The Mood of Steven Zultanski’s “Bribery”

Marie Buck

                   Works noted:
                   Bribery, Steven Zultanski (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2014)
                   Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine (Graywolf Press, 2014)
                   Fantasy, Ben Fama (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2015)

Since the Occupy movement of 2011, more and more poets have begun including explicit political references in their work. Poets describe confrontations with police, deploy Marxist terminology, and allude to figures like Scott Olsen or Trayvon Martin. We are living in a moment when there is widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo but no viable, organized political alternative—social movements arise suddenly, but also end quickly.  Increasing numbers of people have protested and faced repression for it, and it is no wonder that poets are writing about politics. But gestures toward the political often do nothing more than register the stance of the author. If the purpose is to convince the reader of something politically, poetry is a weird and probably ineffective medium; if it is to show solidarity, the poet is generally better off skipping the poem and showing up at a demonstration instead. One recent departure from this pattern is Steven Zultanski’s book-length poem Bribery. Bribery is a political poem, but the politics of Bribery are not Steven Zultanski’s. Instead, the book works by tapping into the dominant affects of our moment, cycling through odd, warped versions of the guilt and anxiety that characterize the general mood, or at least the mood here, in the United States, among many people.

In Bribery, an unnamed, fictional speaker tells us about a number of crimes and other unpleasant acts he has committed over the past several thousand years in order to become “worse.” Most of the book occurs in what is presumably the present, but toward the end we are placed in a distant future in which the speaker is still alive and living with his girlfriend, and in which people communicate their thoughts via consoles and do not need their voices anymore.

Bribery mostly features a series of meditations and realistic anecdotes in the speaker’s voice. The book is often explicitly political, addressing rape culture, environmental destruction, and worker exploitation alongside descriptions of odd crimes and relationship troubles, for instance: 

many people are starving

to death, in cities and slums, in public housing in the Bronx and improvised shacks in Jakarta; and many people are curled up in darkness in Bagram; and many people in the occupied Palestinian territories are being shot with DIME weapons which upon impact

release a burst of tungsten dust so that the projectile does not quite penetrate the body but the dust does, smothering the internal organs with poison metal; and many people in villages in Syria are shot in the road and left to rot; and many people are working multiple minimum wage jobs and will still be in debt for

their entire lives; and many people work in a couch cushion factory whose owners insist on using a certain hazardous glue because all the other couch cushion glues are supposedly too expensive and so most of the workers die of cancer at a relatively young age but

people have to work there anyway because there are no other jobs in that particular town and the populace has been forced into gratitude toward a company which treats their lives as expendable and meaningless even beyond the tedious hours

spent assembling couch cushions; and many people just die of loneliness; and many people are lonely for most of their lives and don’t die of it, they just live that way; and many people are shot in the back

by police officers because they look suspicious; and many people are forced at automatic gunpoint into chipping away at tantalum by warlords who contract with Nintendo; and

many people are stolen into child slavery and sex slavery and often these kinds of slavery overlap; and many people are murdered all the time all over the world

for bending sexual norms even slightly in any direction; and Monsanto is killing all the bees. That’s what’s happening now.[1]

We get the politics via the speaker, a character who is established as fictional early on, and the political meditations sometimes have fantastical qualities or odd flourishes. For instance: “The US president is literally guilty of pretty much everything: he traverses time and space // with bloody glee, sparing no one and nothing his indiscriminate wrath, his undifferentiated existential fury.” Significantly, the book is quite dark. There are no mentions of resistance, no allusions to Occupy, to the Arab Spring, or even to specific figures like Oscar Grant or CeCe McDonald who have been victims of injustice and whose cases have been taken up by the Left.

If we want to characterize Bribery’s politics, we need to consider what it is that feels so  comforting about the book’s dark worldview. Jonathan Flatley has proposed that we might read literature—as well as think about political collectivity—in terms of mood.[2] Drawing on Martin Heidegger’s concept of mood, or attunement, as “the overall atmosphere or medium in or through which our thinking, doing and acting occurs, a way of being that shape our thoughts, our will, and our particular affective attachments to particular objects,” Flatley argues that successful political texts are often those that correctly read and address themselves to readers’ mood, with mood understood as something social and historical, rather than something related only to individual psychology. When political agitation engenders a sense of collectivity, it does so because it accurately addresses itself to the audience’s mood. Furthermore, Flatley proposes that as readers we can look for mood in texts and figure out the theory of the reader’s mood from which the author was operating.

Bribery is not unique in attuning itself to readers’ moods and in addressing the question of mood explicitly, as its subject matter. And it shares its bleakness with at least two other recent books of poetry. While the tone is different, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen documents the political moment with an emphasis on witness. Rankine’s speaker describes fatigue from everyday racist microaggressions, emphasizing the affective toll of racism and also denying the reader any narratives of progress or resistance. And in a different vein, Ben Fama’s Fantasy withholds any explicitly political content but portrays a hyper-contemporary desolation and passivity that itself describes at least one version of the current political moment through its lack of politics. Fama’s book is dotted with references that evoke disaffected, mediated attempts to connect with others—video chat, Getty images, Second Life, texting. Fama’s project of describing not a speaker’s emotions, nor any permanent, ahistorical, human-condition type of affect, but the specific sadness of this moment is what, more than anything else, characterizes the book. Similarly, Bribery’s politics are defined less by the explicit political content of the book and more by Zultanski’s ability to describe the current mood through his treatment of that content. 

If we read with an eye to mood, we notice Bribery’ s descriptions of contemporary suffering, political disempowerment, and personal angst. The book’s ideal reader feels very anxious and very guilty. As the Institute for Precarious Consciousness argues in “We Are All Very Anxious: Six Theses on Anxiety and Why It Is Preventing Militancy, and One Possible Strategy for Overcoming It” (an article that Flatley cites), job precarity and constant surveillance—things like security cameras but also social media—have made anxiety into a dominant cultural mood. Additionally, because, truth be told, the Left is small and weak, most people tend to buy into narratives about injustice that hold the average American accountable for horrors waged on people around the world by the ruling class. That is, because most people who oppose, say, the use of drone bombs are not part of any politically viable group that opposes drone bombs (since both major parties support using drones), most people feel that by virtue of paying taxes and/or living in the U.S. that they are part of a “we” that is bombing Pakistani civilians—despite the fact that almost all of us have no power whatsoever to stop this from happening in the near future.

So, many of us live in a constant state of anxiety, and whatever rage we may have about our situation is complicated by feelings of guilt about whatever forms of privilege we have (even if we don’t have many others) and by the sense that we are cogs in the imperialist machine, or by the fact that we eat meat, or use too many plastic bags, or drive cars. We are told that we have the ability to change the world by consuming less or donating money or supporting small businesses, and all of us necessarily have to fail at doing these things most of the time just to get through life. It is, on the one hand, obvious to everyone at some level that we do not have any real power. Yet we nonetheless buy locally, start urban gardens, click on Upworthy articles about young women who go for a year without making any garbage, and otherwise accept the fantasy that we have any control over what is happening. The dual sense that many people in the U.S. have of powerlessness and personal responsibility exacerbates anxiety and creates intense feelings of guilt.

Fittingly, Bribery obsessively uses the word “worse.” The speaker is on a quest to make himself worse, and tries to be worse and commit worse crimes. “Worse” here does not mean quite what it normally means. When the speaker wants to be worse, he does not try to be as harmful as possible with his crimes. Instead, he tries to make sure they’re arbitrary. For instance, as he commits one crime, he fears his victim will interpret his “threatening pose” as a sign of mental illness—which would provide the victim with a logical explanation for what is happening. This aspiration to arbitrariness reminds us of the arbitrary nature of social injustice and environmental destruction under capitalism: we cannot readily point to a villain that fits common conceptions of “evil”; instead, we mostly see thoughtless, affectless individuals, motivated solely by profit, doing extraordinarily harmful things in patterns determined by the market. Bribery’s repetition of “worse” plays on our sense that evil comes about not from the ruling class’s hatred but from its indifference.[3]

Bribery is also about knowledge. The speaker, like us, is hyperaware of everything that is terrible about the world. Reading the many catalogues of injustice in the book is not shocking; we already know the awful things they describe. Even seeing different topics juxtaposed—police murders in the U.S. with starvation in Jakarta with the fact that bees are mysteriously dying—feels commonplace, akin to scrolling through a Facebook feed. There is, however, something comforting about reading them in sentences held together by a single voice. When we read news from a Facebook or Twitter feed, we often read articles that are calibrated to make us feel outrage. We are supposed to be shocked and angered by each terrible thing that happens. And when we are not, it makes us feel even guiltier. Sometimes we repost, performing outrage for our Facebook friends and Twitter followers. But the single voice and the mood of Bribery show us what we already know: that we do not usually feel outrage, we usually just feel more and more anxious and guiltier and guiltier. It is difficult to muster outrage everyday. If we process all of the news together, then we are left with an intense sense that things are very terrible, but that they were certainly really bad in the past, and that they might get a lot worse in the future. We perform surprise and outrage; but what we experience is a constant low-level depression.

The fact that Bribery names all of this is strangely comforting because most cultural products we experience are quite out of sync with the contemporary mood. The articles we read are keyed to the affects of shock and outrage because, until fairly recently, those affects were politically effective. We tend to believe that if we expose injustices, people will demand changes—and those demands will then be heard. But in fact, we are saturated with information, and many people are well-informed. Outrage does not automatically build political power, and so we are exhausted by being outraged so often while having no politically effective outlet for our outrage.[4]

Bribery addresses an underlying sense that life is, as the poem’s speaker observes, “a dipshit.” Those of us who grew up in the long shadow of the 1960s were socialized with a belief that things would keep getting better and better. Indeed, in the late 1960s they might have changed drastically for the better—the potential was there. But through accident of history or other failure, there was no revolution or total upheaval of the social order, and instead things shifted and got more difficult and sadder for many people. Our failures—the precarity of our employment, the fact that we must still negotiate oppressive gender and sexual norms in our relationships and in our own heads (as the speaker does in Bribery) because they are simply, inescapably thereconflict with our inherited worldview of progress and modernity. And we often process the current  situation as a personal rather than a political failure, despite knowing better. Bribery is structured as a confession to numerous crimes: robbery, theft, breaking and entering, stalking, mutilation. The book contains another confession, though, too: it confesses the unacknowledged anxious, guilty mood that structures our lives. [5]


[1] Bribery, 59–60.

[2] Jonathan Flatley, “Reading for Mood.” Lecture at New York University Department of Performance Studies. 12 March 2015. See also Jonathan Flatley, “How a Revolutionary Counter-Mood Is Made.” New Literary History, Vol. 43, No. 3 (2012).

[3] This use of “worse” also plays on our feelings of doom and guilt. The speaker of Bribery syncs with the way that we actually feel about ourselves, not the political image that we would like to project. “Worse” shifts meanings—at some points the speaker describes the levels of pain and misery in various historical moments, and at other points the word refers to the speaker’s morality. The shifting between one’s immorality and one’s misery touches a nerve because of the way that our anxiety and our guilt are interlaced.

[4] This outrage-fatigue is also related to the current dominance of call-out culture as a mode of activism. Because the ruling class—the state, capitalists, etc.—does not respond to demands, activists tend to start focusing on targets who do respond—other activists, or other poets, or people fairly closely connected to them and without much institutional power. While there is no doubt that certain behaviors need to be called out publicly so that poetry and/or activist spaces are made as safe as possible for women, people of color, and other members of oppressed groups, an undue amount of energy and attention seems to be directed toward “calling out” right now, likely because it is difficult to imagine the ruling class being forced to respond to the Left’s demands, while it is very possible that one’s friends and acquaintances on the Left or in poetry circles will respond to calling out. Additionally, call-out culture often functions as a form of surveillance within the Left, exacerbating anxiety and playing directly into the various ruling class tactics that The Institute for Precarious Consciousness identifies.

[5] The Institute for Precarious Consciousness describes anxiety as a “public secret” and suggests that one step to building social movements today is consciousness-raising and acknowledgment of dominant affects.