Assemblage Required

Ellsworth Kelly, Blue over Orange, 1964-65

Made up of two collections, each with its own title (Snowflake and different streets), that have been bound together back to back, Eileen Myles’s most recent book of poems reads like lists that consist of haphazard associations, terse formulations and sparsely punctuated lines. This style has the effect of positioning the reader as a visitor on a brisk tour through a cabinet of curiosities.

Snowflake / different streets by Eileen Myles Wave Books, 232 pages, $18.92
The curiosities in question aren’t nineteenth-century relics, but the things and passages of contemporary life: “sometimes / I’m driving,” the opening poem of Snowflake begins, “and I pressed / the button / to see who / called & / suddenly I’m / taking pictures.” Adverbs identify repeated interruptions in the driver’s life. Yet we don’t stay in place long enough to see them recur; we’re in the car, hearing music as the lights flicker outside. Memories flash by like lampposts, and conversations recalled give way to alliterative chains: Talk of tang becomes tango on the toilet. The poem ends by invoking its title (“Transitions”): “I watch the snowflake / melting.” This phase change surprises us, for the snowflake comes out of nowhere—though it shouldn’t. Indeed, coming from nowhere is the name of the game played by these poems.

Other poems follow suit. “The Importance of Being Iceland” begins with an optical illusion (“It seems the color is constant on the sun”), enacting proximity and distance by whipsawing readers from one place to the next, one perspective to the next— a pair of eyes, San Diego, Iceland. If the poem is about any one thing, it’s how to hold different elements in suspension, how to arrange them.

These elements seem to float on the billows of a singular voice. It’s a voice I first discovered a few years ago when I picked up the motley book of essays titled, like that poem, The Importance of Being Iceland. I never got all the way through it—the volume was burdensome and I was in the middle of a cross-country move — but I had read enough immediately to recognize that same voice when I later began to read Myles’s novel Inferno. All her typical tropes, tics and tendencies were evident: adjectives at once elegant and bruised, sentences that lack (and don’t seem particularly to need) many commas, prose whose casual intensity reminds me of fitful, ferocious drumming. In the aggregate, these qualities worked on me a curious effect: They altered the way I walk around, convincing me in the process that such a change is the least demand we ought to make of art. My steps grew less heavy from reading Inferno. I recalled something Nietzsche once observed: “What is good is light.”

Like Myles’s new poems, Inferno is about parts and how to fit them together—not only inside the book, but out in the world, as well. She poses a question at once immense and generic: How do we make this go with that? For some the question is a no-brainer. We know, after all, how to make everything adhere: We use money, the glue of late-capitalist existence, its binding force that of universal equivalence.

Myles is a savvy critic of how this notion of money as universal equivalent affects the arts. At one point, she discusses the 1980s, describing that decade as a sort of technological hothouse that forced the germ of the present moment into precipitous bloom. “The poor little culture grew up too fast,” she writes. All of a sudden, it had outgrown its old playthings, art and literature, “[t]hanks to all those nights in the ‘80s after the invention of the fax when the business world stayed open all night long buying and selling supermarkets and bookstores and planes.” Cognitive workers were complicit in this process of consolidation: “We (artists and writers, people in bands) were even the final executioners,” she continues, “sitting there legal-proofreading agreements all night for $30 an hour, a good gig.” The wholesale annexation of creative activity to the market led to the advent of giant entertainment conglomerates, vertically integrated juggernauts that liquefy “records and books and movies... into one long undifferentiated meal” similar to “what astronauts suck from tubes, each substance clearly labeled for the journey: poetry, music, art.”

Homogenization proves a ready and effective remedy for the problems attending difference. The now-defunct media retailer Borders invented, I think, the insipid mash of music and books and movies described by Myles, and Amazon took it one step further, adding blenders and socks and toilet paper to the mix. Myles makes it easy to grasp the late-capitalist durée that fostered these developments, likening it to a sort of self-subsistent organism or excrescence—a wart detached from the body that somehow continues to grow, let’s say. Fax machines grew into smartphones and tablet PCs and all the other technologies that pipe zeroes and ones around the planet. The effect of all this untrammeled growth and consolidation is to recast us humans as carbon-based correlates of our real selves, which are stored on servers and sold to the highest bidder, our lumpy flesh reduced to nothing but walking and talking transmitters of information. This is why you often hear our contemporary moment described as the Information Age: It’s the invisible numeric substrate of what all of us, not just the astronauts, suck through straws.


Everything and everyone sucks — such is the nature of the world late capitalism has fashioned for us. Yet Myles is concerned with more than mere description. She identifies numerous other ways to hold things together, and Inferno represents her attempt at sketching alternative sorts of existence in common. She does so not through simple prescription, but rather by modeling the act of assembly itself. Though her metaphors for late capitalism bespeak a bias for the organic, the way she actually represents our existence is as a protean mix of human and nonhuman stuff. “I was addition and subtraction,” she writes in one scene set in a New York apartment, “sunlight, bumpy white walls, millions of windows, Cafe Bustelo, my feet....” (The list goes on.) This inventory, at once abstract and radically concrete, involves more than just what surrounds the speaker. It’s conceived, rather, as what she was. There wasn’t a person in a room, in other words. There was a complex of person and room together: the sun shining down plus the walls plus a coffee can plus feet plus more. The speaker is immersed in an entire domestic ecology, all the elements of which acting on one another.

This process of addition and subtraction mirrors certain concepts developed by a philosopher Myles mentions in passing, Manuel De Landa. In Inferno, she refers to his War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, a book that despite its title is as much about flowing liquids and evolutionary arms races between insects as it is about the development of killer robots and self-guided missiles. At first glance, nothing would seem further from Inferno‘s milieu of poets and musicians traipsing around lower Manhattan than De Landa’s subject, but there is a sort of family resemblance between the two: De Landa traces the integration of humans and machines, just as Myles describes the mesh of a person and a physical environment. The two share a number of assumptions. Both of them reject the idea that the person is an isolated sovereign. Both attend to the constant interpenetration of humans and nonhumans. Both understand all entities—persons, poems, and battles in the desert—as assemblages of disparate parts.

That word assemblage is a key one in De Landa’s vocabulary. Its power resides in how it casts all things as temporary outcomes of processes—acts of assembly—that go beyond individual human designs. This notion has a long lineage in his work. War in the Age of Intelligent Machines begins with a fictional character: a “robot historian” from the future, desirous of understanding its own origins. Contrary to our own habitual historiographical practices, this robot looks back and sees not the dual agency of innovation and genius, but rather a confluence of turbulent flows being constantly assembled and disassembled by forces both organic and inorganic. Robot history forms the basis of De Landa’s book, and it names the task of examining the assemblages wrought by those flows and forces.

In this same direction, the later A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History extends De Landa’s process ontology into the realms of the earth, bodies, and language. And in A New Philosophy of Society, we get an explicit theory of assemblages themselves. He defines them as “wholes characterized by relations of exteriority.” This means that an assemblage is made up of somewhat autonomous parts, which “may be detached from it and plugged into a different assemblage in which [their] interactions are different.” To elucidate this notion, De Landa borrows an image from his closest intellectual forebear, Gilles Deleuze—that of the wasp and the orchid, which though relatively independent, come together in a temporarily frenetic, cross-species sexual encounter. Their union is provisional. The resultant assemblage is complex and prone to transformation or dissolution. It is, like Myles’s poet in a messy apartment, entirely made of things added and taken away.

This resonance perhaps explains why Myles would mention De Landa. Each of them paints the world in shades of contingent connections—some of which are more significant than others, and all of which are susceptible to the operations of addition and subtraction. They both want to know how parts become a whole and how to take it all apart again. This affinity is manifested lexically in the way Myles writes about poetry. In a 1982 essay, she used the term assemblage in a way reminiscent of De Landa’s later sense of the word. “I believe in a historically assembled moment and a poem is a reflection of that,” she writes: “An assemblage. It’s made out of time, literally. So there’s no craft, but I can talk about time and making and art.” The poem is a material becoming in process. It owes nothing to craft. It’s a temporary condensation of matter and energy tenuously held together. And it’s made of more than language. “The material of poems is energy itself, not even language,” Myles observes in Inferno. Poems eddy in the Heraclitean river. They do not form placid, scenic lakes.

Here and elsewhere, Myles preserves the idea, inherited from the nineteenth-century Romantics, that poetry can express a life; but for her the poem’s emergence seems more impersonal, emanating not from a stable center but from lived experience irreducible to a single consciousness. The experience of passion and impetus and love, for example, she likens to “wet grass” that “stinks like shit” but nonetheless remains “unaccountably and endlessly good.” She feels compelled “to assemble [her] love in words (poems),” even as she reproaches herself for the idiocy of “tramping through the woods as [she] did one night when [she] fled a casual three-way or four-way with her and some other colonists.” Love and its attendant complexities extend not from one subject to another. Rather, they exceed us all—people, places, and things. The poem, an assemblage made (here) of the experience of love, reflects that same heterogeneity.

Enjoying no existence apart from the images that comprise it—idiotic woodland tramping, the algebra of bodies engaged in multiple-partner sex, the various tropes of passion—the poem qua poem depends utterly on its particular arrangement. Any alteration of its elements effectively produces a new work. It arises ad hoc, subject to no prior arrangement. In this concept of poetry, nothing is inevitable; everything is negotiable. “This is the emerging / possibility of writing / this way,” begins another poem in Snowflake. As it emerges, the poem recounts its own genesis and thus betrays its own contingency, its a priori possibility of being otherwise.

Inferno also tells about its own process of assemblage—albeit in a fictionalized, satirical way. One of its long sections, “Drops,” bears the subtitle “Submitted by Eileen Myles to the Ferdinand Foundation” and has attached to it a very proper description that draws out the implicit links between the text and Dante’s Inferno and Freud’s theory of sanity. “I went to Milton, New York in 1975 to acquire the first six pages of what you are reading,” Myles writes. “It seems clear to me (certainly from here) that something always knew what I was doing. I’m inviting you to support that something.” The fact that this proposal is a piece of fiction, a spoof of a grant application, does not detract from what it represents: a reference to networks of artistic philanthropy and patronage that make art possible in an era of austerity.

What’s more, the unlikelihood of success of an application written in this fashion serves to remind us just how constraining such networks can seem to us, which is why we should read this reference in tandem with the other representations of constraining labor that populate the book. Myles relates the various sorts of employment, legal or otherwise, she has taken up to support her poetic career in order to drive home the moral that poets survive by submitting grant proposals, by teaching, or by other more precarious means. Inferno draws on all these experiences, presenting itself explicitly as a series of parts that comment constantly on the factors bearing on their assembly.


I admire the aplomb with which Myles marshals these extratextual elements in the name of a biting ethnography of contemporary capitalism, whose only use for the arts is as fuel for spectacle, as catalyst for bright creative minds that can energize the sclerotic world of calculations and acquisitions. The artistic critique of capitalism tamed (as Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello have pointed out in The New Spirit of Capitalism), Google and other hegemonic entities today conjure the hip cognitariat to “do cool things that matter.” Yet Page, Brin, Schmidt and colleagues fail to appreciate that benign corporate paternalism and gently coercive “playbor” don’t necessarily translate into exciting, relevant art. Rather, as Myles recalls, governmental divestment and indifference in the early 1990s established the conditions that produced so many artists. “1990 was a totally political time. George Bush was president, people were dying of AIDS, a lot of our friends, and there was no money being spent by the government either on AIDS or art,” she writes. In response to such neglect there poured forth a torrent “of extreme sexual and political work” that stoked the flames of conservative reaction, which politicians seized on as justification for further gutting art endowments. Myles notes that “[she] wasn’t surprised to see politicians wanting to take money away from the art that was explicitly talking about this entire reality of ours.” Lawmakers seemed to prefer anodyne art detached from lived experience and thus set about “propagating a giant nothing which has become a something the government and the media have only perfected since.”

“A giant nothing which has become a something”: There exists no pithier a description for the United States government than this. Art can help us navigate the terrain ruled by this giant nothingness-become-somethingness, yet it can’t simply offer how-to’s. If it wants to be relevant, it has to introduce new affects and ways of being in the world. That’s why the most important aspect of Myles’s recent work is its affective charge. You get the feeling from her books that they, and everything else for that matter, remain incomplete. Her books begin and end, of course, but they also convey the sense that there could be more or less. They seem to tell us that those chains of experiences could go on or be cut short by addition or subtraction. “It’s not just that / the clock / stopped or reversed / but just seemed / to change / itself,” begins one poem in different streets. The hands on the clock don’t just pause, don’t just turn back: They veer off in a whole new direction. The face of the clock projects a round harmony. Myles imagines an inchoate alternative: a necessarily incomplete temporality to come.

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Behind the lectern, Myles achieves the same effect. Earlier this year, I heard her give a reading at the New School. She read poems that started out like jokes and then just ended, abruptly. (“My poem would often simply stop,” she writes in Inferno, as if describing the event I attended.) The political force of this gesture hinges precisely on the idea of incompletion. Myles communicated a lack of resolution. There was no catharsis and no sense of an ending to be had. More than advocating some Bartleby-like refusal, her abruptness seemed to imply that our common desire for release portends quietism and leads us to lust after a chimerical notion, that the parts have been assembled inadequately and must be altered, that much remains to be done.

The figure of the assemblage aptly crystallizes this poetics of the abrupt. Consisting of moving parts and temporary precipitates, assemblages are necessarily incomplete. Against easy satisfaction, Myles enjoins us to dwell in our own incompletion. She offers us a cartography of the present, charting the waters of financialization, privatization, and the attendant rise of precarity. And at the same time, she reminds us that this same present is anything but monolithic and fixed. It is eminently malleable, unfinished, and subject to revision. The question Myles asks in her recent work—How do the parts fit together? — harbors within itself a corollary: How should they fit together? In attempting to answer this second question we may just hit upon lines of flight from the prison paradise late capitalism has constructed for us.