Insolvent Flight: Judith Balso, Franco Berardi, & Jeremy Hoevenaar’s Our Insolvency


The French philosopher Judith Balso begins her 2011 book Affirmation of Poetry with an excursus on Heinrich von Kleist’s brief career as a journalist two hundred years earlier. Published in a heavily policed Berlin during the Napoleonic occupation, where information was tightly controlled by French propaganda newspapers, Kleist’s Berliner Abendblätter was beloved by the occupied Berliners for the daily crime reports it ran. According to Balso, this is because Kleist was using the crime reports as a proto-Oulipean constraint: the arrangement of these excerpts from police reports, the selection of telling details, as well as the various opinions on them couched in addenda and editorial asides, made use of censorship itself in order to point to what was censored—an act of quiet irony, gentle sedition. Playing up reports of a conspiracy of arsonists in dramatic detail, for example, could draw attention to the paranoias underlying official stability. While using only the language from the reports, and maintaining an exaggerated reverence for the duties of the police, these excerpts were capable of producing “dual understandings” for the right readers, a trick which Balso identifies, surprisingly, with Kleist’s poetic cast of mind. [1]

This is because poetry, says Balso, is marked by a “radical distrust vis-à-vis language,” which makes poets “the strongest antithesis of the communicative world presented to us as the lone real.” [2] Kleist’s work as a journalist ironizing the supposedly transparent language of police reports was a function of a poet’s heightened sensitivity to the constraint language always already places on communication. She goes on to clarify the stakes of this sensitivity and distrust: “Here we are not talking about poems in the proper sense, but the poetic capacity to bypass the language of the police.” [3]

Balso’s framing of the poet as evasive ironist who can muddle the officially sanctioned clarities, along with her subtle alignment of this kind of aesthetics with resistance to hierarchy, may sound strange to contemporary ears. Against the Enlightenment tradition beginning with the French Revolution, in which resistance to hierarchy has most prominently taken the side of clarity and transparency, she places the lyric within a more skeptical or indirect tradition of resistance, identified with the figure of Kleist the poet-journalist. This tradition relies on codes, signals, and smokescreens—an attempt to locate allies in a compromised, surveilled public sphere. Its aesthetics suggest a distrust of official styles of communication so great that it can only respond by putting those linguistic structures in scare quotes—an attempt to call attention to structures of power within what is taken as transparent communication. Tonally, such ironic resistance is bitter and anxious, feeling itself on the verge of capture, and in Kleist’s case, this was not unjustified: after less than a year, his newspaper was shut down as Berlin’s censorship laws were strengthened.


Charting a path for resistance in poetry’s capacity to remain alert to power structures within quotidian language is also the concern of a book from the following year, the Italian philosopher Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance. Coming out of the Occupy movement and its pre(/post)occupation with mounting debt in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, The Uprising connects the regimes of financialization and debt to the techno-financial administration of language. In parallel to the brutal and seemingly infinite ability to bend the indebted class to the objectives of the finance class, a system which keeps individuals atomized under the heel of a crushing precarity and whole countries under austerity in keeping with financialization schemes, there is, according to Berardi, an equally infinite “symbolic debt.” [4] Austerity has come for the word, too.

As life becomes ever more precarious and tech-mediated, Berardi claims, language, as the symbolic space where this life is expressed, becomes both simpler and more abstracted from any emotional context. What Berardi calls “techno-linguistic automatisms” creep in from the world of money to the world of daily life under the regime of finance. [5] By this Berardi means not simply the obviously degrading jargon of a self-optimizing hustle culture, but language itself— if life has ceased to exist outside of capital in any meaningful, unalienated way, then all language serves primarily to refer to, confer, and circulate economic value and, like a helpless debtor, obeys this directive above all—whether we’re aware of this or not. For instance, he claims, communication becomes quick and transparent in digital spaces in order to generate maximum engagement and platform use, to generate the most sales, etc. Language must be produced rapidly and at scale, as content, a massively accelerating wave of info-value. “Techno-linguistic automatisms,” then (as far as I understand Berardi), refer above all to a pressure, based on the exigencies represented by this symbolic debt, to lose touch with our connection with the word, to “get to the point,” to iron out the material of language, the roughness of its gnarled/knotted vestigiality, its inconvenience, its unintended sonic auras, its troubling ambiguities.

Berardi’s response to this situation is a reengagement with poetry as a means of casting off our symbolic debt and restoring to language both its affective and social power. By virtue of its incompatibility with haste and, therefore, with economic value in the techno-linguistic sense, he claims, poetry can restore to language its “resonances” and “refrains” that allow for supra-individual enunciation, can make of language a commons. [6] Though it may seem that, without recourse to the techno-linguistic automatisms that now make up our language, there is little room for an unalienated poetry either, Berardi makes the paradoxical claim that the only route left is “the reopening of the indefinite, the ironic act of exceeding the established meanings of words” which is native to the lyric. [7] Through “suspending the semantic value of the signifier to freely choose among a thousand possible interpretations,” the poet is able to “create a linguistic space where the law has no effectiveness.” [8] Like Kleist’s “do[ing] the police in different voices,” the poet is able to invoke ambiguity as evasive tactic, but in this case, what’s avoided is value. A return to the material of language, to the unmonetizable and unpoliceable thicket of poetry. Carving new, freer pathways for meaning, poetry thereby ushers in an “insolvent enunciation” that reopens space for the social insolvency of refusal. [9]


Jeremy Hoevenaar’s Our Insolvency (Golias Books, 2021) takes up this radical, ironizing distrust of the language of surveillance, finance, and techno-dystopia as its plucky directive: “an / eligible surplus of craft / slashing lines all across / the automatic earth.” [10] In the spirit of Kleist’s secret newspaper messages or Berardi’s lyric rebellion, Hoevenaar uses the sinister jargon of our dystopian now against itself, taking aim at every late verbal tic in a seething, Bartleby-like semantic refusal. Here’s a representative passage, chosen arbitrarily:

Consent is never more
than an extension of
platform, the sound
of our bodies producing
a key change in the eye
of the resources. Retrofit
for aggression induction
via ethical nostalgia
affixed to music,
privacy as a setting, setting
as an internal agreement
with the shady prosodic
caprices of space. [11]

Masquerading here, seemingly, as the vision of a tweaking Spotify exec at Burning Man, the poet nonetheless winks in moments of especially dystopian combination (“ethical nostalgia”) and “retrofit” jargon (the dual senses of “setting” and “agreement”). Automatic language, torqued sinister, that is, visible for what it is. Here as elsewhere in the book, the poet largely disappears behind it, like Kleist’s excerpts from the police for the era of surveillance capital; a line of flight, perhaps, or a decoy for the air/borne spotlights which lurk around the anxious edges of the poems:

is the medium in which, 
by spreading false silhouettes,
I decorate my age [12]


For most of Our Insolvency, the announced difficulty is effected as much through semantic play as through syntax that spills from clipped line to line, seemingly endless sentences which sprout subordinate clauses fractally, branches within branches. Garden-path sentences, evasive zig-zags of enjambment, breathless:

Swept again by air-
Born spotlights
While evolving
The expansive redundancy
Of a walk to the corner
The words would
Be if they allowed
My rights to pass
Into the world with
Half as much
Solidity unimpeded
By weight as adorns
The vaguely threatening
Abstractions of planned
Movement keeping
The police helicopter
Circulating on
its tether like a memory
game made didactic
by the monetization of
time into habit’s need
to catch its ever-
receding end. [13]

The hunted speaker dissolves, line after line, into redundancy without any solidity, unmonetizable and therefore no longer even temporal, without the kind of plan that attends the more profitable (and therefore more ‘real’) abstractions of his surveilled avatar’s unwanted, endless circulation. “Ever-receding ends” proliferate throughout the poems, marked just as much by their awareness of surveilled and monetized space as by their longing for this “threatening abstraction” to resolve into a more stable spatio-temporal orientation. The “walk to the corner” morphs into a failed linguistic possibility after the enjambment (“the corner / that my words could be”) mirroring this disappointing and disorienting flux, both linguistic and spatial.

A corner is precisely that which could pin space (or the poem) down. The first poem in the book, “Void of Fielding,” begins with a provisional sense of orientation in an interior space: “fond / of floors, / their angles, / and ceilings / depending on / and on.” [14] This last line heralds both the anxious sense of dangling—“on and on” as an infinity of dependent structures without true foundation, as well as its opposite—“on and on” as a sense of continuity, dependability. As we see, this is because the steady dissolution of the world into pure techno-financial abstraction compromises even a provisional orientation: what’s imposed / through local / slots breaks/ into all these/ internal facets—/ corners within / corners of / reiterated currency. There’s no place to rest; corners give on to further corners ad infinitum, traded like gutted apartments whose rent has been raised yet again, like debts repackaged into new financial instruments. Even the body disappears (“Our / hands are here / somewhere in all / this smoke”) and is replaced by a “discharging nimbus / of toenails and hair.” [15] The anxious poems press on in search of fixity, which can only take the form of insolvency.


In the book’s central poem, “Insolvency! Insolvency!” published originally as a chapbook by Ugly Duckling Presse, semiotic insolvency in the Berardian sense has become a battle cry or a protest chant. Its long page-and-a-half sections press onward with more punning aphorisms, half-joke half-terror condensations, creating a poem as “refraction- / oriented thicket / or combination / of worry and thought.” [16] The felt endlessness of this writing sometimes calls to mind another Berardian concept: semio-inflation. [17] For Berardi, the massively accelerating surplus of information above the time in which it could possibly be consumed leads to an inflation of the word, so that more and more words are needed to signify anything. Are Hoevenaar’s poems’ powerful condensation and relentless parataxis meant to illustrate this condition, the impossible position of trying to catch up to the acceleration we’re in? To ensure, whether via volume or semantic saturation, that this speech means something? Or is there a more dire, precarious anxiety that pushes these poems forward? “Muffed / intrigue moves your ass / going, else you’re killed / by efficient edits, snaked / into economies of scheme, yeah, / shamed into sentences / by an unbidden music.” [18]

For his part, Hoevenaar takes pains to show the poems are more than merely illustrative of theory: “You don’t need Evernote / or Franco Berardi / to have yourself / a real poem party.” [19] At any poem party worth its salt, you eventually have to put away the books, shut off the ever-ready notes app with its dutiful writing ethic, and have some fun.

If you can’t tell from the above, the poems are funny. Sometimes it’s dark and sneering, a post-punk humor like that of the bands that appear in some of the long poem’s epigraphs (a tonal question for later: what is post-post-punk poetry?). Sometimes it’s a profound whimsy, an inebriated and expansive logos: “Cue liquid snacks’ ethereal / fortitude for getting condensed / enough to go lightly / over blotches of sinewy dawn.” [20] The poems’ jokey aphorisms and cartoon hallucinations do often help us glide over their blotches of horror. Often, though, the poems press on with a desperate wit that Sianne Ngai might call “zany.” Ngai describes the affect of the zany, expressed most often in comic actors like Lucille Ball and Jim Carrey, as the quintessential trait of the precarious neoliberal subject, on the brink of burnout and desperate to please, working too variously and trying too hard to self-market, hamming it up painfully for the omni-entrepreneurial job fair of the social. [21] A sense of perpetual effort, an attempt to tweak every word to find its wobbly alter-significance, grafting clause onto clause ad infinitum, feels in one sense harried, like an endless workday for a shadowy, never-seen lyric boss. I say this of course jealously (and we are always partly jealous of the zany, aware of this virtuosity as a fearful sort of genius). Yet the more moving, deeper (and darker) humor of the poems is that they perform this desperation as much as they inhabit and perform the materials of dystopian language—a wilder, more ancient puppetry that clowns on its own precarity.


Our Insolvency was published by Golias Books, a small press whose logo is from a 16th century illustration of Rabelais, and who takes as its namesake the medieval Goliards, who “appeared in history as skeptical scholiasts and social itinerants, known primarily for the kinds of Latinate heretical satires and elaborate anti-authoritarian festival lyrics that survive in the Carmina Burana.” [22] Like the drinking tunes of these overeducated, vagrant clerics, Hoevenaar’s song has a note of the carnivalesque: the expected order is turned upside down and language made to lord over its referent, words masking and unmasking themselves in a punning, mocking dance.

Of course, the antics of the carnival are never just a joke; like Rabelais’ “Pantagruelism” (“a certain gaiety of spirit, pickled in the scorn of fortune”), there is something deeply serious behind all this anarchic verbal clowning, a joyful truth within upturning and intoxicating the wor(l)d. [23] Ed Simon writes that the political left needs a revival of the carnivalesque spirit which takes aim, as the medieval carnival once did, at the sacred—in our day, Mammon. [24] Perhaps, in its search for “corners,” there is an ontological as well as phenomenological question at stake in Our Insolvency. There’s a felt search, throughout, for an orientation that doesn’t feel false, that somehow answers to and includes the experience of this disoriented and overworked lyric pushed to the point of burnout.

“I think I have / a right to consider / confusion a brand / of clarity / why can’t I / see it into an overture / of kind distance…”  [25]

Confusion (with all the blurry, restless humor and nested ironies within ironies that word implies) both as a “brand”—personal brand, alienated commodity-identity—but also as a way of penetrating into the essence of things, a clarity as to how things are. Things just are this confused, that’s clear. For Hoevenaar, the one felt absence within this clarity is a sense of proportion, of distance from experience, the why that tells us where this is all going, or where or who we even are—or if we aren’t anyone/anywhere anymore, who or where we might still be able to be.


In his 2018 book Breathing: Chaos and Poetry, Franco Berardi stretches the metaphor of an insolvent poetry into the body, claiming poetry’s ability to exceed the limits of semiotic exchange can “reactivate social respiration,” can return measure/breathing/rhythm to a world of info-acceleration and chaos. [26] If linguistic value is measured through techno-financial automatisms which measure the worth of any expression, poetry can emancipate language from these directives through its symbolic excess and ambiguity, slowing things down to a more human pace, and opening up a potential for new meanings, new intersubjective enunciation, and a more habitable shared sense of time. Poetry sends pulses out into the info-chaos in search of new harmonies, new meanings, new rhythms. Berardi writes:

Let’s forget measure, let’s forget technical capability, social competence, and functional proficiency. These measurable entities have invaded the modern mindscape and accelerated the rhythm of the info-sphere up to the point of the current psychocollapse and techno-fascism. Let’s try to think outside the sphere of measurability and of measure. Let’s find a way to rhythmically evolve with the cosmos. Let’s go out of this century of measure, let’s go out to breathe together. [27]


In one of the first poems of Our Insolvency, “Surveillance Recollected in Tranquility,” the pace seems to slow, enacting for a moment the Berardian tethering of linguistic intersubjectivity and breath:

It’s for momentum’s sake
I lose my self, maybe borrow
Yours if that’s a right I can
Manifest through speaking—
Speaking here meaning
Writing, in the sense
That writing even in relative
Silence feels loud and
Resonant with a duration
That metaphor wants me
To call breathing… [28]

This is one of the only mentions of silence in the book, a silence where one can hear oneself (and thereby, possibly, other selves) think. The breathless, anxious momentum of the surveilled poems gives way to a “duration” of “tranquility”—Wordsworthian binary between passion and poetic distance reframed as a hunted interplay between addled, accelerated anxiety and momentary clearings in the “airborn spotlights” where breath, for a moment, returns. These clearings appear, occasionally, throughout the poems—a restabilized syntax that dramatizes thought / breath’s return in simpler, less evasive form—usually emerging to drop some sort of aphoristic pellet of reflection into the poem’s churn. I found myself marking a lot of these moments as I read, the breaths between difficulty:

finding / all things to be evidential / makes my life seem like it [29]


In a world that doesn’t see you, / your thoughts must welcome you [30]

or, significantly:

It’s hard to be human / again, which maybe / means it’s possible [31]

The first line of this last quote, borrowed from the Mekons, is détourned into a doubly provisional (“maybe” it’s “possible”) hope—of the poems, of the poet—for a restored corporality, a restored breath.  The book’s final poem, “A Feeling Of,” seems to end with this reactivation of the breath, in the Berardian sense of breath as “refrain.” A meditation on getting older (almost / amazed in our 40s / to have jobs, to be alive / phoned and burrowing), the poem begins in the same breathless, anxious style, only to catch its breath midway through. [32] It ends:

I’m just waking up, or realizing
I’ve been awake. Is it right
On time? Earlier than usual?
Too late? I’m just waking up,
Or realizing I’ve been awake.
I see the birds, etc.
They do not move, etc,
But chirp and cling in corners
Of the air, fickle emblems
Of conditional repair:
Go light, the sun is a star [33]

Repetition, refrain, rhyme, and a relaxing of syntax. The lyric breath emerges, if still somewhat shrugged off (“the birds, etc”) and mistrusted: repair is “conditional,” emblems are “fickle,” and the “corners” which could finally fix us in space rest on nothing but air. And yet, this performance of breath implies, repair might still be possible; through embodied, intersubjective refrains, human time might still be able to begin. And if it’s not, at the very least we can breathe together, beautifully. In the mouth of poetry, it seems, breath can still be shaped into a sound that feels/ like a forgiven debt. [34]

Links to notes can be found here.

Works Cited

Judith Balso, Affirmation of Poetry, trans. Drew S. Burk, Univocal, 2014.

Franco “Bifo” Berardi, The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance. Boston: semiotext(e), 2012.

Jeremy Hoevenaar, Our Insolvency. New York: Golias Books, 2021

Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting, 2012.

Francois Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, trans. Jacques LeClerq, Heritage, 1936.

Ed Simon, “Who Still Needs the Carnivalesque?” in The Baffler, Nov. 7, 2022 Who Still Needs the Carnivalesque? | Ed Simon (thebaffler.com)

Joshua Wilkerson is the author of Meadowlands/Xanadu/American Dream, and the co-editor of Beautiful Days Press. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.