Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Syrinx / Larynx: A Full-Throated Ease

Apologies, some odd layout issues here which I need to fix, blogging has changed somehow over the last year or so so need to understand what is wrong here.

Syrinx / Larynx: A Full-Throated Ease

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,

Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.[i]

Caliban, with these now oft-voiced and melodious phrases, presents his case to be taken as one of the most influential theorists of poetry within our English tradition. Commenting on the noises of the island, the song of the island being the speciality of English literature until the last century, Caliban seems to offer a critique of natural noise-making as a form of poetry. These sounds are typical of the Greek sense of [aisthesis], sensory pleasure, origin of the modern and contested discipline of aesthetics.[ii] Their ability to offer sensory delight is coupled with an assurance that, as poiesis, they can do no harm. They are of no significance because they, like another of Shakespeare’s other famous noisings-off ‘the sound and the fury,’ ‘signify nothing.’ Then again, like all pleasures, they may not be so harmless on sober reflection. As Caliban goes on to declaim, in lines leaden with a tangible pathos:

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices

That, if I then had waked after long sleep,

Will make me sleep again and then, in dreaming,

The clouds methought would open, and show riches

Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked,

I cried to dream again.[iii]

As the clouds of aisthesis momentarily part, knowledge rains down upon us and it becomes clearer why Plato wanted to exclude the poets from his ideal and islanded republic.[iv] These noises are not the skittering of unseen feet in the forest that Agamben eloquently speaks of in the “Epilogue” of Language and Death.[v] Rather, they are more akin to the sound pollution emanating from the activities of artificial creation, either those of Prospero the poet-king, or Caliban’s god Setebos. These instruments, and the word here has a pejorative Heideggerian potential in referring to an instrumental creation that is pure praxis devoid of poiesis, have somnambulistic properties that lead to false mimesis in the form of dreams whose reality can never be realised. They cast a spell on Caliban of such power that he would give up the world in favour of an artificial paradise constructed entirely of beautiful twangling and humming. Although one may be afeard of the noises of wild animals on a strange isle, of bears that may endlessly promulgate as the island enters many decades of winter, the worst that can happen is that one will exit pursued by a bear and never return to centre stage.[vi] Surely the fate of the mesmerised monster is far worse than that. Trapped within a republic wherein he is a slave, tormented by the clamorous dejecta of Prospero’s poiesis, he is forced relentlessly to both submit to the noises’ somniferous enervations, and submit to the inevitability that they will always bestir him into wakefulness. A kind of aural myth of Sisyphus unfolds here wherein Caliban, our hero, is continually lulled to and jarred from dormancy by the boisterous power of poetry.

I call this power the syrinx naming both a Greek term for the pipes of pan but also, subsequently, a delightful zoological designation for the vocal organ of birds. It also bears the burden of the meaning of a channel, expressly that cut in the stem to form the pipe which later comes to find morphological figuration in the channel that lies between the trachea and bronchi in the bird’s throat. Finally, is has been used as a term in archaeology for a narrow gallery cut in rock, for example in Egyptian tombs. The value of the terminology syrinx is, therefore, apparent as the articulating power of the voice that leads in our culture to poetry, bird song and death. Syrinx is also one possible sound for the narrow passage between waking and sleeping which the dream is, a waking dream, a day dream, source of the very danger of intoxicating bad mimesis that Plato warns an all too credulous Glaucon against. Perhaps deafened by the clamour of bird song or the smoke and mirrors show from the many theatres that were thriving before the censors’ interdiction, the poets of Prospero’s island have, on the whole, chosen not to listen to the voice of philosophy in this regard.

On December 31st, 1900, the once feted novelist Thomas Hardy gazed out at a frigid and inhospitable landscape, England, the island which had raised and rejected him, leaving the novelist alone with the dubious consolations of poetry and, it is said, the guilty memories of his neglected wife. The resulting channel that he cuts in language, ‘The Darkling Thrush,’ is now one of the most precious ways within the canon. It, like Caliban’s song, has taken on a greater meaning that the poet could ever have imagined. Inevitably, observations such as ‘tangled bine-stems scored the sky / Like strings of broken lyres,’ and descriptions of the sharp features of the frost fixed land as ‘The century’s corpse outleant,’ seem to presage the devastation that will be wrought to the land of Europe by modernisation, techne and war. While the statements of personal impotency such as, ‘The ancient pulse of germ and birth / Was shrunken hard and dry, / And every spirit upon earth / Seemed fervourless as I,’ make this a prototype surely for Eliot’s classic statements on alienation and anomie in ‘Prufrock’ and ‘The Wasteland.’

When the syrinx sounds its clarion call, ‘At once a voice arose among / The bleak twigs overhead / In a full-hearted evensong / Of joy illimited,’ one assumes poetry once more, as it has been doing since Wordsworth and Coleridge began writing poems such as these well over a hundred years before, will save the day. This is certainly what the poem’s conclusion seems to concede:

However, like most Romantic lyrics or so it has been proposed by critics, the poem’s predictable but no less affecting syllogistic argument is disingenuous and ultimately heartless, qualities it shares with its repentant yet forever culpable maker.  I would contradict the message warbling here that art will provide us with our salvation on three counts, emboldened by what Caliban told me as I was set to sail about art and the unbearable placeless place of the syrinx, the channel art cuts between the waking world and the sleep of the self.  The first is that if the poet was able to predict the effects of modernity on faith and nature, and the existential dread that would ensue with the desubjectivisation of modern life, he was just as capable of realising that the broken strings of poetry would remain permanently limp and mute.  It is not so much the epochal verity that faith was under threat and only poetry could save us that Hardy carves out in the poem, but that prosody was under threat by the experimentations in free verse by the French of which he must have been aware, and only a song emanating from the syrinx of the disciplined prosodic thrush can save the poet.  Imagine a novelist who can no longer be a novelist seeking refuge in a poetry that can no longer be the kind of poetry he would have it be.  This is a truly lamentable fabricator.
               The second is an issue that takes us back to a peninsular Agamben, via our diversion through the narrow channels of English poetic genius, and that is the relation of the voice to the beast.  The thrush does not sing, as Hardy suggests, because he knows something.  The animal voice may by syrinxical in terms of morphology but its power issues from the fact that there is, as we have learned, no channel for the voice of the animal as animals know nothing of the separation of self and voice.  The voice of the bird is not nor can it ever be that of poetry.  Instead it is that of the pure coincidence between sound and sense which is called onomatopoeia.  It performs coincidence not hesitation, crossing the two streams or tonoi of poiesis in a manner that poetry as such cannot allow.  The thrush sings for the very reason Hardy cannot admit to, namely that it knows nothing of hope.  Hope suggests an ontological incompletion and potential resolution that the animal, totally open to its being possessed by its world as Heidegger describes,[i] simply has nothing to say about it being devoid of memory or desire.  Hope is not a thing with feathers.  Yet again, the poets, with great facility, lie and Plato feels the warm seep of vindication flow through whichever ground he was laid, centuries before, in a shallow but hallowed burial syrinx.
               The third is a contradiction in the consideration as to where the syrinx is located confirming a life-long suspicion of mine that Hardy was no ornithologist.  Like all Romantic poets Hardy has no interest in nature from the perspective of objective and scientific apprehension, as indicated by the confusion in the work as regards from whence the voice of the bird emanates.  While the term syrinx was in usage throughout the 19th century Hardy prefers to suggest that first the bird’s voice issues from its heart, and then later that it resides in the bird’s soul when he metonymically states of the speckled proto-bard that he: ‘Had chosen thus to fling his soul / Upon the growing gloom.’  
               While one might facetiously comment that one should not go to the poets for an accurate epistemology pertaining to the voice one could counter this by saying that we encounter no such problems in the work of that first great English modernist poet, John Keats.  Keats, in his ‘Ode on a Nightingale’ continues the aesthetic tradition of Caliban by associating the sounds of nature with a liminal space, what I am regularly referring to here as a channel, between waking and dreaming states.  Not only does the poem begin with the poet’s consciousness under doubt, ‘My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness / Pains my sense,’ but ends with a now almost folkloresque statement of doubt over the subject’s ability to differentiate actual experience of the world from, inner subjective experience: ‘Was it a vision, or a waking dream? / Fled is that music:--do I wake or sleep?’  This statement of uncertainty about experience coupled with Keats’ famous statement on poetic desubjectification would, according to Agamben, justify my claims that Keats is the first English modernist and not a Romantic poet at all.  This presents us with a messianic overlap of poetic precursiveness and belatedness with Keats able to prefigure the coming of the epochal event of the modern and Hardy nostalgically confirming its full presence in an aesthetic wistfulness towards the loss of what was never ours to posses: a state of affective grace within nature.  Unlike Hardy’s thrush, surely chipped from the same eternal rock as Keats’ bird, the nightingale here sings directly from the syrinx as biologically we know it should: ‘Singest of summer in full-throated ease.’  This strikes me as a statement of pure open-ness on the part of the nightingale in that it sings in a state of absolute plenitude wherein its voice coincides entirely with its presence.  At least that is how I would interpret full-throated.  That said, at the same time the bird sings of its absolute alterity, piping out its inhuman state as an animal in full possession of its voice but with no access to human language.  The bird speaks its being in such a way that the very concept of being as somehow representable, namely differential from say lived existence or the world in which the being is to be encountered as already cast, (cast as thrown, fixed and required to play its part) is impossible.  The bird sings in the space of a full-throated ease, meaning the bird’s voice and being coincide absolutely whose indivisibility wings the bird into a space of total unrepresentability.  This space is, as I have been insisting, the space of ease.
               While the poet seeks ease from suffering he wishes famously first to lose himself in narcotics and then the more sinister palliative of the ‘viewless wings of poesy,’ he is also only too aware of the dangers of ease: 
Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call'd him soft names in many a mus├Ęd rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Death for the human being provides a sense of ease from life which, as Keats rightly states, is totally alien to the animal: ‘Thou was not born for death, immortal bird!’  The bird will cease to exist or perhaps most accurately will be robbed of animation but he does not possess being-towards-death as we know and he is unaware.  Due to this ontological dispossession the bird therefore remains permanently ‘abroad’ on the other side of midnight, over there, easterly, to the right of the poem, in the space Agamben calls ease.  While Keats considers the consonance of the end of the poem and his own end and tries in vain, as many poets have, not to end the poem but to cease upon the midnight or hang on the very tip (corn) of the right hand syllable, proximate to the space of ease, proximate to proximity as such; the bird need not negotiate finitude.  A nightingale is not thrown into being, nor will she exit being.  She exists, instead, simultaneously within her being and alien to it, withdrawn from its presence in the easeful space of ontological proximity.  Appropriating Agamben’s own philological categories, the bird sings in stanzas, the poet always in lines, and this is Keats,’ and by extension our own, modern self-alienating tragedy.  
               If nothing else this differentiation answers the question pertaining to the metonym of soul and song raised by Hardy in the sense that Lazarus was raised, that is, from the easeful if narrow space of death.  The bird’s song is indeed its soul but in contrast to Hardy who must surely have been reworking this ode for a new age, such a soul remains in Keats alien to a Christian eschatology of hope and salvation.  As the soul of the bird cannot be known its primary quality is that of concealedness resulting in our having to concede that bird-soul it is a feature of ontology not epistemology, of being not of knowledge.  As such, bird-soul domiciles permanently in the process of pouring into the space of the abroad both over there across the channel of the end of the line, and also about, totally within the external environment of its absolute being.  Thus this can truly be said to be the soul of animals contained exactly within the qualities of the syrinx as Keats so masterfully portrays them in his poem of praise.  This voice is both fully the bird and yet located exterior to the bird in the space of ease or unrepresentable singularity.  The voice knows no differentiation, therefore the bird cannot be said to be its voice for there is no not-being-the-voice available to it.  The bird and the voice are one but not unified in that they must be accepted as being also totally singular and alien to each other.  The only similar state available for man, of course, as Heidegger explains, is our relationship to death and Keats is right in identifying death as the human space of ease: a permanent yet totally alien access to a proximate space of singularity.  As Hegel states, only in death can the human being find its true voice within the metaphysical tradition of presence that we have inherited.  Only in death can the human be said to be both totally itself in the fulfilment of its being-towards-death, and thus totally unrepresentable.[ii]  In this way one could propose a coincidence here of the material origin of poetry, the representation of death, and the anatomical facts of bird song: the syrinx.  In addition one is able to see directly how the Keatsian negative capability, upon which modernity, modern aesthetics and post-metaphysical philosophy is grounded, ‘that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,’[iii] coincides with the conception of ease.  Ease is that space between the subjective and objective worlds wherein desubjectification is performed precisely at the moment of a radical disobjectification.[iv]  That this space is to be termed, above all else, poetry relies on Agamben’s own radical readings of animal voice in his work on onomatopoeic openness.

[i] For Agamben’s analysis of this see O 52-6.

[ii] For Agamben’s analysis of this see LD 41-53.

[iii] Keats letter Sunday [21 Dec. 1817]

[iv] For Badiou’s definition of poetic disobjectification see MP 76-7.


Recent research reveals that the voice of humans and the song of birds are produced in very similar ways. That said the location of our voice remains permanently at one remove from that of the nightingale due to the morphological bifurcation of the syrinx. For both animals, human and bird, the larynx is placed at the top of the throat and can manipulate the passing of air through its membranes to produce an astonishing array of sounds. However, unlike the human animal, the throat of birds has a second organ of speech located at the base of the throat precisely where the trachea splits in two above the bird’s two lungs. This syrinx as it is called allows the bird, therefore, to produce two effects that remain rather provocative for the study of poetry. The first is that they can produce two differing voices at the same time. They can, in other words, combine strophe and anti-strophe within one single song. The second is that in alternating lungs a bird can breathe through one part of the bifurcated syrinx while still singing through the other, seeming, therefore, to sing endlessly without ever having to take a breath. This is an illusion as is almost everything to do with our cognitive experience of the voice. In fact, the nightingale, the thrush, the crow are each taking many half-breaths, fitting them into the rhythm of the song creating a seamless effect. The bird does not appear to breath because it is always breathing, in a useful anatomical analogue to the way that the bird’s song cannot be separated from its being in that it is permanently separate from the very conception of being.

What would bird poetry resemble; whose verses would it most call to mind?

According to Agamben’s preconditions for poetry the question is a silly one as there can be no such thing as bird poetry regardless of the opinion of poets such as Shakespeare, Shelley, Keats, Hardy and so on. The first preventative privation appended to bird poetry is that it combines the two streams of language as Agamben conceives of them, in his terminology semantic and semiotic or more generally the occurrence of the sound and that which follows on from sound, for example meaning. There is, although I am not certain there never was nor ever can be, no signification in bird song because it does not allow for the barrier between signifier and signified central to Agamben’s theory of linguistic ontology. This can be reconstituted by saying there is no delay in the voice of the bird meaning one is permanently held within the presence of its continual coming into being without the possibility of advent or finitude to allow one distance enough to be able to allow said being to be revealed. Bird poetry speaks, most certainly according to Agamben, but it does not represent. It contains within its trills and arpeggios no difference between sound and sense and subsequently there can be no tensile presence between the two necessary for poetry to come to its being. A second privation stems from the fact that bird song never ends and therefore, logically, there is no end of the (bird) poem. Bird poetry cannot result in a bird poem nor can it submit to the planar inter-dimensionality of stanzas. Such ‘poetry’ knows nothing of silence nor of commencement. It cannot submit to finitude such as one observes at the end of the work of art, a necessary precondition for the very presence of the work of poiesis as a work, and its most insurmountable aporia.

One final point on the infinitude of bird song is that it is not subject to the law of spacing. The idea of half-breaths, surely only metaphorical for who determines the duration of a breath or even is able to truly explain its articulation into a plurality called breathing, is, however, provocative. The syrinx disallows any need for spacing as a material marking of the semiotic as both present and different. Bird song may be pure noise but it does not submit to the pure semiotic as it lacks the qualities of singularity and difference essential to the definition of the semiotic. The song of a bird simply keeps on going, one single stream, knowing no end point and consisting not of notes, or phrases, but pure noise as such. This may seem a fanciful discourse into the constructed fiction of an ornithopoiesis, a sub-genre of the discipline of logopoiesis, but when one turns to Agamben’s work on the word and the voice one discovers that the problematic of bird poetry or a discourse on the syrinx as the precondition for full-throated ease, is central to Agamben’s conception of the human voice, infancy, dictation, glossolalia and the term which I want to investigate here: onomatopoeia.


As we have seen there is in language, potentially, two streams, that of the semantic and that of the semiotic. While these two streams can never meet, within each stream there are zones of distinction or spectra of effects. At the furthest limit of the semantic, for example, is pure meaning as such known to all and having no need of expression. Like god, the furthest limits of the semiotic also do not exist, according to Derrida, for this would indicate a mark that is incapable of (re)iteration.[xi] Yet it is to these furthest semiotic limits that Agamben’s essay ‘Pascoli and the Thought of the Voice’ takes us in its investigation of Pascoli’s use of what Contini calls dead language. As we saw with Dante, the arrival of the linguistic concept of the dead language was an essential one for poetry providing a crucial distinction between grammar and the vernacular which, in general, language has since tried to suppress. A dead language has no parole or actual usage yet it is not meaningless for then the terms dead and language would be irrelevant indications. This isle is full of strange noises. As I write a December wind howls down from the hills above my house; somewhere, for weeks, as I have been writing this, something loose has been banging sonorously in the distance against some wall; my fingers click each time I write a thing—yet none of these are, properly speaking, dead language. Dead presupposes a once living thing and language expresses the potential for signification, therefore while to each of us the dead languages of Pascoli’s poetry are mere noise, not all noise ought to be a dead language.

Agamben begins the essay with Pascoli conceding his recourse to a dead language: ‘the language of poets is always a dead language…a curious thing—a dead language used to give greater life to thought.’ (EP 62). Taking up this challenge, ‘thought lives off the death of words’ (EP 63), Agamben then proceeds to trace the conception of a dead language from St. Augustine, through the 11th century logician Gaunilo, to St. Paul and the Christian tradition of the gloss. Augustine considers how a word no longer in usage when heard by a person may be the subject of a desire to know typical of the love of knowing (philosophy). The person wants to know what the word means but before that she must vouchsafe that it is a word. No love can be aroused due to pure sound alone, he argues, in that one cannot love what one cannot know, and yet one also does not love what one already knows. This is the marvelous economy of loving.

This condition of truth, that it must be knowable but not yet known, returns in Agamben’s work elsewhere when he considers the word ‘explain’ in Idea of Prose. In ‘The Idea of the Enigma,’ truth occurs as the result of the collapse of representation.

This does not mean that the truth is something unrepresentable…rather truth begins only an instant after the point at which we acknowledge the truth or falsity of a representation…This is why it is important that representation stops an instant before the truth: this is why the only true representation is that which also represents the gap that separates it from the truth (IP 107).

The logic here is hard to fault. Truth comes in only after representation for if your representation is correct then there is no need for it anymore as truth as been attained (naming). If it is incorrect then truth can only be approached once that false representation has been silenced in preparation for the truth (discourse). Either way, representation’s failure to be true is not in fact proof that truth can never be attained in full, but necessary for truth as such to be attained. Without the gap between representation and truth there would be no truth. The love of knowledge, philosophy, therefore can only come into being by virtue of the basic semiotic precondition that the sign you perceive is a sign and is singular. To have the desire to pursue one’s innate love of knowing, Augustine argues, one must both know and not know, know that the noise can transport meaning, but not yet know what that meaning in transport is. Agamben confirms this in his gloss: ‘the experience of the dead word appears as the experience of a word uttered (a vox) insofar as it is no longer mere sound…but not yet a signification—insofar as it is the experience, that is, of a sign as pure meaning and intention to signify before and beyond the arrival of every particular signification’ (EP63). Insofar as it is infantile and, ultimately logopoietic.

This ‘intention to signify without signification’ throbs at the heart of the totality of Agamben’s loving philosophical system as he traces it through the ontological re-configuration of the point in Gaunilo’s conception of an experience of thought that does not signify but dwells in the ‘voice alone.’ More significantly for our argument here, however, is Paul’s famous comment in Corinthians to ‘he that speaketh in an unknown tongue’ or lalon glosse, which not merely gave rise to the significance of the gloss but also a full understanding of that key word for poetics, glossolalia. Taken usually to be merely inarticulate sound, Agamben rightly, through Paul, establishes glossolalia rather as the presence within the subject of speech whose meaning is not yet known or the ‘place between the withdrawal of mere sound and the arrival of signification’ (EP 66). What is significant here is that glossolalia is an experience of what has come to be called the dictation of poetry which emanates from the troubadour tradition and often illumines Agamben’s comments on the relationship between poetry, language, philosophy and life as such. Paul says of lalon glosse that it is as if one is hearing the barbarian speaking within one. It is worth pausing here to recall that the term barbarian, so significant for poetry since Adorno, stems from the Greeks’ mild xenophobia as regards the speech of other cultures which sounded to them like a meaningless sound. In other words the lalon glosse of bar-bar is the onomatopoeic origin of all our conceptions of culture. More interesting for us here is the spatial transposition of barbarism intrinsic to Paul’s thinking which explains his profound influence on contemporary thought notably Agamben and Badiou.[xii] Perhaps Agamben puts it best: ‘To-speak-in-gloss is thus to experience in oneself barbarian speech, speech that one does not know; it is to experience an ‘infantile’ speech (‘Brethren, be not children in understanding’) in which understanding is ‘unfruitful’’ (EP 66). While Agamben does not pause here or anywhere in his analysis of language in its infancy to consider the alterity of language as such this passage hints at just such a potentiality. If we were to simply trace the topography of glossolalia one would soon enough come to consider the narrative of alterity, interiority, desubjectification and disobjectification upon which we are building the edifice of a logopoietic thinking. Glossolalia commences from the lalon glosse of the unknown tongue. This tongue comes to the subject from the space over there, a locale we would not be incorrect in terming the space of ease. The tongue however speaks within the mouth of the subject, appropriates the larynx of man, and makes him speak in language but not in any language in particular. The barbarian therefore, the excluded other in the zone of indistinction, is invited into the mouth of the subject to as to speak in an unknowable language which, however, allows the subject to know language, being and thought as such as in the first instance previous to knowing. Through this complex overlaying or stratifying of potential locales, therefore, the concept of otherness comes to be known as being within the subject, alienating the subject from its own mother tongue, allowing it to see language in its infancy as a thing in the world (semiotic) but not yet an object.

Through his readings of Pascoli that proceed from this observation on dead language as pure intention to signify Agamben is able to neatly differentiate through Pascoli’s use of glossolalia, proper names and onomatopoeia two ways in which language can be said to be dead and thus potentially a road to the vision of a language as such. The first of these, glossolalia, and its sister term xenoglossia, is the death of language, while onomatopoeia or the poetry of the birds, (Pascoli is infamous for his bird-voiced ornithopoiesis), is termed the death of the voice. Staying with glossolalia Agamben states: ‘Glossolalia and xenoglossia are the ciphers of the death of language: they represent language’s departure from its semantic dimension and its return to the original sphere of the pure intention to signify (not mere sound, but rather language and thought of the voice alone). Thought and language, we would say today, of pure phonemes…’ (EP 67). Such a sphere, once located he explains ‘beyond or before sound’ (EP 67) is the voice in its original purity, which finds it place ‘neither in mere sound nor in signification but rather, we might say, in pure grammata, in pure letters.’ Through noise, therefore, one is able to sidestep the division between semiotic and semantic if the noise is located within the subject in the form of their intention to have that sound signify; Augustine and Dante’s conception of love. A word which can mean but does not mean is a word that once did mean and potentially will again. In such a word one encounters the base of all signification, what Derrida terms the mark or as Agamben terms it here the grammata. Grammata is the ability to make marks, to put together letters, without their being reducible to any specific meaning, it is yet another version of the gestic or the tabular.

Glossolalia can be said to kill or at least violently negate language by presenting a permanently insurmountable break between the phonetic and the semantic. While meaning is there in potential, the barbarism of someone else’s tongue in one’s mouth means that the semiotic and the semantic will never come together and speak. In onomatopoeia language dies for exactly the opposite reason, for of course in such signs as ‘oink,’ ‘tweet’ and ‘bark,’ there is also a profound meaninglessness this time issuing not from the lack of meaning brought about by an irrevocable differentiation, but due to the fact that difference within the sign has not come about. The language of birds when written in the language of men attempts to reproduce that quality that animals possess and which we humans do not, that of occupying totally in the voice the essence of being as such. If glossolalia is pure signifier then onomatopoeia is pure signified in that it says exactly and exhaustibly what is means: 100% oink, total tweet, absolute bark.

Agamben goes on to explain the almost tragic circumstances that lead up to the capturing of the animal voice in onomatopoeia when it becomes ‘engrammatos and comprehended by letters. In entering into grammata in being written, the animal voice is separated from nature…’ (EP 69). Again, as we saw in glossolalia, onomatopoeia enters grammata as a form of pure intention to signify, only this time from the opposite direction. Unlike the foreign word which moves from meaning into pure noise, onomatopoeia ‘emerges from the infinite sea of mere sound without yet having become signifying discourse’ (EP 69). This results in another kind of dead language not one which no one speaks but ‘only the trace of the animal voice’s absence, of its “death”’ (EP 69). In the grammata, therefore, the two streams of language are able to enter the pure potentiality to signify, which is surely what is implied by pure intention to signify, in a process Pascoli describes as ‘crossing over’ and which Agamben reformulates as death:

The letter is therefore the dimension in which glossolalia and onomatopoeia, the poetics of dead language and the poetics of the dead voice, converge in one site, where Pascoli situates the most proper experience of poetic dictation: the site in which he can capture language in the instant it sinks again, dying, into the voice, and at which the voice, emerging from mere sound, passes (that is, dies) into signification (EP 70).

There is, it would seem, after all I have said to the contrary now revealed as mere meaningless nonsense, a poetry of birds, but it is not written with claws or dictated to scribes by manipulative and articulate beaks. Not at all, the poetry of birds is written by man in the form of onomatopoeia. Like many such zoological projects and observations, crudely put, to transcribe the poetry of birds one must kill them, tear out their bifurcated pipes and encase them in the materiality of the grammata. To reveal the syrinx one must destroy the host of its essence, just as Syrinx herself had to be destroyed to be saved in the form of reeds. And to make the reeds sound one must tear them from their roots and animate them instead with your own breath. Is it any wonder that Syrinx’s first sound, the very first sounds of poetry, were deemed to be so melancholy? To get to the syrinx one must move through the larynx, through the human voice, and yet there is also an act of violence to be performed here. No man nor woman can be full-throated, can give a full throat to their own voice as being, without killing language. Just as the syrinx must be yanked from its place and embalmed in grammata to be spoken in language, so too language must be cut from our throat and placed alongside that of the birds to access what it means to live, as a human, and yet possess language. For man to be in this way he must be ‘for the birds.’


[ii] After Heidegger’s sustained attack on aesthetics and literary criticism, Badiou all but puts the discipline to death with his designation ‘inaesthetics’ of which he says: ‘By “inaesthetics I understand a relation of philosophy to art that, maintaining that art is itself a producer of truths, makes no claim to turn art into an object for philosophy. Against aesthetic speculation, inaesthetics describes the strictly intraphilosophical effects produced by the independent existence of some works of art.’ HI frontispiece.

[iv] We of course do no know for certain where Plato might have founded his neo-fascist state but the archipelagic nature of Greek geography makes an island more than likely. The island is, after all, a geological affirmation of the girdled isolation of the conception of the Polis. That Plato sojourned long under the auspices of dictator Dionysius on the island of Sicily or Grecia Majore as it was then called, again adds credence that the Republic was essentially an island community.

[v] See LD 107.

[vi] For a fascinating and witty consideration of these issues from the perspective of the non-personification of space see Sean Gaston, ‘Enter Time,’ Starting with Derrida, 60-80.

[vii] For Agamben’s analysis of this see O 52-6.

[viii] For Agamben’s analysis of this see LD 41-53.

[ix] Keats letter Sunday [21 Dec. 1817]

[x] For Badiou’s definition of poetic disobjectification see MP 76-7.

[xi] The precondition of the mark is that it is available for reiteration. See Jacques Derrida, Margins 315.

[xii] Aside from Agamben’s consideration of the Pauline inheritance in The Time that Remains there is also a contesting view of Paul as an archetype militant for the event of Christ in Alain Badiou, St. Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, trans. Ray Brassier (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003).