Book announcement: Marko Pajević, Poetisches Denken und die Frage nach dem Menschen. Grundzüge einer poetologischen Anthropologie, Karl Alber Verlag, Freiburg im Breisgau, 2012

Austrianresearchuk offered me the opportunity to present my new book that was released only two weeks ago and I am very pleased to be able to use this forum to reach some colleagues and other interested minds with these reflections on what I call poetic thinking. It is mainly a book on debates around the anthropological question, that is ‘what is being human?’, in the German tradition of philosophical anthropology, building on theory of language and dialogical thought, but it is a poetic stance and applied to (in the wider sense) Austrian writers. That is why this presentation has its place in this framework.
The starting point for my reflections is the crisis of the western tradition of thought (click here for a related Guardian book review). This crisis is caused by a cluster of problems, created by the thinking in terms of the sign and of a subject-object-relationship to the world. This western conception obviously has been extremely successful, it allowed for a certain apprehension and even domination of the world. Unfortunately, it also makes it impossible for humans to be in tune with themselves. This manifests itself in a general disorientation. We should develop alternative models of thinking, models that allow for a larger conception of reason, and implicitly also of our ideas about what defines being human.
The theories of Peter Sloterdijk and Giorgio Agamben open up interesting perspectives on this issue. Sloterdijk broaches the issue of how to legitimise Humanism nowadays, in drastically modified media conditions. He suggests an ‘ascetic anthropology’, where the human being is presented as being constituted by his systems of exercises, that is asceses. He also evokes the dyadic constitution of the human being, atmospheres and resonances. All these elements are important ideas for human self-reflection and this book pursues them from a poetic perspective, trying to establish more solid foundations for these notions.
Agamben tackles the anthropological question and the issue of contemporary Humanism from a historical and political viewpoint. He opposes his notion of form of life to what he labels as bio-politics (click here for Federico Luisetti’s article on “Carl Schmitt and Giorgio Agamben: From Biopolitics to Political Romaticism”, Journal of Philosophy of Life, Vol. 1, Nr. 1 (March 2011): 49-58). This latter represents for him a conception that deprives humans of their humanity and that considers them merely as strategic elements within wider political decision-making. Form of life, on the other hand, implies that the human being is always considered in the concrete living situation and surroundings. This conception of human life intends to resist the contemporary technological anthropology.
In this context, I also analyse the role of cultural studies (Kulturwissenschaften) which I suggest to rather call research on meaning (Sinnwissenschaften or (Be)Deutungswissenschaften). We have to take more into account the spiritual dimension and the historicity of human life; our definition of ourselves should not be limited to purely biological or universalistic aspects. Meaning is always more than the factual and is the result of cultural and linguistic processes. In order to understand human life, it is consequently indispensable to develop theories that take into account such processes.
This is the backdrop against which my poetic work pursues the anthropological question. After a discussion of contemporary positions in philosophical and historical anthropology, I analyse the role of arts and literature in the life sciences, but using this term in a perspective close to Ottmar Ette, which means contrary to the today dominant idea of what life sciences are. My argumentation is based on Günter Seubold’s criticism of the hominal technologies and especially on the notions of atmosphere and the thinking of the body that we are (Leibdenken), as developed by Gernot Böhme. These reflections support the necessity to integrate the concept of immanent transcendence (Ernst Tugendhat) into our vision of the world.
Böhme calls what was suppressed in the development of Enlightenment the other of reason, this serves as the basis for the following chapter that deals with the tradition of Sprachdenken (thinking of language) and its inherent poetics, and opposes this against the thinking of the sign (click here for a definition of the sign in a semiotic context). First of all, I discuss the European history of the thinking of language, as Jürgen Trabant elaborated it in his historical anthropology of language, based on the theories of Wilhelm von Humboldt. The European tradition, philosophical as well as religious, is hostile to language. It is mostly with Leibniz, then with Hamann, Herder and Humboldt, that another tradition is formed: the tradition of Sprachdenken which considers that it is precisely the infinite and marvellous variety of language operations (Leibniz) that forms the basis and the richness of human thought and that allows for humans to develop so greatly thought and knowledge.
With reference to Henri Meschonnic’s poetics of the continuum I elaborate the dimension of language that Humboldt called rednerisches Sprechen (spoken speech) and which is opposed to the thinking of the sign. Thinking based on the conception of the sign does not allow for thinking the literary phenomenon in all its dimensions; it offers a reduced vision of human life. Meschonnic’s theory of rhythm tries to overcome this limited thinking; in a paradoxical movement it tries to conceptualise that which goes beyond conceptualised thought in order to approach the intelligibility of presence.
This thinking of language, together with dialogical thinking, gives a more solid foundation to poetic thinking. After a short historical introduction into dialogical thought and subchapters on the dialogical approaches to language theory in Ferdinand Ebner and Franz Rosenzweig, I focus my discussion on the dialogical principle developed by Martin Buber. Next to the I-it-relationship, which characterises our everyday-life, Buber talks about the I-you-relationship. Contrary to the I-it, where things are considered as objects, the I of the I-you-relationship enters a sphere in-between (Zwischen) with the other where no subject-object divide exists anymore. I also analyse the problematic relationship between philosophy and dialogical thought, as well as between Emmanuel Levinas and Buber.
These two approaches – thinking of language and dialogical thinking – with their diverse converging points, form the basis of my notion of poetic thinking. I define poetic thinking as the transforming power in the interaction of form of life and form of language, that acts when a subject constitutes itself in a creative and dialogical way, transforming the ways we feel and think, in short: the way we perceive the world. Living in the age of media theory, we know that there is no direct access to the world: it is always mediated. So we have to develop ideas to understand how this works, how we constitute meaning and reality; that is what poetics in my understanding does. This is greatly political, especially if we refuse to think of politics as it is suggested by our times. As Hannah Arendt emphasised: we live in a complete reversal of the ideas of the private and the political compared to the Greek polis when economy was a strictly private affair as the word already indicates (oikos=house), whereas the political sphere was made up of debate and philosophy and arts. Poetic thinking strives to develop awareness of the essential role of poetics in the constitution of our reality, that is: of its political power.
I apply this idea of poetic thinking to some text and film examples to demonstrate some of its different forms and aspects. First a poem by Paul Celan illustrates the transformative character of the poetic. Then a short prose text by Peter Handke helps to clarify his poetics of perception: if you approach things attentively, they show their gratitude by unveiling themselves (unfortunately I cannot translate the beautiful German formulation into English: das Sich-erkenntlich-Zeigen der Dinge). Poetic thinking implies a dialogical attitude towards the world. The linguistic aspect and the inter-relational forces between language and world are underlined in Michael Donhauser’s poetics of the nomination. Finally, Werner Herzog’s particular way of filming demonstrates the claim of a poetics of ek-stasis, also being part of poetic thinking.
If we take into account this conscience of language and dialogical principle, we can rethink our relation to presence, a term rendered impossible by our contemporary episteme. Poetic thinking refers us to these blind angles of our episteme, thus developing a poetological anthropology. It is not seizable by the thinking of the sign, but it demonstrates the limits of the so-called life sciences and underlines the necessity and the urgency to include the imaginative and the creative in our definition of human life.


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  1. leifhendrik

    Thanks for giving me so much to think about. I especially appreciate all the links you’ve embedded in your article for further exploration. ‘Das Sich-erkenntlich-Zeigen der Dinge’ is indeed a fine phrase. I’m sure I too will be busy trying to come up with a way of putting it into English.

    • markopajevic

      Many thanks for your kind comment. If you find a good translation for Handke’s formulation, please let me know. For most of the links we have to thank Heide!

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