‘The question is how does one hold an apple
Who likes apples’
—George Oppen, ‘The Gesture’
‘The way the combination is made is an example
of what Deleuze and Guattari call consistency—
not in the sense of a homogeneity, but as a holding
together of disparate elements (also known as a “style”).’
We might want to think about this question of holding. Maybe we want to notice that it goes
to the limit. This is true: that what we hold, and how we hold it, is a limit on us. It is an
ethical question, this question of style.
It is complicated in the case of apples. If one does like apples, how does one hold an apple in
such a way that the apple, not the holding, is what gets shown? For Oppen it is a question for
poetry. ‘The question is,’ as he puts it, ‘when will there not be a hundred/ Poets who mistake
that gesture/ For a style.’
Oppen is shrewd, and also wrong. If style is an exercise of radical will – the assertion of an
individuality – then we might agree that a gesture is preferable to a style. We might agree
that gesture and style were different. We might nod towards the apple. That’s that.
Go further though. Consider disparate elements. Consider disparate elements held together.
Consider that the holding is not necessary, that it is an intellectual act. The elements held
together are an instance of style.
Style is a holding of disparate elements.
Not apples, elements. The question is: which?
It is complicated in the case of people. In Giorgio Agamben’s State of Exception, Giorgio
Agamben writes about holding. He writes about States and what they hold; about those they
don’t hold: the state of exception.
Everybody is held, and everybody not held is also held. The state of exception is a special
kind of holding; a place (though not always a place) where those not held by the State are
Style is a relation with elements not ourselves.
More after the break, or read it (in a nicer pdf version) via Almost Island.
In State of Exception by Giorgio Agamben, Giorgio Agamben writes at length about the
grammar of the ban. The ban is the answer to the question: how does that which is not held
get held? How does the state hold people it doesn’t opt to hold?
Giorgio Agamben makes the point that the ban has an infinitely supple grammar, that to
issue a ban is to address everybody such that some people are separated out. To effect a ban
is to address everybody, even those held outside. The ban is the linguistic manoeuvre by
which those not held are held.
‘… a holding … (also known as a ‘style’)’
It is an ethical question, this question of holding.
On the cliffs above Dover, looking out towards France, nearby where this writing comes
from— down the road just, at a global level in the writing’s dooryard— there is a building that
was once a Napoleonic Fort.
It was a Napoleonic Fort because it was built in the time of the Napoleonic Wars, in order to
stave off invasion by Napoleonic France. The invasion never came and the building wasn’t
finished till the war was. Still, the building served a purpose.
Disparate elements. Sarkozy. When Matthew Arnold wrote ‘Dover Beach’ he didn’t observe
Still the building served a purpose, and since it was built has had several afterlives. In the
1970s it was a borstal. Since the 1990s it has been an immigration removal centre.
Borstal: so-called from a village outside Rochester, Kent, on the doorstep just, in the
dooryard so to speak.
So to speak, the removal centre isn’t a removal centre. It is a place where people are held.
It stands at the limit. A question of holding.
From the cliffs it is possible to witness France.
In State of Exception by Giorgio Agamben, Giorgio Agamben observes that the exception is
the rule; that the exception is the rule by which modern jurisdictions sustain themselves;
that the cliffs at Dover is where the reality of modern expression is.
There, on the doorstep, in the dooryard so to speak. It is an ethical question, this question of
holding. It is a language question also, so to speak.
‘ …. a holding together … (also known as a “style”).’
Style can’t be the word. ‘The question is/ When will there not be a hundred/ Poets who
mistake that gesture/ For a style.’
If style is an act of radical will, an assertion of individual identity, the word for the ethical
question is not style.
But style is a holding, a decision about what to hold. It goes to the limit, marks the extent of
Style is a relation with things that are not ourselves; in the dooryard, so to speak, a turning
Not a turning out. A turning outwards.
The figure of outward.
The question is: what does the figure of outward signify? It is important not to underestimate
the urgency of this issue. Style is a limit, a decision about what we hold. The question is, how
to style a language that is outward?
What it comes to is how we turn. Oppen mistrusts style because he considers it a turning
inwards. To hold the apple who likes apples is to hold an apple in such a way that the apple,
in being held, doesn’t become a trope.
To trope is to turn, to turn repeatedly in the language, so that in turning one arrives at a
figure of speech. A style formed by troping is a turning of language towards itself. A gesture,
by contrast, is a turning outwards.
For Oppen style is a figure of speech, a repeated turning within the language. Only by the
gesture, as he sees it, does language get beyond itself.
But what about the figure of outward?
‘For Robert Creeley— Figure of Outward’ (Charles Olson, The Maximus Poems)
We might want to think about this figure of outward, about what and how it allows us to
hold. We might want to think about the Dover cliffs, and how the people to be removed are
held outside. Indefinitely. In a state of indefinite detention.
In State of Exception Giorgio Agamben is clear, exception is the rule. Routinely people are
held indefinitely because the nation state is a holding out.
If we take him seriously, Giorgio Agamben, if we think seriously about the building on the
cliffs, looking out from Dover, witnessing France— if we worry about holding, about how
people are held, then we might want to think about the figure of outward.
It is question of association, this question of outward.
Consider the associations by which we style ourselves. Consider the tropes, the repeated
turnings, the turnings upon turnings, out of which a culture gets made. Consider the trope as
an association upon which culture turns. Consider the turning of a culture as an inward act.
The figure of outward is a form of association that is a holding together of disparate
elements. It is the opposite of the trope. It is a movement in language away from itself.
A holding together of disparate elements is a form of association in which convention is not
the key. There is this, we might say, and this. In the dooryard there is this. We might extend
ourselves, find a writing in such disparateness.
If we think about this question of holding, we might think again about the question of style.
Style is an ethical question, a question of limit. At the limit is that which is not ourselves.
Style is a way of handling that which falls outside. The call is for a style which is where the
We can only hazard. Pause. Abstraction.
Breaks. Acknowledgements. Everything but ourselves.
In the dooryard a turning outwards predicated on the new reality.
A holding. Out.