Harmonice Mundi, or, In Farthest Ferengistan
This was written in 2002 when someone was assembling a book – with finance already arranged, they said – about the Second Gulf War, the new world order, and the ‘monopoly superpower’ configuration in world affairs. I wanted to give a lead to the other writers and kick-start the project, and so, although plunged in all kinds of work, I wrote my piece very quickly. Needless to say, the book never happened and the essay was left high and dry on my hard disc. Unlike all the other pieces in this book, this has some relevance to the way I write my own poetry. More interesting for me than writing about someone else’s – but invoking powerful inhibitions which forbid any further public utterance.
Alistair Horne's book on the Algerian War records a French civil administrator who was an anthropologist, who proposed to appoint Arabists to every village, to get to know it. The point of knowing Arabic was that he could talk to informants without using an interpreter; the point of understanding the villages was that he could identify who was likely to become a militant, and to help to locate them. Once you know where someone is, it's much easier to kill them. The whole project of expert knowledge of the Third World is tainted. The quadrillage of which scholars speak sometimes, the division of a space into squares to get a data point from each, is a word also used by police officers; sectoral searches, control points for every block, repressive saturation. Property wants security against the malcontent, the security state is greedy for knowledge, and we have to ask here about the economy of knowledge. What we’re talking about is the commodity of the intellectual, the set behaviour programs that go with it, the childhood relationship between the reward (for being clever) and the figure who validates the cleverness; the unconscious act of internalising their wishes. The abiding tasks are to reflect the desires of the employer, and to conceal from view the fact that these desires are being observed at every step. The ability to see both sides of the argument also means that you can work for whoever will pay you.
I am not going to write about affairs in Afghanistan. The minimum requirement for doing so would be an acquaintance with the main linguistic and ethnic cultures bundled up within the country – by my count, Pashto, Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara. Anything less is brushing the edges of depersonalisation (people not allowed to be the subjects of their own history) and a cigarette card approach (where all Afghans behave in the same way and we don’t need to differentiate). I don’t think any Western journalists have this expertise. What they say is suspect and cannot found a credible view of the situation. Their commodity is not legally a swindle – because the journalists copy each other’s stories and so their defective commodity is of “standard quality”; more accurately, because any western reporting on Asia is expected to be rubbish, and any court would recognize this fact – in the vendor’s favour. The first-hand accounts by Muslims, occasionally broadcast by Radio 4 (for example), are utterly different from the usual news analysis, and suggest gross, irremediable defects in the latter. I think it’s time to reflect on past scenes, where better data is available.
My landlord (in North Finchley) worked in the Slavic section of the Ministry of Defence for 40 years. His daughter, at one stage, had a job for a disarmament movement of which the bosses were admirals and generals, and which had really been set up by the MoD to provide alternative quotes to the media when CND didn't suit the MoD line. Their policy was pretty much that they were in favour of nuclear disarmament but also in favour of nuclear war. They were a front organisation producing pseudo news to be run by newspapers or channels which were rigidly right wing. I used to wonder how much of the news was equally fake - pseudo organisations pronouncing, pseudo events. Around 1990, I was converted by a housemate of David Marriott's (whose name I will omit) to the belief that much of what modern governments do is secret, denied, and hidden by disinformation. This chap worked as parliamentary lobbyist, and was openly scornful of the official version of events. He spent a whole evening of high-powered argument laying out to us the connections (in a few weeks of 1985) between the movement of the Sultan of Brunei's capital into sterling (stabilising the pound), the run on the pound caused by the miners' strike, the Sultan's ex-business adviser Mohamed Al-Fayed, and the mysterious fold-up of the regulatory bodies supposed to check on the takeover of Harrod's. I was much impressed by this. The inadequacy of the press coverage was glaring. I got into the occluded, the gaps in the press coverage, after that. It seems to me that the process of foreign policy formulation is hidden from the public gaze behind a fog of misdirection and deliberately boring, sanitised, accounts of procedure. One of Chomsky’s essays describes a study of works on US foreign policy. Out of fifty books and papers on how foreign policy was made, only 3 even referred to business and corporate interests as having a voice. Not good enough, Porky! Chomsky’s point is that the academic world doesn’t have an independent view of foreign policy, and (in fact) of foreign affairs: so much of the profession is committed to nationalist positions, the institutions are so addicted to government funding and to a network that produces jobs for their graduates, that critical judgment has been surrendered. My impression is that this surrender is worse in British academic circles. The question I began asking, round about 1999 (rather late in life), was, how is foreign policy formulated? I think rule no.1 is, follow the money. The gurus of this kind of thing are Peter Dale Scott and the late Carroll Quigley (with the collection that Holly Sklar edited, Trilateralism); and the journal is Lobster (214 Westbourne Avenue, Hull, HU5 3JB, UK). The biggest internationally traded commodities are arms, drugs, and petroleum. Look at Afghanistan: the biggest producer of raw opium; close to the biggest "open" arms market, Peshawar (and the biggest 'retail outlet' for the goods); and much favoured as the site for a pipeline to get oil from Kazakhstan and Siberia to the seaways (and the West).
Is it absurd for a poet to have a foreign policy? My contention is that it is not. Whatever the excesses of ignorant and self-serving poets, “unofficial” thinking about foreign affairs is legitimate and even necessary. If I'd joined the Foreign Office, I would have spent my career persuading foreigners to buy British arms. I didn't join the professionals, but I think there is a deep problem with relying on them to give the verdict on 'world affairs' — and on their own actions. I don’t write about foreign affairs, didn’t write any poems about the revolutions of 1989, didn’t write anything about the Gulf War. So I don’t have any poems to retract – maybe the “retraction” is more deep and culpable, a defensive withdrawal. There are some poems about other countries; ‘Three Graves’, an interpretation of Russian communism (when was that? '92?); ‘Andy-the-German Servant of Two Masters’, about right-wing paramilitaries in the USA and the Oklahoma City bombing ('99?). So, 2 poems in 15 years? Whereas in Threads of Iron (in 1980-81), most of the poems were about “world politics”. Prynne made some devastating comments on ‘Iran’, a poem written while watching TV coverage of the Iranian revolution in 1979. Maybe the quality went up as the quantity went down? I have never published 'Iran' — but I still like it.
My poem (‘Radio Wars’) comes from the sequence ('Anglophilia, a Romance of teh Docks')around the figure of Stephen Tallents, someone who accepted the need for the Government to get involved in propaganda, and who actually gives details of how to produce symbols of “England” and how to evoke the nation as an “image”. The poem could also be called “origins of Arabic radio” – the original Arabic radio being the stations run by the Fascists (in Bari) and the British, trying to influence opinion in the Near East of the 30s.
When the liquid fire of genius, rainbow colour'd, flash'd and glow'd,
All its mighty beams above him with the splendour of a god,
Wider in its stretch and grandeur than the brain could ever dream
To look down on our fellows from some planet's blinding gleam,
watching with seraphic vision, grasping with delighted soul
(Alexander Anderson, from 'A Song of Labour', publ. 1881)
Although this plummeting perspective is associated with Irving's production of Faust (1885-6), the interest of Anderson's poem is that it was published before that. The faustian vista was part of the notion of “the poetic” in 1900. The 20th C was generally more astute about geometry. The lure of Marxism was that it offered a 'fossilised', protected, survival of this kind of view into the 20th C. The problem for poets of my generation is to capture that sense of infinite reach & detail without dissipating into inauthenticity. Or: to re-attach the poems to sense reality without striking the reader as “squalid” and “limited”.
As my brain became stocked with more information, my general ideas burst, and my ability to take the “perspective from heaven” faded in favour of microknowledge, a small-scale view. The common consensus about my work is that it’s descriptive, positivistic, pictorial, highly teleological – but since 1987 I’ve written much more about philosophical doubt about acquired images than about big-scale political conflicts. I’ve only just realised this. I think that once I identified with my team at STC, I was drawn into the small scale, and also into a focus on England – because the factory was in England. My job (from 1978 to 1991) was as a project planner – on R&D projects. Where ideas become reality, or at least commodity. The job could be defined as microeconomics. My path was from faustian historical overviews to the limits of my department in Building 8 to the details of my own consciousness. A kind of emptying-out. Anyway, this pattern has changed with the addition of ‘Anglophilia –a Romance of the Docks’, which is about the ideology of inter-war Britain –and so about the software of imperialism. It's a sequence about Stephen Tallents (author of The Projection of England), someone of whose existence a professional historian might be ignorant – so for the first time I’ve put a research interest in history into a poem. But one form of inauthenticity could be the myopia of writing poems within the information which is your ‘property’. Wouldn’t it be better to write poems ranging over the whole communis opinio? Isn’t this restriction to new facts a projection of private property onto the plane of the symbolic – whose virtue is to be public?
The thing about those folk genres is their closeness to physical compulsion, the singers being underneath some heavy weight. The song is about crop failure, about the flood breaking the levee. The closest you can get in middle-class poetry is at the end of the stress curve, where the poem itself is breaking down: either the point where the energy of idealism runs out, or where the cognitive basis of the poem breaks down, i.e. epistemological attacks on what the poem is saying. ‘Male nude in interior’ (1990? 1988?) was an attempt to write without leaving the room, without using imagery, without using knowledge, purely in terms of desires and physical gestures. A kind of hermit poem. I was turning the glorious forces into their inverses. I’m not sure about this poem, and it hasn’t featured in any of my collections. It was cut off from everything else. This point has a magnetic attraction. I couldn't just sit for thirty years warbling protest songs like Joan Baez.
The FO is really happy for poets to write about epistemology all the livelong day. No one ever launched a demo about epistemology. By criticising, you end up complicit in the destruction of the poem by corporate/governmental gatekeepers who love the talk of power. Of course you can't have an opinion. The UK doesn't have a foreign policy. I can have one all my own.
Spatially, self-interrogation corresponded with unemployment – in terms of hours committed, anyone unemployed is asked by the social security office to engage in auto-critique. No, Andrew, it definitely isn’t the fault of international capitalism! Fill in some more job applications! My radius of action got smaller, but no-one’s ever accused me of detachment. The parent company of STC pulled out, after 80 years, of the idea of a 'core business' (telephony), pulled out of the idea of long-term ownership of subsidiaries, became disenchanted with production sites heavy with fixed capital, redefined itself as mobile capital which only owned things temporarily. Surely the drift towards virtuality of modern writers parallels the drift into mobile capital of ITT. The two things are not separate and independent. Is the progressive logic of high-end intellectual writing to promote the complete liberation of capital – and would this imply the complete loss of civil rights of those who sell their labour? If you have to sell your consciousness to transnational capital, you would need to be completely detached from reality and from opinions – a state for which the cult of virtuality is (simply?) a propaideutic.
There is a book by Daniel Halperin, Russia under the Mongols, where he describes two types of individual along the “long frontier” (from Portugal to Kiev) between the Christian and Muslim worlds. One kind was polarised, hated living in a mixed city, was made insecure by living close to the aliens, and sought a radically homogenised homeland. The other kind was fascinated by the “other” and became bicultural – they crossed the frontier in terms of sex, marriage, language, theology, cuisine, music, clothes. Scholars are still tracing the (rather poorly recognised) signs of cultural transmission from Islam to Christendom. At the moment when the mediaeval romance arrives, you have to ask if it already existed among Iranian, Turkish, or Arabic speaking peoples. Mediaeval texts may often have been rather black and white (this is a feature of early literacy), but it’s quite apparent that the social fabric of cities like Seville, Palermo, Kiev was richly mixed up. Authors who exaggerate everything, in the search for drama and contrast, also step up the contrast between cultures. One of the periodic events of mediaeval culture was a wave of polarisation, where the fierce and exclusive line began to dictate the whole pattern –and the biculturals went underground or were neatly wiped out. The tragedy of 15th C Spain is that the polarised agitators won right across the board: a double genocide wiped out a completely mixed society. But the cultural monuments quite clearly record the existence of biculturals – if you know what you’re looking for. For me the writing of poetry is secondary to passive and even ecstatic absorption of foreign cultures – which it follows from. To listen, to receive, to reach out.
Patterns have boundaries & the ‘primary’ world doesn’t. Lexicon relies on edges which are partially the creation of language. If you control categories, you can also exaggerate the edges which separate them. If you emphasize contrasts, one of the effects is that the boundaries of colours are made much bolder. If you apply this to politics, it makes ethnic contrasts much more intense. So one of the basic tendencies of literature is to increase polarisation – and promote conflict. The people who develop and maintain the codes can also be the ones who depersonalize people who have different codes. I think one of the tasks of a writer should be to realise that it’s just a code; to promote depolarisation; to gain understanding of other cultures and codes.
The Yugoslav wars were a huge shock to me; part of this was the realisation that it was the most educated, even, conditionally, the most creative people who were promoting the ethnic hatreds. Now, I certainly don’t think it’s OK to promote class hatred instead. It’s obvious to anyone who does a bit of reading that the tactics for promoting a militant Serbian identity were very similar to those used to promote a militant proletarian identity – something all Serbian intellectuals educated since 1944 had been trained in. It was an easy transition. Someone had to write the projection of Serbia, to create the type-sites, stories, and paintings, the heroes. My impression was that greater saturation in the world of books and ideas was promoting a greater degree of depersonalisation of the enemy and fetishization of your own in-group, a more dramatic and “aesthetic” framing of conflicts and violence – not a lesser one. The ethnic cleansing of the early 1990s was not, I thought, a relic of the past – but, perhaps, a fossil of the future, of a Europe where nationalism had replaced Communism. Nationalism had been a “progress ideology” in the 19th C.
In 1975, I was living in a village in southwest Germany, and sleeping in a cottage near the hotel where I worked. At a certain point, I was kept awake by the music played by the Turks, who I worked with, in the room downstairs. Like anyone doing hard physical labour, I needed my sleep; it was quite against my will to stay awake; and yet, the music - which I now know to have been arabesk, popular in the south-east of the country - was so fascinating that it quite possessed me, and I lay there, between sleep and a kind of trance, absorbed in music quite alien to my experience. Over a long period, I tried to recreate this memory in words (ending with a poem, 'Turkish Music', full of equivalents for music, and published in 1984). In the 1970s, a German band called CAN made recordings which they called the Ethnographical Forgery Series, based on listening to recordings of ethnic music. Around 1982 I used to hang out with musicians who were into listening to ethnographic music and incorporating its structures into their own music. Around that time, Collusion, a magazine written by astute Marxist critics, talked about the politics of music. As they set out, exotic music was repeatedly picked up by western composers, and was always turned into a motif for geography. It froze into a semantic code for a place - trapped into repeating, not allowed to carry the coded meanings it had for its original producers. It knew a ghostly prosperity as soundtrack music - a decadent flight of textures where opulent variation disguises a lack of commitment. The books I wrote in the 1980s, Threads of Iron and Skeleton Looking at Chinese Pictures, were invaded by ethnographic forgery. The story of that first book, In a German Hotel, is my failure to listen - we spoke pidgin German at work and I declined to learn Turkish in that six-month period.
One of the things about living in London is that you can sit in the wash of all the world’s languages just by hanging out on public transport. If you want to hear Albanian spoken you go on the 329 bus, if you want to hear Yiddish spoken go on the overground train around Tottenham Hale. I like to regress to the infant level of language, where I can't identify the words - but I can hear the dynamics of the language. I like that idealised passivity. This has to do also with guilt at not understanding Turkish in 75. Language is the human medium, the medium in which we become human. Such listening wakes up that precious streak of unformed tissue that is still changing and can become anything. Infantile. Tentative. Like play. Repetitive. Imitative.
One of the books I read about China explained the four cardinal directions as understood by the older Chinese scholarship. The west's colour was white - for snow, for the mountains to the west of China (Pamirs, Altai, Himalayas), known to be high, rich in metal, and poor in flat land. It was discovered that the Europeans lived far to the west, and it seemed inevitable that they lived in very high mountains, entirely surrounded by metal, and perched on tiny rocky ledges. The Europeans' obsession with cannon and cannonballs was taken as perfect confirmation of this. Their hairiness was seen as an adaptation to the relentless cold, which also gave rise to their preoccupation with coal. The Europeans' obsession with trade was related to the terrible infertility of their native districts, frosty cliffs in the Pamirs, leaving them no other recourse. These parapets of snow and star metal. There is a series of books on Imperialism edited by J.M. Mackenzie. In his own book, Propaganda and Empire, Mackenzie describes a set of cigarette cards called Picturesque Peoples of the Empire. It is always a question whether an intellectual (or a poet) actually has more knowledge of any given culture (say Somali, or Pushtun) than the relevant cigarette card. You acquire knowledge because it is offered to you. You work through the arguments defined by the design of that knowledge. Later, you are proud of the acquisition, and you consider the important facts are the ones you know. This is what we call hegemony. Maybe it would be better for you to know completely different facts and ask completely different questions. Maybe the domestic acts – of competing, of cooperating with authorised teachers, of retrieving and displaying knowledge – are purely domestic, their result an investment in a settled order of affairs. I believe the Manichaeans in China used the familiar association of white and the afterworld to sustain their message about the soul being made of light.
Because the basis of consciousness is imitative – being surrounded by other people is like being a radio surrounded by dominant signal. I can’t pull out of the English thing while living in London. The English res – capitalism, colonialism, possessive individualism, and so on - seems normal so long as you're in London. But a shift of geopersonal centre makes the whole state of consciousness different. Jacobsthal says (Early Celtic Art, 2 vols., 1940), "The Celts were the westernmost outpost of the vast Eurasian belt, stretching east to China... where the tale of mythology was told in zoomorphic disguise. ... they chose the weird magical symbols of the East. Here for the first time Northern Europe... fell under the spell of Eurasia." The 2nd was in the Migration period, the 3rd was the Romanesque. It is possible that, as Malcolm Chapman has argued, the Celts were a myth – simply a category of Greek speculative culture, “the barbarians to the north-west” according to the scheme of the geographer Ephor. If he had used eight aspects, rather than 4, there would have been no “Celts”. They were, thus, a product of Greek classification. Of course, there were peoples in Northern Europe - but the culture areas were very much smaller than suggested by, e.g. Herodotus. We reach general ideas by constructing analogies with what we know well. I would rather speak about "the Irish Sea Province" than about Celtdom. The problem is not to do with antiquities, poorly researched as these are, but with concrete living people and the horizon they live in.
I can't write poetry which is the opposite of imperialism. But I can write in a way which is less instrumental, less categorical, less projective. Maybe I am releasing needs to write about other countries by writing about Wales and Scotland. Retreating into Celtic (and Germanic) studies was my way of finding the primitive, the irrational, within Europe.
Konkretniye zhiviye liudi, kotorikh mozhno lyubit’. Is reflexivity narcissism? No, it just means you like looking at your own reflection a lot. Oh, and that you think the truth about the universe is to be found inside yourself. And that attention to your own words and thoughts is virtue. So it can’t be like narcissism.
There is a theory (where did I read this?) that the Stewart kings set out to destroy the political fabric of the Highlands because of the deep threat that the English would piece off this region, so distant and independent in its traditions, and use it as an ally against the central power of the Stewarts. Their immediate solution was to destroy the power of the MacDonalds, as the emerging paramount magnates of the region. This policy was carried out partly by violence in itself, but by creating ambiguity and unoccupied status positions it encouraged violence by ambitious regional nobles against each other. The aftermath of the 1745-6 revolt was the culmination of this long-term policy of divide and rule: the Gaelic culture perished because its leaders were deeply dissident, learned in war, and unable to find policies that achieved their true goals. The under-development of the Highlands may be traced back to this Stewart policy against their subjects and rivals. The Gaelic language was attached to a region in decline in modern centuries; but the background to this may have been regional growth and self-confidence in the 13th and subsequent centuries.
The Highlands did not have clans in the Middle Ages; they were a later social adaptation to long-term wars between noble families. This state of civil dissidence again goes back to the absence of a central policy to impose peace and the rule of the courts in the Gaelic half of the realm. It may be wrong to call the violence and lawlessness of the Highlanders (in the 16th to 18th centuries, roughly) traditionally Celtic, or of ancient origin. The other theory is that the Stewarts systematically encouraged the weaker parties, so as to drain the strength of the stronger noble houses, and prevent tranquillity or prosperity (with their corollary of power) from setting in outside the “core” of the kingdom. Violence was incompatible with political power –except in crises, where the clans could be used as rapidly mobilizable troops. The Gaelic trouble is that they were a ‘foreign country’ from the perspective of Edinburgh. Their native institutions were destroyed to prevent them acting out this independence – but the social and economic integration with the agrarian and urban parts of Scotland never happened.
One interesting aspect of this political map is that we have no policy statements, either by the Scottish or the English “state apparatus”, that they were following these policies. Should we abandon the theory? Or is this another example of the real political pattern not being recorded in documents? – which are either secret or full of spin.
This model of suborning and personal alliances was adopted, generations having passed, by the Americans. It is the background to “world politics”: local elites defined by alliances with outsiders. I read Conyers Read’s biography of William Cecil, Mr Secretary Cecil and Queen Elizabeth (to 1570). Although written in a style of masterly tedium, it does not hide the nature of English policy towards Scotland: a relationship of dependence on England of one of the two major parties, giving the English the ability to blow up minor conflicts into major ones, thus paralysing Scottish policy. The imprisonment of Mary in England was a by-product of this patronage policy and the conflicts it encouraged. I was looking for the origins of the intelligence services – a product of reading Lobster magazine. It’s perfectly plain that much of what Cecil was doing in other countries was illegal, unethical, covert— often violent, too. Perhaps the error of perspective is in seeing the intelligence services as something separate from the government - in modern times they’ve always been sections of the Foreign Office – and in historic times they were just functions within the executive. It’s Walsingham who actually ran a Tudor secret service – something which has been written about recently, by John Bossy and Alan Haynes. (Conyers Read helped set up the OSS, predecessor of the CIA.) Agnes Mure Mackenzie has written about the anglicisation of Scottish writing (manuscript and printed) well before the union of the kingdoms in 1603: the influence of England on the upper class was simply too strong, the condition of being English clients inclined them to write in English. Scottish literature and politics of the 16th C were suffering from the same disease of foreign dominance.
Scottish politicians had to deal with the situation of weakness, where it's unlikely that you can achieve your policy goals against opposition. The dominance of the English relationship (from at least 1603 to 1999) prevented a mature relationship between politicians and electorate in Scotland. Politics were in abeyance in Scotland - the 'residual' notions of authors about the matter were like composing guitar music when you’ve never heard a guitar.
I think that the word imperialism is a thin classifier for the rank variety of power relations making up international relations. It's lazy to equate the regime of transnational capital and involuntary-free trade with the comprador economies and racially bounded state sovereignty of the old colonial empires. Questioning the knowledge of the poet obviously implies an attack on the pseudo-science of 'racial characteristics' which underpins the world order (and the dialectic of core and periphery). 'Imperialism' is too much of a piece of stock footage, a crowd-pleaser, it stops you from asking what the real rules of behaviour are. A rethink is just as much the rescuer of the poems as of inherited ideas. Some of the ideas which interest me are transnational repression, deep politics, international bank loans to regions with poor credit ratings, the formation of foreign policy in the capitalist democracies, prosopography, the study of institutions, elite networks and their messages, differences of opinion (and their tribunals) within the ruling class. Also, the dark area where 'economic rationality and clandestine violence intertwine', to use Kees van der Pijl's evocative phrase. All this seems to me more productive than the term imperialism and its tunes. Of course, Quigley's Tragedy and Hope is the classic work on the milieu of foreign policy, the insider networks and their strategies. The path from Cecil Rhodes to trilateralism, if you will.
When I was a student, E.H. Carr's History of the Soviet Union was republished and hailed as a classic. For me, it was the worst book I have ever read. People outside the government simply weren't fit and proper people - not competent witnesses. Hence, Soviet official statistics are the only ones he uses. Although there were millions of refugees in Western Europe when he was writing, in the 1950s, he didn't see fit to interview any of them. Books published by Stalin's regime, stuffed with Soviet statistics, were all he would regard as legitimate. Maybe Carr wrote a spectacular cover-up of the Stalinist regime because he had spent his whole career staging cover-ups for the British Empire. What irritated me about Carr is that his book The Uses of History was the textbook we used for studying the ethics of the historian in the 6th form at school. Strangely enough, he recommends critical use of sources - exactly what he didn't apply in writing his ludicrous multi-volume Leninist apologia. Any knowledge of public affairs relies on a chain of witnesses, and it's unrealistic to separate the knowledge from this group of people and from the rules which structure their observations and communications. Once you decide that only the government is a valid source of evidence - so much follows from that. The original decision is the most critical one. Use of witnesses is always selective: if you decide that Stalin's government statisticians are the only good witnesses, you have to reject everyone who disagrees with them. Data and networks are inextricable. The networks are rich with structure. Where you fit in as a speaker has so much to say about how you process the data. Information is coalition. The idea of the historian discarding local values in source texts to find the truth has passed its peak. We should stop ripping knowledge out of the conditions in which it is created and put the networks back into the historical narrative. I have an idea of authentic language; we have to retreat onto clear ground and start to collect fragments of authentic listening.
I see careful attention to texts as the basis of political knowledge. The delicacy of understanding is reached through surrender. Recovering the intention of the speaker within their own horizon. Acute listening, where the air becomes thinner and sharper. The poem is a matter of hearing - one step beyond hearing the implicit is hearing what has never been said. The possibilities of pain contained in such acuity are appalling. Sensitivity always calls for acoustic baffles, protective partitions - which are dialectically new planes of insensitivity.
I foresee political poetry foregrounding features which have until recently been viewed as 'service areas' and not to be shown in the public verbal text - for example, Peter Dale Scott including source notes in Coming to Jakarta, his volume of poetry on the Indonesian massacres of 1965. Scott describes 'parapolitics' as 'a system of politics in which accountability is consciously diminished.' But has since gone further, as parapolitics 'is too narrowly conscious and intentional to describe the deeper irrational movements' (which culminated in the death of the president) 'it describes at best only an intervening layer of the irrationality under our political culture's rational surface.', on to a 'deep politics, all those political practices and arrangements, deliberate or not, which are usually repressed rather than explored.' (quoted from Deep Politics and the death of JFK, University of California Press 1993) The insiders' complicity which this implies resembles the language of contemporary poets. The policy-making elite communicates through partially public media — in an incompletely public language, which we can come to understand by intensive study against the grain of the overt message, aided by prosopography and the study of institutional action patterns. Knowledge embedded in verbal rules embedding power networks. I’ve lost interest in what foreign policy ought to be in favour of the more feasible study of the verbal milieu of foreign policy formulation – the scenes in which ideas are legitimated. At the same as the insiders nihilate (write off) any ideas from outsiders, they also criticise certain ideas from inside the network. Or: there is a competition between ideas inside the foreign policy world, a multiple 'floating" of ideas, and the key to winning is to form alliances. Lesley Milroy studied social networks as a way of studying dialect: people stick to their dialect (in the face of broadcasting, classroom speech, etc., which is felt to be superior) because the people they want to speak to speak it. The edges of dialects are the edges of social networks. Similarly, authentic knowledge can only be the possession of groups - even though it is held by individuals.
I got Middlemas’ book on The Master Builders. At the psychological core of any modern poem is a development contract. Why? Because a poem is fundamentally about joining together – a virtual shared space. Because the reader in general wants to change the world, and because this can only happen in bites, and each bite, logically, looks like an infrastructure project. Because once you achieve consciousness and group identity then the wish to pour energy into something follows. I cannot determine the limits of this metaphor (although it must have bounds). There must be a space outside it. But so much of the aesthetic apparatus has to do with equipping the expedition into the unknown: choosing a project, choosing a leader, worrying about the characters of your companions, worrying about they think of your character, taking the strain of risk, gauging the effect of new events on the project. So many values stem from our feelings of loyalty and cannot start without them. The psychological assessment of our companions (the poem as proof of the character of the poet) takes its central place as a rehearsal for doing these assessments in the real world – on the contracts we commit to. I study the character of my fellow poets because we’re in the same boat. (Perhaps without this contracting metaphor we wouldn’t be interested in character?)
The resemblances between the Marxist project and the imperialist project are too obvious to be worth discussing. You can’t look at Pearson’s work without realising that the same work – building harbours, building railways, drilling for oil – was the justification of Marxist governments and so of Marxist poems. With a slight shift, this is also the theme of “post-imperialist” politics – you can define the Third World as “an area which lacks infrastructure”, and poets signed up to this politics are signed up to infrastructural projects. The similarities between the World Bank and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (office elites restricting consumption in order to generate capital which they control to fund development projects which are typically oversized and spectacular) are perfectly obvious – it’s questionable how far anyone committed to development can really change the tune.
A massive breakwater had to be built in very deep water on a treacherous foundation, against the unfettered swell of the Pacific, its violent storms and earthquakes. It was done at last by creating monolithic blocks of concrete, 12,000 tons each, and by sinking caissons and filling them solid. Watching the progress of Pearson’s harbour-building projects (in Chile and at the mouth of the Amazon) helps to force into visibility the origins of the intelligence services. Once you have big amounts of capital (typically British or American, but also French), in foreign countries, political intelligence about those countries becomes very useful. It is needed by the banks and shareholders of the contracting firm. So you have a certain expertise, regional knowledge, regional contacts, etc., being developed by merchant banks. These are the same ones which act as agents for loans to foreign governments. Pretty soon the wish to influence political events in those debtor countries follows. Possessing money (and engineering capacity?) also suggests ways of exerting this influence. Now, if the Foreign Office also wants to act as an agent helping British business interests, they are likely to tap this pool of talent. That is, the people recruited to form SIS, MI5, etc. (all branches of the FO) also worked for merchant banks. What we seem to see is an intermingling of the British specialists in and outside Government, so that ex-spies constantly become merchant bankers and merchant bankers constantly become spies. In this way, foreign policy is largely a kind of solicitor to business interests, and the FO has excellent sources on what those interests are and what policies they wish to benefit from. I think we have to speak of a hegemony here: the definition of what the significant questions are about any country. Of what the “legitimate knowledge” is. Of what opinions are “laughable” and “eccentric”. That into which the academic community has been co-opted. What sets out the syllabus. And obscures other forms of knowledge. The more fixed capital there is, the more need there is for interventionist “intelligence” services (now really political agents) to defend it. The rapid growth of the CIA after the war (after 1948) was a natural result of the growth of American fixed capital investment outside the homeland in the same period. Area studies were a kind of outhouse of the CIA. Although it's still all about reducing risk, the rules are changing, as Corinne Souza points out: "If they [corporate clients] do not minimise all possible risks to their reputations, their insurers will pull the plug. That is to say, the demands of the insurance industry are the source of much of the business flowing in the direction of the various service industries, including the ex-spooks in the private security one(.)" Further, of these now private security companies, 'In order to remain competitive, they require non-Anglo-Saxon sophisticates who are part of, or empathise with, a myriad of other cultures and value systems.' (Lobster, #43)
Building a logical connector hub between personal knowledge and knowledge of big-scale politics is a development project. I think this is the project literature should be undertaking. It is a development of critical reading – while the need for knowledge gives a motive for reading. An understanding of the British foreign policy community is a step towards it – allowing a qualification of the whole range of publications we would be using to develop an understanding of “other countries”. This is effort sunk into deep water.
The sharpening of listening. I went on holiday with my parents to Prague, where my father was taking part in a conference on Kepler. Perhaps near the Technical Museum, I was climbing a set of steps which seemed never to end; I reached a flat point with a pear tree, sat down underneath it, and fell asleep. I thought I was dreaming, because the people around me were talking a language I could understand. I woke up and it was true — they were speaking Russian. grushki sobirat'. They were picking up the pears which the Czechs refused to touch — an archetypal Russian act, frantically gathering any fresh fruit in expectation of a long winter without vitamin C. There are Bronze Age burials with crab apples (in wooden cups, I believe); perhaps we can see death as a state of winter, marked by chill of the flesh, apathy, and a long period without food; so that the apples were a fitting viaticum for the beloved one. Perhaps the identification of a Garden of The Hesperides, rich with apples, in the West (seen as the land where the sun goes down, an Afterworld) reflects the same conception. The welvet analysis resolved itself as wavelet, a kind of ripple in the cosmic background radiation. Someone Czech would have problems with w, which only exists around there as a glide sound, mandatory in certain phonetic environments, while w is used in German and Polish for a v sound. The stars visibly revolve on velvet but are not a velvet revolution. The Jagellonian Field is a region of stars, named for the Polish-Lithuanian dynasty of Jagiellos, who founded the Jagellonian University in Cracow. That same week, I listened to a terrifyingly intense talk, over dinner, from a mathematician — a friend of my father's, who collaborated with him on a translation of the Harmonice Mundi (related to the theme of that conference). She explained that all the early references to the Golem were associated with Lodz, and that the transfer to Prague had been late and opportunistic. It had nothing to do with Rabbi Loew. She moved from this to a discussion of the geometry of solids, and the role of Renaissance artists in working out this mathematics ready for Kepler's use (in tracing the courses of the planets). Later, I wanted to record what she'd said, but it wasn't there; I had been ten times as intelligent as normal, only as long as she was speaking. My inability to catch what she said, store and reproduce it is one of a long series of failures. Judith, meanwhile, was unable to read a page of Frances Yates without detecting a mistranslation from Syriac or a decalation of a decan. I can listen, still, to Anna Zakrzewska, my neighbour at work, capable of talking the whole working day without stopping about the virtues of Poland and Polish customs. Communism took much more control in north Poland than in the south - something the history books don't tell you.
In Farthest Ferengistan
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Sklar, Holly ed., Trilateralism. The Trilateral Commission and Elite Planning for World Management. (Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 1980)
Anglophilia published in The Imaginary in Geometry, by Andrew Duncan (Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2005)
Halperin, Charles J, Russia under the Golden Horde: The Mongol Impact on Mediaeval Russian History (Bloomington: Indian University Press, 1985)
MacKenzie, John M Propaganda and Empire. The manipulation of public opinion, 1880-1960. (Manchester: Manchester University Press)
Jacobsthal, PL, Early Celtic Art (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1944)
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Read, Conyers Mr Secretary Cecil and Queen Elizabeth (London: Jonathan Cape, 1962)
Quigley, Carroll Tragedy and Hope. A History of the World in our Time (London: Macmillan, 1966)
Scott, Peter Dale Coming to Jakarta: a poem about Terror (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1988)
- Deep Politics and the Death of JFK (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993)
Middlemas, Keith, The Master Builders (London: Hutchinson, 1963)