Ida Börjel - At once practical handbook, philosophical inquiry, and series of fables set in Putin's Ru
Ida Börjel, Miximum Ca' Canny the Sabotage Manuals, Trans. by Jennifer Hayashida, Commune Editions, 2016.
"One of the most important poets in Scandinavia."—Kamilla Löfström
At once practical handbook, philosophical inquiry, and series of fables set in Putin's Ru
ssia, The Sabotage Manuals throws a wrench into the machinery of contemporary language, generating strange solidarities between saboteurs past and present. Sourced from political pamphlets and factory workers' diaries, Börjel's profound poem allows for the most expansive (and explosive) sense of sabotage.
II. the sabotage manual
Industrial Workers of the World
(IWW) publishes the handbook Sabotage:
The Conscious Withdrawal of the Workers
Industrial Efficiency authored by
Elisabeth Gurley Flynn
The American Office of Strategic
Services (OSS) publishes The Simple Sabotage
Field Manual, de-classified
in the year two-thousand-and-eight
The human factor. To widen a
margin of error.
Intentional stupidity goes against
human nature. The saboteur may
need to reverse her thinking. If
before she made sure to keep her
tools sharp, she can now let them grow
dull. What was brightly polished will now
be scratched; what was carefully tucked away can
now be left out. The assiduous grows full
of indolence. The keen grows torpid,
the firm begins to give way. When the saboteur
starts to think backwards about herself and hers
she does not let the opportunity slip
out of her hands. Anything might be sabotaged.
What was firmly rooted
lies rotted. What was cast solid
is perforated. Into those openings the
saboteur sticks her fingers.
A certain measure of humor in the following
proposition helps the tension and
Commit acts for which a large number
can be held responsible. So that it could have
Do not be afraid to commit acts
you can personally be held
responsible for, as long as you do not do it
too often and assuming that you have a
plausible excuse dropped the wrench
there by that circuit the little one cried
and kept me awake all night I
must have been half asleep well so
I dropped the key
now and then when I want half a day off and
they don’t give it to me I let the belt slither off
the machine so that it doesn’t work and I get
my half day I don’t know if you call it
sabotage but that’s what I do
delay give the wrong number happen
to disconnect forget
mutter make conversations difficult or
impossible to understand
distort telegrams so that additional ones need to be
composed sometimes simply by
changing a letter from “minimum” to
“miximum” then they won’t know if
minimizing or maximizing is at stake
a letter a punctuation mark to move a
comma from “access denied, control” to
“access, denied control”
at the screening of propaganda films place two or
three dozen large moths in a paper bag bring
to the movie theater place on the floor in an empty row
the moths will fly out into the theater
towards the light
and when they climb over the projector
the film becomes an agitated fluttering shadow play
so they will sound as though they were passing
through a thick cotton blanket with mouths
full of gravel
so that the line can no longer be used
so they do not move
but flutter disturb
the automated gaze
Born in Lund, Sweden, Ida Börjel is one of the most radical voices in contemporary conceptual poetry. Since her multiple award-winning debut collection Sond (Probe, 2004), Börjel has been investigating the current conditions of our world, raising questions such as ”Why do we walk in circles when we are lost?”, and, ”what is a waist measure of nationalistic characters?” Her poetry absorbs and reinvents language from consumer law, juridicial clauses, racist radio, political pamphlets and other sprawling sources to expose our contemporary, linguistic, and societal circumstances in relation to various forms and systems of power and authority. Her collection Miximum Ca’Canny the Sabotage Manuals (Commune Editions, 2016) is available to English-language readers in the translation of Jennifer Hayashida. Hayashida is working on a forthcoming translation of Ma, Börjel’s most widely-acclaimed book, which received many awards in the original, including the prestigious Erik Lindegren prize and Albert Bonnier’s poetry prize.
Asymptote‘s Sohini Basak caught up with the poet over email last month.
Sohini Basak (SB): In your collection Miximum Ca’Canny the Sabotage Manuals, a collective of industrial workers’ voices confound and sabotage capitalist machinery and “the boss” in various ways, including providing instructions for what to do when they “cutta da pay”: hide paperwork, peel off labels, forget tools, embrace slowness, hold meetings, ask questions—it’s a very real and fascinating interaction between materiality and ownership of language. I’m interested in the blueprints of this collection. Where did you begin?
Ida Börjel (IB): It began, I guess, with that old question about free will, about akrasia and how we might come to deviate from a given pattern. What compels a person to step across the threshold, out on the piazza, into action? Or to activate a gesture of refusal, discontinuation, or silence? And, in addition, the question I’ve been dragging along in my writing since day one: How, in what kind of language, can I think differently about a system of which we are a part? In which we are apart?
So, in pursuing those questions, I conducted a minor survey of sabotage in time and space, from above and below, inside and out: from Elisabeth Gurley Flynn and her 1916 pamphlet ”Sabotage: The Conscious Withdrawal of the Worker’s Industrial Efficiency,” to—still in the U.S. but directed overseas—the OSS (a predecessor to the CIA) pamphlet ”Sabotage: A Simple Field Manual,” which suggests the ”citizen-saboteurs” in France and Norway during WWII issue two tickets for one seat on the train in order to set up an ”interesting” argument, just to name example. It also states that ”purposeful stupidity is contrary to human nature,” so the citizen-saboteur ”frequently needs pressure, stimulation or assurance.” From there, I I looked at contemporary workers in the textile industry in Pakistan or the closing of an Ericsson factory in Gävle, Sweden, in 2009, and many others—there are pamphlets, diaries, blog texts, conversations, memories to sift through. There is much to be found and read out there, though there are sources that need to stay anonymous.
SB: That’s very immersive … and once you had points of references, memories, material, how did you map it all out?
IB: What seemed urgent to me in rewording and sampling texts from these various sources was not a simple whodunnit, but rather, how does one find and pick up that ”fine thread of deviation,” as Gurley Flynn puts it, in the present order of things? In the factory or at the office, yes, but also in factory life outside of the factory. In the prevailing social structures, in our daily lives… Do we speak, think, write, like in a factory? Leslie Kaplan, author of Excess– The Factory, asks this.
In the Fordist factory the workers were silenced by the noise of the machines. In the post-Fordist factory—I’m thinking of Christian Marazzi’s Capital and Language here—the factory is produced by and produces linguistics. A language that is politicizing us, quantifying us, desensitizing us, atomizing us. Changing the structures of our brains, the nerve paths, the responses of the synapses—into ersatz behaviour, ersatz sensitivity, ersatz stimulation. And there we go, trying to attach the little we have of ourselves to, trying to identify ourselves with the objects we buy or only dream of buying and then to move around in our homes. In a swirling circulation of triggered stimulus response where subjectivities turn into lubricators, it’s hard to get a grip on things.
And you can’t reason with the unreasonable. The bullshitters do not play the same game as the liar and the truthteller does. But you might joke about them. As the students did on the placards in Parliament Square, UK, in December 2010 for instance. ”I’M SO ANGRY I MADE THIS SIGN.” As the youth did in the monstration (sic!) in Novosibirsk on May Day, from 2004 and onwards. Through applying a language of absurdity in their banners they passed the demonstration ban. That doesn’t mean they did not get arrested. Non-sensical? ”I CROCODILE…” read one of the posters, echoing samizdat publications in the sixties.
This became a lengthy answer. And yet I feel, with Gurley-Flynn, that, ”I have not given you a rigidly defined thesis on sabotage because sabotage is in the process of making”.
SB: Right. As you just said, there is a lot of the absurd and the unreasonable in the language of oppression and authority, and one of the most effective ways to point that out is to claim the same language and turn it upside down. It might not be action per se, but it does raise hopes and express solidarity.
On that note, I absolutely love these lines from one of the poems in Miximum Ca’Canny:
say something when nothingmakes sense in life all words crashinto the abyss say something inabsurdum say something in silencewith the placards this is not allhereis there is more there is moreIB: The words in the abyss are Herta Müller’s, referring to how all dictatorships take language into possession. I’m thinking now of a salesman I met in east Jerusalem, how he said that living under occupation also meant that language, single words even, were replaced, nullified, deprived of their actual meaning…
Humour is one way—as the Dadaists knew—of expressing a non-confidence vote against the deceitful language of the current order. One might think of the slogan, “Everyone is the creator of one’s own happiness.” The downside to that one, if we read Mark Fisher—and we should—is the view of mental health as something natural. ”We need to re-frame the growing problem of stress,” he wrote, ”Instead of treating it as incumbent on individuals to resolve their own psychological distress, instead, that is, of accepting the vast privatization of stress…we need to ask: how has it become acceptable that so many people, and especially so many young people, are ill?”
SB: A lot of your work is geared towards opening public dialogue in various ways, breaking down the authoritative structures; on the other hand, form seems to be crucial to your poetics: systematically taking apart found material, using theatrical devices, animal fables, invoking Gertrude Stein, Inger Christensen...
Could you tell us more about the play between making and breaking structures and form in relation to the content and agenda of the works…?
IB: Yes, I tend to let formal structures mirror social conditions in negotiation with the artifact, the question of the book. Social conditions as laws, rules of conduct, paper thin or impenetrable laws of thought that dictate civilization. Human conditions.
But my efforts to process events into experience don’t always make sense. Understanding is not a given goal. Sometimes the grip is lost altogether, lost into poetry. Whether writing about national characters and stubborn prejudices, about lonely and mentally retired elderly having their say at local radio station, about rules and regulations in civil law, or a research study on the poem, “Why do we walk in circles when we are lost”, a common denominator has been trying to grasp a tone that reflects a certain (varying) kind of authoritarian voice. Be it bureaucratese, double-speak, or missionary. For that to work, one needs to stick with it for a while. I believe in lingering in uncomfortable zones.
SB: And did Ma come out from such an uneasy lingering? Inger Christensen’s Alphabet is a fascinating book, using the Fibonacci series and a sort of free-but-also-framed association to expand on the is-ness of things. But you have used its numero-linguistic template to chart grief…
IB: Yes, and no. Ma, is a very different, and dark, matter. It didn’t come about out of a sense of having a choice. Ma is an attempt at enacting a linguistic violence, a grammatical violence even, saying ”this is possible”, as well as an immersion into the infernal; life disdains language acts that tear people apart. It is a book written in despair after a year-long silence. The title stands for the Japanese kanji sign, the ideogram symbolizing a moment of moonlight shining through an entrance door cracked open, meaning negative space, interval, gap. Ma is also the universally first syllable an infant utters. Ma is the mother, torn apart, the tormented soul, anima.
In my case, the trauma caused a loss of linguistic ability. I mistrusted literature, and I couldn’t go back to writing in the way I had done before. Later (it felt so long!) I found that Inger Christensen’s Alphabet was one out of three books that didn’t start to dissolve when I was reading it. And so I told to myself that the alphabet was the one logical order that I had to accept, as a beginning, as an attachment for a new worldview, a scattered one. Of a world that also would contain a requiem of the child that died.
Ma was written in response to Alphabet, which is also the reason why the poems are right-aligned, printed on the right pages of the book. Like negative imprints of Christensen’s poems, yes, but also, in a way, negations of the traditional poems that were impossible to write on the left pages.
Alphabet repeats, like a mantra, the word “be” (or exist) in the present tense—Ma was written in the past tense, the tense of loss. For someone suffering from depression, a future might not be possible to imagine, or put faith in.
Christensen writes about the comfort of the name, to which Jaques Robaud, whose book some thing black was the second of the three books I could read, answers, “by saying your name I wanted to give you a stability that couldn’t be assailed.” The myriad of feminine names in Ma are all invocations for the lost ones … Kassanda, Memoranda, Laurasia, Virginia, aspidistra … But the hope of getting an answer draws in the maelstrom, a mesh of traumas, of catastrophes and our dead, the the stigmatized and the ones left behind in Gaza, in Aleppo, at the Taksim Square, at the Greek border, in the U.S., in Belarus … left behind in the human era we call Anthropocene, that alleged human apotheosis, in the name of big politics, of petit bourgeoisie.
In a world catalog where the impossible is tucked in under the possible, a mother is raging. Her grief being neither beautiful, elevated, elegiac or forgiving.
SB: Yes, there’s something terrifying but also affirming about that, despair and its negative articulation… In Miximum Ca’Canny too, you write: “the image of fractals alters the meaning / of the silence to put language into practice articulation / erects the border between static order and / incomprehensible chaos”.
When I was reading this collection, I immediately recalled Solmaz Sharif’s Look, in which she uses various techniques to make poems out of military terminology and bureaucratic conversations. And now I’ve learnt that you are in the process of translating the collection into Swedish. What has been the experience of putting language into practice as a translator, especially with a book like Look?
IB: It really is a wonderfully disturbing and delicate book. I hope that I, in collaboration with Jennifer Hayashida, will be able to recreate that kind of friction between authoritarian violence and subjective sensibility.
Translating it into Swedish. And to the contemporary literary, societal, and political context in Sweden. At first glance it might seem like we are placing a book of war poems in a time of peace—Sweden being a country that hasn’t been at war for two hundred and two years. But it is a truth in need of modification. Since Sweden claims a policy of neutrality in armed conflicts, it aims at being self-sufficient in arms. Today the country I live in is one of the world’s biggest exporters of the euphemism ”defense materials” in relation to GDP and capital. Between 2001 and 2011, such exports were quadrupled. Moreover, the notion of Sweden as a nation untouched by war rings a bit awkward considering the fact that a large number of the citizens, inhabitants, asylum-seekers, and undocumented immigrants have experienced war first-hand or second-hand. I’m thinking of the refugees from Finland during WWII as well as of today’s refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, and other war zones.
A crucial question has been how to treat the military terms from the DOD embedded in the poems. The vocabulary of the Swedish military doesn’t (well, not in their dictionary at least) contain terms flavoured with sex, popular culture, or machismo. The Swedish counterparts, if there are any, tend to be of a somewhat grey matter: bureaucratic, technical, neutralized. Question: should the English terms be kept or translated? Lexical correctness—semantic loss? Here we have struggled with the complexity of trying to both decipher and depict the U.S. military’s language acts in Swedish.
Trying to find a balance between the English version, portraying an experience of linguistic violence sanctioned by the U.S. state, and recreating those acts of violence in Swedish. In doing so, we are losing the glamour, translating away the ”make-don’t-believe” of American English, i.e American popular culture in the eyes of non-Americans, i.e a world of dreams. Does that mean we are, in a sense, making it real? Simultaneously, paradoxically: does that mean that we are enacting a linguistic violence that has yet to be realized in Sweden? Questions that need to be considered and worked through. Although, in the end, the lines might come to cross. To speak with Oana Avasilichioaei and Erín Moure: ”I wanted to translate what was not yet there… The paradox of borders—national, corporeal, and linguistic—is that their primary value is not to keep out, but to let in. Translation involves permeability, not equivalence.”
SB: That Oana Avasilichioaei and Erín Moure quote is fantastic! Your own poetry has been widely translated into fifteen languages (correct?) including Danish, French, Icelandic, Belarusian, Persian, Arabic, and into English by Jennifer Hayashida. How closely do you work with your translators, given that much of your poetry hinges on etymology and linguistic play? And what you just said about equating lexical correctness with semantic loss…
IB: As of today, I believe it to be 19 languages, which have meant tickets for me to participate in poetry readings in 18 countries. Makes me wonder about the whole travelling community of poets that, daemon-like, wouldn’t be able to go anywhere without the invitations—how far do we reach in a year? And how heavy is the total weight of the books that we carry around? I do feel immensely honoured and grateful for all the work done by translators out there. I’ve had the fortune to work closely with a few of them, in translating my poems or theirs. Together we have spent an indefensible amount of time searching for an equivalent to the little word “guldtacka” —buillion, or gold ingot, or ? —in different languages, not wanting to sacrifice the cute sheep since the word ”tacka” also denotes an ewe in Swedish. In Palestine, Dahlia Taha found a word related to the animal kingdom when thinking of the merchant mentality in Hebron, in Romania Elena Vladareanu found a word, if I remember correctly, related to a rooster and a roma gold coin…
There are some really sympathetic translators out there … Maybe it really is a universal truth, what Don Mee Choi said in her ALTA key note about The Silence by Ingmar Bergman: that all the women in the movie who are not translators are ill.
Some of these translation meetings have taken place in disqualified translations workshops, though, inviting poets to translate without notable knowledge of the source language. Spivak would disapprove for sure. Disqualified, I’d say, but not without meaning. (It should be mentioned that those workshops weren’t about translating entire books, which made all the difference since it didn’t prevent other, professional translations from being made later on.) The purpose of these workshops is just as much about encounters, about introducing voices, start conversations and to enable international networks.
SB: So, translation as an encounter, as a real conversation … not with a goal of reaching to a new, but analogous text?
IB: Yes, although just because we had no real chance of succeeding that didn’t mean we didn’t try. We did. But to engage in conversation is risky. There might be a risk in trusting the other as you blink, because what happens if the other blinks at exactly the same time? What if the dual perspective, supposed to provide insurance against the” home blindness” of the other, suddenly blurs into double vision?
That being said, it’s nice to stroll down that quirky path of endless revisions and comments together with someone, for a change.
Alone but together.
SB: Absolutely. Reading poetry these days somehow never occurs to me in isolation, what I mean to say is one book leads to another, a phrase here knocks off a domino there and sentences avalanche. While reading Miximum Ca’Canny, I thought of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, and also Juliana Spahr and the young Russian poet Galina Rymbu. Several women writers are reclaiming the lyric I with experimental, at times avant garde collections critiquing the nation-state, capitalism, oppressive systems of power and discrimination. Do you consciously negotiate with (or try to keep aside) the lyric I while writing a more public poetry?
IB: Sohini, are you setting a dinner table for us? In an open space in Delhi somewhere? If so, I’ll bring some earthy wine and those delicious Iranian saffron crackers. May I invite NourbeSe Philip’s Zong? And Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieu? Next to her an empty seat – following the Polish Christmas tradition – I’d like to reserve a plate for the Unexpected Guest. As an interlude I could recite Gertrude Stein: ”I am no longer I when I see. This sentence is at the bottom of all creative activity. It is just the exact opposite of I am I because my little dog knows me.”
And as the hours go by and the jokes have had their way, we could talk about the Swedish poet Birgitta Trotzig, who urged us to stay in dialogue with the unbearable. We could ask what her writings about an intentionless language mean to us, and we could probe into exercises of seeing, in her words: ”exercises in not denying, not letting unsuitable parts of reality disappear through that mental trapdoor that our self-preserverance ceaselessly offers.”
Hours under a night sky, Delhi velvet blue, with one cloud that resembles Audre Lorde and one that really doesn’t.
SB: Okay, that dinner needs to happen! And I have a rooftop in mind too … I’m also curious about your current project City Fables at the Malmö University that combines stories of urban life, how they are circulated, the systemic illnesses, tax structures, heavy corporate language, and … cute animals. Do tell more.
IB: In City Fables: Follow the Money, we have analyzed as well as counter-narrated dominant narratives that frame the city of Malmö. Instead of focusing on the so-called poor and troubled neighbourhoods of Malmö, where media attention thrives, we set out to understand and counter-narrate the successful side of the city.
That steered us into examining the language of neocapitalism and its global flows of financial and human capital. So we analyzed data from 2000 companies and 200 annual reports of larger companies in Malmö (turned out 30% don’t pay any taxes), conducted interviews with politicians, bankers, auditing companies and activists, arranged a taxathon weekend for concerned citizens, and documented tax-haven products in our homes.
The experiment has led to, among other things, four cut-out animation films (for instance ”Is There Swedish Coffee in Panama” and ”The Small Businessman’s Package Trip to Tax Haven”, soon on YouTube), micro plays with cute animal puppets and a quiz/personality test called ”Animal Spirits” —which economical beastie are you?
”Cuteness is a way of aestheticizing powerlessness,” writes Sianne Ngai, adding that when the cute object gets injured, we find it even cuter. Spongy, fluffy, tiny and big-eyed, it manipulates you to feel that you just have to have it. You hear yourself utter some diminutive swooning sound of confirmation. The cute just looks back at you, watery eyes. But what happens if the cute start to speak, if they start making claims on our way of reasoning?
SB: That sounds revolutionary. Perhaps I will never look a baby panda video in the same way again. I have a final if somewhat cliched question: what or who are your influences? Are there some works of art you keep going back to?
IB: Hm. Why am I reluctant to answer? Maybe I don’t see it as a ”going back,” as if returning to something solid, fixed. Or that I don’t have a sense of a homecoming… Would you mind asking me again in twenty years? I wish I could return, though, to watch the dance performance, ”It’s going to get worse and worse my friend,” by Lisbeth Growez. It made me cry. - Sohini Basak