Introduction / What Does a Postanarchist Theory Look Like?

What Does a Postanarchist Literary Theory Look Like?: The Crisis of Representation

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.

 


[i] For example, Cohn’s literary readings focus on writers like Leo Tolstoy (who has clear and frequently discussed anarchist sympathies).

[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).

6 thoughts on “What Does a Postanarchist Literary Theory Look Like?: The Crisis of Representation

  1. [I originally emailed Dani Spinosa, and at her request, I’m re-posting my email below, as it was.]

    Hello Dani —

    I just ran across your really fascinating dissertation/blog project, and I’m flattered to be cited there. I think you may misread me at a few points, though. May I offer a couple of comments?

    First of all, I really didn’t mean to propose “an affective reader-response theory (à la Stanley Fish)”; after all, I spend a good deal of time taking Fish and Rorty to task for exactly that (reducing the text to whatever the reader wishes to make of it). You also seem to quote my book in a way that takes material out of context: “‘Individuality,’ he notes, ‘is prior and superior to community; freedom would consist in difference without unity’ (248).” Attributing these statements to me is misleading, because in that passage, if you reread it in the context of the chapter, I’m characterizing (fairly critically!) the views of someone else (Mike Michael, an Actor Network Theorist). I definitely don’t believe that individuality is prior or superior to community, or that real freedom is necessarily “difference without unity”; my sympathies are pretty definitely with the social and communitarian tendencies in the anarchist tradition.

    I’m sorry — I know that book wasn’t my best writing (it’s dense, overly quotational, and jargon-ridden), and I’m sure this isn’t what anyone engaged in a dissertation process wants to hear, but I wanted to take the opportunity to clarify my position, and I hope it doesn’t come across as adversarial. There are so few of us working in this area, and if anything, we ought to practice mutual aid! Speaking of which — if you’re working on folks like Cage, MacLow, and Duncan, you might find Andy Cornell’s work on their political context exciting: see Cornell, Andrew. “A New Anarchism Emerges, 1940-1954.” Journal for the Study of Radicalism 5.1 (2011): 105-131. I talk about them (and Spahr!) in one section of my forthcoming book, hopefully a much less painful read, Underground Passages: Anarchist Resistance Culture, 1848-2011.

    Have you done the dissertation defense already, or is that upcoming? In either case, good luck with your work — I will certainly stay tuned, and hope we may cross paths at a conference someday. You can reach me here or at my academic address, jcohn@pnc.edu, if you’d like to discuss anarchism and literature, my two favorite topics.

    –Jesse.

    PS: I’m sorry I hadn’t heard of your work earlier, or I could have come to hear you at MLA 2014, not far from where I live and work! As it happens, I came up to Chicago for just an afternoon to meet my friend Montse Feu, who works on Spanish exile writers…

  2. [I originally emailed Dani Spinosa, who graciously invited me to post my email as a comment here.]

    Hello Dani —

    I just ran across your really fascinating dissertation/blog project, and I’m flattered to be cited there. I think you may misread me at a few points, though. May I offer a couple of comments?

    First of all, I really didn’t mean to propose “an affective reader-response theory (à la Stanley Fish)”; after all, I spend a good deal of time taking Fish and Rorty to task for exactly that (reducing the text to whatever the reader wishes to make of it). You also seem to quote my book in a way that takes material out of context: “‘Individuality,’ he notes, ‘is prior and superior to community; freedom would consist in difference without unity’ (248).” Attributing these statements to me is misleading, because in that passage, if you reread it in the context of the chapter, I’m characterizing (fairly critically!) the views of someone else (Mike Michael, an Actor Network Theorist). I definitely don’t believe that individuality is prior or superior to community, or that real freedom is necessarily “difference without unity”; my sympathies are pretty definitely with the social and communitarian tendencies in the anarchist tradition.

    I’m sorry — I know that book wasn’t my best writing (it’s dense, overly quotational, and jargon-ridden), and I’m sure this isn’t what anyone engaged in a dissertation process wants to hear, but I wanted to take the opportunity to clarify my position, and I hope it doesn’t come across as adversarial. There are so few of us working in this area, and if anything, we ought to practice mutual aid! Speaking of which — if you’re working on folks like Cage, MacLow, and Duncan, you might find Andy Cornell’s work on their political context exciting: see Cornell, Andrew. “A New Anarchism Emerges, 1940-1954.” Journal for the Study of Radicalism 5.1 (2011): 105-131. I talk about them (and Spahr!) in one section of my forthcoming book, hopefully a much less painful read, Underground Passages: Anarchist Resistance Culture, 1848-2011.

    Have you done the dissertation defense already, or is that upcoming? In either case, good luck with your work — I will certainly stay tuned, and hope we may cross paths at a conference someday. You can reach me here or at my academic address, jcohn@pnc.edu, if you’d like to discuss anarchism and literature, my two favorite topics.

    –Jesse.

    PS: I’m sorry I hadn’t heard of your work earlier, or I could have come to hear you at MLA 2014, not far from where I live and work! As it happens, I came up to Chicago for just an afternoon to meet my friend Montse Feu, who works on Spanish exile writers…

    • Hello Jesse!

      Thanks for bringing your email here. And sorry again for a lazy reading that takes your work out of context. When this section is revised, I will clarify these points!

      I wonder, then, if you would be able/willing to talk a bit more about a couple of the questions I have in this plateau about your work on representation. For example, you note that your forthcoming book deals with poetry. In _Crisis_ you seem to focus on prose. How does the reader/author relationship change between poetry and prose? And, how does an anarchist literary theory deal with this difference?

      I also argue in this plateau that your book shies away from dealing with authorship. Would you say that this is a fair argument? If so, what does it mean that an anarchist literary theory does not interrogate authorship? Is the author always an Author-God (Barthes’ term, which I love)? Is there a way to reposition authorship in light of anarchism?

      And, maybe this is a question for another time, but how do our own scholarly writings fit into this discussion? Are we, by virtue of the need for clear representation in scholarship, gods and masters ourselves?

      I know those are a lot of questions, and you don’t have to answer all or any of them. I just want to take advantage of your attention while I have it!

      -d

      • Hi Dani —

        thanks for the reply! Yeah, in that book, I really didn’t truck much with poetry — one of the points I had set about making was that the links between anarchism and certain kinds of avant-garde poetics (Symbolism, Dada, Surrealism, etc.) were arguably thinner than some scholars had suggested, so I tacked very hard in the direction of certain kinds of prose and even performances that do more to guide the reader/audience’s construction of meaning. In my next book, I will be talking a lot more about anarchist poetics, but — again, taking an historical approach — I’m focusing attention on the kind of poetry that actually came out of the anarchist movement (circulating in its physical and textual spaces), which tends pretty overwhelmingly to be “didactic,” propagandistic, oriented toward communicability à la Tolstoy, etc. That only really seems to change, historically, when the movement is mostly scattered, disorganized, in eclipse and/or defeat — i.e., once the possibilities for “audience” had been seriously diminished.

        I have to take a break right now, but I’ll come back later and see what I can say in response to your other questions about authorship, etc…

        –Jesse.

      • Okay, authorship. Well, that’s true, I didn’t focus much on authorship. I touched on Barthes’ “Death of the Author,” but while I agree with him on the need to resist reductive and absolutist claims for interpretation (surely an authoritarian maneuver, the kind of thing he brilliantly satirizes as “victory to the critic”), I disagree with his suggestion (there) that we can ignore extra-textual forces expressing themselves in the text (“society, history, psyche,” etc.), dissolving them all into some kind of pure texuality, language talking only of itself.
        Definitely, though, I wasn’t interested in defending any idea of the Author as sole origin and proprietor of meaning(s). We’re never totally in control of our meanings — language, speaking, writing, hearing, reading, understanding, etc., are all social phenomena — so it’s possible for us, for instance, to say something that is genuinely and really offensive (wounding, intimidating, belittling, etc.) without intending it. I’m struck by Proudhon’s example of the photograph, a kind of authorless visual creation addressed to no one and anyone: “the author, namely the light, does not put anything of his own into them and is not aware of you” — which nonetheless can still produce real (and profound!) effects of meaning. And yet we are not wrong to hold authors ethically accountable for what they say, or to try to understand one another, or to express ourselves so that we may be understood. I was trying to get at some of this complexity, though it’s difficult to do so, and I’m afraid I got bogged down in jargon and quotations.
        I sense that you are asking me, gently, if I am asserting a kind of ownership over the meaning of my own writing (the book). I don’t think so. In general, for all the reasons I touch on above, I don’t think writers are privileged readers of their own texts, even if they may know more about what they intended, just because intention isn’t the end of the story where textual meaning is concerned (though writers aren’t necessarily at a disadvantage here, either). One of the beautiful (and dangerous, and possibly frightening) things about meanings is that new ones can always emerge in a new context, and every new moment may present a new context. The terrifying possibility that “my” words can be taken from me and turned against me or even against themselves is something we all face; it’s the condition for being able to speak at all (“iterability,” Derrida calls it). A beautiful possibility is that a finite text can give rise to indefinitely many meanings for every reader, at every occasion, like one of those impossible fantasy spaces that is somehow bigger on the inside than on the outside (Lucy’s Wardrobe, Danielewski’s House of Leaves, the Tardis!). I think this is one of the great resources for collective creativity.
        Your dissertation-blog is in part an invitation for that kind of collective creativity to manifest itself, isn’t it?

      • Jesse,

        Sorry it took me so long to respond to this. When I first read it, I took some time to think of it and then… I forgot to keep thinking. Writing does that to me sometimes.

        I love this analogy of the photograph — where in Proudhon can I find it? I feel like I’ve encountered it before, but I can’t remember where!

        I also like that you called my project an “invitation” to collective creativity. I hadn’t thought about wording it that way, but as an “invitation” I relinquish some control, but not all.

        Your point that we are never totally in control of our meaning strikes me as particularly helpful in constructing a postanarchist literary theory (if you will forgive me the prefix. I really do like it, though I think your critiques of it are on point). It makes me feel as though all these discussions of a/Authorship could benefit from remembering that producing a text is one utterance of many, subject to the same limitations, and thus open to the same possibilities.

        -d

        PS: My friends have been bugging me to start watching Dr. Who. I think you’re inclusion of the Tardis with two of my favourite texts has finally convinced me…

Comment

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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 )

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s