The Poetic Torture-House of Language

Originally published in Poetry Magazine on March 3rd, 2014.

How poetry relates to ethnic cleansing.

Plato’s reputation suffers because of his claim that poets should be thrown out of the city — rather sensible advice, judging from this post-Yugoslav experience, where ethnic cleansing was prepared by poets’ dangerous dreams. True,
Slobodan Milošević “manipulated” nationalist passions — but it was the poets who delivered him the stuff that lent itself to manipulation. They — the sincere poets, not the corrupted politicians — were at the origin of it all, when, back in the seventies and early eighties, they started to sow the seeds of aggressive nationalism not only in Serbia, but also in other ex-Yugoslav republics. Instead of the industrial-military complex, we in post-Yugoslavia had the poetic-military complex, personified in the twin 
figures of Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić. Karadžić was not only a ruthless political and military leader, but also a poet. His 
poetry should not be dismissed as ridiculous — it deserves a close reading, since it provides a key to how ethnic cleansing functions. Here are the first lines of the untitled poem identified by a dedication “.....For Izlet Sarajlić”:

Convert to my new faith crowd
I offer you what no one has had before
I offer you inclemency and wine
The one who won’t have bread will be fed by the light of my sun
People nothing is forbidden in my faith
There is loving and drinking
And looking at the Sun for as long as you want
And this godhead forbids you nothing
Oh obey my call brethren people crowd

The superego suspension of moral prohibitions is the crucial 
feature of today’s “postmodern” nationalism. Here, the cliche 
according to which passionate ethnic identification restores a firm set of values and beliefs in the confusing insecurity of a modern secular global society is to be turned around: nationalist “fundamentalism” rather serves as the operator of a secret, barely concealed You may! Without the full recognition of this perverse pseudo-liberating effect of today’s nationalism, of how the obscenely permissive superego supplements the explicit texture of the social symbolic law, we condemn ourselves to the failure of grasping its true dynamics.

In his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel mentions the silent, ceaseless “weaving of the spirit”: the underground work of changing the ideological coordinates, mostly invisible to the public eye, which then suddenly explodes, taking everyone by surprise. This is what was going on in ex-Yugoslavia in the seventies and eighties, so that when things exploded in the late eighties, it was already too late, the old ideological consensus was thoroughly putrid and collapsed in itself. Yugoslavia in the seventies and eighties was like the proverbial cat in the cartoon who continues to walk above the precipice — he only falls down when, finally, he looks down and becomes aware that there is no firm ground beneath his legs. Milošević was the first who forced us all to really look down into the precipice.

It is all too easy to dismiss Karadžić and company as bad poets: other ex-Yugoslav nations (and Serbia itself) had poets and writers recognized as “great” and “authentic” who were also fully engaged in nationalist projects. And what about the Austrian Peter Handke, a classic of contemporary European literature, who demonstratively attended the funeral of Slobodan Milošević? Almost a century ago, referring to the rise of Nazism in Germany, Karl Kraus quipped that Germany, a country of Dichter und Denker (poets and thinkers), had become a country of Richter und Henker (judges and executioners) — 
perhaps such a reversal should not surprise us too much. And to avoid the illusion that the poetic-military complex is a Balkan specialty, one should mention at least Hassan Ngeze, the Karadžić of Rwanda who, in his journal Kangura, was systematically spreading anti-Tutsi hatred and calling for their genocide.

But is this link between poetry and violence an accidental one? How are language and violence connected? In his “Critique of Violence,” Walter Benjamin raises the question: “Is any nonviolent resolution of conflict possible?” His answer is that such a nonviolent resolution of conflict is possible in “relationships among private persons,” in courtesy, sympathy, and trust: “there is a sphere of human agreement that is nonviolent to the extent that it is wholly inaccessible to violence: the proper sphere of ‘understanding,’ language.” This thesis belongs to the mainstream tradition in which the prevalent idea of language and the symbolic order is that of the medium of reconciliation and mediation, of peaceful coexistence, as opposed to a violent medium of 
immediate and raw confrontation. In language, instead of exerting direct violence on each other, we are meant to debate, to exchange words — and such an exchange, even when it is aggressive, presupposes a minimum recognition of the other.

What if, however, humans exceed animals in their capacity for violence precisely because they speak? There are many violent features of language rendered thematic by philosophers and sociologists from Bourdieu to Heidegger. There is, however, a violent aspect of language absent in Heidegger, which is the focus of Lacan’s theory of the symbolic order. Throughout his work, Lacan varies Heidegger’s motif of language as the house of being: language is not man’s creation and instrument, it is man who “dwells” in language: “Psychoanalysis should be the science of language inhabited by the subject.” Lacan’s “paranoiac” twist, his additional Freudian turn of the screw, comes from his characterization of this house as a torture-house: “From the Freudian point of view man is the subject captured and tortured by language.”

The military dictatorship in Argentina from 1976 to 1983 brought about a grammatical peculiarity, a new passive use of active verbs: when thousands of Leftist political activists and intellectuals disappeared and were never seen again, tortured and killed by the military 
who denied any knowledge about their fate, they were referred to as “disappeared,” where the verb was not used in the simple sense that they disappeared, but in an active transitive sense: they “were disappeared” (by the military secret services). In the Stalinist regime, a similar irregular inflection affected the verb “to step down”: when it was publicly announced that a high nomenklatura member stepped down from his post (for health reasons, as a rule), and everyone knew it was really because he lost in the struggle between different cliques within the nomenklatura, people said he “was stepped down.” Again, an act normally attributed to the affected person (he stepped down, he disappeared) is reinterpreted as the result of the nontransparent activity of another agent (secret police disappeared him, the majority in the nomenklatura stepped him down). And should we not read in exactly the same way Lacan’s thesis that a human being doesn’t speak but is spoken? The point is not that it is “spoken about,” the topic of speech of other humans, but that, when (it appears that) it speaks, it “is spoken,” in the same way that the unfortunate Communist functionary “is stepped down.” What this homology indicates is the 
status of language, of the “big Other,” as the subject’s torture-house.

We usually take a subject’s speech, with all its inconsistencies, as an expression of his/her inner turmoils, ambiguous emotions, etc. This holds even for a literary work of art: the task of psychoanalytic 
reading is supposed to be to unearth the inner psychic turmoils that found their coded expression in the work of art. Something is missing in such a classic account: speech does not only register or express a traumatic psychic life; the entry into speech is in itself a traumatic fact. What this means is that we should include into the list of traumas speech tries to cope with the traumatic impact of speech itself. The relationship between psychic turmoil and its expression in speech should thus also be turned around: speech does not simply express/articulate psychic turmoils; at a certain key point, psychic turmoils themselves are a reaction to the trauma of dwelling in the “torture-house of language.”

This is also why, in order to get the truth to speak, it is not enough to suspend the subject’s active intervention and let language itself speak — as Elfriede Jelinek put it with extraordinary clarity: “Language should be tortured to tell the truth.” It should be twisted, 
denaturalized, extended, condensed, cut, and reunited, made to work against itself. Language as the “big Other” is not an agent of wisdom to whose message we should attune ourselves, but a place of cruel indifference and stupidity. The most elementary form of 
torturing one’s language is called poetry.


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