elegy, or the poetics of surplus
What is the relationship between music, dance and the poetic? Commune Editions on timeliness, turfing and mourning.
We often find ourselves discussing, often in rooms with other poets, often in academic settings, what it means to say that something is poetic. It is for the most part clear enough in reference to other literature, suggesting a higher-than-average degree of patterning the sonic and visual aspects of language. Or to put matters in another register, “poetic” suggests that some relatively larger portion of the communication is borne by things other than denotation and connotation, by measures to be found beyond the dictionary and thesaurus.
But when something beyond language is identified as poetic, problems arise. One can easily imagine some people agreeing over dinner that a particular piece of furniture was poetic, but when pressed, producing five or eleven different explanations. In the last century, poetry did perversely well in coming to stand for something like an acme of aesthetic achievement, indeed becoming a kind of synecdoche for imaginative capacity itself—perversely in that it is able to mean so much precisely by meaning so little, or at least lacking a specific self-recognition. Fredric Jameson offers a rather unsympathetic formulation of this inverted development as part of modernist ideology.
It is as though in return for the acknowledgement, by the other arts and media, of the supremacy of poetry and poetic language in the modernist system of the beaux-arts, poetry graciously returned the compliment by a willingness to adopt, however metaphorically, the technical and material accounts the other arts gave of their own structure and internal dynamics.
Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity
In the late modern era, whether we use the term “postmodernism” or not, poetry has been largely evicted from the catbird seat, while still panting doggily after other modes. Witness the familiar blather about poetry trailing X number of years behind painting or sculpture or what have you, as if the only difference among these practices was that certain external ideas always and freely available to be gotten from the ether had been spotted sooner elsewhere, and now it was just a matter of poetry pulling the wool from its eyes and cotton from its ears. We might suggest that this ambiguous delusion about the comparability of poetry and the studio arts, this desire to arrive where painting already is, has a half-submerged class character. One need only consider the well-known phenomenon (we have felt it ourselves) of the poet’s jealousy when the painter comes strolling out of his or her studio at end of day, clothes smudged and streaked with lovely and serious-looking oils, runoff turpentine staining sturdy shoes. This envious sense that painters, e.g., go to work and have work clothes, that they actually make things, that they work with their hands—well, this is not terribly challenging to decode.
Surely this is the reason that Jameson’s epochal assessment of postmodernism1begins with a historically older object, able to stand for the lost era of manual labor: van Gogh’s painting of work boots.2 Grounded in the materiality of production, painting et al. are well-situated to encounter as well its loss, and the ensuing transformations, via transforming their own production processes; hence the much-vaunted dematerialization of the art object.3 But such a historical understanding must simultaneously disclose the absurdity of poetry trying to reproduce this dematerialization, as if the concept were simply transposable. It is precisely fine art’s parallels to commodity production that give the allegory a sensuous ground, and in turn give the refusal to produce a political charge.
These are merely preliminary thoughts toward approaching the question of “the poetic” in an art that is purely physical, activity without direct product. What would it mean to say that a dance is poetic? The occasion for this question is subjective: an encounter with a specific dance or two as the most astonishing experience of art in the last few years. Turf Feinz4 is a collective from Oakland and environs. They practice turfing5, a dance style which is also a way of understanding style itself according to an intense localism—an assertion that stylistic distinctions belong not just to a city but to a neighborhood, to a few blocks. Turfing is in turn associated with hyphy6, a hip-hop phenomenon largely of the Bay Area that simmered during the nineties and emerged nationally around 2006-2007; it is the soundtrack of choice for turfing shows, sharing with the dance style an intense localism, as if its language were landscape.
Hyphy has its own poetics and its own localism. As the immortal E-40 puts it, in a turf-laden video7, “I’m from the Bay where we hyphy and go dumb / from the soil where them rappers be getting they lingo from.” E-40 is not himself from Oakland but from Vallejo, a few towns over. Hyphy had its glory but it never quite went national, never quite broke like it might have. At any given moment, alongside whatever strain of hip-hop sets the measure of the moment, there will be both a faster and a slower subgenre contending for the crown. From G-funk to trap to the present, “slow emergents” are inevitably taken more seriously; “fast emergents” get treated as party music, send some hits up the charts, but never take over. Hyphy was a fast emergent, too much BPM, all about going dumb like good party music should; it never really had a chance. Or so goes one theory. It may be that there were only a couple great hyphy producers, that whatever Rick Rock and Droop got a hold on just wouldn’t travel. Droop is 40’s nephew, and that made at least a few things possible. For a few months in 2007, everybody in the country knew what it meant to ghost-ride the whip.
This is the practice of exiting your vehicle, either latest model or an older American make, and letting it roll slow, stereo thumping, while you promenade outside the cabin, sort of dancing together. It is a joyous practice and the cops don’t care for it; the side shows at the center of hyphy culture are not, how you say, legal. The driverless car, or more accurately, the car almost but not quite separated from its person, is a strange and suggestive figure. You are the ghost, still spectrally attached to the vehicle you have left; it follows you, or you follow it, a spectacle of the broken but still indissoluble unity of machine and body. Behind it is, among other things, the Ford Motor Company Assembly Plant in Richmond, the largest plant built on the West Coast, half a million square feet. It was the third largest employer around, after the railroad and the oil company, but it closed in 1956, unable to compete with other, more efficient facilities. Needing to employ too many bodies to be profitable, it ended up employing none. Even now it is impossible to put cars and bodies back together again, really, as they once were; even in ritual performance they keep coming apart.
It is not the association with hyphy, exactly, that makes Turf Feinz poetic; in the first instance, it is the intensely elegiac character of the dances. This is true in the most literal sense: the major pieces (recorded and tracked by YAK Films8) are dedicated to the dead. The first Turf Feinz’ piece to find a global audience is frequently known as “Dancing in the Rain,” from 2009; its proper name is “RIP RichD.”9 It was recorded on a rainy streetcorner the day after the death of dancer Dreal’s half-brother in a car accident. It remains incomparable. It comprises an astonishingly inventive set of passages, building from a single dancer toward an improvised quartet, the dancers betraying considerable formal training, some ballet behind the classic “Oakland boogaloo” from whence turf dancing springs. The main feel is that of gliding, its intensity amplified by the slick surfaces. On the corner of 90th and MacArthur, the moves feel—despite the remarkable technique—perhaps a bit tossed off, casual. But that’s not it. The dance is somewhere between machinic and all-too-human, but it is insistently expressionless. The first dancer is masked up. As others join, it becomes clear that the inexpressive faces are part of the performance: all of the embodied activity with none of the exuberance such motion would ordinarily imply. The dance is soulful, whatever that means, but without spirit. Even as the four members wheel and pivot through space, the dance is flat, or flattened. It is in this way that it becomes fully elegiac. It is about what’s missing, or a missing dimension.
It is also about the police. The establishing shot, indeed, is a conversation between one of the crew and a cop in a roller, which must depart before the dance can begin. This will foreshadow Turf Feinz’ other best-known dances, part of “the Oakland, California, R.I.P. Project”: “RIP 211”10 and “RIP Oscar Grant.”11 Kenneth “211” Ross was shot to death by officers in December of 2009; Oscar Grant12 on January 1st of that year by transit cops, though such differences are specious. All Cops Are Bastards, after all, and killing African-American kids is pretty much their thing. This is a broader context of elegy as it exists in Oakland; the missing dimension is always the life of kids of color. At the end of “RIP 211,” under heavy dubstep (a remix of Nero’s “This Way”), the crew gathers against the wall of a squat. An AC Transit bus passes across the frame right to left like a cinematic wipe made from the material of the city. When it’s gone, so are they.
This shot will be reprised in “RIP Oscar Grant,” finally the most powerful of the trilogy—but in the middle, at the inflection point. Seven and half minutes long, the clip develops with no hurry as the crew makes its way, inevitably, to the Fruitvale BART station where Grant was executed, an event that would set off a sequence of riots and confrontations known as the Oscar Grant Rebellion.
Accompanied by audio collage of news reports and a minor-key piano, the crew one by one offers isolated performances at the site of the killing: patient, slow (and sometimes filmed in slow motion), beautiful. Again they remain expressionless. Just before the three minute mark, one of them glides up and down the platform at moments almost resistanceless and yet absolutely stuck to the earth. No friction, all gravity. There is no taking flight in turfing, no transcendence, no symbolic emancipation or escape. There is only this world, where the bodies are until erased.
At 3:04 the lateral motion is suddenly interrupted by an awkward, astonishing pirouette thrown against his angular momentum, pivoting and then improbably pausing en pointe, just one foot, body perfectly arched. The world is suspended. He tilts backward and toward the ground, his backpack pulling on him. Catastrophe, a downward turn. It seems he’ll fall, that everything will come down. A BART train enters the picture right to left and obscures whatever happens next. There is the sound of a gunshot. When the train passes, another dancer is mid-move. Things resume.
If the social distance between poetry and painting concerns ideologies of production, what then of dance—of allegories of physical labor without an immediate product? It would be easy enough to go to the late modern ideas about performance and post-medium arts, the dialectically doomed attempts to outmaneuver commodification. But this seems inapposite to say the least, and moreover shifts us unremarked to the consumption side, the marketplace where commodities are exchanged and exhausted. This won’t do, finally. The dance is production side, if via its absence. It is scored and choreographed to the rhythm of machines but without their presence, embodying the blank technicity of labor without any production to speak of—but still unable to efface entirely its moments of human discovery, the swerve. It is a dance of aimlessness and streetcorner, invention for its own sake, amazing and defeated: a dance, and here we perhaps arrive at the far horizon of the argument, not of surplus goods but surplus populations, excluded from the economy13 if not from the violence of the state. A post-production poetics.
In this sense, poetics means something like a form of timeliness. The shape of being historical. By the end of 2009, the year in which Rick D, 211, and Oscar Grant are killed, the unemployment rate for black youth peaked just barely short of 50%14 —almost half the population excluded from the wage. The dance in this sense is a conversation with Detroit and Athens, Madrid and Dhaka, with the favelas of São Paulo; a quiet confrontation with the world as it goes, after the global slowdown, after the social factory could put any kind of good life on offer. In Oakland, where unemployment already runs above state levels, the rate for African-Americans is generally double the city average at any given time. In 2008, Vallejo, home of E-40, became the largest California city to declare bankruptcy. Catastrophe calls the tune. It is perhaps seductive to imagine a post-production aesthetic as utopian, emancipatory, freed from the factory whistle. Post-human, even. For now, the inverse is the case. There are bodies. As in the ghost-riding allegory, they can neither be finally separated nor recombined with the car, the factory, with production. They have neither an obvious way out nor a persuasive way back in. This surely is the peculiarity of our moment…