The situation today is slightly, or to be precise, utterlydifferent: contemporary art in the 2000s has acquired the character of amarket-driven, glamorous variety show. The venue for the most actual intellectualinquires has now become political philosophy, without which no serious artisticenterprise can now be undertaken. Without question, one may without difficultypoint to exciting innovative directions—for example, the art of social protestand political activism, which is especially prominent in Latin America. But those are quite specific zones of freedom, while thesystem of art as a whole has gained in general at present too many points ofcontiguity with the marketing and cultural management industries. Quitepossibly, the reformist task now standing before poetry and art is one and thesame: to produce a community, elite and at the same time dialogically open,which could respond to the problematic of the loss of the concrete humanindividual in the context of globalized cultural processes.