MLA Chernoff closely examines Rachel Zolf's intentionally unreadable suite of transmedial poetry, Human Resources (2007), in order to discern a digital poetics of appropriation that carefully grapples with the problematics of historically exclusionary institutions like conceptual poetry and CanLit. They argue that behind the constraint-based, numerological practices used to create these strange poems lies a pragmatic – yet metaphysically-grounded – method of reframing the professionalization of creative writing and upending the neoliberal conventions of governmental grants.
“Mass affluent consumers’ key satisfaction drivers aspi- / rational by most common queries of most-common- / English-words-engine: fuck Q1 sex Q2 love the shit god i" (Zolf)
“Capitalism is profoundly illiterate.” (Deleuze and Guattari)
In the acknowledgements of Human Resources (2007), Rachel Zolf sardonically admits that “Funding from the Canada Council for the Arts [CCA] and the Ontario Arts Council [OAC] Writers' Reserve gave [them] invaluable time and space to write” (2). The credit is caustic, given the text’s dual role as a book of poetry and a self-help guide for navigating the “Canada Council Art Bank,” an institution according to which labour is a matter of “employee performance” and profit hoarding (14). Anticipating the gig economy, Zolf exaggerates the precarious intersection creative writers often inhabit as both employees beholden to state funding opportunities and independent entrepreneurs, with each new project presenting as much risk as investments like startup companies and stocks. Accordingly, this essay elaborates on their observation that “language isn’t revolutionary enough” to properly critique, let alone resist, neoliberal capitalism (74).1Within the confines of this essay, “neoliberal” will signify, concurrently, the preposterous politico-economic rationale (and its many processes of subjectification) by which capital reigns over the polis in the arrangement of its citizens, who are encouraged to act as competitive, singular “entrepreneurs” in any and all contexts, for the sake of perpetuating the supremacy of markets. This definition takes its cue from the work of Wendy Brown: “Neoliberalism is not about the state leaving the economy alone. Rather, neoliberalism activates the state on behalf of the economy not to undertake economic functions or to intervene in economic effects, but rather, to facilitate economic competition and growth and the economize the social, or, as Foucault puts it, ‘to regulate society by the market’” (Brown 62). This particular form of capitalism accelerates the production process of artistry, eschewing the labour power of the writer as passionate individual for the mechanized labour of the in/human dividual2Here, I allude to what Gilles Deleuze calls a “control society” in his seminal essay, “Postscript on the Societies of Control.” Whereas a disciplinary society (in the Foucauldian sense) operates by way of fixity and coercion (“work, or else!”), the subjectification of a control society is always-already indebted to the fluidity of computation, algorithmic stratification, and quantification, in the becoming-data of the human: “The numerical language of control is made of codes that mark access to information, or reject it. We no longer find ourselves dealing with the mass/individual pair. Individuals have become ‘dividuals,’ and masses, samples, data, markets, or ‘banks’ (5; emphases in original). To be sure, “dividual” and “individual” exist simultaneously, much like the Deleuzoguattarian distinction between “molecular” and “molar” or “micropolitics” and “macropolitics.” The advent of the dividual is simultaneously what Byung-Chul Han refers to as the birth of an “auto-exploiting subject,” who does not merely internalize the punitive nature of the disciplinary society, but becomes cybernetically controlled through seduction:
Power that is smart and friendly does not operate frontally – i.e., against the will of those who are subject to it. Instead, it guides their will to its own benefit. It says ‘yes’ more often than ‘no’; it operates seductively, not repressively. It seeks to call forth positive emotions and exploit them. It leads astray instead of erecting obstacles. (Han 14)
Much like the academic, the contemporary writer is intentionally led astray into fervently believing the same tired romantic narrative of the artist-as-outsider or literature as revolutionary in itself; they are compelled to offer their labour power for meagre compensation, doing so for the “love” of the discipline. Conversely, they are wont to take on work that is more likely to win over readers and grant committees, while offering their economic regime as much data as possible in order to cultivate brandability by way of social media, interviews, and monetization tools such as Patreon. This is not to deride or reject these elements of dividuality, but simply to remind one that beneath the veneer of bourgeois individualism is an inescapable, dataistic panopticon, which relies on users to keep watch over themselves and each other, for better or for worse.
, whose labour fundamentally functions to appease the economic elite: “Given enough input elements, a writing machine can spew about anything: private jets, exquisite gardens, offshore-banking havens, the Great Ephemeral Skin” (6). The book’s poignant masquerade as an instruction manual for understanding poiesis as a business nevertheless disrupts neoliberal capitalism by showing what a malfunctioning of the system’s naïve dependence on language as a medium of pure communication might look like: “Look for the hidden meaning use it as a lightning rod / more pokes at the communication” (91). The potency of HR’s intervention lies in its ability to turn the act of appropriation on its head, in a kind of conceptual chiasmus in which an ever-appropriating regime is itself appropriated by a poetic voice. By recuperating and merging the idioms of business and poiesis into a digital framework, the text undertakes a recombinant form of media archeology, revealing an uncanny bond between the technologies of the governmentally sanctioned print edition book and the hermeticism of Jewish and non-Jewish numerologies. In doing so, it unveils the measures taken by neoliberal capitalism to obfuscate its influence on creative acts.
HR specifically foregrounds numbering practices which supersede globalized commercial economies, remediating poiesis through the mysticism of a non-digital Number: an unquantifiable, non-numbering number – a quasi-metaphysical entity that persists in the margins of the text through Zolf’s wry radicalization of the Gematria of Nothing. The Number interrupts the flow of capitalist space-time and its inability grapple with anything in excess of accumulation, counting, sorting, and violently appropriating. In the novelty of the Number, I argue, lies a distinctly ethical relation to writing that deconstructs the relationship between digital poetry (DigPo) and conceptual poetry (ConPo), disclosing new ways to theorize and create authorial and readerly subjectivities in Zolf’s milieu – the Canadian literary landscape.3HR is not without its shortcomings; the text is hard-pressed to address the question of outsourced labour on an international scale. Given that communication technologies are the foundation upon which globalization’s outsourcing mechanisms depend, Zolf’s intervention is only able to address globalization indirectly. More specifically, these questions are observed through the scope of their particular ethos: literary labour funded by Canadian cultural institutions. In this sense, the book observes the ways the Canadian nation-state shapes its culture industry and artists, who are forced to operate within the context of a relentless and all-encompassing global economy, in which the CCA and OAC inevitably take part.
Emptying the TrashCan–Of National Literatures and the Tabula Rasa
For a long time, the question of inventing a national literature was a controversial affair amongst the Canadian literati. While this certainly has a lot to do with the fact that the nation exists on stolen land, viz. Turtle Island – there is nothing less “Canadian” than the murky demarcations of Canada itself – this is also because of a history of theoretical follies on the part of its settler academics, determined to differentiate themselves from their lines of influence, which run both North-South (American imperialism) and East-West (British/Anglo-imperialism). This is precisely why the culture industry in Canada is so desperate to capitalize upon the work of its homegrown artists through governmental institutions. While it may seem pragmatic to distinguish between the ethos of private entrepreneurial endeavours and that of publicly funded art, this distinction cannot hold. Pro-capitalist politicos may be at odds with organizations like the CCA and OAC, but this antagonism overlooks the guiding principles of these charitable organizations. In a 2007 statement, the former Chair of the CCA, Karen Kain, refers to the council as an “investment in supporting the contributions artists and arts organizations make to the cultural vitality that defines a healthy national community” (5; my emphases). In addition to the rhetoric of Kain’s eugenicist vitalist economics, in “A Manifesto for the Arts in the Digital Era,” Simon Brault – currently the Director and CEO of the CCA – admits that he fears the future of the arts will be overtaken by technology, that any inkling of the human will be “removed from the [artistic] process entirely” (n.pag.). He goes on to argue that the antidote to this fear is his theory of the digital as something “really about solidarity. Solidarity in building. Not by discounting different perspectives, but by capitalizing on the shared values and major areas of consensus that transcend our specific situations [and] disciplines.” He attempts to elucidate what a successful transition into the digital age might look like for the CCA, quoting Nicolas Colin and Henri Verdier – two experts in venture capitalism: “If you can attract, capture and redistribute the creativity of the masses, you can become a major player in the digital economy… in the digital revolution, the masses are the new wealth of nations” (qtd in Brault n.pag.). In these examples, there is simultaneously a dependency on the language of capital and a fundamental need to redeem these investments as rudiments of community formation, artistic or otherwise. In other words, it is a matter of rebranding capital as a system of humanistic care. What might this mean for Canadian artistry?4The purpose of this essay is not to disparage those who seek out resources from governmental bodies – I, too, am complicit in this regard. On the contrary, the following reading of Zolf serves as a kind of plea to remember one’s role in the culture industry’s vast conveyor belt and, ultimately, to resist romanticizing artistry as some kind of earnest line of flight from capital. This is also a call to overwhelm these systems with applications and a growing list of demands, to submit to and question them, even if one does not feel their art is “relevant” enough to be worthy of a grant. Conversely, some artists are too proud to ask for money from a virulent government, prioritizing boycott as a form of protest. Until institutions like the CCA and OAC become unnecessary for the survival of artistry in Canada, one must effectively use and abuse them: if a control society expects voluntary submission, then exceeding these expectations – through collective dividual efforts and the consolidation of gleaned resources – can bring about resistance. There is nothing wrong with being a comrade with easily redistributable monetary resources at their disposal. As Elaine Brown, former chairwoman of the Black Panther Party, notes: “I have all the guns and all the money. I can withstand challenge from without and from within. Am I right, Comrade?” (3).
HR can be comfortably theorized as “post-national” literature in its refusal of universalizing, nationalistic narratives (e.g. Atwood’s thematic, and very much colonial, theory of CanLit as writings more or less about the “survival” of settlers), instead foregrounding heterogeneity and commonality through disconnection. Canada, according to Frank Davey, is “a state invisible to its own citizens, indistinguishable from its fellows, maintained by invisible political forces” (266; my emphasis). That is to say, it is only a cohesive nation because of a certain “magic” that grants its state apparatuses a kind of invisibility that actively inhibits the reading capacities of its citizens and their ability to understand the corporatization of Canadian governance. As Deleuze and Guattari argue, “Capitalism is profoundly illiterate” (240). The post-national nation as phantasmagoria is akin to Lori Emerson’s musings on the magic of Apple products, a company whose technological modus operandi is to obscure its computational processes precisely while they are functioning, such that mystifyingly smooth user experiences (and, by proxy, technological illiteracy) become a requisite for the marketing and consumption of cutting-edge technology. Indeed, digitality and neoliberal nation-states (which are kinds of technologies in themselves) have the same goal – to normalize their agendas while remaining user-friendly and seemingly non-existent, which makes it all the more urgent to discern systemic interruptions and glitches.
This is perhaps what has drawn out the most discomfort in Americans living under the Trump administration, and similarly Ontarians enduring the wrath of Doug Ford – these governments are vulgar, brimming with bad faith system errors and an obvious antagonism toward racialized and LGBTQIA+ peoples, contrary to the performative niceties at the centre of neoliberalism’s disappearing act. Indeed, as the Biden campaign makes clear, a vote for Biden is a vote for a return to neoliberal norms: “Remember when you didn’t have to think about the president every single day? He will bring that back: Joe Biden” (qtd in Merica). While Emerson argues that one of the primary functions of digital literatures is to demystify technologies and “undermine what is now an ideology of invisible interface design,” Zolf’s mode of poetic production takes on demystification with a detour through re-mystification – pushing the questions of digitality, incoherence, and unknowability to their very limits (Emerson 4). HR re-mystifies poiesis in order to demystify the magic of national identity, making visible the neoliberalization of Canada’s artistic sector, where it is often thought to be less of a problem. Zolf receives funding from governmental institutions in Canada by virtue of being a documented citizen, but what makes HR pertinent to a discussion of national literatures is the fact that its “Canadian-ness” is derived precisely from a place of contestation, confusion, and dissatisfaction with the ontological urgency that nation-states ascribe to geotagging its labourers. As Milne points out, after 9/11 and in the midst of the book’s composition
The government of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper drastically reduced the budgets for national archives and libraries, reducing public access to national records and making it virtually impossible for archives and libraries to retain their holdings (11)
Zolf is responding to the intellectual limitations of their time, but they are also actively overturning them, showing how the archive is not needed to resist repressive policy, and that search procedures can be conducted elsewhere.5This laissez faire approach to archival research is very different from more recent work, such as Janey’s Arcadia, where Zolf problematically takes up the question of settler-colonial violence by remixing early settler texts, as well as contemporary police reports regarding missing and murdered Indigenous women. I have, for better or for worse, chosen not to engage Zolf’s other works, prioritizing HR as a kind of litmus test for understanding DigPo in Canada. While I could have included a thorough discussion of Janey’s Arcadia, I feel as though its replication of outwardly oppressive, anti-Indigenous language and iconography – though appropriative and critical – constitutes a shortcoming in their body of work. As they note in an interview with Milne, a certain mode of searching is ineffably intertwined with their own reading and writing practices:
As I was doing my research for HR, I came across this reference to what was supposedly Paul Celan’s last poem, and in it he used a term that in the German root means both reading and gleaning. That’s a very powerful figure for me, because I see both my reading and writing practices as gathering processes, making something of my own from what I glean. (Zolf qtd in Eichhorn and Milne 190; my emphasis)
In lieu of the archive, HR operates according to a kind of last resort logic, in which the poet performs according to the resources at their disposal. They also make use of resources outside of their typical milieu, “unpoetic” tools such as
Powerpoint presentations from a continuing education course [Zolf] took at the University of Toronto, Zolf’s own freelance corporate communications work, Internet searches, literary theory, and philosophy; the only thing that seems to unite these disparate strands is the fact that most of them, with the exception of some of the philosophical and literary texts, are strikingly unpoetic, utilitarian, and in some cases, downright ugly. (Milne 82)
Poetry, here, is a relational event that territorializes and welcomes its immediate surroundings, rather than an exercise in individualistic, lyrical expression; it is “a kind of serial materialistic poetics dealing with interrelated questions about memory, history, knowledge, subjectivity, and the conceptual limits of language and meaning” (190). While these laundry-listed terms are quite common amongst contemporary writers, seriality is simultaneously related to commonality, continuity, community, and coding – think serial numbers, ordering, organization, sequence – otherwise known as cardinality and ordinality. In short, it is the poet’s duty to search for comradery in people, places, and things by rearranging preexisting materials and re-mystifying their positionality through the objects and ideas that would otherwise be discarded by a more familiar milieu. For instance, a poet attending business school parasitically attaching themselves to the institution's resources is perhaps more radical than merely scoffing at this type of education from a distance (of which I am certainly guilty).
As far as Canadian DigPo goes, it is not my intention to explicate the historical nuances of the practice, which has generally been “more interested in deconstructing authorship and embracing noise poetics,” which is to say DigPo in Canada has, historically, fixated “on the complications of authors” (Spinosa 239). In contradistinction to this kind of authorial narcissism, Spinosa discerns “a rich tradition of Canadian writers (particularly women) working to use the digital potential of electronic literature to push the boundaries of the book form and to explore the radical potential of e-lit to engage meaningfully with its readers” (240). While Zolf’s text does not expand the technological horizons of DigPo per se, it demonstrates that different kinds of readerly engagement are possible, reinventing the meaning of noise poetics: “These are tough times to be in our roles when ‘noise’ is / built into a company’s DNA and our very ideas are but / the outgrowth of 783” (Zolf 87). “783” translates to “property” on Wordcount.org, one of the databanks used to compose the text. Indeed, rather than “the complications of authors” and the question of intellectual property, HR is concerned with the complications of readers as potential authors, acknowledging that the question of control – that is, the question of steering and of gleaning – is open: insofar as there exists a plethora of would-be source texts within the neoliberal regime, particularly in the absence of accessible libraries and archives, any reader can become a writer, with funding bestowed upon them by state-sanctioned institutions. HR shows that what is available, though insidious (viz. neoliberal idiomaticity) can be remediated by technology (e.g. word ordering or generating software). Digital technology, in other words, alters reading practices by creating new opportunities for writing practices, indirectly encouraging readers “to make significant agential and interventionary entrances into texts that we have too often viewed from a distance” (Spinosa 254). In Zolf’s case, this means interrupting their own literary milieu by appropriating texts that artists often find repulsive.
In recent years, CanLit’s exclusionary nature has been increasingly foregrounded by its practitioners; the name “CanLit” has been rightfully supplanted by terms like “TrashCan,” “refuse,” “ruins,” and “raging dumpster fire,”6In their call for papers in 2017’s ACQL/ALCQ conference, Marcelle Kosman and Hannah McGregor write that the
TrashCan cannot be free of the same influences of imperialist white supremacist capitalist cisheteropatriarchy, [and] it does not pretend to be wholly representational or pure or tidy. Instead, it prides itself on stewing in the muck of the impossibility of a national canon without violence while continuing to resist the foundations of that violence.
I employ “TrashCan” – which is more a question of the canon as exclusionary – rather than more recent terms and frameworks from the Refuse: CanLit in Ruins anthology, given that HR predates, by nearly a decade, controversies such as UBC Accountable and the disclosure of sexual violence at numerous creative writing programs across Canada; the “Appropriation Prize”; and debates regarding claims to Indigenous identity for writers like Joseph Boyden and Gwen Benaway. “TrashCan” offers a necessary critical distance from these issues while nevertheless attempting to hold literature in Canada accountable for its problematics. In the context of this essay, TrashCan describes, more generally, the fact that CanLit is full of refuse that needs to make way for writers on the margins who have been discarded by cisheteropatriarchal white supremacy. all of which describe, to varying degrees, a reservoir of self-satisfied and canonized bourgeois writers and publishers who take interest in elevating, representing (and thereby further humanizing) its white, cishet and primarily male practitioners, failing to consider the work, safety, and general livelihood of everyone else, while actively endangering them. Of course, HR was written a decade prior to the emergence of this critical vocabulary surrounding the exclusionary body of Canadian literatures, but it is no doubt an important predecessor to these conversations.
From the outset, the text absorbs and redeploys these toxic elements, instructing us to “write in ‘plain language’” (Zolf 4) – an injunction that is paraphrased elsewhere as such: “Be unique”; “Be timeless”; “Be acceptable in every social and religious culture you operate in” (63). In other words, the ideal Canadian writer is a genderless, classless, and raceless in/dividual, stripped of any and all particularity and situated haphazardly within the colour-blinded neoliberal myth of the Mosaic. This deracination into the ethereal non-space of the tabula rasa is, accordingly, necessary to succeed in a field that demands infinite brandability and phallogocentric complacency, as writers attempt to appease “skimmers” and “peckers” so as to “Filter, impose, trespass” into culture at large, spreading, like a virus, under the guise of innocuousness (73). Of course, the advent of a “standardized” blank image is an insidious mode of indirectly inscribing a space for cishet whiteness as the invisible norm, a systemic act of violence of which the speaker is hyperaware, as they paratactically navigate the structural alienation of this homogenized and all-too inhospitable field: “a world as cold as stone accidentally on purpose management is accompanied by good communication avoiding drunk men at yet another poetry reading” (16). Rather than giving into the anxieties proffered by the many grotesque cishet men of CanLit, the speaker makes demands, speculating on what was, at the time, Zolf’s identification as a Jewish lesbian:
lesbian, writeing [sic] you is like
loseing [sic] the shit, only worse.
While Jew voids the money, I
write over a narrow Jew.
Because these excesss [sic] acquire
as if money were a Jew for
acquireing [sic], you should write
your lesbian, while shit
Here, a request is made to write a self, but to do so excessively. More specifically, “while shit / acquires” implies that aporetic selfhood (i.e. in/dividualism, in/humanism) under capitalism is a slow, abject process of scatological hoarding, such that the activities of consumerism – e.g. accumulating material wealth – is, fundamentally, a form of anal retentiveness. The marginality of the Jewish lesbian is a kind of incontinence which cannot participate in “healthy” consumption and production like that of the tabula rasa. The figural lesbian refuses futurity in the eyes of normativity, given their disconnect from “reproductive futurism,” which, according to Lee Edelman, is the horizon of normative politics. Reproductive futurism dictates that futurity itself is heteronormativity, given the nation-state’s valorization of the figure of the “child” as the wellspring of all possibility. Because heterosexual intercourse supposedly begets the innocent tabula rasa subjectivity of the “child,” reproductive futurism “introduces its privileged emblem, the promise condensed in the image of the Child, as a figure of naturalization” (Edelman 57). To refuse childrearing in this framework is to unclench and refuse the neoliberal naturalization of hoarding, which ultimately amounts to the “love” of the “shit god i” (36).
Returning to the realm of writerly industries, the speaker explains that the voice of normative and easily marketed poetries is an “I” that writes only in order to contain the shit of its experiences: “I / write over a narrow Jew.” In this sense, it is an overwriting that reproduces itself at the expense of self and other, upholding – or elevating, through enjambment – dominant practices of a retentive “I.” In the shadow of the ever-accumulating excess of capital in the world at large, the Jewish lesbian “lose[s] [sic] the shit, only worse” and “voids the money” (my emphases). Here, “[sic]” puns on the phoneticism of the Latinate term sic erat scriptum, (“thus it was written”), drawing textual error and excessiveness into an analogic with literal sickness; “[sic]” is the malnutrition of a “narrow Jew” weakened by incontinence. Additionally, “sic” or “thus” implies conclusiveness and, therefore, essentialism; the illness is terminal, and it quite literally brackets off the other from the majority of consumers. Those who cannot produce “healthily” are scapegoats who must be overwritten. To “void” money, moreover, is to render it useless or inaccessible – a kind of quarantining of entrepreneurial resources. In this sense, “Jew voids the money” takes on the tone of antisemitic propaganda, like that of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,7The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a fabricated text with murky origins, which attempts to authenticate a plot for Jewish global domination; it is presented as a series of minutes from a meeting of Jewish “elders.” Given the longevity of its influence throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Michele Battini describes The Protocols as the deadliest document of anti-Jewish propaganda in the modern world (50). which declares the existence of a plot to instantiate Jewish hegemony, by covertly controlling economies and media around the world. The antisemitic tone of this passage, moreover, alters our understanding of production, particularly in North America, where Fordism was once so prolific and integral to economic well-being. Henry Ford himself was, indeed, responsible for the printing and distribution of five-hundred thousand copies of The Protocols by way of The Dearborn Independent, a newspaper he sponsored for eight years. With this in mind, HR performs the always-already intimate relationship between capitalism and antisemitism (“the socialism of fools”), lodging itself between the violence of capitalism, and the marginalized position of the scapegoat; that is to say, between retention and release, individual and dividual.
Elsewhere, the speaker offers the following hypothetical: “Let us say language hardwired to heterogeneous aggregate, plain altar an 18 iron Alas poor Yorick rod no more (or less) political than military-or theory-speak” (50). Here, the bisected nature of communicative language is foregrounded; it can be either straightforward and functional “military-[speak]” or a “poor Yorick” – romanticized, canonized, and elevated on a “plain altar” and eventually driven (with an “18 iron”) to its (il)logical extremes in the “theory-speak” of humanities departments. Each position uses language to produce use and exchange value under the neoliberal regime. The “poor Yorick” position is true of poetry at large – both as the flowers of language and its supposed disruption à la the aesthetics of dissemination and multiplicity: “When you use short words and amputate adjectives in a Trinidadian what-bank-folks-on brochure for the big Canadian limit offers, we want to say fragmentation sans Oedipal daddy-mommy-me” (50). There is no poetics deconstructive enough to infiltrate the “big Canadian limit” and alleviate the throes of an assimilatory nation-state. Language in this dualistic schema of militance/Yorick, put simply, is decadent and falls short of being anything remotely radical:
Despite les soixantehuitardes (like us, born that uppity year), poetic Jewish coverage+pregnant 3984 language isn’t revolutionary enough. Ensconced in the academy pleasuring in the beautiful excess of the unshackled referent, poetry can’t stock food banks, warm bodies or stop genocide from affecting my RSP. Ultimately, you’ll be the funnel here at the brink, should we brief you and brainstorm, transgress the Markov chain before game over? (74; my emphasis)
As an overtly defeatist attitude gives way to an irrational privileging of one’s RSP, it becomes clear that the TrashCan is itself a Markov chain, comprising “stochastic process[es] for which the probabilities, at any one time, of the different future states depend only on the existing state and not on how that state was arrived at” (OED). A Markov chain is thus characterized by a theoretical “memorylessness” in its singular, almost moment-to-moment intentionality of probability. The “shit god i” may carry the past with them, but only as prosthetic interface (history is only a Google search away) and hoarded objects (server upon server of archived Facebook and Instagram posts). While Zolf’s text predates just how influential social media would become by the mid 2010s, what is nevertheless at stake is a wealth of information without self-reflexivity, or what Han refers to as a “barbarism of data” which “heralds false clarity” through the collection of personal data constitutive of in/dividuals – an additive teleology servicing corporations and their relations with advertisers working to manufacture desire (59). As such, entrepreneurial poetry and its uses of language cannot even hint at revolution because it is always-already overdetermined by neoliberal forgetfulness,8This is not to position avant-garde poetries as an antidote to forgetfulness, as these are similarly rife with problematics (see note 14 regarding figures like Kenneth Goldsmith). The distinction between experimentation qua reflexivity and entrepreneurial writing as a wellspring of resources for the dataistic neoliberal regime is not strictly a dualism, but a pairing that offers the possibility of dialectical sublation. Given HR’s vigilant awareness of these issues, we might say that the text attempts to usher in such a compromise, as an affective, digitalization of experimental poiesis, constituting a new vanguard for the avant-garde. an epistemology for which history ended over thirty years ago.9Here, I allude to Francis Fukuyama’s infamous claim that the fall of the Berlin Wall signified the absolute triumph of Western liberal democracy. Consequently, dividuals are prone to forgetful repetition, determining the future through facile reflections on the immediate past, eschewing the possibility of historically informed revolt:
Trapped in this high-performance culture, let’s suspend all disbelief, ignore the elephants in the room.
I won’t remember that avant-garde chaos frees the writing machine’s choked circuits.
Our abstractions stink of pure gibberish and no one notices the false pundits.
Look through the mirror, it’s the Information Age, where every surface is 1793 brilliant urine requests scum wolf and nothing shines. (Zolf 65)
We know now that the TrashCan is brimming with problematics; how might we empty it? In order to properly transgress this Markov chain, Zolf explodes conceptualism into a novel digital practice.
Cybernetics–Of ConPo and DigPo
It is helpful to examine, broadly, how the text takes on the procedural and appropriative force of ConPo, by revealing its subservience to digitality, which is itself a general condition of literary production. If conceptual poetry is an attempt at author-effacement against the throes of neoliberal subjectification and artistic monetization, then Zolf’s DigPo variant of ConPo, on the contrary, is successful in co-opting precisely the subjectivity away from which ConPo sketches its line of flight. While ConPo flees, Zolf perseveres. ConPo is purportedly an “uncreative” act dependent upon appropriation, procedure, constraint, and therefore the “absence” of authorial intent and originality. In his introduction to Against Expression, Kenneth Goldsmith maintains10For more on this highly contested figure, specifically Goldsmith’s foolish perpetuation of white supremacy, see note 14. that conceptualism is a necessary response to digitality:
With an unprecedented onslaught of the sheer quantity of language (often derided as information glut in general culture), the writer faces the challenge of exactly how best to respond… Why are so many writers now exploring strategies of copying and appropriation? It’s simple: the computer encourages us to mimic its workings… If I can chop out a huge section of the novel I’m working on and paste it into a new document, what’s going to stop me from copying and pasting a Web page in its entirety and dropping it into my text? (xviii)
He goes on to cite a longer lineage of conceptualism, before the digital age, concluding that words “very well might be written not to be read but rather to be shared, moved, and manipulated” (xxi). This lack of concern for actual reading practices is perhaps indicative of a ConPo tradition specific to poets in the United States, in contradistinction to Zolf’s concern for the potentiality of authorship by way of reading practices. In any case, the relationship between DigPo and ConPo is not simply dependent upon differential degrees of “the ease of appropriation,” which ultimately amounts to a binary between manually retyping an entire book and cutting and pasting one: between the analog and digital (xix). Goldsmith’s introduction to this fairly comprehensive ConPo anthology uses DigPo as its frame, suggesting an inextricable hierarchy between the two practices, given that introductions intend to steer anthologies in a particular direction (from the Latin introducere, intro meaning “to the inside” and ducere, “to lead”). Alternatively, introductions are a kind of bookish cybernetics, directing both reader and text.
With this in mind, the computer does not merely “encourage” mimicry – it reveals a fundamental truth, viz. that insofar as there is labour, there lies dormant in the human a kind of inhuman, machinic propulsion of in/dividuation. In other words, there is a capacity for digitization that is always-already innate to any writerly subject. If copying and pasting is a computer “working,” then poiesis – both as “making” and citationality – and computation are kindred operations. Similarly, Joanna Drucker argues that conceptual writing
is not the same as electronic literature […] Rather than merely imagining that the aesthetic wing of cultural development legitimizes, familiarizes, and domesticates the technological, we may be witnessing unintended consequences of changes wrought by communications systems and their cultural effects. (Drucker 7; my emphasis)
There are irrevocable and unintended consequences at play in Drucker’s assertion: while electronic, computational, and digital literatures, may not be synonymous with ConPo, it is clear that ConPo has always been a byproduct of the digital. In other words, DigPo is an umbrella term under which e-lit, transmedial, and procedural writings fall and by which they are controlled. Similarly, digitality is necessarily a question of cybernetics. While “digital” is derived from the Latin digitus (“finger, toe”), the embodied experience its etymology connotes amounts to something more than mere corporeality. Indeed, the digital forgoes the human body as agential, in favour of cybernetics, from the Greek kubernan (“to steer”)—the typing finger, the counting finger, the writing hand, and, more generally, the body as procedural machine is an assemblage of parts, digits constrained by endless steering, an exploitable kinetic element, of which the neoliberal regime consistently takes hold, rendering the human inhuman, part of an interchangeable bank of nodes working in the name of capital:
what we give you if you lose one
finger(Q691) fool dance then gold on one hand and three
toes on one foot (25%) of the premiums you’ve paid for
years), or three fingers on one hand and four toes (50%)
or two hands and two feet (75!). Unlike poetry, it flows
with ease and on the same page as BMO banker Barrett:
‘a student who divines(Q2855) pablo from swiss
Of course, the machinism of the body is an obvious truth under Fordism, in which the factory produces, in addition to commodities, less-than-human subjects, whose purpose is to control larger machines. The question of machinism, however, is less overt under the reign of neoliberalism and the advent of “immaterial” labour: working at a desk, in front of a screen, be it in an office, a home, or in a studio – these environments do not involve overtly embodied activities. In fact, the body itself undergoes its own disappearing act while engaging “immaterial” tasks. Propelled by digital processes, we forget to move for hours at a time, creating the need for an entire industry of ergonomic office furniture and electronics.
HR, like most DigPo, functions to make the invisible visible, showing that, as a kind of cybernetics, digitality is not in opposition to tabula rasa poetics, so much as it overtakes it and makes of it a cyborg within a parasitic relationship. In lieu of evading neoliberalism, Zolf’s text offers the opportunity to redefine DigPo, which shows us that poiesis in general is not so much the production of content (i.e. the capitalistic labour of traditional, marketable lyric poetry; the TrashCan), so much as it is a hybridization of forms, intertwining seemingly heterogenous technologies such as profit and poetry, print books and software, computation and commerce, pointing fingers and typing fingers, and so forth. In short, poiesis is a cybernetic endeavour and DigPo seeks to surrender to all the aforementioned elements, as a chance opportunity to conjure them: “From the epoch of the name to the advent of the number… So be it, amen, let’s roll!” (Zolf 38). Even the book’s name gestures to this dynamic, as the full title reads HR: A Book of Poetry. “Of” implies that the collection is both on or regarding poetry, while simultaneously suggesting that it belongs to poiesis’s in/humanism; Zolf does not just theorize cybernetics – their work effectively becomes, in this sense, a cybernetics of cybernetics. In other words, a term as frequently overlooked as “of” is a microcosmic performance of cybernetics, in that it controls and is controlled by these various definitions of control. Insofar as there exists a preposition, there is governance and control. The text’s hyperbolic performance of the neoliberalization of creative culture necessarily devours itself, becoming derailed by the excessive interpretative possibility it finds in the strange economies of mysticism, specifically, in numerology, which assigns arbitrary values to words, undercutting the prime directives of participants in market economies to a catastrophic extent: “The job is to write in ‘plain language.’ No adjectives, adornment or surfeit of meaning nuclear increasing(w1269)” (Human 4; my emphasis). Zolf preps the neoliberal regime for its own meltdown by conducting search procedures from within, forcing it to confront its very limits.
Magic & Mysticism
In one of the prose poems from a section entitled “How to make a name,” the concept of surrender is more fully articulated as a question of re-mystification:
With money keen on poiesis, Kafka and Stevens sold peace of mind, Jabés stocks. Bataille stuck Dewey decimals on dough and we bought fashion insurance. Our parents fell in love at the archives, spent all the marbles they’d collected to that point. You too fall under the spell of objects, cataloguing, orgasms, memories by their proper Safeway the Magus Ain Soph Aur 18 Dalton McGuinty names before surrendering. How the pieces don’t quite fit together when they’ve canker huggy amortized around polperro politique headsets for two too long. (Zolf 60).
Here, we see, first and foremost, a renunciation of the past; the demand for a Markov chain. Kafka, Stevens, and Jabés – each of whom explore forms of messianicity and mysticism in their writings – do not offer viable critiques of capitalism, despite their rampant canonicity. Even the vulgar Marxism of Bataille’s “general economy” is more fashionable than it is useful, an aesthetic delight whose primary function is to lend archetypes or teleologies (“Dewey decimals”) to numbers. They are unable to produce a writing immanent enough to overcome the commodifiable and therefore counterrevolutionary nature of language. With the shortcomings of these influences in mind, the poem turns to a more direct form of excess through mysticism qua mysticism, as opposed to literary explorations thereof. Here, concepts and images from the neoliberal regime coalesce with those of Jewish mysticism. Indeed, “Ain Soph Aur” names the unnamable in Kabbalah – it is the infinitude of the cosmos (Ain Sof) as it emanates from consciousness (“Aur”). In the same line, an image of “Safeway” – a Canadian chain of grocery stores – is offered; the two signifiers function paratactically in their difference.
Extending the intimacy of religiosity to the plane of commerce establishes an analogy between consumerism and mysticism, respectively, while remaining attentive to the strange way that money works in the process of accumulating – by representational practices enforced through state violence – the semblance of value. In a close reading of Marx, Derrida asserts that the condition of possibility for appraisal is downright eerie:
When the State emits paper money at a fixed rate, its intervention is compared to ‘magic’ (Magie) that transmutes paper into gold. The State appears then, for it is an appearance, indeed as an apparition…This magic always busies itself with ghosts, it does business with them, it manipulates or busies itself, it becomes a business, the business it does in the very element of haunting. (45-6)
Here, the process of valuation under capitalism is invisible and smooth. The simple act of buying groceries requires that capitalism take a “safe way” insofar as it refuses resistance and critique by virtue of a conceptual absence: it cannot and will not explain this transmutation of exchange value and the arbitrary transformation of “paper into gold.” In this way, capital is haunted by a spectral non-presence, but it nevertheless uses this “hauntology” to its advantage. While the recent phenomenon of practicing good consumerism or “conscious capitalism” – which foregrounds issues such as sustainability, fair trade, industrial or free-range farming, and the like – seeks to question the ethicality of certain goods and services, it is unable to interrogate how market prices are written and unwritten. With careful consideration and astute knowledge of markets, ascertaining concrete answers to such questions is no doubt possible, but the prioritization of consumeristic ethics over knowledgeability brings about yet another disappearing act; when it comes to both the moral and practical efficacy of valuation and the exploitation of labour power, they are often explained away by capitalists invoking “the invisible hand of the market” – a strawman argument with ghostly connotations. In this sense, the modus operandi of markets is aligned with a cheap magic trick employed to prolong the reign of capitalism in a process of resolute expansion. Zolf posits mysticism as a way to counter this mystifying brand of “magic.”
Broadly speaking, mysticism is a kind of search procedure desirous of an overwhelming and immanent experience of the divine – it seeks to create intimacy and solidarity between the invisible and the visible. Gershom Scholem describes it as a “fundamental experience of the inner self which enters into immediate contact with God or the metaphysical Reality” (4). With this in mind, Zolf’s speaker invokes Ain Soph to counter the poseur religiosity of capital’s magical maneuvers, etching the image of a socio-political surrender to a mystical infinitude. And yet, this Kabbalistic invocation does not merely repeat the traditions out of which it emerges. “Ain Soph Aur 18” may signify, at first, glance, a life-affirming connection to the infinite, as “18” is a number replete with vitalistic connotations in Judaism and is often used to symbolize Chai, or hay, which refers to the living in general. In any case, retaining these associations does not necessitate that we limit our interpretation to the problematic and all-too humanistic realm of philosophical vitalism. On the contrary, the élan here is precisely non-human: it is that of the number in itself. Beyond the archetypes imposed by centuries of worship, and the parameters of traditional ordinality (ordering numbers, “first,” “second,” “third,” and so forth) as well as cardinality (counting numbers, “one,” “two,” “three”…), 18 is still a Number whose reality is unknowable; the paratactical passage, “You too fall under the spell of objects, cataloguing, orgasms, memories by their proper Safeway the Magus Ain Soph Aur 18,” deictically incites the return of a repressed numerical reality that exceeds allin/human practices.11This unknowability is doubtlessly indebted to Meillassoux’s anti-correlational inquiries in After Finitude:
what is it exactly that astrophysicists, geologists, or paleontologists are talking about when they discuss the age of the universe, the date of the accretion of the earth, the date of the appearance of the human species, or the date of the emergence of humanity itself? How are we to grasp the meaning of scientific statements bearing explicitly upon a manifestation of the world that is posited as anterior to the emergence of thought and even of life – posited, that is, as anterior to every form of human relation in the world?(9)
Accordingly, speculative realism prioritizes the latter half of each inquiry, after the preposition – viz. “the age of the universe” as opposed to “the age of,” which always-already implies correlation and, inevitably, control. In this instance, the preposition “of” signifies the numerical reality of a date that is completely unthinkable. Just as deep time looks to geological formations to speculate on epochs preceding homo sapiens by billions of years, Zolf’s invocation of numbers discloses the possibility of a non-correlational Number – an ageless age, for instance, a Number that is unlike any other, with no relation to any in/dividual, which conditions the possibility of all numbers. The Number, in this sense, is both anterior and posterior to the human species. In short, it is all encompassing – a generative “18” (or any number) left to its own devices, without the need for a name such as chai or Ain Soph Aur to express its absolute timelessness. While this assertion might be likened to Badiouian thought, in which mathematics is, itself, ontology, the Number is not a question of being. It is, rather, an alterity that supplements the less-than-being of in/dividuality, to which Zolf alludes through a sardonic poetics of digital proceduralism.
It is an incantation heralding a politics-to-come, as the speaker imagines Dalton McGuinty, former premiere of Ontario, uttering these mystical findings as kind of “surrender”: his resignation as a despot of the neoliberal regime. It was, after all, his government that incrementally increased its funding of the OAC over the course of its run in the early noughties. The inclusion of this politician bemoaning the mystical powers of the Number is perhaps the most generative passage in the text, as it is with the Number in tow that HR opens itself to a reinterpretation of traditional Jewish gematria.
The Number & The Interface
In order to relay the mystical intentionality of the Number, Zolf turns to digitality as a metaphysical plane, employing aleatoric and algorithmic word programs to generate syntactically ambiguous poetry, such as Lewis LaCook's Markov chain-based Flash poetry generator, as well as valuating programs such as Jonathan Harris’s Wordcount and Querycount – Flash-based visualizations of words ranked according to their popularity. Wordcount consists of the 86,000 most frequently used words in the English language, using statistics from the British National Corpus. Querycount functions as its counterpart, tracking each query input into Wordcount. The quantitative efforts of these projects are gematrias in their own right, given that they index words and their positionality on the internet, offering them a significance outside of their initial signification; in an explanatory note on the website, Harris even challenges users to “find sequences of consecutive words that seem to form conspiratorial phrases.” In layering these strategies, an esotericism crystallizes into a bewildering incantation which displaces numerical norms and discloses the shortcomings of cardinality and ordinality as a kind of frenzy. E-literatures typically necessitate “the ability to read linked writings calls on skills of association and depends not on conclusion but occlusion, or an aberration of the eye, literally and homophonously. (If the machine is meant to calculate, writing begins when its error is engaged)” (Pequeño 37). We see the move toward the ekstasis of occlusion and the error rather prominently as Zolf’s speaker backhandedly praises the professional writer:
Three reasons to become a writer:
1 Writers help the economy
2 Writing is an investment that grows as you 1863
3 Writers help the needy: A recent fundraising package I wrote for an evangelical adoption agency generated $30,000, exactly what we needed to save children from being aborted. My copy makes the world a better place! Yours 48 128! (81)
Here, the numbers coincidentally demand and refuse calculation. A particular, comprehensible, and countable succession of digits, such as “$30,000” – indicative of a cringe-worthy critique of the oh-so-charitable bourgeoisie – is met by an illogical number like “1863.” Between the “as you” and “1863” there is no punctuation to direct the reader. Like an error, the Number materializes haphazardly and incoherently – rather than an exponential insertion of a number to indicate the Wordcount or Querycount value, the number itself completely supplements whatever word for which it was initially supposed to stand. In other words, it breaks loose of the gematric procedures used to formulate the majority of the text and exists for and in itself. How might we read this?
In the absence of the word, we could look to the number as a bearer of the weight of history. The very first day of the year 1863 saw the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln; why might a discussion of economy be met – with a startling absence of syntax or punctuation in a hyper-paratactical mode – by a timestamp of this stature? Is this to draw attention to the haphazard functions of our current economy, and its brutal dependency on anti-Black racism and slave economies, past and present? This critique is certainly viable, yet the possibilities proffered by “1863” become increasingly estranged from coherent meaning the further we delve. The cover of HR offers a similarly obscurantist reference to Honest Abe in the featured artwork by Moyra Davey, entitled “Copperhead #1.” The piece is part of a series released in the early 90s (in response to worldwide economic recession) comprising close-up shots of tarnished American pennies. Lincoln graces the cover of the book neither as emancipatory icon nor as human, but as an image on a Lincoln Cent, scratched beyond recognition, incurring the wear-and-tear that comes coupled with the becoming-nodal resource of the in/dividual. The cover suggests that Lincoln was merely an in/human resource used to distract us from the machinic violence intrinsic to capitalism while ventriloquizing its downfall through the supposed end of the slave economy. Zolf approaches this historical figure as a vague series of digits and a tarnished token of capital – the ultimate fruits of his legacy, as they are consumed by the economics of history. The text meditates on these material adornments as such:
Bleached WASP HR woman’s toothy smile abrades against money company’s crow’s feet are upon you G10 benefits program. Walking around with a dog-eared list of what you write about the Shoah, you crossed each line out with frumpyQ5259 jocular gorgon of albino lucille lattice. M.’s penny shots hang in the lobby, Abe Lincoln playing heads, his Memorial, tails. Bought from the Canada Council Art Bank for how shiny they look and a tax break. (20; my emphases)
Between “$30,000” (an amount), “1863” (a date), and the ambiguous exponent “(Q5259)” separating “frumpy” and “jocular gorgon,” Zolf’s text exhibits a hermetic aleatoricism in difference to the typical posturing of conceptual indifference, post-irony, and willed authorial deracination; in spite of these traditional elements of ConPo, the most jarring aspect is the ghost-like visitation of numbers as Numbers – sentient in their position beyond all possible human interpretation, in possession of their own agenda. While the “Q” may signify, according to the author’s afterword, the number of times “frumpy” was searched in Querycount, the number “5259” is very much particular to the context of the book’s composition – 5259 happened to be the value of “frumpy” on the day Zolf visited the website, but this number has no doubt changed since the time of these query rankings, creating poems that “are out of date as soon as they are written” (Milne 85). Additionally, the fact that Wordcount uses the stats of a British English language corpus as its jumping off point means that these values are very particular, emerging from a context that, recalling the problem of Canadian national identity, is plagued by the influence of linguistic and British imperialism.
By forcing the digital to encounter the analog – whereby a dataset about online habits curated by an online interface is fixed by virtue of being placed inside of Zolf’s book, a print codex – the number no longer functions as a number – cardinal, ordinal, or otherwise. This is to say, these counting websites cease to count after a number is integrated into the text, such that it is only capable of relaying empty would-be word economies. However, the ceasing of numbering does not represent a fixity, so much as it does an outside. “Frumpy” as search term outside the domain’s capacities as a counter presents a doubly-bound scenario: first, “5259” is now purposeless, a former representation of the significance of “frumpy” as signifier, presumably one that remained a mystery and prompted over 5,000 searches – consequently, “frumpy” is now more intimately entwined with its Middle English etymological foundation, frumple, meaning “wrinkle.” The poem folds in on itself, wrinkles, like dowdy unkempt clothing, out of joint and out of style with the advent of the Number, leading us in and out of a particular moment in which 5259 was once quantifiable.
While “Q5259” functions like an error message, leading only to dead ends, innumerable possibilities, and spectral horizons, “1863” acts like an analog hyperlink that takes us nowhere, to the extent that it offers a bewildering and general elsewhere. In this way, the “Aur” of “Ain Soph Aur” was always-already the Number, which posits itself as neither cardinal nor ordinal – it is, instead, an extreme excess in a generative aneconomy of possibility. Because there is no vantage point from which we can comprehend these digits, they cannot lend themselves to capitalism as a means of ordering, counting, or validating the prospect of valuation and exploitation. While excess may be the logic of late capitalism and the aesthetic of a lost or mutated “postmodernity,” the non-logic of Zolf’s suite no doubt reminds us of alternate numbering events – not simply numbering practices. And yet, it is precisely digitality itself from which Zolf collects these Numbers.
The text seeks out these events by way of the digital, in multiple senses of the term. In addition to the aforementioned layers of word counting and generating programs, the book uses English qabbalistic12To be sure, there are twenty-four ways to spell “Kabbalah.” Some of these variations represent disparities in translative and pronunciation practices and are otherwise insignificant, while others refer to entirely different spiritual systems. For the most part, spellings that involve a “k” find their origins in Jewish traditions, while “c” invokes Christianizations of the practice. Finally, a “q” is representative of occultist branches. With “qabbala,” I am invoking the hermetic system of Aleister Crowley and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an organization which syncretically, if not haphazardly, appropriates a number of Jewish, Christian, and occult practices, much like the GoN. fragments of numbers generated by the Gematria of Nothing13http://www.mysticalinternet.com/ (GoN). Rather than invoking the in/human labour of the arithmetically-oriented mind, the GoN is an online speculative “value” generator – it is untraditional inasmuch as it makes use of a digital interface and a valuation system:
D = 10
E = 9
F = 8
G = 7
J = 4
K = 3
L = 2
M = 1
N = 0
Q = -3
R = -4
S = -5
T = -6
U = -7
X = -10
Y = -11
Z = -12
Added together, the alphabet amounts to zero, hence the “Nothing” of the name. Not only is the GoN barely comprehensible as a system distinct from other kinds of gematria, it is little more than a half-baked internet phenomenon from the GeoCities era of the internet, as opposed to a serious intervention in the history of mystical practices. The GoN presents only a shallow understanding of its gematric predecessors. Words are input into the GoN’s interface to produce values according to this “system,” and from there, it discloses hidden/chance connections between words based on these values.
In the context of Judaism, gematria is primarily a Kabbalistic method of interpreting Hebrew scripture – a mode of hermeneutic engagement with both God and text. Put simply, it computes the numerical value of entire laws based on their constituent letters and, in so doing, reveals the importance of signifiers that would otherwise remain inconspicuous: “The Holy Ari Zal teaches that when eating bread, one should dip the bread in salt three times since three times Hashem (God’s name) 26 equals 78, the Gematria for both salt מלח and bread לחמ” (Locks qtd in Meilicke 144). In this instance, rudimentary arithmetic is required for drawing out, understanding, and eventually following extrapolated instruction. Gematric numbers are rote and purposeful; they are calculations that necessitate further input and compliance, transmuting the rationale of its initial (linguistic) interface in order to speculate on and generate some semblance of cosmological coherence or divine order amidst earthly chaos – motives that are entirely turned on their head in HR.
There are innumerable systems of gematria with which to work through a given phrase or book, but all of them are wildly counterintuitive to linguistic meaning. In his survey of Kabbalistic traditions, Harold Bloom writes that
the techniques of Gematria were a kind of parody of the sometimes sublime Kabbalistic exaltation of language... For Gematria is interpretative freedom gone mad, in which any text can be made to mean anything. But its prevalence was itself a mark of the desperation that underlay much of Kabbalah… Gematria, with its descents into occult numerologies, is finally best viewed as an index to how tremendous the suffering was, for the pressure of the sorrow came close to destroying one of the greatest interpretative traditions in cultural history. (46; my emphasis)
Speculating on the devastating consequences of the 1492 expulsion of the Jewish people from Spain, Bloom concludes that the immensity of such suffering required adequate tools with which to traverse the trauma of exile. From this need sprung Lurianic Kabbalah, as well as a gematric renaissance – both Jewish and non-Jewish—which served to adorn the tradition with the comfort of cosmic coherence. Similarly, Zolf’s decision to appropriate and employ the GoN is part of a particular agenda:
The author also used the Gematria of Nothing (GON) engine at www.mysticalinternet.com. Gematria is a method of Biblical exegesis based on assigned positive or negative numerical values of Hebrew letters and semantic links between words based on their values. The GoN is a bizarre Christ-, crow- and empress- laden attempt to co-opt the serious practice of Hebrew numerology and apply it to select English words and phrases. The author co-opts GoN for HR purposes. (93; my emphasis)
“For” HR purposes means simultaneously as HR as much as it antagonistically aims at HR. First, as a “bizarre Christ-, crow” manifestation of gematria, the GoN is effectively an appropriation of Jewish Kabbalah. In this sense, Zolf’s conceptual inklings are further accelerated: they appropriate from the appropriator in an act of reclamation. Moreover, whereas gematria is employed to enliven the exegesis of scripture, Zolf seeks to reveal nothing (a zero-point) in no particular context (just like capital’s wildly de/reterritorializing modalities, gematria is able to swallow anything) – from the TrashCan to the Shoah – the result being a series of ineffable rhizomes whose only coherence is that of the number as Number, as arbitrary, and asignifying, a conclusion to which Zolf’s speaker assigns much pathos: “Look for the hidden meaning use it as a lightning rod more poles at the communication […] ‘Pain’ can be involved in getting to the end a birdy told me we may be asked without falling overboard” (91). As much as appropriation qua reclamation may be liberating, it is doubly bound by the pain of having to mimic one’s own oppressor. Fortunately, this discomfort is mitigated by the joy of absurdity.
Numerology is possibly the apex of hermeneutical delight, and Zolf plays with the expectation that the reader will pursue the significance of these numbers and even run their values through the GoN’s interface. Yet, the GoN is doubtlessly true to its name: it really is a gematria of nothing – a silly, Angelfire-esque website with abundant inconsistencies, an interface replete with errors. Whereas ConPo will take an idea and bankrupt it of meaning, Zolf’s poetic constraint is bankrupt before coming into play. Gematric poets of the past, such as Jackson Mac Low and Jerome Rothenberg, have espoused a poetics in which the “use of aleatory devices always involves the complex interaction between chance and choice” (Meilicke 153). HR effaces the chance-choice distinction, such that former is merely a vessel for the later, and vice-versa, and gematria is a tool with which we can uncover that latent identity between the two.
The exponential figures of HR are not simply addenda or supplementary elements of a translative exercise. Instead, they are bodies, literally suspended above and beyond the text, hovering over language itself. Consequently, they are part of a numerical reality which interrupts the staging of language games (viz. literary writing) whose apparent purpose is to criticize all language games. As they take hold of the text, effectuation reaches its threshold. Ultimately, the excess of a jarring mid-page numeric anomaly can bring some semblance of newness to the question of poetic praxis:
Jabés the atheist says Jews can't help writing about God. Nor can we help writing about being JewishQ709 homemaker retard from e spam of ruth toe. Even if it’s just one drop or half your blood. Everything comes down to ‘special treatment,’ energetic liquidation,’ arbeit yacht the power of jargon and excrementalQ34842 provident hyperdocument assault. Perfect dehumanization then nothingG11 aye crosshairs + true vision without end. Except the word ‘Jew.’ Say it sixty sixty sixt six ty million million i’m the million mazda man six million mazda times will not exhaust meaning. (22)
This passage plays with some of the saddest and cruelest examples of teleological numbering numbers. Simply mentioning these digits forces the speaker to studder as they allude to the one-drop rule, apropos of racial slavery and segregation in the United States. One-drop posits that even the slightest relation to a Black person – no matter how distant the ancestry, even a single drop of blood will suffice – indicates that an individual is Black in the eyes of the law. The speaker (problematically) compares the one-drop rule to the number of Jewish people slaughtered during the Holocaust, oscillating between the typical six-million and sixty million, an imagined and hyperbolic number, suggesting that antisemitism’s seeming omnipresence throughout history is always-already poised to multiply the number of murdered Jewish people. Additionally, this is a flippant slippage that subtly alludes to the Million Man March and the American sci-fi show, The Six Million Dollar Man. All of these references are numbers contained by a particular archetype.
Beyond these cunning linguistic connotations, Zolf’s thinking approaches the numerical materialism of Nick Land,14To be sure, it would be inaccurate, if not downright ridiculous, to say that Zolf is in line or agreement with Land. Nonetheless, putting their work in conversation can help elucidate the ways certain theoretical projects can too easily become bogged down and irreparably altered by the well-intentioned, albeit snide, appropriation of oppressive rhetoric. Although his writing began as a “leftist” undertaking in its attempt to productively turn Deleuze and Guattari on their heads, Land’s work has, no doubt, taken a significant and disappointing turn in the last decade. Land, along with Curtis Yarvin and others, is one of the founding fathers of neoreaction (NRx), a far-right, white supremacist ideology with many strains, most of which advocate human bio-essentialism, as well as a return to an explicitly race-based mode of hierarchical societal stratification, by way of neo-feudalism, neocameralism, “monarcho-futurism,” and other superfluous ways of phrasing what ultimately amounts to segregation and global apartheid. Land is also one of the progenitors of right-accelerationism, which seeks to intensify capitalism to its very limits using its technological capacities, but only by exacerbating its most oppressive conditions in doing so. Despite earlier projects with distinctively leftist politics – at one time, “radical guerrilla militant lesbian feminists [were] the only revolutionary subjects” in Land’s work (Brassier n.pag.) – his posturing nevertheless became too radical, which led him to abandon social justice entirely.
There is no foreseeable return from this break in his thinking, particularly since the online publication of “The Dark Enlightenment,” which paved the way for many loyal followers of NRx. In this text, issues integral to representational politics, like race and racism, are scoffed at for the sake of accelerating capital to its transhumanist end: “Miscegenation doesn’t get close to the issue. Think face tentacles” (n.pag.; emphasis in original). For more on this shift in his thinking, see Ray Brassier’s transcribed talk on accelerationism, which traces Land’s writing as it changes from an “ultra-left anarchism” into a “materialist liquidation of representation.” Because right-acceleration is essentially an even cringier rendition of libertarianism for fans of speculative horror, what is at issue in Land’s thinking, according to Brassier, is a lack of boundaries, such that Land’s philosophy surrenders too much and becomes a cybernetics too open for its own good:
What does [absolute intensification/acceleration] mean? It means affirming free markets, deregulation, the capitalist desecration of traditional forms of social organization, etc. Why? Not because he thinks it’s promoting individual democracy and freedom. He has to instrumentalize neoliberalism in the name of something allegedly far darker and more potentially corrosive… if your enemy’s enemy is your friend, there comes a dangerous point where you forget the conditions under which you made this strategic alliance, because you can no longer see, you can no longer identify what the goal is any more… In other words, once you dissociate tactics and strategy–the famous distinction between tactics and strategy where strategy is teleological, transcendent, and representational and tactics is immanent and machinic–if you have no strategy, someone with a strategy will soon commandeer your tactics. Someone who knows what they want to realize will start using you. You become the pawn of another kind of impersonal force, but it’s no longer the glamorous kind of impersonal and seductive force that you hoped to make a compact with, it’s a much more cynical kind of libertarian capitalism. (Brassier; my emphasis)
What differentiates Zolf from Land (amongst many other things) is the fact that they combine tactic and strategy, instead of abandoning one for the other – this is to say, they are more in line with the cybernetic definition of “strategy,” which “covers long-term planning and thus embeds tactics” (François 560). By working within the confines of the TrashCan’s material and discursive makeup, Zolf uses the specificity of their own community and position as a queer Jewish poet not so much to their advantage, but as an anchoring point from which a strategy can conceive of a tactic, and vice-versa.
Put simply, it is a matter of having a context out of which one can work – without the “immanent and machinic” tactics that unfold in and as HR itself, the strategy (e.g. the goal of de- and re-territorializing poetry into one mode of an anti-oppressive digitality/cybernetics) would go awry, and perhaps land in the murky territories of problematic conceptual poetries, like that Kenneth Goldsmith. We can look specifically to Goldsmith’s “The Body of Michael Brown,” in which the writer appropriates Brown’s autopsy report, nonsensically resituating it in a poetic context as a careless method of critiquing police brutality and anti-Black violence. While his tactic (poetic appropriation) masquerades as anti-oppression, a lack of strategy brings about the piece’s absolute failure. Given that Goldsmith’s goal is unrealistic and detached from his own subject position as a white scholar virtually immune to police brutality, appropriating Black death as his own material for poiesis can only ever reproduce the logic of white supremacy, the very logic he foolishly believed himself to be critiquing all along.
This is also to say that one of Land’s many problems is that of abstraction – Land is not tethered to any one particular cause (beyond the delusions of NRx, if that can even be called a “cause”) because, as a white cisheterosexual man – who was able to safely leave his tenure-track position at the University of Warick and continue working as a semi-famous para-academic – his life does not depend upon affiliations with any tangible social movements. Consequently, he takes on more than he can handle, waxing poetically about capitalism in general, and not those real individuals who are materially impacted by its throes and the violence right-accelerationism would ultimately entail on the margins of society. With this horrible, perhaps intentional, oversight, his theoretical apparatus, his tactic, becomes susceptible to the same virulence as Goldsmith. Suffice it to say, an effective theoretical or poetic praxis starts with not only recognizing one’s own subject position (“privilege-checking” and the like) but looking at oneself as quite literally positioned within a distinct community with its own issues and vocabularies with which to address those issues. Whereas the TrashCan poet is partial to replication and upholding hegemonic structures by writing what they know, and the petty angst of Land involves writing himself into the unknown without recourse to the material conditions of his own identity, Zolf demonstrates that a more authenticate fidelity to revolution begins, above all else, with rewriting and re-mystifying what one knows.
who asserts that traditional numerology “may be fascinated by numbers… [i]t seeks essentially to redeem number, through symbolic absolution into a ‘higher’ significance” (602). This is to say, numeracy and alternative numbering practices – no matter how occult they may claim to be – seek to “redeem” digits only insofar as they can ascribe carry out kind of function, generating a kind of use value and eventual exchange value within the prophetic parameters of systems like tarot divination, astrology, and other numerological economies. However, the injustices of mainstream numbering practices are not limited to usefulness. Land continues: “As if the concept of ‘opposition’ represented an elevation above the (‘mere’) number two, rather than a restriction, subjectivization, logicization and generalized perversion, directed to anthropomorphic use-value and psychological satisfaction. Archetypes are sad limitations of the species, while numbers are an eternal hypercosmic delight” (602). What appears, then, in this re-mystification of digitality is a mystical “hypercosmic delight” to suppress the depressive limitations of the supremacy of cardinality and ordinality, the cheap magical logic by which the neoliberal regime operates. In contrast to the morbidity of cardinality and ordinality, Zolf’s numbers have no teleology and do not function to tally up deaths or divide individuals: they are improper, crude, and without recourse to some kind of ownership, be it from Zolf, their speakers, gematric interfaces, or the words themselves. Milne agrees that there is a certain incoherence in the book, such that “the poems in the collection are so fragmented and disrupted by the letters and numbers that indicate the database values that they are virtually unreadable” and inherently opposed to marketization (84).
Zolf, in a sense, acts as a media archeologist in HR, disclosing how present technologies not only rely on the past, but quite literally replicate it – the GoN and its pre-modern Judaic foundations, in tandem with the print book form a transmediality that not only traverses the space of different media, but traverses time itself. As Parikka maintains, “that new media remediates old media seems an intuitive way to understand this cultural situation in which notions of old and new at times become indistinct. New media might be here and slowly changing our user habits, but old media never left us” (3). In a similar line of thought, Alexander Galloway agrees, “the computer does not remediate other physical media, it remediates metaphysics itself (and hence should be more correctly labeled a metaphysical medium)” (20). No longer are mystical practices hidden and inaccessible. By way of the computer, gematric procedures can be undertaken extensively and constantly. In this sense, the plane of possibility offered by digitality is one of boundless “finity,” in which a “finite number of components yields a practically unlimited diversity of combinations” (Deleuze 131). The number in this context is a malfunction, in which the human sees itself in and as glitch, having always-already been a form of nodal, artificial intelligence under capital – that is, an in/human resource. Poetry is caught between “art” and “957” (its gematrically-encoded other) and throughout HR, we are able to glimpse the illogic of this procedure, comfortably navigating between the interpretative screen of the reader and the alterity of unreadable numerical hauntings:
There’s not an obvious ‘good 677’ story recognize all the
‘knitting together’ you did it’s still ‘art’ not 957.
What you’re doing is pioneering work casting my 1536 and seeing what I rake in you are the invisible 6696. (87)
Zolf’s digitalism is the realized response to a need for perfect expenditure, illustrating that the desire to be a revolutionary poet is an exercise in futility. Instead of pushing for this dated idea of an individualistic poetic deontology, HR implores readers – as potential authors – to use and abuse governmental assets, to do something with the industry of state-sanctioned works of art to ensure that commodifiable pieces eat away at themselves as they generate the profits needed for self-replication in a waste economy. With the excess of the Number comes the possibility of a praxis in which the human realizes their capacities as both subject and machine, moving from labour-as-work (delineated and subjective, grounded in intellectual property) to labour-as-process – sporadic and communitarian, heralding liberation through an unrelenting politicization of art, both digital and analog. Human Resources, then, is more of an anti-manual, showing readers what the neoliberal regime would not want them to do as authors, what not to create or uncreate, what not to see – pleading for them to make do and proceed with the resources at hand, to understand themselves as resources, and ultimately, to make the invisible hand of the market appear so as to bludgeon and constrict it with its own Markov chain: “I see the blood, sweat and tears pulling an invisible rug / out from everyone’s feet in the manual and part of the / culture” (91). So too is this call to arms the desire for a new multitude with which to persevere, with or without the flowers of language:
We all enter the poem and flounder in words within
365, sounds in 1710, the indeterminate come live with
the forty-five stars of reason flow. By doing this atten-
tively – and not suspending disbelief – we don’t have an
at-hand solution for your vocabulary work, or guilt by
association, but would like to recognize collective effort
not set in stone (76)
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