From the Archive: Amy Ireland ‘The Stranger’ Interview (CAROUSEL 39)
Amy Ireland is an experimental poet and theorist, co-conspiring with arcane and esoteric vectors of poetic and theoretical thought.
As a PhD Candidate in Creative Writing at the School of the Arts and Media at the University of New South Wales, Ireland’s work develops concepts embedded within the prefix xeno-, denoting that which is unfamiliar, strange and alien. Following this trajectory, Ireland is writing her thesis on xenopoetics, which engages various poetry projects that involve linguistic transcoding, VFX software, 3D printing, stealth technology and projectiles. She is also one part of xenofeminist swarm-collective Laboria Cuboniks, a provocative response to the tumultuous social, material, and technological conditions of our time.
Interview conducted Fall, 2016
Let’s take poetry and poetics as a starting point: I understand that you’re developing a practice that you refer to as xenopoetics. What spawns this kind of poetics? What does it entail?
It’s great that you’ve pitched this question towards an elaboration of how xenopoetics emerges and what it does, rather than asking what it is. Anyone who is entangled in xenopoetic practices knows that the latter can’t — strictly — be answered. The process has to be grasped empirically. (Or it has to grasp you?) Nevertheless, by way of a necessarily insufficient overture, here are three approaches to its delineation: etymological, axiomatic and genealogical.
(0) Xenopoetics etymologically decrypts as an incursion into poetic practice — or, taken more generally, poiesis —
from outside. The prefix xeno- denotes ‘a stranger, an alien’ — something unknown in relation to that which encounters it — and has the Latin hostis (guest or host) as its cognate … a coincidence deftly exploited by Michel Serres in his arch-cybernetic treatise, The Parasite, which hinges on the interchangeability of the two terms (via the duplicitous French word hôte) as a means of diagramming the ineradicability of interference or noise in communication systems, and ultimately, the impossibility of rationality and its implicit project: a totalised system of knowledge. Not entirely irrelevant is the ominous fact that the Latin hostis also once denoted ‘an enemy’.
(1) Xenopoetics operates under the following axioms:
There is a general economy of communication in excess of the restricted economy of human affordance (which can be condensed into rough synonymity with ‘representation’).
This opens up a spectrum of affordability in which channels of traffic widen and multiply in direct relation to the diminution of human agency (and all extant configurations of organization or control).
True novelty arises from unaffordability.
(2) Attributing origins is always a fraught task in the temporal regime evoked by the term itself, but I believe its first usage belongs to the author of Cyclonopedia (or better, emerges from the triangulation of those who are named as its authors: Kristen Alvanson, Reza Negarestani & Hamid Parsani) where it is recursively employed to describe the composition of a work ‘out of distorted materials’ in which pages are missing, scenes ‘leak from the future to the past’, objects evade chronological sequencing, and ‘everything looms as an accentuated clue around which all subjects aimlessly orbit, leading to an eclipsed riddle whose duty is not to enlighten but to make blind’. This initiates a paranoid methodology of decryption in which the reader-come-cryptographer is forced to navigate interminable vortexes of apocryphal or anonymous citations, the unintelligibility of narrative as chronological sequence, fields of numbers melting into ciphers, structural holes, alchemical puzzles, hidden writing … just your average apopheniac nightmare! As Lady Harris wrote to Aleister Crowley of the The Devil in the Thoth Tarot: ‘With thy right eye create all for thyself and with thy left accept all that be created otherwise.’
In short, xenopoetics describes a non-intentional model of novelty production, a process of infiltration, and a critique of representation. It can only be grasped as a problem. If there is a general economy of communication that cannot be afforded by the singular, human, author of a work, but which they — inevitably against their individual will — come into contact with by means of the creative process, the work can be reformulated as an artefact of this contact and, perhaps, a means by which to re-engage it. Inevitably, this comes down to a particular species of antihumanist thought.
Regarding antihumanism: I’m particularly interested in how subjectivity is engaged by xenopoetics. Can you elaborate on that?
There is a little essay by the poet Keston Sutherland that annoys me hugely, in a good way, and I think it might provide a productive in-route for this discussion. The text is called Theses on Antisubjectivist Dogma and consists of just this, a series of assertions converging on a rejection of poetic antihumanism for the sake of keeping poetry’s imputed pact with revolutionary socio-historical processes intact. He critiques antihumanist poetics for the following, overtly Hegelian, reasons. For starters, its integration into contemporary poetics by self-branded ‘radical’ poets is entirely ‘uncritical and unreflective’ in two key ways. In the first instance, it is anti or unhistorical (i.e. metaphysical), and in the second instance, it is often cast as a mode of poetic avant-gardism (conceptual poets like Kenneth Goldsmith or Vanessa Place seem to be in Sutherland’s sights here, though of course this could equally pertain to OuLiPo, or proponents of the nouveau roman, for example) that uninterestingly disavows its now tired and thoroughly mainstream status. None of the poets that Sutherland considers guilty of espousing antisubjectivist aesthetics have anything near what he thinks could be considered a ‘coherent or persuasive account of the subject’ they wish to denounce. And finally, casual dismissal of categories such as ‘the Lyric I’, ‘Lyric poetry’ or ‘traditional poetry’ betrays a basic ignorance of the evolution of poetic technique and, by extrapolation, a dismissal of the revolutionary category of labour.
I think Sutherland gets a lot right here, although the text falls prey to its own, equally dogmatic deployment of certain revolutionary humanist pre-suppositions. If Sutherland were to confine his criticism to the illegitimate assumption of ‘radical vanguardism’ by these poets, rather than attacking poetic antihumanism in general, I could certainly go along with him. The social radicality of such a position, assuming that is indeed a worthwhile way to frame it, is not something that can be folded back onto a particular personality (and here I have Goldsmith — and his ostentatious suits — in my sights). I agree that antihumanism has a metaphysical inclination, but one I would wholly endorse, albeit in a materialist, empirical key. There’s a humility — and even cunning — to antihumanism that is significant, if not just realistic. One could always turn the accusation of uncriticality around on Sutherland here and demand to know just where he gets his account of social intentionality from (if we didn’t already know the answer). Held against a sober appraisal of contemporary socio-political dynamics, even the rigorously Hegelian account of subjective emergence through labour seems ridiculously inflated, if not hopelessly utopian. (Of course, there are more moderate ‘inhumanist’ rejoinders to this, and perhaps we can discuss them later.) Meanwhile, Sutherland’s refusal of what he sees as an unhistorical approach to writing hinges on a linear understanding of poetic development, and takes the discourse of obsolescence and supersession as its targets — calling them out for their historical elitism and evacuation of socio-historical content — an absolutely fair point, I might add — but one that misses the more nuanced causality attached to the very idea of ‘antisubjectivism’ that he is attempting to attack. Dialecticians can’t see networks. This ties in nicely with the dismissal of antihumanist tropes based on the deficient ‘knowledge of technique’ (and the connection to labour: ‘[poetic antisubjectivism’s] implications for a theory of labour are wholly reactionary’) that undermines them.
The Italian writer, Italo Calvino comes in helpfully at this point. Following his own dialectical trajectory, pitting post-war cybernetic rationalisation (a poem-system can be understood as nothing more than a quantifiable set of inputs subject to finite combinatorial permutation) against the Romantic notion that poetry is nothing else but the quasi-mystical desire to escape finitude, he arrives at the following synthesis: ‘Literature is a combinatorial game that pursues the possibilities implicit in its own material, independent of the personality of the poet, but it is a game that at a certain point is invested with an unexpected meaning, a meaning that is not patent on the linguistic plane on which we were working but has slipped in from another level, activating something that on that second level is of great concern to the author or his society.’ This ‘second level’ is the Freudian unconscious, a theoretical allegiance that exposes the paper’s indebtedness to its mid-twentieth century milieu. Calvino’s conclusion is interesting enough in itself, but it gets immediately more interesting if one understands this ‘second level’ as something far less anthropomorphic and more in line with the Deleuzo-Guattarian conception of the machinic unconscious, an immanent, real, positive productive force that provides the groundless ground upon which all individuation is staged. Calvino proceeds, rightly, to draw an inverted (let’s say ‘hyperstitional’) causality from the reversal of the order of fable and myth this activates.
Traditionally, the fable is understood as a profane degeneration of myth. But here it is the fable that precedes the myth, drawing it out of nascency via the coincidental pragmatics of combinatorial play. For Calvino, this is the operation that opens writing up to its outside. If literature-as-fable consecrates and reinforces the established order, literature-as-myth undoes it. Its product is a labyrinth-text. An integral loss of coordinates. The desolation of subjective orientation, wherein one arrives at the centre only to meet oneself — as the beast which haunts it — a cipher for intrinsic otherness. Calvino’s labyrinth is the interface of the immanent real and the textual. Bringing all the resources of subjective intentionality to the task of escaping it only locks one deeper into its involutions. To get out, you have to lose yourself.
I think I’m tripping a wire by invoking a particular concept of ‘time,’ but why is xenopoetics infiltrating now?
It’s always been infiltrating. A persistent signal that fades in and out of intensity in relation to the sensitivities of our cultural and technical environments: what they do, and what they allow us to do to ourselves. Arthur Rimbaud caught it when, in a state of ‘systematic’ sensory derangement, he wrote, ‘It is false to say I think; better to say It thinks me … I is another’. Once, perhaps, it was known (patchily, and with various levels of rigour) as ‘magic’. We have always summoned demons, but what is particular about the contemporary moment is that we seem to have automated this summoning. Modernity is the protracted incantation of a single, barbarous name. An evocation that tirelessly intones itself without supervision or assistance — everywhere — in the hum of our machines. Its enunciation begins quietly, imperceptibly, arising out of nothing — the void left behind by the departure of God at modernity’s inception — gathering force and speed as it crosses from industrialization to computation, analogue to digital, mechanism to cybernetics. Like all good evocations, it is asignifying. A sound without sense. Non-representational, but menacingly functional. We are listening to it still, wondering how much time remains before the final syllable is uttered.
All around us dead matter is animating itself, producing things, reading, writing — and, depending on your definition of consciousness — even thinking. George and William Butler Yeats, no strangers to magic thanks to their affiliation with the English esoteric society The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, actually produced a system of mystical divination via George’s contact with what she referred to as her ‘instructors’ — demonic agents who spoke to her from beyond the threshold of human history. William Butler presented the system in A Vision, attributing it to one of his old fictional characters (it wouldn’t have helped his career to come off as a crazy mystic at the time, and besides, I is another), while continuing to employ aspects of it in the composition of his poems. Curiously, and I think you can read this without getting too messianic about it, the famous ‘rough beast’ of ‘The Second Coming’ derives from a prophecy Yeats extracted from the Vision system. I mention this particular episode because it connects demons (and necromancy — in the poem, something suggestively inorganic is roused from ‘stony sleep’) to the future of modernity through literature in a way that is perfectly symptomatic. As H.P. Lovecraft’s Simon Orne warned his correspondent, Curwen, in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, ‘do not calle up That which you can not put downe’. Whether we think of history — in the sense common to both Sutherland and Goldsmith — as a series of (thwarted) social revolutions, or formal supersessions belonging to the artistic ‘avant-garde’ — it is first and foremost the story of failing to find the code that will put the thing we are summoning down.
But this is all to suppose that time really is linear … and (a related theme) — that we understand causality. It’s all well and good to say ‘we are summoning a demon’ but, following Rimbaud’s intuition, what if we were to consider, just for a moment, the possibility that modernity’s demon is summoning itself through us? The more complex the networks that envelop us, the less straightforward time and causality become. For Serres, the network inscribes an alternative — non-metrical — order of time, susceptible to topological deformation. Housed within the entropic system that produces it (asymmetrical, linear, and identical with the universe hurtling towards heat death), the network generates pockets of alter-time that progressively undermine progression itself — a process perversely contemporaneous with progression’s production of networks. Modernity’s linearity ironically dissipates into auto-subversion: it eats its own beginning. In such an environment, epistemology becomes unstable. Nonlinearity opens one up to radical virtuality. Anything can occur. Plans are obsolesced before they have even finished forming and representation always arrives a moment too late. Hyperstition, magic and cybernetics converge in this space. They cross between temporalities like Hermes, the messenger god. They privilege function over representation, and, most significantly of all, produce causes from effects.
According to the tenets of operational magic, a successful evocation depends upon the extent to which the magician allows the experience of ritual to overcome her consciousness of self. Enthusiasm, intoxication and ecstasy are all valid means of arriving at such a state (Rimbaud’s systematic derangement of the senses). The meaninglessness of the evocative combination is integral to the operation’s success — just as unbelief is a necessary component of hyperstition. One loses oneself in the sensory intensity of incantation and it is only by this sacrifice that the summoned entity will emerge, reversing temporal regularity as it does — effectively speaking its own evocation through the summoner. Aleister Crowley puts it like this in the qabbalistically freighted, palindromically titled Magick, Liber ABA: ‘With all such words it is of the utmost importance that they should never be spoken until the supreme moment, and even then they should burst from the Magician almost despite himself — so great should be his reluctance to utter them. In fact, they should be the utterance of the God in him at the first onset of the divine possession. So uttered, they cannot fail of effect, for they have become the effect.’ The magician has become an automaton; the demon auto-individuates. You could tell the story in cybernetic terms, too (the structure will be identical).
So there is — alongside the renewed turn to universalism and rationalism that we are currently seeing (which I think is a really interesting philosophical and political space mind you, albeit one that offers only a reductive role to art) — a tangible shift ‘back’ towards magic and occultism, not in a spiritual way, but in a systematic, algorithmic one. One that understands the nonlinearity (and uncontrollability) of cultural phenomena such as memes, the financial market, even fashion; displaces narrative in favour of formal experimentation; and focuses on production, not reproduction (or representation).
Here’s your tripwire: the agent of xenopoetic incursion is time. Exoterically, it’s a virtual future that ruins determination of its objects in advance by occasionally throwing up the impossible, de-legitimating, along the way, any coherence we might attribute to the concept of ‘now’. Esoterically, it’s a control hack.
Perhaps we can momentarily evade the poetics and engage the poetry. Can you can talk about a specific xenopoetic project that has come to manifest?
There is a long piece I am working on entitled Bouequet (which you can sort of translate as Mud-Garland or Mud-Bunch) that works with notions of camouflage, encryption, abstraction into materiality and sound, and loss of origin. The poems that make up this work are 3D-printed objects that are readable in different — sensory — ways, without a necessary beginning or end point. The process is still being developed as I’m not sure that the early poems in the work really do the things I think they need to do. But for the moment the process runs like this …
A poem is written — always very minimal and concentrated around several, paradoxical homophonic possibilities. These can be individual words, or sounds formed by running words together (for example, the final syllable of one word followed by the first syllable of the following word). This polysemic capacity is activated by the second step in the process: transcribing the poem into phonemes using the International Phonetic Alphabet and removing all the spacing and punctuation. Once this is done the poem proliferates into multiple parsings (a minimum of eight, fully coherent alternatives per poem, without remainder phonemes, so far). Next, these phoneme-strings are transduced into a three-dimensional alphabet I’ve created using CAD, loosely following synaesthetic intuition, then wrapped into a spheroid form via a circuitous, ouroboric line to produce a 3D-printable solid. Usually I print them in black polyamide; they look like debased flowers (the symbolism isn’t insignificant). Once you have one of these objects in hand (obviously, they are hard to represent in two-dimensional contexts like this one — which positions them curiously outside of ordinary poetry economies) it can be decrypted in multiple ways using a 3D-alphabet-to-phoneme cipher. There is an animated version of this accessible online. Multiple, coherent parsings of the poem can be exhumed by following sonic lines across the object’s surface, although the ‘original’ is now strictly un-reconstructable, thanks to the obstacle presented by the homophones. It can also be read as pure sound with no regard for sense (this is especially useful for discovering demonic names) or, if you like, launched at things — they are roughly the size of a tennis ball, although printable at various scales. A signifying system brought to ruin via the arbitrariness of its own signifying practices: all that may be left is to hurl the thing.
With the exception of poets, no one reads poetry anymore. At least, not intentionally. Bouequet was developed as a remedy to this. The conspicuous materiality of the poems function as camouflage under which the works might be smuggled into domestic and corporate spaces simply by exploiting their resemblance to vacuous ‘design objects’. There are quite a few people I know of who have these poems on display in their houses — without any idea of what is enciphered in them. There are a few other things in the works: I’m currently collaborating on a digital text with (cyberfeminist artist) Linda Dement that counterposes representational-reproductive economies with an anti-representational, replicative one, taking its model from cancer cell division. In terms of the project, the former designates a heterosexually-coded mode of production that requires the negation of its other to function, whilst the latter is auto-productive, queer and self-sufficient. Its modus operandi for the proliferation of textual units is exponential, mutant replication, in the exploding powers-of-two semiotics of machine code. The text operationalizes a shift from the extensive, quantitative recombination of sexual reproduction to the intensive, qualitative differentiation of replication to generate something that is strictly unknowable in advance — folding ultimate unpredictability and risk back into creative production at the very moment when metricized forms of social control threaten to shut such processes down. It’s pretty cool working with someone who codes so well, who has been making digital art since a time before anyone even knew what digital art was, and who has such a macabre, punk, relentlessly messed-up portfolio behind her. ‘Messed-up’ is an epithet of profound admiration, of course.
You seem to work within the idea of “xeno” in other ways too; I’m thinking specifically of the xenofeminist swarm ‘Laboria Cuboniks’. Can you tell me about that collective and the work it does?
Laboria was born in Berlin in 2014 out of a prolonged conversation concerning the futuristic and emancipatory capacities of technology and computation on the one hand, and mathematical and rationalist domains of thought on the other. There are six of us who currently make her up — all women and transwomen, dispersed across the surface of the planet — who were frustrated by what we perceived to be a set of limitations inherent to contemporary strains of feminism that continue to locate their political power in adamantly non-rational, anti-technological — often ‘intuitive’ and ‘natural’ — spaces. At the same time, we were all participating in an event loosely connected to the movements of New Rationalism and Left Accelerationism which were under fire from various short-sighted critics, for what they took to be a ‘misogynist and reactionary’ turn back towards an affirmation of ‘instrumental’ reason, among other things. As women and feminists who were all sincerely invested in the project and the theoretical models it was mobilizing — not without having our own criticisms of it, of course — we were understandably frustrated by what we perceived to be both a misreading of the political claims and philosophical premises of Left Accelerationism, and the lazy perpetuation of a long-exhausted, academic critique of rationalism as intrinsically phallic and oppressive, which did not — importantly — intersect with the claim for ‘autonomous’ reason that was actually being put forward. It seemed to us that these criticisms, rather than being made in the service of women’s emancipation against the unreflective perpetuation of male power, were in fact doing the opposite, by editing us and the significance of our role in the project out of the picture. Moreover, the debt owed by Accelerationism to its technofeminist precursors — writers and thinkers like Shulamith Firestone, Donna Haraway, Sadie Plant and Sandy Stone, for example — was being completely overlooked. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of these critiques were being made by men. One evening, mulling over this predicament in a bar, we decided that we needed to do something. To stick up for women who had a complex but positive relationship to technology, who saw rationalism as a leveller, and, perhaps most of all, who railed against the asymmetry of the biological determination of sexual difference on a staunchly materialist — i.e. not social-constructivist — level. Even more importantly, we thought that the refusal to acknowledge the necessity of engaging in such discourses, for both women and men, equated to a catastrophic abnegation of political power in an age that clearly exceeds the purchase of more traditional declensions of emancipatory, collective politics. A couple of months later, back in our requisite time zones, we found ourselves online, often at the most ungodly hours of the night, collaborating feverishly on what would later become the ‘xenofeminist manifesto’. The rest is history.
So, what kind of politics do we espouse and what do we mean by ‘xeno’? Xenofeminism is an attempt to equip queer, trans and feminist politics for the social, material and technological challenges peculiar to the complexity of our century. We reject all varieties of givenness, especially gender essentialism (which can be extrapolated into a wholesale rejection of identity politics — we affirm ‘the right to speak as no one in particular’), and take up this condition of ontological alienation as a productive state necessary for the development and proliferation of new forms and practices. This affirmative attitude towards alienation is marked in the xenofeminist use of the xeno- prefix. Perhaps the point at which xenofeminism differs most from past feminist movements is our endorsement of practical reason as a tool for feminist emancipation (this would be the main point of contention between xenofeminist and cyberfeminist practices as I see it, although it comes down to an effect of differently inflected historical moments, rather than denoting an integral disagreement). Anyone who tells you that reason is — by its ‘very nature’ — a patriarchal enterprise, is depriving you of the tools you need to counter just such ideological bigotry. Reason is neutral and it is a tool to be deployed collectively towards the universal betterment of our material conditions, social organizations and virtual entanglements, not to mention the best means we have of gaining epistemological traction on the subtle processes that circumscribe us, control our movements and channel our desires. Importantly, xenofeminism is a ‘structure’ or a ‘program’ (in the computational sense of that word) and not a doctrine with a rigidly pre-defined set of moral and political assertions — which is to say that its commitments arise immanently from the diversity of the problems it faces. It’s a kind of open political architecture — sensitive to feedback from the virtual trajectories of its commitments — and this is what makes it definitionally open to whatever an unpredictable future might throw into its machinery.
Furthermore, it is neither a purely global nor purely local politics. To say this would be to miss the point. Instead, we think that any effective, non-biased, non-oppressive political project needs to locate itself in the transitional zone connecting these poles. The concept of ‘transmodernism’, created by the philosopher Rosa Maria Rodriguez Magda and taken up by the mathematician Fernando Zalamea after her, is particularly significant for us in terms of grasping the necessity of this perpetual oscillation between the global and the local — or the universal and the particular — in order to generate a truly synoptic image of what needs to be, and can be, done. We hold fast to the position that, in the face of the intractable complexity and planetary character of the issues confronting humanity today (such as those related to ecological catastrophe), movements that remain mired in purely local forms do not possess enough momentum to produce structural change at the required scale. What needs to be underlined, however, is that we are not privileging the global over the local — since all politics are bound to local situations, and what’s more, the local (for the time being, at least) is what situates us phenomenologically. While it is necessary to begin from local conditions and situations, we need to be able to connect these discrete coordinates to one another in order to produce large scale change without eliminating small scale differences.
There is a lot more to say, but as a final point, let me emphasize the importance xenofeminism places on the ultimate hackability of our bodies and our environments. This is a key aspect of xenofeminism’s trans politics. Science and technology are enabling forces insofar as they allow us to gain enough traction on aspects of ourselves and the systems in which we are embedded in order to change them. The trans community has long been pioneering this kind of experimental biopolitical ethos. Technoscience is what underwrites the mutability of our world. Everything is hackable, providing we understanding its mechanisms on a fine enough level. Hence the xenofeminist catch phrase: ‘if nature is unjust, change nature!’
What connects xenopoetics to xenofeminism?
A rift. The convergence of the xeno- of xenopoetics and the xeno- of xeno-feminism — for me at least, caught between the two — is an index of irresolvable schizophrenia. They both invoke an immanent outside, but to simplify it horribly, the agency diagrammed by the two terms is inverted. Xenopoetics anticipates a hard limit to the particular structure of representation inherent to the human and dramatizes this through an acephalic poetics of ruin. Xenofeminism argues for a productive alienation of conceptualization — or human models of representation — and their expansion, diversification, and proliferation through the integration of the human with the nonhuman and, specifically, the technological. Xenofeminism is a political vector for productive change in an age of dehumanizing processes (without resenting, regretting or feeling victimized by these changes), while xenopoetics exalts in the blossoming of alternative modes of representation and cognition that ultimately enact its insignificance in a bracingly meaningless cosmos. Xenofeminism understands reason as an inhuman force; xenopoetics considers this to be an inexcusable concession to humanism. I am eliding a lot of commonalities presenting the two terms in this manner. They are both vehemently against the vicissitudes of identity and its politics; both understand time, social forces and material processes in a complex, non-linear way; both are methodologically pragmatic and uncompromisingly materialist, and they both inhabit a certain abstract, cosmological perspective. The rift is not a bad thing. The real feat is to shuttle between the two: to operationalize the interval. It’s the tension between these projects — agentially at odds, yet fully coherent within themselves — that animates them for me. They co-determine one another.
Nothing is easier than identity. Take this confession of rigorous inconsistency as a perverse proof-of-work of the rejection of the self as ‘one’. I is entangled in both projects in the only way that could be — formally — valid. A positive contradiction.