What is poetry’s role in the political? For the writer Brian Whitener, any answer must include re-imagined forms of collectivity. I spoke with Brian about his book, Face Down to discuss desire, violence and the contradictions and possibilities in collectivity.

Written through periods of political struggle and organizing, Face Down is multifaceted work, both addressing and breaking down the world-building structures it encounters. In part, a tribute to the invisible work of women through labors of care, along with invoking images of resistance lead by a symbolic Swiffer Sweeper or revolt in the laundromat, all towards dismantling fantasies of white supremacy while asking, ”what is to be done?” It is against this edge that Whitener applies ”consistently to these issues of subject, structure, racialization, colonization and trauma” to imagine what it would mean to live inside new collective structures.

Cassandra Troyan: I think it’s difficult to talk about this book, as its strength arises from its capacity to refuse the structure of the book as a thematic space that dictates content. Here, by decentralizing those concerns, the political stakes stand while time is constantly contracting and expanding—producing a concertinaing effect, which pulls us through a transhistorical lineage of violence. 

“Like frogs turned inside out on one of Columbus’s ships / It’s the new world, we’ve arrived / And then we all have a good laugh about every trauma we’ve ever watched someone endure in silence.” Thus, the world we enter is caught between the body in history (or the subject), and these bodies of knowledge positioned as historical events or forms of thought. How do you define or think of this tension, or the subject’s relation to structure as a historical or material category? 

Brian Whitener: I think your question is probably more generative and insightful than any answer I could give…I’m still in a place where I wish someone would explain this book to me. Sometimes with the subject-structure duopoly I think that people are most comfortable today talking about subjects, and while it feels like there are several coherent definitions of “subject,” I’m always uncertain about what “structure” is. In part because if capital is a process of valorization, structure sounds so fixed and spatial and how to move through and around this fixedness, which feels real but also can’t be in exactly the way the term might indicate, as our bodies and money and feelings and care circulation around and across and against borders and boundaries. But also the idea of subject as a trager or carrier of a structure, feels clarifying in certain situations. So, I can’t say that there’s really any coherent idea of a relation underlying them in the book, but I agree that violence is somehow at the center of one of the book’s main strands of thinking about the subject or how subjects are produced. Another one was suggested to me by Anna Vitale who said (not exactly using these terms) that the book was interested in the middle ground between subjects and structures and mapping how there are these “structures” are out there for subjects to take up or have forced upon them. I think that is a good description of some of the ways the writing is thinking about racialization and how racialization occurs, variably, in different “subjects” located even in similar “structural” positions and the kinds of work required to recognize and dismantle (and the limitations of the possibility of that work) racialization processes, in particular (because I’m often writing from subject positions which I have access to) white supremacy. The question that politics puts to us is always “what is to be done?”, which is an edge that I try to apply consistently to these issues of subject, structure, racialization, colonization and trauma.

Perhaps when I say structure, I’m actually thinking about the ways that these processes build lineages of violence, such as imperialism, colonialism, and white supremacy, which then mark and make subjects. As a result, the question politics puts to us requires the negotiation of a subject with and against these categories in order to define (and redefine) that edge. For me, the expansive political imaginary of the text is a crucial site for addressing how notions of fantasy are implicated in white supremacy, gender, and the nuclear family, yet its usage is necessary for this critique.

“Blood begins to stain my teeth and cake against / The sides of my mouth, but the cruel joke is that / Fantasies can be the basis of but also are always / A limit to any politics.”

If fantasy is both the basis and the limit, how can we move past the seduction of particular political forms or recognition, which have proven to be a trap? (I’m thinking of the relationships between sex, desire, power and queer identity; or fantasies of utopia and struggle.) What can fantasy provide?

Those lines about fantasy above are a figure of a position or problematic that in the book I exploring moving beyond, which is the inherent political limit of individual fantasy. The individual can accomplish very little politically, and thus individual fantasies about how to overcome structural issues frequently lead into dead-ends or double-binds. Which is not to say that individual experience and thought is not important, but rather that it needs to be opened out onto a collective process—and it is this level, mechanism, or process that I’m interested in exploring. This process or mechanism is how collective or groupal thought, norms, and practices emerge out of or in the midst of struggle. I think this is a very important part of any politics which doesn’t start from the ideological given—that it has to invent new norms, ways of being, and horizons—and which we don’t have a very expansive vocabulary for describing. I try to do this when writing about the laundromat and the proliferation of different positions around this imagined political struggle, in references to how seemingly neutral or contradictory objects (like a Swiffer or birds) are invested with a political meaning, and in descriptions of how groups and horizons exist in a transformative, positing relation to each other, which occurs via a set of linked terms like image, chain-link, repetition and tether that recur and are reworked throughout the book.

There is a line from the Grundrisse that I like that touches on this: people are “not merely a gregarious animal, but an animal which can individuate itself only in the midst of society.” There is a strain of thought at least back into the nineteenth century that is very attentive to this form of individuation which occurs in the midst of collectivity…or at least attempting to develop language for it, but perhaps not always successfully. I think you could say this of species being which is an incredibly rich but also under-theorized term. Other examples thinking about the relations between individuation and collectivity would be Durkheim’s anomie, which is a social (as opposed to individual) account of suicide, or Sartre’s obsessive attempts to theorize (via the practico-inert) how individuals become a group. Reich’s Mass Psychology of Fascism we could locate in this lineage of work, and some parts of Foucault’s work are also attentive to the crowd or groups and how individuals are grouped, in barracks, schools, prisons, etc. However, in the present, most of the language that is readily available around this collective level are things like “collective memory” or “collective imagination” which always seem so vague. Maybe there are other things out there that I just haven’t found, but nonetheless this level is what I was interested in producing language around, in thinking about, with respect to how new political horizons, practices and norms come to be produced by groups and how political situations give rise to new forms of individuation that take place “in the midst of society” or within the collective.

With regards to understanding this tension between individuation and collectivity, Deleuze and Guattari’s process of “de-individualization” also attempts to delaminate a political vision attached to the power of the individual—which Foucault has described in relation to D&G’s work as, “[t]he group must not be the organic bond uniting hierarchized individuals, but a constant generator of de-individualization.” As you mention, species-being is an exceptionally useful concept and under-theorized term to approach the language of collectivity, while simultaneously addressing the linkage between private property and estrangement. In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx notes it is the transcendence of estrangement, “that is to say, the return of man from religion, family, state, etc., to his human, i.e., social mode of existence.” 

The figure of the family plays a central role in this book as a form of estrangement and a site of (gendered) struggle, along with making visible the alienation of women’s labor in relation to whiteness, as you write: “This is the negative space against which this entire piece is written. And the negative space of that space is the crossing of whiteness and labor.” How do you see this negative space functioning throughout, especially as we are presented with both historical accounts and cultural examples of labor? Why are they both necessary?

That Foucault quote is really interesting; I haven’t seen that before. The relation in Foucault between individualizing and collectivizing processes is complex, but also I think there is probably an argument to be made that Foucault, especially later, tended to look for solutions on the individualizing side of the spectrum, or as that quote indicates on the level of de-individualization.

The negative space question is a little more complicated, so let me start with trying to answer the part about labor. Looking back, I think there are two currents throughout the book, which weave together at different levels: labor and dispossession. Estrangement is on the side of labor, the world of work, but I wrote about the historical connections between gender and labor or about ones in my own personal experience in ways that reveal that the under or other side of work is dispossession. Informality and labor, precarity and work are historically shifting sets of relations—but at the same time the conditions of the present that I was writing through and about are those of dispossession. Thus, the beginning of the account of labor and gender in the book is a noxious, horrible one—one not of social security and family vacations—but of suffering and exhaustion to the point of collapse and of the failure of social reproduction. In the book, I try to turn the category of voluntary association into a capacious, mobile site of possible response to dispossession, violent repression, and exclusion and positioning it against or alongside other collective forms. So, in some ways I’m trying to be a family realist—thinking about ways that it has served as a site of resistance but also its limitations as a form—and thinking or trying to move back further in time before there is a fixing of a certain idea of “family” and also moving forward in time to a near future, sci-fi extrapolation of the political present.

So, to get to the negative space. In the section that you point to about negative space—this is one of the only sections where I am writing directly from personal experience—and it was important to signal how that experience is structured, which I try to do not by pointing to a single non-site but rather to two of them that in their reciprocal negativity and off-setting were determinate for the situation and experiences I describe in that section. I’m trying to point at how the category of labor that structures parts of the book is shaped by whiteness.

Can you talk a bit about the political work you were doing while writing this book? Or how you felt the particular conversations or types of organizing you were involved with influenced or informed how you thought of collectivity in Face Down?

One thought that I remember having a lot while writing this book was that the only worthwhile thought is one that emerges from a political situation or experience. So the book was written I think with that edge, to try to pursue what emerges out of those kinds of situations, to grapple with their tensions and contradictions and trying to neither easily resolve their complexity nor get lost in it. One of the key figures that emerged was that of voluntary association or collectivity as a stay against depredation. The book, in large part I think, is an experiment, a thinking of figures of collectivity and a tracing of their shapes, structures, and feeling. In these moments, it draws on speculative fiction, building off of experiences and projecting them into the future. One of those experiences and situations was how Occupy ended in Detroit and what a possible future could, in a parallel universe, look like, a future process that would conjure together the forces present in that space in a different manner. I think the book is also grappling with what does it look like when these experiences or projects finally stop being pre-figurative? What does it look like and potentially feel like when we finally commit to live inside new collective structures? I think the writing tries to anticipate and think through the problems and tensions that arise after these hypothetical collective processes start and how they might play themselves out in different scenarios and situations. Maybe this book was the beginning of a search that feels even more pressing now: what form could both withstand and overcome state and capital?

Cassandra Troyan is the author of several books and chapbooks of poetry, most recently KILL MANUAL and A Theory in Tears. They have presented, performed, or screened their work widely. They live in Sweden and teach creative/critical writing practices in the Department of Design at Linnaeus University.