Juliana Spahr

Transporting the Reading Self: Spahr’s _Response_ to Subjectivity

As my situation of Juliana Spahr alongside the other poets of my dissertation (namely John Cage, Jackson Mac Low, Robert Duncan, and even Denise Levertov) suggests, Spahr is writing both in and from a tradition of experimental poetry that has long been preoccupied with the eradication of the self. But, owing to the fact that Spahr is writing quite a bit later than the aforementioned poets, her work is also highly influenced by the Language school of poetry that saw this eradication of individual subjectivity as one necessarily grounded in semiotics, in form and language itself. It is precisely this preoccupation that Katy Lederer points to when she writes in her review that Spahr in Response is “a poet unwilling to clutter her writing with the signs of her own subjectivity” (140). And, it is inarguable that Response marks a clear grappling with the issues of subjectivity and the self. But, rather than removing any sign of authorial subjectivity, as Lederer would have us believe, Response marks the initial moments of Spahr’s ongoing interest in a startling paradox of subjectivity in the experimental poem: that in order to be truly communal, we require individual subjectivity; that, in being truly communal, we disrupt and disfigure our individual subjectivities. This paradox, I argue, is central to the notions of community and the common that permeate her work, most noticeably in her collection of poetry, thisconnectionofeveryonewithlungs, and in her critical text Everybody’s Autonomy: Connective Reading and Collective Identity. Response, however, demonstrates Spahr’s first forays into this paradox, which she eventually satisfies via her use of this project’s titular [generic pronoun].

To begin looking at the paradox of subjectivity in Response, we must first look to Spahr’s concept of authorship, which recalls Mac Low’s arguments in my earlier plateaus about the author as an initiator. In “A, B, C: Reading Against Emily Dickinson and Gertrude Stein,” she outlines a concept of the author as an initiator of choices rather than the controller of a text, thus including the reader in the production of textual meaning on a radically communal level. “An author,” she writes, “is the person who originates or gives existence to something” (284). As initiator, the author needs to involve readers in the production of meaning, and, as such, leaves much of the process of meaning-making incomplete. In a radical poetics that embraces inclusivity, the terms of author and reader need, in some way, to be conflated, and the boundaries need to be blurred. Spahr sees this enacted in Stein’s work, which she terms “confusion”: “Here is a confusion of subject, address, and identity. Here a new poetics of the subject is scripted” (286). This scripting of a new, radical poetics of subjectivity is enacted, for Spahr, in Stein’s work par excellence, and fittingly, too, as Stein has become a notable spectral presence in my own project. Spahr writes that in Stein’s reliance on readers to engage in meaning-making themselves, she relinquishes some of the authority of the author. Rather than a controlling presence imposing meaning upon the chosen words, Spahr observes that “[i]n Stein’s work the authority of the author is hiding behind the door, is translated, is denied” (287). Let us leave, for a moment, the finality of a term like “denied” and focus instead on Spahr’s diction in “translated,” a term that defines Stein’s approach to authorship as at once purely linguistic, moving, and altering. This concept of authorship as movement has been a feature of my project frequently, and will come up again momentarily. In contrast to this, “denied” is final, perhaps, but it also acknowledges the persistence of the lyric “I” in poetry, a persistence we must resist, must shut the door upon, must deny. The authorial subject in poetry seems to demand representation; a postanarchist reading practice, like the one Spahr proposes, seeks to unsettle these demands. That is, her poetry may work to deny authorial subjectivity, but she also knows that, like the previous poets in this project did, the completely unegoic is impossible.

Indeed, if Response teaches us nothing else, it shows us that the construction of the subject is evitable. In fact, the collection takes this for granted, rather than grappling with this knowledge as Cage and Mac Low did. The unnamed speaker of Response states, plainly and conversationally, “we know we are all constructed” (“Responding: V” 8), as if the social construction of the self is a widely accepted (and easily accepted) truth. Once the text accepts social construction as a starting point, it is then free to move, supporting a conception of the individual subject that is in flux, always in motion, recalling the transformative suggestion of authorship as translation above. Supporting this reading, Spahr suggests, also in “A, B, C,” that “reading is an act of transport. Transport is a word of instability” (283). Recalling the ekstasis that so intrigued Mac Low, or the shifting point-of-view that destabilized Levertov’s political poems, Spahr here proposes a self as fold, turning in on itself and moving beyond. This is perhaps best demonstrated by the image of the woman in “thrashing seems crazy,” collected in Response, with multiple personality disorder, who comes to believe that one of her alternate personalities, a man, is stalking her. The image displays both the inherent splitness of the self, and the political import of physical bodies. The section displays perfectly Spahr’s dual comprehension of selfhood as “self turns on self / the knife enters at a point that the self could not have reached but did” (31-32). Both identitarian politics and the complete refusal of identity are too easy for Spahr, and lead us into the same political problems that anarchist activists on both sides of the argument would seek to avoid.

A way out of this binarism is proposed by Sophie Mayer in “Aggregators: RSS (Radically Subversive Syndication) Poetics,” wherein she discusses Spahr’s approach to subjectivity in poetry and politic. Of course, the disruption of the self, Mayer is quick to note, is not new, and Spahr’s tools themselves are not new either. That is, Mayer observes that  “Spahr … disperse[s her] lyric “I”[] through postmodern poetics of quotation, repetition, and bricolage” (48), three of the mainstays of postmodernism that, in 2013 when I write this, have become tired and ineffectual as a poetics (and as a politics, too). What we need, Mayer argues instead, is a rethinking of the self, a concept she draws directly from Response[i]: “as we rethink our selves, the political enters / and the issue twists to become about our ability to touch information / to make our own decisions” (“testimony: V” 33-35). That is, for Mayer, in an effective and effectual radically political poetics, we “need to ‘rethink our selves’ in light of the radical tropes of alienation and connection highlighted by global war and global media” (49). Supporting this, Mayer defers to Judith Butler’s concepts in Precarious Life of a politics of interdependence and interconnectivity: “we’re undone by each other, … and if we’re not, we’re missing something” (23). Thus, Mayer observes that in Spahr’s poetry, poetics, and criticism, the “[r]eader, poet, and subject are interdependent, made vulnerable (in Butler’s term) by ‘shock and awe,’ by the rending violence that gently informs … Spahr’s swift changes of focus” (50). The very movement implied by Spahr’s shifts in subjectivity, in point-of-view, in authorship serve to disrupt the ordered, taking a particularly obvious page from Stein’s own mandates. And this process (of flux, of movement) is more valuable, for Spahr, than an identitarian politics could ever be: “more than identity our attraction is to puzzle / the lineage” (46-7). But, none of this answers the question Response asks so persistently. That is, “how much self can be removed and the self remain?” (“witness: V” 5). Or, can we disrupt subjectivity in order to expose a more useful conception of selfhood as interdependence?

In the end, for Spahr, it’s a question of pronouns, themselves literal representations of selves in language.  Pronouns preoccupy Spahr throughout Response and well after. In 2005, nearly ten years after Response is published, interviewer Michael Boyko poses a question to Spahr about subjectivity in her work, and she responds tellingly: “I keep thinking pronouns all the time. Somehow pronouns have become the most loaded parts of language for me.” Pronouns obviously get complicated in Response through their turn to complete generic states, but it is important to note that the genercization of the pronoun is always complicated. For example, in “Responding: 1” Spahr writes of a “[gendered pronoun]” who “wanders in this place / [searching / [waiting” (2-4). Despite the almost humorous lack of specificity, the [gendered pronoun] is able to move between the localized “this place” and the flux of open movement denoted by “wanders,” “[searching,” and “[waiting.” And, even more importantly, the latter two progressive verbs are bracketed without close, implying even greater instability. They still represent transport, movement. And, of course, the example that is my entire project’s namesake, “[generic pronoun] creates” (10), demonstrates that the blurring of subjectivity is, can still be, productive.

I would like to end by noting that Spahr’s approach to the pronoun sees a dramatic shift in the nearly ten years between Response and thisconnection, where the pronoun “we” is used frequently in an almost Steinian repetition. Spahr explains this turn to “we” to Boyko in the interview, which I quote at length:

I started with “we” because I wanted to start with together. […] And I wanted everyone to be there in the poem. I wanted “we” to include those who read it. And then I wanted when I turn to “I” to talk about how that moment of becoming individuals, becoming distinct and disconnected, is part of the problem. And I wanted more specifically to talk about my own complicity with this. […] I guess I felt I had to stand up and take responsibility and be there in the poem at some point. That I couldn’t hide in the “we.” And I also wanted the reader to think about their individualism with me.

In sum, Spahr suggests in this passage, and throughout Response, that we need subjects in order to connect with other subjects, to be interdependent, complicit in eachothers’ individualism. That’s the core paradox of Response, and of Spahr’s work more generally. In recognition of selves, we blur lines: rethink, translate, transport, read.


[i] I should note here that Mayer’s article focuses specifically on thisconnectionofeveryonewithlungs, but nonetheless she frequently makes reference to Response, where many of the ideas in thisconnection originated.

8 thoughts on “Transporting the Reading Self: Spahr’s _Response_ to Subjectivity

  1. Cool stuff here! I have a few questions, though:

    When you discuss Spahr’s reading that “[i]n Stein’s work the authority of the author is hiding behind the door, is translated, is denied,” your analysis seems to take authority as itself constitutive of identity/authorship. Do you see a difference between a mobile authority and a mobile authorship, and if so, how do you see this playing out?

    Is the construction of the subject evitable or inevitable? Spahr’s use of “we” might indicate the former, as in some sort of inchoate pronoun, but your subsequent discussion seems to respond to the latter.

    How does the multiple-personality disorder of the speaker (or speakers?) undermine the idea that a fluidity of the self or its authority would be a positive/desirable thing? Is it just the limiting example, is it indicating a yearning for the unitary self, or does it aim to show how the “diagnosis” of MPD and its quotidian analogues would be helpful to understanding ourselves and others? And how does this connect to or differ from the Modernist interest in madness, in unusual psyches?

    Do you mean “fold” in terms of what you might do to a piece of paper, or in terms of the area for holding livestock? The latter has implications for the idea of the commons, I think, as well as for the idea of the self as a collection of identities and interdependencies. But I might be grasping at straws here.

    And I’d like to hear more about “the political import of physical bodies” and how it plays into this notion of the self: I don’t quite understand how, other than containing both male and female personalities, the body is important in “thrashing seems crazy.”

    OK, I guess that’s a lot of questions.

    • 1) Yeah, okay. So author and authority are intrinsically linked in the way that an author presumes to have control over a. the words that she uses, and b. the way those words mean/will be received.

      2) As a good pomo junkie, I believe that the construction of the subject is inevitable. BUT, as I’m working through in my work right now (it’s still in its baby stages), perhaps language gives us one way of doctoring those ways that we are constructed as subjects? Or, I’m too hopeful?

      3) Hadn’t thought of this element of fold. Was using it in the way Deleuze does, especially in his work on cinema. I love this idea, though. Interdependent, certainly!!

      4) I think when I say physical, I mean more a gesture towards real, lived experience. I think that either needs to get more nuanced, or it has to go. Thanks for pointing it out.

      • Ooh, your first response is a doozy: it’s such a complicated issue in one seemingly simple statement. I don’t know if it’s that simple: for one, there’s the post-Freudian issues (his eponymous slips). For another, there are the poets who try to write without authority (I’m thinking of Stein and her attempts to be a conduit, rather than a scriptor: plus, there’s the issue that her style generally invites the “authority” of the reader to make sense of it, even when it’s purposefully stymied). For a third, there are those who invoke authority without authorship (akin to Duchamp’s readymades).

        There’s also the issue of, for the lack of an accepted term, passive-aggressive authority. I’m personally very interested by the end of Charlotte Bronte’s last novel, Villette: it’s purposefully left ambiguous for the sake of her father, who wanted a happy ending (she kills off the male object of desire in a shipwreck). Rather than change the ending (to obey his authority), she offers, in her protagonist-narrator’s voice, the expectation of his return, a “generalist” account of shipwrecks, and the following (penultimate) sentence:

        “Here pause: pause at once. There is enough said. Trouble no quiet, kind heart; leave sunny imaginations hope. Let it be theirs to conceive the delight of joy born again fresh out of great terror, the rapture of rescue from peril, the wondrous reprieve from dread, the fruition of return. Let them picture union and a happy succeeding life.”

        Authority is deferred on two levels: to her father’s guidance, and the reader’s imagination. But of course, the latter authority is a spurious one. And I don’t think this is quite an “exception proves the rule” scenario: it seems more likely to me right now that the fiction of authorship-means-authority has been forwarded for a long time (or vice-versa: I think Pope argues that no poet can give more than he or she intends in his Essay on Criticism), but isn’t essentially true.

        I hope I’m not being dense or intractable about this…

        As for #2, I don’t think you’re too hopeful at all. On the simplest level, isn’t the act of reading a re-writing of the self (albeit on a temporary basis), through identification or what-have-you? Or even though the questioning of one’s own politics? There’s a phrase nagging at the back of my head from an early nineteenth century piece that I read for my comps, which I can’t recall properly. But! George R. R. Martin got the gist of it recently: “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only once.”

  2. This is another good entry (and a very interesting discussion afterwards, too).

    When you write “that in order to be truly communal, we require individual subjectivity; that, in being truly communal, we disrupt and disfigure our individual subjectivities,” I’m curious how specific to Spahr you see this notion. I’d say the same could be said for at least Cage and Duncan, and probably your other authors, too. How much of a touchstone is this notion throughout your project (and theirs)? Perhaps you could expand on this point, either acknowledging a larger connection throughout the authors, and/or discussing the differences or nuances that separate the authors?

    And a niggling little question: is “eradication” the right word in your first sentence? Would your authors agree to that degree, or is it more an act of limiting or distancing?

    • So, yes. I think that in working through these plateaus I’ve come to realize that part of what postanarchism can do with literature is allow is this seemingly paradoxical situation. It encourages us to look for subjectivity even as we look for its disruption. I definitely see it in the other authors in my diss. I’ll have to incorporate it into my introduction.

      And yes, you are correct. Eradication is too strong of a word, and I used it to make the comparison seem more dramatic — caught me. I agree that it’s not accurate, and that those authors would also agree with you (but, what do I care what they want anyway…).

  3. I really loved your discussion of the fold here and while you mention in the comments section that you were working off Deleuze I guess I sort of wanted more of a Spahr-Deleuzean fold. This is especially the case because the fold reference comes shortly before discussing split subjectivity in Spahr (which is decidedly Lacanian) while the fold is decidedly Deleuzean. Considering the ancient war between the psychoanalytical and schizoanalytical camps I thought that Spahr may be acting like a sort of bridge (or Spahr’s conception of subjectivity). Deleuze first theorizes the fold after Foucault (particularly Foucault’s work on madness in which insides and outsides converge) and I wonder to what extent the Spahrian fold that you suggest is Deleuzean or Foucauldian and to what extend the split subjectivity is Lacanian?

    • Oh man. Only you have this much of a theory brain in the middle of summer, Sean.

      I like this idea of Spahr functioning as a kind of bridge between psychoanalytic and schizoanalytic camps, but I think that’s something I’m (and you’re?) putting onto the text because we both see the need for such a bridge.

      I think that more realistically, my use of “splitness” and split subjectivity is a sloppy gesture towards Lacan that I can’t actually back up. I was thinking more about Deleuze (as I always am, always will be), after his book on Foucault. New folds, new subjectivities. (read: not that whole thing about Leibniz and the house and the attic and whatever — I totally didn’t understand that)…

      I’ll expand on this in my revisions.

  4. Yeah, my attic is not folded enough for this conversation especially since I keep my portrait hidden there, but it’s okay because the portrait wears a mask. :P

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