Christopher Nealon: On Don't Let Me Be Lonely

[Nealon’s final chapter in The Matter of Capital (2011) revisits material from a seminal 2004 essay, “Camp Messianism, or, the Hope of Poetry in Late-Late Capitalism” (American Literature 76.3 [Summer 2004], 175-193). In that 2004 essay, he considered contemporary poetry in relation to “really, really late capitalism” in which capitalism appeared “in a fully globalized and triumphant form, the destructive speed and flexibility of whose financial instruments alone make Nixon’s lofting the dollar off the gold standard in 1971 look thoughtful and conservative” (177).  In 2004, Nealon found volatility in markets that had “an order of magnitude beyond even the ricochets of the early twentieth century”: “If Adorno and Horkeheimer made much of how the Enlightenment’s dream of the equality of all people had become the nightmare of the interchangeability of all people,” he wrote in 2004, “that interchangeability could now said to have become entirely liquid, even quicksilver.”  He also wondered whether “the Enlightenment’s dream of the equality of all people had become the nightmare of the interchangeability of all people.”  In 2004, Nealon could still suggest that “late-late capitalism gives texture to our leaves” in a fashion that was “murmuringly,” noting the solicitation “day and night by a kind of manic mass culture that seeks, even more aggressively, to stuff our attention to the gills.” By 2011, when the essay was revisited and revised, the economic crisis of 2008 had instituted itself at every level, and “disaster capitalism” had become a widely-circulated term. But if we now understand global capitalism’s recent phase as constituting “a series of political, environmental, and financial disasters, the best recent poetry allows us to see something like that history’s obverse – 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” (The Matter of Capital, 146). Rankine’s Don’t Le Me Be Lonely, in Nealon’s words, uses “a mixture of lists, images, and poetic prose to look back on the dot.com boom of the 1990s from midway through the Bush administration” (Matter, 147). Nealon notes Rankine’s interest in the “mixed-race figure of posthistory, Keanu Reeves’s character Neo from The Matrix” (1999) as exemplifying what Joshua Clover calls “the dreamlife of the boom” in which hackers actually outmaneuver “the megacorporations that give them amazing toys to play with and colonized their daily lives” (148). In Rankine’s telling, the sequels to the first film suggest a “symptom of what came after – a crash; a war” … and “the franchise, succumbing to the spectacukar logic its prequel seemed to critique, became as disposable as the boldfaced pamphlet the poet tosses aside” (148) after examining the words “BE LIKE JESUS.”]

Rankine’s suggestion that the end of history is now a kind o disposable waste (“salvation narratives are passé”) turns her thoughts in a different direction, to the burdens of history, especially the burden of racial violence and its repercussions in the emotional lives of those who witness it. Much of Don’t Let Me Be Lonely struggles with this problem, which we might describe as the struggle to give meaning to broken lives, or meaning to death, in a context where historical hope seems passé, and where its becoming passé is explicitly linked to its having ballooned into an empty spectacle. The simple word that Rankine uses for this is “sad” – a word that appears throughout the book, and that she links to racial violence, historical hope, and the value of life.

The word comes up, for instance, in a meditation on the death of James Byrd Jr. – a 49-year-old black man who was dragged top his death, tied to a truck, in Jasper, Texas, in 998. Rankine accuses George W. Bush of not caring about the death because he could not recall the details of the case (it was very high-profile, and he was governor of Texas at the time). Then she writes.

[Nealon quotes the passage beginning “I forget things too …”

and ending with words: “too close to dead is what I think.”]

Rankine’s indictment of Bush almost immediately becomes a query to herself, a forlorn investigation of the “deepening personality flaw” that, like her deflated retirement account, acquires an acronym – “IMH” – and that teeters on the edge of pathologization. But she demurs from Cornel West’s diagnosis of blck “nihilism” in favor of a contradictory and tendential account of sad blackness and black sadness: “too scarred by hope to hope” – and “too close to dead.” This relation to death has a history; it’s someplace people are headed.  And though that history is older by far than the phase of capitalism Rankine inhabits, she insist again and again that part of what keeps it in the register of inarticulate pain is the way it becomes spectacular – part of the news, just what’s on TV.  Indeed, the epigraph to the book, taken from Aimé Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to My Native Land (1939), addresses this problem directly:

And most of all beware, even in thoiught, of assuming the sterile attitude of the spectator, for life is not a spectacle, a sea of grief is not a proscenium, a man who wails is not a dancing bear.

 … Throughout the book Rankine draws on what we might think of as her poetry’s cousins and antecedents – Hegel, [Paul] Celan, [Czeslaw] Milosz, [Cesar] Vallejo, and Césaire, for instance, establishing touchstones for the poet, many of which center on remarks about happiness and suffering. …

One of the functions of this work of citations, I think, is to protect the poet and her work from being drowned out by other media – not least television, which threatens to numb and depress the poet by making all life, because it streams uninterruptedly at her through the screen, equally worthless. But there is no absolute dichotomy in Rankine’s book between poetry and televison, between life that “can not matter” and the work of genius that connects each life. Instead Rankine slyly acknowledges the allure of TV, as well as a variety of other media films, Internet search engines, and newspaper writing. Rankine makes analogies to these other media throughout Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, using them to establish a poetic method through which the uncertain value of life can be tested out.

[Nealon argues that Rankine “maintains a lyric attitude” though her poems are mostly written in prose paragraphs, through “associative leaps and startling juxtapositions” and sets in motion analogies between the “lyric” and the “other textual and linguistic forms” the book records, so that the book as a whole “comes to feel like a scrapbook of commonplace book,” though a scrapbook in part composed of images from television, of television, that makes the “image-stream both as a toxic or atonal part of the book’s lyric surround, but also as an ironic domestication of the image stream … made slightly comic ... by the relatively low-tech simulation of their appearance on the page” (152).

The textual environment Rankine assembles thus establishes “lyric” as a master category meant to be intellectually powerful enough to withstand the intrusions of the image stream, even to take energy from it, even to mock it. But because the book also positions itself as a personal and idiosyncratic collection of clippings, it also foregrounds the vulnerability of the scrapbook in the face of the spectacle. There is no final adjudication in this pas de deux between the will to power of the lyric and the humility of the scrapbook, no judgment day – after all, “Salvation narratives are passé.” …

From “Bubble and Crash: Poetry in Late-Late Capitalism,” Chapter Four in The Matter of Capital: Poetry and Crisis in the American Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), pp. 147-149, 151-152.  

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Title Christopher Nealon: On Don't Let Me Be Lonely Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Christopher Nealon Criticism Target Claudia Rankine
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 31 Jul 2014
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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