Reinscribing “Event:” Truth and its Conditions in Robert Duncan, Alain Badiou, and Jean-Luc Nancy by Michael Cross
Robert Duncan, Alain Badiou, and Jean-Luc Nancy embody (for me) a sharply triangulated constellation, tensors in a shape made compossible by the aleatory occurrence—perhaps comparable to a Mallarméan dice throw—of the fickle reader. Held together, if only by chance, this stilled figure of thought, visible only in the peripheral as apparition, attests to a real rupture in the stasis of “knowledge” we’ve come to know as post ‘68 high capitalism. I’d like to argue here that, taken in conversation, this trio offers a model of how we might conceptualize the notion of “event” in relation to the radical politics of the poetic subject and its truths.
Alain Badiou’s (relatively controversial) conceptual system stands as the plinth of our ternary, because, for poets, his notions of event, fidelity, and truth offer models of a kind of praxis that relates to the ethics of art and its political efficacy. For Badiou, “events happen,” often entirely by chance. They are undecidable and unnamable ruptures that infiltrate the stasis of the situation, or as Oliver Feltham and Justin Clemens have it, “a presented multiple…includ[ing] all those flows, properties, aspects, concatenations of events, disparate collective phenomena, bodies, monstrous and virtual, that one might want to examine within an ontology.” [ii] In other words, following Badiou’s interest in set theory, the situation is any group of elements, however disparate, that comprise what he calls a “count-for-one”—a unified multiplicity. The event is an unrecognizable apparition, “rare, haphazard and incalculable,” a void in a situation, “situated” and abysmal as the non-element of the set. Minus the advent of event, situations remain indefinitely static; however, the “new” is galvanized as events open voids in the comprehensibility of the situation (or, at the very least, point towards a rupture). Norman Madarasz, translator and editor of Badiou’s Manifesto for Philosophy, writes, “An event triggered by change and confluence, coincidence and conjecture, by definition begins something new. It compliments and alters a situation by its incalculable surprise, disappearing as soon as it springs forth. Every philosophical act is the fruit of a decision about the event.” [iii]
Madarasz slightly simplifies things, however, as an event can only be thought by means of the conditions of truth, or truth procedures. According to Badiou, subjects “emerge through the changing situation,” as a direct result of their fidelity to the fact of the event. Events do happen, but unless a subject attempts to engage them by naming their significance, they simply retreat into the folds of the situation as the afterimage of what could have been. In other words, a subject’s militant fidelity grants a new perspective on the state of the situation.
According to Badiou, the conditions of truth are fourfold: “the matheme, the poem, political intervention and love…these conditions [are] generic procedures…[they] specify and class all the procedures determined thus far which may produce truths…” [iv] They also comprise the generic singularities of all possible multiples, and as such, are administered by the singular effort of a militant subject. In other words, the event is an unrecognizable apparition that sets in motion particular configurations of generic truth procedures (through the emergence of new, militant subjects) in order for truth to “make(s) a hole in sense.” [v] “Truth,” then, is an “operation” that produces the traces of an event, attempts to name its significance; however, in order, finally, to make decisions about the event, truth needs philosophy to sort the conditions into recognizable configurations. The “inaesthetic” work of philosophy, then, is to think with artistic configurations as they think themselves.
According to this model, however, how is the poem to produce truths without decision? If decision is philosophy’s sole privilege, due to the distance it maintains between itself and the conditions it interprets, the poem is silenced as the finite articulation of infinite truths. It carries truth along, thinks beside it, but, like Orpheus, is forbidden to turn toward it. If it attempts to think critically about its truths (by remaining faithful to the event), the poem sinks into discursive models of inquiry and consequently loses its power to produce. Are conditions and events mutually exclusive, or is it possible (as it seems to be with the generic procedure of the political) for a condition itself to be the unrecognizable catalyst of a situation? Isn’t it the case, finally, that the poem thinks the labor of its own participation?
This, I think, is Robert Duncan’s contribution to the problem of event. In the preface to Bending the Bow (published tellingly in 1968 by New Directions), Duncan thinks the evental nature of the poem in light of the historical consequences of the Vietnam War, whereby he attempts to explicitly name the poem’s relationship to its truths. The preface sets the stage for Duncan’s essential struggle “to dislocate the logic of his own presentation.” He writes,
We enter again and again the last days of our own history, for everywhere living productive forms in the evolution of forms fail, weaken, or grow monstrous, destroying the terms of their existence… Now, where other nations before us have flounderd, we flounder. To defend a form that our very defense corrupts. We cannot rid ourselves of the form to which we now belong. [vi]
This opening gambit has the poet and her forms deeply co-entrenched in the “terms of their existence.” The subject is altered (and alters) as a consequence of her own fidelity to the work at hand. If an event is to disrupt, if a truth is to flash forth, it must do so in form, and it must do so as the product on an interaction, a “coinhabitation,” an “indwelling.” In other words, the subject is faithful to the strife of form—to becoming with. The poet comports to the movement of the poem so that “[her] own configuration enter[s] and belong[s] to a configuration being born…” [vii]
In this sense, the poem is the site of a palimpsestual nexus of configurations crossing and overlapping others, fixing (if only for a moment), a society. The ethic here emphasizes a multiple made manifest by the locale of the poem. But its form is constantly unfixing itself as it skirts reification (read: commoditization). The poem takes a kind of physiological life, breathing along with the poet as it faces and articulates the strife both internal and external to its composition. Duncan writes, “It is striving to come into existence in these things, or, all striving to come into existence is It—in this realm of men’s languages a poetry of all poetries, grand collage, I name It. In the room we, aware or unaware, are the event of ourselves in It.” [viii]
It as grand collage. It as the movement of the poem collaged (layered vertically, horizontally, temporally): varied shapes of strife and fidelity. Duncan writes, “This is not a field of the irrational; but a field of ratios in which events appear in language.” [ix] Or better,
In the confrontation, had we danced…the event the poem seeks might have emerged. The poet of the event senses the play of its moralities belongs to the configuration he cannot see but feels in terms of fittings that fix and fittings that release the design out of itself as he works to bring the necessary image to sight. [x]
The site of the poem becomes a kind of battlefield upon which configurations are fixed, set, and released as they overcome, or inter-act, with competing ideologies, moralities, etcetera. The poet is imminently involved in this “dance,” searching for the spark of an apparition as the poem turns to face itself. The Truth of the poem, then, or better, its truths, are those released by “the configuration…in travail.” Truth cannot be reduced to a single representational sentence or imperative statement, because the poet takes “all parts of the poem as polysemous…each thing of the composition as generative of meaning, a response to and a contribution to the building form.” [xi] The truths produced within the poem are “forms within forms” proliferating, precisely, to question the fixity of their arrangements. They attest to the figure in the figure—the traces of society’s inscription reverberating through the freedom of the unnamable apparition.
It’s useful, here, to couple Duncan’s thought with Jean-Luc Nancy’s notion, in Being Singular Plural, that the configuration does not produce a kind of synthesis of possibilities, but a heaving, violent “relatedness” that, through juxtaposition and interaction, produces truths that attest to an unsynthesizable mêlée. For Nancy, Being is always already in the midst of a with—amongst others. He writes, “Being cannot be anything but being-with-one-another, circulating in the with and as the with of this singularly plural coexistence” [xii] . The effort here is attesting to the with, the difference that precedes our theo-ontological efforts to master “things” into likenesses.
The poem then, as Duncan clearly would concur, is not the representation of this with, the mimetic inscription of events external to the poem’s happening, but the rehearsal of the impossibility of “with” as the poem (and here we might contextualize Duncan’s relationship with George Oppen, whose Of Being Numerous was also published by New Directions in 1968). As we happen with the poem, it articulates the trace of the with, the between that makes co-present inscriptions of ideology, knowledge, and comprehension before they are foreclosed in fact. The poem opens a nexus of betweens, that hold open inscriptions in a stilling tumult, an unfixing-fixedness. Nancy claims, “[e] verything, then, passes between us. This ‘between,’ as its name implies, has neither a consistency nor continuity of its own. It does not lead from one to the other; it constitutes no connective tissue, no cement, no bridge.” [xiii] Which is to say, the moment the poem instantiates a fixed link between polarities, or a bridge between concepts, it has itself become fixed in a figure that attests to a truth outside of its production. While it holds fixed inscriptions at bay, its labor is to do away with “bridges” the moment they are codified. In this sense, the poem establishes new spatio-temporal fields for each of its truths as they find themselves co-opted. The product of this labor is a happening at odds with its own predilection for linearity and comprehension, extending out from its figure in order to articulate this very struggle with representation and identification. Nancy continues, “What is a singularity if not each time its ‘own’ clearing, its ‘own’ imminence, always touched upon, always lightly touched: revealing itself beside, always beside.” [xiv]
But for Nancy, nothing can escape “representation,” not even the event’s happening. He writes, “What makes the event an event is not only that it happens, but that it surprises—and maybe even that it surprises itself (diverting it from its own happening, not allowing it be an event, surprising the being in it, allowing it to be only by way of surprise).” [xv] He warns that “happening” and “event” are both as susceptible to reification. In this sense, our attention is easily drawn to “the thing which happens (the content of the nonphenomenal substratum)” rather than “the fact that it happens, the event-ness of its event.” [xvi] For Nancy, the event is not the happening, but the as it happens, and as such, “it is the ‘already’ that leaps up, along with the ‘not yet.’” [xvii] In this sense, any event we might hope to capture is foreclosed the moment we still it. And as Nancy reminds us,
The surprise—the event—does not belong to the order of representation. The surprise is that the leap—or better the “it,” the “someone” who occurs in the leap and, in short, occurs as the leap “itself”—surprises itself. It is surprised; it is insofar as it is surprised that it is—and it is as surprise, surprising itself in the flaring absence of being-present. It surprises itself precisely insofar as it represents neither “itself” not its surprise. The leap coincides with the surprise; it is nothing but this surprise, which still does not even “belong” to it. [xviii]
In this formulation, the event is only possible in the leap of its happening (a positively Heideggerian construction). It is the “interruption of the process” [xix] that constantly draws its attention to itself, and surprises itself by its own discontinuity. It is the rupturing of time and representation in order, precisely, to remain faithful to the strife of its own becoming. Or as Nancy has is, “The tension or extension of the leap, that is, the spacing of time, the discord of Being as its truth: this is the surprise.” [xx] By analogy, this surprise is the event, or better, the events, of the poem.
Nancy’s Being Singular Plural articulates precisely what Duncan, perhaps more obliquely, wants to get at: the poem itself happens as events. It ex-tends or leaps into the discord of its multiple truths as the surprise that consistently pushes itself outside of its figure; as such, its happening remains beside itself and the inscription of the known. In other words, the poem as knowing is the surprise of its own imminence and the multiplicity of its articulation. While the social exists within it, the poem exists always already with the social, as the social, and its rehearsal of being-with-others is precisely the inter-action that constitutes its event. Its happening, then, produces truths endemic to its own design as it fixes and unfixes the configurations already imminent to its form. In short, this process must remain unnamable so the poem may articulate all its names. And in so doing, the poem is surprised by what it knows and what it finds itself incapable of saying. The truths themselves, the products of this happening, remain outside of inscription. They are the very traces and apparitions that give shape to the poem’s happening, and they disappear precisely as the poem recognizes them as it. The events of betweenness, the poem’s truths, make possible the poem’s ability to fix and release, and they are true only in the fleeting nowness that is the poem’s struggle with its own coming-to-be. These truths, these events, are products of the poem’s form, and as such, they find themselves bound to the same laws of imminence that keep the poem in its state of ek-sistence.
Badiou, Alain. Infinite Thought. New York: Continuum, 2005.
_____. Manifesto for Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.
Duncan, Robert. Bending the Bow. New York: New Directions, 1968.
Nancy, Jean-Luc. Being Singular-Plural. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.
[i] A version of this paper was first presented at “The CUNY Conference on Contemporary Poetry” at the Graduate Center in New York City on November 5, 2005.
[ii] Alain Badiou, Infinite Thought (Continuum 2005), p. 7.
[iii] Alain Badiou, Manifesto for Philosophy (State University of New York Press 1999), p. 6.
[iv] Manifesto for Philosophy, p. 35.
[v] Manifesto for Philosophy, p. 9.
[vi] Robert Duncan, Bending the Bow (New Directions 1968), p. i.
[vii] Bending the Bow, p. ii.
[viii] Bending the Bow, p. vii.
[ix] Bending the Bow, p. v.
[x] Bending the Bow, p. iv.
[xi] Bending the Bow, p. ix.
[xii] Jean-Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural (Stanford 2000), p. 3.
[xiii] Being Singular Plural, p. 5.
[xiv] Being Singular Plural, p. 7.
[xv] Being Singular Plural, p. 168.
[xvi] Being Singular Plural, p. 161.
[xvii] Being Singular Plural, p. 171.
[xviii] Being Singular Plural, p. 173.
[xix] Being Singular Plural, p. 172.
[xx] Being Singular Plural, p. 173.