To theorize is only one way to respond to the call to exist. In this post, I’ll contrast it with what I’m calling “poetry.” I’m going to explore what I see as the limit of theory’s usefulness by contrasting it with a poetic-resonant view of words and the world.
To begin with, both theory and poetry are written down in some way. What for? Let’s set aside the idea that the very activity of writing is what generates this diversity or division between theory and poetry, and instead focus on what theory and poetry mean to achieve by being written and shared. I realize that many will object that I am painting with strokes too broad, but so be it. I mean to draw a contrast between ends.
A theory is written down so as to be transmitted in some way. We can say the same of poetry, though elsewhere I would complicate this idea of “transmission.” However, accepting that both aim to be transmitted, let us draw this distinction: where a theory is transmitted on its own terms, poetry is transmitted on yours. What do we mean by this? Let us begin with what is required for theory to be transmitted on its own terms; then perhaps we can ask what is meant by this: poetry is transmitted to you on your own terms.
A theory sets up what we might call a field of validation. As much as it reaches out into the world of persons and things, it reaches deep into itself to establish the parameters of its lens. (To be clear, I do not assert that theoretician has total intentional control over the establishment of this field.) These parameters involve, first and foremost, terms. “Terms” are the word-concepts whose comprehension is required, lest the theory be totally misunderstood. Terms and their strategic constellation establishes the field of validation (both in spite of and because of the author). Think of it this way: in order to hold itself in contradistinction to the world, it utilizes words in an unfamiliar way, attributes non-natural things to them. Here is where it shares a common cause with poetry. And yet, we have to deal with the phenomenon: theory sets up borders. It demands an admission fee which is more than the simple ability to comprehend a given language. And it is more than being able to know how to “read poetry” or “read theory.” Theory departs from poetry — and, in a sense, the world — when it sets up its own field of validation. Ironically, to the extent that it tries to set up its own field, the more it tends to insist upon its correspondence to the world or “reality.” This is an ambiguity that makes every theoretician a charlatan: exactly what world are we talking about with our theory? Exactly what truth are we exploring?
Let’s not venture too far into this territory before we, in a sense, set up the terms of our own theory. Theory and poetry both deal with the questioning of assumptions. Theory departs from poetry when it sets up its own. Poetry sets itself up over this very questioning, this very inability-to-assume-anything. In this light, poetry cannot help but regard theory with a jealous eye: it accomplishes the leap that poetry knows it can never allow itself, namely, the leap into the assurance that words signify and/or that significations stick. Theory and poetry are most fundamentally opposed on this issue: exists there a sense that’s permanent? Theory says, “Of course!,” and makes its advance. Poetry says, “Yes and no.”
What does the transmission of a theory entail? In a word, the permanence of some sense. Poetry does not deal in the permanent, nor rely on it. The truth it accesses is not something remembered. Theory is at odds with this insofar as it implies remembering something. For the validity of my theory cannot be tested if the terms of the test aren’t adequately and intelligibly transmitted, that is, remembered. No matter what the terms are, theory requires a leap of faith which affirms that certain words can retain a certain sense. It even endeavors to modify the sense of certain words, believing that this effort of modification can have permanent effects. Our inquiry into terminology, which is the most direct way of attributing permanence to a concept, is thus justified on this base: theory makes its case through them.
Theory: on whose terms?
God knows how bothersome “outsiders” can be to the theoretician, who badger him with juvenile questions that would be rendered mute if only they could access the terms of the theory. The theoretician says: “Why don’t you take a look at what I’ve said about this already, instead of asking me the same question that every initiate asks?” For the theoretician, there is progress over time. Ideas and concepts accrue. Without exerting the effort required to accesses these ideas and their progress, how could anyone say anything about the theory?
In the theory, words become something they are not; in a sense, it is this “not” which attempts to transform the world. In the incongruence between its field of validation and the field of language in toto, theory hopes to rend the temple walls and tear apart the throne. A concept is invented, for example: Christian, proletariat, etc. The repetition of the fundamental axioms of a theory is pedagogical by nature: it gives access to the theory. In other words, it makes illumination possible, it gives the lens its contours. And it gives its learners good reason to believe that the world will be transformed: without this faith in the terminology of the theory, it wouldn’t even get off the ground.
Oddly enough, this makes any theory theoretically air-tight. To doubt its validity implies a lack of engagement, that’s all — unless one goes ahead and imputes laziness or an ill-will to the learner. But the truth is, without this access to the past body of intentionally-situated words and principles, a theory is useless. It requires emulation. The theoretician adheres to terms because, outside of them, accessing the truth of the theory is not possible. Regardless of its contents, there is a non-natural threshold to be crossed which gives access to “the terms of the theory,” which is something more and something less than “the words in a language.” It’s power lies in the schism it rips, or the shiver it sends, down the spine of the given “system.” This is why a theory’s highest aspiration is, inevitably, to present its own inconsistency-with-itself. This is where theory slips into poetry, insofar as it senses the trembling of sense; but it remains theory insofar as it senses this… in itself, within itself, for itself. Poetry opens the tremble-language to an outside, to the outside of every “system” of terms. We could also say: to play, to illusion, to ignorance, to the criminal.
You can easily interpret what the novelist does along the same lines. What is the establishment of a character, the steady unveiling of a plot, or the painting of a picture-world, if not an effort of setting up the “terms” of the goings-on? Nevertheless, the novelist makes no pretension to reality in his fictions; or rather, the novel shows that, even in the day to day setting-up-of-terms, we inhabit a “fiction.” This does not make us any less real, but it does reorient us to reality– or rather, it disorients us fundamentally. But where the novelist descends into the looking glass of this disorientation (for he or she is certainly a poet), the theoretician attempts to reorient us, if not to redefine reality in toto. Again, who could discourage such attempts? It has grounded the endeavors of mystics, philosophers, scientists and mathematicians for millennia. It is the very meaning of “truth-seeking.” Here, we simply wonder if this end is still worthy of us, if it is truly our destiny– or if, on the contrary, a more poetic existence is meant for us.
Terms compose a field of validation, a theoretical edifice, that must exist if the theory is to “hold true” for others. But it also does so in order to remain internally coherent, on its own terms. The naive theoretician believes wholeheartedly in the self-subsistence of this edifice, what it says the theory is, as well as the reality it is supposed to respect or view. (This is complicated: this naivety is there whenever I assume the existence of my own voice. Whenever I assume I’ve surmounted my original state of infans.) The life or death of the theoretician does not bar access to the theory because of the terms, both in their evolution over time and through a faith in the stability of their sense. The theoretician’s paranoia about the “accurate definition” of terms stems, at least in part, from this fear that without pedagogical repetition this stability will not be maintained. I don’t mean to criticize this paranoia at all, but to evoke the precariousness of every scientific attribution. From poetry’s standpoint, the very possibility of the term’s eventual ineffectiveness means that it’s ineffectual immediately. (I admit, it’s very hard to parse the reasons for this. One way or another, it’s a matter of sensibility.) Theory seems to ask this: Who can play a game if the dice are missing? But whereas poetry seems to stick with this question, theory ventures to supply the dice. I will not say that one plays the game more adequately than the other. I mean only to illumine this distinction.
Even if subsequent generations make modifications to it, the theory stays tied to itself qua the complex process of term definition, which its text and its adherents ritually repeat. Again, it has to do this if it is going to have any effects. But the very idea of clarification and effectiveness is theoretical. There is no basic way to establish their grounds. For poetry, this theoretical game is a losing battle. The truth-seeking game itself is doomed for chaos. “I, myself, would rather sing.” Clearly, I’m not trying to discourage folks from dealing with theory or from seeking truth, but to bring this “loss” right up to the surface of the writing and the search. In contrasting theory with poetry, my main goal is to illuminate the different attitudes toward “words” or the “surface of writing” that each of these vocations emulates. Again, not to discourage theory, but to render it poetic.
Poetry: “Finality without end”
In keeping with both ends — to grant an assurance of sense without any assured sense; to sing whilst defining the terms of the song; to roll the dice and without rolling them; to locate the truth in the words and yet elsewhere — to terminate your own terminology — here is a litany of comparisons:
1. Where universal accessibility and validity is demanded of the theoretician (at least within the range of interests that he or his field imposes), the demands of pleasure, resonance, and beauty rule the poet.
2. Where the theoretician is motivated by the truth of the theory, its transmittability to potential adherents or effectiveness in the world, the poet is motivated by this trembling of sense (truth-abyss, transmission-impossibility, pointlessness).
3. Whereas the theoretician’s activity creates a restricted sphere of its own (i.e., the theory or field), the poet’s space of activity is the whole of existence. Theory surveys outside elements, whereas poetry locates itself outside. For poetic activity cannot be dissociated from the general struggle of my existence, and the result of poetic activity is not a “poem.”
4. Where theory has a reality- or truth- or “is”-bias, poetry recognizes that everything is dead unless it is reanimated by poetry or poetic effort.
5. Theory manufactures, poetry fascinates. Theory manipulates words “as they are” by investing them with meanings that are theory-specific. Poetry adores words “as they are” by provoking them to meanings that infinitely exceed them, in other words, by provoking the poet infinitely. Where theory is firstly concerned with meaning, since it has to correspond to the world and make sense of it, poetry is concerned with infinity, or the excess over everything that is. Perhaps it would be better said: infinity concerns poetry.
6. The basic unit of concern for the theoretician is the successful mapping-out, application and extension of the theory. The basic unit of concern for the poet is an inexorable “trembling of sense” within each word and world. The theoretical edifice and its terminological activity seek to eliminate this trembling in the words. In trying to deal with objects or systems or whatever “as they are,” it eliminates an infinity that supercharges “everything.” The heights of poetry bog down the supposed “flatness” of theory.
7. The theoretician’s annoyance at an amateur’s lack of knowledge of the theory, seen from the other side, is in fact the hackneyed or artificial status of the theory. Theoretical hubris begins when I’m required to understand specific terms in order to understand the writing. It’s basic figure is the incessant reiteration of an idiosyncratic usage of a term. A theory is automatically “normative” in this sense: if you don’t play by the rules of my vocabulary, you’ll never get it. Perhaps the theoretical pretension par excellence is that there is “something to get out of it” — and the theoretician justifies his own activity thusly. Poetry, for its part, does not mean to heal the world, but to take pleasure in the ambiguity of its illness. The poet can make no demand of you that you wouldn’t already make yourself. Poetry, quite simply, invites you to exist.
8. Where theory presents itself as critical, piercing, clarifying, or astute, and thus “removed” in somehow from the trembling flux of sense-language-world-self, poetry presents itself as the very media of existence. Poetry is the introduction or possibility of relational or resonant life, whereas theory mandates memory, instrumentalization and subjectivity.
9. Where theory gives the meaning or the reason, poetry coronates and names. For the poet senses that words are doing something to him, and that any effort to control them would be like a bird trying to consolidate the sky.
10. The theoretician manufactures terms and idiosyncratic meanings for words so as to make his theoretical intention known. By contrast, the poet experiences words at their birth, not their moment of definition. The poet’s intention is either null-and-void or personally unrecognizable.
11. Poetic suggestion is not theoretical insistence. Theory uses and fixes words and worlds. Poetry discovers them out of nowhere, and always first the first time.
12. The theoretician assumes he has a voice. Quite to the contrary, the poet’s whole life is structured by the desire to find his voice. The poet knows that this desire is not his own, for it always comes strangely upon him. And even when he vocalizes or writes, he knows that the voice is not his “own.” If it were his own, poetry would no longer be the medium of resonant existence, but the imposition of ontological order.
13. What the poet does remains inappropriable. The result of poetic activity is not the “poem.” If we had to pin it down, the result of poetic activity would be a resonant subject, language and world.
14. The theoretician makes sense of the world by developing a system that can do things to it or a lens through which it can be viewed. But the poet, however darkly, intuits that nothing can be done and that the world cannot be seen. This doesn’t mean that life and poetic effort is futile. At issue is not the reality of the world; that, alas, is too omnipresent to doubt. What is at stake is what is possible in the language or theory that corresponds to it.
15. The axiom of the theoretician is that the theory can correspond and mend the real world; the axiom of the poet is that poetry has never and will never correspond directly to the real world. This is why such atrocious things can be justified by theory or doctrine. We toe the line because the words and worlds at play are presumed to be constant and/or require constancy. Constancy, however, is patently absurd for the poet, if not his own worst nightmare. And thus poetry, it seems, has never been able to convince anyone of anything, including of the validity of poetry. But it has never wanted to do this. This “inability” is intimately tied to poetry’s destiny: to undo you and move you. And poetry can only move those who themselves desire to be moved.
…Whereas poetry is transmitted to you on your own terms…
The poet also believes what he says; but he only believes in the truth of what’s said when someone’s said it. From the side of performance, despite multiple repetitions, the poem’s sense cannot remain static. It is not really subject to definition; in a sense, it exists outside of time. It is not subject to human intervention or intention. It does not even withhold a mystic power through the power of the negative. This definition, too, is irrelevant. What matters, alone, is your placement in it. Poetry strives only for this, the unveiling of the place you’re in. Aside from that, everything is a theory, bloated with its own success.
Let us put this in terms of transmission. Without this tendency to transmit itself from the other side, your side, it would not even be poetry. At the basest level, if I assume my vision to come from my side, I’d set up something theoretical: “me” and my gaze, my intention, my terminology. Surely, I do exist, and I am here. But this “I am here” matters for one person alone, and it isn’t me. Poetry always asks that you speak; I can say nothing. I cannot assert the terms of our encounter, and if I try to, I’ve already corrupted it. Poetry is forbidden from thinking that its truth is in the words it uses, and so it leans not on them. Poetry knows it’s truth comes ahead of it, in the relation, in the resonance, between. For the truth of the poem does not originate with, nor stand for, its initial speaker. It is always found elsewhere, in another (see my post on Paul Celan’s poetics).
Our voice, shared and resonant, can be found, even if I can never seem to find my own voice. Whereas theory tries to say something relevant, poetry shows us the difficulty with speaking in the first place. Poetry asks: what does it really mean to speak on our behalf? And we are never prepared for this. Perhaps theory, in some way, prepares us for what we cannot be prepared for, accustoming us to the slippery itchiness of words. And perhaps to be wooed by any philosopher, mystic, or theoretician — that is, any field of validation, any objective articulation of terms — is to rub up against the possibility in language to conjure up something permanent. The best of them all — poetry or not — consist in locating that permanence in openness. Of a presence that is not like a substance or an entity, but which is rather the presence of an opening (see Jean-Luc Nancy on this one). It is this opening/presence I’ve been trying to designate with the term “poetry,” certainly not to define it, but to give it a chance to be opened elsewhere, like a Christmas gift that no one gives to you, and yet which always comes from someone else. Poetry, gift of self.
My basic fear for theory is that it cannot help but insist upon being verified in its own right. Theory strives for that veracity whose model is mathematics and thus universal-abstract communicability. Rather than verifying existences, it verifies itself. The danger is not the onset of theory-blindness, such that the “real world” becomes obfuscated (although the theoretician is often obsessed with superficial concerns whose only support is the need for cogency in the theoretical edifice). But from poetry’s perspective, where not even my own voice is a given thing, any definition of the world is due to a kind of theoretical blindness (in a way, “my voice” is the ultimate theoretical construct). Poetry seems to say this: any established position, theoretical or not, prevents us from relating and correlating to ourselves, others, and the world. And so the insistence of my or any theoretical position is doubly foolish. In insisting upon verifying itself, theory privileges its own abstraction over the concreteness of human idiocy. Rather than sympathizing, it eradicates. Poetry, by contrast, sympathizes with human idiocy to the point of frivolity. But the frivolous attest to existence much better than the self-important, and the inane have much to teach the purposeful. The medium of our existence is infinity; ironically, its most endearing form of access comes in the frivolity of poetry. Amateur humans in search of a voice worth sharing.
One last word on the world
The question I post to both theoretician and poet alike is this: what is the relationship between your words and your position? Do your words come from a place of theoretical insistence or poetic suggestivity (this place officiates over ones “control of the material”)? In other words, how do poet and theoretician differ in their view of a string of words? And how do they view the “life” of their results?
Ones relationship to words is present in their theoretical-poetic text to varying degrees of transparency. I believe that someone is adept at relating to words when the very question of their own relationship to “words” becomes transparent in the text. For the theoretician, this poetic concern is simply optional. But when amateurs object to their theory, it is because the theoretician has set up a linguistic field without paying attention to something. This is another way of saying that the presentation is the thought or the product. As I’ve emphasized, the poet is someone who recognizes the trembling of sense in every word and every world. But the poet will never convince the theoretician of this trembling, anymore than he’ll convince him that the way of dealing with this trembling is through a hyper-vigilance to “words.” All talk of words, of course, is empty, but not because words are simply a neutral medium for thoughts and voices which we do well to take for granted and work with. No, the talk of words is empty because we can never do it. This is what the “poet” realizes so painfully profoundly: to talk about words, to deal with word-matter, is the only intimate way to talk about and deal with ourselves.
When your relationship to the words expressing your ideas becomes more and more transparent, so does your own madness and the madness of your world. Your own concavity becomes your only witness. There can be no transparent usage of the terms. Paradoxically, it is the theoretician who, in creating concepts and terms, seeks to over come the opaqueness of language in general by establishing a transparent system of signifiers, with precise meanings, etc. Somehow, it never strikes the theoretician as odd that he would try to overcome the difficulty in language in general by manufacturing a language of his own! Only the “poet-part” of us sees the double bind here: to come closer to the opacity of language is to come closer to its unbearable transparency. It is impossible for me to decipher my own words because they are both perfectly opaque (that voice has already died) and irritatingly transparent (this voice alone can animate them). We brought are again and again to the question: how are we using language? For the theoretician, this appears to be a cursory problem. For the poet, it is nothing less then the question of existence.
The poet knows that the birth to language is the birth of existence. Neither language nor existence is given, and the poet knows that they come in tandem as a gift for which I’m never prepared. It is the need to give birth to language-existence, rather than instrumentalize or inspect it for theoretical purposes, which truly divides the poet from the theoretician. Obviously, this has nothing to do with whether someone writes poetry or theory. Many people write poetry with a theoretician’s instrumentalizing attitude towards words (and thus write nothing), just as countless theoreticians have written with a poet’s touch (and thus write poetry).
We’re asking that we internalize this truth: a word ought never be instrumentalized, not because of some moral attitude, but because, from the get go, words/worlds don’t and won’t stick. It’s only over the trembling abyss of “sense” that we can create our world. “Poet” is a meaningless title: no one dons it. And while a theoretical world is a world of painful enclosure, a poetic world is one of resonance, freedom, and release: relation to its own outside without the fanatic attempt to fuse with it or reign it in. It’s not so much a question of what world you’d like to live in or create. It’s a question of what a world actually is.