I soon realized that poets do not compose their poems with knowledge, but by some inborn talent and by inspiration, like seers and prophets who also say many fine things without any understanding of what they say.
-Plato, Apology 1
I cannot think of my work as entirely my work. In a sense, I’m only a transmitter, I simply bathe in energy. The artist must preserve this intense receptiveness. The real artist you cannot touch.
know / thyself / except for a / small wild patch for the poems.
-CA Conrad, “Mount Monadnock Transmissions”3
On November 29, 1960, the Greek artist Takis (Panayiotis Vassilakis, 1925-2019) turned the South African beat poet Sinclair Beiles into a flying magnet. The exhibition, held in Paris five months before Yuri Gagarin made his famous voyage, was titled “The Impossible: A Man in Space.” For the occasion, which “publicly introduced magnetism into art,” Takis rigged an electromagnetic field into which Beiles, wearing a belt of magnets, leapt – and was briefly suspended – after reading his “Magnetic Manifesto.”4 “I am a sculpture,” the poet read, “There are other sculptures like me. The main difference is they cannot speak. . .I would like to see all the nuclear bombs on earth turned into sculptures.”5 A groundbreaker in the field of kinetic art, Takis would in his long career create hundreds of innovative works that harness electricity, electromagnetism, hydrodynamics, and other forms of energy. Marcel Duchamp dubbed him the “happy ploughman of the magnetic fields” (“gai laboureur des champs magnétiques”) in 1962, prophesying a later installation, “Magnetic Fields” (1969), that featured magnetic pendulums swinging over an assembly of flower-like metal sculptures.6 As the pendulums swing, the sculptures bend and sway like heliotropes.
Takis’s work puts in question the relation between knowing and making in the artist’s embodied mediation of the artwork. Like many modern artists, especially those of the neo-avant-gardes of the 1960s, Takis positions himself not as a master craftsman or promethean creator but as a “transmitter” of energy, a depersonalized medium of “intense receptiveness.” And as a Greek artist, he would be aware that by turning a poet into a magnet he was literalizing a notorious conceit from Plato, who, in the Ion, has Socrates argue that poets and rhapsodes, in their total ignorance of the meaning of the poetry they compose and recite, are like rings of iron magnetized to a lodestone-Muse. Whereas Plato argues that poets “do not compose their poems with knowledge,” modern artists like Takis ground their practices in conditions of unknowing. “Magnets are not ideas,” Takis declares in 1983.7
Since the historical avant-gardes in particular, artists working in various traditions have displaced knowing with procedure, reimagining the artwork as a product of operations that deskill and desubjectivize the artist through preset rules, chance operations, and modes of energy transfer. In doing so, they situate the body of the artist as nothing more than a medium of transmission. In the field of poetics, automatic writing and poetic dictation are among the most consequential developments in this vein. The French Surrealists, for instance, redescribe the rhapsodic vocation as “l’écriture automatique,” a mode of immediate composition calculated to disable the conscious mind’s internal filtering function and trigger cataclysmic access to the unconscious. (Does André Breton’s and Phillippe Soupault’s Les Champs magnétiques, the inaugural Surrealist work, make oblique reference to Plato’s Ion too?) W.B. Yeats also uses the phrase “automatic writing” in the introduction to the 1937 version of A Vision to describe his wife George’s unexpected visitation by an “unknown writer” four days after their marriage.8 But Yeats’s automatic writing differs from that of the Surrealists in its mystified positioning of the writing content outside George, thus engaging a model of poetic dictation. Yeats, in turn, borrows the notion from William Blake, who writes in a letter of April 25, 1803 to his patron Thomas Butts: “I have written this Poem [“Milton”] from immediate Dictation twelve or sometimes twenty or thirty lines at a time without Premeditation & even against my Will.”9 Jack Spicer – after Blake and Yeats – elaborates his own “practice of the Outside” and original theory of poetic “dictation” in his “Vancouver Lectures” and famously figures the poet as a radio.10 Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, too, intervenes in the ancient debate about poetic knowing in her masterpiece, Dictee, whose title gestures to the rote taking down of dictation – the French primary school educational practice of “la dictée” – while coining a term, “dictee,” that names the subject of dictatorship (as in dictator/dictee). Cha’s project organizes its chapters around the classical muses and engages the Platonic notion of poetic helplessness before the divine influx of poetic transmission, understood as an aesthetic event that parallels political domination and subjection. Yet the work also encodes resistance in sundry ways, displacing the muses’ authority by substituting a fictive one (Elitere, muse of lyric poetry) for a real one (Euterpe, muse of music) and adding to the traditional nine an unnamed “Tenth, a circle within a circle, a series of concentric circles.”11
The American poet CA Conrad is a key contemporary figure in this genealogy of poetic dictation.12 Since 2012, Conrad has written four full-length collections that experiment with “(Soma)tic poetry rituals,” defamiliarizing procedures designed to induce states of “extreme presence” that generate notes for poems.13 My wager is that Conrad revalorizes the degraded subjectivity and epistemology of the Platonic poet by literalizing Plato’s model of poesis as unknowing energy transfer between mineral bodies. The core problem of this essay is the violence of intersubjectivity, the primary compulsion we all face, as social subjects, to be knowable and knowing. But the essay’s larger aim is to think the confluence of two concepts: epistemic injustice and poetic dictation. Epistemic injustice is a concept invented by the analytic feminist philosopher Miranda Fricker that concerns forms of harm people suffer in their capacity as knowers. Poetic dictation refers to poetic practices in which poets do not create poems within but receive and then transmit them from the outside. Whereas the former concept highlights the ways in which we are hampered in our efforts to give and receive knowledge, the latter grounds ignorance as the condition of possibility for poesis. For Conrad, the unknowingness of the poetic act as exemplified in “(Soma)tic” rituals, far from being a liability, opens a liberatory horizon of unknowable and therefore unharmable subjectivity. In turning Conrad into a receptive medium through embodied estrangement, (Soma)tics enact a kind of dictation that parallels classical models of rhapsodic inspiration while also charging them with critical force. Conrad leverages this force through the precision with which they reproduce Plato’s model of poesis as energy transfer to and from the poet’s mineralized body. In doing so, they reveal violence inherent to – and occluded within – the field of social knowledge, particularly as it structures anti-queer violence and ecological despoliation.
Epistemic Injustice, Plato, and Poetic Dictation
Miranda Fricker defines “epistemic injustice” as injustice that “wrongs someone in their capacity as a subject of knowledge,” and identifies its two forms.14 The first, testimonial injustice, involves credibility deficit or surplus: not being believed to possess knowledge one possesses or being believed to possess knowledge one does not. The second, hermeneutic injustice, involves blocked access to knowledge that would be necessary to understanding one’s individual and collective situation. To be a victim of epistemic injustice means to be harmed as a giver and/or receiver of knowledge. (In this sense, the concept of “epistemic injustice” itself combats epistemic injustice – specifically hermeneutic injustice – by supplying the world with a concept that names a previously unnamed form of harm). The concept of epistemic injustice, and especially Fricker’s formulation of it, has enjoyed wide currency in contemporary debates about gender and racial oppression within the field of moral philosophy and beyond, even as scholars have also questioned certain of Fricker’s assumptions about the neutral exercise of reason.15
To think the relation between epistemic injustice and poetry, we begin with the fact that poets have long been seen as precarious subjects of knowledge. Plato established the canonical western philosophical paradigm of this precarity. Across various dialogues he reflects on rhapsody and poetic inspiration, and casts poets and rhapsodes as both laboring under epistemic deficit and enjoying epistemic surplus. In the Ion, for instance, Socrates guides the dialogue’s eponymous rhapsode (singer of epic poetry, literally “stitcher of song”) down the path to admitting that he is not a knowing practitioner of an art (technē) but an unknowing interpreter (hermeneus) of poets who are themselves unknowing interpreters of divine inspiration. Socrates begins the dialogue by (disingenuously) envying rhapsodes their “profession” of making themselves look pretty and spending all their time rubbing shoulders with great poets, chief among them Homer:
I must say I have often envied you rhapsodes, Ion, for your art [technē]: for besides that it is fitting to your art that your person should be adorned and that you should look as handsome as possible, the necessity of being conversant with a number of good poets, and especially with Homer, the best and divinest poet of all, and of apprehending his thought [dianoia] and not merely learning off his words [epē], is a matter of envy; since a man can never be a good rhapsode without understanding what the poet says. For the rhapsode ought to make himself an interpreter [hermeneus] of the poet’s thought [dianoia] to his audience; and to do this properly without knowing what the poet means is impossible. So one cannot but envy all this.16
In praising the rhapsode’s art, Socrates says that rhapsodes not only memorize the poet’s words but thoroughly learn [ekmanthanein] the poet’s “dianoia” or thought. The technē of rhapsody would therefore involve skilled singing and learned interpretation, which, Socrates says, presumes understanding: to interpret “the poet’s thought. . .properly without knowing what the poet means is impossible.” This proposition is logical enough, yet, as Socrates will demonstrate, the rhapsode cannot know the poet’s “dianoia” because poetry has none. Nor is the poet herself a knowing practitioner of a technē but an involuntary medium for the reception and transmission of poetic inspiration, the muse’s divine endowment. Worse yet, Socrates leads Ion to deduce that rhapsody is a doubly fake technē, a practice of unthinking memorization and recitation of the poem’s thoughtless words (epē). The irony of Socrates’s opening gambit of praising the rhapsode’s acumen as singer and interpreter reveals itself by the dialogue’s end: a rhapsode knows the poet’s words but not their meaning and, embarrassingly, need not know what the poet means in order to deliver a stirring recitation. More consequentially, it seems that the poet’s words, even those of Homer, have no thought (dianoia) proper to them in the first place. For the poetic force that binds the muse to poets and poets to their interlocutors is invisible and unknowable; poetry is not an artful knowing but an artless attraction. Socrates likens the Muse to a lodestone whose magnetism attracts an iron ring (the poet) that attracts other iron rings (rhapsodes) that attract still other iron rings (the audience), forming a chain:
For, as I was saying just now, this is not an art in you, whereby you speak well on Homer, but a divine power, which moves you like that in the stone which Euripides named a magnet, but most people call “Heraclea stone.” For this stone not only attracts iron rings, but also imparts to them a power whereby they in turn are able to do the very same thing as the stone, and attract other rings; so that sometimes there is formed quite a long chain of bits of iron and rings, suspended one from another; and they all depend for this power on that one stone. In the same manner also the Muse inspires men herself, and then by means of these inspired persons the inspiration spreads to others, and holds them in a connected chain. For all the good epic poets utter all those fine poems not from art, but as inspired and possessed.17
The beleaguered Ion is ultimately led to the absurd conclusion that good rhapsodes and good generals are the same thing, and that he must therefore be a great general. And we are left with the rather awkward transformation of the exalted poet into an ignorant magnetic mineral.
This farcical dialogue, one of Plato’s earliest, is sometimes regarded as a spurious satire. But read in the context of Plato’s later critiques of poetry in the Phaedrus, the Apology, and above all the Republic, we see that Socrates’s dissection cuts deeper than rhapsodic intellectual vanity, down to the very core of the art of poetry, if it is an art at all. For the rhapsode is not simply an interpreter but an interpreter of an interpreter, just as poets themselves are not practitioners of an art but “the interpreters of the gods”: “For all the good epic poets utter all those fine poems not from art, but as inspired and possessed.” In a related passage from the Apology Socrates reprises this sentiment, noting that poets, like prophets, “say many fine things without any understanding of what they say.”18 And in the Phaedrus: “But he who without the divine madness comes to the doors of the Muses, confident that he will be a good poet by art, meets with no success, and the poetry of the sane man vanishes into nothingness before that of the inspired madmen.”19 The problem for poetry, then, is not just that the rhapsode is an interpreter of nonexistent poetic dianoia but that the poet is also a mere interpreter gripped by divine inspiration, a “light and winged and holy thing” that has no more agency during poetic composition than an iron ring when it is magnetized by a lodestone. A poem is a precipitate or by-product of this unknowing process and as such contains no knowledge that we can call proper to poetry itself (even though it will contain knowledge of many other things, such as charioteering, fishing, war, love, being a general, and so on). The upshot is that poetry does not know what it knows; it is an unthinkable thought. The poet does not know what she has made; she is an unthinking medium. And the rhapsode is a mediator of this medium, an interpreter of an interpreter.
To what degree do Plato’s reflections on poetry’s excesses and limitations betray anxiety about the limits of philosophy? In Handbook of Inaesthetics (1998), Alain Badiou asks whether Plato’s infamous critique of poetry in Book X of the Republic – culminating in the banishment of poets from the ideal polis – might not “manifest the singular limits of the Platonic philosophy of the Idea? Or is it, on the other hand, a constitutive gesture of philosophy ‘as such,’ which would thereby originally manifest its incompatibility with the poem?”20 Whence this incompatibility between poetry and philosophy? “To what, within thought, is poetry opposed?”, Badiou asks:
Poetry is not directly opposed to the intellect (nous), to the intuition of ideas. It is not opposed to dialectics, considered as the supreme form of the intelligible. Plato is very clear on this point. What poetry forbids is discursive thought, dianoia. Plato says that “he who lends an ear to [poetry] must be on his guard fearing the polity in his soul.” [quoting Republic 608b] Dianoia is the thought that traverses, the thought that links and deduces. The poem itself is affirmation and delectation—it does not traverse, it dwells on the threshold. The poem is not a rule-bound crossing, but rather an offering, a lawless proposition.21
For Badiou, Plato’s trouble with poetry is not just its reduplication of mimesis and the dangers this form of illusion poses to the organization of the ideal polity but the fact that poetry turns thought into something to be enjoyed rather than known. Poetry, we might say, poses a problem to knowledge because although it is not refractory to reason it is irreducible to argument. Giorgio Agamben comes at this problem from a different angle in Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture, which tracks the originary “scission” of the word into poetry and philosophy, a “split” that “testifies to the impossibility, in Western culture, of fully possessing the object of knowledge.”22 We might note the resonance of Agamben’s concept of “possession” with that of Socrates in a later passage of the Ion: “One poet is suspended from one Muse, another from another: the word we use for it is ‘possessed [katekhetai],’ but it is much the same thing, for he is held [ekhetai].”23 Agamben, too, traces the word’s problematic “scission” back to the disjuncture of rhapsodic inspiration and rational technique. “In our culture, knowledge,” he says, “is divided between inspired-ecstatic and rational-conscious poles, neither ever succeeding in wholly reducing the other.”24 For Agamben, the primal injunction against the simultaneous possession and knowledge of the word gives birth to the melancholy practice of criticism, which “safeguards unappropriability as its most precious possession.”25 Criticism is melancholy, in a precise Freudian sense, because it compensates for the word’s epistemic bereavement from itself by establishing a relation with its unrelatability.26
Reading Badiou and Agamben together – the former speaking of poetic “affirmation and delectation” and the latter of “possession” to describe the same issue, poetry’s exclusion of dianoia – an elegant chiasmus emerges: poetry enjoys its object but cannot know it / philosophy knows its object but cannot enjoy it. I am interested in the enduring power of this proposition, especially insofar as it tends to flip into the counterproposition that poetry and poets enjoy epistemic surplus. Poets know nothing of what they write but are also privileged interlocutors with the gods (they are, as Ezra Pound says, “the antennae of the race,” an aptly ambiguous figure of privileged yet insectoid receptivity to invisible energy currents). This slippage between deficit and surplus matters because it parallels the “credibility deficit” and “credibility excess” that form the two modalities of testimonial injustice.27 The poet’s epistemology therefore operates according to a logic of the supplement, a condition of knowledge that constitutively falls short of and exceeds itself. Such deliberations probably do not trouble most poets when they sit down to write. But while many poets would chafe against Plato’s “ignorant magnetism” model of poetic composition, some have turned it to powerful use by faithfully redeploying its protocols.
Conrad’s (Soma)tics and Poetic Dictation
CA Conrad, though hardly a Platonist, is a contemporary rhapsode who leverages the discourse and paraphernalia of an occult poetics to turn their body into a medium of poetic transmission. In doing so, they illuminate forms of violence that structure and mystify the field of social knowledge. We witness this practice in various ways across Conrad’s work, especially the last four books organized around (Soma)tic rituals. Consider “Full Moon Hawk Application,” published in Ecodeviance (2014), a (Soma)tic ritual and poetic suite undertaken at the Banff Centre:
I had the privilege of spending a month in the Leighton Artist Colony’s Hemingway Studio at Banff Centre, located in the Canadian Rockies. In ancient times First Nations people used Banff as a locus for healing their sick, but they refused to live there. Banff Centre sits atop an enormous deposit of magnetic iron. Many holistic health practitioners use magnets to pull toxins out of the tissue and into the blood to then be flushed from the body. Here we are catching up with ancestral wisdom, finally.28
Buried beneath this scene of valorized Indigenous wisdom lies Plato’s model of poetic inspiration. Like a chthonic muse, the Banff Centre’s “enormous deposit of magnetic iron” draws toxins out of the poet’s tissue into the blood to become information for a suite of thirteen poems. At the top of the mountain Conrad discovers a lake and hot springs, then narrates a ritual of poetic composition as mineral attunement:
There were fish in the lake, fish swimming above our heads at the Banff Centre, and this became part of my (Soma)tic ritual. I would go to sleep with a piece of celestite crystal, meditating on the swimming above me, the swimming above me! OREAD FREQUENCIES! The notes for the poems were often informed by nightmares, the magnetic iron dumping toxins into my blood, making sleep difficult.
After notes from the morning hawk webcam meditations I brushed my gums vigorously with cayenne pepper to stimulate the capillaries, JOLT the heart. I then drank a glass of crystal-infused water, the glass flanked by a four-inch shaft of citrine, a two-inch pyramid of selenite, and dangling just above the surface was a piece of the ancient Russian meteorite known as seraphinite. The citrine and selenite pulled negative charge from the water while seraphinite infused it with the angelic order to trigger my spinal chord into epiphanic alignment.29
Conrad uses the ferrous minerality of their body to carry out a two-stage ritual of magnetic poesis that draws toxins from their blood and then cleanses the body into “epiphanic alignment.” As the citrine and selenite draw “negative charge” from the crystal-infused water the seraphinite suspended above it, like an inorganic muse, “infuse[s] it with the angelic order.” Conrad acts as if Plato’s model of poesis were literally true, turning their body into a kinetic art object. The resultant poems, drawn from the poet’s blood by magnetic ore buried under the Canadian Rockies, are radiant with the knowledge of their origin. As constitutive elements of Conrad’s ritual-and-poem procedure, they are “more” than just themselves. This displacement of emphasis from individual poems to the relational flows and mediations of information at the level of the book owes as much to Plato’s poetic epistemology as to the modern advent of the serial poem – Plato’s “logos” meets Spicer’s “low ghost.”
What kind of art object is a (Soma)tic ritual? It is neither a prose poem nor incidental information, like an author’s note, preface, or other paratext. It is both integral and supplemental to the poem, a record of the poem’s genesis and composition that accompanies the poem. We might read Conrad’s (Soma)tic ritual books in the tradition of the prosimetrum, an ancient hybrid poetic form that alternates between poetry and prose. Conrad’s work takes its place among other prosimetrums such as Dante’s Vita Nuova, Dickinson’s letters, Williams’s Spring and All, Spicer’s After Lorca, and Cha’s Dictee in the way it weaves together poetry and critical prose supplement. The prose ritual is what we know but cannot enjoy, just as the poem is what we enjoy but cannot know. The ritual is not philosophy, however, but is akin to classical rhapsody: instructions for and interpretation of a somatic encounter with an irresistibly magnetic external force. And the poem is a record of the ritual that retroactively endows it with meaning. Ritual and poem together preserve the thought which the poem alone supposedly embodies as “affirmation and delectation,” that is, unknowably. The poems that the (Soma)tic rituals generate cannot be understood without the prose instructions and interpretations of the ritual, and the ritual’s meaning must be realized by the poem. Conrad cleaves poetry into “ritual” and “poem” – bearers of what is, respectively, known and enjoyed in poetry – while also cleaving these elements together as ritual-and-poem. In doing so, they create prosimetric works that stage testimonial and hermeneutic relays – between ritual and poem – that bring tremendous critical force to bear on the problem of injustice within the field of social knowledge.
“Mount Monadnock Transmissions” and Poetic Dianoia
We have examined Conrad’s poetics in relation to the concept of epistemic injustice as mediated by Plato’s theory of rhapsody. To understand how and why Conrad separates poetic making from knowing through ritual/procedure, we must attend to their critique of what it means to be harmed as a giver and receiver of knowledge. Fricker’s work offers a clarifying framework within which to theorize this dual relation to knowledge, one which also begs certain questions about the status of poetic testimony within the field of social knowledge. Given that a poem is neither refractory to reason nor reducible to rational argument, how might Fricker account for the ways in which poetic knowledge takes the form of a “lawless proposition” rather than a “rule-bound crossing”? How do we evaluate and credit such testimony when it cannot be assimilated to a neutral conception of reason, that is, one which would be universally available to rational scrutiny? How might the concept of epistemic injustice allow us to grasp the relation between poesis and social determination without reproducing the very forms of violence that constitute intersubjectivity as such, namely the compulsion we all face as social subjects to give a rational account of ourselves?
A recent (Soma)tic ritual and poem sequence titled “Mount Monadnock Transmissions” addresses these questions in relation to a horrific trauma. In 1998, Conrad’s boyfriend Earth (Mark Holmes) was bound, raped, and burned alive while meditating in a cave in middle Tennessee, where he had moved to work on a queer land project. Police ruled his death a suicide, though the paramedics and coroner described it as a homicide. When Conrad pressed the police to investigate further, they stonewalled with homophobic bullying: “The sheriff told me to mind my own business every time I insisted Earth was murdered, and he called me Faggot like it was my name: he would say, ‘Do you hear me Faggot?’ Yeah, Faggot heard you. The police know who did it. Or they just don’t care. Which is worse?”30 The extreme epistemic injustice of this crime is testimonial and hermeneutic: the information surrounding Earth’s murder is not worth knowing; Conrad’s voice is not worth hearing; and Conrad’s access to further knowledge about the murder has been foreclosed.31
“Mount Monadnock Transmissions” is a (Soma)tic healing ritual that steps outside the brutally oppressive epistemic field of Earth’s murder through rhapsody. After describing the events surrounding Earth’s murder and the subsequent confrontation with the police, Conrad writes: “The last time I saw Earth alive he gave me a clear quartz crystal he had carried in his pocket for over a year.” The crystal, with its “psychic barbed wire,” had caused Conrad pain for many years. Two earlier healing rituals had failed to give relief.32 But on this fellowship at the McDowell Colony in New Hampshire, Conrad brought the crystal – “a little library of the man I loved” – with them to Mount Monadnock:
Each morning I strapped Earth’s crystal to my forehead, making certain it was pressed firmly against my third eye. Then I would swallow a smaller, round, clear quartz crystal. This was the worker-crystal whose job was to travel through my body, pulling the information out of Earth’s crystal and flooding my bones, my tissue and blood, pumping his library through my heart and thoughts. Almost immediately my body calmed, every cell dropped its head back and sighed. The stress of loving a man murdered without justice lifted each day of the ritual toward peace. When I passed the small crystal into the toilet I would sterilize it and start over the next morning. I took notes for the poems.33
Conrad literalizes Plato’s metaphor of poesis as the mineral storage and discharge of information. They do so to open a space for the transmission of knowledge outside the existing epistemic field of Earth’s murder. This ritual is exemplary in its articulation of epistemic injustice and its redress, and Fricker’s work gives us crucial interpretive tools to say how and why. One wonders, though, in light of recent critiques, whether Fricker’s model would allow us to fully grasp the ritual’s efficacy in pursuing epistemic justice. The issue, as Kristen Dotson argues, is that “Fricker seems to assume that there is but one set of collective hermeneutical resources that we are all equally dependent upon.” Yet “we do not all depend on the same hermeneutical resources,” Dotson writes, and the assumption that we do “fails to take into account alternative epistemologies, countermythologies, and hidden transcripts that exist in hermeneutically marginalized communities among themselves.”34 I would argue that Conrad’s work has recourse to precisely such a marginalized hermeneutics.
In a recent essay, Alice Crary frames the issue in relation to Fricker’s tacit reliance on a neutral conception of reason. She argues that Fricker operates “within the constraints of a neutral conception of reason,” which assumes that a virtuous person would resist epistemic injustice by rationally reducing the injustice to an argument that would be universally intelligible and persuasive to other (virtuous) rational actors.35 In grounding her argument in an ethically neutral conception of reason that establishes rational argument as universal epistemic currency, Fricker elides the last fifty years of radical feminist thought that would insist on the irreducibility and uncodifiability of ethically-loaded standpoints (Crary adduces the work of bell hooks as exemplary of such thought).36 From this methodologically conservative vantage, it becomes difficult to do the vital work of centering such standpoints precisely because they are ethically-loaded, a tactic seen as a necessary corrective to the historical suppression of such perspectives by the very institutions, such as courts, that purport to uphold ethical impartiality. It follows that grasping what it means for a person to act rationally in a world of unequally distributed social privileges (such as testimonial credibility) requires methodologically radical attention to how certain peoples’ experience and knowledge can be individually and structurally unknowable to the epistemically privileged and disprivileged alike. In other words, what it means to act rationally might not be available for universal or ethically neutral rational scrutiny. The centering of ethically-loaded standpoints is vital because there is no ethically neutral and universally accessible space for reflecting on everyone’s use of reason.
Conrad certainly writes from a loaded standpoint. And so, a sticking point in thinking with Fricker about epistemic injustice would be the status of Conrad’s testimony in “Mount Monadnock Transmissions,” a poetic work that cannot be reduced to rational argument and that produces no new evidence that could be used to relitigate the case of Earth’s murder. The information that Earth’s crystal transmits to the worker-crystal inside Conrad’s body and from the body to the page – the testimony and hermeneutics of Conrad’s ritual and poem – is knowledge that might not be credited by any putatively rational individuals and social institutions committed to a neutral conception of reason. It might be discredited as magic or pseudoscience. It is not that Fricker would misrecognize the epistemic injustice of Conrad’s situation but that she would seek its articulation and redress via rationally neutral argument. The purpose of Conrad’s ritual, however, is not to make the circumstances of Earth’s murder available to universal rational scrutiny (an impossibility, as Conrad knows). It is a healing ritual that throws into relief the oppressive epistemic field within which Earth’s murder continues to unfold, a field whose violence is systemically irreducible to any argument that could satisfy the demands of a neutral conception of reason. In response to this violent irreducibility, the ritual and accompanying poems center the reception and making of the poem as themselves irreducible modes of giving and receiving knowledge. Conrad’s ritual may therefore be seen as an exercise of reason that cannot be “assimilated to an argumentative model.”37 It is a form of testimony designed to be irreducible to argument, a critique of how the demand for such reducibility can be weaponized. It is, as Badiou writes, “affirmation and delectation,” “not a rule-bound crossing, but rather an offering, a lawless proposition.” Its lawlessness refers not to its having committed a crime but to its withdrawal from the domain of justice and the law.
Fricker highlights the legal system’s exacerbating relation to epistemic injustice. One of her main examples of testimonial injustice is the racist court case against Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird.38 But where Fricker marks the legal system’s complicity in epistemic injustice, she grounds her argument in a tacit appeal to the same space of neutral reason for the redress of epistemic injustice as that system purports to uphold. Conrad is aware of this impasse: “For years I had a movie playing in my head, my own little invention of torment, complete with a courtroom drama where Earth’s still unknown rapists and killers were on trial. After a week of ritual the pernicious movie in my head faded and I immediately began taking better care of myself.”39 Blocked from giving or receiving knowledge to or from the police and the legal system, Conrad establishes an alternate epistemic relation with Earth through the crystals. What would seem to be an insurmountable limitation – the refractoriness of argumentative reason to the question of whether crystals can store a person’s information; the unlikelihood that such information could be used as evidence in court – proves, in this case, to be the necessary condition for easing, if not vindicating, epistemic violence. For the point is not to try to make an argument from an ethically-neutral standpoint about what happened to Earth and what the authorities should do to bring his killers to justice – this is not possible, given the systemic epistemic deficits under which Earth and Conrad labor. The point is to invest as heavily as possible in an “ethically-loaded perspective” and, in doing so, “to allow that genuine concepts may trace out patterns that are not available to ethically neutral scrutiny.”40 The ritual traces out such patterns by setting up an alternate epistemic relation between Conrad and Earth – and Conrad and readers – that is not mediated by institutions of epistemic oppression but by a rhapsodic mineral poetics. It proceeds from the insight that poetry only seems to lack knowledge proper to it because it cannot be reduced to logical argument.
What is a (Soma)tic ritual? It is Conrad’s rhapsody, their hermeneutic art. This practice hinges on the literal delectability of Earth’s crystal (“a little library of the man I loved”). Conrad straps Earth’s quartz crystal to their forehead, eats the worker-crystal, passes and sterilizes it, and eats it again. This ritual creates a chain of mediation – like Plato’s iron rings – in which Conrad’s body draws out the information transmitted by Earth’s crystal, via the worker-crystal, and becomes a second order mediator that transforms this information into poem-testimonies that are in turn mediated by readers. Earth’s crystal becomes the lodestone, the “Heraclea stone,” to this operation, ordering Earth’s information into an epistemic network. The first poem in the series figures this process as a kind of spiderly love that gives way to the visitation of Earth’s “song” and the dictation of Earth’s spectral testimony:
a spider’s web is
made of digested
fly brains wings hairs
legs tears pheromones
attracting more flies
dissolving us into the endeavor of love
hold me to your song it is delicious
hear you one more time in
middle of night
tooth it open
love all unloved
parts without pause
Dear Ghost flickering with
flames that no longer hurt
deflated lungs expanding
YOU SAY They Can Only
Burn A Faggot Once
What does this poem know? It knows, at first, the ritual that brought it into existence. The poem figuratively recapitulates the process that went into its making: the spider eating the flies mirrors the crystal-eating ritual; the web is the text metabolized by this eating; the whole process clears space for the ultimate transmission of Earth’s testimony. Like worker-crystals, the flies return again and again to discharge their energy in the spider/poet, who dismembers and metabolizes them into the very web/text that will store their information. The poem transposes Plato’s chain of magnetic rings into a pheromonal web that marks a site of attraction and dissolution where “song” can be enjoyed: “dissolving us into the endeavor of love / hold me to your song it is delicious.” This passage marks the convergence of Badiou’s “affirmation and delectation” and Agamben’s “possession.” Conrad is held to Earth’s song like the poet is held by the muse’s inspiration, in keeping with Socrates’s account of what happens during the poetic endeavor: “One poet is suspended from one Muse, another from another: the word we use for it is ‘possessed [katekhetai],’ but it is much the same thing, for he is held [ekhetai].” What else does this poem know? It knows the melancholy art of entering into relation with a ghost, of “transform[ing] into an object of amorous embrace what should have remained only an object of contemplation.”41 It knows its beloved object of knowledge dematerialized by enjoyment and it knows that object’s metabolic abstraction into a webbed schema. Conrad hears Earth’s song “one more time in / middle of night” and enjoins themself and/or Earth to “tooth it open.” But this possession cannot be enjoyed for long as “love all unloved / parts without pause.” This departure, however, opens space for the dictation of Earth’s testimony: “deflated lungs expanding / YOU SAY They Can Only / Burn A Faggot Once.” What else does the poem know? It knows it cannot enjoy Earth’s “song” and understand his “information” at the same time, though it can harbor them both in the same poem. It knows how to safeguard the unappropriability of Earth’s testimony. It knows “saying goodbye to a ghost is more final than saying goodbye to a lover. Even the dead return, but a ghost, once loved, departing will never reappear.”42
“Prose invents—poetry discloses,” Spicer writes in a letter to the ghost of Lorca.43 Against Plato’s notion that poetry forbids thought (dianoia), I would argue that this poem-and-ritual – and the entire prosimetrum of While Standing in Line for Death – prosaically invents and poetically discloses what might be called “poetic dianoia.” It is both a lawless offering and a rule-bound crossing that transmits knowledge of how foreclosed knowledge comes to be transmitted and safeguarded. It has its thought and eats it too. “To taste a word like a poet,” Conrad writes, “not just to use it to construct sentences but to understand how it enters the body and what it does once it has made its way in us”44 : such apprehension of poetic words – epē – and how they enter the body and transmit knowledge anchors Conrad’s work. Fricker’s concept of epistemic injustice gives us precious terms for understanding how we experience harm as subjects of knowledge. But it only takes us within distant range of understanding the poem’s bizarre status within the field of social knowledge as a knowing embrace of ignorance, a crystallized affirmation of what we do not know: “know / thyself / except for a / small wild patch for the poems.”
Plato, Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), 22. ↩
Takis, quoted in exhibition catalogue of Takis: 3 July – October 27, 2019: Large Print Guide (London: Tate Modern, 2019), 26. ↩
CA Conrad, While Standing in Line for Death (Seattle, Wave Books, 2017), 20. ↩
Takis, Takis, 26. ↩
Takis, Takis, 27. ↩
Marcel Duchamp, cited in Takis: The Fourth Dimension: The Menil Collection: January 24-July 16, 2015 (Houston, Texas: The Menil Collection, 2015), accessed online: cdn.filepicker.io/api/file/7moJypPWQGKsn8EHeLNU?&fit=max ↩
Takis, “Statement,” in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings, ed. Peter Selz and Katherine Stiles (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2012), 475. ↩
In the introduction to the 1937 edition of A Vision, Yeats writes: “On the afternoon of October 24th 1917, four days after my marriage, my wife surprised me by attempting automatic writing. What came in disjointed sentences, in almost illegible writing, was so exciting, sometimes so profound, that I persuaded her to give an hour or two day after day to the unknown writer, and after some half-dozen such hours offered to spend what remained of life explaining and piecing together those scattered sentences. ‘No,’ was the answer, ‘we have come to give you metaphors for poetry.’” W.B. Yeats, A Vision (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1962), 8. ↩
William Blake, The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press, 1982), 728. ↩
Jack Spicer, The House That Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer (Middletown, CT; Wesleyan University Press, 1998), 1-48. ↩
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictee (Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press, 2001), 175. ↩
Conrad visited the Takis retrospective at the Tate Modern in London (July 3 – October 27), and in a social media post on October 29, 2019, shared a picture of the exhibit for “The Impossible: A Man in Space.” ↩
Conrad defines the (Soma)tics as “ritualized structures where being anything but present was next to impossible. These rituals create what I refer to as an ‘extreme present’ where the many facets of what is around me wherever I am can come together through a sharper lens.” CA Conrad, Ecodeviance: (Soma)tics for the Future Wilderness (Seattle; New York: Wave Books, 2014), xi. ↩
Miranda Fricker, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 5. ↩
To cite just a few examples of recent book-length work: José Medina, The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and Resistant Imaginations (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice, ed. Ian James Kidd, José Medina, and Gaile Pohlhaus, Jr. (London; New York: Routledge, 2017); Overcoming Epistemic Injustice: Social and Psychological Perspectives, ed. Benjamin R. Sherman and Stacey Goguen (Rowman and Littlefield International, 2019); Epistemic Injustice and the Philosophy of Recognition, ed. Paul Giladi and Nicola McMillan (Routledge, 2023). ↩
Plato, Statesman, Philebus, Ion (Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: Harvard University Press, Loeb Classical Library, 1925), 407-9. ↩
Plato, Statesman, Philebus, Ion , 421. ↩
Plato, Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis; Cambridge: Hackett, 1997), 22. ↩
Plato, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Phaedrus (Cambridge, Massachusetts; London; England: Harvard University Press, Loeb Classical Library, 1999), 469. ↩
Alain Badiou, Handbook of Inaesthetics (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2005), 16. ↩
Badiou, Handbook, 17. ↩
Giorgio Agamben, Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture (Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), xvii. ↩
Plato, Ion, 429. ↩
Agamben, Stanzas, xvii. ↩
Agamben, Stanzas, xvii. ↩
Agamben, Stanzas, xvii-xviii. ↩
Though Fricker largely discounts credibility excess as a form of testimonial injustice in her book, I agree with José Medina that it does become a form of it under a “contextualist expansion of the notion of epistemic injustice as a temporally and socially extended phenomenon.” José Medina, “The Relevance of Credibility Excess in a Proportional View of Epistemic Injustice: Differential Epistemic Authority and the Social Imaginary,” Social Epistemology Vol. 25, No. 1 (January 2011): 15-35. ↩
CA Conrad, Ecodeviance, 33. ↩
CA Conrad, Ecodeviance, 33-34. ↩
Conrad, While Standing, 2. ↩
The police practice what Gaile Pohlhaus, Jr. calls “willful hermeneutic ignorance,” a phenomenon “which occurs when dominantly situated knowers refuse to acknowledge epistemic tools developed from the experienced world of those situated marginally.” Gaile Pohlhaus, Jr., “Relational Knowing and Epistemic Injustice: Toward a Theory of ‘Willful Hermeneutic Ignorance,’” Hypatia, vol. 27, no. 4 (Fall 2012): 715-735. ↩
See the (Soma)tic rituals: “DOUBLE-shelter” in A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon (Seattle; New York: Wave Books, 2012), 56-59; “I Loved Earth Years Ago” in Ecodeviance: (Soma)tics for the Future Wilderness, 109-13. ↩
Conrad, While Standing, 2-3. ↩
Kristie Dotson, “A Cautionary Tale: On Limiting Epistemic Oppression,” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, vol. 33, no. 1 (2012): 31. ↩
Alice Crary, “The Methodological Is Political: What’s The Matter with ‘Analytic Feminism’?” Radical Philosophy 2.02 (June 2018): 51. ↩
For another article that parses the distinction between “reducible and irreducible epistemic oppression” (with reference to Plato’s famous “Allegory of the Cave” in the Republic), see Kristie Dotson, “Conceptualizing Epistemic Oppression,” Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy, 28:2 (2014): 115-138. ↩
Crary, “The Methodological Is Political,” 53. ↩
Fricker, Epistemic Injustice, 23-9. ↩
Conrad, While Standing, 3. ↩
Crary, “The Methodological,” 57. ↩
Agamben, Stanzas, 20. ↩
Jack Spicer, My Vocabulary Did This To Me (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2008), 153. ↩
Spicer, My Vocabulary Did This To Me, 111. ↩
Conrad, While Standing, 57. ↩
I would like to thank John Steen for invaluable feedback on an earlier version of this essay.