Poetry : Hannan Hever

6. Historical Context – Between Utopia and Affirmation

It is clear that the relationship between an ideological poem and a political one is not one of binary opposition. Paradoxically, the creation of historical conditions for a political poem cannot rely completely on historical context, that is, on the context in which interpretation is produced. In The 18th Brumaire, Karl Marx explicitly opposed the historical interpretation of revolutionary poetry: “The social revolution cannot derive its poetry from the past, but only from the future.”36 This type of reading also commits what Wimsatt and Beardsley call “the intentional fallacy,” which attempts to understand a poem according to what the poet supposedly wanted to be understood: the author who has already been declared dead by Barthes.37

The death of the author does not mean that readers are dead, although they will not be portrayed here as cohesive or stable entities. Transferring the reins to the reader takes seriously the possibility of moving the text to other places and times in which it may or may not function politically. Walter Benjamin’s idea of “the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction” may be useful in clarifying the accessibility of a poem that is printed and duplicated in different times and places where it is read and enacted anew.38

The absence of a binary relationship between the political and the apolitical, that is, the ideological, stems from the reader’s particular interpretive mechanism, which alternates between the political and apolitical aspects of a text. It should be noted that the political is always brokered by language and text. It never denies reality, but takes a stand that says that every attribution of the political to action, including the non-binary political, must undergo a process that Adi Ophir calls halshana, a kind of “linguistification.”

How does a poem work within a particular historical context? Brenkman follows in Marx’s wake in his critique of the political in William Blake’s “London” by opposing the view of E.P. Thompson, who found the poem’s politics limited entirely to its historical context and the expectations of Blake’s contemporaries.39

On the one hand, it is clear that the historical context in which a poem is written, printed and becomes a product consumed by readers is a context whose understanding is vital to its political effects. In order for defamiliarization and the problematizing of authority to be realized, the poem’s historical reader must be familiar with the public discourse and literary conventions the poem violates. Georg Lukács, who for many years formulated the norms of Marxist aesthetics, tended to view mimetic-expressive realism as a tool enabling a period to be seen accurately, that is, revealing the history of class warfare as that which produces the text.40 A poem that in this way reflects a particular historical situation within which and for which it is produced, is also a poem that reflects the socio-economic conditions of that situation. In this way it becomes a partner to the political class struggle that arises from the contradictions of its society that in turn will realize, according to the power of socio-economic logic, the narrative of redemption.

On the other hand, in practice things are different. In Amir Benbaji’s words, “When art criticizes history through imitation, it to some degree contains approval and justification of the status quo.”41 The degree Benjabi mentions is that which undermines the binary opposition between a political poem and an ideological one. After all, realism does not represent reality. It is not a mirror in which the world is reflected, but rather a conventional form of representational norms, a series of conventions. As such, it includes a distinction between the énoncé—what is said—and the énonciation, the act or process of saying it. Here, in order to create a political effect, the énonciation of the poem assumes the existence of a linguistic and literary authority that enables the claim to become an action; protest is first of all a claim to existence. The statement, “I refuse,” involves acceptance of the subjectivity to which I am opposed.42

Since political poems must be mimetic in form, they must be set within mimetic, historical contexts. This historicity is in effect also a mechanism of affirmation; a mimetic reading affirms not only its own existence but also the power and authority of that which it opposes.

Historicizing is, therefore, likely to cancel out the subversive political effect of a poem, as well as undermining the binary distinction between a political and an apolitical poem. This is not only a matter of information but of affirming its power. In the end, history cannot make a poem political, but it is also impossible for a political poem to be ahistorical. This paradox is like de Man’s claim that lyric poems may not be read in a lyrical manner: the historical object of a lyrical reading cannot be lyrical—a mimetic, dramatic monologue directed toward someone outside itself—that is, outside history. The reading that at one and the same time makes a poem lyrical and destroys its lyricism is the same reading that realizes the political nature of a poem within and outside of history.

In order to become political, a poem must not only disrupt the narrative it opposes but also its own. Wai Chee Dimock refutes what she calls the “metonymic principle,” the method used by Marxist narrative to locate historical phenomena. She suggests dismantling the essential category of class in Marxist thought in order to locate local points of conflict that do not necessarily belong to the meta-narrative.43 Following Dimock, it may be said that the clash between the identities established on both sides removes the basis for their political effectiveness.

To return to the connection between class and theology, it may be characterized via a theoretical consideration that undermines the essentialist and binary nature of class. In their Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe have developed an alternative to the Marxist tradition of discourse. Their rejection of the idea that objective interests that are inherent to the position of the working class are what holds it back leads them to argue for a non-essentialist political subjectivity, based on an encounter—not an accidental one—between the economic location of the subject and the semiotic effect of subjectivity in the semantic field.44

If we apply this stand to the field of literature, we may say that the historicizing of class, a precise description of the development of the novel as a genre that expresses or establishes the middle class (as noted in the work of Lukács, Benedict Anderson and Michael McKeon), depends on a mechanism that can substitute gender, nationality or religion for class in the subject position.45

36. Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (Rockville, Maryland: Wildside Press, 2008), 18.

37. William K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley, “The Intentional Fallacy” in The Verbal Icon (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1954), 3-18.

38. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken, 1978), 217-251.

39. John Brenkman, Culture and Domination, 129-130.

40. Georg Lukács, Studies in European Realism (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1964); John Belsey, Critical Practice, 1-2.

41. Amir Benjabi, “Mahi sifrut politi? Adorno veh-esthetika marxistit,” Me-can 10:9 (2008): 231.

42. Catherine Belsey, Critical Practice, 58.

43. Wai Chee Dimock, “Class, Gender and a History of Metonymy” in Rethinking Class, eds. Wai Chee Dimock and Michael T. Gilmore (New York: Columbia University, 1994), 57-104.

44. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (London: Verso Press, 2001).

45. Cora Kaplan, “Introduction: Millennial Class,” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 115:1 (2000): 12.

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