Wednesday, June 29, 2011

What is the barbarism of poetry? Adorno’s declaration that poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric is often taken as both an indictment and a prohibition, although in the context of his philosophical work, it is meant as neither. Here, the riddle of the statement lies in his claim that the barbarism of writing poetry has “corroded our knowledge” of why it has become impossible to write poetry. In a recent essay on contemporary post-catastrophe Arabic poetry, Nouri Gana finds that the impossibility of writing after what he calls the “proximate historical corollary” of Auschwitz, the occupation of Palestine (the Nakba, or catastrophe of 1948), is one of the conditions for writing poetry after it has been declared barbaric. In this essay, I turn to one of the first writers of Arabic free verse, the Iraqi poet Nazik al-Malaika, to consider how poetry registers the experience of barbarism through its appeal to the impossibility of its expression. I argue that in deliberation over the condition of its impossibility, poetry attempts to answer the metaphysical and increasingly ethical questions that Adorno poses for the “resurrected cultures” of society after catastrophe. Poetry recasts the ethical question of good and evil as the fragile relation between meaning and incoherence. In al-Malaika’s poem, “Five Hymns to Pain” (1949), there is no ethical imperative to “remember,” or to retain the barbaric incoherency of suffering, and neither is there an attempt to find meaning in the remains. Rather, pain is sequestered: it is given “a little corner” in the heart; it partitions, raising walls “between our longing and the moon”; and is sheltered “among the ribs of our joyful songs.” The poetry of barbarism does not work to remember, to account for, or to memorialize, it works to forget: “We shall forget pain, / we shall forget it, / having nurtured it with satisfaction.” Pain is material; figured as an object more than a subjective experience, al-Malaika’s poetry divorces the continuity between pain and barbarism that has been one of the (to my mind false) legacies of Adorno’s philosophical writing on poetry. I argue that in emphasizing this separation of pain and barbarism, al-Malaika realigns barbarism and culture to the extent that Adorno also did when he wrote, just before writing about the barbarism of poetry, that we are at “the final stage” of the dialectic of culture and barbarism.” Such a final stage is conveyed in the melancholic sentiment of al-Malaika’s poetry, which, affectively very different from Adorno’s philosophical-poetic tone, may also help us appraise the permutations of this dialectic and its various points of origin. In this paper, I hope to explore how consideration of al-Malaika’s poetry can help to revise our understanding of Adorno’s philosophical work, especially as it pertains to poetry and lyric theory, but also and perhaps more importantly insofar as it contributes to philosophical discussions of ethics in the twentieth century.

Sunday, June 26, 2011


In “A Crisis in Culture,” Hannah Arendt describes how the cultivated human mind mediates the conflict between art and politics. Aesthetic taste, understood primarily as the “chief cultural activity” is here, for Arendt, counted among man’s political abilities. The state of “disinterestedness” which man enters into exhibits a humanizing force, its ability to “de-barbarize” the world corresponds to the occupation of a position in which we can “forget ourselves” (207). Arendt thinks that it is possible to “de-barbarize,” to rearticulate the “human” as a mediating factor in the conflict between art and politics, in order to free the individual from feeling coerced. Her concern with the status of human freedom owes much to Enlightenment ideas, but de-barbarization importantly does not mean an increase of cultivation. Rather, it involves counting taste as a political activity, that is, the activity by which the individual considers the world, not his moral or life experiences, as primary. Arendt’s observations on the possibility of de-barbarization heighten our awareness of the way that “taste” describes the entrenchedness of barbarism and culture.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


I lost my backspace key, which makes writing bizarrely difficult... so I thought I might try to plug away here for a while, caught in the space-time question of how to form an argument.

The argument I am working on takes place in an essay on the Guantanamo poets. I had wanted to write about how the reviews of the poems cast aesthetic judgments about the poems in lieu of engaging with the more pressing questions raised by and in the poems. The reviews confine consideration of the detainees within the sovereign and moralizing narratives which figure and polarize the human and inhuman. Such questions, I thought, had to do with the identity of the poets, with how considering enemy combatants as poets presses us to think about the elusive definitions of the enemy combatant and the implications of this status. The poetic speakers in these poems present the problem of the subject of universal history, re-relating guilt and innocence in order to represent the responsibility of the enemy combatant in a new way, and thus to understand the significance of enemy combatant outside of the theory of sovereignty.

  1. poetry after 9/11 details a new barbarism through language of human rights (prison / resistance/ liberation literaturethe world)
  2. poets are innocent but poems are bad: disabling politics of poems (the reviews reinscribe the moralizing enlightenment narratives of human/inhuman)
  3. subject must bear guilt to be political--status of the inhuman subject of universal history (how the inhuman challenges the narrative of morality that is central to understanding human rights)
  4. the consequences of reading enemy combatant as poet allow more sustained position between (in the murk of) barbarism and culture through the refiguring of the inhuman (the challenges of identification, conditions of anonymity) than does theorization of enemy combatant according to logic of sovereignty
  5. the poems demonstrate the return of suffering to its resistant core, refusing the language of human rights that they seem to adopt (and refusing moral position [to say we are good]) and revisit ideas (somewhat idealistic?) about the shared guilt of culture (as an alternative to the enlightenment and moral narratives of evil/good, barbarism/culture, guilt/innocence)

Sunday, June 19, 2011

a blank space

I just finished reading The Archaeology of Knowledge, as part of a reading group project. It's funny because there are ways in which I imagine my whole project to be a kind of anti-Foucauldian dreamworld... yet Foucault really does derive great critical purchase from being able to levy a certain antagonism against himself, from being able to both pin himself into a certain position and then wrest himself from it. There's no easy being, there, and yet the forms of disappearing to which he subjects the subject are not yet fluid or convincing, as perhaps with Deleuze or Lacan. I ended up liking this far more than I had thought, and with an allowance for the imperfections of this kind of work. This kind of writing is currently impossible: the only writing worth reading today strives for a clarity and an argument that is here absent. The suggestion that his discourse on discourse takes place solely within the mind is compelling. A philosophical or historical explanation for the contradiction between what he says he wants to do and what he actually does is insufficient. Far more, it's a symptom of the "blank space" he desires to be at the beginning. In some ways, the argument for "rupture" and "disassociation" is moral, even as it seems epistemological, which calls to mind Kant's idea about how a "pathologically enforced social union is transformed into a moral whole" ("Ideas for a Universal History" 44-45). Such a state of conflict as he describes--between not being able to "bear" and not being able to "bear to leave" others--is pathological, or instinctual, or barbaric, in origin, but it too takes its steps towards culture. The idea indicates the problem is not with the subject, with the dispensing of the subject, but with culture. Culture for Foucault...