What becomes clear at this point is that the core of an anarchist (and, to that same end, a postanarchist) literary theory is a critique of representation. It is not surprising, then, that the only scholar who explicitly attempts to develop an anarchist literary theory, Jesse Cohn, focuses precisely on this concern. His book-length study on the subject, Anarchism and the Crisis of Representation (2006), “calls into question the relationships between our concepts and the truths they mean to denote, our images and the realities they are supposed to depict” (11). In efforts to create unifying and clearly expressionist systems of meaning-making (on the level of language, but also on those of genre, canon, tradition, etc), these representative systems, in essence, speak to (and thus, for) the multitude, and in turn silence its multiplicity (12). Cohn admits early on that writers and readers cannot reject all representation – it is, after all, a requisite for signification – but, rather, that an anarchist literary theory necessitates viewing representation as a relationship of power (13). For this reason, Cohn’s work privileges prose texts[i] with decentered, polyphonic, or rhizomatic narratives that present a collage of multiple voices rather than the single perspective of a narrator (172). Additionally, he notes that the politics of form and style are necessarily limited to issues of audience interpretation (181). In these cases, Cohn’s work walks the line between an anarchist literary theory, and the now out-dated relativism that marks postmodernism. That is, by allowing for this decentering on the level of the text, and relying instead on a highly individualized hermeneutic interpretation on the level of the reader, Cohn’s work sounds more like an affective reader-response theory (à la Stanley Fish) than a radical anarchist re-envisioning of the reading process.
What really sets Cohn’s work apart is its assertion that an anarchist literary theory must always be understood as a dialectic between identification and disidentification (177). That is, in some ways pre-empting the Hardt and Negri text that would come some three years later, Cohn suggests a reading and writing strategy that begins with identification and subjectivity, and turns that tool against the text and its representation, in order to embrace both singularity and multiplicity. Cohn asserts, then, that we can, and must, read identitarian subjectivities as products of coalition rather than hegemony (244). “Individuality,” he notes, “is prior and superior to community; freedom would consist in difference without unity” (248). But, the individuality he refers to here is not the monadic individuality critiqued by Deleuze and Guattari, and later condemned by Hardt and Negri. Instead, it is the singularity that gets silenced through overcoding and overrepresentation, and that only gains access to the commonality of language once these codes and representations are disturbed. Embracing this singularity, Cohn’s anarchist society is a series of networked communities, extreme regionalism, and affiliation rather than filiation (253). This translates directly to his conceptions of anarchist reading and writing practices, which would entail a “representational politics of duration and difference, motion and multiplicity” (256). And yet, Anarchism and the Crisis of Representation, despite its explicit concern with anarchist politics and aesthetics, shies away from developing a literary theory out of anarchism.
This theory proper would follow a year later, in Cohn’s “What is Anarchist Literary Theory?” published in Anarchist Studies in 2007. Making note of the fact that the anarchist tradition has long been concerned with issues of cultural production, artistic practice, and linguistic politics, Cohn asserts clearly, if perhaps reductively, that an “anarchist literary theory draws its inspiration from the body of thought and practices which have historically comprised the anarchist movement” (1). Cohn’s anarchist literary theory reads ethically as anarchist, “with the aim of determining what kind of relationships the text offers to bring about between ourselves and one another, between ourselves and the world” (3). In this way, anarchist literary theory, as I have detailed, is primarily concerned with the relationship between text and reader. As Cohn goes on to write:
an ethical approach to the text cannot simply mean a receptive or empathetic reading, in which we merely submit to its terms, nor can it mean a purely active reading, reading as the “use” or violent “appropriation” of the text; instead of positing ourselves as the slaves or the masters of texts, we ought to place ourselves into a dynamic relation with them, to see each encounter with them as a dialogue fraught with risk and promise. (7)
Here, the anarchist literary theory Cohn develops recalls the poststructuralist contemplations of readership, and even Dworkin’s endeavour to produce new forms of reading and writing about illegible poetry[ii]. What it seems to ignore is the role of the authorial presence in the production of the literary artefact, a presence that a postanarchist literary tradition sees as quintessential to the role of the reader. Cohn’s critiques of representation, his concern with individuality and the collective, and his interest in liberating language from the substitutive function of information-giving all make his work invaluable to the notion of a postanarchist literary theory. But, in his attempts to value the reader and the ethical dimensions of the relationship between audience and text, he overlooks the necessary third-party in that relationship: the Author, whom the postanarchic reader must confront; the author-function, necessary for understanding the text’s social context; and, the authorial presence of intrusive, annotative readers.
[ii] It should be noted here that Cohn is a vocal critic of postanarchism, and especially the controversial connotations of the post prefix. For Cohn’s aversion to postanarchism, see “What is ‘Postanarchism’ Post?” Review of Saul Newman, From Bakunin to Lacan: Anti-Authoritarianism and the Dislocation of Power.” Postmodern Culture 13.1 (Sept. 2002), or “What’s Wrong with Postanarchism?” (co-authored with Shawn Wilbur).