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This essay seeks to understand a structure of feeling which comes of age in the 1970s. This experience is tied to the development of an economic situation — "financialization" — that both colonizes and abstracts the future, while rendering the present as increasingly frozen and inarguable. Thus the experience is a kind of future-blindness, or a sense of the subtraction of time and of historical process. Taking as its objects the text for Guy Debord's 1978 film, In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, and a single poem by the German poet Rolf Dieter Brinkmann, "Hymn to an Italian Piazza," the essay considers Debord's concept of "the spectacle" as a congealing of time into appearance, leaving behind a commodityspace in which real time — the time that bears change within it — is not allowed to pass. In this consideration, the essay dwells on (and finally disputes) Fredric Jameson's account of late capitalism as demanding spatial rather than temporal tropes, and considers the material base of nostalgia as what it calls "nostalgia for infrastructure": a new sensation poetry might grasp as a negative way of confronting the loss of futurity altogether.

Saint of the Nagative, Sunday of the Seventies
Joshua Clover

On or about April 1973, human character changed. How poetry changed with it strikes me as one of this conference's basic inquiries. We are that moment's future, the margin of its speculations. But I hope in this talk not to indulge too much in genealogical narcissism masqued as historical study. My hope is instead to be as clear as possible about some things that poetry was trying to grasp and literalize in that moment. Toward this pursuit I have chosen two texts which are dead ends, texts which have no future. One is not even a poem, though it is seductive to read it poetically: the filmscript for the 1978 movie In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, composed by a Guy who mentioned poetry often but wrote none himself, and who moreover had long since renounced all recognizable aesthetic practices. The second is a poem called "Hymn to an Italian Piazza," by the German poet Rolf Dieter Brinkmann, written in 1972-1973 and published in 1975, the year of Brinkmann's death on the second anniversary of the exact date that the Chicago Board Options Exchange opened for trade.

The Situationist International had its roots in the avant-garde, being descended from the Lettrists and their leader, the Romanian poet and film-maker Isidore Isou, Goldstein, who had declared himself the culmination of all previous art, more or less. By 1962, however, even avant-garde artistic practices had been excluded from the SI absolutely: a collective No whose father was chiliastic asceticism, and whose mother was Rimbaud. So it is that Guy Debord's return to cinema in the Seventies stands as a curiosity, irreconcilable with his reputation as Saint of the Negative. But the fact itself is perhaps less scandalous than the tone of In girum's fifty pages of text: amidst Debord's inimitable evocations of political economy visible, and his habitual dithyrambs to boozing, one finds a panegyrique to lost youth, impossibly melancholy.

In this place which was the brief capital of disturbances, even though it might have been true that the select company included a certain number of thieves, and occasionally murderers, the existence of all was mainly characterized by a prodigious inactivity.... Time burned with more heat than elsewhere, and would be lacking. We could feel the earth move. Suicide carried off many. "Drink and the devil have done for the rest," as a song says. Midway through the path of real life, we found ourselves surrounded by a somber melancholy, expressed in so much sad banter, in the café of lost youth.

This passage is neither the best nor the worst of it, but exemplary enough. It resembles Society of the Spectacle less than "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," with which it shares a number of characteristics: its philosophical meditations and art history, its facet-eyed mid-century Paris, its "cold pockets of remembrance, whispers out of time."

We have seen the city; it is the gibbous
Mirrored eye of an insect. All things happen
On its balcony and are resumed within,
But the action is the cold, syrupy flow
Of a pageant. One feels too confined,
Sifting the April sunlight for clues,
In the mere stillness of the ease of its
Parameter. The hand holds no chalk
And each part of the whole falls off
And cannot know it knew, except
Here and there, in cold pockets
Of remembrance, whispers out of time.
                — John Ashbery, 1975

It must be coincidence that the two musical pieces Debord includes are Ashbery favorite François Couperin, and Art Blakey's "Whisper Not." Meanwhile, time is everywhere and everywhere trumps space; elsewhere, he remarks, "The disposition of space of one of the best towns that ever was, and the people, and the use we made of time, all this constituted an ensemble very much like the happiest disorders of my youth."

How to understand this structure of feeling? It's in no way an Orphic glance over the shoulder, nor is it the child's car-sear view of History seen by Benjamin's angel. Dude, it's just nostalgia. But this is the point, I think. It is an attempt to render, in as aching and pointedly lyrical a manner as possible, the experience of the foreclosure of any forward vista, in a way that does more than register the aging of the body. We are reminded, perhaps, of that particularly French feeling known as nostalgie du dimanche: Sunday nostalgia which, as Adorno noted,

is not homesickness for the workweek, but for the condition which is emancipated from this; Sundays are unsatisfying, not because they are observed, but because its own promise immediately represents itself at the same time as something unfulfilled; like the English one, every Sunday is too little Sunday.

The future-blindness of Debord's In girum nostalgia, his Sunday of the Seventies, can only be understood in the context of its opposite, or really its inverse: the purely forward-looking formula of his old renunciation. "The art of the future," he declared at the age of 23, "will be the overturning of situations or nothing." After the SI's 1972 dissolution, there is art again, exactly because there is no future. In girum is a long poem with no future all. Whisper not.

This becomes, in some regard, an argument about modernism and what follows, thus necessarily an argument about modernity and late modernity. Here I must make my crudest but perhaps most novel claim. Mallarmé insists, usefully I think, that "Everything can be summed up in Aesthetics and Political Economy." I do not take this to suggest they are allegorizable one to the other; neither that they are independent spheres which jointly command all territory. Incommensurate, asymmetric and inextricable, they grind against each other (to choose Adorno's preferred figure). The modernist avant-gardes can in turn be described as a series of experiments regarding the balance between the two, a kind of dialectical tinkering that takes as its goal the production of a dynamic that will grasp and partake of historical process (in this manner the dialectic is narrative and non-narrative at once). Debord's early renunciation, thus, is one directional tendency of the avant-garde, taken to its logical extreme: all political economy, no aesthetics. Put that way, the choice appears as the alternate extreme to the spectacle itself, as described in perhaps the most well-known — and certainly the most mysterious — thesis from Society of the Spectacle, Number 34: "The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point that it becomes images." The spectacle can be understood as all aesthetics, no political economy — not that political economy has abandoned its role as the final determining instance, but rather that in political economy's third act, it leaps from exchange value to what Debord calls "appearance value." Its real doings become incontestable because they are no longer distinct processes that can be recognized, named, challenged. In the spectacle, political economy is no longer distinguishable as such. It is, in effect, subtracted from the visible by becoming visibility itself.

Here I do not propose to date the final death of modernism or modernity to Debord's radical gesture of refusal, tempting as it is. The changes he intuited in the Fifties and described in the Sixties were then still in motion, as Adorno's long goodbye to the last-ditch autonomy of culture underwent the collapse of all spheres into one which takes the name "the spectacle." Debord's all-or-nothing wager is surely modernism's fatal gambit, trying to become modernity just as modernity tries to become everything. But his wager on the art of the future is, as I suggested, the extreme version of an attempt to produce — or at least make visible — a dynamic. This dynamic's failure, the moment at which it stops pushing forward and forfeits any claim on the future, is the period at the end of modernity's sentence. It is this closure we locate around 1973 — after 1968, after the SI's heat death and, it must be said, at the beginning of the First World's economic downturn. One corresponding motion is the rise of fundamentalist end-times literature: postmodernism's apocalyptic wing. More significantly, it just at this moment that the future caches itself in the calculations of derivatives traders, in options and hedge funds, and the unmappable reaches and hidden abodes of global finance. This double vanishing (first pointed out to me by Christopher Connery), in which historical process should become invisible at the same time that economy makes its leap into the immaterial, is not aleatory; a throw of the dice cannot abolish dialectics.

Rolf Dieter Brinkman's dystopic vision, "Hymn to an Italian Square," is exemplary in putting this moment of closure on display. Singular as this poem is, it is part of a tradition as well. Elsewhere I have read this poem as the finale of that perambulation from commodity to commodity that characterizes O'Hara's "The Day Lady Died." A belated example would be Rob Fitterman, as in this passage from Metropolis 16.

Burger King
Taco Bell
Home Depot
Dunkin' Donuts
J. Crew
Home Depot
Sunglass Hut

Craig Dworkin links this to John Ashbery's 1975 collaboration with Joe Brainard, The Vermont Notebook.

Gulf Oil, Union Carbide, Westinghouse, Xerox, Eastman Kodak, ITT, Mariott, Sonesta, Crédit Mobiler, Sperry Rand, Curtis Publishing, Colgate, Motorola, Chrysler, General Motors, Anaconda, Crédit Lyonnais, Chase Manhattan, Continental Can, Time-Life, McGraw Hill, CBS, ABC, NBC.

Dworkin glosses these as "Debordian mappings of urban spaces," and one would indeed be hard-pressed to ignore traces of the Situationist International. Indeed, the locus modernus is probably that founding document of the SI, Ivan Chtcheglov's "Formulary for a New Urbanism," which has not quite given up on the poetic possibilities of these signs.

The poetry of the billboards lasted twenty years. We are bored in the city, we really have to strain to still discover mysteries on the sidewalk billboards, the latest state of humor and poetry:
    Showerbath of the Patriarchs
    Meat Cutting Machines
    Notre Dame Zoo
    Sports Pharmacy
    Martyrs Provisions
    Translucent Concrete
    Golden Touch Sawmill
    Center for Functional Recuperation
    Saint Anne Ambulance
    Café Fifth Avenue
    Prolonged Volunteers Street
    Family Boarding House in the Garden
    Hotel of Strangers
    Wild Street

Formulary's lost hope names, better than we could, the distance between 1953 and '73, when Chtcheglov's billboards return to Brinkmann's Roman holiday.

"Hymn to an Italian Square"  

O Piazza Bologna in Rome! Banca Nazionale Del
Lavoro and Banco Di Santo Spirito, Pizza Mozzarella
Barbiere, Gomma Sport! Gipsi Boutique and Willi,
Tavola Calda, Esso Servizio, Fiat, Ginnastica,

Estetica, Yoga, Sauna! O Bar Tabacci und Gelati,
wide rear-ends in Levi's Jeans, breasts or tits,
everything firm, clamped in, Pasticceria, Marcelleria!
O little sidelights, Vini, Oli, Per Via Aerea,

Eldora Steak, Tecnotica Caruso! O Profumeria
Estivi, Chiuso Per Ferie Agosto, o Lidia Di Firenze,
Lady Wool! Cinestop! Green Bus! O lines 62 and 6, small
change! O Avanti green! O where? P.T. and Tee Fredo,

Visita Da Medico Ocultista, Lenti A Contatto!
O Auto Famose! Ritz crackers, Nuota Con Noi, o Grace!
Tutte Nude! O Domenica, trash, plastic bags, pink!
Vacanze Carissime, o Nautica! Skin, back, tanned

thighs, o spot of oil, Ragazzi, Autovox, gravel! And Oxford,
Neon, Il Gatto Di Brooklyn Aspirante Detective, melons!
Walls! Cunts! Garlic! Grated Parmigiano! O dim
Minimarket Di Frutta, Istituto Pirandello, Inglese

Shenker, shutters! O yellowbrown dog! Around the corner
Banca Commerziale Italia, fleas, air brakes, BP
Coupons, Zoom! O Eva Moderna, Medaglioni, Tramezzini,
Bollati! Aperto! Locali Provvisori! Balconies, o shadows

with oil, leaves, Trasferita! O Ente Communale Di
Consumo, on the wall! O strictly-closed Bar Ferranzi!
O quiet on the streets! Guerlain, dogturd, Germain Montail!
O Bar Fascista Riservata Permanente, Piano! O soldiers,

Operette, revolvers against the hips! O Super Pensione!
O shape of beast! O Farmacia Bologna, wrecked corners of houses,
Senso Unico! O Scusi! O Casa Bella! O Ultimo Tango
Pomodoro! O Sciopero! O Lire! O shit!
                — Rolf Dieter Brinkmann (tr. John MacKay), 1972-1973

In his cosmopolitan travels he has — we gather — come upon an Italian piazza, about which he can register little but the objects on offer there: billboards and other equally commodified objects, Lacanian points de capiton given social form and quilted together so perfectly that there is no longer any quilting action required: no grammar, no syntax.

The piazza, raised up by its arcaded signage into a coliseum, no longer cares whether we are Christians or lions; unlike the old Coliseum proper, it has been made rather than unmade by the action of history, and offers no exit. Holographic fragment of the spectacularized polis, it reminds us perhaps of the title of Michael Palmer's 1971 book, Plan of the City of O. The piazza, that originary public space, once meant to be as open as a mouth pronouncing the invocation of the epic. Now it is self-sealed as the "O" itself, which announces the poem and in the end announces all the poem holds within it — O, O, O, each thing perfectly closed on itself, and part of the place's and poem's greater enclosure. The poem's objects are coordinated as a seemingly independent world; they no longer seem to require us at all.

Thus, I think, the desperation of his exclamation points (learned, surely, from O'Hara); thus his pointedly crude attempts to reactivate the body itself, though it has just as pointedly lost any capacity to exist beyond the fetish that now disciplines, divides and dominates it. The static scene is the endgame of the frantic to-ing and fro-ing of modernity: commodity space finally quilted into an immutable and monolithic facticity. There is nowhere room enough even to register the effects of this dynamic. Billie Holiday could no more die in this poem than could anything else actually happen. For Ashbery's whispers, this is a shriek. Whispers out of time. Whisper not.

This takes us to the limits of Dworkin's "urban space." Brinkmann's poem isn't a mapping of space so much as of time, albeit in the negative, the subtraction of history as a process. The absence of time passing — the prohibition on futurity — is everything. Benjamin's "dialectics at a standstill," freed from the confines of the commodity by productive forces Benjamin himself could only intuit (mostly in his convolute on gambling), now occupies the entirety of the Weltanschauung. This is the spectacle in all its glory as the closure of historical thought, Debord's "frozen time." The French is "congelé," as in Marx's explanation of value as "congealed labor," wherein historical process — political economy's truth — is invisible. "The use we made of time," sez Debord about the Fifties; and "time burned with more heat than elsewhere." No more. Time is labor, labor congeals into value, value becomes capital, capital takes as its latest form appearance — thus is time converted to appearance, rendered unthinkable. High noon of the Seventies. Beneath the sundial of history, time stands still. As hip-hop can't stop pointing out with its diagnostic telegraphy, "nothing moves but the money." Of course there is no escape but into abstraction, dissociation, virtualization, financialization....

In the previous clip from In girum, the camera moves along the eastern edge of Venice, the most liquid town that ever was. It's poetically appropriate to the Seventies, when the canal of time freezes even as markets invent new liquidities. The film's final image is that of Dogana Point, and the customs station which serves as the Venice's first financial instrument, just as it is the farthest reach of the lagoon's infrastructure. This bivalent figure will turn out to be poetry's question, after 1973; how to negotiate the shift from infrastructure to finance, to think the future with and against that break. Note again, in Brinkmann, those "wrecked corners of houses" beneath the spectacle. I take this impasse to underlie In girum's highest pitch, which is not the ending but some while before:

"Bernard, Bernard, he used to say, this green youth shall not always endure..." But nothing expresses this issueless and restless present better than the ancient phrase which turns back wholly upon itself, being constructed letter by letter like a labyrinth that you cannot find the way out of, in such a manner that it renders so perfectly the form and content of perdition: In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni. We go round and round in the night and we are consumed by fire.

For poetry this is a charmed proposition: that the ideal description of actual historical conditions is in language, the palindrome as a language trap for language-minotaurs and language-Theseuses, and language-Daedaluses and Icaruses and language-Ariadnes. This perdition, the palindrome's literal to-and-fro, motion without movement, this futureless future. Inevitably the film conjures images of Les Halles, Zola's "belly of Paris," demolished in 1971. Among the film's many nostalgias, infrastructure-nostalgia looms large, though it is also a nostalgia for time itself, for what Debord will call in his own Panegyrique, "the true taste of the passage of time." We take this to be a signal affect of the Seventies and after, of financialization — part of a tendentially new structure of feeling I have elsewhere called "worldsystemaffect."

And then there is the quotation of Jacques-Benigne Bossuet's funeral oration for St. Bernard of Clairvaux, with its distillation of melancholy for a lost youth, spoken of in the present tense. It's a game of time, and of mirrors: the eulogy pretends the deceased's passed youth is present; Bossuet plants himself in the present moment of the funeral, though he writes more than five centuries after Bernard's death. Debord calls this up to measure his own moment, even as he flashes a picture of himself at 20: his own moment in which the future of Bernard and Bossuet and young Guy-Ernest both has and has not arrived, this "issueless and restless present."

[C]e présent sans issue et sans repos comme l'ancienne phrase...

How much is intuited in the translation? It's by Lucy Forsyth, in the cheap edition of the filmscript from a short-lived Scottish anarchist publishing collective called Pelagian Press. Of the two or three English translations, it gets best at Debord's classicist rhetoric and self-canceling aestheticism. But "issueless" seems flatfooted. Forsyth gives no indication of knowing that "sans issue" is the common phrase crowning certain commercial doors, often in glowing red letters: NO EXIT.

Forsyth's choice seems to yield entirely to the temptation to metaphysicalize, to lose the grain of daily life. Perhaps she is preserving a distant, rueful pun: sans Isou, as in Isidore Isou, pioneer of cinema discrèpant, and one of Debord's few masters, long since overthrown. Regardless, Forsyth's choice grasps something about the original language that it hasn't quite grasped about itself: the ambiguity of its metaphysical dimension, suggesting not just NO EXIT but the lack of a basic concern, and equally the lack of fertility. It is a present which, however restless, cannot give birth to issues. A dry kingdom, as they say: the spectacle as politics' wasteland. History is the cruelest month.

And so it is that we must finally take issue with Jameson's claim that the fundamental logic of late modernity is spatial. At some level it is inarguable: the extensions of capital into every real and abstract recess of the globe, and the need to grasp it. Like Debord's phrasings, Jameson's logic is seductive for poetry, since it is the poem's material text that most spatializes the page, language, and seems most poised to grasp spatial logics. Still it is the game of time that most needs playing; the attunement to futurity which might best coordinate the most compelling poetries of the Seventies and of today — though these are not the same poetries, finally. Perhaps we are saying the same thing, however: that the apotheosis of space is the obliteration of time, and that is, to use technical language, a big problem.

Meanwhile, back at the castle: if the future has been grasped by apocalypticists and derivatives traders, it is only to be expected that these two currents should flow together. In the glass towers of The City and Canary Wharf — late modernity's Dogana Point — one can now indulge in what is called the "end of days trade." This is hedging on a truly biblical scale: "the purchase of insurance against...the failure of the modern capitalist system." Capital's nostalgia for infrastructure — for the industrial core and the real economy? Or, absolute futurity? Either or both, is too a game with time. This particular instrument has increased its value tenfold in the last several months, suggesting that the rueful commonplace that it is now easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism is perhaps losing its traction in some quarters. As bemusing a development as this seems, it might indeed be a source of optimism for the occasional poet: the suggestion that, on the horizon of time, some small motion might be imagined.