The Cloud Corporation
Friday, December 3rd, 2010
Something’s…wrong. Ask anyone. Tremendous consensus! A quorum undermined only by the variety of possible explanations, for when a people intuit threat, they turn to metaphor. What thrill we extract from making little monsters to manage enormous fears.
So of those pop monsters made monstrous by virtue of their habits of consumption, consider these four:
Our contemporary fetishes are the zombie and the vampire. Both of these bespeak a fabulous narcissism. Zombies project onto others an explicit mindlessness, so that the difference between the zombie and you is strictly hierarchical. You’re better than a zombie. A vampire, however, is markedly superior—but that superiority manifests as a preference for the exquisite delicacy that is you, darling, tasty grass-fed veal that you are. Not just any flesh; your flesh. These vanities are the errors of the age, because the sad fact is that our totemic horror is neither of the undead, but the very opposite of the undead, the over-alive: The Blob.
Consider The Blob, friends, if you dare gaze upon the undulant whorls of its grotesque, glistening surface. When The Blob first appears, it is met in battle by Steve McQueen, whose efforts to alert the people of Phoenixville (no, really) suffer because the townsfolk cannot, at first, decide which is the greater menace: The Blob or Steve, a binary most often read as Communism versus Teenager-dom. Inevitably, of course, the citizens realize that, while irritating and unpredictable, teenagers are just the un-tempered ore from which independent, individualized citizens are forged, and harness teen energy to resist the literal advances of The Blob.
Electing The Blob as a metaphor for communism is every bit as vain as projecting onto or extracting from the undead a justification for our inexplicable self-esteem. Communism (theoretically, daffily, incorrectly) assumes collective agency for collective good, as opposed to capitalism: the show of individual greed as collective evil. For The Blob, as Guy Debord would tell you, best describes the action of capital, which turns everything into itself, suborns selves into selflessness via the transformative magic of selfishness.
Zombies lurch, vampires speed, things sneak with vegetal slowness, but the motility of The Blob is the ooze. Internally undifferentiated, with a malleable perimeter that allows prepositional motion over, under, through, around and within. It’s a liquid, albeit a slow one. But you don’t have to be fast if you are inevitable. Immersion within The Blob is to be The Blob. If there’s any comfort to be found in such a fate, it’s that once immersed, selfhood dissolves, so at least one cannot suffer as The Blob.
But what if this isn’t true? What if awareness persists after absorption? Liquidity, after all, doesn’t presume the liquidity of whatever the fluid suspends. And fluid, of course, simply means uninterrupted in movement. Liquidity refers to the relative flow of capital, as well.
Timothy Donnelly’s The Cloud Corporation ponders multiple anxieties induced by his suspicion that ours is a monstrous society, but they all share the same fundamental concerns: what if you do retain selfhood within The Blob—what does it mean to be a person inseparable from the operation of capital? Of what use is fluency (of intellect, of language) in fighting a liquid of which you are a part?
The Cloud Corporation has earned reviews in venues usually disinclined to praise younger poets; the book is only Donnelly’s second, and it has been seven years since his first. Part of what accounts for this celebration (which is wholly due, I think) is the book’s fearless cerebration. I agree with this assessment, but not because brains are good for their own sake—that’s zombie logic—but rather because the unfolding of Donnelly’s thoughts, as beautiful as a bolt of silk flung down a marble staircase, is central to his subject. Think about that action, though: in any individual example, it’s an apotheosis of skill. Taken in aggregate, however, it can become, well, monstrous. One bolt of silk unfolds with liquid loveliness. Billions of bolts of silk unfolding in slow motion begin to inspire organic unease. The machinery of life is elegant at scale; expand the scale and it becomes gross, horrible, cancerous, Blob-like.
Donnelly’s plenty smart, but it’s his focus on the plenitude that matters here. We don’t lack for smart poets; many, most intriguingly the conceptualists, engineer artifacts of divine design. But the general difference between refusal and denial persists even when applying intelligence. Denial pretends away the thing denied; refusal admits but also rejects. A poetics that channels intellect—as, say conceptualism must—isn’t the same as a poetics that minimizes intellect for sake of achieving some other end—usually justified by the claim that too much unfiltered Brain interferes with feeling. Yet intellect itself is a filter, if an odd one; it’s made of the very matter it concentrates. The means by which a mind develops discrimination actually engenders more mind, just as Blob makes more Blob, as life makes more life.
Raw intellect is thus a bit of a paradox, but that’s what Donnelly is working with, because here’s a poetry that denies nothing the poet knows and makes a point of displaying that knowledge while also performing and judging it. And just like the omni-directional agent he confronts—the theatre of late capital, in all its Lovecraftian multiplicity, the goat with a thousand young—the performance and the judgment are indistinguishable. His lexical dexterity would be more ostentatious, in fact, were he to constrain it. I’ve always found Donnelly’s verse skills truly impressive, not least because he knows that only the most pompously disingenuous of jackasses hides his light under a bushel if he knows the radiance will beam through the sheaves. He doesn’t bother with making his intellect seemly. Why should he? Intelligence doesn’t have a set moral value, and to struggle to fix the boundary between too much thinking and too little pretends to an impossible knowledge of what intellect “should” be for.
So let’s take a look at one of those bolts as it rolls down the palace steps, the first of “The Night Ship”:
Roll back the stone from the sepulcher’s mouth!
I sense disturbance deep within, as if some sorcery
had shocked the occupant’s hand alive again, back
to compose a document in calligraphy so dragonish
that a single misstep made it necessary to stop
right then and there and tear the botched draft up,
begin again and stop, tear up again and scatter
a squall of paper lozenges atop the architecture
that the mind designs around it, assembling a city
somewhat resembling the seaport of your birth,
that blinking arrangement of towers and signage
you now wander underneath, draw by the spell
of the sea’s one scent, by the bell of the night ship
that cleaves through the mist on its path to the pier.
One sentence, friends. Well, some sigh, that’s quite the cascade of clauses. Prepositionally progressive as The Blob itself, one might assume that because any child asked to diagram that sentence on the chalkboard would fly into spasms, its complexity only offers clinical, analytical pleasures. But go ahead and read the passage out loud: those are among the most beautiful sounds you will ever utter. Yet the beauty describes the very condition the experience of which drives Donnelly to a kind of ecstatic, exhaustive despair.
Brains and beauty: an embarrassment of riches. What I admire most about The Cloud Corporation is Donnelly’s frank yet elaborate acknowledgment that these riches are, essentially, good for nothing. A view from the top is a view to the apocalypse. From without, The Blob is a threat; from within, it’s a womb the comfort of which is compromised by the individual’s sense of how their privilege and their predicament are one. In “The New Histrionicism” Donnelly writes
When the actor on stage slams his fist against the table
One last time, his other hand holding a worry-heavy brow,
Half-shadowing his eyes, we can almost taste the thumb
Of circumstances bearing down on him, and we know what now
He has to become: a man of action, opponent to the forces
That brought him to this crisis. We’ll watch as he chooses
His moves with caution, demonstrating as never before
What we have come to call free will, his plight felt so acutely
We have no choice but to believe in it, even if we know
That the path our hero manages to cut through the hedge
Maze of opposition was actually penned forth centuries ago
In the looping longhand of an author now conveniently
Apart from the drama which seems to reveal the illusory
Nature of free will even as it attempts to excite our faith in it.
That is what it feels like to be Steve McQueen within The Blob. Santayana’s warning that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it is thus revealed as pure, Baudelaireian irony: they may be condemned, but they won’t know it. The true condemnation is a hapless comprehension of a perpetual present, undeniable understanding of a belief that cannot be resisted in action that cannot be realized. Every paradox is a trap, a trap that springs only once you know you’re in it. You cannot get out of something that you are. Allegory becomes a trap, eloquence, effort, everything. In the same way that the opposition was made centuries prior to the taking up of arms against it, the maze has always been closed, will always be closed.
The Cloud Corporation is a big book, big and sublime in that it inspires a kind of queasy awe. Its strengths are considerable, even as the poet dissolves the distinction between macro and micro to tell us how it feels to be all wound up with nowhere to go. But I treasure it in terms I rarely apply to art: this book is great because it’s true. In reading it I regularly shuttled between the satisfactions of the verse (“That’s that!”) and admiring dread (“Fuck. That is that.”)
If you’re foolish enough to read the correspondence and journals of poets long dead, you may occasionally find a hateful desire to destroy both prior poetics and the possibility of subsequent ones. The Cloud Corporation, merciless only in its accuracy, goes one better: a book that destroys itself, autophagy as moral accounting of capital expanse. What does The Blob do? It makes more Blob. Phoenixville fights it first in a theater, Phoenixville fights it in a diner, Phoenixville—capital of infinite fire—ironically tries to freeze it out. The movie concludes with a question mark: The End?
And ending’s impossible. It isn’t tragedy, then comedy; the difference isn’t. Fluency is superfluous.
Is it all too much? Of course. If something so polyformal and alive cannot have a point, then that, in a majestic and morally acute display, is the point.