Helsingin Poetiikkakonferenssi – The Helsinki Poetics Conference
Helsinki 22.8.2005

Teema / Theme 4: Vastarinta / Resistance

Translated by Make Copies
Finnish original

Dear listeners,

My assignment is to talk about the theme of Resistance. Thus, I will begin by resisting: it is only with tooth and nail that I can approve the theme being named Resistance. Or to be more precise: the first meaning-associations the word and the concept of Resistance will awake are often ones that could easily be themselves resisted, or questioned, by the Resistance proper to the poetry. Of course, Resistance as a theme could also offer an obvious and easy way to proceed: I could describe the ways, practices, and literary methods, that Modern or Contemporary poetry has used or uses to resist this or that. I could pick up examples of what is known as social or political awareness, or critical commentary, from the poetry of 60s, or from contemporary poetry.

This would, however, be a superficial and thoughtless way. It is not enough to refer to, or reminiscence about, examples, if we want to talk about poetry’s resistance – or rather about it’s possibility, since the ability of poetry to offer resistance is always an open question that the poet and the reader need to confront a poem, a situation, and a moment at a time. Actually, a word and a syllable at a time. This at least is my reading of T.W. Adorno’s famous statement of the impossibility of writing poetry after Auschwitz: not that writing as such would be impossible, rather that the Modern experience of crisis, together with the unnameable suffering of the past, is present as open, impossible-to-expiate wounds in every word and syllable in every attempt to write, or to get something said. If we write poetry without constant awareness of this wound that is an essential part of the Modern, we will betray the possibility of resistance and the ”tradition of the submitted” Walter Benjamin spoke of. That would mean betraying one of the most essential elements of Modern poetry (by which I mean, roughly, the poetry of the two latest centuries) which is the burning conscience of the crisis of poetry and language.

As an aside, and as a personal opinion, let me state, however, that I believe in the possibility of overcoming the crisis of the Modernity in poetry – in the time to come, and possibly even in the actual present. I mean: there might be a possibility to attain a kind of pure language and noble simplicity of expression that would be capable of piercing through the Modernity to something not yet destroyed. But even this may be possible only on the condition of it’s happening via a serious working-through of the crisis. As the cases of Hölderlin and Nietzsche show us, the overcoming of Modernity requires one also to submerge into it in a profound way. Yet all this will – possibly, that is – only apply to the artistic practice of an individual poet, its hidden utopian powers that are capable of challenging and overcoming the historical present. When speaking about poetry at the level of the general philosophy of culture and critical poetics, as I do here, the experience of a crisis that is part of the Modernity is, I think, a fundamental starting point and a context that cannot be overlooked or neglected.

It is for this reason, because of this historical and philosophical background that cannot be overlooked, that I am forced again to resist my own presentation. Namely, I want to resist, to protest against the hopelessly short time that my presentation has been allotted to. In order to really penetrate the interwovenness of poetry and resistance, we’d need a proper analysis of the concepts of Modernity and crisis, and their interwovenness – of course keeping an eye on poetry. We should provide a historico-philosophical background for why the conscience of the crisis just mentioned, together with a certain ephemeral ”being against something” (which it, again, feeds) – that is: the Resistance – will always be present in poetry that we value and cherish. Since this will not be possible, I have to resort to a schematic presentation. Yet I want to remark that these kinds of generalizing, schematizing presentations, quick outlines, with the accompanying bracketing of the historico-philosophical background, may be the very problems, typical of our age, that a culturally critical resistance would need to tackle at the first place.

I will proceed by enumerating certain themes that exhibit and crystallize the relations and linkages between poetry and resistance. These will work as kind of subtitles under which to gather texts that give expression to, or consider, the linkages between poetry and resistance. They are in part quite general, and familiar to everyone, in part again will represent my own personal categorizations and conceptualizations, based on my own experience as a writer of poems and my own thinking about poetry.

The question of resistance of poetry (i.e. in the resistance by poetry, in the resistance to the poeticality of poetry, in the possibilities for resistance inherent in poetry, in the inner self-criticality of poetry, in poetry as a shelter and retreat, in the way poetry – almost against its own will – digs its heels against this and that), includes the following issues and themes, among others:

1. The possibility and freedom of language.

As stated in the classical formulation by Aristotle, man is an animal endowed with language, zoon logon ekhon. Linguisticity, a certain being-in-language, is fundamental and essential to man. This is as obvious and simple as it is perplexing and complex. It is because of these latter qualifications that we need poetry: something that reflects on and wonders at, takes care of and opens up, develops and builds up man’s language. Of course we shouldn’t think that poetry is alone in doing this. The same work is carried on by many other modes of language-usage. Still, I think we can say that poetry has a certain special status or role in taking care of man’s language – or at least it has been so historically in certain cultures.

As so often in philosophy, even here what is most obvious is also most problematic. Namely, as soon as we begin consciously ponder, reflect and develop on man’s linguisticity – something that poetry does – language becomes something quite strange and problematic. Poetry brings forth language as a potentiality, as an open plurality of possibilities and impossibilities, and it is here that language becomes conscious of itself as something strange and puzzling.

This theme is, of course, tremendously wide. Language’s possibility, and the conditions of its possibility, together with poetry’s relation to them, may be approached from a host of different angles. Since we are talking about Resistance, after all, and since – as I said in the beginning – resistance is essentially entwined with a certain experience of crisis, we need to tackle the question of the possibility of language via the crisis of language.

One experience characteristic for Modernity – and especially for the time of historical catastrophes starting from 1914 and culminating into the Second World War – is the impossibility of language: of its breaking-apart and disintegration, withdrawing, and disappearing. The modern conscience of crisis turns what is the most natural and most genuinely human possibility, language and linguisticity, into unnaturalness and impossibility. Expression turns into non-expression, speech into wordlessness. Witness here, for instance, Walter Benjamin’s observation of the wave of military literature triggered by the First World War. As Jussi Vähämäki writes about the subject: ”In the Benjaminian sense the Modern life-stories are above anything else monuments of the destruction of experience, since they aim at communicating something that had not been previously experienced. What the men returning from war had experienced was life itself, outside any specific forms. They saw death in the eye, and the life thus revealed ripped all authority of every specific experience of life. It was something that had not been experienced before, and cannot be told, and the then flow of military literature and war stories rose from a desperate attempt to communicate what is not possible to communicate.”[1]

This is a good crystallization of one of the aspects of the Modern crisis of language: a central quality of language, communality and sharing, is breaking apart. This is the seed for the utmost subjectivity so familiar to us now. When historical reality destroys the possibility to a common mediation, language and literature begin to develop toward the kind of mutter by a thoroughly strange singularity so perceptibly described by Blanchot, among others. And as we know, there really is a lot of that lonely muttering in contemporary poetry. It could almost be called the mainstream of contemporary poetry.

The crisis of language is also a crisis of nature and man’s relation to nature. This theme, too, can be found in a great number of sources. However, I want to refer to Benjamin again. His 20’s dissertation, originally rejected but now a long-established classic, Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels, presents a theory of allegories typical for the literature of the Baroque.[2] Allegory is a manner of linguistic expression that comes along with the crisis of language’s relation to nature, life, and history. Allegory can be contrasted with classical symbol, which is capable of expressing its referent precisely and adequately. Allegory is all about the fragmentariness, breaking apart, and splintering of language – about the Post-Modern starting in 15th century, if you will.

While developing the theme of allegory, Benjamin also refers to subsequent literature, more specifically to certain fragments by Novalis that concentrate on the essence of Romantic (i.e. Modern) poetry. Via Novalis’ fragments, allegory again connects to the 20th century poetry – our poetry – since this poet of Romanticism names the office as one of the places of the pure poetry. And sure, wasn’t it precisely the office, with its rushing and dashing cacophony and its inert melancholy, that in a way came to give rise to the spirit of Dadaism? If with Dadaism, the buller, the noise, the jungle of signs and the meaningless rushing of people in a metropolis, become to be the essential subject matter of Modern poetry, this happens in the spirit of Benjamin’s allegory: Dadaistic ”anything goes” is poetryless poetry on the ruins of poetry in the same way the Baroque tragedies are natureless nature on the ruins of nature. Benjamin’s allegory speaks about the experience of this language of ”anything goes”. Poetry’s language becomes superfluous since it cannot reach to what poetry attempts at, having to content to its ruins. This leads to the Baroque allegory as a ceaseless, limp movement of the poetical language – again something familiar and topical to us.

I really wish I could refer here to other sources that articulate the crisis experience of the 20th century. Since there will not be time for that, I will content myself to a few short quotations. The first one is from Eeva-Liisa Manner. The opening poem of her 1968 collection, Jos suru savuaisi, goes like this: ”Jos suru savuaisi, maa peittyisi savuun./ Kai se peittyykin jo/ ja palaa muinaiseen hahmoonsa, yön sydämelle.// Valloittajat tulevat, keskiaika on palannut/ mutta ilman keskiajan valoa:/ taivaskaan ei ole enää kirkas.” In Kuolleet vedet, written nine years later, Manner again writes: ”Kaikki täällä on maalattu veren värillä:/ kirjat, talo ja harppi, illan reuna, […].[3]

Contemporary German poet Durs Grünbein again writes in his poem ”A Biological Walze”: ”If it’s true that we are a difficult genre, we are a difficult genre since nothing is not true any more.”[4]

And of course The Waste Land by Eliot contains several lines fundamental to our theme, like ”I will show you fear in a handful of dust”.[5]

And so on.

Still, two more quotations deserves to be taken up – from Hölderlin and from Nietzsche, both very important thinkers of the crisis quality of the Modernity. In his poem, ”Brot und Wein”, from 1801, Hölderlin writes: ”Warum schweigen aus sie, die alten heiligen Theater?/ Warum freuet sich denn nicht der geweihete Tanz?”

Nietzsche on his part writes in The Gay Science: ”We have left the land and have embarked! We have burned our bridges behind us-indeed, we have gone further and destroyed the land behind us! […] Oh, the poor bird that felt free and now strikes the walls of this cage! Woe, when you feel homesick for the land as if it had offered more freedom – and there is no longer any ’land’!”[6]

What is the connection of these expressions of crisis to the resistance, and language, of poetry? Why do we have to refer to these and other like texts when speaking about the resistance of poetry? In my view, the reason is that when the Modern cultural crisis permeates the language, then poetry as something experimenting with, and reflecting on, the possibilities of language changes to be, rather, an autopsy and a critical genealogy of the crisis of language. An opener and care-taker of the possibilities of language, poetry is now modified to be the place of the very impossibility plaguing the language. It is in poetry that the crisis of language is felt most intensively.

And yet poets still want to act as the openers and care-takers of language. So it seems they don’t consider the situation to be totally lost and desperate. After all, the crisis cannot be as deep and total as to prevent one from writing anything valuable, or language-regenerating, any more. The possibility lives on, and continues to exist, but it is a very small, almost utopian, one. This small margin of hope and possibility is the reason why serious Modern poetry’s always tends to be against, or at least implicitly critical toward, something or other. Poetry is not against anything special, it is not in the business of political or military resistance against a distinct enemy. Instead – precisely because the crisis of language is a problematic situation causing powerlessness and emptiness, at the same time being an urge to do something to this very situation – poetry is penetrated by a hard-to-define compulsion for resistance and ”being-otherwise”.

What is at stake in this inner resistance of poetry, as hard-to-define as it is essential, is simply the possibility and freedom of language. Perhaps the simple and original task of poetry might – if anything ”simple” and ”original” could exist – be limited to reflecting on and developing further the possibilities of language. However, since we live and write in a situation penetrated by the Modern cultural crisis, this simple task becomes difficult and enormously complex. The language has to carry the load of uncertainty and impossibility. However, since poetry always, in a way or another, is inclined to search for its own simple fundamental nature, for an expression of nature and man, it begins to look for a possibility in impossibility, and for a freedom in non-freedom. Thus, it becomes critical and utopian. When poetry encounters the historical impossibility of language, it changes to be a reflection on the conditions of possibility of language. And it is precisely with this penetration into the conditions of possibility of the seemingly impossible poetic language that an element of resistance comes into the picture – as a conscience of something being awry, or wrong, in our language, of the necessity to resist this fact, however difficult or desperate this might be.

So, for reasons connected to the poetry’s own difficulty to understand and fathom, simple basic poetic activity changes to be violent resistance. This is poetry’s resistance – not as a conscious resistance to a specific enemy, but as a general ethos of Modern poetry. This resistance is born from the confrontation between poetry’s quest to express the possibility of language, on one hand, and the cultural crisis that constantly undermines man’s linguistic freedom, on the other. As Eliot writes in The Waste Land: ”Shall I at least set my lands in order?”

We have now just about scratched the first theme of resistance. It has already taken the major part of my time. There are, however, a host of other themes as well. Thus, I will now proceed to enumerate the rest of them, then making a few specific remarks on a few chosen themes.

My title for the second theme is: The Ethics of Authenticity.

The third theme is: Language and Sensation.

The fourth is Political Theory.

The fifth and the sixth, again, are, in a way, subtitles to the fourth one: Capitalism, and Spectacle.

The seventh and eight themes are very large: Progress and Technology, and Nature and Its Domination.

The ninth theme is called An Anthropologic Relation to One’s Own Culture, and The Ontology of Present.

The tenth theme is Secret.

And the eleventh, finally: The Banal.

My second theme, The Ethics of Authenticity, comes quite close to what I said before. When we consider the cultural crisis from an ethical point of view, it connects to the shattering of moral values and to a certain ethical uncertainty. One way to see this situation is to say that moral self-awareness and conscience have disappeared: the conscious subjects lack ethical benchmarks to orientate themselves in life and in world. The individuals’ quest for a moral self-awareness gets constantly drowned into a kind of general lack of conscience, a generalized Nothingness. We are dealing here with what Heidegger called das Man. Paraphrazing his jargon: the man gets drowned in anybody’s everyday being-as-nobody that makes the individual’s authentic ethical conscience and resoluteness impossible.

This situation can be called un-authenticity. Individuals are estranged from themselves. Something prevents them from becoming conscious of themselves and from acting accordingly. Because of the central role of language in building up and maintaining this kind of un-authenticity, poetry, again, is where the problem of un-authenticity will appear in a strong and dramatic fashion. To the extent that the language penetrated by the cultural crisis is un-authentic and estranged – in ways that the language users themselves are unable to recognize any more – it becomes the task of poetry to shatter this forgetting. Poetry resists un-authenticity by searching for an authentic language to replace the estranged language now devoid of content. When poetry resists the un-authentic structures and parlances of the dominant language – its clichés and platitudes, its protocols and liturgies – trying to find something new, something of its own, something as-yet-not-expressed, it is, in a way, dealing with an ethics of authenticity. At stake in testing the resources of language, and in searching for new expression, is precisely the ethical authenticity. And since language, in the midst of the cultural crisis, is un-authentic and poor, poetry again changes to be a resistance towards the present – to the powerlessness of the language of the present.

The third theme, Language and Sensation, is also directly connected to this. It is simply about the capability of language to attain the sensation, its ability to express and communicate sensations. The question is both phenomenological and political at the same time. We begin with the assumption that it is a central quest of poetry to attain sensation. In a way, poetry is a Phenomenology of Sensations. However, for reasons described above, attaining and expressing the sensations is not easy and simple. On the contrary, one way to express the Modern crisis of language is to say that language and sensation have drifted away from each others. Language cannot attain sensations any more, and vice versa. Language is callous to sensations, while they, again, do not fit in the language. This is a situation where poetry, as something endowed with the task of expressing and communicating sensations, really is in crisis. To reach the sensation again, and to re-create the connection between language and world, poetry has to start destroying, making room. It has to clean up and to dismantle those structures, paroles, discourses, and meanings of language, that prevent it from reaching the sensation. In this sense, the linguistic quest for sensations and their expression – poetry – equals resistance. It equals resistance to a language that is no more capable of creating and expressing new sensations.

The next theme, Political Theory, will proceed from here, albeit into a slightly different direction, and on a different level. However, I’ve exhausted my time, so, in spite of my inner resistance, I will stop here and leave the other themes to the discussion. Perhaps what I’ve said so far already has given rise to thoughts and questions that will bring up the relation of political theory to poetry in a natural way. Thank you…


1 Jussi Vähämäki: Elämä teoriassa (Tutkijaliitto 1997), s. 358, viite 181.
2 Walter Benjamin: Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels (Suhrkamp 1963). On Allegory, see, for instance, pp. 174-211.
3 Quotes are from Eeva-Liisa Manner: Kirkas, hämärä, kirkas. Kootut runot (Tammi 1999), pp. 396, 513. – Quick translations (by MC): ”Should sorrow smoulder, / the Earth would be covered with smoke. / Perhaps it is covered, already, / returning to its ancient shape, to the heart of night. // The conquerors are coming, the Middle Ages are here again, / but without their light: / not even the sky is clear any more.” And: ”Everything here is painted with the colour of blood: / books, the house and the pair of dividers, the edge of the evening, [.]”
4 Durs Grünbein: Kallonpohjaoppitunti (WSOY/NVL 1998), s. 72, suomentanut Jukka Koskelainen.
5 Quotations of Waste Land from an unpublished essay by the present author, ”Mielen ja kielen harharetket: James Joycen Odysseus”.
6 Friedrich Nietzsche: Gay Science, transl. By Walter Kaufman (Wintage Books Edition1974).


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