Monday, September 10, 2007

The Poetic Case

Critical Inquiry 33 (Summer 2007)
 2007 by The University of Chicago. 0093-1896/07/3304-0008$10.00. All rights reserved.
1. Poetry and poetics have an important role to play, for instance, in the political thinking of
Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Jacques Rancie`re, Alain Badiou, and Giorgio Agamben. See Philippe
Lacoue-Labarthe, Poetry as Experience, trans. Andrea Tarnowski (Stanford, Calif., 1999); Jacques
Rancie`re, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (New
York, 2004); Alain Badiou, Handbook of Inaesthetics, trans. Alberto Toscano (Stanford, Calif.,
2005); and Giorgio Agamben, Stanzas:Word and Phantasm inWestern Culture, trans. Ronald L.
Martinez (Minneapolis, 1993) and The End of the Poem: Studies in Poetics, trans. Daniel Heller-
Roazen (Stanford, Calif., 1999). I don’t want to presume to amalgamate the work of all these very
different thinkers, but it is interesting to note that they all interpret the relation between poetry
and politics by establishing its specificity, sometimes (as in Badiou) even its singularity or (as in
Lacoue-Labarthe) its absolute character.

The Poetic Case
Christopher Nealon
What might a poem be said to be exemplary of, today? How is its exemplarity
shaped by discourse on poetry, on the aesthetic, on history? As
far back as the Republic, debates about the value and the function of poetry
have been tied to questions about the exemplarity of poetry as a kind of
creativity, or representation, or labor so that, down to this day, much aesthetic
and political theory still depends on a notion of poetry to explain
what escapes (and urges on) conceptualization in language and in social
life.1 But since the theory-revolutions of the 1970s and 1980s the poem’s
significance for historical thinking has dropped out of sight; especially in
the Marxism of Fredric Jameson and his readers, narrative, rather than poetry,
came to symbolize the historically and socially significant scene of human
The narrative that has become dominant since Jameson is a tragic one;
the aim of this essay is to begin to disentangle Left aesthetics from that
mode. Though I will be following through on arguments of Jameson’s, I will
also be reading against the grain of the terms he has bequeathed us. I will
not only be arguing for a shift in our attention to different literary genres
866 Christopher Nealon / The Poetic Case
2. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca, N.Y.,
1981), p. 70; hereafter abbreviated PU.
but also making a case for tuning in to different emotional structures than
those to which the academic Left, at least, has become habituated. My argument
will move from a consideration of how the tragic operates in Jameson’s
sense of history, to a range of poetic and aesthetic theory that posits
forms of value other than those articulated in a tragic mode, and finally to
a contemporary poem whose historical pathos derives from a fascinating
palimpsest of antitragic arguments. What I have to propose is humbler than
a political unconscious writ large, but I think its pas de deux of hope and
disappointment may be something like what we need to read the history of
the present.
In the long first chapter of The Political Unconscious, Jamesonwrites that,
“no matter how weakly . . . all literature must be read as a symbolic meditation
on the destiny of community.”2 This is a less well-knownpronouncement
than the one that opens the book—“Always historicize!”—but it is,
Jameson suggests, a characterization of the political unconscious itself—
“meditation” isolated in no one subject or any single period on a “destiny”
that Jameson argues must be understood historically as “the experience of
Necessity.” Interpreting this History requires assembling “inert” historical
data into a story of “why what happened . . . had to happen the way it did”;
Jameson refers to this reassembly of data into History as “the ‘emotion’ of
great historiographic form” (PU, p. 101).
In Jameson’s interpretive system, a literary text must be read against
“progressively wider horizons”: first as an isolated “symbolic act” that exists
in chronological, punctual time; next as an “ideologeme” that expresses features
of ongoing class struggles; and then as an instance of an “ideology of
form,” which orients the first two types of reading to an understanding of
symbolic activity as giving form to simultaneous, coexistent “traces or anticipations
of modes of production” (PU, p. 76). Against the backdrop of
this widest horizon, the liberation of texts from mere inert chronology and
into the pathos of Necessity gives “the ‘emotion’ of great historiographic
Christopher Nealon is associate professor in the Department of English at
the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Foundlings: Lesbian and
Gay Historical Emotion before Stonewall (2004) and a book of poems titled The
Joyous Age (2004). He is currently at work on a manuscript called The Matter of
Capital: North American Poetry from Bretton Woods to Black-Sholes and Beyond.
Critical Inquiry / Summer 2007 867
form” a particular shading; it is “represented in the form of the inexorable
logic involved in the determinate failure of all the revolutions that have
taken place in human history” (PU, p. 102).
These formulations have moved and inspired me since I first encountered
them in the early 1990s. But I have always been struck by how the
prospect of adhering to Jameson’s interpretive system feels at once too difficult
and too easy: too difficult because to take seriously the suturing of any
given text into the simultaneity-rich history Jameson describes would be to
delay that suturing, perhaps infinitely, while gathering data; and too easy
because, once Jameson has described the widest backdrop against which
texts may be read—the coexistence of traces of all modes of production and
the determinate defeat of every revolution to date—it is very hard not to
succumb to the temptation to skip to the end, as it were, and assign each
text a place in universal history right off the bat.
I have also been unable to answer the question of whether, in Jameson’s
system, the deepest “emotion” literary texts can yield is tragic. My uncertainty
is linked to a confusion about phrasing the role of historical Necessity
as “the determinate failure of all the revolutions that have taken place in
human history” rather than, say, the determinate coordination of allwriting
to the same system of abstraction that organizes the life of the commodity.
Why is “failure” the normative standpoint for reading the political unconscious
in or out of literature?
Not only do I feel a sheepish desire to redact or compress the Jamesonian
narrative but I’m not sure whether some of the emotions that most interest
me in reading literary writing can count, in his terms, as truly “historiographical.”
So this essay will attempt to chart another way of reading, which
takes seriously Jameson’s insistence on a political unconscious—whichtries
to detect the trace “meditations” on “the destiny of community” at work
in literary writing—but which arrives at a different understanding of the
“emotion” it puts in play.
For Jameson, mere chronology becomes a “socially symbolic act” by being
reconstructed into a tragic narrative of a very particular kind: the narrative
of the failure of revolutions, which he conceives as the supersession
of one set of historical conditions (“revolutionary”) by another (“inert”).
What this means, for Jameson’s reading practice, is that the inert chronologies
he wants to reconstruct into “socially symbolic,” affectively forceful
interpretations are reconstructed as inert—as a story of becoming-inert,
becoming-failure, that mere chronology, itself inert, has disguised. We
move, in this style of reading, froma historical inertness to a tragic story of
becoming-inert. This is not a circular interpretive practice, necessarily; it is
868 Christopher Nealon / The Poetic Case
3. Narrative is not, of course, Jameson’s only means of approaching the question of what can or
cannot be made present to consciousness in the production of a text; in his essay “Postmodernism,
or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” Jameson calls for an aesthetics of “cognitive mapping”
that would catch up to, and outmaneuver, the disorientation produced by postmodernism’s
technological sublime—famously rendered in that essay through the narrative of a shopper being
unable to navigate the spectacular spaces of the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles. The
simultaneity of one’s sense of placement in space, were it made possible again in postmodern
spaces, would indeed share something with what I’ve taken as part of lyric experience, something
of its instantaneity. But the optative pedagogy embedded in “cognitive mapping”—which, in the
volume that later came to incorporate his essay, Jameson acknowledges was “in reality nothing but
a code word for ‘class consciousness,’” is still hitched to a division between materiality and vitality
whose source lies, not in Sartre’s useful depiction of totality as an ongoing process of totalization,
but in his understanding of that process as a cycle that always returns human projects to the
“practico-inert,” the used-up, the worked over (Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of
Late Capitalism [Durham, N.C., 1991], p. 418).Without dismissing the possibilities of an aesthetics
of cognitive mapping, then, I want to clear space for other understandings of the political
unconscious not premised on this undialectical division between the dead and the living. For
Sartre on the practico-inert, see Jean-Paul Sartre, Theory of Practical Ensembles, vol. 1 of Critique of
Dialectical Reason, trans. Alan Sheridan Smith, ed. Jonathan Re´e (London, 2004), with a foreward
by Jameson.
a way of reading that turns interpretation to the task of remindingourselves,
you might say, how dead we have become.3
Even so, this reading style, grounded in a narrative of tragedy and supersession,
forecloses the possibility of reading for the local affirmations,
emphatic shifts in tone, and ecstatic simultaneity that have shaped the history
of the lyric, as well as the history of poetry as an early name for what
we would now call aesthetic experience. Three features of that history shape
my essay. First, I traverse episodes in a gradual movement from a classical
context in which poetry was a privileged name for all artistic creation to an
aesthetic theory that depends on, but departs from, the tradition of seeing
poetry as the metonym for all the arts. Second, I ammoving across language
that shifts from thinking of poetry as the name for a kind of thing made by
poets—either literal writers of poems or artists generally—to thinking
about aesthetic experience as marking a kind of human capacity, whether
or not it produces traditionally aesthetic objects. And, third, I will be attending
to the ways in which Western discourse on poetry is built so as to
position any given poem as bearing value partly by way of its partial realization
of the capacities of poetry. When I turn to an individual poem at the
end of this essay, then, I will be trying to read it, not as an instance of inertness
made live by reconstruction, but as a partly realized instance of a
discourse on poetry that avoids the deadness-liveness binary of Jameson’s
tragic model in favor of raising questions about poetic value—what poetry
is good for and whether what it’s good for can ever be realized.
This last point forms the crux of my essay. I believe that we are able to
read poems through the lens of their partial realization of the possibilities
Critical Inquiry / Summer 2007 869
4. My term unrealizability topoi modifies a phrase of Ernst Robert Curtius’s, “inexpressibility
topoi,” which he used to name the poetic strategy of claiming, in medieval Latin poems praising
royalty, that the overlord to whom the poem is addressed is too glorious or powerful to be
compassed by any single poet or poem. See Ernst Robert Curtius, “InexpressibilityTopoi,”
European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans.Willard R. Trask (Princeton, N.J., 1973), pp.
of the category poetry because the history of theWestern discourse on poetry
is itself built around recurring topoi of unrealizability. As I will detail
below, these unrealizability topoi range frommeditations on whetherpoem
making is a kind of labor to claims that poetry illuminates theunimportance
or even pointlessness of all human labor.4 The questions posed in such topoi
are so basic that they are capable of making the category poetry straddle
what we would now think of as two very different languages of value: an
ancient language of use-value and a modern one of surplus-value. Questions
about whether a poem really is a made thing oblige us to think about
something like the use-value of poems, what they are for, what they can do,
and whether for-ness, telos, is really the right language for thinking about
poems. Questions about the pointlessness of human labor, meanwhile,
shine a light on what goes on in laboring activity, whether it can be said to
be for something, a higher purpose, or whether it is simply toil or exploitation.
A central argument of my essay is that, in the history of defending
poetry, the topoi of unrealizability give poetry’s defenders a way to suggest
that the significance of poetry is not captured by the language of making or
purpose but that it is a type of activity that puts pressure on the social
meanings of both. And as the meaning of the social develops ever-greater
complexity, relentlessness, and intensity, this demurral frominstrumentalization
opens up a space of bewilderment about the present that is potentially
critical, even as it risks valorizing uselessness as such.
In what follows, then, I will visit some key moments in the “defense of
poetry”—a genre that returns, again and again, to questions of partial or
impossible realization. In particular, I will focus on the way implicit and
explicit defenses of poetry feed into a Left aesthetic tradition thatkeepsopen
the question of whether and how poetry—or, later, aesthetic experience—
troubles our understanding of value as realizable in the first place. And I
will argue that pursuing this trouble is exactly the way to begin reading a
history of poetry that produces a historiographic emotion not quite captured
by the story of the tragic and the inert.
To build an archive of rhetoric around poetry that centers on the question
of the possible failure to realize of its social value is to imagine that
870 Christopher Nealon / The Poetic Case
5. Plato, Republic, trans. RobinWaterfield (Oxford, 1994), p. 353.
rhetoric as part of a long reply to Plato; so I think it makes sense to begin
with a scene from the Republic in which this issue is addressed directly. In
book 10 Socrates’s discussion of poetry is almost entirely role based; he is
irritated by a popular, unphilosophical attribution to poets of polymathy—
the idea that poets, because they write about the whole world, must have
expert knowledge of all trades, all skills, all professions. Plato counters this
claim to universal poetic subjecthood by arguing, through Socrates, that
poets are neither makers nor users of anything. Luring Glaucon through a
thicket of leading questions, Socrates draws a distinction between the false
universality of the poet and the functional dyad of maker and user—here,
figured as the player and the maker of a pipe:
“A pipe-player, for example, tells a pipe-maker which of his pipes do
what they’re supposed to do when actually played, and goes on to instruct
him in what kinds of pipes to make, and the pipe-maker does
what he’s told.”
“Of course.”
“So far as good and bad pipes are concerned, it’s a knowledgeable person
who gives the orders, while the other obeys the orders, and does the
manufacturing. Right?”
“Justified confidence, then, is what a pipe-maker has about goodness
and badness . . . while knowledge is the province of the person who
makes use of the pipes.”
“Which of these two categories does our representer belong to?”. . . .
“He doesn’t fit either case.”5
Plato presents, against the claims of poetry, a political economy of pure
realization: a theory of production and consumption in which one transforms
into the other with no overlap or residue. Everyone, that is, must have
a single function, and there must be no gap between the production of a
thing and its use, no deferral or ambiguity in realizing the value of, say, a
pipe. The pipe may not be played upon right away, but it must be immediately
clear that being played upon is what it is for.
So this is what we might call the economic claim against poetry.Socrates’s
objection to poetry is not that it is a failed case, a secondarity or copy, but
that it is neither the case of production nor of consumption; it is a failed
universality.My interest in this essay will be in responses to this accusation,
especially when rhetoric around the utility or function of poetry proposes
Critical Inquiry / Summer 2007 871
its unrealizability, when languages that defend the deferral or nonexistence
of poetry’s utility defend it exactly for having no obvious end. Another way
to describe what I mean by unrealizability is that it describes a condition of
poetry as not most importantly a made thing or perhaps not a made thing
at all. Certainly this is what Plato thinks; and one feature of the defense of
poetry, as well as of the Left aesthetics that comes to draw on it, will be to
accept Plato’s characterization and ask whether the not-made-ness of poetry
is such a bad thing. This opens up other ways of thinking about the
importance of poetry, not least as the scene of a perpetual making that never
quite settles into the state of having-been-made.Unrealizability,then,might
also be a name for the way in which any given poem can be read as much
for its instancing poetry as for its separate status as individual poem.
In any case, these unrealizability topoi cluster around different kinds of
questions from the Renaissance on—questions of sovereignty, of labor, of
historical change and causality, of exploitation and value—but to read them
from the long end of their deployment is to begin to be able to read a compressed
history of the social relations, imagined and real, aroundthe reading
and writing of poetry. I think it makes sense to start looking at these unrealizability
topoi in Renaissance replies to Plato because the Renaissance
is the period when poetry begins to be understood once again as more than
a school activity—not only as material for memorization, or as a tool for
learning the classical languages, but as a creative activity vulnerable exactly
to Plato’s charge of nonutility.
I will, then, conduct a brief and whirlwind tour of selected defenses of
poetry from the Renaissance on. This tour is meant to be neither comprehensive
nor definitive; indeed it is deliberately eccentric and discontinuous.
What will link my visits to these earlier defenses of poetry is the topos of
unrealizability and the joint it forms at the beginning of the modern era,
with certain ideas about labor, its value and its exploitation.
I begin with Philip Sidney’s Defence of Poesy, which depicts the social
competition between schoolmen and courtiers by way of a language of utility,
of ends, and insists that poetry has an end, after all, even if it isn’t immediately
evident. Sidney, discussing oratory in his Defence of Poesy, follows
Aristotle by defining kinds of human activity in terms of their relation to
“virtuous action” and specifies that it is not an action’s “next end”—that is,
its immediate utility—that matters for virtue so much as its “further end,”
which is a little harder to pin down:
even as the saddler’s next end is to make a good saddle, but his further
end to serve a nobler faculty, which is horsemanship, so the horseman’s
to soldiery, and the soldier not only to have the skill, but to perform the
872 Christopher Nealon / The Poetic Case
6. Philip Sidney, The Defence of Poesy, in Sir Philip Sidney: The MajorWorks, ed. Katherine
Duncan-Jones (Oxford, 2002), pp. 219–20; hereafter abbreviated DP.
7. See Robert Matz, Defending Literature in Early Modern England: Renaissance Literary Theory
in Social Context (Cambridge, 2000), pp. 60–64.
practice of a soldier. So that, the ending end of all earthly learning being
virtuous action, those skills that most serve to bring forth that have a
most just title to be princes over all the rest.6
Poetry’s telos, then, is virtuous action, but not necessarily the poet’s. Elsewhere
in the Defence of Poesy, Sidney suggests that poets can fashion models
or examples of governance superior to what—thus far, at least—has been
found in nature and that these models can be of use to the queen. Indeed
the canonical rendering of the second nature of the made world in the Defence
of Poesy involves an implicit comparison of Elizabeth to the Cyrus of
Xenophon’s Cyropaedia:
Which delivering forth [of ideal types] also is not wholly imaginative, as
we are wont to say by them that build castles in the air; but so far substantially
it worketh, not only to make a Cyrus, which had been but a
particular excellency as nature might have done, but to bestow a Cyrus
upon the world to make many Cyruses, if they will learn aright why and
how that maker made him. [DP, pp. 216–217]
Though Xenophon’s Cyrus is a fictionalized perfection of the actual emperor,
Sidney suggests that the replication—and the replicability—of his
ideality is a form of service to the queen unique to the poet, useful to her
in the perfection of governance. Aristocratic court poets, then, become first
among courtiers, “princes over all the rest,” by serving a higher authority,
working for the sovereign by miming sovereignty for her. As Robert Matz
has shown, this canny rendition of aristocracy-as-service allows Sidney to
reply to detractors of poetry who see it as having been reduced, since heroic
times, to a decadent court pleasure. Matz argues persuasively that Sidney’s
Defence of Poesy is as much a defense of the idea of virtuous aristocracy as
it is a defense of poetry, and he draws our attention to the ways in which,
in Sidney’s hands, poetry’s role of circulating models of virtue allows it to
serve as a kind of rhetorical value adjuster. To accusations that the aristocracy
is simply feeding off the rest of the social body, Sidney argues that this
problem—which he tacitly acknowledges is real—can be altered by the activity
of poetry, which will serve as a corrective to aristocratic excess and
return the class system to its proper functioning.7
This argument for poetry as the platform for class homeostasis survives
past the Renaissance, though it is called in to correct for different kinds of
Critical Inquiry / Summer 2007 873
8. GiambattistaVico, The New Science of GiambattistaVico, trans. Thomas Goddard Bergin and
Max Harold Fisch (Ithaca, N.Y., 1984), p. 118, ¶378.
9. See Max Horkheimer and TheodorW. Adorno, “The Concept of Enlightenment,” The
Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, trans. Edmund Jephcott, ed. Gunzelin Schmid
Noerr (Stanford, Calif., 2002), pp. 1–34.
10. Isaiah Berlin, Three Critics of the Enlightenment:Vico, Hamann, Herder (Princeton, N.J.,
2000), p. 60.
crises of value. Beginning with Vico, and later among the romantics, we can
see the particular not-quite production that is poetry brought to bear, not
so much on the question of decadence, but on the problem of the increasingly
abstract character of social life. Vico’s The New Science, for example,
is an attempt at what he called universal history—universal not only in its
aim of comparing civilizations by abstracting them into stories of development,
but also in its method, which is to use philology to coordinate
across cultures their different histories of kinship and state forms, habits of
mind, and linguistic character.
Poetry has a central role to play in The New Science. Vico asserts that
human language was originally full of vivid images—for gods and the powers
of nature, especially—and that it became less “poetic” with the development
of modern government and science:
the nature of our civilized minds is so detached from the senses, even in
the vulgar, by abstractions corresponding to all the abstract terms our
languages abound in, and so refined by the art of writing, and as it were
spiritualized by the use of numbers, because even the vulgar know how
to count and reckon, that it is naturally beyond our power to form the
vast image of this mistress called “Sympathetic Nature.” Men shape the
phrase with their lips but have nothing in their minds; for what they
have in mind is falsehood, which is nothing; and their imagination no
longer avails to form a vast false image.8
This will prove a very influential formulation; it is reworked two centuries
later in the opening pages of The Dialectic of Enlightenment, where it buttresses
Adorno and Horkheimer’s argument that a ban on mimesis lies at
the origin of the development of instrumental reason.9 Vico’s understanding
of the cost of the development of abstraction is not dialectical,however;
he believes in a combination of tragic and providential historical causality,
in which cultures, even if they are destroyed by their own limitations, may
be able to restart their development. Having positioned poetry at the origin
of civilization, Vico sees it as a resource that later cultures can rediscover if
they grasp a collective need for imagination as well as for abstract and empirical
knowledge.Writing about this idea in Vico’s philosophy, Isaiah Berlin
says that for Vico the problem of rampant abstraction is that “men have
not realised their marvellous potentialities.”10
874 Christopher Nealon / The Poetic Case
11. Thomas Love Peacock, “The Four Ages of Poetry,”
12. Percy Bysshe Shelley, “The Defence of Poetry,” Percy Bysshe Shelley: The MajorWorks, ed.
Zachary Leader and Michael O’Neill (Oxford, 2003), p. 696; hereafter abbreviated “DPS.”
13. Scholarship on Ecclesiastes returns frequently to this question, not least as it is raised by the
insistent Ecclesiastian use of the Hebrew word hebel (lbh), which has been most frequently
This positioning of poetic imagination as an unrealized potentiality will
reverberate in the writing of the romantics. In the work of Schiller, Percy
Shelley, and others, though, the theological mode subtending their historical
claims about poetry will shift from the providential to the prophetic, not
least because by the early nineteenth century poetry has begun to be classified
as obsolete by a rising middle class that understands its interests in
primarily material terms.
Shelley’s “The Defence of Poetry,” for instance, is primarily a defence
against Thomas Love Peacock’s claim that, in an age that prizes facts, science,
and technical utility, poets are committed to hopelessly outdated
“Cimmerian labours.”11 Shelley’s response to this claim is to insist that poetry
can balance or compensate for excesses of what he calls the “calculating
The cultivation of poetry is never more to be desired than at periods
when from an excess of the selfish and calculating principle, the accumulation
of the materials of external life exceed the quantity of the
power of assimilating them to the internal laws of human nature.12
Like Sidney before him, Shelley wishes to defend poetry in terms of its capacity
to repair an imbalance of value or accumulation in the social body;
like Vico, he correlates periods of history and habits of mind. Under pressure
to account for poetry’s seeming supersession by the principle of utility,
though, Shelley makes two additional moves.
First, he makes recourse to the language of prophecy; the poet, he says,
“beholds the future in the present” (“DPS,” p. 677). Second, he reworks the
definition of utility so that it not only includes but is organized around
poetry. This Shelleyan utility is linked to tragedy; poets, in his account, produce
a kind of mixed pleasure and pain that is the highest pleasure, and “the
production and assurance of pleasure in this highest sense is true utility”
(“DPS,” p. 695). The argument here is obscure, but made slightly less so by
Shelley’s use, in the passage describing pleasure and pain, of a verse from
Ecclesiastes: “It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to the house
of mirth” (“DPS,” p. 694). Though the particular verse does not express it,
Ecclesiastes is substantially concerned with the vanity of labor, its inability
to realize human happiness; and it seems, if we put the pieces together, that
Shelley’s argument about tragic emotion as the highest utility is an argument
for poetry’s power to highlight the limits of human labor’s ability to
answer larger questions of humanity’s ends or uses.13
Critical Inquiry / Summer 2007 875
translated as “vanity.” See, for instance, Douglas B. Miller, Symbol and Rhetoric in Ecclesiastes: The
Place of Hebel in Qohelet’sWork (Leiden, 2002).
14. Robert Kaufman has worked assiduously to bring the contemporaneity of Shelleyan
aesthetics into view for the twenty-first-century academy and, more broadly, to align the
development of a romantic aesthetics of negativity with the aesthetic theories of Adorno and
Benjamin and problems of Leftist politics today. His work at this juncture is immensely clarifying,
and I feel a debt to it. For work most pertinent to the place of Shelley as precursor and reference
point for a Left aesthetic theory, see his “Negatively Capable Dialectics:Keats, Vendler, Adorno,
and the Theory of the Avant-Garde,” Critical Inquiry 27 (Winter 2001): 354–84 and “Legislators of
the Post-EverythingWorld: Shelley’s Defence of Adorno,” English Literary History 63 (Autumn
1996): 707–33. Also useful for a detailed account of the routes of transmission running from
Shelley to Adorno and Benjamin is “Intervention& Commitment Forever! Shelley in 1819, Shelley
in Brecht, Shelley in Adorno, Shelley in Benjamin,” Romantic Circles Praxis Series (May 2001),
15. Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man: In a Series of Letters, trans. Elizabeth
M.Wilkinson and L. A.Willoughby (Oxford, 1967), pp. 31–33; hereafter abbreviated AE.
Shelley’s ideas in “The Defence of Poetry” are helpful in piecing together
a genealogy of poetic discourse on value partly because they are broad. His
ideas that poetry has the power to correct for excessive material accumulation
and that technical labor cannot provide its own answers to the question
of the ends of humanity allow us to see something like a perimeter of
Left aesthetic theory that will remain stable downto the twentieth century.14
Though his defense of poetry contains elements that remain useful for contemporary
theory, however, it does not contain a theory of modernity per
se; Shelley tends to rely, in phrases like “periods of the decay of social life,”
on an implicitly cyclical historiography (“DPS,” p. 685). For a romantic aesthetics
that tries to ground its claims for the value of poetry in an account
of the rise of the modern, we have to look elsewhere; and it is in Schiller
that we can find the most thoroughgoing and influential formulations.
In the sixth letter in his On The Aesthetic Education of Man, Schiller’s
argument centers on an account of the fragmentation of modern society
that devolves from a comparison with ancient civilization:
[The ancient mind] did indeed divide human nature into its several aspects,
and project these in magnified form into the divinities of its glorious
pantheon; but not by tearing it to pieces; rather by combining its
aspects in different proportions, for in no single one of their deities was
humanity in its entirety ever lacking.How different with us Moderns!
With us too the image of the human species is projected in magnified
form into separate individuals—but as fragments, not in different combinations,
with the result that one has to go the rounds from one individual
to another in order to be able to piece together a complete image
of the species.15
For Schiller, having to “go the rounds” of the social body just to piece together
a whole human subject is disastrous. As he puts it elsewhere, “Thus
876 Christopher Nealon / The Poetic Case
little by little the concrete life of the Individual is destroyed in order that
the abstract idea of the Whole may drag out its sorry existence” (AE, p. 37).
Schiller views this destruction of concrete existence as unavoidable:
“there was no other way in which the species as a whole could have progressed”
(AE, p. 39). By introducing the idea of historical necessity into the
story of the fragmentation of human capacity, Schiller obliges aesthetic theory—
and the theory of poetry that forms part of it—to generatemore complex
concepts of part–whole relations. And in the sixth of the Letters on the
Aesthetic Education of Man he produces a striking account of what we could
call the causality of tendencies, where individual causes contribute to an
effect only apparent at the level of the system: “one-sidedness in the exercise
of his powers must . . . lead the individual into error; but the species as a
whole to truth” (AE, p. 41). Schiller sees the implications of this causalmode
in exceptionally stark terms, envisioning philosophy, for instance, as a kind
of terror: “as long as philosophy has to make its prime business the provision
of safeguards against error, truth will be bound to have its martyrs”
(AE, p. 43). Sidney had seen aristocratic virtue tied to a notion of sacrificial
service; here, all humanity is subject to the possibility of sacrifice.
Schiller’s martyrology of truth is resonant in Left aesthetics down to our
day; Jameson depends on it when, reading Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo at the
end of The Political Unconscious, he urges us to see the novel’s “ultimate
narrative message” as the “disjunction between the movement of history
and its enactment by individual subjects” (PU, p. 278). For Jameson, to seek
the “ultimate message” of Conrad’s novel is to understand the particular,
the material, and the individual as performing a sacrificial function that
allows latter-day readers to “keep faith with” the possible realization of a
good totality we can never perceive except in the dialectical supersession of
what has come before us; the characters in Nostromo serve “merely to enable
the coming into being after [themselves] of a new type of collectivity” (PU,
pp. 277, 279).
The indelibility of the language of sacrifice in Left aesthetics since Schiller
does not mean, though, that it is the root formula for all subsequent rhetorics
of deferred or unrealizable value. It is particularly well suited to theory
that has been cut adrift from the energies of a live political movement; but
in writers more closely aligned with present-tense class or movement politics,
the complex form of historical causality Schiller helped make evident
is lined up with other languages than those of tragic necessity and sacrificial
supersession. The history of the defense of poetry and of the aestheticmakes
persistent recourse to topoi of virtuality, potential, and prophecy before
reaching, in Schiller, the scene of tragic sacrifice; but those optimistic languages
don’t seem able to meet the possibility of tragic social abstraction
Critical Inquiry / Summer 2007 877
16. Georg Luka´cs, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney
Livingstone (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), p. 139; hereafter abbreviated HCC.
17. See, for instance, Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, trans. Paul Guyer and
Eric Matthews, ed. Guyer (Cambridge, 2000), p. 254.
head-on. In the militant Georg Luka´cs, though—and, later, in the work of
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak—we can read the emergence of other topoithat
reground the tradition of valorizing making over the made, but in ways that
are specifically geared to confront the abstract character of social life. I
would like to think through two of these other topoi—of vigilance inLuka´cs
and of tone in Spivak—before turning, finally, to a contemporarypoemthat
traffics in them all.
Luka´cs, in History and Class Consciousness, identifies Schiller and Schiller’s
aesthetics as the ground for his own investigation of life under capitalism:
By extending the aesthetic principle far beyond the confines of aesthetics,
by seeing it as the key to the meaning of man’s existence in society,
Schiller brings us back to the basic issue of classical philosophy.On the
one hand, he recognizes that social life has destroyed man as man. On
the other hand, he points to the principle whereby man having been socially
destroyed, fragmented, and divided between different partial systems
is to be made whole again in thought.16
Luka´cs departs from Schiller by pointing out that man cannot be made
whole again only in thought or by any single individual; but he hews to
Schiller’s emphasis on the aesthetic principle as a ground for the development
of freedom. This is because, for Luka´cs, the aesthetic is still determined
by a relationship between the given and the made, whereas a
philosophy dominant since Kant has insisted that only what has been made
by humans can be known.17 But this emphasis on the made excludes the
complex processes of making; by limiting philosophical reflection to the
realm of the already produced, Luka´cs argues, the activity of thought becomes
increasingly limited and less able to grasp anything that straddles the
world of given matter and the “intelligible” matter of the humanly made
world. What’s excluded in this narrowing of philosophical activity, Luka´cs
suggests, is the entire realm of production, which is where social relationships
under capitalism are formed (see HCC, pp. 111–20).
To describe these relationships, Luka´cs develops a language of reifying
tendency and counterreifying vigilance. He describes the worker’s comingto-
consciousness about the character of his exploitation this way: “the
878 Christopher Nealon / The Poetic Case
worker . . . perceives the split in his being preserved in the brutal form of
what is in its whole tendency a slavery without limits” (HCC, p. 166). Because
this exploitation is tendential and because it tends toward limitless
exploitation, Luka´cs believes itmust be met not with a single act of becoming-
aware, but with a continual reassertion of immanent awareness of the
workings of totalization: reification “can be overcome only by constant and
constantly renewed efforts to disrupt the reified structure of existence by
concretely relating to the concretely manifested contradictions of the total
development, by becoming conscious of the immanent meanings of these
contradictions for the total development” (HCC, p. 197). Not, in English at
least, very pretty prose; but it helps clarify the particular function of vigilance
in a reading practice that seeks to understand the exemplarity of its
objects. For Luka´cs, aesthetic objects and experiences can be read as instances
of a single totalizing process, but one in which the character of the
totalization cannot be understood without reference to the constantly shifting
ground of the particular. Another way to think about this vigilance
would be to say that Luka´cs’s insistence on the relations of making as more
central to philosophy than the realm of the humanly made positions him
alongside those thinkers who tried to separate the significance of poetry
from manufacture—whether by emphasizing its virtual force in Sidney, or
by thinking of it as a reserve of human potential in Vico, or as the mark of
a time other than the time of facture in Shelley, or (though I have not
touched on it directly here) as linked to the capacity for play in Schiller.
The militancy of Luka´cs’s project lends a fatedness to this way of interpreting
aesthetic production, however; when he writes “the fate of the
worker becomes the fate of society as a whole,” it is implicit that the aesthetic
capacities of workers, always being tapped into by the processes of capitalist
labor, are also tangled up in that fate (HCC, p. 91). This language of fate,
however, limits the role of the aesthetic to an alternative potentiality that,
under the right historical conditions, might serve as the ground for different
forms of the realization of human value. In political terms, this idea has
tended to mean that only those whose labor is obviously an instance of
capitalist exploitation—especially wage workers—can be imagined as the
potential agents of revolutionary change. In aesthetic terms, the language
of fate tends to burden poetic or artistic activity with an obligation to reflect,
negatively, the operations of a capitalism we then believe we fully understand.
Ironically, it took the long twentieth century of defeat and disappointment
on the Left for its intellectuals to ask whether the split between
the technical and the aesthetic under capitalism is best understood as a fated
polarization or sundering and to begin to think of the relationship between
technologized labor and aesthetic experience in less binary terms.
Critical Inquiry / Summer 2007 879
18. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Scattered Speculations on the Question of Value,” In Other
Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics (London, 1988), p. 175; hereafter abbreviated “SS.” Spivak takes
the phrase “apocalyptic tone” from Derrida’s 1980 essay, “On a Newly Arisen Apocalyptic Tone in
Philosophy,” which reads a late work of Kant’s, “On a Newly Arisen Superior Tone in Philosophy.”
Kant’s essay is a polemic against the Christian neo-Platonists of his day, who mount an argument
for the importance of emotion and intuition in philosophy. Kant’s rejection of this argument is
grounded, as was Plato’s argument against the polymathy of poets, in the language of labor, which
he links to the language of tone. He writes:
In a word: all think themselves superior to the degree that they believe themselves exempt
from work . . . in this [mystical] philosophy one need not work but only listen to and enjoy the
oracle within oneself in order to bring all the wisdom envisioned with philosophy into one’s
possession: and this announcement is indeed made in a tone indicating that the superior ones
do not think of themselves in the same class as those who, in a scholarly manner, consider
themselves obligated to progress slowly and carefully from the critique of their faculty of
knowledge to dogmatic knowledge. [Kant, “On a Newly Arisen Superior Tone in Philosophy,”
in Raising the Tone of Philosophy: Late Essays by Immanuel Kant, Transformative Critique by
Jacques Derrida, ed. Peter Fenves (Baltimore, 1993), p. 52]
We return here to the Platonic language of poetic class usurpation, though the centuries have
honed and altered it. In Kant, the claim of poets to have made a thing without having actually
worked to make it is twined together with the problem of mimesis, but not—as in Plato—at a
metaphysical level. In this passagewe can see that Kant imagines poets miming the aristocracy,
adopting their “tone,” flaunting a laborlessness they haven’t earned. Kant thinks this tone, should
it spread too wide among pretenders to philosophy, will mean the end of the philosophical
enterprise altogether, the abandonment of the hard work of conceptual reflection and
determination. This is why Derrida turns the phrase “superior tone” into “apocalyptic tone”:
In her 1985 essay “Scattered Speculations on the Question ofValue,” Spivak
revisits the problem of the technical–aesthetic split, though it is not the
binary she begins with. She asks, instead, whether and how FirstWorld intellectuals
might imagine a political subject who is predicated neither in
exclusively materialist nor idealist terms. To ask this question is to ask exactly
how and to what extent subjects are determined by social forces. Are
they simply made by them, or is there something else, some surplus in persons
such that the forces that determine their formation do not do so entirely?
One wants to avoid, Spivak suggests, thinking of people as simply the
product of external forces but also thinking of people as somehow innately
able to transcend those forces. Clearly, historical subjects are not purely
determined by their histories; history keeps being changed by people. But
if the idea of a transcendent will is too triumphalist an account of the realization
of a human subject that is both determined by and formative of
history, what other narratives do we have? How can the subject of capitalism,
for instance, be said to be more than the product of capitalist abstraction
if he or she doesn’t transcend it?
Spivak answers this question in literary terms. In an explicitly deconstructive
reading of passages from volume 1 of Capital, Spivak moves away
from the Luka´csian language of fate and towards an attention to what she
calls, following Derrida, an “apocalyptic tone” she hears in Marx’s text.18
880 Christopher Nealon / The Poetic Case
Derrida sees the twining together of the question of the end of philosophy with the more limited
teleological question of the “ends” of our activity, its aims, what it is meant to produce. For
Derrida, working the double meaning of ends in French and English, the “apocalyptic tone,” the
tone that announces the end, also announces the question of ends. In his essay, a phrase like “the
beginning of the end” can mean the beginning of the investigation of what we are for, or even the
beginning of the discovery of what we might do, what we might make.
I read Derrida here, and Kant, in order to suggest that behind not only Spivak’s analysis of
value but all the texts I’ve set before you here there lies a problem, given the name poetry, that
haunts our scenarios of the realizations of value with an abiding insubstantiality and that tethers
even latter-day formulations of value to a social imaginary that, if it is much simpler that the
economic relations it tries to explain, nonetheless keeps it honest; we don’t know, yet, what is at
stake in social production.
But what is this tone, and what does it have to do with the unrealizability
topoi or deferred realization that I have been tracing?
For Spivak, reading Marx, it is crucial to understand that the conception
of the subject as the bearer of labor-power, of extractable value, is both historically
contingent and, teleologically speaking, indeterminate. To conceive
of subjects as “superadequate” to their material engagements, as
Spivak puts it—as bearing value not only in the labor they perform but in
their capacity to labor—is possible only as the outcome of long struggles of
dispossession; it is not a timeless idea (“SS,” p. 161). Furthermore, Spivak
argues, the historical struggle over exploitation is incomplete, and renewed
at every moment in the circuit of capital, to which that historical capacity
to exceed making lends a series of indeterminacies. As Spivak puts it, “at
each step in the dialectic something seems to lead off into the open-endedness
of textuality: indifference, inadequation, rupture” (“SS,” p. 160).
This “inadequation,” Spivak contends, prevents use-value from seamlessly
becoming exchange-value becoming surplus-value, because keeping
production running is not simply a means of the physical survival ofworkers—
what Marx called “socially necessary labor”—but of their emotional
survival as well. Spivak calls the calculations sustaining such survival “affectively
necessary labor.” One implication of “Scattered Speculations on
the Question of Value” is that the masters of capital (such as they are)must
take despair into account as a component of the immiseration they skirt; it
is to the affective body, at least as much as to the physical, that the rate of
exploitation must be pitched.
I write pitched because Spivak suggests that the enmeshment of affect in
the open-endedness of value is what produces the “apocalyptic tone” she
hears in Marx. That tone, then, is something like the sound of the rate of
exploitation, differentially intensified across classes and sectors, and made
most clearly audible in the “super-exploitation” of women in the Third
World (“SS,” p. 167).
We have come a long way from the aristocratic-sacrificial poetics of Sidney,
the humanist theologization of poets in Vico, and the Ecclesiastian
Critical Inquiry / Summer 2007 881
warning against the worship of technical labor in Shelley. But across the
texts of these writers and throughout the development of aesthetic theory
and its incorporation into Western Marxism there is also a staggered continuity
of thinking about poetry—then the aesthetic and then the affective—
as a ground or example of indirect, deferred, or impossible realization
of value. This tradition of unrealizability-writing has by no means always
been critical (think of how deferred utility is realized in service to the sovereign
in Sidney) but its resonances in Left aesthetic and critical theory
make it possible to think about the defense of poetry, for instance, as part
of the prehistory of dialectical thinking and, the other way around, to see
dialectical criticality as bound up, even today, with a history of the aesthetic
whose roots lie in defenses of a broadly conceived concept of poetry.
But can the collocation I have offered help us read a poem? I think it can,
and I would like to close by trying to show how. I’m not sure whether, by
reading a poem at the end of this essay, I’m constructing a test case; if the
precondition for its authenticity or experimental success would be to
choose a poem as unlike the discourse I’ve traced as possible so as to measure
the reach of that discourse, or bid for its universal validity, then I am
not providing a test case. But the poem I have chosen, because it shares
elements with the discourse I’ve been outlining, may help us think about
the exemplarity of poems in another way, by allowing us to see how much
world can be touched on from within, or around, a given structuring language.
This poem, written by a young American poet who is well versed in the
tradition of Euro-American Left aesthetic theory, is mimetic of parts of that
tradition; but its mimetic relation to that discourse does not have to mean
that the poem simply collapses into it. Instead it shifts the language of aesthetic
value from an axis of realization and failure-to-realize to a cluster of
descriptions and performances of tone and comportment; indeed thepoem
quietly insists that tone and comportment are built out of resistance to the
idea of realization. And in doing so it serves as a reply, not only to the ancient
insistence on usefulness, but to the modernist valorization of tragedy and
The poem is by JenniferMoxley, fromher 2002 volume The Sense Record.
In its entirety:
The objects have gone quiet. Even old
Mister Unicorn has run out of words,
despite his painted red lips. Things inured
to emptiness continue with their cold
882 Christopher Nealon / The Poetic Case
busyness. And thus the flurry of cash
around the center silence still appears
charitable tinsel, bright with the solace
of distress, the joy of being in arrears
so much more joyful than other joys. Songs
unlike a virus have grown in this season
of record rare, they sound an echo long
in repose and leave conflicted reason
to its bafflement. Things couldn’t be worse,
or could, we could resist, or complacent
argue against resistance, neither course
puts change at risk. Though we lay adjacent
the cold garden wall and exquisitely sigh
it will come, freed perhaps of our compelling
but nevertheless compelled. It’s well-nigh
Christmas, snow covers the ground and is falling.
the thirsty birds have re-opened our hands:
though weary of ritual tending we deck
the house yet again, reenact the ends
of long antiquated customs, rectify
the aggressive apathy that binds us
to our friends. To what design? What lie lies
hidden in an ornament, in a truss
of tissue snug in a box? An old idea
forced into perverted service of the new
makes strange commerce of this cold affection
enfoiled in childish fables, a revenue
of hope out of the heart’s aphasic diction.
And if it prove false, at least daily labor
will feel refreshed in the wake of leisure.
The bonvivant who repeats “love thy neighbor”
does no harm, and Tennyson’s sad measure
of years since we last saw our friend can bring
to mind a loss reduced from one December
to the next, a comfort and reminder
that we are at worst, on this side, nothing,
and risk nothing, to fight against and yet
not cut the feeling from our breast in queer
penance to a blundering world, to split
the will in two, to tell the truth, to fear
defeat, etc. The thought-ruined things
Critical Inquiry / Summer 2007 883
19. Jennifer Moxley, “On This Side Nothing,” The Sense Record (Washington,D.C., 2002), pp.
9–10. An mp3 of Moxley reading this poem at the University of Maine in September 2003 is
publicly accessible at
20. Lucas’s poem includes this passage about the aesthetic experience the living owe the dead
soldiers, which he links, later in the poem, to collective guilt:
So lone and cold they lie; but we,
We still have life; we still may greet
Our pleasant friends in home and street;
We still have life, are able still
To climb the turf of Bignor Hill,
To see the placid sheep go by,
To hear the sheep-dog’s eager cry,
To feel the sun, to taste the rain,
To smell the Autumn’s scents again
Beneath the brown and gold and red
Which old October’s brush has spread,
To hear the robin in the lane,
To look upon the English sky.
. . . .
have done their work to keep our sentiment
in trust, though now we know we raised the scene
neither for ourselves nor for the love of it,
but out of some mislaid duty to form—
a table, a ribbon, a set of rules—
to adjust the love of a furious home,
but do not think we were born to be fools
nor bred to thoughtless and false happiness,
given our time’s caution and your kind lash
it has never been easy for us to say yes.19
I think the first thing worth noticing about the poem is its particular superimposition
of rhetorics; it is a Christmas poem, with Edwardian and
Victorian bearings, shot through with economic language: “cash,” “charitable,”
“arrears,” “rare,” “commerce,” “revenue,” “trust.” In puzzling over
why, each year, her circle of familiars participates in the season’s rituals—
not least, it seems, the ritualized rhetoric of loving one’s fellows—the
speaker worries over a question of larger ends (“To what design?”) and joins
that worry to two others: the potential hypocrisy of idly favoring “change”
or “resistance” and the possibly foolish affective labor of “rectify[ing] . . .
aggressive apathy,” “adjust[ing] . . . love,” or “cut[ting] the feeling fromour
breast.” The poem also links the cyclical time of the holiday to problems of
memorial and to debt; she aligns her poem not only with Tennyson’s “In
Memoriam” but also with Edward Verrall Lucas’s 1917 poem “The Debt,”
from whichMoxley takes the phrase “blundering world.” That poem identifies
the aesthetic experience of all English people who survivedWorldWar
I as indebted to the sacrifice of the young soldiers who died in its battles.20
884 Christopher Nealon / The Poetic Case
Those men who died for you and me,
That England still might sheltered be
And all our lives go on the same
(Although to live is almost shame).
(Edward Verrall Lucas, “The Debt,” in A Treasury ofWar Poetry: British and American Poems of the
WorldWar, 1914–1917, ed. George Herbert Clarke [Boston, 1917], pp. 228–30).
The poem’s title is a fragment of its emphatic answer to the problem of
whether merely managing feeling—wishing others well, disentangling aggression
and apathy—can possibly serve as payment of the debt that the
death or injury of others incurs. The poet is agonizingly aware of the illusions
in which she traffics—that “the flurry of cash” is actually “charitable
tinsel” or that “resistance” or arguments against it are of any consequence
at all. Perhaps the bitterest recognition in thepoemis that beneath“distress”
is actually “solace”—by which, I think, the poet means the solace of finding
that others have incurred injury on her behalf, putting her joyfully, guiltily
“in arrears.” And by citing Lucas’s poem, so centered on the guilt of survivors,
Moxley suggests that worry about others, or grief over losing them,
may contain a germ of relief that they, not we, are the ones who paid the
price of injury or death.
The violence and loss the poem hints at is figured through three overlapping
moves: the reference to the loss of a friend, the link back to a poem
ofWorldWar I, and the insistent foregrounding of economic language. This
lastmove inflects the other two with a sense of system and circulation,which
becomes clear in the poem’s language of objects, through which all emotion
is financed; material things have already “gone quiet” by the poem’s first
line, silenced by the “flurry of cash” around them, but they serve, despite
being “ruined” by thought, “to keep our sentiment / in trust.” This service
objects offer is mismatched, however, to the feelings of the season and to
the subjects of those feelings:
though now we know we raised the scene
neither for ourselves nor for the love of it,
but out of some mislaid duty to form –
Spivak might call this “mislaid duty to form” a kind of inadequation; “solace”
and “joy” are no match for the other, ambivalent feeling that invests
itself in objects, carriers of the season’s rhetorical force. This inadequacy,
and the foolishness or even hypocrisy that it puts her in danger of, pushes
Moxley to formulate two related positions: first, an ambivalent assertion of
her harmlessness or worthlessness and, second, a defense of fellow feeling
in the face of something like totalization and paralysis.
At the poem’s rhetorical center, the occasion of grief is met with a TenCritical
Inquiry / Summer 2007 885
21. Ibid.
nysonian “sad measure” that allows the poet to feel her loss reduced from
year to year; a strangely actuarial formula, it offers, for Moxley
. . . a comfort and reminder
that we are at worst, on this side, nothing,
and risk nothing, to fight against and yet
not cut the feeling from our breast in queer
penance to a blundering world, to split
the will in two, to tell the truth, to fear
defeat, etc.
Only by positing her worthlessness in the face of death—that she and her
cohort are “at worst, on this side, nothing”—is Moxley able to free herself
from serving “queer penance” to the “blundering world” that, in Lucas’s
“The Debt,” blundered into war and tethered all sensory experience thereafter
to the guilt of having survived it. Lucas’s proposition, I should say, is
less like an Adornian hesitancy about writing poetry after Auschwitz than
it is a version of Sidney’s language of aristocratic sacrifice as the guarantor
of stable class relations; his soldiers die “that England still might sheltered
be / And all our lives go on the same.”21 Moxley, then, in rejecting Lucas’s
“queer penance,” is rejecting not the idea of guilt but the idea that it must
crush all other feeling; loss and violence remind her “to fight against” false
solace, tinselled joy, but not at the price of “cut[ting] the feeling from our
breast,” even though keeping it there may oblige “the will” to “split . . . in
two” and place the subject of feeling in the path of “defeat.”
Moxley knows this counterformation, this defense of feeling despite its
susceptibility to capture and falsification, places her on the knife-edge of
the weakest forms of sentimentality. Her assertion of worthlessness is also,
by way of reference to the “bonvivant” who “does no harm” in wishing
others well, an assertion of her own harmlessness—an assertion thatwould
seem to confound or back away from the poem’s aggressive insistence that
seeming innocence is no such thing. But thepoemsupplies a second, closing
formulation that links this potentially irredeemable sentimentality to the
conditions that produced it as an option:
given our time’s caution and your kind lash
it has never been easy for us to say yes.
This last defense of affirmation—and of poetry as an affirmative art—identifies
the formalized and falsified emotion Moxley has been describing as
the product of “our time’s caution” and the “kind lash” of a heretofore in886
Christopher Nealon / The Poetic Case
visible addressee. Both this “caution” and that “lash” are meant to encapsulate
the structures of feeling of those who know they only bear the brunt
of exploitation indirectly and who live, literally, at the expense of others. It
is a guilty affirmation and a calibration of emotion registered in the “rectifying”
and “adjusting” affective work the poem describes. What Moxley
offers is a fellow feeling among all those who find, in the face of a hollow
aesthetic (of “songs”), the “bafflement” of a “reason” that cannot answer
the question of what we are “for.” And she insists on positing a “we” regardless,
against the “you” that manages the rate of ruin with its “kind lash.”

“On This Side Nothing” is not a poem of solidarity with the oppressed.
It is an uneasy exploration of the reverb of oppression, as it registers in
objects and sentiments consumed by the sheltered, and a defiant insistence
that, despite its daily capture in the “flurry of cash,” emotion does not belong
to it. I hope I’ve made it possible to sense, reading Moxley’s poem, the
different rhetorics of deferred or unrealizable value I have identified here.
I hope it’s possible to hear, in other words, Moxley making the poetic case,
the case for poetry, once again, out of the checkered rhetoric of its defense.
I cannot not hear, in this poem, Sidney’s language of aristocratic sacrifice,
displaced onto soldiers lodging in an earlier poem and another period; the
Viconian presumption that poets (collectively evoked, I think,by thepoem’s
closing “us”) have a historical claim to languages that precede abstraction;
the tragic Shelleyan sense of the pointlessness of labor (“weary of ritual
tending” or the poem’s Ecclesiastian title); Schiller’s dismay at the gap between
the actions of the individual and the workings of the system (“freed
perhaps of our compelling / but nevertheless compelled”); Luka´cs’s vigilance
around traversing this gap (“do not think we were born to be fools”);
or, by way of Spivak, both affective labor and the rate of exploitation given
tone (“rectify / aggressive apathy”; “our time’s caution and your kind lash”).

Moxley’s poem is a dossier, you might say, assembled on poetry’s behalf;
and as such it gains exemplarity as an instance of poetry, if we can give partial
credit to the language of poetry’s defense for shaping our sense of what
poetry might be. Tangled into that exemplary case-making activity is a
thickly layered text of propositions, no longer immediately evident as such,
about poetry’s place in the long development of value as a social abstraction;
they form the poem’s bridge between the feeling it affirms and the social
violation it cannot escape. This feels like the poem’s political unconscious—
not a tragic emotion, built out of inert materials and reconstructed from
the point of view of failure, but an assemblage, a case, fashioned out of
historically divergent materials to create a tone—a tone that makes both
affirmation and exploitation audible at once. I think learning how to listen
for it is the central task of aesthetic theory today.