“Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ orders?”
I always think about the first line of Rilke’s first elegy when I think about what comes first in poetic address because it stages the primal fact of any address: It is probable that no one is listening, that no one can hear what you would want heard. All lyric address begins in the phatic mode, as a query, “Hey! Hey?” But—and this is second originary fact of lyric address—the poem must proceed as if no one is in fact listening, as if no one is there, as if the addressee won’t and can’t respond. The non-response of the one whom the speaker wishes to respond opens the space of the poem; it creates the realm of privacy in which the speaker encounters subjectivity as deprivation. This deprivation isn’t sad, though. Or, if it is, sadness is not the worst one risks experiencing by opening one’s mouth and shouting to the angels. There’s something worse—and that is, precisely, to have been heard, to have been made intimate to the one whom one addresses. What if the angels heard Rilke’s speaker, and responded? Terror would follow, he claims:
“…and even if one of them pressed me
suddenly against his heart: I would be consumed
in that overwhelming existence. For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains
to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying.”
Lyric is the condition of where the negation of a desire precedes its articulation, where not wanting to be heard incites one’s very act of address.
I’ve been thinking about these lines of Rilke since I encountered liberal-oriented critiques of people—presidential candidates, sure, but ordinary folks too—who responded to the San Bernardino shooting by tweeting out their “thoughts and prayers.” Now is not the time for prayers, the commentary goes; prayer does nothing. What we need is real action, or at least a commitment to real action. Not this supernatural nonsense whose sole purpose is to assuage the troubled consciences of a Christian Right whose love of guns prevents real action from being taken. And on. And on. It’s even got a couple of hashtags: #thoughtsandprayers and #ThoughtsAndPrayersAreNotEnough.
What immediately struck me about this prayer-trolling is the functional indistinction between prayers to an absent god and randomly shouting shit on a Twitter hashtag. Unless you are @’ing a bud bound to respond, almost any tweet you write is necessarily oriented toward a non-present superaddressee, toward the possibility that someone might be listening even when there is no empirical proof that anyone in fact is. Both prayer and social media participate in the lyric structure of address that Rilke limns when he begins by asking if anyone is listening at all.
Prayer bares the device of any social media platform that desires political efficacy. We want to imagine social media as a new instrument in the repertoire of participatory democracy, as a new means for establishing broad consent and pressuring state officials to norm their actions with out represented desires. Our secular liberals would probably be okay if our prayerful tweeters simply shifted addressees and made demands upon Obama instead of supplicating God. But such a shift in addressee would not shift the structure of address. Neither God nor the state is listening; neither will respond. Even if a response arrives, there is no secure connection between public representation of its desires and state action, no conduit that converts that force of the former into a force that acts upon the latter. Any connection between what we say to the state and what the state does is the effect of a miraculous, magical causality. To engage in or with the public is always to be praying.
On one side, then, the theological mystifiers; on the other, the humanist demystifiers. God and the State. What links these two positions is their profound incapacity to think action beyond making representations to a superaddressee. Instead of thinking about concrete modes in which we might act to de-pathologize the social, we call upon a transcendent being who will never adequately respond to #DoSomething. Anything! Just give us a sign that you’re real, Obama.
But what if the state listens? When if angels hear our cries and act? Every angel is terrifying, Rilke warns, and sometimes to be heard is to be complicit in one’s own annihilation. What Rilke describes as an aesthetic terror might, in the realm of the political, name an experience of what the state does once it responds to our prayer that it do something, anything. Once it holds us close and tell us, yes, it will #DoSomething for us. The angelic terror of having-been-heard echoes through Iraq, through Afghanistan, through every drone strike, through the sighs or cries of every person subjected to hours of intensified searching at borders, through the affectless data plucked by the NSA and the rest. We wanted the state to do something; it did. Great job. It might be safer to make no demands, to simply pray, when every act by which the state commits itself to doing something becomes an alibi for doing something worse.
Today’s politics of terror are founded by a terror of politics. We pray for angels to act, even if in acting angels become demons, because action for us and by us, undertaken in our own name, is more or less unthinkable. The scale of action, the complexity of problems, the simple fact of power differentials…these are indeed big problems. Huge. And they require a lot of tactical and strategic thinking, and this always normed by political practice. True political terror today comes from knowing that to-hand formations of the political cannot help us, while also knowing that there are no to-hand ways by which we might help ourselves. Anarchism begins with the terrifying knowledge that there’s no transcendent structure, God or State, who might help us, and with the equally terrifying knowledge that any such structure will be worse than none at all.