poetic knowledge as sensory knowledge: a metaphysics of transformation




For Vico poetic knowledge is a sensory affair, based in intuition and fantasy.

In discussing the semantic, but also formal aspects of poetic knowledge (what Vico here calls poetic “logic") he underlines how metaphor is predicated on the experience of the body, on "human senses and passions” .

Using ethmology, Vico argues that, in poetic logic, inanimate things (and in some way abstract concepts) are expressed through words that refer to the human body and its parts. Metaphors as “condensed fables:” they are accounts of these bodily experiences and relate concrete body elements to inanimate things. They make sense of inanimate things through bodily experiences. 
This argument entails suggesting that everything has modest (“rustic”) beginnings, and that poetry far from being a later artifice is the very texture upon which any knowledge is built.

This kind of knowledge is not theologically “true” (i.e. it is not Christian), but it is solid and logical.


Logic, but also language, are the product of encounters with the world, in which the body plays a crucial role as both matter and form of the signifying process. The descriptive list of how body parts are used to metaphorize the world exemplifies this incarnation: the body is the language of the world. This relationship is not limited to naming (every opening is called a mouth, a stretch of river is called an arm, wine is called the blood of grapes), but extends to actions (plants fall in love, grapes fall into madness).

In paragraph 401, preceding the one quoted above, Vico had already assembled a vast etymological configuration of terms around logos: language-throught-fable-idea-fact-action-body. In the paragraphs quoted here he goes on to exemplify how this configuration is enacted in language.

The incarnated use of language for Vico can be related to a principle (“axiom”) he had already enunciated, and to which he returns in the passage immediately following the long exemplification of how the body signifies the world.






This dense passage –whose layering the translation can only partially convey— outlines the relationship between self-conscious and unreflexive knowledge.

At the center of the passage is a play on sameness and difference

Homo intelligendo fit omnia
Homo non intelligendo fit omnia

At first, these two principles seem to contradict each other: either humans become everything through understanding (non intelligendo) , or they become everything without understanding (non intelligendo). But this apparent opposition opens up to a thick layering.

At the center, unchallenged, rests the idea that homo fit omnia.

Fit is an impersonal intransitive verb, so here its meaning and form is stretched to encompass a relationship that it not as simple as it might appear: it is neither active nor passive [this also becomes clearer in the follow up just below trasformandovisi].

But how do they transform into everything?

On the surface the contrast is between an informed, and therefore “rational” approach to the world, and an ignorant, and therefore “fantastic (fable-like)” one. Between an approach that, out of ignorance, places humans as the rule of the universe, and an approach that knows that in fact humans are not the measure of the universe.

And yet, in a subtle twist, deploying rhetorical arts, the following sentence turns this opposition around (e forse con più di verità detto questo di quello—maybe there is more truth in the principle that asserts that humans become all things "without understanding" than in the principle that asserts that humans become all things "with understanding"). Note how this statement, questions the degree of truth of what the previous sentence had just outlined, at least according to a “reasoned” metaphysics. So reasoned metaphysics is in a certain way less truthful than “fantastic” ("imaginative" in English. trans.) metaphysics.

This is because, Vico goes on to explain, humans can explain themselves and the world (things themselves) through understanding, but “without understanding” they make themselves into those things (egli fa di sé esse cose Eng. trans "he makes the things out of himself"). 

Here Vico seems to go beyond the “axiom” he just reiterated above (humans take themselves as measure of the world), to assert that in fact this poetic, fantastic metaphysics is an approach of mutual engagement and transformation in which world and humans are both becoming in transformation.

The English translation, in an effort to streamline a spiraling rhetorical style, seems to cut short this “transformation” (of humans and the world, but also of the very language of the passage) by giving more agentive power to humans as such, and underlying how this is done because of “non-understanding.” However, in Italian, the expression col non intendere does not have a negative, privative connotation, but rather refers to the modality of knowledge outlined above. Likewise, humans here, cannot really be said to be the subjects of (both as active agents or passive recipients) this transformative action.



















Désir de l’autre


If it were possible to read “désir de l’autre” less as a psychoanalytic mechanism and more as a formula to think about the ways in which one (impersonal) craves, wants, moves and is moved.

Of Spinoza one would retain the idea that desire (here the word in less important than the spectrum to which it refers: will, drive, push, conatus) is perseverance in being.

This force of perseverance has a tautological kernel, one (again impersonal, not a subject but a situation) desires to desire.

This tautology, what in other epochs has been named the “aesthetic”, cannot be disjointed from capitalism as a form of constant increased accumulation (M-C-M1).

The enactment, emplotment, efficacy of the tautology of desire works by the formula “désir de l’autre.”

A poem can only be desire when it is desire of the other.

As a footnote, other should be read an-other, just one (indeterminate, a) among many others. Does it matter which one? Yes because it so happens to be that one and not another. No because any other would work under certain circumstances.

One desires a poem an other desires. one cannot but desire an other, or rather, the desire of an other.

Here the tautology reappears but as a mechanism, as a transition, a transaction. That poetry itself is the sign and the matter of this transaction, makes it clearer that this transaction is the site of a mediation.

The erasure of mediation, and thus the end of the tautological force, might be the end of the poem, both in the sense that it makes the poem end, but also that it is its scope, its telos, that towards which it strives.