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.
[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).