Anarchism and the Experiment: Who is the author?

Because I have privileged authorship (and its destabilization) as the most important aspect of the experimental poetic text, I should here spend some time discussing what experimental authorship entails, and how its problematizing of traditional authorship is a politically-charged activism. As with any contemporary discussion of shifting perspectives of authorship, this discussion begins with the poststructuralist meditations on the Author, the two central texts of which are Foucault’s “What Is an Author?” (1969, republished in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, 1977) and Barthes’s “The Death of the Author” (1967, republished in Image – Music – Text, 1977). Foucault’s essay stands in stark contrast to Ashbery’s Yale musings on the avant-garde, as Foucault begins with the assertion that the author him/herself is not an individual, but rather a discursive practice (114). Rather than view the writer as the “sovereignty of the author” (126), an authoritarian figure that, recalling the Hejinian quotation above, closes the text and stands as the arbiter of literary Truth, Foucault proposes an author-function that situates text and author in a complex of discursive practices that eliminates the notion of correct reading practices in favour of a reader-based manner of reading.

Barthes makes this same point, arguing famously that “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author” (Image – Music – Text 148). Moreover, Barthes notes that this shift in the power dynamic of author and reader is long overdue, arguing that “classic criticism has never paid any attention to the reader; for it, the writer is the only person in literature” (148). While I argue here that one element of a postanarchist literary theory is to make good on Barthes’s command, I do not mean to suggest that this shift is not already an important element of contemporary literary criticism in its various forms. What I do want to stress is the manner in which other contemporary literary theories – among them reader response, but also historical materialism and its ilk – have recognized the importance of the reader insofar as s/he receives and makes sense of the text in question. Postanarchism hears Foucault’s assertion, and understands Barthes’ call-to-arms, as a merger of author and reader in the form of an author-function that is in constant engagement with a real or imagined audience, which is to say that postanarchism argues for an even more central and active role for the reader in the creation of textual meaning, and, indeed, in the productive of the text itself. If, as Barthes argues, removing the “Author” makes attempts to “decipher” a given text futile, because the Author necessarily limits interpretation (147),  postanarchism’s collapsing of the Author proper opens infinite readings, and infinite readers, and is thus especially well-suited as a theoretical framework for reading experimental, indeterminate, and (especially) semantically nonsensical texts[i].

A postanarchist literary theory, then, takes into its framework Foucault’s discussions of the author-function in “What Is an Author?” to understand the relationship between literal writer and the author-function s/he takes on. To begin, the Author is an appropriation that possesses the text (in name as well as legally in the form of intellectual property) (124)[ii]. Moreover, the author-function – in each individual case, as well as conceptually – is neither universal nor constant, and, instead, functions as a result of various discursive practices determined sociohistorically, and predicated on the production of power-knowledge (126). That is, as Foucault writes, the author-function “is not formed spontaneously through the simple attribution of a discourse to an individual. It results from a complex operation whose purpose is to construct the rational entity we call author” (127). As such, the author-function is certainly not an actual individual, but rather the complex interplay of author/writer/narrator (130), and, in light of postanarchism’s interest in the reader, we can now append him/her to that list. This inclusion of the reader as a substantial and central element of the author-function demands a radical re-envisioning of the entire author-function. In the experimental poem, where issues of author/writer/narrator are blurred, often to the point where the boundaries of these entities are unintelligible, Barthes’s and Foucault’s assertions are problematized, and yet also never more valuable because they have opened the door to the reader’s inclusion in the active production of textual meaning. This does, however, suggest that new understandings of the reading processes (processes of reading text and reading author) are necessary in order to develop new and effective ways of readings these experimental texts.

Additionally, it is worth noting that Barthes’s conceptions of “readerly” and “writerly” texts also signal his frustrations with closed and conventional reading practices. In his ideation, the “readerly” text is one that does not provoke the reader to produce his/her own meanings within the text. Alongside his argument that the Author necessarily limits the meanings of a text, Barthes argues that the “readerly text” employs the text and its tradition “like a cupboard where meanings are shelved, stacked, [and] safeguarded” (S/Z 200). Alternatively, for Barthes, the “writerly text,” which in this project is represented par excellence by the formally experimental poem, is one that endeavours “to make the reader no longer a consumer but a producer of the text” (4). Ultimately, he argues that this is, or at the very least should be “the goal of literary work (of literature as work)” (4, emphasis added). And, in a project that seeks to reclaim reading as activist practice, this notion of “literature as work” is especially pertinent; the work here is not simply the hermeneutic interpretive function of the passive reader, but also necessarily the active, and thus activist, intervention of the reader in the process of textual production, thus destabilizing the hermeneutic process from the start. In essence, Barthes argues that the author-function’s relationship to the text and its reader(s) is the very site at which reading can (and should) be made activist.

And yet, the issue of authorship in the experimental text has drawn a considerable amount of scholarly attention. In fact, the majority of scholarship on the experimental text since the seventies has focused on how the author enacts his/herself in the text at the expense of actual textual analysis. As a prime example of this, in 2010, Marjorie Perloff, perhaps the most famous name in studies of experimental poetics, published Unoriginal Genius, a book-length study of authorship in the experimental text, focusing specifically on texts produced by indeterminate or chance methods. Perloff concludes in her text, absolutely and unfortunately, that while these experimental texts may complicate the author’s role, there is still an author and s/he can still (and often should) be regarded as a literary genius. She writes: “If the new ‘conceptual’ poetry makes no claim to originality … this is not to say that genius isn’t in play. It just takes different forms” (21). Perloff not only relies too heavily on the Author for her analysis, she prizes it. By arguing that the formally experimental text, in its complications and (in conceptual poetics especially) refusals of authorship, actually maintains an Author (rather than an author-function), she essentially ignores poststructuralism’s critiques in the name of genius.

[i] I acknowledge here, and will repeatedly acknowledge throughout my project, my own role as critic in the limitation of readers/readings. This limitation is, I will concede, a necessary evil of the English Department.

[ii] Foucault notes that this primary element is historically determined, writing: “It is important to notice … that its status as property is historically secondary to the penal code controlling its appropriation. Speeches and books were assigned real authors, other than mythical or important religious figures, only when the author became subject to punishment and to the extent that his [sic] discourse was considered transgressive” (Language, Counter-Memory, Practice 124).

5 thoughts on “Anarchism and the Experiment: Who is the author?

  1. Right. I’m thinking through this lately with respect to Cage’s (among many others) problematic relationship to authorship in terms of his writing through process. He renounces authorship of his Joyce texts, for the language used is in fact Joyce’s, but the concept and the processing of the work is all his “genius,” for lack of a better word. So, I’m wondering–can the conceptual poetic process itself be considered authorship, in terms of extending Foucault’s definition of the author as “practice”? This certainly becomes pertinent in digital poetics, which not only relies on an authorial “processor” but also the reader’s participation in the virtual “practice” of poetic creation…

    1. And something like Flarf poetry, in which the process isn’t the laborious writing through that Cage does, or even the work involved in Goldsmith’s conceptual stuff, complicates this futher. For Cage’s work, and for others who do writing through stuff (I’m thinking of Mac Low here, too, because I am going to be writing on the two soon), I like to use the term “initiator” over author, because I do see them as a spark. The match to the end-product-poem’s candle, maybe. It starts it, but it really has nothing to do with the fire/flame.

      I think what’s great about Cage is that as much as he makes choices/asks questions, there’s really nothing Perloffian “genius” about him. He constantly asserted in interviews that the questions he asked of texts were often not very unique/insightful, he just thought they might have interesting answers. So, he becomes famous for writing grade-school acrostic poems. At least, that’s what I think.

    1. Mel, that looks awesome. Right now I’m just running a Pro account, so I can’t use custom plugins. But, I’ll see about upgrading.


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