Giorgio Agamben — To Whom Do We Address Our Word?

This is my translation of the new Giorgio Agamben’s intervention, original in Italian is here.

Giorgio Agamben — To Whom The Word Is Addressed?

In every age poets, philosophers and prophets have unreservedly lamented and denounced the vices and shortcomings of their times. Those who thus groaned and accused, however, addressed themselves to their fellow human beings and spoke in the name of something common or at least shareable. It has been said, in this sense, that poets and philosophers have always spoken in the name of an absent people. Absent in the sense of missing, of something that was missed and was therefore somehow still present. Albeit in this negative and purely ideal mode, their words still presupposed an addressee.
Today, perhaps for the first time, poets and philosophers speak — if they speak at all — without having any possible addressee in mind anymore. The philosopher’s traditional estrangement from the world in which he lives has shifted its meaning; it is no longer merely isolation or persecution by hostile or enemy forces. The word must now reckon with an absence of addressee that is not episodic but, so to speak, ongoing. It is without addressee, that is, without destiny. This can also be expressed by saying, as is done in many quarters, that humanity — or at least that part of it which is richer and more powerful — has reached the end of its history and that therefore the very idea of transmitting and handing down something no longer makes sense. However, when Ibn Rushd in 12th-century Andalusia stated that the purpose of thought is not to communicate with others but to unite with the One Intellect, he was taking it for granted that the human species is eternal. We are the first generation in modernity for whom this certainty has been called into question, for whom indeed it seems likely that humankind — at least what we meant by that name — might cease to exist.
If, however-as I am doing at this instant — we continue to write, we cannot help but wonder what a word can be that will in no case be shared and heard, we cannot escape this extreme test of our condition as writers in a condition of absolute absence of any appearance. Of course the poet has always been alone with his language, but this language was by definition shared, something that now does not seem so obvious to us. In any case, it is the very meaning of what we do that is being transformed, has perhaps already integrally transmuted. But this means that we have to rethink afresh our mandate in the word — in a word that no longer has an addressee, that no longer knows to whom it is addressed. The word here becomes similar to a letter that has been rejected at the sender because the addressee is unknown. And we cannot reject it, we must hold it in our hands, because perhaps we ourselves are that unknown recipient.

A few years ago, an English-language magazine had asked me to answer the question “To whom the poem is addressed.” I give here the Italian text, still unpublished.

To whom is poetry addressed?
It is possible to answer this question, only if one understands that the recipient of a poem is not a real person, but a
need.
Need does not coincide with any of the modal categories with which we are familiar: what is the object of a need is neither necessary nor accidental, neither possible nor impossible .
It will be said, rather, that one thing demands another, when, if the first is, the other will also be, without the first logically implying it or obliging it to exist on the plane of facts. It is, quite simply, beyond all necessity and possibility. Like a promise that can only be fulfilled by the one who receives it.

Benjamin wrote that the life of Prince Myshkin demands to remain unforgettable, even when everyone has forgotten about him. Similarly, a poem demands to be read, even if no one reads it.

This can also be expressed by saying that insofar as it demands to be read, the poem must remain unreadable, that there is precisely no reader of the poem.

This is what César Vallejo perhaps had in mind when, to define the ultimate intention and almost the dedication of all his poetry, he found no other words than “por el analfabeto a quien escribo”. Consider the seemingly redundant wording, “It is the the illiterate for whom I write.” “Por” does not mean here so much “for” as “in place of,” as Primo Levi said of testifying for — that is, “in place of” — those who in Auschwitz jargon were called the “Muslims,” that is, those who under no circumstances could have testified. The true recipient of the poem is the one who is unable to read it. But this also means that the book, which is intended for the one who cannot read it — the illiterate — was written with a hand that, in a sense, cannot write, with an illiterate hand. Poetry returns all writing to the unreadable from which it comes and toward which it keeps itself on its journey.”

August 23, 2022
Giorgio Agamben

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Lena Bloch

Lena Bloch

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Background in psychology of learning, literature, philosophy, math.