Christian Bok / Conceptual Coda

Why Do We Keep Buying It?: Looking at the Reader of _Eunoia_

If my first plateau on Eunoia tended to focus on its authorship, then I’d like to spend this plateau looking carefully at the ways in which this text interacts with its readers. Eunoia is a particularly interesting example to look at these issues in that, despite its positioning as a radically experimental text, the book has been mass-produced and massively popular. Responding to the issue of the text’s popularity, Bök tells Stephen Voyce that while he is pleased with its popularity, he also knows that a popular book of poems is, in the grand scheme of things, not terribly popular. He says:

I am surprised that my own work of experimental poetry has enjoyed popular success, selling more than 20,000 copies at last count [in 2007], but this number still pales in comparison to the success of other cultural artifacts in other art forms—so I still feel that I have a very long way to go in order to boost the profile of avant-garde poetry among a mainstream readership. (par 79)

Still, Robert David Stacey points out that this popularity is important and notable: “Eunoia’s extraordinary popularity is perhaps especially surprising given that it is a highly experimental text, a procedural work produced in accordance with a set of fixed rules which limit the expressive freedom of the poet and condition the outcome of the work” (64). If we understand, as seems to be the case, that radically formally experimental works of poetry tend to be relegated to an even further obscurity than poetry is usually afforded, then we are right to be surprised by Eunoia’s commercial and critical success. The question becomes then: why are we so interested in this book? Why have we all heard of it and why do we keep buying it?

The question of readership in Eunoia has been largely critically ignored, save Sean Braune’s important discussion of the potentials of meaning therein (which I briefly mentioned in my last plateau). While I do not have the time or the space here to do it justice, I do think that it merits its own plateau because the position of the reader in this text is a strange one. In light of the fact that Oulipian procedures are important to the author for the production of the text, they have traditionally served as a kind of skeleton key for highly formalized work like Eunoia. If meaning is not readily communicated, the procedure for producing the text can be used to decode its message. In many ways, this was my primary method for reading the Cage, Mac Low, and Mouré texts in this project. But, the process of reading Eunoia appeals to the reader on a rather different level than simply applying the Oulipian constraint to the reading—as well as the writing—process. The text is, after all, addressed directly to us as readers with an epigraph that reads: “for the new / ennui in you.” What precisely is this new ennui in us that leads us to be so intrigued by Bök’s text?

In Jerome McGann’s comedic dramatic response to the work, articulated as a conversation between two budding literature students, the two characters (Skip Thomai and Perry Calles) comment on the text in response to an exam question about its title. “The New Ennui,” the Thomai exclaims, “is poetry without a personality. It’s beyond even O’Hara’s Personism. It’s pure X-Gen” (140). Calles responds: “Impure, I’d say. About as far from a Slacker mode as possible … That’s a ‘New Ennui’ all right—grandstanding in Bök’s signature flatland wit. Ennui sending out its coded message: ‘un oui’” (140). The two fictional characters seem to articulate an interest in the looming presence of Bök’s authorial persona over the text; but it is a persona that resists personal expression. They see in it a “oui,” an affirmation of the potentials of the text to communicate without expressing. Later, Thomai observes that “[t]he title page identifies Bök as the ‘author’ of the book’s verses” but wonders, “who has authored this text? Or who is the agent responsible for the cover and frontispiece? Anonymous? Not at all. It is. The book speaks for itself” (144). McGann’s characters seem to see Eunoia as freeing for the reader who encounters not an author’s thoughts and feelings, but rather a text that, somehow, speaks on its own. It seems to care not for its readers; maybe that makes us more free to encounter it.

Of course, it must be said that Oulipo traditionally doesn’t care too much about its readers, and cares even less for affect. The reader of the Oulipian text doesn’t even really engage with the process. As Marjorie Perloff notes in her article on Eunoia, “[a]ccording to Oulipo rules, there are as many possible constraints as there are poems, and the constraint is not an external form that is recognized readily but may be a rule that remains largely hidden to the reader” (25). And yet, the title of the piece directly concerns itself with the affect of its readers. As Voyce points out in his interview with Bök, one definition of “eunoia” is a healthy and balanced state of mind. In light of this, Voyce quips: “I find this amusing, since Eunoia seems to have required near pathological compulsion to write” (par 89). The pathology and compulsiveness behind the texts production is clear, but the popularity of the text seems to suggest that it doesn’t result in a similar pathology in its readers. But perhaps that is not a sufficient answer. Does the text produce similarly pathological readers?

What is unique about the text’s pathology is that the result is not a scattered collection of schizophrenic thoughts as one might expect from such a constraint but rather the formation of clearly discernable narratives couched in each chapter. It is this concern that Stacey uses to argue for the useful postindustrial and antiglobalization politics of the text. He points out, as Perloff also argues in her work on Bök, that free verse is more useful to globalization because the absence of formalist rules and constraints make it more easily translated into different languages (Stacey 72). By attempting to adhere to a narrative function despite the formal constraint, the text resists this universalization, creating a text that is, for all intents and purposes, untranslatable. Stacey goes on to observe that if, as Bob Perelman says, “Parataxis is the dominant mode of postindustrial experience” than the tendency towards narrative continuity in Eunoia must be understood in this context (Stacey 74). Narrative continuity then functions as anticapitalist and antiindustrial, ultimately rejecting the “idea of the aesthetic predicated on the sovereignty of the imagination” (77). In this way, the text—like Place’s that I studied before it, and unlike Goldsmith’s before that—is immensely readable. In fact, the narratives coupled with the rhythm and flow resulting from the use of only one vowel in each chapter, make Eunoia a surprisingly enjoyable read. As another testament to this, Bök’s own readings of the text are typically well-attended, and the CD of his readings also sells relatively well. This latter point is also informed by the fact that Bök’s performances are frequently characterized as virtuoso and emphatic; he performs with bravado and boldness that only enhances the unique aural elements of the texts. My own personal favourite is Bök’s reading of “Chapter U,” in which Alfred Jarry’s Ubu is resurrected in scenes of pornography and debauchery that are both hysterical and quite shocking in Bök’s characteristic reading style. It is not designed for those, as Bök warns in the introduction of the first link, with “delicate sensibilities.”

So the question becomes: how radical is this text, really? Or, more exactly, how might we read it as relatively traditional? In his assertion of a flowing narrative throughout Eunoia, Stacey draws attention to Bök’s assertion in the afterword that the text “willfully crippl[es] its language in order to show that even under such improbable conditions of duress, language can still express an uncanny, if not sublime thought” (103). In the interview, Voyce uses a similar rhetoric when pointing out the fact that the text was also well-received by the poet Rob Silliman on his highly influential blog, wherein “[h]e [Silliman] comments on your ‘awesome ear,’ claiming that the ‘book’s driving pleasure lies in its author’s commitment to the oldest authorial element there is: a great passion for rigor’” (par 97). My conclusion is that the text is, in the end, not terribly radical at all, but instead that its popular appeal lies in the fact that it is able to marry the politics of Oulipian constraint and extreme formal radicalism with the appeal of narrative continuity. The force of an extreme authorship allows the reader to come face-to-face with the radically experimental text without the added burden of reader freedom of experience. While this may make for an enjoyable, popular, and marketable text, postanarchism ultimately finds no use for the text. Instead, a postanarchist literary theory would read Eunoia as coopting the radical potentials of the formally experimental text, and thus limiting them.

8 thoughts on “Why Do We Keep Buying It?: Looking at the Reader of _Eunoia_

  1. I would love to hear more about the final sentence. Can “radical potential” be co-opted? In what way are these potentials limited by this text? Is this limitation because the reading experience is as constrained as the writing experience was constrained? Is there a danger in criticizing a text for not achieving ends that it is not trying to achieve?

    I thought the text’s appeal could be as simple as the fact that the linguistic playfulness provides a real pleasure, the way that rhyme and rhythm or a perfectly constructed sonnet has long provided pleasure. (That old-fashioned pleasure of “craft”?) I am skeptical of the idea that this text appeals to readers because in provides (or contains) a narrative structure. Do people really read _Eunoia_ because they think it tells really good stories?

    • So we talked about these issues already, but I just want to comment here so that our discussions can make their way into my project. You are right to point out that no one buys/reads Eunoia because it is a good story. It is definitely a pleasure of the “craft” that seems to draw people in.

      I wonder of coopted is really the word I was looking for in this. But I would absolutely agree that the potentials of the text and the experience of reading is constrained in part by the fact that the production of the text is constrained. But it’s more than that. I think the text produces less free readers–less free to experience the text, less free to share it in common, etc. That may not be what the text is designed to do, but it’s a thing I think a text should do, that I think a good text does.

      And I definitely do not agree that there is a danger in criticizing a text for not achieving ends that it is not trying to achieve. If we are critics who believe that, then that’s a real danger. It eliminates the study of gender/queer, ability, and race politic in any pre-modernist text, for one thing. But it also weirdly gets us back to an Author-God. So, Bok may not have cared about the relative freedom of his readers, and the text may not work to produce relatively free readers–it may not be a TAZ–but that doesn’t mean I can’t say “wait a minute, this text really limits my interpretive possibilities.”

  2. “Does the text produce similarly pathological readers?”
    — That would be one magical text

    I wonder if your argument doesn’t boil down to, “if it’s readable and enjoyable, then it’s not radical.”

  3. “Does the text produce similarly pathological readers?”
    — That would be one magical text. Further, to imply that the discipline and focus necessary to generate such a work as Eunoia is “pathological” bespeaks an entrenched (inherited?) stance towards psychological normalcy.

    I wonder if your final argument doesn’t boil down to, “if it’s readable and enjoyable, then it’s not radical.”

    (Also, it’s Ron Silliman. I’m sure that’s a typo, but one you might want to fix.)

    • Hi! And welcome to commenting on genericpronoun!

      You bring up some interesting points. Let me try to address them one by one.

      1) I think you’re right. And I think that one of the interesting things that Eunoia does is force us to question what is “normal” in the production of a text, including “psychological normalcy.” That doesn’t make the text any less pathological, but it does cause its readers to question how valuable or useful such a normalcy would be.

      2) I think you’re right here, too, and I stand by it in a lot of ways. But it does beg the question: what does it mean for a text to be “readable”? what makes a text “enjoyable”? If readability and enjoyability come from the fact that we as readers learn to comprehend and to enjoy a text based on skills we’ve developped from other text, then I suspect that the more readable a text, the less radical it is. But, that also doesn’t mean in any way that radicalism is good or useful or valuable. The point I make is less about radicalism and more about the radical POTENTIALS of the text, potentials that exist for the reader outside of normative meaning-making. And, for me, and for a postanarchist literary theory, it would seem that Eunoia doesn’t embrace these potentials in a way that some of the other texts on my project might.

      And yes that is a typo. I’ll change it in my revisions and credit you with spotting it first!

  4. The plateau and the discussions that follow it are extremely interesting. I’m sure Christian would be happy with the engagement Eunoia has sparked in the commenters. I’m inclined to agree with Dani’s argument that Eunoia isn’t a radical text in terms of the reading experience it provides. Narrative is too dominant today to really allow for such a radicality, I think. Having said that, though, there are radical elements that should be acknowledged: for example, surely the text requires the reader to undergo a radical re-engagement with language as a material? That re-engagement would go hand in hand with Silliman’s argument that poetry can/should rematerialize language in order to avoid the commodity fetish of text (an avoidance which works against late capitalism’s use of fetishization to passify the individual).

    Dani, here’s an honest question for you: can a text that is not radical in terms of the reader’s experience/freedom still claim a radicality at the level of authorship/creation? I guess what I’m asking is, can a radical writing practice create a non-radical text? If so, is that a way of thinking about Eunoia?

    • Such a good question. I think the answer is: yes! A radical form authorship can produce a not-so-radical text. Monkeys writing Hamlet and all that. It’s something I hadn’t thought of. And it’s a quite productive way of thinking about Eunoia. It’s hard to argue that the production of the text is “Traditional” — though it is, of course, a part of a longstanding tradition in the avant-garde. But I think that the result is decidedly less… I need a better word than radical.

      Thanks for this distinction. I think it’ll be really productive in revisions.

  5. Does this thread open up your discussion to the role of the reader in determining the radicality (or whatever term you’d prefer–novelty? radical artifice? writerliness?) or conventionality of a text? I remember my PhD supervisor, Doug Barbour, once commenting that a text is always only as experimental as its reader determines. I’ve always thought that was a really fascinating and important notion. Is there a space for, for lack of a better term, radical reading in _Eunoia_ and/or the other conceptual texts you discuss? Might other readers see/experience a radicality that you don’t? If so, how might such a plurality of reading experiences play into postanarchism? [These are huge questions, I think, so don’t feel obliged to tackle them in depth–but some quick thoughts might help to ground some new directions to think of as you continue to develop your ideas after the diss.]


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