Agamben’s Philosophy (key points)

One of key statements of philosophy last century came through the mouth of Heidegger (though it was obviously not merely his statement): “Higher than actuality stands possibility.” The statement overturns a long-standing bias that favors of ‘what is there’, ‘what is actual’, what is present, for the sake of ‘the possible’, what ‘may be’. This bias is very much in line with common sense: generally, we value what is really there over what only might be there; what we can put our hands on over what seems mere thought and imagination. The blueprint is not as accomplished, not as real, as the completed building, etc. To say that possibility [Möglichkeit] stands higher than actuality [Wirklichkeit] marks a watershed moment where this bias – and the entire world based on it – enters into a crisis.

Another key statement of modern thought came through the mouth of Rimbaud: “Je est un autre,” I is an other. I view this as the motto for all the efforts to rethink individuality, subjectivity, selfhood, and so on, that have since been undertaken. It stands for how the self is not self-sufficient, not a being closed in on itself, not a substance; how it is in relation, at risk, constituted by forces beyond its conscious power; how perhaps the individual “is not” at all, is possibility, potentiality (and so on).

So, Agamben comes in highly situated within a philosophical and poetic tradition that he is very ambitiously trying to respond to in the entirety of its concerns. Among others, two of the primary axes of concern are “possibility is higher than actuality” and “the I is other” (taken to the extreme of “autrement qu’etre”). These two great over-turning and philosophically ‘revolutionary’ statements force a crisis to occur (as much as they register a crisis long prepared) in Western thought/society. Agamben’s big ambition is to bring these crises to bear on all the fundamental areas of Western thought – ontology, law, judgment, art, language, politics. With an eye to many others who also tried to deal with these consequences, he brings many threads together into a weave that is “uniquely his own.” I can only highly a few concepts:

USE-AS-NOT – The way the issue of subjectivity gets worked out in Agamben is basically through a philosophy of USE with an essentially messianic pitch: use without possession, use without owning, use without having, use without a preexistent “user.” Or again, “have” only the “use,” without having anything actual. “Have” the possibility (=habit). This necessarily leads to a notion of praxis, practical habit, that lowers the status of “products,” productivity, and works in general – though of course not through an outright negation or rejection. On the contrary, it will always be a matter of retaining a potentiality to use “within” the actual use, so that “possible use stands higher than actual use” at every point. Put otherwise, the current way things are done says nothing about how they could be done, since now the “could be” stands higher than the “current.” Likewise, the philosophy of use-as-not – without possession, use without any right to possess – should have deep consequences on the assumptions about property in Western culture.

Contemplation means primarily to contemplate the possibility of the act in the act, to act such that the potentiality is never exhausted in the act. This dwelling of the potentiality-to-act within the activity or action itself is one way Agamben answers the first crisis, through a remapping of what it means to “do something” in general; and his own works are the outflowing praxis of this reconfiguration (of this deconfiguration of the “doer,” of the “will,” as such). That is the essence of Agamben’s effort which is mobilized on countless fronts. Regarding the messianic pitch of this, I can only offer this quote as summary: “The Pauline “as not,” by putting each factical condition in tension with itself, revokes and deactivates it without altering its form (weeping as not weeping, having a wife as not having a wife, slaves as not slaves). That is to say, the messianic calling consists in the deactivation and disappropriation of the factical condition, which is therefore opened to a new possible use. The “new creature” is only the capacity to render the old inoperative and use it in a new way: “if one is in the messiah, a new creature [kaine ktisis]: the old things have passed away, behold they have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17).”

INOPERATIVITY – It is clear that Agamben totally endorses the notion that possibility is higher than actuality, however this also includes his rejection of the paradigm of much of Western economics and “production.” The bias here is that the actual/effective is better than the possible; that possibility is only so good as it can be realized in a work. Agamben wants to think not only how possibility is *preserved as possibility* in the work, in the actual – but also how possibility itself undoes the actual. The key word for Agamben here becomes “inoperativity,” an inoperativity or unworking at the heart of the operation. The emphasis here is not activity but deactivation. Not constituent power but a ‘destituent’ power. Not a life that ‘makes itself seen’ but that makes the very medium of its life visible. Not a making of a name for oneself, but a making clandestine (invisible) in its very visibility to the world. Undoing is inscribed in the very movement of doing.

And so there is no cease to the movement, the use of intelligence, the use of potency – nor to the “actual work.” For what is taking place in the work is its own contemplation. The work is never considered to be, only its possibility-to-be is considered along the process of its coming to be, which actually is then revoked, treated “as not,” or more simply: contemplated once more and put, once again, to a new possible use, used otherwise. Agamben therefore calls works of art the “ashes of a vital praxis.” The works exhibit the potentiality that undoes them, that renders them inoperative, that gives them back their (im)possibility, including their potentiality-to-not-be.

GESTURE – This leads to another key idea: pure means without end, mediality without finality, or gesture. A pure means is something used for the sake of using it, not as a means for an end (e.g., for making something actual). The gesture exhibits a potentiality, for example, how the dancer exhibits a potential to dance as a potential of the human body: “If dance is gesture, it is… because it is nothing more than the endurance and the exhibition of the media character of corporal movements. The gesture is the exhibition of a mediality: it is the process of making a means visible as such. It allows the emergence of the being-in-a-medium of human beings and thus it opens the ethical dimension for them… what is relayed to human beings in gestures is not the sphere of an end in itself but rather the sphere of a pure and endless mediality.”

In Karman, Agamben relates this to the reigning paradigm of responsibility, judgment, and guilt, categories which he tries to overturn. He references the Self [Atman] as a dancer. I share these quotes since they carry the essence of all these thoughts and of the new paradigm of subjectivity, action, creativity, and politics that I see Agamben putting forth:

“The Self (Ātman) is a dancer [nartaka],”… And the commentary specifies that, in dancing, subjects who are awakened “manifest with the free play of their movements a whole variety of figurations” and in this sense are compared to “performers in the theater of the world.” What the text wants to suggest is that the relationship of the awakened self with its actions is no longer the karmic one of merit and demerit, of means and end, but is instead similar to that of dancers with their gestures. And for the one whose actions have become gestures, “the interior self is the stage” and “the senses are the spectators.” “All division having vanished… they enjoy the savor of wonder in all its fullness” […]

“Ātman is a dancer, and its actions are only gestures. Praxis—human life—is not a trial (an actio), but rather a mysterion in the theatrical sense of the term, made of gestures and words.
“To every human being a secret has been consigned, and the life of each one is the mystery that puts this arcane element—which is not undone with time, but becomes ever more dense—onstage, until it is ultimately displayed for what it is: a pure gesture, and as such—to the extent that it manages to remain a mystery and not inscribe itself in the apparatus of means and ends—unjudgable.”

FORM-OF-LIFE – Finally, a form of life is the ‘result’ of a life that lives its very livability – in other words, a life that remains ever in contact with, ever in contemplation of, its potentiality-to-live. It is thus never identification with the ‘actual facts’ of its life – the data, events, experiences, identities, activities, achievements, moments, faces, existences, and so on – it is never identical to itself (so far as it remains in use, unpossessed, other). Over the void of a gap of use lies the potentiality to live, the livability itself, the mode of life. This potentiality-to-live is alluded to at one point by Agamben as “eternal life.” It is a matter of thinking a “form of life” that at every point preserves the livability of its life (its eternal life) in its actual life – the life *through which* it lives in the life *that* it lives. It is a matter of the soul: “Form-of-life, the soul, is the infinite complement between life and mode of life, what appears when they mutually neutralize one another and show the void that united them. Zoè and bios… are neither separate nor coincident: between them, as a void of representation of which it is not possible to say anything except that it is ‘immortal’ and ‘ungenerated’ (Phaedrus, 246a), stands the soul, which holds them indissolubly in contact and testifies for them. (262)

Agamben’s studies are themselves uses of intelligence, inquiries that do not have an ‘end’, but simply run their course until they must be abandoned. I have hereby emulated that fate, but I hope my comments help the reader orient in the complex but highly worthwhile texts by one of the greatest philosophers of our time.

Cf. Giorgio Agamben – Toward an Ontology of Style –

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For the Love of Thought

Confusion in contemporary discourse about thinking: we ‘think too much’. Inclination to turn off the mind, escape. Importance of distinguishing distraction from meditation, annihilation of mind from clarification of mind. Krishnamurti: cessation of imagistic thought leads to awakening of intelligence. Not exactly ‘wisdom’. Definitely not in the style of soundbite, meme leading to cliché. Though perhaps all this useable for living a life, getting on. But not necessarily a life that thinks; thus not what it potentially could be.

Spontaneous reaction against intellectualism, abstraction, conceptualization, and so on. But the latter confused with expert discourse, specialists working for university or industry, ‘big word’ people talking down to ‘ordinary’ people. Fault of intellectuals is their inability to listen and speak the other’s language. Also fault of education, teaching to tests and ‘right answers’, less to critical, emotional, creative thinking and development of powers of expression.

In fact, a general prohibition on thinking reigns. Primarily in the mode of distraction, divertissement, idle talk. Desires produced to divert. Satisfaction of those desires become imperative. But no desire for truth. However, everyone has that desire, as is clear whenever there’s an opening for thoughtful conversation. The opening often closes quickly, due to discomfort, unless there’s trust and spaciousness. Unclear what to ‘do’ with thought, since it often asks question for which no ready-made answer exists. And perhaps no ready-made question.

Questioning often stops, or is satisfied, by prevailing interpretation. Often one that is endorsed by establishment, institution, party, Church. This produces homogeneity in thought, staleness. Expression takes on a mechanical nature. It becomes predictable and steady, which is what the anxious mind seeks. However, it is only a temporary respite. Anxiety returns wherever the clear action of thought has not pierced it. Anxiety, sometimes manifest as boredom, is the sign of what must be pushed through. Badiou:

All courage amounts to passing through there where previously it was not visible that anyone could find a passage… Ethical courage amounts to the force to traverse anxiety, since this means nothing else but the capacity to consider oneself null.

Desire for ‘truth’, when it exists today, however, usually orients around wish to know the facts. Less common: truth as active production of knowledges that did not formerly exist and that do not reach closure. Such production takes place in a “void,” can be unbearable. Thought bears with the strength of questions no authority can satisfactorily answer. Thus its anguish of ‘no answer’. Also is freedom, possibility. Facts are important, but the love of thought cannot content itself with them. Thinking exceeds the sphere of what is. Thought “means” nothing yet. It reaches into the Not-Yet and “learns to live.”

December 4, 2018

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Staying Alive (Michel Houellebecq)

by Michel Houellebecq

“The universe screams. The concrete shows the violence with which it was hit like a wall. The concrete cries. The grass groans under the animal teeth: And Man? What can we say of man?”

The world is a suffering spread out, on display. At its origin, there is: a knot of suffering. All existence is an expansion and a crushing. All things suffer, until they are. The nothing vibrates with suffering, until it arrives at being: in an abject paroxysm.

Beings diversify and complexify themselves, without losing their primary nature. At a certain level of consciousness, the cry becomes manifest [se produit]. Poetry is derived from this. Articulated language, as well.

The first poetic procedure consists in going back to the origin. Namely: to suffering.

The modes of suffering are important; they are not essential. All suffering is good; any suffering is useful; all pain bears its fruits; every misery is a universe.

Henry is one year old. He lies on the ground, his diapers are soiled; he bawls. His mother passes by and returns, clacking her heels on the paved part, looking for her bra and skirt. She’s rushing to get to her date tonight. This little thing covered in shit, who stirs with agitation on the tiled floor, exasperates her. She starts shouting herself. Henry shrieks with a vengeance [de plus belle]. Then she leaves.

Henry is well on his way to a career as a poet.

Mark is two. His father is about to die of cancer in the hospital. This sort of worn-out machinery, with some tubes in the mouth and some drips, that’s his dad. Only his look is alive; they express pain and fear. Mark suffers too. He is also afraid. He loves his dad. And at the same time he starts to long for his father to die, and to feel guilty about it.

Mark will have to work. He will build up inside himself this very particular and fecund suffering: the Most High Guiltiness.

Michael is five. No girls have ever hugged him. He would like to dance with Sylvie; but Sylvia dances with Patrick; and it is plainly obvious she enjoys it. He is frozen; the music penetrates the deepest regions in him. It’s a magnificent slow dance, a surreal beauty. He hadn’t known you could suffer that much. His childhood up to now had been happy.

Michael will never forget the contrast between his heart frozen by suffering and the overwhelming beauty of the music. His sensibility is on the way to being formed.

If the world is made up of suffering, it’s because it is essentially free. Suffering is the necessary consequence of the free play of the parts of the system. You must know that and say it.

It will not be possible for you to transform suffering into a goal. Suffering is and consequently it cannot become a goal.

In the wounds it inflicts upon us, life alternates between the brutal and the insidious. Get to know these two forms. Practice them. Acquire a complete understanding of them. Distinguish between what separates them and what unites them. Many contradictions will then be resolved. Your speech will gain in force and in amplitude.

Bear in mind the characteristics of the modern age, that love may no longer reveal itself; still, the ideal of love is not diminished. As an ideal, it is fundamentally situated outside of time; it can neither diminish nor disappear.
Hence an ideal-real discordance that is particularly glaring, a source of particularly rich sufferings.
The adolescent years are important. Once you have developed a sufficiently ideal, sufficiently noble and perfect conception of love, you are ruined. From then on, nothing will be enough for you.
If you don’t date women (out of timidity, ugliness, or some other reason), read feminine magazines. You will experience sufferings nearly similar to yours.

Go to the bottom of the abyss of the absence of love. Cultivate hate of self. Hate yourself, disregard others. Hate others, disregard yourself. Mix it all together. Make a synthesis. In the tumult of life, be always lost. See the universe as a dance hall. Stock up frustrations in great number. Learn to become poet; it’s to unlearn how to live.

Love your past or hate it; but may it stay present in your gaze. You must gain a complete understanding of yourself. In this way, little by little, your profound ego will be detached, will glide beneath the sun; and your body will remain in place; inflated, puffed-up, irritated; a wall for new sufferings.
Life is a series of stress tests. Past the first tests, fail the last ones. Waste your life, but only waste it a little. And suffer, always suffer. You must learn to feel pain through all your pores. Every fragment of the universe must be a personal injury to you. Nonetheless, you have to stay alive – at least for a while.

Timidity is not to be disdained. One might consider it the unique source of inner richness; that is not wrong. It is, effectively, in that moment of lag between will and act that interesting mental phenomena start to manifest themselves. The man in whom this delay is absent remains near to the animal. Timidity is an excellent starting point for a poet.

Develop a deep resentment towards life within yourself. This resentment is necessary for all true artistic creation.
Sometimes, it’s true, life will appear to you merely as an incongruous experience. But resentment must always remain close, at your fingertips – even if you do not choose to express it.
And return always to the source, which is suffering.

Once you arouse  a mixture of frightened pity and contempt in others, you’ll know you’re on the right track. You’ll be able to start writing.


“A force becomes movement once it enters
into action and grows in duration.”

If you don’t succeed in articulating your suffering in a well-defined structure, you’re fucked. Suffering will eat you alive from the inside out until you have had time to write down whatever it is.
Structure is the only way to avoid suicide. And suicide solves nothing. Imagine if Baudelaire had succeeded in his suicide attempt when he was twenty-four.

Believe in structure. Believe in the old metrical forms, as well. Versification is a powerful tool for liberating the inner life.

Do not feel obligated to invent a new form. New forms are rare. One per century, that’s already good. And it is not necessarily the greatest poets who originate them. Poetry is not a work on language; not essentially. Words are under the care of the whole of society.

Most new forms are not produced from zero but by a slow derivation based on previous forms. The tool adapts, little by little; it undergoes minor modifications; the novelty that results from their coinjoint effect generally only appears at the end, once the work is written. This is altogether comparable to animal evolution.

At first you will emit inarticulate cries. And you will often be tempted to come back to them. This is normal. Poetry, in reality, slightly precedes articulated language.
Dive back into inarticulate cries each time you feel it necessary. It is a fountain of youth. But don’t forget: if you don’t get out of it, at least once every now and then, you will die. The human organism has its limits.

At the paroxysm of suffering, you cannot write anymore. If you’re feeling its force, try anyhow. The outcome will probably be bad; probably, but not definitely.

Don’t ever work. Writing poems is not work; it is a burden, a responsibility.

If the implementation of a determined form (for example the Alexandrian) demands effort, give it up. This type of effort never pays off.
The overall effort, the permanent, consistent effort to escape from apathy, is a different story. It is indispensable.
On the subject of form, never hesitate to contradict yourself. Bifurcate, change direction as many times as necessary. Do not push yourself too much to have a coherent personality; this personality exists, whether you like it or not.

Neglect nothing that might procure for you a parcel of equilibrium. In any case, happiness is not for you; this is decided, and has been for a long time. But if you can snatch up a few of its simulacra, do it. Without hesitation.
In any event, it will not last.

Your existence is now only a tissue of sufferings. You think you’ll be able to deploy them in a coherent form. Your focus, at this stage: hope for an adequate living [une vie suffisante].


“The profession of letters is still the only one where you can not make any money without being ridiculed.” —Jules Renard

A dead poet writes no more. Thus the importance of staying alive.

The reasoning is simple, but it will sometimes be difficult to sustain. Particularly over the course of prolonged periods of creative sterility. Keeping yourself alive will seem to you, in such circumstances, to be painfully futile; at any rate, you will write anymore.
There is only one response to this: deep down, you don’t know anything about it. And if you examine yourself honestly, you will eventually have to admit to it. We’ve seen some strange circumstances.
If you don’t write anymore, it is perhaps the prelude to a change in form. Or a change of theme. Or both. Or maybe it is, effectively, the prelude to your creative death. But you have no idea. You will never exactly  know this part of yourself that pushes you to write. You will only know it in approximate and contradictory forms. Egoism or dedication? Cruelty or compassion? Anything could be a support. This is proof that, in the end, you know nothing; therefore, do not behave as if you knew. Before your ignorance, before this mysterious part of yourself, remain honest and humble.

Not only do poets who live to old age produce more on the whole, but old age is also the site of particular physical and mental processes, and it would be a shame to misunderstand them.
That said, surviving is extremely difficult. One might think of adopting a strategy à la Pessoa: Find a small job, publish nothing, await your death peacefully.
In practice, one will run into substantial difficulties: the feeling of losing time, of not belonging and having no place, of one’s real value not being recognized… all this will quickly become unbearable. Alcohol will be hard to avoid. At the end of the day, that path will end in bitterness and acrimony, quickly followed by apathy and complete creative sterility.
This solution thus has its inconveniences, but in general it is the only one. Don’t forget about the psychiatrists who have the power to give you a break from work. However, a prolonged stay at a psychiatric hospital is to be proscribed: too destructive. Only use this as a last resort, as an alternative to homelessness.

The mechanisms of social welfare (unemployment benefits, etc.) will have to be used to the fullest, as well as the financial support of more well-to-do friends. Do not develop any excessive guilt in this regard. The poet is a sacred parasite.

The poet is a sacred parasite; like beetles in ancient Egypt, he can prosper from the body of societies that are wealthy and decomposing. But he belongs just as well at the heart of frugal and strong societies.

You don’t have to beat yourselves up. Boxers fight each other, not poets. But, all the same, it is necessary to publish a little bit; this is the necessary condition for posthumous recognition to take place. If you do not publish a minimum (even if only a few texts in second order reviews), you will pass unperceived into posterity; just as unnoticed as you were while you were alive. Even if you are the most perfect genius, you must leave a trace; and put your confidence in the literary archeologists to dig up the rest.
This can fail; it often does fail. You must at least once a day repeat to yourself that the essential thing is to make it possible.
Studying the biography of your favorite poets may be helpful to you; this should allow you to avoid certain mistakes.
Rest assured that as a general rule there is no good solution to the problem of material survival; but there are very bad ones.

The problem of where to live will in general not arise; you will go where you can. Just try to avoid neighbors who are too noisy, for they alone are capable of provoking a definitive intellectual death.
A small professional insertion can provide some insight, potentially useful in a later work, into the functioning of society. But a period of vagabondage, where one plunges into  marginality, brings a different knowledge with it. The ideal is to alternate.
The other realities of life, like a harmonious sexual life, marriage, having children, are both beneficial and fecund. But they are nearly impossible to attain. These are, on the artistic map, practically unknown territories.

In general, you will be tossed between bitterness and anxiety. In both cases, alcohol will help you. The essential thing is to obtain a few moments of remission that will allow for the realization of your work. They will be brief; force yourself to seize them.

Don’t be afraid of happiness; it doesn’t exist.



Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. –II Timothy 2:15

Do not study knowledge for its own sake. Anything that does not proceed directly from emotion is, in poetry, of zero value.
(Of course emotion should be understood here in the broad sense; some emotions are neither agreeable nor disagreeable; that is generally the case with the feeling of strangeness.)

Emotion abolishes the causal chain; it alone is capable of making things in themselves perceivable; the transmission of this perception is the object of poetry.
This identity of purpose between philosophy and poetry is the source of the secret complicity that links them. The latter does not manifest itself in any essential way through the writing of philosophical poems; poetry must discover reality through its own ways and means, purely intuitively, without passing through the filter of an intellectual reconstruction of the world. Even less through philosophy expressed in poetic form, which is most often nothing but a miserable con. But it is always among poets that a new philosophy will find its most serious, attentive, and fertile readers. Likewise, only certain philosophers will be able to discern, to shed light on and use the truths hidden in poetry. In poetry, almost as much as in direct contemplation – and much more than in previous philosophies – that they will find material for new representations of the world.

Respect the philosophers, don’t imitate them; your path, unfortunately, is elsewhere. It is indissociable from neurosis. Poetic experience and the neurotic experience are two paths that cross, criss-cross, and usually end by merging together; the poetic vein dissolves into bloody flood of neurosis. But you have no choice. There is no other way.

Permanent work on your obsessions will end up transforming you into a pathetic mess, sapped by anxiety or devastated by apathy. But, I repeat, there is no other way. You have to reach the point of no return. Break the circle. And produce some poems before you crash into the ground. You will have caught a glimpse of immense spaces. Every great passion leads to infinity.

Ultimately, love solves all these problems. Likewise, every great passion concludes by leading to a zone of truth.  To a different space, extremely painful, but where the view stretches far and clear. Where the cleared objects appear in their clearness, their limipid truth.

Believe in the identity between the True, the Beautiful and the Good.

The goal of the society you live in is to destroy you. So much what you have is at its service. The weapon it will employ is indifference. You cannot let yourself adopt the same attitude. Spring into action! [Passez à l’attaque!]

Every society has its points of least resistance, its sore spots. Put your finger on the wound and press good and hard.
Dig deeper into the subjects no one wants to talk about. Behind the scenes, the underside of the decor. Insist upon malady, agony, ugliness. Talk about death and oblivion. About jealousy, indifference, frustration, the absence of love. Be abject, you will be true.

Adhere to nothing. Or else do adhere, but betray immediately. No theoretical allegiance should detain you for very long. Militantism makes a person happy, and you do not have to be happy. You exist on the side of misfortune; you are the somber part.

Your mission is not first and foremost to propose, nor to construct. If you can do it, do it. If you are led to insoluble contradictions, say so. For your most profound mission is to dig deeper toward the True. You are the gravedigger and the cadaver. You are the body of society. You are responsible for the body of society. Responsible for it all, in equal measure. Embrace the earth, the garbage!

Determine innocence, determine culpability. First of all in yourself, which will furnish a guide. But also regarding others. Consider their behavior and their excuses; then judge, in total impartiality. You will not be spared; spare no one.

You contain riches. You know Good, you know Evil. Never give up separating them; do not let yourself get bogged down in tolerance, the poor stigmata of this age. Poetry is in a position to establish definitive moral truths. You must hate liberty with all your might.

The truth is scandalous. But, without it, nothing is worth anything. An honest and naive vision of the world is already a masterpiece. In the face of this demand, originality doesn’t weigh much. Don’t be preoccupied by it. In any event, an originality is bound to emerge from the sum of your failures. As for what concerns you, just speak the truth; speak the truth wholly simply, no more, no less.

You cannot love the truth and the world. But you have already chosen. The problem now consists in holding to this choice. I invite you to keep your chin up, protect your courage. Not that you have anything to hope for. On the contrary, know that you will be very alone. Most people settle and make a deal with life, or else they die. You are a living suicide.

To the degree you approach the truth, your solitude will increase. The building is splendid, but deserted. You march in empty rooms that return to you the echo of your step. The atmosphere is limpid and unchangeable; objects seem to be frozen statues. At times you will be brought to tears, so cruel is the clarity of vision. You would like to turn back, back to the fogs of ignorance; but deep down you know it’s already too late.

Keep going. Don’t be afraid. The worst has already taken place. Of course, life will rip you apart again; but, as for you, you no longer have much to do with it. Remember this: fundamentally, you are already dead. You are now face to face with eternity.


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Sparrow’s Grace (poem)

for Edith and Nancy
(from 2008, reedited)


They’ve got me roped by my little hand.
They’re leading me through the big warehouse.
They’re slipping my hand in a white loop.
They’re tethering me to everyone in a line.
They’re walking me across the cold concrete,
slipping my hand in a white loop.

They’re calling to end Gilbertville, Iowa.
They’re ending Captain Crunch and cushion forts.
They’re telling me Grandma’s just died.
They’re talking to my mother about it first.
They’re keeping them both from me now,
talking to my mother first.

They’re confusing fields with dreams.
They’ve got me by the hand with the white rope.
They’re slipping Grandma out of her white bed.
They’re slipping my hand in a white loop.
They’re showing me what it’s like to be choked,
slipping Grandma out of the white bed.

They’ve bought me a trinket Model-T truck.
They’ve bought me this plastic change-holder.
They’ve left me alone in the hallway.
They’re keeping my hands tied with rope.
They’ve done me some kind of favor,
keeping my hands looped alone.

They’re driving me home on the yellow bus.
They’re keeping me from talking to my mom.
They’re making her feel it’s all her fault.
They’re scared because we aren’t crying.
They know we began the day rough, and they’re
very scared we aren’t crying.


They’re telling me Grandma’s just died.
They’re scared because we aren’t all crying.
They’re keeping my hands in the loop.
They’ve got me tied up with white rope.
They’re confusing fields with dreams,
scared because we aren’t crying.

They’re leaving me in the new cornfield.
They’re thinking it’s really a field-trip.
They’re trying to keep me from nightmares.
They’re dressed in flat orange suits.
They’re glaring their eyes black like cameras,
thinking it’s really a field-trip.

They’re telling me Grandma’s dead.
They’re telling me Grandma’s just died.
They’re already forgetting her fake teeth.
They’re stealing her from her white bed.
They’re telling me Grandma’s just died,
stealing her from the white bed.

No more soft painting, no eagles.
No more hiding cockroaches.
There’s birds of starvation in her feeders now.
No way back to Waterloo.
There’s a leaky memory of sorrow,
hovering over her white bed.

They’re going to divvy up Grandma.
They’re going to keep recipies and paintings.
They’re going to throw out the white bed.
They’re going to cry and sell the house.
They’re looking at me, asking what I want,
going to divvy up Grandma.

No more soft painting, no eagles.
They’re telling me Grandma’s just died.
They’re already forgetting her fake teeth.
They’re leaving me in the new cornfield.
They’re wondering why I’m not crying,
going to divvy up Grandma.


I felt the worse for my mother. She’d gone
with Grandma to Branson to listen to music and
cross the country roads in between. They’d taken
an old bus to get there. But Grandma got sick
through all of it. Grandma was Mom’s mother-
in-law, so guilt began piling on over the years
like black to cancer. In years, we all would have it.

I felt the worse for my mother. Grandma got ill
half way through the trip and she couldn’t help
but think it was her fault. How did she dare
bring the raining in so close? The way you’ll stand
over-looking a tornado storm wondering how
you could be so kind to everyone but yourself.

I felt the worse for my mother. Breast cancer
had come to Grandma in the past. Her last sleep
came peacefully—a scene she’d painted many times
around me. She knew the white canvas beneath
colors never stopped being white. It only looked
changed. But it was very hard to change it back.

I felt the worse for my mother. She didn’t want
any of Grandma’s things. Her parents were dead
before her son was born. I wonder if she knew
she would be going soon, too, back to the white
space between. I wonder if that little boy knew
that someday every color would change back.

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A silent, meditative word is a word rich in after-thoughts but which minimizes its degree of getting caught in merely discursive formations.

A unilateral understanding of the relation between silence and thought-languages* allows a use of the latter which both radically “deprioritizes” words and maximizes its potential to convey peace. The function of speech now becomes armistice; it loses all necessity of arguing in a combative sense. Rather, it “argues” affectively against the reign of argument as debate and division. Instead, there is honesty and exposure, a touch across one another that communicates, first, a shared spirit of vulnerable humanity, and second, a taste and appreciation of this as a sort of oneness or non-division, plainly put, of actual meeting: encounter.

Meditative words leave us indeed with after-thoughts, but they are not primarily cognitive, or the cognitive experiences here a halt or suspension which can be uncomfortable for it—and this often leads us to seek words to explain or understand it prematurely. This effort is not detrimental, but it does suggest that we are then feeling the force of language’s incapacity to encapsulate what the meditative word, the gentle voice, communicates to us affectively. It remains a mystery, but we have difficulty staying open to it.

Dwelling with these after-thoughts, allowing them to be absorbed underneath the discursive-cognitive level, is at any rate possible. Doing so often leads to quite surprising outcomes when one finally does speak and respond, almost as if the longer one dwells in this way the more likely one is to later replicate a similar mode. We see here how these after-thoughts, brewed in silence, can lead to a “discourse” that neutralizes discord and proliferates peace. Silence is held internal to itself by the unilational structure it obeys and by its intentional restraint from over-thinking.

In the end, we are led to an affective experience that isn’t before but rather after thought and that is therefore capable of mastering language “from above” as a tool for communication without fixating on significations produced at the semantic and hermeneutic level. The meditative word thus inspires no struggle to decipher, no quarrel over interpretations or the meanings of words, since there is no attachment to them; nothing of the affective experience of after-thinking depends or relies on the powers of the logos and its assertions per se (and it is well-recorded how any fixation there leads to the vain, unhelpful wars of religions and philosophies).

One realizes here that what matters is neither seriousness, wisdom, nor profundity, but the spirit of openness in the utterance, or more, the degree of generic listening-potential encoded or made manifest in it, including as an example. How does it listen to (its own) silence? How does it listen to the other’s words and silences? How does it give itself and why? When all these considerations are rooted in silence—in the unagitated mind, in a voice whose strength is quiet—there is no conceivable limit to the amount of “adorable” words that can be produced: Each word will remain at rest in a potentiality that already resides within the listener, who is always at its source and so can always open to its beauty, independently of erudition, skill with reason, or whichever other criteria might impose a hierarchy. It is a speech of which anyone who listens meditatively is capable.

*The unilateral relation between silence and thought-language means that, in the last instance, there is a one-directional influence or “causality” from silence to speech. In this model, silence causes speech but speech doesn’t cause silence, no more than speech wraps around to define, determine or influence silence. Silence is then left its purity, its freedom from speech, but without denying that it can be related (unilated) to it. The practical goal here would be to let this unilateral relation prevail throughout the discourse, against or despite the intentionality of any one given speaker. This is where my words are no longer mine, where I speak from the end of my speech, from where I am dead and only a silent language speaks. But we must focus on what is important here: you can kill a man, you can silence his voice, but you cannot kill silence. You cannot stop its—nearly immediate— return after all the glories and follies of humanity. To do justice by this return, this final destiny of speech in silence, is the purpose of the meditative word. It cannot help but inform an ethics of restraint.

—October 16, 2017

Image: Samuel Bak, Time has Come to a Stop, 1965

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Creative Absurdity (Houellebecq)

[Translation of “L’absurdité créatrice”*, p. 71-81 in Michel Houellebecq, Interventions 2: traces (Paris, Flammarion: 2009), by Timothy Lavenz (2019)]

Structure of Poetic Language satisfies the criteria of seriousness for the university; this is not necessarily a criticism. John Cohen observes there that in relation to prosaic, ordinary language, which serves to transmit information, poetry allows for considerable deviations. It repeatedly employs irrelevant attributes (“blank dusks,” Mallarme; “black scents,” Rimbaud).  It does not resist the pleasure of stating the obvious (“Don’t tear it up with your two white hands,” Verlaine; the prosaic mind snickers: would she have three?). It does not back down from a certain incoherence (“Ruth wondered and Booz dreamed; the grass was black,” Hugo; two juxtaposed notations, Cohen points out, whose logical unity one perceives with difficulty). It basks with delight in redundancy, prohibited in prose under the name of repetition; an extreme case would be Garcia Lorca’s poem, “Llanto por Ignacio Sanchez Mejias,” where the words cinco de la tarde return thirty times in the first fifty-two lines.

To establish his thesis, the author engages in a comparative statistical analysis of poetic and prose texts (the pinnacle of prose being for him – and this is very important – the writings of the great scientists at the end of the 19th century: Pasteur, Claude Bernard, Marcelin Berthelot). The same method reveals to him that the breadth of poetic deviation is much stronger in the romantics than in the classics, and is augmented even further in the symbolists. Intuitively, one might expect as much; it is still nice to see it revealed with such clarity. Upon finishing the book, one is certain of one thing: the author has indeed identified some characteristic deviations of poetry; but what do all these deviations tend toward? What is their goal, if they have one?


A few weeks into the journey, Christopher Columbus was informed that half the supplies were used up; no sign indicated the approach of land. It is at this exact moment that his adventure tipped over into the heroic: at the moment when he decides to continue West knowing it is no longer humanly possible to return. From the introduction to Elevated Language, Jean Cohen shows his cards: on the question of the nature of poetry, he will diverge from the set of existing theories. What makes poetry, he says, is not the addition of a certain music to prose (as was believed for a long time when every poem had to be in verse); nor is it the addition of an implicit meaning to an explicit meaning (Marxist, Freudian interpretations, etc.). It is not even the multiplication of secret meanings hidden beneath the primary meaning (polysemic theory). In sum, poetry is not prose plus something else: it is not more than prose, it is other. Structure of Poetic Language ended with an observation: poetry distances itself from common language, and it distances itself from it more and more. One theory then naturally comes to mind: the goal of poetry is to introduce a maximal deviation, to break, to deconstruct all existing codes of communication. This theory Jean Cohen rejects as well; all language, he assures us, assumes a function of intersubjectivity, and poetic langauge does not escape from this rule: poetry speaks about the world otherwise, but it still does speak about the world, such as humans perceive it. It is right at this point that he takes a considerable risk: for if the deviant strategies of poetry are not their own end in themselves, if poetry is really more than an investigation or play with language, if it really aims at creating a different speech about the same reality, then we are dealing with two irreducible visions of the world.

The Marchioness went out at five seventeen; she could have gone out at six thirty-two. Water molecules are made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. The volume of financial transactions increased considerably in 1995. To get free of the terrestrial pull, a rocket must build up to a lift-off thrust directly proportional to its mass. Prose language organizes reflections, arguments, facts; at bottom, it is organized around facts. Arbitrary events, although described with great precision, crisscross each other in a neutral time and space. Every qualitative or emotional aspect disappears from our vision of the world. It is the perfect realization of Democritus’ sentence: “Sweet and bitter, hot and cold, color are only opinions; nothing is true but atoms and the void.” A text with real but limited beauty, it irresistibly recalls the famous Midnight writing, whose influence has continued for about forty tears, simply because it corresponds to a Democritean metaphysics that to a large extent has remained in the majority; so much in the majority that fit is sometimes confused with the scientific program as a whole, whereas it only reached a circumstantial alliance with it – even if this alliance lasted several centuries – designed to combat religious thinking.

“When the low and heavy sky weighs like a lid…” This terribly charged line, like so many lines in Baudelaire, aims at something completely different from the transmission of information. It is not just the sky, it is the entire world, the being of the one who speaks, the soul of the one who listens that are invested with a tone of anxiety and oppression. Poetry happens [se produit]; the pathos-laden signification overwhelms the world.

Poetry according to Jean Cohen aims at producing a fundamentally alogical discourse, in which every possibility of negation is suspended. For language that informs, what is could not be, or else it could be differently, elsewhere, or in a different time. Poetic deviations aim on the contrary at creating an “effect of limitlessness” where the field of affirmation overwhelms the whole of the world, without allowing the outside of the contradiction to continue. This brings the poem close to the most primitive expressions, such as the lamentation or the howl. The category, it is true, is considerably extensive; but words are deep down of the same nature as the cry. In poetry they are set to vibrate, they rediscover their original vibration; but this vibration is not simply musical. Through the words, the reality they designate rediscovers its power of horror or enchantment, its primary pathos. Azure is an immediate experience. Just as, when daylight wanes, objects lose their colors and contours, blend slowly into a darkening grey, man feels alone in the world. This was true since his first days on earth, this was true even before he was man; this is much more ancient than language. Poetry seeks to rediscover these deeply moving, deeply distressing perceptions; of course it uses language, the “signifier”; but language is for it only a means. Jean Cohen sums up the theory with this formula: “Poetry is the song of the signified.”

One thus understands how he comes to develop another thesis: certain modes of perceiving the world are in themselves poetic. Everything that contributes to dissolving limits, to making the world a homogeneous and poorly differentiated whole will be marked with a poetic power (this is true of mist, or of dusk). Certain objects have a poetic impact, not insofar as they are objects, but because by cracking, through their presence alone, the delimitation of space and time, they induce a particular psychological state (and it must be admitted that his analyses of the ocean, ruins, and ships are unsettling). Poetry is not just a different language; it is a different look. A way of seeing the world, all the things of the world (highways as well as serpents, parking lots as well as flowers). At this stage of the book, Jean Cohen’s poetics no longer belong to linguistics at all; it is linked directly with philosophy.

Every perception is organized along a double difference: between the object and the subject, between the object and the world. The sharpness with which these distinctions are envisioned has profound philosophical implications, and that one could allocate the existing metaphysics along these two axes is not arbitrary. Poetry according to Jean Cohen effects a general dissolution of reference points: object, subject, world merge into the same moving and lyrical ambiance. Democritus’s metaphysics, on the contrary, carries these two distinctions to their maximal level of clarity (a blinding clarity, like the sun on white stones, a mid-afternoon in August: “It is nothing but atoms and the void.”)

In principle the case seems closed, and poetry condemned – sympathetic residue of a pre-logical mentality, that of primitives or infants. The problem is that Democritus’s metaphysics is wrong. To be precise: it is no longer compatible with the advances of 20th-century physics. Indeed, quantum mechanics invalidates every possibility of a materialist metaphysics and leads to a reconsideration from top to bottom of the distinctions between the object, the subject, and the world.

Starting in 1927, Niels Bohr was led to propose what is called the “Copenhagen interpretation.” Product of a laborious and at times tragic compromise, the Copenhagen interpretation insists on the instruments, the protocols of measurement. Giving Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle its fullest meaning, it establishes the act of knowledge on new foundations: if it is impossible to simultaneously measure all the parameters of a physical system with precision, this is not simply because they are “disturbed by the measurement”; more profoundly, they do not exist outside it. To speak of their antecedent state therefore has no meaning. The Copenhagen interpretation frees the scientific act by placing the observer-observed couple in place of a hypothetically real world; it makes it possible to re-found science in all its generality as a means of communications between humans about “what we have observed, what we have learned” – to use Bohr’s terms.

On the whole, physicists of this century stayed faithful to the Copenhagen interpretation; it is not a very comfortable position to be in. Of course, in the day-to-day practice of doing research, the best way to make progress is to adhere to a hard positivist approach, which can be summarized as follows: “We are content to collect observations, human observations, and correlate them together with laws. The idea of reality is not scientific, it does not interest us.” But nonetheless it must be unpleasant, sometimes, to realize that the theory one is in the process of producing is absolutely unformulable in clear language.

It is at this point that one sees the outline of some strange comparisons. For a long time I was struck by the fact that theoretical physicists, once they get away from the spectral decompositions, the Hilbert spaces, the Hermite operators, etc., which constitute the ordinary fare of their publications, render an emphatic homage to poetic language each time they’re asked about it. Not to the detective novel, not to serial music: no, what interests and troubles them is poetry specifically. Before having read Jean Cohen, I didn’t fully understood why; in discovering his poetics, I realized that something was really going on here; and that it was not without relation to Niels Bohr’s propositions.

In the ambiance of conceptual catastrophe brought about by the first quantum discoveries, it was sometimes suggested that it would be opportune to create a new language, a new logic, or both. Clearly, the old language and logic are poorly equipped to represent the quantum universe. Nonetheless, Bohr had his reservations. Poetry, he emphasized, proves that subtle and partially contradictory use of everyday language makes it possible to go beyond its limitations. The principle of complementarity introduced by Bohr is a sort of refined handling of contradiction: complementary points of view on the world are introduced simultaneously; each of them, taken in isolation, can be expressed without ambiguity in clear language; each of them, taken in isolation, is false. Their conjoined presence creates a new situation, uncomfortable for reason; but it is uniquely through this conceptual malaise that we can access a correct representation of the world. In parallel, Jean Cohen affirms that the absurd usage poetry makes of language is not in itself its own goal. Poetry breaks the causal chain and plays constantly with the explosive power of the absurd; but it is not an absurdity. It is absurdity rendered creative; creative of a different sense, strange but immediate, limitless, emotional.


*[The text is preceded by the following note: Theoretician of poetry, Jean Cohen is the author of two works: Structure du langage poétique (Flammarion/Champs, 1966) and Le Haut Langage (Flammarion, 1979). The second was republished by José Corti in 1995, shortly after the author’s death. This article appeared in Les Inrockuptibles (number 13) on the occasion of its republication, and in Interventions, 1998.]

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Transitoriness (Freud)

Transitoriness (by Sigmund Freud)
Original German: Vergänglichkeit

Some time ago, in the company of a taciturn friend and an already reputable and well-known young poet, I took a stroll through a thriving summer landscape. The poet admired the natural beauty around us but without delighting in it himself. It disturbed him that all this beauty was doomed to pass away, that in winter it would wane; but likewise every human beauty, every lovely and noble thing humans have created or could create. Everything he otherwise would have loved and admired seemed to him devalued by the fate of transitoriness that defined them.

We know that from the plunge into decay of all that is beautiful and perfect two different mental impulses can arise. The one leads to the painful world-weariness of the poet, the other to a rebellion against the purported fact. No, it is impossible that all the glories of nature and art, of our sensory world and the world outside, should really dissolve into nothing. It would be too senseless, too blasphemous to believe it. They must in some way be able to persist, to bear all destructive influences.

By itself this requirement of eternity is too obviously a result of our own wishful life for it to lay claim to a reality-value. And also the painful can be true. I could neither make up my mind to challenge the transience of all things, nor force an exception for the beautiful and perfect. But I did challenge the pessimistic poet, that the transience of beautiful things brings about a loss in their value.

On the contrary, an increase in value! Transcience-value is a rareness-value in time [Der Vergänglichkeitswert ist ein Seltenheitswert in der Zeit]. Limitation in the possibility of their enjoyment elevates their preciousness. I declared it incomprehensible that the thought of the transience of beautiful things should thereby spoil our delight in them. As for the beauty of nature, it comes again after every destruction through winter into the next year, and this recurrence may in relation to our lifespan be deemed an eternal one. The beauty of the human body and face we see within our own lives forever wane, but this short-livedness adds to it an extra charm. When there is a flower that blooms for one single night only, the blossom does not for that reason appear to us less splendid. That the beauty and perfection of artworks and intellectual achievements should be devalued by their temporal constraint, I am just as little able to accept. A time may come when the pictures and statues we admire today disintegrate, or a race of men succeeds us for whom the work of our poets and thinkers is no longer understood, or even a geological epoch in which all that is living on earth has fallen silent; the value of all this beauty and perfection will be determined only by its meaning for our own emotional lives, does not need to outlive it, and is therefore independent of absolute duration.

I held these considerations to be indisputable, but I noticed that I’d made no impression on the poet and my friend. I inferred from this failure the interference of a strong affective element clouding their judgment and believed later to have found out what it was. It must have been the revolt in their minds against mourning that devalued their enjoyment of the beautiful. The idea that this beauty is fleeting gave both these sensitive souls a foretaste of mourning over its downfall, and since the mind recoils instinctively from anything painful, they felt their enjoyment of the beautiful impeded by the thought of its transitoriness.

Mourning over the loss of something we have loved or admired appears to the layperson so natural that he declares it self-evident. But to the psychologist mourning is a great riddle, one of those phenomena one does not clarify but to which other obscurities can be traced back. We submit that we possess a certain capacity for love, called libido, which at the beginnings of development had turned towards our own ego. Later, though actually very early on, it turns away from the ego and toward objects which we in this way, so to speak, take into our ego. When the objects are destroyed or become lost to us, our capacity for love (libido) again becomes free. It can then take other objects as substitutes or temporarily turn back toward the ego. But why this detachment [Ablösung] of the libido from its objects should be such a painful process, this we do not understand and cannot deduce at present from any hypothesis. We see only that the libido clings to its objects and does not want to give the lost ones up, even when a substitute lies ready. Such then is mourning.

The conversation with the poet took place the summer before the war. One year later the war broke in and robbed the world of its beauties. It destroyed not only the beautiful landscapes it tore through and the artworks it scraped up against along its way; it also broke our pride in the achievements of our culture, our respect for so many thinkers and artists, our hope in finally overcoming the disparities between nations and races. It sullied the lofty impartiality of our sciences, exposed our instinctual life in its nakedness, and unleashed evil spirits in us we thought we’d permanently tamed through centuries of upbringing by our noblest. It made our fatherland small again and the rest of earth once again far and remote. It robbed us of so much that we had loved and showed us the frailty of so many things we’d held to be enduring.

It is no surprise that our libido, thus impoverished of its objects, has with greater intensity occupied what has remained to us, and that love for the fatherland, affection for those closest to us, and pride in our common features have suddenly been reinforced. But those other, now lost goods, have they really lost all value for us because they have proven to be frail and incapable of resistance? For many among us, it seems so, but again wrongly, I think. I believe that those who think so and who seem ready for a permanent renunciation, because what is precious has not preserved itself as durable, are only in mourning over the loss. We know that grief, however painful it may be, passes spontaneously. Once it has renounced everything lost, and also spent itself, our libido is in turn free, insofar as we are still young and lively, to replace as much as possible the lost objects with ones equally or more precious. It stands to hope that it go no other way with the losses of this war. Once the initial grief has been overcome, it will be shown that our high esteem for cultural goods has not suffered under the experience of their frailty. We will rebuild everything the war had destroyed, perhaps on ground firmer and more long-lasting than before.

—Translated by Timothy Lavenz and Antonia Grousdanidou (2014)

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