Ditch Yourself: An Essay on Work, Lies and Poetry

5.4 / Valuing Labor in the Arts

Ditch Yourself: An Essay on Work, Lies and Poetry

By Matthew David Rana April 3, 2014

“The poetic,” writes Jean Baudrillard, “is the restitution of symbolic exchange in the very heart of words.”1 As an artist, writer, and poet, I find this statement particularly compelling because it both suggests that poetry falls outside the domain of work and underscores the relationship between language and economy. In positioning the poetic outside of work, I do not mean to elevate poetry’s leisurely qualities. As its readers or writers know, poetry, despite all of its distinct pleasures, challenges us. In other words, it is hard work. Instead, I like this idea—and think it might be relevant to a conversation on a topic as scrutinized as art and labor—because it calls into question the emphasis that we place on concepts of production such as use value, necessity, and alienated labor, as well as their supposed advantages. While its consideration may not help anyone determine whether or not to work for free, to participate in a time-banking scheme, or to sign a petition in favor of the implementation of artist fees, this idea might encourage us to find different ways to think about working and living.

Poetry’s so-called failure to communicate can be considered a kind of counter-economy taking place at the level of language

One inference of Baudrillard’s quote is that while capitalism favors a coextensive relationship between the signifier and the signified, reducing words to their denotative function as transparent vessels for information, poetry re-establishes the excess and ambiguity captured by signifying processes. Poetry’s so-called failure to communicate can be considered a kind of counter-economy taking place at the level of language, a counter-position to the sign’s reductionism. In other words, poetry enacts the language of the gift: a vocabulary of festivals, expenditure, and symbolic wastage. By intensifying each word, phoneme, and syllable to such a degree that language “explode[s]…consumed in the festival of reversible speech,” poetry gives back a kind of linguistic surplus.2

In a similar vein, Franco “Bifo” Berardi acknowledges in his 2012 book, The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance, the possibilities of poetic language as a focal point of resistance to what he calls “the exploitation of precarious, cognitive labor: the general intellect in its current form of separation from the body…techno-linguistic automatisms.”3 Berardi argues that language has become the dominant material and organizational force of labor in advanced capitalist economies, an inexhaustible and all-purpose resource for neo-liberal creation of value. In his view, capitalism is so reliant on this semiotic model that the neologism semio-capitalism is necessary to describe the extent to which the complex networks of services, communications, and knowledge production shape it.

Henri Fantin-Latour. Un Coin de Table, 1872; oil on canvas; 63 x 89 in. Courtesy of the Musée d’Orsay, Paris. 

By contrast, poetry enacts for Berardi “insolvency in the field of enunciation: it refuses the exaction of a semiotic debt.”4 Offering a point of rupture within everyday language, poetry is the “excess of language…which enables us to shift from one paradigm to another.”5 That is to say, it “works” outside capitalism’s prosaic narratives of production, accumulation, growth, and rational self-interest. Where capitalism abstracts and equates, poetry marks a fundamental singularity. When capitalism beats the cadence of 24/7 production, poetry’s rhythms are languid. If capital declares that every expression is individual, poetry insists that they are social. Where capitalistic drives become disembodied, poetry digs in its heels.

Poetry demands from readers and writers alike that we reorganize our time, space, and sensibilities.

This dichotomy occurs in part because poetry calls for semantic thinking. It takes place in an unpredictable domain where meaning materializes through temporary assemblages and exchanges, through the appropriation of context, and through the way different signs modify one another when they come into contact. Against semio-capitalism’s closed, ahistorical referentiality, poetry exterminates value. And in doing so, it opens up worlds. Put differently, poetry demands from readers and writers alike that we reorganize our time, space, and sensibilities—or, taking Arthur Rimbaud’s words, a “derangement of all the senses.”6

In “Rimbaud and the Resistance to Work,” the literary critic Kristin Ross argues that Rimbaud’s brief career as a poet was profoundly marked by his refusal of work. And like many of the other so-called poètes maudits (“cursed poets,” living outside or against society), he was sympathetic to the aims of the Paris Commune. Indeed, Ross claims that in his poems, one reads “the impossible liberty of having exempted oneself from the organization of work in a society that expropriates the very body of the worker.” As Rimbaud sounds off in A Season in Hell:

I find even the thought of work unbearable…Who made my tongue so truthless that it has shepherded and safeguarded my sloth so far? Lazier than a toad, I’ve gotten by without lifting a finger: I’ve lived everywhere.7

Although the radical mobility described here might today conjure the lifestyle of a jet-setting cultural elite, it could also just as easily evoke the de-territorializing effects of capitalism across class divisions, including dispossession, itinerancy, compliance, and so forth. Still, the implications of the passage are clear: at home everywhere and yet nowhere, the poet is negatively juxtaposed with an absent figure performing honest and industrious labor. From a point of economic reflection, the poet is unaccountable, declaring himself a good-for-nothing and a liar who cannot bear to work, even if only in thought. His laziness reeks of privilege, but we also take note of the irony: if the poet’s tongue is in fact truthless, then his account of himself—his profession, as it were—is rendered false. The result is a poetic statement whose meaning is open to numerous reversals; revolutionary sentiments become histrionic and absurd. Is he or is he not getting by?

In a related turn, Marcel Broodthaers’s professional transition in 1964 from poet to artist was likewise motivated by pecuniary insight. On the occasion of his first exhibition at Galerie Saint-Laurent in Brussels, Broodthaers sent his now-notorious invitation, announcing:

I, too, wondered if I couldn’t sell something and succeed in life. I had for quite a little while been good for nothing. I am forty years old…The idea of inventing something insincere finally crossed my mind and I set to work at once.8

At the age of forty, Broodthaers had the insight that in a consumption society, the measure of one’s life is determined by sales. In order to succeed—note that he doesn’t write survive—he had to change his profession. Following his ostensible failure as a poet, Broodthaers could become an artist at the moment that he staked his life to the sign of productivity. Finally, he could set himself to work.

However, as Rachel Haidu makes clear in her excellent 2010 book, The Absence of Work: Marcel Broodthaers, 1964–1976, “[his] art happens in the absence or aftermath of what had always been his true ‘work.’”9 Although his status as an former poet tacitly authorized his artistic ambitions and provided them with a critical cover—after all, who is more wretched than a poet?—Haidu goes on to state that the point where words fail to produce meaning was a theme to which the artist returned throughout his twelve-year career. Though he stopped publishing poems, Broodthaers nonetheless assumed the responsibility of a speaker interrogating capitalism’s prosaic narratives. Following the assertion that poetry runs counter to semiotic reductivism, the tongue-in-check announcement for the show at Galerie Saint-Laurent becomes even more incongruous.10 Enfolding himself in artifice, Broodthaers secured his art’s poetic potential with a remarkable act of symbolic exchange.

On the cusp of my own professional transition from artist to writer—I too wonder whether I can’t sell something—I find all of this strangely encouraging. Moreover, I am struck by the way that Broodthaers’s vocational shift also seems to mark a stunning turn away from concepts of artistic practice as self-activity, a form of labor whose products are neither expropriated nor estranged from those producing them. Unlike a simple declaration of the artist’s value as a worker, Broodthaers’s canny and prescient announcement could as readily refer to his artist persona as it does to the insincerity of the art object and its exemplary status as a commodity. It’s no coincidence, then, that Broodthaers the artist emerged during the same period as information-based postindustrial sectors wherein, as Alexander Alberro put it, “success came to those who managed and publicized their work most strategically.”11

Marcel Broodthaers. Tractatus Logico Catalogicus—Art or the Art of Selling, 1972; serigraph; 24 x 58 in. Courtesy of the Tate Modern, London. 

When compared to the marginal and good-for-nothing poet whose ostensibly sincere writing is of little consequence to the culture industry, the artist appears thoroughly instrumentalized, compromised, and constrained at different levels by administration, commerce, and myths of authenticity.12 Insofar as Broodthaers’s inaugural act of self-effacing self-promotion staged a new artistic identity, it also refused to play into the idealized concept of the artist as a socially embraced self-producer.

Returning to Baudrillard, this notion of the self as a product is part of a schematic “romanticism of productivity” whereby “the capitalist law of value is to be abolished in the name of a de-alienated hyper-productivity, a productive hyperspace” that “codes all human material and every contingency of desire and exchange in terms of value, finality, and production.”13 Under this economic regime, we are encouraged to produce ourselves and manifest our latent potential. This overdetermination is what’s at stake in the poetic projects of Rimbaud and Broodthaers. In a context where revolution, social life, and even what once would have been thought of as constituting the human soul have been expropriated and reduced to coded, value-producing tools, poetic fault lines such as theirs—indolent and shot through with contradiction and ambivalence—can create openings, spaces in which we can guard our subjectivities. Rather than demanding that we rise up for production, poetry asks us instead to plummet and ditch our selves for the radical precariousness of the world.


  1. Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death (Paris: Gallimard, 1976), 205.
  2. Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange, 200.
  3. Franco Berardi, The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2012), 8–9.
  4. Berardi, 22.
  5. Berardi, 140.
  6. Arthur Rimbaud, “Battle Song of Paris” letter to Paul Demeny, in Rimbaud Complete, Volume I: Poetry and Prose, trans. Wyatt Mason (New York: Modern Library, 2002), 212.
  7. Arthur Rimbaud, “Bad Blood,” in Rimbaud Complete, Volume I: Poetry and Prose, trans. Wyatt Mason (New York: Modern Library, 2002), 123. Originally published in A Season in Hell (1873).
  8. Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, “Open Letters, Industrial Poems,” in Broodthaers: Writings, Interviews, Photographs (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987), 73.
  9. Rachel Haidu, The Absence of Work (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010), xv.
  10. It becomes all the more ironic considering that the invitation to his show at Galerie Saint-Laurent was printed atop folio images that had been meticulously removed from fashion magazines.
  11. Alexander Alberro, Conceptual Art and the Politics of Publicity (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003), 1.
  12. Broodthaers would further develop these themes with his work Museé d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles.
  13. Jean Baudrillard, The Mirror of Production, trans. Mark Poster (Candos, NY: Telos Press, 1975), 17–19.

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