Raymond de Borja on Sincerity

My interest in thinking about sincerity is prompted by the sentence “I am writing the truth” and the possibilities that abound given I, am, writing, and truth.

But also irony, the ease with which we have become ironic – how after our awareness of the spectacle our response has been mostly through some form of irony, to the extent that a poetics of a new sincerity is that of the characteristically ironic I. However generative the ironic is in the practice of writing, it is the ease, the formulaic speed by which irony operates which causes me to think it important to continually imagine non-complicit forms of response outside the ironic. “Sincerity has a rhetorical history,” writes Lisa Robertson in “The Weather: A Report on Sincerity.”[1] And so a possible project is that of thinking of a kind of rhetorical sincerity, but one where we move away from imitative rhetorical sincerity in the Aristotelian sense – where sincerity means speaking and acting truly about one’s feelings and desires; and move towards an assembled rhetorical sincerity – where the rhetorical and hence, sincerity is an assemblage, but where the assembly is done more dynamically than mere ironic reversals and matters of fact.

If we begin, as Roland Barthes declared some fifty years ago, that “writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin,” and that writing is the “neutral, composite, oblique space where [the] subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost starting with the body writing,” then it should follow that an experience of sincerity is impossible through an experience of poetry, since all that is ‘really’ felt and thought by the subject is verifiable by and through the subject alone. [2]

There is, however, first, the danger in problematizing sincerity through logically determined categories of truth or falsehood, since through Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, we know that statements are bound to exceed these logical categories, that is, the impossibility of establishing the truth or falsehood of the example sentences: I am lying or this statement is not provable; and second, a danger in thinking through the value of sincerity merely in terms of an absolute verifiability given our continual exposure to the true  as sensational and the sensational as true, to sincerity as surface effect – a sensation, as in: The news of her affair made him a sensation overnight, or in this will be a sensation. Let’s gather them in a house for 30 days were they all just need to be themselves.[3] The prevalence of polygraphs in reality shows attests to the value we attribute to sincerity. Though it is common knowledge that polygraphs are not absolutely reliable, it is important to have the polygraph if only for effect.

Yet sensation also means a feeling. It is an active mode of perception and response, of perception as response, that writing, in general, and poetry, in particular, enables.

I wonder what constitutes a polygraph design for Christian Bök’s Racter:

They have love, but they also have
typewriters. That is interesting [4]

In Bök’s Notes Towards a Potential Robopoetics, a radical questioning of the metaphysics of the author is put to the fore. The necessary structural death of the author gains an interesting complexity when the lyric functions of the poet are generated by a program. Bök would even note further of a poetry which figures as “a writing for a robotic culture that must inevitably succeed our own.”[5]

But is this project of imagining successions not what Slavoj Zizek, reading Gilles Deleuze, describes as “the old metaphoric relationship of machines replacing humans?” In Zizek, the issue is not how we are to prepare for machines bound to replace the self/selves, but how a self far from being consistent and stable can only emerge while being in a network of social relations and material supplements.[6]

When we think of the self as always emerging and at the same time in the process of constitution, the consistency of the I privileged over its multiplicity is not a given but an operation, one resulting from language: 

Recently we’ve been embarrassed by the person, by her vanity, and the transparency of her ruses. Therefore we resort to one. One might argue that, like characters in a dream, all persons can be subsumed by one being. The moment of awakening then, when alterity collapses, would mean the death of language. But language can’t die. Covering her confusion by pretending to be careless, I leaves it to you to judge her sincerity. (from Rae Armantrout’s “The Person in My Work”)[7]

I leaves it to you to judge her sincerity. We must take this you, not in the form of a singular interrogator wrenching out the truth, but in an egalitarian plural meeting the already plural I in a language-space where meaning is actively happening. As in Paul Celan, the poem may be lonely, but it is “lonely and en route. Its author stays with it.”[8]

Sincerity then, not as originating from an essential I but as transcendent, in the sense that you and I in the plural aspire to it. But also, immanent as it is embodied in a language-scape where I and you are there, where she is there, where we, where he…but where all these are not passive presences but mutable and moving reference frames that are capable of reactivating our relationship to meaning. A meeting of persons that does not necessarily end in divergence or convergence, in objectivity or subjectivity, but in a quandary:

Is it possible for four different people in this way to have four different spatial concepts within the crowd? Somewhat different ones? Different with respect to one or another feature or heat inside a building, such as arm span or eye contact, and that could impair their mutual understanding to a greater or lesser degree? But often, hardly at all, like ice broken up on the sea. (from Mei-Mei Berssenrugge’s “Fog”)[9]

Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge asks: What if image were Eros as words?/ I write to you and you feel me./ What would it be like if you contemplated my words and I felt you?[10]

And so writing this, I am thinking of you, how maybe you’d also want to create. Would you mind putting leaves on the branches then calling it a tree? Not connected in landscape. The professor tells us that we each experience our own version of red, yet we somehow agree that of the thirty variations of orange, we want the one that has an orange scent best. I meant every one of my words, but only a few of my sentences, and less so of my paragraphs. The poem aspires to be a telephone. You are you. The two figures remained, while the two characters went on, lived happily ever after, and became figures themselves, the two figures remained. Vicarious, heuristic, vicarious, heuristic. The scene happens in a fortune teller’s orb, you see yourself and yourself doesn’t see you. But I’ve seen this before! While from Levinas I read that sincerity is the acceptance of what exceeds the self, a certain sadness comes over me whenever I read the word transcendental in blurbs. A deconstructed baked potato. Regarding your sincerity, we are pleased to inform you that. Maybe all he wanted to say was he is sad, instead houses, glint, excessive coherence of trees. A risk, nonetheless, however calculated and transferable. It is a project that is bound to fail, but which may lead to beautiful accidents. You should keep writing. “You should just be your self,” the disembodied voice reminds us in his house. Sincerely yours,



[1] Lisa Robertson, “The Weather: A Report on Sincerity,” DCPoetry, 2001. Accessed May 25, 2009. http://www.dcpoetry.com/anthology/242

[2] Roland Barthes, Image Music Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Noonday Press, 1977), 147.

[3] Eric Weisstein, “Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem,” Mathworld – A Wolfram Web Resource. Accessed May 25, 2009. http://mathworld.wolfram.com/GoedelsIncompletenessTheorem.html

[4] Christian Bök, “The Piecemeal Bard is Deconstructed: Notes Towards a Potential Robopoetics,” Ubuweb Papers: 11. Accessed May 25, 2009. http://www.ubu.com/papers/object/03_bok.pdf

[5] Bök, Piecemeal Bard, 17.

[6] Slavoj Zizek, Organs without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences, (New York: Routledge, 2004), 16.

 [7] Rae Armantrout, “The Person in My Work,” Poetics Journal 9 (1991): 70.

[8] Paul Celan, Collected Prose, trans. Rosmarie Waldrop (New York: The Sheep Meadow Press, 1986), 49.

[9] Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, I Love Artists: New and Selected Poems (California: University of California Press, 2006), 41.

[10] Berssenbrugge, I Love Artists, “Concordance,” 134. 


PicRaymond de Borja is from Pateros, Metro Manila, Philippines. His first book they day daze was published by High Chair. Some of his more recent works are published in Book Watch, Transit, High Chair, HTML Giant and Kritika Kultura.