Speaking together against the fixed

Lisa Robertson on poetry as citizenship

Lisa Robertson at North of Invention. Photo by Aldon Nielsen.

What constitutes poetry, and how might it serve as a vital, even undeniably necessary act of citizenship? In her address to the North of Invention audience, Lisa Robertson eloquently addresses these questions while discussing the inextricability of subjectivity, social relations, and language. Her talk, one incarnation of a still-evolving paper initially presented at a conference on citizenship, invokes the ideas of French linguist Emile Benveniste. Benveniste tracks institutional change — in its broadest sense, encompassing speech and other socio-cultural institutions as well as the actions integral to them such as buying, siring, and hosting — through the permutations of language, thus rendering such changes transparent. For Benveniste, language, as medium in which change is recorded, stands as an argument against institutions’ tendency towards fixity.

One revelation here is the evolution of Roman terms civis and domus to refer to institutional and material ideas, when their original meanings instead refer to collective and reciprocal concepts of citizenship. Robertson, following Benveniste and his linguist-poet disciple Henri Meschonnic, stresses that discourse is central to the inextricable states of individual and collective citizenship, birthing us simultaneously as subject and co-subject. “Co-citizens,” Robertson asserts, “are those who speak together, and their home is the vulnerable shelter that speaking together offers them.”

Meschonnic applies Benveniste’s principles to poetry, claiming the art as critique of fixity through the reopening invited by rhythm. Here, vernacular, the lived and ever-shifting enactment of language, can dissolve the determination of fixed discourse in the invitation of new possibilities. Only in such continuous action, as Meschonnic believes, can the subject emerge as ethical. Echoing her French philosophical forebears, Robertson dares us to resist the institutional enshrinement of poetry and enter into its creation as an engaged act of reclamation.