My thinking about "the multiple" as a category for poetic thought began when I first began reading Alain Badiou back in 2009, then took a detour through Bruno Latour and the fashionable new philosophical field of object-oriented ontology (OOO to its fans), and lately has arrived at a rereading of Hannah Arendt, via Robin Blaser (whose wonderful essays in The Fire I seem at last ready to read and whose care for what he calls "particles" make him an orienting figure in the new poetics I am exploring).
The notion of the multiple grounds Badiou's ontology: there's a pretty decent summary on his Wikipedia page. But what's really interesting and urgent about Badiou's philosophy is the rupture he describes between ontology and subjectivity: the possibility of action or what Badiou calls "the Event." In my reading or misreading of Badiou, we live in a universe of "indifferent multiplicities," one of which might be given a name like "Politics"--precisely because the most authentic political possibilities are what get excluded from (and thus in mathematical terms "dominate") the set "Politics." The person, the subject, is itself multiple, is in fact non-existent, just a vector or trace assigned to multiple multiplicities and mapped or contained in the iron cage of Foucauldian power/knowledge. But crucially, a subject can emerge: one of the indifferent multiplicities of the universe gets named by the subject, who affirms his fidelity in that act of naming: I choose YOU, out of all the others, as my beloved, and so realize myself as a lover, and my relation to all others in the universe and myself is forever changed. What's attractive about this philosophy is the phenomenon of the Event as rupture, as eruption of Truth, and the importance it reassigns to the subject. Through her fidelity to the Event in love, science, politics, or art, the subject creates herself, and recreates the world.
The poems that have meant the most to me, writing or reading them, have been Events: I feel myself addressed, interpolated, on a level other than rational, and become, for a moment, more. And in that moment of departure from my everyday self, I am conscious of that self as multiple, as a constellation of objects that might be given such names as citizen, professor, father, etc. But the poem calls me away from all that, for a moment: I make a choice, I stake myself on the poem, and when the experience of the poem is over I am somewhere different from where I started, called to responsibility in Robert Duncan's sense: "Responsiblity is to keep / the ability to respond." Which response, more often than not, has for me taken the form of a new poem.
Object-oriented ontology seems to be nearly the opposite of Badiou's, for as a form of realism it affirms the reality of objects in the universe irrespective of human perceptions or relations to them. Its strongest move, from a poetic standpoint (and from the standpoint of someone preoccupied in particular with environmental writing and with the scene of negotiation between self and system) is to decenter the human so that ontology is no longer constructed in terms of self-object (i.e., correlationism) but as object-object. At the same time, there is a Badiouan dimension to OOO in its suggestion of the possibility that ALL objects, not only human beings, can create relations with other objects, and therefore all have the potential of being or behaving like subjects. Imagine what it might look like, the fidelity to an Event manifested by a butterfly, a skyscraper, the Rotary Club, or any other object/entity. Now most of the OOO-folks I've read, like Graham Harman, seem more interested in establishing the independence of objects from relation, tout court: that is, they are not simply interested in separating the reality of objects from human perception's distortion effect, but in disintegrating "relation" altogether. Objects exist, without ontological priority from one to the next, and apparently to maintain this thesis one must bracket the possibility of mediation. But I'm more tantalized by this prospect of an unlimited field of Events: a universe of objects (including objects introjected by the self) that might at any moment manifest as subjects through fidelity to an Event, which itself a sort of relationless relation since the Event is fundamentally creative.
This expansive new field of relations has interesting political implications, one major description of which has been offered by Latour in his idea of the "new Constitution" (in Politics of Nature), which will supplant the "modern Constitution" that tried to purify the boundaries between human and non-human but instead results in the proliferation of hybrids and "quasi-objects." In the new Constitution proposed by Latour, the old barriers come down and the discourses of politics and science (human and nonhuman, subjects and objects) become complementary, so that the Collective is not only redefined (as more inclusive) but is subject to constant redefinition (and ever-more inclusive). Put another way, our responsibility under the new Constitution is constantly expanding as we recognize the capacity of others (nonhuman and even conceptual others, as well as human others) to respond to us and to their environments.
I have wandered rather far from poetry. But my evolving sense of the importance of the multiple, of the breakdown in subjectivity which is also paradoxically an expansion of its limits, helps me to understand how poetry might meet the crisis that almost seems to produce poetry now. That is, the crisis of the public sphere (this is where Arendt comes in): the public sphere that poets have abandoned in droves (the abandonment has of course been mutual), cultivating instead a kind of self-conscious pariah discourse, in which both self and other are neutralized as actors, becoming objects that relate to each other un-Event-fully, suspended in a solution of uncrystallized subjectivity (the largely found language of the postmodern poem) that registers an affect of nostalgia or hostility or bemusement.
What's missing in contemporary American poetry is that sense of responsibility to what affects all of us (Duncan insisted, always, on the universality of experience), which is NOT the same as "political" poetry, nor is it achieved through the insertion of political content. The "poetry world" is a pariah world, really a condition of worldlessness. That's inevitable to some degree because poetic discourse will always be anathema to the rational discursivity that cannot help but affirm what exists while denying the possibility of anything truly new. But poetry is or ought to create the conditions under which an Event might occur; ought to address and be addressed by new human and nonhuman others; ought to indicate rather than abdicate the possibility of public speech, that is, of action. Ought to model what becoming a subject is; ought to terrify us, too, with the uncanny possibility of subjectivity's universality (which is anchored, always, in the particular and historical). I is an other, that's just a starting place: the others are all I's.
There is a spirit in all things, for poets to conjure. A conjuring that happens in obedience and in listening, to words, which are also objects, which make silence speak.
Now come, my Ariel! bring a corollary,
Rather than want a spirit: appear and pertly!
No tongue! all eyes! be silent.