Contemporary Poetry, or the University Discourse: a Response to Sous Les Pavés #3 (March 2011)

By Robin Purves.

The following essay is from Hix Eros #3 (January 2014), ed. Luna, Joe and me, which is available today on Kindle (UK / US), or in free PDF format, designed and typeset by Robbie Dawson. It contains reviews by Andrew Spragg, Robin Purves, David Grundy, Greg Thomas, Joel Felix, Calum Rodger and Robert Kiely on poetry by Andrea Brady, Stephen Emmerson and Chris Stephenson, Jeff Hilson, Colleen Hind and Pocahontas Mildew, Frances Kruk, MacGillivray, Reitha Pattison, Steve Roggenbuck, Samantha Walton & more. Thank you to all the publishers and authors who put things in the post, and thank you especially to the reviewers.


“He was in his verse allied with the other political poets of the thirties – Auden and Spender and Day-Lewis – and he went for walks on the South Downs with Cambridge economists who told him that when the revolution came it might be necessary to shoot his parents. Rising sensation in head now everything’s back to normal.”

– Peter Manson, Adjunct: an Undigest, p.52

Jacques Lacan’s Séminaire XVII, entitled L’Envers de la psychanalyse, took place at the Faculté de la loi in the Place du Panthéon, Paris, between November 1969 and June 1970, throughout what its official translator calls “the unsettled aftermath of the eventful year of 1968.”[1] In the course of the regular meetings – on the second and third Wednesdays of each month – and in the ‘impromptu’ talks he gave during the same period at l’Université de Vincennes, Lacan provokes his audiences and, in particular, the students in his audiences, with a series of confrontational assertions and sideswipes. He claims, for example, that nothing in the political system or its educational subset is being shaken by their protests. He tells the students that what they, in their fervent agitating, “aspire to as revolutionaries is a master”[2] and assures them that they will get one; he insists that student demonstrations amount to the exhibition, by the regime to the rest of the population, of the students and their ‘enjoyment.’ Interpreting the agitation through the theory of the four discourses which he outlines during this seminar, he comments on the reforms being made to the university system in response to May 68, reforms he refers to as a tactical ‘relaxation’ of the university discourse. Lacan, who also regards the reforms as a ‘trap,’ excoriates what he sees as the students’ collaboration with a new structure of credits destined to turn them into quantified signifiers, bovine personifications of exchange-value. In the final meeting, on 17th June 1970, he takes the students to task for what he supposes is their lack of willingness to die for the cause of their revolution, in order, it seems, to induce shame in them at their own shamelessness, which is a symptom of the reigning principle of the day which makes a priority of staying alive above all other values. As part of the same impulse, he holds that the students should stop identifying their struggle with the cause of the proletariat, on the grounds that the proletariat, like the Roman plebeians in their time, are “very distinguished people”;[3] he recommends instead that the students develop what he sees as their more natural, fraternal affinity, with the Lumpenproletariat.

Lacan also contends that May 68 and its aftermath can only be accurately explained with reference to his four discourses and to the relations between them. The aims of this essay are, first of all, to give a partial synopsis of Lacan’s four discourses, concentrating only on those aspects of the theory which are indispensable to its exegesis and /or able to shed light on the direction of the UK higher education system today as it has been roughed out by the coalition government, then to read the responses to that direction (and, especially, to the large-scale demonstrations it has incited) which have been collated in the third issue of the journal, Sous Les Pavés, in light of what there might be to learn from Lacan.

The notion of discourse which Lacan works with throughout Séminaire XVII presupposes the existence of language but can maintain itself without recourse to specific utterances or written words. It consists, he explains, of “certain fundamental relations” which frame and therefore largely determine the nature of “our conduct.”[4] These relations are manifested in four separate algorithms, each composed of four mathemes arranged in a settled correlation. The four discourses are: the discourse of the Master; the discourse of the University; the discourse of the Hysteric; and the discourse of the Analyst. The mathemes which feature in each algorithm or discourse are: S1, the master signifier; S2, “the battery of signifiers” which, Lacan advises, “we have no right, ever, to take as dispersed, as not already forming a network of knowledge;”[5] $, the barred or divided subject; and a, the objet petit a or, as Lacan begins to call it towards the end of the 1960s, the plus-de-jouir [surplus jouissance].

The discourse of the Master is usually considered to be the first of the four discourses, both in terms of historical priority and in terms of what could be called a kind of monolithic pre-eminence. Its mathemes are arranged in the following pattern, below left, in loci whose significance is given below right:

Lacan 1

The other three discourses are, or can be, generated by one, two, or three counter-clockwise turns from the starting position of the discourse of the Master and occur in the order of the list given on the previous page; so, for example, the discourse of the University looks like this:

Lacan 2

In the discourse of the Master, the master signifier, S1, occupies the position of the agent. In Lacan’s exposition of this discourse, an imperious and ignorant master, S1, issues commands to the repository of technical know-how known as the slave, S2, found in the position of the other. Something, a, is produced as a result, but not simply that which might satisfy the demand of the master. The master signifier’s interference with S2 kicks off the operation of the slave’s knowledge, which is only loosely articulated and closer to the function of instinct than what we usually take the word ‘knowledge’ to mean. S2, then, operates along certain predetermined and constantly re-traced pathways whose traversal each time involves a loss which Lacan explains with reference to the second law of thermodynamics and the increase in entropy in isolated systems. This loss is a, the plus-de-jouir, pleasure renounced in the application of a knowledge which maintains life but in its reiterations also constitutes a death drive in its tendency to dissipate energy; the a is also taken to be a residuum resistant to linguistic expression which from this point on works as the ungraspable cause of desire. The process described amounts to one of Lacan’s linguistic reformulations of Freud’s theory of castration, castration being the process of the renunciation of instinctual satisfaction from which the socialized, divided and desiring subject emerges.

The four discourses, or at least two of them (the discourses of the master and the university), appear to be able to characterize both epochs and the enunciating positions of individual subjects, so that the epoch dominated by the Master’s discourse stretches from the irruption of Yahweh as recorded in the Old Testament and ancient societies dependent on slave labour up until the birth of modern science whose necessary condition Lacan identifies as Cartesian philosophy, but the master signifier as individuated agent is the complacent and domineering ego-function whose concealed ‘truth’ (below the bar on the right-hand side of the algorithm) is his divided subjectivity. The master, it is said, extorts the instinctive knowledge of the slave and this knowledge gets reconstituted in a reflexive, self-conscious form as the Western philosophical tradition. However, the discourse which governs the contemporary situation in 1969-1970, and seems to have done so thanks to “a modification in the place of knowledge”[6] beginning in the time of Descartes, by the counter-clockwise quarter turn, is the University discourse.

Lacan’s exposition of the theory of the four discourses is, from one perspective, frustratingly haphazard and vague because he is developing it as the seminar progresses, but it also involves a calculated preservation of the theory’s protean qualities through a reticence about particular kinds of detail which renders it usefully capacious and flexible. When S2 is installed in the agent’s position formerly occupied by the master signifier S1 Lacan is able to argue that the nature and status of knowledge has altered between the shift from domination through the Master’s discourse to “how things stand under the new tyranny of knowledge.”[7] S2 is said now to be “not knowledge of everything [savoir de tout] – we’ve not got to that point yet – but all-knowing [tout-savoir],”[8] an essentially bureaucratic dream of totalised intelligence that Lacan identifies with the USSR but also with what he sees as the hegemony of technical-scientific knowledge in the West. (Despite its given name, the University discourse extends well beyond any account of how language is used in institutions of higher education.) To illustrate the point that our society labours under an imperative to “Continue. March on. Keep on knowing more and more,”[9] Lacan mentions the formidable reserve of the mathematician Gauss, who seems to have decided at an early stage in the development of the discourse of the University, not to publish theorems (confirmed later by Riemann and others) that would have led to the establishment of a non-Euclidean geometry, simply because he considered that this innovation would be too much of a disturbance for the prevailing order of reality. Lacan’s point is that this sort of reticence would be utterly unthinkable now under the prevailing despotic condition of technical-scientific progress.

The relations in the top-half of the algorithm of the University discourse show the faceless tout-savoir addressing its other, a, or, as Lacan labels it in the course of the Séminaire, the a-studé (his name for the student) who is given the task of producing work which will construct his or her self as a subject in possession of knowledge appropriate to their position. The barred character of the (divided) subject in the bottom right-hand corner demonstrates that this product is unable to have a relation to S1 as the truth which lies behind the demand of the agent S2. The master signifier S1 in the locus of truth below the bar on the left is identifiable as the secret authority behind S2 as agent and this distribution exposes the ‘objectivity’ of S2-knowledge as a fantasy. Lacan connects the production of these divided subjectivities inside the University discourse with the discontent evident among the students of Paris in the late 1960s.

Since 1970 the ingress of consumerist language across university campuses, used to extol the aims and outcomes of degree courses, has been comprehensive to say the least. The idea of the student as consumer /customer and the rhetoric of employability which claims to justify students’ participation in the sector have penetrated it to the extent that more traditional and high-minded justifications appear ludicrously anachronistic. It might even be possible to revise Lacan’s description and bracket the lecturer and student together now as a-studé, given the imperative to produce quantifiable research under the REF scheme: lecturer and student now occupy the position the slave held in the Master’s discourse, working to maintain themselves in the service of an institution whose priorities are increasingly market-driven. The translation of the academic essay or monograph into ‘points’ advertises the fact that the academy is only concerned with outcomes that can be added up. What gets said or written, inside the University discourse, does not matter; the most celebrated, influential and highly paid academics are often those who are most virulent in their denunciations of Western capitalism and its institutions and it is, as Lacan’s algorithm points out, their location in the discourse as spouts of ‘outcome’ and ‘impact’ which forbids the feasibility of any outcome or impact beyond the preservation of the system they write to denounce. David Willetts, the current Conservative Minister of State for Universities and Science, gave a speech on Thursday 3rd March 2011 in Cambridge concerning “The Coalition’s Vision for Science and Technology” and his delivery and the content of his speech are excoriated in revealing terms by J.H. Prynne, a member of Willetts’ audience that evening:

Much chat about rational analysis, fair choices, necessity for immediate and expedient decisions, no time for pausing or forward thinking, these reductions in cash outflow are fixed parameters (set in granite), and must be delivered in short order. That’s politics. But then, smile smile, we profile the likely consequences by analytic procedures based on empirical data, because we support scientific method (smirk, smirk) of which Cambridge is such a shining example (try not to be sick).

Willetts, according to Prynne’s scathing paraphrase, proceeds to seek common ground with his audience of academics by making the familiar move of stamping clearly political decisions determined by a free market ideology with the scientific hallmark of expertly gathered and empirically verified ‘objective’ knowledge, but does it in such a way that it is as if even this reliable tactic is so timeworn and obviously hollow that he expects no-one in the room to take it seriously, though he expects everyone to go along with it.[10]

The position of the academic has been compromised, not by the carrying out of research as such, since this would seem to most people an essential element of the profession if you want to do your job well, but by its quantification in a points-based system akin to the credits which students are expected to accrue as part of their degree. The tallying of points effectively wipes out any remaining prestige that might once have attached itself to the post of the lecturer or professor as author, except in the cases of the small number of élite academics whose relative popular success establishes them as writers, first and foremost, and largely excuses them from teaching duties. These problems, with the related issue of the hike in tuition fees and the elimination of the government’s contribution towards the teaching of arts, humanities and social science subjects inside the most severe programme of cuts to public services for decades, form the bleak cause whose most publicly manifested effect was the student protests in November and December of 2010, and in January 2011. The rest of this essay will examine the way these protests were recorded by a group of British and American poets and academics in one issue of one journal, in order to try and gauge what, if anything, the issue achieves, and whether lessons might be learned from the experience.

The title of the journal Sous Les Pavés, (edited by Micah Robbins out of Dallas, Texas) is a curtailed version of one of the most famous slogans associated with the Situationist movement from May 68 in Paris, a title which in its curtailment seems primarily to characterize its quasi-samizdat production and distribution (it circulates as newsletter and .pdf) though the original’s utopian shortcut to the seaside is included on the front cover in French and in English translation. It is a bi-monthly publication, a schedule which allows for a genuine sense of urgency and energy and exchange to inform its stated aim to open “a productive dialogue and [forge] a lasting bond of solidarity between the US and UK poetry communities” while being “dedicated to the spirit of dissent and revolt.”[11] This essay will look at issue Number 3 which appeared in March 2011, an issue largely given over to the responses of poets and critics to the student demonstrations in London on 10th November 2010 and 29th January 2011. The issue proves to be an exciting and important document to read from cover to cover, both despite and because of the variable quality of the contributions and in the trajectory the journal traces as the contributions go by.

The issue proper begins with an article by Jay James May, entitled ‘>>Poked With A Stick<< The New Politics’ written in an excitable mode no doubt appropriate to its proximity to the event but which also invites a reader’s scepticism with its somewhat reckless firebrand posturing. May’s text tries to make a virtue from stating the obvious: “We reject nostalgia: this is not May 1968 or October 1917” without considering that his own anti-nostalgia is itself a form of nostalgia for the anti-nostalgic rhetoric of May 68. He underlines this point himself when he incorporates the odd fragment of a Situationist slogan and ends his article with a quote from Guy Debord. It’s not unreasonable to claim that the student demonstrations in London were not les événements of May 68 or the Russian Revolution, but at this early stage in Sous Les Pavés this is the first and last time someone is prepared to go out on a limb and insist that 10 /11 /10 is the next event in the sequence of revolutionary situations, that it’s worth being talked about in the same breath. Frances Kruk’s short chronicle of the aftermath of the demonstrations begins on the next page after May’s piece and seems to ‘take place,’ in this reader’s head at least, the morning after the delirious night before – in fact much of the rest of the issue reads as if the other poets and critics are more or less carefully picking their way through the debris of last night’s party, nursing hangovers while wondering what might be left to salvage. Kruk incorporates oblique poetry between paragraphs of poetic prose and, unlike May’s relentlessly proprietorial attitude to the demo, she confines the first person pronoun to these poem remnants, so that when the possibility of a collective body of protest which would include her is introduced, belatedly, tentatively but affirmatively, towards the end, the moment comes across as somehow authentic and affecting: “May be rhetoric unstable, hope and doubt a single barbed tangle, naïveté, probably. But so is the government.” The disconsolate note that creeps in there to be qualified dominates the poem by Francesca Lisette on the following page: the jammed or fluctuating nouns all happening together or doing shit to each other give way towards the centre of the poem and at its end to announce that “This is what always happens. Language shifts to a welter of redundancy” and “…pixellated testimonies crumble by the hour.” Is this what always happens in general, or only in the poems of Francesca Lisette? Does language “[shift] to a welter of redundancy” in the same way that “Symptoms blaze up in riled kettle-swell,” the way “Grimly / siphoned history repudiates her darling blood-breasted poppy arrow justice / stone wax figurine” and the way “This […] always happens”? Does the ‘Something Does Something’ grammar and present tense which recur from end to end work deliberately to foster the impression of discrete occurrences taking place in a blur of contingency and inevitability with a dazed subject on the margins doing her best to record it as it flies, and is this question any different from asking whether these quotations from the poem are themselves an indication of poetic language’s redundancy before mass protests and state violence? Lisette’s poem does seem to be aware of its own entropic inclinations without necessarily being able to find the means to resist them, which makes it a better neighbour for Richard Owens’s ‘>>Scrape the Ice<< (Our Butter Stinketh)’ than the merry piss-taking of Goat Far Dale Turbo that intervenes brightly between them. Owens’ helpful opening sentence, “Defiantly pissing in the face of repression and wastefully pissing in the wind are two markedly different things,” is virtually contradicted (by Goat Far DT and) by the rest of Owens’ article, which is devoted to lamenting the unthinkable and impossible odds for the flourishing of a politically progressive popular movement in the US. Ed Dorn is criticised for responding to May 68 with an “utter refusal of zeal” and then belatedly excused, or at least explained, given what, at the time of Owens’ writing, was “the growing strength of the Tea Party,” because Dorn’s cynical dismissal of the student movement is held to spring from the default setting of the American psyche hard-wired to write off any manifestation of radicalism not draped in Old Glory. The torpor of the American scene is then vividly contrasted with the impressive-sounding and imaginative story of how on November 10th “thousands of British students walked on, vandalized and occupied Tory headquarters at Millbank.”In fact, the protestors who made it into Millbank and onto the roof seem to have numbered about two or three dozen. Despite the impressiveness of the feat and its symbolic importance, the situation is most widely remembered because one protestor threw a fire extinguisher from the top of the building, narrowly missing a line of riot police, causing hundreds of students stationed on the road outside to begin chanting, “Stop throwing shit! Stop throwing shit!

Sean Bonney’s ‘Note From London’ is an admixture of Owens’ profound scepticism concerning the potential for significant change directed by a mass protest movement, but in the UK and not in the US this time, and a dogged rejection of that scepticism, informed by his own experience of the protests and re-ignited by the effort to remember: “It really did feel like that. It did go that far. But it’s likely it also started imploding from the beginning.” Bonney is one of the most inventive and politically committed poets in Britain and this irritable oscillation between an ecstatic attachment to what he, at the high-water mark of his enthusiasm, dubiously labels “a full-scale revolt” and his dismayed accounts of the follow-up demonstration (compared to a circus and a funeral) don’t make the mistake that some commentators appear to do, i.e. he doesn’t talk as if the only legitimate kind of activism is the mass protest and he refuses to let his disappointment with subsequent protests convince him that the cause is dead in the water. He reports a conversation with a union organiser, a more seasoned political campaigner who, if we translate her comments into the terms of that veteran of May 68, Alain Badiou, reminds Bonney that it is the application of purposeful effort (fidelity) after the rupture of the event which is the achievement of subjectivity and truth, and not the rupture itself. His bid to end on a hopeful note in circumstances that would seem to discourage it points out how swiftly apathy can turn to militancy, and keeps its counsel concerning the speed with which the process might switch into reverse again.

Elliott Colla, an academic expert on Egypt from Georgetown University, contributes a very good essay on the history of Egyptian revolutions since 1881. Several other contributors to the issue have cautiously compared the student protests in London to the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and certain aspects of Colla’s article must have provided these writers with some food for thought. Colla points out that in Egypt there has been “no less than 10 major revolts and revolutions in 130 years” and if the outcome of this revolutionary fervour has involved concessions wrung from colonial governments along the way, the last “official” revolution in 1952 “inaugurated 60 years of military dictatorships under Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak.” Colla’s title, however, is ‘The Poetry of Revolt’ and he ends it with a record of how poetry has figured in the latest Egyptian uprising: it has equipped the demonstrators with some slogans to be chanted, soundbites and satirical couplets which encourage a sense of solidarity and momentum when these things are felt to be in need. Needless to say, the composing of this kind of revolutionary poetry is rarely the job of a designated author-figure and it is also, for the most part, a considerable distance from the poetic practices of the poets who contribute to Sous Les Pavés, though we will soon come to discuss one poet in the issue who makes a bid to contribute to the genre. Danny Hayward’s very impressive essay suggests that the marketisation of the UK higher education sector has gone too far to be checked and the university today functions as no more than an undeserved holiday from objective reality and constrained life for the children of the middle-classes. In what comes as a surprising move, given the tenor of the other contributions to the journal, he describes the academic schedule as a wasteful ‘ocean’ of free time in which the devil makes work for idle hands: a culture of ‘deviancy’ is being encouraged by institutions which are not fit for purpose and the evidence is there in the “recent flare-up of student protest.” This sounds very close to what Hayward himself calls “the right wing animus against [the university] system,” an animus he says “makes perfect sense” when we think about the university in exclusively economic terms. His critique has a militant kind of urgency behind it but it does not, in the end, aim squarely at advocating the dismantling of the entire university system, so its focus turns out to be on rationalization and reorganisation in terms of what the nation can afford and recommends identifying “institutional failure” – nothing, in other words, which would look so out of place in Lord Browne’s report into the financing of higher education in England.

Hayward’s arguments are persuasive at many points but his article also exposes a fault-line in the attitudes of contributors to the journal. Bonney expresses an attachment to the value of “education as learning for its own sake,” a notion as old-fashioned but appealing in the context of the modern university as the idea of free higher education for all who want it, funded through general taxation. Are these militant poets in favour of the disappearance of the State and its several Apparatuses, or are they for a form of social welfarism requiring a State interventionist enough to tax more and then boost public spending for a higher education sector which, as Hayward points out, has been designed to benefit the middle classes at the expense of the less well-off? And do they absolutely have to choose? Should they be made to?

The poem by Keston Sutherland which follows on immediately from Danny Hayward’s essay is initially puzzling in this context. The poem is relatively short and does not seem to have anything directly to do with the student demonstrations. With a commendable swiftness, however, Sutherland had stolen a march on the other contributors and written his own, direct response to 10 /11 /10 published in the previous issue of Sous Les Pavés (December 2010). After nine indented stanzas-in-prose mingling observation of protestors’ joyousness and reflections on the violence meted out by police and protestors alike, Sutherland closes the poem with the following peroration:

I’m far from knowing what to do about any of
this, or after it; but so long as my blood is attached to
the world I live for by its motion; I create this pledge in
utter solemnity, I will never deny it; but burst to make its
love for everyone shower from my heart.

Before commenting on this passage, I want to bring in the poem in the subsequent issue, the issue dedicated to the student protests, which is actually entitled ‘Peroration’ and begins concerned with the undeniable fact that reproduction is sustained by fantasy: “Sex shops are a way of establishing / that reality can only be kept up / by the irony of custom for its opposite.” The poem then comes to a close with the following lines:

This at least you allege, following the words
you just did then to this one next
at the end, where in your straining heart
communism makes amends; I am
still here, and so long as I am I
am the fire blind in sunlight, burning out
the entire sky, orgasm of immortality,
and the finance aristocracy who own
the freehold for morality will fry,
not in hell but in the blackest oil
understating their bonuses; it is that
simple to say, so say it, now say it
again and watch the novelty wear off.

‘Peroration,’ with its mention of the “straining heart,” can be read as the disillusioned qualification or vandalism, if not retraction, of the previous poem’s concluding, solemn pledge. Even if this poetic qualification is only the pre-condition for another go at the swearing of the blood-oath, and this time all bets will be off, the poem admits that there must be an entropic loss of the energy of conviction with each rotation of the discourses of passionate commitment and inconsolable disillusionment. Passion is sustained by the consoling illusions of sexual and political rapport, but only for so long: the pledge of undying commitment to the death is “simple to say” but harder to live. Before I return to this poem, I want to discuss Justin Katko’s ‘Lines For A Protest Song, After 9 December,’ which is designed, as the title indicates, to be sung en masse at future anti-cuts demonstrations. Its second verse runs:

Sometimes I wish that instead of their horses
They’d call up the hold where they store their guns;
And when they shoot one of us down we’ll rise up stronger,
For in the taste of our blood be remembered we are one.

The dirge is a kind of tacit acknowledgement that there is as yet no master signifier of the student protests which is able to make its disparate individuals and parties readable as a purposeful unit. The adopted anthem of the protests turned out to be Lethal Bizzle’s dynamic but lyrically formulaic (and irrelevant) ‘POW!,’ a track expressing untethered aggression through a very generic kind of threat. Katko’s song is symptomatic of the kind of trouble a poet can find him or herself in when tempted to simplify a message in the hope of securing a wider audience. The sacrificial victim in the third line goes unnamed but it would be possible to run a simulation of this idea to see if the stated outcome would be likely. On the 10th November protest, one of the most visible of all the marchers, since he began the day by being photographed swinging from the Cenotaph and ended it having allegedly obstructed a vehicle in a convoy containing the Prince of Wales and his wife, and therefore one of the candidates most likely to have been picked out in the crosshairs of a police sniper, was Charlie Gilmour, son of the poet, Heathcote Williams, and stepson of the multimillionaire, Dave Gilmour, guitarist with Pink Floyd. The victim, in other words, may not have turned out to be Katko’s wished-for unknown soldier, an Everyman or woman able to act as an almost-anonymous magnet for sympathy and conduit for solidarity; but even if the person who catches the bullet were to be as ‘innocent’ and ordinary as possible, to the extent of not even being involved directly in the protest itself, there’s still no guarantee that more serious protests would erupt as a result. The tragic and unlawful death of Ian Tomlinson, it could be argued, has eclipsed the G20 protests into which he had unwittingly wandered. Who, then, is to be the bullet’s target? It doesn’t sound as if the expression is to be taken as a metaphor for the dissolution of the speaker’s own presence as an individual in the collective ‘we’ or a buried wish for the formation of the collective in his martyred absence, though this indirectly suicidal impulse might ‘include’ the protest in a way that a murder would not (cf. the contested death of the Tunisian stallholder, Mohamed Bouazizi, said to have sparked the Tunisian revolution). It is probably not me or you he visualizes as dying for the cause either. The difficulty of establishing just who might fill the role suggests a connection can be made with Lacan’s denunciation of the shamelessness of the May 68 protestors: perhaps this cause – a lifting of the ceiling on university tuition fees and an acceleration in the marketisation of higher education – just isn’t worth dying for in the eyes of the people who would be candidates for martyrdom. At the moment it is obviously more convenient to live on your knees, and cough up your fees, than die on your feet, though Sutherland’s wager, in the rhetoric of his solemn pledge, the one he will never deny, is that something must be worth dying for if there is to be a point to going on living. His poems are capable, like few others these days, of inducing the right kind of shame in their reader, a shame only vestigially connected to the perceived ‘content’ or ‘subject matter’ of the poems, having more to do with the quality and pressure of the thought and feeling committed to the test of their content.

The new proximity to direct and often violent political action experienced by the poets in Sous Les Pavés seems to act as a kind of test for poetry, and poetic language acts in turn as a test-bed for activism: both end up finding each other wanting. The thrill of politics as violent rebellion deflates poetry and pushes several poets into prose and then the deflation of politics-as-violent-rebellion deflates poetry even further: say it again and watch the novelty wear off. Politics, as it carries on as normal in the days after the riot, fails to live up to the most fervently hopeful or disgusted poetry these poets have written, and the poems certainly fail to live up to the thrills and the disheartening spills of political events. The poets and their poetry are not, finally, inside the “full-scale revolt” and the “full-scale revolt” is not a full-scale revolt. With a few exceptions (Lisette, Sutherland, the little inserts through Kruk’s and Bonney’s pieces) it seems that under the pressure of what appears to be momentous events, poets turns to prose; and therefore, on reflection, poetry’s job is to be reflective, and to reconstitute its texts as allegorical, as ruined maquettes made and unmade in deformations and re-organizations of language which will have constituted circumstantial evidence in the case against capitalism. On the evidence of this issue of Sous Les Pavés, poetry is even perhaps dialectically opposed to political activism. This is another way of saying that poetry and politics are engaged in a relationship of antitheses regarding the dialectic, because the contradiction between poetry and politics is what much of this poetry will turn out to have been about. The prose in Sous Les Pavés, then, whether it accomplishes its local tasks or not, considers itself as a metalanguage offering an overview and digest of the dialectical opposition between poetry and politics; poetry, meanwhile, just is the movement of the sublation of each term by the other in its turn. No doubt this explains the tendency to combine prose and poetry in the contributions by Sutherland, Kruk and Bonney. The linguistic sublation of the experience of politics in and by the divided subject surfaces as poetry, a poetry trained upon a future (prose) that it will have brought about and which will or will not explain it. Is this why all experimental poetry, by virtue of its formal and semantic redirections, seems implicitly to be in the future anterior tense, to be retroactively confirmed or ruled out one day as the best or most hopeless guess available way back when, even if its sentences are written in a continuous present, the pluperfect or any other indicated time of action?

Lacan’s advice to the students he criticises in Séminaire XVII involves the advocacy of reticence as a strategy of subversion. His own refusal to carry on with his seminar on the Names-of-the-Father in 1963 was an act of reticence or refusal that he later justified by invoking his distance from the university discourse. Reticence as an “act of refusal in the position one holds,” like the silence and stillness of the analyst in her chair, is also a step on the path towards the collaboration of an analysis. This brand of reticence might even cover the little stories academics tell themselves, about the petty subversions that punctuate their working day: the circulation of extra-curricular material using the departmental photocopier, &c. Lacan’s knowingly modest idea of subversion involves switching another effect for the production that sustains the university system. How would a poet accomplish this feat? Would it be enough to produce a poem when the university expects a thesis? Or would it be too much, to produce the poem, without producing the thesis too, just to keep the university happy?

[1] Russell Grigg, ‘Translator’s Note,’ The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. The Other Side of Psychoanalysis. Book XVII. Trans. Russell Grigg (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007 (1991)), p.9.

[2] ‘Analyticon,’ The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, p.207.

[3] The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, p.190.

[4] The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, p.13.

[5] Ibid.

[6] The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, p.31.

[7] The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, p.32.

[8] The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, p.31.

[9] The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, p.105.

[10] Prynne’s comments on David Willetts’ talk,‘The Coalition’s Vision for Science and Technology,’ can be read in full at /jeremy-prynne-on-david-willetts-talk-the-coalitions-vision-for-science-and-technology [accessed 01.05.11].

[11] Micah Robbins, Editorial, Sous Les Pavés Number 3, March 2011.

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