Allen Grossman and the principle of (in)sufficient poetry

A particularly anti-philosophical friend of mine (but in an unusual manner–which I will reveal in a second) gave me a copy of Allen Grossman’s book True-Love: Essays on Poetry and Valuing which has as very aggressive anti-philosophical streak. Professor Grossman has recently died evidently, so it is an inopportune time to write such an irreverent tidbit on him. However, I feel that his book addresses the anti-philosophical aspects of non-philosophy from a literary and aesthetic perspective. I also suppose that critique is not a totally bad form of flattery since I didn’t just decide to ignore the bastard and let his death and work go totally unnoticed.

Granted, this isn’t exactly my style and I find it indulgent and inflationary. I much I prefer non-philosophy to be “assisted” by psychoanalysis, economics or the philosophy of science–harder stuff. Further, it seems apparent that the potency of non-philosophical writing and effectuations can be weakened by overuse and overexposure. I also have found that it is sometimes simply not fair to mobilize the arsenal of non-philosophy against something like poetry since no field or practice is in anyway sufficient and poetry is in someways particularly vulnerable to the critique that it isn’t “rigorous” or that it can’t “think itself.” However, I think this is a hazard of speaking from the “institution” of poetry, a gamble that Grossman clearly takes. In this regard, by “taking the helm” of poetry as its authoritative institutional representative–like Badiou does for philosophy itself–he risks and indeed actually lapses into philosophical maneuvering. His philosophical pretense, well beyond a simple defense, is to assert the authority and superiority of poetry over philosophy.

Finally, before this gets underway, it is worthwhile to admit a lack of familiarity with poetry and a recognition that poetic writing is meant to do something else entirely than philosophy, I view it as something like one of Agamben’s broken or inoperative/inoperatizing tools. Further, its lack of a specific use or “institutional” mission makes it distinct from philosophy while traversing much of the same conceptual territory, e.g. somewhere (I wonder if it was in Badiou’s Conditions, although it might actually have been my Hegel professor Alfredo Ferrarin that made this comparison or maybe Iain Hamilton Grant’s Philosophies of Nature after Schelling) someone said that Lucretius and his Nature of Things was the great precursor to philosophical materialism and tows the line between philosophy, poetry, and a kind of “science-fiction” by issuing forth arguments, explanations, and descriptions but in the form of poetic prose. I’ll develop this more as this goes on.

So what is the basic maneuver of this text? Initially, Grossman produces–with a potent literary strategy and effective critical tone–a kind of humanist non-phenomenology of poetry and literature which initially functions as a foil to philosophy. Secondarily, it is to establish poetry and poetic knowledge as a sufficient by itself in lieu of philosophy (and presumably any other “authoritarian” epistemic domain or discursive regime). I appreciate this maneuver since a deconstructionist sensibility (see p. xvi-ii on literary or deconstructionist writing) would also assert this sufficiency insofar as literature and poetry need no assistance from philosophy or hermeneutic procedures to “unearth” a (presumably univocal) signification (see also The Post Card and Derrida’s comments on how literature already analyses itself). The product of the usual philosophical procedure (its “intervention” into literature) is to convert literature into a series of philosophical propositions, maxims, or “life lessons,” which–besides being mind-numbingly inane–deprives literature of its “richness” and inevitably more mysterious aesthetic dimension. Agreed. However, why assert the superiority of literature over philosophy in this regard? Isn’t the celebrated and characteristic atmosphere of freewheeling ungrounded aesthetic play in (post)(modern) literature a product of its abandonment of any and all authority? The point of poetic and literary license, I thought, (à la the Nietzschean “affirmational” element of Derrida’s argument in “Structure, Sign, Play”  see p. 369) is to irresponsibly effectuate knowledge as a savoir faire or “worldly knowledge” without a systematic or rigorous epistemology. Rather–and the operative post-structuralist term here is “autopoetic,” it is a spontaneous generation of concepts, ontologies, and epistemologies without any notion of “ground.”

Poetry, and here Grossman is on to something, is inconsistent by its principle and not obliged to be “true” in any satisfiably philosophical sense. This Real dimension of poetry and literature grants them a relative autonomy and a provisional capacity to produce “truths” by a procedure of an iterated modeling and expansion of identifiable thematic of (arche)typical (arche- in the sense of “arche-writing“) humans, objects, terms and concepts (e.g. love insofar as it is represented by a given love poem or is thematically found in a given poem). Poems or whatever, although here we can also include any genre of writing insofar as it presents itself as “art,” effectuate a regional, provisional and highly variegated truth, which is to say, more rigorously, they produce material and have a radical immanence. This material, to the deconstructionists’ chagrin, is inevitably theoretically and philosophically exploited; to wit, universalized, sutured to planified philosophical systems, and otherwise subordinated to the “desire of the theorist” which is disingenuously presented as a “discovery.” The theorist here is a philosophical dirigiste, crony, or ideologue–the type of character who pissed off Derrida by believing they could regulate the “play of the sign.”

It is precisely here, after this relatively effective and persuasive critique, that Grossman succumbs to various unfortunate philosophical pretensions and mauvaise habitudes the foremost of which is the placement of poetic knowledge prior to philosophical knowledge as the more proper and authentic representation of truth, a maneuver which demonstrates a continued mystification and seduction by philosophy–least not indicated by his immensely tight in-text citation of all the usual suspects, i.e., Nietzsche, Kant, Hegel, etc.–since this assertion of priority is a… no the philosophical maneuver par excellence. We have here the simple replacement of poetry with philosophy in an needless competition which presents itself as a hysterically masculine epistemological dick measuring contest.

In other words, the central claim is that poetry does knowledge better… however, the force-(of)-thought behind this claim is given its inertia by a variegated and somewhat esoteric philosophical scaffolding furnished with all the usual tricks and “philosophemes,” e.g., his practice of philosophically or dialectically differentiating and opposing terms to give them a kind of formal or causal systematicity (unilateral duality) based on decisional or auto-positional presentations of philosophically or onto-poetically “over-determined” words (e.g. truth, knowledge, love, desire, and death). For example, apropos his term “true-love” he states (I’ll try to keep citation light to medium):

Within the borderlessness of the language of love, I have chosen the term “true-love,” the crossing of knowledge (truth) and acknowledgement (love), the identity of contradictories both of which are maximal terms freighted not only with explicit value but, when conjoined with the intention of the highest value. Needless to say, the identity or equality of contradictories violates possibility in a world subject to the Aristotelian Laws of Thought. Power is brought to bear in the production of the tertium quidTrue-love intends an action that somehow authorizes the valid predication of truth upon love. And this “somehow” seems to cover over a counterlogical principle such as Kierkegaard’s “either/or” (concordia discors), neither religious nor philosophical–the poetic principle. (p. 16)

The various arguments that constitute the “assembled validity” (in the sense of the aggregate modes of adducing and validating its referend as real proffered by the author that function as an assemblage which directs its signification with relative consistency) or conceptual infrastructure of this term are operatized by his tight citation but minimal explanation of poetry as a persuasive strategy. This strategy of not explaining can be effective non-philosophically; however, in this instance it is simply manipulative. We also can see a bizarre and uncharacteristic envy of style or method (it is usually the other way around) in his auto-positional presentation of textual and terminological genealogies very much in the mode of the recent(ish) post-structuralist French anti-philosophers influenced by Nietzsche. (It may be that he took for granted their claim that intra-philosophical hermeneutic practices like archaeology and deconstruction were genuinely anti-philosophical and scientific.

The insinuations of the quote on p. 16 are essentially anti-philosophical via a kind of oblique Derridean (language is boundless) or Levi-Straussian (myth also resolves contradictions) reference. However, his term “true-love” he is not content to let sit as an undecided or underdetermined anti-philosophical term. It is used in a dirigiste manner to coordinate an argument and series of specific claims about what poetry can do–what type of knowledge it provides that philosophy can’t–for the sake of asserting poetry’s sufficiency, authority, and superiority to philosophy. For instance, under the name of poetry and by its (philological? etymological?) methods, he undertakes a genealogical analysis of his concept “true-love”:

The “true-love” I am studying has two genealogies, one demotic (the love knot, like a four-leaf clover, that everyone in the sixteenth century knew how to tie), and the other an esoteric transformation of the true-love knot, commonly figured as the Seal of Soloman (pentangle). The first stems from Anglo-Saxon feudality. “True-love” is a Germanic expression “(as still in der Leibesknoten) This true-love (AS treowlufu) implies in the first instance the truth/troth of contract (both social and cosmic on the comos/polis glechnis) respecting the relationship of persons. […] This contract between unlike parties stipulating likeness (the logic of power within power) bears, like biblical covenant, upon the fundamental intelligibility of the world as personal other. […]

The second genealogy of the true-love I am studying (the Seal of Solomon, esoteric version of the true-love knot that anyone could tie) implies the love of truth (objective genitive as in philosophia), not Germanic but Greco-roman, indeed Platonic–as Foucault found it (The Use of Pleasure, part. 5, “True Love”), intending not the sufficient conditions of contract, but cognitive/amative unity with the real, that is to say, knowledge. […] In both cases, the production of value is a dependence of the sacrificial model. (pp. 33-4)

What to make of this genealogy? Grossman’s reference to his ominous sounding “ongoing studies” is for the sake of an anti-philosophical maneuver of subordinating philosophy to the exigences of “true-love” which thereby makes it available (philosophizable, decidable) as an object of “poetic” study… a study that has evidently already netted a positive gain; namely, a historical/sociological insight into the logic of symbolic exchange (extricated from the demotic [ordinary] language feudal society) which already and separately (what a coincidence!) implied an Oedipus styled privative psychoanalytic linguistic pact which, for Grossman, renders the world intelligible in accordance to an instrumental or valuational logic (the “logic of the signifier” perhaps?). This discovery by his “studies” testify to the sufficiency and authority of poetry, presumably without which we would have never gained this (profound) insight. Poetry, “without mediation” and by its “artisanal boasting,” he states on the same page, illustrates the “Horatian logic [see particularly his themes and odes] in which human value is produced by human sacrifice–no middle term.” Poetry, in other words, more simplistically and perhaps more efficiently than philosophy, can attain knowledge without a hefty formal or ontological apparatus and without succumbing to the regulatory logic it indicates as its referent–it only cleanly and aesthetically reiterates and reflects or represents its objects without ontological commitment. We can politely admit that he might have a point here in terms the effectuations of poetry which can hallucinate or insinuate this type of access by its fictive power. But Grossman admits this transitive and ontological use of poetry is impossible (see below). So how poetry can “do all this and more!” namely, retain its ludic groundless play and be a “first philosophy” is unclear. However, for this and presumably many other other excellent reasons, he proudly claims that

[T]he poet’s authority is superior to the philosopher’s precisely because the poet can assign significance to a larger range of experience than can the philosopher. The will to power is a way of pointing to highest value, and the name of that value in the twentieth century is existence. The advantage of poetic authority is the poet’s confidence with respect to appearances (Steven’s confiance au monde) or the existence of what is seen to exist. This primacy of existence-experience (a revaluation or transvaluating–Umwertung–of the phenomenal by contrast to noumenal). (p. 36).

The misstep, which is not strictly speaking an error but is a misstep insofar as it plunges us back into philosophy is not to assert that this is true, –it might be at times or regionally or for some of us however this is not a generic or generalizable truth–but rather to find any significance in it. That is to say, to use his affective preference for poetry’s confidence, the poet’s apparent “passion for the real,” and poetry’s knowledge (whatever that is), to assert, as we said, its superiority (meh) and priority (very meh) over philosophy.

Thus, he indulges in a kind of paradoxical philosophical window dressing which heroically presents poetry as 1. an “assurance” of normative realism (see also this article) and therefore 2. a kind of sociological-hermeneutic practice which functions as authoritative testimony about term x, y, or z and 3. a form of critique. The last is not so absurd, the instances of poetic critiques are numerous and even occasionally politically effective.The other two in combination with the third, however, is asking for too much of poetry and are possibly not even desirable.

Apropos the first he states:

Realism because the poetic principle restates appearance, confident that there is something real that is like what is experienced. Normative because the poem is always built upon a double system of signifiers. To put it another way, the poem is always a discourse of one kind (existence discourse) about or intending and deferring a discourse of another kind (a true-love discourse). (p. 36).

There is something obscure here. “Double system of signifiers” could refer to Saussure’s notion of “double articulation” and the dual nature of the sign (comprised of signifier and signified); a structure which allows for a system of signs to emerge from both elements of the sign (whereby the signified functions as a signifier in its own system of signs–this composition causes the famed instability of the sign via the proliferation of its syntagmatic or associative relations of its component parts). I address this in my not objectively bad essay on Saussure’s economic metaphor. How this in any way normative is uncertain since any regulating or normative principle produced by la langue or a system of signs is totally provisional and arbitrary by its disruptive syntagmatic/synchronic and diachronic movement. Meanwhile to distance this “system” as a manifest or “existence” discourse on the side of realism that “intends and defers” another unconscious or “deferred” discourse on the side of normativity (true-love discourse) is somewhat arbitrary: here we have the classical philosophical distancing of appearance from essence. How normative realism is not within in the scope of generic philosophy or is a challenger to philosophy in general is not developed by Grossman. Suffice it to say, the claim that poetry might assist normative realism is not unfounded, however, this does nothing to grant poetry its own sufficiency or authority over any other field or practice.

In regards to 2, he states:

[I]f I am to affirm poetic text as a context authoritative in the matter of “true-love,” than I must concern myself with the authority of poetry as witness to the term in question. In brief, “true-love” or the infallible discovery of the unmistakable object of love–the truth of love and also the love of truth–is among the recurrent idealization of civilization. It is also a very constant subject of poetry and mingles itself with the most fundamental questions of relationship, representation, intentional consciousness, and valuation. (p. 20)

and later:

All representations of true-love are interrogative because true-love arises at crisis of social knowledge (cf. Plotinus), which ironically specify the difference between heresy and orthodoxy (i.e. between the truth of the particular and the truth and the truth of the general, child and parent, knowing and not knowing)–difference that always involves a betrayal. One such historical crisis was the English Reformation to which twentieth-century poetic modernism owes the structure of its discourse–consciousness as revision (cf. “repentance” in Crane’s “Legend”) and the de-commodification of the highest value. The authority of true-love, as of poetry is always […] a generative contingency–both origin and consequent presence–of institutions that true-love founds and that then bear it as an alien logic across time. (Indeed, it cannot be stressed too emphatically that neither love nor poetry are, strictly speaking, institutions.) Institutions such as church, state, nature, law, two-factored logic, et cetera, supply the historical object of value that true-love (subject) consciousness intends. (p. 24-5)

I believe here that poetry–insofar as it is useful in the usual respectable manner–can give an insight into history by reflecting (within reason) relatively generalizable sentiments about certain material conditions or events. To denounce the use of poetry in this regard is to denounce the study of history via texts, which I do not think is prudent. Indeed, the philological, historical materialist and archaeological use of texts to gain sociological insights about certain time periods I do not view as a bankrupt process insofar as it admits its own insufficiency and makes sufficient use of “assistant” methods like political economic, forensic and statistical analysis. Non-philosophically, the use of poetry for a philo-fiction or uchronic writing in the name of Laruelle’s non-philosophical rumblings and effectuations could be seen as a desirable. Indeed, I think that Grossman is effectively producing an anti-philosophical philo-fiction (in a “not non-philosophical” and somewhat pejorative sense) that insinuates various philosophies that exhibit a “passion for the real,” e.g. any sort of non or only partially discursive realism/materialism or, in its best form, object oriented ontology and speculative realism.

Indeed, it is necessary to note several places where Grossman expresses what I consider anti-philosophy boarding on non-philosophical thought. In part VIII he proffers a number of somewhat attractive ideas.

It is evident that poetry share with all speech that is language-like an incompetence with respect to consummatory states of experience. All indicators of temporality–including the present tense–signify distance from the origin of experience. (p. 34).

The imperatives therefore of love (both to the search for true-love experience and its deferral) confront the poet with complex requirements of contradictory kinds–the fundamental transgressive logic that finds the future of the poet’s work (definitive of its structure–true-love) in problematic relation to any outcome that can be rationally chosen in the light of and defensible meaning of love or of truth. (p. 35)

The claim I wish to make is that the structures in which poetry is realized as poems are authoritative, and recognized as such by philosophers (hence the “quarrel”) precisely because they preserve and affirm logically contradictory propositions, by contrast to the structures in which philosophy is realized as text subject to the constraints of logic (the Aristotelian Laws of Thought) known to be necessary but without truth. (pp. 35-6)

Finally, he says rather simply that poetry does not reach to the real (p. 34). These illustrate what might be called a “Principle of (In)sufficient Poetry.” It will take some time to translate some of this into non-philosophical parlance and this I view as not a particularly fruitful project. However, some “translations” and “conjugations” of Grossman’s concepts come to mind.

  1. the “underdetermination” of love or “true-love” from a rigorous term into an occasion for poetry.
  2. the divestment of the humanist or “moral” economy of poetry as a practice of the representation and “archiving” of the world.
  3. the re-characterization of poetry and its “terms” as a form of unitary “onto-fiction,” not-philosophical testimony, or archival text into a holographically onto-vectorial and non-decided “artifact” or “fossil” (not quite Meillessoux’s arche-fossil since it is coextensive with human existence but which serves a similar purpose) which can furnish non-philosophy with partially “cloned” or “dualized” material.
  4. this poetic material would then function as an “art-thought” or “art-fiction” (apropos Laruelle’s book Photo-fiction, non-standard aesthetics), i.e., an occasion, an instance of conceptual modeling, world-building, experimentation, and a contingent Vision-in-One which can be mobilized for a multitude of non-philosophical effectuations.
  5. giving Grossman’s conception of “truth without mediation” a more Deleuzian “radial immanence” flare might also serve to undo some of its philosophical aspirations.
  6. moving poetry closer to the side of art and away from philosophy or esoteric philosophical pretentions (Grossman’s moral economy of poetics and its burden of just poetic representation).
  7. just ditching normative realism and giving Grossman’s principle of (in)sufficient poetry a more non-philosophical anti-humanist characterisation. I think here deconstruction, especially the kind espoused by Derrida in Dissemination, is a useful assistant.

I’ll expand this as I think of more ideas.