Pleonastic Poesy

This offering is part of Undercommoning’s Provocations series. If you would like to contribute, please see our call for provocations.

Pleonastic Poesy: Uncontrollable Knowledge | Liberated Vulnerability

Scott W. Schwartz

\ \ \ G R O W T H / / /

Stumbling clusterdust swarms beneath the flesh of knowledge. Bubbling below the pores of the dominant epistemology is molten vulnerability, long suppressed in the perpetuity of hypothetical probability. The practice of endless accelerating asymmetrical accumulation (aka capitalization) has been predicated on the construction of vulnerability as a malady to dominate, to overcome, to securitize against – a manifestation reified by the machinery of knowledge production embedded in the optics of the university. The following aims to shatter this lens, and expose new apertures for producing knowledge.

Capital is any excess used to grow itself – wealth used to grow more wealth, most notoriously. The flirtatious concept has been around for millennia in the mechanics of interest, but every population that has ever partaken in the exchange of resources (i.e., every population ever) has either constructed taboos and restrictions checking perpetual accelerating asymmetrical growth or they have imploded. Today, our fortune is to reside within an exception to this pattern. Shall we develop measures to restrain this practice (that’d be nice)? Are we going to implode (probably)? Or are we somehow savvy enough to continue being exceptional (definitively not). The species is no more cunning today than 50,000 years ago. While we do excel at producing and accumulating knowledge, what kind of knowledge? We have institutions dedicated to the production, management, and perpetuation of knowledge, but what is deemed worthy of knowing by such institutions? What epistemological and methodological tools do universities employ? How did the ontology of capital and the epistemology utilized to reify its reality develop? What role does the university play in this process?

The social constraints guarding the bottomless abyss of compound interest were blasted off and smashed in between 1348 and 1848, a period bookended by the Black Death and global political revolutions that entrenched commercial interests over ecclesiastic. Fifteenth century banking financialization (see the Medicis), the joint-stock investments of the East Indian trading companies, and the quantification of vulnerability by insurance companies in the form of valuated risk (commoditized exposure to future harm) – all are implicated in cementing the idea that wealth is kinetic. If wealth isn’t growing, it’s diminishing. Value became a function of its future effect. Control of the hypothetical futurity of probability became a highly lucrative pursuit (Tanner 2005). More basically, this ontomutation transformed reality into an output, as opposed to an experience.

/ / / C O N T R O L \ \ \

For the production of knowledge these developments engendered a schism between two mutually exclusive categories of information: real and unreal. ‘Real’ information became predictive and probabilistic – information out of which trends and patterns could be modeled and futurecasted. Capitalized ontology describes reality as composed of information which serves as an accurate basis for prediction. If a bit of information doesn’t have a reliable reproducible linear causal effect it is deemed unreal, imaginary, or subjective (see witchcraft in Europe). The university observes ‘real’ information, producing reality in the process (see the aesthetic of linear perspective, and its naturalization as what ‘reality looks like’ – a controllable, mathematical surface).

It is important to note that the Enlightenment was bought. It was paid for by those who practiced perpetual accelerating asymmetrical growth of resources, in order to more efficiently be able to extract and accumulate. Those whose power had been built on the epistemology of ecclesiastic timeless truths vainly attempted to stifle the science that emboldened mercantilism. The university persists in privileging this manner of knowledge production devised to improve the efficiency of extraction and accumulation. This dominant capitalized epistemology engineers control by developing observational apparatuses designed to transform phenomena into predict-able (probabilitized) quantities (see the history of temperature and the struggle to turn relative variations in intensive heat into quantities) (Crosby 1997). Institutionalized modes of knowledge production seek controllable outputs. The university has no place for uncontrollable knowledge.

Uncontrollable knowledge does not describe one particular type of knowledge, it shifts with the dominant and normative epistemologies of the day. When ecclesiastic timeless truth is the dominant epistemology, Copernicus’ revelations about the mobility of the Earth and the solar system are highly uncontrollable. Today, uncontrollable knowledge is information which makes prediction less precise, makes it harder to eliminate uncertainties from projections and models of future states. Uncontrollable knowledge is heresy.

x x x S U F F E R I N G x x x

This review is cursory, but deeper soundings confirm that capital does not work without suffering. The perpetual accelerating growth currently practiced by our population is asymmetrical. It is inequitable and directional. It is constructed upon the pain, suffering, loss, death, domination, control and scarring of Others (see the twenty million Indians that died of famine in the late 19th century so Britain’s wealth could grow). Harney and Moten’s “constant economy of… misery cognition (2013)” is the calculus of capital.

Growth requires gaps, voids, emptiness, and absence in which to expand. The fertile depopulations of plague and famine offered such vacuity from 1348 to 1848. The naturalized kinetics of value would not have been possible in the finite dimensions of the ecclesiastic universe (at least the dimensions accessible to mortals). The fruition of capitalization demanded the cyclical deaths of plague, as well as geographical expansion and subsequent discovery of indigenous Others to bear the suffering of asymmetrical growth. Capital accumulates through extraction – taking away, removing, causing absence or loss. Extraction leaves scars.

Very briefly, like plagues and famines, the scars of World War II afforded openings to growth – the fleeting moment often cited as evidence of capitalism ‘working’. The post-war period also saw the drastic expansion of the university. Millions were corralled into the normative knowledge production machinery of the university to be inundated in the tenets of accelerating asymmetrical growth and extractive accumulation. Despite ostensible establishment quaking at the social agitation on the university campuses of the 1960s, the inundation of these youths was completely successful if one looks at the velocity and ease with which they turned into profit generators. Aside from more underlying flaws the university is, of course, itself a debt generating platform for the accrual of interest, but this form of bondage is elaborated elsewhere.

| | | V U L N E R A B I L I T Y | | |

More important than just falling in line with the dominant homogenous epistemological circuitry, the expansion of university systems in the post-war years helped engineer capital’s greatest windfall. If not mass deaths from plague or war, suffering can otherwise be engineered. The so-called Great Accelerations beginning in 1950 can be attributed to the innovative idea that lots of people don’t have to die to induce mass suffering. Absences, losses, longings, emptiness, can be disseminated while preserving consumers – e.g., the absence of health insurance or a retirement fund. These absences make one vulnerable, and one doesn’t wish to be vulnerable. You don’t want to be exposed to a future harm when hypothetical futurity is the platform of reality.

Vulnerability is the antithesis of control. Arendt describes vulnerability as, “the price of mundane freedom (Ziarek 2013).” Freedom is the capacity for unpredictable action (Conway & Kochen 2006). Systems that suppress vulnerability suppress freedom. Only the dead are invulnerable. Timothy Morton writes, “All systems are afflicted with a necessary flaw that is a condition for existence. To exist is to be afflicted, and thus fragile (2012).” However, perceiving reality as an output as opposed to an experience presents vulnerability as something controllable.

Universities produce knowledge as an output – it is the commodity they sell. The university peddles understanding because things-understood have definable boundaries and delineated borders. But understanding kills knowledge, it is dead knowledge with no contingency or vulnerability. Vulnerability is appreciation, not understanding. Uncontrollable knowledge is an appreciation for the queer, mutated, and deviant contours of experience and presence.

: : : P O E S Y : : :

Capitalized knowledge production is narrative in that it presupposes the transecting of the present, the deferral of presence to hypothetical pasts and futures. This disposal frames the uncertainty of presence as an obstacle to be overcome because it inhibits predictive capacity. Poetic causality, however, indulges the insecurity and unpredictability of presence. Through its semiotic immediacy and promiscuity, poetry has been an antidote to capital’s vitrification of presence. Unfortunately, as a spacetime into which capital’s tendrils ooze, poetry has been industrialized and suppressed by the university and market. We need heretical poetry. We need poesy!

[Heresy + Poetry = Poesy]

Poesy is the defiant assertion of liberated vulnerability, emancipating vulnerability from the oppression of a future condition, pulling vulnerability back into the present as an experience of shared empathy.

How? Semantic corrosion, decay, and deviance. Pleonasm is the use of more words than are necessary to convey meaning. Pleonastic poesy uses excess, the fuel of capital, against itself – overloading sentiments with orphaned, nomadic, wandering signals. Capital produces the future as something controllable by employing observational instruments designed to see predict-able information. Poesy is a superfluidity that corrodes the predictive capacity of capital’s instruments of observation. Poesy is the exposure of sentiments to harm, change, and flux. Pleonastic poesy is the schizolithic avalanche capable of derailing growth.

Just as capital slips into every absence and gap, colonizing the universe with probabilistic quantities, poesy does the same to capitalized sentiments and capitalized knowledge. Accurate prediction relies on the elimination of redundant causality and the reduction of uncertainties. Poesy is pure redundancy made possible by the uncertainty of presence. Like the phenotypic plasticity of seeds emerging into unpredictable plant-forms, pleonastic poesy cultivates sentiments into unpredictable word-forms.

Observation and measurement are political acts. What information a population deems worthy of observing is socially negotiated (Barad 2012). Populations, like ours, that practice perpetual accelerating asymmetrical accumulation observe predictable and controllable information. Capitalized populations value the controllable attributes of phenomena. Pleonastic poesy is the observation of disordered, irregular phenomena. Pleonastic poesy does not see central tendencies or normality. Pleonastic poesy sees uncontrolled vulnerability.

The epistemology that produces capital’s ontology cannot be outcompeted and replaced by a better epistemology. Capitalism is pure competition. Replacing the dominant epistemology with one that doesn’t prioritize extraction and accumulation is so difficult because the epistemology we desire is intrinsically not competitive, it will be devoured by capital. Rather, capitalized epistemology must be dismantled intestinally, by feeding it so much excessive pleonasm that it can no longer digest (accumulate). Pleonasm constipates capital’s ability to spot trends and predict. Pleonasm constipates the future and capital’s ability to shift causality into this hypothetical subsequent temporality. You can’t control what you can’t predict. If any deviant signal can be buckled to any sentiment, all patterns dissolve, all normality dissolves. Difference becomes art, not exploitation.


Barad, Karen. 2012. “Nature’s queer performativity (the authorized version).” Kvinder, Køn Og Forskning / Women, Gender and Research 1(2): 25-53.

Conway, John & Simon Kochen. 2006. “The Strong Free Will Theorem.” Notices of the AMS. 56(2): 226-232.

Crosby, Alfred. 1997. The Measure of Reality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Harney, Stefano & Fred Moten. 2013. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. Brooklyn: Minor Compositions.

Morton, Timothy. 2012. “The Oedipal Logic of Ecological Awareness.” Environmental Humanities. 1: 7- 21.

Tanner, Kathryn. 2005. Economy of Grace. Minneapolis: Fortress Press

Ziarek, Ewa. 2013. “Feminist Reflections on Vulnerability: Disrespect, Obligation, Action.” SubStance. 42 (3): 67-83.

Scott W. Schwartz is based at the Graduate Centre at the City University of New York.


Leave a Reply