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Benjamin Noys (Chichester), “The Cosmogony of Revolution: Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters and Anti-Neurosis” (Neurosis, Poetry, and the Present, 18 March 2017)

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.  

The Cosmogony of Revolution: Diane de Prima’s Revolutionary Letters

Benjamin Noys (Chichester)


Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters are exhortations, instructions, reflections, analyses, provocations, meditations and speculations that are all directed towards revolution. [1] ‘Direction’ might be taken in a double sense: directed towards making the revolution happen and directed towards guiding us in a revolutionary process. In this the Letters remain somewhere in between the performative – exhorting the revolution, or what Robespierre called ‘the particular duty of hastening its pace’ [2] – and the constative, describing the revolution that is happening and providing knowledge of the revolution. Primarily written from the 1960s to the early 1970s, although they extend to 2003, these poems were also performances as well as texts and provide a rich and dense conceptualization of revolution. In brief, di Prima’s anarchist vision of revolution is one guided by immediacy and transparency. All that separates us must be destroyed: money, the media, synthetic foods, schools, and the ‘plastic constructs’ (#22; p.35) of our selves under capitalism. The letters are a close examination of the process and course of the revolution. They are the poems of revolution and, of course, the poems of revolution that did not or has not taken place.

What interests me is that the Revolutionary Letters are defiantly anti-neurotic texts, incarnating what Dale Smith calls a ‘heavy optimism’. [3] While written ‘in the gathering madness’ (p.5) these poems celebrate the possibilities of health (‘the map: first goal is health’, #43; p.56) and dismiss ‘shrinks / pimps for this decadence’ (#19; p.32). Neurosis would be the disease or discontent of a civilization that must be destroyed so we can ‘reach / instinctive man’ (#15; p.27). In this the Letters belong to those currents of the 1960s that reject normative conceptions of psychopathology, although unlike many of those currents they also reject any celebration of ‘extreme’ states of ‘pathology’, notably psychosis, as evidence of superior insight or superior ‘health’. The Letters have, at least on my reading, no place for neurosis. This exclusion seems to me important for grasping the Letters and their resonance in the present moment.


In order to explore the Letters I want to read them in an impersonal way; this is ironically Deleuzian (ironic due to Deleuze’s tendency to reject neurosis and ironic due to my tendency to reject Deleuze). It is also faithful to a certain reading di Prima proposes: ‘Archetypes have their own drama: a vast uncharted cycle of Comedia dell’Arte, which they play out through us, without our informed consent. And with, ultimately, no concerns for human purpose’. [4] This also suggests di Prima’s Jungianism, which might be supposed as one source of her rejection of the Freudian category of neurosis. [5] It should be added, however, that in Loba, her later exploration of female deities and archetypes, di Prima does refer to the authority of an ‘imaginary Jungian scholar’ on several occasions, suggesting some dissatisfaction with Jungian analysis. [6] My reading is concerned with this lack of concern, this playing out of the archetypes, of revolution and of the poems themselves. [7] While I will refer to di Prima for convenience and to avoid arch formulations like ‘the text says’ or ‘the poem expresses’, I am aiming at an impersonal reading in which di Prima is something like the conceptual persona of the revolution. [8]

The Cosmogony of Revolution

In a late letter, number #75, written in the early 1980s and subtitled ‘RANT’, di Prima suggests:

You cannot write a single line w/out a cosmology

a cosmogony

laid out, before all eyes (#75; p. 103)

Poetry cannot be written without a theory of the origin of the universe. I also want to suggest that the Revolutionary Letters are a ‘cosmology’ or ‘cosmogony’ of revolution: a thinking of revolution as origin, as birth of the universe (returning also, as we will see, to the older meaning of revolution as the revolving of astral bodies). In fact, I would suggest that there is an identification of poetry and revolution, so not much the old dichotomy of ‘poetry at the service of the revolution’ or the ‘revolution in the service of poetry’, but poetry = revolution. In di Prima’s formulation: ‘IF THE WORD HAS POWER YOU SHALL NOT STAND / AMERICA’ (#40; p.53). Both poetry and revolution are works of imagination, both are a ‘whole’, as di Prima puts in, in the context of what she calls the war on the imagination. We all have a ‘poetics’, we are all involved in the war on the imagination, and the work is part of this war. Therefore, when unpacking di Prima’s Letters we are unpacking a cosmogony. This use of the term might be considered a retrospective imposition on the urgency of the early Letters, which are often practically oriented. [9] The early Letters do, however, still embody a cosmogony, even as that poetic thinking shifts and turns, as we will see, with the flowing and ebbing of revolution.


The ‘negative’ element of this cosmogony is, as I have suggested, the destruction of all the separations imposed upon us by capitalist society. The Letters range across the destruction of these separations. So, in Letter #9, we are called to ‘destroy the concept of money / as we know it, get rid of interest, / savings, inheritance / (Pound’s money, as dated coupons that come in the mail / to everyone, and are void in 30 days / is still a good idea)’ (#9; p.18). Di Prima also targets other forms of mediation, notably schools and the media: SMASH THE MEDIA, I said / AND BURN THE SCHOOLS’ (#11, p.22). Following this logic to its end point Di Prima argues the revolutionary ‘himself’ is perhaps the last and final mediation to be destroyed by the revolution: ‘for every revolutionary must at last will his own destruction / rooted as he is in the past he sets out to destroy’ (#12; p.23). This anti-separation logic is in keeping with the insurrectional forms of anarchism, which aim at immediate combat and are transmitted to Di Prima via her Italian ‘Grandpa’ (pp.5-6). It also converges with a range of 60s tropes of revolution that critique the ‘spectacle’ as general form of capitalist dominance through the separation of life from its activity (the Situationists), and general critiques of technology as force of separation and violence (from Marcuse to Norman Mailer).

Second, the poems engage with revolution as total also in the sense of engaging with the abuse of nature as well as human beings. Di Prima shows an awareness of the ecological, as a political matter, that has become insistent in the present moment. So, Di Prima suggests a concept of revolution in which ‘we will all feel the pinch’ and ‘of the ‘necessities’, luxuries / will have to go by the board’ (#17, p.29; see also #34, p.47). While I think true, this is hardly a popular sentiment in our time in which ‘fully automated luxury communism’ is lauded. [10] In fact, Di Prima offers a defiant rebuff to accelerationists. She suggests that we repudiate cybernetic and futurist visions of revolution, as a ‘cybernetic civilization’ will be unable to ‘show us our root / our original face’ (#33, p.46). We have to ‘turn off the power, turn on the /stars at night’ (#34, p.47). Those who premise revolution on ‘science fiction utopia’ are ‘the enemy’ who are willing ‘to sacrifice the planet’ (#19; p.31).

Third, the revolution is natural, in both the sense of a return to nature and in the older sense of the notion of revolution as cyclical, particularly in regard to astral bodies. [11] Letter #41 is a key statement: ‘Revolution: a turning, as the earth / turns, among planets’ (p.54). This turning is also a turning from the dark to the light, to a dawn, and so revolution turns and returns. The turn us also a turn to the beginning, to the root, as it is not ‘western civilization, but civilization itself / is the disease which is eating us’ (#32, p.45). We have to ask ‘how far back / are we willing to go?’ (#33, p.46) The future revolution will result in a new tribal society in which our ‘great-grandchildren’ will be new ‘American aborigines’ (#24, p.37). Revolution cycles to the fact that ‘MAN IS INNOCENT & BEAUTIFUL’ (#36, p.49) and that ‘left to themselves’ people will return to the ‘touch of love’ (#4, p.11). The origin of the universe is in question in the process of writing revolution. The return is one to a cosmic order of birth and death, of return and revolution. This is the final ‘whole’ to which Di Prima’s work speaks; a defence of the power of imagination as the core of the revolution.


These conceptualizations, which I have extracted and separated, of course run together. The attack on separation involves a search for the moment of non-separation and a desire to return to that moment. Hence this is a logical process, which we can also see in how primitivist and anti-civ logics emerged out of critiques of the spectacle and Adornonian critiques of society as absolute untruth, pushing back to find a moment before separation and the fall: from when the Russian revolution went bad to when the Neolithic revolution went bad. [12] Beneath the cobblestones, the beach; or beneath capitalist mediations or the mediations of civilization, nature; such conceptualizations are familiar enough objects of critique. [13] The Letters, however, motivate this notion of return as the form of integrity and the whole violently disrupted by civilization and capitalism. [14]

The completion of the cosmogony of revolution is one of return, of revolution as a return to other forms and logics oppressed by ‘reason’ and ‘science’; ‘to seek help in realms we have been taught to think of / as ‘mythological’ (#45, p.58). We must: ‘Seek out / the ancient texts : alchemy / homeopathy, secret charts / or early Rosicrucians (Giordanisti)’ and ‘LOOK TO THE ‘HERESIES’ OF EUROPE FOR / BLOODROOTS’ (#59; p.76).[15] These heretical forms of knowledge posit another tradition: one which rediscovers the ‘whole’ and which grounds the current revolution (of the 1960s) in a longer process of heresy and revolution as a series of struggles for totality and wholeness. Cosmogony is the birth of a new universe that is the return of the old universe. We must ‘Rewrite the calendar’ (#59; p.76) to discover and recover a new sense of history and time.

The Course of Revolution

What, then, is the course of the revolution? In one obvious sense the Letters trace the course of revolution as return, as I have said, but also, due to circumstance, the course of revolution as waning or ebbing. In fact, the Letters offer a complex temporality of revolution, not least because di Prima concertedly questioned logics of the revolution as unfolding, as another step within the modern, a temporality that we might characterize as the one of bourgeois revolutions, according to Marx, [16] and which di Prima links to science:

As soon as we submit

to a system based on causality, linear time

we submit, again, to the old value, plunge again

into slavery. … (#51; p.66)

Linear causality is rejected to open up the problem of revolution to alternative temporal modes. This is the refusal of a scientific cosmogony, which only has the point ‘to drain / hope of contact or change’ (#63; p.80).


Certainly, return and revolution as revolving of astral bodies is one of the primary forms of this alternative temporality. This cyclical temporality, of the turning earth, is a return that is also a disruption. It has to differentiate itself from the cyclical form of capital and the cyclical form of defeat: ‘History repeats itself / only if we let it.’ (#62; p.79) In the Letters most explicit statement of the return to an aboriginal state di Prima contrasts ‘the American aborigines’ with ‘the affluent / highly civilized Africans’ who will now be trading for American artifacts (#24; p.37). The reversal and return is a specific one: a return to repeal the long history of American violence, to overcome and obliterate the particular settler-colonial logic of the United States.

The Letters also attend to the course of revolution as one that is explicitly transitional. In Letter #10 di Prima suggests that:

These are transitional years and the dues

will be heavy.

Change is quick but revolution

will take a while,

America has not even begun as yet.

This continent is seed. (p.20)

The revolution will not be immediate, but ‘will take a while’ and the process of the germination of revolution, its growth, is one that will require a long transition. Payment will have to be made, ‘dues / will be heavy’, to this long process. In that sense the Letters are a paying of these dues to this process. ‘Immediacy’ as a form should not be seen as speed, ‘Change is quick’, as a kind of ‘reverse accelerationism’ in which we speed into the past.

The Letters are didactic, they are lessons in revolution. Certainly they reject various errors that would put the revolution off course, from cybernetic utopias to the rejection of violence. At the same time di Prima also notes that:

NO ONE WAY WORKS, it will take all of us

shoving at the thing from all sides

to bring it down. (#8; p.17)

The course of revolution retains this unpredictable element, veers off course and requires multiple courses. The return is not simple. In Letter #45 di Prima notes:

Best not to place bodies in the line of fire

but to seek other means: study the Sioux

learn not to fuck up as they did–another ghost dance

started on Haight Street in 1967

We ain’t seen the end of it yet (#45; p.58)

We are not to repeat previous failures of revolution, but to make a true revolution.

It is worth remembering di Prima’s words from a text considering the work of the alchemist Paracelsus: ‘The whole of modern criticism has as its aim the softening of the statements of poets, alchemists, philosophers, into something symbolical and therefore twice removed and digestible without effort and without faith.’ [17] Letter #46 reads:

And as you learn the magic, learn to believe it

Don’t be ‘surprised’ when it works, you undercut

your power. (p.59)

This must be remembered. My work as critic is displacing this belief, which I don’t share, [18] and is vital to the work of the Letters. This is why, again, the Letters are, literally, a cosmogony of birth for us and for nature, undivided.

Revolution Redux

Di Prima’s Letters have been influential on contemporary poets. [19] For Joshua Clover di Prima’s Letters ‘comprise the great modern georgic’ and a ‘simple lesson’ in the practicalities of revolution. [20] Here what is important are those Letters of instruction, which tell us the lessons of revolution (‘hoard matches, we aren’t good / at rubbing sticks together any more’, #3, p.10). While I will over-generalise, and not pursue the multiple paths of influence of the Letters, I want to suggest this practicality and immediacy is one form in which the Letters themselves return. The convergence is under the sign of immediate revolt, anarchist and insurrectional for di Prima, today conceived in terms of the ‘riot form’. [21] Here process is conceived of in the mode of surviving such insurrectional moments and so di Prima’s Letters return again as the handbook to uprising. In the case of Sean Bonney’s Letters against the Firmament, this return is also cosmological and not simply one of immediacy and process; although, as the title suggests, the cosmological is now under the sign of antagonism as well as harmony.

I want to be critical, however, in suggesting this return of revolution in the return of the Revolutionary Letters is also the return of a simplification. Against neurosis, with its tendency to delay, prevarication, and sexual pathology, we have a return to texts of anti-neurosis. While this is certainly a vital act of recovery I suggest that this recovery is limited in the invocation of immediacy and simplicity. The Letters attest, if anything, to the complex course of revolution and to this complexity as a problem of transition. [22] They may do so in a mode of simplicity, in a direct and didactic form, but this does not resolve the problem. Also, this return is itself mediated, in the form of a rewriting or reworking of the Letters and, obviously, a selective one at that. In this selection and inheriting a certain image of the Letters is constructed, which conforms to a different cosmogony of revolution.


To simplify dramatically, di Prima’s cosmogony is one of a return to a moment or form of life before abstraction. In contrast, I would suggest that the current adoption of the Letters is premised on a construction of revolution as a form after abstraction. While di Prima rejects a linear conception of revolution, the current forms of immediacy, while also chary of claims to linearity and necessity, suggest an exit from abstractions after the revolution. There is convergence here, but the tones of return and rejection of ‘civilization’, except perhaps in the not insignificant form of ‘capitalist civilization’, are much less present. This could be taken as a corrective to di Prima’s ‘primitivism’, but I’d also suggest a tendency to leave behind the complexity of the Letters and their ambiguities, tensions, and re-formulations in the process of (failed) revolution.

The return of revolution that occurs in the Letters, the return of revolution as return, suggests that returning to the Letters as the simple statement of revolution will already involve a misapprehension. Yet this gesture of return to a ‘simpler’ more ‘hopeful’ moment, which we could trace across a number of theoretical and critical contemporary projects, appears to be one that is difficult to resist. In the desire to avoid the neurotic entanglement with abstraction, which is part of the path that revolution takes, a sudden anti-neurotic break appears. While that simplification may be pushed into the past text or moment, this is our simplification and, ironically, licensed by this work of abstraction. Now is the time, it is claimed, when the course of revolution can run smooth. While I risk on insisting on complexity for the sake of it, something I regard as ideological, it seems to me that we have to more fully grasp the moment of simplicity as moment of negation and affirmation, as a certain work of production. This is I have returned, again, to the Letters. This is why, again, we have to return.


[1] Diane di Prima, Revolutionary Letters (San Francisco: Last Gasp, 2007). Further page references in text by letter number and page number. A less complete edition can be found online:

[2] Qtd. in Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, trans. and intro. Keith Tribe (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), p.12.

[3] Dale Smith, ‘Giving Everything: On Diane di Prima’, Los Angeles Review of Books, 26 January 2013:

[4] Ibid.

[5] I owe this point to Daniel Katz. This ‘Jungianism’ also overlaps with Gilles Deleuze, which perhaps accounts for this consonance of impersonality and persona, see Christian Kerslake, ‘Rebirth through Incest: On Deleuze’s Early Jungianism’, Angelaki 9.1 (2004): 135–157.

[6] See Diane di Prima, Loba (New York: Penguin, 1998), p.83, p.94, and p.165.

[7] This is akin to the method of reading poetry proposed by Judith Balso, Affirmation of Poetry, trans. Drew S. Burk (Minneapolis: Univocal, 2014), especially pp.97-101. Balso remarks ‘the thought of the poem is wholly within the poem itself’ (p.98).

[8] This might be linked to what Balso calls ‘impersonal lyricism’ (p.78).

[9] See Letters #3, #5, #7, #8, #14, #15, #18


[11] ‘Revolution, at first derived from the natural movement of the stars and thus introduced into the natural rhythm of history as a cyclical metaphor, henceforth attained an irreversible direction’, Koselleck, Futures Past, p.23.

[12] Deleuze and Guattari remarked sarcastically that ‘Psychoanalysis is like the Russian Revolution; we don’t know when it started going bad. We have to keep going back further’ (55), Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), although it might be said they fell victim to the same search.

[13] For those of you interested, the anarchist/communist magazine Wildcat used Derrida’s deconstruction of Rousseau, from Of Grammatology, as a means to critique anti-civ/primitivism.

[14] For a ‘savage’ critique that uses the state of nature against biopolitical and philosophical imaginations of this state see Federico Luisetti, ‘Notes on the Biopolitical State of Nature’, Paragraph 39.1 (2016): 108–121.

[15] See also Diane di Prima, ‘Paracelsus: An Appreciation’, in The Alchemical Tradition in the Late Twentieth Century, ed. Richard Grossinger (Berkley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1991), pp.26–33.


[17] di Prima, ‘Paracelsus: An Appreciation’, p.30.

[18] As Danowski and Viveiros de Castro remark, I share some premises with the accelerationists and, by implication, too many. Deborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, The Ends of the World, trans. Rodrigo Nunes (Cambridge: Polity, 2017), p.51.

[19] For example: Joshua Clover’s ‘Haecceity’, is a rewriting of Revolutionary Letter #19, see Joshua Clover, Red Epic (Oakland, CA: Commune Editions, 2015), p.18; Sean Bonney uses di Prima as an epigraph for his Lamentations, see Sean Bonney, Letters against the Firmament (London: Enitharmon Press, 2015), p.15; Verity Spott ‘Getting out of Hell – after Sappho & Diane di Prima & Arlen Riley Wilson & C. S. Lewis, Two Torn Halves Blog, 28 November 2016:

[20] Joshua Clover, ‘Five Book Plan: Radical Poetry’, Verso Blog, 24 May 2016:

[21] Joshua Clover, Riot Strike Riot (London: Verso, 2016); Bonney, Letters, especially pp.113-117.

[22] di Prima remarks, in her text on Paracelsus, that: ‘The world into which Paracelsus was born was at least as complicated as our own’, ‘Paracelsus: An Appreciation’, p.26.

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Daniel Katz (Warwick), “Real Ruins: Modernist Neurosis, Impersonal Politics” (Neurosis, Poetry, and the Present, 18 March 2017)

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.  


Real Ruins: Modernist Neurosis, Impersonal Politics

Daniel Katz (Warwick)

Note: This talk is a preliminary sketch which forms part of a longer work in progress. Please do not cite it directly. If you want to know more about where there is going, I’d be delighted to hear from you at Thanks, Dan

It should surprise no one that after months if not years of feeling unheard and unhearable, of being certain I had an important intellectual position to which no one would listen, that as soon as Ben and I had successfully organised this event, when I sat down to write out my talk on the importance of neurosis, I was confronted with an intractable writer’s block; convinced that, now that I had the audience, I had absolutely nothing to say. I could not speak, paralyzed by the very removal of the obstacle in the face of my desire. My thoughts turned to that very early apparition of a first-person narrator in The Waste Land, when the unnamed figure facing the hyacinth girl loses the track of his desire and freezes— freezes before the inadequacy of any object to that desire:

“You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
“They called me the hyacinth girl”
—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden, Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.”

The question to be thought about today is the political potential of that moment, those moments, all moments that resemble them: the moments of loss and remainder, and the relationship of poetry to them. Along with the possibility that valorising such moments might be the only way out of a Nietzschean cycle of ressentiment, disappointment, violent displacements and disastrous forms of acting out, as we rage for plenitude. Indeed, if modernist poetry in English in fact begins with Eliot—as was so often said through so much of the 20th century we’ve largely forgotten it now—it could be suggested that modernist poetry begins with neurosis: not only the catalogue of symptoms, mostly hysteric, seen in The Waste Land, but even more, the neurotic monologue of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which equates everyday middle-class unhappiness, mostly sexual, with the poetic itself. And it could also be suggested that the ultimate stances of the heroic heterosexual white male American modernist poets can very largely be read as reaction-formations against the neurotic core of early modernism, each offering its own form of compensatory plenitude: here I think of the older Eliot’s reactionary, nostalgic vision of an ethnically and religiously- based social totality; of Pound’s paranoid murderous anti-Semitic rage against the unpayable mortgage placed on the earthly paradise; of Stevens’ totalising postulations of aestheticist transcendence, based on the tyranny of a universal subject of which he is the ultimate model; and of Williams’ liberal democratic pluralism, which only survives through a barrier against adequate thought on structural inequalities, and the eroticisation of all forms of social exchange (though I might suggest that Williams maintains the most authentic relationship to his neurosis, as despite itself most of his poetry screams that in fact there can be no sexual relation). For The Waste Land, its famous notes notwithstanding, Frazer’s Golden Bough is probably not most crucial in its references to over-stressed “fertility rituals.” Rather, as the title of the poem’s first section makes clear, where Frazer enters most decisively is with regard to “The Burial of the Dead,” that is, all attempts to make them stay that way, to quench the ambivalence triggered by the jubilation over the brutal narcissistic fact that however much we loved them we’re glad it’s them that died and not us. The Waste Land is most definitely a ghost story. And more than 100 years since “Prufrock,” and closing in on The Waste Land’s centenary, an unlaid modernist ghost is haunting modernist theory: neurosis.

In some ways, at least, that is the reading provided by one of the mid-century’s crucial texts on poetics, Robert Duncan’s The H.D. Book, and it is not for nothing that it’s a queer poet writing on a woman who offers this analysis. For Duncan, modernist poetry as a repressive, anti-neurotic movement (and therefore a catastrophically symptomatic one) goes back to its origins in Pound’s imagism and then The Waste Land. Even in the latter, according to Duncan, the real transgressive possibilities already struggle unsuccessfully against the means of their containment. The Waste Land’s real problem, Duncan argues, was the insistence of Eliot and Pound that it succeed as a poem:

The poem suffered in its very success. It had been cut and reorganised to succeed, and had lost in its conscious form whatever unconscious form had made for the confusion of sequence, the “miscellaneous pieces” that did not seem to fit. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” Out of whatever real ruin that threatened, Pound and Eliot had agreed finally upon the monumental artifice of a ruin, a ruin with an outline. (225)

For Duncan, the true promise of The Waste Land can only be fulfilled 25 years later with Pound’s Pisan Cantos, where the catastrophe is uncontainable (this comes close to the paradigm of a heroic madness to be opposed to the minor form of neurosis, which Benjamin Noys has discussed in his introduction to this event). But as much as The Waste Land, the entire imagist project for Duncan was an exercise in containment, not least of a feminine and queer element which were excessive almost by definition. In his narrative of H. D.’s writing life, then, for Duncan it is very much the turn to Freud which frees H. D. from the limitations imposed by Pound:

It was Freud’s role in H.D.’s second initiation to bring her from the formative prohibitions that had given rise to the modern style, from the stage which Pound’s “A Few Don’ts” represents, into a work which involved exactly those prohibited areas— repetition, remplissage, or sentiment. Associations must here not be cut away, dismissed, paraphrased or omitted, but dealt with, searched out until they yielded under new orders their meanings. Where the modern artist had sought a clean, vital, energetic, ascetic form—repression and compression—Freud sought the profound, delving in unclean thoughts, depressions, neuroses, voluptuous dreams. The Freudian permission or command saw form as a swarming ground. (384)

What Duncan outlines here, very clearly, is not a poetry of “health.” On the contrary, the need to lay claim to that sort of “health” is the very basis of the catastrophic pseudo- Nietzschean reactionary positions of Lawrence and Pound, if not Eliot. Nor is it a poetry of liberation strictly speaking, as might be implied by some of the above. As Duncan writes later: “Free association, it was once called; but Freudian analyses have shown that associations are not free but binding. In the process of personation the events about us are transformed into knots, possibility is tied to possibility until a net is woven writhing with the psychic energies that before had been oceanic” (608). No association is free to the analyst who wants to do a good job, one might say, or the poet. And meanwhile, if Duncan asserts that neuroses must be “permitted,” as he states above, “neurosis” itself is not allowed to stand as a simply positive or transgressive term for Duncan, though everywhere he does assume a somewhat Adornian valorisation of maladaptation, madness and unhappiness as important signs of resistance, as opposed to the normative “sanity” he attributes to Stevens and Eliot. Rather, for Duncan the neurotic element is a dialectical negativity which is in this way bound to the creation of poetry. Duncan defines the “gifted” poet literally: she is above all the poet who is willing to receive the gift, as he puts it; to make herself a “host” for the essential otherness of poetry. On the other hand, the “neurotic” (Duncan’s term) is she or he who “cannot and will not receive” (386). Yet for Duncan, this “no” which refuses and resists “is as important in the etiology of the artist as that which receives: the will to distinction, toward the self-containment of the work of art” (386). Neurosis, then, as the need to leave a trace of one’s own—the indispensable narcissistic supplement, without which none of us would be here, in this room, today, at all.

But if Duncan stresses a poetry of Freudian “permission” and neurosis, this does not lead him to valorise a poetry that would be based on the self-expression of the lived experience of the neurotic individual. For Duncan, the Freudian “permission” which includes neurosis leads to the recusal of the postulation of the lyric “I” as a centre around which neurotic poetry must turn, and this in a manner with clear political implications. Duncan writes:

But self-expression and likewise self-possession in verse would set up an “I” that is the private property of the writer in the place of the “I” in which all men may participate. (559)

“Self-possession”: two alienations go hand in here— that of the misrecognition integral to locating mastery in the authority of the conscious ego, and that of the auto-reification which comes from thinking of the self in terms of ownership and property. A truly communal writing can only come from beyond them both, as the “I” belongs to the unconscious on one side and the community on the other. But note also the specificity of Duncan’s language: as opposed to the self as “private property” Duncan proposes not the I as enlightenment universal, but rather the I as common property, as offered to the communal project—the hysterical gift of the dispossessed self, one in which the poetic body of the text might be shared by all, in a new version of the totem feast. For Duncan, then, “self-possession” in the psychological sense—the reification of the coherent ego, the firm policing of its boundaries—is inherently allied to the conception of one’s self as a possession, to be bartered for personal gain on the literary market-place, and whose value might actually be increased by a little bit of neurotic spice. This opposition to the self and writing as private property is found in one of Duncan’s most powerful evocations of the role of the poet:

The poet, too, is a worker, for the language, even as the field and the factory, belongs to the productive orders and means in which the communal good lies. All that is unjust, all that has been taken over for private exploitation from the commune, leaves us restless with time, divorced from the eternal. If I had come under the orders of poetry, I saw too that those orders would come into their full volition only when poetry was no longer taken to be a profession and when the poet would be seen to share in the daily labor toward the common need. (67)

Duncan, then, stresses a way of thinking neurosis beyond its status as the private affair of the individual, or as a supplemental attribute of the commodified “I.” It is not only the language, but the so-called expressive self that must belong to the commune.

I’ve dwelt on Duncan as he works these problems out in the early 60s because that period coincides with the heyday of another group of poets who could be seen as following a similar path in their revival of an early-modernist neurosis that High and Heroic modernism militated against or repressed. These, of course, are the so-called confessional poets, who foreground neurosis in a different way: certainly not as a threat to be warded off, denied, or disavowed, but rather as a chronic condition to be managed and contained in a dramatic process of considerable literary interest. What the confessionals reflect above all is the institutionalisation of neurosis as a form of normality; the crucial moment, perhaps, when capitalism looks at the lack it produces as something to be managed on a large-scale, or even as another source of profit in and of itself. If, as many different critics have made clear, confessional poetry is massively informed by both the discourse of psychoanalysis and the institutional practice of psycho-therapy, it is for the most part starkly removed from the mythopoetic, or consideration of foundational collective structures, or investigations into the relationship between the unconscious and the production of language. There is a lot of guilt, but little abjection; desires are insistent and inconvenient, but not fundamentally unbinding or perverse; there is rarely any deep connection made between the political and the personal, and the paradigmatic stance is that of the frustrated and unhappy ego trying rationally and with varying degrees of irony and success to reassert its sovereignty and buck itself up narcissistically. Most ironically, perhaps, to a large extent confessional poetry is indeed interesting symptomatically, but less for the symptomatology of neurosis than for that of the impasse of ego-psychology. Much confessional poetry is a relentless confirmation of Adorno’s critique of “revisionist” psychoanalyts: “For all they endlessly speak of the influence of society on the individual, they forget that not only the individual but the category of individuality itself is a product of society.” Which leads to the endless banality of a psychoanalytic thought unable to distinguish the reality principle from the super-ego. And hand in hand with this is the inability to think of the ego as a production of the unconscious, rather than the foundational seat of self, making Lacan’s criticism of ego psychology just as apt: “I won’t go back over the function of my ‘mirror stage’ here, the first strategic point I developed as an objection to the supposedly ‘autonomous ego’ in favor in psychoanalytic theory, whose academic restoration justified the mistaken proposal to strengthen the ego in a type of treatment diverted thereafter toward successful adaptation—a phenomenon of mental abdication tied to. . . the reduction of an eminent practice to a Good Housekeeping seal of approval attesting to its suitability to the “American way of life.” (684-5). These limitations, in fact, go a long way to explaining the widespread critical disapproval which greeted one of the most compelling poems associated with the confessional movement. I speak here of Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” a poem which is scandalous, from this perspective, for a variety of reasons. First of all, the allegory of a speaking subject in “Daddy” is not the embattled ego doing its best, but rather an enraged and jubilantly regressive subject which makes no gestures towards its own censure. There is no moment of closure and distancing that would allow one to look at the poem as an explosive exercise in catharsis—it is “through” with that position as much as with “Daddy.” Likewise, the regressively infantile position, stressed by the nursery-rhyme-like formal structure, is also explicitly and unrepentantly sexual, if unhappily so; there is no postulation of an adaptative adult “healthy” sexuality that could be separated from this. Even more, the comparisons between patriarchy and Nazism blast the division between the regulatory social order and the individual neurosis on which “adaptative” ego psychology relied, while the line “Every woman adores a fascist” reveals the adaptative norm for women as inherently masochistic in and of itself. Objections to “Daddy” on the grounds that it is less a “work of art” than a “symptom” disregard it for its very achievement, which is not only to resist the pathologisation of justified unhappiness in the great feminist tradition, but also to challenge the acceptable boundaries for artistic neurosis. In other words, for many of her critics, the problem with Plath is not that she’s neurotic, but that she’s neurotic in the wrong way. This can be seen in the crucial manner in which the poem assumes incompatible affective positions in turn. For example, the speaker’s identification with Jewish victims of Nazism prior to her affirmation that every woman adores a fascist is often read by Plath’s critics as a syllogism that implies the poem is suggesting that in some way the Jews “adored” their murderers. But I don’t think that’s the way the poem actually works. Rather, it moves through different positions in different fantasy scenarios, trying out all of them, without reconciling or synthesizing them. The murdered Jew and the adoring sub do not occupy the same place or fulfill the same function, nor do the teacher at the blackboard, the Nazi, and the Vampire. “Daddy” is a tour-de-force tour of the scenography of unconscious fantasy, rather than a dramatic monologue of the ego’s rationalizing discourse of fragile secondary revisions. It is, to cite Duncan again, a “delving into unclean thoughts, depressions, neuroses, voluptuous dreams.” And critics who dismiss it as being too “personal” or for an unseemly mixing of the “personal” and the “historical” miss the point: their hostility towards the poem derives from its unveiling of the impersonal structures from which neurosis—and poetry—emerge.

Of course, the “impersonal” is a foundational term and idea in the aesthetics of T. S. Eliot, the influence of which it is impossible to over-state. There is no space here to examine how “Tradition and the Individual Talent” constantly pulls the idea of impersonality in two directions—one massively normative in relation to a reified tradition which is the ultimate legislator of value in the sayable, the other powerfully heterodox in its suggestion that poetry comes from a constantly shifting space of structural alterity to which the poet must sacrifice her “self-possession,” to use Duncan’s term. But I would like to stress how different both these versions of impersonality are from the economics of Eliot’s equally famous “objective correlative,” which falls back more fully into the expressivist paradigm, if a complicated one. To conclude, however, I want to briefly consider how “impersonality” reappears in Samo Tomsic’s recent book, The Capitalist Unconscious. Tomsic recuses the vision of the unconscious as a “sphere of strictly private life” and a “retreat from the social,” arguing instead that the Freudian unconscious abolishes divisions such as subjective/social and private/public, not “in the sense of the slogan ‘the personal is the political’ but in the sense that the existence and the formal mechanisms of the unconscious depend on the same structures which determine the functioning of social links” (79). This implies that the subject of politics is the subject of the unconscious rather than the subject of the cognition, with the further conclusion that for both Freud and Marx, according to Tomsic, we need this slogan: “the impersonal is the political—namely the impersonal core of the personal” (80). Certainly, since Language Poetry at least, our leftwing poets as political poets are searching for both an impersonalised lyric, as well as a historicised, non-transcendental impersonality. As if they had found Eliot’s “tradition” standing on its head, and were attempting to stand it on its feet again. At the same time, these projects are often deployed in service of the ideal of an improved subject of cognition, and as Tomsic argues quite powerfully, we must not psychologize. The question then would be to think an impersonal neurosis, without reducing the latter to the status of a manifestation of capitalism or the symptom of a political disorder (“false consciousness” or “ideology”). What neurosis might then allow us to think—perhaps in the poetic form of ruins without outlines, or the equally neurotic shape of outlines for non- existent ruins—is the construction of a progressive social order that would take as its grounding neither unobtainable plenitude nor rage-inducing renunciation. For now, “neurosis” is one name for the refusal to accept capitalistic reification, or either of those two alternatives to it. Or to put it another way, if the subject of cognition cannot be the subject of politics, then the subject of neurosis must be.

Works cited

Duncan, Robert. The H. D. Book. University of California Press, 2011.

Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits: The First Complete English Edition. Translated by Bruce Fink. W. W. Norton & Co., 2007.

Tomsic, Samo. The Capitalist Unconscious: Marx and Lacan. Verso, London, 2015.

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

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.



[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),


[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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Introduction: The Time of Neurosis — Benjamin Noys (Neurosis, Poetry, and the Present, 18 March 2017)

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. 


The Time of Neurosis

Benjamin Noys (2017)

Noys fig 1

The term neurosis was first coined by the Scottish doctor William Cullen in his work of 1777 First Lines of the Practice of Physic. Discussing ‘Neurosis or Nervous Diseases’ Cullen deals with what we would call mental illness but also with diseases we would characterise as organic, such as dyspepsia, cardiac palpitations and colic. This form of confusion, at least from our point of view, persisted in the nosology of neurosis. In their very useful entry on ‘Neurosis’ in The Language of Psycho-Analysis, from which I’ve already been drawing, [1] Jean Laplanche and J. B. Pontalis detail how this classification of disease of the nervous system in the nineteenth century continued to group together disorders we would differentiate as psychosomatic, neurological, and neurosis ‘proper’. This ‘original amalgam’, as they put it, was progressively differentiated over time. Freud also belongs to this lineage in gradually differentiating between ‘actual neuroses’, which result from somatic disorders in sexuality, and ‘psychoneuroses’, in which psychical conflict is the source. Freud would eventually distinguish between actual neuroses, neuroses, narcissistic neuroses, and psychoses. The field, however, remains in a tension between defining neuroses by symptoms and by structure. Laplanche and Pontalis conclude:

The task of trying to define neurosis, as revealed by clinical experience, in terms of the comprehension of the concept of neurosis, tends to become indistinguishable from the psycho-analytic theory itself, in that this theory was basically constituted as a theory of neurotic conflict and its modes. (269; emphasis in original)

So, perhaps not particularly helpfully, the elaboration of neurosis comes to overlap with the elaboration of psychoanalysis.

Noys fig 2

Certainly it is worth noting that in regard to the formalisation of psychoanalysis by Lacan and his followers perversion, with the mechanism of disavowal (‘I know very well [the mother has no penis], but all the same [here is a fetish that stands in for that]), and psychosis, with the mechanism of foreclosure (the rejection of the Name-of-the-Father from the Symbolic returns in the Real), seem to have a sounder structural definition that neurosis, with the more general mechanism of repression. Neurotic symptoms would be the result of the ‘failure’ of repression (for Freud no repression can, by definition, be entirely successful), which means conflicts of early infantile experiences of sexuality re-emerge and conflict with the ego and so over-determine our current behaviour. [2] This is the famous mechanism of ‘deferred action’, in which a ‘second trauma’ reactivates a ‘first trauma’, and so scrambles linear temporalities. Part of our interest in neurosis is out of this fracturing of temporality. The neurotic is the one who suffers from what returns and what returns is a rupture in the field of sexuality.

Noys fig 3

We could risk a characterisation of neurosis based on Lacan’s notion of the ethics of psychoanalysis as ‘not giving way on desire’ and suggesting that the neurotic ‘gives way on their desire’. Wrapped in conflict with their desire, the neurotic delays and prevaricates, expressing symptoms in the form that express these desires in compromise formations. Enjoyment, which is to say sexual enjoyment or jouissance, is then taken in the symptom, in the very delays and prevarications that ‘prevent’ the fulfilment of the desire. This, at least, would be an initial sketch of the clinical picture. Our re-use of the notion of neurosis, one we are not alone in (to our surprise), [3] draws on this occlusion of neurosis by other, usually more florid, disorders. It is noticeable that in the extension of mental disorders to cultural diagnosis that perversion, schizophrenia and depression have been the disorders of choice, with neurosis usually getting some look in via its most extreme form, hysteria. In part our return to neurosis is motivated by a suspicion about this tendency to extremity and, even in the mode of critique, valorisation of extreme psychic states. Neurosis, as what we might call the absent centre, seemed to us to offer a more complex potential mapping of the disordered state of the subject. It also seemed to us to involve an attention to mediations and their discontents that more extreme characterisations tended to deliberately dissolve in ‘molecular’ or other fluxes of desire or libido. That said, we are well aware that we might merely add to the tendency to ascribe yet another pathology to contemporary life and, in the process, intensify a pathological characterisation of subjectivity.

Noys fig 4

This risk is probably compounded by the conjunction with poetry. We do not want to re-open the old debate concerning the sanity or madness of the artist, with the poet as exemplary figure (Hölderlin to Rimbaud to Artaud, etc.). Rather, I guess, we had something in mind of the ‘neurotic’ concern of poetry with language as a mediating function. We might add, borrowing and adapting Alain Badiou’s point re Marxism, that to practice poetry today is to practice a weakness. So, this unlikely and problematic conjunction speaks to us, although even we do not agree on exactly how, of the problems of subjectivity and mediation that tend today, which I think we would agree, to get collapsed. These collapsings take various forms: from the voiding of subjectivity in the various materialisms and realisms, new and speculative respectively, to those political historicisations, Jamesonian or communising, which also void the subject except as subject of the structure or historical passage to communism. To insist on neurosis and poetry, thought together, is to resist that collapse. Such resistance may, certainly, remains gestural and even obdurate or negative. At the same time, we also hope to open something with and through neurosis. This might not be to simply remain with neurosis or valorise the neurotic, but rather to see neurosis as one possible key to problems of temporality, language, and experience.


[1] Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis, The Language of Psycho-Analysis, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (London: Karnac Books, 1988), pp.266-269. Further page references in text.

[2] Sigmund Freud, ‘The Neuroses of Defence (A Christmas Fairy Tale)’, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Volume 1 (1886–1899), trans. James Strachey (London: Vintage, 2001).

[3] See the forthcoming collection The Neurotic Turn, ed. Charles Johns (Repeater 2017).

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Whither Topology. On structure and order in Homo Sacer.

A Contribution by Peter Fenves (external affiliate and recent guest at CPCT in April 2016) to Homo Sacer: A Blog Series at Stanford University Press. 


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Excerpt: As Agamben “abandons” the Homo Sacer project with the publication of The Use of Bodies, there arise a number of questions concerning the former’s seriality. What, for instance, governs the order and numbering of the volumes? And is the series ultimately convergent or divergent? Questions of this kind extend beyond the Homo Sacer project. As early as his first book, Stanzas, Agamben launches an inquiry into certain “zones of indetermination” that he would specify and develop under the “homo sacer” rubric. What first emerges from a retrospective glance at Stanzas, however, is not so much the intimation of a more expansive series as the surprising importance Agamben attributes to another term of mathematical modernity, namely topology, for, from the perspective of topology, the opening sections of the Homo Sacer project can be seen as a repetition of the Introduction to Stanzas.

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Against Fate

Alberto Toscano, talk delivered April 20 at the CPCT workshop ‘On Justice: Variations on a Theme from Walter Benjamin in 1916 (I)’:


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The following remarks are at a slight, but I hope illuminating, tangent from the ‘convolute’ of texts we’ve gathered to discuss. In brief, I want to sketch some thoughts starting from another text of Benjamin’s from 1916, namely the short unpublished reflection on ‘Trauerspiel and Tragedy’, and to do so in part by bringing into relief and into contrast the relation of Benjamin’s early reflections on tragedy to Georg Lukács’s 1910 essay ‘The Metaphysics of Tragedy’ from Soul & Form, a text which, by Scholem’s own recollection, was of considerable significance to his friend. I want to think through how the approach to justice as a concern of tragedy – perhaps as the concern of Attic tragedy, especially in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, an abiding reference for Benjamin – might inflect our considerations of the messianic or political-theological interrogation of justice.

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From a Radical Philosophy Dossier on Property, Power, Law, drawn from the Powers and Limits of Property workshop:

Patent as credit: When intellectual property becomes speculative

Hyo Yoon Kang

Intellectual properties, the various kinds of which are known as patents, copyright and trademarks, could be regarded as central techniques of accumulation in contemporary capitalism, if immaterial knowledge is indeed what now crucially drives accumulation in a ‘knowledge economy’ or ‘creative industries’. [1] In such a process of value generation and accumulation, it is precisely the law of intellectual property that allows certain kinds of knowledge to be repackaged and transformed into units of appropriation, transfer and commodification. But how exactly does this process occur?

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Disaggregating primitive accumulation

Robert Nichols

For nearly 150 years now, critical theorists of various stripes have attempted to explicate, correct and complement Marx’s discussion of the ‘so-called’ primitive accumulation of capital provided in Part Eight of the first volume of Capital. This is perhaps especially true of Marxism in the English-speaking world. Whereas French and German traditions have tended to focus more on the formal categories of Capital,anglophone debates have attended more closely to Marx’s historical-descriptive account, perhaps due to the privileged role that England plays in the historical drama staging the bourgeois revolt against feudalism, the early emergence of capitalist relations and subsequent industrial revolution. The enclosures of the English commons and transformation of the rural peasantry into an industrial workforce serve, after all, as the primary empirical referents from which Marx derives his conceptual tools. From Paul Sweezy and Maurice Dobb in the 1950s, to Christopher Hill, C.B. Macpherson and E.P. Thompson in the 1960s, to Perry Anderson and Robert Brenner in the 1970s, these ‘transition debates’ have focused on the accuracy and adequacy of Marx’s history of early modern England.

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Race, real estate and real abstraction

Brenna Bhandar and Alberto Toscano

The crises and mutations of contemporary capitalism have rendered palpable Marx’s observation according to which in bourgeois modernity human beings are ‘ruled by abstractions’. The processes of financialization animating the dynamics of the 2007–8 crisis involved the violent irruption into the everyday lives of millions of a panoply of ominous acronyms (ABSs, CDOs, SIVs, HFT, and so on), indices of highly mathematized strategies of profit extraction whose mechanics were often opaque to their own beneficiaries. At the same time, this process of financialization was articulated to the most seemingly ‘concrete’, ‘tangible’ and thus desirable use and exchange value available to the citizens of so-called advanced liberal democracies: the home. This is a site, a social relation, that as Ferreira da Silva and Chakravartty have noted encompasses the ‘juridical, political and economic’, thus serving as a lived material synthesis of the three main axes of modern thought.

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