Poetry as a Mode of Existence


Mode of existence here refers to a way of being.

Not so much in relation to Latour, but to the idea of ethos.

Following Greek etymology ethos is a mode proper to existence --at least as interpreted by Bollack and Wismann in relation to Heractlius:

“l’être de l’homme, c’est avant tout une certaine façon d’être”.
(Bollack and Wismann, Héraclite ou la separation, Paris: Minuit, 1972, p. 329)

A certain way of being. The question is therefore not an ontological one, nor even in the sense of a modal ontology, but one about the specificity that articulates a modality.

Deleuze said nothing different when using the term “mode of existence.” For him a mode of existence meant an assemblage of many different parts characterized by varying degrees of power, expressing itself in different series of relationships --all these relationships determined extrinsically.

Hence what matters are these relationships and their movements. The question one asks in relation to a certain way of being is: what can a body do? What are the relationships and the movements that a body effects in varying degrees of power, in varying degrees of “affection”? (Deleuze, Spinoza et le problème de l’expression, Paris, Minuit 1967, p. 183-196; 213).

 Bateson is also relevant here.

What is poetry’s mode of existence? What can poetry do?

If it is an ethos, it is not an ethic. Kierkegaard posed a drastic aut/aut: either a poetic (K uses the term aesthetic but many of his descriptions and discussions revolve around the figure of the poet) mode of existence, or an ethical one. But the aut/aut is also a path to be walked, and each of these modes of existence has its compelling articulations: in order to be ethical one has to engage the poetic, if nothing else in order to take distance from it, to recognize it as something that it is not ethical. At the same time for K these different modes of existence corresponded to different, in some way incompatible, perspectives, which could only be examined by constructing avatars/authors that could write from their singular point of view. There is no possible reconciliation between the poetic and the ethic.

Current discussions of ethics in anthropology seem to long for a stoicism that should be put in perspective rather than embraced. As if existence could only be taken into account in relation to means and ends. An ethos is not an ethic.

This is the long running ambivalence of religion and philosophy towards poetry (Plato, Qur‘an) replicated today in Alain Badiou’s approach.

Geertz called this the ambiguity of poetry: “not sacred enough to justify the power it actually has and not secular enough for that power to be equated with ordinary eloquence (Geertz, “Art as a Cultural System,” in Local Knowledge, Basic Books 1982, p 117).

“Half ritual song, half plain talk,” for Geertz Moroccan oral poetry sits "in between," and makes sense of this “in between,” gives a unique voice to it. For Geertz recognizing this ambiguity means discussing poetry as semeiotic, provided that signs here are considered not just as expressions (art for art’s sake), but “for their impact,” their use.

Geertz however seems to gloss over the very ambiguity (or shall we say ambivalence) of poetry he has just asserted. Turning meaning into use, arguing that poetry as semiotics should be studied not in abstraction but towards a study of signs in their “natural habitat – the common world in which men look, name, listen and make” (Ibid. 119) Geertz reabsorbs the “in between” status of poetry.

The untimeliness of Geertz only corresponds to his subterranean ever-present influence in contemporary anthropology. Discussions of meaning and signs are so saturated that no one dares to address them anymore, but Geertz looms large in the practice of anthropological thought.

Pleading for the study of signs in action, for poetry in its use, Geertz divests poetry from its relationship with the sacred. However, in so doing, following his own discussion, he ends up neutralizing the power of poetry he has just asserted. Rather than “naturalizing” poetry, recognizing its power as a modality of existence, Geertz neutralizes it.

The present task is therefore to try to offer a description of poetry as a mode of existence that brings the power of its ambivalence to the foreground. In other words, rescuing the ambivalence of poetry from the Protestant trajectory that juxtaposes sublimated pleasure to individual commitment, the current research shall open up a different understanding of the ambivalence and its suspension.

A preliminary move is to recognize that rather than a property of poetry itself, the power of poetry as a mode of existence stems from its extrinsic relationships or rather in the power to turn extrinsic relationships into a certain mode of existence, a certain way of being: a sort of operation of capture that creates the power of ambivalence.

It is legitimate to wonder how this rather esoteric disquisition might be relevant for an ethnographic approach to poetry. These reflections apparently go towards higher and higher degrees of abstraction, but instead they try to articulate something concrete, something that happens in the practice of poetry. In order to grasp the ethnographic (Geertz would say “natural”) power of poetry one has to provisionally try to analyze the way of being proper to poetry (a "certain" way of being). Where does the power of poetry come from? And what does it affect?

To articulate this juncture, the ways in which poetry captures relationships and turns them into its own power, one can turn to poetry itself, and use one of the most classical articulations of the relationship among poetry, desire and pleasure as a way to elaborate the terms of the analysis.

Poetry is made of words and these words are already relationships, not just among themselves, but with the world (suffice here to recall Malinowski’s discussion of language as action, followed by the whole pragmatic tradition).

Relationships are mechanisms (dispositives, apparata), connections, lines that connect points and trigger certain fields/diagrams. These relationships are themselves traps for capture, but they also constitute desire, again as a modality of existence.

impersonal poems


There is a tendency today to “animate” poetry and use it as a bridge between life-worlds. To me this would be akin to thinking about metamorphosis, about the changing forms that life takes. It is an effort to reconstruct the power of metamorphosis in an age where everything seems to have stabilized in categories that presuppose a distinction between life and death. The idea of metamorphosis is somewhat transversal to this.

I think this approach is very fruitful, but I am also tempted by another route, that instead accentuates the thingness of things, their meaningless necessity. This maybe is a different kind of kinship, one that is predicated on silence, rather than animation. Things are the way they are. And they are meaningless, or void of “human meaning” (Wallace Stevens, Of Mere Being).

This is also what French poet Francis Ponge tried to articulate, in his Parti Pris des Choses. In Ponge, this is the effort to elaborate formulas that are clear and impersonal (My creative Method, in Méthodes, Gallimard 1961, p.35). A way for him to come out of the “old humanism” he writes (Ibid p.36).

This to me is also a way to sidetrack interiority, or personhood, and even in some way subjectivity. All these folds seems to be gripping existence in such a way as to leave no respite for what is not meaningful, for what cannot be linked to a self, even a disjointed one.

One element these approaches have in common is the way in which they find a logic, in what otherwise appear either irrational or unnamable. (see Lapoujade on the idea that Deleuze was interested in “aberrant movements”). So for me Ponge, and Stevens, and others are not at all trying to name the unnamable, but precisely the opposite, they list what is there, what is already there, what can be named, but will not be subjected to an interiority. (Oulipo also in this way).

I call this the impersonal, or “passages into the impersonal.”

There seems to be such a demand for “sense” for “feeling” that is to say a demand for recognition (who am I?). And poetry is part of that. Poetry as what gives sense.

Passages to the impersonal might be related to such drives/desires, but they do so in a way that suggests that there is no sense, no meaning, if not what is constructed in poetry, via poetry, or through other means.
This is also a way to reinterpret the conundrum between the usefulness and the inutility of poetry, between its consumption and its inconsumability.