Aesthetics and the Subject, Part 1 (You are NOT a subject: On poetic subjectization)
“Every subject stands at the crossing between a lack of being and a destruction, a repetition and an interruption, a placement and an excess” – Alain Badiou, “Theory of the Subject” (translated Bruno Bosteels)
One of the essential mystifications of art as a form of commodity is the confusion of the self as the subject of art instead of art engaging with and emerging into a subject. What do I mean by this? In poetry of the end from the twentieth century, from confessional poetry to hyper-form, the self has been the center of the lyric. The subject of the poem is often equivocated the subject of the speaker within the poem as if the poetry was speaking in one voice: a solitary voice.
But the crossing to which both a “subject” of the poem and a “subjectivity” of the reader/writer is not one that is constructed individually. It is both dialectical and dialogic—that is the subject of the poem and subjectivity of the writer/reader emerge from the event of reading itself. Furthermore, the trace of reading is the interpretative impulse between the two in which both one consciousness is opposed to another–the reader who assumes the voice of poem in reading is not the voice of the poem in the reader’s own mine—but also the two collectively inform each other as subjects arises from the disappearance of the event itself. There for not “poem qua poem” nor “what you are” constitute the subject to which the possibilities Badiou gives us are actually emergent.
As Badiou says in a talk at Lacan Ink,”The Subject of Art”, translated here by Lydia Kerr:
The point is that the relation, the subjective relation between an event and the world cannot be a direct relation. Why? Because an event disappears on one side, and on the other side we never have a relation with the totality of the world. So when I say that the subject is a relation between an event and the world we have to understand that as an indirect relation between something of the event and something of the world. The relation, finally, is between a trace and the body. I call trace ‘what subsists in the world when the event disappears.’ It’s something of the event, but not the event as such; it is the trace, a mark, a symptom. And on the other side, the support of the subject—the reality of the subject in the world—I call ‘a new body.’ So we can say that the subject is always a new relation between a trace and a body. It is the construction in a world, of a new body, and jurisdiction—the commitment of a trace; and the process of the relationship between the trace and the body is, properly, the new subject.
Despite the obscurity of some of the terminology I am employing, this helps us understand that the subject of a life or a work of art emerges in regards to an event, and the subjectivity is related to that emergence. What are the implications is have for the “I” of the poem?
So here I must to allow myself a fugue:
I have stated that I will never identify myself a poet, even though I write verse. Poet is, from the Greek, a maker. I do not make anything. When I sit at the pressboard desk and write for hours, be it with pencil or by the clicking of keys, I am not making. I am presenting what the events of the world have implanted in me and polishing it off moving further and further from that very event. This is not to say that the language does not emerge from my subjectivity, but that my subjectivity is not constructed all in my own person.
To identify oneself as a poet, then, is a pretense of originality: it is an illusion and one that treats poetic creation as a commodity instead of an emergence. The world is without self, and subject is not the self. A maker implies selfhood. This is against both my aesthetics and my politics. When I write about myself, as I do in my poem, “Neon Cross at 16th and Cherry,” I am not particularly concerned about my own selfhood, but rather the lack of it. The lack of self allows the subject of my being may emerge as the relational nature of the emergence of subjectivity is more obvious in that moment:
Browning buildings rest downtown, a meeting
of roads at the skeleton of a Jesuit mission. On
dusty glass, under the diminished glow of “-ESUS
S-VES,” there are two tubes of gas slowly burning
as if to denote where the vertical meets the
horizontal, or where alpha can slip omega
the tongue. A pigeon lays splayed in the
gutter nearby, a beetle crushed in the beak
hook. Sinew and feathers color the pavement
where bird crossed paths with a Ford pick-up
under the guidance of artificial light.
Alpha is a neon inspiration, flickering as a
Beacon to all poor sinners. Yet, Omega is more
abundant: the beetle, the pigeon, the fender, and
the abandoned soup kitchen. Alpha and Omega
may be laughing as they roll in the bushes, but
ants still crawl over blood on the roadside.
Here the narrator is an I, but I am not functioning to create the scene. The pigeon, the beetle, the electric lights of the mission have a being much larger than myself and it is there traces that we see in the words I use to represent them. The philosophical implications here are manifold. Life continues on without the artist and the disingenuous argument for the poem making anything immortal here is far beyond the point. This a subject presented in the language and idiom I understand. I did not make this—at least, I did not make it as a solitary act emerging solely from my consciousness. The language stems beyond me, the beetle’s crushed mandibles have long since decayed, the cultural baggage of English brings in revelations I did not know and do not intend, and the bird feathers have probably washed down a sewage drain.
But the constitutive elements cannot be said to be the poem any more than the sign and signified can be said to be co-terminus. The first aesthetic implication is that you are not the subject. Not the “you” of the reader or the you of the author. But this is not just the result of the discourse theory, for this not a jumble of disembodied selves discoursing to create an “author” either. This is the trace of an event emerging into art. The removal of the pretense of the confession makes easier the subjectivity within the poem manifest as the event of its creation disappears.