The Distended Economy of Wit: Being Funny and Dislocated in The Golden Age of Paraphernalia

NOTE: This paper was given at the What Happens Now: 21st Century Writing in English conference at the University of Lincoln on 16 July 2012.

[Boring preamble] Kevin Davies is a Canadian poet most often associated with the Kootenay School of Writing in Vancouver, which he attended in the early 1980s, a school also associated with Lisa Robertson, Jeff Derksen, and Fred Wah among others. The body of work assembled in the last twenty years or so is sparsely populated. He has three major collections to date: Pause Button, Comp., and The Golden Age of Paraphernalia. Davies’ style is remarkably singular and therefore what may be said about The Golden Age may also apply, at least provisionally, to other work.

“The distended economy of wit” is a hypothesis in miniature. I argue for a correlation between dislocation and wit in Davie’s poetry. I mean something like the correlation between the organizational rhythm of the book as a whole and its contents, but also between the gravitas of the line-break and the unlocking of a joke, as well as the ludic way visual space holds off the prosaic.

This is not merely a page in which verse is inscribed, but an economy of scripts scrupulously managed from without. The auditor has the key card to the invisible doors, but he is not so much withholding as preternaturally confused. Being funny and dislocated is not easy. And the nonchalance and awkwardness in which Davies’ writing revels, I argue, shows a commitment to the concept of wit as a type of knowing, even when construed negatively as the abatement of big data macrographs that don’t even fit into books.  That is to say, our knowing is segmented, finite, fleeting and reactive—it is a way rather than an object.

The Golden Age of Paraphernalia comprises five distinct poems: “ ‘Floater’ ”, ‘Remants of Wilma’, ‘One-Eyed Seller of Garlic’, ‘Lateral Argument’, and ‘Duckwalking a Perimeter’. Whereas the latter two sequences are given respective ranges of page numbers in the ‘Contents’ page, the first three interleave each other and cut each other off, only to resume later. The sections are inter-threaded, so that turning the page within the book becomes part of their combinatory performance. In order to distinguish one from the next, Davies marks them. Poems marked by the intra-lineal appearance of an interpunct or bullet point are grouped under “ ‘Floater’ ”; those marked by the intralineal appearance of the vertical bar ‘|’ are grouped under ‘Remnants of Wilma’ and groups that are sequentially numbered are grouped under ‘One-Eyed Seller of Garlic’.

I point this out is to draw attention to the dominant organizing feature of Davies’ book, which is not merely sequential by page number, but more aptly serial, where, despite the linear materiality of the book’s bound pages, the poem organization enacts its own order. In this regard, Davies’ reference to George Oppen at one point echoes one of the organizing principles of the latter’s Of Being Numerous, whose enumeration into 44 fragmentary objects achieves a kind of resonant persistence as tokens within a larger passage-work. But whereas Oppen’s work is concerned with the tragic ineluctability of the social, Davies’ work is sociable and mischievous, cauterizing the political image to create micro-narratives that approach the concision of the fragment, while resisting the mereological irony between the Cosmos and the bit of language seeking to be the twinkling guide of our night sky. They sound like overheard epithets unscrupously twisted into objects of derision or aggressive inscriptions torn from public spaces where we cohabitate and share glances. Interruption and discontinuity are familiar; but the wit may be much less so. It would seem that wit, as such, requires continuity. It shares a breadth of experience with its kin, wisdom, and both come down from witan, ‘to know’.

Davies’ overtly pedantic and even slightly irritating manoeuvre also ingeniously foregrounds the impudent and hilarious economy of witticisms, jokes, fake slogans, appropriations, false advertising and melodramatic camp contained therein. The combination of comedic eloquence and formal ingenuity makes Davies’ style distinctive among the post-Language North American avant-garde. Indeed, it connects him with a lyric mode whose critique of textual materialism sets him apart from his Language Poetry predecessors.

But, as is typical within the terminology of prosodic discourse, ‘formal’ often slips away into a quarantined tropology, and it is worth mentioning that Davies’ work in general, and especially The Golden Age, has received significant critical attention from critics seeking to establish a critical discourse not about form, but about the social and political scenario of twenty-first century capitalism and the neoliberal policies that rose to prominence in the early 1970s, a period which roughly corresponds to the lifetime of Davies’ generation. To put it simply: these poets were teenagers during the Reagan and Thatcher era, and, in Canada, the tail end of the Social Credit Party years, whose policy of ‘Restraint’ led to the closing down of the David Thompson University Centre in 1983, and inadvertently gave birth to the Kootenay School of Writing; hence, Davies.

Critics such as Joshua Clover and Christopher Nealon take the poetic text as a fundamental response to the problems of a globalized totality of late or ‘disaster’ capitalism, and conceive the relation immanently; that is to say, it is not merely in the themes or diction of Davies’ book that we find a ‘complex and ironic engagement with the political economic problem of time, labor, and value within globalization’, but in the prosodic design of the poetic writing itself, where even the punctuation is suggestive of a kind of pseudo-code of social relations [Joshua Clover, ‘Autumn of the System: Poetry and Financial Capital’, Journal of Narrative Theory 41.1 (2011), 34-52 (p. 46). See also Christopher Nealon, ‘Camp Messianism, or, the Hopes of Poetry in Late-Late Capitalism’, American Literature 76.3 (2004), 579-602; and Nealon, The Matter of Capital: Poetry and Crisis in the American Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), pp. 154-66]. The Golden Age has been singled out in this respect due to its sizable proportions, which seem, at least quantitatively, to live up to the title. I’ll come back to Nealon’s recent book, but first a word about the title.

In the ur-text of early modern English poetics, Sir Philip Sidney intoned Ovid’s ‘Golden Age’, derived from Hesiod: ‘Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done; neither with pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet-smelling flowers, nor whatsoever else may make the too-much-loved earth more lovely; her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden’. The deliverance of artifice in the form of a golden world, where simple words match a sincere soul, to paraphrase Dryden’s Ovid, is very much the premise of Davies’ title. As the etymology of paraphernalia suggests, this Age is the age of material culture beyond the dowry; it is the private, supplementary glut of what can be carried beyond kinship transfer; in excess, but private (The word may be traced to the Greek ‘parapherna, neuter plural (para– beside, supplementary + pherné dowry, related to phérein to carry’. See Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, s.v. ‘paraphernalia’, p. 756.). The word also reminds us of the collector’s desire for an auratic museum of intimate objects. Thus, Davies’ title makes a bathetic adjustment to the apparent grandiosity of historical periodization. And yet, despite its bathetic and satirical appearance, the title inevitably provokes the expectation of grandiosity. If we were clever, we might have expected the title to be undercut by the appearance not of a 142 page book, but perhaps something like one of Rod Smith’s American anti-haikus:


                                dumb guys

standing in the fake world

                                flipping out

‘Poem’, Deed (Iowa City: Iowa University Press,2007), p. 62.

But there is no undercut, and Golden Age embraces its vicarious importance as an artefact of cultural knowledge and power, distilled into a spectral sequence of corporate touch-points, overheard millenialist epithets, complaints, and various permutations of what Nealon has called ‘camp messianism’. 

(Drawing on ‘camp’ as a kind of exaggerated affective response that in its non-naïve form knows itself to be complicit in its own ironic interest in excessive, trivial, corny and other pseudo-pretentious loves of the ironic cultural studies interlocutor, and the ‘messianism’ of Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of mass culture, Nealon describes ‘camp messianism’ thus: ‘We might say that the camp aspect of post-Language writing, meanwhile, is the rueful astonishment that, against all odds, this liquidation is still not complete: post–Cold War global economic volatility has not resulted in wholesale disaster for the United States or Europe. Instead, late-late capitalism gives texture to our everyday lives more murmuringly: most of us are at least intermittently aware of being solicited day and night by a kind of manic mass culture that seeks, ever more aggressively, to stuff our attention to the gills.’ See Nealon, ‘Camp Messianism’, p. 580.)

It endorses its relation to power by positing itself as a description, embodiment, and perhaps, also, as a script of how we talk to each other, of what we know, think, eat, and make fun of. But because it does not presume a narrativity, but congeals paratactically like its modernist predecessors, it aggravates the problem of what this organization corresponds to, if anything. This is what makes attributing a critical logic so difficult and contentious.  

Davies’ Golden Age is itself an economy dense with floating speech patterns and free-range ideation into which the reader thinks. It is a distended economy, which is not to say it is incoherent, or that it’s impossible to conceptualize as a totality, despite the book’s ironization between what its title describes and its contents. I use ‘economy’ here instead of ‘space’ to further suggest that ‘economy’, broadly conceived as the way things are managed, gets closer to one of the aims of the collection as a whole, which is, as its serial form suggests, a problem of parts and totality, of how things transmute into each other, of how they are exchanged and displaced, and of how they are incommensurable. Parataxis, in terms of economy, may produce collisions of unfamiliar forms, but it also preserves the remainder of what cannot be carried on. Davies’ use of visual devices such as the interpunct lends a systematic volatility to the collection, rather than a system that requires a code to be intelligible.

Regarding my use of ‘wit’, whose relation to ‘knowledge’ is significant and not at all obvious, I’d like to draw a brief comparison to an earlier leftist poet of North America, whose thinking about knowledge and its limits remained crucial to his late poetics. The poet George Oppen set down in the first three lines of his serial, book-length poem, Of Being Numerous (1968) the following: ‘There are things | We live among and “to see them | Is to know ourselves”’. This is a type of reflexive self-knowledge, here given a simple metaphysical logic. By contrast, in his first book, entitled Pause Button (pub. in Vancouver in 1992), Davies adjusts Oppen’s perennial formulation as follows: ‘—There are things we live next to, & to know them | is to blur the borders of ourselves’ (p. 50). For me, this encapsulates a different set of priorities that remains consistent with Davies work since then. Whereas for Oppen, the embeddedness of the self in the world looking around at other things produces an immediacy of knowledge, despite his view of the social as a tragedy; for Davies, boundary relations, including those made by the written organization of speech-elements, does not simply reaffirm the constituency of the individual self, but rather, such relations ‘blur the borders of ourselves’. The self is not constituted by things not under its agency, it is made all the less distinctive from them. I take this difference to be emblematic of Davies’ negative effort. His ‘economy of wit’ is pre-eminently social because it attempts to disintegrate the speaking ‘I’ without positioning it as an alternative to the collective. Whereas Oppen seemed to have distrusted ideology as critique, Davies relishes the opportunity to conceive falsity in the satirical mode. Davies’ text embodies an intransigence towards universalism and the idea of an absolute value, not by distorting the micro-particulars of syntax and not by evacuating semantic relations, but by retaining a rather traditional relation between wit and knowledge.

By knowledge, I mean the kind of conceptual knowing whose priority is data achievement. This can theoretically include false knowledge, whether by ignorance, obsolete or misinformation, though it is not usually upheld for very long; it undergoes mutation into a new hypothesis or complicates itself with an added set of conditions or premises. Wit, on the other hand, does not require even provisional achievement to be rhetorically persuasive or funny. We can be bemused or laugh out loud at ironic counter-knowledge or sarcastic vitriol without being offended that what has been said isn’t knowledge per se, although it may require a kind of feigned knowingness in order to make the joke work. As you can see, I’m boiling this down rather quickly. To give a classic example of this pairing, Jonathan Swift in his Preface to Battle of the Books, writes:

There is a Brain that will endure but one Scumming: Let the Owner gather it with Discretion, and manage his little Stock with Husbandry; but of all things, let him beware of bringing it under the Lash of his Betters; because, That will make it all bubble up into Impertinence, and he will find no new Supply: Wit, without knowledge, being a sort of Cream, which gathers in a Night to the Top, and by a skilful Hand, may be soon whipt into Froth; but once scumm’d away, what appears underneath will be fit for nothing, but to be thrown to the Hogs.

Here, Swift’s wit-cream is a necessary component of ‘Brain’. Despite the temptation to skim the cream off and thereby uncover the base-structure of knowledge, to do so is to make the brain ‘fit for nothing, but to be thrown to the Hogs’. The point I’m trying to make is that approaching knowledge in terms of wit reveals an importance characteristic of a poetic text’s endorsement of a negative movement, not in order to bring the spirit into itself (as Hegel suggests in the Preface to the Phenomenology of the Spirit) but in order to distend what Jacques Ranciere calls the ‘distribution of the sensible’ (The Politics of Aesthetics, trans. and introd. Gabriel Rockhill (London and New York: Continuum, 2004), p. 12.) I call this distension not only to recommend Clover’s focus on the contradiction between the financial economy and real economy, i.e. the volatility of the speculative bubbles that ineluctably ruin future livelihoods, but to say that this swelling from inside to outside reflects the composted groups of segmented bundles that comprise the cells of Davies’ Golden Age.

Like a lung or stomach, distension severs the circuited connections on the outside surface, creating space between some, and distorting others. This is what I want to mean by referring to the ‘distended economy of wit’. It is the appearance of wit as a stylistic response to ‘capitalist realism’, what Mark Fisher has called: ‘the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it’ (Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? (Zero Books, 2009), p. 2; see also Clover, ‘Autumn of the System’, p. 41) It seems clear to me that in order to get at the way in which these poems and their book makes this response, we would do well to forego the neo-Jamesonian dialectic of space-time and focus on the dialectic between the conceptual labors of the texture and the way it constructs diagrams of wit. By doing so, the transmutations and juxtapositions of voice, analogy, and image, as well as the phrasal and word order that constitute them, gain significance as modes of response to forms of social relations, here patterned as phrases and voices overlapping and talking to one another.

In his most recent book, The Matter of Capital, Nealon has extolled The Golden Age of Paraphernalia as ‘the most powerful account of—and argument against—contemporary capitalism in English-language poetry’ (p. 155). Nealon mostly bases this claim on his reading of Davies’ materialization of poetic language as data, as command, as list, ultimately resting his argument on what he calls the ‘great concern’ of Davies’ poetry: ‘the twining together of a cosmological interest in the appearance of matter in the universe with a rhetorician’s concern for making a counterargument to the “argument” of matter’s arrangement by capital’ (p. 155). Despite my enthusiasm for Davies’ work, this type of hyperbole unfortunately lacks a theoretically adequate basis for how this ‘account’ and ‘argument’ of late capitalism work. I think this is because the premise of Nealon’s inventive and formidable analysis of twentieth-century poetry constitutes its argument on the basis of self-reflexive poetic aims; that the aim of poets in the age of capitalism is to constitute an argument on Poetry’s or Language’s behalf. This, Nealon writes, is ‘the story of how selves are solicited to participate in this phase of the life of capital, and of how they struggle to respond to the tones of that solicitation, which range, of course, from murmur to threat’ (p. 146). I would suggest that starting from the poetic self and moving into the dialogic response of poetic writing with agents of capital risks overlooking the medium by which any such putative dialogic response may be produced; that is, through language as a social medium. Keeping this distinction in mind, I’d like to continue Nealon’s suggestion on the poetic voicing and its assumed solicitation.

Davies has elsewhere commented on the lurking suspicion that his poetic writing is made up of ‘speeches’, and I think this is more or less true, in a similar way that we might say that Stephen Rodefer’s Four Lectures (1982) casts the prosody of utterance into combative relation with a litany of text-disguises (Davies, ‘Paraphernalia: Four Poems in Seven Drafts’ (unpublished MA thesis, University of Maine, 2006), pp. 1-2). Reading The Golden Age is, in this sense, a lesson in personification, as Keston Sutherland has written, not only in its production of sound-bite commodities, and not in the typical sense of the word (Sutherland calls it ‘capitalist personification’ in ‘Poetry and Monstrous Accumulation’, unpublished conference paper presented at Post45, Cleveland, OH, 30 April, 2011). Not in the sense that a subject is formed by the consistent and relative pressures of deixis, character continuity, descriptive sentences that build up a mental picture; but in the sense that certain tonalities seem to register certain imaginary and not so imaginary social groups synecdochally. To give you an example of this voice-throwing, I’ll go through two examples, printed across the book’s inner margins from each other, a rare continuous pairing of two parts of the poem ‘ “Floater” ’:

                                            to everyone, individually,
                                                           as at a cemetery.
                                            Walk clockwise around the remains of Boss
                                                              Tweed ● If
                                                                                                                             it isn’t sex
                       why are we thinking about it? ● Our prosimian ancestors
less than one ounce,
                ankles smaller than rice grains.
                                  Scooped up and eaten by owls.
                                                   Having just done the
                                                                   wild thing. ● The world

[end p. 20]

to come has come and gone, Ed. Do you have any idea how cheap memory
                                                                              is now? ● If it
        isn’t food
                  why are we thinking about it? ● There’s no other side – I thought
that should be obvious. In fact there’s no this side – no sides
                                                       at all ● We are
                                            money, excuse my French
                             stumbling into the sweat of the lecture,
              the threat of the metal
                                                              lectern ● That

[end p. 21]

It goes on, skipping the next two pages, and continuing on pp. 24, the bottom halves of pp. 27, 31, 34, skipping over ‘Lateral Argument’ to resume on p. 62. The boundary relations are sharply positioned in this excerpt, but there are tangible threads of continuity. I’d like to give a brief and rapid paraphrase to give a sense of some of the subterranean logic which makes the poetic work both inconclusively disparate and intriguingly sinewy. The fun of this text is in this commentarial tracing. The ‘clockwise’ movement around Boss Tweed, the 19th century epitome of political corruption in New York City, alludes by a kind of feigned solemnity of time-ritual to the practice of Tweed and his embezzling cronies to create an exclusive private club of social control over the taxpayers that became known infamously as the ‘Tweed Ring’. The gauche talk radio masculinity about the lustful ends of populist cogitation transpose into a reconstructed primal allegory of post-propagation species warfare—the ‘wild thing’ sustains the classic rock trope of the previous question. Pitched against the ‘prosimian’ ancestry of thinking about sex, is disappointed messianism, if for no other reason than because the price of USB flash disks have interfered with the imposition of the Judaeo-Christian time of becoming. All that memory of the possibility of futural redemption can now be artificially stored. This element of commodity consumption mutates the sex question into a parallel question about eating. The positive value of sex/food and the negative value of not-sex/food becomes a stupid question, not because of its subject matter, but because the form of the question presumes a delineation into sides, and what should be ‘obvious’ to you and me is ‘there’s no this side—no sides | at all’. That is—sustaining the logic, but changing the objects—there is no form of money separate from the ‘we’ or the self. ‘We are | money’. The speech stumbles off into a congealed and ‘sweaty’ environment of the pedagogue-poet, who manages another transposition, this time of sound, before being interpuncted.  

Often, within Davies’ Golden Age, we are in a kind of future paratopia, looking laterally upon the cultural detritus and habits that were ‘mistaken’; though, of course, what is perceived to be false is the sarcastic relation between what is today taken for granted as part of a shared common knowledge or assortment of trivia, and, on the other hand, what will be seen in the future as naïvete. The knowledge of historical moment and its capacity to engage with its own moment is waged not by direct ‘accounting’ and ‘argumentation’ but by producing ridiculous artifices that create a negative posture of capitalist social relations, by appropriating moments in speech-habits overhead and imagined, by producing counterfeit historical moments that play the fool to contemporary life by satirizing the time relations of elections, failed revolutions and financial bubbles.

I’ll end with another passage, from the poem ‘Lateral Argument’:

                       This is a good cave – not much
to brag about at the reunion but it keeps our things
                       dry and provides shelter from hungry beasts.
You’d laugh at the things we believed back then.
                       That our cats cared for us.
That Belgium existed.
                       That we couldn’t fight city hall
because it kept running off.
                        But we didn’t have your advantage of logarithmic
detachment and spunk. We in fact had little spunk –
                       it seemed to dry up even as it was squirting from our ears,
and food preparation was a lot more involved than subsequently. (p. 56)