BY BRANDON LaBELLE
“We are realizing more and more that a poetic emotion lies at the origin of revolutionary thought.” – Jean Genet, Letter to American Intellectuals
He looks to the right; and then to the left; he thinks he has to decide – which way to turn; like a pressure, upon him, he thinks: I must decide; and yet, there is that sudden creeping feeling, a type of epiphany that arrives slowly, unexpectedly: he realizes he has already decided.
This is how things begin: realizing that things have already begun; and so he does not necessarily change direction, rather, he changes the way he thinks about decisions, about directions, about the situation and the context, and certainly, about work: what does it mean to work? To produce a creative work? What kind of labor is this? What does he labor at, there in the studio? And that he carries with him, onto the streets and into this city? And into these gestures of being public?
There is the memory: of how he found himself turning toward the creative act, toward the sphere of artistic activity, the making. And yet it is so fragile, this memory; it is made up of so many threads and so many days and so many events: the dry dirt that crumbles under his steps as he climbs a particular hill, and the sounds of his friends beside him, and the warmth of that golden light hitting him in the face, and the time he ran, and the time he slept in the field, and all the dead minutes swarming around him, along with the ones that suddenly jump forward, alive with desire and longing and restlessness and loneliness, not to mention the lazy hours, the fog-drenched winters, and the sounds of the seals from the ocean, and the ocean, like a never-ending enigma into which all his thoughts eventually would turn, drummed by the whispers and the taste of salt, and the endless rhythm, back and forth, soft and yet demanding, and this that would eventually drive him into a type of idea: the rhythm that could become a music, and that could become a voice – that voice, passing from deep inside and then outward, and in whose journey an array of friendships and possibilities would emerge: he, and her, and then always, something else – what I might begin to call the promise of something else: and which he decides to name “poetic relation,” at least for this moment, when he speaks, and tries to recall what drove him into work, the work of creative activity.
I want to start with this idea of poetic relation, which I would emphasize as a way of making decisions, finding directions, and negotiating the materials of creative activity, not to mention the conditions of being in the world.
What is it that I labor at there in the studio? I would say: I labor at poetic relation.
I’m tempted to resist supplying a type of concrete definition for what I mean by poetic relation; I have the feeling that what is central to this theme is precisely the fact of it being resistant to capture, or I might say, to singularity – that one must approach it by taking a long path around it; by tracing its shape through forms of practice, and within the conditions that always surround us. Though I want to highlight that I do not use the term “poetic” only, but rather, insist on “poetic relation.” Already we are situated within a figure of speech, a turn of phrase, and one that tries to incite a movement, toward something else.
Poetic relation, I would suggest, is an expression of an urgent imagination; it is a struggle for the possible, an emancipatory desire, a tussle with the conditions that surround us. In this regard, it performs to not only develop a type of content, but to instigate conditions of possibility, fundamentally based on a production of instability, an event of rupture as well as care – in short, an insurrectionary modality aimed at finding routes toward new configurations.
To relate beyond the patterns of a technocratic structure by aligning with other logics. A logic of poetics.
In this way, I want to consider poetic relation as a procedure of imagining otherwise, and one that attempts to transform living conditions.
There are four types of poetic relation I would like to map out: the weak, the radical, the monstrous, and the creole.
There are a number of sides to the weak that I want to consider. I might start with that of fainting: this moment of losing consciousness, losing stability. One is overcome with sensation; the body slips, things fade out, and one collapses. In this instant of weakness, where does the mind and body go? Where are we when we faint? I’m interested in fainting as the production of another type of form; a sudden flickering or shiver that leads to a type of formlessness – we literally lose our form when we faint. The knees buckle, the head tilts back, and the shoulders, the hips, and our entire frame collapses. In short, we crumple. Left there on the floor, what kind of body is this? And is it possible to collect the pieces, to put them right again? Fainting introduces us to the subject of “weak form”: a form broken into parts, that remain connected and yet insist on a type of autonomy.
Weak form can also be extended, away from this moment of fainting, toward the topic of poor materials. Here we might take reference from the Arte Povera group, and their insistence on found materials, trash and debris, the ruinous and the everyday: such poor materials are used to both disrupt the value of the art object, as a rarefied form, as well as to insert another type of knowledge or discourse, what I would call “weak thought” (following Vattimo): poor materials are in fact rather transient, fragile, vulnerable; like the fainting body, they never quite hold up, and in this regard, the poetics of poor materials produce a discourse of weakness: a weak thought. How can we understand this weak thought, this poor material? I would say, it leads us toward another type of knowledge: the knowledge of the idiot, which necessarily twirls itself around the master narrative of the stable body. From fainting, as the production of a weak body, a weak form, to poor materials, and the production of a weak thought, an idiot knowledge: what I’m tracing here is a question of identity, and the figuring of that identity.
Might we understand this weak identity as one of resilience? A body that faints, a body full of weak thoughts, is one that may move in and around the structures and major systems of the social; it is a minor body that, as it flows, writes itself. Here, I want to extend the question of the weak by posing a notion of fluid identity, of resilience, one that finds description and support through the work of Hélène Cixous, and her “feminine writing,” or what she calls “writing the body.” For Cixous, the feminine is precisely a condition of flows and ruptures; it is another type of logic, antithetical to the hard structures of the phallic, the masculine, which is also the seat of power and which drives the mechanics of signification; in contrast, the feminine is a productive overflowing that continually threatens and endangers the order of the powerful. Cixous says: “Write yourself: your body must make itself heard.” In this regard, I would emphasize writing as not only about producing language, but also as the momentum of expression itself; writing as the flow and flowering of being a body. It is the drive of the weak, where fainting, idiot knowledge, and fluid identity startle the vocabulary and structures of the rigid.
I faint; I lose myself; I do not know – is this not the beginning of the poetic in general, or I might say, the beginning of love?
If, as James C. Scott suggests, the dominant maintains its position through mastery and control, then the weak may give traction to expressions of emancipatory hope by providing another direction, a force of weak-strength.
I want to turn to the notion of the radical, and to consider this as a central element to poetic relation. There are certainly different entrances into this theme, but I want to focus on one particular aspect or direction. While “being radical” can often imply a position of individual rebelliousness, to evoke an image of a single figure standing out from the crowd, I want to highlight the radical as a question of collectivity, that is, of society. Radicality is fundamentally a position of challenging the status quo by insisting upon a notion of freedom – it is a struggle against limits. In this regard, radicality is a political expression or position aimed at the sphere of power. We may recall how in the late 1960s to be radical was essentially to be “anti-establishment”; the counter-culture was a culture of not only resistance, but of emancipatory organizing, a type of alternative modeling of societal structures, one that sought to broaden the concept of the free (expressed through ideas of love, flower power, natural rights, conscientious objection, communalization, and the equal, etc.), and which the community organizer Saul Alinsky captured in his book Rules for Radicals (1971). (For Alinsky, radicality is a question of organizing.)
I want to highlight how radicality, while often appearing through individual acts, implies or requires a sense of solidarity: that one resists through a reference to others, to movements, to an idea even, and which grounds itself around the possibility of transforming society. To be radical, I would suggest, is to make a claim onto the social order, and the relationships between power and people, by trying to articulate another system. Radicality is thus always on the side of change and transformation. This is why, fundamentally, artists are at heart radical: the artist is a figure haunted by what’s not there – by the possibility of what may still come, by what we can still do, or by what has never been thought before. And especially by a belief in the idea of freedom. We might say that art is the practice of freedom. Resistance, radicality, and rebelliousness are positions of dreaming, first and foremost (without dreaming, I might suggest, these are reduced to the level of hooliganism). Radicality is fundamentally aligned with the poetic, because it is based on knowing there is something missing, and something that may still be created. The artist attempts to materialize this other, to give it a shape, an almost impossible expression. Like the radical, the artist also appeals to others, even while being a stark individual; the artist searches for collaborators, alliances, for possible connections – that is, for meaning, for a meaningful act. It is precisely this drive, this imagination, that defines the radical: a drive which tries to link together the impossible with the real. To create a new society.
The philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis deepens this view onto the radical, and these questions of creativity. Specifically, he uses the term “radical imaginary” to identify how creation itself is always orienting us within a specific system by speaking toward what is not yet there; creation, in other words, is driven by lack, and is therefore based on a desiring production that must negotiate the borders of the permissible, of representation, by always going further. It forces an occupation precisely of the edge of the knowable. In this way, the radical expresses a poetic relation specifically as an intervention within the distribution of power, and it does so by creating solidarities: is not the artist somehow creating solidarity with objects, with his or her materials, and through a synthesis of incompatible knowledges? With a diversity of references, with audiences or viewers? With the unimaginable? They must work together, all of this, somehow, through a radical formulation, in order to produce this moment of impossible expression addressed to the horizon of a future society – the expression of poetic relation.
Monsters occupy the night, they are night-forms, appearing within darker hours: vampires, werewolves, boogeymen, and witches all emerge at night; in fact, the night (and by extension, the full moon), often induce conditions of monstrosity. The monster comes to represent the night, as the time of fear, ambiguity, danger and rupture. With the monster, the night easily slips into nightmare; even Freud, in his Interpretation of Dreams, was unable to include the nightmare within his theory of dreams – which he defines as „wish fulfillment“; the nightmare in other words poses a problem, for what forms of wish fulfillment might the nightmare represent? This is also suggested in the work of Gaston Bachelard whose meditations on reverie and daydreams deepen an appreciation for the imagination and lyrical poetics; in contrast to the daydream, Bachelard places the nightmare, which troubles our sleep and accordingly, troubles poetics with a certain intensity, an anguished form – a haunting from which it is difficult to escape.
The cultural theorist Jeffrey Cohen gives a hint of this when he writes: “In its function as dialectical Other or third-term supplement, the monster is an incorporation of the Outside, the Beyond – of all those loci that are rhetorically placed as distant but originate Within.”
The monster is thus closer than we might imagine; in fact, it is too close, pointing not so much to an external entity, but to the desires and fears within, and which finds reference and shape in moments of anxiety, and within the shadowy ambiguities of the nocturnal. The monster is a type of double, an externalization of what lurks within, and is suggestive for a poetic relation of deep unease, of mutation and haunted imagining: the monster is always an outcast, a grotesque form, and therefore, moves to the peripheries of the rational and the normative, showing us the embedded violence and repression underlying the societal – to give way to uncontrollable drives.
Monstrosity is the force of an anguished imagination, one on the side of madness, the occult, ghosting, and deep uncertainty. A fear and trembling shaped by the unspeakable. In this way, monsters embody that which is disruptive of language and discourse, and that troubles not only our sleep, but also rational science according to other crafts, from spells and charms to spirits and potions: a witchery aligned with all that lurks in dark thought and imagination – the body as a deep cavern.
In this regard, the monster is a figure of “the black arts”, one that constructs from raw matters a grotesque form. Monstrosity expresses an alternative logic of the deep earth, a magic. While the project of the Enlightenment may base itself upon a notion of the illuminated, and the shining forth of a full apprehension of the world, the monster delivers another type of truth – the truth of the deep body, and the deep earth, of the unspeakable, hallucination, uncanny formations. In other words, the laws of the natural.
In this way, the monster holds a special place within the work of the imagination – in fact, it might be the violence and uncontrollability of the imaginary itself, as the force of de-sublimated productions, as what connects to alternative logics; whether in the form of haunted houses, ghostly apparitions, whispers in the dark, grotesque matters, and occult symbologies, monstrosity reminds how creative expression is always related to the drive of dark thought.
Finally, I want to turn to the fourth understanding of poetic relation, that of the creole. I’m drawing this term out from the work of Édouard Glissant, a Caribbean theorist working on issues of post-colonialism. The creole, in this sense, specifically relates to the colonial histories of the Caribbean, and those descendants of immigrants born on the islands, and at times, from mixed parents, of European and African descent. The creole captures a new indigeneity, and the emergence of local languages that mix European, African and indigenous Caribbean languages. In this regard, I want to use the notion of the creole as an essential and complex expression of hybridity and collage, yet specifically linked to the Diaspora: the forceful scattering of people from their homeland. As other Caribbean artists and writers emphasize, the creole, or creolization, is the formation of a cultural, lingual-politics by which to suggest an overcoming of the relation between master and slave, between a linguistic school and a mother tongue, between ideas of the cultured and the savage.
Glissant argues for a creolized position, and ultimately uses the term “a poetics of relation” to describe this: here, poetics is specifically an operation that draws disparate things into coincidence, joining what otherwise may not generally meet into a form of contact, collision. The creole is thus not only a simple mixing, but the production of a poetic relation, one that I may additionally describe through a notion of “the migratory”: a movement, a scattering, a diffusion that explicitly carries within it a struggle over homeland, of origin, and that delivers a complicated expression of otherness – the creole is necessarily the production of estrangement. The creole shimmers; it is a blurred image; a collage, a hybrid that ruptures the colonial project of language and national meaning by introducing an ambiguity of origin, a broken tongue. The creole is marked by multiple origins, it is essentially impure, cosmopolitan. And in this way, it addresses the future always already present; as a migratory body or voice, the creole gives flight toward other horizons, introducing the promise of new languages and new narratives.
In this regard, I want to pose the migratory – this scattering – as the basis for a particular form of production: a production of movement, of transience, of the itinerant, one that unsettles and reconfigures relations between the included and the excluded, a speaking over and through the colonial project. I might describe this further by another term proposed by Glissant, that of “echos-monde,” or echo-world: a world of echoes whose movements unsettle the fixity of origin, for we may never know for sure from where or whom an echo first began. Instead, the echo passes from one to the next, expanding as it goes, and dizzying the certainty of any singular perspective with a voice of displacement.
The collaged, the hybrid, and the migratory: these are forces of the creole, and methods of creolization, and which leads us to a poetic relation of deep meaning. While the weak opens up an alternative path around the powerful, an identity of fluidity, and the radical argues for a future society, creating alliances through marginal imaginations, the creole expands our cultural languages, multiplying the narratives of nationhood and of belonging: where we come from, and where we might go. It enables us to find ourselves amidst the complexity of this global life, as a process of being able to meet the other, even the other of oneself still to come.
It is my interest to open up the notion of poetic relation as a work of the imagination, to consider how it may act as a generative and dynamic base for transforming living conditions. I would emphasize that poetic relation carries these questions of marginal identities and fugitive knowledge, the politics of language as well as the cultural desires that point the way toward a future in the making – that carry the drive of hope and anguish into a zone of transformative possibility. It is a transformative logic, based on the pressures and pleasures of the creative – that is, the desire for renewing the powers of the imaginary.
He pauses; he hesitates – have I been here before, he wonders. The blue that envelopes and guides these moments of thought, and which they would call by another name, with the day giving way to any new direction, hand in hand, side by side, like a flow of lost hours, a doing nothing, together.
To move closer to what feels so urgent, and to search for routes, materials, and directions in support of what Edward Said calls “the permission to narrate” – to speak of other things, especially those that require a form of critical trespass; and to find the courage to be weak, to be radical, to be monstrous, and to be creole, all positions and vocabularies that may enable the project of poetic world making and necessary resistances.
 See Gianni Vattimo, especially „Bottles, Nets, Revolution, and the Tasks of Philosophy.“ In Cultural Studies, Vol. 2, #2 (May 1988): 143-151.
 Hélène Cixous, in Hélène Cixous/Catherine Clément, The Newly Born Woman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 97.
 See Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society: Creativity and Autonomy in the Social-historical World (Cambridge: Polity, 1997).
 Jeffrey Cohen, Monster Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), p. 7.
 Édouard Glissant, The Poetics of Relation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997).
 Edward Said, “Permission to Narrate”, in The Edward Said Reader (New York: Vintage Books, 2000).
An earlier version of this text was published in The Imaginary Reader (Volt, 2016)