Rimbaud: Intermediary Militant
Through Rimbaud's Season In Hell
"If the poet
can no longer speak for society,
"It is possible
that the impossibility of poetry is itself the condition of poetry"
The question of how to subvert power, to live a life, was a problem that Arthur Rimbaud didn't so much formulate as enact. Reading his poetry again, a poetry of improvisational emotion, it's possible to be struck by a forceful contemporaneity that has such works as 'Season In Hell' read, now, like a political manifesto. But it is a politics of a different kind, a politics that has given up any redemptive vectors. Instead Rimbaud seeks to create an exodus, a chimerical materiality of the possible, that can lead us to a politics of becoming. As he drifts towards the end of the word Rimbaud takes us on a detour through composite cities and countryside trysts, passed colonial beachheads and debauched bars, and delivers us into the company of quotidian messiahs; revolutionaries of everyday life whose unaimed benevolences reek of crimes against self-interest. Accompanying Rimbaud in his flight from a permanent state of emergency based upon this 'right of self-interest', we can get an inkling of what we can leave to politics: national origin, institutional representation, inherited morality, wage-labour, Christ, Satan, wise-guys. But Rimbaud's exodus, his self-abandonment, is not a bid for a transcendence that would posthumously mark him out, but a deep, nomadic immersion in the social unconscious. Thus, with Rimbaud, there is the inkling of a preemptive strike on a pleasure-principle that would, like the politics of security based on a disavowed abundance, make pleasure and pain equate to an equilibrium that is made indicative of a death drive a return to an inanimate state; the fear of experience that fuels a legislated neutralisation of life. Instead Rimbaud surmounts sociable equidistance and Caucasian equations through an inveigling of death; he took the piss out of its politicised threat, facing up to death-in-life with a surfeit of energy that turned trauma into the will to experience, into autotraumatisation: "I summoned my executioners so that I could bite their rife butts before I died".
Rimbaud's politics of becoming was premised on a use of trauma that gets beyond pleasure and pain. This is the experience of living life that Rimbaud unprotectedly sought out and, as we read, it is not so much that these experiences were chased-after as the raw material of a 'poetry' that could make him belong, as they were experiences that ensured a lack of fit between himself and the literary norms of the time "I thought laughable the great figures of modern painting and poetry". This scorn for his precedents, akin to his scorn for the sovereignty of the law, was not so much a transgressive pose as a means for a heightened affectivity: the very raw material, not exclusively of poetry but, of a politics of becoming, an abandonment of the 'self' from all the apparati of identity as they are assured by family... state... poetry. So, at the very outset of a Season In Hell, one of his last works, Rimbaud abandons the coordinates of belonging even to his own autobiography. He has no antecedents, he is a non-pseudo nigger, a pagan. He has made himself an orphan, a potentiated multiple, that, being no longer an individual but a precipitate of emotional layers, can only identify with those that are 'a law unto themselves'. Seeking thus to see through the eyes of a criminal and becoming "the great criminal, the great accursed", Rimbaud intuits that the law is a personalisable lexicon and that the most feared crime is to communicate your own self-contesting law, to be amply prepared for the trauma of self-abandonment. That both poets and politicians can be cast as 'legislators' leads Rimbaud to be a stranger in his 'own' language: "But always alone; without family: I even have to ask what language I speak." Rather than seeking release in the form of a pleasure or pain, rather than seeking synthesis in the form of a single persona or a character that speaks the 'truth' in a possessable language, Rimbaud's deliberating incognito, his immanence, becomes a source of experiential tension, an enlivening contradiction. Permanently unfulfilled, at odds even with a language that can liberate him, Rimbaud embraces a mode of living that can lead to freedoms beyond those enshrined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man: affectibility. As Deleuze has written, "affectibility... is a capacity of affection without personality... that becomes all its modifications and yet... constitutes a manner of existence that is positive" . Rimbaud slides between the multiple personas that voice him and pulls every conceivable face. His mug-shot is a composite. His poetry is 'free indirect discourse'.
Rimbaud's 'affectibility' is what has him outside the law. Even before the pleasure principle came along to announce its death sentence, its fear of the positive energy of desire that took on the pronunciation of lack, Rimbaud's hatred of the law makes us reflect that the fear of life has become entangled and codified in legislation. This fear translates into the concept of 'security' which, as Marx wrote, guarantees to each of the members of a society "the conservation of his person, his rights and property" . But this conservation, which makes people into the objects of a legislative mediation, presupposes the lives it legislates for to be bounded entities, it presupposes that what is feared in life is an 'affectibility', a giving-ourselves-over, which can not only pierce our 'binding', but lead to the self-abandonment of becoming. Such autonomous expenditure has no need of a legislation that protects only those who seek to conserve. Not having anything to conserve personality, property, a name, a country Rimbaud, for better and for worse, lives at the uncodified behest of the senses. He 'becomes all modifications'. This taste for life as becoming, as 'self-mediated being', is what, on the one hand, makes Rimbaud's 'poetry' a free indirect discourse, a compound of cited voices that shift, and, on the other, stakes-out the import of his writing as a political manifesto that affirms life as that which it is possible to live without guilt: a living exchange of linguistic ardours. Rimbaud, who seems to intuit that the law is based on protecting the private property of private persons, and who, wanting more than the conservation of the self, being desirous of more than a choice between the war of pleasure and the law of pain, is not one who seeks to pay back the inherited debt. Scorning the securities market of the state, Rimbaud leaves it to the leftists to conserve the law by changing it: "I armed myself against justice". But he has another form of life in mind, an inconvertible demand for a politics of becoming: "several other lives, it seemed to me, were owed to every being".
Rimbaud seemed to know that to abandon oneself to 'affectivity', to become a 'being' between, was to drop beneath the scan of a characterlogical radar. To fall from a law's eye view, to become a non-person, a self abandoned shadow of a self ("I am hidden and not hidden") is to embrace the trauma of being declared 'a nothing': "Quick a crime, so that I may plunge into nothingness, according to human law". But this 'nothingness' is more than full. It is declared as nothing by 'human law' because, as an act of becoming, it does not seek to preserve itself, it does not seek a stable representation that could be merited, weighed, accounted for. As Bataille has said of nothingness: it can sometimes be "the being envisioned in the totality of the world" . Being in the world thus, unmediated and unindividuated, being "absorbed by everybody... a multiplier of progress" , is to run the risk of 'anguish', which is to say, Rimbaud runs the risk of no longer offering himself up for the protection of being represented by political pleasures, but of, instead, attempting to make himself heard as an unrepresentable collective. Responsible for humanity, Rimbaud sheds guilt : "I belong to a race which sang on the scaffold; I understand nothing of laws; I have no moral sense". His poetry, amoral to the degree that it rejects utility, criminal to the extent that it urges the formation of a new language, is a poetry that, facing up to the inexpressible, defies itself as being authored by himself as an individual: "Universal intelligence has always thrown out its ideas, naturally; men picked up part of these fruits... author, creator, poet, this man has never existed" . Thus can Rimbaud rail against the 'egotists' and 'one eyed intellects' who call themselves 'authors', for the affectibility that Rimbaud pursued led him not only to urge a war on law, but to challenge the very limits of experiences as these are represented by a possessable knowledge voided of sensuality and a use of language that insulates us against the risks of a stumbling expressivity: "What a life. True life is somewhere else. We are not in the real world."
Affectibility as a modality of thought is, possibly, a way to bypass what Rimbaud calls the "false significance of the ego". It is the ego, cathecting itself, that the legislators seek to secure through means of constitutional documents. It is this same ego that valorises personality, that, reigning-in our becomings, conserves our failure to communicate because, being in possession of a point-of-view, we seeks to 'express our self' rather than to 'be expressive', to be a locus for 'expressivity'. This impasse has been revolutionised by Rimbaud as an experience of struggling with a language that, not being always malleable enough to resist inherited knowledge, can result in the end of the primacy of the word as it is alloyed to the primacy of knowledge: "I understand, and, incapable of expressing myself without pagan words, I would rather say nothing." Here Rimbaud, who always valued music, indicates, perhaps, how affectibility as a form of thought enables 'understanding' without it necessarily having to be be written or spoken. Sensualised, Rimbaud 'understands' without having recourse to the right words. 'Saying nothing' for Rimbaud is not the end of thought, but the end of being said and the beginnings of a communication by means of 'pagan words', words that may not even be formed from letters, but from sounds ("I became a fabulous opera") or from coloured letters ("I invented the colour of vowels"). In this way affectibility, in conflict with a use of language that limits thought to an accumulation of concepts, changes not so much what we think, but the way we perceive that we think: "It is wrong to say: I think. One ought to say: I am thought" . Rimbaud rejects the inherited knowledge of philosophy that, in linking thought to an individual and making knowledge a matter of private property, conserves our failure to communicate. Instead communication is enhanced through a mistrust of a knowledge that has declared war on the praxis of the senses by means of the law of the Logos: "Since the declaration of modern knowledge, Christianity, man has been deceiving himself, proving the obvious, puffed up with the pride of repeating these proofs, the only life he knows!... Mr Wise Guy was born with Christ!". In this light the 'universal intelligence' which Rimbaud mentions is not so much an indication of an ethereal God but, after Marx, a matter of the 'general social wealth' of culture. Thus 'to be thought', as Rimbaud says, is not just to be a mouthpiece, but to actively place the onus of thought onto affectibility; a mode of sensual apprehension that can lead to a reformulation of knowledge as that which arises from being open to the 'universal intelligence' of the world: a shared ability to experience life, to be a locus for poetic expressivity ("Your own ardour must be the task").
Rimbaud's conflict with language, leading him to utter the phrase "no more words!", is a way that he takes his conflict with the law into a new dimension. Rather than having a personality to 'conserve' and offer-up to representation, Rimbaud, voicing in his 'poems' the characteristics of a multiple personality ('free indirect discourse'), seems to embark upon guerrilla actions against those substructures of language that ensure that we remain opaque and separable from one another: the decentred voice of his poems is simultaneously masculine and feminine, singular and plural, active and passive, past and present, sardonic and sincere. Language as a material, its suppleness, is that which is lost when, its substructures intact, it is promulgated as a means to shore up an ego that expresses its self, that reiterates the possible. Bataille: "Language is lacking because language is made of propositions that make identities intervene" . These ego driven identities that speak in order to be returned-to their own subjection are what Rimbaud seeks to be exiled from, they are what provoke him to flee from the men of letters ("I don't know how to talk!") and which lead him to say of Baudelaire that "he lived in too artistic circles". For him, before the end at any rate, language should be supple enough to sound-out a compound emotion that renders us dumb, it should be the means to bring to expression what it is impossible to say. As Giorgio Agamben has pointed out "it is the very sayability, the very openness at issue in language, which in language we always presuppose and forget... because it is at bottom an abandonment and oblivion" . Yet, just as language is not an abstract entity (it does not doesn't possess 'openness' in and of itself), the utterance is dependent upon its situated addressees and Rimbaud, in declaring his open defiance of State-sanctioned laws that enshrine alienation and lead to death and servitude, surmounts oblivion and abandons himself to his capacity to say anything. Having a variety of places to talk from and a variety of personas to talk through, securing thus his 'affectibility', a guiltless Rimbaud can use language not as a mode of dissemblance, but as a means to communicate his 'inner experience'.
But Rimbaud wanted more from language, more from himself than was possible by means of language: "the point is to arrive at the unknown by the dissoluteness of the senses" . To 'arrive at the unknown' is not only to reject the common knowledge of the day but it is, by means of the 'dissoluteness of the senses', a way to re-experience a prelingual phase. The fluctuation of the emotions, our wordless affectibility, is what overpowers language, makes us stammer, and renders us dumb even though we have won the power of speech. To experience the prelingual is to be rendered disarticulate and decentred and, yet, it is not so much that Rimbaud resents a 'fall into language' as an estrangement from the 'pure life of feeling' as it is a means to bring forth affective knowledge by means of gaining access to inner experience. In many ways this inner experience is what is deemed superfluous. It is not required in the world of work ("I abhor every trade"). As a timeless compound of affect this very 'unsayability', its traumatic pressure, is what ensures the drive to communicate. In many ways, then, the 'unknown' which Rimbaud wants to arrive at could be said to be inner experience, the sensorium of affects, that, unable to be fully articulated in language, are what come to form the raw material for becomings: approximations of feelings that can be enacted through language, a 'capacity for affection without personality'. So, when Rimbaud speaks of an "alchemy of the word" and of "turning words into hallucinations", it is as if he intends to work the fracture of language, its lack of fit with inscrutable affect, and, from there, situating himself in the fluctuational space of inner experience, to, by means of 'poems' as prearticulations, translate affects into insinuations of shared meanings. Such a semiotic of the impulses, whereby language is made malleable by its being compacted with a re-experienced memory of the prelingual and by its simultaneous intent to make affect communicable by means of language and against language, is perhaps what was hinted-at by Rimbaud in one of his most famous passages, a sequence that heralds the avant-garde of the next century: "I invented the colour of vowels... I organised the shape of every consonant, and by means of instinctive rhythm, flattered myself that I was the inventor of a poetic language, accessible sooner or later to all the senses."
When, in his famous letter to Paul Demeny, Rimbaud offered that he wanted to "make himself" a seer rather than a poet, it is not so much an aspiration to religious fervour that Rimbaud is urging onto himself, but a politics of becoming, a living self-production and hence an abandonment of conserved being. To be a seer requires an access to 'inner experience' rather than to the divine logos, for the knowledge of the unknown which Rimbaud seeks cannot be a knowledge that is preformed and readily articulatable in language, but a new form of knowledge, a 'non-knowledge', that, in surpassing any usefulness, comes to register an affectibility, a passion, that is crucial for wider bonds of communicativeness to be established than are possible between poet and reader, politician and citizen. As Marx has said at the onset of the communist movement: "What is needed above all is a confession... to obtain forgiveness for its sins mankind need only to declare them for what they are" . This is the sense in which Rimbaud is a seer. He has dropped his defences to such a degree that his inner experience does not make him feel guilty. Quite the opposite: he has no secrets because, expressing his inner experience, pursuing unsayable affect, he reveals that the interminable mystique of inner experience (the domain of poets and priests) is what ensures a mysticism that trades in pleasure and pain, deferment and punishment. Beyond the pleasure principle, the abandonment of equilibrium, Rimbaud reveals that inner experience is what is eminently shareable there is an 'otherness' of inner experience ("I is another") that is reduced to a self-flagellating privacy. It is social separation, instituted in the affectless language of politics and by a common knowledge reduced to proprietorship, that hinders this inner experience being communicated between people and its being seen as 'sinful'. For the 'sins' that require forgiveness are nothing other than private thoughts that have not remained private and unenacted, but have been uttered and acted-out between people. The sharing of 'sins', the 'declaring them for what they are', thus loosens the hold of the law and reduces the power of guilt, and enables social bonds to form that are not mediated by judgmental knowledges (commandments, constitutions) that lead to voluntary servitude, but, in Rimbaud's case, are the relational material of a law beyond law, the formation of contracts of trust: "Poor men, workers! I do not ask for prayers; with your trust alone I shall be happy".
With these contracts of trust we are faced with the paradox of giving a legal form to an openness that enables inner experience to be shared between people, an openness that, in its affective interminability, cannot be subject to decrees or judgments. In other words, what does it mean when, beyond the law, we seek recourse to some means to be at ease with an articulation of our inner experience? At one level an answer lies in the form of poetry itself; the way that by becoming aligned with a recognisable tradition of writing we seek a means with which to expose ourselves; our feelings and fears. But Rimbaud, in his trajectory towards abandoning poetry, is always moving beyond this. His rejection of the law and the state, of nationality and poetic antecedents, has him not only quest for a new language of affectivity ("this language will be from the soul to the soul, summing up everything, perfumes, sounds, colours..." ), but has him begin to run this idea of a new language alongside a poetical practice that is indistinguishable from the living of his life. For Rimbaud it seems that writing poetry is a means of writing the autonomous law of his life that he hands down to us not on stone tablets, but on scraps of doodle-filled paper. He becomes a stateless legislator and his poems become contracts of trust that can encourage the propertyless to speak to one another. This possible contract between the affective the ones who own little except their ability to empathise and feel-for is, in Rimbaud, moved on from its submergence in literary craft towards the realm of a recast 'free speech' that has no need of parliaments and courtrooms for its legitmation. With affectibility as a modality of thought, the unknown in us, our inner experience, is what can change our lives. Shared between us without being reified into knowledge it is the communicative risk that presupposes a politics of becoming that is instinctively opposed to the way we are inveigled to live our lives. As Foucault, in his late seminars on 'free speech' has said: "The problem of freedom of speech becomes increasingly related to the choice of existence, of the choice of one's way of life. Freedom in the use of logos increasingly becomes freedom in the choice of bios" .
This choice of the way to live a life, vouchsafed in Rimbaud by his being free enough with language to want to turn 'words into hallucinations', is a traumatic encounter with possibilities that are withheld in favour of the profitable maintenance of an equilibrium. Not only does Rimbaud present these choices with the metaphor of his own displacement and nomadism, his coming up against the dialectic of language, testing the logos against the bios leads him to abandon the writing of poetry altogether. For Henry Miller, Rimbaud's renunciation of his 'calling' is related to his standing "so clearly revealed to himself that he no longer had need for expression at the level of art" . This may be the case, but it is also worth suggesting that Rimbaud's abandonment of poetry is concerned with his inner experience having less and less need of artistic mediation, a mediation that would neutralise this inner experience as a canonical expression. What was needed was not so much the invention of a new language that would isolate Rimbaud the orphan even further, aligning him with the roll-call of poets he scorns, but the invention of a free speech, a distribution of inner experience, that could bring people together as becomings. To this end when, in his letter to Paul Demeny, he urged upon himself the role of seer, he outlined a future in which 'poetry would be ahead of action' and envisioned also that poets would be citizens. In choosing not to say that 'citizens would be poets' and in thus not elevating poets to a position above others, Rimbaud's rejection of poetry can be related to the absence of addressees. This is put to dramatic effect when, in A Season In Hell, he says "... in front of several men, I chatted very audibly with a moment from their other lives." In many ways this hallucinatory line is indicative of Rimbaud having to create addressees, addressees that, it can be suspected, do not fear that very inner experience that is creative of 'other lives', becomings. Could it then be that Rimbaud's rejection of poetry was indicative of missing addressees that could comprise a 'missing people', a people becoming? Deleuze, writing on cinema the art that combines colour, movement, sound and words offered that "this acknowledgement of a people who are missing is not a renunciation of political cinema, but on the contrary a new basis on which it is founded... art must take part in this task: not that of addressing a people, which is presupposed already there, but of contributing to the invention of a people." 
When Rimbaud refused the trappings of sovereignty nationality, compatriotism and refused to see himself as a part of a People legislated for in law, it was not simply a matter of his becoming an individualist rebel devoted to the cause of art. This thesis of Henry Miller's can be countered by the way that Rimbaud, in being a poet of 'free indirect discourse' and in his consequent adoption of the tension of contradictory standpoints in his verse, is not seeking a representational status for himself. As an 'undecidable' becoming cultivating lawless contradiction, Rimbaud subsists beneath the level of visible identities that can be constitutionally accounted for: "my life lacks solidity, it flits and floats away up above action, that focus the world holds so dear". Such a solidity may be indicative of the refusal to listen-to and attempt-an articulation of 'inner experience' in such a way as to bring affectibility to the fore as precisely that which gives rise to the potential of living life differently: emotional states not only have their own duration and means of relational bonding they are what enable us to relate differently to what we know, 'subtilise' our language and resist being defined as an abstracted People in whose name we are ruled. Scornful of the colonial adventure through which national identities were intensively being constructed, Rimbaud's 'minority of one' was opposed to the abstract generalities of such a People and posited instead a multiplicity of identities that, in uncoupling affects from their poetic personification, make affects into timeless components of identity that are always reaching after articulation. In this way any solidity that can be achieved is not a solidity that can be legislated for, that can be secured by a private property of rights or a proper space for speech, but, beyond such laws, is a matter of contexts of free speech that encourage the 'missing people' to become responsive addressees, co-authors of their becomings. Rimbaud's rejection of poetry backed by a surplus of shareable affect, by the abreaction of inner experience and by a respectful connectivity to 'universal intelligence' (general intellect) is tantamount to bringing the creativity of the addressee to the fore. This creativity, a politics of becoming, is constitutive of passionate associations that mark an improper place of the polis. After Rimbaud, poems, contracts of trust, become collectively authored social relations. The impossibility of poetry becomes a renewed possibility for free speech.
Howard Slater @ Break/Flow
1. Gilles Deleuze cited by Giorgio
Agamben in Potentialities, Stanford University Press 2000, p230.
Afterword: This Game Of The