The following essay in several parts is written as an apparatus for a public talk sponsored by the Denver-based group, Cri. In presenting it, my intention is both to show theoretical work in action and to defend it as a method, so it begins with an account of some major shifts in literary theory. Later, I move on to an idea of hermeneutic or interpretive listening as a method for both literary criticism and making art.
The intention is to emphasize the creative function that critical theory can play in a processual context. I do this through a meditation on divination as I see it occurring in multiple Denver writers for whom I have composed music over the past several years. Although I discuss my collaborations with Selah Saterstrom, Anne Waldman, and Eleni Sikelianos here, I have also composed for the novelist, Laird Hunt, and would include him in the aesthetics discussed. I’ve already written a description of hermeneutically listening to Hunt here.
Philosophy, Economics, and Literary Theory
Divination has roots in augury. It is not just the interpretation of omens; it also implies perceiving when it is acceptable to inquire concerning the health of the state. Reading the flight lines and entrails from birds, the office of the augur in ancient times related specifically to the public good.
Later it was with the Romantic poets, like Shelley, that the contradictory mark of divination surrounded the term “liberal” as a political category in English. Around the same time the concept applying to a specifically political disposition, Percy Bysshe Shelley sought in “Ode to the West Wind” to become the “lyre” that Death blew upon, scattering autumn leaves. The space of contradictions in the birth-pangs of death is fundamental to divination.
In his recent book, Politics of Divination, Joshua Ramey argues that we ought to employ concepts of divination when referring to the economic market:
…neoliberal market fundamentalism—the view that markets alone can resolve the problem of how to construct social life in the face of unforeseeable contingencies—is a perverse and disavowed colonization of archaic divination rites, the rituals through which human cultures, on the basis of chance, have perennially sought for more-than-human knowledge.
In a pagan echo of Carl Schmitt’s claims to the persistence of theological concepts in significant political concepts, Ramey calls for more nuanced approaches to divination that do not fall under such “market fundamentalism.” Behind his thinking is a critique of a Protestant-inspired “invisible hand,” an idea of a transcendent intelligence guiding Providence, the stuff of Enlightenment thought.
The term ‘neoliberal’ has become an anchoring point for much academic thought of late. While we can certainly look to the late 1960s and early 1970s for the shift to virtual markets, as Noam Chomsky has described in Requiem for the American Dream, or the break from the gold standard, which Maurizio Lazzarato locates as the “making of indebted man,” I want to argue that what so many philosophers lack is attention to aesthetics and arts which have been dealing with this constantly since that period.
This is not to claim that philosophers and economists are default philistines. It is to say that their faith in fidelity itself, which so often emerges as a fidelity in the text or work, is aesthetically naïve. Both Simon Critchley in Faith of the Faithless and Alain Badiou in The Age of Poets fall into a rather charming faith in modern poetry, and Wallace Stevens in particular.
Many artists’ egos would revel in the strokes philosophers give them, simply because it feels good to be adored. In this sense, philosophers are often great believers in Art. Pierre Bourdieu’s lectures on Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education, collected in The Field of Cultural Production, argue that modern art is a matter of inverting the materialist approach to capital by inverting the economic paradigm and creating “symbolic capital” – something that could be later glossed as Art for Art Art’s sake and even “punk rock.”
The fear of Art, and hence the need to domesticate it from Plato on, is in its ability to resist subjectivation, the wildness of associative and unfixed signification. Of course, Aristotle’s defense for the cathartic qualities of artistic representation ought not be confused with modern notions of subjectivity, but he was onto something with the unifying presence of an affective situation.
Toward both artists and rhetoricians – indeed toward writing itself – Socrates was always suspicious of the condensation into form, into a kind of memory that ossified thought. Philosophy, or the philosopher, was the privileged access point to the liminal intersection between the ideal and actual mimetic representation.
The philosopher’s belief in the text – and Derrida was true to this up to the end in not caring for the philosopher’s biography and calling for nothing outside the text – remained under the influences of American New Criticism despite any pretensions to poststructural or “deconstructive” tendencies. The idealized reading of Art by philosophers, whether it sees it as mimetic or a conduit to the ideal, perpetually distorts and domesticates it.
In a literary twist on Joshua Ramey’s call for more nuanced approaches to divination in his economic analysis, consider the words of autonomist Marxist philosopher, Franco “Bifo” Berardi. Commenting on the European economic crises of the 21st century, he writes in The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance:
Financial power is based on the exploitation of precarious, cognitive labor: the general intellect in its present form of separation from the body. The general intellect, in its present configuration, is fragmented and dispossessed of self-perception and self-consciousness. Only the conscious mobilization of the erotic body of the general intellect, only the poetic revitalization of language, will open the way to the emergence of a new form of social autonomy.
Such faith in the power of Art! When all has failed in the symbolic order, bring on the erotic for emergent life in the disaster.
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, in their anti-philosophy and anti-Oedipus discussions, come closer to attending to Art than more faithful autonomists. By way of Deleuze and Guattari’s readings of Nietzsche, Maurizio Lazzarato argues that “[t]he capitalist machine has gone off the rails, not for want of regulation nor because of its so-called excesses or the greed of financiers” (181). Instead, he claims it is due to the collapse of finance: “the consequence of the failure of the neoliberal program (which has made business the model for all social relations) and the resistance mounted by the subjective figure it has aimed to promote (human capital or entrepreneur self).” To me, this again sounds like literary theory.
Historically occupying the same space of an economic shift to finance capital in the early 1970s, French literary theorists identified the birth of the “scripter-reader” at the so-called “death of the author” to poeticize the emergence of a hyperreal space of the virtual. In other words, I am saying that the shift away from the gold standard into a virtual and finance capital was already preceded by the theoretical recognition of the removal of the author.
Poststructuralism already realized neoliberalism, and despite nostalgia for Marx and enthusiasm for Mao, poststructuralism reified the virtual critique of reality as a reiteration of the great failure of modern Art.
What I mean by the “great failure” of modern art is conveyed by the optimism of Surrealism with the notion of the unconscious, the idea that the precise constellation of ephemera might produce, in T.S. Eliot’s term, an “objective correlative,” or perfectly liminal porous entry between the manifest and the unconscious. This is an aspiration to the divinatory space. And there was tremendous beauty in the failure of modern art to directly access any fixed presentation where distinctions between sign, signifier, and signification neutralized into a mercurial conduit to an élan vital.
What I would say problematizes the idea of the unconscious is the fact that many perceive the unconscious as if it were a kind of text, as if langue were a shadow text for parole. What is happening here is the imposition of liminality. We Americans are still very much Protestants in this regard: we still treat nature as if it were the “book of nature” and iconoclastically believe that through the sacrifice of images and signs to a transcendent divine force, we can feed an intelligent God. Finance, poetry, and art remain a kind of religious problem for us.
Literary theory and practices since the poststructuralism of the 1960s have had dynamic discussions of fluctuating and calling into suspicion the nature of subject-object relationships, but following the shift toward New Historical criticism, which in many ways distanced itself from Marxist critiques, became for many a kind of toothless dogmatic materialism that tried to make everything into “literature,” a massive secularization and disenchantment of the classist sense of “the literary.” But as we have seen in the first decades of the twentieth century, narratives of secularization have been challenged, and the very idea of the secular maintains a shadow text of Christendom, or what some call “western civilization.”
Far from outright disagreeing with philosophers, in this piece, I want to suggest that a reformed sense of “the literary” is necessary, one not so steeped in the writing of texts. The rhetorician, Deborah Brandt in her recent book, The Rise of Writing has suggested that we have moved in the 21st century from literacies based on reading to ones based on writing. Most people are writers and write way more than they read. The privileged interiority of reading is for her, for better or worse, a thing of the past. Deep readers need a new way of being.
I believe a “new” or at least rehabilitated conception of the literary would be especially useful for thinkers like Ramey, and philosophers in general, who often encounter texts rather optimistically, as if the text were somehow a kind ideological treasure map, corresponding to “reality.”
I also believe that a concept of the literary is an ongoing necessity for the profession of literary studies, and this is tricky because it means I have a slight conflict of interest in that I am defending a kind of livelihood that makes art and the study of art a “job” that is for the public good. In other words, I am responding to the question: What good is a literary critic in a world of writers who are not readers? In a world where critics have claimed the “death” of theory itself?
The famous Marxist literary critic, Terry Eagleton, long ago claimed that “literature is ideology,” and that in 19th century England, “literature” replaced “religion” as a binding agent for English culture. As both Eagleton and Gauri Viswanathan have argued, English literary education began in the colonies as a domesticating force and was then transplanted back to England in order to habilitate the growing middle class toward the tastes of the upper crust so as to prevent them joining with the working class and revolting, as had happened just across the channel in France.
I often have to disabuse my literature students of priggish aspirations to class mobility and “taste.” Professional literary theory and criticism is not about praising and blaming texts as consumers. We leave that to book clubs – and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that – but much as I love literature, literature professors ought not have jobs if they’re just to be arbiters of taste. And I do believe we benefit as a society from professional interpreters.
So, we should thank twentieth-century New Criticism and New Historicism for helping to democratize and “secularize” the literary while simultaneously being wary of the ways the nineteenth century continues to inform motivations about why art and literature matter. In the effort to compete with the sciences and distance itself from classist approaches to art, twentieth-century literary criticism often sold itself out to the social sciences – psychoanalysis, gender theory, anthropology.
Even the poststructuralists sought to provide literary programs steeped in psychoanalysis in order to compete with post-Einsteinian physics. So, when I say we need a new concept of the literary, it’s easier said than done. And again, far from being merely altruistic, I am selfishly claiming that we need a ‘profession’ of literary critics to engage in an ongoing battle about what art means to society that goes back to Plato.
In what follows, I will attempt to identify a rehabilitated notion of the literary by addressing a recent trend among Denver writers dealing with divination. I’ll argue that this literature has actively been addressing the economic questions perplexing philosophers through what the novelist, Selah Saterstrom calls “divinatory poetics,” as articulated in her recent book of essays, Ideal Suggestions: Essays in Divinatory Poetics.
I’ll specifically reference work I have done using musical performance and composition to accompany multiple writers: Selah Saterstrom, Eleni Sikelianos, and Anne Waldman, all of whom are associated both with Denver and the independent Minneapolis based publisher, Coffeehouse Press. In doing so, I intentionally blur any unnecessary binary between “artist” and “critic” (something Henry James was challenging a hundred years ago). I believe these writers have been pointing to more nuanced interpretations of divination that are useful to contemporary literary theory, philosophy, and religious studies.
Denver Writers and Divination
Anne Waldman, Eleni Sikelianos, and Selah Saterstrom all write from the space of porousness, or at least hollowed-out sovereignty, what Saterstrom at times calls the “forked tongue.” In doing so, their respective works critique neoliberalism by emphasizing the opening-up of liberal subjectivity, or what some philosophers call the “empty throne” of sovereignty and identity by reading the entrails of subjectivity. To be sure, their experiences as women play a part in this critique.
In recent years, feminist critics such as Lauren Berlant have turned toward Affect Theory as a way to critique discourses of sovereignty. Berlant uses the term, ‘cruel optimism,’ which is “a deictic – a phrase that points to a proximate location,” and it “attends to practices of self-interruption, self suspension, and self abeyance that indicate people’s struggles to change, but not traumatically, the terms of value in which their life-making activity has been cast” (27).
As an analytic term, it attempts to understand historical presence outside a sovereign subject. For Berlant, cruel optimism signals a post neoliberal historical present that she articulates as a “happening” rather than an “event”: “One motive for this,” she says, “is to describe the historical present as a back-formation from practices that create a perceptible scene, an atmosphere that can be returned to” (100).
This historical present acts as an environment for the ordinary: “In an ordinary environment, most of what we call events are not of the scale of memorable impact but rather are episodes, that is, occasions that frame experience while not changing much of anything” (101). Berlant is after something alternative to discourses of sovereignty because for her sovereignty “masks in a discourse of ‘control’ the wide variety of processes and procedures involved historically in the administration of law and of bodies, even during periods when sovereign rulers exerted their wills by fiat” (96). More simply, “Cruel optimism is the condition of maintaining an attachment to a significantly problematic object” (24).
One could say that recent economic crises are full of examples of cruel optimisms: housing crashes, resource depletion through energy consumption, etc. In Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance, he claims:
What we are experiencing now, in the age of infinite acceleration of the infosphere, is the following: feminine fortuna can no longer be subjected and domesticated by the masculine force of political reason, because fortuna is embodied in the chaotic flows of the overcrowded infosphere and in the chaotic flows of financial microtrading. The disproportion between the arrival rate of new information and the limited time available for conscious processing generates a hypercomplexity. Therefore projects that propose to rationally change the whole social field are out of the picture.(10)
Although this language of “feminine” and “masculine” appears archaic, it is that very gendered binary, the same one employed by Hamlet as he calls Fortune a strumpet, that characterizes a world where we need global Women’s marches.
The poetics and measure of early modernity set the stage for the poetics of autonomy and sensibility so necessary to early liberal theorists. And the same European fantasy structure positions women and children as being “closer to nature.”
The Denver writers I am concerned with are actively aware of these tropes, and their work moves in constant negotiation with the social forces working upon gender. In Saterstrom’s case, she personally grew up in a tradition of divination and card reading. And Fortune, of course is often represented as the Wheel of Fortune in tarot decks. But that’s not where Saterstrom started:
My first divination teachers were my mother, an excellent and animated card reader who used a modified version of a Vegas playing deck, an aunt, whose divination practice was based in scrying (she favored antebellum crystal punch bowls), and Mother Harriet Crossgrove, a practitioner working within the Southern Rootwork tradition. Mother Harriet used a regular deck of playing cards and the Bible as the foundation of her divinatory practice. (iii)
Mother Harriet shows up in Saterstrom’s most recent novel, Slab. There is something of “nature” and the forces of nature at work in divination, even if at times the gendered categories seem archaic.
There is also an active approach to ancestor work, or what Eleni Sikelianos calls “the living and the dead.” Sikelianos has multiple books engaging in varieties of family history. Saterstrom’s novels and non-fiction deal with transgenerational figures and places. Anne Waldman’s work has long dealt with both being a woman, as in her famous book Fast Speaking Woman, which was inspired by the Mazatec wise woman who introduced R. Gordon Wasson, Timothy Leary, and the CIA to magic mushroom ceremonies.
It is difficult to distinguish divinatory practices from the tropes of othering put in place by the European social imaginary where women and indigenous people exist alongside “animism” or archaic religion in a so-called “state of nature.” Nevertheless, “force” is indeed an active concept in these writers’ work, and by emphasizing spaces of liminal transfer, often entangled between life and death, they invite the working over of the world reminiscent of Maurice Blanchot’s meditations on The Writing of the Disaster, a kind of writing that un-constellates, the writing of the fallen star.
This at first seems counterintuitive. Wouldn’t divination appear to be the imposition of order onto chaos? The fixed gaze of the one who cares precisely because she knows that caring is a temporal orchestration of a being-toward-death? An unknown finality that, as the existentialists claimed, gave a frequency for meaning through anxiety?
One mark of the impulse toward divination occurs in the linguistic move toward the imperative, an imperative that gives commandments so seemingly inconsequential that they call into question their own validity and thus simultaneously demand adherence and commitment. The imperative assumes context without exposition or description, therefore inciting a situation. Thou shalt…not, thou will.
Your will has little to do with it. The will is an optative invention of Augustinian Christianity, a device invented to live in the space of awaiting a Parousia that is not coming. The imperative of divination is not the guilt-ridden echo of the Freud’s absent primal father; it is not taboo or law. For the same reason, divination is not about autonomy or self-governance. Let’s look at some examples.
Selah Saterstrom’s 2015 novel, Slab, records in two acts the lingering thoughts of a woman as she performs on the theater of a slab of concrete that once held a home in the wake of a hurricane, literally a disaster. Simultaneously, a preacher – whose name is Preacher – sermonizes to Pelicans 40 miles away.
Although mimicking in its hybridity both stage and screen writing, the text draws attention to its own genre, the novel, in its parodying of other mediums. The book becomes more like a surrealist painting or Charles Ives’s uses of simultaneous textures than a staged play or linear alphabetic unfolding.
The dramatic situation of Act I mainly involves a young woman, Tiger, who smokes a cigarette in one flip-flop, jean-shorts, and a tank top that reads I “heart” GRITS (Girls Raised in the South). She is retelling multiple idiosyncratic memories from her life, at times imagining herself being interviewed by Barbara Walters. Among the Southern recipes, which are of course simultaneously divinations, Tiger divulges to Barbara Walters is the recipe for “Red Velvet Classic.”
Red Velvet Classic
Get a thorn from a white rose bush.
And a box of Betty Crocker red velvet cake mix.
Acquire a jar of gold, magnetic sand. Goat milk, fresh if
you can arrange it, you will need a whole cup. And bowls:
two small, one large, glass, and clear. We shall need a
towel too. Petition that the dram correspond to the nine
conditions, and a bench, of chapel length, and a man’s bed.
Warm the wax. Form one portion of the wax into
the shape of him. Form one portion of the wax into
the shape of you. Bake the red velvet cake using
black hen eggs. After it springs from the pan, knife the red,
steaming bread and slip in a dead relative’s lock of hair.
Bury the cake in your backyard, under a tree, whole,
With birthday candles on top burning. Balm, enough to
coat the entire sarcophagus, and wash your slips in blue
water that has within it one pinch of saltpeter. And after
you have done these things, all these goddamned things,
you will be done with it, you will be done. (76)
Read closely, these lines exist in a state of context-collapse: “dram”? “nine conditions”? There is at once something imperative, expository, and conversational about these lines. They are not impersonal; they are directed toward an initiate.
Where does “the wax” come from? Its antecedent acquisition is a ghostly presence, and the “you” of the address is not adequately summed up by a breaking of the fourth wall. Are not the voices of our recipes the guides of our ancestors? Is there no death-space to cooking shows?
Saterstrom follows a few pages later, offering “a recipe every Southerner knows” and the lyrics to “When the Saints Go Marching In.” At the same time these recipes instruct, as the hoodoo saying goes, when invoking an Eshu / Legba character at the crossroads, “You do not have to believe.” Rites work, even work upon us, from another “level.” They are the opposite of Protestantism’s “by faith alone,” though these rites themselves are not to be confused with magic exclusively.
St. Augustine’s ‘will’ is irrelevant or at least not central, thus his frustration with Manicheanism. Though Saterstrom is a practicing rootworker, her knowledge was also transmitted within the tradition of the Spiritual Church Movement. And as she often complains about the hipster fads of tarot card reading, it lacks exactly this tradition. The fact that we are so interested in death without the tradition is an indication that death is at our liberal democratic door. It was not until Saterstrom moved out of the South that she realized that not all Christians read cards and do conjure work.
Act II of Slab follows the story of Preacher’s initiation into the vocation of preaching through exposure to card-reading and mediumship, intercut with his sermons providing hermeneutic analyses on the New Testament. Although the book is not a direct reference to hurricane Katrina (it appears to be set in the 1980s, actually), the Old Testament Book of Lamentations, in which Jerusalem is figured as a woman, remains important intertextually as well, revealing Saterstrom’s training in biblical hermeneutics.
In trying to capture some of the ways Saterstrom engages with instances of the sacred, I recorded myself doing a guitar solo over a recording of Saterstrom and poet Jennifer Denrow reading the lyrics to “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
First, I took the recording and played it through a chain of guitar delay pedals, adding emphasis to the echolalia already at work in the reading performance. Then, I played a guitar solo on top of the recording of their voices through the same chain of effect pedals. Most people do not know all of the lyrics to the hymn, but of course it is especially associated with New Orleans funerals, and the words took on a particular resonance in the years following Katrina and massive economic crises in the U.S. Here is what it sounds like.
For me, listening to the space of literature and even at times making noise in that space or around it is a particular way of engaging hermeneutically with the text. Of course, it is also a liminal space of transfer from one linear alphabetic and page-based modality to a sonic one.
Saterstrom has done more than any other writer to theorize and lodge divinatory poetics in practice, incorporating the concept into courses on creative writing and hermeneutics at the University of Denver (though at least one of her students has refused to do her writing exercises, claiming they were “black magic”).
Her book, Ideal Suggestions, employs various “divinatory generators” (instructions, methods, trances). Saterstrom’s title is a nod to Henry Wood’s 1899 book of New Thought, Ideal Suggestion through Mental Photography, which was significant to William James’s arguments in his classic, Varieties of Religious Experience. The essays “genuflect to practices that celebrate engagement with uncertainty while cultivating strategies through which one might collaborate with both rupture and rapture.”
She notes that “there is no assurance that because a reader can attune to fortunate outcomes for others that she will be fortunate. Narrative orchestrations that collaborate with uncertainty work in varied ways through the live wires tucked within a reader.”
She says, “I have come to think of divination as a form of reading-as-being: an embodied hermeneutics, an ontological situation,” and “Being an effective reader is contingent upon the quality of presence with which one positions oneself in the constant stream of information and texts. That stream is wherever you are, all of the time, in every grand place, and in every suffering pit.” These words resonate with my attempts to translate and explore literary space through sound.
Hermeneutic Listening, A Digression on Religion
I began my own hermeneutic project a few years ago in which I used music as a method to read texts, to use ears as eyes as a similar exercise in collaborating with rupture and rapture. Of course, this is impossible. Ears do not track like eyes, nor do they trap like eyes. There is something we experience as instantly available to the eyes, which makes them quickly constellate and at times too quickly to discern.
It makes sense when we read about early modern people who thought of the eyes as beaming headlamps or the penetrating grey eyes of early modern women. Using ears to “read” disrupts the constellating process, introducing a liminal transfer and re-subjectivating the listener by calling him or her into being.
This is why I am immediately reminded of Maurice Blanchot’s Writing of the Disaster and of the ongoing relationship Blanchot had with his interlocutor, Emmanuel Levinas, and the idea of ethics as first philosophy. Blanchot writes: “The disaster, unexperienced. It is what escapes the very possibility of experience – it is the limit of writing. This must be repeated: the disaster de-scribes. Which does not mean that the disaster, as the force of writing, is excluded from it, is beyond the pale of writing or extratextual” (7). The disaster is not about the field or the territory or the beyond of the territory.
It is a force, a force, Blanchot says, of writing. I read this as the force of liminality in the process of signification, and when we move from the scopic mode of reading into the auditory, something in the process of the transfer of senses acts a membrane between reception and interpretation, a truly hermeneutic process.
On some level, it is about maintaining fidelity, as philosophers such as Alain Badiou might say, to the event. But again, this is not the Protestant sentiment of “by faith alone.” It is about a charge of spirit that occupies us rather than us “occupying” another space, and so it is more appropriately associated with the critiques of sovereignty performed by feminist affect theorists like Lauren Berlant.
One quickly sees in Saterstrom’s work that ‘religion,’ ‘spirituality,’ and ‘divination’ cannot be easily separated. Guy Stroumsa’s 2005 lectures on Jewish textuality after the fall of the temple, collected in English under the title, The End of Sacrifice: Religious Transformations in Late Antiquity, situate interiority-exteriority through the move from blood sacrifice to writing, arguing that the seeds of religious interiority can be found in Judaism during the period of the second temple and intensifying after its destruction in 70 C.E.
In other words, the destruction of the earlier temple in 586 B.C.E. precipitates a cultural shift to the development of texts. Stroumsa argues:
Religion, including religious worship, is above all a meditation on texts, with a central place granted to texts dealing with the individual, with the individual sinner, in particular the Psalms, a meditation that the Christians learned from Second Temple Judaism. (22-23)
Stroumsa thematically contrasts his research with Foucault, even titling a chapter “A New Care of the Self,” a double entendre on the religious innovations of late antiquity and the limits of Foucault’s thinking. According to Stroumsa, Michel Foucault only got it half right. He was right to focus on the Jewish emphasis on the interior move toward individual responsibility but wrong with respect to an emphasis on self-annihilation in Christianity in monasticism.
Stroumsa argues that Christianity “enlarges the limits of the self, rather than narrowing them. The Christian self does not disappear into the community; it becomes, on the contrary, emblematic” (25). Stroumsa says Foucault was misled by “the ambiguous status of reflexivity developed by Christian thinkers” and “the disappearance of sungenia [kinship] between the human and the divine world,” a world in which the separation of humans “prevents a narcissism of the self” and invites the moral reform of the self. This moral reform was heightened in the non-elite who were not philosophers who “naturally” possessed the insightful sungenia with the divine.
This democratization and enlargement of the common person’s self is then materially reflected in the rise of the codex and the book – the media by which Christianity spread.
Stroumsa notes that Christian community is centered within the translational efforts of the Septuagint during the 3rd century B.C.E. (44). According to him, Christian culture differed from Jewish culture in its tendency to emphasize translation into different languages, thus democratizing and disseminating through writing the blood sacrifice of the ancient Hebrews. Biblical hermeneutics and midrash were both an outcome of this shift.
There has been much talk of spaces and temporalities of exceptions and miracles in recent political philosophy, at times provoking claims of our “postsecular” moment. Divinatory poetics might seem at first to merely offer a kind of “re-enchantment.”
I see something more directly practical about its appearance in these writers, whose personal traditions go deeper than a fad for Gnosticism or mysticism. For example, while it may seem as crazy to read with ears as to make love to a photograph or painting, attempting such a task as blurring the senses has the possibility of re-experiencing sense in an overstimulated world.
It offers a tangible study of human exteriority in the era of the posthuman. It is a way of making an encounter matter. What I offer here is not so much a politics of how to listen as it is a projection of the internal reverberations of my listenings to these writers. I’m thinking of it as literary criticism but am also willing to admit one could also simply say I’m doing a kind of piggyback art.
Ethical questions arise. Is it potentially risky to make a rite of a poem, to give one’s self over to it? Does it not amount to a political instantiation of aesthetics? Do I not mistake what reception is about, making a clearly subjective reaction? What does it mean to invest such authority in a poet, even if we recognize in her work an ethical call? Is it not uncritical, affective impulses that have given rise to the recent surges of “far Right politics”? I believe this is why I say my work is performing literary criticism and theory.
In Genealogies of Religion, Talal Asad traces the historical distinctions between emotions and passions. He notes Marcel Mauss’s grounding of the ritual in embodiment. Western society, he says, saw with the emerging Reformation the interiorization of the “Book of Nature” and the mutation and ascription of ritual practice into “belief.” Ritual was a challenge to direct faith and became associated with “less literate” societies, despite its original place as a function of writing:
Clearly, there is a fundamental disparity between a “ritual” that organizes practices aimed at the full development of monastic self and a “ritual” that offers a reading of a social institution. We may speculate on the ways in which the increasing marginality of religious discipline in industrial capitalist society may have reinforced the latter concept. (78)
We read claims that people were surprised at Chaucer because he looked at books silently, that silent reading was considered an active withdrawal into privacy (67).
What I am discussing in terms of hermeneutics is different than a spectacle or going to a live poetry reading or calling for vocalic linguistic performances. Nor is it merely about the metric and rhythmic qualities of poetic incantation, since delivery and reception will affect and fold such claims.
It is, in the terms of Deleuze and Guattari, an anti-oedipal deterritorialization of sense that opens itself to the literary event. This is exactly what Foucault was reacting to in his analyses of Oedipus in On the Government of the Living. Rhythms are present as identities and negation, but as Deleuze tells us, repetition is not the same as difference. Difference is an affirmation that forms outside of identity.
Silence, as John Cage taught us, is not negation; it is death and therefore beyond experience. We are not, so long as we are in being, in silence. In an anechoic chamber, we hear the high pitch of our own nervous systems and the low rumbling rush of blood through our veins. Beats may create structures of habitation, but they are acting upon the persistent hums of our already active nervous systems.
The hermeneutics of listening that I am stressing does less to stage the poet and allows for more intimate and collaborative interaction between the listener and the writer, by attempting to find a mode of encountering the work. As the poets divine, we divine them. We are entangled with them.
In the multiple ways, being is framed for us, moment by moment. We are often so distracted by channels of power that we forget the illusion of sovereignty itself in our longing for less fragmentation. Many long for what my third poet, Anne Waldman calls a “decider.” Amid gridlocked bipartisanism, recent pushes toward “executive orders” on both the right and the left evidence this. We are also oppressed by mediatized frames, but as Walter Benjamin tells us:
The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly recognize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism.
Resistance is an active theme in Waldman’s work. Divination works amid the state of emergency – not in isolation, but in acts of commitment with readers, and there is no reason to suppose that it will always work in line with one’s particular politics. What is this more real state that Benjamin is after? When Jonah’s companions draw lots to decide who to throw from their boat, we catch a glimpse of cultural variety in the ancient world and a respect of others’ gods.
I suggest that hermeneutic listening gives us a way to engage in the folds of what Anne Waldman addresses as “Entanglement.” Waldman is often seen as one of the last of America’s Beat poets, and although this lineage is certainly significant, her recent work has often been overshadowed by the broader legacy of the beat movement. Her involvement with Allen Ginsberg and Trungpa Rinpoche in founding the Naropa Institute and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics forgets the fact that she has continued to be involved in its trajectory for more than forty years.
Waldman’s poetry is truly psychedelic, in the sense of the term as ‘mind-manifesting.’ Her ‘I’ moves in a dissipating and reconstituting way throughout her work integrating and disintegrating the various instance of ego life. Locations become points of associative acts.
Waldman’s poetry also emphasizes liminality. Again, in “Entanglement” she does more than merely offer an ontological description:
Entanglement is my ransom
She is my mother, author, locator
Lifting off in libations
Trips to Iceworlds
Hammurabi’s code woke her
The two as one, born together
Perfect dimensions for the spider, the fly
She leaves me split, she is my other, she is my unknown
Wed, she abandons me
She abandons me; she never abandons me
Entanglement I think will always sleep with me
Two forms continue in landscape
The bleak and the fecund
We warm as we cool
Worlds collide when tangents weeps
The planet got close last night
The first line points to an economic relationship. Personified as “mother, author, locator,” Entanglement is the generative creative force. Rather than a muse invoked, as in Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” Entanglement is part of Waldman’s speaker. She’s awakened by law but other than nomos. She is the speaker’s other in a play on Rimbaud’s “I is an other.”
The forked tongue is at work in “Wed, she abandons me” and “She abandons me; she never abandons me.” Aspect shifts with “Two forms continue in landscape,” as if in a cinematic turn. And always with Waldman’s work, one has to wonder where perspective is and what drives shifts in aspect and perspective. Notice the moods and movement in the following lines:
Entanglement is the complicated mother
Born together, fall apart
Broadway in my fair city was once a deer and mountain lion trail
Wedded to the past, it keeps happening
How not become our own volcano?
Visit the ring of fire
volcanoes were entangled
Act as mirror into my lower atmosphere
down here with the slime molds
Entanglement eschews boundaries
politics of sonorities
Agamben counts the animals
All the organs collapse
I am a dithyramb again
Ornette was in my dream of entanglement
He counts and he is a gift of augury.
Entanglement is itself generative. It is personified as mother. Then the fragmented next line, “born together, fall apart.” Aspect without subject. This is followed by another sentence: Broadway was once a trail. Then, “Wedded to the past, it keeps happening” – a complex sentence, but the antecedent of “it” remains ambiguous. Is it “Broadway”? Entanglement itself? The local and the abstract conflate with one another.
“How not to become our own volcano?” expresses itself as an internal thought but it also addresses a collective body, “our.” By the time we get to “Act as mirror into my lower atmosphere / down with the slime molds,” there is an imperative repetition at work. What authority enforces these repetitions? Who is the I that is a dithyramb “again”?
The dithyramb is inherently Dionysian, opposed to the Apollonian paean. Waldman’s speaker becomes multivocal. And though these wild choruses were made of female devotees, she also reflects multiple aspects. The late Ornette Coleman, known famously as a prominent voice in avant-garde or free jazz, was a true diviner:
We morphed and have compounded ourselves to syncretic entanglement
My mother was not a copper mine
Crumbling ruins of dark mudbrick buildings
Bamiyan valley with its empty niches
Empty sockets for Buddha
The cave of Mes Aynak were used for training by Al-Qaeda for
Buddhist remains to a copper mine, scrape scrape the ground
Archeologist everywhere in the bad dream
Scrape the heart
Entanglement is impermanence
Operating like migration in Thomas Nail’s Theory of the Border, Entanglement, like aspect and perspective in Waldman, is always moving. The constant intersubjective shifting dislocates the fixity of liberal selfhood, attending to force.
My recording project with Anne Waldman took place on the same day and with the same musicians as a session with her niece, Eleni Sikelianos. Part of my intention in the project was to hear how different the tonalities and frequencies were. Anne does nothing without a high degree of intensity, and so I wasn’t surprised that instead of going back to fix lines or phrases, she ended up layering multiple vocal tracks.
Like a free jazz musician, she interacts with the instruments. I was surprised at how slow and differently paced her delivery was. “Entanglement” took almost forty minutes to perform, about the length of Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz or John Coltrane’s Ascension. You can listen to it here and it is also archived on PennSound.
Once, after musically accompanying Eleni Sikelianos, another Denver poet who was in the audience remarked to me that he was “pleasantly surprised” at my guitar playing, since he had been accustomed to thinking that when writers perform with musicians it is distracting to the work. This reduction of life to subjects and objects, writers and readers, has much to do with the problems of this world.
Hermeneutic listening is not just accompaniment. Although improvised, I try to spend a lot of time with poems beforehand. Eleni Sikelianos and I have practiced many times for performances, and she occasionally asks me to sing lines. As with Waldman’s work, I made notes for the musicians about dynamic intensities and occasional tonal centers. With Eleni’s “Make Yourself Happy” poems, the key of E major was constant. A more percussive reader than Anne, I often listen for time signatures in Eleni’s reading, as did the musicians.
Although I dislike the recent use of the term, ‘re-enchantment’ is an appropriate theme in the Sikelianos family, which makes up a large area of poetic content for Eleni Sikelianos. She is Granddaughter of Nobel prize nominee, Angelos Sikelianos, and Eva Palmer-Sikelianos, who together in 1927 decided to reinstate a Delphic Festival in Greece that included a staging of Prometheus Bound. In You Animal Machine, Eleni Sikelianos meditates on the matriarchal line and the assemblages of story that connect family:
Story is not the right word. History is too vague. This is a net of family giftings, woven in darkly luminous filaments, the shirt daubed with Nessus’s blood that scorches the skin, wounding the susceptibilities. But what is the key that turns the lock of the poison dress? Who is us? (Me and my mother). (2)
Her family history is also the story of what the Greeks call the Great Calamity, of 78s on which family members sang rembetika, the Greek blues. She transfers this feeling to blues jukes in America where her grandmother, Melaine Marko, “The Leopard Girl,” among many other names danced (6).
She traces the deterritorialization and reterritorialization of family. Sikelianos weaves myth and family so tightly one cannot discern in terms a genre or externalized concept. She asks, “Can there be a proliferated sense of mirroring unmirroring?” (98).
In The Loving Detail of the Living & the Dead, Sikelianos performs more subtle examples of divinatory poetics than both Saterstrom and Waldman. Against both of them her lyricism is immediately more personal and sensual. If Waldman’s ‘I’ hovers around the very nature of being instantiated within being in this world and Saterstrom conveys the medium-like, channeled voice of ancestors, Sikelianos is supremely concerned with relationality.
Sometimes that relationality is familial, sometimes it is ontological – as in her extinction poems from Make Yourself Happy, which moves back and forth between a meditation on the seemingly trite but quickly get more complex. They evidence a hollowing out:
who did the blue school
who bruised the wound
who had the goddess of love in her lap
to make herself happy—make
a village of love for your shadow
to live in so that
your shadow and your shadow’s friends may be
unlonely living with all other ombres
I’m giving away all my belongings
in language to make myself happy must start
with “my language” then find
chains of correspondence
for the world’s every articulate hand and finger
(it’s what touches the world)
a shadow hombre shows me the way toward the deepest umbers
like having an orgasm in your
Sikelianos’s work is both more immanent and less abstract than Saterstrom and Waldman. Definitely more of a personal and intimate ‘I’. But in comparison with Saterstrom’s Slab, we see a crossover flirtation with New Thought movement. There is something similar in Make Yourself Happy to Ideal Suggestions through Mental Photography. A way of exploring ontology. Sikelianos also importantly works with the idea of fetish:
I bought something, it was
A fancy thing. The man called me madame and
Opened the door with a swish. I was sure I had never been
So happy to buy something, my
Feet felt happy even though
The thing was for my wrists.
Although having a Latin etymology in the verb, facere (to make), the English word, ‘fetish’ is directly derived from a colonial trading relationship with South America and the Caribbean, coming from the Portuguese word, feitiço. Marx drew his concept of the “commodity fetish” from Charles de Brosses 1760 book, Du culte des dieux fétiches. That materiality had much to do with cultural misunderstandings Europeans made of African slaves. Although coy and slightly kinky here, Sikelianos’s poems often present an edge of cruel optimism.
Conclusion: הנה אני
“Bird signs!” Hector mocks Polydamas in Homer’s Iliad, “Fight for your country – that is the best, the only omen!” (XII, 280-81). Look what happened to Hector. Divinatory poetics challenge liberal assumptions about subjectivity and individuality. It seeks a language less fixed than the Romantic aesthetics that emerged with nation-states. At the same time, they are not the products of archaic revivals so much as the continuance of traditions long eschewed by Enlightenment politics. Divinatory poetics, then, is not a matter of “re-enchantment.”
I suggested in the first part of this essay that divinatory poetics and help to rehabilitate a sense of the literary. The resonance of capital “L” Literature had to suffer the democratizing impulses that literary theory imposed from new criticism to new historicism during the twentieth century. Yet even in the middle of the century, Theodor Adorno wrote in his Aesthetic Theory:
aesthetic comportment is to be defined as the capacity to shudder, as if goose bumps were the first aesthetic image. What later came to be called subjectivity, freeing itself from the blind anxiety of the shudder, is at the same time the shudder’s own development; life in the subject is nothing but what shudders, the reaction to the total spell which transcends the spell. (331)
In literary theory, new historicism broadened the spectrum concerning what could be thought of as literature, but it left little in terms of generative ability of the literary to create and be art. So concerned it was with the emphasis on the material conditions and environments that produce literature that the study of literature became a particular way of studying history.
Divinatory poetics calls us into being and emphasizes our relation to the Other as a ground from which we come to think about being. In being called into being – the “Here I am” / Hineini / הנה אני of hermeneutic listening – I am called upon as a critic and artist myself to acknowledge both the ethical and aesthetic relationship to the poet in the context of my own creation. And with the writers I have explored here, this is a true sense of community.
We need to study writers and literatures in their communities. Literary study is a way to track social desire over time, and therefore Literature itself would be the manifestation of social desire – what Berardi calls the erotic – in whatever form it takes.
Hermeneutic listening as a strategy for decontextualizing and translating the form and space of literature allows us to gather a sense of the literary without subjecting it to the tyranny of signification. The concerns of divinatory poetics are timely for periods of crisis not because they impose a structure of meaning onto chaos but because the poetics practice being in a space of openness. At the end of Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s The Uprising, he calls for irony over cynicism:
Irony suspends the semantic value of the signifier to freely choose among a thousand possible interpretations. Ironic interpretations of events presuppose a common understanding between speakers and listeners; a sympathy among those who, engaged in the ironic act, arrive at a common autonomy from the dictatorship of the signified. (187)
What I think divinatory poetics adds to this is the importance of using the dead as interlocutors, the transgenerational ancestor work that Saterstrom, Waldman, and Sikelianos all display in various ways. Divinatory poetics and hermeneutic listening maintain a sense of porousness in order to be open to audiences we may not already know, rather than presupposing a common understanding. In this sense their space of liminality hearkens beyond the borders of the polis.
Roger Green is general editor of The New Polis and a Lecturer in the English Department at Metropolitan State University of Denver. His work brings political theology into conversation with psychedelics and aesthetics. He is the author of “Aldous Huxley the Political Theologian” in Aldous Huxley Annual (vol. 14, 2014 / 2015), and “Force in Religious Thought: Carl Raschke and Victoria Kahn in Dialogue” in The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory. His doctoral dissertation, Beware of Mad John (2013) explores connections between political theology and psychedelic literature. He is currently working on a second PhD in Religious Studies and Theology at University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology.