Inconsistent Theory of Inconsistency: More on Anarchy and Abjection

Recently, I was fortunate to have a friend of mine critique my use of "abject" in my post on Johannes Goransson, stating, in brief, that abjection is not a synonym for anarchy, though my post suggest as much:

You bring up these two terms and don't resolve your treatment of them [....] There is a tremendous distance between these words (and I think you understate this distance even as you articulate something of this), although I understand the wider umbrella under which they are both found in this particular strain of poetry you are considering.

I think this is a fair and insightful reading, in the sense that my usage does collapse the distinction between the two terms because, a) I think, for the most part, the distinction is not made rigorously in the poetic texts I am references (however obliquely) and b) by making a rigorous distinction in this post, I might complicate the poetics that such ambivalent use supports and thus complicate my original critique in the process.

I think, in a very general way, the terms I set out in the previous post (anarchy, abjection, heterogeneity, affect, excess), while lexically distinct, function (albeit, vaguely) in poetic discourse as avatars of what I called a "reified otherness," the Other as a distinct and presentable being. My friend understands this, writing:

I understand the wider umbrella under which they are both found in this particular strain of poetry you are considering. Or if not "poetry" than as these concepts are used by a certain cluster within the poetics coteries. But there is also a link, a path between these two words, and this is, as you rightly point out, a sort of stupid / utopian fantasy of revolution, an impulse or a desire to carry the abject through to the anarchic, for the abject to trouble and undo the order that makes it so.

But he is ultimately let down by my more-or-less uncritical acceptance of this semantic levelling: "You reach for this (and state this otherly) but you leave something hanging there." I think he is a very astute reader, so I want in this post to address this vagueness while (hopefully) extending the trajectory of the earlier post.

His critique is mainly based on his interest in the concept of abjection and a desire to salvage something singular about it from this levelling: "My point here is not about Goransson, but rather a small one about the distance between anarchy and abjection and your treatment of it." It is this distance that I would like to address and particularly the intimacy it conditions between these two concepts, anarchy and abjection.

My friend's critique is ultimately that I do not sufficiently address the political dimension of abjection, its relation to power. I read this critique as a general questioning of any valorization of abjection as itself issuing from a place of privilege in relation to the abject: the co-optation or romanticization of an "outsider" status. At the same time, a lot of literature has leveraged an abject subject position to critique the very norms that relegate people to that position (Jean Genet and crime, Mina Loy and motherhood, James Baldwin and expatriation). While this is obvious, it seems to me to become problematic when that status is then converted into a moral value, displacing the emphasis from the critical insight to the subject position itself.

The main thrust of my friends argument, as I read it, is that:

There is a real political dimension here that must be acknowledged before aesthetics can even be considered. There are certain individuals that are deemed non-conforming, other, or excessive (queers, non-whites, women, fat people) for whom the abject isn't a goal but rather an experience of being. Excessiveness, praise of heterogeneity, utopian fantasies about revolution are all possible and perhaps even desirable aesthetic strategies that are a reaction to this state of being.

And while this argument is mainly against those poets who would align themselves with excess and abjection as positive aesthetic values, I also read in my friend's missive a critique of the tendency in my previous post to conflate the unpresentability of inconsistency with a valorization of consistency—that is, inadvertently to construct a metaphysics. While I haven't looked back on the original post, it is true that my reluctance to talk explicitly about that which does not fit, which is excluded and exploited, is mainly in order not to repeat that exclusion at the level of theory or (worse!) to appropriate its mantle of opposition in order to give a countercultural sheen to an otherwise conservative project.

So, I stand by my understanding of the anarchic as that which cannot become present, while supplementing that understanding with this: the concept of abjection as the systemic process by which a body (e.g., an oeuvre, a body politic, a biological fact, etc.) is constructed as consistent throughthe relegation to silence of those parts of the body in question that trouble its consistent representation (e.g., ephemera, invisible labor, epigenesis, waste). This again raises an issue that I think is latent in the earlier post and could perhaps be considered as a possible ethic for poetry: How do we write without normalizing? Can poetry construct styles of writing that neither pass over inconsistency in silence nor claim to speak for it or define it—which it seems can only be a pathologization. (Again, even now I struggle with conflating anarchy/inconsistency with abjection. I fear, here, that my thinking suffers from over-ontologizing and under-politicizing. At the same time, isn't there an ethical gesture in converting a real impossibility (that of presenting inconsistency) into a prohibition (don't normalize pathology)?)

Is writing always normalizing, and if normality always rests on a prior process of abjection, can our writing do something other than produce abjection? The question that all this rests on is: Is there anything beyond or outside of the social? Is the economy of privilege and abjection total? And this is perhaps where we could locate a point of articulation between abjection and anarchy. Abjection is a state produced and regulated by whatever disciplinary or governing system that benefits from the relegation of certain populations to the status of included exclusion. The paradox of such positions is that they produce an ontology of the system that is contrary to the system's own ontology and by issuing from a necessary blindspot of the system, trump the sense of completeness of the system's self-knowledge.

Anarchy, then, is not something that exists as such or can be manifested as such. It's logic is that it must disappear the moment is irrupts (if not immediately before). Anarchy, as well as I can conceptualize it, can only refer to a tendency of all systems toward dissolution—but not dissolution into inconsistency, but into another or other systems. Anarchy describes both the inability of any system to attain closure and self-mastery as well as its power to persist in uncertainties and instrumentalize its porousness. In this sense, abjection is both the locus that most fatally challenges any system and the means by which it secures consistency and maintains dominion.

So anarchy might describe the dialectical hinge by which totalities (or forms of totalitarianism, insofar as they seek an impossible totality) overcome their contradictions and maintain themselves in difference, which means that such points of articulation are also potentially those of an absolute break with such totalities. In that case, to maintain an openness to dissolution to the extent that it provides the potential for any novelty (including novel forms of justice or aesthetics) would be a condition for ethical comportment.

OK, so the abstractness in these last paragraphs is a warning I'm reaching beyond my grasp. I guess the question I ask as a poet is: how to write the movement from critique to ethics, from negation to creation, in a way that is specific to poetry (there are of course countless examples in philosophy, queer theory, Marxism, etc.). I guess, I have a desire that poetry not simply amount to regurgitated cultural critique, that the poetic is not just "doing cultural theory poorly," which is what poetry can sometimes look like. My other desire is to try to understand (if possible) the properties or uses of language that can be called "poetic" and to understand how poetic language supports, challenges, undermines, and extends discursive practices concerning different bodies and bodily difference.

The problem for me arises when a poetics closes one's access to poems and to the capacity of each singular poem to maintain a certain openness to a dimension of language without presence or purity, in short, language open to its essential incompleteness. It's a political choice whether we want to characterize this incompleteness as 'unruly' or 'anarchic' or 'dysfunctional' or 'open' or even 'incomplete.' I think the only ethical imperative is that this openness as openness of language not be an openness to anything other than itself as this openness. While such a statement may seem to be little more than vertiginous nonsense, I think it speaks to the difficulty in describing that which in description is beyond description. Still, this openness is not a mise en abyme, not simply an openness to its own openness which is an openness to its own openness.... The essential incompleteness of language renders a fully articulable knowledge impossible, and so any infinite regression is brought to a hault by an ignorance imminent to the process itself—there is a supplement of closure in this openness, which is produced by the temporal difference between speaking and listening, writing and reading.

The point is, if as readers and writers we want to move from a form of interpretation that extracts useful knowledge from the inconsistencies of the poem toward a form of reading that always returns to—and returns knowledge to—the singularity of that poem (insofar as its structural incompleteness saves it from exhaustive explication) and the reading that escapes any productive purpose to which it could be put (particularly in the university); in short, to return knowledge to its origin in reading, which is simply the void of its issue (what Lacan calls "the lack in/of the big Other")—which, I think, means being poets rather critics—then we have to write our criticism in a way that makes criticism impossible or at least very difficult to do (because, let's face it, criticism is unavoidable and in some sense necessary).

All this is to underline that I think the concepts of anarchy and abjection are useful, but it all depends on the context in which they are deployed. I do not believe that what is as-of-yet unspeakable or unwritable, what appears under current circumstances to be inconsistent and thus unpresentable, should therefore remain silent and unwritten. There is something in any situation of discourse which cannot be made an object of that discourse without undoing it as the discourse that it is, and yet I think it is this impossible object that is the source of power/weakness in any discourse and which is the point of articulation of real novelty in a discourse, which is to say, the fulcrum whereby a way of thinking/writing/speaking can change (whether for good or ill). I think that to cast this fulcrum in terms that are consistent with the situation of discourse can divert and impede access to such a style of thinking that its articulation requires. This style of thinking required has a dual duty: to remain silent about the impossible object that founds the situation (since it cannot be named and so to name it is to distract from it) and yet to divine from what it keeps in its silence (the parts of the discursive body that are suppressed in service to consistency, including the abject) a new logic for representing the discursive situation to ourselves—who we are, what is to be done, how to live, etc.—and I would venture to claim that this is the only ethic for poetry. It is impossible to say ahead of time what the world created from such a logic will look like, so any attempt to secure exclusive access to it risks obscuring that future forever. Most likely, such a world will be almost totally unrecognizable (not simply because it does not yet exist), so our work cannot be devoted to an image of such a world, but only to the process itself. It is a modest task, sure, and what I'm suggesting does not facilitate easy social/moral distinctions between poets or readymade analogies imported from politics or political theory. It's not so simple to evaluate aethetic production when such a productiom entails the development not of a new subject or theme but of a style of thinking and writing. And I choose the word "style" deliberately, since it defines what in writing exceeds form and content or any generic or thematic elements. Style always issues from a yet-to-be-determined realm of freedom, which while solely a negative freedom causes something like "explosive decompression" in the received order of things. Thinking about anarchy and abjection in this way disallows any claim that may be put on them or singling out any particular form or mode or genre or school of writing or theme or content that would have exclusive access to the hidden mechanisms of consistency and thus claim sole access to the authority of the anarchic or the abject.