On Militant Poetics and the Physiognomy of Judges
This paper was given at the Militant Politics and Poetry event at Birkbeck College, University of London on 18/05/2013. Fourteen people – mainly poets – were invited to give ten minute papers about the current situation of poetry, theoretical problems, organisational problems, and the current state of politics, law, and violence in the UK. The paper was presented with a handout with pictures of three judges.
“On the terrestrial globe there is an uncounted, unnamed multitude, whose suffering would not be sufficiently allayed by sleep alone. For them wine composes its songs and poems.” Baudelaire’s sentiment requires recomposition today, tracing the relations of a multitude, its suffering under the cutting edge of the newest technologies, and a negative poetry emanating precisely from the objectivity of those technics. For Marx that multitude’s upkeep as paupers counted as ‘faux frais’, an incidental expense, of capitalist production and accumulation. Or rather, capital’s means of disavowal of responsibility for that suffering - the gaol and courtroom – were nothing less to capital than the oil greasing the piston or the bandage covering the stub of the severed finger. These mediations were not, in Marx’s and Baudelaire’s time, capital itself. Together with the suffering Lumpenproletariat whom they would legislate most brutally, the judges of the mid-nineteenth century occupy a liminal position of capitalism: not themselves productive of value, but rather the precondition of generalised exploitation.
Fast-forwarding 150 years, Justice Vos, a high-court judges, gave a lecture for KPMG in the wake of the August riots titled “The Role of UK Judges in the Success of UK PLC.” “I want to address a subject I feel very strongly about.” he begins “It is the question of what can be done to promote the aspects of British business and professional life that are thriving.” continuing, he marks his repression: “our legal system is widely acknowledged to be long on integrity and short on corruption.” - This, in a speech at KPMG on how judges can promote business. The contradiction achieves its highest expression under the proclamation:
We need a Unique Selling Point – the management consultants’ favourite thing. We need to offer something the world needs and cannot get elsewhere, if we are to succeed in the modern world. The USP is the quality and integrity of our professional services.
Sweet selling of integrity, like the Kantian broken promise. The victims of law, the suffering multitude understand this contradiction viscerally. Vos’s speech hints at a history of that last 150 years, in which the violent administration of that multitude has been transformed from a mere incidental cost into an industry at the heart of capitalist accumulation in the UK. It is easy to take from this a history of the reconciliation of two ideals: the administration of so-called justice, and the accumulation of capital. But the interlocking of these concepts never appears: this imageless unfractured monolith. This history of idealised forms leaves no room for poetry to breathe: juridical forms, the value form, the commodity form, poetry must fracture these, speaking the silent mechanism, the history within the machine, under whose dominion this transformation came to pass. Perhaps the poetry of that multitude resides within – or explodes out of – the objectivity of the experience of technics of this juridico-economic synthesis, in the texture of a specific piece of capital: the 21st century judge.
I have spent several months of the last years in court, and want to think through the qualitative strangeness of judges qua capital. They are indeed a strange capital; in each judge the state invests for decades nurturing the latest technological developments in class hatred. This process has natural-historical consequences – traces are left in the extremes of bodily excess and mental poverty. I notice, for example, that judges don’t have lips. I can’t tell how they were removed; more likely they are curled inwards, as the sides of their mouths strain outwards. That effort attempts to provide support for the cheeks – to maintain a semblance of plumpness through taut skin pulled over hard muscle. There is little softness – certainly no passion – only its appearance at a distance, an illusion perpetuated by strain. The foreheads seem to stretch backward while eyebrows furrow in contrary motion. Beneath, eyes are used for pointing. All this straining changes the appearance of aging: skin lacks depth, with the texture of sandpaper but more friable, as if it would disintegrate under your teeth. The skin is always stretched, with a reddish hue: a sign of unjustified, unreasonable health. It is unusual to see health in the old today, particularly amongst those attending court with the misfortune not to be judges. Even where judges are fat, the skin is taut, clinging to them – their faux frais of production are diets and personal trainers. Lips are not required for healthy eating and jogging.
Counterposing this image of health, Walter Benjamin wrote a physiognomy of the Lumpenproletariat in Marseille:
In that little harbour bar, the hashish began to exert its canonical magic […]. It made me into a physiognomist, or at least a contemplator of physiognomies […]. I positively fixed my gaze on the faces that I had around me, some of which were of remarkable coarseness or ugliness. Faces that I would normally have avoided for a twofold reason: I would neither have wished to attract their gaze nor have endured their brutality. […] I now suddenly understood how, to a painter […] ugliness could appear as the true reservoir of beauty – or better, as its treasure chest: a jagged mountain with all the inner gold of beauty gleaming from the wrinkles, glances, features.
Beauty is in the eye of the bekifft. The beauty of the multitude is no longer for them but snatched from their apparent barbarism, by a wandering observer. They, the undernourished, the coarse and broken, they without a name, the depth of those wrinkles in their faces, like mountain crevices, with beauty springing from their depths, in opposition to the tight skin of judges. “The dialectic cannot stop short before the concepts of health and sickness.” Adorno says. The dialectic transposes into the question of physiognomy with which we return to our judges, diagnosing the sickness of the healthy:
The traces of illness give them away: their skin seems covered by a rash printed in regular patterns, like a camouflage of the inorganic. These very people who burst with proofs of exuberant vitality could easily be taken for prepared corpses, […] Underlying the prevalent health is death.
Death was at stake in the autumn of 2011. In Tottenham I saw looted spirits being emptied on to the street, so that the bottles might be used – spiritually – as missiles against the police. As the judge is sucked from the edge of capitalism inwards, wine is emptied from stolen bottles, which fly into the faces of coppers. Baudelaire gives wine a “spiritual voice”, it says “Man, my beloved, I would pour out for you, in spite of my prison of glass and fetters of cork, a song full of brotherhood, a song full of joy, light and hope”. Today only the prison is left: In our miserable times we still have the bottles, shattering. After the riots one of the last remaining traces of humanity of the judges was abolished: courts, for some weeks, functioned all night; the 24-hour judge was born. No more wine and no more night, no place of passion.
One of the most beautiful passages in Adorno’s book, Mahler: A Musical Physiognomydescribes Mahler as a vagrant:
The power of naming is often better protected in kitsch and vulgar music than in a high music that even before the age of radical construction had sacrificed all that to the principle of stylisation. This power is mobilised by Mahler. Free as only one can be who has not himself been entirely swallowed up by culture, in his musical vagrancy he picks up the broken glass by the roadside and holds it up to the sun so that all the colours are refracted.
Within the prevailing crisis all those colours are irrelevant. Only red matters, drawn from the faces with that broken glass, so that the strained skin might at once break, relax. In the combination of the broken glass and the skin of judges’ faces, in this passionate reconciliation, might we not find peace and depth, poetry of a new humanity?
Perhaps this is all caprice. But a militant poetry of the unnamed, uncounted multitude can never be satisfied with monolithic conceptual accounts of the law and capital, but arises in the objectivity of both law and capital at precisely the moment when that objectivity becomes autonomous of its function – in the traces and spaces, natural-historical textures and refuse it leaves behind, as material, out of which this poetry will compose itself.