Sparing Language

To continue writing poetry, one would have to believe in the universal human value of expressions of singularity. Not in ‘big’ singularities (poets supposedly), but in small ones that coincided with their expression (delimited, circumscribed, contoured in the poem). But expressions too of a generic potentiality for thinking―for speaking the truth―faced with the empty page. Along poetry’s route, this necessitates the sparing of language, which can be described in multiple registers.

Language is spared whenever it is not enchained and constrained to a sharp finality (e.g., the instrumental purposes of capital, but also the brandishing of identities, the definition of objects); whenever language is played with, to open a world, to expose the miracle of one, or in one way or another to exhibit its capacity for conceiving wholeness, totality, the indivisibly singular―the thatness of whatever is such, the it-is-ness that poetry deems refractable through images. Such language does not have a finality, except to refract a universe in its passages.

Language is spared when it is not lost to oblivion. Here the performative and vocative dimension of poetry imposes itself. Words on a page, no matter how poetic, are only potential phenomena (traces, ghostmatter). The poem spares language―and some might say it thereby spares being―from forgetting, yet only to the extent that it is “voiced” again; that the singularity it puts in play is put in play again. Such is why it impresses upon us, with the help of jolting images and caesuras between them―the one uttering something, the other on the verge of the unutterable―, the event of language, language as an instance of genesis. The poem is an event of a world, a coming-into-being facilitated by the contact of the souls exscribed in its words and images.

For we can easily see that, even in this instance of voicing, itself marking an event of language, we have been lifted off the page, suspended between reading and originating. This signifies that we are now in thought’s activity; it includes or fuses a repetition of past expression alongside or inside a new one, one which collapses the interval and allows two times to coincide or rest in each other. The archived text is thus “lifted,” torn or stolen from its context in order to approach its origin―not, of course, an origin in the past, but now, in its present pertinence for thought and expression in their evental singularity. In the poem, a soul’s being unfolds.

Language is then spared from being “merely” propositional, for now it implies something equal parts chemical and spiritual, a transformation of essence from corporeal to literal, the risk this entails and the burden. It is language come alive in a life―and with it history and the idea of language as an eternal utopia.

For the poem’s being-present-again is not explainable as a linguistic phenomena. More than conveying meaning, symbols, ideas, the poem is the transmission of the affections of a soul. It is even the sharing of a common soul, through the hope-orienting structure of the open phrase (transhistorical or “timeless”), of a singular expression of language qua generic thought, an epiphenomenon of the blank expanse which drives the fall-out of the “I” into the real. This is why, without ever becoming the voice of a people, the poem remains hospitable to all and so universally translatable, without ever sacrificing its singularity, the unique configuration that it is. To do justice to it is to be drawn toward our own singularity therefore. The event of langauge is always anarchic (lifted). Its horizon hearkens the transcendence of yours.

The poem calls from its nowhere to draw the here toward it. The here, to “voice” it, welcomes it like the nowhere of utopia: past and present contract or cancel into pivot-point, which poem manifests, diverting life from its formal-historical axis, the concept from its objects, and letting arise a sort of third space, measured and not merely diachronic. An emergent extra-temporal property of souls communes materially, through the poems, in their hopes―among others, the hope that our language (as shape, direction, voice) not be lost to the flattening effect of discourse, the neutral apparatus of chronological time, and the practical arrangement of reified, temporal, merely ‘external’ objects (since in that case, the image would undoubtedly lack totality and singularity).

We are struggling here to articulate a going-together of humans accomplished through their own efforts at “subtraction”―their own attempts to remember the soul in its action. A poem is just such an expression, sparing language from being submerged in facts and explanations about the given world. It spares language from too much understanding, and so gives it back to life. Perhaps this is why poetry could never place judgment and punishment at its center, except perhaps to raise an objection to those uses of language that punish it (and through its misuse abuse humans, animals, objects, the whole universe of being). Poetry’s subtraction from such uses (counting, reckoning, calculating, determining, etc.), preparing it for a future communion, implies a gesture of forgiveness. It opens a space for histories to be rewritten, against the fantasy of closed worlds and the retributive finalities that come with them. The poem makes, instead, for the open field, the light that refracts the invisible.

But the poem’s openness corresponds in turn to its strictures, to the exigencies of its singular expression, which is clearly never a pure free reign. The control of the poet, the art, is exerted on the excess of language in its servility, stupidity, and superfluity. A poet may write many things, but nothing ever minimizes the sparing use of language the poem must make if it is to avoid the insipid bellowing and blaring language is normally used for. Its “infinitely small vocabulary” turns it into a channel for exact expressions and thoughts, inimitable and inexchangeable. It is this restraint exerted upon language that allows the poem to bear a silence in itself, to be the pregnant pause of its own eventality, to sign its singularity and suchness with seal that can’t be forged.

And so the poem hovers forever between empty speechlessness and its voicing, bearing witness to a (im)potentiality to speak that is never exhausted in speaking, ever on the threshold of its own becoming-event. The poem knows that the latter requires special conditions, namely, that the parameters of the poem be “scanned.” But scansion is not limited to analyses of the poem’s composition (breaks, feet, rhymes, etc.). Scansion can only be thought as a dwelling-in, or as an exposure-to, the threshold that the poem itself is. The eyes run up and down the lines, revisiting turns endlessly, each time in preparation for the advancement of the encounter, each time listening in for what thought is granted. This act amounts to a gradual absorption of the poem’s unique chemical (vocalization is also an injestion) and spirit (contemplation implies concepts and so participates in the general movement of human thinking). But the complex molecule that is the poem does not only have to search the body for receptors; it also has to turn our soul into one. This becoming-receptor of the soul mirrors the dynamic at play in the poem’s own strictures, the counter-violence it must do to itself to uphold its silence, the strain exerted against its own discourse.

In the poem, then, delimitations are made for the sake of the unlimited, for it to shine or refract through. The conditions it sets for being voiced are to welcome the unconditional. It is thus a desperate conversation, for the imagination must go where no finite imagination can go: to the limit of totality, of singularly undivided and whole. The poem overcomes this gap only where it remains in thought or in action, in the voice that, resurrecting it, gives it breath. Yet to be worthy of being carried thus, the poem must leave something to spare: a reserve of life’s present which has not been spent or disappointed, or of hope’s universality as it inscribes itself in the monuments of souls and unifies its energy in so many total gifts of speech.

Poetry’s sparing language, then, is meant to leave language to spare: the insufficiency of an expression caught in its own glare, sighting itself out to be sought, in thought’s groaning. A lack of finality duly noted: on the one side, the poem which is lifted into voice (genesis), on the other, we who are given and share voice, a specific one whose vocation is only in lifting. We who read it are led by it to ascend. And so we respond to the call and assume our vocation in the parade of souls, being who we are, exhibiting our idea.

An escalation of human being into sparing language: this is a gift of presence, understood here as a sort of universal value of openness beyond finalities―like the poem in its cosmic state, or which the cosmos in a poem refracts. But poetry the art form is not the gift’s necessary condition, even if the poem dedicates all its resources to remembering it, since it is in presence that human potentiality in general gets its grip and world-trajectories are altered. This is a presence whose matter is personal―as personal as the reading of a poem. If poem and presence seem here to coincide, perhaps it is not accidental. For isn’t presence itself sparing? Is it not what spares itself, like an origin or an empty page, from the ravages of discourse?

Shall we then say: the poem preserves the presence of a soul? Or of a thought of presence as voiced/speechless, surrendered to the unknown of the universal? Perhaps along such roads, singular as they are absurd, we will continue to discern the value of poetry.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment


Touch, a sensitivity of touch, too fragile to think: waves of seduction emanate from the center tug, every sound gives its word to the impossible, you craft pleasure stationary, freedom happens to you (the sensual bloom of a powerlessness transforms awkwardness into light waves, an illusoriness that gives grace back to all of your uncanny fidget).

You wait, you look again: more shapes and shadows, curves and curls. The unseen eye-contact of spirits raises feeling to beauty: you perceive, reckless with caution, the threshold of an unknown future, in which nothing needs to happen and you do not need to breathe. (This slow-drip red infinity is your dream, the name of a light angle yet to star. I blackhole into my own language and starve; such is its receptivity to ours.)

Took another step, wound around everything: euphoria on the backburner, the end is our destiny. Sensitivity to touch also deadly: doesn’t it see it draining, helplessly, doesn’t it know deception is its most convincing intimacy, its no-hope its favorite fall? The evil of chance, a step out of bounds―isn’t that where you found your great infinity? Isn’t that where you, coffin-cozy, breathe fur? Isn’t that what the gods called poetry?

Impossibles: shoulder skin, language, color. You are the heart of its offering; how could I have ever lost your signal? Telepathically you answer everything, translate everything, toast to our great loss. Wasn’t that, that face, the great visitation? ―A blankness that stayed, wondrously, as you looked away: wasn’t that all along the sunset we prayed? wasn’t that step by step the step we paved? wasn’t that believing?

(The temperature rises, heats up into phantom friendliness: a request for what no one could say or give.)

(You say it, you give it, and that’s the end: heartbeats, sinking under, to trust touch and to leave.)


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


Hard to credit any notion of “reflection” that doesn’t undertake to break the mirror, and fast, faster than light, before the image even reaches the reflecting surface (call it the world or more broadly the ‘interface’).

Trick is that as thinking beings we presume ourselves seen in the mirror of our own thinking first. Thus defenses of selves and their demands at the expense of love’s clarity. Not an accident that Descartes was stared into fire and wax: immanent meltables. With transcendental thinker comes transcendental world–is it an error? Obviously there’s no skipping over this detour. But believing in it like fact? Admit it, that’s avoidable, in fact, all you do is avoid it, especially when you open your mouth to a stranger or dance alone in the street to some sublime tune that taps you into the euphoria of new moons…

We have to obliterate the time in which we write ourselves. Rewrite the history we’ll be without succumbing to it. Without-time is the real time of our occurrence, our “eventness” beyond all the precedents of being, however one chooses to inscribe or map it out. (Did I mention it’s possible for the crushed mirror to love you? Shards of restart, embarking for the purposeless…)

But there’s a cacophony of knowledge in the mirror that impedes the desire to let it be crushed. Call it a circle of nightmares that catch us in dreams of alienation and sadness. And yet we know by death the dispersal is total, there is nothing to retain. How simple it could be to embrace that and erase.

As for the smudges and smears, cherish. This is an act of construction in thought, this is an intervention on the mirror. It accesses no visible face. The contours of your scars and worries are retained in the unseen that escapes them.

Do I love the mirror or you? Obvious answer: escalating the possibility of near, the dawning body comes to. Perhaps then the mirror does remember something of your truth. “I escape me…”

(Forgive them transparent ones, for they know not who they pursue… Did I mention the mirror could love you…?)

―Sept 8, 2016

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


[The following non-fiction piece was written October 2008 and tells the story of how I first came to write poetry.]


And it was at that age… Poetry arrived
in search of me. I don’t know, I don’t know where
it came from, from winter or a river.
      —Pablo Neruda

After basketball practice, one of my teammates had been coughing, and I remember standing there watching him, not thinking much of it as our sophomore coach made some final remarks.

After driving home through the cold winter night, my body felt terribly weak, and more than usual. I knew because I was on an off-week: I was on a two-month chemotherapy rotation, such that the first two weeks were daily pills with the rest of the rotation spent on a bi-weekly schedule of drug injections. I was in the middle of one of the two-weeks without pills—free, accept for the daily lozenges (to prevent mouth sores) and vitamins and CoQ10 pills (to minimize damage to my heart) my father had me taking. All of the treatment came with anti-nausea pills, but I never took them. It was my dad who had said to me one of the first times I vomited in the hospital, “It’s good to get as much of that out as you can,” and the doctor had agreed with him. After the first few injections, I even started refusing the intravenous kind and just let it happen. Vomiting was all that saved an already-ruined day: instead of spending the rest of it with my hands wrapped around my stomach and rolling on the couch, I could spend it barely-conscious on the couch, catching some television in my toxic stupor—and without that rest, there was no way I’d make it to school the next day, and I especially couldn’t have played basketball. I could also have a good meal, and taste it, if I got that rest the first 18 hours after a treatment.

But tonight, I could not stomach dinner. I felt hot and laid on the couch and went to bed early, around 10:00. As my father tucked me into bed, pulling the comforter up tight to my chin—I was shivering despite the swelter in my chest. He stuck a thermometer in my mouth.

“One-hundred and one point two,” he said to me, looking at the small machine in disgust, kneeled up to my bed. We both knew what that mark meant. A month or so ago when I first started my treatment, the doctors had to educate me about the chemotherapy and how it weighted heavily on my white blood cell count and how I therefore had to be especially careful about getting sick or catching an infection. They’d told us that if I ever had a temperature over 101 for over an hour’s time, I had to get myself to the hospitals at Iowa City immediately. It meant a mandatory three-day stay.

“I’ll come back and check in an hour,” he said, getting up to leave. He shut the door to my old room behind him and left the hall-way light on, which casted a thin sliver of yellow light in my direction. An hour later when he returned to take my temperature, after he’d looked at the little machine again, he said, “Well… we should probably go.”

“Okay,” I said, achingly removing the comforter and walking out of the cold room.


My fever had greatly subsided by the time I got to the hospital. The first nurse to take my temperature registered a 99.8 and it was under 99 by the end of the night. Unfortunately, there was no changing the protocol for a child with lymphoma, even though my sixteen-year-old body, already at my mature height and weight, seemed a different case from their usual patients, who were mostly much younger than me. Most of them were children. My father vehemently regretted having brought me down from Cedar Rapids to the hospital, and saw absolutely no reason for them to detain me for such a long time when I had plainly recovered and could be adequately tended to in the comfort of his house. He sat around with me for an hour or so, until I told him that he might as well go home, and he did.

I wasn’t sure what to make of my arrival at the hospital. Just hours ago I had been hardly aware of anything, each of my limbs numb and immovable; now I was in a strange, very large hospital room by myself, with three mandatory days off from school, and feeling fine. I wandered down the halls, attached to an IV and toting it around with me. The floors of the hall were a dark aqua green with small little burgundy buds interspersed. The curtains that surround the bed areas were closed for most of the other patients on the wing, though the TVs were buzzing, and I guessed they were all young children, probably sleeping, tired and confused from all that the medical institution was doing to them. I hoped they were doing it for them, and not in spite of them. Once the body was viewed as just relationships between organs, or series of tissues, or interacting biological structures, or a chemical quest for molecular equilibrium—once the body was just a body and not also the person inside, doctors could regard themselves as upper-echelon mechanics with no heed to humanity. They did not have to take in to account any of the psychological or emotional or spiritual concerns once these biological relationships had been established and correctly assessed; these were long-ago determined to be secondary, time-consuming problems and went unconsidered when the patient’s mortality was at stake. Tweak the right nozzle, add the right kinds and amounts of fluids, suspend certain parts in certain places, and pound until it shapes right and everything will continue on course indefinitely. You’ll never make the junkyard then—or so they acted. And the poor parents, they give up their children to this place as if the whole building were a sacred healing ground and the men in white coats were shamans wielding the power of some modern, scalpel-bearing, IV-stabbing, vitals-counting spirit of technociety. I guess I just wondered how many of these kids had no chance of surviving a normal life. How many of them were they keeping locked up in here, connected to pumps and machines and drips and leg-compressors and feeding tubes and artificial lungs, when they had no real chance at life? What were we doing to these children? Did the parents know what was happening?

I thought it would be beautiful if I could take just one of them out into the snow to let him touch it and see the moon once more before his organs failed under the fluorescence of the whole sterile thing. The white on the walls was fake. What about these kids who were going to die whether they were in the hospital or not? I hoped someone was asking them if they wanted to be here, because if not, they should be leaving. But, At least we tried everything, the parents will say sobbing. To the doctors, it will be a failure, and they’ll try to learn from it, wondering, How do we stop future children from dying? I could hardly comprehend the whole thing—why do we think we can stop every kid from dying? I wanted to hold all of their small little hands and lead them back to their neighborhoods. Maybe they could spend some time on the swing before they died. Maybe they could play basketball a few more times with their dads. It was winter: there was snow outside!

I got a Sprite from the refrigerator in the kitchen area at the end of the hall, and I warmed up a small cup of Chef Boyardee Ravioli in the microwave. I found myself back in my mechanical hospital bed with the back steeped up at a sixty degree angle, watching Sportscenter. After a while a woman came in my room with a crate of toys: small red tractors, many stuffed animals (including a large green dinosaur I found especially pleasing amidst the electronic Elmos), blocks (for letters and shapes and construction site equipment), puzzle toys and puzzles, wind-up cars, a rainbowed assortment of plastic rings, and balls of every sort. She told me that they had Scrabble and other games but said it might be hard for me to play them since I was all alone in this room. She seemed pretty confused as to why I was there (I’d told her all about my fever and the rules), and kept offering things to occupy my time there. She told me there was a play room with a pool table and a TV-VCR combo player but that the pool table was kid-sized and very small and that the only VHS tapes they had were kids movies. I kept telling her I would be fine, but she wasn’t having it. Finally she said, “Oh, I know—do you want a computer? I’m going to go get you a computer.”


She came back with the internet. I’m not sure where or how long I surfed, or how I ever landed on this specific site, but I was soon on a forum, the first one I’d ever seen, that was devoted to rapping—not discussing rap or hip-hop beats or talking about the latest artists or the old classics, but to rhyming and verse. I was enthralled by the complexity of it all, and the number of seemingly random (and probably ordinary) people who were dedicating time to such an activity. There were threads that contained solo works, some long, some with choruses, but all of them with rhyme, which I noticed was the only prerequisite. There were threads of ‘cyphers’ where people would just improvise small posts building on previously improvised small posts, or they would set a topic with certain linguistic rules: each line must be 8 words long or each stanza can only be four lines long; or they would set topical rules: write about love, write about your mother, diss your teacher, fuck the government, or just “Spit Your Best Sh!t in 10 Linez or More!” Set a limit and try seemed to be the practice. But most of the activity on the forum was dedicated to battling.

There was a thread titled “1v1” and “2v2” where a person could post a request to battle and anyone else could match up with them. Of course there were special areas where long-established teams would duel it out in a sort of on-going, virtual freestyle battle, but most of it was just stranger-on-stranger. In the thread, the battlers would decide rules on a contest, most commonly verse length parameters and time limits for postings. Once both people had posted their battle rap, it would be up to everyone else on the site to enter those pages and vote for who won the battle, but most people offered as much constructive criticism as possible. Some even gave number scales according to factors like: “punches” (number of attacks), “flow” (rhythm and line smoothness), “creativity” (uniqueness of the content or style), “structure” (rhyming schemes and stanzas), “multis” (multiple rhymes within one line, or strings of punches), and “personals” (can you hear this rapper’s voice?)—and of course an overall score. The winner of the battle was decided in this way.

I posted something the first night I was there. Within an hour, someone else on the site got a hold of me on AOL Instant Messenger to tell me how he felt about my post—that my approach to it was unique and the rhymes felt more mature than most of the others. He was a graduate student at Brown University, a black man studying to be a neurosurgeon who spent some of his free time writing raps and performing around Providence. Evidently, he’d been on the website for a few months and had a reputation as a fierce competitor; his online avatar was “IvIedic,” which was a play on the phrase “1v1.” We ended up winning our first 2v2 battle later in night, though I admit to having some trouble ragging on people I knew nothing about—but you had to use their avatar and information against them as best you could. If you got to drop your verse second, after reading your opponent’s, it was a double edged sword: you had more to work with, but more pressure was on, and you knew you’d be judged harder.

And it’s not as if I’d never heard worms rhymed that way—it had something to do with the permission to let them squirm, to say what I had to say. How else do you convey the slow wilting of a parent, or the toxicity of a train-wreck, or the isolation of the diseased? How else do you say anything, other than this way? Your way. That is what the site was about, at its most generative core: say it your way. Make it rhyme; let it pop and draw attention. It’s not what you say but how you say it. Practice. There’s a beat in your head. Look!—there’s every sort of pad, every sort of pen. Put it wherever it goes since you’re the only one that knows where it goes. Yeah, you’ll think, I’ve been here before. How many different ways can a sentence animate the soul’s moving through an unknowable landscape? Throw them all away; you’ll have them then, but you won’t use them. Careers fall through even if you never planned to have one. At least any one of us can take the lyric’s medicine when we need it. That will see us through. A lyric can see you through, I learned that evening, alone on a hospital bed, experimenting with rhyme.


That was the only time I had to stay at the hospital for one of those three-night stays. I spent the following weeks finding other battling websites, but stayed loyal to IvIedic and the other people I was meeting through him. It was less than 12 months later and the site had closed down: the oldies who had made it good stopped logging on: there were too many young kids who didn’t take it seriously. The “attacks” turned from creative and witty to played-out and downright offensive, which drove many away and drained the site of its passion. I’d detected this streak from the get-go, but had played along and took my own approach, as everyone did. With a dilution of characters there was a dilution of talent. In time, IvIedic got busy with school (presumably) and I got to spend my time at the top of the hierarchy of the site, until I too became a disgruntled user and logged off. I remember trying to visit the site again a few months after ceasing activity, but it was “Under Construction.” A short time later it was gone for good. But by then, I had long since been rhyming outside the umbrella of any rap website, having now taken up poetry for good.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


[Written during my first semester back at college in 2008, after my father died and I was enrolled in numerous courses about death and dying, this long poem or confessional was the earliest step in the writing project, FOR NOW (an experiment with “direct address” on the verge of poetry and philosophy). As a piece alone, it is extremely personal, tracing my struggle to find myself and my voice after my parents died. It includes memories of them, projections of hopes, dream sequences, poems, short stories, exhaustions, notes on faith and loss, skeptical inner monologues, prayers to strange gods and also some nonsense. JOIE CHRONOLOGIQUE is dedicated to my parents. See the end for Table of Contents.]


For my parents
Jim and Nancy Lavenz

Father’s Hands

On the shovel moving dirt in the sandy backyard, replacing it with fresh top-soil and peat moss and laying down a root system foreign to the human hands that root them—no tool, no valuable, no object, but the poetic word fully foliage, core upside down in the empty ground, a space there too, hopes of longevity, the developed system. Dead is the developer and lively the participant, caring for emptiness and the system.

Hands on my shoulders,
hands that cared to dig.

Hands that did.

Hands crusted over for ages,
soaking in one skill.

Hands to transfer this…

Poor dead sparrow, resting on the palm of my memory, only touched, the hands unsinging.

On a world-horizon, reaching, slowly–
Missing them.

White cross stuck
in the frozen
red rosary.

Mother’s Voice

No one’s here anymore.

I survey the cabin of my machine: the back seats are turned down where an angel sleeps. Poor child, horrible welts on her side, her eyes tearing up. It’s bloody on her scalp and there’s hair twisted around the brown crust of her disfigured ear. She is thin, and it’s evident she is young or even unborn. Her presence is electrifying, incapacitating. I need soapy water and a rag. Every syllable is a mystery to her. I’m screaming to be delivered but the cabin is a cacophony and she’s amplifying the echoes. I can’t yet tell her apart from the words I’m shouting. Deliver. Or the words… is she shouting them?

A red hue comes but not from the sun. She’s become a blinding crimson and is everywhere. She’s a root system, tree itself. I’m starting to see it all quite clearly: she’s the one offering the dead sparrow, not me. She’s the whisper and I’m the dream. Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Empathetic Engagements

[The following was provoked in response to an article by Daniel Rhodes posted at Epoche Magazine, On Honneth’s Reification, which draws from Axel Honneth’s 2005 Tanner Lectures, Reification: A Recognition-Theoretical ViewI recommend the reader to look at both when they have the time. In the meantime, I’ve edited and filled out my initial response, so that hopefully it is readable in this form, on its own.]

Althusser writes in “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses“:

As St Paul admirably put it, it is in the ‘Logos’, meaning in ideology, that we ‘live, move and have our being’. It follows that, for you and for me, the category of the subject is a primary ‘obviousness’ (obviousnesses are always primary): it is clear that you and I are subjects (free, ethical, etc…). Like all obviousnesses… the ‘obviousness’ that you and I are subjects – and that that does not cause any problems – is an ideological effect, the elementary ideological effect. It is indeed a peculiarity of ideology that it imposes (without appearing to do so, since these are ‘obviousnesses’) obviousnesses as obviousnesses, which we cannot fail to recognize and before which we have the inevitable and natural reaction of crying out (aloud or in the ‘still, small voice of conscience’): ‘That’s obvious! That’s right! That’s true!’

However, it is clear that the ‘obviousness’ of our interpellation as a concrete subject is not something Althusser wants to affirm ‘just how it is’, as if interpellation were a good thing. In a subsequent paragraph, he continues:

But to recognize that we are subjects and that we function in the practical rituals of the most elementary everyday life (the hand-shake, the fact of calling you by your name, the fact of knowing, even if I do not know what it is, that you ‘have’ a name of your own, which means that you are recognized as a unique subject, etc.) – this recognition only gives us the ‘consciousness’ of our incessant (eternal) practice of ideological recognition – its consciousness, i.e. its recognition – but in no sense does it give us the (scientific) knowledge of the mechanism of this recognition. Now it is this knowledge that we have to reach, if you will, while speaking in ideology, and from within ideology we have to outline a discourse which tries to break with ideology, in order to dare to be the beginning of a scientific (i.e. subject-less) discourse on ideology.

These two paragraphs articulate the illness and the cure: on the one hand, the obviousness of the ideological operation that renders each of us subjects; on the other, the science of this operation, knowledge about how this mechanism of ‘ideological recognition’ works.

Axel Honneth, by contrast, articulates the illness and the cure in different terms. As the title suggests, for him the illness is ‘reification’ and the cure is ‘recognition-view’ or ‘recognitional stance’. Reification is a translation of Verdinglichung (thing-ifying) and it stands for the process or distortion whereby the world is objectified and everything in it treated as an object, equivalent or exchangeable with any other. Reification reigns in commodified exchange. The effects of reification on the lives of humans is pathological like a “mental habit or habitually ossified perspective.” Honneth references Lukacs who tells us that under reified conditions, “subjects begin to perceive their surroundings as mere thing-like givens.” This comes into play, “as soon as [the thing-like givens] come to be viewed according to their potential usefulness in economic transactions.” This in turn causes subjects to lose their empathetic connection to their surroundings and those who populate them. Once everything is a thing, it is easy to detach, not care, and act like an objective observer or bystander. Things, others included, become valuable only insofar as they are, “useful for the pursuit of profit.” These are all distortions of a more genuine praxis of life, which Honneth believes we can restore ourselves to by taking a ‘recognitional’ view on reification (rather than, we could say, an object-oriented one). I will come to Honneth’s understanding of recognition in a moment, but first Althusser.

As is often the difficulty, it is hard to tell here sometimes if the subject is being treated as an object or as a subject. When Althusser suggests that the ideological operation is what first sets the subject apart as a subject, is it not more precise to say it turns it into just another object in the ideological field? Suddenly the individual has a name, a position in space and time, a duration like an object (as Bataille has also noted, this is what brings us into the world of work and utility; my discussion here). As far as ideologies go, nothing could be more fundamental than the interpellation of individuals as subjects in an intersubjective milieu, which comes along with the ‘reification’ of the lifeworld into objects in an external milieu (in which those subjects are also included). In truth we know that this reversibility of the subject, the fact that it can be treated like an object, a thing with a first name, is what opens it to the worst exploitation. The ideological form of recognition that Althusser names is really the solidifying of the subject-object duality: ‘reification’, this time explicitly applied to the individual as a State operation. This cognition, this way of counting things, divides experience up according to the coordinates of space and time; it divides an otherwise holistic environment into a grid of manipulable representations. The individual is reduced to being represented to the other like any other object might be, even if it is nominally endowed with predicates like ‘free’, ‘human’, ‘speaking’. But we do not need to equate all ‘recognition’ with reification, since the question remains: upon what is ideology overlaid? A science of ideology ought to help us recognize what, in recognition, might precede ideology and make its very mechanism possible.

Regarding interpellation and reification, other traditions have recognized these to be the cause of misery and lack of ‘empathy’ in the human lifeworld. In Buddhism, for example, both the notion of myself as subject (the obviousness of ‘I’, my ‘self’ as a thing or unified entity) and my relation to the external world of objects (reification, illusion, projection) arise from the same ignorance. Individuals and things are certainly cognized in this operation, but it is is never guaranteed that such cognitions aren’t ignorant. Spiritual practice was, in large part, a way to recognize what underlies all these cognitions, what lies underneath the name and form we organize in our head, what is behind the ‘other subject’ we interpellate and who interpellates us, and what we share in terms of consciousness or ‘interestedness’. Otherwise, thinking remains ideological: it wallows in an ignorance or forgetting of something more primary about our shared lifeworld that in every case is more immediate than thought and ‘prior’ to it. That more immediate, qualitative experience, which in a sense precedes the ideological world and its subject-objects each time, gets lost with ‘reification’. This loss is exacerbated with the full development of capitalism and its scheming, calculating attitude; or by science when we are treated as automotons, consumers, or a mere bundle of neurons. Buddhists would more radically understand ‘reification’ as an unfounded belief in the reality of the phenomenal world, an attachment to things and the ‘profit’ they might bring in terms of wealth, status, pleasure, and a lack of insight into the ’emptiness’ of such cognitions (ideology is “the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence”). Enlightenment could even be compared to a quasi-instantaneous ‘recognition’ of what is each-time-prior to the reified world and our acts of cognition, though obviously it is not separate from them. If reification is what imprisons, recognition may liberate.

Now approaching Honneth, any recognition of the falsity of ideological interpellation and reification must be based upon recognition of a more original, antecedent lifeworld or meaningful context that self and other share prior to all cognition. Solterdijk has amply explored this in his Bubbles (see my review). Adorno also states, importantly, that the most primordial aesthetic phenomenon is the shudder, which signifies being-touched-by-the-other [vom Anderen Angerührtseinbefore we are constituted as a subject ourselves; it is the ‘aesthetic’ element of a sensible recognition or contact between… that precedes ideologically produced identity. There, “subjectivity stirs [sich regt] without yet being.” Acknowledging the “blind anxiety” provoked by such a contact, driving the subject into the spell of being, Adorno nonetheless tells us that, “life in the subject is nothing but what shudders” [nichts ist Leben am Subjekt, als daß es erschauert]. He then makes clear the importance of ‘recognizing’ this antecedence of the other’s touch: “Consciousness without shudder is reified consciousness” [Bewußtsein ohne Schauer ist das verdinglichte].

Though we ourselves struggle to find a language to express or communicate this ‘shudder’, this prior-to-self touch or encounter, this qualitative experience that precedes the mind-driven division of…, we nonetheless find many testimonies to this effect. What is crucial in combating the reified world is a recognition of what it itself is based on: the shared lifeworld, non-identitarian consciousness, mutual meaningful involvements, etc. Broadly speaking, this ‘recognition’ would always seem to come ‘prior; to cognition, while also making it possible (Krishnamurti deals with this problem in the transition from thought to ‘intelligence‘). However we phrase it, for Honneth recognizing the antecedent self(-)other interaction, cross-identification or sympathy, obliges us to undertake the difficult work of suspending our ‘indifferent, observing activity’, our habit of relating to the world by way of a ‘neutral cognition of objective circumstances’ (facts included, since facticity is only grounded in care). For him, “the conception of objectified and reified relations is merely a kind of interpretive veil concealing our factical care and empathetic engagement.” That interpretive veil is the ideology we so spontaneously have about subjects and objects, interpellation and duality. It is ‘obvious’ and unquestioned, yet everyone suffers under the careless, emotionless, self-based ‘society’ it creates.

Let me say why I take issue with Rhodes’ characterization of Honneth. He writes that the latter advocates, “a pre-critical stance in which things are so merely because they are so” and elevates “precognition” or “uncritical obviousness” to the level of “redemption” (Honneth uses none of these terms). First, the ‘obviousnesses’ in Althusser referred to the way in which we are submitted to the ideological operation par excellence: our being interpellated as a subjects in an intersubjective space, ‘reified’ as atomic things in the external world. This ‘obviousness’ is of the ideological operation itself, not of what is in itself. Indeed, the moment one questions the obviousness of ideology, of life according to the Logos, one asks what is underneath language itself and the entire mechanism of naming, what ‘prior engagement’ might be driving cognition itself. Prereflexive knowledge could very well lie beyond acts of cognition; neither contradict awareness. If what Honneth urges us to recognize is ‘obvious’ in any sense, it is clearly an obviousness we struggle to remember and which we have a very hard time bringing to language (whereas ideological obviousness functions smoothly, it ‘works’ every time). The obvious is always ‘vanishing’ from our thought–or at least from wherever thought looks for it.

All the great spiritual disciplines, which are in their own way sciences of ideology, emphasized that we have forgotten our source somehow, our essence. Even if its idea is firmly planted in us, it takes work to break reified habits and overcome ignorance with knowledge and insight into these mechanisms. Honneth speaks of ‘prereflective knowledge or marginal practices’, but he says clearly analysis helps us recognize this knowledge; this is no more pre-critical than Buddhamind or gnosis. Recognition is not a magic wand but a practice that protects against ‘pathology’, ‘skepticism’ and ‘identity thought’. It increases our attentiveness to interdependence (pratītyasamutpāda); to the qualitative experience and engaged praxis that precede all ‘useful doings’ and ‘acts of detached cognition’ (111); and to the holistic nature of the world as its value —everything that ideology, which interpellates us as social atoms, reifies the subject-object duality, and renders everything manipulable by representation, obscures and deadens our capacity for. Subject and object only correlate when they indicate together their common origin or common belonging in a disclosed whole world, in the ‘total pervasive quality’ of the immediately ‘given’ (but this is not a ‘thing’ and no ‘subject’ receives it).

So, we must be careful to avoid a misunderstanding. Honneth refers to a recognition of what is antecedent a) to ideological interpellation as a subject in Althusser’s sense and b) to reification as a thing in consciousness more broadly. It is antecedent to ‘obviousnesses’ of ideology, but this is far from obvious, except perhaps in moments when we shudder. The difficulty, of course, is that any recognition of our prereflexive co-implication with others is all but ignored or brushed over in our normal thought-worlds. ‘Forgetfulness of recognition’ is at the root of wars and capitalist discourse, violence and dispute, for to forget it is to forget our antecedent interaction and reify the other as a thing to be judged, placed, manipulated and exploited. What is pathological about this forgetting is that it encourages an environment in which humans act without acknowledging each other and each other’s meaningful involvements; without recognizing that an affirmation of the other is presupposed in all our acts and that therefore care and justice must always be involved.

What is clear is that Honneth does not mean ‘recognition’ in the sense that Althusser outlines at the end of his text. There, individual is interpellated as a subject in order to be subjected to the Subject, through which subjects will recognize each other and their subjection, leading them to accept everything as it is and say ‘So be it!’ In this form, recognition only guarantees, “the conditions of exploitation and its reproduction,” and assigns subjects to their posts. But Rhodes’ comment that, “perhaps there’s no escaping the reality that we are all interpolated subjects,” cannot be Honneth’s position, because ‘escaping’ such a subject-ified reality (ideology, reification) is what recognition helps us with or paves the way toward. Better put, recognition implies another vantage point on, stance toward, the reified social world as such. It encourages different economies of care between self, other and nature that can resist the individual’s ideological interpretation as a subject to a Subject it must obey. When Honneth writes, “I am concerned with showing that emotional receptivity ‘comes before’ the transition to cognition of intersubjectively given objects in a strictly temporal sense,” this includes the subjects that are treated as objects (i.e., reified, commodified, sold, etc.) by the powers that be. The critique is lodged against ‘cognition’, ‘scheming’ and ‘calculation’ because the ISA reaches down that far. Implied is not a rejection of thought for the sake of some pre-critical ‘thereness’, but a call to reground cognitive our activity and habits in recognitional stances (Cavell) that, in a sense, refuse the operation of interpellation and reification as much as possible. (Martin Buber also contrasted the I-You relationship with the I-It object world and sought to brighten the latter by entering fully into the light of the former.) At any rate, Honneth understands, “the antecedent act of recognition not as the contrary of objectified thought but as its condition of possibility,” which in turn means that, “acknowledgement of the other is the nonepistemic prerequisite for linguistic understanding” (acknowledgment is different from interpellation). Prior to acts of reason, acts of com-passion. Prior to logos, meaning or ideology, an encounter and focus of listening. Understanding as a product of care and empathetic engagement, not its opposite.

Rhodes is right to point out the quasi-religious element that pervades this form of thought and all the others that Honneth examines, but he either does not grasp the kernel of this religious element or he exaggerates and mischaracterizes how is being retained here. Contrary to the impression he gives, this entails no ‘let it be’ mantra or obvious messiahs. Moreover, I see no reason to consent to Rhodes’ assertion that, “We cannot shine our intellectual lights upon recognitions.” Don’t we do this all the time? If I recognize I love someone, sure, this means I ‘already’ love them. This is a fact before I can or know how to think about it (and we all know that cognizing it sometimes brings trouble). But that does not mean my love remains impenetrable or unthinkable for me. On the contrary, I am capable of reframing my entire life based on this recognition. A primary recognition could potentially be thought through infinitely, since no act of cognition or expression of it can ever exhaust it. Without that possibility, what good would be psychoanalysis, for one, or investigating the mechanics of consciousness through other methods, for another? I might even argue that all great ‘intellectual’ pursuits are based in recognitional stances, upon profound recognitions (unforgettable) and ‘nonepistemic’ understandings that take form in habit and bloom in works and contemplation (in Agamben’s sense, not Althusser’s). Recognition need not imply something static; in fact its fundamental mode might be surprise or, following Adorno’s suggestion about the ‘life in the subject’, shuddering. The point is that we did not recognize before what we now recognize and this changes our view on everything. Even if it was waiting there all along, recognition itself is the crucial step, the watershed moment from which unknown and potentially infinite consequences can flow. It cannot be overestimated, since only upon recognition can it be estimated.

The lesson to be drawn here is that intellect and cognition are rooted in an ‘empathetic engagement’ where an attitude of care prevails; and that they risk becoming pathological and ‘inhuman’ whenever care is lost. But recognizing these care-structures rooted in the I-You perspective, prior to interpellation; recognizing ‘us’ as preceding and making possible cognition of the I-It object world; waking ourselves up from ignorance, from the ‘socially compelled neutralization’ of primary recognitions; overturning the most fundamental moves of ideology, inter-subjectivization and subject-object duality — none of this is easy business. There is no false messiah of obviousness here, but the hard work of caring, of undecidable compassions, of disclosing meaningful and creating just worlds in and for others, seeing that all our world-making activities involve all. The suggestion that Honneth thinks, “our world is ultimately justified in that nothing is unjustifiable,” is not supported by my reading of the lecture. He does not promote the simplistic reality Rhodes accuses him of promoting in which, “answers precede solutions and questions never become problems.” The allusion to Heidegger’s embrace of remembrance and poetry as evidence of Honneth’s potential complicity with fascist, aestheticized politics is not to my mind a reasonable conjecture. It seems to me, on the contrary, that he is at pains to emphasize how conceptual thought is not the opposite of empathetic engagement [Anteilnahme]. To speak of empathy and care in the construction of meaningful worlds, to see that recognitional stances have, “genetic and categorical priority over all other attitudes toward the self and the world,” does not mean abandoning our critical faculties. Though he does not recommend ‘reasonable policy’ as Rhodes would like, Honneth’s recognition-view of reification is clearly meant to help us toward better uses of life, nature, technology, language, economy, other and self. Granted, it is not a prescriptive method; it can only approach us on an ‘individual’ level, where it is our singular intrications, potentials and life-tasks that we become more aware of (though what is recognized each time is indeed perhaps much simpler). It is not a flight into poetry that naively says yes to things as they are, even if it sometimes is. To mistake recognizing the simple with a simple task is to misrecognize recognition, including one’s responsibility to the other and to recognition itself. To see the challenge in the simple: that is empathetic engagements’ great chance.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Laruelle: Concept-Collider

[The following is my translation of an interview with Francois Laruelle published in February 2015 by Philosophie Magazine, “Je suis un collisionneur de concepts, pas un dialecticien”: “I am a collider of concepts, not a dialectician.” The French transcript can be accessed at the blog Non-Musicology.] Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment