Robert Philbin

Robert Philbin, writer and political activist from Long Island, New York, was educated at St. Agnes Cathedral High School, studied literature and philosophy at Dickinson College and Humanities at The Pennsylvania State University. He was a platoon leader and U.S. Army Airborne Ranger in Viet Nam. Philbin lectures occasionally on the Humanities, and his published essays, reviews, political commentary and poetry are widely available on line. Among his plays, Finca Vigia was recently produced at The Little Theater; Buffalo Dancing was produced at Open Stage; and his play, Finding Utah was produced at The Park Slope Theater, Brooklyn, and The Black Box in Los Angeles. He is currently managing a U.S. Congressional campaign in Pennsylvania.

Zizek, Poiesis, and Politics

It is always a question of freeing life wherever is it imprisoned, or of tempting it into uncertain combat."
-Gilles Deleuze [1]

1.     Poiesis, how nature progressively generates form.

Can an artist "intend" a strategy of meaning within the process of poiesis, or making art? [2]  And if there were no intention within the poem or artifact, is it therefore meaningless?  How does the very humane act of poetry making influence an individual and by extension a collective potentiality, or future, out of the residue of semi-conscious, fragmented thought, captured impulsively in language? These can be huge horizon-extending questions for sure. 

Let's explore "intent" for a moment: as in "to intend," as in "intention," also signaling: to calculate, plan, to contrive, construct, design, to anticipate and architect some conscious arrival point within the work of art and its field of experience.  Ideally "intent" would mediate an unanticipated point of departure located in the work which empowers the reader or viewer to explore subjective potentialities beyond text or artifact, even beyond the limitations of the reader''s previous concept of self. 

This experience of the "expanding self," the self open to the potentiality of its own humanity (or the existentially humane contemplating the world), is precisely the unique result of poiesis. But the fundamental question remains: "would this have happened without "intent'"?  The opposite of intent -- its negation-- is that which is "without intent," or the more distracting and often awakening power of the "accidental."  As any working artist knows, the accidental, the unanticipated gesture, the unintended move, is the most exciting experience in the process of poiesis. It is precisely in the encounter with the accidental that the artist, regardless the art form, steps outside of the "self," that bundle of good intentions, and enters into the "natural" world, the real world of chaos and anxiety, liberating the artist from intent and meaning, reconnecting the authentic self once again to the history of the earth. 

It is the accidental in art that opens unanticipated possibilities within the work, generating the power to liberate the reader or viewer toward the new "experience" of the self as humane observer and participant in the real world.  A renewed search for the newer self -- the possibility of one's subjective "significance" -- emerges from that point of departure. To be humane is to be open to the process of becoming more humane, raison d'être for confrontation with emergent art and all the subliminal power of the unintended or accidental experience of poiesis.

Has art ever been more badly understood than at present?  It appears at a cross-roads, encompassing everything explored in the last century and a half, and therefore nothing, simultaneously.  Modern, Postmodern esthetics appear redundant, insecure, self-annihilatingly cynical, while the art itself is largely passe, an accumulation of market-driven fetish models of commodities, collectables, and exhausted multi-media techno concepts, which momentarily delight or distract from the obvious mundane schizophrenic state of corporate global ideology. Didactic art flourishes in every medium, advocating self-conformity to form, conformity to critique and interpretation, conformity to consumption, to social convention, lured into the soothing codification of the status quo of whatever the dominant "big other."

The postmodern in art exhausts itself in a global surge toward an end point of stasis. "Intention" in this context is naive, a cynical assertion at best, more often simple calculation, the obvious return on investment, anticipated and automatically fatal to the intimate process of the arrival of the "new self."  As Slavoj Zizek points out in his recent book, Living in the End Times: "There is nothing liberating in getting the message of a poem."  On the contrary the "intent" itself may be detrimental to the authentic self. There is nothing mind-expanding (synapse altering or extending) about simple comprehension, the mere act of "getting it" in an artifact. [3]  The point of departure toward the "idiosyncratic," as Zizek phrases it, requires something beyond discovering conscious "intent" or "the embedded message;" it requires a fundamental shift in cognitive perception, a flash of something "new," a potentiality opened within the self by the self, another path of potentialities toward an evasive extended self. The unique motor of art is precisely this opening of the potentially expanded "humane" in nature through the synaptical alteration in the "mind." The brain, alive, active, engaged, moves synaptically through a field of poetic language responding to sonic, semantic, and metaphoric shifts only to arrive at some state of departure, a "synaptical experience that is unanticipated, liberating and open to new synaptic connections. The mind is "cleared" so to speak.

In this state, the self finds itself open to Zizek's "authentic idiosyncrasies" as violations of the superego. The future self, the one beyond the constructed self, which is a residue of past confrontations with the "big other", is open again to the possibility of the humane. (There is an alternative reaction to any encounter with the artifact of course. The negation of the "opening up of the humane" is the recognition of the failure of art to achieve any subjective significance. The mind remains comfortable, safe, content with the self.) 

So in the sense of the reader entering the process of poetry, becoming an adventurer in poiesis at an unconscious level, discovering an open window into a subjective (but inclusive) future, and progressing idiosyncratically toward that future "self," we have arrived at what we can call a genuine encounter with art.  None of this can be said to be intended, however. Is it even possible to intend such an outcome?  As Deleuze indicated, this process of the realization of the humane in poiesis is a mere extension of how nature  -- that is the pragmatic process of natural selection in evolution -- randomly makes form [4].  We have arrived at a point in history where human beings extend nature through art, science, and philosophy; or we negate it, and live in fear of a status quo: global eco-disaster, massive inhumanity, and continual war proliferation. 

2.     How the emergent self comes into being.
"Writing has nothing to do with meaning. It has to do with landsurveying and cartography, including the mapping of countries yet to come" 
-Gilles Deleuze

The poet's use of language (unconscious or otherwise) creates a pattern of resonance which (unconsciously or otherwise) influences the reader's state of what Zizek calls "critical individuality" and moves it toward self-discovery or authentic self-emergence.  Poiesis is completed through synaptic alteration in the brain when new shifts in synaptic patterns is explored. New synaptic connections become tiny liberations which generate myriad linguistic associations which may extend to other areas of thought bundled in the process of individual linguistic development. By extension this is how nature (the entire evolutionary process encoded in the human brain) creates "new forms" in art, science, and philosophy. 

The result is an undeniable future made more consciously ethical through the emergent humane. This process is essentially biological (science) as explored in neuro-linquistics, cognizant research and so on; but it becomes philosophical, in the Deleuzian sense, with the articulation of ethical "concepts" which appear to be connected with language at the level of DNA. However, the process remains most powerfully and intimately self-liberating as emergent art. Professor Zizek opens an interesting window into this discussion from the psychological survivalist point of view in this interesting aside in Living in the End Times:

"The art of poetry is a constant struggle against its own source: the proper art of poetry . . . consists in the way the poet dams up the free flow of poetic inspiration. This is why there is nothing liberating in getting the message of a poem. The dissolution of "critical individuality" in the disciplined collective leads not to some Dionysian uniformity, but rather clears the slate and opens up the field for authentic idiosyncrasies. More precisely, what such passionate immersion suspends in not primarily the "rational self" but the reign of the survival (self-preserving) instinct on which the functioning of our "normal" rational egos is based." [5]   
There are rough tangents and insights worth pursuing here. Some agreeable, others dated in my view, none the less Zizek proceeds to discuss the theoretical context of "self-preservation" as a first level of encounter with the "big new" of poiesis which menaces the ego as a residue of engagement with "the big other." This sets up a traditional Freudian ideation -- id-ego-superego --which in turn compels a psychoanalytic approach to understanding poiesis; and this move, in my view, infuses "valuation" into concepts which one might otherwise presume neutral or valueless.  

The question of the id as some Dionysian subterranean core, or collective essence of "humanity," for example, is precisely the wrong question to raise in this context because the purjurative implications of "carnival excess" or "original sin" and so forth, naturally arise given the traditionally interpreted Dionysian id.  Why presume a Dionysian psychological core over the Apollonian?  "Dionysian forces" implies a necessary "authority" to contain and restrain them, that is to conform the id within the absolute status quo of the superego. The debris which ensues from this confrontation shapes the ego which has then become infused with the residue (fear) of the authoritative "big other." 

This is precisely an opposing move away from "the humane" in my view. There is no "blank slate," Dionysian or otherwise, as Steven Pinker has in my view argued successfully. [6] There is a nicely bundled survival kit (DNA), honed by evolution and poised for adaptation (positively or negatively) to the individualized "self"-encounter with birth, gender, mother, family, culture and so on.  At base, we are near-perfectly programmed through DNA to adjust to the world (any world) in virtually any environmental state, to arrive at a some sense of personal identity, largely through language, despite the relative status of any "authority." We are not taught language, for example, we absorb it sponge-like despite the relative inability of parents and schools to even understand how language is socially transmitted. No "self" is remotely near-perfect, however, having navigated the soft gauntlet of inhumane modernity in order to survive.
The free flow of "poetic inspiration," or the emergent impulse toward some Deleuzian inner "cartography," precisely liberates Zizek's authentic idiosyncrasies in the poet, which become captured in a struggle with language and communication to the receptive reader who is open to synaptical sonic, semantic, and metaphoric shifts that expand the reader's field of authentic idiosyncrasy now open to the emergent humane of a newer more authentic and organic self. This emergent process in art is a giant banana step forward, well beyond the bad habit of merely "getting the message."

3.    The confrontational politics of emergent art

"The technocrat is the natural friend of the dictator—computers and dictatorship; but the revolutionary lives in the gap which separates technical progress from social totality, and inscribed there his dream of permanent revolution. This dream, therefore, is itself action, reality, and an effective menace to all established order; it renders possible what it dreams about." 
— Gilles Deleuze

Zizek's Freudian inferences in the poetic process only lead us to a sidebar discussion of Freud's knowledge of Darwin and the vast advancements in cognitive science post-Freud.  There is no doubt that the power of poiesis to "liberate" or expand the "ego" (or more accurately, the humane state of the synaptical self) from the status quo of authoritarian fear which is implied in both the superego and its residue of past confrontations, in the Freudian ego.  So the confrontation of poiesis, in my view, is not one between self-preservation (id) and self liberation (ego), but between status quo (superego, the "big other") and the more "normally progressive" self (beneath ego) developing through poetry. In reality, the reader anxiously concerned with self-preservation, like Bernardo Bertolucci's fictional lI Conformista, Marcello, for example, would have little genuine interest in poiesis or art, much preferring spectacle, like sadomasochism and authoritarian architecture, as a refuge for narcissistic self-preservation, self-comfort, and self-adoration. [7] 

The mind set of the "conformist," thoroughly Freudian in the "modern" context, has completely surrendered to the big other and become complicit with all its authoritarian apparatus. The conformist has numbed his sense of "humanity." His sense of the humane has been terrified into fearful subservience to the illusion of security ("self preservation") in the "big other," safe from the perpetual anxiety of the authentically and ethically lived life. This is Bertolucci's (the artist's) response to Deleuze's political paradox: "Why do men fight for their servitude as stubbornly as though it were their salvation?" 

In reality the insipid technocrat, comfortable in the womb-like embrace of the big other, is quite beyond art. So the motor of poiesis in the sense of mutual liberation (artist and recipient of the artifact) through the continual transformation of matter, time, and thought (poetic language) into the  possibility of an emerging "humane" future, no longer functions in Marcello. He sleeps the dream of the other. He is literally "fucked" in the Deleuzian sense. Of course this liberating faculty in the artifact creates inherent menace and anxiety of historic political consequence, which Plato, Freud, Deleuze, Zizek and Bertolucci fully comprehend. 

Art has long been recognized as menacing to any status quo, even when not as overtly confrontational as Picasso's modernist claim that all of "art is an act of war."  Plato warned, "art has no end but its own perfection," even as he reasoned that, "nothing in the affairs of men is worthy of great anxiety."  Emergent art implies the anxious potentiality of the inclusively humane, not the perfection of art; and Marcello's every attempt to reduce his anxiety and fear only accelerate his ethical and psychological decline. Plato's state of philosophical placidity is the suspension of anxiety in the name of the ideological Polis, the ultimate dream of the other, exactly as Marcello accepts the orderly fascist state as sanctuary, no matter whom he murders. In the global corporate ideology of the moment, this tension between emergent art and a "terrifying" status quo is very real, which means art making now requires acts of personal and political courage. 

Zizek reduces the interaction between poet and reader to a psychological base line of high anxiety which takes shape in terms of "self preservation," a defensive "state of mind" wherein the ego experiences reflexive fear when confronting the id in the form of the big new of poiesis. This assertion appears dated but understandable given Zizek's personal experiences in eastern Europe and his assertion of "liberation" within the larger context of his thesis:

 "[T]he global capitalist system is approaching an apocalyptic zero point. It's four riders of the apocalypse are comprised by the ecological crisis, the consequences of the biogenetic revolution, imbalances within the system itself (problems with intellectual property; forthcoming struggles over raw materials, food and water), and the explosive growth of social divisions and exclusions." [8] 

Poetry and meaning in the context of an approaching global "apocalyptic zero point' certainly motivate the artist as the shaper of the future through poiesis to push art relentlessly toward a liberating or emergent reality, and this means probing individual origins of language toward new meanings in metaphor, semantics, and sound. But the artist is subject to the same psychological dynamic of "self-preservation" as the artifact reader. (Perhaps even more sensitively so?)  The poet may quite literally require poiesis as the necessary impulse for her or his psychological survive, and this struggle with language can be in fact an internal Dionysian - Apollonian dialectic necessary for the emergent artist-self.

Zizek' defines the philistine at the level of personal survival.  Why, for example, would a reader like Marcello, anxiously clinging to his inconsequential ego, with its utter fear of the unknown, turn to art?  To be confronted by another, more powerful "big new" with all its evolutionary history as menace to the placidity of his comforting mergence with the "big other"?  Marcello is a technocrat, a cowardly murderer in service of the ideology of the big other, his taste would gravitate to the didactic. Also what are we to make of Zizek's "damming up" of the "free flow" of poetic "inspiration"?  Where does inspirational poiesis flow from? Outside the artist? The deepest residue of material human experience? That creative impulse which exists throughout Deleuzian "nature," that "force that through the green stem drives the flower," emerges most powerfully in the postmodern context of the humane.  

Why would one choose to contain the poetic emergent process -- "dam it up"-- rather than to relentlessly explore it through language toward the creation of an emerging sense of order in the subterranean fissures of the emergent process?  The creative impulse implies an anarchistic gesture against the adjudication of the status quo (the superego, the big other), as well as in opposition to "self-defense" within the field of the "emergent self"  beyond meaning and message. "Philosophy, art and science are not mental objects of an objectified brain," Deleuze informs us, "but the three aspects under which the brain becomes subject."[9]  These modes of human inquiry appear to be merging, and perhaps this is how we come to find some relative equilibrium within the "chaos" of the world.


[1] Gilles Deleuze section quotes.

[2]  Poïesis in my use is etymologically derived from the ancient Greek term ποιέω, which means "to make". This word, the root of modern "poetry", was first a verb, an action that "transforms and continues the world." Neither technical production nor creation in the romantic sense, Poïetic work is said "to reconcile thought with matter and time," and reintegrate humanity (or the humane) within the natural (chaotic) process of the world. I view this as a process through which the individual accelerates "self-emergence" and "reintegration." which reconnects the "self" with the chaos of the real world through art.

[3]  Slavoj Zizek, Living in the End Times, 2010, p. 373.

[4]  Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guarttari, What is Philosophy?, 1994, p. 169.

[5]  Zizek, Ibid, p. 373.

[6] See: Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, 2002.
Pinker argues against tabula rasa models of the social sciences. He concludes that human behavior is substantially shaped by evolutionary psychological adaptations.

[7] Bernardo Bertolucci, Il Conformista.

[8] Zizek, Ibid, p. X.

[9] Deleuze, Guarttari, Ibid, p. 210.