Poiesis and Untruth
Lying is a privilege of the poets because they have not yet reached the level on which truth and error are discernable. (Santayana, 1954:338 ).
Speaking into being that which heretofore did not exist is a narrowing of the Greek term, for ‘poiesis’ originally refers to anything that is ‘made’, or even to the act of ‘making’ itself. That it has come to be associated more specifically with language alone, and yet even poetic language, is a function not of any etymological ellipsis, but rather of industrial production, which makes effortlessly and seemingly without being. At the same time, it creates a kind of violence, both against the process of making but also against the idea of creation. Creation, in the modern day, might then be more aptly referred to simply as production, even reproduction. Benjamin’s famous essay about the status and nature of the work of art in our own age, that of ‘mechanical reproduction’, is still a lynchpin of understanding our common lot vis-à-vis art. What then can be an aesthetics of industry, a poetics of production, a lexicon of l’art pour l’art?
This sudden violence, betraying its potential for evil within its very subito, taking us unawares and blindsiding us with its thief in the night, is yet only possible if we ourselves are unrefined, produced rather than created and especially, self-created: “Only the weak are obliged to be violent; the strong, having all means at command, need not resort to the worst. Refined art is not wanting in power if the public is refined also.” (ibid:324). Santayana cautions that in this industrial and technical age, escape through any form of art disorients us in our intent; we would become distracted, even entangled, rather than approaching art as one would a respected lover. Here, desire is present, but not lust. The will to Mitsein overtakes anything ulterior. The ‘companionate marriage’ is a social poiesis in this sense, but so is the genuine mentoring relationship, which is, at its best, what parenting also is or becomes. And in each and all of these variants, art is attached to both reason and rationality through the effort that must be made to create it, to bring it into being as a manifestation of poiesis. Perhaps it is too pat to simply declare the mechanism to be a lie and the creative force which has ever and always a poetic nature to be equally within the truth of things. For the object of reproduction, in its minions and in its millions, speaks its own kind of truth after all.
The issue is rather that we tend to take this truth for both objectivity and rationality, as if the object of production, in a word, the commodity, is the epitome of human reason. In so doing, we have divorced the artistic process which is poiesis from the ‘bringing into being’ of something not extant beforehand. One response has of course been to deny such objects any relation to being, preserving this existential term for either animate and sentient objects such as animal life or more grandly, only for human beings themselves. But this too is both premature and a kind of untruth. However mundane and mass produced, the commodity is nevertheless a product of the human imagination, and to the nth degree, at least in its numbers, efficiencies, and technicalities. A second response has been that the very intent of producing the object, though a creative act, sullies in a final and fatal manner the creation itself, thus through its purpose it loses its connection to being. This too cannot be entirely dismissed but I feel that along with the first response, such a criticism is over-ripe and hurried. Objects are after all placed in use, and persons, once concluding the commodity contractuality that is the vulgar goal of all capital, often use such objects in creative ways not predicted by their manufacturers. In this, the consumer is herself a being who only exists momentarily, and thenceforth becomes rather a creator or an imaginer.
Thus it is too easy to engage in a critique of an entire series of events and eventualities by hanging it up on a singular point, whether it was at this moment that the particular series began or ended, changed its timbre or upshifted itself, perhaps even in a dialectical movement. The commodity as fetish does of course extend the half-life of such critiques, but even here, the fullest intent of how this or that produced item is to be venerated by us is, as often as not, not followed through upon. And the rationale that is issued from the producer which might run something like ‘all we want is for you to buy it, you can use it however you want.’, comes across as more of a rationalization. A most picaresque example of such a thing came during the first Iraq conflict when France was critical of the American invasion and working class Americans bought expensive French champagne only to break the bottles in ditches. One could imagine a tradition-minded vintner objecting but not a contemporary capitalist.
Poiesis is not abandoned in the commodity fetish. This may appear reactionary, for how then could one explicate the problem of the contrived power of the fetish itself? Perhaps we should return to Marx’s sources. The religious fetish had no power of is own, but rather was first a receptacle for Mana, then a vehicle for it. That it had to be propitiated in a primitive sense – the fetish is not after all an icon, temple, or other space of oblation and genuflection – which involved more ululation than anything else, tells us that it as an object was quite useless. In short, the fetish item was ever a source only of potential energetics. This being so, how could one compare a mass produced object meant to be sold at a profit and used in a specific manner, to a unique object whose use was absolutely undefined until the moment it is, ‘poietically’, spoken into being?
Let us pause just here, and double back to Santayana’s plaintive call to poetic conscience. Instead of merely nodding in a Platonic cum Nietzschean manner to the idea that art is beyond truth and lie just as love is beyond good and evil, and that there is some sort of ‘madness’ in both, the madness that speaks of the death of God amongst other mad, and angry, things, we can docket these facticities for a moment and suggest that the artist, since he has no reasoned conception of truth, can dally with untruth in the very being of creation; that is, through poiesis does what could not be true come into being in the world. For industrial production, for mechanical reproduction, for technical process, this means reiterating the truth through an ongoing lie; the idea that the commodity contains no being and is born of no art: “The man who would emancipate art from discipline and reason is trying to elude rationality, not merely in art, but in all existence. He is vexed at the conditions of excellence that make him conscious of his own incompetence and failure. Rather than consider his function, he proclaims his self-sufficiency. A way foolishness has of revenging itself is to excommunicate the world.” (ibid:363).
Just so, the most finely crafted objects of capital, the great auto marques, the vintage wines, haute couture, even memorable and time-tested popular songs, are still and always still commodities. Does this epithet make them less creative, less a part of being, less close to poiesis? The untruth of poiesis is that it can create only the once, and for its next trick must differ its creation and defer its creativity. Mechanical reproduction is a merely more efficient means of disciplining the reason of and for copying. One might write the same manuscript, prior to the Incunabular phase of early printing, once a month say, for a year. Then there are a dozen hand-made copies of what is essentially the same object, the same work. Yes, the writer or illustrator might make intentional alterations for the sake of uniqueness, increasing, as per the going rate the idea that it is not merely a copy but each its own work of art, but what if these alterations are only mistakes uncalculated and unintentional? Amphorae were mass manufactured, even vessels of trade and war, in antiquity. And how many clay pots would it take for the post-war critic to admit that the productive-commodity relation existed side by side, nay, as a very part of the point of creation and construction, recreation and reconstruction, at the very moment of poiesis?
It is no simple task to place the mute and dormant fetish into the vibrant and vivid commodity. That they both contain expectations of themselves and of their use can be understood as one point of contact. That they both elicit anticipations in their would-be users, whether ancient or modern, both consumers of the ‘to be created’, the ‘to be enacted’, is another. But the vague desires with which our ancestors approached the fetish were, unlike those later in the temple or in front of the oracle, as unlike anything the modern consumer brings to the commodity as could be imagined. Perhaps Marx got hung up on the apparent likeness between them, feeling that the both the fetish object and the commodity in themselves did nothing. This too is a piece of poietic untruth, for a table, to use his own example, has in itself and standing alone outside of any aura, a precise set of functions that can be enacted or interacted with, without any sense of veneration. Indeed, it is the sheer lack of fetishism in the commodity relation that marks consumption as an often vapid venture. That brand logos take on the mantle, though not the mantra, of Mana – each month there is a competition amongst them to gauge the most valuable branding – in capital presents something more akin to the original fetish. But even here, the logo is not the thing itself. The prancing horse is not the auto, the one is a mere sign for the other and not its signature. No such disconnect, no such distance, was to be found in ancient societies. And the fact that it is only amongst the elite brands do we find any hint of fetish strongly suggests that it is poiesis itself which is being hyper-valued and not any specific creation thereof.
And this in turn points to the error of disassociating on the one hand, poiesis from mechanism, and on the other, untruth from rationality. The first relationship remains, though in impersonal form for much of the production process. Even so, one cannot have a commodity without a creator bringing something into being that was not extant beforehand. The second relation is more complex: certainly, rational organizations seek to level truth and lie through anonymous dynamics and reducing persons to roles alone. At the same time, the movement from right and wrong to correct and incorrect is not quite enough to convince us that there are still proper ways to go about one’s business, that there are still rules, laws, and consequences for transgression. ‘Truth and lie in a non-moral sense’, by no coincidence the title of the most important short essay of the 19th century, does not by itself propitiate a world which is beyond morality, only a way of being that sees beyond the moral gloss that veils and manipulates what is and what is not, as well as calling into question any absolute definition of either. It cannot be used as a means by which to critique the supposed disenchantment the ‘pure’ commodity relation has brought into that self-same world.
In sum, poiesis lives on. Its scope has been magnified, its precision codified, its powers purified, and at both ends of the living spectrum of existence. Its untruth of inexistence, its ability to utilize becoming as a way of speaking into being and then naming this odd miracle ‘creation’ rather than ‘production’, is a piece of sophistry which is unworthy of even the lies of the poets themselves.
G.V. Loewen is the author of fifty-five books in aesthetics, ethics, education, religion, health and social theory, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.