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This article is taken from PN Review 197, Volume 37 Number 3, January - February 2011.

Poetry and Voice: The Urge to Nowhere David Herd

1. Terms

My interest here is in the relation between three terms: politics, place, voice. I want to begin by presenting a philosophically authoritative, poetically seductive construction on that relation. I want then to consider how that seductive construction is altered by the registration of what, reasonably, we can term a non-place. In particular I want to follow the implications of thinking about that non-place not as annexe or as exception but as point of orientation, as the site through which differing interpretations of the relation – politics, place, voice – can emerge. The poetically seductive, philosophically authoritative construction is supplied for us by Heidegger. ‘Let us listen once more,’ he says in ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’,

to what the language says to us. The Old Saxon wuon, the Gothic wunian, the old word bauen, mean to stay in a place. But the Gothic wunian says more distinctly how this remaining is experienced. Wunian means to be at peace, to be brought to peace, to remain in peace.1

The non-place, the site to which the argument will return in interlude, stands on the location of the old Drop Redoubt Fort on Dover’s Western Heights. Secretly it provides one of the best views in Britain, situated, as it is, just outside.

2. Dwelling

To describe Heidegger’s construction of the relation between place and voice as seductive is not at all to dismiss it. Few twentieth-century writers worked harder or more patiently with the language to hear, as he chose to say, what its histories might disclose. Out of those histories emerge subtle entanglements through which words (reassuringly we might think) are tied to place, and which it is the task of the philosopher, but even more so in Heidegger’s view the poet, to voice. Here’s Heidegger, then, listening again in ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’:

Now, what does bauen, to build, mean? The Old High German word for building, buan, means to dwell. This signifies to remain, to stay in a place. The proper meaning of the verb bauen, namely to dwell, has been lost to us. But a covert trace of it has been preserved in the German word Nachbar, neighbour. The Nachbar is the Nachgebur, the Nachgebauer, the near-dweller, he who dwells nearby. The verbs buri, buren, beuren, beuron, all signify dwelling, the place of dwelling.2

Delivered in 1951, as the first of a series of three lectures (the third was entitled ‘Poetically Man Dwells’), ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’ was an argument with modernity. Taking his departure from post-war crises in housing,

Heidegger develops an aesthetic of nearness. He alights on the etymological fact that in both ‘building’ and ‘thinking’ one has a trace of the word ‘dwelling’. The modern English verb ‘to dwell’ preserves this resonance nicely, its history including the Middle English dwellan, to ‘remain in a place’. A ‘dwelling’ then, in both senses, is that which remains in a place, a meaning (as Heidegger sees it) we begin to hear fully only as we dwell on language itself. As we dwell, Heidegger argues, so language voices its original nearness to place.

The draw of the argument lies in the groundedness it proposes, in the guarantees it offers people who think either about buildings or about words. In either case, as Heidegger presents it, the proper objective is to work with an idea of what he calls a ‘locale’. A locale, in his argument, constitutes a meaningful relation with an environment, a relation that both opens and preserves the sense of a connection to a given place. He gives the example of a bridge, which, as he says, ‘brings stream and bank and land into each other’s neighbourhood. The bridge gathers the earth as landscape around the stream.’ ‘What,’ he goes on to ask, ‘is the relation between locale and space? What is the relation between man and space?’ ‘The bridge,’ he answers, in response to his own question, ‘is a locale. As such a thing it allows a space into which earth and sky, divinities and mortals are admitted.’3 It is a most appealing image: the bridge, in responding to its environment as it does, draws that environment meaningfully into view. This, as he sees it, is the function of art: to respond to and (in so doing) to voice or articulate particular environments. It is an aesthetic of place, of neighbourliness, of nearness, or, as he puts it, repeatedly, of locale.

Heidegger’s argument for ‘locale’ is built on an idea of poetry. He draws a thought about language and place that can be located in various versions of Romanticism (British and American not least) into the middle of the twentieth century, proposing through its image of intimacy a counter to the intrusions of modernity. It is an argument that both echoed strong tendencies in early twentieth-century poetry and influenced numerous post-war poets, and which, one way or another, even where its influence can’t be directly discerned, provides the conceptual background against which poetry can be characterised as a function of place. What one hears in Heidegger, in other words, is a deeply alluring validation of poetry. As poetry dwells on the language, it hears the historical inflections that guarantee the speaker’s relation to a given place. Writing against modernity, Heidegger presents an idea of poetry as the grounded, near-dwelling, or neighbourly voice.

He also theorises something else, or at least, offers up a shadow theory, a theory to be gathered from the terms that, though not quite so firmly pressed, none the less hold his construction in place; the term ‘stay’, for instance, or the term ‘remain’, or, as he mentions in his discussion of the bridge as locale, the term ‘admitted’. Without forcing its meaning, we should hear (and trouble about) the implications of this. In his presentation of the relation between language, voice and place, Heidegger makes dwelling fundamental. To dwell is ‘to remain, to stay in a place’, to appreciate, linguistically not least, that ‘spaces receive their essential being from locales’. Which leaves the term ‘admitted’, the question of admission. What if, one might ask, a person doesn’t (or can’t) stay in a particular place? What if, in not staying, they seek leave to remain somewhere else? This is where the politics comes in, the politics of the place-voice construction, of the impulse to construct voice through the entanglements of place. Which brings the argument to the site I pictured earlier, though in crossing we might notice an inflection Heidegger doesn’t appear to pick up on: dwellan, in Old English, meaning ‘to lead astray, delay’.

3. Admission (an interlude)

I want to make what follows as un-melodramatic as possible. The non-place in question, the Dover Immigration Removal Centre (one of many such ‘centres’ in this country), contains – we won’t say ‘is home to’ – some 300 men. It can reasonably be termed a ‘non-place’ because, in the imagination of the nation state, it constitutes a site between the place in which the men have sought asylum – Britain – and the place back to which the state would like to see them removed. To be clear, the people in question have (mostly) committed a crime. Some of them will have worked, so contravening the terms under which they are allowed to remain. Others among them will have tried to leave the place that doesn’t want them to stay. In leaving they will (necessarily) have used false papers, though in staying they are forbidden to work. One way or another such crimes are functions of place.

Always before they arrive at the non-place they will have served the sentence entailed by their activity. That sentence having been served, they are then indefinitely detained. In relation to a more celebrated example of the practice, the philosopher Giorgio Agamben makes a point about the phrase ‘indefinite detention’. ‘Indefinite’, he observes, refers primarily to duration. People at the non-place in Dover have been ‘indefinitely’ detained – in the sense that no end point was ever fixed – for up to five years. It refers us also, however, he suggests, to the legality of the situation, it being unclear on what authority any such detention is maintained.

Intricately related to the matter of the non-place is the issue of voice, or non-voice. I mean intricate in the straightforward sense of ‘very complicated or detailed’, though in the spirit of Heidegger one might refer to the word’s etymology, the Latin intricare meaning ‘entangle’, from in, ‘into’, and tricare, meaning ‘tricks’ or ‘perplexities’. It is a detail, then, of the procedure, that a person who visits the site is not permitted to take a pen and paper into the building. That which the site contains is not to be written down. What makes this more than a detail of the situation, what makes it an intricacy, is the fact that it is echoed elsewhere in the process. So if, for instance, a person from the site is granted a bail hearing – a hearing he may or may not be permitted to attend – the proceedings of that hearing will be officially unrecorded. Likewise, a deportation hearing is a hearing that absolves itself of the necessity of record. This will be a surprise perhaps, that a deportation hearing goes unrecorded, that no note is taken of the lines of inquiry along which such a hearing proceeds. It’s a shame, the questions reveal much; it would be instructive to have them in the public domain. As it is, the deportation hearing, like the bail hearing for the indefinitely detained, is a dwelling (if one might say so) on placelessness that goes uninscribed.

There are many other details that might be mentioned, intricacies of the circumstance in question, but one further correlation in particular is worth observing. In the event that a person indefinitely detained secures bail, that person (forbidden to work) is granted a daily allowance (£5.00) paid not in cash but vouchers. This has practical but also symbolic consequence. The practical consequences are many, stemming from the various things for which the vouchers cannot be exchanged: public transport is probably the most significant; alcohol, in a curious way, probably the most telling. The symbolic consequence, on the other hand, is singular. Indiscernible to (or in) the law, the person is also rendered indiscernible to (or by) the currency. Which brings the argument back to its central terms – politics, place, voice – terms now entangled in Heideggerean language – to stay, to remain, to be admitted. According to contemporary British political constructions, the person without place – let’s call him a refugee for the sake of argument – is rendered, as far as possible, outside expression.

4. ‘The urge to nowhere’

‘The urge to nowhere’ is a phrase out of John Ashbery’s poem ‘Sunrise in Suburbia’:

Flatness of what remains
And modeling of what fled,
Decisions for a proper ramble into known but unimaginable, dense

Fringe expecting night,
A light wilderness of spoken words not
Unkind for all their aimlessness,
A blank chart of each day moving into the premise of difficult visibility
And which is nowhere, the urge to nowhere,

To retract this statement, sharply, within the next few minutes.4

My intention here is not to read Ashbery as providing a migrant poetic, though one could: here, for instance, one might find it in the syntax, the movement into ‘difficult visibility’, the ‘flatness of what remains’, the sharp injunction to ‘retract’. My intention, rather, is simply to seize Ashbery’s phrase, ‘the urge to nowhere’, as a statement of an impulse that seems increasingly necessary. It is an impulse that has received philosophical amplification of late, amplification whose express purpose has been to reconsider the construction of the relation between voice and place.

One attempt to voice the realpolitik of place has been supplied by Agamben. Agamben’s contribution, in State of Exception, is (as it were) to de-annex the site that, legally speaking, amounts to a non-place and which, picking up Ashbery’s term, we might call ‘nowhere’. In a ‘state of exception’, as Agamben presents the political argument, indefinite detention is held (for whatever reason) to have become necessary and so conventional legal processes are suspended while the law itself remains in force. What results is a non-place, a site outside of normal legal procedure, an annexe in which, for instance, nothing is permitted to be written down. Agamben’s move is to reconnect the annexe. The state of exception, he argues patiently, is in fact a disclosure of the norm. The non-place, in other words, is not an isolated instance but the real focus of political authority, the site around which the construction of locality begins. The point, in other words, is that in thinking about politics, place and voice, the exceptional circumstance – the immigration removal centre – should not be set apart, but should be registered as the site that constructions of nearness refuse to admit. The real offence, that is, is placelessness itself. That’s what can’t be admitted. It’s why different laws apply. It’s why handling of the currency is proscribed. It’s why a deportation hearing goes unwritten.

To tear a phrase out of Ashbery again, what’s at issue is ‘difficult visibility’, a full amplification of which condition is supplied by Alain Badiou, in whose extensive writings lies a thoroughgoing effort to register those he terms ‘indiscernible’, to make those not placed the basis of expression. At the heart of his inquiry, then, is a suspicion towards constructions of voice that entangle it with place. Here he is, in St. Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, at his most wary:

The State … is required to define two, perhaps even three, distinct regions of the law, according to which the latter are truly French, integrated or integratable foreigners, or finally foreigners who are declared to be unintegrated or even unintegratable. The law thereby falls under a national model devoid of any real principle … In the hour of generalized circulation and the phantasm of instantaneous cultural communication, laws and regulations forbidding the circulation of persons are being multiplied everywhere.5

Here, like Heidegger, Badiou is listening to the language, though it will be noticed that in Badiou the style is less calculated to make an appeal. Nowhere in Badiou does one encounter a verbal pressing towards origin, nowhere is repetition and return performed as revelation of meaning. What one hears, rather, is construction, the machinery of nation-building. In the language of place, of staying and remaining, Badiou hears the language of admission. According to one’s entitlement to stay, distinct regions of legality are in force, Badiou’s third region of French law perhaps having its equivalent in the unwritten corners of British procedure. What’s at issue, fundamentally, in this, is movement. There is, as Wallace Stevens knew, a great pleasure to be had in merely circulating. It is a pleasure (and a profit) Badiou wants keenly to enable. The question is, what does this mean for the subtle entanglements of language, voice and place?

Badiou, it must be said, doesn’t do subtle entanglements. In fact in certain moods he barely does language. In The Manifesto for Philosophy, for instance (his recapitulation of the argument of his major work, Being and Event) Badiou makes the case for mathematical as opposed to linguistic expression. In its cultural relativism, and its inherent tendency towards categorisation, language struggles to register that with which it isn’t already familiar. Language, that is, unlike mathematics, can’t very well articulate that which it doesn’t already discern. He quotes Wittgenstein to dramatise his point, from the end of the Tractatus: ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’ Whereof, in this case, is placelessness, that condition that renders the law curiously reticent, curiously reluctant to enter into writing.

This is by no means, however, the sum of Badiou’s thinking about language, and in his encounter with St Paul he several times draws out qualities of expression he would like to think of as not-relative, which is to say not-placed. Thus in Paul’s prose:

certain passages, as the poet Henry Bachau point out to us, [combine] a kind of violent abstraction with ruptures in tone designed to put pressure on the reader, to deprive him of all respite, resembling Shakespearean declamations. But ultimately, what matters so far as this prose is concerned is argumentation and delimitation, the forceful extraction of the core of thought … There is in this prose, under the imperative of the event, something solid… It shall have the rude harshness of public action, of naked declaration, without apparel other than its real content.6

What matters here is not the particular example Badiou proposes – not least, though he doesn’t like to think so, because St Paul is hardly culturally neutral – but rather the difficulties he helps us to understand. Those difficulties, to reiterate, are the implications of a construction, a way of dwelling, which binds voice to the entanglements of place. What Badiou would help one understand is the way this relates to placelessness – or as we might rather think of it, movement – in response to which implications Badiou rethinks the terms. What he proposes is neither a politics nor a language of place, but a politics and language of sites and events, and what he proposes instead of ‘voice’ is an idea of shared subjectivity or, as he sometimes terms it, ‘agency’. Not that one has to sign up to his terms, because anyway the terms change, and because implicit in Badiou’s disentanglement is the requirement that people be entitled to make things up as they go along. How he helps, and how Agamben helps, is in amplifying a contemporary difficulty, the scandal of indefinite detention, the annexing and silencing of those detached from place. It is a scandal that bears primarily on the law, on how the law chooses to express itself, on its refusal to document itself, to enter into writing. What Heidegger argued, however, was that questions of place were in some fundamental sense also questions of art, and questions, as he insisted, of poetry in particular. Thought about this way, the abiding linguistic issue is how to articulate the virtue of merely circulating, how to register the value of the urge to nowhere.

  1. Martin Heidegger, ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’, in Basic Writings: Martin Heidegger, ed. David Farrell Krell, tr. Albert Hoftstadter, London, Routledge, pp. 350–1.

  2. Heidegger, pp. 348–9.

  3. Heidegger, pp. 354, 357.

  4. John Ashbery, The Mooring of Starting Out: The First Five Books of Poetry, Manchester, Carcanet, p.50.

  5. Alain Badiou, St Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, tr. Ray Brassier, Stanford, California, Stanford University Press, pp. 9–10.

  6. Badiou, pp. 33, 35, 54.

This article is taken from PN Review 197, Volume 37 Number 3, January - February 2011.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to
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