Denver’s Divinatory Poetics (Rough Version / Conference Script)

July 12, 2017 § Leave a comment

This is a rough conference script for listeners today. The finished version will appear soon.

Like Ghosts from an Enchanter Fleeing

Divination has roots in augury. It is not just the interpretation of omens; it also implies perceiving when it is acceptable to inquire concerning the health of the state.[1]  Reading the flight lines and entrails from birds, the office of the augur in ancient times related specifically to the public good.  In his recent book, Politics of Divination, Joshua Ramey argues:

neoliberal market fundamentalism—the view that markets alone can resolve the problem of how to construct social life in the face of unforeseeable contingencies—is a perverse and disavowed colonization of archaic divination rites, the rituals through which human cultures, on the basis of chance, have perennially sought for more-than-human knowledge.

Ramey calls for more nuanced approaches to divination that do not fall under such “market fundamentalism.”  While we can certainly look to the late 1960s and early 1970s for the shift to virtual markets, or the break from the gold standard, which Maurizio Lazzarato locates as the “making of indebted man,” what so many philosophers lack is attention to aesthetics and arts which have been dealing with this constantly since that period.  By way of Deleuze and Guattari’s readings of Nietzsche, Lazzarato argues that “[t]he capitalist machine has gone off the rails, not for want of regulation nor because of its so-called excesses or the greed of financiers.”[2]  Instead, he claims it is due to the collapse of finance: “the consequence of the failure of the neoliberal program (which has made business the model for all social relations) and the resistance mounted by the subjective figure it has aimed to promote (human capital or entrepreneur self).”[3]  In simpler terms, yet historically occupying the same space, the birth of the “scriptor-reader” at the so-called “death of the author” already poeticized this economic shift.  Literary theory and practices since the 1960s have had dynamic discussions of fluctuating and calling into suspicion the nature of subject-object relationships.

A recent literary trend in Denver has continued these discussions in what Selah Saterstrom calls “divinatory poetics,” as articulated in her forthcoming book of essays, Ideal Suggestions: Essays in Divinatory Poetics, which recently won the Essay Press Open Book Contest.  This paper looks at three writers associated with Denver, including Saterstrom, in order to examine how they illustrate variations of divinatory poetics in their respective works.  It simultaneously discusses my own relationship to these authors and their works as I have recorded and provided musical accompaniment to them.  I particularly believe these writers have been pointing to more nuanced interpretations of divination that would be useful to the disciplines of philosophy and religious studies.

Anne Waldman, Eleni Sikelianos, and Selah Saterstrom all write from the space of a hollowed-out sovereignty, or what Saterstrom at times calls the forked tongue.  In doing so, their respective works critique neoliberalism by emphasizing the opening up of liberal subjectivity, or what some philosophers call the “empty throne” of sovereignty and identity.  It is not so much that as writers they need readers and listeners in order to complete their work as some sort of dialectical reception and synthesis.  By emphasizing spaces of liminal transfer, often entangled between life and death, they invite the working over the world reminiscent of Maurice Blanchot’s meditations on disaster.  Each of these writers, however, does this in her own unique way.

One mark of the impulse toward divination occurs in the linguistic move toward the imperative, an imperative that gives commandments so seemingly inconsequential that they call into question their own validity and thus simultaneously demand adherence and commitment.  The imperative assumes context without exposition or description, therefore inciting a situation.  Selah Saterstrom’s novel, Slab, records in two acts the lingering thoughts of a woman as she performs on the theater of a slab of concrete that once held a home in the wake of a hurricane, literally a disaster.  Simultaneously, a preacher – whose name is Preacher – sermonizes to Pelicans 40 miles away.  The dramatic situation of Act I mainly involves the young woman, Tiger, who smokes a cigarette in one flip-flop, jean-shorts, and a tank top that reads I “heart” GRITS (Girls Raised in the South), retelling multiple idiosyncratic memories, at times imagining herself being interviewed by Barbara Walters.  Among the Southern recipes that Tiger divulges to Barbara Walters is the recipe for “Red Velvet Classic.”

Red Velvet Classic

Get a thorn from a white rose bush.

And a box of Betty Crocker red velvet cake mix.

Acquire a jar of gold, magnetic sand. Goat milk, fresh if

you can arrange it, you will need a whole cup. And bowls:

two small, one large, glass, and clear.  We shall need a

towel too.  Petition that the dram correspond to the nine

conditions, and a bench, of chapel length, and a man’s bed.

Warm the wax.  Form one portion of the wax into

the shape of him.  Form one portion of the wax into

the shape of you.  Bake the red velvet cake using

black hen eggs.  After it springs from the pan, knife the red,

steaming bread and slip in a dead relative’s lock of hair.

Bury the cake in your backyard, under a tree, whole,

With birthday candles on top burning.  Balm, enough to

coat the entire sarcophagus, and wash your slips in blue

water that has within it one pinch of saltpeter. And after

you have done these things, all these goddamned things,

you will be done with it, you will be done.[4]


Read closely, these lines exist in a state of context-collapse: “dram”? “nine conditions”?  There is at once something imperative, expository, and conversational about these lines.  They are not impersonal, but they are directive to an initiate.  She follows a few pages later, offering “a recipe every Southerner knows” and the lyrics to “When the Saints Go Marching In.”  At the same time these recipes instruct, as the hoodoo saying goes, when invoking an Eshu / Legba character at the crossroads, “You do not have to believe.”  Rites work, even work upon us, from another level.  They are the opposite of “by faith alone,” though these rites themselves are not to be confused with magic exclusively.[5]  Though Saterstrom is a practicing rootworker, her knowledge was transmitted within the tradition of the Spiritual Church Movement.  It was not until she moved out of the South that she realized that not all Christians read cards and do conjure work.

Saterstrom has done more than any other writer to theorize and lodge divinatory poetics in practice, incorporating the concept into courses on creative writing and hermeneutics at the University of Denver, though at least one of her students has refused to do her writing exercises, claiming they were “black magic.”  Her forthcoming book, Ideal Suggestions, is advertised: “By employing various “divinatory generators” (instructions, methods, trances), the essays in Ideal Suggestions: Essays in Divinatory Poetics genuflect to practices that celebrate engagement with uncertainty while cultivating strategies through which one might collaborate with both rupture and rapture.”  The book is a nod to Henry Wood’s 1899 book of New Thought, Ideal Suggestion through Mental Photography, which William James cited multiple times in his classic, Varieties of Religious Experience.  Act II of Slab follows the story of Preacher’s initiation into the vocation of preaching through exposure to card-reading and mediumship, intercut with his sermons providing hermeneutic analyses on the New Testament.  Although the book is not a direct reference to hurricane Katrina (it appears to be set in the 1980s actually), the Old Testament Book of Lamentations, in which Jerusalem is figured as a woman, remains important intertextually as well, revealing Saterstrom’s training in biblical hermeneutics.

I began my own hermeneutic project a few years ago in which I used music as a method to read texts, to use ears as eyes as a similar exercise in collaborating with rupture and rapture.  Of course, this is impossible.  Ears do not track like eyes, nor do they trap like eyes.  There is something we experience as instantly available to the eyes, which makes them quickly constellate and at times too quickly to discern.  It makes sense when we read about early modern people who thought of the eyes as beaming headlamps or the penetrating grey eyes of early modern women.  Using ears to “read” disrupts the constellating process, introducing a liminal transfer and re-subjectivating the listener by calling him or her into being.

This is why I am immediately reminded of Maurice Blanchot’s Writing of the Disaster and of the ongoing relationship Blanchot had with his interlocutor, Emmanuel Levinas, and the idea of ethics as first philosophy.  Blanchot writes: “The disaster, unexperienced.  It is what escapes the very possibility of experience – it is the limit of writing.  This must be repeated: the disaster de-scribes.  Which does not mean that the disaster, as the force of writing, is excluded from it, is beyond the pale of writing or extratextual.”[6]  The disaster is not about the field or the territory or the beyond of the territory.  It is a force, a force, Blanchot says, of writing.  I read this as the force of liminality in the process of signification, and when we move from the scopic mode of reading into the auditory, something in the process of the transfer of senses acts a membrane between reception and interpretation, a truly hermeneutic process.  On some level, it is about maintaining fidelity, as philosophers such as Alain Badiou might say, to the event.  But this is not the Protestant sentiment of “by faith alone.”  It is about a charge of spirit that occupies us rather than us “occupying” another space.

One quickly sees in Saterstrom that ‘religion,’ ‘spirituality,’ and ‘divination’ cannot be easily separated. Guy Stroumsa’s 2005 lectures, collected in English under the title, The End of Sacrifice: Religious Transformations in Late Antiquity, situates interiority-exteriority through the move from blood sacrifice to writing, arguing that the seeds of religious interiority can be found in Judaism during the period of the second temple and intensifying after its destruction in 70 C.E.  In other words, the destruction of the earlier temple in 586 B.C.E. precipitates a cultural shift to the development of texts.  Stroumsa argues: “Religion, including religious worship, is above all a meditation on texts, with a central place granted to texts dealing with the individual, with the individual sinner, in particular the Psalms, a meditation that the Christians learned from Second Temple Judaism.”[7]  Stroumsa thematically contrasts his research with Foucault, even titling a chapter “A New Care of the Self,” a double entendre on the religious innovations of late antiquity and the limits of Foucault’s thinking.  According to Stroumsa, Foucault got it only half right.  He was right to focus on the Jewish emphasis on the interior move toward individual responsibility but wrong with respect to an emphasis on self-annihilation in Christianity in monasticism.

Stroumsa argues that Christianity “enlarges the limits of the self, rather than narrowing them.  The Christian self does not disappear into the community; it becomes, on the contrary, emblematic.”[8]  Stroumsa says Foucault was misled by “the ambiguous status of reflexivity developed by Christian thinkers” and “the disappearance of sungenia [kinship] between the human and the divine world,” a world in which the separation of humans “prevents a narcissism of the self” and invites the moral reform of the self. This moral reform was heightened in the non-elite who were not philosophers who “naturally” possessed the insightful sungenia with the divine.  This democratization and enlargement of the common person’s self is then materially reflected in the rise of the codex and the book – the media by which Christianity spread.  Stroumsa notes that Christian community is centered within the translational efforts of the Septuagint during the 3rd century B.C.E.[9]  According to him, Christian culture differed from Jewish culture in its tendency to emphasize translation into different languages, thus democratizing and disseminating through writing the blood sacrifice of the ancient Hebrews.  Biblical hermeneutics and midrash were both an outcome of this shift.

There has been much talk of spaces and temporalities of exceptions and miracles in recent political philosophy, at times provoking claims of our “postsecular” moment.  Divinatory poetics might seem at first to merely offer a kind of “re-enchantment.”  I see something more directly practical about its appearance in these writers, whose personal traditions go deeper than a fad for Gnosticism or mysticism.  For example, while it may seem as crazy to read with ears as to make love to a photograph or painting, attempting such a task as blurring the senses has the possibility of re-experiencing sense in an overstimulated world.  It offers a tangible study of human exteriority in the era of the posthuman.  It is a way of making an encounter matter.  What I offer here is not so much a politics of how to listen as it is a projection of the internal reverberations of my listenings to these writers.  I’m thinking of it as literary criticism but am also willing to admit one could also simply say I’m doing piggyback art.

Ethical questions arise.  Is it potentially risky to make a rite out of a poem, to give one’s self over to it?  Does it not amount to a political instantiation of aesthetics? Do I not mistake what reception is about, making a clearly subjective reaction? What does it mean to invest such authority in a poet, even if we recognize in her work an ethical call?  Is it not uncritical, affective impulses that have given rise to the recent surges of “far Right politics”?  I believe this is why I say my work is performing literary criticism and theory.  In Genealogies of Religion, Talal Asad traces the historical distinctions between emotions and passions.  He notes Marcel Mauss’s grounding of the ritual in embodiment.  Western society, he says, saw with the emerging Reformation the interiorization of the “Book of Nature” and the mutation and ascription of ritual practice into “belief.”  Ritual was a challenge to direct faith and became associated with “less literate” societies, despite its original place as a function of writing:

Clearly, there is a fundamental disparity between a “ritual” that organizes practices aimed at the full development of monastic self and a “ritual” that offers a reading of a social institution.  We may speculate on the ways in which the increasing marginality of religious discipline in industrial capitalist society may have reinforced the latter concept. [10]

We read claims that people were surprised at Chaucer because he looked at books silently, that silent reading was considered an active withdrawal into privacy.[11]

What I am discussing in terms of hermeneutics is different than a spectacle or going to a live poetry reading or calling for vocalic linguistic performances.  Nor is it merely about the metric and rhythmic qualities of poetic incantation, since delivery and reception will affect and fold such claims.  It is, in the terms of Deleuze and Guattari, an anti-oedipal deterritorialization of sense that opens itself to the literary event.  This is exactly what Foucault was reacting to in his analyses of Oedipus in On the Government of the Living.  Rhythms are present as identities and negation, but as Deleuze tells us, repetition is not the same as difference.  Difference is an affirmation that forms outside of identity.  Silence, as John Cage taught us, is not negation; it is death and therefore beyond experience.  We are not, so long as we are in being, in silence.  In an anechoic chamber, we hear the high pitch of our own nervous systems and the low rumbling rush of blood through our veins.  Beats may create structures of habitation, but they are acting upon the persistent hums of our already active nervous systems. The hermeneutics of listening that I am stressing does less to stage the poet and allows for more intimate and collaborative interaction between the listener and the writer, by attempting to find a mode of encountering the work.  As the poets divine, we divine them.  We are entangled with them.

Once, after accompanying Eleni Sikelianos at a reading, a poet from the audience remarked that he was “pleasantly surprised,” since he had been accustomed to thinking that when writers perform with musicians it is distracting to the work.  This reduction of life to subjects and objects, writers and readers, has much to do with the problems of this world.  In the multiple ways, being is framed for us, moment by moment.  We are often so distracted by channels of power that we forget the illusion of sovereignty itself in our longing for less fragmentation.  Many long for what Anne Waldman calls a “decider.”  Amid gridlocked bipartisanism, recent pushes toward “executive orders” on both the right and the left evidence this.  We are also oppressed by mediatized frames, but as Walter Benjamin tells us in his Theses on the Philosophy of History:

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.  We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight.  Then we shall clearly recognize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism.

Divination works amid the state of emergency – not in isolation, but in acts of commitment with readers, and there is no reason to suppose that it will always work in line with one’s particular politics.  What is this more real state that Benjamin is after?  When Jonah’s companions draw lots to decide who to throw from their boat, we catch a glimpse of cultural variety in the ancient world and a respect of others’ gods.

I suggest that hermeneutic listening gives us a way to engage in the folds of what Anne Waldman addresses as “Entanglement.”   Waldman writes:

Entanglement is my ransom / She is my mother, author, locator / Lifting off in libations / Trips to Iceworlds / Hammurabi’s code woke her / The two as one, born together / Separated / Perfect dimensions for the spider, the fly / She leaves me split, she is my other, she is my unknown / Wed, she abandons me / She abandons me; she never abandons me / Entanglement I think will always sleep with me

Waldman is often seen as one of the last of America’s Beat poets, and although this lineage is certainly significant, her recent work has often been overshadowed by the broader legacy of the beat movement.  Her involvement with Allen Ginsberg and Trungpa Rinpoche in founding the Naropa Institute and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics forgets the fact that she has continued to be involved in its trajectory for more than forty years.  Waldman’s poetry is truly psychedelic, in the sense of the term as ‘mind-manifesting.’  Her ‘I’ moves in a dissipating and reconstituting way throughout her work integrating and disintegrating the various instance of ego life.  Locations become points of associative acts.

Waldman’s poetry emphasizes liminality.  Again, in “Entanglement” she does more than merely offer an ontological description.  Notice the un-sentenced movement in the following lines:

Entanglement is the complicated mother / Born together, fall apart / Broadway in my fair city was once a deer and mountain lion trail / Wedded to the past, it keeps happening / How not become our own volcano? / Visit the ring of fire / volcanoes were entangled / Act as mirror into my lower atmosphere / down here with the slime molds / Entanglement eschews boundaries / politics of sonorities / Agamben counts the animals / All the organs collapse / I am a dithyramb again / Ornette was in my dream of entanglement / He counts and he is a gift of augury.

Entanglement is itself generative.  It is personified as mother.  Then the fragmented next line, “born together, fall apart.”  Aspect without subject.  This is followed by another sentence: Broadway was once a trail.  Then, “Wedded to the past, it keeps happening” – a complex sentence, but the antecedent of “it” remains ambiguous.  Is it “Broadway”?  Entanglement itself?  The local and the abstract conflate with one another.  “How not to become our own volcano?” expresses itself as an internal thought but it also addresses a collective body, “our.”  By the time we get to “Act as mirror into my lower atmosphere / down with the slime molds,” there is an imperative repetition at work.  What authority enforces these repetitions?  Is this Rimbaud’s impulse toward the slummy?  The voice does turn into a dithyramb “again.”

The dithyramb is inherently Dionysian, opposed to the Apollonian paean.  Waldman’s speaker becomes multivocal.  And though these wild choruses were made of female devotees, she also reflects, in a way, Shelley’s optative will to be de-subjectivated in “Ode the West Wind.”  When Shelley attempts to conjugate with the west-wind muse, saying, “Drive my dead thoughts over the universe / Like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth!” is he merely wishing for a writer’s immortality?  I don’t think so, but even if he is, it is certainly an impulse beyond the subject.  The Romantic period saw the birth of political “liberalism.”  In many ways, the romantic subject was the politically liberal subject.  A simple etymological search on the term ‘liberal’ will show an early nineteenth-century origin for the use of the term here.  In Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Thomas De Quincey speculates on the potentially immortal character of the first druggist to sell him opium.  Rimbaud, following Baudelaire, intentionally sought to desubjectify himself and become scummy in ways that became codified scripts for 20th century bohemianism.  “I is an other,” claimed Rimbaud, already in critique of the romantic subject, struck by the lightning of inspiration.  It is not his fault, he says: why blame the wood with which a violin is made?  Is divination merely inspiration…the enthusiasm of the divine blowing the writer up like a balloon?  This is old hat, but it also informs the impulse toward divination in the contemporary writers that I am discussing.  Divination in Shelley is a sacrifice to the disaster of the west wind that occupies a hope, a constellation that in an optative mode wishes for dissolution, to become part of the event – and it was a disaster, of course, that took his life.  How do we respond as readers, as hearers?

Hermeneutics has a theological lineage.  The field of religious studies often flirts with aesthetics in shifts toward “material religion” while remaining suspicious of it, especially when it becomes too ritualistic.  At the same time, widely read continental philosophers inform both literary studies and religious studies.  Tyler Roberts, in Encountering Religion: Responsibility and Criticism after Secularism, tracks the difficulties some theologians have with poststructuralist notions of infinite responsibility as expressed in philosophers such as Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, and Simon Critchley.  Both Critchley[12] and Alain Badiou[13] have used modern poetry to exemplify where philosophical thought ought to be in terms of a response to the world.  However, the Christian scholar, John Milbank, for example, claims that adherence to infinite responsibility in some of these thinkers over-determines sacrifice and erases “the Christian promise of resurrection, thus ‘secularizing’ the Christian message.”[14]  Yet Roberts argues there is something subtler at work in poststructuralist accounts of responsibility and its aporetic functions. Following this line of thinking, aesthetic works operate between a timeless – and therefore careless – desire for immortality and crass materiality or death drive.  One thing the philosophical-theological debate misses in its deafness to poetry is that about forty years before Nietzsche announced the death of God, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, expanding on a theme of the crucifixion present since Plutarch’s observations in Of the Oracles that have Ceased to Give Answer, wrote:

Wailing wide across the islands,        

They rent, vest-like, their divine!        

And a darkness and a silence 

Quenched the light of every shrine;            

And Dodona’s oak swang lonely       

Henceforth, to the tempest only.         

                        Pan, Pan was dead.

In Religious Experience Revisited, Ann Taves, following Lee Palmer Wandel’s work, notes the formation of Protestant conceptions of magic developing in 16th century debates over the Eucharist and differing notions ritual efficacy.  These distinctions, she argues, still underwrite and inform academic study of religion.  They will also underwrite skepticism about divinatory poetics.

It seems to me that aesthetic sensitivity and hermeneutics of listening could help the disciplines here, in addition to their common engagement with continental philosophy.  For example, although Elizabeth Barrett Browning was among the first in a Victorian literary trend to cast Pan as alluring rather than horrifying, she was also at the forefront of a movement that domesticated paganism.  As Patricia Merivale points out, Browning, in a letter to John Kenyon in 1843, says,

Certainly I would rather be a pagan whose religion was actual, earnest, continual…than I would be a Christian who, from whatever motive, shrank from hearing or uttering the name of Christ out of a ‘church’ …What pagan poet ever thought of casting his gods out of his poetry?[15]

As the benevolent Pan emerges throughout the 19th century, Pan becomes a figure, rather than the feeling of panic that we see carried over in E. M. Forster’s “Story of a Panic,” resonating with coded queerness.  The Victorian “revival” of Pan put him into contestation with the figure of a “dying” Christ, enabling a widespread ability for writers to casually allude to him and expect readers to understand Pan “as a useful symbol for cultural history, to be equated with whatever the author thinks of as typically Greek.”[16]  Merivale quips: “The benevolent Pan in prose fiction was simply the logical development of the whole pastoral, Arcadian tradition in English literature – its final, if not its finest, fruit.”[17]  This richness is lost on many thinkers in religious studies and theology, but if we are to take scholars like Taves seriously, we must address the material, not in terms of a preset category of ‘religion’ but in the ascription that the adjective ‘religious’ comes to play with respect to an experience of specialness.  Divinatory poetics recognizes such specialness, even in mundane forms.  Taves thus undermines both the binary of sacred and profane and the binary of subjective “experience-based” approaches to the study of religion in the tradition of William James versus the “scientific” category of religion as a thoroughly social object of study.  Surely what Barrett Browning is expressing runs deeper than a mere “process of secularization.”  She is speaking to the ways that Christianity does not speak to her.  Both Anne Waldman and her niece, Eleni Sikelianos, in the tradition of Barrett Browning’s longing for pagan poetry, take upon the necessities of re-enchantment, and in doing so require the reader / listener to engage with the “postsecular” world.  It is a later historical moment indeed, but adhering to Barrett Browning’s longing helps accentuate a theme.

Although I dislike the recent use of the term, ‘re-enchantment’ is an appropriate theme in the Sikelianos family, which makes up a large area of poetic content for Eleni Sikelianos.  She is Granddaughter of Nobel prize nominee, Angelos Sikelianos, and Eva Palmer-Sikelianos, who together in 1927 decided to reinstate a Delphic Festival in Greece that included a staging of Prometheus Bound.  In You Animal Machine, Eleni Sikelianos meditates on the matriarchal line and the assemblages of story that connect family:

Story is not the right word. History is too vague.  This is a net of family giftings, woven in darkly luminous filaments, the shirt daubed with Nessus’s blood that scorches the skin, wounding the susceptibilities.  But what is the key that turns the lock of the poison dress? Who is us? (Me and my mother)[18]

Her family history is also the story of what the Greeks call the Great Calamity, of 78s on which family members sang rembetika, the Greek blues.  She transfers this feeling to blues jukes in America where her grandmother, Melaine Marko, “The Leopard Girl,” among many other names danced.[19]  She traces the deterritorialization and reterritorialization of family.  Sikelianos weaves myth and family so tightly one cannot discern in terms a genre or externalized concept.  She asks, “Can there be a proliferated sense of mirroring unmirroring?”[20]

In The Loving Detail of the Living & the Dead, Sikelianos performs more subtle examples of divinatory poetics than both Saterstrom and Waldman.  Against both of them her lyricism is immediately more personal and sensual.  If Waldman’s ‘I’ hovers around the very nature of being instantiated within being in this world and Saterstrom conveys the medium-like, channeled voice of ancestors, Sikelianos is supremely concerned with relationality.  Sometimes that relationality is familial, sometimes it is ontological – as in her extinction poems from Make Yourself Happy, which moves back and forth between a meditation on the seemingly trite but quickly get more complex.  They evidence a hollowing out:

who did the blue school

who bruised the wound

who had the goddess of love in her lap

to make herself happy—make

a village of love for your shadow

to live in so that

your shadow and your shadow’s friends may be

unlonely living with all other ombres

I’m giving away all my belongings

in language      to make myself happy      must start

with “my language”     then find

chains of correspondence

for the world’s every articulate hand and finger

(it’s what touches the world)

a shadow hombre shows me the way toward the deepest umbers

like having an orgasm in your


Sikelianos’s work is more immanent and less abstract. Definitely more of a personal ‘I’.  But in comparison with Saterstrom’s Slab, we see a crossover flirtation with New Thought movement.  There is something similar in Make Yourself Happy to Ideal Suggestions through Mental Photography.  Sikelianos also importantly works with the idea of fetish:

I bought something, it was

A fancy thing.  The man called me madame and

Opened the door with a swish.  I was sure I had never been

So happy to buy something, my

Feet felt happy even though

The thing was for my wrists.

Although having a Latin etymology in the verb, facere (to make), the English word, ‘fetish’ is directly derived from a colonial trading relationship with South America and the Caribbean, coming from the Portuguese word, feitiço.  Marx drew his concept of the “commodity fetish” from Charles de Brosses 1760 book, Du culte des dieux fétiches. That materiality had much to do with cultural misunderstandings Europeans made of African slaves.  Oftentimes, in the pejorative climate of Protestantism, people confuse rites and fetishes.

Liberal democratic representation already lays out the guts of sovereignty and decisionism, creating a crisis in representation.  Its difficulty lies in the faith of others.  It is not, exactly, as Simon Critchley calls it, in The Faith of the Faithless, a call toward the poetics of a Rousseau’s general will.  Alain Badiou echoes this in The Age of Poets.  It’s not just about making the space of immanence a totalization of all that is expressible, or a rejection of European transcendental notions of freedom.  Divinatory poetics is a rejection of the notion of freedom as negation (freedom from), which means that it is an affirmation of freedom as more than lack (freedom to), or what Levinas calls a Desire that is more than lack.  Badiou, in The Age of Poets, wants to reduce poetry to the performance of philosophical thought – as if the brilliance of Wallace Stevens determined poetry for all times. Philosophy does not fire-fangle the feathers of birds.  He wants to Platonize the becoming of poiesis in order to lay claim to the interpretation of the event.  What the writers I am discussing here show is that Badiou is too much in the tradition of Wordsworth’s emphasis on inspiration collected in memory.

Divinatory poetics calls us into being and emphasizes our relation to the Other as a ground from which we come to think about being.  In being called into being – the “Here I am” of hermeneutic listening – I am called upon to acknowledge the ethical relationship to the poet.  This is, in a sense, a modeling of what Levinas calls responsibility to the Other.  In Levinas’s terms, responsibility to the Other is being hostage to the other, it is a condition that precedes awareness of the I and therefore prioritizes ethics over ontology.  Before I can even discuss this or think “what does it mean to be?” I have already been in relation to the Other.  This relation is more than merely precognitive or pre-linguistic for Levinas.  It is also more than the mere physical dependence on the sociality of my parents and the sexual act that may result in conception.  Responsibility to the Other in Levinas’s terms is more fundamental than identity.  What Levinas means, in other words, is more than what Heidegger means by the phrase, “language speaks us.”  Heidegger is right, however, in the description of subjugated expressive capacity with respect to language, which by definition exceeds the individual.

When Roland Barthes, in Elements of Semiology, inverts Ferdinand de Saussure’s taxonomy in The Course on General Linguistics that linguistics would fall under a broader science of semiology, he emphasized that even when we begin to speak of semiotics we are doing so through language itself.  At the same time, he concretized the linguistic materiality of meaning in a way that greatly broadened what we might consider the “text.”  This liberated textuality from the bourgeois notion of literature, extending the political project of creating a “zero degree.”  Writing “degree zero” was about the recognition that there were deeper forces framing meaning and political subjectivity than the intentional content or tenor an individual writer injected into a linguistic vehicle.  It was simultaneously a rejection of the rational citizen, or the distinction between civilization and the state of nature.

While philosophers in recent years such as Alain Badiou, in The Age of Poets, or Simon Critchley in Faith of the Faithless, have at times turned to poetry so as to make sense of the current situation, the bulk of such praise comes from reading poetry as a sophisticated kind of philosophy-in-action.  In other words, what’s so great about modern poetry is its ability to perform thought.  While I appreciate these thinkers’ engagements with poets, I am unconvinced that poetry is merely the performance of thinking, or that poetry helps us to think.  Surely poetry is capable of doing this, but that alone is not its function.









[1] Cassell’s Latin Dictionary points to Cicero for this.

[2] Maurizio Lazzarato, The Making of Indebted Man, Trans. Joshua David Jordan, Pasadena: semiotext(e), 2012: 181.


[3] Ibid.


[4] Selah Saterstrom, Slab, Minneapolis: Coffeehouse Press, 2015, 76.


[5] See my discussion of Taves below.


[6] Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, Trans. Ann Smock, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986, 7.


[7] Guy Stroumsa, The End of Sacrifice: Religious Transformations in Late Antiquity, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009, 22-23.


[8] Ibid., 25.


[9] Ibid., 44.


[10] Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993, 78.


[11] See, for example, Leonard Michael Koff, Chaucer and the Art of Storytelling, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992, 67.

[12] See Simon Critchley, The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology

[13] Alain Badiou, The Age of Poets

[14] Tyler Roberts, Encountering Religion: Responsibility and Criticism after Secularism, New York: Columbia University Press, 2013, 161-162.


[15] Patricia Merivale, Pan the Goat-God, Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1969, 83.

[16] Ibid., 115.

[17] Ibid., 134.

[18] Eleni Sikelianos, You Animal Machine, Minneapolis: Coffeehouse Press, 2014, 2 .

[19] Ibid., 6

[20] Ibid., 98.

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