Mat Laporte on Katy Bohinc: Dear Alain

DearAlain_for_website_finalDear Alain, Katy Bohinc. Tender Buttons Press,  2014


Dear Katy,

I wrote you once to say I was afraid to review your book because I’m afraid to draw the wrath of Bro Marxists. But on second thought, I realized this epistolary form might be one way to circumvent that. For starters, a letter is not as formal as a review. The tone of a review presupposes that the person who’s writing it has some sort of knowledge and you, the person reading it, is there to get that knowledge, that expertise, from me. An epistle, on the other hand, is more like, ‘Hey, what’s up? We’re just two interlocutors.’ And then you, the recipient of this missive, can choose to answer that call, or not. It’s more of an invitation and it strikes me that maybe that form of address is one of the things I like so much about your book and also one of its explicit arguments? Marxism could be good, if it means an end to this heteropatriarchal, racist state (by which I mean the USA and Canada, too). But Marxism isn’t infallible and people tend to act like it is and that by putting it on (like a hat) they become invincible in an argument where they then reproduce the same shitty power dynamics and abuses which have existed since the beginning of human history. In places like graduate seminars, I’ve seen Marxism turn into a kind of currency that one student will wield against the other. Have you read this essay called “Organization and Aesthetics” by Marie Buck? In it she says “arts/academic communities and anarchist communities tend to valorize individual ethics over effectiveness—the point is to be on the right side of history, rather than to change history.” In other words, poets and academics are both great at taking each other down in order to validate their individual ethical stances and this act (the act of taking each other down for having the wrong ethical stance) can become a substitute for other, dare I say, more effective politicized actions. I see this fucked up power dynamic on Facebook comment streams all the time and in the duels between conference papers in places like the Poetry and/or Revolution conference in Oakland a couple of years ago, or in syndicated Canadian review columns. “We got to get some meatloaf and gravy on this table,” you write, a life system that allows for “live humans creaking in these chairs,” and it’s refreshing to read you, reading and writing and implicating the practices of everyday life, like eating and friendship and other intimate relationships. The world’s so fucked up. I want “friendship sweet and mighty,” like you say and “laughter cracking up the atmosphere”—not teachers or leaders. Is that the point of your book? That’s one of the things I got from it anyway. That you’re taking Badiou, a rather canonical example of 20th/21st century academic Marxism, and turning him into a friend, at least symbolically, by writing him these letters of intimate address. I think that’s cool. Speaking of that, most reviews are annoying. Reviews and reviewing itself aren’t bad, but review culture in Canada, at least, can be really toxic and it’s mostly the fault of a few shitty dudes who have the privilege of blasting their uninformed opinions with complete authority at us. I haven’t read a lot of Badiou, but I do know that in Infinite Thought he says “the desire of philosophy involves universality; philosophy addresses all human beings as thinking beings since it supposes that all humans think” and I’m thinking, alright, the desire of philosophy is interesting, but universals are fucked up, right? Like Robin D.G. Kelley says in this video of a talk he gave with Fred Moten, called “Do Black Lives Matter.” At the very end of that, the very last word spoken is by Kelley and he says “universalism is premised on exclusion, period.” That’s the trouble with universal, totalizing systems like Badiou proposes, I think. They mask what they exclude and in 2015, we’re still listening to old white guys from Europe saying they speak for everyone? That’s some shit. It reminds me, too, of this funny correspondence between the artist Carolee Schneeman and the poet Clayton Eshelman, which I read in a collection of her letters. Eshelman writes Schneeman this poem and says he’ll dedicate it to her if she likes it, and she writes him back saying, ‘uh, no thanks,’ and she tells him why, in no uncertain terms, she thinks his poem sucks. At one point she says, “just like you can’t convince a poet he doesn’t speak for everyone.” Bam. That’s what’s so great about your book. It doesn’t claim to speak for everyone, by keeping the discursive circle tight, between you and Alain. Already, in that formal set-up, you have a talking to instead of at, and you’re saying ‘uh, no thanks, you don’t speak for me,’ to a philosopher that claims to speak for everyone. Meanwhile, Badiou exclusively references men in his writing, a blatant example of universalism premised upon exclusion, and your poems/letters to him open up that space for criticism and inquiry. If that space can’t be opened up for critique, like if you can’t say, well maybe Badiou is myopic here, it’s a huge problem that he only quotes other guys, without some dude getting defensive, maybe that’s a really bad thing? I want to say, I don’t think what’s at stake here is some spectacular referendum between universality and individuality. Choosing one over the other would just produce the same problems. It reminds me of this devastating quote from a talk Fred Moten gave, in which he paraphrases Denise Ferreira da Silva: “We are in a condition of ‘quantum entanglement’. We are connected to one another […] the condition within which we live is one of difference without separability. Our social life is best described as a kind of mass, massive contact improvisation; and the brutality of life emerges out of our refusal or our disavowal of that fact.” What’s at stake in your book, I think, is an argument about the form of the address (whether it’s poetry, philosophy or something else). By making that argument, you’re opening up possibilities, love and joy, negative capability, which is something poetry is particularly good at! I don’t know where that leaves us, the quantum entangled, the inseparable and differentiated, but I’m so glad to have the poems in Dear Alain as their own proof.




mat by kevin killianMat Laporte lives in Toronto where he makes small press materials, works for a charity, and participates in various forms of planning and study as a member of the Contemporary Poetry Research Group (CPRG).