Juliana Spahr

“I don’t self-identify much”: Spahr’s Nation of Stutter

To close this section of plateaus on Response, something must be said about the theory of reading that this collection in particular, and Spahr’s poetics more generally, is differentiated from a now outdated reader response theory that has, since its inception, been absorbed and ignored by the English department and by canonical literary theory. This work is done explicitly in the introduction to Everybody’s Autonomy, wherein Spahr works to differentiate her proposition from the kinds of reader-focused theories that ultimately propose an ideal or model reader or readerly communities that, in essence, reinscribe the problems with traditional readership that a reader-focused theory seeks to disturb. In doing so, Spahr uses Stanley Fish as his widely circulated “Is there a text in this class?” to confront the pedagogical issues surrounding the creation of a reader community. For Spahr, Fish’s reader response theory certainly places the reader above the text, asserting that there is no text in the class beyond the readings of his students. And yet, she observes that Fish works to create a community of model readers who ultimately uphold the values of traditional criticism. She writes that Fish “fears the anarchy that could happen when there are only readers, he proposes readers who will not misbehave” (12). In response to this, Spahr’s work (following her concept of reading “against), and my own postanarchist literary theory encourages the misbehaving of readers who are invited to read against, and beyond, the text at hand. In the end, this is a necessarily political move, seeking to disrupt the pedagogical dangers of encouraging a reader-focused theory of literature that still clearly delimits what a valid and valued reading would or should be. This is political, Spahr observes, because “[r]eading is often taught in school so as to go hand in hand with assimilation” (11). Therefore, Fish is politically vacuous, at best, assimilative at worst. He produces good capitalist readers. A postanarchist reading practice privileges the reader above author and text so as to work against these assimilative potentials of reading, and does so by placing in flux the identitarian markers of reader and author. I should also add here that Spahr is not too keen on having her work, and herself, be read as clearly or exclusively anarchist in nature. She makes this much clear to me in our brief e-mail interview when I ask her, “What is your understanding of anarchism? Do you consider yourself or your work anarchist in any sense?” and she responds by saying: “I don’t self-identify as anarchist, but mainly because I don’t self-identify much. But I like that Mallarmé line about how only one person has the right to be an anarchist, the poet.” As such, her work, especially in Everybody’s Autonomy is certainly anarchic, but it is also decidedly skeptical of any and all processes of self-identification.

Indeed, Spahr is careful in Everybody’s Autonomy to be sure that what she suggests is not a creation of or desire for a model community of readers; she, unlike Fish, does not fear the misbehaving of her students. Despite Jonathan Monroe’s extremely negative review[i], which I quoted earlier, she does not advocate the mythos of person liberation and individual autonomy that may be suggested by book’s title. Instead, Spahr’s conclusion directly addresses these potential concerns, wherein she is clear of her intentions with the use of the term “autonomy” in the title. “I do not wish,” she writes, “to suggest by ‘autonomy’ a literature of private liberation or self-autonomy” (154), which is to say that Everybody’s Autonomy and the reading practices it advocates, is not “a code word for liberal humanism” (ibid). Instead she proposes that the practice outlined in Everybody’s Autonomy is one rooted in liberated or free communities, or analogies of anarchist communities akin to those Jackson Mac Low proposes. While she does not focus on explicitly anarchist texts either, Spahr notes of the poetry she studies: “[t]his literature turns away from stories of nation states and toward the possibilities in site-specific discourse to identities rooted in communities” (155). But, despite the charges of apoliticization that such formally experimental work often garners (see, for example, Alicia Ostriker’s political aversion to Language poetry), Spahr notes that this work is not apolitical or without identitarian markers. She writes, “I want to acknowledge that language carries specific cultural information and this specificity can be used to resist a too easily politicized formalism” (158). This issue is particularly important in her work on Harryette Mullen, and will feature again in my plateaus on Mullen which follow.

It may be easy to dismiss Spahr insistence on studying and valuing the “specific cultural information” on the grounds that it holds onto a concept of subjectivity that runs counter to the postanarchist interest in dismantling identity and its role in authorship. But, we can find redeeming and valuable rationales for this move by way of Commonwealth, the final text in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire trilogy, which features heavily in my introduction to this project. Hardt and Negri, in this book, provide us with a means of alterglobalization resistance and experiment that does not entirely dismiss identity from the beginning, a useful turn considering how often (mainly rights-based) activist groups oppose anarchism and poststructuralism on the grounds that is discounts the politics of these struggles. Following Hardt and Negri, postanarchism instead views identity politics as a means to an end rather than an end in itself (to be either reified or discounted depending on the perspective). They maintain that a “revolutionary politics has to start from identity but cannot end there” (326). Therefore, while they advocate the eventual abolition of identity as a marker of biopolitical production and overcoding, they concede that “[i]dentity is a weapon of the republic but one that can be turned against it” (326). For Hardt and Negri, this is a four step process: first, we must attack invisibility of minoritarian subjectivities (327); second, we must oppose the concept of identity being treated as possession or property (329); third, we must engage in a struggle for freedom via processes of flux and becoming (331); and finally, we must end with the abolition of identity as a whole (332).

One example of this, for Hardt and Negri, is the activism taken up by queer activists who embrace the term queer as polyglot and multiple in nature, thus implicitly critiquing identity politics through the very use of the term “queer” (335). I am tempted to argue here that Hardt and Negri’s observations are especially apt to Spahr, whose life is marked by queerness via her polyamarous relationship with multiple partners. But, I am hesitant to make such a claim, first because, while she is by no means closeted, she does tend to avoid making direct links between her romantic, sexual, and domestic life and her poetics, save the important exception of the pseudo-autobiographical The Transformation. Additionally, I worry that here I am also relying too heavily on an autobiographical reading, long held to be inappropriate in the English department (despite its always lingering somewhere in the background of literary study). But, I also wonder if this gesture is the very kind of misbehaving Spahr advocates. Nonetheless, queerness is made manifest in her work, namely in Response in the poem “thrashing seems crazy,” wherein the body with multiple personalities is made a queer body by virtue of its containing male and female identities simultaneously[ii]. What is most important about this example is that it functions somewhere between a reclamation of the means of producing subjectivity, on the one hand, and queerness on the other, insisting on a specificity that opposes the abstraction of identity.

While their step-by-step guide may read as oversimplifying, they maintain that this abolition of identity is a grotesque violence; it is “monstrous, violent, and traumatic” (339). Similarly, while Spahr advocates the complication of identity and authorship, particularly by way of her refusal to “self-identify,” she also acknowledges in her work the trauma of abolishing identity. It is this trauma and violence that Katy Lederer identifies when she discusses the violence of the form in Response, as when she argues that Spahr’s insertion of the generic (by way of this projects titular quotation, for example) “uses brackets violently” (143). Alternatively, she also argues that the book’s “white space functions invasively causing the page itself to become livid with terror” (ibid). But, however violent Lederer read’s Spahr’s form, in Response this process of abolishing identity is not made explicitly violent so much as it is used as an invitation to the fragmentary communal, which in itself is monstrous, but instead submits the common in place of violence and trauma. This is best demonstrated in a passage I have made brief reference to already, but which I wish to quote at length here:

 a voice stutters in the background of our waking mind

[generic possessive pronoun] stutter is our stutter

or is it the way we define our difference?

stutter is nation (“responding: v” 1-4)

Here, the concept of “stutter,” which has made its way into nearly every one of my discussions of Spahr, is central to this relationship to identity. In our fragmentation, born out of Hardt and Negri’s processes of reclamation, of making visible the invisible, and of refusing to possess our identities, we form community that is beyond the traditional boundaries of nation, of identity, and embrace a kind of queerness in our processes of identification. Spahr’s speaker asks the reader to question how we define difference, concluding that the stuttering differences of the multiple, never fully articulable in language (and certainly not in poetry) is what defines a reading community. We all stutter in unison, and thus are invited to misbehave in our readings. We all stutter as anarchist, as postanarchist, in our refusal to self-identify. We all stutter as poets, and so, as Mallarme says, we become truly anarchic.


[i] My second plateau on Spahr quotes Monroe’s review in saying: “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).

[ii] I do not wish to suggest here that the body with multiple personalities, or any body with any “disorder” labeled so by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is inherently queer. Instead, I merely suggest that the body represented in Response, drawn from the lived experience of the woman who appeared on Oprah’s talk show, is one representation of queerness in the text. I do with some discomfort about the appropriation of mental illness, acknowledging that while it may be impossible to tell without violating, as my last post suggests, that some means of appropriation are more violating than others, and that using one person’s lived experience as a metaphor for queerness and activism without consent is one such move. I consider here the poetic metaphor only, and do not wish for my observations to be taken any further out of context.

3 thoughts on ““I don’t self-identify much”: Spahr’s Nation of Stutter

  1. There are lots of really fascinating ideas throughout this plateau. However, (and it might just be that my brain is still frozen from shoveling snow) I wonder if it’s a little too… scattered?

    For example, you begin by saying you’ll focus on reading, but I think that thread gets a little obscured in the plateau. It’s ghosting along in the background, but I think it needs to be more front and centre.

    I think the last few sentences (“Spahr’s speaker asks the reader … we become truly anarchic.”) need some unpacking, too. There’s lots to digest here, and I think you could work through the ideas more slowly. Also, are the last three sentences descriptive or aspirational? The tone isn’t clear for me.

    And a request for a small clarification: when you state that “Fish … produces good capitalist readers,” I assume you mean because he still assumes that the reader must be a good/proper/passive consumer? Could you briefly explain how that works alongside “assimilation” as you use it (which seems to move beyond mere consumption?).

    • Okay, so refocus this plateau on reading specifically. Make sure that’s front and center throughout.

      Unpack the last few sentences, and situate them in terms of the real world. Does this happen in Spahr? Does this happen in general? Do I just want it to happen? I have to work that out more thoroughly.

      And, I think in order to substantiate my (and Spahr’s) aversion to reader response theory, I think a footnote on the ideological implications of _Is There a Text in This Class?_. And perhaps a bit more about what Spahr says in response.

  2. To clarify, I’d say refocus this plateau around reading specifically IF that’s what you think the plateau really needs to focus on. The alternative is to reframe the opening paragraph or so in order to avoid implying that reading will be the focus. (I just think there’s a discrepancy between what the plateau starts off stating it will focus on and what it actually does focus on.)

    Those other actions you suggest sound good (though that second one might turn out to be a tough nut to crack!).

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