The poetics of ethics and the ethics of exile, a reading of Alan Gilbert

The other day Alan Gilbert wrote on what he called an “ethics of exile” and a “poetics of exile,” the latter being the title of his piece. I find both expressions problematic. To illustrate these notions he calls upon both an essay written by Judith Butler entitled “Who Owns Kafka” and Butler’s notion of  “a poetics of non-arrival,” as well as the speeches of Martin Luther King. But in both cases he fails to connect his notions (“a poetics that would serve as an ethics of exile”) with the examples he would like to use to illustrate them.

Let me first say that I have never really understood the contemporary overuse of the term “poetics,” which, some time after Aristotle first used it, reemerged out of, principally, Saussurean linguistics. It was meant, as opposed to hermeneutics, to be value-neutral, a science of literature concerned with various taxonomies. But the term has become so generalized that any notion of scientific methodology no longer pertains. At any rate, a “poetics” that can serve as an “ethics” is like saying “the station collided with the speeding train,” since ethics is anything but value-neutral. Ethics is all about values, about gauging moral values and evaluating the extent to which they are or not practiced. What then would a “poetics that would serve as an ethics of exile” actually mean? Even dropping poetics out of the equation, I still have trouble with an “ethics of exile.”


Let me try to follow as Alan Gilbert connects the dots. In the second paragraph he asks what “it means to become a stranger in the land in which one was born? What are the political implications of this?” At this point I’m unsure whether he is talking about himself, or someone else, or if the question is meant to be rhetorical. Isn’t that what happens to every American adolescent? It’s not the banality that upsets me, rather the conflation of alienation with exile, and that “political implications” accrue. Then he shunts tracks – to Butler’s essay – in order to, as far as I can see, appropriate her catch-phrase, “poetics of non-arrival,” a pleasing expression; but it sounds more like the title of a De Chirico painting than a literary version of coitus interruptus. Then without further ado, these two newly minted poetics are welded together as though they were two sides of the same coin.


“Except a poetics of exile, a poetics of non-arrival can never form an ontology. That’s the beauty of it. To embrace it is to lose it and to lose it is to come closer to a non-existent home.”


Form an ontology? And to embrace what?  Exile certainly is “a way of being,” sharing many of the characteristics of non-exile. Whether it, or alienation, is an ontology seems again problematic, since ontology is a branch of metaphysics dealing being, not being itself. And exile is certainly capable of being embraced without being lost, especially by writers, who often thrive in its embrace and feel very much at home there. To say that exile can be constructed out of “poetics” is nonsense. You are either forced into exile, or you adopt a life of exile, two different modes which often end in similar life-styles, as Kwane Dawes points out in his recent posting, “The Pleasures of Exile.”


Alan Gilbert goes on to declare that Martin Luther King’s speeches (I take him to mean his speeches, though he refers to them as “his language”) were “among the most significant poetry of the twentieth-century.” Certainly they were among the most significant speeches, but to call them poetry begs the question. I doubt King, when he penned them, was thinking of poetry at all. He was thinking of message. This fact, and the fact that some of his delivery was occasionally ad-libbed (the end of “I Have a Dream” for example), place King’s speeches in another great tradition, that of preaching rather than poetry.  King knew his ethics, from the Socratic promotion of self-knowledge as the highest good to the Aristotelian notion that justice and charity were just as beneficial to the moral health of society as they were to that of the individual who practiced them and certainly he must have prized the utilitarian notion that human conduct should bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number. All of this comes out in his speeches. Yet, he would not have thought of his work as an “ethics” or a “poetics.”  He would have thought of it less self-consciously, as practice and direct action.


“King understood an ethics of exile (and his language was among the most significant poetry of the twentieth-century) even if his goal was to lead enslaved people out of exile. That’s the onto-political dilemma, really.”


King understood an ethics of exile… even if his goal was to lead enslaved people out of exile. This is an utter contradiction in terms. Is ethics somehow contrary to action, to leading? Of course not! In the Socratic sense ethics is directly related to action. There is certainly no dilemma in being political and acting ethically. And poetics simply has nothing to do with it, or with much else for that matter, including the practice of making poems.




Originally Published: April 7th, 2011

Martin Earl lives in Coimbra, in central Portugal. From 1986 until 2001 he lectured in English, translation, and American culture at the University of Coimbra. For the last ten years he has worked as a translator and a journalist. Earl has blogged on Harriet, and his translation of Antonio Medeiros’s...