John Bloomberg-Rissman interviews Nina Power
“… I do have a lot of friends who are artists and poets. Most of the poets are obsessed with the way in which capitalism talks about itself, the language of the markets, the speeds and strangenesses of financial activity. It’s interesting - as if contemporary experimental poetry is the nearest thing to the critique of political economy that art has. …”
JBR: As best I can tell, over the last few years, you have morphed a bit from an academic / activist into an activist / academic. In other words, your main focus these days seems to be activism, rather than writing, translating, etc. If that is true, can you tell us a bit about the transition? And about your activism? (this is where you can talk about the trials, I think)
NP: I certainly shifted from being primarily interested in politics as a theoretical object to it being a pressing daily concern in 2010, but I would refuse the activist/academic division to some extent. I mean, I wish more academics were explicitly politically, both in the media and in political life, and there are many that are - but an awful lot are content to remain within the often limited scope of their academic research, and to go along with various management decisions, however detrimental these might be. So you often end up with a few 'radicals' on campus who, often alongside their students, are fighting to prevent departments being closed own, fight against imposed registration (often used to check immigration status of students), contest Vice Chancellor's pay-rises, fight fees, improve conditions for non-academic staff and so on. In 2010, with the closure of the undergraduate Philosophy department at Middlesex, the beginning of this long round of attacks on Higher Education really kicked in. I had studied and worked at Middlesex and feel a very strong connection to its aims and ambitions, so I was part of the campaign to prevent its closure - the occupation was seen as a kind of test-case for what would happen at universities over the next few months as fee increases were debated in parliament, the Education Maintenance Allowance was cut, and so on. The outcome (the graduate centre moved to Kingston and the undergraduate programme was indeed cut) was ambiguous, but, alongside the university occupations over Gaza the year before, the tone was set for a certain kind of student and staff militancy between then and the end of 2010, when the tripling of tuition fees and the funding cuts were finally passed.
Over the course of the four main student protests that took place between November and December that year - huge, thrilling events which broke away from the main route and occupied Tory HQ in one instance, and escaped police containment (kettling) in another - we saw a series of arrests, as well as the increasing police violence that occurred on every protest - horse charges into static crowds, baton use, use of shields as weapons, and so on. This police desire for retribution culminated in the extreme police violence witnessed on the day of the fees votes, where many protesters suffered head injuries and, as is quite well known now because of the subsequent criminal prosecution brought against him, one protester, Alfie Meadows was so seriously injured he had to undergo life-saving brain surgery. The Crown Prosecution Service then saw fit to charge him with Violent Disorder (a charge used against many of the protesters arrested on the student protests and others), which has a maximum life sentence of five years. Alfie and his co-defendant Zak then had to suffer through three trials (the first jury returned a hung verdict, the second trial collapsed due to multiple delays), which finally culminated in their unanimous acquittal in March this year. Along with a number of others, we set up a campaign (Defend the Right to Protest) which focussed on helping defendants get the best legal advice, supporting them during their trials, writing articles about the trials in order to raise awareness about what was happening to the dozens of students who faced court cases and prison and linking up with other campaigns that work on protest, police violence and imprisonment. One of the links the campaign has worked on, and continues to work on, is the broader question of police violence: deaths in custody, daily police harassment and so on. While many of the people on the protests did not necessarily have experience of police brutality before they witnessed it in late 2010 (though many did), we wanted to try to make the link between protest violence and the violence that many (particularly young black and Asian men) suffer daily: in other words, to try to get people to think in a more 360 degree way about the role of the state and the police, and the way in which violence is meted out unevenly. We continue to attend inquests into deaths in custody and to support families of those involved in the justice campaigns. Because the scale and the extent of the cuts have been so brutal since the Tory government has come to power, alongside the rise of extreme right-wing groups like the English Defence League and the UK Independence Party, it has been hard for those who oppose cuts and fascism to keep up with the extent of state violence: opposition to austerity measures has been fierce but so too has the state's response. One of the most significant things for me over the past few years has been to meet up with criminal defence lawyers - these people are truly extraordinary in their fight for justice for ordinary people: of course, the legal aid that ensures people can get even the slightest hint of justice is being dismantled as we speak.
Personally, I'm not sure if I write more or less now than I did before 2010. The main thing I stopped doing was my blog I guess, which just started to seem a bit frivolous: it was something set up as a distraction during my PhD but I got tired of having all this word-junk hanging around - also, I could see from searches to the blog that someone/some people were looking for dirt on people who had been arrested or were heavily involved in the protests. Needless to say there wasn't anything on the blog that could do anyone any damage, but a lot of people were feeling exposed and anxious at that point. As you know, there have been a few very high profile exposes of police infiltration into protest movements in recent years, and I think paranoia is sometimes a normal response: people were going to prison were insanely minor things and newspapers and right-wing blogs were all-too-happy to smear protesters when it suited them.
I think my writing has perhaps become more fractured over the past few years, and I really am a terrible academic - if by that I mean someone who focuses on one thing in a scholarly way and becomes an expert on that one thing - because I write about so many different things all the time in different contexts. But I get bored easily I think. Some of my more recent work on notions of the 'public' tries to bring my interest in protest to bear on larger philosophical and political questions - definitions of collective subjectivity, for example, which I wrote about in my PhD. But I try to mess about with different styles of writing - journalism, academic articles, reviews, experimental stuff - so as not to get too ossified in one way of thinking or doing.
JBR: "Are any of the activists with whom you are colleagues, are any of your friends and non-activist colleagues, artists? If so, do you discuss art with them? Which arts? Are any of them poets? Do you have a connection to that aspect of their work?"
NP: I’d like to start with a quote from an interview given by Rachel Kushner (not with me though I did chair an evening with her recently in London):
‘I think it’s unfair to compare the stakes of art and the stakes of protest. The implication is that art is sillier, that the stakes are about ego and money and hierarchies ... but we are not choosing between a world without exploitation and a world without culture. They are not in direct competition with each other.’
I was really struck by this quote as it articulates something important about the way in which the relationship between activism and art are often framed, as if they are opposed and mutually exclusive or excluding. Clearly there is a way in which art sometimes appears to be self-contained - in its own little world, the “art world” perhaps - though obviously at the top end the links between this world and the world of finance are very tight. A lot of what people mourn these days when they talk about the disconnect between a lot of art and politics (or ask ‘why isn’t art relevant?’) is based around a fundamental assumption that these two spheres are somehow distinct. They might even be distinct, often, but it doesn’t mean that they should be, or always were, or always will be.
Nor, though, do I think that art has a ‘responsibility’ to be political, to have a particular message etc. Practically speaking, a lot of my friends who are artists are heavily involved in politics, particularly since the events of 2010 that I described in my first answer. Groups like Arts Against Cuts and The Precarious Workers’ Brigade look very clearly at the material constraints and conditions for artists and for art’s relation to politics in the UK context, and I have friends who work for both groups. Here I think there the question is one of specificity: rather than making generalisations like ‘all money is dirty money’ or ‘we are all complicit’, these groups think about the context, funding and presentation of art (and who gets paid, and who doesn’t). A couple of my friends, Dean Kenning and Margareta Kern, wrote a recent piece for Art Monthly that I think addresses these questions head-on. They write:
Knowledge as to how class power operates through art, and how we are in various ways subject to its forces, can inform artistic decisions. It may be exactly those points where art brushes directly against neoliberal power that offer most potential for effective resistance. In this respect, decisions made in specific art-world situations, including acts of subversion or refusal, should not be interpreted as points of individual morality or personal preference but as artistic acts with the potential to affect the wider field of art.
Much of the time, when people refuse to work with galleries etc. or pull out of events because of where the money comes from the response is often to attack this as a ‘moral’ position, but really the question has to be asked on a case-by-case basis with as much recognition of the different positions people are in and are able to take (obviously someone with a salary from a university job is better-placed to ‘refuse’ than a young artist without a job or money)
To get back to your question, I do have a lot of friends who are artists and poets. Most of the poets are obsessed with the way in which capitalism talks about itself, the language of the markets, the speeds and strangenesses of financial activity. It’s interesting - as if contemporary experimental poetry is the nearest thing to the critique of political economy that art has. Most of the visual artists I know are also engaged in kinds of mapping, or political critique of one kind or another, and often critique of the artworld itself.
In terms of cultural form, I spend most of my time listening to music - I’m very, very keen on experimental electronic music that has an interesting relation to gender - figures like Julia Holter, Laurel Halo, Berangere Maximin, and I obviously write quite a few music reviews for The Wire. I also watch quite a lot of films and have been asked to speak on a few occasions about film-art - this weekend I’m speaking about the work of Ericka Beckman, for example. I grew up reading a lot of novels and it’s still the cultural form I probably feel most at home with (hence reading all of the Booker shortlist this year! The prize is open to accusations of mainstream conservatism, for sure, but an interesting project to attempt alongside work and other writing).
It is difficult to untangle art in the British context from its commercial elements, and certainly most of the artists I know - Laura Oldfield Ford for example is a dear friend - find it difficult to earn enough from art alone, even though their work is excellent, moving and incisive. I think it’s interesting that so many discussions of so-called immaterial labour begin and end with the artworld and the figure of the contemporary artist as the paradigm examples of this tendency: art has perhaps become dominant as a mode of existence, which of course makes it no easier for those who describe themselves as ‘artists’ to make a living.
JBR: I’m guessing you know about the Militant Politics and Poetry Conference held in London this past May. I’m also guessing that you know a number of the people who presented there. I wasn’t there, but a number of the talks and a number of responses subsequent to the conference have been posted to the Militant Poetics forum http://militantpoetics.blogspot.com/
Among many other things, there seems to have been a lot of – I don’t know if anxiety is the right word – desire that poets think about “how to go forward, what we might do etc.” (Chris Gutkind). I’ll quote a few illustrative comments:
“Is there something we can actually do that might help, make a useful contribution? But together, since we’ve come together, and what is together anyway, what do we mean by that in our situation?” Chris Gutkind
“It's a good sign that there's a conference on militant poetics raising explicitly non-rhetorical questions, & a good starting point for poets to at least think thru the implications of a shared poetic militancy. But what are the forms this ought to take to make any fucking difference at all, to effect a reversal in the seemingly endless parade of abhorrences & loss of common rights?” Michael Tencer
“How do we fight the corruption and greed of politics, and is the power of language alone sufficient?” Selina Vuddamalay
I used the word anxiety above, and then withdrew it, but would like to put it back on the table. Because it seems to me that poets who are sure of what they are doing don’t ask such questions. I would add that I don’t find the anxiety unreasonable, in fact I share it; tho I don't find it unreasonable, I'm not actually sure that it IS reasonable.
Since it does not appear from your answer to question 2 that you find poets NOT doing what they ought to do, to be falling short, failing somehow, what would you say to me, what might you have said at this conference, to the poets (and other artists) who express these kinds of doubts? (In a certain way your answer already addresses this, I know, but I’m hoping to push you a little into a more specific interaction with this “anxiety” …)
NP: Anxiety is this omnipresent cloud over everything anyone does I think! It can and does tip over all the time into fatalism, or panic, or despair. It’s not surprising that poets would feel this particularly acutely as poetry as a cultural form seemed to be peculiarly marginalised in some ways, and thought not to have the strength to make much impact outside of a few small camps who will be extremely moved by it - although it’s clear that in Iran, for example, poetry is still highly privileged as a mode of political, spiritual and literary communication and whose effects are deemed to be worrisome by the authorities. At the same time, it won’t do to imagine cultural forms are more subversive or relevant than they actually are.
There are several kinds of anxieties at work here it seems to me: the anxiety that what one is doing is of any value or makes any difference, for starters; the anxiety that the entire mode or form of production has value or is still historically relevant; and an anxiety about how individual or collective production links up to broader questions of political struggle, or how to tie being a poet, for example, in with being someone engaged in political work (anti-police protest, for example, of which we have seen a lot lately in London). I have many friends for whom the question of whether they concentrate on their work or whether they spend their time organising (alongside everyday economic questions) is a daily, practical dilemma. Of course the ambition is for there to be no gap between the work and the politics. But these moments are rare and utopian. But they do exist.
Another option is to see the negativity all the way through to the end, to analyse and categorise it, to pin it down and to work out whether there is anything to be done with hate, revenge, pessimism etc. I’m also interested in this option, as are many others (see http://radicalnegativity.com/).
JBR: To change topic a little: How does global warming play into your "communist horizon"?’
NP: I think this is a difficult question, though one as relevant as ever with the news today that 95% of scientists are now convinced that global warming is the direct result of human influence. I think one of the problems we have politically is to try to conceive of nature in a dialectical way: one obvious fantasy (perhaps a primitivist one) would be to imagine the world in a pre-capitalist state, with sustenance farming, commons, and so on, where humankind lives harmoniously with the environment. Of course this is in many ways a wonderful image - and I have nothing but admiration for people who live in this way, wherever possible. But I think too that realistically you have to think about the planet as it has been constructed and changed by capitalism, by pollution, man-made disasters like Fukushima and so on. Obviously some of these things can be ‘cleaned-up’ and behaviour changed, but it is clear that there is significant damage done to the planet at this point: and the mismatch of scale between an individual recycling glass bottles and companies dumping waste quantities of crap into the oceans is hard to conceptualise. Futility or a kind of nostalgia for the future of the kind that Herzog sometimes engages in - wouldn’t the world be better off when all the humans are gone and nature can return to its true beauty/horror? - seems tempting sometimes. Most contemporary cultural explorations of this idea of ruin begin or end in apocalypse (think of Children of Men etc.), and it is a tempting position, to romanticise the destructive ruins left by a ruinous species, but again it depends upon a concept of nature that is somehow pure and doesn’t include humans, as if we are not also a part of the nature that we have betrayed, and in doing so, have betrayed ourselves.
JBR: Let’s talk a little more about global warming and a communist response to it. I see that you rule out two possible responses: nostalgia for a golden age, and desire for our species’ extinction. I am fine with that; neither seem useful, both dodge the question of how humans are going to go on, and each is just too romantic for words. I have seen the capitalist response: either denial, and business as usual, or a reliance on geoengineering projects when the going gets bad (or a combination of both: for example ExxonMobil funds a great deal of denialism, AND is investing heavily in geoengineering – heads I win; tails you lose). And, when I look back on prior attempts at communism, e.g. the USSR and China, I find that each were dependent on the very same technologies as capitalism, i.e., those that are killing the planet. So, while it’s all very well to remember Marx’s “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living”, now it’s not just the tradition of the dead generations, it’s also the CO2, etc. I don’t see that the communist (or any other truly left) tradition has theorized this kind of thing well [this kind of thing = changing the modes of production, the energy and other technologies upon which we depend, at the same time as consolidating the revolution itself] (please tell me that I’m wrong about this!). How does a communist think this crisis [the crisis of capitalism AND energy technology] (it feels to me to be a crisis) now? Or, perhaps better, how do you?
NP: I think there is a very long tradition that relates to ideas of “the commons” that precisely relates to this problem of capitalism and energy technology/access to resources/sustainability. The work of the Midnight Notes Collective (http://www.midnightnotes.org/) points to exactly this kind of thinking. I don’t have much to add here except to say that every time I read what they write I can’t help but agree with them.
Nina goes on to add, “John: I realise this isn’t a very satisfactory answer! Feel free to maybe cut this response or maybe you could incorporate it back into the earlier question about global warming?” Instead of cutting or incorporating I am going to leave this as-is, to point to the fact that I believe that what I call just above “the crisis of capitalism AND energy technology” is undertheorized, which is not to take away from the work of those who are attempting to deal with it in the least, it’s just to note that this crisis needs to be at the top of the agenda, or perhaps the rest of the agenda will find itself irrelevant before too much more time passes … Do I need to add that theorizing this (trying to think it through) is just a first tho necessary step? Again, this is just my opinion …