“Up against the wall”, a Curatorial Short by Lukas Moe (San Jose State University)

Last month, the library hosted poetry scholar Lukas Moe for its March edition of the Curatorial Short series. Drawing on the RBML’s 1968: COLUMBIA IN CRISIS exhibition, the talk considered archival work in literary studies as being written on the “wall” of institutions during moments of historic transformation and challenge.

As it recedes further into the past, 1968 has come to be the site of rueful irony as much as nostalgic desire, a point of departure for diagnosing the strategic failures and practical limits, especially around the question of race and of the New Left student movement. In the wake of the Tet offensive in Vietnam and the assassination of MLK in the Spring of 1968, a wave of protests, strikes and riots reflected a surge in militancy across the civil rights, antiwar and women’s movements. Yet in retrospect, 1968 marked a turning point of another kind, the ascendancy of neoliberal economics in the 1970s that hollowed out the postwar welfare state by privatizing the public goods that underwrote it, namely, higher education.

Putting the 1968 political archives in conversation with work by poets straddling mainstream and avant-garde traditions, such as David Henderson, Sharon Olds, Sonia Sanchez, Mark Rudd, and Lorenzo Thomas, as well as the magazines in which they appeared, such as Radical America and El Corno Emplumado / Plumed Horn, Moe explored the styles of lyric expression that poets used to incite, engage, withdraw from, cast doubt upon, forms of direct actions: the work stoppage, the protest, the riot and the demonstration. If these are ways of withdrawing consent, of challenging systemic power, of expropriating power and wealth, they are, as Amiri Baraka once said, “magic actions.” But as Baraka’s break with the white avant-garde and the revolutionary turn in his politics attest, the rapidly shifting conditions of capitalism forced the student-led movement to face contradictions–of race, class, imperialism–it couldn’t resolve. Rudd’s letters to El Corno Emplumado, based in Mexico City, suggest how events at Columbia unfolded in a hemispheric context. Impasses in politics, the talk suggested, reveal alternative legacies for the radical energies of 1968 in the poetry of an emerging multiracial avant-garde.

You can find the complete talk on the Columbia Library’s Youtube channel.