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To make livid a philosophy: on Lisa Robertson's Pedagogy

Ted Rees

"To make livid a philosophy: on Lisa Robertson's Pedagogy"

Author's note: Robertson, the 2018 recipient of the C.D. Wright Award for Poetry, lived in Oakland and Berkeley, CA, from 2006-2010. During this time, she taught at UC-Berkeley, and later in the graduate program at the California College of the Arts. It was here that I met Lisa and had the immense privilege and pleasure of learning with her. Before she left the Bay Area, she gifted me a bag of amazing clothing finds from thrift stores, including a lovely men's skirt from the 2009 Comme des Garçons Spring/Summer collection. Hiding from mid-day heat in the dark oaks of her apartment's dining room, we drank kukicha and admired the rough fabric and monogram of a French peasant smock while discussing the joys and limitations of the Oakland poetry scene. It is fitting that this occasion felt no different than the amicable, radical openness of thought that Lisa fostered in her workshops.

1. Here is an argument for a pedagogy dependant on exposure, or a sloughing off of impervious notions of thought.

2. In the classroom of the neoliberal university, the slight windows faced west, and at the agreed meeting hour, afternoon sun would expand in the room in fulsome resistance, rendering irrelevant the windows' tight frames. We would sit around four large rectangular tables pushed together and luxuriate in this gentle, golden refusal.

3. Reading Arendt's "We Refugees," the minds inhabiting the classroom revolved around the essay's declaration that "history is no longer a closed book" for refugees, particularly given the contemporary order's reliance on certain groups' statelessness, perpetual mass migration, and outlawed humanity as a means of control. Someone in the room suggested that history might not be a closed book to anyone any longer, but that statist violence relies on a closed book ideation to advance its agenda.

4. A suture was formed when we later followed Anne Waldman's advice and took the time to read Etel Adnan's The Arab Apocalypse out loud in its entirety. The multiple suns of the poem, witnesses that Thom Donovan has described as "shooting out of every orifice," commingle with the physical light of the sun threading itself into every fiber of the learning space. These suns and their instabilities fall upon the open book of history and illuminate its indeterminacy.

5. As is so often the case when confronted with instability and its partner indeterminacy, an approximation of  silence results. The suns continue shooting out.

6. Someone asks the question: what is the point of writing poetry? The room stutters. Adnan's "impossible rememberance," to quote Donovan again, has very purposefully barged into the lie of the neoliberal university's program, throwing into doubt our reasons for being in it, much less being at all.

7. Here is when Lisa Robertson said that "we must continue to write in order to resist the language of genocide." The gasps for air are remarkable even in memory.

8. And this is exposure: in Nilling, published two years after time spent in her workshop, Robertson writes that "self-consciousness is not only suspended, but temporarily abolished by the vertigo of another's language." When we yield to another's language, we lose ourselves however temporarily, "inhabited by this alterity."

9. In the workshop, we followed the variegated strands of Robertson's reading and enthusiasms, for along with Adnan and Arendt, there were Saussure and Benveniste, Derrida, Foucault. At one point, she brought in a rare copy of Benveniste's Vocabulaire that she had somehow borrowed from another neoliberal university, and raved over its beaten cover in the exhilarating throes of reception of and intervention in the text.

10. I am perhaps trying to convey that Robertson invited us to share in what she calls thinking: "The partial access, in a sequence, to an infinite and inconspicuous surface complexity which is not my own." To be parsimonious with our thinking, to assume isolated dominion over the forking and folding and enveloping strains of thought and language— this is to buy into closed book ideation, to the language of genocide.

11. It is worth fomenting rebellion, then, against borders, against "the habitual reification of 'the social' and 'the personal' in a binary system of values," against the flattening negativities associated with lostness. In an intelligent, collective vulnerability and receptivity, there is the active shaping of the consciousness toward what might be called pleasure, or revolution, or the "potent failures" of both. Even if the latter is the result, the consciousness remains primed and wandering.

12. We broke our containers and pooled. We slathered ourselves in contradictions: in the sumptuous meander of thought, as well as what Roubaud describes as the "non-intellective, non-translatable, non-transmissible understanding of poetry [that] is born in memory." We committed acts of frottage with the vicissitudes and horrors of the world while damning them and recoiling. The suns blinded us— we remain adrift in sight.