Erin Moure

“My line (article) has sighed”: Authorial Subjectivity and Technology

But, as postanarchism repeatedly insists throughout this project, a discussion of readership and the reading process is incomplete without being accompanied by a study of authorship and the process of producing a text. In a text such as Pillage Laud, which seems to flaunt its experimental and unique authorial practices, this issue has not gone unnoticed. For example, Andy Weaver’s discussions of the text in his doctoral thesis take as their starting point that the computer-generated authorship of the book might lead some judgmental readers to discredit its authorship, or the text as a whole. Weaver notes that the apparent contradiction of the title of Pillage Laud addresses this concern immediately, rendering the text “a stolen object worthy of honour or thanks” (266). He argues that alongside the text’s “constant tension between sense and nonsense” (268), there is a consistent deferral of authorship proper. This is clearly evident, Weaver observes, in the paratextual notes that indicate that “the text selects” from the computer-generated output, rather than the author doing her own selecting (273). This is, Weaver adds, and I must concede, a bit of a misnomer—the text itself has not, of course, done anything agentic in its selection. Instead, Mouré’s collaborative authorship with the computer indicates that “we are passive inheritors of language, and … our subjectivity is formed and maintained not only through language, but by language” (283). But, where he may see some radical formal experimentation in Mouré’s book of computer-generated love poems, Weaver is quick to argue that while the text may boast some philosophical similarities to Language (287), what he ultimately argues is that she upholds “the normalization of capitalist thinking in language” (290) by using typical or traditional grammar. By rejecting the New Sentence of Langpo, Mouré appropriates the image and aesthetics of Language writing, but does so—for Weaver—both uncritically and apolitically, essentially downplaying the content of the text (309). I will, in a later plateau, pay more attention to Weaver’s criticisms of Mouré’s politics in this text. At this moment, I would like to instead point out that the heart of Weaver’s criticism here is in the choices made by the author in relation to the indeterminate output of the MacProse program.

Instead of uncritical politic, I would like to reposition Mouré’s authorship in this text squarely as one of collaboration with an external force (the computer, MacProse, technology in general). In this sense, as I have indicated in my previous plateau, Pillage Laud is a text produced by cyborg authorship, which is, I would like to argue, inherently social. Social authorship is the primary concern of Rachel Blau DuPlessis in her recent essay “Agency, social authorship, and the political aura of contemporary poetry.” In this essay, DuPlessis argues that our contemporary discussions of authorship must move beyond the poststructural insistence on the death of the Author, searching instead for ways of theorizing authorship that recognizes the impossibility of individual expression but still ascribes a kind of agentic role to the producer of a text. The argument is clearly postanarchist, though DuPlessis never names it as such. “Authorship is neither dead nor singular,” she argues, “neither all discursive mediumship nor all individual expression. Authorship occurs in being possessed, not mystically, not sublimely, but precisely by sociality as a part of a work’s dissemination and reception [and] its production” (987). This possession by the social, the inclusion of the author in social assemblage, is neither an uncritical adoption of Foucaultian discursivity nor a utopian view of collaboration. Instead, DuPlessis presents a theory of authorship that works to revive Foucault’s author-function from the dust-coverage of old poststructural philosophy. She writes that

Far from denying agency, far from barring the possibility of social authorship in the production of literary texts, Foucault’s somewhat quaint assumption of author-disappearance-and-death opens the space for a proposal of post-personal authorship and a discussion of the rhetorical modes that such authorship might choose to deploy. (988)

Moving beyond Foucault then, DuPlessis wants to open up a space for the author as agentic within an assemblage of subjectivity (990), a place where we as readers and critics can envision a “non-expressivist, not explicitly personal, goal for writing” (989). In this realm of social authorship, the author is not an a priori figure, not “the biographical person walking around in the world,” but rather a figure produced by the text itself and by “what that person ‘announces’ of her formal, ideological and discursive agency at the writing table” (990-1). The poem is thus a “complex matrix” (992) where social authorship is a representation of plurality as and not of the enunciation (993). Acknowledging the utopian, communistic dangers of suggesting the pure radical possibilities of social authorship, DuPlessis adds at the end of this essay that, of course, “[n]o form has any intrinsic content, any intrinsic politics” (997), and that, therefore, social authorship is only radical because of the extant Author-god hegemony.

As if in support of DuPlessis’s arguments that we cannot disown or dismiss the author so wholly, Pillage Laud is littered with examples of the text attempting to refuse the subject position of the author, only to have it prove itself either unable or unwilling to come apart completely. On page thirty-one the text observes, “My subject wouldn’t split.” And later “The writer orbits me. My line (article) has sighed” (52). Unlike other, perhaps more radical, disruptions of authorship (as in Cage or Mac Low, for example), Mouré’s work in Pillage Laud does not just admit the impossibility of the completely unegoic text, it admits this impossibility as a starting point for a more effective and more nuanced study of authorship and subjectivity. The writing “I” of the text, the line (article), is not rejected (partially or fully), it “sigh[s],” opening itself to external forces, taking in the social, and embracing the extralinguistic possibilities for communication. More in line, in many ways, with the Black Mountain conceptions of authorship than the Language ones, Mouré’s voice somehow creeps into the computer’s output, producing an “Erín Moure” by virtue of its enunciations. The speaker, or more truthfully the text itself, boasts: “my field had owned me” (24).

The authorship of Pillage Laud is also social by virtue of Mouré’s many different writing personas, made manifest in her various and varied uses of pseudonyms. This is a concern many critics have addressed in their scholarship on her. For example, in Isabel A. Moore’s article on “Lyric Fever,” she writes that Mouré’s use of many pseudonyms is a direct challenge to the very genre of the lyric and its implication of a speaking- and writing-subject. She writes, “[a]s it is, their [the pseudonyms’] mobility and their multiplicity sound their author’s repeated challenges to that genre” (35). Caroline Bergvall, too, notes that as her work proliferates, so do Mouré’s names (167). Bergvall terms the pseudonym in this case a “social-authorial name” in which “each new spelling is a signature in the narrative and structural, rather than the performative sense” (168). Bergvall suggests, then, that the multiple nature of Mouré’s poetic voice points to the impossibility of a clearly defined feminine or feminist voice to adhere her work to the tradition of Canadian feminist poets, to which Mouré responds in agreement: “My mother tongue is silence” (174). Thus the “Erín Moure” who authors this book presents her name with a shifted accent, and, more importantly, leaves her name on the book’s cover in quotation marks, admitting that even this varied act of naming is itself arbitrary, and that it suggests much more closure than the reality of social authorship permits. The suggestion is then that authorship only ever arises out of collaboration and communication, and in this way Mouré refuses the essentialism of an expressive, personal mother tongue in favor of the multiple voices not only of her multiple writing-selves, but of the very indeterminate nature of the collaborative text itself.

So, we arrive at a point where we must treat collaborative authorship quite differently than the subjective authorship of the lyric, for example. But, this collaboration is also somewhat different from the technological collaboration of, for example, Mac Low’s interaction with his diastic programs. Rather than treating the computer output as raw product with which the poet then works to produce a text, Mouré’s collaboration with the computer in Pillage Laud privileges technology as co-producer insofar as the poet herself merges with the machine in order to place her own subjectivity in flux. This is what Lori Emerson argues in her article “Materiality, Intentionality, and the Computer-Generated Poem.” Emerson observes that the use of pseudonym and computer generation together signal to Mouré’s readers that “the border of a name is not a straight line [and] has no final point either” (175). Emerson goes on to observe that “Mouré’s poems are material objects devoid of authorial intention at the same time as they are material objects that reveal her intentions or the intentions to the programmer/writer” (48). The text therefore must constantly negotiate the relationship between machine and human, or between intentionality and intentionlessness (49), understanding that at its core this is a tension between material and intention, not a binarism (51). If, as so many critics have ascertained in the past half a century, the poststructural conceptions of the author do not account for the materiality of the text, than the materiality as manifestation of process in a computer-generated text must then open us up to the consideration of intention—as my own work has done throughout this project—even where intention cannot justly be traced. That is, I can then, by relying on collaboration and materiality, read the line quoted above—“The writer orbits me. My line (article) has sighed”—as emblematic of social and agentic experimental authorship, even though clearly the computer did not and cannot intend for me to read its cryptic “line (article)” as such. Even in a computer-generated text, Emerson maintains, intention must be considered (57). While Emerson and others (including Weaver and Michael Joyce) maintain that issues of paratext will always be more obvious markers of interpretation, I would argue that the collaborative nature of the computer-generated text signals that these paratextual clues are merely signposts rather than laneways to guide interpretation.

Before I end this plateau, I would like to add that reading Pillage Laud as collaboration with a machine means also that I read this text, ostensibly, as a collaboration between Mouré and Charles O. Hartman, who created the MacProse program used to produce the text. This question is brought up by rob mclennan on his blog post reviewing the BookThug reprint of Pillage Laud. Here I quote mclennan at length:

if the computer program was designed by Charles O. Hartman, does this actually make the final product, the book-length Pillage Laud, a collaboration between Hartman and Moure? And what does this have to do with language, how words mean? How does such a work alter the considerations we bring to poetry? I’ve heard arguments that poetry created through such processes […] became negated as poems for their perceived lack of “authorial intent.” Do we need to know what an author was thinking to read a single line, a single poem? I would hardly think so. It’s not always what made the pieces, but what the pieces, in fact, become that matter in the end; how they exist as pieces, how they exist as poems. Despite what some of the language poets might tell you, words can’t help but mean, and the meanings emerge through how the words are combined.

Ascribing the same agency to the text itself that Weaver sees in Pillage Laud’s paratext, mclennan here suggests that the text means on its own, and that this process of meaning making is something the text can’t help but do. While this does seem to support a reading of the text as indicating our own passive consumption of language, it doesn’t account for the ways in which the text questions who gets to mean and how this meaning can be attributed to a speaking voice. There is no language without a speaking voice, even in the indeterminate, experimental text. And Mouré insists on reminding us of this. In the apparently traditionally composed poem “In Tenebris, or The Gate,” included towards the end of the book, she keeps us from relishing the utopian radical potentials of the unegoic text, reminding us once and for all that “[t]his is just a copped line from MacProse” (99).

3 thoughts on ““My line (article) has sighed”: Authorial Subjectivity and Technology

  1. Wow, lots of great stuff here! I really like this radical middle you’re suggesting in terms of authorial subjectivity. That seems extremely productive, and very useful for dealing with a text like Pillage Laud.

    Just a few thoughts/requests:

    Could you briefly expand on this point: “More in line, in many ways, with the Black Mountain conceptions of authorship than the Language ones…”? A few clarifying sentences should be enough, and could be very helpful to clarify your overall point in the plateau. Also, just below this, you state that “The speaker, or more truthfully the text itself, boasts: ‘my field had owned me’ (24).” At this point, could you offer a few sentences defining/clarifying the difference and relationship between speaker, text, and author(s) in terms of your overall argument in this plateau (perhaps by working through the quotations terms of “my/me” “field,” and “owned”)?

    I like the section where you work through Mouré’s use of pseudonyms. I wonder if bringing in Fernando Pessoa’s term “heteronym” might expand this point. Mouré’s names seem somewhat stronger than a mere pseudonym, though not as strongly developed as Pessoa’s heteronyms. Might there be a middle ground between these two poles here, as well? (A pseudo-heteronym?) It might also be worth mentioning/thinking through that Pillage Laud is the first text, if my memory can be trusted, where Mouré plays with her authorial name.

    • Sounds like I need a few clarifying footnotes: one on Language/BM authorship, one extrapolating that quotations.

      I’d been trying to avoid the Pessoa heteronym dealio because I wanted to leave space for a conference paper on Sheep’s Vigil I’d been working on. But since the MLA didn’t accept that panel (jerks) I can probably bring it in.

  2. Jerks, indeed! Sorry to hear that.

    Only bring in a discussion of the heteronym if it actually seems relevant. Sheep’s Vigil does slightly postdate Pillage Laud (unless she worked on them at the same time?), so it might only be a quirky coincidence.

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