Notes re: a Poetics of Contingency

“Precarization means more than insecure jobs, more than the lack of security given by waged employment. By way of insecurity and danger it embraces the whole of existence, the body, modes of subjectivation. It is threat and coercion, even while it opens up new possibilities of living and working. Precarization means living with the unforeseeable, with contingency.”

Lorey, Isabell. State of Insecurity: Government of the Precarious. Verso, 2015. Ch. 1.

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What is a poetics of contingency, a poetics of precarity or insecurity? What does it look like? How does it work?

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Sources (from initial search)

  • Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. Verso, 2004.
  • Frassanato Network, The. “Precarious, Precarisation, Precariat?” Mute (9 Jan. 2006).
  • Jaussen, Paul. “Envoy: Postings on the Digital Life Poem.” Jacket2 (14 Dec. 2011).
  • Lorey, Isabell. State of Insecurity: Government of the Precarious. Verso, 2015.
  • Morson, Gary. “Contingency and Poetics.” Philosophy and Literature 22.2 (October 1998): 286-308.
  • White, Gillian. “Poetics of contingency.” Textual Practice, 32:3 (2019): 529-550.

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“For many, the anxious worry arising from existential vulnerability is no longer distinguishable from a fear arising from precarization. There is no longer any reliable protection from what is unforeseeable, from what cannot be planned for, from contingency” (Lorey, Ch. 5).

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A poetics of contingency takes into account the chance-oriented poetics of Cage and Mac Low—specifically those processes grounded in randomization. The process would need to produce unforeseen results.

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A poetics that barely coheres, almost falling apart (or falling apart). The examples I have at hand are musical: the ramshackle nature of The Faces or The Stones of Exile on Main Street; the Joy Division songs that fall apart; Captain Beefheart’s Trout Fish Replica, in which the members of the band (at least apocryphally) weren’t even in the same rooms as they recorded.

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A poetics (necessarily, I think) against closure—

Hejinian, Lyn. “The Rejection of Closure.” The Language of Inquiry. University of California Press, 2000.

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Thinking about how systems are made explicit in poetry. How they may be spoken to, may be made externally explicit, or may be made explicit, but explicit as something internalized by the speaker or the form of the poem.

I’m thinking of the way Juliana Spahr’s This Connection of Everyone With Lungs inhabits a particularly American national framework (Whitman’s catalogs), naming the systems (military, economic) in which the poems arise and against which they rage, prompting considerations of the poems’ complicity in occupying a space in these systems (a kind of impossibility of not being complicit, an automatic complicity).

What are the systems in which contingency/precarity arises (neoliberal capitalism = survival capitalism)? How to maps those systems, interrogate them in poetry?

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How does contingency/precarity relate to anxiety?

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The contingent may also be seen as a failure or glitch in an automated/programmed system, a system assumed to be efficient, ongoing, running smoothly. The contingent in this sense acts as the wrench that breaks the machine and the broken tool (re: Heidegger) that alerts us to the fact of being.

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What does a contingent poetics look like in practice?

  • Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Drafts
  • Ammons’s A Tape for the Turn of the Year
  • Richard Greenfield’s Tracer
  • Mac Low’s Forties as a contingency of attention
  • ???

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Formal contingency may present itself as a kind of in-coherence from one line to the next. An incoherence due to what?… Not just fragmentation or indeterminacy (or is it exactly indeterminacy) or collage. Does it have something to do with intention, control?

Perloff, Marjorie. The Poetics of Indeterminacy. Northwestern University Press, 1999.

How to map and make explicit the effects of systems or outside powers on the form / content / process of the poem itself? How to chart variations in control of the poem?

How is contingency or precarity different from indeterminacy? Is, perhaps, contingency a emotional/physical/existential mode of indeterminancy?

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“How can a perspective on social and political conditions be developed that does not reject relationships, connections, and dependencies among individuals, in other words, one that imagines and practices forms of self-reliance that start from connections with others?” (Lorey)

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A memory from grad school, a fellow student discussing an experiment of burying drafts of poems then digging them up after a month or more, using the decomposition of the paper as a form of revision.

A poetics of contingency challenges a normative poetics of craftsmanship.

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