poetry, public space, commons

2020 (in progress)

Notes on poetry, poetics and the commons

the notion of 'public' in the idiom 'public art' should be understood as a discursive construct as opposed to a physical space....(Mel Jordan 2015)

In his influential book The Ignorant Schoolmaster, Jacques Rancière uses the figure of the poet Racine to put forward his theory of equality which is fundamentally grounded in a pedagogical relation between teacher and student, poet and reader. In Racine, he sees the poets address as an address to all in that he assumes equality of intelligence in the reader, to make of the poem what they will. It is in this way radically open and acts as a bridge between two minds. The process of intellectual emancipation, the disruption that such an assumption of equality can make within the cycle of inequality in the world, can for Rancière, only ever happen on such an intimate scale. It is for him, antithetical to seek to institute equality and to so would be doomed to fail. One must look towards the specific relation and exchange which takes place between people engaging with one another on an intimate scale. Of this relation, Ranceire suggests we ask to what extent does it stultify one party and does it perpetuate consensual notions of what constitutes identity? Does it correspond with what one’s place is in society and the corresponding actions, speech acts and understanding of the world which that identity and place in society demands of them or does it break with them?

Rancière sees the world as predisposed to cycles of inequality, with four key instances of ‘dissensus’ where this is disrupted - through the particular moments of dissensus via artwork (which he later developed into his theory of aesthesis) that disrupts normative ways of understanding the world, secondly, when those who do not exist appear (his definition of politics closely tied to Spivak’s work on the subaltern). Thirdly, through aesthetic contemplation via a body not normally assigned such a privilege, and lastly, via the relationship between teacher and student / the artist or viewer and to what extent it is a stultifying one or emancipatory one. The place of the aesthetic object – the book, the artwork - within this theory of equality is central. Rancière recounts how intellectual emancipation is only possible through Jacotot’s emphasis on utilising the materiality of the thing as a bridge between two people or more who are producing meaning. In The Ignorant Schoolmaster the book Telemaque is the bridge between the master and the student, and the student and their intellectual emancipation. It is as Rancière writes, a ‘totality’, a centre of gravity which the student and master circle around and which forms the conditions that allow for their equality to become manifest. Rancière continues later in this chapter,

The thing in common, placed between two minds, is the gauge of that equality, and this in two ways. A material thing is first of all “the only bridge of communication between two minds”…The bridge is a passage, but it is also a distance maintained. The materiality of the book keeps two minds at an equal distance, whereas explication is the annihilation of one mind by another [...] the thing is also an always available source of material verification.33

This poem, the book, the reading, as a public space if public is understood as discursive (Jordan 2007), is open and relational even if it is within a language we do not speak. As Paul Celan writes, ‘The poem wants to reach the Other, it needs this Other, it needs a vis-a-vis. It searches it out and addresses it’ and so ‘Poetry, however alone, is in the end a seeking and attentive "going out of the self" (32), one which requires attention in its turn.’ What can be at the heart of this is not equality understood as sameness, but is the revelation of difference, as Fort writes in his reading of Lacoue-Labarthe,

The longest, and perhaps the richest and most "profound" essay in Poetry as Experience, "Catastrophe" points to the "intimate difference" (64) that makes of poetry's "loneliness" also necessarily a relation, an encounter, a dialogue ("-it is often despairing dialogue," writes Celan), that seeks to make of the poetic act "an act of thought" (64) and that gives rise, in the end, to what Lacoue-Labarthe calls "an extreme thought of difference" (63)-an acknowledgment of difference as the very possibility of sameness and relation.

The common can be understood in this way as our shared experience and encounters of difference. Furthermore, it can arise through forms of individual expression, where the personal necessarily becomes impersonal through the process of translation. Esposito identifies this as the source of our ethical obligation to others,

It is precisely the no-thing of the thing that is our common ground […] not the Origin but its absence…it is this nothing held in common that is the world that joins us in the condition of exposure to the most unyielding absence of meaning and simultaneously to that opening to a meaning that still remains unthought.

The book, the artwork, in its openness, is also no-thing.

It is in the very absence of ontological explanation that rational subjectivity is undone, and it is this undoing that holds us in common in both our unknowing, and in our reciprocal movement towards making meaning anew. It is your difference, and the manner in which that difference enables me to grasp the lie of my perceived originary sameness, that obliges me to you.

Such writing, art and theory is by virtue of its very being and its availability is part of cultivating ‘a bridge between the utopian and material, allow us to reimagine politics, everyday life and ecological relations…a poetics of the commons.’

The interest in relationality, the commons and to a lesser extent more recently, communism, in contemporary art, writing and theory attempts to reconcile the havoc of liberalism, individualism and private property but for it to hold any substance at an-already-too-late time, concrete efforts to live this poetry and theory are necessary. The difference between making a choice to embrace our global co-dependancy and having to, is brought into stark light. At the same time, perhaps fatalistically, potentially writing, art, fiction, theatre – the no-thing - is the only space which can perfect itself towards these ends anymore. Is praxis possible if we conceive of it globally instead of individually? Emma Willis puts the theory of Esposito and Barthes together in productive tension to think through community in writing and performance. Esposito writes. ‘Nothing seems more appropriate today than thinking community; nothing more necessary, demanded, and heralded by a situation that joins in a unique epochal knot the failure of all communisms with the misery of new individualisms.’ (1). Willis then looks at Barthes’ theory of idiorrhythmy in the post-humously published How to Live Together attempts this middle ground. Deriving from the ancient Gree, idios - the individual, and rhuthmos - rhythm – Barthes considers small dwelling ‘where each subject lives according to his own rhythm’ in harmony alongside others. Barthes saw writing as the primary medium for idiorrhythmy, and Emma Willis argues that it might too be through performance. She writes,

Whilst, like Barthes, he seeks to preserve the distinctiveness of individuals – for example, he rejects any definition of community as, “a mutual, intersubjective ‘recognition’ in which individuals are reflected in each other so as to confirm their initial identity” (7) – his interest is in how the proximate difference of others might in fact unsettle any sense of ontological certainty (“rhuthmic” identity). What effects communitas for Esposito is a syncopation of the social that deliberately moves us out of time with our understanding of ourselves, out of time with subjective continuity, which is precisely the kind of function of critical art that Mouffe identifies when she writes that, “the objective of artistic practices should be to foster the development of […] new social relations” through “the production of new subjectivities” (87).p80

This latter phrase is so often overused in art and theory it is rendered meaningless. Increasingly, it is the non-human that disrupts our personalised ontologies and reminds us that new subjectivities mean nothing in the context of climate change, or they mean everything. Gillian Rose in Mourning Becomes the Law writes ‘We have given up on communism – only to fall more deeply in love with the idea of ‘the community.’’( Rose 1996) Rose uses the cities of ‘Old Athens’ and ‘New Jerusalem’ figuratively to chart the move between ‘classical law to the city of unbounded love, from punishing order to a new ethics of community’, and argues that in our search for the ‘third city’, our new ‘imaginings’, ‘otherwise’ at the end of history, we will inevitably come up against its shadow, a fourth city for her is Auschwitz. Rose uses her text as mourning, and sees mourning as an individual political act which ‘reconfigures the cities boundaries after loss.’ What is to come cannot be imagined.

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*Home Page Image Credit: Katharine Barrington 'Go Tell It To The Mountain'