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Nikolai Duffy

The Poetics of Emergency

This piece is about 18 printed pages long.

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This article considers Andrew Joron’s short essay ‘The Emergency’ and the effort he makes there to theorise the critical relation between poetry and politics in the contemporary world. The focus specifically concentrates on the ways in which, in ‘The Emergency’, Joron attempts to navigate one the key focal questions haunting contemporary writing practices, namely, the potential or otherwise for innovative writing practices to address the dominant social-political issues facing the early part of the 21st century. In the second part of the article, I read Rosmarie Waldrop’s poem ‘Disaster’ as a particular poetic example that, although perhaps ambivalently, illustratively draws into practice the theoretical frame of Joron’s main arguments.

Part One

The Emergency


First published as a pamphlet entitled ‘The Emergency of Poetry’ in 2002, and republished as the opening section to his 2003 collection Fathom, Joron’s ‘The Emergency’ threads a deliberately uneven, yet also sometimes uneasy, line between ellipsis, speculation and polemic. [1]


In certain respects, this mode of eclectic jarring that permeates Joron’s writing in ‘The Emergency’ might be thought to be not simply an inescapable affect but also a precise formal enactment of his own critical focus, in the sense that one of the key issues to emerge from ‘The Emergency’ is the question of the scope and threshold of the critical essay itself.


That said, however, the explicit contours of Joron’s argument are concerned less with a critical self-reflexivity than they are with exercising a manifesto on the relationship between poetry and politics. Within this broad framework, it bears stressing that Joron’s ‘The Emergency’ is, first and foremost, politically, and not poetically, reactive; in other words, its immediate contextual spur is the social-political climate of a post-9/11 America.


As Joron comments, at the time of his writing, ‘public space in the United States is bedecked with flags, colorfully curtaining the contradictions of the “war against terrorism” [...] “America stands united,” yet remains a divided and antagonistic society’ (16). Although Joron quickly continues that ‘the atrocities committed on 9/11’ (17) defy justification, the focus of his critique is the nature of America’s political and military response to those acts of violence. As Joron puts it, although ‘[t]hese horrific acts constituted nothing less than crimes against humanity [...] the U.S. was obligated, morally and politically, not to respond in kind’ (17).


Joron is arguing for a mode of response that, before anything, is issued both linguistically and conceptually from responsibility. For Joron, by responding ‘in kind’ with what he terms ‘annihilative vengeance’ (17), the American political, military and cultural landscape exhibits what Derrida has referred to as a process of ‘auto-immunity’. In other words, through strategies of ‘vengeance’ and ‘pre-emption’, for Joron the American state comes to display pathological symptoms, such that its means of self-protection become self-consumptive. In such a situation, Derrida writes:


What will never let itself be forgotten is thus the perverse effect of the autoimmunitary itself [...] repression in both its psychoanalytical sense and its political sense – whether it be through the police, the military, or the economy – ends up producing, reproducing, and regenerating the very thing it seeks to disarm. [2]


Engaging with similar parameters, Joron offers this subsequent diagnosis: ‘Violence of this order must take its toll on the life-world of the destroyer-nation itself. A harsh, acrid odor begins to seep through the walls, spoiling works of art’ (17), to the extent that, for Joron, ‘”culture” has been reduced to a simple play of intensities, to the simultaneously brutal and sentimental pulsions of mass media.’ And then, Joron adds, American poetry, or perhaps better, poetries, or even innovative writing practices in general, ‘is a marginal genre whose existence is irrelevant to the course of Empire’ (18).


While taking its cue from contemporary events, it is worth remarking that Joron’s argument here is more familiar than it is radically cutting edge. On one level at least, it simply rehearses in microcosm a long-standing aesthetic tradition that considers the degrees of correspondence and separation between aesthetics and the modern world. Such a debate, after all, is at the centre of the Jena school’s reflections on the philosophy of art, of Hölderlin’s poetics, of Keats, of Nietzsche, of Heidegger’s writings on art and poetry, of the work of Adorno. Indeed, Joron himself deliberately registers such a genealogy at the very outset of ‘The Emergency’ when, in an indelible echo of Heidegger’s citation of Hölderlin at the opening of ‘What are Poets For?’, Joron asks ‘What good is poetry at a time like this?’ (15). For Joron, as for Heidegger and Hölderlin before him, contemporary time is a destitute time. In Joron’s essay, it is this abyssal night that becomes the principle condition and framework of poetry.


At least one of the questions such a framework immediately raises, however, is at once obviously simple and indistinctly difficult. Why this question, why poetry? What good is the question of poetry at a time like this? And, besides, what might this poetry look like and read like and sound like and even so?

The Good of Poetry


Forrest Gander: ‘Neither good poetry nor good science corroborates the assumption of presumed values.’ [3]


As Joron comments:


It feels right to ask this question [of the worth of poetry at a time like this], and at the same time to resist the range of predictable answers, such as: Poetry is useless, therein lies its freedom. Or, poetry has the power to expose ideology; gives a voice to that which has been denied a voice; serves as a call to action; consoles and counsels; keeps the spirit alive (15).


It is noticeable that Joron doesn’t actually explain why it apparently feels right to ask this question of poetry. But it is precisely this gap between the question and the apparent requirement to ask it that Joron will later come to mime throughout the essay, finding poetry there, in the space between the one and the other. It is also the reason why, for Joron, each of the standard responses to the question of the good of poetry is correct but somehow inadequate. In Joron’s view, in other words, poetry is somewhere else, it’s an otherwise interchange between question and response. ‘Poetry cannot be anything,’ Joron maintains, ‘other than inadequate, even to itself’ (15).


From such an unequivocal statement, then, it necessarily follows that, first and foremost, ‘what good is poetry at a time like this’ has to be understood simply as an inadequate question, one that perhaps raises something about poetry and the contemporary world because poetry doesn’t really have anything to do with it, because poetic practice slopes beyond the confines of such a question, forcing it to fail, to fall flat, ‘out of itself’ (15) into muffling, a dulling down the drain.


For Joron, such a failure constitutes the very form and function of poetry today. As he writes:


[a] kind of topological fold or failure (called a “catastrophe” in mathematics) precedes the emergence – constitutes the emergency – of the New. If poetry “makes language new,” then it must be defined as the translation of emergency (15).


And then, Joron adds: ‘Even politically engaged poetry cannot escape this consequence. The abyssal language of poetry represents (translates) the motion of social change more than it does the facts of social change’ (15).


There are two points worth making here. Firstly, Joron assigns a social role to poetry: in reaching into the abyss, poetry, he argues, mimes a process of social translation. Secondly, such a process is, at best, marginal: poetic emergence takes place against the grain, off-stage. As Joron writes in a poem collected in Fathom and that serves as representative of his poetics of emergency:


Imagine the spoken, O’s
Spokes convergent on no center. No place
Is polis (90).


From this perspective, then, for Joron the poetical polis corresponds to an undoing of the polis itself in the sense that poetic terrain not only displaces but, crucially, is displaced by itself. A poetics of emergency is an elsewhere poetics, one that, like the shards of collage, simultaneously appropriates and scatters.


Indeed, Joron goes on to explain that this expatriated dispersal legitimises the very force and thus ‘good’ of poetry. As he writes:


only here, at this very juncture between language and power, can the refused word come back to itself as the word of refusal, as the sign of that which cannot be assimilated to the system— (18).


Joron, in other words, conceives poetry as a word too many, ‘a word beyond meaning’ (20), super-structural. In this way, for Joron, the non-appropriability of poetry constitutes clefting, an act of opening; as he says: ‘if only to make an O, an indwelling of zero, an Otherness’ (18). Poetry, he argues in a manner reminiscent of Adorno’s reflections on aesthetic theory and the modern world, ‘affirms nothing but the negative truth of its non-identity’ (19). It is ‘a voiceless voice’ (20), ‘fashioned by no one in particular’ (15), ‘spontaneously springing forth as pure enigma [...] a surreality’ (21). As such, Joron maintains that ‘the emergence of this [poetic] object’ that is at all times super-additional ‘constitutes [nothing less than] an emergency for any restricted economy of meaning’ (20).


In many senses, this interface between emergence and emergency is the crucial mainstay of Joron’s argument. He argues that poetic practice constitutes an emergency for the established order for the simple reason that its aesthetic of emergence invalidates normative classifications between here and there, this and that, us and them. In other words, for Joron, poetry, as that which listens to ‘the speechlessness of words’ (16), a remove that cannot be removed, becomes a privileged and exceptional site of social, political, and cultural resistance precisely because its ‘aesthetics of overloadedness’, renders ‘the origins of order [...] vertiginous’ (22). In this sense, what underpins Joron’s elaboration of ‘the good of poetry’ would appear to be what his argument shares with Adorno’s writings on aesthetics and politics, namely that ‘the most important way to confront the danger of a recurrence is to work against the brute predominance of all collectives’ [4] and that to do this, poetic practice ‘must turn against itself, in opposition to its own concept, and thus become uncertain of itself right into its innermost fiber.’ [5]

The Lament


According to Joron, such a discordant uncertainty receives exemplary expression in the form of a lament. The reason for this, he argues, is because ‘the very bones of language, in which meaning is always displaced from its object, [have] the structure of a lament’ (20). ‘The blues, all blues,’ he writes, ‘are the matrix of the world’s subaltern cultures, an expression of triumph in defeat. The raising of the voiceless voice’ (20). And, Joron continues:


[t]he lament, no less than anger, refuses to accept the fact of suffering. But while anger must possess the stimulus of a proximate cause – or else it eventually fades away – the lament has a universal cause, and rises undiminished through millennia of cultural mediation (24).


In other words, the lament corresponds to an archaic yet ‘unprecedented Cry’ (25) whose contemporary renewal, Joron argues, ‘would constitute an “ontological turn” away from the epistemological dilemmas of modern and postmodern poetics’ toward a form of poetry that incorporates what he refers to as ‘the Novum’, that is, ‘an unexpected, unprecedented superaddition to reality’ (22), ‘[t]hat which is radically other’ and thus does not reveal itself under interrogation’ (25).


To say the least, Joron’s scope here is ambitious. However, there are, I think, two main ways of developing Joron’s notion of the lament: the first in terms of a certain notion of redemption that intersects illustratively with philosophical, and particularly Adornian, discussions of the messianic; the second in terms of a constitutive interchange between secrecy and communication.


On the one hand, then, what Joron suggests, or at least what his essay pushes toward, is the notion that the lament, as Novum or pure emergence, opening, corresponds to a poetics of redemption in the sense that this ‘poetic opening in the “real world” is a wonderful (meaning miraculous) wound [...] it is an act of creation, a sign that the world is not equal to itself’ (19).


Adorno’s comments in Minima Moralia on the redemptive prospect of philosophy contain the elements for an apposite point of comparison here. As Adorno writes, ‘the only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption.’ In order for such a redemptive presentation to occur, he continues:


perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light [...] It is the simplest of all things, because the situation calls imperatively for such knowledge [...] But it is also the utterly impossible thing, because it presupposes a standpoint removed, even by a hair’s breath, from the scope of existence. [6]

The Secret Lament


While a poetics of redemption may well be an instructive reading of Joron’s notion of lamentation, it also strikes both an overly ominous and significant note that appears at odds with the repeated concerns of Joron’s argument. For the remainder of this section I would simply like to focus on the quieter, more discrete figure that constitutively haunts and trammels Joron’s notion of the lament, namely the lament understood as a shifting secret.


Emmanuel Hocquard writes that ‘“[t]he object” of my lament is my secret,’ but where ‘[m]y secret does not mean: something I know, that I hide or that I reveal. My secret means something escapes me’. [7] Read in this context, the lament elegises what misses, what remains at a non-empirical distance. As such, the lament becomes a non-representational communication, a formal filtering simply of something that withholds itself, that hides within the folds of its own address. Such a filtering corresponds to a form at least, if not a language, of surfaces.


At issue here is what might be termed the stubborn singularity of a literal writing, in the sense that literality is to be understood as that which refuses to exhibit anything other than itself. In this way, a literal writing is nothing more than a writing of letters that stall in advance the cumulative processes of discourse and intelligibility. What remains is simply the blank expression of what appears on the page. As Hocquard illustratively comments, ‘When I say that what I write is literal [...] I simply mean that my articulations are intended to be taken to the letter, as they are reproduced in black and white.’ [8] At its surface, then, the lament is a paradoxical record of loss in the sense that its letters mark the fugitive status of an object it can neither identify nor apprehend.


The consequence of such an understanding of literal writing is that there is nothing to be done with it. The lament that places literality at its compositional centre is concerned not with communication but with the vacant space these letters partially cover over. In this way, the lament does not produce a document but simply inscribes, in a neutral register, the absence of documentation. Following on from this, if the lament can be said to produce anything at all, it would be only the deferral of production. As Joseph Guglielmi puts it, it is ‘[a]s if suspicion of the letter in its regulated sense wanted, through innovative tension, to precipitate the course of the shattering and the flagrant diversion of the forbidden.’ [9]


Given the somewhat abstract quality of this secret lament, two implicit points of context for developing Joron’s arguments here would appear to be, firstly, the poetic example of Orpheus and, secondly, a certain understanding of scepticism.

1. Orpheus


As developed in the work of Maurice Blanchot and Emmanuel Hocquard, Orpheus’ problem is also the precise condition of his lament. In other words, Orpheus’ inability not to look in the direction of that which is forbidden constitutes the emergency of his compulsion to lament. As Hocquard puts it, ‘Orpheus turns. Eurydice is lost to him. And his lament rises into the void opened by what got away.’ [10] Crucial to such an understanding of Orpheus’ lamentation, however, is that his rising cry is not concerned with processes of memorialisation but simply with the uncanny reverberation of the cry itself, its gaping O, its secret, such that everything comes down to the name not there, the way it falls out.


Indeed, it is precisely this understanding of Orpheus that Blanchot develops in his essay ‘Orpheus’ Gaze’. Orpheus desires Eurydice, he wishes to see her literally. ‘His work is to bring [the obscure point that Eurydice in the underworld represents] back to the light of day and to give it [her] form, shape, and reality in the day.’ [11]. In order for Orpheus to accomplish this work, however, in order to formalise the formlessness of night, he must turn to face Eurydice precisely where she cannot be seen. In the instant of looking back, Eurydice, ‘the essence of night approaches as the other night,’ vanishes. [12] ‘In this gaze, the work is lost.’ [13] But it is also in this disappearance that the lament begins.


As Joron writes in a verbal echo of Blanchot, ‘[w]hen laments are raised, they run together like water, collecting into a river that rushes toward an unknown ocean. They travel always in the direction of lengthening shadows, merging into collectivity of night’ (24), into the emergency of poetry and poetry’s emergence. Both Orpheus’ and Joron’s song is the blank literal event within which ‘words begin to become their appearance,’ where words no longer reflect an established order outside of language but rather the self-referential inscription of letters, their gaping detour. [14]


Joron himself closes ‘The Emergency’ with a similar principle of the cracked shattering of the letter. The seed of all resistance, he writes, its ratio is: ‘O, the grieving vowel’ divided by ‘zero, the mouth of astonishment [...] In a word, the uncanny reflection of an unfinished world’ (25). The rising shift from word to world that Joron employs here, and repeats again and again in various modes throughout Fathom, marks out the question of how to get from ‘word’ to ‘world’, highlighting less the incompletion of the world than of the word itself, the rift of its missing letter. In doing so, Joron precipitates the course of the world within the folds of the word’s secret letter, of what escapes, of what emerges, of what poetry translates. Its ‘myriad displacements / not to be explained’ (82), but encountered as fathom, literally, as in ‘something which embraces’ what falls through the cracks. On the edge of writing. As of precipice. Wavering strange. As in an alleviation of property. As in Emmanuel Levinas’s phrase: ‘A voice comes from the other shore. A voice interrupts the saying of the already said’. [15]

2. Scepticism


In the section entitled ‘Skepticism and Reason’ in Otherwise than Being, Emmanuel Levinas proposes, in a manner similar to Joron, a method of argument that takes place as the cancellation of its own expression. For Levinas, the sceptical thesis emblematises this process of reduction succinctly. The reason for this is principally two-fold. On the one hand, Levinas argues that scepticism prohibits comprehension because the equivocation it names necessarily puts all deductive reasoning into question. In Levinas’ terms:


[s]kepticism, which traverses the rationality or logic of knowledge, is a refusal to synchronize the implicit affirmation contained in saying and the negation which this affirmation states in the said. [16]


On the other hand, the refutation scepticism specifies does not produce a counter-knowledge, which is to say, it does not produce a veritas of refutation. For Levinas, the exemplarity of scepticism consists precisely in the fact that scepticism also refutes the presentation of its own argument. The critical point here, then, is that Levinas points to the manner in which the structure of scepticism is irreducibly double: skepticism is always and already also the refutation of skepticism.


Rather than denying the possibility of a sceptical discourse, however, the self-contradiction of scepticism is precisely that which returns the cautionary register of scepticism to discourse as an ‘invincible force.’ ‘Skepticism is refutable,’ Levinas writes, ‘but it returns.’ [17] It returns as the dis-course of discourse, a discourse, in other words, that is periodic in the double sense of that which is both ‘without end and without continuity.’ [18]


Read in the context of the secret lament, of critical importance is the way in which Levinas goes on to claim that the dis-course of scepticism points to a language that would:


exceed the limits of what is thought, by suggesting, letting be understood without ever making understandable, an implication of a meaning distinct form that which comes to signs from the simultaneity of systems or the logical definition of concepts. [19]


In this respect, a sceptical approach would be a movement toward the emergence of an ‘out-of-series, [a] subversion of essence [that] overflows the theme it states.’ [20] As follows, ‘[t]he permanent return of skepticism does not so much signify the breakup of structures as the fact that they are not the ultimate framework of meaning, that for their accord repression can already be necessary.’ [21] The ambivalence of scepticism opens this repressive accord to a potentially anarchic discordance that weighs in the world without either quantifiable or qualifiable measure.


Needless to say, scepticism does not specify what this emergent discordance might produce. Properly speaking, it simply exacerbates the occurrence of discordance by permanently refuting it, which is to say, by inscribing a non-appropriable interference between the saying and the said, between thesis and exposition. In so doing, scepticism opens toward the emergence of other linguistic fields, toward a thought of language indivisible from its crossings and traversal. In this sense, the meaning of scepticism is ‘a voice that comes from the other shore’ and that comes by remaining there, elsewhere; it is both an intonation that trembles and a trembling of intonation. As Levinas writes, it is ‘an excluded middle signifying as an equivocation or an enigma.’ [22]

The Edge of Poetry


In the company of secrecy and scepticism, Joron’s notion of the lament strains at the sliding edge of what is expressible. Once that straining is understood as the double occasion of either secrecy or scepticism then the critical staging of the poetics of emergency must itself involve a sceptical consideration of its own critical ground. Such a complication of the critical approach can be considered as analogous to ‘the path where we recognize the inanity of acts and thoughts incapable of taking the place of an event that breaks up existence in the very accomplishment of its existence.’ [23] Specifically, it is the sceptical waywardness of this path that Joron’s poetics of emergency forces into the foreground. It necessitates that each and every emergence proceed along counter-positional lines, in fits and starts, with questions and effacements, in a manner always turning, that is always wandering against the limit of what it has not been quite possible to say, that is always forming, always falling. As Joron writes:


In this process, communication proves susceptible to structural failure. The abyssal turbulence of language as a whole, always brimming beneath the surface of stabilized meaning, can initiate a spontaneous phase transition that accelerates words far beyond equilibrium, toward the condition of poetry (22).

Part Two

Rosmarie Waldrop: ‘Nothing to Say and Saying It’


‘After the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, Anna Rabinowitz, the editor of American Letters & Commentary, invited responses to the following:


After WWII Theodor Adorno famously declared that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric, to which Edmond Jabès less famously replied: “I say that after Auschwitz we must write poetry but with wounded words.” We want to ask the following questions:
1. What do we as writers do at times when our modes of speech and even language itself seem incapable of making meaning?
2. How can we adapt our defeated, exhausted language to something fresh and clear-sighted, to something that can carry the human narration/commentary forward when conditions themselves are unspeakable?
3. What wellsprings can we draw upon to refresh the always living, always dying word?
4. Do we need to explore or develop new ways of reading as well as writing?’ [24]


Rosmarie Waldrop’s response to this invitation was to write a short essay entitled ‘Nothing to Say and Saying It.’ In this essay, Waldrop sketches the basis of an emergent poetics (a semantic field Waldrop herself takes from Joron’s essay ‘The Emergency’) that exemplifies a notion of human relationality premised on ‘encounter rather than domination or confrontation.’ [25] In respect of this, Waldrop quotes a passage from Giorgio Agamben’s Means without Ends:


We can communicate with others only through what in us – as much as in others – has remained potential, and any communication is first of all communication not of something but of communicability itself. After all, if there existed one and only one being, it would be absolutely impotent [...] And where I am capable, we are always already many.


Waldrop reads this passage as ‘an imperative to guard against our thinking becoming fixed in ideologies and –isms (including patriotism), to cultivate our potential, our openness.’ [26] In other words, Waldrop insists that Agamben’s notion of relation points to a prohibition against any form of estate, whereby it would be precisely the inimitable figure of exclusion that opens the passage toward the communication of ethos. In this context Waldrop goes on to argue that the task of the poet is to work toward the emergence of a language that ‘surpasses itself’. Yet she also states that her own poetic response to 9/11 did not succeed. ‘Words,’ she writes, ‘fail us in shock, in horror, in the face of death.’ [27] Indeed, it is in view of this apparent ‘failure of words’ that Waldrop opens her essay with John Cage’s statement that ‘Poetry is having nothing to say, and saying it.’ As Waldrop comments, ‘I identify with Cage’s position. The first part of his statement is my constant experience. I’ve felt it when I tried to write a poem “about” 9/11.’


It is this poem, ‘Disaster’ (published in 2003) that I want to focus on. In particular, I am concerned with the ways in which Waldrop, having nothing to say, attempts to say nothing about 9/11, and how saying nothing critically frames and bears upon Waldrop’s consideration of the space of the political in this poem. To do this I want to concentrate the discussion of the poem around two areas: firstly, a prohibition against representation and, secondly, the use of non-verbal or graphic marks.


While Waldrop’s poem ‘Disaster’ is discursively structured around representations of and responses to the attack on the Word Trade Centre in New York on 11 September 2001, what is particularly striking is the way in which the specific hinge of ‘Disaster’ is in fact the interval of the page, the blind-spot where all representations and responses cease. This is not to say that the tragedy of those attacks becomes merely a vehicle for reflection or that the poem’s content is either subordinate to or different from the specific property of the page.


On the one hand, ‘Disaster’ is everywhere engaged with the question of how to respond to the events of September 11; on the other hand, that question of response is linked intimately in Waldrop’s poem to a critical intersection between an ontology of ‘nothing’ and a prohibition against representation. In this context, the central point is that the inexorable tension Waldrop ingrains between the written and the unwritten in ‘Disaster’ is an attempt to situate the political in and as a site that does not come to light. As Waldrop writes at the end of the poem’s fourth and final section, ‘[t]he page is otherwise dark’ (116).


The diacritical attendance of this ulterior or non-specifiable darkness within ‘Disaster’ can be clarified by setting it against the spectacular representation of collapse that forms the narrative locus of much of the poem’s four sections. From this perspective, what principally preoccupies the initial thread of ‘Disaster,’ and that also opens onto the centralisation of the page’s darkness in the poem’s final section, is the recurring inability to phenomenalise, either conceptually or discursively, the facticity of the towers’ collapse. On the one hand, this is because, in the poem, the attack on the World Trade Centre is an event of ‘disbelief’ (113). As Waldrop writes in the second section:


[w]e can think away towers. We can think away mountains. Once they’re gone we can’t. Believe it. We’re made to dream dreams of fear (114).


Indeed, in many senses the ruptured syntax Waldrop employs both here and throughout the sequence is expressly emblematic of the incredulity the poem everywhere articulates. The punctured division between, for instance, ‘can’t’ and ‘believe it’ both rehearses and exacerbates firstly, the stunned and traumatic experience of shock, and secondly, the historical-political narrative that at once precedes and exceeds the attacks on the World Trade Centre and of which those attacks are only a part. On the other hand, however, for Waldrop the fact of the towers’ collapse is non-phenomenal also because its unremitting televisual relay accentuates incomprehension by transposing the historical-political specificity of the event for an ‘[i]mage on a screen’ (115), an image, in other words, that is neither unique nor representative but simply one among others:


Like a movie. Like a comic strip. Please distinguish between. Crumbling towers and the image of crumbling towers. The image, repeated, multiplies. Locks on the plural. Crowds (113).


Two inter-related comments arise here regarding the critical focus of Waldrop’s plea to distinguish between what might be referred to as the ‘as such’ and the ‘as if.’ First, the appeal to distinction is motivated by a concern for veracity. In this sense, Waldrop’s appeal is motivated not by a desire for (another, more accurate, order of) representation but by a concern for the incomprehensible itself. That the singular actuality of the event not be reduced, which is to say, that it not be repeatable, it is necessary, Waldrop suggests, to maintain a zone of incongruous distance between the event and its conceptual-visual representation. In this way, in the absence of any distinction, the event’s mimetic repetition becomes indivisible from the event’s obscuration. That is to say, the singular specificity of the event is that which becomes invisible precisely because visualisation renders it excessively transparent. In effect, what this amounts to saying is that the transmission of the event is that which screens the event from view. As the opening lines of ‘Disaster’ illustratively express:


Went and looked and went and looked. For what was no more. Scrutinized screens and saw. Nothing. The papers in the land and. Took in nothing (113).


Or again, at the beginning of the fourth section, ‘[n]othing is hidden. Therefore cannot see. Therefore a view of the world unimportant’ (116).


In contrast to the transparent form of nothing that conditions representation, ‘Disaster’ proposes an alternative version of nothing that is at once both more resolute and more impenetrable. It is, as Waldrop puts it, a nothing that ‘has room. For all. No ruins can fill it. No rubble. No number of dead’ (113). From this perspective, the ‘nothing’ Waldrop proposes is, at one and the same time, both the distillation and the titular ‘disaster’ of the events of September 11, 2001. More specifically, it is the inexorable distillation of those events as disaster. What this means is that, by not only clearing but also vigilantly maintaining a space into which the events of September 11 disappear, ‘nothing’ paradoxically renders the facticity of that day’s collapse immutably present. To put it another way, ‘nothing’ both parallels and preserves the authentic intransigence of disaster. Waldrop exemplifies in microcosm what is at stake here at the start of the second section when she writes that ‘[a] hole is. A space for thought’ (D: 114). [28] Indeed, it is more than probable that the noun ‘space’ in this passage refers less to ‘thought’ than it does to the interruptive mark of the punctuation point that both precedes and typifies it. If such is the case, however, then what is decisive about intervallic syntax is the way in which it prohibits thematisation even as it suggests it. In the passage I’ve just quoted nothing is conferred upon ‘a hole’ beyond the annotation of its simple or bare existence – ‘a hole is.’ In other words, it is rendered legible precisely because the poem derives nothing from it. Hence, even as the existence of a ‘hole’ here may well be contiguous with ‘a space for thought,’ and vice versa, neither is continuous with the other. What occurs, rather, is a writing that does not write.


As stated before, the critical consequence of such a darkening deflection of grammar and signification is that the incomprehensible event paradoxically becomes the subject and object of the poem’s fractured turnings. [29] Further to this, it follows that the incomprehensible event is the poem’s most basic property, the one it can neither quite claim nor jettison but which, despite itself, it mimes everywhere in the featureless surface of its inscrutable punctuation. In this way, to approach the meaning of an event for which there is no answer is to be called into the limitless fugal collocation of subject with counter-subject, of sense with counter-sense. Indeed, it is precisely the commensurability between fugal flight and inestimable duration that Waldrop both indicates and develops into a conceptualisation of understanding in the following lines from the third section:


Often we must work with holes. In understanding. Often set out without knowing where. Often distrust narratives (115).


In order to understand, Waldrop argues, it is necessary to think with and not against what hides. It is necessary to begin with neither predicate nor telos. It is necessary to suspect the story that emerges, to lighten it of sense by breaking it down to its particulars, to think each grapheme, each syllable, each letter, [t]o draw a black line’ through whatever it is one thinks, and then to recognise that the line still waits to be drawn, that the line still waits to be drawn through (116).


Indeed, it is precisely this prohibition against representation that filters the critical sense of the term ‘disaster’ throughout Waldrop’s poem as a whole. The lexical frame of ‘disaster,’ in other words, typifies expressly the inexorably looped tension between effacement and remainder. Maurice Blanchot clarifies succinctly this double structure of disaster when he writes that ‘[t]he disaster ruins everything, all the while leaving everything intact.’ [30] It performs this strange symbiosis between action and passivity, Blanchot goes on to explain, because the disaster itself is properly unthinkable, unpronounceable and illegible. On one level, the intractable non-constitution Blanchot identifies here with the term ‘disaster’ stems from a literal elaboration of its common meaning as that which is ruinous. Ruin, that is to say, can be neither thought nor written because its presentation necessarily will be at the expense of any representation. Indeed, in certain respects it would be precisely this literal sense of ‘disaster’ that could be said to condition the interplay between illustration and incomprehensibility in Waldrop’s poem.


That said, however, on another level, the critical modulation of disaster that Blanchot posits and that Waldrop’s poem bears out is at once both more definite and more displaced than such a correlation with ruin suggests. As Blanchot states unequivocally, ‘disaster means being separated from the star.’ [31] In other words, it intends that which is without reference. It communicates not by bringing together but by setting apart. Consequently, what the disaster communicates hardly matters. What is of concern, rather, is the line it draws through and across whatever it is that comes to be said; what matters is its prohibition against reference.


In relation to Waldrop’s poem, the critical point here is that ‘disaster’ legitimates the sequence by casting it from the unlocatable non-perspective of the proscribed. Yet if such is the case, then it follows automatically that at all times ‘Disaster’ must indicate, stage, and repeat what Blanchot terms the de-scription of writing. [32] It must substitute discourse for a non-discursive or non-representational writing of marks. In this context, the saturation of ‘Disaster’ by the typographical scratch of the asterisk (*) is exemplary here for at least two principle reasons:


(1) The mark of the asterisk is a silent sign (a sign, in other words, that does not signify, that is unreadable) that semantically interconnects with and graphically mimes the sense of ‘disaster’ as that which is ‘separated from the star.’


(2) The asterisk is ‘a mark of omission, [...] a mark of a word or root inferred [...] but not recorded.’ [33]


In either case, what this amounts to saying is that the asterisk is not a referent for the incommunicable ‘disaster;’ rather, its incommunicability is, in fact, the very mark of ‘disaster’ itself. [34]


While the implications of Waldrop’s poem on the thinking of the political are numerous, I would like simply to underscore two points:


(1) To think the political in and as disaster is to think the prohibition of the political. This is not to say that disaster disavows the political but that it maintains the political precisely because it reflects it in and as the creases of refusal. For Waldrop, then, the political is to be thought from the threshold of definability, at that point where thematisation unfolds into imprecision, where transmission remains potentially available precisely because it is prohibited.


(2) The language of political responsibility is indivisible from the de-scriptive language of the asterisk. In other words, the discourse of political responsibility is a mark without property. Here, then, the political does not correspond to nor aim toward a general coexistence, and responsibility does not equate to a duty to protect that group solidarity. Rather, in relation to such notions of both the political and responsibility, socius is exõterikos (‘external’ or ‘from outside’) such that the error, Waldrop notes, is to fill the space of the asterisk ‘with flags. [...] When a foreign language we should be required to learn’ (D: 114). [35] In this sense, it would appear to be the Bush administration’s mobilisation of a predominantly symbolic solidarity premised on the exaggeration of national allegiance (of which the flying of flags would be one example) that followed – and that continues to be secured against – the attacks in New York and Washington that forms the implicit focus of Waldrop’s indirect critique here.


If the form of prohibition and reticence that structures ‘Disaster’ has a political force it is that of the responsibility of a political wandering, an exposure to foreignness. It bears stressing that to say this is to say little. A poetics of disaster works by indirection, in side-step, yet what it affects is the motivation toward reservation, toward a quiet holding back, a swelling of the irreducible measure of distance, of the prohibition of approach.


As Waldrop writes in an essay contemporaneous with ‘Disaster’: ‘No longer one single voice. A multiple meaning. The shadow zone becomes an element of structure. Blanchot’s “other kind of interruption” which: “introduces waiting, which measures the distance between two speakers, not the reducible distance, but the irreducible... Now what is at stake is the strangeness between us.”’ [36]

Poetry and Politics


To theorise the domain of the political from that of a certain principle of lamentation or refusal is neither to withdraw nor to denigrate the event of political life. Read from the perspective of refusal (re-fundere), for Joron the reflective cry of lamentation not only represents (translates) the politics of today but, crucially, it does so in the fragile dispersal of its structure, by putting into question its very own relevance. Lamentation’s refusal trembles precariously at the edge of life, an interplay of falling and forming. Maurice Blanchot calls refusal a ‘power’ but he does so not because refusal acts productively in the world, but because its mute anonymity distributes an indelible rift into political economy that cannot be put to work. ‘When we refuse,’ Blanchot writes, ‘we refuse with a movement that is without contempt, without exaltation, and anonymous, as far as possible, for the power to refuse cannot come from us, not in our name alone, but from a very poor beginning that belongs first to those who cannot speak.’ [37] As Jabès writes: ‘You perceive what dies with you. What lasts cannot be grasped.’ [38] Here, and for Joron as well, what poetic practice indicates is the necessity of thinking the political basis of life in tandem with the secret there of what escapes. And besides, as Derrida cautions: ‘[a]s soon as one identifies a revolution, it begins to imitate, it enters into a death agony.’ [39] Thus the words of Rosmarie Waldrop: ‘Our inclusive views are mosaics. And the shards catch light on the cut, [and] the edges give off sparks.’ [39] They do so, Joron suggests, as a kind of out-saying, in the manner that catastrophe cannot be separated from emergence.


[1] Andrew Joron, ‘The Emergency’ in Fathom (Black Square Editions, 2003) pp. 15-25.

[2] Jacques Derrida, in Giovanna Borradorim, ed., Philosophy in a Time of Terror (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press) p. 99. For Derrida’s initial discussion of ‘auto-immunity’, see ‘Faith and Knowledge’ in Acts of Religion (ed. Gil Anidjar), (London and New York: Routledge, 2002) p. 80, n. 27.

[3] Forrest Gander, A Faithful Existence: Reading, Memory and Transcendence (Emeryville, CA: Shoemaker and Hoard, 2005) p. 5.

[4] Theodor Adorno, Critical Models, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998) p. 197.

[5] Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997) p. 2.

[6] Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, trans. E.F.N. Jephcott (London: Verso, 1978) p. 247.

[7] Emmanuel Hocquard, ‘This Story that is Mine’ in Crosscut Universe: Writing on Writing From France (ed. Norma Cole), (Providence: Burning Deck, 2000) p. 100.

[8] Ibid., p. 98.

[9] Joseph Guglielmi, ‘The Radical Cut’ in Crosscut Universe, Ibid., p. 79.

[10] Hocquard, ‘This Story that is Mine,’ p. 97.

[11] Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2002), p. 183.

[12] Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1982) p. 171

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., p.174

[15] Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 2002) p. 167.

[16] Ibid., p. 168.

[17]Ibid., p. 169.

[18] Ibid., pp. 169—170.

[19] Ibid., p. 170.

[20] Ibid., p. 171.

[21] Ibid., p. 169.

[22] Emmanuel Levinas, On Escape, trans. Bettina Bergo (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003) p. 73.

[23] Quoted in Rosmarie Waldrop, Dissonance (if you are interested), (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005) p. 274.

[24] Ibid., p. 277.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., p. 276.

[27] It bears stressing that the structural frame of Waldrop’s comment here is no different from that which she proposes elsewhere, namely, that the motivation of thought rests in the empty space of the gap. As Waldrop comments in interview, ‘in the gaps we might get hints of much that has to be left unsaid – but should be thought about.’ Joan Retallack, ‘A Conversation with Rosmarie Waldrop,’ Contemporary Literature, Vol. 40, No. 3 (Autumn, 1999) p. 341.

[28] Although the poem’s references to the events of September 11, 2001 are relatively clear, it bears stressing that ‘Disaster’ never actually specifies, either here or elsewhere, what this subject and object is beyond the oblique generality of ‘hole’ or ‘space.’ Yet nor however should it. In the same way that the poem describes the attacks on the World Trade Centre as incomprehensible because they are at once both shocking and referential of a wider narrative of which they are neither the beginning nor the end, so the refusal of denotation here foregrounds the structural and thematic arc of representational fracture that plays out across the poem more generally.

[29] Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1995) p. 1.

[30] Ibid., p. 2. See also p. 75: ‘[t]he disaster: break with the star, break with every form of totality.’

[31] The disaster, Blanchot writes, ‘is the limit of writing. This must be repeated: the disaster de-scribes.’ Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, p. 7.

[32] The Chambers Dictionary, p. 95

[33] Apart from its inscription on the title page, ‘disaster’ is never mentioned by name in the poem.

[34] In this sense, it would appear to be the Bush administration’s mobilisation of a predominantly symbolic solidarity premised on the exaggeration of national allegiance (of which the flying of flags would be one example) that followed – and that continues to be secured against – the attacks in New York and Washington that forms the implicit focus of Waldrop’s indirect critique here.

[35] Rosmarie Waldrop. “The Ground is the Only Figure.” Dissonance, Ibid., p. 227.

[36] Maurice Blanchot, ‘Refusal’ in Friendship, trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997) p. 112.

[37]Edmond Jabès, ‘The Ineffaceable The Unperceived’ in From the Book to the Book: An Edmond Jabès Reader, trans. Rosmarie Waldrop (Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, 1991)., p. 171.

[38] Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: State of the Debt, The Work of Mourning, and The New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (London and New York: Routledge, 1994)., p. 115.

[39] Rosmarie Waldrop, Ceci n’es pas Keith, Ceci n’est pas Rosmarie (Providence, RI: Burning Deck, 2002) p. 86.