Wild Captioning

Lyn Hejinian

Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics presents Lyn Hejinian as the inaugural Allen Ginsberg Visiting Fellow. The fellowship is made possible by the generous support of the Committee on Poetry, founded by the late Allen Ginsberg: lecture given in spring 2011; previously published in Qui Parle vol 20, no 1 (Fall/Winter 2011).

Prefatory comments: What follows is an attempt to address an unruly array of ideas and experiences related to a rough triad of concerns and involvements:

The first component of this triad is the rapidly escalating crisis confronting public education and all sectors of the public sphere more generally. This crisis has come to a head in a number of places throughout the world, including, and somewhat early on, in my home state of California, where severe cuts to budgets for public education have been “necessitated” by a large-scale economic downturn. This crisis, brought on by factors within capitalist investment strategies, has been manipulated to justify a capitalist take-over of the public sphere, and especially education, which is seen as a potential site for new investment, and hence profit-making, opportunities. The first victims of the privatization effort are those that thus far remain public. The result is what might be called third-world conditions in K-12 classrooms (though it should be noted that, as soon as development has made any notable progress in nations in the third world, one of the first areas to receive increased funding and other kinds of support is education) and enormous tuition increases (the University of California’s tuition was increased by 40% last year) coinciding with a radical down-sizing of all three of the state’s public higher educational systems (community colleges, state universities, and the UC, with its ten campuses). The University of California is being persuaded by the business leaders who serve as its governing board of Regents to restructure itself along corporate models; efficiency is the watchword of the moment.

A second element in my triad of concerns is what Fredric Jameson has called the “Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” Attempting to understand what that logic entails—its grounds and the ideas and activities and works that flow from it—is an obvious corollary to my ongoing, active involvement in the anti-privatization, pro-public movement that has developed at UC Berkeley—a fight against staff and worker lay-offs, the shrinkage of selected programs and departments, the tuition hikes, the curtailment of library hours, not to mention the selling off of one of the university’s major library collections. But my interest in the cultural logic of late capitalism—the logic of postmodernism—is also a corollary of my literary interests, as a teacher and as a writer.

This brings me to my third area of interest, which I term late style with reference to Theodor Adorno’s essay “Late Style in Beethoven” and Edward Said’s posthumously published book On Late Style. Late style, as I understand it, enters aesthetic practice either late in the biological life of an artist or late in the cultural life of a society, and it is characterized by a release of an unmanageable overflow or surfeit of material into a work that can barely contain it. This could describe many, and perhaps most, of the important artistic works of the past 30 or more years—the major artistic works since, let’s say, the economic recession of 1973. (As an aside, I will note that in what follows, implicitly and at one point explicitly, a suggestion is made that events that occurred on September 11, 2001 produced another threshold, and cultural workers who have crossed have worked differently since. My sense—vague and uncorroborated by hard evidence—is that a liberatory, open-ended, nonjudgmental (though no doubt overly appropriative) ethos—that of postmodernism in its positive manifestations—is giving way to something less generous or capacious under pressure of a yearning for dependable paradigms, stable fundamentals, and believable authorities. The public willingness to give apparent safety priority over secured civil liberties may be evidence of such a shift.)

So, this essay rests, however precariously, on a triad of personal investments: in the maintenance of social systems to support the flourishing of all elements that contribute to the public good; in the attempt to understand the immediate political, economic, and social forces in play in the milieu in which I live and work; and in attempts to explore the possibilities and imperatives of aesthetic creative practice.

I hope, in what follows, to evoke a notion of allegorical activism, or of activist allegorizing, as an artistic and as a political practice, not in the service of utopian planning (though I am always ready to be enthusiastic about that) but in the service of activating some of the creative potential in everyday life. My premise—which may be mere wishful thinking—is that divisions between creative work, political activism, and everyday life can be bridged; that all three can be configured differently but together under the rubric of aesthetic practice; and that the function of a creative-political-quotidian aesthetic practice is allegorical, at least insofar as it is achieved through imaginative captioning that may serve to decompress both space and time.[1] 


“Outside the main entrance of the hotel stood a pole bearing a faded blue sheet of paper. It was impossible to read from where I stood but it looked interesting. Or the sky around it did.”—Renee Gladman[2]

To ask “will I remember” is to acknowledge the vulnerability of one’s consciousness; to ask “will I be remembered” is to acknowledge the vulnerability of the historical moment. Of people in the crowd on a sunlit city plaza, all are different and the differences are incommensurable though synchronous. It is a limited landscape of multiple localities, a site of coextensive situations, and many figures are proper to it: pipe-fitter, court stenographer, union organizer, chemistry major, Leo X. Lee, hardware store clerk, DJ, Jungian therapist, Maggie Fornetti, barista, furniture maker, journalist, immigration attorney, nurse, copy editor, off-duty cop, software designer, CalTrans supervisor, college dean, banker, high school student, environmental activist, car mechanic, panhandler, Maxine Able Smith, nanny, optometrist, Jean Day.

Occasionally (for some, perhaps, more often than for others), on this plaza (or elsewhere) everyday life offers something of itself for aesthetic experience, or someone frames it as such. As this frame is applied, however, the everyday is suddenly in danger of losing its ordinariness, ceasing to be properly “everyday.” Unless, that is, we can affix to it something that destabilizes, precisely within its own terms, the reigning hierarchies and discovers complexities that have the collective power either to bewilder or to mobilize—or both.

We are alive to what Craig Owens calls “that state of perplexity which initiates so many allegories.”[3]

Characteristically repetitive and recurrent, routine and predictable, though replete with unpredictable elements and chance encounters, everyday life is full of tasks that are on the one hand trivial and on the other hand absolutely essential, if for nothing else than for survival. The quotidian is microcosmic, a realm of particularities, which, one should add (and as Charles Altieri has eloquently asserted), is what is at stake in art. But the panoply of microcosmic particulars whose uniqueness is announced by art forms the macrocosmic ubiquity that comprises the flow in which life’s significant acts, experiences, concepts, and events take place. The everyday is the sphere in which we spend our free time, idiosyncratically, uniquely, privately. And yet, too, this is the world to which we are domesticated, the world to which we are bound in common. Escucha, escucha! Estamos en la lucha! The chant resounds in the plaza. Whose university? Our university?

Two crudely drawn stick figures with flailing arms present themselves in a situation, and when underwritten by a caption (“I have yet to meet a genius” or “The people united”) they become allegorical. And it is they, not the image of them, who are released into allegorical life. The future, invited, comes back to rethink the situation.

Allegory is achieved through conjuncture, by making use of an occasion. It’s an assemblage. It is also, in the 18th-century sense of the term, sentimental—a site of unexpressed, because overwhelming, complexity of emotion or thought.

It is sentimentality that interjects the famous silences and literal blanks into the prose of Lawrence Sterne’s Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman and A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy. Vulgar sentimentality, on the other hand—of the sort that by 1790, almost a quarter of a century after publication of A Sentimental Journey, Jane Austen parodies in Sense and Sensibility (sensibility and sentimentality having been virtually synonymous in the period)—overrides the silences and fills the gaps with banality, blather, over-reactivity, and self-dramatization, all emitted without any vestige of irony.

The shift of emphasis from an overwhelming situation to an overwhelmed ego is important to note. Sentimentality is perverted to provide the means by which a person can lay claim to the elevated status that susceptibility to being overwhelmed confers.

Sentimentality proper—unsentimentalized sentimentality, sentimentality without vulgarity—reappears, meanwhile, as an important affective presence in postmodern art, where it has taken up irony as its best rhetorical tactic. Irony, after all, is the trope of the unspoken; it is through irony that one communicates what one can’t or won’t say. Sentimental irony is the realm of “unspeakable things unspoken,” to use a phrase from the title of Toni Morrison’s 1988 Tanner Lectures at the University of Michigan,[4] and postmodern irony is, in important though not in every respect, an expression of postmodern sentimentality—by which I mean the overwhelming experience of contemporary complexity. As Donna Haraway says, “Irony is about contradictions that do not resolve into larger wholes, even dialectically, about the tension of holding incompatible things together because both or all are necessary and true. Irony is about humour and serious play. It is also a rhetorical strategy and a political method, one I would like to see more honoured within socialist-feminism,” and, I would add, within socialist activism generally.[5]

An overwhelming complexity of experience and thought, along with the emotional excess that accompanies them, is the emanation of the (let us hope dialectical, as well as aporetic) condition of both artistic practice and of political protest today—wherein dedication is not unlinked from pessimism, imagination is not unlinked from reality, love is not unlinked from knowledge.[6]

Michel de Certeau says of memory that “It inserts itself into something encountered by chance, on the other’s ground.”[7] The insertion is a caption of sorts. But if memory captions what is encountered by chance, then hope captions what is created on purpose.

In the sunlit plaza surrounded by public buildings and small shops (a Kinko’s and a café among them), we are apt to encounter the Ambler, the Hurrying, the Hesitant, the Curious, the Sullen or Sorrowful Panhandler or his or her compeer, the Purveyor of Street Spirit. We might come upon Lucia Millie Dubose, or Cora Jane Ballisandro, or Sebastian Marshal Smith, or a man washing the windows of the ice cream parlor named, and in gold script on its windows captioned, ICI: Here.

Michel de Certeau, in The Practice of Everyday Life, describes a “voyeur-god” who “must disentangle himself from the murky intertwining daily behaviors and make himself alien to them.” He is portraying a visitor to a city (New York) who thinks that the view from the top of a skyscraper (one of the World Trade Center towers) provides him (or her) with an elevated understanding from which the “walkers” (below) are precluded. But the visitor in his or her panoptical viewing of the panorama is deluded: “The ordinary practitioners of the city live ‘down below,’ below the thresholds at which visibility begins.”[8]

“Local life is inscrutable if you are too far out of it, or above it in the way I was,” says the narrator/visitor to the city of Ravicka, in Renee Gladman’s novel Event Factory. “And this, I acknowledged, had become my new problem. My wanderings began to lead me repeatedly to the same predicament: standing in relation to something I could not see. But, I reasoned from that elevated place, my time here had proved that what one ‘couldn’t see’ was not always what was there.”[9]

The conventional notion of allegory credits it with an interpretive function, as a form of mediation that recasts a given in terms other than its own. As Fredric Jameson puts it, “Interpretation is here construed as an essentially allegorical act, which consists in rewriting a given text [or, I would add, experience] in terms of a particular master code.”[10] According to this version of the allegorical, it is the purveyor of a known and purportedly well-understood code whose field of meaning it relocates. But it is the puzzling, even obscurantist, rather than over-determining aspect of the allegorical that has the greatest political—and, perhaps, artistic—potential. And, at the very least, the code may be one over which marginalized, rather than ruling, elements may have mastery.

According to Edward Said, the allegorical character of a narrative is discovered retrospectively; the “allegorical narrative [comes] after an experience or theme…is conveyed”[11] But might it not arrive at the moment it allegorizes from the future, rather than from the past?

Allegory depicts what has been undepicted in a depiction. To do so, it cannot proceed except across temporal gaps. It requires time travel. This allegorical activity is not hierarchical or totalizing; it is horizontal, a process requiring what Jameson likes to term cognitive mapping, but the mapping isn’t so much a spatialization as an historicization, by which I mean an exercising of historical consciousness, an act of temporal contextualization and/or projection. The temporality it transports might as easily be that of what-might-come-about as that of what-has-been.

At the beginning of Chapter IX (titled “Spatial Stories”) of The Practice of Everyday Life, de Certeau writes, “In modern Athens, the vehicles of mass transportation are called metaphorai. To go to work or come home, one takes a ‘metaphor’—a bus or train. Stories could also take this noble name: every day, they traverse and organize places; they select and link them together; they make sentences and itineraries out of them. They are spatial trajectories.”[12] Thus, de Certeau describes spatial stories. To transverse time, on the other hand—to undertake temporal stories—one might do best to take not a metaphor but an allegory.

It is characteristic, however, of the allegory, as of the elegy, not, for the moment, to move on. But this is not to say that it becomes timeless or seeks to become so; quite the contrary, it seeks to dig into time, to secure a place for what’s gone and for what’s not gone, the loss itself, per se. Like the elegy, the allegory uses the raw materials of memory to restore time to an absence and to bind an absence to time. This latter is proper to its sentimental nature. But allegory also bears affinities with fantasy. It is immoderately associative, and thus slightly mad. And, unlike the symbolic, it offers little comfort. It is in this respect, as a polemical figure, that it has political potential. Allegory—despite the imprecations that have been thrust upon it—makes things current.

“We’ve got to get going,” says Jillie Jane Rogers, or maybe it’s “Go! Go! Go!”

A day of actions has begun, the optimists check their lists. Goals are one thing, demands another. Kids from The MAP—a fantasy nonprofit music and arts program in Oakland—have made banners; the media is immediately interested. We Ain’t Dumb, Don’t Dumb Us Down. We Can’t Get No Satisfaction. We Are The Oakland MAP. A TV news anchor with a padded mike gets snubbed. “She say rock and she say stone and she say fiscal and she say gubernatorial and she say bovine,” says Ricky Bucla Jones with a wave of both hands. Askari Nate Martin laughs.

Protest is an instrument of lamentation, repeatedly having to be retuned.

The idea is to carry out a sequence of short-term “resource emancipations.”

The “breakfast brigade” carries out the first without police confrontation. Rafe Cohen-Johnson walks into the library ten minutes after it opens at 7 a.m. Jillie Jane Rogers comes in not long after, then five others straggle in. Each seems to be studying when at 7:45 Rafe pulls a sheet of red fabric from his backpack and shouts, “Revolution for the mind” and Jillie Jane pulls a box of donuts from her backpack and shouts, “Food for the spirit.” Students look up from their papers, laptops, and books, a librarian stands, as the protestors continue their chant. Rafe spreads the red cloth over a table. As the librarian is punching in the number of the campus police, they flee: “Don’t go hungry,” Jillie Jane shouts, “The library is yours!” Donuts are heaped on the red cloth beside little cartons of juice and milk and flyers advertising a protest rally in the plaza at noon.

Alan Alvarez takes a donut and says, “That was cool!”

In the struggle against the “restructuring” of public education, one side wages its protest on ethical grounds; the other carries out its policies on economic grounds. The respective values of the two forces are incommensurable.

The cop-spotters are in place, cell phones charged.

The second action will begin in ten minutes: Rennie Ben Phillips and Samantha Bell Chow with their trumpets will lead a rapid march spiraling down from the fourth floor to the street exit through Kroeber Hall with students in clusters at the four corners of each floor prepared to follow, shouting, “Music is for Education, Education is for Music.”

The tempo of everyday life, what used to be tedious, monotonous, slow, has come under increasing pressure, and now everything has to be done in a hurry—laundry, learning, cooking, errands, getting from place to place, grabbing a bite to eat, running an errand, running a traffic light.

“We should call it a charge,” says Samantha Bell Chow, as they dash down the stairs connecting the third floor with the second.

Protests, of course, are acts as well as products of interpretation. Name-calling as well as simple naming and proclaiming are essential to it. D.B., You can’t hide! We all see your greedy side! In response to this, the wealthy venture capitalist and long-standing Regent gives the protestors the finger. UC Regents Rich and Rude, We don’t like your attitude.

Proclaiming in itself often has the force of renaming—appropriate enough, given that the protestors want to reclaim what they feel has been taken from its rightful owners or users, the people or function proper to it. Ultimately, the protesters want to remake, and thus re-mean, the spaces or situations for which they are struggling.

Of all the slogans captioning direct political action currently, the most perplexing is Occupy Everything, Demand Nothing. Actions undertaken under that slogan establish the impossible, unalienated moment. Announcing its liberation from programmatics, the slogan issues the ultimate invitation even as it offers its implicit ultimatum: understand this. The failure to understand that ensues is merely another and probably minor feature in the landscape of failed understanding whose architects are currently in power. It is on behalf of nothing that the radical actions underwritten by the slogan are taken. Their resulting allegorical meaning is apt to be missed—they are deemed merely emblematic of the craziness of the moment; they are an expression of radical negativity. But what the demand for nothing negates is content, opting instead for situation—the fluid conditions requisite to a field of becoming.

This situation, it should be said, is allegorical rather than symbolic. Its message is disconnected from its form. And it is philosophical, carrying out (if I may cite Henri Lefebvre’s definition of philosophy) “the deliberate structuring of the lived within contemplation, which it invests with value and factuality, spontaneity and culture.” [13]

In a comment quoted by Walter Benjamin in The Origin of German Tragic Drama, the nineteenth-century political writer and journalist Joseph von Görres makes what is the pertinent and crucial distinction between allegory and symbol. For von Görres, the symbol is that “which is self-contained, concentrated, and which steadfastly remains itself,” whereas allegory is “a successively progressing, dramatically mobile, dynamic representation of ideas which has acquired the very fluidity of time.” [14]

“This,” as Benjamin remarks in response, “puts many things right.” Any given allegorical figure is engaged in a temporal configuration, a constellating of temporally-charged discourses. To think of the allegorical as ahistorical and transcendent is to misunderstand it. “It is as something incomplete and imperfect that objects stare out from the allegorical structure.”[15]

Wheeler Hall, the large, centrally-located English department building on the University of California, Berkeley campus, was taken over during the first week of December in 2009, the week between the end of scheduled fall semester classes and the beginning of final exams. It was an occupation without demands because the success of the occupation was itself a fulfillment of demands—for a community-based, cooperative, multi-functioning learning/living space in which diverse learning-supportive activities could co-exist.

Everyone who works in the building was free to come and go unhindered, unaccosted, unimpeded. Any space in use under the auspices of the occupiers was immediately vacated when someone with prior rights to it arrived—for a make-up class, office hours, etc. Otherwise, the spaces were variously allocated—for study, for relaxation, for sleep, for refreshments, for childcare. Signs indicating the use assigned to the various rooms and corridors were brightly painted on butcher paper and taped at appropriate locations.

At 4:55 in the morning of the fifth—which was to be the last—day of the occupation, police chained shut the doors without warning and arrested everyone trapped inside.

Imagine a photo of the sunlit plaza: in black and white and well-composed, it is seen from slightly below eye-level, looking up at the slightly foreshortened torsos of three smiling students who are in sharp focus but to the right of center, in which clusters of people seem to be running past a blurry row of cops arrayed before the visually impenetrable classical façade of a building, its windows open; banners, illegible in the photo, are hanging from the windows’ wide sills.

Whatever the caption under the photo might say, it will draw our attention away from the surface details (the wide cheeks of the female student who is smiling directly, though meaninglessly, into the camera; the averted gaze of the student to her right—he might just be turning away, his attention drawn to something behind them; the extended hand of a cop, out of focus but almost at the dead center of the photo, who appears to be stepping out of line with his pistol drawn) to one or another of available codes for understanding the photo: December, 2010 (a moment, gone forever, with or without repercussions); Composition in Black and White (the photographic exposure doubles as an exposé, perhaps, of a situation controlled by something innately structural—racism, for example); Whose Gonna Fight, Whose Gonna Win (rhetorical questions from a union chant, though the caption might pose them more provocatively yet, without knowing the union’s answer). Or the caption might be drawn, even more allegorically and perhaps more ambitiously, from a line in Rae Armantrout’s poem “Context” (arrangement and arrival) or a line from a poem of Larry Eigner’s (The fountain of youth is a poetry) or the title of a poem by Jean Day (Enthusiasm).

We can caption for fun, but we should caption in anticipation of almost certainly failing. A caption is not a capture. And the fun is generally melancholy.

If the symbolic presents itself as a “unity of the material and the transcendent object,” [16] wherein matter and essence are one and form equals content, the allegorical, on the other hand, “represents the distance between an object and its significance, the progressive erosion of meaning, the absence of transcendence from within.”[17]

Meaninglessness is, in the abstract realm, what formlessness is in the concrete—unacceptable to reason. It is the vacuum that nature abhors.


Anxiety is more than a symptom of life under the pressure of late capitalism; it is also a persistent contributor to that pressure. Anxiety is an engine as well as a product of postmodern affect, an engine fueled by the (sometimes unconscious) lust for power without which (or so it’s believed) one cannot have a future. Anxiety may create slavishness, but it also creates slave drivers. It dehumanizes, mechanizes. It renders synchronization (the bringing into pleasurable play of numerous faculties attentive to numerous experiences) impossible.[18] It cuts humans off from the medium in which they live—present time.

Anxiety shapes the future in the image that the lust for power projects.

Anxiety, it might be said, is currently inflicting a war state on the soul of everyday men, women, and, increasingly, children.

Refugees everywhere.

“More rice?” asks Jillie Jane Rogers, raising the white carton. “More rice, more life,” Rennie Ben Phillips responds. The chant is taken up. More rice! More life!

And then someone rings a change on it: “More time! More life!”

The volume increases. More time! More life! The shadows, still long, that lie across the sunlit plaza are pointed west.

They aren’t synonymous, thinks Maggie Fornetti, the latter depends on the former.

Raising her hand to signal to her friends in the plaza, she unconsciously strikes the pose of the Statue of Liberty.

It is arguable that all literature, and indeed all language, is mere captioning—a commentary on what exists, rather than a contribution to it: “literature is only that which isn’t, cut into / strips and wrapped around that which is.” “Live Air,” the poem by Kit Robinson from which those two lines are quoted, continues:

                         Knots of time. Smoke signals to space
stations it is time to turn off. Another time
a tune brakes off, ripped from the ear as
one mounts an escalator, slides upward into a rush of
day. Caption that back to earlier pictures, smiling genius
in a blue tan. [19]

When a caption is no longer separable from the situation it underwrites—when, in other words, a first meaning has been superseded by a second—a temporal shift has occurred. Allegory, as the vehicle that conveys this shift, is the medium of transition, during which a first meaning has acquired a second but has not itself been altogether lost.

As in Greek tragedy, it is the chorus that captions the situation: You’re sexy, you’re cute, why not take off that riot suit.

It is true that the allegorical imposes or deploys a paradigm, a code, on an image or event, but only momentarily. It brings about a synchronization, which is by nature short-lived, unstable, and improvisatory, as well as culturally-, and sometimes site-, specific.

At the far corner of the plaza, a carousel frog or horse goes up and down and is carried around and around, all of this while remaining in place. It is fulfilling (or launching) private fantasies (of wild rides in a world in which the human and animal worlds are no longer riven by lack of communication) in plain view, to music.

The allegorical animates (makes timely) the site on which it stands (for something).

“Class trumps race,” says Maggie Fornetti to Sulia Horn, nodding toward the suave Vice-Dean who is standing with the chief of the campus police. They are laughing together.

“Once an ofay always an ofay,” Sulia responds.

Being rendered allegorical doesn’t necessarily elevate an object or situation; it might just as easily humiliate it (by negating its particularity as well as by relegating it to a base category, as, for example, captioning it Lechery or War).

The syntax and terminology pertaining to ways in which things are named or referred to belongs to a language of captioning: something is named, known as, or called, as well as known to be, considered/thought to be, etc., something in addition to whatever it is.

Captioning allegorizes, interprets, parodies, denigrates, elevates. Wild captioning shifts things, destabilizes them, redeploys them, appropriates them. A caption may bring things to a halt, but if it does, it’s a false halt. A wild caption is never left for long in place.

“[T]hese were transient visions, day-dreams I sat looking at sometimes, as if they were faintly painted or written on the wall of my room, and which, as they melted away, left the wall blank again.”[20] It is thus that the eponymous hero of Charles Dickens’s 1850 novel David Copperfield remembers a period of his youth. The young David Copperfield, when he is musing thus, is around the same age as the average university undergraduate in the U.S. today. He is a thoroughly appealing young man, who will in time achieve the status of a bourgeois gentleman that is compatible with his generous spirit. He hasn’t said anything about The Communist Manifesto, which was published two years before Dickens’s novel, but certainly Dickens was intimately acquainted with the experiences that the Manifesto addresses, and Copperfield’s memories seem to be echoing one of its most famous sentences. In the first chapter of The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels offer a portrait of bourgeois, capitalist modernity—a world under the spell of modernization that is not so different from the world under the spell of post-modernization. “All fixed, fast-frozen relationships, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air….”[21]

The dismantling of education—along with the other depredations underway under the aegis of austerity—is not figurative; it is all too literal. To interpret late capitalism as figurative is too simplistic; reality, the literal, presents a far more complicated situation.

Sammy Christine Blake has the key to her bicycle lock on a cord around her neck and her cell phone in her left hand. She is keeping an eye on the screen; the other ten students are keeping an eye on her. “The feminine form of villain,” says Jillie Jane Rogers, “should be villanelle,” to which no one pays any attention. Rafe Cohen-Johnson does not regard his motives as imaginary. Each building in turn will actually become theirs, and while they have it they will rename it.

At what do they look to see their lives reflected?

The city as it prospered provided ample occasions and spaces for bourgeois withdrawal; the city flourished around its withdrawn middleclass. Simultaneously repressive and liberating, the city roared, sending intelligence in a bustling quest for the comforts of life. No one was watching.

Among the graffiti on the facades of boarded-up buildings along the economically-abandoned main street leading to the principle entrance to the university campus is the message Roger wasn’t here and the desultory comment What’s the point, without a question mark.

Gavroche, the kind-hearted street urchin in Les Misérables, remarks, “The bourgeois have nothing to do but behave; I’m going to sneeze subversive couplets at them.”[22] And he does.

Gavroche claims the street.

The building (and/or plaza) occupations that have occurred in the context of the world-wide, though scattered, student protests against the deterioration of public education are spatial interventions. To transform social institutions requires the reconfiguration of their spatial resources; those have to be reimagined and put to new uses. Like any decolonization movement, this ultimately is addressed to redefining the “proper” uses of public spaces and the identity of that for which and those to whom those spaces are “proper.”

Contest for and control over geography and its resources (raw materials, labor, trade routes, markets themselves) is a major part of the story of capitalism. As David Harvey remarks, “Command over space … is always a crucial form of social power.”[23]

Command over space is less an aim than a tactic of political protest, however. Rallies occupy plazas or intersections, activists take over buildings. And such actions are underwritten by captions: “Whose University? Our University!”

But what about command over time?

“Never rely on the unfolding dynamics of one moment without carefully calibrating how relations with all the others are adapting and reverberating.”[24]

Pound was not right that “all ages are contemporaneous in the mind.”

In the early “Wheelbarrow” chapter of Moby-Dick, Melville (or, rather, Ishmael) notes that “one most perilous and long voyage ended, only begins a second; and a second ended, only begins a third, and so on, for ever and for aye. Such is the endlessness, yea, the intolerableness of all earthly effort.”[25]

It is in the nature of the allegorical that contradictions come into being. In generating a dialectic situation, it preserves those contradictions. And contradictoriness has expansive force; it is, for example, built into art as the immortal feature of mortality, the endlessness of leaving it that adds to it. And, as Gertrude Stein represents it in all the major works from Tender Buttons on, allegorical contradictoriness of this expansive kind exists even (or perhaps especially) at the level of the utterly quotidian, mundane, or even trivial.

An allegorical figure steps forth from a haunted room or down like the sun from a children’s tree house.

There are a multitude of sun-shaped things—the daisy, of course, and a cave, and a slice (not wedge) of lemon. And the radiating crowd of protesters and onlookers in the plaza. “The circle is an organic, ideal fixed essence, but roundness is a vague and fluent essence, distinct both from the circle and things that are round (a vase, a wheel, the sun)…,”[26] an umbrella, a globe, an apple, a cave, a head.

Let’s personify the administration building, let’s change its name to Marietta Cuesta and call it Comrade Hall, otherwise known as Tim.

Let’s pitch our tents in the plaza.

It would almost certainly be too much to say that irony is the postmodernist form of allegory. And, in any case, it isn’t postmodernism that I want to establish as the cultural condition before us but rather this post-postmodern, post 9/11 condition, in which irony is no longer sportively at play in the proliferations and possibilities of a polytechnical and multicultural milieu, but rather has taken on the melancholy cast that Walter Benjamin adamantly identified with the allegorical gaze, which fondles debris and inscribes itself on ruins. Threatening the sunlit plaza is the surrounding landscape of foreclosure. Postmodern, and now post-postmodern, sentimentality has only begun the melancholy task of captioning the widening gap between the powerful and the abandoned.

In George Oppen’s great political poem “Of Being Numerous,” he writes:

Urban art, art of the cities, art of the young in the cities—
The isolated man is dead, his world around him exhausted

And he fails! He fails, that meditative man! And indeed they cannot ‘bear’ it.[27]

The allegorical situation that arises in a literary or other artistic work is similar to one that occurs in the political sphere. Craig Owens says, in the first part of the essay from which I have so heavily drawn while preparing this essay of my own, “Allegory is the epitome of counter-narrative, for it arrests narrative in place, substituting a principle of syntagmatic disjunction for one of diegetic combination.” At the allegorical moment, in other words, something breaks into the diegetic field and stops the story. But this “syntagmatic disjunction”—this break in the grammar of the narrative—is not a breakdown but an aperture, a point of entry and then a point of departure. At the allegorical point separate temporalities converge. After the allegorical moment, they go their separate ways, perhaps to reorganize.

The allegorical, however, doesn’t clarify itself. It retains the confusion, difficulty, or problem that it arrives at. It encapsulates the aporia or impasse.

In a literary work—William Carlos Williams’ Spring and All comes immediately to mind, but one could equally well cite Langston Hughes’s Montage of a Dream Deferred or The Big Sea, or Barrett Watten’s Progress or Under Erasure—the allegorical presence contributes to the work’s pathos, which, by the way, should be viewed as indicative of its strength, not its weakness. The pathetic presence in the work is something quintessentially temporal, a synchronicity, so perhaps better termed the pathetic present; it has about it the passional force of furiousness, sublimated though that may be.[28]

In a political action—as in a period of political turmoil or social uprising—the aporetic situation, impossibility as such, exists at the disjuncture between the respective sides’ codes of understanding and ambition, planning, and perspective, not to mention their incommensurable objects of desire. In a literary work, it is not the ambiguous but the antithetical that gives the allegorical its force. Or, rather, it is the encounter and coming together of the antithetical that generates an allegorical situation.

Allegory, then, which we have identified as interpretive, resists interpretation.

It is an event, a moment of becoming, not an exegesis.

Occupy Everything, Demand Nothing is the summons put forth by SARCASM, the ad hoc unit formed by the conjoining of the Student Anarchists of Color (SARC) and the Alienated Students Module (ASM—pronounced Ass ’em). Adhering to one of its tenets, SARCASM refuses to pass judgments. All the terms for issuing verdicts are wrong.

Art, meanwhile, puts itself in our path and offers us aesthetic pleasure. It also—and this may be indicative of its turn toward the political—it also causes us discomfiture. This is true of both modernist and postmodern art. But, where modernism asserts an art with a powerful center of gravity (however wide the gravitational field), postmodern art lacks a stable center; indeed, that lack of stability is its source of energy; it exerts fragmenting and dispersive force and debunks the very notion of centrality. One wonders if post-postmodernism might not suck everything back; it’s impossible to know what that might look like.

Craig Owens suggests that “allegory may well be that mode which promises to resolve the contradictions which confront modern society—individual interest versus general well-being, for example—a promise which must, as we know, be perpetually deferred.”[29] My own view is both less and more optimistic than Owens’s: it isn’t promise of resolution that the allegorical presents but the fact of an irresolvability, an impasse. And it is this impasse—as a negativity rather than a totality (and, indeed, as a register of a collapse of totality)—that, at the moment, gives us the best hope of better things to come.

The allegorical, after all, is indexical, and it points in more than once direction:

Alliance, another meeting of the weekly Solidarity
Bin, we do not need a larger garbage
Drivers, no more lay-offs of campus bus
Garde, the polyphonies are avant
Halt, speculations regarding a false
Jet, dream of an ascending purple
Spell, today’s the third day of a winter warm
Trend, a magazine called Motor
Window, lesson to be learned from cat watching at the open

I want to thank all of the wonderful participants in my Fall 2010 UC Berkeley graduate seminar on “Late Capitalism and the Writing of Everyday Life” for the many astute observations and challenging questions they offered on issues relating to this essay. They are Adrian Acu , Ted Alexander, Matthew Evans, Katie Fleishman, Thea Gold, Erin Greer, Jane Gregory, Gili Hammer, Katie Lambe, Serena Le, Trinh Luu, Jennifer Pranolo, Ivan Ramos, Karin Shankar, Claire Stancek, Marianne Tarcov, Alexandra Wright, and Gabriella Wyatt. Failures of understanding and argument in this essay are mine, not theirs.

[1] It is beyond the purview of this essay to address the problem that branding presents to my argument. As an obvious form of captioning, branding achieves the very opposite of what oppositional political and artistic captioning attempt; branding is a powerful instrument of privatization and spatio-temporal compression. Furthermore, a full study of this problem from a literary cultural perspective might properly examine the branding proclivities of certain types of lyric poetry, wherein the poet’s special and private status as a feeling subject is foregrounded, as well as lyric poetry’s compressive tendencies.

[2] Renee Gladman, Event Factory (Urbana, IL: Dorothy, 2010), 13.

[3] Craig Owens, “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism Part 2,” October no. 13,  (1980): 58.

[4] Toni Morrison, “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature,” Tanner Lectures, 1988. http://tannerlectures.utah.edu/_documents/a-to-z/m/morrison90.pdf.

[5] Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (NY: Routledge, 1991), 149.

[6] I am aware that I have just suggested that a parallel or congruity exists between artistic practice and political protest and having done so makes me nervous. That is a large claim and one that it will take more than one essay to explore in full. It has certainly not always been the case—though the fact that some contemporary literary historical scholarship is finding political allegories inscribed in earlier, seemingly ahistorical or fully autonomous artworks proves that many of us are interested in finding that it has been. But people often ask questions of the past that may not have been questions the past was thinking about.

[7] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, tr. Steven F. Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 86.

[8] Ibid, 93.

[9] Renee Gladman, Event Factory (Urbana: Dorothy, 2010), 108.

[10] Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), 9.

[11] Edward Said, On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain (NY: Pantheon Books, 2006), 157.

[12] Michel de Certeau, op. cit., 115.

[13] Henri Lefebvre, “The Theory of Moments,” in The Critique of Everyday Life: Foundations for a Sociology of the Everyday, vol II, tr. John Moore (London, NY: Verso, 2008), 353.

[14] Joseph von Görres, quoted in Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, tr. John Osborne (London: NLB, 1977), 165.

[15] Walter Benjamin, op. cit.,, 186.

[16] Walter Benjamin, ibid., 160.

[17] Craig Owens, “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism,” October no. 12 (1980): 85.

[18] My thanks to Adrian Acu, here and elsewhere in this essay, for the several conversations in which he elaborated his theory that contrasts a`(quantitative) mechanization with a (qualitative) synchronization of experience.

[19] Kit Robinson, “Live Air,” in Determination (Victoria, TX: Cuneiform Press, 2010), 93, 95.

[20] Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (NY: New American Library/Signet Classics, 1962), 143.

[21] http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch01.htm.

[22] Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, trans. Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee (NY: Signet Classics, 1987), 1072.

[23] David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism (NY: Oxford University Press, 2010), 207.

[24] Ibid, 229.

[25] Herman Melville, Redburn, White-Jacket, Moby-Dick (NY: Library of America, 1983), 857.

[26] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 367.

[27] George Oppen, New Collected Poems, ed. Michael Davidson (NY: New Directions, 2002), 168. It should be noted that Oppen adamantly insisted that poetry and politics were separate undertakings; he would almost certainly have objected to my calling “Of Being Numerous” a political poem.

[28] One might productively read Williams’s “red wheelbarrow” poem as just such an instance of pathetic synchronicity.

[29] Craig Owens, II, 73.