My previous work was concerned with the “Literary Agamben” although its primary interest was Agamben’s extensive work on poetry. While indifference was a central part of that study, it was completed before the availability of the key works on method and language and so in some ways is deficient in answering the question as to the actual significance of poetry for Agamben’s work. That said it is a detailed study of the question so I can allow myself the luxury of a very simple summary here, a kind of concluding statement on poetry which is perhaps missing from the previous book.
Poetry is a signature in Agamben. It operates according to the logic of the common and proper by assigning prose to the realm of the common and the poetic or semiotic to that of the proper. Agamben repeatedly talks about the signature of poetry in terms of the semantic/semiotic split, the age-old antagonism between philosophy and poetry, or indeed that between prose and poetry. The semantic element of this signature is assumed to be writing that places the communication of meaning ahead of that of the medium of communication. Poetry, represented by the technique of enjambment, interrupts clarity and coherence of communication by favouring the semiotic over the semantic. Thus, simply put: a sentence in a poem, if it is longer than the designated syllabic allocation stipulated by the metrics in play, let us say here ten syllables, will be interrupted by a line-break, the sentence concluded therefore on the next line. The line break naturally imposes a pause, it traditionally gives extra emphasis to the word at the end of the line due to where it is not what it says, an emphasis often enforced by the use of rhyme and by semantic-semiotic shifters such as ending lines on words like fall, dead, drop, pause etc. Enjambment is not the only technique that foregrounds the semiotic in poetry, but it is the strongest paradigm amongst all the various semiotic techniques to hand. This is especially because of the relation between enjambment and caesura. The caesura interrupts the flow of the line, in the opposite manner to the way in which enjambment interrupts the coherence of the sentence. This model or signatory paradigm is to be found in a pronounced fashion both in Derrida’s work on Literature/literature and Deleuze’s work on the relation between segment and flow in the theory of the assemblage. Put simply, the semiotic is only made operative by means of it rendering momentarily inoperative the semantic.
The complexity here that perhaps was beyond my previous study is that poetry is defined in Agamben as the tension between the semantic and the semiotic, not as it has seemed so far, the material singularity of the semiotic. There are then two poetries in play here. Small p poetry is the foregrounding of the semiotic, while large P Poetry is the relation between semantic and semiotic. Thus Poetry as signature is the oikonomia between the semantic and the semiotic in our tradition, whose moment of arising is Plato’s Republic and the “expulsion of the poets” myth promulgated there. This is further confused by Agamben coming to call this the Idea of Prose. Prose is actually, after Agamben, Benjamin and Walser, indifferent Poetry. The distraction is the assumption that, after Heidegger, and more recently Derrida, Nancy, Lacoue-Labarthe and Badiou, it is the singularity of the poetic in terms of its asemantic materiality that defines its nature as a signature. Or poetry’s poiesis as opposed to philosophical dianioa to paraphrase Badiou.[i] Rather, what now must be concluded is that Poetry is the impossible economy between philosophy as dianoia or as universal truth irrespective of its mode of communication, and poetry as poiesis or material singularity that communicates nothing but communicability as such. This viewpoint is strongly supported by my own comments here as to the origins of communicability in Kant’s third critique and its extension by Heidegger’s work on art which eventually became attenuated to considerations of poetry alone. Thus poetry’s tension is the constant interchange between its meaning and its form, and its definition as this tension between the semantic and the semiotic is not its definition as object, but its revelation as process in the modern sources cited by Agamben: Valéry, Milner, Heidegger…
This being the case Poetry is the inoperativity of the ancient metaphysical division of thought and its expression. In this way it is a special signature which again makes its excavation rather tricky. For example, it suspends the signature through which we come to understand indifferent suspension: philosophy. Plus it suspends the quality of singularity that The Coming Community defines as central to indifference. In that it is concerned with semantic and semiotic, it of course suspends language as a signature and its reliance on signified and signifier in metaphysics. In that the semiotic has been defined as the essence of poetry as the art of all arts since Hegel, reified almost by Heiedegger’s later work and the manner in which poetry as the material singularity of language per se catches hold of such thinkers as Derrida, Nancy, Lacoue-Labarthe, to some Degree Badiou, and as it often seems in the earlier work Agamben, Poetry renders indifferent and thus inoperative the signature Art of which it should be epiphenomenal. Naturally in Agamben’s paradigm—signature model there is no epiphenomenal relation here meaning that poetry must be a paradigm of the arts.[ii] Finally, as the semiotic is presented by this tradition as the foregrounding of language as such as the communication of communication per se, before above or to the side of what is being communicated, in other words communicability as such, if poetry is suspended, so too is communicability.
Poetry then is a special case. First it is a signature and a paradigm in Agamben’s work. Second, when it is a paradigm it is a paradigm of art as such in terms of its semiotic materiality, although Agamben does not pursue this signature. Third, when it is a signature it suspends another key signature, Philosophy. Fourth, in so doing it also suspends a second signature, the most important of all, Language. Fifth, as it is defined as the foregrounding of language as such as semiotic, Poetry is another name for the communicability as such of language encountered in terms of its material support for all signatures. A materiality whose Being however it also suspends in terms of its traditional counter-definition as not-semantic, not-communication, not-philosophy, not-universal, not-true. This makes Poetry, for me, the most difficult of all the signatures to explain in Agamben’s work, or better the longest to explain in a shortened form in that this fifteen hundred or so words has taken me ten years to arrive at.