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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Robert Sheppard: The Poetry of Saying: The Point of Poetry: Ethics, Dialogue and Form

This is the third level of analysis in the thesis of The Poetry of Saying. The first may be read about here. The second may be read about here. There is a general introduction here.

Levinas might be thought a strange philosopher to use in a defence of poetry, since he has stated categorically that art can only be a ‘shadow’ that dimly represents reality. ‘The artist has given the statue a lifeless life, a derisory life which is not master of itself, a caricature of life.’ As representation, art remains wholly within the realm of perception, whereas criticism, or philosophy proper, is a superior discourse, because it remains conceptual. ‘The most lucid writer finds himself in the world bewitched by its images,’ whereas ‘the interpretation of criticism speaks in full self-possession, frankly, through concepts, which are like the muscles of the mind.’ Levinas' very rhetoric here, in this 1948 essay ‘Reality and Its Shadow’ (which had to carry an editorial disclaimer when first published in the flagship of literary commitment, Les Temps Modernes) reveals a bitterness about, perhaps even a sense of betrayal by, an activity which he warned was ‘not the supreme value of civilization ... having its place, but only a place, in man's happiness.’  But even this formulation suggests that there is a modest role for art; to recover art for Levinas' ethical project one needs to redefine art, not as stale representation of bewitching imagery, or as something without a conceptual dimension, but as something capable of being open to a dialogue with the other.

The face of the other, Levinas argues, presents an immediate, non-negotiable, ethical demand, one that transforms an individual, as he or she is obliged to respond and answer. This encounter is the foundational moment for ethics, which, for Levinas, is ‘first philosophy’. He is not concerned to define a particular morality or law, the theological or social codification of these precepts, but of a basic ethical condition, which Derrida has called ‘an Ethics of Ethics’, one embodied in actual interhuman situations.  Levinas writes:

The proximity of the other is the face's meaning.... The other becomes my neighbour precisely through the way the face summons me, calls for me, begs for me, and in so doing recalls my responsibility, and calls me into question... It is the responsibility of a hostage which can be carried to the point of being substituted for the other person and demands an infinite subjection of subjectivity.

As proof, and example, of the last point, of the essential asymmetricality of the relationship between self and others, even when the other seems not to reciprocate, or when the other has died and the individual persists as a survivor (the analogy with the Jews after the Holocaust is intended), Levinas is fond of quoting from an artwork, one he should condemn for its umbrageous illusoriness rather than utilizing its conceptual acuity: Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. ‘We are all responsible for everyone else - but I am more responsible than all the others’. 

Tim Woods’ article ‘Memory and Ethics in Contemporary Poetry’ traces an important theoretical shift within the work of the British discontents by theorizing a Levinasian ‘ethics of form’ to supplement the more familiar ‘politics of form’. Woods, who has been active within this poetry, argues

Language attesting to the ‘heard word’ of the other in sound, becomes the basis for an ethical poetics....an ethics of the voice is attention to what interrupts. That ‘alternative’ other is partly what much contemporary British ... ‘experimental’ poetry is seeking; to release the Utopian other in writing.

I shall return to the interruptions of literary experimentation, to this interaction of technique and ethics.

Woods’ use of ‘voice’ here instead of ‘face’ points to Levinas’ later thought, one partly caused by the linguistic turn his work took in the 1960s, whose result was the theory of Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence of 1974. The central element of this pacifist ethics, for my purposes, is the distinction between the saying and the said.

Levinas’ most fruitful remark for this ethics of form is contained in a series of assertions
made in a 1981 interview that draws on this pair of terms.


Man can give himself in saying to the point of poetry - or he can withdraw into the non-saying of lies. Language as saying is an ethical openness to the other; as that which is said - reduced to a fixed identity or synchronized presence - it is an ontological closure of the other.

Saying is the call of, the call to, the other, and the fact of the need and obligation to respond to, and become responsible for, the other, as Levinas had always maintained. It is a quasi-transcendental state beyond being, yet it is also ‘a performative doing’, as Simon Critchley puts it, ‘that cannot be reduced to a constantive description’. It is the site and performance of ethics because of this obligation to respond. It is public, yet it does not communicate anything but the desire to communicate. Thus explained it seems like a philosophical version of interhuman phatic communion that precedes, or in comfortable circumstances replaces, actual informational communication. Indeed Levinas has indicated that passing the time of day about the weather may embody such a gesture. As Levinas explains: ‘Saying opens me to the other before saying what is said.’ We cannot, as in his everyday example, but not reply (even with silence). Yet importantly Levinas recognizes difference as a corollary of such proximity, one which avoids the violence of assimilation, or even the need to express unity with the other. Levinas' earlier sense of the individual as a hostage, committed to response, as a permanent possible substitute for the other, even as a sacrifice to the act of proximity, is re-introduced in this linguistic recasting: saying is a metaphor for what cannot be said; saying makes us into signs of significations without content. It is the gift of openness that is the very ethicality Levinas posits. Yet this cannot be painlessly achieved.

This saying can be defined apart from, but is not found other than interwoven with, the said. There is a price to pay; for the saying to appear it has to undergo a betrayal, a ‘subordination of the saying to the said’, to the linguistic system, to ontology. As Robert Eaglestone explains:  

It is impossible to say the saying because at the moment of saying it becomes the said, betrayed by the concrete language which is the language of ontology. The saying, which is unthematizable, impossible to delimit, becomes limited, thematized, said.  

Yet the saying is what interrupts the said, ruptures the said. The saying ‘appears’ as a knot catching in the thread of the said. This is its necessary condition of falling into essence in language. Indeed, without this knottiness it would not have its being or effectivity. However, ‘The said ...  arises in the saying’.  It is the point at which ‘clarity occurs, and thought aims at themes’.  The said and the saying both support, yet react against, one another, hence the tragic lifting towards poetry and the fateful thematizatation in ontological solidity. The ‘otherwise than being’ which is found in the act of saying is ‘betrayed in the said which dominates the saying which states it’. 

This outline suggests that uncovering the saying in the said is the task of philosophy; it seems to suggest, in an echo of  Levinas’ early theory, that art would belong to the realm of essences, ‘in which the said is reduced to a  pure theme -, to absolute exposition’ ) and that only criticism (by which he meant philosophy) could uncover the saying. But it is Robert Eaglestone's argument, and Levinas' own belief, if we take seriously the notion that ‘man can give himself in saying to the point of poetry’ that the qualities of saying occur in art. Eaglestone reminds us that ‘the poem must interrupt in the name of the saying ... as literary texts, they work as “prophecy”, fracturing the said.’ They must open to the other; they are saying as well as said. Indeed he sees Levinas' own Otherwise than Being structured as a literary work, ‘especially self-reflexive contemporary postmodern poetry and prose’.  It is precisely its foregrounded artifice that makes it so, that attempts to keep the saying, the interruption, open in the text we read. According to Eaglestone: ‘In his style of writing and choice of metaphors Levinas performatively foregrounds language in order to disrupt the said’.

This description of Levinas’ literary practice recalls Woods’ similar assertion about the interruptive nature of the technical devices of the British Poetry Revival and Linguistically Innovative Poetry. The technically defamiliarising poetry that imposes such a task of dialogue on any reader may indeed be a poetry of an open saying rather than of a closed saidness. The the 1990s self-interruptive texts of Tom Raworth, with their lateral shiftings, or the neologistically resistant materiality of Maggie O’Sullivan’s poems, are works which court the refusal of a saidness that we might equate with paraphrase and the empirical lyricism of the Movement Orthodoxy.

Writing as saying is ethical, processual, interhuman, dialogic in Bakhtin’s sense. Writing as said is ontological and fixed, warlike; a closure of the other, monologic in Bakhtian terms. This is why so much poetry of the orthodoxy attempts what is arguably an irresponsible closure that is a violence towards the possible agility and response of a reader. In less elevated terms we might argue that it even insults the intelligence of the reader. As the other of the writer is the reader, then the other of the text is the act of reading and the reader in it, prolonging its saying.

There cannot be a poetry of pure saying; the saying must exist in the said, as ghost to its host. A text in very physical terms needs to be printed, the order of words (usually) fixed. The openness that is its gesture must go hand in hand with some thematic or semantic fixity, however that is resisted by delayed naturalization. For the saying to be witnessed at all, it must turn into the said. We cannot know the saying from the said.

Conversely, there cannot be a poetry of the pure said, since only the performance of saying could body forth the said, and as it does it both supports and disrupts the said. The musical and metrical life of Movement poetry, for example, cannot simply be argued away. However, one of the effects of the deliberate will towards saidness in Movement verse is its articulation in social terms, often extending into an invasive ontological violence at the level of theme which might be called the attempt to articulate the other; where the writer literally speaks the, in actuality, unknown thoughts of another. It may be found in the use of the false consenual ‘we’ as when Larkin informs his reader that ‘our’ love will survive ‘us’.

‘Saying makes signs to the other, but in this sign signifies the very giving of signs,’ argues Levinas. Yet it is this openness that readers find already in a number of writers (including Allen Fisher), an openness that allows readers to find the necessity to enter the artifice, to articulate the interruptions in the discourse, to enter into an active relationship with the textual other. The text is a gift that may be brought to a thematized rest only after having been given or taken to the point of poetry. The text and its other, which is the act of reading, are brought together. When this poetry is successful it is arguably able to articulate that saying in the said of the dialogic performance of the book. A successful reading will be one that exposes the saidness of the text to an openness of performance since saying, Critchley reminds us, is a ‘performative doing’. 

(Another way of valorising reading is to suggest that there must exist a corollary of the interdependence of the saying and the said in a reader’s act of reading, as against the reader’s sense of the read, as the already read, the thematized said, completed. Indeed Derek Attridge defines an act of innovative ‘reading as an attempt to respond to the otherness of the other’, working performatively with the text and ‘working against the mind’s tendency to assimilate the other to the same, attending to that which can barely be heard’, in ways which remind us of the ethical asymmetricality a reader must face with a text. (This is indeed a moment of osculation between The Poetry of Saying and The Meaning of Form.)  

Terms from speech act theory, such as Critchley’s, are often used to describe the relation between the saying and the said. Jill Robbins, for example, echoes Critchley, and writes:

The Saying and the Said is a correlative relation ... that marks the difference between a conative speech, oriented towards the addressee, interlocutionary and ethical, and a speech oriented towards the referent, more like a speaking about than a speaking to the other.

The necessity of saying arises before self-identity, and indeed breaks up the sense of identity, emphasizes the approach of the undeniable other, as a reader active with the devices left by the poem’s saying. Interruption brings forth dialogue. In a text, where the face-to-face has been replaced, the responsibility is more acute, from reader to writer, and from writer to reader. As the author is responsible to the reader, then the reading is responsible to the writing to preserve reading as an act of saying, as the reader responds, participates in the text’s structural indeterminacies, as it ruptures the said, interrupts by effects of defamiliarization, or suspends like Forrest-Thomson’s good naturalization, through its textual opacities. These preserve the saying in the said, since they compel the reader to dwell on the devices of the utterance rather than reducing them, or closing them, to dead paraphrasable fixities. They preserve reading as an activity, resist closing it in a summary. Open works are, in a sense, always open books.

            A reading which operates as a paraphrase (and writing which works in collusion with such readings) is an appropriation of, a fearful taming of, the otherness of the text. In Levinasian terms, it judges the other in terms of the same; it closes. It attempts to be (or more more colloquially we would say have) the last word. The relationship with text is more ethical for not attempting this reduction, this identification. It recognizes that the text maintains its differences as well as its proximity, through its technical devices, its social dialogism. Appropriation must be countered by distanciation. This is a necessary recognition for both writers and readers in the textual dialogue of their acts of saying (and reading) in attempting to minimize the thematizing of the said (and of the read).

One must remain vigilant to the possibility that the concern that writing may do violence to the other, possibly by a fake ‘saying’ that is simply a gesturing of responsibility in the thematized language of the said. Robbins, in her study of Levinas’ theoretic of literature, stresses, ‘We should not take for granted that we know what we mean by the saying. This is precisely what is seized upon by Levinas’s readers hoping to extend his positive evaluations of art to an ethical poetics.’ 57

Both the technical and the social levels contribute to the effects of making the point of poetry its saying, an interruption, and not its said. To read is to be proximate to, to face alterity as distance, and be implored to answer, as Bakhtin would say. To write of this work, or of any work, is also to attempt to do justice to alterity and diversity.

(The rest is analysis: and that's the rest of the book.)

Ebook: www.liverpool.universitypressscholarship.com

My later project The Meaning of Form may be accessed here.

Patricia Farrell's cover image for The Poetry of Saying, which I dubbed 'Otherwise Than Beings'