The Operating System

4th Annual NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: Day 7 :: Alex Crowley on Lisa Robertson

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We say thought’s object is not knowledge but living.”

As an undergrad sociology major I became obsessed with the Situationist International. Hyper­radical, theory­-obsessed, and obscure almost to the point of obnoxiousness, they seemed to be everything the American hippie flower children were not and I thought it was all fantastic. The SI birthed punk and I thought I was punk and I read everything I could find by them in my college library and anything else I could find online [this being the pre­-Google era].

Frankly, I didn’t understand a lot of it, though I loved how it was delivered. My poetry­-poetry knowledge at the time was barely meagre, but this wasn’t high school English class, this was nasty sociology. And it was «gasp» p​oetic.​ Riddles that seemed to lure the ugly truth of capitalism out into the open just to hurl stones at it. Even if I couldn’t articulate the details of the spectacle, I could feel something there—or at least I thought I could, which was all that really mattered.

Fast­forward nearly a decade over a lot of pointless garbage and Laurie Sheck is passing out our next assignment in her seminar at The New School (called “Genre and the Lyric ‘I’” if I remember correctly): a photocopied packet of Lisa Robertson’s “Seven Walks.” I took it home to find the “First Walk” open, boldly, with a parenthetical:

(Once again the plaque on the wall had been smashed. We attempted to recall the subject of official commemoration, but whatever we said about it, we said about ourselves. This way the day would proceed with its humiliating diligence, towards the stiffening silver of cold evening, when the dissolute hours had gathered into a recalcitrant knot and we could no longer stroll in the fantasy that our waistcoats were embroidered with roses, when we would feel the sensation of unaccountability like a phantom limb. But it is unhelpful to read a day backwards.)

I read all seven and vowed to get the whole book, not really knowing what I was getting myself into, but hooked on what I took for updated versions/variations of Situationist d​érives*​. It was a carpet­bombing of the senses through a radical reinterpretation of what it meant to transmit being within a moneyed, spectacular environment:

All that we could experience inside the diorama was the fateful listlessness usually attributed to the inmates of decaying houses, or to the intolerable justice of betterment, the listlessness of scripted consumption. It was innocuous and pleasant, but it did not move.”

When I finally got my copy of O​ccasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture,​ it turned out to contain no actual verse at all. It was, in Robertson’s words, a document of her research into the “history of surfaces”—a manifesto and series of lyric essays followed by those seven walks. “Surfaces inflect our gestures.” I wrote a fucking 30­ page paper on it to get my damn degree.

I’m writing this as if these “walks” are some straightforward prose record of an event that occurred. I fail in my simple task. The language on the surface is comprehensible, but the narrative dissipates into the landscape as the desires of money constrict the range of desires open to the multitude. A narrator and an unnamed guide lead the reader through a series of urban excursions, though the exact scenarios are never fully revealed. The sensation is post­apocalyptic, yet clean, in the way that a lack of dust in living quarters lends itself to disquiet.

I’m reading from the paper I wrote right now, btw. Every time I’ve gone back to the work it’s changed me, the dislocation and disruption become more my normal state of being. I keep a few passages on my wall, some of them are used here. It’s not exactly the kind of in­your­face swagger the SI produced, but Robertson made clear her interest in their work (the art for her latest book, C​inema of the Present,​ deliberately invoked the spirit of Mai ‘68) and I’ve never been able to mentally get away from either party’s work.

There is so much “we” in the seven walks, in O​ccasional Work​ as a whole. What was this “we” I sank into?

Only slowly did contrary dreamings appear. Only slowly did we come to see our own strolling as a layered emergency: we recognized that we were the outmoded remainders of a class that produced its own mirage so expertly that its temporal disappearance went unnoticed.”

I’ve never met Robertson, but every time I read this I feel less alone in the universe.

So much attention to texture and detail and fine structure.

The truly utopian act is to manifest current conditions and dialects. Practice description. Description is mystical.”

This was/is mysticism for those of us enamored with Brutalist architecture, yet wary of its program. In geometries of poured concrete the fabrics of its furnishing take on heightened meaning.

Nearly five years later I’m still unsure of what I got into, but I know my head has never been the same and I don’t think I’ve encountered writing before or since that’s affected me so deeply and in ways I have such difficulty articulating. I’m talking around the subject, I’ve already gone on too long and I can’t stop. I don’t even know if any of this is remotely right or makes any sense. But as Robertson herself wrote:

It is the unique fate of the gift to be consistently misinterpreted by the receiver.”

*D​érive:​ A mode of experimental behavior linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances. The term also designates a specific uninterrupted period of dériving.

Alex Crowley is the poetry, science, and history reviews editor at Publishers Weekly and a co-curator of Brooklyn’s MENTAL MARGINALIA Reading Series. His poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Phantom LimbBORT QuarterlyHARIBO, and elsewhere.

Since sharing the stage at The New York Poetry Festival last summer on Governors Island with MM, our poets have happily joined Alex and MM’s co-curator Mark Gurarie at a number of their events, and we’re especially excited that they’ve invited us to do the first ever version of this series LIVE! on April 28th, at the West in Brooklyn at 8:30 pm. Fifteen plus contributors to this series since 2012 will read and tell stories about poetry-crushing, and a good time will be had by all! RSVP to (and share!) the invite on Facebook here.

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