Poetry : Hannan Hever

A political poem is one that has a political effect on readers. In order to do so, it must stop the historical process of signification, if only for a moment. In order to prevent the limitation of a political effect to a historical context and instead allow it to break out of this context at the moment of reading, the presence of history in a political poem must be read at a particular point in time. And so, instead of speaking about a political poem, we should speak about an event: the source of the political act that takes place at the encounter of the reader with a text she identifies as not digested by harmonious, undisrupted, hegemonic interpretation. Political reading locks movement into a specific historical moment in which the gap between énoncé and énonciation is joined for a moment and closes. In other words, it is a speech act, within whose framework potentially subversive content is actualized by the reader and becomes politically undermining through énonciation.60

The identity of the political poem is not stable and independent, but includes difference; that is, it is identical to and also different from itself. Reading is always in indeterminate motion (différance) that requires the particular involvement of the reader. This is the moment when the reader takes the initiative as well as the responsibility for the political act that the poem may produce.61 The possibility of historicizing does not depend on the past, and in contrast to Marx’s claim, nor on the utopian future, which Jacques Ranciere calls “a non-polemical distribution of the sensible universe.”62 That is, the political is not established by the opposition between practice and utopia, but instead with a different utopia, “the extreme point of the polemical reconfiguration of the sensible” that would “abolish the dispute concerning the relation of words to things that makes up the heart of politics.”63

The fact that this is not a clear and well-organized utopia, often represented in narrative, emphasizes the importance of the pure event, the unqualified utopian impulse of Ernst Bloch’s “concrete utopia” or Ranciere’s “political moment.”64 They may not be redacted to a system of rules and assumptions as they include a metonymic displacement in the field of signifiers that cannot be completely transformed by metaphor that is based on a resemblance of signifiers.65

It was Georges Sorel who refuted the existence of objective and coercive laws of history and substituted an artificial coercion based on the will to power.66 For Ranciere, there is a moment of aesthetic emancipation in the “distribution of the sensible” that paradoxically emphasizes the incompatibility between the “formal drive and the sensible drive.”67 Ranciere uses the example of the cancellation of the (formal) aesthetic illusion in an imagination that pits sensible pleasure against the physical reality of the person feeling pleasure. For example, in the text of a French revolutionary workers’ newspaper, aesthetic belief mandates the separation of physical (sensible), working hands from the paper’s formal gaze at reality; this undermines the way that the workers’ ethos (embodied in the newspaper) is supposed to match the physicality of the body (and the hands) of the worker.68

The aesthetic dimension of the political brings to the fore, “on the same stage,” what Ranciere calls “dissensus—a conflict of sensory worlds—by subjects who act as if they were the people.”69 It does this via a modernist figure that does not neutralize representation but disrupts it.70 In our example, disruption is accomplished by catachresis. And so, it is possible to point to the “political [as] found where there is representation, always in conflict and impaired” so that in the end anything aesthetic is political and engaged in a conflict of the “distribution of the sensible,” of which catachresis is an unmistakable incarnation.71

The writing of a political lyric poem, no less than a reading of it, involves a completely individual responsibility. As we have learned from Derrida about aporia, a decisive promise based on prior certainty (based on historical context) is an evasion of responsibility.72 Decisions are always made in an atmosphere of indecision, and they always involve the risk that the act, or to be more precise, the event of a political reading of a poem, may overcome it.73

Translation by Lisa Katz


Hannan Hever is Blaustein Professor of Hebrew Language and Literature at Yale University.


Published on February 15, 2013

60. Catherine Belsey, Critical Practice, 72.

61. John D. Caputo, Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida (New York: Fordham University Press, 1997), 14.

62. Jacques Ranciere, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (London: Continuum, 2004), 40.

63. Jacques Ranciere, The Politics of Aesthetics, 40.

64. Ernst Bloch, On Karl Marx, trans. John Cummings (New York: Herder and Herder, 1971), 159-173; Adi Efal, “Nativ ha-haluka ha-muta’at veh-shivion ha-nefesh shel ha-mahsheva: ha-guto shel Jacques Ranciere” in Ha-lukat ha-hushi, trans. Shai Rozinsky (Tel Aviv: Resling, 2008), 29.

65. Ernesto Laclau, “The Politics of Rhetoric,” 243.

66. Georges Sorel, Reflections on Violence, ed. Jeremy Jennings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); Ernesto Laclau, “The Politics of Rhetoric,” 244.

67. See Jacques Ranciere, The Politics of Aesthetics; Jacques Ranciere, “The Aesthetic Dimension: Aesthetics, Politics, Knowledge,” Critical Inquiry 36 (2009): 2-3.

68. Jacques Ranciere, “The Aesthetic Dimension: Aesthetics, Politics, Knowledge,” 7.

69. Jacques Ranciere, “The Aesthetic Dimension: Aesthetics, Politics, Knowledge,” 11.

70. Adi Efal, “Nativ ha-haluka ha-muta’at,” 19.

71. Adi Efal, “Nativ ha-haluka ha-muta’at,” 20 and 23; Jacques Ranciere, The Politics of Aesthetics and Jacques Ranciere, “The Aesthetic Dimension,” 1.

72. Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, trans. David Wills (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).

73. Jacques Derrida, Aporias (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), 19.

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