Juliana Spahr

Everybody’s Autonomy as “Ideological Delusion”

Concomitant with the dual paradoxes of language and selfhood, Juliana Spahr’s work has seen a longstanding interest in the notion of the common and in connectivity or collectivity. This interest in the common is necessarily linked to both notions of the self, as I have already indicated, and also in issues of language and expression, and is clearly informed by her engagement with the major currents of literary theory and criticism. Marjorie Perloff uses Spahr, by way of her book of criticism, Everybody’s Autonomy: Connective Reading and Collective Identity, as an example of a text that champions the intersections between the theory that has become so pervasive in the English department and creative poetry (especially in the example of Language poetry), citing the text as one of “a number of scholarly books … already appeared on feminist language poetries and other facets of the ‘new poetics’” (“Avant-Garde Tradition” 129). And yet, true to Perloff’s propositions in Unoriginal Genius, her article upholds a kind of authorship that Spahr clearly works against, asserting throughout that an influx of theoretical issues into poetry does not negate issues of individual talent and authorial genius. Spahr’s own characterization of Language poetry in “The 90s” is rather different. She ignores issues of individual talent and authorial genius in favor of a conception of experimental writing founded on “a return to the idea of a literary commons” (179). The article sees Spahr asserting confidently an absolutely anarcho-communisr approach to literary criticism: “No one owns literature” (180). Despite the many connections between Spahr and Perloff in the literary community, their approaches to authorship and the literary commons are diametrically opposed.

In “A, B, C,” Spahr similarly posits a theory of literary criticism that is vastly more concerned with connections and commons than it is with an individual author or oeuvre. “What is here,” she writes, “is not a genealogy, but a rethinking of reading and the connection between texts. These are connections of against” (283). The very process of reading against that Spahr develops in this essay, and which I have discussed in detail already, disrupts notions of the authority of the author, preferring instead misreadings and connections. Sophie Mayer, in “Aggregators,” similarly emphasizes the role of connection and common in Spahr’s work, noting that this, too, is something she’s adapted from Gertrude Stein. Mayer sees enacted in Spahr’s poetry an understanding of the “relation of bodies and languages as systems of connection,” demonstrated best in Spahr’s “use of the Steinian principle of repetition to provide a non- or anti-narrative thread or trace. Often, the repeated word or phrase is about the nature of language, form, and narrative itself” (44). Spahr most clearly articulates this politics and poetics of common in Everybody’s Autonomy, a revision of her doctoral thesis. In the book she presents connectivity as a “politicized model of reading” (53), which is based on and in the common, and which privileges the reader and his/her connections to the text well above any writer’s authority. While her work in this text focuses on formally experimental poetry, she posits that the very act of “reading is more communal than individual – more resistant than complicit – than one finds in most reader response theory” (161). Central to this is her theory that the meaning of a text is produced, especially in the case of the formally experimental text, through an “abandoning of authorial privilege” (53) on the one hand, and the reader producing meaning on the other. That is, she argues that “meaning is tied to community and is necessarily collective. The creative economy here emphasizes talking through reuse and recombination” (103). The approach runs counter to Perloff’s adherence, throughout her academic work, on lineage, tradition, and individual talent, and instead proposes a radically egalitarian mode of criticism.

Importantly, Everybody’s Autonomy is an explicitly anarchic text, proposing an anarcho-communist approach to reading that is not unlike the postanarchism that I propose in this project. She presents it, in the text’s introduction, as a mode of “anarchic reading” (13), and later develops this concept into an “anarchic democracy” (49). Her conception of communal autonomy is, for her, a kind of “anarchic autonomy” which stands in contrast to the “liberal humanism” that traditional conceptions of author and reader uphold (154). The text is also particularly concerned with the practical and activist elements of this understanding of readership, constantly returning to how these particular authors (Gertrude Stein, Bruce Andrews, Lyn Hejinian, Harryette Mullen, and Hak Kyung Cha) function in the classroom. It is this aspect of the text that reviewer Logan Esdale finds most interesting, writing that the texts Spahr discusses “are inclusive … involving readers in the production of meaning; these texts encourage collective reading, as in a classroom, so that the experience of reading them is a shared one” (93). Esdale’s review, however, is one of the more generous ones.

Everybody’s Autonomy, released in 2001, met with a good deal of resistance. A number of reviews in journals at the time of the book’s release criticized ir as well-meaning perhaps, but idealistic and, ultimately, much more conventional than Spahr would have her readers believe. First and foremost, reviewers such as Jennifer Ashton tended to view the text as not very controversial. Ashton writes that “Spahr imagines herself to be making a controversial and corrective argument, claiming that deconstruction failed to recognize the degree to which reading – no matter how much we invest it with the power of ‘authorship’ – is itself a learned and regulated act” (388). Jonathan Munroe’s review is more scathing, characterizing Spahr’s work as not only outdated but delusional. He writes:

If it can be claimed, as Spahr writes, that in some sense “reader autonomy … dominates avant-garde literature of the late twentieth century” (as it also dominated that century’s earlier decades?), it has nevertheless been convincingly argued – by critics and theorists as diverse as Theodor Adorno, Louis Althusser, Hans Robert Jauss, Terry Eagleton, Frederic Jameson, and Pierre Bourdieu – that the idea of “reader autonomy” (as also the supposed autonomy of writers) is an ideological delusion in need of critique and demystification. (754)

Munroe later in his review argues that Everybody’s Autonomy actually runs counter to its own politics in that it “displays ambivalence toward group formations and identifications – aesthetically, socially, politically – and a strong sense of conflicted insularity,” and that “Spahr tends too easily to equate difficult or innovative formal structures with the capacity for complexity and richness of response, as well as cultural and political consequentiality” (759). And, Ashton eventually argues that the text opposes the very process of reading in general:

But of course, as soon as the difference between readers becomes a difference between their experiences rather than a difference between their interpretations of the text (why they can never form an interpretive community) we have to say that what Spahr wants readers to resist is not the hegemony of reading but reading itself. (388, emphasis in original)

I would like to address these concerns – that the text is not controversial, that it is delusional, that it opposes group formation, and that it opposes reading in general – by looking to three specific examples from Response that demonstrate that Spahr’s poetics, despite these reviewers concerns, are effective postanarchist strategies for reading as activist.

The first example I would like to look at is the line “the social always holds us back” (10), which would seem, at first, to counteract Spahr’s interest in connection, and in social commonality. Instead, the line carries with it dual meanings, another paradox in Response: that we fear social communion, on the one hand; that we are held back by social institutions that seek to govern individuality on the other. So, contrary to Munroe’s review, Spahr does not ignore the work of writers like Adorno and Althusser who work to demystify the cultural influences on an individual’s supposed autonomy. Instead, she understands these cultural influences as a jumping-off-point, making the argument that the construction of the self does not mean that we do not, in turn, exert relative autonomy on our lives and the choices that we make. If “the social holds us back,” it does not stop us entirely; connective reading and a view of literature as the common is one way of approaching autonomy. Munroe, in guarded poststructuralist fashion, sees the argument that there is no complete autonomy and reads “there is no autonomy.” Readerly autonomy, in part and through the collective, is not a delusion anymore than the social itself is.

Later in “responding,” Spahr writes “stutter is nation” (“responding: V” 4), another quotation that seems to directly address Munroe’s concerns. In “stutter is nation,” and in other similar phrasings throughout the collection, she does not oppose group formation, but rather promotes afiliative and porous groupings rather than filiative and clearly-defined borders. Filiation and border are the means by which, as many of the writers Munroe lists argue, the individual is governed by social institutions; they are the very weapons of ideological state apparati. Formal experimentation, by way of stutter (not unlike “sputter,” which Spahr and Osman use in the Jacket2 interview), is a means of breaking down generic conventions and traditional boundaries. If Everybody’s Autonomy tends to prioritize the formally experimental text, it is because these texts most clearly oppose the filiations and boundaries that are death to true commonality.

Finally, I would like to end with one more example from Response, also from “responding,” when Spahr envisions “[a reader culture” arguing that “[generic plural pronoun] prefer both” (“responding: I” 11-12). The open-bracketed “[a reader culture” is, in contrast to Ashton’s claims, one of Spahr’s most controversial arguments, and it reappears throughout her work. However, by asserting that “[generic plural pronoun] prefer both,” Spahr not only emphasizes plurality and commonality, but she also proposes a valuation of reading as experience rather than interpretation, an anti-exegesis, which is, to grant their points, not entirely new, as my project has demonstrated, but is still clearly being treated as a great radicalism that opposes the very process of reading a poem. Preferring both is an exercise in embracing alternative rather than binarism or dualism; it is supported by the various manifestations of paradox that I have discussed throughout. At the heart of tradition (and on the conception of individual talent) there is a hegemony of reading founded on exegesis and hermeneutics and semiotics. [a reader culture does not form interpretive communities, but rather experiential communities. It embraces readings rather than just reading; it prefers both.

4 thoughts on “Everybody’s Autonomy as “Ideological Delusion”

  1. I think you argue your points really well in this plateau. I like that you’ve worked to address and deflect those criticisms of Spahr’s work.

    I suspect that the ideas about reading as experiential communities (a great distinction, by the way) is something that you can/should return to when you discuss Harryette Mullen (though she makes similar points specifically in relation to _Muse & Drudge_, rather than her earlier works–still, I think the point might transfer well). [You are still planning on writing about Mullen, right?]

    To play devil’s advocate in relation to Stein and reader autonomy: I agree that there is a large amount of interpretive freedom in a Stein text, and this certainly leads to more interpretive freedom than with the huge majority of texts–but, when I read Stein, I am always constantly aware that Stein has created this document. Her virtuosity never lets me forget her own hand in creating the text and allowing me, as a reader, this freedom. Is that a problem when arguing that Stein allows for reader autonomy, as you and Spahr assert?

    I really like your readings of the passage “the social always holds us back.” Could that also be read along the lines of classical anarchism’s belief in (and, to a degree, later anarchism’s distrust of) conditioning the individual through social shame/stigmatization? (I mean that old anarchist belief that people will govern themselves accordingly because the surrounding society makes it know what is/is not acceptable, thus removing the needs for any official laws.) If that idea is relevant, does the text agree with or disagree with classical anarchism’s faith in social shame? (I guess I’m partially wondering if “holds us back” is necessarily negative. Could it also suggest that the social keeps us from running amok, thus acting like a superego to our individual ids?)

    Your posts are always so productively intellectually intriguing, Dani!

    • Yes, Mullen. Just started her posts today! Hurrah! I will definitely address the issue of experiental communities with her, too. And, of course, one of the chapters of _Everybody’s Autonomy_ is about Mullen, so there’s a lot to delve into with that connection.

      Your second point is something I’ve been wondering about Stein, especially as she’s become this kind of larger-than-life figure. I agree that Stein’s looming presence (over everything in this project, it seems — perhaps it’s because I visited her grave in Paris? did she follow me back?) makes reader autonomy quite complicated. And I also think that her work directly invites the reader to decode and interpret, which complicates it further. But I still think she made a crack in the wall that keeps readers out of the text, and I think that’s what Spahr picks up from her most.

      On your last point, if we also read that line as demonstrative of social shaming, I would probably read it as critical. But I think a little context is needed to explain why. The two preceding lines are “we know we are all constructed / when it comes down to it we don’t believe it” and then “the social always holds us back.” So in that sense, I think that the social “hold[ing] us back” is a problem even in the classical anarchist sense in that it would still be a working to uphold the construction without the belief, and that’s the real problem for Spahr (and for me too). Ignoring the ways in which we are constructed and interpolated as subjects is central to the common, to any effective politics, I’d say. And this idea of social stigmatization would be necessarily predicated on not believing it, on assuming a complete freedom that doesn’t exist.

  2. I think the way you describe Stein’s stance (as starting to break down the wall for the reader) is absolutely accurate. I like that discussion more than the discussion of Stein as having completely succeeded in breaking down that wall. Along those lines, she seems in a position similar to Pound, in that both started the respective revolutions that eventually outstripped them.

  3. Pingback: Mullen’s Common and Experiential Communities | [generic pronoun] creates

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