Agamben on Twilight

Twilight

As the weight of day bears down
and night’s promise advances,
memory and loss in equal shares
emerge in a standoff.
Will and fancy,
knowledge and flight
become unlikely workmates
and vision pushes focus against
the last flakes of silver backing
holding your face

Mark Kerstetter, November 17, 2022

Nietzsche, 1991 mixed media drawing by Mark Kerstetter

For a few years now in my reading and thinking about poetry I’ve been attracted to the word “twilight” as a compelling metaphor for the space/time of poetry. A number of items for this blog have mentioned it with reference to Ashbery, Melville, and several others. If I were to write a book on poetics, it might entail a series of essays exploring this metaphor with regard to the writers mentioned.

I haven’t thought about whether the metaphor is ethically advisable, just that it seemed to fit my experience of poetry at this time. Reading Giorgio Agamben’s The Man Without Content* has compelled me to think a little more ethically about it. Is it a good idea; should it be resisted; should alternatives be sought? I should say I’ve been reading and rereading the book, because it’s not an easy read, and despite its brevity it is not one hundred percent clear to me. Most unsettling to me is his use of the word “twilight” as designating a space in art that is more of an impasse than one that holds promise for the future. Continue reading

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Do poets have a role to play in the free will/determinism debate?

 

Apart from what may be going on in classrooms, genuine debate looks like it has been on its way out for some time. However, if videos like this are any indication a debate between free will and determinism actually exists with some philosophers and scientists arguing in favor of free will and others arguing for determinism. This particular video might not be the best way to introduce it. It is biased in favor of free will, with Daniel Dennett, known primarily as a philosopher, getting the first as well as the last word on free will and Robert Sapolsky barely getting to state the case for determinism, when in fact the strongest case for determinism comes from science. But it sketches in broad outline the parameters of the discussion: science seems to point toward determinism but many are reluctant to go there, mostly for moral/ethical reasons. Both sides seem to agree on one point: the complexity of factors involved in human decision-making at any given moment is so vast that even if what we call determinism is true the future cannot be predicted. Both sides might also agree that because of that complexity what we call free will feels true, even if it isn’t. The theory of compatibilism tries to have it both ways: free will is not incompatible with determinism because it is an emergent phenomenon. But that doesn’t solve the debate, it only confirms that many people wish to say the world in a certain manner.

At stake is a way of saying the world that one can feel at home with, and we are all limited by our discourses. Language always seems to promise more than it delivers, just as the brain seems to intuit more than it can grasp: there is always a sense of something slipping from view, from understanding, because on the one hand we have learned many things from science and yet consciousness is only designed to recognize that which it needs in order to function. If these things were not so there would be no debates. Debate means not just that there is disagreement but that the matter under discussion is not resolved because no way of addressing it can be agreed upon by all parties.

Since Dennett is given pride of place in this video, let’s look at it through his frame. Let us consider his thought experiment, not neglecting to pay close attention to his choice of words. He says that “neuroscientists… going around saying… we don’t have free will” have “ill-considered reasons” for saying so “and moreover that what they’re doing is apt to be mischievous and doing some real harm.” He then offers his thought experiment about the “nefarious neurosurgeon” which I won’t summarize but encourage you to listen to (it starts at about 14:00). You may respond as you wish to this thought experiment. I can’t help but highlight the words “ill-considered”, “mischievous”, “harm”, and “nefarious neurosurgeon”. The world that Dennett presents in this little picture is that of citizens (the patient) in thrall to authorities (the surgeon, the police, and the judge). I see a segment of the population as the playthings of another segment, like children under the control of parents. In the world of this thought experiment some authority figures are nefarious and others are benevolent, while the citizenry under their control seem to have no more power than children. This reminds me of the Manichaean vision of the world painted in the novels of William Burroughs: one part of the population is under the complete control of another. Whether Dennett really sees the world this way, or it is an unfair extrapolation from one thought experiment, that experiment is not an argument against the truth or falsehood of determinism, rather it is an argument against saying the world in a deterministic manner based on a particular vision of the social structure of that world. Now I might ask: apart from the possibility of both nefarious and benevolent neuroscientists, might there not also exist neuroscientists who are simply interested in scientific truth? And doesn’t history show that ways of saying the world change over time, and that which was shocking or uncomfortable one day became on another day cliche?

 

 

And perhaps it is here where poetry, in theory at least, might be of help. Because the poet is especially interested in language itself, in clarity and concision of utterance. There should be no form of diction that escapes the poet’s interest, and therefore, in theory, no form of discourse the poet should not explore to some degree. What we call the debate between free will and determinism is exacerbated, if not fueled, by a poor collaboration between scientists and philosophers. They do not speak the same language and they don’t listen very well to one another. The debate is less about the question of understanding what the world is and more about how to say the world, which is to say minds are made up already, whether by choice or biology. Each side wants to say the world in their own way because they believe it is the best way for society. But if it were a true debate then each side would do well to try and understand what it is the other is trying to do with language. As an aid both parties could take a cue from poets, who know (that is, they should know!) how to wander in the world of discourse and with this experience of language are equipped to be wary of the hegemony of any single discourse.

 

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Forgive Me Fernando

Forgive me Fernando, but it’s harder being a whole person
than breaking off bits and blowing the whims of life into them.

Forgive the word “whim” but if it weren’t for a relinquishment
as to a wind of the many selves clamoring for release
we would be speaking of a whole person.

Forgive me the fiction of a “whole person”
but I am only human.

Part of me admires you, stands back
in astonishment at the elaboration of selves.
Another part wonders if you had been in more agreement
with yourself you would not have repeated the act of tossing
one more—yet one more—screaming chick into an inadequate trunk
—that trunk overflowing with unfulfilled desires
in a small room
no one ever cared
to enter. Forgive me, forgive me.

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This Is the Day

I found it I found it I found it dad I found it
the song that came on the song the neighbor played
that time we were sitting on the front porch the song
tried to Shazam it too low to pick up
too low to pick up
too low
three months in jail too low
three months too low in jail too
couldn’t remember the lyrics
until I heard it in a dream about you
about you
about you
never woke up
I found it I found it dad
on the side of the road
no fucking joke
never woke up
on the side of the road
changed my life
on the side of the road no fucking joke
three months
dad
in jail
about you
we danced all night to that song
the prom the prom
my wife
died from cancer
my wife
no fucking joke
in jail
three months
by the side of the road
never woke up
on the front porch
I found it
the cancer
my wife
no fucking joke
my heart stopped
my heart
stopped
by the side of the road
on the porch
in jail
the prom the prom
I was revived with CPR
with CPR
with CPR I was revived
revived
I found it
the day
every day
I found it dad I found
Shazam!
the day

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“That’s like—your opinion, man”

Issue 1: HOW MUCH OF HUMAN DISCOURSE IS JUST OPINION?

Apart from quotes, the recounting of personal experiences, jovial banter, and idle chitchat, much of discourse is some sort of opinion. But even the other forms of discourse mentioned may have something of the flavor of an opinion about them due to inflection and other terms of subjective expression. If people are aware of this (and it’s hard to imagine that most are not), then what does the expression, “that’s your opinion” mean but some degree of displeasure at hearing the addressee’s opinion? This is especially clear when the word “just” appears before “your opinion”. When someone says, “that’s just your opinion” they are expressing some degree of disagreement with it or displeasure at hearing it. Circumstances vary. But such expressions are not typically followed by a willingness to discuss.

Personally, I am not much interested in conversing with people who avoid an open and frank assessment of opinions. In other words, I want to hear opinions, I want to hear them argued clearly and effectively and I welcome spirited debate. I have strong opinions, but I am capable of changing them after an effective presentation of facts and argument. People who avoid strong opinions and debate are, in my opinion, at best weak and at worst cowardly.

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Summer 22 impromptu

Tuesday 28 June 2022

I feel like writing impromptu today, the way I would in my private journal, only leaving it here.

Whether anyone reads it or not. It is always undignified blaming anyone but oneself for a lack of readers. However, I’m not yet willing to relinquish the right to say whatever I want and put it here. It is a precious thing and I can see it coming to an end.

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Pessoa (no one is safe)

No one is safe
—Johnny Depp


Pessoa—
the man known as “Pessoa”—
has run out of rooms.
We must learn to speak of him
in the past tense.
Oh, but who is “we” here?
Random Google searchers
from alias to zenith,
inquiring minds of all kinds
who just want to know
how he liked his meat cooked
and how close he preferred to get
to his razor?
Do not look behind the curtain!
Oh, do not look
for the sake of every one
involved!
For we are all involved
even when we disengage,
hiding in plain sight
in our many
rooms.

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If a Part of Me Moves

Although, or because, a part of me moves
a silent nod to a dormant book,
the same book moves to the same degree,
the same distance from my reaching hand:
I am here, now, with my pen, I am here
now
with the incoming tide and its right combination
or sheer number,
its single sound wherein all particular sounds
are lost
are washed . . .
if a part of me moves
still moves
in a silent nod
if a part of me moves

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A Woman in Front of a Pollock

after Williams’ “A Woman in Front of a Bank”


It’s not her fault my mind scoops
parabolas out of the curves of her waist
into arbitrary evocations—
snakes out of a can—racing to the edges
of boxes everywhere,
the field still a rectangle even if wildflowers
choke the scene of any semblance of order.
I can only squelch the urge to sneeze
to spew to surge to seed, gripping the line
like a lasso, but she doesn’t move,
and who knows what she sees,
in front of me.
Could be? Jackson’s tears
coursing like rain
down our screens
under the common umbrella,
an open and shut gallery.
And there you have it:
a woman in front of a Pollock.

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Twilight, a poem inspired by Witold Gombrowicz

TWILIGHT
after Witold Gombrowicz

Who said art is life?
It’s a set of eyeballs
rolled onto a pitching deck.

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