Reading Against Juliana Spahr: _Response_ as Temporary Autonomous Zone

I begin my section of plateaus on feminist poetics with Response (1996), the first collection of poetry by the now central experimental poet, Juliana Spahr. I begin with Spahr because I see in her work a clear intersection with Levertov’s: a refusal to entirely deny her subjectivity, and a reliance on that subjective point-of-view to witness. These two preoccupations, and their tenuous relationship with how we make meaning using language in poetry, would become the major thematics of Spahr’s later work, in which collections like thisconnectionofeveryonewithlungs and Fuck You – Aloha – I Love You have become mainstays in contemporary anthologies and course syllabi. In Response, these thematics are nascent, tentative. Response tests the waters of poetry’s potentials for resistance, for experimentation. In the sections that follow, I will look to issues of selfhood and subjectivity, a poetics of witness, and a conception of language as common in order to flesh out the experimental potentials of the collection and to analyze how the text fits in with the poets that make up my earlier plateaus. But, I will also look at Spahr’s concern with linguistic expression and linguistic violence in order to expose the ways in which Spahr’s work departs from these literary predecessors, and opens up a feminist poetics that, in true postanarchist fashion, envisions poetry as a space for activism and alternative voices. After all, as Katy Lederer’s review of Response exclaims: “If any act of poetic writing can be thought of as action, this is it” (140).

In sum, my six plateaus on Response strive to read against Spahr, which is her own term for a reader-centric reading strategy outlined in “A, B, C: Reading Against Emily Dickinson and Gertrude Stein[i].” In this essay, Spahr considers the connections between Stein and Dickinson, asserting that “[b]oth writers create a reader-centered poetics. One which, without denying that the author is an authority, denies that the author is the authority and establishes a similar authority for the reader” (281). Spahr uses this disruption of the authority of the writing subject to envision a new way of approaching literary texts, and, in light of this, the strategy of reading against is decidedly insurgent. It takes as a starting point Mac Low’s eventual concession that all writing is egoic, but it also refuses the authority of a controlling writing subject. Reading against explicitly opposes the modes of traditional criticism. As Spahr contends, “[a]gainst is the bastard cousin of Bloomian ‘influence’ in that it denies or skews issues of originality and pursues misreading” (281). While this summary of reading against may, at first, sound reactionary or revolutionary, and thus in opposition to postanarchism generally, its conceptions of the multiple and its privileging of rhizomatic connection actually make is a mode of alternative and experimentation par excellence. As reading against forges anachronistic or improper connections, as it develops rampant and wonderful misreadings, it rewrites literary history. Reading against “is not a genealogy, but a rethinking of reading and the connection between texts” (283), and one that understands, in what I have established is a hallmark of postanarchist literary theory, that poetry – that all literature – is common.

While rarely explicitly anarchist, Spahrs work in Response (and certainly after) can be characterized with the same insurgent attitude that her concept of reading against suggests. In her article, “The 90’s,” a survey of experimental poetry from the nineties published in boundary 2 in the fall of 2009, she outlines a poetic climate fraught with debate between “writing that turns from standard English and one that upholds standard English” (173). Spahr sees this turning from standard English as necessarily antiimperialist and, in some ways, anticapitalist, and argues that this vein of poetry was fuelled by the nineties’ “perfect storm” of political resistance and experimentation. That is, moments of collective resistance in the nineties, most famously in the Zapatista revolution and the WTO mobilization sought large and overarching goals through multiple voices concerned with multiple projects and employing multiple tactics[ii]. They were, as she describes them, “successful thought experiments in what a universalism with room for particularity might look like on a very practical level” (173-4). For Spahr, the nineties in poetry saw these practical experimentations as intrinsically tied to the potentials of poetry for similar experimentation in language, generalized under Spahr’s wide-reaching notion of turning from standard English.

In terms of Spahr’s own work, Response is littered with examples of a grappling with the radical, experimentals of language and their correlative with the radical potentials of activism. The collection implies, at first, that the starting point of a politics of experimentation is a resistance that stems from an anger not unlike the one Levertov demonstrates in her most explicit political work. Spahr writes: “the anger is to draw attention to the way anger is a just response / to how they will be angry until just witness is begun” (“witness: VI” 40-41). But, where Spahr departs from Levertov’s call to political action and engagement, Response suggests that the most effective political content is marked by its enactment rather than its dogmatism[iii]. In the first section of “responding,” the speaker remarks on the reading of “a book that is so subtle” that “[its political content goes unnoticed” (“responding: I” 6-7), a book that eventually provokes this speaker to ask: “what is political content?” (8). As the boundaries of what dictates political content are blurred by what Spahr terms a subtlety, she advocates a poetic language that, in working against standard English, promotes an anarchic moment of insurgency, a temporary autonomous zone where the inherent instability of language is let flourish. In this vein, “responding” begins with the line, “This is a place without a terrain a government that always changes an unstable language” (“responding: I” 1). The ambiguity of Spahr’s syntax here is telling; the grammar of the line makes it unclear of the place is without both terrain and government, or whether the terrain-less place is also a government in flux. Moreover, the line might suggest that this “place,” both without physical boundary (terrain) and authority (government) changes and already unstable language, or else this “place” that is always in flux is an unstable language itself. This ambiguous syntactical structure enacts the politics of the “place,” the primary situation of Response, embodying (which is to say, locating in the physical) while at the same time destabilizing activist movement.

Lederer sees these dual goals of destabilizing and materializing as the most effective antitraditional tactics of Response. And, what’s more, she sees these goals most clearly enacted in Spahr’s insertion of the generic, especially by way of her intrusive use of the bracket, into an otherwise particular work. Lederer writes, in the same review quoted above, that “[b]y inserting ‘the generic’ within [her margins], Spahr transmutes the ghostly – thus invisible – margins of the traditional book into the space of the ‘embodied’ – thus vulnerable – textual center” (142). What Lederer points to in Spahr’s transmutation of the traditional book’s margins is that the bracketed generic insertions function as TAZs, moments of insurgency and displacement that are still necessarily encased within more traditional confines. In “responding,” these TAZs get characterized as Spahr’s “[New State],” in which poetry, and art in general, serve a crucial purpose. She writes, “we know art is fundamental to the [New State]” (“responding: II” 3). In this conception, “[New State]” is a TAZ, a future anarchy that is as unstable and undefinable as Spahr’s conception of the self, which I will demonstrate in my later plateaus. At times, these bracketed insertions even directly contest issues of nation as a means of definition, as in “documentary” when Spahr uses the brackets to redact these terms: “[name of nation used as an adjective deleted]” (1).

And yet, Spahr is careful not to overstate the political potentials of poetry, and in this sense surpasses Levertov’s naïve view of political affect. In a few examples in “responding,” Spahr writes of occasions when the political import of art fails against the physicality of real violence: war, genocide. This can be seen when “[name of major historical figure]” a still genericized figure that speaks to the pervasiveness of this violence, “calls, authentically, for a more total, more radical war than we can even dream in the language of the avant-garde” (“responding: II” 5). Later, art proves not only ineffectual, but also potentially damaging in this material realm when “while overwhelmed by an opera [name of major historical figure] plans genocide” (“responding: II” 27). In the end, while these examples speak to the potentially ineffectual role of art in politics (or, in the latter case, the potentially damaging role), the bracketing of the “major historical figure” sets him/her in flux, blurring the lines of history, politics, and even artistic tradition. As Spahr’s readers, we take on the burden not only of envisioning these violences on a very real level, but also of occupying the bracketed spaces ourselves. These issues of violence and the incorporation of the reader in the process of meaning making pervade Response, making it an ideal candidate for exposing the radical potentials of a postanarchist reading practice to allow for the reading of this text as a form of activist practice.

[i] Spahr, Juliana. “A, B, C: Reading Against Emily Dickinson and Gertrude Stein.” A Poetics of Criticism. Eds. Juliana Spahr, Mark Wallace, Kristin Prevallet, and Pam Rehm. Buffalo, NY: Leave Books, 1994. 281-292. Print.

[ii] David Graeber, in The Democracy Project, points out that this interest in a unified scene of multiple diverging tactics is also what made the Occupy Wall Street (and innumerable other Occupy movements) similarly effective.

[iii] In this way, Spahr’s suggestions in Response recalls those of Andy Weaver in “Promoting ‘a community of thoughtful men and women’: Anarchism in Robert Duncan’s Ground Work Volumes,” where he argues that when Duncan’s politics move from prescriptive in Bending the Bow to enactive in Ground Work, the result is a more effective and useful anarchist politic.

2 thoughts on “Reading Against Juliana Spahr: _Response_ as Temporary Autonomous Zone

  1. Yeah, this is an excellent start to dealing with Spahr. I think the similarities and differences you draw between her work and Levertov’s are excellent and really insightful (and very helpful!).

    As for Spahr’s notion of reading against, maybe you could clarify (in a footnote?) how/to what extent that differs from Barthes’s concept of the writerly? Is it that Spahr demands more agency for the reader (perhaps suggesting that Barthes’s notion, because it is implicitly a granting of power from the author to the reader, is still unintentionally author-centred)?

    There might also be something, along these lines, to bringing in Bataille’s general economy (if misreadings play a central part in Spahr’s argument)–but that’s only a nascent thought, and might be completely unhelpful.

    I love the close readings you give throughout the plateau, especially for the line “This is a place without a terrain a government that always changes an unstable language.” Is it also possible to read that line as suggesting something less positive, that is, that it’s a place where a government always changes/manipulates to its benefit an unstable language? Is that another possible caveat against what you call, at the end of the plateau, the “potentially damaging role” of “art in politics”? Or is my reading too extreme?

    It’s also good to see the TAZ return to your discussion. I don’t remember you mentioning TAZs in Duncan or Levertov (though my memory is always suspect). If not, that might be something to think about including when you go back to them.

    1. “Is it also possible to read that line as suggesting something less positive, that is, that it’s a place where a government always changes/manipulates to its benefit an unstable language?”

      Absolutely!! And what I appreciate about this is that it is a gesture toward to the present and the practical much more than a look at the politics of language, which is in keeping with Spahr’s poetics/politics generally.


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