poetry is not representation, but it is composition: against the theologico-poetic

Most of the efforts of 20th century poetics, and up until today, have been oriented at eliminating representation from language by seeking a different relationship with speech. This has to be viewed in the context of capitalism where representation inevitably summons the question of value, and hence the production of surplus value in representation. To counter the valuation of language, poetic research has aimed at a non-exchangeable, non-representational idea of speech, something intransitive.

All quest for viscerality goes in this direction. Language is here re-endowed with a power of summoning forces that are beyond representation, be these forces in the here and now of performance, or in the there and then of metaphysical sublimation.

In parallel, there is the opposite tendency, that of producing an excess of signification --an infinite multiplication of representational trajectories that confound and disable their valuation.

Both are forms of non-paraphrasis, both are ways towards a poetry of anthropology, an approach that undoes the exchangeability of meaning. This also means defusing any productivity, and hence any meritocratic hierarchy.

But this struggle against representation falls in the trap (in poetry no less than in anthropology) of its own search for authenticity, as if viscerality was more real, truer, better than representation. When this happens, a specific political-theology (i.e. poetical theology) is at work. The claim to experience (against representation) transforms poetry into a metaphysics, and anthropology into an account of the really human, or the radically different, which is the same. The poetry of anthropology is antithetical to this posture. While opposing the quantitative equivalence of language in exchange, it also rejects the absolutism of embodiment’s will to truth, as if the really real was accessible without mediation. Disempowering representation, while also undoing the absoluteness of viscerality, the poetry of anthropology does not disavow either of them but puts them into a different relationality, a relationality composed of micro-epiphanies that are sustained by the co-constitution of desire and form: no composition without mechanism, no language without mediation, no outside.



A long tradition in anthropology strives to distill forms to their essential features to make them intelligible (“elementary forms” etc…). This tendency goes hand in hand with the idea that anthropology should identify the fundamental articulations of the human. But a poetry of anthropology does not achieve its aims through this process. On the contrary, thinking anthropologically with poetry is a form of concretion, augmentation, complexification, sedimentation, stratification, variation, oscillation. All these operations are “subtractive” only in the sense that they take away weight from any idea of finality or commitment while reintroducing play, rhetoric, displacement. This also suggest that nature is not a reduction to its fundamental features. Nature in this perspective is metamorphosis.

And all this accretion, diversion, intensification, augmentation is both necessary and useless. Necessary because while being artifice, poetry is not superfluous: without it things would not be. And while necessary, poetry is useless, in the sense that its functionality cannot be reduced to an algorithmic directionality. Poetry has many uses, but none exhaust it, this is precisely because it is a structure of accretion, complexity, duplicity, bifurcation….

the poetry of anthropology

The poetry of anthropology

The poetry of anthropology aims at examining anthropological approaches to poetry, while also considering anthropology as a form of poetry.

In between the polarity of the subjective and objective genitive stands a third option, the partitive. From this third perspective, the poetry of anthropology defines that component of anthropology which cannot be paraphrased, cannot be said otherwise. The poetic moment in anthropology-- the conjunction of form and desire.

1.     The poetry of anthropology distances itself from two approaches:

An approach reduces poetry to the abstract category of the "poetic."  Posing the question of the poetic would require engaging in acts of inclusion and exclusion, or defining the poetic as a specific quality. The transformation of this quality into a function (Jakobson: the poetic function) is important in establishing the libidinal economy of poetry but cannot be abstracted into a definition of what constitutes the poetic without cancelling the equally relevant question of the "warranted and frustrated expectations" which poetry generates.

Another approach reduces poetry to its instances, the poems (visual, textual, oral). As if everything could be exhausted in the performance. Without denying the relevance of the pragmatic dimension (language as action), one has to be weary of the preconceived idea of productivity that any action oriented approach implies.

2.     Part of the task of the poetry of anthropology is to make explicit the existential import of poetry without reducing it to an articulation of self. In other words, the task is to delineate a concept of poetry as a modality of existence.

In this modality, expression, or to express, is an impersonal activity

to paraphrase Althusser, poetry, is a process without a subject

3. A poetic modality of existence is articulated in two parallel motions. one could call them form and desire.

The combination of form and desire, which takes place in composition, is what develops consistency across time, that which does not exhaust itself in performance. There is a virtuality inherent in this combination.

Poetry as a modality of existence has a specific temporality, in the sense that it takes place in a definite time, which coincides with the production of expression, and is taken up again in its repetitions which constitute a virtuality.

Mandelstam 2

“For where there is amenability to paraphrase, there the sheets have never been rumpled, there poetry, so to speak, has never spent the night.” O. Mandelstam, Conversation about Dante.

If poetry is that which is not amenable to paraphrase, this means that there is no question of equivalence or generality. No possibility of exchanging or equating one term for another. One is dealing with something unexchangeable and irreplaceable. In this sense poetry is a form of repetition (Deleuze). Each time one writes, recites, reads, listens to a poem, there is a repetition of a singularity.

However, this does not mean that poetry is simply mystical oneness or that its difference is immediate instantiation, reduced to the moment of its uttering. While important, the performative approach has ended up subsuming any action/thought to the unfolding of a subject which, even if split, remains the main character in the story. Even Deleuze and Guattari’s chapter “On the Refrain” in Mille-Plateau at time returns to a subjectivation which eludes some of the power of poetry. [One would have to remember that Deleuze always underlined the specificity of philosophy (the creation of concepts) so that even his “poetic” language is one step removed from poetry in the full sense of the term, i.e. as not being amenable to paraphrasis].

Nevertheless, Deleuze’s argument that ideas actualize themselves by differenciation, (Différence et Répétition 1967: 358) amplifies the notion of non-paraphrasis by introducing the virtual as that determined dimension of reality which remains indifferenciated but is differentiated (c in one case, t in the other). With this arcane formulation, Deleuze indicated that while each poem/verse or even (poetic) word or interjection is distinct in itself, it carries with it an obscure element (as opposed to the distinct and clear idea), something that remains opaque, undefinable. This zone of obscurity, pre-individual, though singular, is the “dark side” of poetry, the one that makes it different, but the one whose “expression” cannot be paraphrased. This is what Deleuze will call the virtual.

[Deleuze also helps in thinking the question of analogy. He saw analogy as a particular case of resemblance and therefore still invested in identity—reflect on how this impacts the common assertion that poetry is analogy]

Deleuze’s zone of obscurity seems to (re)insert a metaphysical domain into singularity and difference, an unspeakable but present element upon which signification is predicated. But Mandelstam’s sentence is instead all about the speakable. The opening of a domain of difference that the sheets, the night, the rumpling all point towards, while leaving it undefined. But this indifferenciated – has not consistency, no “existence” if not in the sentence itself.

This is also what sets aside poetry from algorithms. While algorithms are functional towards an end different from themselves, the productivity of poetry only effects itself, or rather its own (virtual) unfolding.

Mandelstam in his lines also introduced another characteristic of poetry. Poetry is not only difference unamenable to paraphrasis. Poetry needs to rumple the sheets, to spend the night. An erotics of poetry. And at least two additional dimensions: a) temporality b) experience, or if this is too messy a term-- “being there”. (there is the night as well, and obscurity, i.e. the zone of obscurity mentioned above).

If poetry is not amenable to paraphrase, if poetry lacks equivalents, its status as a sign would need to be rethought, and so would its value. Perhaps this is also what Pasolini meant when he stated that poetry cannot be consumed.

where poetry spent the night

 “For where there is amenability to paraphrase, there the sheets have never been rumpled, there poetry, so to speak, has never spent the night.” O. Mandelstam, Conversation about Dante.

Osip Mandelstam offers a definition of poetry as that which is not amenable to paraphrase.

Defining poetry might not be the best approach to reflect on the poetry of anthropology, because definitions introduce unwarranted normative constraints. Abstracted for the circumstances of the essay in which is written, taken as a definition, Mandelstam’s assertion carries an idealistic tone if one simply understands this sentence as referring to an evaluation of what counts as poetry and uses it as a rule for judging statements.

However, anyone familiar with Mandelstam’s essay would agree that the poet’s comment is less oriented at offering a normative statement than at opening up a territory for reflection. As a laboratory, Mandelstam’s comment can point towards an important trajectory to think anthropologically with poetry. If poetry is that which cannot be paraphrased, what matters is not poetry as a category, as a form of thought abstracted from its realizations, but the poem and only the poem (or the verse, or whatever else expresses something that cannot be expressed in any other way).

In the impossibility to paraphrase would reside the specificity and perhaps the power of poetry in constructing statements in which expression and content coincide to the extent that any variation or modulation would alter them in such a way as to become something utterly different, perhaps a different poem but not that poem, verse, word.

The conjunction of form and content, of the “how” and the “what” also resolves the relationship between the concrete and the abstract. The poem is what it is, one could say, in its irreducible concatenation of materiality and expression. With two conceptual consequences. First, the irreducible, stone like (Mandelstam again) character of words, sentences and any other poem-constituting element. One could call it a literalism, if one understood by this term not the absence of interpretation, but the necessary and irreducible sensory-material condition of its realization. Not unlike certain mystical traditions have conceptualized and practiced. And yet, it would be hasty to conclude that the idea of poetry as that which cannot be paraphrased leads straight to the identification of word and thing. What is at stake is something less assertive and more nuanced: it is the necessary character of poetic utterance, not its hypostasis. In other words, the non-amenability of paraphrase is not a reassertion of the primacy of logos.

In this regard one could also venture to conceptualize poems as monadic structures. What is at stake are not the originality and the absolute purity of a poem, but the concretion of its elements into an indestructible unit, itself aggregating with other such units, to compose larger unparaphrasable ensembles.

Through Mandelestam’s comment, the analogical foundations of poetry can be put in perspective. Poetry is often identified with analogical as opposed to scientific reasoning. However, Vico himself underlined the necessity of poetry as a form of expression of what could not be otherwise stated by humans in their infancy. There would be analogy insofar as that which cannot be said otherwise can be expressed analogically, but this does not mean that what poetry expresses can be substituted via analogies. The operation of translation/conceptualization (analogy) would in itself be an unfolding of the poem, or the production of a different poem, since analogy does not refer to the simple passage of a message from one code to another but the inevitable transmutation and reconstitution of something into something else.

The comment also helps considering the limitation of a “performative” approach to poetry, which, despites the caviats of its practitioners, always ends up reading the material instantiation of the performative acts as retrospective embodiments of a subjective trajectory: poems become signs of a subjectivity in the making to which they can be attributed. But, if the irreducible “letterism” of a poem is taken into account, it would be impossible to instrumentalize its readings towards whatever end, no matter how mobile and in progress.

But perhaps all this argumentation has itself moved too quickly away from Mandelstam’s sentence. It has indulged in paraphrasis. In Mandelstam’s passage, the assertion of poetry as that which is not amenable to paraphrase cannot be in turn abstracted from the image that substantiates it: poetry spending a night and leaving rumpled sheets as trace. Eros and experience appear as constitutive elements of irreducible poems.

poetry, technology, mysticism

Since Mauss theorized the emergence of personhood as a historical category, it is logical to assume that his approach can also suggest the disappearance of personhood.

Already announced in the second half of the twentieth century by German, French and Italian philosophers, the idea of an impersonal existence is taking hold in concrete forms, although these forms are yet to be envisaged.

This “hold” is foremost historical: in the sense that conditions are being realized for the articulation of a form of existence that is not predicated on the split between a naturalized “drive” on one hand, and a volitional core on the other (to take Esposito’s discussion of the paradigm of personhood).

In poetic terms, this would suggest that the centuries old (but in no way eternal) partition between techne and inspiration --between form and desire-- might eventually be reconfigured; and these two terms will cease to constitute the rebound through which existence is defined (law and desire, necessity and freedom).

An impersonal existence is unbound by volition and hence telos. As the term itself suggest, and as many of the philosophers involved in this discussion attest, “impersonal” remains imbricated into the vocabulary and demands of subjectivity, thus referring less to a new beginning than to an unfulfilled orientation. But this is also the mark of a quality which is built on a non-negative substraction: im-personal. A sort of non-neutral neutrality that washes away.

Most of what concerned personhood/subjectivity --and poetry is no exception-- has worked to modulate the opposition between techne and inspiration, recombining them into the impossible wholeness of a “work” [of art] which at its best marks the sublimation of this fracture. That this happens mostly through a negative, so to speak apophatic modality, it is only the confirmation of such tendency.

Nobody knows and nobody can predict how an impersonal existence will look like. However, it would be a misstep to postulate that it will be something completely new. It will rather be the intensification, modification and combination of a set of elements that are currently bounded in other configurations.

For this reason, it is possible to trace, to put to the foreground, to give relevance to a set of elements that might be current trajectories of the impersonal.

Both technology and mysticism, apparently opposite, do articulate portions of impersonality: technology via a sense of automation, be it inorganic or organic, and mysticism via a sense of presence that cancels out the partitions that otherwise structure daily life.

Poetry is both technological and mystical, both a mechanism and a presence, to the extent that, as many have theorized, it is a mechanism that produces presence, and in so doing it often confounds its own mechanicity to project a sense of immediacy. Poetric traditions usually always made sure to highlight within their own mechanism the artificiality that produced such immediacy. Hence the medium mostly appears as the medium that it is. Romantic poetry (and contemporary “sensuality”/sensoriality) instead, pretends to erase the artificiality and works to institute immediacy as its own medium.

power of poetry

(variations between Deleuze and Jackobson)

Poetry’s power rests on the production of a space (plan) of immanence.

The power of poetry is predicated on a tautological structure. Poetry exhibits its own power of expression. The power of expression is a sign of the power of expression. “it says” (intransitively).

[ethnographically, this corresponds to the moment in which a reader enters the space of immanence – usually this is a bodily posture which is only very indirectly accompanied by a verbal sign. It can be a more marked inspiration or expiration, a glance, faraway eyes, an exclamation (the proverbial bah bah). More rarely, a full sentence çe khub gofte [how good s/he/it (the poem) said] which while being on the threshold of meaning, see below, is still an expression of the power of poetry to say (intransitively). There is a tendency to understand çe khub gofte as a remark about the form of the poem: “how well the poem expresses X (a certain meaning, a trope, whatever this might be)” and hence to underline how the “form” matters—yes it does and this might be the case, however this misses the intrinsically phatic function of poetry which (pace Jakobson) cannot be detached from its power (hence it is not just a matter of “expectations” confirmed and betrayed, hence metaphor and metonym do not just concern “something that could be expressed otherwise” but are precisely signs of what “cannot be expressed otherwise” hence its immanence]

**so the idea that poetry says what cannot be said works if its taken out of its theologico-political trajectory: poetry says exactly what it says, not in the sense that it is a sign for something that cannot be said, but because it could not be said otherwise. There is no beyond. It’s the immanence (neither sacred nor profane).

This might be achieved via a split between law and desire or by a more totalizing investment in either (pure form on the side of the law, pure chance/freedom on the side of desire).

Either way, self-sufficiency is achieved by act of mediation which tends to obscure the mediating process.

Even when exhibited (“this is what the poem is doing”) the emphasis (the resolution and hence the point of application of the power of poetry) is on its immediacy: there has to be a point of no return, a “click” to make poetry (and hence its power) work. To use Barthes’ terminology, a point when pleasure and juissance coincide, when stadium and punctum coincide.

The coincidence, the immediacy is a very mediated product (the “artifice”).

A secondary effect is to make the intransitivity transitive, that is to say to translate the “it says” onto a “this is what it says” (=a sense/a truth). This process of objectivation marks the exit from the plan of immanence into meaning which is already a re-territorialization of the power of poetry towards other aims. (poetry being captured by other powers).

The plan of poetry is contained, not infinite, limited in time and space.

But the plan is contained only towards the outside, but not towards the inside.

On the outside the power of poetry is limited by other competing powers or simply by its temporalities and spatialities. Poetry is certainly not infinite, it is a spatio-temporal event.

On the inside, in relation to its own constitutive elements, poetry’s plan is infinite. It is an event that institutes its own temporal and spatial coordinates.

This seems a more apt description than one that focuses on performance, because despite the current tendency to emphasize the event over the product, poetry is poesis in the sense of a concrete act of production oriented at building an object, however ephemeral. (this I take from Agamben’s Creativity and Anarchy)

This is what makes poetry impossible to locate from a theological/philosophical point of view. Too concrete and self-defining to be just metaphysical, too abstract to be just speech/writing (see Geertz discussion). And this is also why the formulation “there is no poetry, only poems” obscures part of the relationships that constitute the power of poetry.

To this a corollary should be added (a divagation using some Lacan but steering it in different direction). What is desired is only a byproduct of desire rather than its cause --to the extent that the object of desire works as a guarantee/stand-in more than something desirable in itself. A poem will be desirable if the conditions for the constitution of the plan of (the power of) poetry will have set desire in motion. Therefore, the techniques/technologies (=forms) for the constitution of the plan are paramount to its production, not just a medium for a (desired meaning). However, they are not sufficient, in that they do not establish the conditions for desire by themselves. A “third”—the desire of the other, would have to set the mechanism in motion. Once triggered, the technology delivers (or not, in this case generating disappointment).