Review of Platform by Rodrigo Toscano | Jules Boykoff

"The exploration of contradictions always lies at the heart of original thought." - David Harvey 1

"complete involvement / each / discrepancy" - Rodrigo Toscano 2

"To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger." - James Baldwin 3

A specter is haunting poetic discourse-the specter of Rodrigo Toscano's poetry. Platform-the most recent book in Toscano's politico-poetic trajectory-is a multi-layered, polyvalent, multidimensional, multilingual tour de force that confronts Capital at every turn.
Platform, as a whole, accomplishes many things at once: it explores the dialectical relations internal to poetry and politics in the era of corporate-driven globalization; it scours the socio-political terrain, abstracting deftly from the structures of capitalism to the on-the-ground, lived resistance to Capital's hegemony; and it illuminates/undermines the rhetorical constructs that quietly bolster the status quo. Toscano engages in dereification, as he torques the matrix of norm internalization-the breeding ground of the socially acceptable, the hybridized codes of the statistically significant, the master tropes of the U-Rah-Rah. Along the way, Toscano offers the reader a non-prescriptive cadastre of resistance through poems thronging with possibility.

Platform is divided into five parts, parsimoniously labeled "Group 1," "Group 2," "Group 3," "Group 4," and "Group 5." Through all five Groups, the poems resolutely defy the oversimple neo-Descartian bifurcation of the world. As Toscano well knows (and shows), such bifurcation only leads to static reifications being imposed on the fluid interrelations of dynamic oppositions. In Platform, Toscano adopts a dialectical mode of poetic inquiry replete with a dynamic conception of theory and historical materialism that excavates the (re)production of the symbolic order. With the author-as-producer as theoretical bedrock, Toscano zeroes in on the site of discourse production.4 Building from both Adorno ("A work of art that is committed strips the magic from a work of art that is content to be a fetish, an idle pastime for those who would like to sleep through the deluge that threatens them, in an apoliticism that is in fact deeply political") and Foucault ("We are subjected to the production of truth through power and we cannot exercise power except through the production of truth."), Toscano antes up poststructural poetics that are intensely concerned with the production (and reproduction) of meaning. In "Eight Struggling Voices, Now Barely Struggling at All (An All Instrumental Version)" Toscano writes:

(the images on yr. Screen)
my head (purposeful)
is denied a purpose
having more than a flirtatious cross-purpose
or license (both never questioned)
(a relied upon misalignment) and
transcending-the-individual-ego possibly
but more likely that is to say (77)

It is not the poetry/politics of people that determines their being, but on the contrary it is their social being that determines their poetry/politics. Within and between the poems in Platform, aesthetic and cultural practices interpenetrate certain discourses, and these discourses, in turn, join, interpenetrate, and/or disassemble aesthetic and cultural practices. Just as Capital is a process and not a thing, so is Toscano's poetry. Along the way, Toscano explodes the Cartesian separations between mind and matter, between consciousness and materiality, between theory and practice.

In Platform, Toscano presents a vigorous, non-formalistic system of "Politically Arrayed Poetics" that is designed to problematize simplistic scaling, to rigorously rupture, to question/disrupt linear political/poetic thought.

"Politically Arrayed Poetics"
(no solamente
sizeable agglutables
sizeable non-agglutables (144)

Toscano's "politically arrayed poetics" cannot be reduced to mere issues of form and content. While he is certainly pressing against the discursive bracketing vis-à-vis the perceived boundaries of content, to say Toscano is mainly concerned with content issues is to give short shrift to the complexity of his intellectual project. In Platform, the idea of process and form are equally as important as notions of goal and content, if not more important. Upon delving into Platform, one's first impression may be chaos, and indeed there is an anarchic dimension to Toscano's practice (and this is part of the fun).

aimless youth
called forth-I
came (aimed at?) (16)

But beneath the swirl at the surface is a rigorous and reflexive intelligibility that is built on the idea of dissensus and located on the plane of immanence. Also, a thick thread of anti-determinism runs through Platform, and it brocades with a precise undecidability, resulting in a poetic atmosphere perpetually on the verge of the edge of becoming.

Working atoms of socialism

"Independent" of extrinsic legislation, though interlinked-
and radiating culturally outward

Forms (209)

Just as he eschews the predilection to hyper-compartmentalize action and contemplation, Toscano eschews simplistic conceptions of form and content. Through juxtaposition, dissonance, defamiliarization, and recontextualization, Toscano de-centers the all-too-static, trending toward something else, some uncoded synthesis.

but so that we can talk about it (no frills-Power-

as form-

from content (203)

While moving beyond a more sharply oppositional, clearly identifiable notion of form (a la Inman, Andrews, McCaffery and others) Toscano simultaneously pays respect to these oppositional forms as valuable, and even crucial ("riffed on what / langpos done / did / deconstitutively" [24]). However, Toscano is writing from a different nodal point-a different discursive circuit-pressing outward from a different historical moment where hyper-vamped, ever-adapting networks of power are pumping full-throttle under different social circumstances. Some call these circumstances Empire5; in "A Beginner's Guide to Day Trading" Toscano angles in on the social relationship mediated by images that is inherent to Empire:

a bank
with a fund
a john
to a pimp
your cut's
my fee
dual plunderocracy (57-58)

Later, in "In-Formational Forum Rousers-Arcing (Satire No. 4)", Toscano addresses hypercapitalism in a more direct way:

Globalesco sin barreras

punctured subjects

gabby goblins (144)

Platform comes replete with a cultural specificity that firmly roots it in late Capital. Sometimes these socio-cultural allusions are direct (for example, Brazilian presidential hopeful, Lula [210-213]) and sometimes they are more oblique (Debray, Guevara et al. are alluded to only as "foco-istas".[23]) Toscano's cultural allusions range the historical terrain, moving deftly from Roque Dalton (27) to the chief economist at First Union Corp. (65), from Alexandra Kollontai (27) to Francis Fukuyama (170), from Ellen Meiksins Wood (117) to George Soros (170), from mainline economists like Kenneth Galbraith and Milton Friedman (169) to Western Marxists like Georg Lukács (36, 127) and Louis Althusser (23). These allusions may be serious, may be playful, or may be both, but as a whole, they also constitute a critical, complex, nuanced excavation that speaks to the present. Whether he is pointing out a "Transubstantiary Keynesian / retro-incrementalist / 'revolutionist'" (47) or "'An Ivy-League woodchuck's / latent order to / chompity chomp / stomp- / out / openly / syndicalist poetics / on cue'" (125) Toscano incisively slices through the rhetorical shroud, persistently seeking out forms of authority and domination and challenging their legitimacy.

And Toscano is not afraid to name names: he freely fingers the actors who hype and hock, who spray spittle on the virtual stump, who push the logic of late capitalism like a meta-advertisement for soap-powder. For instance, former U.S Trade Representative Charlene Barshevsky gets a shoutout/shoutdown (63) as does Exxon (94), the "Nazi-like NYPD" (202), and the WTO (218). Toscano's naming of names brings to mind Cornel West's articulation of "selective morality,"6 and both would likely agree (though they go about their work in strikingly different ways) that the recognition of this "selective morality" is an important step on the road to deconstructing the normalized bourgeois myth that passes for the smooth surface of history.7

This consistent, rich layer of cultural allusion is part of Toscano's broader concern for history. By history he does not mean the hardened codes of 'immutable' time-maps; nor does he mean the static schematic of the pseudo-pristine sunnyday. Rather he's talking about the radically contingent complex interlockings that together form what Bob Perelman has dubbed "the empyrean of capital."8 As Toscano, writes bitingly in "Some Brooklyn Northside Calaberitas (Little Skulls) (Ironic Morsels)," we might see "History not as something / you can live to tell your children" (188). History is a process; history's no mystery, or at least it shouldn't be. In "Affekt Funeral / Affekt Jamboree" Toscano sidles in satirically on this perpetually unfolding social process of history construction:

kids, if you're watching this…

make sure you never think of any other social arrangement
other than the one that

Militarily Has To Dominate Three Quarters of The World (174)

With Toscano, a poem can therefore be a mysterious thing. The poems in Platform move in many directions at once, and in ways that defy convenient categorization. When attempting to get some traction on Toscano's "politically arrayed poetics" it is useful to consider the work of Bertolt Brecht. Toscano indicates his debt to Brecht both epigraphically (20) and through allusion (165, 167), but the connections plunge deep beneath the surface of the page. To start with, both writers show an obvious concern for praxis, the perpetually unfolding process of reflection and action. Fredric Jameson's description of Brecht's praxis applies in compelling ways to Toscano's Platform:

What history has solidified into an illusion of stability and substantiality can now be dissolved again, and reconstructed, replaced, improved, 'umfunktioniert'. The process of aesthetic autonomization, breaking the action up into its smallest parts, thus has symbolic as well as epistemological meaning: it shows what the act 'really' is, no doubt, but the very activity of breaking up and 'analyzing' it is itself a joyous process, a kind of creative play, in which new acts are formed together out of pieces of the old, in which the whole reified surface of a period seemingly beyond history and beyond change now submits to a first ludic unbuilding, before arriving at a real social and revolutionary collective reconstruction 9

For both Brecht and Toscano, the critical, dialectical excavation of history as Spectacular myth is meant not only to dereify, but also to arouse praxis, to galvanize a dynamic embrace of the socio-political flux. Collaborative work, or collective praxis, is crucial. After all, as Kevin Davies - detourning Marx's Theses on Feuerbach - has so aptly put it, "The point, however, is to change it." 10

Both Toscano and Brecht show a not uncertain flair for satire, though satire is only one element within each of their methodological repertoires. Toscano includes four satires in Platform, and he uses, as does Brecht, a sharp satirical edge to illuminate and explore societal contradictions. Through estrangement and defamiliarization, Toscano seeks to identify the contradictory tendencies within social processes-tendencies that simultaneously support and undercut-since, as Michael Schmidt has pointed out, "contradiction fosters change; the inherent contradictory essence of things provides an ever potential source for transformation."11 Toscano's (and Brecht's) relational perspective emphasizes the dynamic, unfolding character of processes, indicating:

a shift away from thinking about a concept as a singular categorical expression to regarding concepts as embedded in complex relational networks that are both intersubjective and public. . . . That is, concepts cannot be defined on their own as single ontological entities; rather, the meaning of one concept can be deciphered only in terms of its 'place' in relation to other concepts in its web. What appear to be autonomous categories defined by their attributes are reconceived more accurately as historically shifting sets of relationships that are contingently stabilized.12

Or, as Toscano puts it:

Estrangement            Engagement
                       rendered (34)

This deeper and more consistent introspection of practice is one thing that distinguishes Platform from his previous two books-Partisans (O Books, 1999) and The Disparities (Green Integer, 2002). Whenever there is mention of politics, the world of poetry is never far away. After "BABYLON, N-Y-C" comes "a series of / supply lines / planned demand / a series of / reading series" (68); after "FTAA // Constabulatory / Reverberative / Structuralist / Limits?" comes "Strategy: // Secure Loan from the Multidiversity Reach Out Bank of America- / to pay of interest on / Amalgamated Langpo Support Plank-Bank" (131-132).

Another notable distinction with Platform is the amplified process of abstraction that he engages in. Throughout Platform Toscano deftly abstracts his level of generality, shifting his plane of comprehension from capitalist production as a whole to vinegar-soaked-bandana battles on the ground.13 In particular, the poems in "Group 5" mark a distinct downward abstraction to moments of lived resistance, as Toscano investigates the UPS strike of 1997, General Secretary Lula's bid for the Brazilian presidency, a march for Amadou Diallo, and other historical moments. In this Group of poems, Toscano shows a palpable zest for the concrete, zeroing in on material relations in postmodernity.

These investigations, of course, raise questions of structure and agency. Throughout Platform Toscano edges in on the irreducible heterogeneity of resistance, the acute interdependency of the present as he puts his finger on the staccato-fire pulse of the "Labor De-Deprivation rhythm" (148). Through spatial and temporal extension, intertextual play, the overlapping of contexts, and by coming in aslant (all the while avoiding the surreptitious slide into a full-blown pomo perspectivalism), Toscano concocts his own system of citationality, offering the reader a lexicon of flux and a syntax of resistance.

In the end, Platform asks more questions than it delivers final answers. As he puts it in "Early Morning Prompts for Evening Takes (or, Roll 'em!)," "a realization of what's yet unrealized- / postscript or / preamble / to praxis?" (19) or in "In-Formational Forum Rousers," "All atomized mushroomy multitudes / to the great de-centered / re-centered / convergence?" (118). It is this precise undecidability that wedges open the world to an ecology of possibility. Platform, therefore, taken as a whole, supports Marx's observation that "the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality." 14 Toscano seems to say that one's concrete environment can be remolded but only through "a series of standoffs // before a standoff" (231).

As Platform questions, it also indicts and it celebrates, and at the end of the day, it offers us poems of striking cultural density and multivalence that reverberate in the skull of the reader long after the last word has been read.


1 David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1990) 345.
2 Rodrigo Toscano, The Disparities (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2002) 65.
3 James Baldwin "Letter to my Nephew," In Paul Clee and Violeta Radu-Clee (eds.) American Dreams, 2nd ed. (Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1999).
4 See Walter Benjamin. "The Author As Producer." In Understanding Brecht. Trans. Anna Bostock (New York: Verso, 1977) 85-103. Also, Marx (and Toscano) would surely want us to note that "The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material-life process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises." Karl Marx, The German Ideology, in Robert C. Tucker (ed.), The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed., (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1978) 154.
5 Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Empire. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000). In fact, Toscano alludes to this book in at least one instance: "Hardt and Negri / -gasmic" (119)
6 Cornel West. "Progressive Politics in These Times: From Vision to Action," Mario Savio Memorial Lecture, UC Berkeley, 5 November 2001.
7 For a work that mirrors Platform in many ways, see Roland Barthes's Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1970). Barthes asserts that much of what passes for history is, in fact, bourgeois ideology. "Myth deprives the object of which it speaks of all History. In it, history evaporates. It is a kind of ideal servant: it prepares all things, brings them, lays them out, the master arrives, it silently disappears: all that is left for one to do is enjoy this beautiful object without wondering where it comes from" (151).
8 Bob Perelman. "Just Like Me." Presentational draft from a poetry panel-"Procedural and Investigative Poetics"-Bard College, June 1999.
9 Fredric Jameson, Brecht and Method (New York: Verso, 1998) 47.
10 Kevin Davies. Comp (Washington, DC: Edge Books, 2000) 19.
11 Michael Schmidt, "Marxian Dialectics," The Tangent, Vol. 6: No. 1 (Summer 2002): 35.
12 Margaret R. Somers, "What's Political or Cultural about Political Culture and the Public Sphere? Toward an Historical Sociology of Concept Formation," Sociological Theory 13 (1995): 136.
13 For a more thorough explanation of dialectical abstraction see Bertell Ollman, Dialectical Investigations, (New York: Routledge, 1993) Chapter Two.
14 Karl Marx. Capital Vol. 1 (New York: International Publishers, 1967) 178. In other words, we erect structure in our imagination before we erect it in reality.