Anarchism and the Experiment: How do we read the illegible?

To work against the relatively[i] conservative scholarship of Perloff, my project employs, perhaps contentiously, the work of Craig Dworkin, who often works closely with, and pays homage to, Perloff. To be sure, Perloff’s extensive bibliography has done its part to bring radically experimental poetry to the forefront of poetic study in the last twenty years. But, in light of the postanarchist literary theory this project seeks to establish, Dworkin’s work is much more applicable, and ultimately more effective. This is best demonstrated in Dworkin’s book-length study, Reading the Illegible (2003), published some seven years before Perloff’s Unoriginal Genius, and yet proving to be a more radical, and certainly more political, text. Amongst other things, Reading the Illegible is a meditation on the author-function in formally experimental poetic texts, but one wherein Dworkin neither holds dear, nor laments the loss of, the Author and its claim to genius. Rather, he notes that the poetics of “plagiarism,” indeterminacy, and collaboration refuse notions of the Author, and instead privilege a détournement, Situationist author and activist Guy Debord’s concept of the defamiliarization of the quotidian. Dworkin writes:

The antithesis of quotation, which marks and reinscribes authority, détournement[ii] pursues a poetics of plagiarism in the tradition of [Comte de] Lautréamont, whose infamous syllogism declares: “Les idées s’améliorent. Le sens des mots y participe. Le plagiat est nécessaire, le progrès l’implique [Ideas improve. The meaning of words plays a part in this development. Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it].” (13)

While I will shy away from Dworkin’s (and Lautréamont’s) progressivist rhetoric, what is most important to note here is that Reading the Illegible does not dwell on authorship (as Perloff’s texts, including but not limited to Unoriginal Genius, are wont to do). Instead, Dworkin uses Lautréamont’s syllogism as if to accept all radical forms of authorship without reservation, and then moves on. The rest of his text examines the reader and the reading processes of formally experimental, “illegible,” or semantically nonsensical poetic texts, all the while refusing prescriptive ways of reading[iii]. He states this explicitly in his introduction, wherein he argues that “[p]art of what [he] hope[s] to establish … through this book’s many close readings is an alternative strategy of reading itself” (xix). And, this alternative strategy of reading is one that embraces the artifice, openness, indeterminacy, and politics that I have noted are integral to the experimental text. In this way, the experimental poem (to the chagrin of the traditional university English Department), is read but not interpreted. Or, in Dworkin’s own words: “If I have, at times, abjured interpretation in the following pages, it has only been to give onto reading” (xxiv, emphasis in original).

This shift from interpretation to reading recalls Lyotard’s skepticism of representation, and his desire for cultural artifacts that are not limited to the vicarious, substitutive function of denotation. Dworkin’s study argues that these experimental, illegible texts complicate both representation and denotation; their “active language,” that is, language that does not languish in the denotative realm[iv], demonstrates that “when language exceeds its communicative authority – in those moments when its familiar and overworked utility stutters to reveal its ‘fundamentally strange and foreign’ nature – one catches a glimpse of ‘the insubordination of words’” (11). Instead, Dworkin suggests a manner of reading (and perhaps, too, a manner of producing texts) in which communication is achieved without subordinating language to the limiting denotative process of Wittgenstein’s language-game of information.

Finally, it is important to note that this reading process is, for Dworkin, necessarily a communal practice, and one born out of the process of communication. He first makes this point implicitly in his reading of Susan Howe’s Eikon Basilike, when he notes “the repetition and emphasis of ‘common’ (‘in common,’ ‘communism,’ and twice with ‘common-wealth’) [which] gesture toward ‘communication’ through the Latin comunis from which they all directly descend” (45). This may seem, on its own, unremarkable, until one understands that Dworkin reads Howe’s work as “noise” – that is, nonsemantic communication. But, he contends, “noise proliferates hand in hand with an increase in the terms of communication” (45). And, conversely, the proliferation of noise necessarily produces the common. The experimental, illegible texts, for Dworkin, produce in readers a commonality, a community based on the ethical, political dimensions to reading and engaging with the formally experimental text. He makes this political element explicit when, at the very end of Reading the Illegible, he writes:

Whatever the value of the claims I have made in this book […] the mere fact of that hermeneutic activity […] should suggest an ethics of the illegible and remind us that the unreadable text is a temporary autonomous zone: one which refuses the permanence of its own constitution, and which calls on its readers to account for the semantic drives that they cannot, in the end, resist – and for which we must learn, as readers, to take responsibility. (155, my emphasis)

In light of this, I adapt Dworkin’s work, along with the political philosophies outlined above, to be included in postanarchist literary theory. All of these elements – the proliferation of noise, the act of communication, the inevitable “hermeneutic activity” amidst the attempted resisting of “semantic drive,” and the responsibility that readers must take – produce a postanarchist literary theory that is, at its core, a theory of poetry as inherently communal. Or, to be more precise, it is a theory of new activist reading practices that re-envision the production and reading of experimental texts as also producing the common.

[i] And here (in light of committee member Stephen Cain’s comments) I am careful to distinguish Perloff’s work as conservative relative to the work of other scholars, namely Dworkin in this case, who consider the same experimental texts, but do so without (or with a less prominent influence from) the vestiges of a conservative, hermeneutically-driven scholarship.

[ii] Dworkin engages frequently in Reading the Illegible with the work of Guy Debord and his theorizations of Situationist experimentation. Most important for Dworkin is Debord’s concept of detournement, which is articulated most clearly in Debord’s “Methods of Detournement” (1956). In this statement, Debord argues that “[o]nly extremist innovation is historically justified” (1), and that the most extreme and effective forms of detournement (what he terms “ultradetournement”) occur on the level of everyday life (5). In this way, the Situationists, and by proxy Dworkin, politicize the poetic form as defamiliarization, a break from the essentializing and reductive factors of the quotidian. Detournement, for both authors, is a form of parody, but rather than seeking comedic effect, it seeks to devalue the original (Debord 2).

Importantly, the Situationists, and their role in the May ’68 riots in France, provide the artistic and literary backdrop for Barthes’s and Foucault’s arguments about authorship and readership. Thus, Debord’s work, while not significantly referenced in my project, provides an important sociohistorical context to postanarchism’s revaluation of the relationships between author, reader, and text.

[iii] In his introduction, for example, Dworkin writes: “In short, the basic thesis of this book is ………..…………….” (Reading the Illegible xviii)

[iv] Indeed, complicating semantics and denotation is central to the experimental poem, and especially to a postanarchist reading of that poem. But, I should note here that this complication of poetic denotation has long been a hallmark of formalist poetics. Consider, for example, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s now infamous quip in Zettel: “Do not forget that a poem, although it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information” (§106).

8 thoughts on “Anarchism and the Experiment: How do we read the illegible?

  1. Dani, this is fantastic: coherent, a pleasure to read, and eminently communicative.
    1) This will likely get repetitive if you have to do it in every post, but because readers may (and likely will, since that’s just the structure of a blog) read posts as discrete units, you might want to think about foregrounding the anarchist aspects of your argument up front in each post, or at least signposting that you’ll be getting to it (or link people back to the relevant paragraph in another post, etc. Lots of ways you could do it.) That way, it’ll be clear that this isn’t just another general theory of experimental poetry, but a specific and political one, no matter where readers end up to start.
    2) I wonder if you might think more about the relation between the dissertation and the blog more generally. I haven’t read all of your posts, but from what I have, many of them read like chunks taken from a larger structure, ones that need that larger structure as context, and not as discrete entries that function as part of, but independent of, that larger structure. What would happen if you wrote this like a blog first? And not as a longer document that you then broke up? (Is this the plan for the later analytical sections that focus on the poetry itself?)
    3) I’m losing you a little here in the focus on Dworkin and Perloff. This could definitely be remedied by doing the work I suggest in number 1, which would force you to open the post with your approach, rather than an overview of someone else’s.
    4) Any luck on the CommentPress?

    1. 1) Good point. I will have to remember to keep bringing the posts back to a postanarchism, rather than simply letting the PA haunt the posts. I like your idea of linking back, both because that means less typing for me, and because it reminds the reader (and me as a reader/writer) that this process is always cyclical.

      2) Yeah. I hear you. These sections are from my introduction, which you are well familiar with at this point. It was written in the form of a much more traditional dissertation (as a kind of “see, I can do it this way, too” thing, but also to adequately frame my project before I start it). It is my hope that my later entries will function better as self-contained nodes as well as interconnected sections. Let me know if you see a change in this aspect over the next few weeks.

      3) I think this is partly because I am SO enamoured with Dworkin’s work, and so frustrated with Perloff’s, and when I get overly emotional in my criticism I tend to dwell on commenting rather than theorizing myself. I totally agree that returning to my original theorizations will help me to avoid that. I can assure you that you will see a lot more of me in the coming chapters, and less readings of other theoretical texts.

      4) CommentPress needs a webhosting account, which means more monies from me. I am hoping to make the switch over at the start of the academic year, when I start getting paid again. You’re right about it, though; it’s absolutely perfect for me.

  2. Things I’d like to know more about:
    1) “reading” vs. “interpretation” – Can there really be such a thing as reading without interpretation? Once we string letters into words, is that not an act of interpretation? Won’t those words immediately have meaning for us, no matter how (rightly) critical and aware we are of those meanings and their contingency? Is there any kind of reading that remains in the illegible?

    2) Does noise proliferate alongside communication as a kind of babel of unclaimed meanings? Reminders of the arbitrary nature of the meanings chosen?

    3) If I understand rightly, you are suggesting that reading illegible texts makes us aware of the drive to classify/make coherent the world around us. This making of meaning, when properly scrutinized, seems a potentially powerful communal act. Indeed, as Dworkin and you suggest, we can no more resist our “semantic drives” than our appetites – they are, I would imagine, part of our most basic brain structures that differentiate one thing from another. Though we should indeed take responsibility for them, why would we try to resist them? How does awareness of our own necessarily contingent, individual semantic drives generate community? Rejecting denotation, we embrace the multiplicity of meanings crouching behind seemingly rigid language; is community generated, then, by our willingness to have others’ meanings sprung upon us, a pounce that communicates – creates knowledge in us – but does not inform, or impart fixed information?

    1. 1) Ah, this is something that I am constantly grappling with, and it becomes a major concern of my first Cage entry (which you’ll see tomorrow. Reading without interpretation is difficult (written language exists as signifiers, right? and we’ve been taught to treat it that way forever). Part of the activism of the formally experimental text is how it works to break down that process of signification, to introduce noise into the communicative process, and thus complicating (though, as you observe, never quite removing) meaning. Illegibility, then, can be ascribed to any formally experimental text that works to break down that meaning-making process, that language-game of giving and receiving information. Something like Charles Bernstein’s Veil, which you can see as the background/border of this page, does that by overlapping the typing so much that it becomes physically impossible to isolate words in order to read them, thus severely inhibiting the signifier’s ability to signify, to produce a meaning. John Cage, in the “62 Mesostics re Merce Cunningham,” does this in a different way, and for a different end. You’ll see what I mean there tomorrow. I don’t want to step on my own toes.

      2) Yes and yes! Traditional communication theory, with the Shannon-Weaver model ( at the foundation, describes noise as the breakdown of communication, something that gets in the way of adequate meaning-making (a successful language-game). Illegible takes (such as Veil) show us that noise is actually just a proliferation of meanings, an excess of or abundance of communication. I like the idea of a “babel of unclaimed meanings” because it foregrounds how much logic and the sense/meaning-making elements of language are property-based (think back on Foucault!). A postanarchist reading practice is all about refusing to claim meaning at all, and views the “claiming” of meaning as a part of the violence!

      3) You put it so beautifully. Yes, of course, we cannot refuse our semantic drives entirely. We would mumble ourselves into oblivion if we did. But, I do believe that there is something radically communal about leaving ourselves open to communicative noise, rather than viewing illegibility, abiguity, and difference become blocks to our communication. On a practical level, this is good advice for relating to anyone; it’s all about embracing difference, and leaving ourselves open to the values of others. Radically experimental poetry, and the postanarchist theory I propose to read this poetry, true to that adverb, take this “good advice” to the extreme. We can’t live like a radically experimental poem all the time, but poetry is the perfect site for linguistic/semantic play. And, as was true for us as children, the best play is one that teaches us a better and more responsible/attentive manner of living.

  3. “Of Tennyson’s assimilative method, when he adopts an image or a suggestion from a predecessor, and works it up into his own glittering fabric, I shall give… a modest canon: ‘That great poets imitate and improve, whereas small ones steal and spoil.'” –W.H. Davenport Adams, “Imitators and Plagiarists,” _The Gentleman’s Magazine_ in 1892 (found 
via , full text available via York

    The idea of originality and genius has evidently been going around for a while. No surprise there, I suppose.

    Obviously, Davenport sees classical genius as the adapting method: T-spot just does it better. And if I remember correctly, Perloff buys into this same idea of genius as the originator of experimental poetry. But you and Dworkin are talking about chance and semi-automatic systems (newspaper page layouts and the like), ditching the idea of genius altogether. But not quite the author, right? Cage’s shopping list, for instance, wouldn’t be part of his oeuvre unless he said it was (full disclosure: I have Foucault’s “What is an Author?” right in front of me). So even when you’re questioning the boundaries of this (like when some admittedly brilliant jerk secretly records all his conversations in a day and writes out what he said), you’re still publishing, meaning that the classificatory function is also running just fine. So are we dealing instead with a simulacrum of genius? I mean it in the best possible way, because like you’re saying, it enables indeterminacy and the readers’ creative input. The fame/reputation/author-function (or part of it) carries on, as does the planning/plotting aspect of creation (“I will write the first word of every line”), but the “writing” component of genius is kept out of it and left to the community.

    All of which to say, is it really possible to just slip the Author a “Dear John” note, given that he/she keeps writing to us (and we keep projecting meanings onto what he/she is saying)?

    I’d also like to know more about détournement as it factors in here (especially, but not exclusively, in terms of meaning). Doesn’t its satire strengthen its source material, even as it bounces off it (and even while it aims to undermine authority)? This is what I’m noticing with my Victorian stuff. Often, they throw a lot of unattributed quotations at you mid-sentence that you’re supposed to get: if you don’t catch on, you’re an illiterate hick, but if you do, you get two layers (original source and skewed) of meaning. And it’s not always reverential; sometimes it undermines or makes fun of the source text and/or author. So is this détournement a matter of going pseudo-Dada, with nonsense/indeterminacy as a response to oppression? Or are we talking about something else?

  4. “All of which to say, is it really possible to just slip the Author a “Dear John” note, given that he/she keeps writing to us (and we keep projecting meanings onto what he/she is saying)?”

    Beautiful, and perfect. We cannot, of course, refuse the Author all together (Cage still signs his name, so does Dworkin, so do I). But I like this idea of writing becoming planning/plotting (in a previous response, I called this “initiating” the writing process, rather than carrying it out). And I especially like the idea of the “writing” process being left to (or given to, a gift) the community.

    I also really appreciate your subtle (or, not so subtle!) jabs at Kenneth Goldsmith’s disruptions of Authorship in his conceptual poems. His _Soliloquy_, his own taperecorded voice for a week transcribed, certainly reeks of the same hating-authorship-but-loving-genius issue you point out. When I get to the end plateaus of this project, I will most certainly address this issue, which I, alongside your concerns, find both hypocritical and deeply problematic on a literary level and a political one.

    Your questions on détournement are important. I will add an appendix to talk more about it later. Thanks for the comment and the suggestions! (And for somehow managing to stick a reference to Tennyson into my dissertation — I never thought I’d see that!)

  5. Great post! Wondering how “the common” produced through the type of “activist reading” for which you advocate differs from Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities” or Stanley Fish’s “interpretive communities,” and whether you see these theorists’ models as tending to result in some particular political outcome(s).

    1. I hope that my kind of common or experiential communities produced through a post anarchist activist reading differs greatly from Anderson’s or Fish’s communities. For me, Anderson’s imagined communities relies on consensus, and Fish’s on subjective/affective responses (and thus, clearly defined subjectivities). I also find both quite wishy-washy. The common, in my project, attempts to move away from the kind of communities you suggest by way of multiplicity, connection, and the communication of noise. The common is a jumbled, noisy place, a busy crowd where things are traded but where there is no method of comparison; what is offered in the noise of the common need not correspond directly to what is received. It involves a relinquishing (momentarily, for that is all this world will give us) of subjectivity. And that’s something I don’t think reader response theory can give us.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s