Ten Theses on Poetics

- Nathan Brown, Canada Research Chair in Poetics, Concordia University

1. Poetics is constitutively riven by a contradiction between the particular and universal scope of its field. 

Poetics is the study and the theory of poetry—of its forms, its histories, its rhetorical and critical categories. Poetics is also the study and the theory of poiesis, of making, and the field of poiesis extends beyond that of poetry as a field of literary activity. Indeed, poiesis, as “an act or process of creation” (Sidney) has been understood as a universal category, encompassing not only the creative, inventive, or productive powers of human beings in general but also of nature. 

This distinction between the particular and universal scope of poetics has sometimes been understood as no distinction at all: rather, poetry has been positioned as a privileged site of encounter with poiesis, as the medium through which the universality of making is expressed, and thus as a specific practice that paradoxically claims to engage every field of art and knowledge. This is the case in German romantic theory, and particularly in the work of Friedrich Schlegel. As Fredrick Beiser has shown, for Schlegel and the Jena romantics the concept of romantische Poesie designates not only a specifically literary use of language but also the creative principle and productive activity constituting “the unity of all the arts and sciences.” What Schlegel calls “the romantic imperative” is that “all of nature and science should become art, and that art should become nature and science.” Furthermore, Beiser notes, the romantic imperative “demands that poetry should be social as well as society poetic, and that poetry should be moral as morality should be poetic.” Poetry, as a universal principle, is the synthesis of these apparently discrepant natural, artistic, scientific, social, and moral spheres; and poetry, as a literary practice, is the highest expression of that principle. Thus “poetry” becomes at once the universal and the particular medium of spiritual life, of Geist, through which the separations of modernity might be overcome. 

In his book History of a Shiver, Jed Rasula shows that this romantic imperative is also a modernist imperative: that the romantic theory of universal poetry or the Mischgedicht (mixed composition) winds its way like a red thread through modernist impulses toward mixed media experimentation, inter-arts collaboration, and efforts to overcome the division between art and science. But I would emphasize that, for the most part, modernism involved a different approach to poiesis. Whereas the regulative ideal of romantische Poesie relied upon an idealist understanding of creation and expression as natural Bildung and spiritual communication, modernist tend to be more attentive to the material composition of the work as the very principle by which it might traverse different fields of “making.” For example, the materiality of the letter becomes the vehicle for its transport onto the canvas or the field of the visual poem, and the sonic materiality of the phoneme is transmitted into transrational medium of the sound poem, where it intersects with music as asemantic art. The resolute materialism of the poem and its composition motivates the adoption of scientific models of structure and form. And the collage forms of German dada, for example, make the image-text a powerful medium of social critique intervening in the field of political propaganda and capitalist advertising. 

We might thus identify a dialectic of dematerialization and material specificity agitating encounters between the particular and the universal scope of poetics. Understanding these would require a historically specific account of how this contradiction is differently configured across different moments in the history of modernity.

2. Poetics is necessarily expanded poetics. 

By “expanded poetics” I mean to designate an approach to poetics attentive to this problem of the relation between the particular and universal scope of the field. In order to pay attention to this problem, we have to practice it: that is, we have to study and traverse the relationship between “poetry,” as a literary practice, and the forms and methods of “poiesis” in other fields. It is difficult to grasp the specificity of poetry without also attempting to grasp the limits of its generality. As Hegel understood, any designation of a limit involves passing over onto its other side. This other side of poetry is constitutive not only of what it is not, but also and thereby of what it is. This is to say that there is no self-evidence attending the category of “poetry” and therefore no self-evidence attending the category of “poetics.” This means that the purview of those categories has to be experimentally determined, through a process of finding out what poetry and poetics might be by immersing oneself in the transformation of their boundaries. These boundaries always position poetry and poetics in relation to something else, whether science, or art, or prose, etc. Expanded poetics is cognizant of the fact that the boundary work required to study poetry can only be evaded by inattention. And attention might be the most important demand made by the productive defamiliarizations of poetry. 

Even to grasp the particularity of contemporary poetry, the particularity of the works that constitute its field of practice, requires an expanded approach to poetics. In order to grapple with the equations and scientific allegories of Shanxing Wang’s Mad Science in Imperial City, for example, it’s seventeen politically and culturally loaded references to “nanotechnology,” one has to learn a lot about nanotechnology. In order to encounter Caroline Bergvall’s feminist and queer critique of the recombinatory methods of genetics and biotechnology in Goan Atom, one has to take up the scientific details folded into her poetics. In order to think with Lisa Robertson’s Office for Soft Architecture, one should get to know something about architecture and urbanism, and one has to enter into the field of meteorology in order to trace the immersion of her book, The Weather, in the historical development of that science. If one wants to write about the material language suffusing Jean-Michel Basquiat’s drawings and paintings, one has to study their intervention in the history of image-text works across the twentieth century and beyond. The particularity of poetics does not necessarily entail its universality. But the singularity of poetic works often does demand an expanded scope of attention operating beyond the boundaries of poetry per se. 

3. Expanded poetics requires both a practice and critique of “interdisciplinarity.” 

Expanded poetics is interdisciplinary. Interdisciplinarity isn’t just media studies, or “digital humanities.” It requires moving across and between the practices and concepts of specific fields that have discrepant norms and histories. In order to fully attune oneself to references to “nanotechnology” in Mad Science in Imperial City or study the problem of measure in philosophy, it isn’t enough to read the potted science of popular books on these subject; one has to read scientific articles and familiarize oneself with different laboratories and research contexts, hopefully visiting some of these in order to talk with scientists, with an open mind and informed perspective in order to get a more direct understanding of how they experience and think about their research. These are criteria of honest interdisciplinary research. 

At the same time, one has to be willing to be an amateur, and to risk of the difficulties of that position. As soon as one decides that formal disciplinary training is requisite for intellectual inquiry in a certain field, one seriously delimits the range of issues one can think and write about to a degree that inhibits relational thinking and establishes artificial boundaries between regions of knowledge. Knowledge and thinking are disciplinary in their configuration, but they cannot be strictly so without diminishing the integrity of knowledge and thinking, the way in which one discipline requires attention to others. We can’t get advanced degrees in all of them. So interdisciplinarity demands a difficult practice of rigorous amateurism, which has to hold itself accountable to the specific criteria entailed by specific questions and research problems. For example, in studying nanotechnology and materials science while writing The Limits of Fabrication, I learned very quickly that I would not be able to establish anything like responsible knowledge of these fields as a whole. But I could take seriously specific areas within them, like the development and consequences of proximal probe microscropy in nanotechnology, or the import of carbon chemistry for contemporary materials science, or the problem of protein folding in biotechnology. These are particular topics I was able to study in some detail, despite my lack of training in these fields. 

There is no getting around the importance of interdisciplinary methods for the study of what I call expanded poetics, yet this very fact requires a critical perspective on such methods, because “interdisciplinarity” is a buzzword of contemporary academic life for which it is often difficult to feel much affection. The ideological status of this term is evident first of all in the diffusion of its use, such that working on the relationship between philosophy and literature, or literature and history, may suffice for a reference to interdisciplinary methods — whereas literary scholars have always read philosophy while philosophers have traditionally had knowledge of the sciences and perhaps even history. This is just regular humanities research that must now be redescribed due to the intense specialization of the contemporary university, in which declaring oneself a scholar of twentieth century literature usually means one will never teach the renaissance again, and in which knowledge of Kant or Marx seems idiosyncratic in departments of English. The ideological status of interdisciplinarity is more consequentially evident in the apparent admiration for the term among university administrators, who clearly view it as an indispensable funding opportunity. These days, references to interdisciplinarity, if not actual interdisciplinary research, are practically requisite for successful grant applications — and this no doubt accounts for the diffusion of the term noted a moment ago. The term “interdisciplinary” is, in a word, annoying, and it rightly elicits suspicion. 

There is thus a tension, if not a contradiction, between the importance of interdisciplinary study in poetics and the ideological diffusion of the term as a symptom of over-specialization and the corporate orientation of university administration. Given this tension, it is unsurprising that Fred Moten, lauding the work of Frank Wilderson and Jared Sexton, positions it against interdisciplinarity as a form of opportunism. “Black study such as theirs,” he writes, 

"refreshes lines of rigorously antidisciplinary in(ter)vention, effecting intellectual renewal against academic sterility. When wardens of established disciplines and advocates of interdisciplinary reform fight to secure depleted sovereignty in and over the same depleted real estate—whose value increases as its desertification progresses whose value is set by the new masters of another form of what Thomas Jefferson called silent profit— and when note of this false alternative is taken by those who offer nothing but a critique of the very idea of a true one, Wilderson and Sexton keep on pushing over the edge of refusal, driven by a visionary impetus their work requires and allows us to try to see and hear and feel." 

For Moten, the true alternative offered by such work in black studies is “anti-disciplinary,” and one can see why. Moten sees “interdisciplinary reform” of the university as merely the other side of disciplinary culture. The reason I continue to use the term “interdisciplinary” is historical: it’s because I think that disciplines are a fact of the constitution of knowledge in modernity, which I think one has to work through by way of immanent critique. That is, one does have to enter into the disciplinary particularity of different fields to acquire knowledge of their functioning, whether these fields are academic or otherwise, and I think this is matter of historical import that we can’t evade. I prefer to approach poetics as a self-critical practice of interdisciplinarity, working between discrete fields without being able to synthesize or displace them altogether. But this is just a matter of emphasis, of placing an accent, and I’m all for anti-disciplinarity. It may well be a better methodological strategy and discursive intervention. This is a good conversation to have. 

4. As the study of poiesis, contemporary poetics should also sustain a critical relation to “maker culture.” 

Here’s a drawing from a sequence titled The Gas Imaginary by Rachel O’Reilly:

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On a plane labeled “New Territory Technics” it says “this destruction was made by makers — non-state agents with creative $ potential.” Along the upper boundary, in parenthesis, “(things are hard to change with software at this point).” I met Rachel after the first talk I gave on the Centre for Expanded Poetics, to which she responded by asking: “But what if you don’t want to make anything?” This question pushed me to think more carefully about the CEP slogan, “poiesis means making.” The question emphasizes the contested ground not only of production, which might be clear enough, but also and more specifically of the category of “making” in contemporary culture. I wanted the slogan to register a materialist commitment, implicitly positioned against the idealizing tones of “creativity” or “conceptualism.” But O’Reilly reminded me that a research lab with touch tables and a 3D printer has to pose critical questions about the ideological baggage of the technological affordances it makes available.

What ideological baggage? This was a feminist question not only about the valorization of making, in a Marxist sense, but also about the patriarchal claiming of productive and reproductive power through both literature, science, and technology. Its not that “maker culture” is necessarily masculinist, but rather that it occupies a familiar site of at the intersection of subcultural subversion and corporate interest, at once a slogan of silicon valley and of open source, DIY practices. That is, it occupies something like the same place in the relation between culture and capital that was occupied by “cybernetics” in the 1960s, as Reinhold Martin has persuasively shown in his book The Organization Complex, studying the mobilization of cybernetic concepts and motifs in the attunement of both corporations and countercultures to understanding “organic” forms and processes in terms of information. Today, making is often an obnoxiously faddish or corporate imperative, even as it also remains the very ground of both artistic activity and quotidian hobbyist tinkering. For example, Rachel Blau DuPlessis emphasized her commitment to the category of poieisis, as making, as the ground of her feminist collage practice, deploying found materials. Yet one might also find “maker culture” heralded by people who think that 3D printing signals the end of the commodity form and the capacity of anyone anywhere to make whatever they want. So under these contemporary conditions, references to “making” carries contradictory connotations, and that means that as the study of poiesis poetics must also be the study of this contradiction internal to its practice; a critique of its own contemporary ideological ground.

O’Reilly’s work is an instance of such practice. Here’s another drawing, in which an oil derrick is labelled “a poet,” in which “poet’s notes” ‘are situated beside the term “reproduction” and “the avant-garde status” has lines linking it both with “on the margins” and with a box intersecting the terms “achievements” and “virtuosity” on the “vertical scale.” 

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“White cube,” “one big singular seemless offensive” “one big singular mine” “alone in a landscape” “post-fordism” “horizontal reality” “frack fuck.” 

This is critical poiesis. One has to think through the implications of the relational field it constructs. 

5. As a critical study of “making,” poetics studies the genesis and reproduction of reification. 

Making is a process, and what is made through a process becomes a product. In a specifically Marxist sense, reification refers to the misunderstanding of value—which is determined by the social relations of the labor process—as a predicate of the products of labor themselves. It’s important to recognize, as Dave Beech shows decisively in his book Art and Value, that art does not have this kind of value. The value of a work of art is not determined by the socially necessary labor time requisite for its production, nor is the value of a “poem” — though the value of canvases or books is indeed determined in this manner. However, reification also refers in a more general, and perfectly valid, sense to reduction of a relational process to a thing (or forgetting that a thing is a relational process). Even understood as processual, the making might be reified as a thing: this is a vitalist and idealist inclination, legible in concepts of èlan vital, Geist, or to some degree in the Deleuzian concept of “the virtual.” 

Thus, poetics needs not only to study the process of making but also the genesis and reproduction of reification, which attends material production as a kind of shadow, or double. This, at least, is true of both poems and commodities. Reification is the ideological semblable of production in modernity, and the figure of “the poem” is one of its results. As soon as a poem attains the reputation of its title, anthologized or even deposited in a collection, it begins to become the coherent entity which it most certainly is not. Poetics is the disaggregation and dissolution of “the poem” not into its constitutive elements or techniques but into the relations that constitute its existence. Poetics the a study of the determination of the poem, not in the sense that we know just what it means or what it is but in the sense that we study the mediations that give rise to its being as such rather than otherwise.

At the beginning “The Gift,” H.D. writes:

Instead of pearls — a wrought clasp —
a bracelet, will you accept this?

At the end of the poem,

I send no string of pearls, 
no bracelet — accept this.

Question becomes command — or desperate, or despairing imperative. Poem is substituted for pearls, but what is offered and then given remains an unevenly circular structure, returning to the same figure with a rhetorical difference. If we also hear “except this,” that is because the poem is like a commodity: as it ends, it becomes a product, graspable a thing rather than productive process. But it also asks that we “accept” the undoing of this product — like the seed pearls spilt from broken a necklace earlier in the poem — by the coming into being that continues even into the last period and that never ends insofar as we continue to read or remember the poem: between its beginning and ending and long after its completion it is undone and decompleted ever and ever all over again, as the title of Anne Carson’s collection, Decreation, makes manifest. 

Poetry is practice through which reifications are dissolved into relations, and poetics is a practice by which the reification of poetry itself is undone, through forms of critical intelligence that are never satisfied with their result. 

6. Poetics is thus a historical materialist practice, bound up with the critique of capitalist social relations, racialization, and the reproduction of gender. 

Class, race, and gender are reifications in the precise sense that they are naturalizations of historically contingent processes of production and reproduction, and poetry is one of the most salient fields within the contemporary critique of such naturalizations. Why? Because reification is — not above all but in large part — a linguistic phenomenon. The category errors it involves and requires are inscribed in our language. Poetry is, at its best, the undoing of such inscription, the constructive interrogation and dissolution of its self-evidence, the refusal to allow words to say what they are supposed to mean. Ronaldo Wilson’s Poems of the Black Object, Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Drafts, Anne Carson’s Plainwater, Harryette Mullen’s S*PeRM**K*T, Teyimbaya Jess’s Olio, Dionne Brand’s Primitive Offensive, Nathaniel Mackey’s “Song of the Andoumboulou,” Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Shanxing Wang’s Mad Science in Imperial City, Kevin Davies Comp, Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieu, Amaranth Borsuk’s Abra, Jessica Bebenek’s  forthcoming k2tog, collecting the patterns of her knitted poems — these are exemplary works of the historical materialist vocation of poetics today.

By “historical materialist” I do not necessarily mean “Marxist.” I mean an orientation toward poetic making that refuses idealizing frameworks of value, that interrogates the historically specific constitution and undoing of race and gender, and that takes seriously the brutal conditions under and through which these function in the present. Poetry thinks, and poetics is accountable to its thinking. This means there is no room for comfort with the present state of affairs. Poetry and poetics are critical and oppositional, or they don’t know what’s going on. I.e. they are complicit with a deadly regime of reifications.

7. The “universal” scope of poetics implies a specific attention to poetic form as the material inscription, critique, and reproduction of such historical power relations, which are both totalizing and resolutely particular. 

Poetry can no longer be conceived, as it could for the Jena romantics (or for the American transcendentalists), as the highest expression of a universal creative principle traversing natural and human production. Poetry is not a synecdoche of either Cosmos or Spirit. Poetry is a material practice whose modes of inscription and communication are culturally, historically, and technologically specific. 

From this materialist perspective, it is possible to rethink the contradiction between the particular and universal scope of poetics. As the study of making, poetics does indeed go beyond the boundaries of poetry as a literary activity. And the manner in which poetry, as a literary activity, includes this going beyond is indeed totalizing, but it is not universal. What do I mean by “totalizing.” I don’t mean that poetry subsumes the whole of what is within itself; in my view, its operations are finite. What I mean is that social totality of historically specific power-knowledge relations bears upon the material inscription and transmission of poetry writing and performance at any given time. This is another way of saying that poetics needs to be interdisciplinary, but with a little more political bite. We need to understand as much as we can in order to grapple with the configuration of power-knowledge relations at different historical moments. Foucault’s politically incisive archival interventions in the history of modernity—across medicine and biology, incarceration, sexuality, governance, psychiatry, and anthropology—is exemplary in this respect. One requires a Marxist-Feminist-Queer-Anti-Racist orientation toward the history of modernity, fluent in methods of discourse analysis and media archaeology, in order to do the work of taking the pressure of historical totality upon literary particularity seriously. Consider the work of Saidiya Hartman, who studied with Judith Butler and whose scholarship transmits the rigor of her theoretical work. Hartman reconstructs the contradictory concept of “freedom” as it imposes a “burdened individuality” and “indebted servitude” on the black subject in the United States since emancipation. Drawing legal archives and testimonial accounts into contact with the resources of critical race and gender theory, a Marxist understanding of class, and the tools of Foucaultian discourse analysis, Hartman’s work is the sort of historical analysis that is required reading if one wants to grapple with the political specificity of contemporary American poetry, and with the political totality it registers. Combined with methods of media archaeology, such research can help us to think through the material-discursive transmission and recursive intervention in power-knowledge relations not only by language, but by poetic form. 

Poetics must attend to the specificity of poetic forms in this theoretical and political context. That would be something like an expanded formalism. 

8. The peculiar joy of poetry is both the affect of such attention and its ideological dereliction. 

The peculiar joy of poetry consists in the unpredictable encounters to which its estrangements of knowledge, or history, of subjectivity, and of feeling give rise. One does not and should not know how to read any given poetic work in advance of the reading. Poetry thus demands the most stringent attention, but it also requires the capacity to let go of the impulse to know just how to apply such attention. That is, one has to attend closely and carefully in order to be properly taken by surprise. One has to not know in order to begin learning, yet one has to know how not to know. 

Being taken by surprise, as a vocation of poetic reading, puts poetics in a curious position. It has to be as naive as is knowledgeable in order to encounter its object of study. It is no wonder then, that we are so often carried away by the voice or the invention of the poet, losing ourselves in the pleasure of the text. Only the most soulless reader would steel oneself against this transport altogether. Yet this transport also needs to come back down to earth, so as not to either reify or spiritualize poetry — two directions of idealism that ultimately amount to the same thing.

The contradiction between the universal and particular scope of poetics bears itself also at the level of affective experience: poetics is that field that has to feel its way toward conceptual rigor, within the medium of estrangement; it has to get lost in order to find what it is looking for—something altogether different than what one set out after. Yet it has to know how to situate this disorientation. 

9. Defamiliarization remains the essence of poiesis

Defamiliarization is the crux of the relation between poetry and poiesis. The way in which something is made must defamiliarize its making and thus return the product to the torqued process of its production. This is why poetics—the study of defamiliarizing forms—is a critical practice of dereification.

10. The essence of poiesis is anti-essentialist. This is the dialectical power of poetics. 

Defamiliarization is the “essence” of poiesis in the sense that it is the sine qua non, the without which none, of poetic activity. Yet this essence is anti-essentialist, insofar as it always undoes the identity of “poetry.” Poetics is the study of this dialectic, which encounters its unpredictable rifts and traces its non-linear history, remaining attentive to the necessity of its own ignorance.