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  • Apocalypse and Poethical Daring in Etel Adnan’s There:In the Light and the Darkness of the Self and of the Other
  • Teresa Villa-Ignacio (bio)

Apocalypse as Ethical Opportunity

In the years leading up to and following the Y2K threat, theorists observed that rhetorics of apocalypse hardly ever serve as ends in themselves but rather as complex means toward a variety of ends: to forward political goals, to shock, to critique the belief in progress (often through a demonstration of the banality of apocalypse or the perpetuity of global crisis), and/or to motivate individuals toward positive social change.1 The 1990s saw an [End Page 304] increase in apocalyptic discourse not only because of the impending turn of the millennium, but due to a proliferation of global political and environmental crises, which Krishan Kumar has described as a “new ‘world disorder’” involving the “demons” of Eastern Europe (203), nuclear proliferation, the breakup of the Balkans, Bosnia, and “the spectre of ecological devastation” (204). Kumar also notes that the millennial eschatology of the year 1000 (which was actually invented in the 1400s) was rekindled in light of the upcoming year 2000 to serve a motivational purpose—that is, as a narrative of “disaster as cleansing” that would lead to new world-level utopian possibilities (203–5).

Etel Adnan’s 1997 book-length poem There: In the Light and the Darkness of the Self and of the Other neither catapults the reader into an apocalyptic millennial future nor promises her a sparkling postapocalyptic utopia. Rather, it insistently instantiates a postapocalyptic future in the text’s apocalyptic present. Responding to the rhetoric of global apocalypse permeating the political and environmental discourses of the 1990s, There envisions and discursively practices ethical encounter as the making-present of a virtual, postapocalyptic, planetarilyconscious community of the future. Such ethical encounter, as in Emmanuel Levinas’s ethical philosophy, [End Page 305] rejects the Western metaphysical tradition of privileging the self over the other; instead, it looks to the self’s responsibility toward the other to give the self its bearings (197). The poem’s practice of ethical encounter takes the form of what Jacques Derrida, in The Politics of Friendship, calls “teleiopoesis,” a discursive instantiation of the future in the present.2 Teleiopoesis appears in There as poethical daring: an imperative that intertwines poetic and ethical discourses in a striving to attend to all singularities in their planetary context.3 Every poethical utterance dares, paradoxically, to acknowledge the other through language while respecting the other’s singularity and irreducibility in language. Furthermore, the poem draws on the collective condition of language to dare community into existence. Frequently daring in an imperative mood, it instantiates a community of at least two, the darer and the dared. Its daring imperative also dares its readers to practice a saying-together, a saying-together that has the potential to bring together the community it envisions.

Drawing on the elaboration of teleiopoesis as poethical daring, I first examine how There’s formal elements—hyperdeixis, prose poetry, and parataxis—testify to apocalyptic experience, problematize [End Page 306] Western imperial hegemonies, and offer postapocalyptic, poethical alternatives in their stead. I then consider There as a response to the rhetoric of the “Arab apocalypse” in Adnan’s oeuvre and in post–1948 Arab literature more generally. Finally, meditating on the poem’s frequent recourse to the relationship between the you and the I, that is, any unique relationship between two singular beings which may influence and be influenced by self-other relations between collectivities, the concluding section of the essay draws together Adnan’s critiques of West/rest binarism and illuminates the text’s status as a harbinger of post–September 11 poetic critiques of unethical portrayals of Arabs in the Western media.

As a teleiopoetic poem, There intends—activating intention through direct address—a planetary community that thinks its social, political, and cultural experiences post-Eurocentrically and seeks to develop modes of thinking that could dismantle the international political structures shaped by imperialist history in order to allow new structures to take their place. This poethical language, arising from memories of oppression and conflict, dares to remember, bears witness to, and confronts...


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pp. 304-335
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