An Unfaithful Return to Poetics
-in four arguments-
Essay by Bojana Cvejić
The original text includes images.
I would like to begin by observing a peculiar fact. Nowadays, many more concepts of philosophy and critical theory can be found in art than there are artistic ideas or tropes feeding back into the philosopher’s Imaginary. The paradox is that the eloquent overuse of notions such as “body-without-organs” (BwO) by artists today overlooks the indebtedness of the artists’ favourite philosopher (Gilles Deleuze) to an artist (Antonin Artaud) in this glaring example. My interest isn’t to restore the legitimacy of art discourse proper and “pure,” a stance that would be hard to defend. Rather, I’m compelled to ask what has happened to the conceptual imagination of the artists today? Does the fact that philosophy and critical theory enjoy the status of intellectual authority in matters of art mean that artists, in spite of their linguistic proficiency and excellence in self-reflectiveness, lack conceptual imagination? The claim remains recklessly general unless we limit and define the sense of our interrogation. That is, we might have to address the problem from a historical-materialistic account of the conjuncture in which contemporary art is produced today.1
#1 Praxis overall, or anti-production
Coming out of an excessively professionalized art education, artists are trained to communicate and manage the conditions of their production (funding), as well as the reception of their work on the institutional market, outside of which, they are taught, their art doesn’t exist, i.e. doesn’t appear public. “An artist who cannot speak English is no artist” (Mladen Stilinović, 1994). A large amount of artistic writing takes the form of applications and post-hoc reports for subsidy, and of course, also emails to curators and programmers in which one exercises persuasive expression. The purpose of this substantial textual production has recalibrated the art discourse by instrumental reason, whereby transparency, accountability, and what is arguably deemed social usefulness, are prominent criteria that shape artistic procedures and reflection upon them.2 But we must be wary of harsh criticism of artists, who aren’t alone in the business of internalizing the capitalist demands of production. It is also thanks to the recent curatorial and performative turns conjoint that art institutions adapt to the moods of experience economy, which is reflected, in particular, in the curatorial term “participation.” As the Croatian dramaturg and theatremaker Goran Sergej Pristaš has argued, the mandate of cultural institutions is no longer to produce a work of art in order for a public to valorize it, but rather to reproduce consumer relations with a work of art, to reproduce and exchange its valorization through performatively monitored participation of the visitors.3 This process is parallelled with the transformation of artistic work into praxis, whereby artistic labor is extended, atomized and dispersed in a variety of activities in which the artist manifests his/her will. These purportedly free, yet commodified activities are often presented under the paradigm of art as research and education: lectures, workshops, encounters, methodological exchanges, residencies etc., a familiar rhythm of fragmentation and subsumptions of life under work, i.e. the all-encompassing term artistic praxis.4 In all this, little time is left for artist to actually engage with his/her art, Pristaš concludes. To do that, the artist must endorse (and perfect) laziness, as Stilinović’s Praise of Laziness recommends in an emphatic annihilation of capitalist production and institutional market.5 Laziness emerges as a notion of poetics for Stilinović (but also in Kazimir Maljevič and Marcel Duchamp, whom he draws upon), or as a condition for poetics, understood as an engagement with the principles of production (poiesis).
Let me pause here for a moment to reformulate the problem. According to Aristotle’s classification, poiesis is one of the three categories of human activity. It is poietikai technai which designates the art of making, forming and composing, or production, in difference to, on the one hand, praktikai technai, which refers to activity without an end or product, carried out to have an effect in public, hence, as a performing art or the political life of citizens. On the other hand, poetics is also distinguished from teoretikai technai, which signifies investigation, or theory thus opposed to practice. However, this distinction can barely hold anymore, as the term of practice has broadened to such an extent that it incorporates both poetics and theory.6 Moreover, the discourse on artistic practice has cannibalized poetics, emptying it of thought concerning what the product of artistic activity is, what it means, how its principles might become instruments to look past art into society. Instead, practice today enfolds everything into itself, mixing the public and the private, work and life, activity and its product into the self-performance of the artist. In the last instance, practice becomes an ever blander notion, signalling artists’ quest for continuity of atomized labor, for dwelling in art which might bridge the gaps between dispersed activities. We might also regard artistic practice today as anti-production (Pristaš), for it incorporates distribution and consumption and turns into the production of subjectivity (of the artist, but also of the public), or rather, conversely, into a performative consumption of abilities, the human “capital” actualized in these manifold activities.
So, to underline our first argument in favor of poetics: if we return to our first example, the Deleuzo-Artaudian trope, BwO can’t be relegated to an artistic technical procedure, nor does it have an image of the human body. Rather, it is a poetical notion that surfaces as a principle of a non-organic intensive process of production based on desire. It can account for the way that a collective transforms itself, or for the syntax of a poem as well. Its power lies in the thought that parallels, is adequate, but not equal to action and practice.
#2 Expression, abduction and feigning
There is a definition of poetics that we must brush aside on our way to discern the kind of thought that poetics, as I consider it here, yields. Stemming from the study of poetry, poetics was considered for a long time to be normative—as in the post Renaissance treatises which, after the Latin version of Aristotle’s Ars poetica, prescribed stylistic conventions of literary genres. Thanks to French structuralism, poetics was resuscitated, with a new advantage, into literary criticism: its analysis of the deep structure of a text mediates between its immanent properties and the transcendent views of its critical interpretation. In a slight modification of that notion, poetics expresses how an artwork arises, comes into being and is thought. I propose to view it through the principle of expression, whereby expression here embraces both the way things come to be in reality, and the way they are perceived and known in thought, since the act of thinking something is the same act that produces it and the means by which it comes to be.
We can dispense here with the technical details about the terms and rules of dancing that these artists invented in order to be able to dance and question movement by movement itself, for my interest here is to examine their thought. Burrows observes that the process of questioning led to such a short time of thought or expression to the extent “that we were almost dealing with interruptions only.” The two contrary desires—to move and yet not produce a cognizable movement—constitute the paradox as a matter of disequilibrium between, on the one hand, the possibilities that have to be eliminated or “forgotten”, and, on the other, dancing in a state of questioning. Thus it results in a special syntax comprised of “stutterances”— utterances that are cut before they can develop into a sequence comparable to a phrase. Each utterance appears like a new beginning and thus affirms the power of beginning and beginning again. What does it mean exactly to stammer in movement, to become a stutterer in dance in the case of Weak Dance Strong Questions? It implies a disjunction between the times of thinking and moving, whereby the problem of dancing and questioning are two divergent series. Although they must run parallel, they also try to interfere with each other without ever achieving the equation movement = question. This destabilizes every utterance as a new beginning in which two disjunct series attempt to converge in vain. Movement stutters because it reaches its limit—in the stops, in the moments of stillness, when the dancer realizes that the movement may yield to the habits, “the don’ts” specified by the terms and conditions.“Stuttering” appears as a poetical idea in the creation of the aforementioned dance. The moment of creating the problem, captured in the phrase “can you dance a question?” could be regarded as one of discovery, which corresponds to a third kind of inference in logic, neither deduction, where a particular fact is explained by a general rule, nor induction, where a hypothesis is empirically tested on particular instances. It is abduction that Charles Peirce introduced as a non-necessary type of reasoning, which explains the invention of a new idea, a new hypothesis that will only have to be assessed. A new idea or hypothesis “is where we find some very curious circumstance, which would be explained by the supposition that it was the case of a certain general rule, and thereupon adopt that supposition.”10 Abductive inference is summarized in the following logical formula: The surprising fact, C, is observed;
Although it remains somewhat controversial, Peirce’s abduction has been accepted in philosophy as an inference frequently employed, in some form or other, both in everyday and in scientific reasoning. My inclusion of it here isn’t meant to be revelatory for artistic creation; rather, in a more cautious mood, I resort to abduction in order to divorce poetics from the instrumental reason that we nowadays find in artistic discourse. Abductive reasoning enables an amount of imagination and fiction, which might be capable of disentangling the possible from the feasible. I am referring here to what I discussed within the previous argument as the economization of theory, degraded to the means of intellectually legitimizing an artwork.
In the legacy of rationalist philosophy, imagination is an inadequate kind of knowledge, also called feigning, or pretending to know. In my view, feigning is a close relative of abduction and therefore merits our attention here. In a somewhat unfaithful reading of Spinoza, the British philosopher Christopher Norris suggests that fictions that are products of imagination ought to be considered as expressions of a positive mental capacity: the capacity to feign. 13 We feign not that which we know to be true or that which we know to be untrue, but that of which we are ignorant. Feigning is inversely proportional to understanding, but as long as we treat it as an aid to, rather than a substitute of, understanding, it is a point of access to truth. Rephrasing imagining into “feigning” might introduce a useful approach to the specific knowledge artists produce in their research. Feigning thus could mean “pretending” or “faking to know,” while being conscious of the “as-if” clause that frames the cognitive value of such knowledge: artists feign because they do not have a proper knowledge of the concepts they imagine. They produce concepts from imagination, which blurs the border between being affected and acting from the mind alone.
#3 Poetry piercing dance
It is more than symptomatic to find that a poem acted as a cue for two dancers seeking to pose a problem (in Weak Dance Strong Questions). As I concoct these arguments to call forth poetics above praxis, I notice how a poetic use of natural language surfaces in performance and dance anew. The history of experimental art practices across music, visual arts and performance in the twentieth century has been frequently punctuated with offbeat manifestations of poetic writing, sound and visual poetry, conceptual statements formulated in poetic language, scores that needn’t only be performed but could be read as poems instead, and so on. From a wide range of functions that they accommodated, what might be of interest here are those moments in which poetry “pierced through” where it wasn’t expected.14 By “piercing through” I am invoking a poetic notion again, a term that the Slovene artist Janez Janša15 coined to describe the status that modern dance had in Yugoslavia. During the communist regimes in East Europe, dance wasn’t granted institutional status. Only folklore, ballet and military parades were the expressions of dance-like movement in socialism that the Western history of dance registered, confirming its contentious claim that modern dance was the legacy of the twentieth-century democracy, born in America. But dance was present all along, emerging in those sites of Neo-avantgarde experiments (visual arts, happenings and performance art, experimental music) that allowed it.16
By way of an opposite movement, we are now witness to poetry piercing contemporary dance, and it is not a matter of a passing fad, or of a novel, aesthetically unified expression. The Norwegian choreographer and performer Mette Edvardsen creates a performance conceived as a “library collection of living books.” In her work titled Time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine (since 2010), a group of people (not necessarily professional performers) memorize a book of their choice, and make themselves “ready to be consulted by a visitor,” who will be the spectator of their reciting performance that takes place wherever it is convenient, in a library, cafeteria, park, or courtyard, where I had the pleasure to listen to Herman Melville’s Bartleby performed by Kristien Van Den Brande (2012, during the festival In-Presentable, Madrid). Edvardsen writes in her author’s note: “Books are read to remember and written to forget. ” To memorise a book, or more poetically “to learn a book by heart,” is, in a way, a rewriting of that book. In the process of memorizing, the reader steps for a moment into the place of the writer, or rather he/she is becoming the book. ” The visitor/spectator surrenders her faith to the book she is bound to listen to, which may stumble and stutter when memory fails it, or be reedited in the performer’s imagination. The idea of rescuing fiction from the dystopic futurist society that censors it – in François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 – resumes urgency today when we receive our daily portions of fiction more through TV series consumed on laptop screens than by the solitary effort of picking a book to read or attending an auteur cinema screening. Literature might be relegated to an endemic genre of fiction.
Edvardsen’s “performing books” could be said to have become the corporeal figures of literature. In the work of another Norwegian, the dancer and poet Janne-Camilla Lyster, poetry makes up a choreographic script. In Escape and Transformation (2015), five dancers are given a poem, composed in several parts timed with a certain duration. Each dancer “reads” the poem autonomously, saying it to herself by heart and translating the text that she internalized into movement. No mimetic relationship is assigned between movements and words, each dancer keeps her autonomy and discretion of her own shaping of the movement language of her embodiment. The result are five simultaneous layers, like five voices or parts of a thick polyphonic composition. We the audience are given the poem to read at our convenience. What usually remains a concealed implicit dimension of dancers’ mode of performance, is now unraveled in the voice of the poem: a poetic transfiguration of images, words, sounds, thoughts, which dancers use as the imaginary prosthesis of their movements, is intimated. A distinctive quality of this writing qua poetry appears in tropes combining an intricate insider’s experience of bodily things (parts, organs, tissues, fluids, sensations etc.) and incorporeal objects and verbs detailing movement.
Such poetry reflects catachresis, originally the Greek stylistic figure that designates a semantic error or a necessary misuse of language which often entails crossing categorical boundaries with words, because there would otherwise be no “proper” expression. Most common instances in everyday language conjoin an animate corporal element to an inanimate thing (leg of the table, wing of the airplane, etc.). The American literary theorist writing on social choreography, Andrew Hewitt, uses catachresis, in Jacques Derrida’s understanding of the incompleteness of meaning and unstability of metaphors, to show that the natural language doesn’t only reflect dancing movement by way of an imprecise metaphor. Instead, it brings into being its referent (dance), just as here, the odd detailed poetic conjunctions of bodies, actions and attributes generate an imagination of movement beyond specific representational categories of dance.17 The dancers are invited to “abductively” infer about and “feign,” i.e. invent, the movements invoked by the poetic triggers of imagination. The audience, too, are compelled to dwell in the opaque and ambiguous, to readjust their attention to something akin to listening, discerning detail through time, in spite of the prevalence of sight.
#4 Poetic heteronomy/autonomy: A mode of action, a production mode
I have chosen to speak about what a poetic use of language does to dance, choreography and performance. Piercing was the poetical notion used to elucidate the situation of a breakthrough, resolution of a lack, or impossibility to renew conceptual imagination beyond recognition rooted in a legitimizing theoretical interpretation of an artwork. What remains to be gauged are the modes of action and production that poetry affords, not only for dance and performance (as in the cases discussed until now), but as a frame of artwork that doesn’t fall under the specification of one art discipline.
Such is the work of the French artist Franck Leibovici, who has introduced the term “document poétique” (poetic document) for a variety of modes of textual presentation.18 The field of Leibovici’s investigation is low-intensity conflicts (unresolved and protracted conflicts, asymmetrical fragmented guerrilla wars), which exists as massive data in forms inaccessible to the public. His approach is to use various modes of classification, transcription and redescription to render these materials into texts or performance scores. Thus, Colin Powell’s U.N. speech about the evidence of the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or testimonies at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, transcribed in the original language of the witnesses (and not the languages of the court itself only), are redescribed as texts that offer themselves as a new kind of knowledge, an “intellectual technology” devised between poetry, social science and politics. The performance of the poetic document (as an opera, book, installation, etc.) promotes a kind of heteronomy, where the document shows how it behaves both in a context-sensitive and context-free, that is, displaced, environment. As the poetic document underlines the subjection of materials to different laws, at the same time, it offers itself as an instrument of fabricating reality. The mode of action of such poetic documents can become political, as for instance in the case of an in-depth investigation of the mass killings in a village in Congo (the working title of Leibovici’s poetic document Bogoro), where the text is issued in Swahili, which allows it to circulate in Congo, where the documents of the International Criminal Court do not reach. Hence, the poetic document is given the opportunity to intervene in the public sphere of a certain context.
From the economic point of view of production, the recourse to poetry is rather meaningful. Poetry is often said to be at the lowest level of the food chain, as the famous expression has it. As a mode of production, it is cheap, requiring a minimum of ownership of means, often as little as a writing machine, which is less costly than hiring space and bodies. “The pores of the screen open up and fill the fallen thought,” the voice of American dancer and choreographer, Bryana Fritz whispers in her performance Sixteen Candles. I wouldn’t want to risk being misunderstood as demagogically defending the vulgar truism that there is more creativity the emptier the stomach. But there is something to be learned from the situation in which artists seek out poetry to divorce their work from the aesthetic norms and economic contracts linked to their specific mediums. The upshot is an increase of uncertain, speculative, non-necessary (“abductive”) thought, as well as opaque and heteronomous expressions. As the Belgian curator and cultural activist and writer, Laurence Rassel, told me, the poetic means (as much or as little, as intensive or as imperceptible, I would add) that it might happen. Our wish then is to try to unravel poetics as the productive kind of thought that drives and accounts for such potential.
1Fredric Jameson has argued that theory, which supplanted philosophy in the twentieth century, represents another characteristic superstructural development of late capitalism, whose dynamic of expansion could be described as “imperialist”: “the supplanting of one language by another” by disciplines appropriating and translating one theory after another. He also compares the language of theory with “language police”: a “search and destroy mission” of any affirmative positions, outruled as ideological. F. Jameson, “Symptoms of Theory or Symptoms for Theory?” Critical Inquiry, vol. 30, no.2 (winter 2004): 403–8. Obtained from http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic1315975.files/The%20Gathering/Jameson%20- %20Symptoms%20of%20Theory.pdf.
2I have argued elsewhere that procedural knowledge characterizes the modus operandi of the artists in neoliberal capitalism (see “Social Choreography” in Public Sphere by Performance).
3 See B. Cvejić, “Notes for a Society of Performance” in Composing Differences, ed. Virginie Bobin (Paris: Presses du réel, forthcoming).
4 Goran Sergej Pristaš, “Monetization” (TkH vo. 23, forthcoming).
5 Stilinović writes: “Artists from the East were lazy and poor because in the East, that entire system of insignificant factors did not exist. Therefore, they had enough time to concentrate on art and laziness. Even when they did produce art, they knew it was in vain, it was nothing.” He concludes Praise of Laziness (1993) with two quotes about work: “Work is a disease (Karl Marx). Work is a shame (Vlado Martek).”
6 “Agamben made an important point in this respect when he noticed that, in the modern Western world, all human doing began to be perceived as practice—but now conceived as a productive activity. In this process, the meaning of praxis was not only broadened to such an extent that it became a general term for all human activities; it went through a complete transformation to the point that it started to signify a manifestation of the human being’s will and vital impulse, along with the concrete effects thereof.” B. Cvejić and A. Vujanović, Public Sphere by Performance (Berlin: b_books, 2012), 136.
7This claim draws on the Spinozist univocity of being, an immanentist ontology that posits an absolute power of thinking and of acting (doing, making, etc.) as autonomous and equal on the same plane. Immanence is like the movement of a vertigo, as Cull has put it (Theatres of Immanence, Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave, 2013, 12–13) that ceaselessly produces processes which interfere in one another: processes of thought, sensibility, imagination, physical movement, attention, and so on.
8Gilles Deleuze. Difference and Repetition (London and New York: Continuum, 1994) 192.
9From a conversation with Le Roy, 2009.
10Charles Sanders Peirce, The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings. Vol. 1, 1893–1913, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), 189.
11Charles Sanders Peirce, “Abduction and Induction”, in Philosophical Writings of Peirce, ed. Justus Buchler (New York: Dover Publications, 1955), 151.
12 “The operation of testing a hypothesis by experiment, which consists in remarking that, if it is true, observations made under certain conditions ought to have certain results, and then causing those conditions to be fulfilled, and noting the results, and, if they are favourable, extending a certain confidence to the hypothesis, I call induction.” Peirce, 152.
13Christopher Norris, Spinoza and the Origins of Critical Theory.
14Hereby a few examples: the ironic commentary which acts as a détournement from interpretative instructions in Erik Satie’s piano scores; John Cage’s speech acts in his performance lectures composed by the method of musical works, including the famous statement “I have nothing to say, I am saying it, and it’s poetry, as I need it” (“Lecture on Nothing” 1961); conceptual idiosyncrasy in Marcel Broodthaers’s work. These have become almost canonical examples of recourse to poetry as the means of articulating a distinctive, usually problem-posing position within an art discipline: Satie questioning
15In dialogue with Aldo Milohnić, Goran Sergej Pristaš and Bojana Kunst
16The famous example is Pupilija, Papa Pupilo, and the Pupilčeks, a performance made by the Slovene poets’ collective Pupilija Ferkeverk, in which dance and physical movement became manifest in the 1960s, or the theater experiments of Kugla Glumište and Milana Broš in Croatia in the 1970s, or the performance art pieces of Katalin Ladik in Serbia in the 1980s.
17Andrew Hewitt. Social Choreography: Ideology as Performance in Dance and Everyday Movement (Durham, South Carolina: Duke University Press, 2007).
18Franck Leibovici.document poétique (Paris: Al Dante, 2008).