AS: What I mean is probably that this lack of subjectivity was increasingly thematized by poetry itself, and it became part of its auto-reflexive structure, and here, I can see a parallel to philosophical debates about subjectivity and the subject in the post-Heideggerian sense. Can you make a kind of parallel or link to the poetical notion of displaced subjectivity and a philosophical problematization of the subject in post-Heideggerian terms?
GA: I would suppose that the analogy is very strong. But I suppose you know this very famous essay by Michel Foucault on the author…
GA: So in that essay, of course, he distinguishes the author as a function, as a social and juridical factor, but then he states very clearly that the place of the author is empty in the text. So, subjectivity is on the one hand a juridical function; you can define the author from the point of view, as he does, of the law, as a center of speech, a center of responsibility, so you can persecute the author because he writes. He shows that the origin of copyright is the possibility of punishment. That’s obvious. Copyright is just a huge falsification. (I don’t like copyright. It should not exist.) But then he says this very beautiful thing, and we could go on from this Foucauldian discourse: what we could call poetical subjectivity is not a biographical individual that we could assign and name, and it would then be taken by law as a center of imputation. Then, we should begin to think that the poetical subjectivity begins from this empty space, from the fact that the place of the author is empty. And then, it seems to me that the poetical subject is something that in the text, in the act of expression, remains unexpressed. So that’s why Foucault says that it’s empty and the fact that it’s empty does not mean it’s not important. The fact that this active space is something that remains unexpressed in the act of expression is precisely what makes reading possible. How can we read a poem? If there were not this empty space, how could we have the subjectivity of the reader, which is again the same structure, which will stay empty and take at the same time…
Alexei Penzin (AP): I suppose that Sasha’s question also has some historical and situational underpinnings. To be brief, I mean here just some “formational” differences in modes of doing poetry, which are obvious. I have in mind also our present condition where poetry here again seems to be more powerful in the living experience of people, as something meaningful and promising. I would even dare to say, as an articulation of their subjectivity or some utopia of subjectivity, or as something which might continue defeated attempts, e.g., of politically colored poetry of the left-wing avant-garde of the twenties.
GA: Of course, history is something that makes differences, but it seems to me that each time the poet tried to think about this problem of poetical subjectivity, you would always have a structure of that kind. Only an idiot would say that “I am the author of this poem.” There is a nice lecture by Ingeborg Bachmann on the poetical ego. Here, again, the poetical subject is something that must be produced each time, only to disappear. If you see this from a more philosophical point of view, of course, from the point of view of language, who is the one who speaks. You know the work of the great French linguist Emile Benveniste. He shows that what we call subjectivity is produced by the experience of enunciation in language. So, the subject is only the one who now says “I” in the present act of enunciation. You cannot identify him as a substance. Also, there is this fracture between living and speaking. The one who says ego is a shifter, a pure personal pronoun, and there is nothing else existing. This is very important when you speak of Mallarmй. But then, there is a voice which will say “I;” how else can you have a shifter? The possibility of the shifter goes back to something in the voice. But again, this voice is not a natural phenomenon, because this voice really describes the language. It’s not the voice of the word. The word does not say “I.” Again, the voice will be something erased and cancelled, and always inscribed in language. This is just to say that there is an ontological basis for the assigning of this subjectivity; it is structurally quite clear.
AS: Is there any political meaning which we can assign to this fracture with the presence of the “I” and the voice, and the enunciation of this voice in poetic expression? Is there any possibility to think of this structure of distancing and self-erasing as something that has the potential to politically transform the status quo?
GA: If we say that poetry is a place where, par excellence, this experience takes place as an experience of the fracture between living and speaking, then of course it is a really central experience. It is not something you can leave at the margins. It’s a very fundamental human experience. The very constitution of the human takes place there. So of course it is political in this aspect, but it is also more fundamental: poetry is a kind of anthropogenic experience. This is why poetry has been so central in every tradition. What is really interesting is why this experience, which is obviously really central, is marginalized.
AS: In Italy also? [Laughter]
GA: Everywhere. I mean, in Italy now, there are poetry readings with three thousand people. There is some kind of cultural festival in Rome, and the writers and poets come, and there are three thousand people there, but that’s another thing. The real fact is that poetry is marginalized. Then it can suddenly be spectacularized, but that’s another story.
AS: Yet with Heidegger’s turn to poetry, this experience became central to thinking, while at the same time, it became more and more marginalized in a cultural sense. So when we speak about poetry in the sense of thinking, it’s a crucial experience. We can apply to this experience as the real center of political debate. But at the same time, while gaining this more and more philosophical meaning, poetry is losing what we could call immediate response or immediate meaning. Because even in the age of Hцlderlin, Mallarmй, and Baudelaire, poetry was not something only for philosophers and poets, but for others as well.
GA: Mallarmй is really the first instance of an intentional journey to the margins. There is a big distance between Baudelaire and Mallarmй in that sense. Baudelaire was really the last poet who was really read, and has had a kind of lasting success. Mallarmй intentionally goes to another place, but again, mixes this with the reflection of subjectivity and the structural relations of this situation. I don’t know about Heidegger’s reading of poetry. This is just a normal thing. If, as we said, in poetry such a fundamental experience of language and subjectivity takes place, it would be absurd if philosophy did not cope with this. Philosophy is a radicalization of the same experience. But then again, Heidegger’s readings had a bad effect; they produced a lot of bad, academic, and really annoying poetry-philosophizing, texts that criticize thinking and the relation [poorly audible]. Somewhere, Wittgenstein says that philosophy should be poeticized, only poeticized. Then, the reverse is also true: poetry should be philosophized. But this should be the same gesture. To me, poetry and philosophy are just two intensities that run through the field of language. I see language as a field, again, like in physics, where you have an electromagnetic field and you have intensities and tensions. There are two opposite tensions; one is philosophy, the other is poetry. One goes from sound to meaning, the other goes from meaning to sound, but they cannot exist alone. It’s impossible to have only one. One intensity goes with the other; a good poet is somehow thinking, and a good thinker is somehow producing poetry.
Dmitry Novikov (DN): Turning to Blanchot, who did a lot of work on this subject, we could state two things: poetry is a space for the production of subjectivity, and the opposite, a space for the abolishment or destruction of subjectivity.
GA: I like very much something that Deleuze says: “I write to become impersonal.” I think it’s true. It is, in a way, going beyond subjectivity, but it will have to do with subjectivity. It is something that will remain as a testimony of what is happening to it. There is that very beautiful letter of Pessoa. First, he becomes another, and writes thirty poems as another, but then, he goes back to himself, to Pessoa, and he has to write another poem to witness, to make a testimony to this alienation or impersonalization – sorry, depersonalization. I will agree with Deleuze that we write to become impersonal. If anyone writes to affirm their ego, that’s a really bad writer.
DN: Blanchot would say that it is a double: subjectivity and non-subjectivity. His example is Kafka.
GA: I will tell you a secret: each process of subjectivation implies a process of desubjectivation. They are always together.
AP: I would like to ask a more political question. Maybe not about subjectivity so much as about the action of poetry, as something capable of transforming another subjectivity…
AS: We need to make some bridge between the topic of subjectivity and de-subjectivation and the notion of togetherness. Up to now, we have been speaking of the notion of this cut-out subjectivity which has no otherness, no community with which his-her words resonate. But when poetry resonates, when it presents itself, there is always-already some kind of community involved. Or when we speak to God directly, something unimaginable for me right now…So when I was speaking about the potentiality of transformation, I was also thinking about the power of the poetic word to involve the other into my subjectivization and simultaneously in my de-subjectivization. This is a very singular, very unique way of communicating without communication. I would suggest that it’s a very potentially political thing.
GA: Now we spoke a lot about the subject because you began with the problem of poetry under the perspective of poetical subjectivity. But we could also speak of poetry beyond this experience of subjectivity, and so on. I don’t think that we could today reaffirm something like the idea that the poet speaks to the people or the community. Now – and this would be a historically modern phenomenon, historical and not general –we are in the position of a poet with no people. One hundred years ago, that would have seemed absurd, but now, we are more in that position. This does not mean [inaudible] that we cannot talk about the poem’s action. The other day [at a lecture given at the 2nd Moscow Biennial of Contemporary Art] I was speaking about the writing of a poem as an example of this inoperativity, as an operation on language that will make language inoperative, deactivating all the common functions of information and communication, opening it to a new possible usage. This is an incredibly important collective experience. The possibility of making inoperative the social, economical, biological operations and opening them to new usages is really the most fundamental social experience, and if you say social, it is something you can do…with others and for others. It’s not a personal usage; never.
DN: So you agree with Hцlderlin and Lacoue-Labarthe. This very innocent thing which is poetry is in fact very grave in its political consequences. We should seek the crucial problems of modernity in its poetical thinking of modernity. Do you think that this is the case? [Actually longer, but inaudible].
GA: Like we just said before, I think it’s something essential, with all we said about subjectivity, it is a field where – par excellence – something is opened to a new possibility. There is the language, but what is more important than to open the language to a new possibility? If you lack this, you can do almost nothing. That’s why it is so terribly politically important that language, on the contrary, today is completely taken into the spectacularization and the manipulation of the media. This is only because people are less free and more easily controlled. But, also, you cut out the possibility of opening something new. If the language has already lost this capacity for freeing itself from the national and communicative usage, then you cannot open a new dimension. Nothing has happened. The first possibility of opening something new is to open language to a new usage.
DN: If I understand you correctly, this new usage should be something opposed to consumption. Consumption is not usage; it is an appropriation…
GA: Consumption is the impossibility of usage. The consumption of language is the real impossibility of using language.
DN: And use is a kind of openness.
GA: Yes. Use always means to open in this a new possibility… It’s like the tourist. The tourist is the human being who makes an experience of an absolute impossibility; he can use nothing. [Laughter] But often we are reduced to being consumers of our cities. And today, the mass of humanity is strung up in the impossibility of using anything. Someone goes to the supermarket and experiences the impossibility of using things. Someone goes up into the city and experiences the impossibility of using public space. But then, to open up to a new use…
DN: But to be precise, poetry opens language not only to new usage, but also to new consumption. What does it mean that language is so open to use?
GA: What does it mean to use language in this sense? It’s just taking back the possibility of this opening. If language is always-already reduced to its informational and grammatical meanings, you cannot do anything. As I have already said.
AP: But this is our situation. We live in a world that is totally useless, reduced to consumption. This is why poetry has lost its power…
GA: But there is one risk when one says this, like you said, that everything now is reduced to consumption. This happens. Men are always somehow in this situation. This is just an extreme situation we are in today. When I say usage in this interview, I don’t mean that we should go back to something original, to the natural, original use. It’s like the commodity. We don’t overcome the commodity because we go back to the original use of the thing, of course, [chuckles] that’s the whole point. What I call use is something that can happen only in the relation to the dispositif, to alienation, to consumption. It’s a fight with this. You have access to a new usage when you liberate it. So it’s not something original. You don’t go back. You have access to a new thing because you had to cope, to fight.
* This is a transcription of a recorded interview. Parts of the recording were inaudible and are marked [inaudible].
Giorgio Agamben (born 1942) is an Italian philosopher who teaches at the Universitа IUAV di Venezia