Living in the post-traumatic age – after Auschwitz – and still witnessing on a daily basis various forms of barbarism ranging from local wars, nationalisms, to classism, racism, sexism and numerous other yet-to-be-named ‘-isms’, we have reached the point when awareness of our own being has been radically shaken. Self-doubt prompted many academics to depressively proclaimed that writing poetry – after Auschwitz – is barbaric; that we do not need philosophical thinking anymore and that this is the time of the end of history and of truth.
In The End – A Conversation(English translation available July 2019), Alain Badiou and Giovanbattista Tusa contend that:
“The notion of the ‘end’ has long occupied philosophical thought. In light of the horrors of the 20th century, some writers have gone so far as to declare the end of philosophy itself, emphasising the impossibility of thinking after Auschwitz. In this book the distinguished philosopher Alain Badiou, in dialogue with Giovanbattista Tusa, argues that we must renounce the ‘pathos of completion’ and continue to think philosophically.”
People who have experienced the proximity of war or of the horrors of war have quickly realized that there is something in their experience which rejects thought, which rejects uttering. War is a true epistemological minefield. It is a frowning, terrifying, tyrannical Absolute swallowing and devouring all meaning. The horror given ‘by itself’ and ‘for itself’ sets itself down in front of thought as a simple anti-subject of thinking. The truth of war is radical anti-truth. No constructive, functional, or affirmative thought is possible. Such thought is possible only in the form of ideological ‘truths’ which are themselves participants in the war, which produce war, which start it. But if in war there is no truth about war, that is not only because truths themselves are used to wage war, with one sets of truths against another, but also because no speech about war, however adequate, that is, true and neutral, is able to express what is unutterable in war, its horrifying essence in front of which even the wisest of speeches, or logos , remains simply dumb, without words.
Poem as witness, as transmitter of multiple meanings, coming from an unknown space, remaining beyond the reach of universal language and aesthetic forms and norms, is conditioned as an act of resistance and struggle, a protest against violence and political order – carrying the ghost of witness through time. Celan calls upon his readers to become not simply recipients of an achievement of language, but to become someone capable of experiencing and responding in multiple ways – of being able to bond together the multitude of witnesses instead of the multitude of victims in our post-traumatic age. (I wrote this while studying and working as a graduate assistant at the University of Toronto on the topic of Poetry of Witness.)
Starting tomorrow a very interesting workshop – Paul Celan in Translation. Praxis, Poetics, Resistances. Paul Celan et la traduction. Pratiques, poétiques, résistances – will be held at Université de Genève. This two-day workshop will provide a forum to reflect on the relations between poetry, poetics and translation around the figure of Celan. If the work of the poet Paul Celan was chosen as the foundation it’s because Celan’s œuvre bridges three major preoccupations of contemporary criticism: the emergence of the figure of the poet-witness, the importance of translation and the inter-language, and the relationship of poetry and philosophy. It will also investigate the importance of Celan for certain contemporary philosophers and poets – whether it is true that Celan is a provocation to think about the relationship between poetry and philosophy for a large number of 20th century philosophers (Heidegger, Adorno, Gadamer, Derrida, Badiou, to cite a few).
A public lecture on poetry by Alain Badiou at Théâtre de Vidy in Lausanne, Switzerland.
For the philosopher, “poetry has always been a place of thought, a procedure of truth”, but unlike philosophy, poetry is a thought in action, which realizes in language, the singularity of the presence of sensibility.
Writing about poetry is at the same time a difficult and interesting endeavour because it requires complete freedom from the constraints of both form and methodology. Following the rules of traditional theoretical research, writing within the field of poetics often seems pretentious and somehow forced, similar to how aesthetic writing about music, dance or theatrical arts usually considers it impossible to penetrate the unknown ‘creative zone’ and to translate that moment even into simple language, let alone into an academic explanation of something that does not have the power or desire to directly address and contemplate the inexplicable.
questions such as “what is poetry of today”, and examining the
nature of its existence in general can provide the framework for a
re-orientation of the understanding of poetic creation itself. In
academic circles very little is written about poetry and even within
what it is written, very
little is actually said. One gets the
feeling of a complete wasteland, an
academic disinterest, and a
constant repetition of what
had already been said and thought. It
even seems that it is taken for granted that poetry has lost all
importance, that it has reached a
level of complete saturation as an artistic form and that there is no
further path for poetic creation to
happen, except perhaps some
slowly-dying state of alternative nothingness. This
is not a new problem for poetry or indeed art in general.
Here I want to present and preserve the thought of Srečko Kosovel a Slovenian poet though an excerpt translated by myself. He was born in 1904, died in 1926 at the age of 22 and wrote more than a thousand poems which remain as manuscripts and a couple of hundred prose works consisting of lyrical prose and sketches, literary criticism and essays on cultural problems, notes, diaries and letters. Only a few of his poems were published in literary reviews, but not a single book.
The Artist and the Proletarian
At this moment, countless lectures, concerts, poetry recitals and theater shows are held throughout the world. Poets read their poems publicly, writers read their stories and novels, scientists talk about their new discoveries, actors perform in theaters, musicians perform concerts that can be listened to on the radio by listeners thousands of miles away. Lecture halls, theater venues, concert halls – everything is illuminated, alive; thousands of people attending lectures, concerts, performances.
Anyone can notice that in these theaters, in those concert halls, the foundation of society is missing: the proletariat. The proletarian, who in society must perform the most difficult and most despicable jobs, the proletarian, whose shoulders all the peoples of the nation; the proletariat who, through its painstaking and hard work, accelerates the development of culture – this proletariat has become completely separate from the cultural history of human society.
The theater and the concert hall, have become the convenience of only the top ten thousand and culture has become, willingly or unwillingly, a class culture – which is, however, logical in light of all the laws conditioned by human society. As in the middle ages when artists and scientists lived from the generosity of the royal court, they today live of the generosity and greed of capitalists, the rich and the bourgeoisie.
But capitalists, the rich, and the bourgeoisie do not support art out of some humanistic, idealistic motives, for example, from the belief that the artist can live freely with their support and that they can create works for true love and their own conviction. Their goal is different; as they appropriated the assets of material culture, say factories, banks, stock exchanges, estates, in the same manner capitalists want to take over the productive tools of spiritual culture, artists, scientists, inventors, writers, etc. That means they want to defeat not only manual workers but also intellectuals.
The artist and the scientist in the contemporary society are without rights, exposed to suffering, misery and death. And since the ultimate goal of every true artist is to freely lay bare their knowledge, every true artist confronts a dilemma: be a slave to the truth or to the bourgeoisie.
The truth is actually this: everyone is obliged to work, and because they must work and because of what they do, they have the right to live and enjoy all the goods that human society has gained during development. That is: if it is my duty to work, it is my right to live.
This is what capitalists, the owners of big companies, share holders, or companies on the stock exchange will not admit. They want the proletarian to work and serve, and that only they have right to enjoyment. They want the proletariat to be a machine that makes means for an easier life. That’s why they are publishing a lot of magazines and newspapers to create a pleasant public atmosphere for themselves and that they can openly say, or whisper, that it is right for the worker to work for the master to enjoy.
But today the proletarian has become aware. They became aware that their work creates the living conditions for society, that they even realized that their work contributes to the most essential needs of human existence. They became aware that on the basis of their work they can demand exactly the same rights to life as those who spend their entire lives in restaurants, bars, brothels, and entertainment salons, and who don’t even move a pinky for their own life needs.
That is why the proletariat organized and included in its life program class struggle, a class struggle that has been running from the beginning of life through all millennia until today as a struggle between the strong and the weak, the class struggle that throughout all human history has flowed into the form of a struggle between master and servant, patricians and plebs, capitalists and proletarians. This class struggle gives the proletarian life force and a life program. However, without the addition of spiritual culture, this class struggle remains like an unlit light that can not illuminate the chaos of everyday struggles.
In The Nazi Myth Lacoue-Labarthe together with Jean-Luc Nancy give us one of the most important work on understanding the nature of Fascism and Nazism generating what they call a “fusion of politics and art,” or as they also put it, “the production of the political as a work of art.”
We have only sought to unfold a specific logic, and thus we have no other conclusions to draw. We wish only to underline just how much this logic, with its double trait of the mimetic will-to-identity and the self-fulfillment of form, belongs profoundly to the mood or character of the West in general, and more precisely, to the fundamental tendency of the subject, in the metaphysical sense of the word. Nazism does not sum up the West, nor represent its necessary finality. But neither is it possible to simply push it aside as an aberration, still less as a past aberration. A comfortable security in the certitudes of morality and of democracy not only guarantees nothing, but exposes one to the risk of not seeing the arrival, or the return, of that whose possibility is not due to any simple accident of history. An analysis of Nazism should never be conceived as a dossier of simple accusation, but rather as one element in a general deconstruction of the history in which our own provenance lies.
“Francisco Goya through ‘Dos de Mayo’ preserved the memory of death in the streets of Madrid. His skepticism is more sarcastic, his protest is more passionate, his smile is more furious than to anyone who was speaking trough art before him. His paintings are a revelation of the horrible world of tyranny and oppression of a corrupt and decadent society,” [my translation from Serbo-Croatian] wrote Oto Bihalji Merin. In his book he paired the Goya paintings with photographs from the Spanish civil war as a document of “Los desastres de la guerra” – the disasters of the war.
Variations on Badiou’s Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art
The times of great anticipation and prophecy of the future have passed long ago, and we have all been in a time that is neither present nor past nor future in some time we have called a time of crisis. So, art in this time of crisis, and this time of art in crisis, tries to change its character and nature, probably for the purpose of survival and new possibilities of creation, adapting to this moment of crisis, to the moment of saturation of something that, until now, we have called art. Artists have largely discarded the great mythologies of our time and developed their own, some magnificent and extensive, some esoteric and private. In searching for itself art has withdrawn from the world and remains as a ghost of something long forgotten. Alain Badiou is attempting to save art and proposed fifteen theses outlining the creation of art of this time
Art is not the sublime descent of the infinite into the finite abjection of the body and sexuality. It is the production of an infinite subjective series through the finite means of a material subtraction.
Art cannot merely be the expression of a particularity (be it ethnic or personal). Art is the impersonal production of a truth that is addressed to everyone.
Art is the process of a truth, and this truth is always the truth of the sensible or sensual, the sensible as sensible. This means: the transformation of the sensible into a happening of the Idea.
There is necessarily a plurality of arts, and however we may imagine the ways in which the arts might intersect there is no imaginable way of totalizing this plurality.
Every art develops from an impure form, and the progressive purification of this impurity shapes the history both of a particular artistic truth and of its exhaustion.
The subject of an artistic truth is the set of the works which compose it.
This composition is an infinite configuration, which, in our own contemporary artistic context, is a generic totality.
The real of art is ideal impurity conceived through the immanent process of its purification. In other words, the raw material of art is determined by the contingent inception of a form. Art is the secondary formalization of the advent of a hitherto formless form.
The only maxim of contemporary art is not to be imperial. This also means: it does not have to be democratic, if democracy implies conformity with the imperial idea of political liberty.
Non-imperial art is necessarily abstract art, in this sense: it abstracts itself from all particularity, and formalizes this gesture of abstraction.
The abstraction of non-imperial art is not concerned with any particular public or audience. Non-imperial art is related to a kind of aristocratic-proletarian ethic: Alone, it does what it says, without distinguishing between kinds of people.
Non-imperial art must be as rigorous as a mathematical demonstration, as surprising as an ambush in the night, and as elevated as a star.
Today art can only be made from the starting point of that which, as far as Empire is concerned, doesn’t exist. Through its abstraction, art renders this inexistence visible. This is what governs the formal principle of every art : the effort to render visible to everyone that which for Empire (and so by extension for everyone, though from a different point of view), doesn’t exist.
Since it is sure of its ability to control the entire domain of the visible and the audible via the laws governing commercial circulation and democratic communication, Empire no longer censures anything. All art, and all thought, is ruined when we accept this permission to consume, to communicate and to enjoy. We should become the pitiless censors of ourselves.
It is better to do nothing than to contribute to the invention of formal ways of rendering visible that which Empire already recognizes as existent.