It is the dilemma or double bind of undertaking to put the undecidability and elusiveness of signification in touch with political responsiveness, in shifting contexts of social suffering and affliction, political death and displacement, where life reaches its limit. Of course, it is the limit that creates the event of life, that is the necessary condition for the experience of life.
Someone took my book out into the woods and shot it. The book is intimate with violence now in two ways: both as subject matter (violence is what it’s about), and as target. The book reaches the gun as its interlocutor. Or, now the book, with holes right through its face, needs to be written again.
But when someone shot my book, I felt it got what it deserved, that it had met its precise right audience. No, I felt the book had received its precise right author. The book had been re-authored, or finally authored, by the bullet.
In aiming to silence life, the gun makes life more present—that is, it makes available the grief we are already feeling, the grief that one could call the precondition of our living. I don’t mean to trivialize or exaggerate. But in trying to understand a nation’s passionate attachment to guns, in trying to understand what guns might give us, why some of us want them so badly, I turn to this: only in intimacy with death, in close proximity to grieving, do we find ourselves really alive. It is the limit that creates the event of life, that is the necessary condition for the experience of life. This seems to be true, and then it is too true, and the bullet hits its mark and what we loved becomes trash.
I propose to consider a dimension of political life that has to do with our exposure to violence and our complicity in it, with our vulnerability to loss and the task of mourning that follows, and with finding a basis for community in these conditions. (Butler, Precarious 19)
Judith Butler opens her essay, “Violence, Mourning, Politics,” with this venture, suggesting that a just community is one that consistently recognizes—and does not banish—vulnerability, fear, grieving: those states that in attempting to deny we only become more and more subject to.
“Loss and vulnerability seem to follow from our being socially constituted bodies,” continues Butler, “attached to others, at risk of losing those attachments, exposed to others, at risk of violence by virtue of that exposure” (20)—a precise description of social life I think, though mostly we attempt to locate ourselves outside of loss, refusing exposure. Perhaps what attracts some to the gun (or other emblems of shock and awe) is the promise that we might grow closer, by way of the metonymic power of the object, to our actually lived vulnerability. If I own a gun, I not only know that I could hurt you, I also acknowledge that you could hurt me. As one Senator said to me during a hearing for gun control bills: “I assume everyone I meet is armed.” Of course, he who assumes this lives in fear, close to grief. But we need to live this way.
If we agree to Butler’s proposition, then one activity through which we might find access to vulnerability, fear and grieving, one technology that does not simply increase these experiences by adding to the stockpile of pain in our communities, is the private/public activity that is reading, and especially, I would argue, the active reading that poetry demands.
Revolutionary poetry may, exceptionally, have nothing at all to say about any fact that will be identified as political; its grammar may be thoroughly opaque and its sentences almost totally free of direct social reference. But imperatively it must do this one thing: it must hurt and thrill a reader with an irresistible premonition of the feeling of being more fully and really alive than ever before, the feeling that is the true, unmistakable and inalienable basis of revolutionary subjective universality.
So wrote Keston Sutherland, one of the contributors to this issue, in a talk titled “Revolution and Really Being Alive.” And yet, one can say, many have said, awakening this “feeling of being more alive than ever before” is exactly what writing cannot do, that writing is instead a form of estrangement, that in representing experience, writing kills experience. Even when turning away from mimesis, even when poems try instead to give their reader an experience that is brand new and not just a replication of the author’s previous experience or thought, some will point out that poems (and all writing) always fall short of the goal. For whatever the experience one might have in having a poem, it is always at a remove, always filtered through language—and thus not close enough to the “real,” which would then have to be understood as pre-linguistic, or sur-linguistic—as bodily and immediate.
However it’s precisely in that failure, in that gap between the poem as language and the body as immediacy that the poem vibrates, like the needle of a compass, indicating invisible forces, what my co-editor Aaron Angello calls “the unqualified experience of the virtual”: affect.
But in suggesting that one of poetry’s tasks is show us longing and vulnerability, in suggesting that poetry reveals the holes that we carry or are, I’m saying something I don’t think everyone in this issue will agree with. I’m saying that one of poetry’s charms, one of the ways it charms us, spells us, puts a spell on us, is its ability to tap our emotional responses (as a magician taps with his wand).
That might seem a truism. Or it might seem an embarrassment. Old debates flare up now and then among poets and critics—between those who see poetry as firstly engaged with expressing the emotional experience of some speaker or actual person, and those who look for other ways of describing the function of the poem: as reflective rather than expressive, as “echo” rather than “speech,” as material that belongs to no one in particular but which someone in particular draws from the culture at large in order to critique (obliquely or not) that culture.
When one looks closely at the work and arguments those make on either side of this supposed divide, historically and now, one sees that the debate lacks luster; no one is absolute in these matters except when trying to cause trouble. And yet the debate around emotion in poetry does cause some trouble, and has for a long time. Much of this trouble is useful, for it helps focus affiliations, interests, and aims. But I mention it here not in order to come down on one side or another, for I see this as a false choice. Rather, I want to consider what presuppositions might be motivating the harder edges of the argument to begin with.
For where we find poets or critics seeming to resist or dismiss feelings (their own or others’), we often find a corresponding nervousness about the concept of the “self” that seems to undergird these feelings. The discomfort that some may have with expressed (personal) emotion in poetry or art stems at least in part from the idea that when emotions are palpable in a work (through image, narrative, lyrical phrase, message or musicality), they’re in the service of a damaging and damaged ideology of “self”—a self tangled up with old and infirm paradigms. While we might not credit the desire to efface the self with sincerity, we should at least consider where it stems from, for it’s pervasive in all kinds of discourses that circulate in and through poetics worlds. And in fact, if the self represented in a poem is this individualistic self-protected subject, defined by what it owns, sanctioned by the state, protected by laws (that only protect some) with all attendant presumptions of freedoms and rights (freedoms and rights that so often supersede the demands of ethical social life), we might indeed want to efface it, or bash it, or trash it—or at least to find other ways of thinking through identity in poems.
And there are other ways, and there have always been other ways—and one place to find these other ways articulated is in feminist theory (by no means the only example) where selfhood is so often described as, at its very base, interdependent, non-individualistic, and plastic, quite literally made and remade through its desires and vulnerabilities, its “feelings.”
“There is nothing like the abjection of self to show that all abjection is in fact recognition of the want on which any being, meaning, language, or desire is founded,” wrote Kristeva in 1980 (The Powers of Horror 5). As is well known, her Revolution and Poetic Language describes a phase in human psychic development she names the chora (both a time and place) during which the pre-linguistic subject finds herself in a bodily, rhythmic “semiotic motility” (46), regulated by and dependent upon the mother’s body. Crucially, Kristeva emphasizes that the “semiotic” chora is not a “stage” that is superseded or transcended; rather, its status is continual, in dialectic with the symbolic, even as it is the symbolic’s “precondition” (50). While Lacanian theory posits, in Kristeva’s words, that “dependence on the mother is severed, and transformed into a symbolic relation to an other” (48), Kristeva argues that the continued presence of the pre-symbolic “semiotic motility” (a somatic realm of pre-linguistic sound and bodily rhythm), that was our dependence on that body, finds its expression precisely in art, especially in poetic language—for that’s where we can most clearly see the disruption of the symbolic at play. And only when the semiotic chora is present to disrupt symbolic signification, and the division between subject and object, between “I” and “you” that it implies, only then, says Kristeva, does “the signification process join social revolution” (61).
I’m recalling Kristeva here because I think feminist understandings of subjectivity are often missing from debates about affect in poetry. If we assume that the “self” that’s being articulated in a poem drives farther and farther toward its own heroic distinction, we might simply be misreading—that is, reading through a patriarchal lens. Rejecting that model of selfhood and expression does not mean rejecting any model of selfhood and expression. Adopting or at least considering other descriptions of subjectivity might restructure our understanding of what it is to announce a self in the first place. And once we open our ideas of this “self,” perhaps the poem’s affective potential can be set loose.
The self I find alive in the poems I am drawn to is not a “non-self,” it’s a self rooted in desire, shame, longing, vulnerability, and interdependence. If this is in some way “who we are,” then emotion in a poem belongs to this outwardly directed and malleable self, this “interiority on the skin” (Moten and Harney 98)—this “social” self, a self that, while abiding as a particular body with particular memories and experiences, is never, was never, singular.3
Poetic language, whether found or made, ventures to touch the “pulsations at the limit” of the individual, as it moves in and out of the borders of any body. Drawing past silence and withdrawal we get to something like stuttering into standing, but not your ground, standing on no one’s ground. That way we “pervert” the supposed “limits of the impasse” (Athanasiou 128).
And so I’m arguing that affects and emotions, like language, do not originate with or in individuals alone, which is to say that “individuals” simply do not feel alone (though we might sometimes feel lonely). If selfhood is a shared entity, a vector made and remade through its encounters with others, then its affects are as well. And this means, quite simply, that the emotional experiences we might discover in reading poems, or might find in making them are not “private,” they do not “belong” to us like some abstract form of property we’re trying to sell. This does not, however, make emotions less true, less powerful, or less important. Rather, it makes them more so. As so many who practice affect theory have been arguing, and as poetry has always seemed to assert, the social source and aim of emotion is its agency, its politics, and its engagement. This is why emotion in poetry matters: not because it’s mine, not because it’s yours, but because it’s ours.
Thank you to each of the contributors to this issue for your work here and elsewhere. I have a learned a great deal from each of you. Thank you to Josh and Afton, and especially to Aaron Angello for editing this with me.
1The first section of this introduction appears as a poetics statement in The Volta Book of Poets (Sidebrow Books, 2015), edited by Joshua Marie Wilkinson.
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2Athena Athanasiou, “Technologies of Humanness, Aporias of Biopolitics, and the Cut Body of Humanity” 128.
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3Again, Moten and Harney: “You can’t count how much we owe one another. It’s not countable. It doesn’t even work that way. Matter of fact, it’s so radical that it probably destabilizes the very social form or idea of ‘one another.’ But, that’s what Édouard Glissant is leading us towards when he talks about what it is ‘to consent not to be a single being.’ And if you think about it, it is a sort of filial and essentially a maternal relation. When I say ‘maternal,’ what I’m implying there is the possibility of a general socialisation of the maternal.” (Moten and Harney 154)
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Athanasiou, Athena. “Technologies of Humanness, Aporias of Biopolitics, and the Cut Body of Humanity.” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, Volume 14, Number 1, Spring 2003: 125-162.
Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. New York: Verso, 2006.
Kristeva, Julia. The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.
---. Revolution in Poetic Language. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.
Moten, Fred and Stephano Harney. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. Wivenhoe / New York / Port Watson: Minor Compositions.
Sutherland, Keston. “Revolution and really being alive.”