Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Affect Feature—Issue 55, July 2015)

Lisa Robertson
Notes on Form and Belief

Belief is a behavior, a linguistic or emotional performance, acted out in a given situation. Belief’s situation includes other believers and doubters with a history, or many histories, and a setting, which has itself changed over time. We might imagine belief, extending amongst these polyvalent planes, as a social architecture.

They say, that on their arrival at Argos, the Phoenicians exposed their merchandise to sale, and that on the fifth or sixth day after their arrival, and when they had almost disposed of their cargo, a great number of women came down to the sea-shore, and among them the king’s daughter, whose name, as the Greeks also say, was Io, daughter of Inachus.1

I’d like this architecture to function in a mutually liberatory manner, to act as something other than confinement. I’d like belief to support lightly, but not secure, actions and stories among friends and strangers.

They add, that while these women were standing near the rear of the vessel, and were bargaining for such things as most pleased them, the Phoenicians, having exhorted one another, made an attack upon them; and that most of the women escaped, but that Io, with some others, was seized: and that they, having hurried them on board, set sail for Egypt.

The question for me has become—how can we change what we believe. How can I change what I believe. I would prefer not to continue to reproduce soley that belief I have institutionally received. To do so would constitute irrevocable sadness. There must be something other than sadness to make from language and this one life.

The speech of belief might change its forms. Belief might transform.

Thus the Persians say that Io went to Egypt, not agreeing herein with the Phoenicians; and that this was the beginning of wrongs. After this, that certain Grecians (for they are unable to tell their name,) having touched at Tyre in Phoenicia, carried off the king’s daughter Europa. These must have been Cretans.

In my writing, this is what I have sought for myself and for my interlocutors. How may we each be transformed within language. Can a text furnish the space for an energetic shift, intensification, reversal, dispersal, a freshened historicity, even the emergence of a joyous newness?

Thus far they say that they had only retaliated, but that after this the Greeks were guilty of the second provocation; for that having sailed down in a vessel of war to Aea, a city of Colchis on the river Phasis, when they had accomplished the more immediate object of their expedition, they carried off the king’s daughter Medea; and that the king of Colchis, having despatched a herald to Greece, demanded satisfaction for the rape, and the restitution of the princess; but the Greeks replyed that as they of Asia had not given any satisfaction for the rape of Io, neither would they give any to them.

When I use the word language I don’t mean an autonomous product of an individual or an institution. I am not positing that language is a closed system of signs. My sense of language is that it carries and activates a profoundly historical and volatile unconscious that can sometimes shift into vivid consciousness. By historical, I mean a movement between and among persons in time. We speak only the words of others. Within language there is the incomplete history of the human community, including injustice, atrocity, cruelty and their institutions, as well as empathy, spiritual devotion, convivial joy, and co-evolution. Each sentence uttered or composed in a room or in a text, towards a present or an imagined receiver, carries in its lexicon and in its formal arrangement this tragic and ecstatic lineage and potential.

They say, too, that in the second generation after this, Alexander son of Priam, having heard of these events, was desirous of obtaining a wife from Greece by means of violence, being fully persuaded that he should not have to give satisfaction, for that the Greeks had not done so. When therefore he had carried off Helen, they say, that the Greeks immediately sent messages to demand her back again, and require satisfaction for the rape; but that they, when they brought forward these demands, objected to the rape of Medea; “that they who had themselves not given satisfaction, now wished others to give it to themselves.”

So what can we do about it? I don’t know. To cease to speak might be one choice, since the responsibility is obviously disproportionate to any particular ability. How can we act and speak in the knowledge and acceptance of historical responsibility, its unimaginable griefs?

One very modest possibility might be a tentative and provisional attempt to shift the locus of linguistic responsibility from the macrocosm of trans-political ethics, to the relative microcosm of form, which also harbours an ethics, as well as an aesthetics. This tactical shift could lend a site for minor experiments and excursions in belief. Such experiment will recall that aesthetics relate only to the particularity of bodies, and the bodily possibilities of sensing. I’ll repeat: form is a bodily event.

Thus far they say that there had only been rapes from each other; but that after this the Greeks were greatly to blame, for that they levied war against Asia before the Asiatics did upon Europe.

Form is always to transform. No form is independent. Forms jostle forms, mutation occurs, bodies change, by chance or by design, in proportions and with outcomes not fully under anybody’s control. Form is always historical. Already the syntax of this utterance functions to develop and transmit any concept at all only because of the presence of a lineage of community agreement—enforced, tacit, or wished for— a continuity, or discontinuity in time among generations and communities of people, warring and loving, and sometimes simply bored. This statement, these present participles, warring and loving, know something about humans that I can’t know. In language there is historical agency and consciousness. Given this fact, what is it possible to do with form? What shall we do with our bodies?

Now, to carry off women by violence the Persians think is the act of wicked men, but to trouble oneself about avenging them when so carried off is the act of foolish ones; and to pay no regard to them when carried off, wise men: for that it is clear, that if they had not been willing, they would not have been carried off.

I have loved the historical form of the English sentence. I’ve wanted to stay with the sentence and its suppleness, elasticity, and ornate or simple limits. I’m thinking about form as a configuration of relationships, not a substantive fixity. Form then, is an experiment in relationship that is tacitly contextualized by the historicity of relationships. Form is a proposition about the possibility of correspondences. Form produces subjects, though here I wonder about the objectivity of the word ‘produce’. Inflects, transforms, posits.

If form seems to devour life, recall that any form is a proposition about belief. One of the sentences in my poem Cinema of the Present asks “What do you believe about form?” Belief might go to the cinema. There’s nothing neutral about it. Refusal is a formal act.

Accordingly the Persians say, that they of Asia made no account of women who were carried off; but that the Greeks for the sake of a Lacedaemonian woman assembled a mighty fleet, and then having come to Asia, overthrew the empire of Priam.

The forms of our institutions—educational, intellectual, monetary, conjugal, civic, judicial—increasingly are being determined by a political economy seeking total power to reproduce only itself. Total distinction is the most important tool in this endeavor.

That from this event they had always considered the Greeks as their enemies: for the Persians claim Asia and the barbarous nations that inhabit it, as their own, and consider Europe and the people of Greece as totally distinct.

This economy will ultimately fail though, because these institutions and their forms live also at the level of language and speech (bodies), which are non-substantive and relational, hence not possible to limit and control. The distinctive economy of the signifier/signified set cannot describe the work of the free rider.

That we speak to one another, to an other, that language always addresses history and is polyvalently temporal, means that we are free, even if the terms of that freedom remain at times provisional, cramped, or necessarily secret.

Such is the Persian account; and to the capture of Troy they ascribe the commencement of their enmity with the Greeks. As relates to Io, the Phoenicians do not agree with this account of the Persians: for they affirm they did not use violence to carry her into Egypt; but that she had connexion at Argos with the master of a vessel, and when she found herself pregnant, she, through dread of her parents, voluntarily sailed away with the Phoenicians, to avoid detection.

We make form by living with our senses open among a history of the sensing of others, and then reflecting upon that sensing. When we make a form, by refusing, responding, embellishing, torqueing, we experiment with the sociality of belief. There is an outcome in every case. We can’t yet know what it will be.

Such then are the accounts of the Persians and Phoenicians: I, however, am not going to inquire whether the facts were so or not; but having pointed out the person whom I myself know to have been first guilty of injustice towards the Greeks, I will then proceed with my story, touching as well on the small and great estates of men: for of those that were formerly powerful many have become weak, and some that were powerful in my time were formerly weak. Knowing therefore the precarious nature of human prosperity, I shall commemorate both alike.

I write this on the bus, passing by the refuse heaps of Pave-All, by Volvo and Strong Co., and the Walmart trucks. I want to write a sentence that is not only these things, then put another sentence beside it to see what happens, what might be released. In the formal movement of language, an experience of freedom might find a shelter. I want to activate capacious mental sensation towards both historicity and newness. I want to assume that a woman could be believed.


1All italicized passages are from the opening of Henry Cary’s translation of Herodotus, pp 1-3. (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1848.)
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