- Negative Theology and Utopian Thought in Contemporary American Poetry: Determined Negations by Jason Lagapa
Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. 148 pp. Cloth, $69.99, isbn 978-3-319-55284-2.
Jason Lagapa’s Negative Theology and Utopian Thought in Contemporary American Poetry tackles a question that has been a difficult one to address for critics attempting to discuss contemporary experimental poetry in the line of “ Language writing.” This is a tradition that claims to be politically engaged (and which deals with topics pertaining to politics, certainly) but which nevertheless does not tend explicitly to exhort its readers to take concrete political actions. How can we thus judge this poetry’s political efficacy when there are no clear or obvious political actions associated with it? Lagapa’s recourse to negative theology and utopian thought tells us that we should pay close attention to matters pertaining to temporality and failure within this line of writing.
Negative theology is a type of religious thought that proposes using “negative statements as a means of attesting not only to the superior being of God but also to the representational deficiencies of language” (2). This strategy of negation, Lagapa argues, “proves to be an optimal approach for conveying the elusive, hard-to-represent subject of utopia.” Negative theology, also termed the apophatic tradition, would claim that negation is necessary because “language is unequal to the task of depicting God’s transcendent being.” This argument entails the idea that “negative rhetorical constructions—including negative phrasing, negative particles, and other forms of grammatical negation—are key to a proper understanding of the utopian literary projects of experimental poets, for such negation instructively indicates the logic of negative theology at work and appropriately addresses the complex challenges of presenting utopia. A strategy of negation, in this manner, provides a means of postulating utopian ideals, particularly as a straightforward and [End Page 434] direct rendering of utopia would undermine the force of utopian thought and fail to express the transformative potential of utopian principles” (2). Negative theology has been taken up by theorists of utopia because, like the transcendent nature of God, utopia likewise has proved to be extraordinarily difficult to describe in concrete, positive details, at least in a way that is not limiting to the efforts of those who wish to keep the potential for future political change open to the widest possible variety of future options. Lagapa’s book effectively uses the writing of Frankfurt school theorist Ernst Bloch, who spent much of his career considering the problem of utopia, and whose writing was extremely influential on negative theologists, as a means of approaching an understanding of utopia, for the theoretical underpinnings of his argument.
As Lagapa indicates, one of the primary challenges for criticism that has tried to take seriously the claims of Language writers toward writing an “experimental, socially committed poetics” has been in then answering the question of how their writing, steeped as it is in “linguistic and poststructuralist theories,” achieves their stated goal of “intervening in social and political problems facing the world” (3). Lagapa does a fine job of summarizing the various stances taken on this topic through the work of a handful of critics who have been skeptical about the political efficacy of Language writing, even while sympathetic toward both the poetry itself and Language writers’ desire for political change. Those poets who claim to work within such a poetics—politically as well as formally active—inevitably raise “the question of poetry’s efficacy to realize a political end,” a question that is not limited to the Language writers (indeed, one could equally ask this question of both Ezra Pound’s and Langston Hughes’s writings from the first half of the twentieth century) but has persistently followed them due to the writers’ own explicitly worded claims concerning the political intentions of their writing.
In fact, it has been “the language poets’ more intricate claims . . . about the utopian capacity of their work” that have, overall, provoked intense scrutiny. What has perhaps incited the most critical discussion has been their claim that their shifts in...