Reviewed by Dale Tracy
Annihilated Time: Poetry and Other Politics. Talonbooks 2009
In the title to this collection of essays, Jeff Derksen references neoliberalism’s foreclosing of the future; Annihilated Time combats neoliberalism’s vocabulary of ends and its self-positioning as the only imaginable option for the world system. This project has an overlapping constellation of concerns: the conception of space, culture, and poetry within “the long moment of neoliberalism”; space and place as imagined and lived in globalization; the relationship between culture and the economy; and that between the citizen and the nation (9). In addressing these issues, Derksen interrogates the interactions and activations of spatial scales in discourses of neoliberalism and globalization; pointing to the uneven attention paid to these spatial scales, Derksen himself attends to the mobilizations of ideas, issues, or processes at the multiple levels of the body, city, region, nation, and globe.
Throughout the collection, Derksen returns in various contexts to ideas of the particular and the universal, and the relation of these ideas to globalization is especially prominent in his thought. Derksen explains that globalization presumes an established global unity constructed of individual localities. Though cultural theorists engaging with globalization tend to privilege the local as the scale that can defend against cultural imperialism, Derksen argues that the foregrounding of the local-global relationship in thinking about a globalized world often conceals the nation as a scale in the economic and political implications of neoliberalism. He does not, then, posit the local as the automatic counter to the universalizing force of globalization, suggesting instead that we notice when the particular is activated in a generalizing, occluding, or, paradoxically, universalizing manner.
The place of culture within globalization is similarly connected to understandings of the particular and the universal, as culture is figured as either a homogenized and capitalized global culture or as the particular local cultures that defy homogenization. Derksen argues, however, that culture is “not only a vehicle (willing or unwilling) or the site on which globalization is fought out” (115). Rather, “it must also be understood as interactive and constitutive of globalization” (115). He proposes to recognize particular cultural production in its relation to neoliberalism, an external force that is itself both global and localized in its operations. Yet, Derksen finds that culture has been generalized in such a way as to obscure its relationships to things social and economic, while, simultaneously, the social and the economic are overtaken by the umbrella of the cultural.
Derksen looks, then, to cultural production that opposes the limited role of culture within the system of globalization. He sees, in poetry that is self-conscious about its reception, an activation of the reader and, in this activation, the potential to re-establish awareness of the ability of culture to shape society. Challenging the perception of poetry as an art form that is only privately experienced and thus lacking the capacity to create social change, Derksen emphasizes the ability of poetry to create a public through its engagement with meaning-making. For Derksen, poetry can produce knowledge by repositioning its readers to continually create new vantage points for the content it develops. This emphasis necessarily challenges the perceived meaninglessness of that poetry which questions meaning as “stable and unaffected by ideology” (298), poetry that allows, through its ambiguity, multiple readings. Exploring this interaction of the subjective and the structural in meaning formation, Derksen suggests that a subject who produces meaning within a structure resists the passive consumption encouraged by the capitalist system. Derksen thus points to the place for strategies, like the Russian Formalist technique of defamiliarization, that resist unthinking engagement. He looks at the political intention of cultural production, finding in the aesthetics a disruption of the larger ideology; these aesthetics call attention to the linkages whose suppression allows neoliberalism and globalization to appear as the inevitable and natural organizational processes of our world.
Derksen’s method is one that moves up and down spatial scales, allowing for and attending to the various relationships existing within larger structures of meaning. Accordingly, the specificity of his focus fluctuates; while he provides close and precise analysis of his examples, he also, at other times, gestures more broadly to a wide selection of cases or, without providing the steps of the engagement that brought him to his understanding, presents a collection of poetry through its main engagements. His strategy, then, seems much like his reading of the poetical process of knowledge-production; that is, Derksen constantly repositions his reader to access his argument in different ways. Likewise, the reader must have a familiarity with background information pertaining to many of the poetic or political examples that Derksen cites; supplementary research may be necessary to fully appreciate the impact of Derksen’s analysis of social situations and cultural movements. Thus, the reader of Annihilated Time must be the active reader that Derksen conceives as necessary in rethinking the relationships of the cultural, social, economic, and political in a time shaped by the forces of globalization, neoliberalism, and capitalism.
Click here to return to the current issue
At press time: Dale Tracy is a doctoral student in the English department at Queen’s University. Her research interests include attention, vulnerability, intimacy, communication, and responsibility; she will think about these issues in a dissertation focused on compassion and suffering in contemporary transnational witness poetry. Dale is assistant editor of the online open access journal Modern Horizons.