Poetics and the Political World

Los Angeles Review of Books

This is the second part of a conversation with Serbian philosopher Obrad Savić which was published as a foreword to the Serbian translation of Does Literature Think? Literature as Theory for an Antimythical Era (Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2003).

OBRAD SAVIC: In your last book, titled somewhat didactically, Lessons in Secular Criticism (2013), you explicitly argue that “the task of secular criticism is to put into question the means by which knowledge is presented as sovereign, unmarked by whatever social-historical institution actually possesses it. […] Namely, secular criticism is the practice of elucidating the ruse of those tacit processes that create, control, and sustain conditions of heteronomy, that is, conditions where the power of real men and women is configured to reside in some unassailable elsewhere.” Can you clarify your affirmation that “Secular criticism is democratic criticism, as Edward Said, who invented the notion, came to call it in his last work”? If critique in principle works on neutralization of any “effect of power,” including its own, how it can be democratic especially in its secular form?

STATHIS GOURGOURIS: I am not sure I understand what you mean by “neutralization.” Do you mean blunting the effects of power? In any case, I resist the term neutralization in all contexts because my basic argument about critique is that critique is never neutral. I am not a Kantian. If we are to take seriously the Greek meaning of krisis as judgment and decision, I would say that critique does not merely assess a situation; it alters a situation. It is a political intervention that changes the playing field — it changes everything, including the person who commits the critical act, the critic. No critic stands at an Archimedean point outside the realm of the object of critique, and in this respect, all critique is always, simultaneously, self-critique.

Because critique is quintessentially political, always engaged in a shared field of contention, it does not get to occupy some privileged sphere, some neutral, unmarked, transcendental space. It belongs to the continuous flux of history-in-the-making, fraught with doubt and change, inevitable decay. It’s a worldly thing — that’s why it is secular. Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t take place in the realm of religion, or in a theological framework. But in those rare instances when the faithful or the theologians engage in critique — in a genuine radical interrogative sense that alters the playing field, which is very difficult to do within a dogma and that is why when they do so they are called heretics — they are acting in secular terms, regardless of how they account for it.

And critique is democratic in the sense that a democratic politics is a continuous interrogation of the terms and limits of itself, where everything is submitted to judgment (krisis), including whatever may at one time be considered (or in fact, conjured) to be fundamental. Because in democracy there is nothing actually fundamental. Even “the people” aren’t fundamental, because the people are never a unified category, except on specific occasions and in specific terms, which is always provisional and rather short-lived, if you think about it historically. Democracy is groundless. Its only ground is itself, but because this self is continuously subject to radical ontological question, the ground it may seem to constitute is in reality an abyss. Democracy means precarious politics — not particularly an efficient politics, and not necessarily a good politics. There is nothing good (or bad) about democracy. Democracy has nothing to do with morality. It has no morality.

Of course, what is claimed as democracy in the modern world is an insidious pseudonym. So-called democracies are liberal oligarchies. It’s perfectly obvious. This does not mean, however, that we junk the notion. Democratic politics is the most enabling politics for people who desire to be autonomous. It is essentially an anarchic politics. For me any discussion of secular criticism is necessarily implicated in an anarchic and autonomous politics. So, it makes sense to me that Said switched from “secular criticism” to “democratic criticism” in his late work. He means the same practice, but he is explicitly signaling its politics.

OS: If secular criticism emerges from literary studies, and therefore, from the affiliation to the language of poiesis, then we can conclude that secular discourse depends on a literary way of thinking, even, on the cognitive power of the poetic language! But if we have in mind ambitions of the “genealogical desacralization of literature” (I’m thinking of Michel Foucault’s statement that “Genealogy seeks to demystify the pieties that continue to haunt literature by searching out the way ‘the literary’ is delineated”) then we can say, without guilt, that literature is not innocent regarding a permanent sacralization of the world. In this sense, the main task of critique can be to debunk the autonomy of literary texts, “in order to break with a number of myths, including that of the expressive character of literature: it has been very important to pose this great principle that literature is concerned only with itself” (Michel Foucault, The Functions of Literature, interview by Roger-Pol Droit, 1975). In fact, what is your opinion on the genealogical salvation of literature trying to expose the means by which sacralized literature fortifies a power/knowledge formation that justifies hierarchy, hegemony, and mythical, mystical power?

SG: This is a complex question, because I don't agree with part of your assumptions. Specifically, I do not consider poiesis a sacralizing act. On the contrary, I find it paradigmatically desacralizing, for it pertains to the radical creative and transformative power of the human animal and no one/nothing else. Second, the poietic is not the literary, in some sort of strict equivalence. Poiesis pertains to the entire domain of human creation, from the most rational to the most irrational, from the most verbal to the most iconic, indeed to the unutterable and unrepresentable. Poiesis goes beyond the realm of the arts. Literature is one of its domains, and insofar as it involves literally the realm of poetry, literature may be a privileged realm of poiesis. But hardly exclusive. The relation between poiesis and literature is especially mediated and needs careful interrogation. Third, in regard to your last question, the mythical is not equivalent to the mystical. In fact, the mythical is exactly what is not mystical. I have written extensively on this, and Does Literature Think? is based on this distinction. Myth is a mode of performative knowledge, open and corporeal, not mysterious and not at all a secret.

In any case, literature as an institution may have indeed contributed to a certain sacralization, though I would not agree at all with your qualifier “permanent.” Obviously, there is nothing permanent when we deal with human creation, despite the inordinate desire of humans for permanence. But also, as Derrida has told us many times, literature is a “strange institution,” not easily susceptible to metaphysics. And although one can argue that literature does achieve metaphysical awe as an autonomous aesthetics in modernity, one can easily counter that this autonomy is precisely the unmasterable materiality that eludes the market and defies commodification (Adorno, etc.), so in that sense literature, like democracy (another strange institution), resists capitalism and is engaged in desacralization.

These two positions are in contention, and how we judge this difference depends on all kinds of particulars — I don’t believe there can be an absolute theoretical judgment. At the same moment that I can see in a literary text the contribution to “a power/knowledge formation that justifies hierarchy, hegemony, and mythical, mystical power,” as you say, I can easily see in another literary text the contribution to an-archic logic that enables human beings to imagine and actualize a whole other social and historical universe. The second matters more to me.

Let us not forget that the poetic is precisely the excess of language, what exceeds communication. And in this respect, poiesis is the one realm in human endeavor that resists calculation, that cannot be mathematized. Hence, as Berardi says, poetry cannot be conquered by economic logic: it is “an insolvent enunciation in the face of the symbolic debt.”

OS: If we still stay inside the secular therein, I must invoke here our mutual friend, Gil Anidjar, who argued that the ultimate critique of secularism has to begin with unconditional de-Christianizing or perhaps even de-Westernizing of the occidental world. On the basis of his last and very provoking book Blood: A Critique of Christianity (2014), we might conclude that secular discourse inescapably belongs to actual registers of all-encompassing Christian imaginary and its cannibalistic discourse. Are you cultivating a similar position?

SG: Of course not. Gil’s thinking is formidable and I never cease learning from it, but I disagree with him on this point, and we have debated our differences on innumerable enjoyable occasions, not just between us but in public. Gil’s thought is very nuanced and remarkably original, and I don’t dispute his extraordinary insights as to how Christianity works. But the general idea that in all things secular lies a secret Christian spirit, in which his work sometimes slides, I find to be somewhat Orientalist. Against the grain or the intention of those who generally assume it, this position presupposes that no societies other than Christian ones can be (or have ever been) secular. It’s fine if you don’t care about things secular, I guess. But very problematic to me, since what I see in things secular is precisely a process of de-theologization, which in Christian societies means de-Christianization. Of course, here Gil and I agree; we are both in favor of de-Christianization. The question is what do we aspire to find on the other side? What sort of world do we want to create? There may not be a difference between us on what we envision on the other side — I am not sure — but the process by which we get there is definitely different. A third person, with a bit of relentless examination of both grounds, may come up with something that neither Gil nor I are seeing.

Let me add that secularization seems to me to be an unfinished, or even more, perhaps unfinishable, process. It’s not an end (telos). It’s not some modern thing. Secularization is what human societies have been engaged with since the very beginning of their existence. The human animal invents gods and simultaneously tries to tear them down. It is endemic to its psychical makeup. From this standpoint, sacralization is a specific form of secular practice: regardless of how mystical or otherworldly in its conception and affect, it is what human beings do in a specific time and place. I understand the heretical character of this phrase, but I would like to see more people engage with it.

OS: Reading your book Does Literature Think? Literature as Theory for an Antimythical Era (2003), I have a deep impression that your main intention is to promote literary discourse as theoretical genre. In one, somewhat perverted sense, your book thus affiliated itself with the quite opposite tradition that tries to promote theoretical discourse as fiction: “Philosophers and historians, Geisteswissenschaftler in general, believe that they can dispense with rational arguments and are beginning to speak in fictions,” as Jürgen Habermas puts it in ‘Philosophy and Science as Literature?’ (from his book Postmetaphysical Thinking, 1994). One may be able to get to the core of this problem by considering the following question: “Is it not an illusion to believe that texts by Freud and texts by Joyce can be sorted according to characteristics that definitively identify them as theory on the one hand and as fiction on the other?”

SG: Interesting and provocative question. But I can tell you right away that I don't differentiate between theory and fiction. Meaning, I don't need to rely on the classic philosophical prerogative of verifiability. Literature as theory exceeds analytical knowledge. It has a lot to do with certain understandings of intuitive knowledge, as we see in Spinoza or Bergson. Not in the same way, of course. This knowledge exists at the point of apprehension and not comprehension, and in many ways it is more iconic and corporeal than syntactical and even conceptual. It is poetic. Maybe, we should not call it knowledge, or not call it theory. But I cannot help just confessing what to me is obvious: reading Kafka is enough. I don't need anyone to theorize for me how Kafka enables me to know the world. There is a whole theory of encounter there that speaks for itself. In its own language — mind you, a language that goes beyond the impossibility of translation. Kafka's knowledge registers itself regardless of the language of writing.

From a strictly rationalist, or also what philosophers call a realist, perspective, what I just said is nonsense. At best it is fiction, and surely unreliable knowledge, if it's knowledge at all. But we can go back to the discussion of poiesis. Fictionalization seems to me to be unavoidable to the human animal. It's not about literature, or the distortion (some would say, falsification) of reality. Fictionalization is a basic mode/trope of human reality. I would say it is the primary way the human animal encounters the world, and as in the discussion about critique, this encounter is an altogether altering encounter: it changes both sides, both the world and this strange animal that changes the world.

OS: In the preliminary reflections to Does Literature Think? you try to rearrange the relation between literature and myth according to the principle of congruence as co-incidence: “As I stage it here, literature and myth can never turn into attributes of each other, nor are they ever to be each other's property. They are neither interchangeable nor do they collapse into one composite singularity. In a post-Enlightenment universe, literature and myth may be said rather to strike a co-incidence in their work, their work on knowledge, their work to knowledge.” What sort of unique theoretical knowledge does literature achieve as mythopoetic form and how are we to understand literature’s intrinsic capacity to theorize the condition of the world from which it emerges?

SG: Co-incidence is a term I coined back in Dream Nation to speak about how no event in history ever occupies a singular moment in time. Because no event (or form or logic or pronouncement, etc.) can occupy a designated place (spatial or temporal) that is exclusively its own, a place in which it can identify itself entirely unimpeded by an Other, the notion of co-incidence is inconceivable within a framework that follows the demands of the logic of identity. Co-incidence occurs in a magmatic sense of both time and space, never in succession of time or distinction in space.

It has been a very useful figure for me, and it should not be confused with consubstantiality or even congruence, strictly speaking. The regular meaning of coincidence is still operative too; there is an element of chance that has to be kept into play. Things happen together not necessarily because they are linked by some force, internal or external to them, that brings them together. They just happen to come together — they happen to co-incide because somehow they occupy the same time and place. However this comes to be, it gives them another sort of dynamic, beyond whatever their own elements may initially contain.

So in terms of your question, myth and literature are in a relation of co-incidence because in the longue durée of literature as an institution — however we date this, in modernity or before — whatever may be deemed to be the core element of what is literary belongs to what I call in the book “mythical thinking.” No matter how literature draws power from, let us say, a certain technological rationalism – the reproduction of writing via Gutenberg’s invention, etc. — and no matter how much it enters the realm of the market (industrialization, commodification, etc.), it still occupies a shared space-time with what was dominant in archaic societies, but persists through every human society in history regardless: the domain of myth.

Now, in the book I go to great lengths disputing those theories that see myth as symbolic and as narrative — in other words, as an identity machine. I argue instead that mythical thinking is essentially performative — ritualistic and theatrical. I won’t rehearse this here, but it is the basis of how I come to see literature as a mode of thought rather than simply a realm of art, of aesthetic technē. Because I see mythical thought as the performative domain of a society’s phantasms, I understand it as the mode that continuously stages the most elemental questions of a society’s existence: chiefly, questions of existential meaning — Who/what are we? What is our cosmos? How we came to be? What are we doing here? But also: What is alien to us? How do we differentiate ourselves? etc. — all the way to: Who are our enemies and why?

These are essential self-reflections on how things emerge in and from the world, and no society can exist without continuously restaging them because these matters cannot be decided once and for all. There is no existential certainty in the world. So, literature is a specific mode of mythical thinking, which continues unabated in all societies (no matter what may be its every newfangled technological or mediatic incarnation) to configure images, performances or phantasms of the worldly conditions that make this thinking possible to begin with — the worldly conditions of its production. Literature is crucial knowledge, and it is self-knowledge at a level that no analytical process — which presumes a certain distance from the object — can achieve.

OS: If we want to follow your idea that literature is a theory for an antimythical era, then we have a mutual obligation to clarify your position with respect to the reinvention of the modern concept of myth regarding the argument on undeconstructable performativity of myth itself:

"My sense of myth, as I reiterate throughout the book, is not narrative, symbolic, and archaic, but theatrical, allegorical, and contemporary. It is historical through and through and, to my mind, the most corrosive antimatter to the transcendental, the mystical, the religious. It would be more precise to say that certain socio-historical attitudes dress their desire for the sacred in the language of myth. […] Basically I consider 'antimythical' whatever element cultivates the allure of a transcendental signifier."

Does it mean that every historical desire for the sacred is necessarily covered by or dressed in the language of myth? Let me remind you for a moment that Robert Segal suggested in Theorizing about Myth (1999) that “the ultimate subject matter of myth for Taylor is not physical events themselves, as it was for James Frazer, but the divine causes of those events.” What is your comment on this idea, offered by one of the most popular mythographers of our time, one who insists, like Claude Lévi-Strauss before him, on a structural relationship between mythology and music? Moreover, Segal has a reputation as one of the founder fathers of the acoustic concept of the nation!

SG: So, I addressed the first part of your question just now. Yes, myth is undeconstructively performative — which means, in Derridean terms, that it challenges the idea that there must be some meta-performative realm (I am thinking here of Derrida raising this issue in Rogues.) That’s a tough proposition that will raise some eyebrows. But, yes, the meta-performative doesn’t quite make sense to me.

Which is why, to get to the crux of your question, the sacred is always mythical. The sacred is quintessentially mythical. At least, in the simplest sense that the sacred is the realm that humans have created in order to deal with the abyss of existence, with the fact that there is no pre-ordained ground on which something happens or does not happen in life beyond what they came to discover to be the constants of the physical laws of the universe — the fact that gravity does not allow you to jump off a building and fly or that fire burns right through everything you hold dear, etc. And most of all: the fact that no matter what you do your life ends, your materiality degenerates, and you flow out of existence with the same brutally accidental (existentially speaking) logic you came in to begin with. The myth of the sacred is perhaps the most powerful myth of all because it presents this existential abyss in all its glory in the very same moment that it occludes it.

But the sacred is not all-controlling; it’s not the last word of myth. The existential abyss is intolerable, I understand. But the human psyche is as tough as the physical laws of the universe. Perhaps more, because the psyche follows no law, and is indomitable. Its refusal of this intolerable abyss is the limitless creation of phantasms meant to counteract it. These phantasms are not mere images — although their “essence” is, I would argue, primarily imagistic, not linguistic. (For Freud this is a no-brainer.) Yet, although they may be conjured iconically, phantasms can have numerous manifestations, certainly verbal and language-based, but also ritualistic and performance-based. The sacred is a profound space of such verbal and performative action of the mythical. The “divine” is one of the most sublime mythical thought-spaces ever created by humans. The divine as such creates nothing. It is created in order to create, if you pardon me the extravagance.

Now, throwing the musical element in there raises the stakes, I admit. Especially since this is my favorite realm above all. I spoke about the imagistic just now, or the iconic, but I should revise in terms of the problem you are confronting me with. Because the musical (or acoustic, if we want to accentuate the realm of the senses) cannot possibly be subjugated to the imagistic. So, what I mean is broadly the aesthetic in the literal sense of the word: the sensuous. From which whatever is linguistic is a mere derivation, not the primary mode. Mythical thinking is corporeal thinking, no doubt about that. Could anyone defend the thesis that the sacred is not corporeal? It would fail as an argument instantly, no matter the theological skill.

Music is my favorite mode of being, and everything I have said or articulated in writing derives from my musical encounter with the world, even if it seems to have no direct connection to music, so I don’t know how to properly respond to this element of your question, without derailing this entire discussion. Let us simply note it.

OS: I am afraid that we are faced with a great, perhaps unresolvable problem regarding the idea of convergence between the de-mythified world and resacralization of the same world. In a passage on Hans Blumenberg’s ex-territorial and non-temporal analysis of myth, you argue that, “The fascist appropriation of myth can be seen as an overt sacralization of myth.” Of course, we can and we must accept “nothing sacred” as a working slogan, but still we need to add, using Max Weber’s terms, that every disenchantment of the world (“Die Entzauberung der Welt”) always operates alongside with reenchantment. If mythical structure has always been present, and is constantly returning in a form of “reincarnation,” we can agree with Weber’s statement that “the world remains a great enchanted garden.” Although it may sound overly negative, you may accept this comment as a reaction to your non-polemical reception of the embattled legacies of Negative Dialectics. Critical diagnoses of the “de-worlding of the modern world” still deserve to be read inside of Horkheimer and Adorno’s paradigm of “Enlightenment as mythical foundation of modernity,” but with the clear awareness that this unique philosophical frame of Modernity has been articulated upon the marked influence of the great “dark European thinkers” like Nietzsche, Freud, and Heidegger.

SG: Let me just make clear that “nothing sacred” does not mean “total disenchantment.” Why should enchantment be associated exclusively with the sacred? Mind you, I don’t deny the sacred at all. On the contrary, I said that I consider it one of the most sublime creations of the human psyche. Enchanting the world is as important — and as unavoidable — as disenchanting the world. The Weberian argument has done a lot of damage in the way it has been interpreted. Because enchantment is one of the most powerful strategies of reason. And certainly of technology. Who could possibly doubt this? Except that many who remind us of it — remind us of the obvious, as far as I am concerned — assume that there is such a thing as an independent space of enchantment: the spiritual, the magical, the religious, etc. That’s a delusion for sure.

Enchantment is everywhere human. But so is disenchantment. Disenchantment was not the invention of the Enlightenment. What an idea! It has existed since the very moment humans drew a line on the ground — to designate whatever, it doesn’t matter what. Surely it existed the moment humans were able to produce fire. Frankly, disenchantment is quite elemental. It’s part of physical life for every animal. (The fact, not the notion — the notion is a human invention.) The weird thing about the human animal is enchantment, not disenchantment. Only the human animal enchants its world, because it cannot deal with the existential abyss. At least, as far as we know. When other animals manage to communicate with us such psychical actions, we’ll reconsider the paradigm.

OS: Your political erudition is undeniable and therefore I would like to finish our conversation with a political issue, especially because you insist that your book Does Literature Think? is political. Can you comment on the argument that relationship between mythographic imagination and its rational-analytical inclination involves a political confrontation at its core? As you said, “Whatever way we decided the matter, whether by privileging one side or interweaving them in some former or another, we are engaged in a political decision that cannot be bracketed or overcome. In the specific terms of this book […] going to the radical significance of the political itself, trying to understand, evaluate and perform the relation among the political and the poetical in our time.” Are you ready to accept Rancière’s quite clear suggestion that the expression “Politics of Literature” implies that literature does politics simply by being literature, and not politics? (Jacques Rancière, Politique de la littérature, 2007).

SG: On the face of it I can’t disagree with Rancière’s statement simply because my argument in Does Literature Think? is that literature occupies an epistemological domain of its own, speaks a language of its own, thinks in terms of its own, acts in its own way. So, if a given literary thought and action is political, the political mode of its expression will necessarily emerge from and belong to literature, instead of, say, political philosophy. That’s pretty evident to me.

But the more complicated and difficult element to ascertain in your question is how the “mythographic imagination” which enables the institution of literature to exist is implicated in the political. And this leads to the core of my entire work so far, despite the variety of its manifestations: the attempt to think together the poetic and the political. I cannot give you a straightforward definition — I still have not figured out exactly how to articulate this beyond the many specific instantiations. But, in a very, very general sense, for me the political is essentially the domain that concerns how you come to a decision in a contested field of meaning, and conversely, the poetic is essentially the domain that concerns how you come to create forms that had no prior existence, or forms that were even inconceivable before they were created.

In the first case, it is important to keep in mind that the decision is essentially groundless. It emerges out of the field of conflict itself. That is, there is an element of the poetic in it — it is created, as a form that may break the contested ground or orient it differently, orient you in it, and begin the process of all kinds of other trajectories, consequences, possibilities. In the second case, although poetic creation essentially means unprecedented formation and without necessary causality, nonetheless it takes place in a worldly field of meaning, fragments of which are always drawn up into the dynamic of the new form. So, here too, a decision takes place, even if not necessarily rational or fully conscious, and it is a decision within a terrain of total contestation, where everything is groundless and nothing can really be predicted. It is beyond calculation, in the final instance.

There is constant poetics in politics — people tend to forget that. But also, no poetics is free from the world of human society, a world of conflict and uncertainty, of power — a political world.

Obrad Savić is an author and philosopher living in Belgrade.