Caesura

The poem’s forcefield qua khôra, Plato’s “placeless place,” functions as an interstice — an opening or clearing rather than a “site” — defined by indeterminate plasticity and mobility rather than the rigidity of fixed “ground.” The malleability of the poem’s frame opens to a play of transecting forces — an unsettled interval, an open orchestrating lines of force to produce “tension between the homogeneous world and what finds no place in it.”[1] This interplay of forces produces dissonance, sending shock waves through settled consonance, extending the subject herself (writer-reader / reader-writer) through “a field of dialectical tensions always already cut by internal caesurae,”[2] as are world(s), time, our being-together-in-common: our love. While the poem presents itself as horizonal potential, it often does so disjunctively; that is, the poem’s event horizon, as Jean-Luc Nancy has it, “is the opening or distancing of horizon itself, and in the opening: us. We happen as the opening itself, the dangerous fault line of a rupture.”[3]

In its disjunctive mode (rather than the connective posture erecting cohabitable umwelts), the poem’s primary role is the reconfiguration of horizonal possibility, rupturing faux continuity so as to highlight the tinny “made-ness” of the (supposed) matrix of the real. While Levinas sees “poetic activity” as a kind of beguiling, enveloping rhythm, the poem is crucially contrapuntal, a kind of counterpoint to the real that “is rupture and commencement, breaking of rhythm which enraptures and transports [the] interlocutors.”[4] The poem’s internal rhythm is in fact at odds with the malaise that lulls us into somnambulant peregrinations. It’s the fulgurant jolt at issue in Giorgio Agamben’s short fragment “The Idea of Caesura,” which primarily focuses on a curious couplet by the poet Sandro Penna: “I go towards the river on a horse / which when I think a little a little stops.” Imagine the reader on horseback, lulled into a stupor by the lilt of the steed’s gait, until, halting at the river’s bank, the rider suddenly vivifies: “The element that arrests the metrical impetus of the voice, the caesura of verse, is thought.”[5] In his analysis, Agamben draws on Hölderlin’s notes to his translation of Sophocles’s Oedipus the King (which Walter Benjamin also drew on, liberally, in his essay on Goethe’s Elective Affinities):

[…] in the rhythmical succession of scenes in which the transport is made manifest, it becomes necessary to have what in prosody is known as a caesura; the pure word, the counter-rhythmical interruption, is needed, so as to confront the pull of the succession of scenes at its height and in such a fashion that instead of facets of a manifestation there comes manifestation itself. [6]

The caesura disrupts the enchantment of the il y a, that there is — the rhythmical lull induced by prosaic thrownness — just enough to jolt the reader awake at the cusp of the crepuscular. As a result, what we see is not so much what manifests or how we represent that manifestation to ourselves, but instead, the mechanics of representation itself: we see the world, the veil and the outline of what’s behind the veil, pushing back against representation and mimesis as clones of the real.

As a result, the khôric interval, the poem’s grounded-groundlessness, its abgrund, functions as does Walter Benjamin’s lightning strike, “awakening” the reader to a crepuscular liminality: 

To thinking belongs the movement as well as the arrest of thoughts. Where thinking comes to a standstill in a constellation saturated with tensions — there the dialectical image appears. It is the caesura in the movement of thought. Its position is naturally not an arbitrary one. It is to be found, in a word, where the tension between dialectical opposites is greatest. Hence, the object constructed in the materialist presentation of history is itself the dialectical image. The latter is identical with the historical object; it justifies its violent expulsion from the continuum of historical process.[7]

As it did with Agamben’s drowsy equestrian, the thinking of the poem (both moving and arresting thought) opens a medial hiccup by which reader-writer attends to the flash of recognizability that both poem and poet help to facilitate. As organ, the poem’s interpenetrating, symphonized forces perforate an interval that doubles as a waking dream. Punctuating this rupture, lightning flashes outline the shape behind the veil so that reader-writer herself can begin to orchestrate the lucid dream, dictating the terms of real-ing by backlighting force lines while undercutting worlding impotence:

Is awakening perhaps the synthesis of dream consciousness (as thesis) and waking consciousness (as antithesis)? Then the moment of awakening would be identical with the “now of recognizability,” in which things put on their true — surrealist — face. Thus, in Proust, the importance of staking an entire life on life’s supremely dialectical point of rupture: awakening. [8]

That said, preserving lucidity to resist the seduction of infolding dream — holding up the vertiginous space of the interval in order to manipulate the poem’s embedded lines of force — is no easy task. In his analysis of Benjamin’s “Two Poems by Friedrich Hölderlin,” Peter Fenves suggests that “The courage of the poet,” Hölderlin’s for Fenves and Benjamin, but more accurately, the courage of all poets, “consists in being bound or obligated to the world despite its irreducible unfitness for a specifically poetic mode of existence.”[9] Benjamin describes an “insistent haunting caesura”[10] in Hölderlin, the spook of the real writ large. In the now of recognizability, the caesura functions as a dialectical image bumping against the mythic while producing a new unity that is “a rupture of continuity, and continuation across this rupture,”[11] which is shorthand, of course, for the poem itself.

Writing across the rupture, writing the rupture itself — opening the khôra — is perhaps what Adorno refers to when he claims, after Schoenberg’s “Moses und Aron,” “the caesura was to be decisive. The rupture was to become music.”[12] What might it mean to insist that the poem is the rupture and the rupture is its music? In Noise, Jacques Attali claims that “the political economy of music” is “a succession of orders (in other words, differences) done violence by noises (in other words, the calling into question of differences) that are prophetic because they create new orders, unstable and changing.”[13] The poem is such a dissonance: noise or feedback establishing new, unstable forms. Attali claims that “noise is a resonance that interferes with the audition of a message in the process of emission. A resonance is a set of simultaneous, pure sounds of determined frequency and differing intensity. Noise, then, does not exist in itself, but only in relation to the system within which it is inscribed: emitter, transmitter, receiver.”[14] The problem, of course, is keeping noise noise so as to buffer the dreamer’s autonomy (and her cognizance of said autonomy) in the khôric space of the lucid dream. In this sense, I can think of no better description of the poem than Attali’s “infinite labyrinth of ‘feedback’ effects.”[15] The poem infolds world’s fuckery into itself, amplifying lines of force to craze the veneer of totalization. However, world can reterritorialize and tame noise through the market and its ends: see, for example, Hot Topic’s Cannibal Corpse merch. Deciding who can make noise, how we define dissonance itself, and the effort we make to keep noise noise is the “courage” that Benjamin sees in Hölderlin’s writing. It’s “the conquest of the right to make noise, in other words, to create one’s own code and work, without advertising its goal in advance; it is the conquest of the right to make the free and revocable choice to interlink with another’s code — that is, the right to compose one’s life.”[16]



1. Nicolas Bourriaud, The Exform (Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2016), 84. 

2. Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 12.

3. Jean-Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), xii. 

4. Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1969), 203.

5. Giorgio Agamben, The Idea of Prose (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995), 43.

6. Frederich Hölderlin, Hölderlin’s Sophocles: Oedipus & Antigone (Northumberland, UK: Bloodaxe Books, 2001), 63.

7. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), 475. 

8. Benjamin,  463–64.

9. Peter Fenves, The Messianic Reduction: Walter Benjamin and the Shape of Time (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 36. 

10. Fenves, 40. 

11. Levinas, 284.

12. Theodor Adorno, Quasi una fantasia: Essays on Modern Music (New York: Verso, 1992), 241. 

13. Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 19.

14. Attali, 26–27.

15. Attali, 114.

16. Attali, 132.