Jasper Bernes on the Shadow Cast by Unfreedom
Jasper Bernes was born in 1974, after the end of the great postwar boom, and grew up in Topanga Canyon, Calif., among its pure products. He is author of two books of poetry — Starsdown (2007), and the just-published We Are Nothing and So Can You. He is currently completing a book of literary history, Poetry in the Age of Deindustrialization. With Juliana Spahr and Joshua Clover, he edits Commune Editions. He lives in Berkeley with his family.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
I am continuously flummoxed by this simple question. I think most people who ask it are curious about what I do for money, which means that I should answer by saying that I teach literature courses to college students. However, I also spend much of my time writing, and some of this writing is either paid for by my university work or a requirement of it. Is this a job? Maybe? Then there are things that I write which are more or less on my own time, like poetry, but still difficult to disentangle from the other writing and certainly no less urgent. You can see that I’m very confused.
What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?
I’ve been trying to overthrow capitalism. It’s really hard.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
I would propose that we collaborate, since I also want to do what I do, and am still not sure it’s going to work out.
It’s pretty simple, though also difficult: if you want to be a writer, you need to read the best things you can get your hands on and write all the time. To do this, it helps to surround yourself with other people who are also reading the best things and writing all the time. You’ll probably need time free from paid work. Unfortunately, the places where one might find a community of like-minded writers are increasingly unaffordable, and this makes it very hard to live in them and shirk employment in order to steal time for writing. Many of us try to satisfy these conditions by entering academia, as I did, but the doors are closing there as well, and it’s becoming harder and harder for people to do the kind of work they want to be doing from within the university. There are no good options.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
I spent most of my 20s in despair, blindingly self-absorbed. Not having to live that way anymore would be a success in its own right, but I’m also proud of a few things that I’ve written.
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?
I really admired Mr. T, who played B.A. Baracus in the television show The A-Team. In fact, I admired him so much that I rode my bike off a cliff immediately after yelling his name in a sort of fifth-grade war cry. I landed in a pile of scrap metal and earned myself some stitches and a permanent scar. I don’t know why I admired him so much. He was popular with all the kids at my elementary school. I liked people who fought “bad guys.” I suppose I still do.
Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.
There’s probably no real wilderness anymore, if the term means a natural environment that has not been impacted by human activity. For this reason, I think I’d prefer to spend the week traversing a once-populous city that had been relinquished to inhuman life and the corrosions and erosions of the weather: trees growing through buildings, pedestrian malls and train lines turned into canals, foxes in the meadows where boulevards were once, clouds of bats at dusk. Theodor Adorno says that images of collapse are a “cryptogram of the new”; they are a way to picture utopia indirectly. Unable to produce images of a world other than the one we live in, we settle for images of the destruction of what we know, as a way of clearing space for something else. I think this is why I find ruins hopeful and uplifting. They signify possibility.
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
I am maximal and immoderate when it comes to the future: I want everything for everyone.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
Art is the shadow cast by unfreedom. When people spend most of their waking hours in servitude of one form or another, art is one of the names they give to the inverse of servitude: free, self-directed, satisfying activity. Though it seems likely that music, storytelling, performance, and image-making will form a vital part of every human culture, it’s possible that, in a society without servitude, these activities would no longer seem quite so distinct from everything else that people do. It may be that we call these things art only because access to them is so terribly restricted.
What are you working on right now?
I’m finishing up a book about US poetry in the 1960s and 1970s. My argument is that elements of the contemporary workplace and contemporary management theory are drawn from the arts, and in particular from poetry. The story of how avant-garde poetry ends up contributing to the restructuring of capitalism is a complex one, but interesting enough that it has held my attention for close to a decade.
What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?
I’d like to write a novel. Maybe a historical novel. Maybe a science fiction novel. Maybe both.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
I would distribute all housing to people for free. Imagine how wonderful the Bay Area would be if outrageous rents didn’t chase off every decent human being.
A night on the town: what does that mean to you?
Being out in the streets with tens of thousands of people who have finally had enough. There’s a moment, once the police are outnumbered by an order of magnitude or two, when anything seems possible, socially and politically. I try to hold that moment in mind. It’s the deepest experience of truth I know.
If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
My son is really interested in mathematics, and since his school doesn’t really offer much in the way of accelerated learning, I decided to teach him algebra and geometry. Doing this whet my appetite for learning mathematics myself, and I spent a year or so tinkering with calculus and linear algebra and working through some economics textbooks, before my life got too busy. I’d like to have a year or two to study mathematics, economics, languages. And I’d like to be more involved in my children’s education. If someone else were paying the bill, perhaps we could live abroad for a year or two.