MLN 121.3 (2006) 757-773
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Kant, Adorno, and the Politics of Poetry
Can anyone, you will ask, but a man who is insensitive to the Muse talk about lyric poetry and society?
I. Memory Lapses
Speaking about Adorno's reflections on modern poetry inevitably obliges us to consider the relation between ethics and literature, and more specifically, the well-known question of writing poetry after Auschwitz. In this spirit, I would like to preface my paper with a radio interview, the rhetoric of which is embedded in Adorno's thinking of this question, but an interview which forgets the complex history of this question and, as a result, inscribes unthinkingly 9/11 into the discursive history of genocide. Like Adorno, who spoke about poetry and society through the airwaves, former poet laureate Robert Pinsky offered his outlook on poetry and politics after 9/11 in an interview on NPR's Weekend Edition of September 8, 2002, where he also read his poem, "9/11."1 But unlike Adorno, who advanced a complex, agonistic, and eventually tragic understanding of poetry, the American poet showed his complicity in the prevailing a-historical rhetoric, and his preference for some rather facile programmatic answers.
Here is the first question posed to Pinsky: "Before we hear your poem, let me ask how much time passed after 9/11 before you were [End Page 757] even able to think about writing a poem?" The almost unconscious piling up of chronological markers (before, after, before) along with the interviewer's vocal stress on the word "even" reinscribe this question within the Adornian tradition of interrogating the possibility of poetry after catastrophe. Auschwitz emerges as the repressed term of this analogy, which has as its ambition to set up 9/11 as another date for the end of poetry. Happily enough, however, there is only so much tragedy and gloom that this bright country of ours can sustain, so Pinsky hastened to respond that of course he was able to write, only it took him "many months." He then proceeded to explain that in writing this poem, he came to realize what "holds us together," the "us" referring exclusively to the American people: "As the politicians say, there's something united about it. I couldn't define it for you. It seems to have to do with ideas, and it seems to have to do with things that I can't explain." What is important here is that this undefinability does not in the least taint Pinsky's certainty of the present existence of a national unity, a unity which his poem is inspired by, but also hopes to strengthen: positive unity as opposed to imagined community; positive unity as opposed to Adorno's "collective undercurrent" ["der kollektive Unterstrom"] which, I will argue, is irreducible to any empirically identifiable group of people. The potentially universal appeal of poetry is thus debased to the caricature of an actualized and exclusive national unity, in a gesture that unwittingly reaffirms another of Adorno's ominous reflections—namely, that "Auschwitz confirmed the philosopheme of pure identity [unity] as death"2 Not surprisingly then, when asked about the effects that "the events of 9/11 have had on poetry, or the world that poetry plays in Americans' lives," Pinsky offered yet another optimistic, self-congratulatory blurb befitting a poet laureate: "It's conceivable that this is a marker, [. . .] a point where something emerges, and I think that for at least ten years or so in my experience, Americans—almost in reaction to our love of mass media and digital information—we also turn toward this art that is on an individual scale quite intimate, quite personal." Unfortunately, though wishing to reconnect poetry to politics, the very setting of the interview does so at the expense of the poetic. At the same time that poetry is called to inspire and enrich politics, it is also enframed and betrayed by politics.
Contrary to Adorno's awareness of this tenuousness of speaking [End...