“No bosses, no borders, no whiteness”—a review of Brian Whitener’s Face Down

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Brian Whitener’s Face Down opens with a poem in which two characters, M and L, spell-cast a
circle of protection, improvising with Gil Scott Heron, Walter Benjamin, and 2 Live Crew:
“revolution will not be sexualized, and sex will be politicized and by sex I mean face down,
association up.” Turning down that most individuated of human body parts to turn up sociality,
they live a politics “greater than friendship, less than nothing.” The magic by which M and L
“project themselves into the future—a future without contracts” will be a revolution exceeding
representation and libido (7-8). Fascism sexualizes and aestheticizes politics; communism
politicizes aesthetics and sex.

Antifas: read Face Down; it’s yours—it’s composed against fascism’s conditions. It says so:
at the end of its first poem a narrator declares, “No bosses, no borders, no whiteness” (8). And it
does so, as I invite you to find, through its four sections of untitled, lyrically essayistic,
sometimes serial, surreal prose and verse. In the third section, a narrator offers terms according
to which readers may evaluate Face Down and all contemporary literature: “To say there is no
longer any promise in the literary outside of attacks on infrastructure is not the same thing as
saying art or poetry is dead” (63).

In the first section targets are broad: bosses, borders, whiteness; connecting them all,
sexuality, disrupting them all, association. In one verse, sites are named, like “living room,”
“car,” “jail,” “hole,” “battleship”—stood in, and destroyed. It proceeds according to the form
“Stand in [site] / “Destroy [site] // This is the poem that represents that instead of writing poetry /
[Past tense communist verb phrase].” Phrases include: “Taught how to sow,” “Learned how to
organize a building occupation,” “Worked at Habitat for Humanity to steal knowledge about how to build a house” (25-26). Enumerating sites and modes of attack, the poem reiterates the time
that politics subtracts from aesthetic practice.

Another pair of verses follows the forms “Once had job” and “Once so white.” On the real:
“Once had job, I rode you until you came in me. I had my hair in pigtails”; “Once so white,
called gentrification homesteading.” On the surreal: “Once had job, there were hundreds of pigs
and you had to write ‘fuck pigs’ on each one of them”; “Once so white, most shadows machetes”
(10-12, 16-18). Less suggestive of how to attack, these poems remind that struggle must be as
thoroughgoing with both reality and fantasy as capitalism and whiteness are in their imperialism.

Face Down’s second section attends closely to gendering. Its first poem, concerned mostly
with gendering within/preserving whitenesss, opens with prose paragraphs juxtaposing three
timelines: historical, late 90s pop cultural, and future. Historical: “non-ethnically-marked”
female gendered proletarian social life in mid-1800s Britain, initially naming its protagonist
Mother; 90s: scenes from the fictional television show Unknown Mother, drawing from Ally
McBeal (for those unfamiliar, a pseudo-surreal TV dramedy following the title character, a white woman lawyer in Boston) (31); future: difficult to summarize, with sentences like,

Next century, Your Mother could no longer take it and spends a decade slowly, piece by
piece, dismantling a bathroom with a needle and taking a photograph of each piece next to
her body before dying and reincarnating herself as a wage.
[33]

Other poems in this section: twist the infamous joke “The Aristocrats” into verses addressing, 1) the murder of Ana Mendieta through images of organ and blood spilling (38-39),
2) men’s collective suicide (40), 3) the complicity of having witnessed but not intervened against
sexual assaults (41-42); prose-narrate instances of social violence along mostly gender but also
racial lines with the narrator describing how they did or would respond differently on the bus, at a dinner party, in poetry spaces, or political spaces, with the latter the only where the narrator
reportedly would intervene beyond writing (43-46); a lyric imagining a revolutionary situation,
with lines like, “We formed a repro cadre, heading to / The upper and middle class repro farms /
To liberate our sisters, this repro is being / Repro-ed” (50). The latter closes with one of the
book’s essential questions: “how can the site of our abjection / Be the site of our revolt” (54).

In a book configuring theory so thoroughly with practice, the third section is both Face
Down
’s most sustained theoretical and apparently biographical part. Among other things, it
addresses the relative inconsequence of US experimental literary debates, e.g. between the lyric
and the conceptual, when considered alongside human life lost to murder in Mexico, 150,000
people since 2006.

Instead of saying war is bad for business, the math of 150,000 asks how war produces
value. The proposal is simple. Once I was paid 750 USD for editing a group of blog posts
about “contemporary” Mexico in the context of a show in a museum. The museum show
was designed to increase the value of a collection of Mexican photography. This was my cut
of the 150,000.
[59-60]

From this section too, recall, comes the promise of literary attacks on the infrastructure.

The last section of Face Down may be Whitener’s most ambitious. Its opening lines—“There had been another attack living / While black and the surveillance of dead / Data as it had
been disappeared during the day”—for me failed (67). The reference to blackness and anti-black
violence is underexamined here and throughout the book. Earlier, in the second section, the
narrator says, “If the female body is the province of / The male worker, the Laundromat is the
prison / where the body goes to learn its place” (50). Abandoning analogy to concretely
differentiate and connect capitalist infrastructures of patriarchal domination (laundromat) and racial domination (prison) has been a crucial contribution of black feminism. Whitener seems to
want to write how anti-blackess is constitutive for whiteness but seems unsure what, a symptom
of an ongoing problem for some communist writing, even communism such as Whitener’s that
doesn’t dismiss race, gender, sexuality, nationality as of secondary concern to class. Face Down
closes much more successfully imagining resistance to ethno-nationalist infrastructures. Social
forms pass through a collective narrator “like chain link,” with the shuttering of a mosque and
the construction of new detention centers, while a distraction is enacted at ICE headquarters, as
this collective “just wait[s] for the / Signal” “to seize everything” (76-77).

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