Weapons catalog descriptions: cyberpunk, academic prose, fables, and a Tyrannosaurus Rex stopping a suicide bomber. From these disparate sources Josef Kaplan creates Democracy is not for the People, his newest volume of poetry. Divided into four parts, the book confronts the unholy terrors of globalization, globalized terror, and mass-market homogeneity. These confrontations utilize high and low culture, genre imitation, and the political broadside.
It is easy to see this as agitprop or a gimmick. At first blush, Democracy would appear as more preaching to the converted for the ranks of the Occupy movement. Kaplan’s politicized confrontations, constructed with a cunning ferocity, aspire to become more, since the lifespan of literature outlives flash-in-the-pan political movements, nation-states, and entire civilizations.
The cunning comes from the technique of pastiche. Democracy’s first section, entitled Tilt-Shift, is an extended pastiche culled from numerous sources. Varieties of prose styles come one after another. Along with these samplings, there are stream-of-consciousness style riffs on religious practice, assassination, and capitalism. In its own way, Democracy uses the raw materials of recklessly deregulated capitalism and extremist ideology against itself.
Kaplan’s leftism seems pretty obvious, but in one instance, a piece called The President, he inhabits the voice of the ideologically unhinged, a rant that begins as an anti-Bush tirade and ends with the narrator gloating about posting on Yahoo! message boards calling for President Obama’s assassination. An earlier piece, Gifts of Cloaks, begins with the story of Kenji Urada, who, in 1944, was the first person killed by a robot. It continues with the history of SWORDS (“Special Weapons Observation Detection System”) and the development of unmanned drones. In the middle of this prose poem, we read an extended excerpt from a weapons catalog, listing several kinds of drones. The robotic technology has been weaponized and then commodified, unmanned drones the cutting edge of late capitalism’s commodity-fetishism. Like the Transformers toy line, there is something intrinsically cool about an unmanned weapon. Are Michael Bay’s Transformers movies and the trend of using drones for assassination part of the same moral sickness? Or are we too distracted by the technology’s futuristic awesomeness to actually care in the first place?
Tilt-Shift is a mélange of discourses, commingling highbrow and lowbrow. The next section plays on the same societal critique, but from a different angle. Ex Machina is a list of suicide bomber attacks, but something foils all the attacks at the last moment. They include, but are not limited to, the following: Athena, daughter of Zeus, terrestrial bacteria, a spontaneously appearing field of poppies, the Autobot Matrix of Leadership, the sun chariot of Helios, the S.S. Heart of Gold, and the janitor from The Hudsucker Proxy.
When one reads these prose poems, one reacts with a kind of cognitive dissonance. The tragic intermingles with the comic in perverse contamination of fact and fiction. Each begins with a documentary description of the suicide attack and ends with intervention, divine or otherwise. After a while, the long list of attacks numbs the reader, the pop culture interventions seeming like cutesy pop cultural references. Then one realizes that these attacks did in fact happen, and there were no interventions. Existential despair or laughter?
However, bad taste can operate as a means to illuminate the everyday, since the American news is now littered with random shootings. With Aurora, the Sikh temple shooting, and other incidents, one realizes there is no Over There anymore. Terrorism, like the Market, is omnipresent, seductive, and lethal. Democracy attempts to plumb the abyss created by deregulated markets and globalized violence.
Is Democracy the Howl for the Occupy generation? The short answer is no. But should Democracy be the Howl for those Occupy protesters? One hopes the reader will have a richer series of reference points than Allen Ginsberg’s verbally explicit indictment of Eisenhower-era conformity and nuclear paranoia. Kaplan’s Democracy, in its self-conscious contamination of high and low culture, pop cultural references, and discursive pastiche, is a witty commentary on the present socioeconomic and political unpleasantness. It’s also a well-written screed, parody, and ode to a world warped by failed states, failed economic systems, and failed theories. This is not simple-minded agitprop, preaching to the converted, but a bracing slap in the face.