“Those texts stain you”: Affectively Reading Pillage Laud

Unsurprisingly, many people who discuss Erin Mouré, and the few who discuss this work in particular, draw attention to the role of the reader. In Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s article, she argues that the reader of Pillage Laud performs the text, and that the reader is thus a writer as well, but only insofar as the author/writer herself is considered to be just one subjectivity in the multiplicity of textual production (989). Susan Rudy’s reading of Mouré’s work places particular attention on the ways in which the complication of authorship produces what she terms a “communal narrative” (212). Even Mouré herself, in her collaborative essay with Caroline Bergvall, insists that all of reading (of her own work or otherwise), is “inherently a practice of exchange, or responsiveness” arguing in the exact phrasing of Duncan that it’s “radically communal” (170). Later, recalling DuPlessis’s arguments about textual performance, Mouré and Bergvall position the reading of poetry in particular as a kind of “enactment” (175). Certainly a text like Pillage Laud, with its explicit confrontation of individualize authorship via computer collaboration, opens up the text to new and various forms of reading processes. The process of the text’s production signposts the intentional fallacy better than perhaps any of the other experimental texts in this project; Mouré’s level of engagement in the process of computer generation is unclear at best. And yet, I must also point out that she does guide the reading process in ways that other indeterminate texts in my project do not. For example, Mouré’s designation of Pillage Laud as a book of “lesbian sex poems” guides readers into exegetical territory in a way that, for example, Mac Low’s Stein Poems do not. By ascribing a kind of content to the poem’s, Mouré engages with her readers in a way that moves beyond a description of process. In this way, Pillage Laud develops a poetics of indeterminacy that directly addresses a communal readership rather than expressing a disinterest in the ways in which the text would or could be read.

For some readers, this gesture towards content without the delivery of a kind of narrative is misleading, a kind of red herring that tells readers what they will find in the text, and subsequently ensures that the readers cannot and do not find it. For Andy Weaver, in his doctoral discussions of Pillage Laud, this authorial guidance is actually the imposition of a limitation on the reader in that the text gestures towards traditional narrative, without also including the potential release of the selfhood of the reader in the form of narrative suture. In this way, Weaver suggests that Mouré’s designation of Pillage Laud as a book of lesbian sex poems imposes an interpretation in a way that Cage and Duncan do not (270). Instead, the text functions in a rather traditional, sensical fashion. Weaver argues that “the reader can make sense of these sentences, since the text does not call signification into question” (279). Certainly, the poems draw attention to deviations in diction and sense, but not to meaning-making itself. The words may take on strange new uses, but the “referents are hardly ever missing” (291). The text simultaneously invites traditional readership and distances itself from it, and for Weaver this is the crux of the text’s limitations. That is, the reader is thus limited in his/her ability to lose his/herself in the text; maintaining traditional grammar without traditional narrative ultimately provides no narrative suture, and thus no destabilization of the reader’s self (280). What I would like to argue here is that the core of Mouré’s destabilization of authorship is precisely in this disconnect between grammar and narrative. In its cyborg authorship—its merger of human and computer—Pillage Laud approximates sense without delivering. It enacts narrative suture without delivering; it relies on the (very human) reader to fill in those gaps. As the text itself boasts, “Its suture presence (ventricle) was skin” (38).

So, I would like to talk for a moment about this textual merging of technology and “skin,” or humanity, positioning Pillage Laud as a cyborg book produced out of confrontation between the two forms. For Lori Emerson, the fundamental difference between the technological or computer-generated poem and the more traditionally (read: humanly) produced text is that a cyborg authorship requires that criticism focus on the interpreter rather than either producer or object (47). The computer-generated poem, for Emerson, does not kill the author or render him/her unimportant. Rather, it suggests that the author produces meaning just as much as the reader or the text itself in a configuration particular to the computer-generated piece (55). The technology involved—MacProse, in this case—is further a fourth term in this collaborative meaning-making. Author Michael Joyce, himself a pioneer in computer-generated text, in digital texts, and in particular hypertext, suggests in a very early article in Postmodern Culture that the hypertextual or digital text requires that new and important emphasis be placed on the reader’s role in producing the meaning of the technologically entwined work. Joyce, whose hypertext novel, afternoon, a story (1990), is widely considered to be the first of its kind, suggests that the digitally produced text is, at the time when he was writing, necessarily exploratory, and thus requires a kind of exploratory reading. “This kind of reading of an exploratory hypertext,” he writes, “is what we might call empowered interaction. The transitional electronic text makes an uneasy marriage with its reader. It says: you may do these things, including some I have not anticipated” (par. 18). Even more bold than Emerson, Joyce contends that “[i]t is to an extent true that neither the author’s representations nor the initial topography but instead the reader’s choices constitute the current state of the text for her” (par. 19). The exploratory digital text, in this way, invites its readers to confront their role in the production of textual meaning.

First published in 1999, when digital poetry and technologically produced poetry was still relatively new and avant-garde, Pillage Laud is certainly exploratory. This is probably most evident in the ways that the text makes explicit its invitations for the reader to engage in the production of both meaning and, through metaphors, the text itself. “I may move me,” the poem’s speaker suggests on page thirty-three, “but each of you appears to rule” (33). A few lines later, “each of you” is afforded even more agency in this process: “You appear to type” (33). Elsewhere, the text suggests that the reader is directly engaged in the “events” that are, in some form or another, “described” in the text. For example, amidst highly erotic discussions of the feminine body, a jarring line reads, “The audience snaps her form” (66). Later, we appear to be addressed as readers who occupy a position more valuable, even, than the speaker: “Dear one, I am the title, and you are the heights” (88). Authorship, in this line, is represented as authoritative in title only, quite literally. And, Mouré’s choice to include her name—as Erín Moure—in quotation marks on the first edition’s cover seems to corroborate this line. We as readers are “the heights,” a suggestion of physical power that moves well beyond the name.

Additionally, the speaker throughout the text questions not only the presence of an audience (a feature not uncommon even in lyric poetry), but also the function of the text itself. The speaker asks, for example: “Whom had the fresh poem mattered to?” (51); “Had we read?” (71); “to whom is this speaking machine hastening?” (91). The text is thus positioned as a “speaking machine,” a cyborg text that continues its speech as though it is a clearly-defined speaking subject communicating directly to a comprehending audience. In the text’s final poem, “to exist is reading,” where it appears that the textual output of the computer generation is least tampered-with by Mouré’s human authorship, the question of readership and its relationship to the “speaking machine” is brought to the fore. The poem seems to meditate on the pages that preceded it, asking: “So mechanical a suggestion—how has everyone replied?” (103), and later, “Whom don’t the readers produce?” (104). In the end, the poem questions, in the event of the production of a text, whether it is even possible to imagine a text without a readership, an audience. It asks, “When to exist is reading, can listener stop?” (106), suggesting that a readership is produced at the same time as the text itself. This conception of readership as always already existing is, I would like to argue, where this “radically communal” element of reading is most clearly located. It is a place where the reader is free to enter, and thus to develop an ethical relationship in reading to both other readers and to the author.

Critic Miriam Nichols, in “Toward a Poetics of the Commons: O Cidadán and Occasional Work,” positions the communal readership of another of Mouré’s texts, O Cidadán, as an ethical common. Directly addressing the poststructural and deconstructionist claims outlined in my introduction, Nichol’s argues that though “deconstructionists sounded the last death knell of the old humanist subject (rational, free, centred in itself), feminists, postcolonialists and sexual different theorists worked for the validation of new identities that respected differences of gender, sex, race, class and ethnicity” (146). In this difference, she argues, theory laid “the groundwork for a new commons” (147), requiring that our discussions—is a notably postanarchist turn—understand the difference between “the human subject” and “the citizen” (148). Nichols argues that Mouré’s experimental and often collaborative authorship presents what she terms a “primary sociality,” which she argues “is the point of departure for a poetics of receptivity” (149). Deferring to the largely humanist critical discussions of the “face” as a symbol of ethics (namely in the work of Levinas), Nichols argues that the communal readership promoted by Mouré’s collaborative texts requires that readers, with their increased agency as reading-subjects, face each other, and that this “facing makes both ‘I’s visible as ‘I’s. In the meeting they become (first) persons” (156), insisting in the end that Mouré’s texts stand politically for “the right to have a face” (157).

I should like to dismiss Nichols’s argument here as far too humanist for inclusion in a postanarchist discussion of this poetry, but I know that that is a discussion for a different time and place. Instead, I would like to argue that the common Nichols suggests is produced in O Cidadán’s readership is an affective one, in which we must recognize not each others’ state-sanctioned “right” to a face and to our own individuality, but rather to recognize our affective connections with various subjectivities—including, even, the machines—involved in textual production. Pillage Laud, too, seems to recognize the extremely affective relationship between the enactment of the text and its production, stating at one point explicitly that “To read was an affection” (91). At the end of the book, in a poem that seems quite clearly to be authored by the human Mouré herself, she directly addresses this concern, writing “Those texts stain you. / / You are some audience; / you expect affections” (102). “Those texts,” positioned as separate from this text, one with a single, clear author, does not “stain” its readers in the same way. The discomfort, the “stain,” brought on by the expectation of affect and the actual reception of the non-narrative, non-suturing, computer-generated text, produces the audience. This discomfort, as I will discuss in the plateaus that follow, is especially productive, a kind of poetic terrorism that encourages political engagement in a way that other texts (even in their extreme indeterminacy and nonsense) seemingly cannot.

3 thoughts on ““Those texts stain you”: Affectively Reading Pillage Laud

  1. Again, I think this is a really fascinating entry, and it really goes into some important areas. I certainly don’t have any major concerns or suggestions, but I do have some nitpicky questions/requests:

    I think the turn to Emerson’s work on cyborg authorship is really illuminating. Having said that, could you clarify a few things in these sentences: “For Lori Emerson, the fundamental difference between the technological or computer-generated poem and the more traditionally (read: humanly) produced text is that a cyborg authorship requires that criticism focus on the interpreter rather than either producer or object (47). The computer-generated poem, for Emerson, does not kill the author or render him/her unimportant. Rather, it suggests that the author produces meaning just as much as the reader or the text itself in a configuration particular to the computer-generated piece (55)”? Specifically, could you define “interpreter” in the first sentence, and could you unpack that last sentence (I can’t wrap my head around it)?

    You misquote (shame! shame!) the poem in your discussion of page 33: the quotation should be “I may move me, but each of you longs to rule” (which would seem to support your point more strongly). And a thought about the second quotation you mention on p33: does it alter your interpretation if I read “You appear to type” not only as a suggestion that the reader “creates” the poem but also as a statement that “you” (whoever that may be) appear (as in “come into being” or “enter my perception”) according to pre-established types?

    Your turn to Michael Joyce is interesting, but I don’t find it as compelling–for one specific reason: Pillage Laud isn’t a digital text. I think that distinction needs to be made clearly and directly, and then perhaps you can work to adapt Joyce’s points.

    When you state that “It asks, “When to exist is reading, can listener stop?” (106), suggesting that a readership is produced at the same time as the text itself. This conception of readership as always already existing…,” does this mean that Mouré (and/or Moure) creates this readership by acting as a reader at the same time as author/editor/compiler? I ask this because you don’t seem to want the text to create a “potential” audience, but rather a very real audience. Would it be helpful to discuss Mouré/Moure as a microcosmic audience that synecdochically(?) simultaneously relates to/imagines into being a macrocosmic audience?

    Finally, (and I suppose I’m unintentionally ending with my most grumpy point) I’m not comfortable with your tendency to personally determine which texts in Pillage Laud are computer generated and which are Mouré’s own (for example, “At the end of the book, in a poem that seems quite clearly to be authored by the human Mouré herself,” but there are several places in the entry where you make this kind of determination). Can you really determine which texts are written by whom in Pillage Laud? Isn’t it more complicated than that?

    1. 1) Yep. Maybe my use of the term interpreter is unclear, and that “reader” might actually be more appropriate, especially because I’ve done so much work against interpretation.

      2) Ah crap. I must have blended those two quotations in my head. But I absolutely love your suggestion of an additional element of that reading. You appear to type also suggests a reversal of the traditional reader gaze; you are made visible to the text, so the text gazes upon you (returns that gaze). Fascinating and beautiful.

      3) Oh but I firmly believe that (despite it’s print material) that PL *is* indeed a digital text, or perhaps more appropriately a text of electronic literature. I should then spend some more time discussing what that means for me. It’s a highly contested definition, but I think at this point I’ve read enough that I can substantiate the inclusion of PL in a digital discourse.

      4) Sure, I like the idea of Moure as microcosmic audience. I’ll develop this in revisions.

      5) Fair enough. It is definitely more complicated than that. I’ll check my determination.

  2. O, good–we might get to have an intellectual fist fight over whether or not PL is an electronic text (actually, probably not–your clarification and change in terminology to “text of electronic literature” seems reasonable… but you should still define what you mean by that).


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