Review of “Poetry and Knowledge”
by Aimé Césaire
Poetic knowledge is born in the great silence of scientific knowledge.
– Aimé Césaire (1990, p.17)
The science versus art dichotomy is not a new one. It resonates closely with quite common mainstream arguments over quantitative versus qualitative research, psychological framings such as nature versus nurture, and so on. Frederich Nietzsche’s argument in Birth of Tragedy (2008) channelled this dichotomous framing – engaged with at least as far back as ancient Greece – towards a critique of modern scientific forms of knowledge. In juxtaposing Western society (that of the colonisers) with a Third World society (that of the colonised), Aimé Césaire’s “Poetry and Knowledge” seeks to reframe the science versus art dichotomy in the service of an anti-colonial struggle for a new society that consciously affirms the value of black/African culture and identity. This, he, Senghor, and others, called Négritude.
Working off of Nietzsche, he writes that “science affords a view of the world, but a summary and superficial view” (1990, p.17) and that “side by side with this half-starved scientific knowledge there is another kind of knowledge. A fulfilling knowledge” (1990, p.18). The other kind of knowledge is that which is produced by art and more specifically in Césaire’s case, poetry.
This is a relatively common argument within the social sciences. The rise of the quantitative approach, not only in economics, but also its import into areas such as political science and sociology, has lead to a number of critiques against the perceived myopia of quantitative reasoning. An example of one of the more famous interventions is Peter Winch’s attack on positivism in The Idea of a Social Science and Its Relation to Philosophy (1990). More recently, Michel Callon (1998) and Bruno Latour (1983) have attempted to rethink the way we look at science and through their Science, Technology and Society studies (STS), attempted to show how science is in fact a social process that should be analysed as such. In On The Cult of the Factish Gods (2010) Latour mocks the modern Western notion of facts and shows how, by reversing one’s perspective, it can be understood as no more than a myth.
But Césaire is not only making a social science argument against positivism, but also a directly political one in linking it to questions of racism and oppression. His claim in “Poetry and Knowledge” is that poetry constitutes the “revenge of Dionysis upon Apollo” (1990, p.19) – a wholistic view of the world in response to a parochial scientific one. If as Nietzsche asserts, “a ‘scientific’ interpretation of the world, as you understand it, might therefore still be one of the most stupid of all possible interpretations of the world” (Nietzsche & Kaufmann 1974, p.373), a poetic one as represented by Dionysis is coherent, humanistic and rooted in the world. However, according to Césaire, it is also politically charged. Poetry is therefore transformative and revolutionary (not just a wholistic response to science), because it challenges current way in which the world is ordered.
However, is this dichotomy truly the ideal way of framing this conflict? Why, in trying to theorise around the ‘black condition’ of slavery, colonialism and exploitation, does Césaire embrace an engagement with Western philosophy – even though that of Nietzsche’s was a anti-establishment version? Would it be even more useful to think about the question of knowledge not in terms of science versus poetry but rather in terms of whether such knowledge that is constantly being reproduced and organic versus knowledge that has become reified?
Aimé Césaire’s Nietzschean approach is an assertion of ideal types. In other words, it is an essentialist argument about the function of scientific and artistic thinking in our society. Placing science and poetry as diametric opposite forms of knowledge and thinking, does not quite get to the root of the struggle around the way we think as a society. It also elides the ways in which science can contribute towards a revolutionary politics while art can become reified and parochial thereby de-linked from actually existing struggles.
The poet of Césaire and the musician of Nietzsche are not necessarily producers of inclusive and well-rounded knowledge. In fact, art can be parochial, insular, and restricting – particularly within the hyper-capitalist system we live under. Césaire’s tree, of rootedness, of deepening, that blossoms is not, without qualification, the natural equivalent of “human flowering” embodied in the poet (1990, p.23). Rather, the poet can also come to typify a form of reified thinking: theory and knowledge that becomes inward-looking, rigid and the diametric opposite of Césaire’s ideal type.
There are a few ways in which this tends to happen.
The first is the commodification of art. Even while the perceived essence of art may be a form of human flowering, it can be turned into an object to be bought and sold. Poems, once written down, copyrighted, and embraced within mainstream society or academic canons, can take the form of a commodity whose substance becomes less and less drawn from its organic origins, and more associated and valued through an economic logic. This commodification strips poetry and other forms of art of its emancipatory potential and its opposition to the logic of capital.
Secondly, art can become a managed for of knowledge. The increase in a poets popularity, their welcoming in mainstream society, and their canonisation, has the ability to subvert poetry’s emancipatory potential. If power is understood as playing a disciplinary function in society, art can therefore become a tool to govern society – the opposite of ‘human flowering’. Let me give an example: The poetry of an anti-colonial thinker such as Césaire himself can be reinterpreted and used to further capitalist and neocolonial aims of the postcolonial nation-state. This has undoubtedly been the case in Césaire’s own Martinique where his poetry has become a source of national pride consciously used by government to demobilise opposition to continued French neo-imperialist control over the Island.
Lastly, the reification and centralisation of artistic thought can have the effect of controling what kinds of art is considered ‘legitimate’. A good example of this is how academia polices one’s thinking – especially in the art-world. Critique is then used, not as a way of opening up art to more possibilities linked to people’s unique experiences, but rather as a way of replacing one form of art with another, of replacing one canon with another. This can be understood as a fetishisation of critique itself. Liberal enlightenment philosophy is, then, replaced by Nietzsche and his followers who become a new canon. Despite Nietzsche’s own anti-establishment critiques, his thinking becomes the new establishment. Gramsci’s (2009) counter-hegemonic cultures, meant to open up new radical possibilities become a new hegemony through co-optation and incorporation. The canonisation of artists such as Picasso (a socialist) and the commodification of his, at the time, revolutionary approaches to art, is a case in point. But this should not be understood as happening merely at an individual level – the process of reification through co-optation is a structural process.
Reified knowledge could then include forms of knowledge in the academy that are not necessarily ‘scientific’ but become science-like as this knowledge becomes the domain of the expert. This goes even for that which is poetic and artistic. If one questions the dichotomous framing produced by Nietzsche and Césaire, we therefore arrive at the necessity of decentring the way we think about the production knowledge. Of course, knowledge is already produced everywhere in society. The problem is that such forms of thought which are organic are not considered legitimate unless they are reified, organised and commoditised. Decentring knowledge is nothing more than the acknowledgement and engagement with organic decentralised thinking and the conscious attempt at resisting its reification. There is a specific need to challenge the continued centralisation and management of art and its separation from an embodied and emancipatory form of politics.
Robin Kelley points out that Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism is a poetic embodiment of his argument about the revolutionary nature of poetry (1999). It is a juxtaposition of the Western scientific and racist world with that of the non-West, the poetics of anti-colonialism. It is a recognition of the way the West and the rest are linked and implicated in one another. Or as Frantz Fanon puts it “Europe is literally the creation of the Third World” (1963, p.102). Césaire’s critique of scientific Western society says it more directly,
The crowning barbarism that sums up all the daily barbarisms; that it is Nazism, yes, but that before they were its victims, they were its accomplices; that they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them, that they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimized it, because, until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples… (1972, p.36).
However, it is important to add that the relevance of Discourse stems not only from its poetic linking of the science of coloniser with the poetic resistance of the colonised, but also from Césaire’s own commitment to building a politics that is rooted in struggle and that resists its reification at the hands of Western theory. This is also what distinguishes him from the more depoliticised (or less overtly political) approaches of Winch, Callon and Latour.
This praxis, or theory in action, is what separates his poetic thought from other more reified forms of knowledge, especially that within academia. Césaire’s is the embodiedment of Juan Gelman’s statement that “the poetry of life can be greater than the poetry of paper” (Zibechi 2012, p.101). In other words, Césaire’s embraces an experiential basis for his poetry and his politics. Kelley further points out that, “both Fanon and Césaire warn the colored world not to follow Europe’s footsteps, and not to go back to the ancient way, but to carve out a new direction altogether” (1999, p.11). In other words, it was Césaire’s own practice of an embodied politics which drove his more radicalised poetry. This was not inevitable. This was not because of some revolutionary essence of poetry. Rather, this was due to his political will (Hallward 2011). It was a consequence of his commitment to a depharochialised anti-colonial way of thought and struggle which together informed the actual content and nature of his revolutionary poetry.
Callon, M., 1998. Introduction: The embeddednes of economic markets in economics. Sociological Review, 46(May Supplement), pp.1–58.
Cesaire, A., 1972. Discourse on Colonialism, Monthly Review Press.
Cesaire, A., 1990. Poetry and Knowlege. In Lyric and Dramatic Poetry 1946-82. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.
Fanon, F., 1963. The Wretched of the Earth, New York: Grove Press.
Foucault, M., 1991. Governmentality. In P. M. Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon, ed. The Focault Effect: Studies in Governmentality. University of Chicago Press, pp. 87–104.
Gramsci, a F.E., 2009. The Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings 1916-1935, Available at: papers://c7e2c9f4-f55f-43ef-843e-da85e2e186c1/Paper/p96.
Hallward, P., 2011. Fanon and Political Will. Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, 7(1), pp.104–127.
Kelley, R.D.G., 1999. A Poetics of Anticolonialism. Monthly Review, 51(6). Available at: https://monthlyreview.org/1999/11/01/a-poetics-of-anticolonialism/.
Latour, B., 1983. Give me a laboratory and I will raise the world. In K. D. Knorr-Cetina & M. J. Mulkay, eds. Science Observed. Beverly Hills: SAGE Publications, pp. 141–170.
Latour, B., 2010. On The Cult of the Factish Gods. In On the Cult of Factish Gods. Durham: Duke University Press.
Nietzsche, F., 2008. The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music I. Johnston, ed., Nanaimo: vancouver Island University.
Nietzsche, F. & Kaufmann, W.A., 1974. The Gay Science, with a prelude in rhymes and an appendix of songs, New York: Vintage Books.
Winch, P., 1990. The Idea of a Social Science and Its Relation to Philosophy, London: Routledge.
Zibechi, R., 2012. Territories in Resistance: A Cartography of Latin American Social Movements, Oakland: AK Press.
 Their/They/Them is used here and throughout the piece as a non-gender binary way of referring to individuals.
 This is the argument Michel Foucault (1991) has made about the clinic, the school and other governance institutions. However, it can easily be extended to embrace the realm of the arts – at least once it becomes institutional in nature.