Three Theses on the End of the Poem

Aditya Bahl

“The relation to the new is modelled on a child at the piano searching for a chord never previously heard. This chord, however, was always there; the possible combinations are limited and actually everything that can be played on it is implicitly given in the keyboard. The new is the longing for the new, not the new itself: That is what everything new suffers from.” —T.W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory

“Languages are imperfect in that although there are many, the supreme one is lacking: thinking is to write without accessories, or whispering, but since the immortal word is still tacit, the diversity of tongues on the earth keeps everyone from uttering the word which would be otherwise in one unique rendering, truth itself in its substance . . . Only, we must realize, poetry would not exist; philosophically, verse makes up for what languages lack, completely superior as it is.” —Stéphane Mallarmé, Crisis in Poetry

PROBLEMATIC :

In The End of the Poem Giorgio Agamben argues that the principle which founds poetry is the difference between metrical segmentation and syntactical segmentation, what he calls the non-coincidence of sound and sense. But, as he is quick to clarify, these are no two separate movements at work, rather there is one poetic line which measures and is itself measured by these two movements. It is as if language’s movement towards sense were being traversed by sound, while the simultaneous movement towards music were being traversed by sense (41). With each of these movements being in an asymptotic rapport with the other, this quasi-dialectical tension tries, on the one hand, to “split sound from sense,” while on the other, it tries to make them coincide (36). Poetry, thus, stays alive in and as what Valery articulates as “a prolonged hesitation between sound and sense” (109). But just when one thought that for all this the poem is, indeed, potentially infinite, one finds that the poem, without a word of it, has already ended! Unlike that of Mallarme’s siren, the corpse of the poem invariably washes up on the inaccessible shores of lalangue.

Since the final verse cannot be enjambed anymore, the poem, in ending, renders impossible the very founding opposition between sound and sense. What, therefore, really perturbs the philosopher is that the poem should, time and again, be always-already precipitating its own perdition— without ever giving it a thought! What could be exemplified by the end of the poem if not a failure to think, or why else would the poem inhere in its eschatological stasis to such an irrational extent that it ends up contravening the very principle which founds it? It is for this reason that Agamben regards the end of the poem as “a genuine crise de vers in which the poem’s very identity is at stake” (113). Or why else must the poem manifest by way of a serialized self-surpassing, as warrantied by the difference between sound and sense, and insist, even proudly so, on asseverating this difference till the very end, when this difference is precisely what renders the poem as a katechon forever defering the messianic parousia?

The inconsistency which Agamben speaks of is not so much the inconsistency haunting the poem, the fact that it ends, but the crisis is itself a trace of his own failure to formalize the actual problematic. Finding himself trapped in a metaphysical cul de sac of his own design, the philosopher can resolve the problematic only by making a disingenuous reversal, that of abandoning the conundrum itself and attributing it as peculiarly endemic to the very form of poetry, to its inordinate penchant for ostentations, its compulsive obsession, say, with end-rhymes which only goes to keep it from actually thinking the contradiction it cannot seem to ever resolve. And thus, the philosopher abandons, and not for the first time, the sinking ship of the poem, even going so far as to claim that he had never boarded it to begin with, for he was but a mere distant spectator, who, witnessing the shipwreck unfold, could not help but wonder why had the poem even set sail to begin with!

The veritable swoon of the poem’s obstinate persistence is invariably brought to a halt. And yet the poem, except in exceptional circumstances, say, owing to the greatness of a certain poet, never seems to learn! For Agamben, the poem fails in its messianic vocation because it does not sustain the centripetal insistence of the constitutive torsion it is. It cannot because it does not think! Waxing instructive, Agamben ends his text by calling for a philosophizing of the poem, for a poem which, for a change, will think. For only then will the poem, in its newfound vocation, be finally able to know its situation, and, recuperating itself from its contradictory formal character, it will finally be able to will its release from its perennial formal unfreedom.

Abandoning all modes of theorizing which subject poetry to an extrinsic thought, whether it be that of philosophy, or of politics, I shall hereby strive to formalize the problematic of the end of the poem— that of a poem being at once an instantaneous, concrete process and its simultaneous suspension, a finished artefact which can never, it seems, fulfil its own concept— while demonstrating how the seeming antinomy is itself a symptomatic torsion haunting any and every discourse which tries to organize itself as knowledge of the poem, viz. Agamben’s, “philosophy of meter” (2). To this end of formalizing a certain method of the poem, it will be of founding importance to not resolve the conundrum by simply denying the fatal exigency which heretofore seems to found the poem. This is to say that in the course of this exercise, one shall unconditionally refrain from plotting a farcical poststructuralist escape by positing the poem as a nameless dissemination, a perennial disaggregation of itself. For, as Marx had demonstrated, any denial of the grip of necessity shall only go to strengthen the grip. I must now offer the following three theses:

THESIS I:

To avoid the danger of ventriloquizing poetry, let us begin by putting things in a dialectical perspective. This is to say, let us begin by submitting ourselves to the event which circulates by the name of “the end of the poem.” For, contrary to Agamben whose mode of formalization remains subject to a certain phenomenality of the poem’s telos, that is, unlike Agamben who begins in order to then arrive at the end of the poem, it is only in beginning with the “end” that we will, as Lenin would have it, be truly beginning, “beginning,” that is, “from the very beginning.”

It would not be too much to say that the crisis of the poem’s identity is a trace of Agamben’s own failure to decide if the poem is one spilt into two, or whether it is a case of two coming together to make one. He begins with two external poles, that of sound and sense, and only then, in a quasi-dialectical manoeuvre, interiorizes the split, presenting each as mediated by the other, the process of mediation continually unfolding as the poetic line. Thus grasped, the poem exemplifies a case of what Hegel had called an indifferent difference. To posit the antagonism as a differential relation between these two static, positively defined categories, each external to the other, is clearly fallacious, for it assumes a certain transcendental, archimedean point. Needless to point out, but this archimedean point is possibly afforded to Agamben because of his apparently superior vocation, that of being a philosopher. This transcendence, however, must itself be grasped as an error bred by an immanence which does not know that it is split from itself. Thus, it is not that the poem needs to be posited by way of an external opposition between sound and sense which is then interiorized, but rather the poem must be understood as split from itself, or as Hegel writes, “difference in itself is self-related difference; as such it is the negativity of itself, the difference not of another, but of itself from itself” (417-18). It is the minimal, absolute difference between the poem and itself, or to draw an analogy in Lacanese, the minimal difference between a signifier and the place of its inscription, which constitutes the poem. A poem, then, is constituted by and as the split between poetry, insofar as one understands it as the praxis of a certain processual composition, and the poem, insofar as one understands it as the cult of the former’s identity. It is this cut which phenomenally manifests by way of its structural effects, as a line-break in lyric poetry, as a certain montage-quality, though certainly not limited to it alone, in visual poetry, as kire in haiku, as parataxis in prose-poetry, and so on. But to mistake the structural effects of the cut for the cut itself certainly proves fatal, in more ways than one, for the poem.

To this end, it is absolutely imperative that one does not mistake the process qua praxis of composition for the phenomenal unfolding of the poem. For, if one were to begin rationalizing the means of a poetic form in terms of its instantaneous phenomenality, as is the case with Agamben’s fixation with end-rhymes, then one would doubtlessly end up fetishizing the end of the poem (also in the sense of its objective, its goal) as an effect of its telos. For example, in his The Time that Remains, Agamben now begins by asserting that a poem must always end. Or even further, he writes that a poem strains, from the very beginning, towards its end (79). But only now he tries to make a virtue out of this fatal exigency. A poem, he argues, is a machine which transforms the empty homogeneous time into a movement of constellated rhythms, and is thus a “miniature model of messianic time” (82). The poem’s penchant for ostentations is certainly no longer regrettable. But surely nothing can be more despairing than having to affirm the instantaneous ordeal of an impending disaster, having to posit the poem enduring its own finitude, as a messianic construction! Rather than seizing the scission as the constitutive organizing principle of the poem, Agamben remains fixated on the structural effects of the scission, and ends up fetishizing the syntactical composition of the poem as its messianic truth. In other words, instead of formalizing the time of the poem as a remnant, he instead takes the remnant to be “the time that the poem takes to come to an end” (83), thereby abolishing the minimal, but fundamental, difference separating that which takes place from the place where it takes place. Posited as an organizer of content, the poetic form remains caught in the means-ends rationality.

THESIS II:

Lest one end up falling through the poststructuralist trapdoor, it becomes imperative to distinguish our notion of poem qua process— a thought which comes to be constituted as interruption— from what manifests as an uninterrupted militancy against the transcendental signifier, as exemplified by a certain poststructuralist poetics which determinately followed from the linguistic turn of 1960s, and continues to presently proliferate.

Here, I refer to the rather disjunctive trajectories of the otherwise more or less simultaneous emergence of Flarf and Conceptual Poetry, two contemporary movements concerned with the “impoetic”— while the former seeks to demonstrate the excess of language (an excess which was once upon a time understood as poetic) by mining “the circuits of ersatz fame junkspeech, within the anonymized and reshuffled errancies of various machinic protocols (whether it is the Google search algorithm, or a purported human adapting herself to the imperatives of a chat room)” (Clover), the latter is marked by a cold, impoetic cerebrality which, despite the appellative, has nothing to do with “concept” as it came to be developed in the tradition of continental philosophy. Despite the protestations which will follow such a claim, and which should themselves be taken as a sign that our age does covet difference, but only as identity, both movements must be understood as determinately emerging from the so-called American avant-garde of the seventies, the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school of poetry. The latter, in mobilizing the disingenuous reversal affirmed, among others, by Derrida— precisely, that the problematic of logos, the split between body and spirit (as also, to draw a homology here, the split between base and superstructure) is derived from the problem of script, to which, in turn, the former seems to lend its own metaphors (Of Grammatology 58)— rendered language as the privileged site of politics. The poetico-political project of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school, as Ron Silliman puts it, is to cure ourselves of “the social aphasia, the increasing transparency of language which took place in English in the last 400 years” by short-circuiting the semiotic loop, thereby drawing the reader’s attention to the intransigent tangibility of the “word” (The New Sentence 10) [1]. But while denouncing, on the one hand, a certain capitalist realism of sorts, say, the entrepreneurial spirit of capital a neo-confessional poet has come to epitomize, the schizophrenic polysemy produced by the poetic experiments of Language- and allied schools only goes so far as to liquidating the impossible-Real of the contradiction— what is, in actu, the dialectics of use and exchange— into a weak structural play of differences. Mistaking capital for its structural effects, this poetics of ecriture, insofar as it has tended to problematize a capitalist-realist mode of representation, what Silliman articulates as the “dream of an art with no medium, of a signified with no signifiers” (14), has proceeded by rendering indifferent the split between the thing and its concept, between the base and the superstructure, and, in turn, reformulating this split, what is a structural manifestation of the capitalist division of labour as the problematic of signifier. While it would certainly be productive to historicize, following Jameson, these seemingly heterogeneous movements by understanding them as constitutive of the cultural dominant of postmodernism, thereby formalizing Silliman & c.’s purported “cure” as the symptom becoming its own disease (and vice-versa), I have here tended to conceptualize, even if only gesturally, the poetics of ecriture as a philosophical category, a particular mode of suturing the poem to a philosophical thinking of difference.

Poststructuralist attempts to preclude any and all symbolic closures are, in actu, a denial (in Freudian terms) of the poem’s actual finitude. For no matter how endless, or end-less, a chain of signifiers a poem-text might generate, it shall always determinately emerge as a finite work. On the one hand, a phenomenal manifestation of this denial finds expression in a disaggregation of the unity we have traditionally come to understand as a poet’s oeuvre [2]. There are several poets who assert that the finitude of a finished artefact at hand, whether a poem or a book, shall itself be surpassed by their next poem, or better still, their next book, and so on, and if a poet were to go to the extent of saying that his entire oeuvre is and shall always be in progress, and that this incompleteness is itself the indiscernible trace of the destruction of logos that his lifelong labour has accomplished, then we shall simply have to say that this monument erected in the honour of what still lacks only goes to exemplify the worst order of the Hegelian bad infinity [3]. On the other hand, this denial comes to constitute the formal imperative internal to such literary works— a compulsive fascination with the endless wealth promised by lalangue, a mode of writing which is itself symptomatic of the failure to dialectically seize a purely formal structure of lack which sustains language as such, as we will discuss below.

Ever insistent on surpassing itself, on precluding its own emergence as a determinate symbolic-totality, the poststructuralist poem-text comes to be retroactively inscribed as the same precisely by what it seeks to differ from. Or to put it otherwise, each differing-away convokes, in the very moment, the place where the signifier comes to lack. Haunted by the lack which continues to place it in its place, the poem-text, determined to de-totalize its impending congealment, strives to militate against the congealment of letter into meaning by surpassing itself yet again. But what this poem-text never seems to learn is that the transcendental signifier is not a privileged, hypostasized category (whether it be, say, economy, or history) it is militating against, but rather, that the former is only a phantom (in-)consistency. In other words, what it does not seem to learn is that that there is no transcendental signifier but for the one that the poem-text itself comes to retroactively inscribe. The post-structuralist automaton compulsively re-enacts the same, propagating endlessly the bad-infinite disavowals of the poem’s inevitable finitude. It is forced to repeat because it fails each time, and it fails each time precisely because it fails to understand its own metaphysical complicity, to recognize its perverse libidinal investment in its own oppression. Needless to say, but this fatal tendency of proclaiming oneself to be the Master is often exemplified by certain aspects of the poetics of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E movement, as also by the polemics they have been engaged in. Far from being the real force which shall come to destroy metaphysics and its structural logic of places, the militancy of such transgressions must be understood as the punctilious rush of a defendant answering the summons of the Other, the locus of the signifier.

The founding antagonism is not between poetry and the universal law of value which comes to condition poetry’s determinately lapse into a poem. This is to say that poetry does not seek to fight a law which is external to it, that which it can somehow surpass. Rather, what poetry seeks to destroy is extimate to its own being-there, that is, the founding antagonism is between poetry and itself qua an always-already determined artefact. To put it otherwise, it is not that a poem will end, that it will lapse into its own determinate congealment. To assert only this much would be to remain caught up in the phenomenological experience of reading or writing a poem, and to have determined the messianic moment as a not-yet in its vulgar sense, as a present placed in the future. Rather, to put the problematic of the end of the poem in its real and thus revolutionary dialectical perspective, that of the future-anterior, what poetry must demonstrate is that it has always-already ended. And lest it demonstrate the extimacy of the law to itself, the fact that it is always-already interpellated, the poem, contradictory as it may sound, will inevitably go on to become a commodity. But in thus qualifying the dialecticity of this dialectical scission, one should not be given to understand that the poetic act can voluntarily demonstrate its blind-spot, and do that from an archimedean point as it were!

Then, in trying to formulate the truth of this internal exclusion, one could begin by stating the obvious, that the determinately congealed poem has nothing to do whatsoever with the concrete and sensuous activity of writing-as-process. And yet, adhering to the asymmetry we have qualified, the poem, self-alienated as it is, must come to be the only possible trace of the concrete and sensuous activity of writing-as-process. Herein lies the conundrum central to our proposition— how can one posit the finished poem as a trace of the very scission which the determinate emergence of the poem goes to un-represent? And the scission is certainly un-represented, insofar as the transparency of the poem’s language— say, the neo-liberal lyric so aptly captured in the style of Billy Collins, as also by the inventory of The New Yorker, or say, the desire to politicize the verse in a neo-confessional idiom epitomized by the slow and sporadic emergence of the queer, left-leaning poets and communities in our own country— continues to consistently draw attention to its own existence as a unity, as if its maker, instead of being a determinate labourer, was a magician! For, in a world hopelessly mediated by capital, the worst a poet could do was to protest his freedom by touting the illusory immediacy of a voice all his own! Closer home, this poetics of identity only goes to buttress the politics of identity already being practiced by the individuals/communities concerned. Similarly, when a certain poem [4] claims to express solidarity with the working-class, say a poem addressed to the struggles of Maruti workers, it ends up presenting itself as a downright vulgar thematization of labour. Copying out from a statistical encyclopaedia ascertaining the terms of an unjust exchange, the poem, in the name of solidarity, unabashedly inheres in the left-liberal consensus bent on representing, or as Badiou would have it, discerning the working-class, all the while remaining clueless about the phantom which ventriloquizes the poem itself, the truth (contra knowledge) of capital, what manifests, in actu, as the poem’s abject failure to demonstrate how poetry, in situ, is first and foremost itself a praxis of labour.

But lest one think that this conundrum is endemic only to a certain reified poetics of voice, which, in being ventriloquized by capital, provides us with only deceptive equivalents of what we have tried to formalize as poetry, and that this would not be the case with other good poems which are self-reflexive insofar as they tend to draw our attention, say, to the intransigence of language, and so on, it becomes imperative to point out that the problematic— how can the poem attest to its own absent cause, that which remains foreclosed to it— is fundamental to the formal thrust of the poem, and is what lends the poem the possibility of its redemption. This is to say that the dialectics of this redemption qua poem shall come to constitute a simultaneous destruction of both the reified poetics of voice as also of a poetics of ecriture.

THESIS III:

Contrary to Agamben who had sought to posit thought as a corrective to the literary-formal preoccupation of poetry, we will begin by positing that poetry does, indeed, or rather, in deed, think. However, the question which immediately proceeds from such a postulation— what does poetry think, if at all— is only moot, for the poem does not think an other object. This is precisely the founding difference between thought and knowledge as seized upon by Badiou when he writes— “Being does not give itself in the thought of being, for all thinking of being in reality is only the thinking of a thought” (Age of Poets 8). In thinking, the poem does not reflect upon, but offers itself as the act it is. In other words, the truth of the poem does not have a preponderance of the meta. But what is even more important to understand is that this order of the intransitive also forbids what has come to be the defining characteristic of the poem of our times, the one which followed the linguistic turn. Rather than understanding the poem as caught in the gratuitous excess of its own slippage— the arrantly therapeutic line of flight which we discussed in the previous thesis— a poem is what interrupts the endless deferral of meaning by demonstrating the impossible-Real of the antagonism, that which makes all symbolic difference possible. In other words, poetry thinks the scission which engenders it. But in trying to demonstrate the asymmetry of the dialectics which engenders poetry qua poem, poetry cannot voluntarily think the dialecticity of the dialectical scission constituting it. For example, to assume that there exists a self-identical identity of poetry qua process, which only later comes to suffer a certain self-alienation is to be recklessly undialectical. Any poetic act which believes that it can demonstrate the asymmetry we qualified in the previous thesis by simply presenting a concrete and sensuous activity of writing, and this because the activity of writing must logically precede its determinate congealment, only goes to exemplify the worst order of interpellation.

As opposed to such forbidding acts of the self-estranged, the deed of poetry is not performed conscientiously, from a certain archimedian point, but rather, as we have already ascertained, poetry itself comes to be constituted by and as this very scission. In other words, the promise of the un-alienated self, what we can here call the truth of the poem, the notion of the concrete and sensuous activity of writing-as-process, can only be produced retroactively, by way of the poem’s future-anterior directedness. This is the impossibility which poetry qua poem heralds, by way of its future anterior directedness— to already be what it must become.

Before further elaborate, it might prove useful to rearticulate our progress in terms which might seem a bit forced to begin with, if not altogether vulgar. Would it be too much to say that the problematic of the end of the poem is the problematic of the failure to realize the revolution? What I have been straining to get at is that the poem is not to be seen by way of its phenomenal unfolding, as the wasteful remainder of the impossible task it inheres in, that of realizing the future tense. Or to risk putting it otherwise, we fail to realize the revolution not because we fail to envisage and/or attain a utopian what must be, a future state of social egalitarianism, which could then be, as any socialist-statist would have it, empirically determined and verified by strings of socio-economic coefficients. Far from it!

Instead let us try and unravel the problematic by locating it on the local terrain of our own political practice(s). Say, anyone who has pursued a self-inquiry into his/her involvement in the present series of resistances against neoliberal assaults on universities, what eventually culminated in the JNU student-politics’ abject failure to demonstrate a militant solidarity with Kashmir would know the in situ truth of the movement’s failure. The series of resistances failed to emerge as a determinate movement, not because the “fascist forces” (the left-liberals’ favourite distortion of the capital’s neoliberal shifts into a literal and static dogma, the affective cathexis of which, say, the frequent invocation of these magical words at the beginning of every single pamphlet, is only therapeutic) were too strong, and certainly not because the varied “progressive forces” (another equally abominable homogenization of the real contradictions) failed to aggregate and harmoniously flatten their interests to achieve a consensual coming-together against “fascism.” Rather the movement could not be because it failed to demonstrate the future-anterior directedness of its own becoming, that is, it failed to presently perform the revolution that the movement will have been. In other words, the movement could not be because, while prescribing a rupture with the extant circumstance of oppression, the politics of resistance failed to prescribe a rupture with its own identitarianized mode of politicking, that is, it failed to realize that it itself was the determinate instantiation of the very representative parliamentary mode of the nation-state it sought to revolt against.

Politics can only take place if it can demonstrate, in situ, a world equal to the concept it has forged, a concept, in this case, of communism. So, when Tronti quotes Frédéric de Castillon as having said— “As in the case of the terms ‘circle’ or ‘square’, which everyone uses, though only mathematicians have a clear and precise idea of what they really mean; so, too, the word ‘people’ is on everyone’s lips, without them ever getting a clear idea in mind of its real meaning,” what he means is not that the implications of such a word remain unclear because there still aren’t enough people (as if there could ever be such a thing as people!) out in the streets attending protest marches and rallies. Far from a aggregative politics of the count (sankhya-bal, as comrades in JNU are wont to have it), what Tronti here means is that it is a concept of the people as a political subject which is lacking, which is explains, and whose absence is, in turn, explained by the failure to conceptualize the modern university as not only constituted by its own particular regimes conditioning the socio-technical division between mental and manual labour along and across the blocs of caste, class, gender, but also as vehemently reinforcing generalized segmentations functioning at large.

The movement could not be because in positing antagonism by way of an equality that will come to be, the politics of resistance, still caught in capital’s rationality of means-ends, failed to practice equality in actu. Equality can only be practised if the crowd postulates it. In fact, to postulate equality is to already practice it and to practice it is to verify it in the real, as a dynamic collective which comes to demonstrate its own determinate impossibility. So, equality is not a desire for equality, rather it, being in an asymptotic militant rapport with its own future-anterior directedness, must come to presently organize itself so as to determinately demonstrate a fidelity towards what it will have presently been had the present finite-inquiry unfolded in its infinitude. But if politics remains aggregative— wherein a determinate form the organization of the masses takes remains conditioned by a determinate necessity, say that of social inequity— or as Badiou would have it, “bounded” (see Metapolitics 68-78), then politics fails to destroy its own determinate instantiation as work, for it then emerges as determined by the very hierarchical law of value, the very principle of social division of labour that it has come to react against. Instead of forging an unbounded collective we end up witnessing trite spectacles of the crowd as it coagulates into the same parliamentary relation of the party-masses.

There are certainly many who will come to oppose our present analogy, alleging it to be nothing but a vulgar comparison, an organization of a content (poetry) which has nothing whatsoever to do with the form of its organization (revolutionary politics), and further, that such an exercise strives, in the name of a certain logic, to use poetry as an instrumental means to the end of revolutionary politics. What, but, needs to be understood, before one levels such a charge, is that form is not an a priori determination of what comes to present itself. This metaphysical priority is only illusory, for form is always-already shot through by what it forms, the ferment of its most immanent immanence, that is, its content-object, what refutes the totalizing impulses of the thinking subject with a dialectical vengeance. Only tangential to the point we are trying to make, but what then proves to be truly confounding is that it is precisely such a Kantian understanding of aesthetics as a system of a priori forms that underpins even the most sophisticated of antagonistic thought, say Ranciere’s “redistribution of the sensible” in Aesthetics and Politics (see p. 13). Nowhere is the socio-political condition of this metaphysical origin of form more explicitly expressed than in Kant’s philosophical project, insofar as it manifested as an irreconcilable antinomy between attempts to formalize a prior, pure reason and also to testify to its conceptual adequacy to the material existence,

“All crafts, trades and arts have profited from the division of labour; for when each worker sticks to one particular kind of work that needs to be handled differently from all the others, he can do it better and more easily than when one person does everything….Now here’s a question worth asking: Doesn’t pure philosophy in each of its parts require a man who is particularly devoted to that part?… Wouldn’t things be improved for the learned profession as a whole if those ‘independent thinkers’ were warned that they shouldn’t carry on two employments once…because all you get when one person does several of them is bungling?” (Kant 2).

The analogy and language used by Kant must not be understood as a mere turn of phrase, or by way of a certain expedience of metaphor, but rather his call for a pure philosophy must itself be understood as conditioned by the very content, what he calls experience, that it seeks to cleanse itself of. The desideratum of this bourgeois formalism is a cogitative organization of knowledge which, in the name of universalism, is wholly dictated by the socio-political division of labour, to which this antinomy owes its immutability, as also the poverty of its static binaries. The idyllic benevolence of a metaphysical synthesis, insofar as thought affirms and bestows meaning, an infinite plenitude of bounty, upon a reality which is rent with the coercive principles of division, domination and accumulation of capital, remains, in situ, retroactively haunted by what it strives to palliate, namely the socio-technical division between mental and manual labour. And if the recent resurgence in a red Kant can be attributed to anything, then it is the philosopher’s own methodological failure, if not a refusal, to reconcile the antinomy between the empirical and the intelligible, between the phenomenal and the noumenal, that carries within it an incipient promise of reclaiming the problematic of socio-political division of labour from the throes a metaphysical formalism.

The relation between poetry and politics is not that of a causal instrumentality which renders one as subject to the other, which is to say, it is not a relation. What conditions the fraternal compossibility of revolutionary militancy and poetry is that the formal prerogatives of poetry constitute, in situ, the problematic of labour. One is likely given to assent to this statement on two counts— firstly, and especially, if one tends to consider poetry as a mode of production which comes to immanently demonstrate the infrastructural logistics of the social division of labour underpinning it. To recourse to such a mode of thought is not difficult, and so, not only because those on the left naturally tend to view, and rightly so, the socio-economic infrastructure as what, in the last instance, determines art’s existence, but also because one is witness to at least a few concrete historical instances when poetry, and art in general, has come to immanently and singularly destroy the infrastructure which preconditioned art’s emergence. After all, is this not the fundamental import of Mayakovsky’s revolutionary dictum— “Without revolutionary form there can be no revolutionary art”? Contra Aristotle’s Poetics, which must be, indeed, be read as a corrective rejoinder to Plato’s exclusion of the poets, Mayakovsky refused a classificatory accommodation of arts within the polis. His constructivist collaborations are a case in point. He collaborated with Rodchenko for Pro Eto, the poems inspired by Lilya Brik were juxtaposed with photomontages made by Rodchenko, with El Lissitzsky for Dlia Golosa, an astonishing piece of “visual poetry” wherein the dialectic between the typography and the visual image, between the image-as-text and the text-as-image is so thorough that the work obviates any attempt at usurping the letter with meaning, with Rodchenko for making advertisements for state-run agencies using what he called “the enemy’s tool,” and with several others, including his involvement in the Russian cinema of his times. These “constructivist” collaborations must not be understood as an exchange between private individual artists or even styles but rather as a demonstration of poetry as a mode of production, a process which, in its unfolding, destroys the social fact of a division of labour between the “skill” of a writer of poetry as written verse and techniques of the visual artist whose work is deemed fit only for ornamental and decorative purposes, between those who design theatre and movie-sets and those who illustrate mere propagandist posters, between design techniques which might behove only an advertisement but certainly not a piece of art proper, and so on.

Here then, poetry is revolutionary not because it made revolution the subject-matter of its works [5]. Rather poetry, and art in general, came to be a sui generis index to the revolution, insofar as it came to demonstrate the limit of a community’s self-presentation, the collective which we now understand by its Bolshevik name of “Soviets.” This is to say that poetry thought and performed revolutionary politics immanently, as a condition of its own exercise, without ever itself being politics.

To assent, on the second count, would be to effectively fulfil the dialectic of poetry, to complete our movement from a still somewhat external consideration of the infrastructure singularly peculiar to the form of the literary— the latter presenting a veritable constellation of its producers, distributor-publishers and consumers— to questions more internal to literary production. This latter aspect of the literary is nowhere so keenly expressed as in the following formulation of Jameson’s—

“Thus it is a mistake to think, for instance, that the books of Hemingway deal essentially with such things as courage, love, and death; in reality, their deepest subject is simply the writing of a certain type of sentence, the practice of a determinate style” (409).

Keeping in mind this dialectic internal to the literary form, what manifests by way of the asymmetrical dialectic between poetry and poem, let us rearticulate the notion of writing-as-process as work and thereby also return to the problematic of the poem’s finitude, what we had been trying to formulate, before being interposed at some length. The task at hand is not how to continue to stay alive despite the ever-impending apocalypse, that of the end of the poem, what is actually the question which has come to exemplify, more than anything, the linguistic turn in poetry, as should be amply clear from our discussion of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetics qua bad infinity in the previous thesis. Rather, the task at hand is how must one understand the poem as ex-sisting as the infinite in finite, how, that is, to subject oneself to the afterlife of the poem, what would, in actu, manifest as the veritable worklessness of the work.

What a poem demonstrates by way of its future-anterior directedness is the truth, that which will come to presently be if a poet’s presently finite inquiry into the poem’s form, supplemented by other poem-demonstrations by the same poet, as also by other poets, and by other artists, philosophers, political militants, and so on, were to unfold infinitely. Before we can elaborate, it is imperative that one understand that this not-yet qua truth, what following Badiou we can call the generic (see esp. Meditation 31, Being and Event), is not a teleological to-be, a present placed in the future, but is rather of the order of the future-anterior. For what the poem strives to demonstrate is not what it will come to be, but what the poem will have presently been had the truth of its extant circumstance completely manifested. Of course, the aleatoric not-yet of poem as a mode of production cannot be predicted, much less assumed, for the poem, as all individual art works, is after all a finite work of art. But even if the poem remains wholly incommensurable to what it must realize and fulfil, the instantaneous ordeal of this infinite truth can certainly be, as Badiou would have it, axiomatically professed.

The axiomatic here bears on a decision directly concerning the ontological question of infinity. And it is only by way of the retroactive effects of this decision that the poem can manifest qua poem. This is to say that the poet-subject surpasses the present finitude of the work insofar as he, instead of assuming an ecstatic-transcendental stance of a seer, comes to decide on whether to affirm or reject infinity, or to put it otherwise, insofar as he comes to take a decision on whether to declare fidelity to the event we understand by the name of “the end of the poem,” or not. Once infinity is affirmed, the poem manifests as nothing but a rigorously formal organization of this decision. The singular ambition which comes to determine the poem in the wake of this decision is solely that of interrupting the endless deferral of meaning and thereby evincing the impossible-Real of the antagonism, the infinite Real which makes all symbolic difference possible in and as language. But how can the poem demonstrate the void when it cannot be directly ascertained, for the void is retroactively produced by the poem’s own symbolic consummation? This impossibility is, in actu, the impossibility of the poem itself, that of its structural blindness.

Let us try and rearticulate the asymmetry of the dialectics at hand by resorting to what Lacan had said of Antigone, precisely that she is between two deaths. The first death is marked by the accomplishment of the poem’s symbolic destiny, the inevitable interpellation of the poem in the symbolic order of signification, what, as Agamben is wont to have it, phenomenally manifests as the impossibility of enjambment in the final verse-sentence. But the poem, insofar as it is seized in the wake of the poet-subject’s decision to affirm infinity, also heralds a second death, that of the very symbolic order, the law of value which always-already comes to govern the poem’s own constitution. But it is not as if the poem could undertake a destruction of the symbolic order while retaining a sovereign identity for itself. This is to say that in a world wholly determined by the law of value, poetry can destroy the law only insofar as it comes to realize that the law is extimate to its own ex-sistence, and thus comes be constituted as a veritable destruction of its own sovereign identity. After all is this not the supreme lesson to be gleaned from Hegel’s returnedness, what he calls the “turning back of force into itself”—

“Force expresses itself. The external expression is a reaction in the sense that it posits the externality as its own moment and thus sublates its having been solicited through an other force” (459).

Poetry organizes itself in the wake of the decision to affirm infinity by evacuating itself of all positive predicates, all forms of thought which come to determine it, whether political, or a la Agamben philosophical. Pace Marx’s use-value [6], poetry comes to constitute a supreme destruction of necessity, what seeks to condition poetry as a relation between a determinate content and a determinate form. The poem declares its absolute singularity by destroying the very vocation it has come to be identified with, the identitarianized all-too-poetic vocation, be it a lyric mode of expressing an interior subjectivity, or be it a consecration of the mystery of Being, or be it a postmodern promulgation of language games. This declaration, however, declares nothing but the void that the poem circumscribes, the void central to its own formal situation.

Is this not, after all, the singular formal ambition of William Carlos Williams’ variable prosody, which, plumbing the impassable gap between description and inscription, renders the poem as an objectal correlate of an objective world it sought to formalize? While the present exercise does not afford us either space or time to undertake concrete readings to discuss in detail the method of Williams’ variable prosody, one could at least gesturally reflect on as to how the poems manifest, despite obvious differences in their ostensibly manifest content, for be it the epic Paterson, or one of his “simpler” poems, say, “As the cat . . . ,” or one of the more iconic poems, say, The Red Wheelbarrow, as a rigorous formal operation which, in interrogating the processual mandate of composition, strives to formalize a new conception of “work.” The operation is an axiomatic demonstration of the truth of his poetry’s formal thrust.

Variable prosody, what can be understood as the variable and discrete groupings of speech sounds accentuated by a deliberate visual emphasis on the line-break, forms the fundamental rhythmic unit of Williams’s conception of poetry. This praxis of composing processually performs an evental evanescence, improvised unit by unit, disrupting and deferring, as it were, its own congealment while simultaneously alluding to its demise because the poem has always already congealed. The poem, by way of a symbolic congealment of the letter as meaning, is certainly a dead object. But, in the present when the poem is no more, what needs to be recovered is not what appears to now be lost, say, a past ontologised qua poem. Such a recovery would merely yield an other poem. Rather, as the axiomatic dictates, what needs to be recovered is the afterlife, the future in its anterior. So, instead of positing the formal thrust of Objectivism as serially precipitating a result-poem qua bad infinite— the quantitative accumulation that the verse sterilely performs line-by-line— the method of Williams’ line-breaks must be understood as evincing a la Hegel the quality of this formal thrust. But lest one is smitten, as one is bound to be, by the sheer hazardous taking-place of the line-breaks, and thereby comes to believe that one could circumvent the determinate necessity governing all formal considerations of techne by simply choosing to break his lines as (s)he pleases— freely as a poet is wont to say— we must assert, even at the risk of reiterating, that quality a la Hegel is not what phenomenally manifests as the aleatoric taking-place of the poem. Rather the poem is the void of a suspended gesture, of which we must say, in a manner now naturally all too Mallarmean, that no throw of a dice can abolish the chance of the poem having taken place. In other words, the truth of the poem, what would be the real worklessness of the work, is the act of the poetic form and not the formal effects produced by the poem, even if it is only the latter which will have come to attest the former. Quality is what manifests when, in having come to be constituted as what thinks its constitutive scission, the poem forces the occupation of the unoccupyable place, that of which Williams had written—

“Save for the little

central hole

of the eye itself

into which

we dare not stare too hard

or we are lost” (Williams 152).

The structural effect of the two deaths is what is at stake throughout in George Oppen’s first book of poems, Discrete Series. The second poem in the series constitutes a single word “White” followed by a full-stop. Is this not the great Malevichian gesture of white on white, the minimal difference which following Mallarme could be articulated as the “cut of white,” separating the letter from its place of inscription? In occupying this minimal difference between what takes place and the place Oppen’s thought reduces the present situation to a radical minimum of a decision, what unfolds as a cut of lightning across the proverbial night of Fordism, the one in which, as the poem goes to reveal, all cars are black (hinting, of course, at the famed T Model).

It is demonstrating the new, as against a new meaning, that Williams, against the Hegelian cunning of the history, actively safeguards the future of the cause. The hole punched in the structure of modernist poetry by Williams’ variable prosody— a mode of formalization which sought to wholly disengage a determinate form from a determinate content— is axiomatically secured in the anterior by an anticipation of new poetic works which will have come to fulfil this void by presenting the original indiscernibility of Williams’ poetics to be the truth of the poetic situation it had emerged in, while simultaneously punching holes in structures local to the law of their own determinate emergence. Amongst the several contemporary poets who are at it, the works, say, of Douglas Piccinnini, Joshua Clover and Graham Foust do strike one’s mind as being veritable formal inquiries into the configuration as it was and as it will shall come to be following the linguistic-turn. But if otherwise the Objectivist “condensery” has historically devolved into a certain free verse, a neo-confessional transparency of those stylists, the ones who, in this hopelessly mediated world, aspire to an immediacy of their own distinct voice, then it is simply because the singular ambition of poetry was mistaken for its structural effects, leading to an endless reification of the latter. The same is also true of the grossly perverse Leftist appropriations of Mayakovsky, Baraka, Lodre, Baldwin, Ristos, and the list is really endless. But what is even worse is that the ones who revolted against a reified poetics of voice have themselves remain fixated on these structural effects, continuing to endlessly propagate the metaphysical edifice they proclaim to be the destroyers of.

It would only be fitting to conclude by briefly discussing the stakes involved in the act of submitting the poem to that axiomatic will which is not the proprietary of the poet-subject. And in contemporary poetics, is not the formalization of this act of the poem qua poem the singular ambition of David Brazil’s poetic vocation, and does his decision, whether to use waste-litters of found paper to type his long poem Economy on, or to present the work titled Kairos as it is, as drafts which, it seems, are yet to be produced, not demonstrate the materialist truth of the Mallarmean cut of the white, the truth being nothing other than use-value?! For, if in A-8 Louis Zukofsky thus poses a question originally posed by Duns Scotus— “Whether it (is) ‘impossible for matter to think?” then Brazil’s poetry can be understood as a reformulation, pace Marx’s use-value, of this very question, a reformulation which can be posited thus— “Whether it is impossible for matter to think itself ?” Rather than understanding the poetic form as an organizer of content, Brazil grasps it as an act. The work in Kairos is marked with several redactions, strikethroughs, some circled words, but also whole passages blacked out, and insertions, all done in hand, and xeroxed copies of the pages presented as they are. But it is imperative that one refrains from fetishizing what appears to be the sensuous concreteness of Brazil’s writing-as-process, as also from commending him for being able to present what a determinate lapse of the process into a finished work obfuscates, that which is, in actu, the arduous and visceral worklessness of the writing-as-process. For any attempt which strives to grasp Brazil’s gestural poetics by way of an unmediated phenomenology shall only go so far as to evoking the kitschy idyll of a poet-hand’s craftsmanship. Pitted in a calculated opposition against mass-production, the superfluous farce of such artisanship, the sensuousness of its roughened materials will be no different from the aesthetic semblance affected by the coarseness of the rind of an organic orange. Instead, one would do well to understand that these (un-)finished drafts, for all the novelty of their discontinuities, indeed constitute as the final work, and that they exist only insofar as they inhere in the symbolic closure of their determinate identity, whether each is seized as a stand-alone entity, or as read collectively under the title The Ordinary. To assert the truth of Brazil’s poetics, we must recourse to the dialectical dexterity demonstrated in the Chapter 1 of Capital vol. 1, and proffer that on the one hand this truth— what takes place, of which there is no proof except the Real which it alters, and which the finite poem only goes to (un-)represent— is irreconcilable with and unsuturable to its self-estranged finitude. But on the other, the inevitable lapse of the former, what manifests as the impossibility of existing as an emancipated unity, immanently carries the possibility of its own redemption. Insofar as the poem succeeds in circumscribing this void central to the production of the poem, the finite poem comes to be the trace of the infinite activity that, in actu, takes place. It is not for nothing that Economy carries, in an almost Brechtian manner, its own theory in its wake. The method of Brazil’s poetry is not a metalinguistic farce which lets the project question, rather therapeutically, its own objectives, and wonder whether it shall succeed or not, and so on. Rather the impossibility of this method, reminiscent of Ponge’s The Making of the Pre, manifests as the desire to open the work to the minimal gap which founds the signifying process. For it is in only in being intransitively opened to that minimal gap which founds the impassable proximity of the taking-place and the place, of writing-as-process and the written, that the finite poem supports the infinity that it seeks to realize. Poetry does indeed perform the Parmenidian dictum— “it is the same thing to think and to be”— but only insofar as thought is what remains when it is foreclosed from its knowledge and being is what remains when it is foreclosed from its presentation.

Notes

1. Even if her study remains arrantly partial, one could, here, refer to Chapter 8 and 9 of Marjorie Perloff’s Differentials for an engaging account of the development of Language movement in America. Outlining the poststructural, and in general, a theoretical impetus of Language- and Language-related poetics, Perloff tends to valorize the poetics of polysemy, of syntactical indirections and deformities, over and against the ethos of an epiphanic transparency as espoused by a certain confessional or neo-confessional mode of poetry, while arguing that the latter suffers from a “referential fallacy,” and that its direct communicability is the hallmark of commodity fetish.

2. Here, I refer to Ron Silliman who, since 1974, has been at work on a poem which spans his entire lifetime, titled, Ketjak. Ketjak is composed of four parts: The Age of Huts (1974-80), Tjanting (1979-81), The Alphabet (1979-2004), and Universe (2005-present). As with The Alphabet, in which each chapter appeared as a separate volume, the poet envisions Universe as a prodigious 360-chapter project.

3. Despite fundamental disagreement with the Althusserian imperative as formulated by Macherey, precisely that a literary work is incapable of truth— the latter being the prerogative of science alone— that, at best, one could think of the literary work as an “analogy of knowledge” and, at worst, as a “caricature of customary ideology” (59), a thesis we have indeed set out to subvert, one must unconditionally assent to the argument that a literary artefact is a determinate work in-sisting in the determinate necessity of its particular formal finitude. In the case of Language- and allied modes of formalizing writing-as-process, one could argue that the stubborn linearity of a “poetics of the incomplete” itself points to a systematic necessity which governs its determinate emergence, and that the aleatoric novelty of its endless discontinuities only derives from its own endless failing, the persisting lapse of its purported infinitude. This alternating determination of the finite and infinite, in which the finite is rendered finite only insofar as it convokes the potential-infinite, and the infinite can be conceived to be so only in reference to the finite is precisely what Hegel terms the “bad infinite”— “This contradiction is present in the very fact that the infinite remains over against the finite, with the result that there are two determinacies. There are two worlds, one infinite and one finite, and in their connection the infinite is only the limit of the finite and thus only a determinate, itself finite infinite.” What, then, escapes the grasp of a procedural poetics a la Ron Silliman is the real infinite which holds writing in its spell, what we can affirm as the quality of this quantitative accumulation, or otherwise as the procedurality of the procedure. As against a structural play of differing-away, we are interested in conceiving poetry as a processual demonstration of the good infinite, the impossible Real which makes all structural difference possible, and what cannot yet be attested-for by the latter. In its bare skeletal form, the antagonism could be posited thus— syntax as a Mallarmean guarantee for intelligibility as against the polysemy espoused by idealinguistery.

4. Here I refer to a poem titled “Maruti Swift” which appeared in The Four Quarters Magazine, Vol. 4 No. 1, an Indian magazine of contemporary poetry and fiction, and is available here (tfqm.org/Akhil%20Katyal.pdf). Needless to say, but the poem is sustained by a wholly staged freedom of improvisation, and what with especially its own Taylorized line-breaks, the formal imperative of this (un-)free verse allegorizes, rather unwittingly, the history of capitalism.

5. One does not, in the least, mean to read Mayakovsky as a formalist— as if there could be such a thing as pure form!— or discount the political content of Mayakosky’s poetry— but,as if there could be such a thing as un-formalized content! Rather, if in this dialectic of form and content the essay has strived to lay more stress on one side, then it is only in order to address the failure of a Marxist readership in ascertaining the “formal” greatness, not only of Mayakovsky, but also other poets who have historically been associated with communism. This failure is a result of dogmatic practices of revisionism so popular in the cadres, whereby the complexity of a literary form is made palatable by eschewing all that requires a concerted labour of reading. And so, an ostensibly manifest “political” content, abstracted from the formal imperative of the work, is conflated with the politics of the writer to produce a reified dead-style a la Baraka, a la Mayakovsky, and so on, a style which is atrociously affected by a number of “people’s poets” on the Left today, the ones whose great anti-capitalist poems have become the formal hallmark of capitalist anti-capitalism. The common political refrain that there aren’t any great poets on the Left anymore does not so much allude to a crisis in poetry, but is symptomatic of a failure to ascertain the truth which is singular and immanent to poetry, and art in general, a truth which is not political.

6. Here I refer to Capital Vol. 1, Chapter 1 where Marx demonstrates the dialecticity of the dialectics at hand by arguing that “not an atom of matter enters into the objectivity of commodities as values” (138), but also by positing, in the same moment, that use-values are the only material bearers of exchange-value (126). The dialecticity of use, demonstrated ever so dexterously by Marx, must be understood as a veritable destruction of the metaphysical stance that all anti-metaphysics maintains, especially when it comes to the problematic of demonstrating the immeasurable, an indeterminate part which exceeds the structure. For, to even hint at the presence of the indiscernible is to effectively present it, and thus rid it of its subversive potential! And yet to not present it would mean to have to inhere in the structure’s right to legislate. In its bare skeletal form, this conundrum is precisely what forms the mainspring of anti-foundational philosophy. As Badiou writes, to seize this asymmetry undialectically ensures that every example of subversion turns, in the very moment of its being-posited, into a counterexample (see Meditation 28, Being and Event), or to put it otherwise, the force of the antagonism devolves into a weak difference of placed identities.

Works Cited:

Agamben, Giorgio. The End of the Poem. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1999. Print.

Agamben, Giorgio. The Time That Remains. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2005. Print.

Badiou, Alain. Handbook of Inaesthetics. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2005. Print.

Badiou, Alain. The Age of the Poets. London: Verso, 2014. Print.

Badiou, Alain. Being and Event. London: Continuum, 2005. Print.

Badiou, Alain. Metapolitics. London: Verso, 2005. Print.

Clover, Joshua. Generals and Globetrotters. The Claudius App. http://theclaudiusapp.com/1-clover.html. Accesssed: 20th June 2016.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976. Print.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, tr. George Di Giovanni. The Science of Logic. New York: Cambridge UP, 2010. Print.

Jameson, Fredric. Marxism and Form. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1972. Print.

Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 1998. Print.

Mallarmé, Stéphane. Selected Poetry and Prose. New York: New Directions, 1982. Print.

Perloff, Marjorie. Differentials: Poetry, Poetics, Pedagogy. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama, 2004. Print.

Silliman, Ron. The New Sentence. New York, NY: Roof, 2003. Print.

Rancière, Jacques. The Politics of Aesthetics. London: Continuum, 2004. Print.

Williams, William Carlos. Pictures from Brueghel. Norfolk, CT: J. Laughlin, 1962. Print.

A collection of the author’s works can be seen here (opon.org/issue4/aditya-bahl/). A chapbook of poems will be published LRL, Textile Series (http://www.textileseries.com/) in early 2017. A chapbook titled this is visual poetry by Aditya Bahl was published in 2013 by a now extinct imprint of Dan Waber.

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