Poetry, Politics, Plasticity, Re-Imagination


Screenprint from The Birth Project, Judy Chicago, 1980-85

by David Palumbo-Liu

The formula of the “99 percent” seems at once incredibly rhetorical and real. We are used to hyperbole; we are less used to an absurdly lopsided figure that is actually matched by a reality. Poetic figuration meets statistical validity.

Many of our society’s inequalities have been rationalized away in statistics. We have statistics for differences by income, in home ownership, and access to employment, health care, and education. But behind these statistics are lives, and values. Indeed, as Gladstone once remarked, even budgets are not so much matters of arithmetic as records of a society’s values. For me, one of the most poignant representations of unequal access to education is found in Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools, written in 1991. [1] Here is an example Kozol uses to introduce his motive for writing the book, incorporating the voices of the children themselves to bridge the distance between labels and statistics and lives and values:

In Boston, the press referred to areas like these as “death zones”—a specific reference to the rate of infant death in ghetto neighborhoods—but the feeling of the “death zone” often seemed to permeate the schools themselves… I often wondered why we would agree to let our children go to a school in places where no politician, school board president, or business CEO would dream of working. Children seemed to wrestle with these kinds of questions too. Some of their observations were, indeed, so trenchant that a teacher sometimes would step back and raise her eyebrows and then nod to me across the children’s heads, as if to say, “Well, there it is! They know what’s going on around them, don’t they?” (5)

The simple, horrible label placed upon the statistic (“death zone”) seems to name a plain fact and embed it in inevitability, without opening and indeed compelling a questioning of the sources behind that fact, and that fate. The ability of some to simply avoid both that place and that fact is not granted to the children, and it is their position there that leads them to view that label quite differently.

Some things, unfortunately, do not change. Twenty years later, The Atlantic ran a story entitled “Occupy Kindergarten: The Rich-Poor Divide Starts with Kindergarten.” [2] In those twenty years, the acceleration of economic inequality has intensified the disparities and despair so vividly captured in the voices found in Kozol’s book. The experience of occupying a “death zone” is today felt more broadly than ever, and in a myriad manifestations. The specificity of infant mortality rates are now being linked to larger-scale structures, and connected as well to other inequalities. These are represented and debated in the kinds of thinking that the Occupy movement has forced into the global public consciousness.

Literature can help us understand the disconnection between dry statistics and the profound inequalities in lives on the ground—it can animate an ethical and poetic reappraisal of these disparities. Consider these passages from Gabriel García Márquez’s 1982 Nobel lecture, in which he speaks of statistics and the need to translate quantitative data from different worlds, rather than assume an equal ratio of proportion and meaning:

Because they tried to change this state of things, nearly two hundred thousand men and women have died throughout the continent, and over one hundred thousand have lost their lives in three small and ill-fated countries of Central America: Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. If this had happened in the United States, the corresponding figure would be that of one million six hundred thousand violent deaths in four years. [3]

Again, “Since 1979, the civil war in El Salvador has produced almost one refugee every twenty minutes. The country that could be formed of all the exiles and forced emigrants of Latin America would have a population larger than that of Norway.” [4]

Even the hardest data cannot mean the same across all contexts. Statistics are rooted in historical time and geopolitical space. And simply translating scales and measures is only the beginning of the work that is needed to drive the truth of those lived realities home. Critically, it is a certain type of literary art and a way of reading it that can facilitate the imaginative and hopefully more just translation of data—it is a critical way of bridging our local senses of the world.

García Márquez finishes by stating:

I dare to think that it is this outsized reality, and not just its literary expression, that has deserved the attention of the Swedish Academy of Letters. A reality not of paper, but one that lives within us and determines each instant of our countless daily deaths, and that nourishes a source of insatiable creativity, full of sorrow and beauty, of which this roving and nostalgic Colombian is but one cipher more, singled out by fortune. [5]

I want to look at how we now are experiencing a brand of such an “outsized” reality. My basic point is that a specific kind of poeisis is necessary to forcefully translate raw figures from one world-view into another, and to enable and generate a re-imagining of our historical and ethical situation. One unlikely place to look is neuroscience, and its discontents.

Poeisis in the sense I am using it emphatically means going against the grain of merely reproducing the world-views. Here I cite and agree with the answer Catherine Malabou provides to the question posed in the title of her book, What Should We Do with Our Brain? [6] The answer should in part be “not to replicate the caricature of the world” (78). In her penetrating analysis of recent neuroscience discourse, Malabou draws the uncanny parallel between the image of the brain set forth in neuroscience and that suggested by neoliberalism: both the brain and contemporary capitalist formations are described as having decentralized decision-making centers, and networks that form, decompose, and reform around specific tasks. Malabou insists on seeing capital as generating and regenerating a particular “caricature” of the world, a portrait of ideological reductions and efficiencies that re-legitimize capital”s workings.

Malabou takes plasticity as “the work proper to the brain that engages with history and individual experience. What we have called the constitutive historicity of the brain is really nothing other than its plasticity. The plasticity of the CNS, nervous plasticity, neuronal plasticity, synaptic plasticity—we run into this word in every neurology department of every medical school and of every hospital, in the name of every neuroscientific team…. In fact, plasticity is the dominant concept of the neurosciences” (4). And yet, in our own everyday worlds and in our senses of who and what we are, “our brain is plastic, and we do not know it” (4). What we know instead is a caricature of the term “plastic” as a mechanical function whose outcome is repetitious and predictable.

In Malabou’s reading of the term, however, “plasticity contradicts rigidity. It is its exact antonym. In ordinary speech, it designates suppleness, a faculty for adaptation, the ability to evolve. According to its etymology—from the Greek passein, to mold—the word plasticity has two basic senses: it means at once the capacity to receive form (clay is called “plastic,” for example), and the capacity to give form (as in the plastic arts or in plastic surgery)” (5). Contrast this to the substitution of “flexibility” under neoliberalism: “The difference between the two [plastic and flexibility] terms appears insignificant. Nevertheless, flexibility is the ideological avatar of plasticity—at once its mask, its diversion, and its confiscation. We are entirely ignorant of plasticity but not at all of flexibility” (12).

We are not ignorant of flexibility because it has become a naturalized part of our world and a highly-valued one as well. Flexible production, flexible accumulation. Flexibility also means survival; it is a false sort of evolutionary ideology, masking efficiency as more than mere survival. In a passage worth quoting at length, Malabou writes,

We have understood that to survive today means to be connected to a network, to be capable of modulating one’s efficacy. We know very well that every loss of suppleness means rejection, pure and simple. Is the difference really all that great between the picture we have of an unemployed person about to be kicked off the dole and the picture we have of someone suffering from Alzheimer’s? We know already that individuals construct their lives as works, that it is each individual’s responsibility to know what he should do with himself, and that for this he ought not to be rigid. There is thus no need, in a certain sense, to be acquainted with the results of current discoveries in the neurosciences in order to have an immediate, daily experience of the neuronal form of political and social functioning, a form that today deeply coincides with the current face of capitalism. (10)

In short, “neuronal functioning and social functioning determine each other and mutually give each other form, to the point where it is no longer possible to distinguish them” (9—referring to Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s book The New Spirit of Capitalism). Against this appropriation and distortion of the power of plasticity, the hijacking of our brains, no less, Malabou reminds us of another, entirely disruptive sense of plastic: “We should not forget that plastique, from which we get the words plastiquage and plastiquer, is an explosive substance made of nitroglycerine and nitrocellulose, capable of causing violent explosions…. The word plasticity thus unfolds its meaning between sculptural molding and deflagration, which is to say explosion. From this perspective, to talk about the plasticity of the brain means to see in it not only the creator and receiver of form but also an agency of disobedience to every constituted form, a refuse to submit to the model” (5, 6).

Here I would like to have us recall Henri Lefebvre’s notion of social space and contradictory space as a way to link Malabou’s specifically poetic re-appropriation and revivification of “plastic” in a form-giving and at once disobedient poeisis, and the idea of the occupation and resignification of space. Lefebvre writes, “Perhaps what have to be uncovered are as-yet concealed relations between space and language: perhaps the ‘logicalness’ intrinsic to articulated language operated from the start as a spatiality capable of bringing order to the qualitative chaos presented by the perception of things” (17)  But, he continues, this ordering of space through linguistic codification needs to be rigorously historicized and seen to be dialectical:

The shift I am proposing in analytic orientation relative to the works of specialists in this area ought by now to be clear: instead of emphasizing the rigorously formal aspects of codes, I shall instead be putting the stress on their dialectical character. Codes will be seen as part of a practical relationship, as part of an interaction between ‘subjects’ and their space and surroundings. (17-18)

And a critical part of this “relation” is the answering-back of the subjects of politics. Whereas “the state crushes time by reducing differences to repetitions or circularities) dubbed ‘equilibrium’, ‘feedback’, ‘self-regulation’, and so on,” he notes, “there are, however, other forces on the boil, because the rationality of the state, of its techniques, plans and programmes, provokes opposition. The violence of power is answered by the violence of subversion” (23). That is to say, what Malabou calls “plasticity” is in Lefebvre manifested in a dialectic that is not simply a reaction to material history but poetic in its life-assertive, non-systemic activities. Reading Lefebvre in this manner helps us see the articulation between plasticity and the resignifying and re-occupation of space. So how have the ideas of Malabou and Lefebvre been borne out in concrete political acts?

In the remarkable work she has done in her 96-year old life, activist Grace Lee Boggs has always addressed the specific strategies of resistance and re-imagination necessitated by the historical moment. In her most recent book, co-authored with Scott Kurashige, aptly titled The Next American Revolution, Boggs not only puts forward several ideas that connect well with those just cited from Malabou’s book, but also supplies several concrete examples of how such “plastic” creativity has been applied in Detroit. [7] Indeed, at the panel that Boggs, Kurashige, Jeff Chang and I did at Stanford in March, Boggs stressed the importance of “philosophical activism” and “re-imagination.” (Boggs herself, who received her Ph.D. in philosophy from Bryn Mawr in 1940, and has been astonishingly engaged as an activist at both the global, but most especially local, scales, is nothing if not also philosophical.)

One of her main concerns, shared with Malabou, is the very redefinition of how we employ our human energies. Harking back to early Marx, Boggs wants us to reconsider human work—how can we manifest, make use of, our fundamental humanity, our ability to act in the world? In today’s world, devastated by a global financial meltdown, the unmasking of the inner contradictions of capitalism on a massive scale, Boggs asks, “Where will we get the imagination, the courage, and the determination to reconceptualize the meaning and purpose of Work in a society that is becoming increasingly jobless?” (30).

This demands that we not also ask, “what should we do with our bodies?”, but also, like Malabou, Boggs asks us to think, “what should we do with our brain?”  Plasticity here means working in and on the world.

Part of her answer involves precisely art:

Art can help us to envision the new cultural images we need to grow our souls. As the labor movement was developing in the pre-World War Two years, John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath transformed the way that Americans viewed themselves in relationship to faceless bankers and heartless landowners. In the 1970s and 1980s, artist Judy Chicago’s exhibits, The Dinner Party and Birth Project, reimagined the vagina, transforming it from a private space and site of oppression into a public space of beauty and spiritual as well as physical creation and liberation. In this period, we need artists to create new images that will liberate us from our preoccupation with constantly expanding production and consumption and open up space in our hearts and minds to imagine and create another America that will be viewed by the world as a beacon rather than as a danger. (36)

Consider especially two elements from the above passage—Steinbeck’s novel changed people’s view of their relationship to the forces of capitalism—in Althusserian terms, it changed their ideological sense of the world and their place in it; and Chicago’s art transformed both the private/public sense of the female body and its empowerment, its manners of signifying and interpretation. Note how both these notions go to the issue of mentalities and corporealities, art and politics, land and space.

Critically, Boggs attaches such boundary-crossings and poetic re-imaginings to the issue of power: “The movement promoted a consciousness that finds joy in crossing boundaries, is naturalistic instead of supernatural, and strives for empowerment rather than power and control” (41). By this she means that rather than focus on top-down political mechanics, the idea of the new American revolution is to focus on the grassroots, and, most elemental, to our brains and bodies. Empowerment for Boggs counts on us being able to re-imagine our capacities to act in the world along with others, to re-enfranchise ourselves by taking an active role in redefining work and value. She provides several concrete examples of these ideals being put into practice, here is one:

Our City of Hope campaign involves rebuilding, redefining, respiriting Detroit from the ground up: growing food on abandoned lots, reinventing education to include children and community building, creating cooperatives to produce local goods for local needs, developing Peace Zones to transform our relationships with one another in our homes and on our streets. (74)

She connects such local efforts to others globally:

All over the world, local groups are struggling, as we are in Detroit, to keep our communities, our environment, and our humanity from being destroyed by corporate localization. In his book, Blessed Unrest, environmentalist Paul Hawken estimates that there may be more than 1 million of these self-healing civic groups across every country in the world. Most of them are small and barely visible, together they are creating the largest movement the world has ever known.This movement has no central leadership and is not bound together by any ism.  Its very diverse and widely scattered individuals are connected mainly by the Internet and other information technologies. But they are joined at the heart by their commitment to achieving social justice, establishing new forms of more democratic governance, and creating new ways of living at the local level that will reconnect us with the earth and with one another. Above all, they are linked by their indomitable faith in our ability to create the world anew. (41)

In this, as in her talk at Stanford, she spoke of the connections between her longstanding efforts in Detroit and Occupy Oakland, Arab Spring, and other movements. The basic, common denominator is the commitment to what she calls “creating the world anew,” a phrase that, I have argued, is echoed in Malabou’s insistence on not replicating the caricature of the world presented by capitalism.

Boggs talks about the International Center for Urban Ecology, and its idea of an Architecture of Resistance: “an architecture of resistance works at the roots of cities, it works with the varied and viable strands of existing communities. It views cities as an ecosystem rather than a machine. It returns the maintenance and advancement of democracy to where it began: the city” (124). [8]  In the place of the system of values and representation offered and imposed by capitalism, we have instead an ecosystem that recognizes and re-establishes alternate modes of living and living with others.

In what follows I use two works by Garrett Hongo to show how social, historical, and real space can be re-imagined in a poetic medium. This re-imagining takes part in what Boggs calls a “philosophical activism.” These poems, and others like them, I suggest, are critical means by which we can re-view the world and our relation to it. Such acts are indispensable to our sense of empowerment.

Consider first the title poem of Garrett Hongo’s new collection, Coral Road: [9]

Coral Road   I keep wanting to go back, across an ocean, blue-gray and uncaring, White cowlicks of waves at the continental shore, then the midsea combers Like white centipedes far below the jetliner that takes me there. And across time too, to 1920 and my ancestors fleeing Waialua Plantation, Trekking across the northern coast of O’ahu, that whole family             of first Shigemutsu Walking in geta and sandals along railroad ties and old roads at night, Sleeping in the bushes by day, ha’alelehana—runaways From the labor contract with Baldwin or American Factors.   My grandmother, ten at the time, hauling an infant brother on her back, Said there was a white coral road in those days, pieces of crushed reef Poured like gravel over the brown dirt, and, at night, with the moon up, As it was those nights during their flight, silver shadows on the sea, It lit their path like a roadway made of dust from the Ocean of clouds. Tsuki-no-michi is what they called it, the Moon Road from Waialua to Kahuku.   There was little to tell and few enough to tell it to— A small circle of relatives gathered for reunion At some beach barbecue or Elks Club veranda in Waikiki All of us having survived that plantation sullenness And two generations of labor in the sugar fields, Having shed most of all memory of travail and the shame of upbringing In the clapboard shotguns of ancestral poverty.               Who else would even listen? Where is the Virgil might lead me through the shallow underworld of this history? And what demiurge can I say call to them, loveless ones,             through twelve-score stands of cane Chittering like small birds, nocturnal harpies in the feral constancies of wind?   All is diffuse, like knowledge at dusk, a veiled shimmer in the sea As schools of baitfish boil and revolve in their iridescent globes, Turning to olive dark and the drop-off back to depth below, Where they shiver like silver penitents–a cloud of thin, summer moths– While rains chill the air and pockmark the surface of the sands at Sans Souci— And we scatter back inside to a humble Chinese buffet and cool sushi Spread on Melamine platters on a starched white ribbon of shining cloth.

Of course, as the poet imagines looking down at the infinite expanse of the Pacific from his jetliner, his desire is to go back in time. Not absentmindedly, but with clear historical, personal, and political motives. As is his wont, here again Hongo mixes a keen eye for detail with a sense of history and perspective: geta and sandals and railroad ties are the minute details that contrast with the “white centipedes” of wave crests seen from eight miles high. But more than detail or optics, the emphasis is not only on movement across space but what drives it—an escape away from contract labor.

This escape seems at once hindered and aided by nature—sheer distance on the one hand, and on the other the collaboration of the crushed shells and their natural luminosity acting as path markers and guides. But along with this help, is the language of poetry that acts to restore memory and not only vitality, but life, in all its fullest senses. Critically, this restoration acts against the forces of forgetfulness and dissipation—the dispersal of light given off by the coral is counterposed to the dispersal of memories under the pressure of modern values that cast “shame” on the legacy of the family. For aid in his effort, the poet goes seemingly far afield, to Virgil by way of Dante, but this rerouting traces his sources of strength and re-imagination in poetic art, one guide to another through the poetic medium.  There is another poignant cross-referencing at work&mdashthe heroic flight to freedom of the coral road cheaply echoed in the Melamine platters on the shining white starched cloth. And yet, the poet clings to the importance of family and heritage, and is seeking precisely the means of restoration to dignity and memory. In this poem then, Hongo seems to link up with Grace Lee Boggs’s call to rethink the idea of work, of human action, and the need to re-imagine.

This exercise in re-imagining, brought vividly to light by the exertion of the imagination on ordinary or even debased objects, is found again in another poem from the same collection, “A Child’s Ark”:

Hot Los Angeles summer days, late ’50s, a seven-year-old Shut in the tiny midtown apartment on South Kingsley Drive, I’d flip on the TV to the black-and-white game shows, Rerun comedies and half-hour detective dramas, Seeking company, avoiding the soaps, news, and cartoons.              One of my favorites for a while was a show called Kideo Village, In which kids would wend their way through the attractive curves Of the game path spooling through the sound studio and its faux lampposts, Small minimalist archways, doors, pushcarts, and street stands Set up and interspersed along the telegenic route— A bakery, a toyshop, the ice cream parlor, etc. The tragedies strewn in the way would be a bookstore or piggy bank– For one you’d have to lose a turn and stay inside to read a book, For the other, you’d give up spending for certificate of virtue.   The glory was a pet store of fluffy animals— Nose-twitching rabbits bearing sachets of cash around their necks, A dog hitched to a wagon filled with sacks of stage gold. Wealth was the message, the child contestants obliged To exercise the right energy and enterprise To run themselves briskly through the board’s intricate arrangement Of pleasure, danger, and delight without risk, Their assignments to luck into opportunities That would set off crescendos of bells ringing, Video paradisos of lights flashing through the transparent Lucite             under their feet.   Yet it was splendor in the minute articulations of a fantasy village’s architecture That mesmerized me, that a child could skip along in a moment’s time Without having to put in a car or be handled by adults, To a candy store, movie house, or shop full of cream puffs. Glee and surprise were everywhere just on the next luminous square Around the looping turn on the glittering game board.   When the power went out one day, or perhaps when the show was canceled, I got out scissors, paper, and pens, Crayolas is arranged in stick puddles On the dingy, carpeted floor of the apartment’s living room, Mapping out the village of my own on wax paper from a kitchen drawer. I found empty green stationery boxes my mother brought home from work, Tore the labels off, drew on them, marked rectangles for doors; I cut windows, made folding blinds, used the left over cutouts To make counters and tables, along, folded cardboard flume For water to run a sluice… the tofu-maker, the rows of shacks, A union hall where my uncles would gather, my aunt’s gas station On the highway, clear glass medicine bottles for pumps, The peaked roof of Kakuhu Betsu-In, the barber’s, the butcher’s, The Chinese Association…               This was the village we left behind— And our apartment, the scattered debris on its floor, my child’s ark             of the lost world. (22-3)

After describing in much greater detail his infatuation with Kideo Village, Hongo juxtaposes the child’s imaginative re-appropriation of the game. A whole new system of human activity and value in put in place with his modest use of his ordinary household objects. What most “mesmerizes” him about the world and life represented in the TV show are not only the “minute articulations” of the spaces and places of the miniature village, but also a set of meanings, actions, rewards, and punishments. These are all represented in the buildings and rules of the game, but also in the seeming free-choice of the child in that world.  It is a decidedly glorified white middle-class life, to which the poet’s childhood home has only a vague relation (his is a “tiny midtown apartment” with a “dingy, carpeted floor”).

Nevertheless, he is able to fabricate a village of his own from not only the objects at hand, in the fashion of the bricoleur, but also from memory.  He takes everyday objects and infuses them with a creative imagination based on family history. It is a history once again laced with labor, work, ethnicity, race and ancestry.  It is both a world that is lost and a world of lost values.  And yet, consider how the child, even with his “false consciousness” regarding consumption and leisure and wealth, has within himself not only the capacity to re-imagine, but also the will to make a world.  And consider also the fact that someone must have, despite its distance, conveyed that world with all those details to the child.  In this, “A Child’s Ark” seems a more hopeful iteration of many of the same themes found in “Coral Road.”

These poems, I believe, should not be read as solely affirmative, nor as entirely tragic and fatalistic. Rather, they outline the dangerous borderland between the loss of memories, histories, values, and their regeneration and perpetuation through acts of learned and perceptive “brains.” It is through a patient attention to worlds that have been glossed over by dominant histories and systems of representing the world that we can mold the everyday into speaking voices that reach out to us and others.  Both Boggs and Malabou urge us to re-think the essential concept of human work, and of the creation of one’s imprint on the world in all sorts of scales. To think of work outside of the received truths of neoliberalism, and to also think of a different notion of humanity and of what connects us.

Piece originally published at Arcade | Creative Commons License


1. Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools New York: Harper Perennial, 1992.  Originally published New York: Crown, 1991.

2. Jordan Weissmann, “Occupy Kindergarten: The Rich-Poor Divide Starts With Education,” The Atlantic, 11 February 2012.

3. Gabríel García Márquez,  “The Solitude of Latin America.” Nobel prize speech, 8 December 1982.

4. García Márquez, op. cit.

5. García Márquez, op. cit.

6. Catherine Malabou, What Should We Do with Our Brain? (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008).  Foreword by Marc Jennerod. Translated by Sebastian Rand from the French Que faire de notre cerveau? (Paris: Bayard, 2004).

7. Grace Lee Boggs and Scott Kurashige, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-first Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).

8. On iCUB, see Kyong Park, ed., Urban Ecology, Detroit and Beyond (Hong Kong: Map Book, 2005).

9. Garrett Hongo, Coral Road (New York: Knopf, 2011).