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Against the ‘enchantment’ of poetry and for the ‘arrogance’ of critical thinking

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Robert Walser’s stress on the small, the insignificant, the minor, the almost-invisible is constitutive of his aporectic – I prefer to call it asymmetrically dialectical — literary discourse that ‘arrogantly’ affirms singularity precisely in and through the ‘humility’ of “continually stepping aside” from the light of recognition that affirmation of singularity inevitably calls upon itself. In one of his stories, for example, a heroic figure erupts suddenly from the insignificant margins of life only to once again melt away and disappear.

Does this Walserian sensibility not resonate with Blanchot’s literary practice, which is an affirmation of the singularity of visible-invisibility (or arrogance through humility)? Blanchot’s reclusive life-practice, which can arguably be construed as the continuation of his conception and practice of literature — writing as a continuous process of withdrawal from itself — beyond the paradigmatic frame of the literary, was possibly a demonstration of this ethics (and singularity) of arrogance-through-humility. This is a quality that is neither arrogance nor humility, but something entirely novel in that it exceeds the anthropologically-indexed affective coordinates of arrogance and humility in their dualised existence.

Walser’s style, if we may still talk in those terms, is the constant articulation and questioning of style itself as something that is always imperfect, and intrinsically inadequate. In that context, we would do well to conceptually approach poetry, not so much as style — which is thinking poetry through a foregrounding of its experiential dimension that is the necessary anthropological register and anthropological-passional index of its historically determinate instantiation as excess of meaning and language — but as a mode.

To conceptualise, and envisage, poetry modally is to grasp it, and have it articulate itself, in a manner that its form is already always a demonstration of its own excess. (Here the importance of the experiential dimension of poetry as the necessary condition of its determinate emerging is doubtless acknowledged, but what is also indicatively underscored is that this dimension is, in itself, not a sufficient condition for poetry to continue being itself.)

In such a (singular) situation, the separation between enchantment and disenchantment is rendered a zone of undecidability, and is thus immensely complicated. For instance, is the singular in the excessiveness of its eruption, which amounts to a break with the thrall of the banal, an enchantment or a disenchantment? And this poses yet another question: what is the condition in which the line shifts, causing the defamiliarising singularity of the quotidian to lapse into the familiarity of the exchangeable and the banal? Is familiarity, insofar as it’s an anthropologically-indexed affect concomitant with the internalisation of domination, disenchantment or enchantment? And, in such circumstances, is defamiliarisation — as an anthropologically- and thus passionally-indexed affectivity of singularity in its excessive eruption — enchantment or disenchantment?

The real question then is, can poetry be approached, and envisaged, as a decision of dwelling in that zone of undecidability? There can, of course, be more than one literary register through which such dwelling in the undecidability of excess is accomplished: the savagely explosive registration of continuous excess (the surrealist poems of Eluard, Aragon and Peret, or Rimbaud’s poetry); the fragile web of language, but one which is baroque in its interminable convolutions and elaborations, and which gets spun through the ceaselessly persistent valorisation of the evanescent and the irreducible (Proust, Beckett); but also, excess as the quiet slipping through of the small, the insignificant and the minor through the meshes of the system (Walser, Kafka, Celan ). In none of these registers, however, does the undecidability with regard to the distinction between enchantment and disenchantment become less demanding in any essential sense. All that such registers of ontological excess in their variegated multiplicity appear to accomplish are different anthropological-passional indexing of the truth of undecidability.

The same – that is, the decision to dwell in the undecidable, the purely possible –holds true for politics as well. That, needless to say, renders poetry and politics, vis-à-vis one another, a question of encounter rather than of some kind of deep or hidden ontological similitude. It is not for nothing that philosophy as the passion for truth begins, as Brecht accurately pointed out, in wonder and awe.

Truth on one hand, wonder and awe on the other. How much more aporetic — and thus undecidable — can a situation be? In such circumstances, to grasp such undecidability as enchantment is to privilege the experiential dimension of such undecidability over its practical-evental/performative dimension that informs the former but is irreducible to it. To indulge in such privileging of the experiential over the performative (or the practical-evental) is to abandon the post-phenomenological rigour of thinking and envisaging sensuousness for a phenomenological (and thus descriptivist) accounting of the same. This phenomenological — and wholly experiential — mode of approaching the sensuous logically amounts to moving away from conceptions of immanence and allegory (which is the immanence grasped in its inscription) to conceptions of interiority and myth, and thus productivism. The latter is inconsistent in its sensuousness because experience remains in it a subjective depth that does little to suspend the objectivity of presence and its metaphysics. In other words, in the phenomenological accounting of sensuousness, experience in its subjectivity fails to seek the institution of its own commensurate materiality and, thereby, become its own surface. As a result, experience, and the subjective, remains interiorised as a depth that is always in diremption from its objectivised and objectified surface. This is, to say without pulling too many punches, the abdication of materiality to spirit. This is a return, albeit through the rear window, of the Hegelian notion of art as the identitarianisation of the negativity of religion. This is poetry, not as the condition and procedure of truth, but as religious mystification.

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Political militancy and the question of literature

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I am no literary scholar. I have neither the qualification nor the inclination to be one. Therefore, I wouldn’t know – and can’t say – how a literary scholar ought to go about his/her business of engaging with literature. However, I can probably talk about what an aspiring militant seeking to engage with the literary can and ought to do.

The question before such an individual cannot be how the literary can serve the political – or, for that matter, how the political can serve the literary. The question, instead, must be; can one approach the literary and the political as two paradigmatic conditions of the singularities of literature and politics, and constellate them as those generic singularities. Politics, as opposed to the political, and literature, as opposed to the literary, is precisely about such constellating of generic singularities. [Here one must be clear that politics and literature as generic singularities, even as they are informed in their determinate instantiations by the particularites of their respective paradigmatic conditions, of the political and the literary, are irreducible to those conditions. The paradigmatic particularity and the singularity whose instantiation it informs are in an asymmetrical dialectic.]

In other words, an aspiring militant is faithful to his aspiration only when he seeks to equally engage with the literary and the political by struggling against – that is, criticising both theoretically and practically – the pushing of the political into the literary and vice-versa. For such an individual, it can never be about the ‘enchantment’ of poetry against the ‘disenchanted’ arrogance of critical theory, or vice-versa. It’s not even about being even-handed with regard to this binary so that some sort of reconciliation, either additive or aggregative, can be effected between the two, and the binary as the distributive structuring of differences can exist by striking a balance (a golden mean as it were). Rather, an aspiring militant must approach critical theory and poetry as two determinate anthropological-passional registers, and two determinate historical indices, of thinking in its affective (and thus impersonal) singularity. Thinking — we would do well to remember here a la both Heidegger, and Badiou’s Platonist matheme — is that which has not yet been thought and which perpetually resists thought.

So, if it is not the normativity of logos (political philosophy, critical theory) over the literary, it cannot be the poem-as-difference either. For a radical critique of the logos — which is the force-field of identities and within which the subjective experience of difference that is the poem is already always subsumed, thereby articulating the poem as an objective identity (difference-as-identity) – what is required is concept of the impossibility of conceptualisation (logos).

In other words, we need to rearticulate logos as difference in its limit. This is what the matheme, thanks to Badiou’s radical reinterpretation of Plato, amounts to. And that is the reason why I personally prefer the matheme, over Heidgger’s “poetic-thinking”, as a rigorous explication of thinking as the presentation of the void of thought. [It is on account of its rigour that the matheme enables an anticipative-prefigurative articulation of future-directedness, which is much more powerful and radical than what Heidegger’s “poetic-thinking” affords.]

Therefore, both literature and politics as generic singularities are instantiations of that singular affectivity of thinking in its indivisibility. It must be mentioned here that they are generic singularities only in their tendency to mutually constellate with one another as the uninterrupted process of singularisation (Badiou’s “singular-multiple”).

Unfortunately, there are far too many people – including both terrorists of the political, and terrorists of the literary — who miss this only to unreflexively indulge in such stupid and pointless instrumentalism from one end or the other. The former in the name of some kind of romanticised radical political valour, and the latter in the name of the enchantment of poetry and suchlike. And then, of course, there are those middlemen, even more stupid, who have made it their lifework to effect a reconciliation between the two instrumentalist modes so that the binary can continue to perpetuate itself even as their privileged position as oh-so-balanced and oh-so-ecumenical scholars is preserved and reinforced within the system that is this binary.

These middlemen can often be seen neurotically holding forth on the enchantment of poetry for the benefit of those who are engaged in politics, and on the valour of the movemental for the benefit of those who are engaged in literature. Such propensities, needless to say, are animated by the objective reality of capitalist modernity, which is a horizon constitutive of mutually competing particularities seeking to accomplish their sovereignty through such competition.

It ought to have become clear by now, I assume, that I’m distinguishing singularity from sovereignty, which is the particular seeking to institute the universality of its own particularity. Therefore, an aspiring militant who seeks to engage with literature can be faithful to both his aspiration and his engagement only if his activity is informed by the following conception: there can only be singularity, no sovereignty. Or, if, following Georges Bataille, he does decide to affirm sovereignty then he must carefully attend to the conceptual valency of sovereignty in Bataille’s thinking, and discourse, of “transgression” “radical evil” and the “general economy” of expenditure (as opposed to what Bataille calls the “restricted economy” of production and accumulation). If he does that he will see that, for Bataille, singularity is the only sovereignty that can be affirmed.

The affirmation of literature (together with politics) as a generic singularity, if situated rigorously in that context, is not an “art-for-art’s-sake” kind of argument. Not at all. Instead, what such affirmation amounts to is literature is so autonomous, or singular, that it’s not even for itself, to say nothing of being for the political. The autonomy of literature that a militant engaging with literature must affirm — if he’s to be truly committed to his literary engagement, and thereby to his militancy — is not the sovereignty-seeking aestheticised particularity of literature, but literature as the “inaesthetic” (Badiou) evental-process of singularisation in the determinate paradigmatic condition of the literary.

It, therefore, follows that to think the singularity of literature, or, for that matter, the singularity of politics, is to necessarily think them in their respective limits. To not do that would hypostatise the eventality of the singular with the paradigmatic condition, wherein it is determinately instantiated. That would amount to politics as the revolution of the event turning into counter-revolutionary antipolitics of evental revisionism.

Politics then is nothing else save the actualisation/actuality of this mode of thinking singularities in their respective limits. More importantly, it’s such thinking in action. In such circumstances, the only radical possibility before militant politics, as far as literature is concerned, is to demonstrate and reveal, not politics in literature but politics of literature. That is, not the demonstration of what literature says about politics, but the demonstration of politics in what literature in being literature is. More precisely, the politics of literature is literature being the revelation of the formal economy it is as literature.

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