Utopia, Sexuality and Economy: A Reading of Sam Riviere’s 81 Austerities
Arul Benito Gerard A., Indian Institute of Technology, Hyderabad
In this article, I argue that Sam Riviere’s 81 Austerities (2012) redefines contemporary understanding of sexuality and economy. From understanding sexuality in terms of discontent with the established economic order to the conception of erotic desire as fundamental to the building of community, Riviere’s poetry is in the frontier of exploring of the chaotic outcomes of the financial crisis. While the desire for solidarity and community is an age old theme, it has received considerable focus in recent poetry within the context of contemporary economic discontent. The dialogue about sexuality places humans in a shifting relations to the economic world. This reading aims to generate a progressive notion of sexuality in order to rethink such elementary social categories as group, class, public, and community, in order to understand the architecture of the social that contains the canonical individual who is the elementary unit of any utopia. Sexuality allows us to think of ourselves as agents composed of dynamic potential for interaction, who tender into association with many other kinds of energies and agencies in the world. The contemporary economic system has produced its deep array of dominant social forms: the corporation, the consumption economy, the 24 hour work/leisure cycle, lobbying groups, which constitute our real social structure beneath the apparent persistence of community and kinship. These social forms are the ones questioned and examined by Sam Riviere’s poetry.
Sam Riviere is a British poet. 81 Austerities is his first book. It won the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection. Reviews in newspaper such as The Independent, The Guardian and The Telegraph have noted positively the influence of social media and modern communication in his work. The book began as a series of blog posts and is constituted by sections called “Girl friend Heaven’, Graveberries, spooky dust, Thirty-three Sunglasses, American Hardcore, Ice-Cream Weather, Infinity Pool, Beautiful Sunsets, The New Sincerity, and an endnote on each of the poem. The poems explore the theme of love, social media, pornography, economic crisis, and fashion. Here is a quote from the opening poem titled: “Crisis Poem”:
Capital is the index of meaning
anything is better than stealing
from the co-op with a clotted heart
without it you don’t survive (1)
“Crisis Poem” describes in narrative style how the poet has been paid by various funding bodies a sum of 48.000 pounds in the last three years since the 2008. The text is poised as a confessional note and is written in a matter of fact tone. The speaker complains about how he spent the money on wine and buying beers for acquaintances. The image of wine returns in many other poems in the collection and is significant, since it stands for prosperity and feasting. The origin of the word austerity is from Latin austerus meaning dryness or sourness of taste and making the tongue dry with special reference to fruits and wines. Thus wine is a powerful and ambiguous symbol in the collection. The survival of art, thanks to the funding agencies, is laid out on a sarcastic and complicit tone which surrenders any position of moral superiority or political correctness. The poet is caught within the web of the art economy and can only be self-depreciating in this context.
The line, “Capital is the index of meaning” (1), echoes one of the most repeated themes within the poetry of the financial crisis. In fact the statement could even be considered redundant or a cliché within the avant-garde poetic practice. However, it is Riviere everyday-ness and his lack of political positioning that renders statements like this crucial in understanding the pervasive angst against the juggernaut of contemporary capitalism. While capital is introduced as being definitive of meaning, it is contrasted with the act of stealing. Both actions are communal and spatially public. Stealing within language would often mean plagiarism, anecdotes, re-telling, adaptation, lying and so on. Thus language itself has become repetitive and resource-less. The imagery of circulation predominates: language, capital, and blood all circulate. The heart of all three is somehow clotted, weak and dysfunctional. It is in this context that the erotic desire revealed in Riviere’s poetry is important in resisting the mechanisms of capital.
“I can see that things have gotten pretty bad / our way of life threatened by financiers/ assortments of phoney and opportunists” (9). Ruth Padel in her review of Riviere 81 Austerities calls this the most modernist of his verse. She rightly points out at the many indicators ‘silk’, ‘opium’, ‘Chung Ling Soo’ as fake orientalism. This nonchalance apart, the lines are the only instance where Riviere names the culprits of the crisis. Once again this is quickly followed by the possibility of losing wine. The financial crisis of 2008 was the culmination of the subprime mortage crisis in the United States. The derivative trading that took place on the loans ended up creating a huge abyss once people began defaulting on their commitments. Meanwhile the loans were traded in the form of derivatives. When people failed to pay back the loans, the whole structure came crashing down. Following this various banks were bailed out by their governments. In the United Kingdom, as well in other countries, there were wide spread protests against this action. While the banks were bailed out, the economic downturn caused the states to implement austerity measures. These plans included cutting down welfare plans, raising the cost of higher education, and stricter anti-immigration laws. Harold D. Clarke thus summarizes the first budget by the liberal-conservative coalition in the UK:
In the budget Osborne raised VAT from 17.5 to 20 per cent, froze child benefit for three years, curbed housing benefit, reduced tax credits for better-oﬀ families and froze the pay of public sector workers earning more than £21,000 a year. He also introduced a bank levy and raised capital gains tax for higher rate taxpayers. On public spending Osborne said that the health and overseas aid budgets would be protected, but otherwise departments would face overall cuts of 25 per cent on average in their current budgets over the next four years. Capital spending would not be cut overall. The era of austerity politics had arrived (3)
This was soon to be followed by a number of other measures including fee hikes in United Kingdom’s universities. This led to student protests and along with a series of other incidents (such as the shooting of Mark Duggan) leading to riots in August 2011. Austerity as Mark Blyth puts in his Austerity: History of a Dangerous Idea (2013) has been in the making for over four hundred years. First, in the writing of Hume, Locke and Smith in their arguments against the state, then taken up by the Austrian school of economics, the Ordoliberals in Germany and the neo-liberals in the 1970s. Hume, Locke and Smith wrote in a period of transition from the monarchical state to the modern state. Smith especially highlighted the importance of investment against idling. This contrast between the active and passive citizen will continues to feature in austerity debates While Keynesian economics did provide solutions to the crisis of the 1930’s the pro-austerity lobby was strengthened due to political positions of agencies such as the IMF in the post70 period. Theses austerity measure have a direct reflection on the domestic scene.
Sexual life has always been catapulted by various religious, social and economic forces. Austerity for one does completely revamp welfare measures for reproductive labour laid in place in many welfarist states writes Bhattacharyya : In the light of increasing poverty it is impossible to have decent domestic life, with clear demarcations between the spaces of conjugality and other aspects of family life, is impossible for the urban working class at this time” (164). Austerity reinstates many age old assumption of men being the breadwinners for their households and reducing benefits for women workers (Rubin). It increases more precarious working conditions and increases house-hold debt. The House as a social unit is thus under further and further attack. The collective is thus rendered negligible, with each individual fending form himself. While these are the ill-effects of austerity, the tech driven society begets its own problems. In his poem “When it Came”, Riviere capture another aspect of alienation namely information overload:
I could see clouds in my coffee
clouds in my phone
satellites like the skeletons of dragonflies
were orbiting the planet
from the train I saw a cloud of birds
wow there were birds in my coffee
birds in my phone
as if everything on earth were texting
furiously everything else I could feel
their texts arriving in my body
this has been a blue/green message
exiting the social world (39)
“When it Came” deciphers the conquest of electronics on our body. If Emerson wrote that one should be with“the light of rising and of setting suns, with the flying cloud, the singing bird, and the breath of flowers” then the poem is a topsy-turvy picture of this quest. Clouds also stand for cloud computing, while birds represent social networking (twitter), while blue/green stands for blue-green deployment - a method by which downtime in application deployment is reduced. The whole body becoming the receptor of text messages is the result of de-sexualisation, the body turns void without its organic component. While one is reminded of ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ the contrasting plurality of clouds and birds present us that sociability has increased manifold but its presence is invisible resulting in weak dysfunctional relationships and fragile communities. So much so that one mistakes real persons to be advertisements and vice versa:
I realise I can only look in one eye at a time/ it is pure
propaganda the pupil a blot of blackest inkjet ink
in your luxury woollen garment you are an advertisement
for luxury woollen garment/ &then &then you wink (94)
While the mechanizing the body is only one facet of the capitalist epidemic, the commercialization of the body is the other facet. In the above lines, the body becomes nothing more than a capitalist prop, an advertisement board. This leads to a confused sense of subjectivity as seen in “Nobody’s Deep”:
I am very interested indeed
in excessive modes of feminity
without obvious flaws you are impossible
to approach because there is no subject
is it me or do look slightly Russian
no subject apart from your beauty
which is no subject to speak of (43)
In “Nobody’s Deep” the poet ruminates over the lack of subjectivity within contemporary communal rituals. While the theme of the poem is the beauty of the woman in sight, the poet candidly plays with the word subject. Personhood is deeply lost in the attack of global capital. It is cordoned off and tiered into bits of commercialized needs and wants. Since personality is the core of any sexual being, it is thus rendered without a narrative agency. Sex thus becomes a mechanical act devoid of feeling or function. He further question the possibility of understanding ourselves in the light of electronic media in “The Craft”:
blu-tac hair spit nail-clippings a SIM card
containing the subject’s number traces
of the subject physical or associative
it’s really very simple the object
will be horrifying in its aspect
to capture something of the violent
nature of the attachment having a face eyes
mouth hands feet you must shift your gaze
inversely on the axis for attraction for
why else are you interested & as
the object is ‘moved’ so the
subject is tenfold ‘moved’
so you are ‘moved’
a hundredfold (65)
Can a mobile number replace the associative feeling one has for an individual? Can the act of conversing over phone replace physical conversation? If yes, how far can this reductionism go on? What are the limits to which a human being can be replaced by his or her electronic markers? The sensorium is deranged within the zones of modern communication. One is often unclear about what one experiences. Even though such experiences are exhilarating and erotic, one is left with a clear sense of loss. The pacifism of being complacent with the system is incentivised. Thus for the poet it is a violent move to imagine a physical body with a story. The body is ripped away from any notion of time as seen in “Imagine One Lacks a Basic Component”:
the glimmer or grain inside an actual
person remember those blurry tears
they felt at a time like evidence
planted a sort of elaborate deception
to convince oneself later like a full day
in youth spent practising one’s signature
for the writing presumably of cheques (45)
The perfomative aspect of economic transaction is considered equal to the emotive dimension of human life. These practices on future luxuriance against ongoing reality pose deep problems for the understanding of subjectivity and self-realization. Significant attention is paid to an ostensible point in the future which might have evolved from the present. Formally the mind wants to conceive a point in either time or space that mark the future of all things, but the mind risks discovering at that point, that things may not be as wished for. Underlying, this quest is an imaginative and emotional need for unity, a method to apprehend an otherwise dispersed number of circumstances, to put them in some sort of telling order, sequential, sexual, moral or logical. In “What do you Think about That” the poet attempts to offer one such narrative:
this will probably sound cheesy and weird
but maybe we’re a couple of cartoons
let’s convince the animators
we’re two kinds of animal
let them show our fear and longing
flipping like dark fillets in our bodies
i hope they draw us genitals
a band of dogs with saxophones
or turn us into sexy furniture
dial up our eyes with hearts and dollar signs
every time forever happens (46)
Sexuality within the modern capitalist system is well satirized in the above passage. It is first and foremost an act without autonomy, animated according to the products on sale. The reverie of sexual intercourse results in more consumption as symbolized by dollar signs and the commercial icons of love: the heart. It also showcases that the cultural frameworks for love are not available. One cannot label love without attaching a price tag to it. The binary opposition between heart and dollar signs reiterates the uneasy relationship that citizen have between each other as consumers and as lovers or members of the same community. It is necessary to understand the complex linkage between the two quadrants of contemporary social system: love and capital to disassemble the exploitative nature of capitalism. The utopian possibilities of sexuality and its redemptive qualities in person-making are thus repeatedly enforced on the reader through mockery over the market mediated sexuality. Sex beyond the limits of the price tag economy that subverts the act of billed pleasure is the true act of dissent that embodies a democratic society. The poetry of Sam Riviere by showcasing a series of augmented sexualities where capital drives, denotes and detonates sexual experience achieves a masterfulness in calling a dystopia out loud.
Love is central to Riviere’s utopian vision. It’s the gloss that decorates this otherwise dark poetry. It calls out from the margins towards an ideal society. Eva Illouz notes in Consuming the Romantic Utopia (1997): In proclaiming the supremacy of human relationship governed by the disinterested gift of oneself, love not only celebrates the fusion of individual souls and bodies but also opens the possibility of an alternative social order. Love thus project an aura of transgression and both promises and demands a better world (9). Sam Rivere’s poetry allows us to think about such a transgression. It heads towards hope by letting us see through the window of reality. Each object, person and event in the poem attempt to transgress their boundaries. While reality is impoverished, this poetry is not. It is an endeavour to uphold the ideal of poetry as a form of meditation. It teaches one to imagine against the current, read against the grain and forever be utopian.
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Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The Divinity School Address”. Emerson Central http://www.emersoncentral.com/divaddr.htm
Illouz, Eva. Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.University of California P, 1997.
Rubin, Gayle. “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the “Political Economy” of Sex”, edited by Rayna R.Reiter Toward an Anthropology of Women. Monthly Review Press, 1975.
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Sameer Rahim “81 Austerities by Sam Riviere: Review” The Telegraph. 6 Sep 2012 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/9509381/81-Austerities-by-Sam-Riviere-review.html