The Centre for Philosophy and Critical Thought, Goldsmiths University of London

Research Centre based in Sociology and run jointly with the Centre for Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths University, London

Emma Mason (Warwick), “Critical Vulnerability and the Weakness of Poetry” (Neurosis, Poetry, and the Present, 18 March 2017)

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The following text was first presented at Neurosis, Poetry, and the Present, a workshop organized by Daniel Katz and Benjamin Noys at CPCT on 18 March 2017. 

Freud 2

Critical vulnerability and the weakness of poetry

Emma Mason (University of Warwick)

Today I’d like to make case for “weak thinking” as akin to the neurotic rejection of healthy, strong, capitalist experience. Despite the hostility most people would express towards “being weak”, letting our defences down to weakness might be one way to recover a critical vulnerability that offers us a different kind of agency to engage with those with whom we most disagree. My argument is at once queer, by which I mean I’m speaking from a specifically lesbian historical analysis of power in which women have had to think creatively and diversely often from positions of weakness; and Christian, a religion rooted in its originary impulse to value the weak, and speak from a position of weakness embodied in the beaten and crucified Christ. Weak thinking is not an argument for non-response or silence. It is in fact strong thinking that enables people to “refuse to hear or engage information that would alter their self-concepts, even in ways that could bring them more happiness and integrity”. [1] As Sarah Schulman argues, this refusal “comes from a sense of entitlement; that [there is] an inherent ‘right’ not to question [the self]”, as well as a traumatized “panic” that the “fragile self cannot bear interrogation; that whatever is keeping [someone] together is not flexible”. [2]

Weak thinking is a call for that flexibility. It was popularised as a philosophy by Gianni Vattimo in the 1980s, and has had considerable influence in the field of religious studies and weak theology, but comparatively little in the fields of literary studies and critical theory. This reluctance is surely because of its basis in Christianity, with which the secular academy is forever uncomfortable, but it is also because weak thinking endorses listening, attention and conversation over a sometimes more exciting mode of critical debate popular in the Humanities. But in the word “debate” we could choose to hear its Latin root, “to beat” or “to fight”: “debate” implies a subject in conflict with another he or she wishes to “beat”. [3] For the strong thinker eager to engage in furious debate, weak thinking is the domain of passive, undecided over-thinkers, whose unwillingness to be clear and direct has given rise to fake news and post-truth relativism.

I’m interested in how the dominance of strong thinking in public and academic debate has had the effect of both marginalising forms of thinking and reading that can be described as “weak” or neurotic, and making weak forms of expression, like poetry and theology, appear irrelevant. But the power-less combination of weak modes and forms as a way to think politics might now be appropriate for engaging those of opposing views. Weak thinking allows for a critical vulnerability to others that is increasingly closed down in our research (marked by competition, closed off outputs, impact and confirmed results) and more recently in teaching (as aims, objectives, and a circus of more and more innovative assessments displace the unmeasurable and intimate dynamic of talking to each other in groups). By critical vulnerability I mean a way of thinking that happily questions itself and seeks the views of others in careful and close relationship. Interestingly, “critical vulnerability” is a phrase already in use by the US Department of Defence, for whom the term means a vulnerability to “direct or indirect attack” that enables a “centre of gravity” – a COG – to function as a “source of power that provides moral or physical strength, freedom of action or will to act”. [4] In military terms, the functioning of centres of power are dependent on the critical vulnerability of others to be attacked and beaten, a violent and brutal logic, and everything a literary reading of vulnerability might work to undermine.

For in interpretive terms, critical vulnerability can disperse and unhinge centres of power by refusing instrumental thinking for end goals, to embrace a thinking close to Heidegger’s meditative thinking, but that is more deliberately weak. [5] My reading of weakness is, like Vattimo’s, connected to a theological context: as Paul writes in the first letter to the Corinthians, “for God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things” (1 Corinthians 1. 27-28), or as we read in Luke, Jesus values, not the strong, but “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” (Luke 14. 13-14).  These passages are integral to Vattimo’s weak thinking, but so is poetry, which for him shatters the foundations of strong truth for a truth that is in relation with lived experience. [6] My paper today outlines the relationship between weak thinking and poetry through Vattimo, and then turns to a poem by Anne Carson that allows for weak reading to make an argument for a criticism that is vulnerable to the views of others, rather than heroically sure of its own.

Vattimo and weak thinking

Gianni Vattimo is an Italian philosopher and politician, a former member of the European Parliament and member of the Party of Italian communists. He is also Catholic, openly gay, and has become identified with a weak thought that questions the certainties of modernity through a non-violent ethics. I’m interested in his theological thinking of weakness as a way to refuse “power, violence”, and “the destruction of liberty”, one that shifts attention away from egoic fantasies of absolutes to compassion for other people and things. [7] By proposing a sensitivity to the fragile foundations of human lives and ideas, weak thought privileges a thinking and “attitude toward things, whether ideas or relationships, predisposed to listening to the world”. [8] As one of Vattimo’s key commentators, Peter Carravetta, argues, philosophy must rethink how it speaks and expresses this reciprocal ethics, especially in “public, social speech”. For Carravetta, weak thought enables this by understanding the task of thinking as: attention to a “relational and ethical” hermeneutics, the plurality of subjectivity, poiesis, and narration. [9]

But Carravetta leaves out of this list of philosophical tasks any reference to theology, even though Vattimo’s understanding of the postmodern historical moment in which weak thinking arises begins with his re-thinking of Catholicism. In his 1996 book Belief, Vattimo says that he writes about Catholicism both because it is the “tradition in which” he has “grown up”; and because, writing at the end of the twentieth century, he senses “a renewed interest in religion in the cultural atmosphere” around him. [10] Just because God is dead, he says, doesn’t mean God is inexistent: rather, God is “no longer available to us” but remains an “unchanging and immutable  . . . basis for morality and truth”. [11]

He adopts Heidegger’s term Verwindung to describe his relationship to God as a twisting, distortion or “going-beyond”. [12] For Heidegger, Verwindung is the opposite of Überwindung, or overcoming, which suggests a transition from one moment to a newer, “higher” one. Verwindung, however, means a “going-beyond that is both an acceptance … and a deepening”, a “recovery from”, “convalescence”, “cure” and “twisting” out from (analogous to Adorno’s reading of neurosis as a healing force able to register the negative of truth). Weak thought, then, is a recovery from and of theology that at once abandons it and returns to it by lightening or weakening what has gone before, while recognizing that the mythical and religious are still with us. [13]

For Vattimo, this allows for religion to re-enter intellectual discourse free of “dogmatic and disciplinary” force, such as religious fundamentalism or militant atheism.  He argues that the “Christian inheritance” “‘returns’ in weak thought” as “the Christian precept of charity and its rejection of violence”. [14] To be Christian is thus to think weakly and charitably, embracing tolerance over certitude. [15] It also means to think with the “same mind” as Christ, Vattimo states, specifically that mind described by Paul in the Epistle to the Philippians, where Christ is a figure “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (2. 6-7).

This passage is key to Vattimo’s philosophy of weakness because of its famous description of Christ emptying himself out to become human. This self-emptying, or kenosis, an important term for Vattimo, represents a renunciation of power, authority and transcendence for embodiment in the human form: “God’s abasement to the level of humanity” disavows his transcendent, objective truth and so initiates a secularization that marks the end of metaphysics. [16] This twisting away from the strong claims of God to the weak claims of kenosis is a move into charity and love, and so the fulfilment of Christianity. The end of metaphysics and the death of God alike are the very point of Christianity because they give way to charitable relations based on the love commandment. Defined through love and charity, Christianity by definition must reject any premise incompatible with love, including some of those ideas it has become identified with like homophobia, just war, environmental domination, and so on. [17]

Kenosis thus reveals Christianity as the original weak thinking, a refusal of truths and stability for an acceptance of brokenness, crucifixion, defeat and unknowing. [18] Vattimo acknowledges that one criticism of his view might be that his charitable, friendly religion is “too optimistic” in the context of the “harsh reality of evil”. [19] But he says in response that kenosis makes possible the realization of salvation through material kindness and consolation founded on his “friendly” version of God. He writes: “If this is an excess of tenderness, then it is God who has given us an example of it”. [20] But significantly for us, he also suggests we can only stay with a kenotic, charitable mode of discernment through an undecidability summoned in poetry. Without proving or demonstrating truth, poetry allows the reader to become acquainted with it in a “conversational” mode that constitutes, creates and transforms.

“The Shattering of the Poetic Word”

Here I turn to his 1985 essay, “The Shattering of the Poetic Word”, in which Vattimo argues that poetry’s resistance to fixed meaning leads to a fracturing of the word that enables a “setting-into-work of truth” that opens the “historical horizon” of possibility through language. [21] In other words he explores how a work of art founds a world by always concerning itself with the mortality of things and the effects of time, like a “monument” that bears “the traces and the memory of someone across time, but for others”. Speaking to the listener across time, the poem is like a funerary monument or tombstone, constructed to endure even as its expression shatters. For Vattimo, poetry founds and figures possible historical worlds both to illuminate the “injustice and inauthenticity” of the present, and also to offer utopian alternatives as yardsticks or measures of judgement. [22] The poetic word shatters because it cannot sustain truth as a stable structure, but it does allow truth as a coming into view of “how things are manifest to us in an ‘eventful’ way, how they address us and even ‘speak’ to us”. [23] As the philosopher Richard Capobianco argues, this “‘shining-forth’ – emergence, manifestness” of the world in poetry intimates that the presence of things, their revealing of themselves to us, exceeds specific definition: words and meaning instead bring each other forth in a circular, not linear, manner.

In empirical, strong thinking, we start with what we want to say, and then attribute a word or label to it, in some cases, like science or mathematics, reducing signifiers to formalized symbols rather than words. In poetry, by contrast, there is no linear movement from meaning to expression or from what we want to say to words or sounds, but neither do we start from meaningless sounds and then add meaning. Rather, poetry presences or discloses, and so manifests “ruptures, discontinuities” and “apertures”, especially “towards the other”. [24] Poetry’s transforming ecology creates the irresolutions of what Edouard Glissant calls trembling, a metaphor for welcoming the inexpressibility of the text and resisting systematic thinking. In doing so, this tremulous thinking is “opposed to the brutal, univocal, inflexible thinking of the self without the Other”, and is thus synonymous with what Glissant calls a creolization of new cultures and possibilities. [25] Glissant also draws on Paul’s declaration in his letters to Corinthians that he approaches those to whom he speaks God’s word “in weakness” and “trembling” to imagine “what no human mind has conceived” before (1 Corinthians 2. 3, 9). And for Vattimo, the weakness of poetry is in its embodiment of “echoes, linguistic resonances, and messages” from diverse pasts and others to favour a poetic perception of truth that is created, and not a noetic deciphering of truth as a fixed point that can be unmasked. [26] Or, as William Carlos Williams writes in a poem quoted by Vattimo: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there”. [27]

I am tired of arguments that are anxious about poetry’s status as ordered or disordered linguistics on which we can only ruminate, not act. [28] Acting decisively is itself not always a good thing – Brexit means Brexit, for example: wherever one stands on the leave/remain debate, it has been disastrously played out because of ostensible certainties. Poetry, as Keats famously notes, facilitates moments in which readers are capable of being in uncertainty, and can imagine what it would be like to think weakly. I’m especially interested in poems that enact a kenotic weak thinking of a life that is charitable towards the oppressed, marginalized and those met with violence or hostility. [29] Vattimo looks to a poetics that ungrounds structures of ill-will to bring together the liturgical, civic and political in lines that affectively empty the narrator, dissolving the transcendent authority, not only of the unified God, but of the autocratic speaker or reader. He calls this the “cosmic” nature of poetry, one that asserts a form of engagement and prophecy to sing prayerfully of what might come in the discernment of the diversity of the world.

“Gnosticism I”

I’ve chosen Anne Carson’s “Gnosticism I” as an example of kenotic poetry because it both enacts and comments on a weak thinking enabled by the shattering of the poetic word. [30] Like Vattimo, she works within a Catholic frame, but is always rethinking and breaking this frame in her work, and describes God through weakness, confessing that she has “a relationship with that emptiness where God would be if God were available, but God isn’t . . . he’s not a being of a kind that would fit into our availability . . . not an available instrument of anything we need or do. Which isn’t the same as saying ‘not existing’”. [31] Her 2005 volume, Decreation, in which “Gnosticism I” appears, addresses this unavailability through a poetic speech, syntax and form that de-creates, eclipses, and weakens the self. It does so by removing expected reading structures from the book and throwing a variety of different forms at the reader:  several sequences of poetry, an ode on sleep, a screenplay on Abelard and Heloise, essays on the sublime, Samuel Beckett, solar eclipses and mysticism, a libretto, and a sketch for a documentary. [32] It also removes any authorial presence from the text, a rejection of a poetry of the sublime, in which the narrator engages strong thinking to transcend his human state. Carson instead disperses the self to track its emptying into the other, as she does in “Gnosticism I”, exploring a dream of the word “bird” to access its meaning, not as definition, but as event:

Heaven’s lips! I dreamed
of a page in a book containing the word bird and I
entered bird.
Bird grinds on,

grinds on, thrusting against black. Thrusting
wings, thrusting again, hard
banks slap against it either side, that bird was exhausted.

Still, beating, working its way and below in dark woods
small creatures
leap. Rip

at food with scrawny lips.
Lips at night.
Nothing guiding it, bird beats on, night wetness on it.
A lion looks up.
Smell of adolescence in these creatures, this ordinary
night for them. Astonishment

inside me like a separate person,
sweat-soaked. How to grip.
For some people a bird sings, feathers shine. I just get this this.

The opening phrase “Heaven’s lips” establishes the poem as that sung from a holy space, one that does not transcend reality, but instead allows for a dreaming of physical things – “a page in a book containing the word bird”. The arrival of the word into thought and then language is itself a kenosis, a descent of the bird into time and thinking, to create interaction and relationship with that which struggles to come into being, “beating, working its way and below in dark woods”. This reference to “beating” takes us back to the word “debate” with which I started, the sense of meaning as that which comes through fight and contestation. But Carson’s beating is blind as the bird moves along and almost on the bed of the forest floor, close enough to sense “small creatures” leaping and eating. As a “lion looks up” Carson makes reference to the lion-like creature in Revelation 4 chanting “Holy, holy, holy” (Revelation 4. 7-8) and the lion-faced serpent, Yaldabaoth, a creature Gnostics believe created the world. Carson’s lion brings these divine metaphors down to earth: the lion looks up from the perspective of the ground and the space of the commons to embody a moment of reflection and gradual comprehension, rather than the top-down view of those who reside above. [33]

As the poem concludes, its kenosis deepens, and the narrator gestures to the bird, not as an object outside of her to be named and fixed, but as a “this”. The word “this” opens a way for a thinking of event that lets the “this” appear, rather than manipulating or controlling it with more precise or descriptive words. Carson sees the bird as an element of a world in which they both participate, not one that stands independently of her as something to objectively describe.  She neither fetishizes the bird as a symbol of transcendence nor presents it as part of a catalogue of things in the world.  If Heidegger reminds us in “The Origin of the Work of Art” (1935) that “at bottom, the ordinary is not ordinary; it is extra-ordinary”, then Carson’s “ordinary night” triggers “Astonishment”, a catalyst for a looking back on herself as a “separate person”, an overcoming of metaphysical being for a weakened self. [34] The final stanza’s clause “How to grip” is not a question, but a statement that provokes reflection on what kind of perception we should cling to: “For some people a bird sings, feathers shine. I just get this this”. Here the poem asks, not why should being be, or why is there something and not nothing, but what is the “this” of “being” in the moment of the poem, one that struggles to eliminate the metaphors of strength and clarity the reader desires.

In doing so Carson uses poetry to think the elusive, pushing at distinctions between the real and the imaginary to approach the unknown as a way of expanding the boundaries of knowledge to include the uncertain and mysterious. She does not express experience in a way we can consume or quickly make sense of, but asks the question of being and thinking per se to disclose other ways of thinking and conversing with the human and non-human. Both Carson and Vattimo embrace a weak thinking that shares with neurosis – as well as Sedgwick’s reparative reading – an emptying out of strong thinking that proposes a non-aggressive, non-angst ridden style of critique that repairs rather than is continually on the attack. Despite Vattimo proposing this in 1985, and Sedgwick in 1995, strong thinking remains dominant, and suggests that recourse to the being-in-uncertainty poetry offers is as urgent as ever.

As a last word, I’d like to note that the interdiscipline of Christian theology has embraced weakness in a way other fields have not, not least through writers like the Derridean John Caputo, who describes weak thinking as a way of redressing Christianity as a “holy undecidability between insider and outsider”. [35] At the end of his book, The Weakness of God, Caputo asks –  who is in and who is out of the kingdom of God? – “Not the insiders,” he says, “who take the kingdom for granted and who think it enough to have been invited without having to show up”, but rather:

the outsiders are in, the ones who have no papers to present, who cannot prove that they are card-carrying members of the religions of the Book, whose names do not appear on any official guest list, who do not have an official address to which we could have mailed the invitation. … The oxen and fatted calves have been prepared for “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind”, Luke says (14. 13); and on Matthew’s version, for “all whom they found, both good and bad” (22. 10), straight and not so straight, gay and not so gay, repentant and unrepentant, male and female, orthodox and heterodox, constructionists and deconstructionists, theists and atheists. [36]

And also neurotics and not-so-neurotics. The “divine indiscriminacy” that allows for multiple views to be heard without fear of aggressive reprise is modelled in this kingdom, but it is one with which we still struggle in our defined and defended positions. But while the weakest forms of thinking and writing remain the most vulnerable to dismissal and attack, they remain the most willing to address the disorienting and disruptive moment in which we live.

Notes

 

[1] Sarah Schulman, Conflict is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016), ebook.

 

[2] Schulman, Conflict is Not Abuse, ebook.

 

[3] Middle English: via Old French from Latin dis- (expressing reversal) + battere ‘to fight’.

 

[4] On their terminology website, the DoD define critical vulnerability as “an aspect of a critical requirement … vulnerable to direct or indirect attack”; a critical requirement is the “means for a critical capability to be fully operational”; a critical capability is an “enabler for a centre of gravity to function”; and a centre of gravity, or COG, is a “source of power that provides moral or physical strength, freedom of action or will to act”.

 

[5] Both, however, are close to Heidegger’s alternative to calculative reason, that of meditative thinking that brings being into play, rather than takes being as the subject of external study.

 

[6] Gianni Vattimo, The End of Modernity: Nihilism and Hermeneutics in Post-modern Culture [1985], trans. Jon R. Snyder (Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988), p. 76.

 

[7] Gianni Vattimo, Nihilism and Emancipation: Ethics, Politics, and Law, ed. Santiago Zabala, trans. William McCuiag (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), p. 27.

 

[8] See Peter Carravetta, “What is ‘Weak Thought’? The Original Theses and Context of il pensiero debole”, in Gianna Vattimo and Pier Aldo Rovatti, Weak Thought, trans. Peter Carravetta (New York: SUNY Press, 1983), pp. 1-38 (pp. 29-30).

 

[9] Carravetta, “What is ‘Weak Thought’?” p. 29.

 

[10] Gianni Vattimo, Belief [1996], trans. Luca D’Isanto and David Webb (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), pp. 70, 20.

 

[11] Thomas G. Guarino, Vattimo and Theology (London: Contiuum, 2009), p. 7.

 

[12] Vattimo, End of Modernity, p. xxviii, p. 172.

 

[13] Guarino, Vattimo and Theology, p. 10.

 

[14] Vattimo, Belief, p. 61; Guarino, Vattimo and Theology, pp. 15-16.

 

[15] Guarino, Vattimo and Theology, p. 18.

 

[16] Vattimo, Belief, p. 39.

 

[17] Guarino, Vattimo and Theology, pp. 22-23.

 

[18] John Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct? The Good News of Postmodernity for the Church (Michigan: Baker Academic, 2007), p. 81.

 

[19] Vattimo, Belief, p. 95.

 

[20] Vattimo, Belief, p. 98.

 

[21] Vattimo, End of Modernity, p. 66.

 

[22] Vattimo, End of Modernity, pp. 66-67.

 

[23] Richard Capobianco, Heidegger’s Way of Being (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), p. 9.

 

[24] Peter Carravetta, Prefaces to the Diaphora: Rhetorics, Allegory, and the Interpretation of Postmodernity (Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1991), p. 218.

 

[25] Chris Bongie, “Édouard Glissant: Dealing in Globality”, in Charles Forsdick and David Murphy, ed., Postcolonial Thought in the French-Speaking World (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009), pp. 90-101 (pp. 91-92).

 

[26] Vattimo and Rovatti, “Dialectics, Difference, Weak Thought”, pp. 44-45; Gianni Vattimo, “Dialectics, Difference, Weak Thought”, in Vattimo and Rovatti, Weak Thought, pp. 39-52 (p. 50).

 

[27] William Carlos Williams’ “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”, quoted in Gianni Vattimo, Art’s Claim to Truth, trans. Luca D’Isanto (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), p. 164.

 

[28] Umberto Eco, “Weak Thought and the Limits of Interpretation”, in Santiago Zabala, ed., Weakening Philosophy: Essays in Honour of Gianni Vattimo (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007), pp. 37-56 (p. 129).

 

[29] John Milbank, The Word Made Strange: Theology, Language, Culture (Oxford: Blackwells, 1997), p. 32: For the theologian, John Milbank, poetry is “integral” to “Christian practice and redemption” because of its capacity to re-narrate and explain “human history under the sign of the cross”, that is, to re-think the past weakly as an “antidote to modernity”.

 

[30] Anne Carson, Decreation (New York: Vintage Books, 2005).

 

[31] Will Aitken, “Interviews: The Art of Poetry No. 88: Anne Carson”, The Paris Review, 171 (2004), http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5420/the-art-of-poetry-no-88-anne-carson

 

[32] Dan Disney, “Sublime Disembodiment? Self-as-Other in Anne Carson’s Decreation”, Orbis Litterarum, 67. 1 (2012), 25-38 (p. 26).

 

[33] Dan Disney, “Sublime Disembodiment?” p. 31.

 

[34] Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art”, in Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper Perennial, 2001), pp. 15-86, p. 53.

 

[35] John Caputo, The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2006), p. 278; Martin Heidegger, “Overcoming Metaphysics,” in The End of Philosophy, trans. J. Stambaugh (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), p. 91.

 

[36] Caputo, Weakness of God, pp. 277-278.

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