Friday, February 13, 2004

I don't know about you but

William Burroughs (Adding Machine ) writes that coincidence is the failure or success of a willful act. He also wrote that everything had already been written.


If we read and write without a thought about shaping what we read and write, in other words if we merely do reading and writing, we are in many ways unwilling or involuntary participants in the field. I have often heard folks talk about the luck involved with publishing. Nonsense. No luck about it. We are acting irresponsibly as critics and writers and scholars when we accept the play of the market as sound reason for shaping a discourse community.

Such practice is not virtuous: neither useful for the individual or the community. If I willingly choose what to read and study while actively applying that thought and practice to my writing, the reading and writing become inextricably linked in purpose and direction. Moreover, becoming skilled in recognizing such connection eventually becomes part of the character of writing--occurs even when texts have no explicit or directly implicit relationship to one another.

Maybe this sounds trite--not a revelation but a maturity. Not so. Most authors don't see the connections between what they read and what they write and where/how they live; insist on their coincidental relationships to other authors. When authors critique or speak about writing, they like to practice forms of distinction.

The rejection of tradition or the act of placing a writer within one specific tradition is the practical use of the foundation for many postmodern theories of possibilities for interpretation and pleasurable reading experiences. A handy knowledge of popular texts in the market and a glib tone allow writers and critics alike to put and place and argue about positionality as a craft in itself.

I was recently informed by a professor that at some point proper publishing must be accomplished by any writer in order to "do what we do"--that what I am doing out here is digital media studies. What I am doing is publishing. I hear that blogging is a low form of writing, associated with the unruly masses. The elitism in academia is always shocking. I am educated, I chose this path, I know what I am faced with, but I am still amazed when I see someone grasping for the ownership of righteousness in scholarship as if it weren't a tattered-tail end of the self-functioning capitalist market.

The hierarchy in publishing is purely market based. If we published outside of the market, and we could, we would still publish and still read each others' work. Money is not tied to many authors' writing but publishing in the market still is: the drive to hit the best-seller list is not about the cash. It is about the OBJECT. The fetishism: binding, archiving, surplus, gift-giving, editing, revising--to name several yet not all. Not narcissism: if it was about us, we wouldn't publish.

Commodity fetishism is a simple place to begin a critique, though. Aesthetics, now, is based in appearance of the text; writers worry about the disappearance of THE BOOK; the academy debates the health of THE MARKET; workshops degenerate into discussions of what SELLs. Nothing about the doing and being of writing that authors do--the thing-ing of things--gets discussed. Bring it up and the stammering that follows is seriously disheartening. Demand some responsible discourse, and accusations of mean-ness fly.

The phenomenology of writing has nothing to do with the book. To talk about a chair: How is a chair a chair? To talk about a book: How is a book a book? But that question doesn't get to: How is writing writing? Writing has nothing to do with publishing as we define it...the publishing we idealize, however, is a conflation of conversation and of the document. I am not arguing that publishing is awful, just that we could dispense with market-ability and open the discourse a bit, publish more and more often, if it weren't for the desire to be popular and correct and memorialized.

From Susan Howe's The Birth-mark :

  • "A printed book enters social and economic networks of distribution. Does the printing modify an author's intention, or does a text develop itself?"

  • Howe quotes Macherey on literary production and I will paraphrase, a work or text breaks from the everyday forms of talking and writing. The printed book is set apart from all other forms of ideological expression

  • "Print beats back imagination./ Words are slippery. Questions of audience, signature, self and other will be answered later by historians, genealogists, graphologists, handwriting experts, who need to produce a certain rationalism for this unstable I-witnessing, uncovering relation.

Relation is uncovering. Holderlin thought that poetry was uncovering. Explicitly: Poetry is relation.

As Howe shows, the relating that writing does is imaginative and creative and I-witnessing, and the relating that printing does is a rationalization. Print rationalizes an author's imagination; in other words, authorizes the author's account. Look to the rise of the novel, look to Defoe and Richardson. Both wrote novels to correct the form as it was being shaped. Both wrote to conspire with the ideology of print that authorizes popular perception about how one should write about anything at all.

To claim a writer should have a specific type of publication exemplified by a specific list of possible texts grounded in a particular tradition on his resume makes sense to the market but not for the writer. Such a request of writer-scholars dehumanizes while textualizes them. It is an implicit acceptance of an elitist system of publishing based on the reading taste of a handful of writers only a handful of readers have read.

Patronage outside of the market might be the only solution to this problem. Publishing regardless of the corporate grant. Small presses need to resist forming ideological associations in order to justify publishing choice. "Please read our journal before submitting work" may be a good way to increase readership and knowledge of content; however, the statement confesses a desire to control both the meaning of content and the way the text is read. The editorial control over aesthetics shouldn't be about content or form--as meaningless an editorial decision as taking work only from lesbians or writers with cancer or writers who love horses or southern fiction.

Writers shouldn't be answering questions about their work such as "How does my writing fit?" because such questions more typically relate to identity and ideology: class, gender, race, politics, sexuality, body, religion, etc.

Another problem with associating publications with ideologies: I read many authors and browse as many journals as I find time and can afford. It's a difficult task to decide where to submit based on form and content. My writing is sort-of-like or in-the-shape-of or ideologically-aligned-with many different journals at different times. And, if my work was published in several of them within a twelve-month period, I would be associated with journals popularly assumed to be at cross-purposes. What then? Would it be assumed that I was confused about who I am as a writer?

reductio absurdum...

The more I think about it the more it becomes clear--folks are concerned about the form, content, aesthetic representation, and ideological status of the market (text) rather than the work (doing writing).

Richard Greenfield, my colleague, and his friend Josh Corey--in the context of Jeff Menne's review of Greenfield's book and the argument about New Brutalism--are fuel for the debate about what goes and what fits. The ethics is market-based because the reviews, in general but in this case as well, ask a question about what text should be placed into what tradition. "What is it about poemA that goes with tradition4?"

In fact, such a poetics is pragmatic and based in fashion.

Post-Poetics: The Absorptive Quality of Constellation Markets (a draft; a satire)

1. Whereas we should take the time to define a tradition (revise history to see what really goes on back then to now; look into as many variant contemporary representations of similar work in order to be as inclusive as possible; debate the results in public) we will claim lack of time due to workload rather than admit we can't be bothered. So, skipping a thorough study of history, we start with authority, the canon, the rich and/or powerful folks who decided what mattered. We take their concepts as valuable because they remain in print and name a constellation. Since it is something we discovered, we will own it and sell it in the market.

2. After defining our longterm business plan, we select a set of quotes from a community of artists to cite as often as possible insisting that the set we chose appropriately represents their work. Such repetition is a form of production. In this case, the production of a cultural memory based solely in what was once said rather than in what has come to be. Such insistence creates an ideological framework for our future discourse about the form and content of our poetics. Such a framework requires little effort from its authors to maintain but requires much effort from our future participants to figure out.

3. We use the ideological representation of our community to teach our friends, students and fellow writers how to talk about and represent the past. We share the code with a chosen few. Such sharing creates desire in those who lack the knowledge. The poetics, therefore, revises history without critical thought and allows us to discuss our work without having to participate in shaping it. In other words, we rely on the ideological structure to maintain a stasis in the poetics in order to allow us to pay attention to other matters like creating space for us to teach our ideology in departments and space in the market to sell our texts.

4. With no heterogeneity in the poetics, we can focus on cultivating a market that will accept our work as representative of what counts in the field without competition from other similarly minded writers. They won't mind. If we do it right, we can even fix the price.

5. Since we don't really discuss the craft of what we do, the competition between writers and publications becomes market competition based solely in the pragmatics of Desire: What can we take, How many do we want to accept, Who do we want, What schools do we want to represent, What painting on the cover, What photo on my book, et al.

6. Remember, ideological representation of work is really no work at all. But the representing does allow us to organize texts and ideas hierarchically based upon knowledge of a field. In other words, we can assure longevity and possibly a bit of fame because we are the form and content rather than the writing. In other words, we can disembody our work from our career and let our career prosper. Writing can, then, be allowed to be secondary.

7. Knowledge of a field doesn't require reading. Don't worry. You really need only read what is popularly published about what is important and then paraphrase or quote the quote--"as cited in" has become acceptable. Knowing a field gives you the ability to see a middle-ground and the margins. And, if you are privileged enough, you can place yourself anywhere within the field. If you just want to get along, choose the center: learn it, copy it, submit it, publish it. If you are a bit radical, choose the margins: right or left; top or bottom; learn it, copy it, submit it, publish it.

8. Knowledge of a field also allows for apparent fair competition in the market. It provides us with a way of telling unrecognized individuals to get lost without being charged with nepotism. We can suggest, "Please read our journal before submitting work" or many other short, polite statements. Whereas it may be true that some work doesn't fit our publication at a specific time, no one need know otherwise.

9. Of course, many writers write poorly. And this is our ultimate excuse for relying on the market. So many submissions, so much junk. It is hard for us to get published; easy for us to get lost in the mix. Therefore, we rely on suggesting faith in the small market. Many people publishing in many places reading only the kinds of small publications that contain work that sounds like their own allows the market to function according to its own rules and makes it damn near impossible for a writer to publish widely. Whereas we find it tougher to get a wider readership, we do get a community who thinks and acts the way we do making life comfortable and affordable.

10. We can call our structure Absorptive Post-Poetics or Post-absorptive Poetics or Constellary Pre-Poetics or anything at all that uses words that sound warm and functional but are typically left un-explored since they were first used in this context.

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