In the prologue to his book The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, British critic Al Alvarez, relays one of the conversations he had with Sylvia Plath about an early version of Lady Lazarus -written shortly before the poet took her own life in 1963. “I was appalled,” he says about listening to her reading. “At first hearing, the things seemed to be not so much poetry as assault and battery.” He quotes from the poem: “Gentlemen, ladies / These are my hands / My knees. / I may be skin and bone, I may be Japanese.” Taken aback by the last verse, Alvarez asks, “Why Japanese? Do you just need the rhyme? Or are you trying to hitch an easy lift by dragging in the atomic victims?” He suggests to Plath that she “play it cool” if she is “going to use this kind of violent material. . .”
The poem would only be published posthumously, sans the offending reference to Japan. But Alvarez would regret the omission, writing that on second thought, Plath “did need the rhyme; the tone is quite controlled enough to support the apparently not quite relevant allusion.” He admits that he had overreacted “to the initial brutality of the verse without understanding its weird elegance.”
More than fifty years later, in a conversation between Fred Moten and Saidiya Hartman, the pair anchored their own practices within a long literary lineage of a “radical transdisciplinary intellectual tradition” undergirded by an enduring history of unspeakable brutality. Hartman alluded to an “incommensurability between an available, critical vocabulary and that which we are trying to describe.” “You are saying these things using a given language,” responded Moten, “but I know you’re talking about something else, that’s in some other language.”
Running through both of these conversations is a linguistic restlessness: the idea that we use the words, letters, sounds, modes of address, concepts, histories, images, methodologies at our disposal with the knowledge that perhaps they are, as Moten put it, “inoperative.” Foucault claimed that this sort of “endless striving” was ontological to language and its originary encounter with death. At the edge of death, he claimed, language turns back upon itself, “mirror[ing] itself to infinity.” Creating a virtual model of itself, “speech discovers the endless resourcefulness of its own image.” Poetry might inhabit some kind of privileged site on the outskirts of this resourcefulness; indeed, Alvarez believed that a good verse has the potential to make us experience things “on the edge of disintegration and breakdown.”
But what purpose do we have for a language that rushes for the edge of meaning, and what use for a syntax that can account for a world in disintegration? In Brutalisme, Achille Mbembe writes that power subjects the raw matter of life and non-life to “metamorphic” actions of “forcing and crushing,” of “fracturing and cracking.” Power’s end goal, he claims, is “to appropriate the inappropriable,” to extract what was previously thought unextractable, relentlessly breaking down and depleting “all forms of life.” This form of extractive power has made “the living prey to a process of carbonization” and has “transformed humanity into a geological force.” So much so that, according to Mbembe, “all history is, by definition, geo-history, including the history of power.”
More than conjure the violence of charred bodies, much like Plath’s omitted verse, the notion of the carbonization of lifeforms performs a concise, generative condensation that manifests a profound truth: a vertical incision, cutting through the linear structures of chronological and linguistic strata. Such efficient conceptual contraptions, or “image-thoughts” as Mbembe might call them, offer a semantic economy that enables us –in Anna Tsing’s words— “to dare tell the history of the world in a single sentence, or certainly a short essay.” In a text grappling with the legacy of Egypt’s January 25th Revolution ten years later, Lina Atallah asks: “How can we deal with the past from a political, rather than historical, standpoint?” —a question that arises as an attempt to break away from the “tired discursive loop of success and failure” that discussions around revolutionary politics have fallen into. Discussions all too familiar to all those involved in organizing during and since October 17th 2019, here in Lebanon.
It took different forms, this tired loop, most of which boiled down to questions of modes of address or disposition: questions about how to mobilize the parts of the population that have yet to join our huddle, how to address the party sympathizers among us, the bank tellers, the media… Questions which in turn led to other tactical dilemmas, like whether to block roads or take over state institutions, to focus on the Central Bank or the corrupt political class, to protest peacefully or resort to revolutionary violence, to prioritize direct action or political organizing… While these are important considerations that all revolutions must grapple with, it is hard to shake the feeling that the decrepit power infrastructure we are facing has us running circles around ourselves, trying to make ourselves as clear and coherent as possible, in response to its systemic chaos.
When interrogated by a reporter about what message he would like to convey to communications minister Mohamad Choucair, one protester famously replied: “I don’t want to convey any message to him; wherever I see him, I’m fucking him up.”  Another was in the midst of ripping down barbed wire from the barricaded government Saray when a journalist asked him what he was doing: “What am I doing?” he replied, “I’m getting my pants hemmed.” The significance of these responses is not in how funny, clever, or flippant they may seem; rather the opposite, it is in how seriously they focus on practice over communication, on process rather than result. In effect, the message —if there was to be one— is “leave us alone, we have work to do.”
The work to tend to is not about figuring out which of the above dispositions was the correct one, or inventing a new theoretical paradigm; rather, it is to write —in a short essay— the expansive contours of what is to be defended, how, and with whom. According to Moten, “it’s really about a new set of ethical and moral dispositions about how we treat… and…talk to one another.” It is about compiling a “carrier bag” of operative vocabulary and proliferating as many “image-thoughts” as needed to take stock of the all-encompassing onslaught we are faced with. And yes, a part of this arsenal must eventually communicate with the outside and translate to lobbying efforts, legal battles, political agendas, and social justice claims. But I would argue that the real matter is on some deeper level and is precisely that which does not translate, that which is not admissible, not credible, not palatable.
For this brutalism which runs on the ruination of all things; which colonizes our neurons, our digestive and respiratory tracts, our seas, mountains, and skies; which seeks to keep us poor, living in the dark, famished, and afraid… For this, and so much more, we need to locate registers that go beyond listing or taking inventory of the crimes committed upon us, a language that can convey —in a single sentence— how an exploded people might live. We need that restless language that rushes to the edge of meaning, a conception of time that enables us to cohabit with ghosts in the future. We need a sense of materiality that can decarbonize us but keep us geological and a whole set of subterranean practices that dig tunnels towards one another.
The Derivative came out of such needs, as well as, as Atallah put it, out of a “constant need for spaces of praxis in order to keep doing what I am doing with a gist of meaning.” It came out of a need to go beyond admitting defeat, “not out of blind hope or political naivete, but out of a certain conceptual blindness cast upon the entire conversation.” Because in Moten’s words, “the particular kind of terror and… the particular history that we’re working through in these different ways, is not… something that you can talk about within a calculus of victory and defeat?” For our second issue, we have assigned three new three-letter words to three new guest editors. We hope that these root words – though not quite “image-thoughts” per se— are generative enough that they may unfold into a subterranean network of praxis. We came to these words with particular departure points in mind and entrusted them to friends, old and new, so that they may think through them with us and others and dig in directions we may not have known the routes to. Tarek El-Ariss will grapple with و.ح.ش, the brute-the monster that extracts our very humanity. Public Works Studio will treat ر.د.م, the rubble of the state of ruination that we have come to live in since well before the explosion of August 4th. Rasha Salti will reflect on ق.ل.ق, the thick fog of disquiet and anxiety that has come to blur our vision. The structure remains the same: each editor has invited 5 contributors to unpack a different strand of the assigned concept, as well as one artistic contributor tasked with producing an artwork to accompany each of the writings.
The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, by A. Alvarez, 1971, pp. 32.
Duke Franklin Humanities Institute. “Moten, F & Saidiya Hartman at Duke University | The Black Outdoor.” Youtube, uploaded by Duke Franklin Humanities Institute, Oct 5, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t_tUZ6dybrc&t=1924s
Bouchard, Donald F., editor. “Language to Infinity.” Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, by Michel Foucault, Cornell University Press, 1977, pp. 54–55.
“A. Alvarez Dies at 90; Poet Elevated Both Sylvia Plath and Poker.” New York Times. Web. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/23/arts/a-alvarez-died.html.
Mbembe, Achille. “Brutalisme.” Paris: La Découverte, 2020. 8. Print.
Ibid p 32
Ibid p 9
Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species. Environmental Humanities. 1. 141-154. 10.1215/22011919-3610012. 2012. p. 142
Attalah, Lina. “Things I Learned on How Not to Remember the Revolution.” Mada Masr. 25 Jan. 2021. Web. 12 Mar. 2021. https://www.madamasr.com/en/2021/01/25/opinion/u/things-i-learned-on-how-not-to-remember-the-revolution/
“I’m not telling that story. We’ve heard it, we’ve all heard all about all the sticks spears and swords, the things to bash and poke and hit with, the long, hard things, but we have not heard about the thing to put things in, the container for the thing contained. That is a new story. That is news.”
“The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” Dancing at the Edge of the World, by Ursula K. Leguin, Grove Press, 1989, pp. 4. https://otherfutures.nl/uploads/documents/le-guin-the-carrier-bag-theory-of-fiction.pdf