Poetry to Refuse Power

Filed under: poetry, art, power, philosophy

Those of us who explore ideas on whim may find ourselves oscillating between the philosophical and the poetic. Often, the effect of one pushes us towards the other - why?

Katy Bohinc, a poet (and a data scientist??), has an interesting break down of the spectrum in her book 'Dear Alain', a compilation of fictional 'love letters' to the philosopher Alain Badiou.

The text is generally hard to pin down - full of loaded, specific philosophical terms that are instead used metaphorically. She herself oscillates in the book between putting herself in the shoes of the male philosopher and then interpreting that position as a female poet. She is a poet dealing with "the troubling unequal power relationship and tensions that arise between the old male philosopher and the young female poet". But the work also speaks generally to explorers: how do we navigate the poetic-philosophical spectrum?

Philosophy, as she sees it, is a method to power by defining things - and therefore, can be an egotistical field that claims to be the centre of the world. Poetry, instead, refuses to define, and consequently, refuses power. 'Power' itself is left for the reader to imagine, but I would assume the power one achieves from defining is the power of 'knowing', the power that says 'I know X better than you or more than you'.

"The problem ultimately is that to define anything is to take a position of power. Are you comfortable with your power? I hate power. I refuse to define. I refuse. I refuse in protest.

..I hate power: My mission is to dissolve it. But of course, this is my deepest secret I reveal to you! My deepest secret because to name a mission is itself to have power - don't you see?

.. I am a poet. I have no power... I give everything your psyche needs; I take nothing. No story, no moment of self, no words of self. Some babble if your ego needs."
   — Katy Bohinc, 'Dear Alain'

To not state our 'mission' could be, crudely, to not set goals and destinations. To take nothing and give everything a psyche needs could be to forego logical argumentation for an empathy that unites us with another. To refuse power can be to refuse our knowledge itself, to embrace our clumsiness, our awkwardness, our lack of grace - maybe even to forget?

When Socrates declares 'I know that I know nothing', his declaration is still of knowledge, it is still an 'I know'. Bohinc sees poetry as an escape from the 'knowing' but also a challenge to its presumed 'supremacy'. As one review of the book puts it, "It really is possible to kill your philosophy daddies or at the very least confuse the hell out of them."

"I'm not here to elaborate on your experiences, I'm here to remind you of your soul."
   — Katy Bohinc, 'Dear Alain'

Under Bohinc's view of the spectrum, our oscillation could be a reaction to the extremities of power and its lack. Philosophical exploration has us claiming knowledge of truth until it makes us uncomfortable, either from its responsibility or its arrogance. Consequently, we then jump to poetry to dissolve the ego of 'knowing' until its hollowness makes us uncomfortable enough to re-desire power. Though the terminology we use is of 'power', it is not to put poetry in any 'weaker' position - rather, this oscillation is also what keeps them in dialogue with each other. In an essay about the book, Bohinc describes the oscillation asserting a political independence:

"What I really want to say is that philosophy is not sovereign... And that poetry is quite good at defining itself! As it has been for thousands of years, regardless of whatever the philosophers have been saying.

In some sense, poetry's and philosophy's irresistible urge to discuss each other for thousands of years is like the longest love affair in history.."
   — Katy Bohinc

I also think Bohinc tries to find a transcendence point to bridge poetry and philosophy - I still have not gotten to such a realization. For me, though they are definitely in conversation, they are still separate.

Philosophy and poetry are gigantic fields, full of nuance and differing styles and though Bohinc selects specific styles to imaginatively engage with, I think one can sympathize with her general expression regardless. Experience also tells us extremes of philosophy and poetry both pose a serious re-entry problem - if you spend a long time on any of those islands, it takes a while to be mentally functional again for everyday living. What Bohinc reminds us is that it could be healthy to greet each field, when we approach it, with an acknowledgment of its danger and a promise of goodbye.

"Dear Alain, I am going to have to get back to the intangible soon."
   — Katy Bohinc, 'Dear Alain'

Fun fact:

On the book cover, there is a quote by Slavoj Zizek, "This book should be banished". Katy Bohinc was asked in an interview if this was really something Zizek said, to which she responded:

"Yes. He liked the book, but he has said that all poets are fascists, so I said, well, say that about the book. “No problem!” It worked for both of us, because I really do think he thinks it should be banished. I don’t know what he would have said if it was “Dear Slavoj” but it just doesn’t have the same ring. And he has to watch his friend get simultaneously seduced and beat up, I mean… there is plenty to be banished."
   — Katy Bohinc

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