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Poetic Thinking 2016 | March 30, 2020

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Poetic Thinking in Massumi

Poetic Thinking in Massumi
  • On March 16, 2016

As I gather my thoughts and books for the next quarter’s work, I found an echo of our time together in Brian Massumi’s Parables for the Virtual. I already can see this will be a difficult text for me, and I will soon see how I fare with it, but for now I’ll share this quote I found in the introduction:

If you want to adopt a productivist approach, the techniques of critical thinking prized by the humanities are of limited value. To think productivism, you have to allow that even your own logical efforts feedback and add to reality, in some small, probably microscopic way. But still. Once you have allowed that, you have accepted that activities dedicated to thought and writing are inventive. Critical thinking disavows its own inventiveness as much as possible. Because it sees itself as uncovering something it claims was hidden or as debunking something it desires to subtract from the world, it clings to basically descriptive and justificatory modus operandi. However strenuously it might debunk concepts like “representation,” it carries on as if it mirrored something outside itself with which it had no complicity, no unmediated processual involvement, and thus could justifiably oppose. Prolonging the thought-path of movement, as suggested here, requires that techniques of negative critique be used sparingly. The balance has to shift to affirmative methods: techniques which embrace their own inventiveness and are not afraid to own up to the fact that they add (if so meagerly) to reality. There is a certain hubris to the notion that a mere academic writer is actually inventing. But the hubris is more than tempered by the self-evident modesty of the returns. So why not hang up the academic hat of critical self-seriousness, set aside the intemperate arrogance of debunking – and enjoy? If you don’t enjoy concepts and writing, and feel that when you write you are adding something to the world, if only the enjoyment itself, and that by adding that ounce of positive experience to the world you are affirming it, celebrating its potential, tending its growth, in however small a way, however really abstractly – well, just hang it up.

Beyond the clear gesture toward poetic thinking (“affirmative methods” in his conception), I find his style poetic. He is verbose in a way much unlike our aphorisms, but his writing ebbs and flows in a way that feels in-the-moment, processual, meandering, but with purpose.


  1. Harry Desmond

    Thanks for sharing this Audrey. Sounds strikingly similar to the Derrida quote I posted in “On Interpretation”. (Actually I see that Massumi translated postmodern French philosophy, so this connection is surely not accidental.) Massumi’s “critical thinking disavows its own inventiveness” is Derrida’s “[living] the necessity of interpretation as an exile”, and Massumi’s “sees itself as uncovering something it claims was hidden” is Derrida’s “dreams of deciphering a truth or an origin which escapes play”. The “affirmative methods” are precisely, for Derrida, to “affirm play”. Both writers are clearly promoting a shift towards the additive / creative / poetic at the expense of the descriptive / critical / representational, but it is interesting to see the different styles in which they make the point: Massumi informal (almost jovial) and a little prolix, Derrida with classic French opacity and imprecision mixed with deep insight and literary inventiveness.

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