What’s the difference between a totality and a matrix? From one perspective, a totality seeks to encompass social relations, whereas a matrix proliferates between them. This may seem to echo a distinction between modernism and postmodernism, but that divide was always a messy one, as postmodernism repeatedly played out the string of modernism’s aesthetic and intellectual failures. Near the end of his monograph on The Matrix, written for the BFI Modern Classics series (2004), Joshua Clover describes how in the merger fever of the late-1990s Nasdaq-driven bubble economy, The Matrix presented a world in which reality is actually a “set of codes that has flowered into totality.” Yet as Clover argues, a totality represents a construct one can still peer around the edge of, a confident metaphor for vision that allows Neo and company to battle the system with their dark shades securely fixed in place; for those poor saps completely submerged within the Matrix, the code flows so free, fast, and far they forget about their chains.
A fundamental point of Baudrillard’s concept of the simulacrum—to which The Matrix is of course profoundly indebted—is that it renders obsolete the categories reality and image (which are not, by the way, the same as true and false—one can abandon the former two while retaining the latter). Personally, I’d rather live in a flat world as opposed to one structured vertically around social and ideological insides and outsides, even if this entails my partial beguilement by the spectacle. Given his astute and sympathetic readings of popular and avant-garde cultures, Clover, a professor at UC Davis, might agree. Along with his Matrix book, he’s a regular contributor to the Voice, has previously written for glossy culture mags like Spin, and is currently providing a valuable service in opening up the soporific poetry review pages of The New York Times Book Review to work that’s vibrant and resourceful, not poetry that sensitively pauses to notice the sun setting over dear recently deceased dad’s weathered patio furniture.
Clover’s accomplished second book of poems, The Totality for Kids, reads contemporary U.S. society through the prism of Haussmann’s Paris. But while Haussmann is frequently deemed an archetypal totalizing modernist for demolishing urban warrens favored by revolutionaries and designing boulevards for promenading bourgeoisie as well as for the efficient move- ment of commerce and troops, Clover enjoys his modernist Paris, thank you very much, with its clean sight lines (all the way out to the “red suburbs”), its foreshortened yet therefore richer artistic traditions, and its ability to keep personal experience generally symmetrical: just the right amount of companionship and loneliness, stim- ulation and ennui, sex and loss. “Here in the duskgarden it’s getting so you can’t tell/an abyss from a pageant.” Not so much The Matrix, Clover’s retro-future Totality looks and talks a little bit like Godard’s Alphaville.
All the while, the poems track a “shift from modernism to world systems,” wherein “History and capital had been Astaire and Rogers but are now Clark Kent and/Superman” (substitute much scarier movie icons here). Paralleling this change is a replacement of the big narratives and ideas of modernity with a modest pleasure taking in the quotidian: “There was an expectation in everyday life.” This is standard cultural studies stuff that moreover resonates with Ezra Pound’s modernist credo to “Day by day make it new.” But far from celebrating the situation, Clover illuminates its impoverishment: “You are free though a freedom with its ribs showing.” It also refers to a major problem facing poetry today: namely, that its ambitions have never been lower at the same time that the ambitions for poets have never been higher (book prizes galore, plum teaching jobs). In fact, an argument could be made that poetry’s current fad for unveiling minor subjectivities is in direct propor- tion to the reduced expectations people— including poets—have for it.
Clover almost says as much: “. . . sometimes we seemed to see/The edge of the construct but it was not our seeing/That counted, our songs under attic sun,/This rococo maquette of summer’s end.” This is partly a result of 20th-century avant-garde literature—produced by a motley gang of progressives, fascists, geniuses, crackpots, populists, elitists, radicals, and reactionaries—having now been mostly turned into a repository for creative-writing workshop techniques. Clover’s totality aims for more and less than this. More, because of the grand allegorical-historical sweep of his book, in which Paris is paradigm for the promises and failures of all modern cities—and modernity writ large; less, because his poetry searches for “new sensations” and “tiny changes” and “new nouns,” which he realizes in the poem “Their Ambiguity” can be easily packaged and sold as lifestyle accoutrements. Never- theless, particulars do slowly chip away at totalities, however quickly they’re subsumed by matrices. The Totality for Kids‘ clever particulars—whether conceptual, sensual, or pop cultural—bury the past in a playful nostalgia promising a fresh start.