The Poetic Turn
- What does that mean?
I do not believe in the 'end of history'.
I do not believe in the 'end of written language'.
Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to think about these predictions.
- The primacy of instrumental, purely cognitive, discoursive language-use is indeed fading, and for good reasons. Language, this kind of language is -literally - exhausted. It is based on the ideology of information= equating language with information. Cognitive information. (Whatever that may be: some people claim to know)
Why is this language exhausted?
It is based on the patriarchal dream of knowledge, power and control over inexhaustible resources.
How can this be achieved: by abstraction.
First of all: abstracting from the physical presence of the body: because the body reminds us continuously and most poignantly of the limits of our control. I have to pee now, but I don't want to. I must. I get tired and hungry. And I - my body - will die. And most likely I don't want to, when death comes.
This kind of language is based on a dream of power: it is most suitable for argumentation, verbal violence to the mind of others: I am right, I will prove it: you have to follow me.
Somehow the telling of stories is somewhat related to that too. I do not believe in the end of the story, not even the socalled Great Narratives. We will always tell stories. Chat, gossip, tell jokes. We will tell the same stories over and over again. We tell the stories of a day, an event, a travel, a life. Things we live through just tend to turn almost inevitably into a story. Things seem to make no sense until they fold up and arrange themselves in the shape of a story. But there is a relation to the violence inherent in language: the narrative mode is based on a primitive obsession with coherence. You open a detective or other kind of suspense novel and you are hooked: hours later you close the book, realizing that you hate it, you didn't want to know about any of these characters and lives, but you feel uncomfortable until you finished it. We are emotionally lured into that world, we need a regular closure of all unfinished business, it is as if our hormones need that; if we break it off, it's as if there are poisonous substances left in our body.
- But isn't that quite pleasant, this kind of "violence"? Aren't we longing ceaselessly for that distraction? And isn't there an elegance in force-ful, skillful argumentation, which not only pleases esthetically but also allows to devellop our toys and tools: our technology?
-Of course I have nothing against that kind of violence, neither the violence of sharp argumentation nor the power of suspense. But it's a pleasure and a power we are growing tired of after cultivating it excessively. It is giving us a lot but leaves us rather unsatisfied. It is part of the great fictional devices of "objectivity", a world out there, which seems to exist "objectively", independently, making its creators forget that they are creating it.
All of this is done with a language which is forgetting about it self, to a body which wants to forget about itself. All of this is primarily a power of distraction. It seems, in retrospect, almost necessary that it led to a technology which puts a helmet (note the military connotation) on your head and transports you into a fiction world. The electronic revolution and in particular, virtual reality devices, are not an alternative for this kind of text but rather its radicalization.
Paradoxically, this language is purposefully directed towards a hearer or a reader, it wants to convince or make-believe, but at the same time, on the practical, political-ecological level, it forgets about the listening or reading proces. In the present publish-or-perish policy for instance, in the academic world, nobody is calculating how much reading time it would really take to read all those things which claim to be relevant for our field. Everybody knows that nobody can read all that anymore. Reading somehow does not count, only selling things to readers. Since this is - in the long run - a crude miscalculation, this system cannot survive very long, it will perhaps create a kind of continuous black friday sneaking up at us, or eventually crumble through inflation, dying from its own success.
All things seem to die of their own success, don't they.
- So what about poetic language then.
One thing is quite certain: it has not been too successful yet, in our culture. Except perhaps in advertisement, but there it is already going down by inflation too, again: by its own success.
- Then, how will we, how shall we write. How should we read?
We? I don't know. I only know for myself. But I am willing to make conjectures from that.
I write "poetically" (not, or not necessarily "poetry", of course), when I am in my body while I am writing. And I go with my thoughts, my experiences, my images, my sensations. I match the sensation inherent in the words with sensations which are still looking for a word. Or I just go with the words as they want to go by themselves. I have to be quite alert though, to recognize the exact spot where spontaneity turns into chatter, bullshit, fabricated self-deception. Every artist, every writer knows that we can make this distinction, even though we often realize it only much later.
- Does chatter mean that we are carried away with our own creations? It's hard to formulate what distinguishes chatter, bullshit, empty words, empty narratives from substantial ones. But we all know very well that the distinction is crucial. And that we have to get better and better in making that distinction, now we are so immersed with unsorted masses of text and image. The basic issue is alienation. Alienation means that we become the victim of a text, because we don't know who we are and where we are and how we are and what we really want.
- So which quality is required in writers and readers? The more "real" and seductive the (technological) narrative world-creating devices become, the more we have to learn to live in more than one world at a time. The more chances we have to got lost "out there", the more we have to stay "at home" in our own mind-space. And the home-base of our mind, no matter how temporarily, is our body.
There are different ways of travelling between worlds. "Worlds" can mean here both the fictitiouos worlds of literary or electronis virtual worlds, or the understanding of the world of another person or other conscious being. (If you are philosophically minded, or a buddhist, you can also include the regular outside world) . One way is to get totally carried away with this world, to get completely conditioned by this construction and forget about the origin of the construction, the subject = myself.
Another extreme would be not to get into it at all. To build a wall of disbelief or disinterest, refusing to leave "home" at all. The third and most interesting way is to travel and to stay home at once. This is possible. I can listen to another person with openness and empathy without losing my own sense of being different. Empathy does not mean to be pulled into a 'folie-a-deux'. It means that my mental space and the space of the other communicate, without one side trying to incorporate or annihilate the other. It is not a conquering. It is an opening. It is a kind of training to live in more than one world at a time. Or rather in a larger world ( "hyper-world"?) which consists of more than one subjective worlds. This sounds a bit embarrassing, because it sounds moralistic, and that is the most embarrassing thing in our culture presently (because some idiots have ruined the notion), perhaps rightfully so, perhaps not. But moral or ethics is not the point here. I am talking about the erotic side of communication. Erotic means: being in touch in a way that some kind of electricity works between the polarities getting in touch. Some kind of flow, a release of stagnating tension. No wonder by the way, that electricity became the medium for all our modern communication means: it is perhaps a trace of the erotic utopia (or the erotic misery) behind communication after all.
- So, what has that to do with poetry.
Poetry is a text with a real voice. With the grain of a voice, or many voices. Information got so overwhelmingly abundant in our society that it abolished itself. Information is that which makes a difference; that which is not redundant. But by facilitating the creation and distribution of information it became inflationary, close to worthless. We are no longer interested in the unique and the new because everything, and particularly mass products, poses as new and unique. We get bored of information and we get bored of proofs, - of world-wide news gossip and of the ever so clever fabrications of scientific proofs. (One week you are to eat mountains of spinach, says Science, next week this is a serious danger to your health...; or you just bought the very latest ultimate model of the optimal toothbrush, next day it is hopelessly outdated...).
Of course, the poetic turn does not turn any of our everyday texts into poetry. It just represents a shift in attention: from information to the sound of the words, from a single denotation to the multiplicity of connotation, from the story-line to the finger- or voice-prints implicit in the text, from the missionary obsession of imposing opinions to the invitation to sharing a subjectice experience. Poetic communication means a more individual voice, a care for details and idiosyncraticity and an acceptance of the limits of intersubjective understanding. It creates texts not designed for a preconceived (maximal) audience but texts which create an intrinsic limitation to whom they are speaking. It creates a new ecology of the word. Not one-way-texts, to be thrown out after being read once or not read at all, just outdated by the shift of the calendar to the next day. Texts with weight. Sentences worth quoting. Perhaps even worth learning by heart.
- How can this happen, if we don't go back to carving our letters or runes into wood or stone? It might happen all by itself, just by letting things happen the way they want to happen. We will get so fed up with information-texts, and it will be so hard to find a reader or listener in the media jungle that language will have to mutate, to be able to communicate. The texts will have to be like those missiles finding their targets themselves, by affinity in style and by the non-fakeable ring of a personal tone.
But the problem is...
- Well, what is the problem?
The problem is manifest in this very text. In order to accelerate these changes we should not talk about it but do it. But just as (we think that) it takes a conservative government to sign a peace-treaty or a tax-rise, so we think that we have to say all this still in the old style in order to be heard. But, if the theory is true, it might already be no longer heard or read because it's assimilated style is no longer interesting....