Friday, July 16, 2004

Huh. New-style Blogger interface. Think I prefer the old one. Anyway, I spent the morning pleasurably immersed in Giorgio Agamben's short, dense book The Coming Community. Agamben is a philosopher very much working in the wake of Heidegger and Levinas, and in some ways this book reads like an attempt to synthesize their thought--an ethical ontology. The argument is not easily summarized, but what fascinates me about the book is how it gestures toward quiddity or the "whatever" (not in the sense of "whatever, man" but as a way of gesturing on a thing's tendency to be whatever it particularly is. It's the attribute of having "whatness") as the fundamental property of beings, a property that itself does not belong to either the particular or the universal. It reminds me strongly of that Oren Izenberg article in the Fall 2003 issue of Critical Inquiry, in which Izenberg argues that the project of Language poetry is "the ontological and ethical practice" of gesturing toward "the human capacity of free and creative agency" lodged within language qua language. The Language project becomes particularly visible in Agamben's formulation of its opposite: the condition of language under the society of the spectacle in which we all live. Here, the "communicativity" essential to any sense of community that is not predicated on "identity"—that is, the possibility of escaping the oppression of the State or homogenous nation—has been erased and absorbed by the spectacle, which replaces that possiblity with its sinister and inane tautology "What appears is good; what is good appears." In the following quote, Agamben assigns the Hebrew word "Shekinah" as a symbol of language reified as an instrument of knowledge (another barrier to what Agamben calls "the Common":

What hampers communication is communicability itself; humans are separated by what unites them. Journalists and mediacrats are the new priests of this alienation from human linguistic nature.

     In the society of spectacle, in fact, the isolation of the Shekinah reaches its final phase, where language is not only constituted in an autonomous sphere, but also no longer even reveals anything--or better, it reveals the nothingness of all things. There is nothing of God, of the world, or of the revealed in language. In this extreme nullifying unveiling, however, language (the linguistic nature of humans) remains once again hiden and separated, and thus, one last time, in its unspoken power, it dooms humans to a historical era and a State: the era of the spectacle, or of accomplished nihilism. This is why today power founded on a presupposed foundation is tottering all over the globe and the kingdoms of the earth set course, one after another, for the democratic-spectacular regime that constitutes the completion of the State-form. Even more than economic necessity and technological development, what drives the nations of the earth toward a single common destiny is the alienation from linguistic being, the uprooting of all peoples from their vital dwelling in language.

     For this very reason, however, the era in which we live is also that in which for the first time it is possible for humans to experience their own linguistic being--not this or that content of language, but language itself, not this or that true proposition, but the very fact that one speaks. Contemporary politics is this devastating experimentum linguae that all over the planet unhinges and empties traditions and beliefs, ideologies and religions, identities and communities.

This sounds so close to Izenberg that I'm convinced he must have been drawing upon Agamben for his argument; I wish I had a copy of the article in front of me. But in any case I'm very attracted to the suggestion here that the role of poetry is in unlocking "the very fact that one speaks"--it's Heidegger's "Language is the house of Being" transformed into an imperative. (An interesting parallel here between poetry as providing access to linguistic being and Allen Grossman's more humanist notion of poetry as being the power of granting personhood; but  think Grossman sees poetry more conservatively as a means of representation--which would trap him within the State/identity paradigm.) And of course I'm hardwired to try and think this through pastoral--Virgil's Eclogues give us a liminal space between wilderness (later aka myth) and civilization (later aka Enlightenment) whose shepherds create a provisional community based upon their powers of song. By relating to each other primarily as singers, as opposed to economic or political units, they create a humane and livable community, albeit one that is both imaginary (the fantasy of aristocrats) and always under threat (as signified by the eviction of Meliboeus in the First Eclogue).
Maybe I will end up doing a chapter on the Language poets (heavily indebted to Izenberg) in which I examine their project, or a chunk of it, as a pastoral one. But another question opens: what are we, the post-Language poets, up to? By returning to "content" are we manufacturing identities and falling prey to the spectacle? Or are we simply asserting our own ontic particularity in protest against the levelling of affect seen in much Language poetry, synecdochic of the indiscriminate cutting edge of revolutionary violence? Pound believed that Social Credit would make it possible to technically correct society's ills; it was an alternative to revolution. The technician usually fails to anticipate the ways in which his experiment will change its conditions. On the other hand, the revolutionary lets a thousand flowers bloom by lopping off the heads of thousands more. Agamben writes, "Selecting in the new planetary humanity those characteristics that allow for its survival, removing the thin diaphragm that separates bad mediatized advertising from the perfect exteriority that communicates only itself--this is the political task of our generation." The critical question then becomes: what is the nature of Agamben's proposal? Is it technical, revolutionary--or some barefly imagined hybrid?

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