Digital Project

The Technocrat’s Guide to the Galaxy

Poet Srikanth Reddy speaks to Triple Canopy editor Lucy Ives about the possible plurality of worlds, poets as “feeling machines,” and how to make an aesthetic object out of bureaucratic relics of the space race.

Lucy Ives I want to ask about the talk you did as part of Triple Canopy’s Speculations (“The future is ______”) at MoMA PS1 in 2013. You seemed so comfortable in this speculative mode of thinking! I’m curious what role speculative thinking might play in your work.

Srikanth Reddy My main memory of putting together that talk was actually of its being an intensely uncomfortable mode of thinking! I felt as I was doing it that I was going against the grain of how my mind normally works, if it can be said to work at all these days. It was a useful exercise, however. In the process, I came to feel that there’s a kind of moral obligation to speculate in the way that the Triple Canopy event was inviting people to do. If you don’t think about the distant future of our contemporary historical moment—the longue durée, as it were—then it’s very easy for one’s political or aesthetic practice to be too circumscribed in the “now.” Or even in one’s domestic practice, for that matter. So the project was exciting to me even if it was a little bit uncomfortable. I don’t feel intuitively inclined to think this way. It was definitely work.

Ives In your second collection of poetry, Voyager (2011), there is certainly some interest in speculative thinking, since the book speaks to the possibility of a plurality of worlds. Interestingly, this happens through the erasure, appropriation, and rewriting of a memoir by Kurt Waldheim, former secretary-general of the United Nations and, as was revealed during his (successful) run for the Austrian presidency in 1985, intelligence officer in Hitler’s Wehrmacht.

Reddy In a way, as I worked on Voyager I was interested in some cosmological questions—“How many worlds are there?” or “How many objects are there in the world?” or “Is the world a single object?”—that real philosophers might find somewhat boring. But in the book I’m trying to deal with these problems not so much speculatively as concretely, through a reading of Waldheim’s hopelessly partial and duplicitous account of the world, trying to retrieve other imaginative cosmologies from inside of that falsely totalizing technocratic text. So the cosmological project of Voyager is more about investigative reading than about speculation to a certain extent. When I say “investigative,” though, I don’t mean to imply that I feel there’s some core “Truth” to be excavated from within Waldheim’s language. Rather, I was trying to investigate a spectrum of plural, lowercase “truths” that I sensed resonating within this historical text. I wanted to see if I could make an aesthetic object out of a Cold War geopolitical document—that was the real literary investigation of the project, in retrospect. So I would differentiate what I do in Voyager from “Investigative Poetics,” which is a phrase I’ve heard here and there and which I think may be problematic in some ways.

Ives What is problematic about that phrase?

Reddy I may be misunderstanding the project of investigative poetics, but I think one aspect of this sort of work involves foregrounding and manipulating research documents or archival material—civic documents, old periodicals, scientific literature, etc. But working in this mode, one could run the risk of simply reproducing academic forms of thought and methodology that are quite common in English departments today. This represents a limited notion of the full investigative capacity that might actually be available to a poet, I suspect. On the other hand, one could think of an investigative poetics as mirroring the kind of sociopolitical work that is otherwise performed by investigative journalists in our culture. That, too, runs the risk of somehow narrowing the field of effects and modes of inquiry available to the poet. But I say this with the full knowledge that much amazing work has been done under the sign of investigative poetics; it’s a subject I have to learn more about. The important thing is to keep the notion of investigation as open as possible, I think.

Ives What is that investigative capacity? I’d like to know, for example, how you think about the role of the poet or the “creative writer” within the academy. Is poetry ever a kind of knowledge, in an academic sense?

Reddy I hear a lot of colleagues in the humanities self-describe as knowledge workers. I don’t think that’s a helpful way of describing what a poet is doing, even within an institutional context. This is an old-fashioned, probably romantic distinction, but I think of the poet more as a “feeling worker,” or an “affective worker.” Not that I’m hoping for a return to sentimentalism in the art. It’s just that I’m skeptical of any knowledge claim people make for poetry. I’ve never seen the art form as one that is epistemological in that sense. I find that it’s more of a technology of feeling than anything else, or at least, I feel that poetry helps me to orient myself affectively in the world—that this is the work it does for me in my experience, though naturally others will invariably find that it does other forms of work for them. It’s a hopelessly rough-hewn way of overstating the case, the way I’m making these distinctions, of course!

Ives And yet there are what one might call philosophic tendencies within your work—an interest in contemplation, for example.

Reddy In the first book of Voyager there is a series of propositions about the world that very loosely echoes Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. I wasn’t really trying to do philosophy here; I was trying to feel my way toward a kind of philosophical music that was more “flattened out” than the lyric, tonally speaking. The philosophical premise of Book One of Voyager was just that: a kind of a premise for the construction of poetic language. I’m very drawn to conceptual work, since it has a kind of philosophical inflection. (I’m thinking of writers like Tan Lin or Lisa Robertson here, though they may not self-identify as “conceptualists” in a strict sense). But I think it would be a dangerous mistake to make the claim that my own poem—or, in a sense, any poem—is actually doing philosophy! Rather, one could say that the poem—my own poem, that is—is adopting the rhetorical and tonal, and even narratological, strategies of philosophy in order to achieve aesthetic effects. That’s what I like about conceptual work: how it makes me feel. Not that it gives me a new set of political or epistemological tools to make my way in the world. Rather, it allows me to feel my way to a proper stance toward these tools.

On one level, then, I agree with a critic like Keston Sutherland, who has maintained that conceptualism is essentially a form of antisubjectivist dogma—but I don’t think this is necessarily a problem for conceptualists, because many of them would happily embrace the label of antisubjectivism. What I find even more interesting is the way in which his criticism of conceptualism dovetails with ideological positions that are, on some level, anathema to what I would imagine his own politics to be. Keston’s assault on conceptualism is, obviously, a Marxist critique. He argues, if I’m getting things right, that conceptualism is indifferent toward literary craft; Keston’s defense of craft (or technique, or whatever you want to call it) occurs within a Marxist paradigm of labor. But the word “craft” is one of the most cherished pieties of neoliberal workshop culture that we know! This makes me feel like I don’t want to wholly subscribe to either the antisubjectivist aspect of conceptualism or the critiques of those aspects. For me, I’d like to preserve an individual and affective relationship to conceptual writing that might not be something that can be codified under the terms of the current debate.

Ives I’m confused about what exactly you mean by “feeling,” or an “affective relationship.” Normally these are terms we use to talk about relationships we have with other people, though of course not exclusively. Could you say a bit more about this?

Reddy Well, I should begin addressing your confusion by confessing that I’m confused about these matters, too. In fact, I think there’s a certain negative capability, or a cultivated uncertainty, that one must maintain with regard to one’s affective labors as a poet—otherwise the work becomes a kind of emotional connect-the-dots. But to speculate further, I would say that I want to move away from an ideological orientation regarding what a poem or a poetic practice can do. The writers I admire most are involved in a kind of sensitive and sensual labor, rather than a self-consciously political practice. I worry sometimes that affect drops out of the conversation when we focus on the political aspects of the art. Or maybe the affect becomes flattened out into mere outrage, or melancholia. To maintain the full spectrum of feeling in one’s work, I think one has to think of the work of poetry as a kind of affective enterprise first and foremost—and doing that involves preserving one’s subjectivity as a resource for that work, against antisubjectivist or other political claims that would overdetermine one’s emotional cogito.

Ives How does appropriation of text fit in with what you are describing about being an affective worker? Is there a kind of feeling unique to rewriting or writing your way into a preexisting text?

Reddy This is a great question, and I think it strikes to the heart of a lot of what we’ve been discussing. I think the interesting thing about working with appropriated texts—the great thing about “uncreative writing,” as it were—is that it offers new possibilities for exploring one’s inwardness and subjectivity, rather than ways of escaping one’s own identity under an antisubjectivist agenda. It’s easy to produce work that is empty of feeling when one is working with appropriation, erasure, collage, or any number of other textual operations. The really difficult—and, I think, important—thing to do is to unearth or excavate registers of feeling from within those textual operations.

“The Technocrat’s Guide to the Galaxy” was published as part of Triple Canopy’s Research Work project area, which receives support from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Brown Foundation, Inc., of Houston, the Lambent Foundation Fund of Tides Foundation, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.