The wind blows where it wills

A further exercise in reading events with Giorgio Agamben, this time a short reflection by Jeanne Casilas, published by lundi matin #263 (15/11/2020).

The wind blows where it wills

L’art est comme l’incendie, il naît de ce qui brûle/Art is like fire, it is born of what burns.

Jean-Luc Godard

We have waited so much for the end of this world, we just didn’t imagine it like this. When the end approaches, when the masks fall, when the din of nonsense covers the planet, there also emerge the voices of those who, at this precise moment, in the fissure, are able to speak (of) life.

Why poets in times of distress? Because language alone, and the silence that echoes it, in the collapse, in any prison, begins the world anew. Because we have not only lost the world, lost cities, ways of life and people, we have not only lost ourselves, we have also lost the possibility of saying these things. As our living conditions deteriorated and beauty without cost was replaced by commercial ugliness, we lost the ability to speak about our environment, other than in a frozen language, that of journalists and power. The more we were derealised and separated from everything, the more words were missed, because they already no longer mattered. Capitalism has imposed that only things matter. What is the use of naming them?

The fact of arriving at the end of a civilisation makes it possible to measure how long it has been dying, in its arts and in its culture. In the 1990s, Deleuze described the epoch as a desert of thought, and this since the end of the 1970s. He explained that there was nothing surprising in this, that history is filled with desert crossings, interspersed with periods of creation. It can be argued that this desert has continued to expand since then, except for some islets. Thanks to the current collapse, one can hope that there will come a time when this – intelligence, art, creation, critical thinking – will be reborn, that under certain circumstances, several will begin to think together and that lines emerge which until then were only fragile and tedious sketches. Then habitable architectures will begin to form. It is possible that this moment is beginning.

What Agamben writes in his last article, When the house is on fire, moves in this direction: “Something has changed, not in what you do, but in the way in which you release it into the world. Poetry written in a burning house is more just and true because no one will hear it, because nothing ensures that it will escape the flames”, adding, “But if, by chance, it were to find a reader, they would still not escape that which calls to them from the helpless, inexplicable, submerged din.”(1)

The consciousness of a historical moment when a word is triggered, no longer knows where it is going, at the same time as it is certain that its reader, if it finds her/him, will not be deaf, cannot be the result of an isolated consciousness. Agamben, as a philosopher, speaks beyond his voice, he opens up a field; a space from which, in the perception of what is happening to us, has happened, the description of a common territory can be recognised. He offers several paths, modes of being and acting, in a text where the central question is precisely how to live now, amidst the rubble. His deepest proposition is: by means of language.

In the burning house, language remains. Not language, but the immemorial, weak and prehistoric forces that watch over it and remember it: philosophy and poetry. What do they watch over, what do they remember of language? Not this or that meaningful proposition, nor this or that article of faith or bad faith. Rather, the very fact that there is language, that without a name we are open within the name, and that in this openness, in a gesture, in a face, we are unknowable and exposed.

Poetry, the word, is the only thing left to us from that time when we did not yet know how to speak, a dark song within language, a dialectic or idiom that we cannot fully understand, but to which we cannot help but listen—even if the house burns, even if in their scorched language people continue to speak nonsense. (2)

What Agamben writes implies that what first remains with us, that with which we can continue, is memory. Not the present. The memory inscribed in the language of philosophy and poetry, the memory of our childhood, of what has remained without a voice, of what has remained as a forgotten music that can resurface. Understanding and poetry can resurface, Agamben postulates, because “we cannot not listen” to poetry, the ancient idiom. We cannot fail to hear language, when it unfolds, here the language most attached to language, that of poetry and that of philosophy, even if it is indeed there, in language, that we are undone, maybe even in the first place; lost to ourselves and to others. Because if we can no longer represent something through words to someone else, something complex like describing a city, if that doesn’t work anymore, if our life experience forces us to no longer dare to tell of the useless hours and to remain silent most of the time, if when we make an attempt to construct a reality through speech it is not heard, if everything is in place so that we say the same things to the same people at the same times, it is normal that there is a fracture, that it has become difficult to tie the world and language together. And that we gave up both. It is therefore with language that we must begin, or continue, because it is in it that we live or that we do not live, in it or without it that we die.

It is, now that our body is taken from us, that it is traced, contacted, locked up, and it will increasingly be through language that we will survive. Agamben delivers in his last text a land to inhabit: in the memory and the resurgence of the language of children and poets, of that of our voiceless loves and the words of our friends; the language of endless conversations and the language of sentences we will never say; these phrases that we should write and those that we will read and which will never be pronounced. It’s because the house is on fire that you can finally speak and hear, understand. It is in the unveiling of ruins that languages are born, or are swept away. It is perhaps at the moment of truth, when there is nothing more to see than a long shipwreck, that a certain freedom of conscience occurs, where semblance and collaboration are no longer necessary, that a certain detachment arises, perhaps even confidence: the rebirth of mystery, faith in the joy of the unknown, the hope of words which the wind will carry.

  1. When the house is on fire was published in English by the ill will editions collective. The original text appeared in Quodlibet.
  2. Ibid.
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