Taylor Brady Interviews Lauren Shufran
Taylor Brady: So let’s begin with the obvious: Inter Arma is a poem that has quite a lot to do with metrics, with scansion, with both the organization of its verse sections around some fairly strictly counted meters, and the pressuring of those meters by an array of rhetorics and allegories that seek to forefront and trouble the question of “what counts?” (in both subjective and objective senses, i.e., who or what is the force that decides the unit of measure and tallies it, and who or what is it that gets thus enumerated). This is linked to a radically anti-naturalistic sense of meter: neither the modern dismissal of counted meters as too artificial to represent the richness of lived speech, nor the classicist insistence on the kind of metrical virtuosity that can make even the most abstruse meter feel like second nature. And yet the poem retains the informing tension of these two hardened options, locating itself within this privative binary in order to propose a metrics that (per the modern complaint) does violence to the language, introduces division where one expects wholeness (signaled to me perhaps most clearly in the many lines ending in a pointedly awkward hyphen), and that becomes an anti-virtuosity (here, a kind of perverse classicism) all of whose resources are brought to bear on creating breaks, lines of scission, subtractions from coherence, and stumbling articulations of dissensus within language. So if, as I’ve suggested, this is all arrayed as a means to trouble the question of “what counts?,” then perhaps my first real question for you is precisely that: Within the framework of Inter Arma as a metrics of division, what counts?
Lauren Shufran: Goodness Taylor, this is a really lovely first question to get to write through. There’s this set of associations that unfolds itself before me every time I start thinking about meter (the spatial unfurling in the aural) – that by extension, I am thinking about measure; and by extension of that, appropriateness or the proper: thus propriety, thus property. Meter and ownership are really joined by so very few degrees. I guess I should say a little something about the meter in this work first, which is that the text slips between a number of metrical structures, the biggest of which are elegiac meter (but iambs not dactyls) and poulter’s measure. They fail, of course, on every page, and that’s thing one: and I’ll get there.
The book in a lot of ways was instigated by Ovid’s Amores – or rather, by a use of the Amores to mediate what it was I was trying to grapple with: how easy it has been made for us (or how easy we have made it for ourselves) to figurally and discursively conflate homosexuality and terrorism, the mergence of which is borne out in particular in the military; how the military hazing ritual performs its own conflations – but in a turn from fields of representation to fields of action. And the more I thought about military hazing the more I realized how perfectly these rituals map on to the kind of detainee torture that was taking place – that continues, obviously, to take place. And so the Arma of Inter Arma, though taken from Cicero, is also an echo of the Amores’ first word. But as I really started writing this I also really started thinking about birds. And I was having lots of conversations with Brandon Brown at the time; we were studying Arabic together and traversing the Tenderloin to get to the MUNI every morning and thinking about translation and then we were thinking about birds. Brandon’s work, as you probably can tell, is very much behind this text. And we don’t have to go too deeply into this (and in a way we can’t, because it’s actually fairly shallow) but for me it had something to do with Loretta Swit – Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan from M*A*S*H* – and a testimony she gave before the Chicago City Council in 2005. In this testimony Loretta Swit similized gavage and Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse, the revelations of which were really unfolding in that moment: in fact Swit actually references Lynndie England in this testimony. Anyhow this testimony (which was argued really ineptly – perhaps imaginably so) somehow helped compel the city of Chicago to ban the sale of fois gras the following year. The ban was repealed two years later, but two years too late for this text because I was, by then, really caught up in this: if conflating gavage and prisoner abuse could end – even if briefly – the practice of gavage, why could it not end the abuse? Of course the answer to this question is in so many ways obvious and has a lot to do with valuation – which is also measure – but I needed to keep that very particular correspondence in operation here, in order to work those answers through. And the more I started writing this text through birds the more this other meter – poulter’s measure – seemed called for. Poulter’s measure is alternating Alexandrines and Fourteeners – or, in the ongoing poem here, iambic hexameters and heptameters. C.S. Lewis said it “lumbered,” and I was already thinking a lot about missing members and limping, so in terms of negotiating these radically graceless acts its barbaric uncouthness was kind of perfect. But poulter’s measure is a kind of metrical corollary to the baker’s dozen: less a generous offering and more a sort of fear-based, preemptive measure (I was thinking a lot about preemption, after all). As the story goes, the baker’s dozen is a response to Henry III’s Assize of Bread and Ale, which essentially placed regulatory measures on those goods; and instituted fines, pillorying, or flogging for bakers who gave “short measure.” Thus it accrued: and I was thinking the preventative alongside the penal, and reading Richard Trexler’s Sex and Conquest, which discusses punitive gendering and state-building.
So I guess, in taking a long route to get at your question – and because so much of this text is in poulter’s measure – I want to suggest that what counts in this work is precisely what isn’t counted, or what’s uncountable: the anxiety that founds a new marketplace practice reflected as the anxiety that organizes a new metrical pattern. Everything that can’t get said about preemptive or preventative measures (WMDs as the most pronounced example) as the real stress that ictic is indicating. There’s this assumption that one counts in order to arrive at a sum, but perhaps one can count so to arrive at a summons. You’ve asked who or what gets enumerated, and of course part of the answer to that is both this text and its author: that “count me in” that includes one – that includes us – in the reckoning as participants. I mean the text reckons with (by which I mean it measures) and is reckoned as implicated by virtue of the fact that it has not gotten outside of the language – or the counting – it critiques: because an ideal reading of this book – or at least the reading I think the book calls for – is actually a call-and-response akin to a military cadence. And in that reading I would be your drill instructor and you, Taylor, would be engaged in some really intensive calisthenics, and would eventually not be able to keep up with me anymore. And then I would call you a pansy, or a pussy, or a faggot, and make you march through really cold swamplands at 2 in the morning and by the time you got your next question off to me you’d also have hypothermia. This being a common hazing narrative. And would you do the same to the next guy? Milgram experiments or no, I’m not sure I can be confident I wouldn’t. Which is why I made sure – the impossibility of not being implicated, of ever keeping up entirely (of being in measure, of being proper-to-oneself) with one’s own reckonings, with one’s own utterances – that the meter would always fail at some point. And yet, who was it that first said “that which can be measured can be improved”?
TB: I love the idea that it's precisely the excessive investment in applying strict measure that allows for revelation of what exceeds or falls beneath or fails measure. Which might be one against-the-grain way to read "that which can be measured can be improved," no? That the disappeared of measure can be made to appear by leaning on the ictus of counting from a contradictory direction. Within that rhythmic organization, I'm thinking of this crisis of measure in Inter Arma as also and importantly a crisis of value. And this is in some ways just following your lead as you raise the specter of "the anxiety that founds a new marketplace practice reflected as the anxiety that organizes a new metrical pattern." It's important to note, as you do, that this anxiety is organized around the figure of an imagined heteronormative, masculine, productive body. I write here as a (mostly) hetero-identified man who has received – who has incorporated, bodily – those interpellations of "faggot" and "pussy," and noted how often they're applied in contexts where what's at stake is maybe not the direct demand by norming powers that one stop having sex with men, or fantasizing about what might be going on in that next stall (though it's certainly an open possibility that this is precisely what it's about, and if one has the kind of body that desires those kinds of conjunctions with other bodies, one might at any moment become the literalized and physicalized term of what suddenly, violently falls out of metaphor) -- so let's say maybe not only about this demand to be a proper sexual subject, but that one exorcise a certain "unproductive excess" from one's way of taking up social space. I.e., fall in line, faggot, and don't break step. Of course, the only way to comply with such an order is to deploy a parallel excess of production: the baker's dozen, the militarized social body, labor discipline, poulter's measure. So I have these figures of detritus, surplus, and redundancy circling around that question of value, but for now, provisionally, I want to exit the roundabout onto a route that maybe cuts transversally across your text: How much do all of these figures of unproductive excess (and the various excessive defensive postures and gestures mobilized to ward it off) have to do with unemployment?
LS: Employment folds in. But every fold is a detour, and every detour is an excess, and I’m taking one, extravagantly back to the beginning of this, to re-tour, at the end, to that in-folding (I mean, I’m gonna get us lost and a little doubled-over, Taylor). But how fantastic that you’ve taken this kind of amazing affinity posited between measure and improvement and invited, first, a question about value. “To improve” comes from the Anglo-French emprouwer, “to turn to profit.” And of course that profit hasn’t always necessarily been financial – though money gets… well, folded in quite early – but what would a non-fiscal profit look like now? Either way we are dealing from the word’s very origins with a kind of excess – the beyondness of what one takes up that is in becoming profit – plus all these other excesses clinging etymologically to the word: Old French prud also meant courageous and valiant. It’s very soldierly, improvement. It’s very epic. It builds nations. And it is also a model of occupation: of course first tied up in land, but then (and now) tied up in war – or rather, not tied up at all in war, but tied up explicitly in the discourse that makes war. We go to war, we occupy, in order to improve the lives of The Others. It’s generous and benevolent. And very interesting to reflect upon, in November of 2011, in the midst of this Occupy Movement in which ‘self’ is ‘other.’ And employed in and employing this construction (not the 1%). And resisting or contending with unemployment. But probably I need a minute to get there.
You mention “the disappeared of measure” and I think you were signaling a kind of metric rupture – maybe the syncopic moments this text consciously or unconsciously enacts – as gestures toward re-appearing the disappeared. I’ve been thinking about haunting lately, Derrida’s ‘hauntology’ in Specters of Marx as an ethical historiographical model – a being-inhabited. I’m really interested in haunting’s seeming insistence on the spectral, and I keep wondering, how would we talk about an aural haunting? And then I wonder about that inhabitation and how a text would be open to occupation by an incomplete mourning and I wonder – finally – what meter might actually foreclose. And so alongside and against what you said (and I think also what I said, since the whole point of the interview anyhow is the exposure of self-contradiction) about what is made to appear (and again! appearance as what’s visible), I want to suggest this other anxiety within the text, which is that meter will eventually out-sound what the language is trying to articulate. Inter Arma, the full text, is much longer than this. And the measure is so invariable at times over so many pages that it’s benumbing. I mean, counting numbs. As does repetition, as does repetitive exposure to, say, torture images, but that argument’s been made so we don’t have to go there. Maybe this is one lens through which to think that “crisis of value:” what gets under-valued in an over-valuation of the aural? What if it’s the language itself? What if the text sounds so loudly that it’s un-hauntable? What is at stake, and is it an ethics? Then again, Gertrude Stein discusses (in “The Gradual Making of the Making of Americans,” I think) repetition – the perpetual but imperative detour – as a kind of knowing. Stein worked with William James, by the way, who did all that work on habit, and habit and haunting are kind of inextricable. And Stacy Doris sent me this crazy article some years back entitled “Some Poetry Helps Cardiac Synchronization After Heart Attack.” It was based on research focused on the hexameter (dactylic, of course: we remain in the realm of the epic). Anyhow apparently this team of European physiologists determined that recitation of hexametric poetry creates some kind of synchronicity between respiration and heart rate, thus regulating the cardiovascular system. I mean, we are quite literally talking poetry and health. And so here’s valuation again: should meter concern itself with self-rupture so that it might open that space for haunting, for the disappeared; or should it desire a precision for the sake of its (living) reader? We value the living and the dead differently, as we value our selves and our others. But I wonder about aural haunting as that threshold where value, like the heart, is regulated.
What does it mean that, finally, I have had a whole lot of pleasure in writing this? And is that pleasure an excess I would have to expel in order to maintain what feels like the most ethical stance I should have had to this text? Certainly I’ve had The Guilt. And I love that you’ve pointed to this paradox, Taylor, and you’ve said it so much better than I would be able to: that one produces an excess under obligation in order to exorcise (quietly) that very excess, and comply with the norming imperative that one never was in excess to begin with: and I think that “fantasizing about what’s going on in the next stall” is, strangely enough, one of the things one is allowed to keep. It’s part of our cultural imaginary, particularly in war. It’s why it wasn’t surprising that so many images of a sodomized Bin Laden were circulating shortly after 9/11 (the given, of course – and this is somehow accepted – is that we are the sodomizers). And here, this expulsion-of-the-excess (baker’s dozen, poulter’s measure, the socialization of the body in general) becomes productive in the most radical of ways, saving – quite literally – lives. The baker’s dozen is precisely the excess that keeps one alive – minimally alive, even; enduring, even. Perhaps this is unproductive excess at its most productive? And so in a way I want to answer this question about employment by thinking, simultaneously, about deployment: both working around a kind of folding (employment as enfolding, as folding in; deployment as unfolding, folding out, unfurling: a display). If employment folds in, what does it hide? And if unemployment is its other, what does it expose? I think one of the things you’re gesturing toward here is the demographics of military recruitment, deployment of the otherwise-unemployed (even the “unemployable”). The military is steeped in its own “unproductive excess:” basic training continues to include drills that are becoming more and more anachronistic (hand-to-hand combat, bayonet training – but defiant adherence to tradition is its own excess, no?), and in the five years before DADT was repealed, the military spent almost $200 million to replace the troops it had discharged under that policy. These are just two examples, but of course they both involve our taxes. I guess I’d like to suggest that unproductive excess always gets consumed again somewhere, and maybe the answer to your question is as much about what is on that other side, consuming, as it is about who is producing that exorbitance. And that goes as much for the “consumption” of queer sex by an otherwise “unemployed” heteronormative body as it does for those military excesses that “produce” camaraderie – and well as for the excessive text that un-employs, that de-ploys, that displays. But I somehow don’t think that even begins to answer what you were asking here. Say more, Taylor. Say more.