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Josh Robinson

‘Innocence and incapability impose’:

Towards an Ethic of Experimentation


Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as the martyred have to scream; it might therefore have been wrong to say that no poetry can be written after Auschwitz. (Adorno, Negative Dialektik 355)


If the new categorical imperative imposed upon us is to arrange our thoughts and actions in such a way that Auschwitz will not repeat itself (Negative Dialektik 358), the question might be raised of the role for poetry – and particularly experimental poetry – in constructing this arrangement. Adorno warns us not to treat this imperative discursively: to do so would be an insult. ‘In it the moment of a supplement to the ethical can be felt in the body’ (Negative Dialektik 358). The imperative that seeks to govern the structure of society starts in the individual’s bodily aversion to intolerable physical pain. Even in the case of mechanised suffering taking place on an institutional scale, it is crucial that we don’t forget the pain inflicted at the level of the individual body.

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This paper’s thesis is two-fold. Its first claim is that poetry provides something over and above bare existence, the skeleton of life to which we have been reduced: as such it serves to resist potential oppression. The second is that in the face of the relentless drive of bourgeois culture to colonise what at first is new, different and radical – for bourgeois society is the first to have integrated art to the extent visible currently (Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie 334) – experimentation is a necessary means of making sure poetry cannot be assimilated into a commodified, dominant culture. If art in an administered world ‘embodies that which doesn’t allow itself to be organised and that which the whole organisation suppresses’ (Ästhetische Theorie 348), perpetual innovation provides further resistance to administration.


I begin this essay by briefly addressing some of the issues around poetry and political agency. I then look at some of Adorno’s claims concerning the relationship between experimentation, ethics and action in literary works. Finally, I discuss experimentation and politics in Douglas Oliver’s sequence The Infant and the Pearl, a poem that confronts the relationship between poetry and politics, addressing the question of


[...]                                     what I mean
by Socialism, that our soul and our selves are unknown
yet unconsciously known in the union between
people. (XX, 161)


My essay is part of a broader project: it begins to consider the capacity of poetry to bridge the gap between an individual ethical impulse and the necessarily intersubjective foundation for a possible political intervention; between ‘the unworldly kingdom’, whether reconciled utopia or dystopian nightmare, and ‘my world’ (XIII–XIV, 150) of bodily experience.


Culture, for Adorno, is the objective manifestation of consolations of spirit in the face of such immense suffering. An effect of the camps – or rather, of the suffering within the camps – was to reduce these consolations to ashes. Auschwitz was made possible by coldness, the ‘fundamental principle of bourgeois subjectivity’ (Negative Dialektik 356) – that is, mode of behaviour that provides the key to survival in an administered society at the same time facilitates industrialised murder. The question, then, is not so much how to mitigate the effects of bourgeois coldness in attempt to stop further holocausts taking place, as how to ensure that life lived to its fullness can prevent coldness from becoming predominant in our experience. That is, how, practically, might we be able to move closer to a state of reconciliation in which coldness is not necessary for survival.


The claim that poetry has a capacity for political agency – indeed, for any agency whatsoever – is clearly somewhat problematic. In the ‘Society’ section of Aesthetic Theory, Adorno claims that


art is social not only through the mode of its creation in which the dialectic of the forces and relations of production are concentrated, nor through the social origin of its material content. It becomes social to a much greater extent through its opposition to society, and it first takes up this position as autonomous art. (335)


The political function of art (as distinct from the function to the service of which people seek to press it) consists in its remaining autonomous – that is, in the fact that it remains independent of any extrinsic political purpose. Art refuses society in its capacity not to become a commodity. The fetish of art for its own sake is at the same time the only form of resistance to the heteronomy of a society in which everything is mediated by relationships of exchange – in which everything, that is, exists for the sake of something else. ‘Only that which does not obey [the principle of being-for-another] stands on behalf of that which is free from domination; that which is useless, of atrophied use-value’ (Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie 337). The self-proclaimed uselessness of art for its own sake points to the possibility of a reconciled future.


Similarly, his essay on Brecht sets out his conception of what art can achieve – and, more importantly, what it cannot – as an intervention within the political sphere. Even committed art, ‘does not wish to bring about particular measures, legislative acts, practical institutions, as older political pieces aimed against syphilis, the duel, abortion laws or borstals, but aims at an attitude’ (Adorno, ‘Engagement’ 412). But there is a danger to even this aim:


Brecht no longer postulates [...] identity between living individuals and social essence, nor the absolute sovereignty of the subject. But the process of aesthetic reduction that he takes on for the sake of political truth cuts this truth off short. It needs innumerable mediations, which Brecht spurns (Adorno, ‘Engagement’ 416).


It is not simply the case that Brecht’s ‘alienating infantilism’ is not successful enough to achieve its political purpose. Rather, it is its very claim to a political purpose that destroys the artwork’s claim to not only political but also aesthetic legitimacy. ‘All commitment to the world must be annulled for the idea of a committed artwork to be satisfied’ (Adorno, ‘Engagement’ 425–26): poetry can only achieve political efficacy when it is not written in the service of such an aim.


Moreover, in the light of Adorno’s claim that the condition of all truth is the need to let suffering be expressed, we are forced to think of truth in a sense beyond mere correspondence. ‘Suffering is objectivity that weighs upon the subject; what the subject experiences as most subjective, its expression, is mediated objectively’ (Negative Dialektik 29). A function of poetry – perhaps its only function, for Adorno – after Auschwitz is the expression of this suffering, both as an end in itself and in service of the attempt to make sure that genocide on the scale of the Shoah will not happen again. Indeed, the two aims cannot be separated from one another: successful expression of suffering will detract from the coldness of bourgeois society through the mediation of that which is expressed in the composition of poems.


Some of the other essays collected in Notes to Literature provide different contexts in which experimental literature can be analysed according to these criteria. In ‘Balzac-Lektüre’, for example, Adorno compares the development of French Realist prose with that of symphonic music:


Many symphonies of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries recall the novel in their tendency towards large-scale situations, their passionate rise and fall, their unruly abundance of liveliness; and so Balzac’s novels, archetypes of the genre, are musical in their surging quality, the way they bring forth forms and then suck them back in again, in setting up and modifying characters who drift along in a dream sequence. If novel-like music appears, as if in the dark, dimmed against the contours of objectivity, to repeat the movements of objectivity in one’s head, then the heads of those who turn Balzac’s pages, eagerly expecting the continuation, spin as if all the descriptions and actions were a pretext for a wild and colourful sound that flows though it. (142–43)


That Balzac’s novels are ‘archetypes of the genre’ suggests not that they are in any way conservative or formulaic, but conversely, that they embody a considerable amount of work in the refinement of the genre. The resemblance to music that Adorno identifies (in an echo of the resemblance to language that he claims is inherent in music (‘Fragment über Musik und Sprache’ passim)) consists in the way in which the art-form is able to induce in those who experience it a sense of anticipation and disorientation.


Adorno describes the intensification of this disorientation a few pages later. Balzac, we are told, takes the ‘craftsmanlike precision of French itself’ to its extremes, at times presupposing ‘familiarity with entire technical vocabularies in specialised areas’ (‘Balzac-Lektüre’ 146). The effects of this are twofold. Firstly, for the duration of the work the reader is assumed to possess a particular body of knowledge, transposed into a situation of experience and fluency. This proficiency, in turn, transforms the world into something that can be seen through, which in turn means that it can no longer be looked at: the consequence of pushing the genre of literary realism to this degree is that the genre becomes obsolete. Further experimentation becomes necessary.


Surrealism, in contrast, is presented as something opposed to experimentation. Or, perhaps more accurately, there is very little experimentation taking place within the confines of the genre, as Adorno understands it. Surrealist constructions and images are presented as something static, unchanging. Its artistic techniques are derived ‘in part literally and in part in spirit from late nineteenth-century illustrations’. As a result, we are presented not with the unconscious itself, but with a pale shadow of what a stereotypical unconscious might look like; not with images of something inward, but commodity fetishes ‘to which something subjective, libido, once affixed itself’ (‘Rückblickend auf den Surrealismus’ 101–04)


Experimentation, however, is not the same as innovation. Derived from experiri, to try, ‘experiment’ is cognate with ‘experience’: it is not simply a matter of newness, but of a process in which something is tested, tried out. Whereas the category of innovative works includes those which posit a new mode of composition or expression which might become established, an experimental work puts itself to the test, seeking to establish its validity by trial, and in turn necessitating further experiment. That is, experimental work is something like an essay. Essayistic thought involves the suspension of the traditional concept of method, avoiding attempts at transcendence. ‘The essay is determined by the unity of its object together with that of the theory and experience that have migrated into the object’ (‘Der Essay als Form’ 26). The truth of the essay ‘gains its force from its untruth’(). Adorno acknowledges in the ‘Meditations on Metaphysics’ that we can no longer trust that that the immutable is truth while that which changes is merely transient semblance (Negative Dialektik354). The critical tendency in essayistic and experimental work involves the work’s becoming aware of its untruth, of the ideological illusion in which culture reveals its bondage to nature.


It is in this respect that Brecht might well not considered to be ‘experimental’. Adorno criticises the way that despite his greater skill as a writer and greater political understanding than those of Sartre, his use of abstraction becomes an unchanging formal principle enlisted in the service of ‘a didactic poésie’. The political consequences of this are potentially frightening: ‘The true horror of fascism is conjured away; it no longer incubates in the concentration of social power, but is rather an accident, like misadventures and crime’ ( ‘Engagement’ 417). Brecht’s ‘polemical alienation’, initially one of the ways in which his commitment to the world is revealed in the work, first stagnates and then, losing its force, is progressively abandoned (426). In the absence of experimentation, what in art has the potential to exert a progressive effect can only fade away to a futile formal technique, isolated from the social reality to which the work seeks to relate.


Beckett’s drama, in contrast, is described has having a more profound social impact. The use of stichomythia is not an unchanging formal principle, but a technique employed with effects that change through time: what was a means of raising dramatic tension in Sophocles becomes a vehicle ‘in which the interlocutors begin to flag’ in Endgame. The result is a situation in which ‘meaning nothing becomes the only meaning’ (‘Versuch, das Endspiel zu verstehen’ 304–05). The experiment here is in finding a way of doing this without resorting to the by now failed attempt to reduce language to pure sound with no semantic element. Instead, language is negated through the way in which clown-like babbling is displayed as nonsense by being treated as sense, opening up gaps ‘between the compiled phrases of everyday speech’ (306).


Experimentation in lyric poetry can have political effects no less than more obviously social dramatic works: the demand that the lyric remains untainted by others’ experience is itself social, a protest against a world of isolation in which contact with others is experienced as oppressive (‘Rede über Lyrik und Gesellschaft’ 52). In Hölderlin, for example: in ‘Der Einzige’ language is transformed into a ‘music-like’ serial order, transposing content into poetic substance. Hölderlin’s experimentation here consists in the relationship of his poetry to song: language cannot escape the synthetic judgement that consists in the concept, but in poetry, the aconceptual synthesis of music allows Hölderlin’s verse to suspend the traditional synthesis of language through parataxis, allowing explication without deduction (‘Parataxis: Zur späten Lyrik Hölderlins’ 471).


Like Beckett’s stichomythia, his use of parataxis exists very much within a tradition going back at least as far as Pindar. But as Adorno insists, it’s not simply derivative: Hölderlin himself rejects periodic logical development in which basis, development, goal and purpose follow one another, as unusable in poetry. Hölderlin’s language does not privilege linguistic synthesis, instead wishing to set language free. As a counter to the conceptual and predicative language of synthesis, a language which stands opposed to subjective expression, Hölderlin seeks to reincorporate the subject and its expression into language. But he does so not through subjectivisation, recognising that ‘the subject becomes a subject only through language’. That is, it is through a pushing of the desire for objectivity that would allow language to speak that subjective expression can exist in language (472–73).


Enough Adorno. The rest of this paper is concerned with the ethics of expression in Douglas Oliver.


As an aside, when I submitted the initial abstract for this paper I was planning on discussing late Prynne as well as Oliver, but I came to the view that there’s an authority in the voicing of many of Prynne’s poems that has the effect that, however innovative, however surprising, however new, they don’t represent experiments. By which I mean, I don’t get a sense, when reading Prynne, of the tentativeness of a poem trying to find out whether a particular voice or mode of verbal production works.


In the 101 twelve-line alliterative stanzas of The Infant and the Pearl, however, I feel a much stronger sense of the ‘working out’ of way in which poetic expression, ethical imperative and political action are related. The poem takes us through a dream in which the dreamer’s lover Rosine – ‘true Mercy’ (II, 131) – disappears from her bed, replaced by Margaret Thatcher. The dreamer manages not to sleep with her by mistake, and is then carried through scenes of misery in a blue Bentley, eventually making his way to Westminster. Rosine is finally brought back to life by the birth of a child with Down’s syndrome.


The poem takes place in first-person narrative, and we are confronted throughout by descriptions of the dreamer’s own experience. However, the poem’s opening presents these not as an individual’s experience that can be brought into question, but as knowledge, almost immediate. ‘I caught sight / of Rosine’ (I, 129) yields to ‘she was’ two lines later. What the dreamer sees, is, quite simply. There is no possibility that the dreamer’s eyes could be deceived. Sensory perception is to be trusted as knowledge.


This remains the case in many of the dream-experiences narrated within the poem. But it is not possible to remain so certain. So the Bentley’s driver says of the dreamer’s first experiences in the car:


[...] ‘It’s the actual’s antidote,
the future replayed in the present, jitter-free:
a revision of what hasn’t happened. What
we do is this: we project into spot
x, say your dream, a futurity reader
function that monitors the future mote
in your eye and the beam in the eye of our leader,
and replays a replica leader onto the screen
of the present, holographically if we have
to.’ (IV, 134)


What has not yet happened is unable to be experienced. The dream-world provides a situation in which what is experienced is distinct from what is merely seen. That is, vision is not a mode of experience, but of more passive observation of what might happen. What is ‘actual’ is what is present, able to be lived, not simply watched: we can have no such certainty concerning the as-yet-unrealised possibilities of the future. These possibilities question the legitimacy of ethical judgement: the ‘beam in the eye of our leader’ apparently does not need to be removed, but then nor does the ‘mote’ in the eye of the speaker. Life in this dream-world is not so much about overcoming hypocrisy and inequality, as merely acknowledging that they are present by observing life from the outside.


And yet the poem does allow for the possibility of inauthentic experience. Seeing himself as a friar at St Paul’s, the dreamer confesses:


[...] I was intoning some eucharist
hymn about salvation without sacrifice
of the class system, hyped by a sensationalist
press whose false pearls paid the price
of entry; (VII, 141)


The fake experience is not really presented as experience. Not ‘I intoned’, but ‘I was intoning’, as if the dreamer is looking down on a figure of himself, aware that this figure is going through the motions. However, the distinction between observation and experience is perhaps not entirely clear: apparently inauthentic events as these can be pleasant. As the following stanza tells us


[...] the cup
approached and although awake in a dream
I closed my eyes and supped a sweet syrup
while conformity cooed overhead and the canteen
passed onward. I sensed that to sup up
such class sentiment was an unclean
act and I was heady from it. I had to lean
on a neighbour for support. Yet I felt nice,
full of hauteur, high on decency―but obscene,
for my false pearl paid the price

of entry. (VIII–IX, 142)


The pleasure is real. But so is the sense of guilt and betrayal. However sweet the syrup, the effect of the eucharist, supposedly a purifying ritual that cleanses the believer’s soul of all sin, is to taint its recipient with betrayal. Co-opted by the establishment, this is a ceremony that exists for the sake of public performance. The cathedral is compared to a meal in a restaurant – (‘The Bishop / from the Diocese of Deference, had been / round with the wafer course already’ (VIII, 142)) – however good it feels, it’s about being seen. Being ‘awake in a dream’ is no excuse: the dreamer’s guilt is not mitigated by the circumstances in which the events described take place. And what makes guilt possible is the capacity for intersubjectivity – that is, of communicable subjective experiences. For example:


I recognised Rosine the way you’d recognise
your lover’s look in union as a unity
if you won your way inward to where her eyes
have sent contrary signals to the quiddity
of single sight. (XIII, 149)


Suddenly, for what I think is the first time in the poem, I am the referent of a second-person pronoun. That is: my, even our – whoever ‘we’ are – experiences of sex become the basis for communicating the dreamer’s own experiences to me – to us. This is language made possible by subjective experience, experience that constitutes a condition of the possibility of communication.


The poem makes evident its connections with both contemporary politics and the development of the poetic traditions in which it sits. It is experimental partly in its response to the fourteenth-century dream-narrative Pearl. The departure from many of the textual practices associated with late modernism is not made in favour of a ‘new’ verse-form, chosen as if arbitrarily: the combination of alliterative verse with an intricate scheme of pararhyme is developed through engagement with the themes and structure of the medieval text. But the formal limits that the poem establishes are not simply there to be filled: they are established through the work done by each word, each line, each stanza, and the poem strains at its own limits throughout, from the ingenuity of the pararhyme (e.g. ‘dumb’ rhymed with ‘nihilism’ (VI, 137) ‘Country’ with ‘buggery’ (VIII, 140) or ‘honorific’ with ‘real politik’ (XI, 146)) to the enjambed refrain-lines continuing into the following 12-line stanza, even the next five-stanza numbered section.


This exploration of prosodic concerns does not take place in isolation. In Poetry and Narrative in Performance, Oliver examines issues of prosody through the examination of recordings of verse analysed using a spectrometer, insisting both on the relationship between the intonation of individual lines and the large-scale form of the narrative and on the interlinking of meaning with minute variations in the detail of how a word is intoned. The focus is on the way in which subjective experience crystallises itself in the reading of verse: that is, like Adorno’s considerations in the essay on Hölderlin, on precisely how it is that subjective expression might be reincorporated into language.


This expression must be that of a particular subjective experience. To say that Oliver’s poem is experimental is thus to make to claims. Firstly, that in the way it works on the achievement that is an existing text, it necessarily pushes at an existing body of writing, discovering to what extent the transposition of one mode of writing into a radically different political and social context makes a difference to its potential political and ethical content. And secondly, and perhaps more importantly, that a fundamental concern of the poem is subjective experience and how it can be expressed in language. For it is only in the articulation of these experiences – that which constitutes life – that suffering can be expressed. The expression of suffering, I contend, consists in finding – and then constantly refinding, refining, redefining – a language that does not exclude subjective expression. And this expression is necessary for the basis of a politics of community: the shared experience of life. To end in Oliver’s words: ‘There’s no true idea / of political system; so say so’ (XX, 161).

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W., Ästhetische Theorie. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1970.

———, ‘Balzac-Lektüre.’ Noten zur Literatur 139–57.

———, ‘Der Essay als Form.’ Noten zur Literatur 9–33.

———, ‘Engagement.’ Noten zur Literatur 409–30.

———, ‘Fragment über Musik und Sprache.’ Musikalische Schriften IIII. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1978. 251–6.

———, Negative Dialektik. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1966.

———, Noten zur Literatur. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1974.

———, ‘Parataxis: Zur späten Lyrik Hölderlins.’ Noten zur Literatur 447–91.

———, ‘Rede über Lyrik und Gesellschaft.’ Noten zur Literatur 48–68.

———, ‘Rückblickend auf den Surrealismus.’ Noten zur Literatur 101–05.

———, ‘Versuch, das Endspiel zu verstehen.’ Noten zur Literatur 281–321.

Oliver, Douglas. The Infant and the Pearl. Collected in Kind. London: Allardyce, Barnett, 1987. 127–62. First published London: Ferry Press, for Silver Hounds, 1985.

———, Poetry and Narrative in Performance. Houndmills: Macmillan, 1989.