This article was downloaded by: [Durham University Library

]
On: 17 July 2012, At: 06:54
Publisher: Routledge
Informa Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954
Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH,
UK
Textual Practice
Publication details, including instructions for authors
and subscription information:
http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rtpr20
Agency, social authorship,
and the political aura of
contemporary poetry
Rachel Blau DuPlessis
a
a
Temple University, Philadelphia, USA
Version of record first published: 10 Dec 2009
To cite this article: Rachel Blau DuPlessis (2009): Agency, social authorship, and the
political aura of contemporary poetry, Textual Practice, 23:6, 987-999
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09502360903361592
PLEASE SCROLL DOWN FOR ARTICLE
Full terms and conditions of use: http://www.tandfonline.com/page/terms-
and-conditions
This article may be used for research, teaching, and private study purposes.
Any substantial or systematic reproduction, redistribution, reselling, loan, sub-
licensing, systematic supply, or distribution in any form to anyone is expressly
forbidden.
The publisher does not give any warranty express or implied or make any
representation that the contents will be complete or accurate or up to
date. The accuracy of any instructions, formulae, and drug doses should be
independently verified with primary sources. The publisher shall not be liable
for any loss, actions, claims, proceedings, demand, or costs or damages
whatsoever or howsoever caused arising directly or indirectly in connection
with or arising out of the use of this material.
Rachel Blau DuPlessis
Agency, social authorship, and the political aura
of contemporary poetry
1. Individual authorship and the agency of production
Authorship is a site so geologically layered and then metamorphosed that
only simultaneous acknowledgements of the social –cultural and the aes-
thetic drives can do it any justice. Authorship is neither dead nor singular,
neither all discursive mediumship nor all individual expression. Authorship
occurs in being possessed, not mystically, not sublimely, but precisely pos-
sessed not only by sociality as part of a work’s dissemination and reception,
but also of its production.
2. Foucault: ‘What [indeed] is an author?’
What did Michel Foucault really say in his classic, notorious essay of 1969?
One of the oddities of this essay is that Foucault is not really discussing
textual production at all, but rather practices or assumptions in textual
reception or dissemination. He talks about the classificatory use of an
author’s name (a reception rubric), about the ways such a name helps cir-
culate discourses in society (a rubric for dissemination), about claims and
transgressions of textual ownership (copyright and property in words, legal
concepts in dissemination), and about questions of attribution (as an assist
to textual reception). Given the date of the essay, it may be surprising that
he constantly assumes that when people talk of ‘author’ they are simul-
taneously talking about a ‘unity’ and an expressive ‘individuality’. It is as
if modernism, radical poetics, and the historic avant-garde neither
brought, nor were allowed to bring, any information to this discussion.
For Foucault’s notion of authorship’s unitary/expressivist claims stopped
before many of modernism’s notable texts and writers, especially in
poetry. But even if one does not notice actual writers, one certainly may
assume splits in consciousness without necessarily losing the category of
Textual Practice 23(6), 2009, 987–999
Textual Practice ISSN 0950-236X print/ISSN 1470-1308 online #2009 Taylor & Francis
http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals
DOI: 10.1080/09502360903361592
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
D
u
r
h
a
m

U
n
i
v
e
r
s
i
t
y

L
i
b
r
a
r
y
]

a
t

0
6
:
5
4

1
7

J
u
l
y

2
0
1
2

agency. Agency does not need to be either unified or original; it simply has
to be exercised to bring about textual production.
Further, Foucault is not generally talking about literary texts at all, but
about discourses in philosophy, psychoanalysis, or other theoretical writing.
He reserves a special place for such ‘founders of discursivity’ as Marx and
Freud, who have created texts inserted in intellectual –cultural and social
movements that are, intoto, machines to think with. It is as if sublimely orig-
inal authors win the right to the accolade of ‘author’ and the palm of ‘orig-
inal’: only these people canbe imaginedby this theory as having agency. This
is a drastically hierarchical vision. I would suppose that another test of a
theory is whether it can account for all acts of authorship. I would like to
allow that all scribblers, no matter how negligible their writing, have the
rights to have their agency theorized. Or at least not dismissed.
Curiously, given the impact of Foucault’s essay on literary criticism,
he actually brackets literary texts. When he mentions them at all, his
main examples are names of novelists and genres. His main argument,
that authorship is really a presentation of words through discursive insti-
tutions, points to Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic novel: a kind of text saturated
with, even constructed of, conventional materials, as any genre novel
would be, by definition. That is, an arguably ‘unoriginal’ literary text,
with, to top it off, a female signature, stands allegorically for all literature.
Still, for Foucault, literary texts do show an important ‘author func-
tion’ – by that, of course, he means a non-expressive (i.e. not ‘personal’),
intricate play with discourses constituted as a set of events in language, into
which an individual ‘disappears’ as the writing is being written.
1
Here is the
passage: ‘In writing, the point is not to manifest or exalt the act of writing,
nor is it to pin a subject within language; it is, rather, a question of creating
a space into which the writing subject constantly disappears’.
2
Indeed, this
is what a lot of people invested in post-avant practices might also view as an
adequate definition of authorship. With some of the fascination with the
void, with the sense of absence and evacuation, the odic sacrifice of the
self-characteristic of the ‘Mallarmean’ wing of French literary theory,
one almost does not notice that ‘creating a space into which the writing
subject disappears’ could be as good a description of the plethora as of
the void, of the sense of plural presence, not absence, of heteroglossia, het-
erogenerity, and multiplicity – of the social fullness of text and language
into which one may also ‘disappear’. And, despite my own fascination
with the void, it is to the question of social authorship that these
remarks hereby turn. Far from denying agency, far from barring the possi-
bility 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.
Textual Practice
988
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
D
u
r
h
a
m

U
n
i
v
e
r
s
i
t
y

L
i
b
r
a
r
y
]

a
t

0
6
:
5
4

1
7

J
u
l
y

2
0
1
2

3. Social authorship
Goal here is to conceptualize social authorship for the artwork, in individual
production, not only in strategies of reception and dissemination. I want to
examine attitudes and sets of practices accomplished by a single author;
hence I am neither addressing explicit collaboration nor the behaviour of
productive cohorts. By social authorship, I do not mean that an author’s
goal is the promulgation of (sometimes pre-thought) social opinions
given as a calibrated dose for the reader, although social attitudes are often
part of an artwork. My goal, rather, is to acknowledge the sociality of
modes of praxis (like citation/appropriation, poly-linguality, heteronyms,
torquing or deturning texts, hetero-discursivity/anacoluthon, and neo-
reportage) as construction choices in artworks, which is used to explore a
non-expressivist, not explicitly personal, goal for writing. These rhetorics
have certainly been grouped before – to say the least, the criticism of con-
temporary poetry is well aware of them. Along with, for instance, Craig
Dworkin and Juliana Spahr, I am interested in the political implications
of ‘radical formalism’.
3
But in order to examine any of these options and
modes of social authorship, I need another theoretical divigation to bring
the author and authorial tasks back definitively into the picture.
4. Fieldwork: the announced
If authorial agency cannot be, theoretically, elided even if it is eroded or
reduced, we need to rearticulate a subject place for the author. Let us
begin with positionality in relation to an artwork, using discussions by
Roman Jakobson and certain terms suggested by Emil Benveniste, via
Antony Easthope. Inside the literary artwork, running around inside the
representation, inside the diegetic, there may be characters, actions, speak-
ers, figures, and pronouns: this has been named the enounced (the ‘nar-
rated event’), and the speaker is the created subjectivity of the enounced
– a narrator, or a speaker separate from the maker or author of the text,
identifiable as such, even if the author chooses to use ‘I’ and to blur any
distinction between the inside speaker and the outside writer. Next, in
the shape of the work, in the text as an event in language, the materials
of the medium (words, connotations, page space, metrical choices) are
ways and means and accidents and versions of textual and performative
presentation.
4
This has been named the enunciation or ‘the speech
event’.
5
According to these two options, any reader ‘performing’ this text
is also a subjectivity of the enunciation, so the unrolling of signifying activi-
ties is continuous. The author/writer has been imagined in these particular
theories as being just one of the subjectivities engaged in the enunciation.
Rachel Blau DuPlessis Agency, social authorship and poetry
989
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
D
u
r
h
a
m

U
n
i
v
e
r
s
i
t
y

L
i
b
r
a
r
y
]

a
t

0
6
:
5
4

1
7

J
u
l
y

2
0
1
2

This proposition is, however, inadequate in one key respect. It does
not really deal with writing or text construction. Instead, it makes these
constructing, fabricating, choosing, elaborating, and judging activities
become a species of ‘performance’, as if texts were never exactly written
(except presumably by ideology alone, the only adequate authorial
agent?). This position interestingly and bravely foregoes or mutes a sense
of the text’s ‘origin’, and is a rejection of the priority of any arche. It
clearly is ‘about’ seeing a text as a play of discourses. But this position is
also untenable. Such a position excludes the many relationships that can
be imagined of and in authorship. It does not ask how, using a number
of historically determinate and tempting tools, for a variety of reasons,
by various acts of choosing and half-choosing, a specific person puts
together a specific text. It is, however, clear that the author, as Barthes
pointed out, is simply ‘an instance writing’ the word ‘I’,
6
And ‘I’ is a
subject place in the enounced that cannot be equated with the historical
personage writing the text.
So, this theory of texts is enormously useful because of its critique of
unified subjectivity and its loss of the gendered ‘man speaking to men’
illusion of humanist presence, expressive directness, and disarming
sincerity, not to speak, in a particular kind of cock-eyed light, of its
gender limits. (The citation is from Wordsworth’s ever-useful ‘Preface to
the Lyrical Ballads’.) However, this theory of textual production tends to
occlude the historical personage writing the texts and that person’s social
investments. I would thus like to extend, not reject, the concept of the
enounced and enunciation, and the subjectivities of each, to pry open
this theory, and to name authorial agency within it, since such agency
emphatically differs in its tasks from ongoing performance of texts by
readers (and critics). In the spirit of terms like enonce´ and enunciation,
authorial agency can be called ‘the announced’.
7
This term means to pro-
claim, to bring to public notice; it, as do the other words, comes from a
Latin root, nuntius, or messenger. Writerly subjectivities – the ‘I’ or
other pronouns speaking inside a poem (enounced) and the materials of
subjectivity indicated by textual practices and presentations (enunciation)
– have both been created by an ‘announced’ who, while she is always
formed (by gender, class, religious culture, national location, educational
experiences, choices of artistic affiliation, and so forth), is not necessarily
or even plausibly embodying or manifesting all these social locations in
an art work, but, in any work, can only ‘announce’ or articulate some of
them, and that either unconsciously, semi-consciously, or consciously,
directly or in coded ways, affirmatively or critically. Any artwork is mani-
fested in a motivated way by this ‘announced’ – the authorial agency.
However, the announced cannot represent any or all of herself auto-
biographically in a text – even if she naı ¨vely claims she does. We are not
Textual Practice
990
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
D
u
r
h
a
m

U
n
i
v
e
r
s
i
t
y

L
i
b
r
a
r
y
]

a
t

0
6
:
5
4

1
7

J
u
l
y

2
0
1
2

talking about the biographical person walking around in the world, but
what that person ‘announces’ of her formal, ideological, and discursive
agency at the writing table. So to visualize this, a self-citation from Blue
Studios:
Inside the poem are paper dolls sometimes saying ‘I’ (made of paper
and ink and ideology), played with by the speaker of the enunciation,
who is a puppet performer of fabrications called into being by the
acts of writing, set in motion in the warm hands of an agent
whom I am naming ‘the announced’. The announced is the subjec-
tivity calling these acts of writing into being in the formation of the
artwork. That is, the announced is authorial agency. Of course the
announced is saturated with discursive and historical materials, but
in channeling these it is not innocent of fabrication.
8
This way of thinking does not reject, but rather incorporates, the disaggre-
gating claims around the enounced and the enunciation, a task originally
undertaken to rupture or critique the notion of seamless personable pres-
ence, or expressivity in authors. To argue only for the wash of discursive
materials in a work is to underestimate the zone of fabrication and its intri-
cate activities of presenting, evaluating, assessing, rearticulating within
language, and drawing upon historically located discourses. But proposing
such a zone of authorial agency does not mean falling into asocial under-
standings of personal singularity or the enthralling claims of genius theory.
Proposing agency acknowledges the fact of some, even compromised,
choices made when one writes; it locates a producer in the formation of
the artwork – even if the author (I mean not the real person but the
announced) is a shallow or uninteresting entity, not particularly original,
precisely prone to paddling here and there.
5. A parenthetical sally into Barthes
‘The Death of the Author’ that Roland Barthes proposed in 1967 or 1968
is the death of a parental/maternal figure who nourishes a text, and of the
Author-as-god who has pre-knowledge and full knowledge of all the mean-
ings he has created in a text – an unlikely totalizing fantasy. For this
author, Barthes substitutes a ‘scriptor’ figure, who brings himself to birth
simultaneously with the text created; writing is, then, not a record of
pre-thought, but a set of ongoing activities of thinking and combining
in the performative present. This ‘scriptor’ mode is close to the way
many of us experience writing and has analogues with similar observations
by such American poets as Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and George
Rachel Blau DuPlessis Agency, social authorship and poetry
991
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
D
u
r
h
a
m

U
n
i
v
e
r
s
i
t
y

L
i
b
r
a
r
y
]

a
t

0
6
:
5
4

1
7

J
u
l
y

2
0
1
2

Oppen. However, Barthes’ term ‘scriptor’ suggests the scribal, implying
that the writer is copying a prior-existing document or taking discursive
dictation: any claims of authorial originality and much authorial agency
are shrugged away. And, indeed, this is what Barthes means: ‘The text
[i.e. any text] is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable
centres of culture’. ‘Drawn from’ is a passive grammatical formulation
and thus is designed (with interested authorial agency!) to beg the question
of agency. Or: ‘His [The scriptor’s] only power is to mix writings’ [empha-
sis added] carefully clips and minimizes agency.
9
Nonetheless, agency –
including that of Barthes – seeps into both these formulations. Neither
copying, weaving discourses, nor experiencing dictation is impossible in
authorial practice, but these stances do involve authorial choice, if only a
choice to copy or to be dictated to.
6. Return of the announced
Let me say this again, more aggressively. Purely ‘expressivist’ (heart to
heart) readings of poetic texts can be incredibly naı ¨ve about poetry; they
beg the question of any use (i.e. motivated manipulation) of the
medium, any particulars of subjectivity and its interior clashes. Me as
the ‘announced’ (a historical subject with some agency) is making an
object of words, traditions, ideologies, rhetorical and always-already
(always-ready) literary conventions, textual materials, and thinking
(including thinking about construction of the artefact). By writing a
poem, I am constructing a complex matrix or webbing of statement, associ-
ation, diction, word choice, and sound to make you credit some emotions,
some thoughts. These may not be my feelings or thoughts communicated
to you, but other plausible evocations. They may be feelings I have chan-
nelled, or not ‘feelings’ at all. Further, emotional arousal or identification is
hardly the only plausible effect of a text. Purely ‘formalist’ or aestheticized
readings are naı ¨ve in other ways: they do not recognize historical person-
hood, its serious ideological claims and social agendas, its embeddings of
social debates in artworks.
But it is important not to confuse agency and identity. For no one
puts all of herself into a poem – it is impossible. Still, a given poem is
notably mine; I have a serious stake in what it expresses and explores
and in the fact that I have made (and/or ended up with) this kind of
object and not another kind. Poets are sometimes surprised by, and
must learn to cope with and to face, the implications of their own artifice.
Therefore there are fantastic, powerful possibilities for disjunction, contra-
dictions, and combinations among announced, enunciation, enounced,
that have implications for our sense of the poem.
Textual Practice
992
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
D
u
r
h
a
m

U
n
i
v
e
r
s
i
t
y

L
i
b
r
a
r
y
]

a
t

0
6
:
5
4

1
7

J
u
l
y

2
0
1
2

7. Some strategies of social authorship
The problem with over-generalizing from the ‘Death of the Author’
theories is that they actually propose only the end of romantic–expressivist–
‘theological’ representations of authorship and that, among other features,
they virtually never draw upon modern or contemporary examples. As an
illogical consequence of this, Foucault and Barthes try, with considerably less
success, to sweep out any authorial agency whatsoever. In response to this
half-completed critical task, we can examine social authorship, the deliberate
evocation of pluralized sounds, sources, languages, and communities done by
an individual author. Pluralized or social authorship is a chosen exercise of
individual agency in textual production that acknowledges and constructs sat-
uration in discursive plethoras. This attitude may indeed make any text into ‘a
tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture’
10
, but not
one that begs the question of agency. And a number of modern and contem-
porary writers employ social authorship.
There are strategies that pluralize authorship, not dissolve it, in order
to acknowledge the multiplicity, the self-difference, the heterogeneity of
the literary text, deliberately produced as multiple by its single author as
an act of critical analysis, didactic intervention, and political critique.
What ideas about community, what exemplary senses of debate, of plur-
alism, might be involved in fact or in utopian projection, can sometimes
be surmised. However, I insist that these are not simply rhetorical or aes-
thetic or formalist elements in a vacuum. Rather, these rhetorics and
tactics are choices made for the ethical –political aura they bring to or
evoke in a work. Social authorship is the representation of sociality
(plurality, diversity, social differences) in writing, a representation
taking shape as the enunciation, not limited to opinions in the enounced
or of the announced. Some of the rhetorics and tactics that signal social
authorship are citation/appropriation (and the question of annotation),
torquing texts, poly-linguality, which, in our culture, one may call
tanglophone poetry (including, perhaps implausibly, homophonic trans-
lation), heteronymic identities, anacoluthon/hetero-discursivity, and
neo-reportage. This is not a full list of strategies, but is meant to be
suggestive.
In citation strategies, the author wants to account for, perhaps absorb,
perhaps confront, provocative alterity. A citation gets placed in the context
of the enounced, and complicates this site. Certainly, it jolts or ruptures a
text with pressures of otherness. The mechanism of social authorship in
citation does not assimilate, or naturalize, or neutralize this jolt, but tests
it as important data of authorial sociality and dispersion (Dis-person).
Some authors using this strategy are: T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William
Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, and Langston Hughes.
Rachel Blau DuPlessis Agency, social authorship and poetry
993
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
D
u
r
h
a
m

U
n
i
v
e
r
s
i
t
y

L
i
b
r
a
r
y
]

a
t

0
6
:
5
4

1
7

J
u
l
y

2
0
1
2

Among citation strategies, torquing texts is a specific citation strategy
that, instead of citing from a plethora of materials, chooses to engage with
one text, overwriting, digging into it, excavating it, and twisting it to
other uses. The social basis for this and the ethical –political aura produced
might depend on the measuring of a distance – historical or social, the
channelling and examination of the impact of that text, the achievement
of a critical relation to the uses of that text. Especially if this text has
hegemonic force, the citation and recontextualization, the playing with
now-classic statements, all have the effect of suspicion, a wary reckoning
of temporal, historical, and social distance between the torqued text and
the authorial agent doing the torquing. This is emphatically true of Tony
Lopez’s use, in ‘About Cambridge’, of W.H. Auden’s famous ekphrastic
poem that begins ‘About suffering, they were never wrong, the old
masters. . .’.
11
The use, in Anglophone work, of other languages that one knows,
or partly knows, occurs repeatedly in the long twentieth century. Louis
Zukofsky’s placement of Yiddish among the languages he cites in
‘Poem beginning “The”’ makes a polemical point about cultural heritage.
Some poly-linguality might open a window through cultural finesse, like
Pound’s cross-language rhyming in ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’. Both
Pound and Eliot used poly-linguality in key works, and in general both
these poets emphasize the power and authority their use of other languages
confers upon them. In contemporary work, the goals are different, with
plurality, rather than power, as a main effect. Here is a very partial list of
recent poly-lingual work: Rodrigo Toscano’s Platform (including
Spanish, Latin, French, Norwegian),
12
Erı ´n Moure’s O Cidada
´
n (French,
Spanish, Galician),
13
Caroline Bergvall’s Goan Atom (French),
14
Rosmarie
Waldrop’s A Key into the Language of America (Narragansett),
15
Anne
Blonstein’s Scroll (German and French),
16
Cecilia Vicun˜a’s Unravelling
Words & the Weaving of Water (Spanish),
17
and Carla Harryman’s
Mirror Play (German).
18
Moure has noted one ethical/political source of
the critique offered by the poly-lingual: ‘To conduct a leakage out of ordin-
ary language, out of the mono-lingualismin one’s own language that would
keep boundaries pure. . .’.
19
The borders of ‘own’ and ‘not-own’ blur; there
is plurality, not purity, with many political implications. The poly-lingual
also sets up resonances beyond the semantic meaning of a word. Thus it is a
specific case of the general effect of poetry: its semantic excess, theorized as
‘the remainder’ by Jean-Jacques Lecercle.
20
For with only one language we
are not complete, but with more than one, we are not complete either; one
thereby enlarges cultural scope at the same time that such pluralizing is
never satisfying and always calls for more. So the question of an excess,
an untrackable, and paradoxically sometimes inarticulate remainder
within language is part of the plethora of social authorship.
Textual Practice
994
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
D
u
r
h
a
m

U
n
i
v
e
r
s
i
t
y

L
i
b
r
a
r
y
]

a
t

0
6
:
5
4

1
7

J
u
l
y

2
0
1
2

Anacoluthon and hetero-discursivity produce movement among
social discourses. Anacoluthon simply means lacking sequence in Greek,
and indicates the grammatical switching of horses in midstream of a sen-
tence: beginning a sentence in one grammar and ending it in another. A
feature of anacoluthon as a mode of social authorship is the employing
of multiple discursive ranges and disjunctive transpositions from one to
the other hence in any one poem, far from being in one mode, one register,
one stable voice, a writer is like an acrobat (John Ashbery – a skater), a
Barthesean weaver of a wacky fabric, or someone who ‘samples’, like a
certain kind of contemporary DJ. Part of the strangeness and the interest
of the works written in the hetero-discursive mode occurs in non-sequiturs
and tonal shifts in which so many parts of a society are called up in one
spot, one poem, and one act of verbal practice. Ron Silliman, commenting
upon Ashbery, has recently described such hetero-discursivity: ‘Multisour-
cing every sentence, if not every phrase, Ashbery’s poems characteristically
present a poly-vocalic gumbo of tones, sounds, terms. Flattening it out into
the single voice of a reader, any reader, generates an experience where the
listener never quite can tell where one source or voice begins another fades.
Nor always calculate what the shifts in register should approximate’.
21
Charles Bernstein has several times spoken about this tactic of hetero-
discursivity, which in his work has a notably antic air involving puns,
echoes of popular poems, slogans, uses and misuses of poetic diction,
sonorous, sententious, euphuistic, learned vocabulary, cliche´, all deployed
as mutually startling miscues. He has also called this method ‘dysraphism’,
or ‘mis-seaming’, another useful term for hetero-discursivity.
22
Harryette
Mullen’s book Muse & Drudge employs a blues-based quatrain to
contain the multi-vectoring ironic, forceful exuberance of mainly
African–American discourses (folk sayings, historical allusions, theory,
puns, vernacular idiom, jump rope rhymes), making what Mullen calls a
‘recyclopedia’.
23
The metaphors of mongrel and miscegenation used by
Mullen and her recent critics (like Elisabeth Frost) have a long history of
nasty social power in the US; here, poetry definitely torques or deturns
the ideological offence of such terms to hetero-discursive pleasure.
One might say that hetero-discursivity (like generic hybridity) pre-
vents or interrupts getting either writer or reader situated in any one dis-
course; again plurality and plethora are goals of this kind of social
authorship. By such swift shifts among language realms – the economy,
the war (there always seems to be one), science, advertising, cant phrases,
pop music, official justifications – these works dramatize the interplay
between ideology, social spaces, and language. There is some sense that
making poetry out of these discourses places them, even masters them,
given that we often feel powerless as they flood over and through us,
and given that we have (due to social smallness) less and less chance to
Rachel Blau DuPlessis Agency, social authorship and poetry
995
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
D
u
r
h
a
m

U
n
i
v
e
r
s
i
t
y

L
i
b
r
a
r
y
]

a
t

0
6
:
5
4

1
7

J
u
l
y

2
0
1
2

have an effective dialogue with them (in the Habermasian sense), because
we are not equal partners in his idealized, agora-like exchange. In this sense,
poetry occasions resistance to our colonization by the discourses of our
putative masters. Poetic counter-‘mastery’ can involve cynical bitterness
of tone, ebullience, comedic pursuit, or elegant flatness, but, in many of
these cases, the hetero-discursivity that pluralizes the sound made in the
poem, and makes the author a plural entity, brings an imaginary weight
of critical sociality against our problematic cultures. This streaming
between discursive realms propelled and supported by the structure or
syntax of the poems harries those discourses. Thus poetic work, as Erin
Moure notes, is civic work.
24
Another kind of social authorship is a neo-reportage (or, as Jena
Osman has called it in her influential thinking on this issue, documentary
poetics).
25
Reportage as a practice in poetry seems to have at least two
points of origin. One is in Charles Reznikoff, employing an austere
method and ethics in selecting from law reports. Another origin, Mass
Observation in England, was activated in the 1930s by a poet and a socio-
logist to create a subject place, a generic space for literary work inflected
with investigative documentary and to create the possibility for popular
writing, history, and ethnography from ‘the bottom up’. What I mean
by the use of the term ‘neo-reportage’ for contemporary poetry is a
lateral scanning, via descriptive realism and focused reportage, across a
vast horizontal territory of social, political, economic, and quotidian
materials. Features of reportage in social authorship include the rejection
of poetic justice (right distribution of rewards) of any ending in the
sense of a telos – that is, not a shaped narrative. First-person ego has
been made into an all-seeing, third-person ‘eye’, as in strategies of realism.
Barrett Watten’s Progress (1985, repub. 2005), as a poem with a docu-
mentary ethos, torques the Poundean ‘an epic is a poem including history’
into something like an epic; it is a poem including the present information
as if it were history, but skewed by refusing to narrate or to interpret. It is
built of over 900, five-line stanzas, each of which ends with suspension
points that can be imagined as evoking all the functions of ellipsis in punc-
tuation: omission, trailing off, leaving out, and, strangely enough, joining,
as if the three dots were a string between beads. The encyclopedic impulse
of this work (with its analogues in modernist long poems) is expressed by a
scanning of informational horizons near and far, indeed, pluralizing
horizons, and scanning ‘indiscriminately’, by which I mean without
assigning any descriptive unit to any already existing hierarchy of value.
This uncompromising goal is described by Watten as ‘subtract an idea
from thinking. . .’; ‘an idea’ means a foregone conclusion or a particular
goal, a paradigm of fittedness.
26
The attempt to write as if there were no
social codes organizing meaning nor epistemological codes nor narrative
Textual Practice
996
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
D
u
r
h
a
m

U
n
i
v
e
r
s
i
t
y

L
i
b
r
a
r
y
]

a
t

0
6
:
5
4

1
7

J
u
l
y

2
0
1
2

codes (etc.) gives rise to a text highly invested in resistance and negativity.
To say Progress is therefore an ironic title barely begins to cover things; it
really ‘develops’ as a ‘rigorous aversion that, at the same time, becomes a
principle of continuity’.
27
The issue is precisely movement (tallying, enu-
merating) without any upticks of development or telos or goal, or improve-
ment – what the word progress sometimes means. Watten’s Progress also
involves multiple puns on the word ‘states’ which has numerous meanings
as a noun about conditions, circumstances, positions, as well as social rank
and public power, and as a verb meaning ‘to declare’. Hence the work, for
instance, continuously mentions names of actual national states, states of
mind, states of being, states of confusion, and states of matter. Progress
crosses state because a progress is actually a ‘state journey’ made by a sover-
eign, who is a recurrent ‘I’ in this work, and again ironically so. This ‘I’ is
sovereign only by virtue of its claim to agency in investigative, unresolved
writing.
8. Conclusion
No form has any intrinsic content, any intrinsic politics. To understand
any use of form is to discuss the situated and locally specific. Forms are
all situated practices to analyse; they are all tactics filled with former uses
that can be seized, apprehended, torqued, and put to use again. Any
complex cultural object, possibly any cultural object, has multiple dimen-
sions, many social bearings. Critical emphasis and critical need (historically
proportioned themselves) will read these materials in a variety of ways. So
there is no one way to read these strategies; it is just that all of them right
now drastically pluralize author functions in texts.
In calling attention to these features and texts, I want to recuperate the
transformational aesthetic, intellectual, and social energy of radical modern-
ism, to ‘begin’ the process all over again, because the kinds of revolutions in
consciousness and social understanding urged by modernists have not been
completed. A century begun so well, with struggles and some gains around
social justice, in terms of class, gender, ethnicity, and decolonizations, with
hopes for the modernizing project of economic distribution, human rights,
and social justice, has recently ended, and generally badly, with the failure of
most ‘revolutionary’ regimes; genocides major and minor (if such a termcan
be appropriate); exploitations that seemendless and unchecked; fundamen-
talist re-repressions of women, homosexuals and others, non-pragmatic,
non-stewardly notions of leadership – plunderers and bandits instead of
governments; murderous rogue claims as politics, a gap between global
north and south so acute that it is a kind of enslavement in all but the
name, and the loss of cultural and biodiversities. Then there is our
Rachel Blau DuPlessis Agency, social authorship and poetry
997
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
D
u
r
h
a
m

U
n
i
v
e
r
s
i
t
y

L
i
b
r
a
r
y
]

a
t

0
6
:
5
4

1
7

J
u
l
y

2
0
1
2

intermittent colonization by commodities and the media, uneven yet
persistent. It could be worse, of course.
But I am taking the failure of modernity, and the parallel compromise
of cultural modernisms to be the large, perhaps unspecific, but palpable,
political crisis of the last decades. The ethical trajectory of these cultural
products in a revivified critical post-avant tradition is a way of recuperating
modernism from its own lost promise. To say this more polemically, to
deturn modernism away from its conservative and authoritarian elements
and turn it into the path of liberatory arousals and responsible understand-
ing, to imagine sociality and pluralism. Artistic practices of a number of
contemporary writers already show considerable sociality and pluralism.
Literary criticism should be able to comprehend these practices, moving
beyond considerations of a purely aesthetic, autonomous experience that
ignore social meanings. Any purely formalist understanding needs to be
completed by interpretative analyses of the historical and ethical dimen-
sions of the literary act.
Temple University, Philadelphia, USA
Acknowledgements
This article was prepared for delivery at the conference Authorship and the
Turn to Language, Universita¨t Tu¨bingen, Germany, 1–4 December 2005.
I am very grateful to the convener of the conference, Professor Barrett
Watten, Wayne State University (then a Fulbright professor at Tu¨bingen),
for giving the opportunity to attend this conference.
Notes
1 Michel Foucault, ‘What is an Author’ in Robert Con Davis and Ronald Schlei-
fer (eds.), translated by Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon, Contemporary
Literary Criticism: Literary and Cultural Studies (New York: Longman, 1989),
pp. 269 & 264.
2 Ibid., p. 264.
3 See Craig Dworkin, Reading the Illegible (Evanston: Northwestern University
Press, 2003) and Juliana Spahr, The Transformation (Berkeley: Atelos, 2007).
4 But also perhaps the text in dissemination – paper, binding, font – the
physical look of text, some of which authors may choose, and which are
certainly part of what a reader registers and reads.
5 Antony Easthope, Poetry as Discourse (London: Methuen, 1983), p. 42.
6 Roland Barthes, Image, Music, Text, translated by Stephen Heath (New York:
Hill and Wang, 1977), p. 142.
Textual Practice
998
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
D
u
r
h
a
m

U
n
i
v
e
r
s
i
t
y

L
i
b
r
a
r
y
]

a
t

0
6
:
5
4

1
7

J
u
l
y

2
0
1
2

7 Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Marble paper: toward a feminist history of poetry, ML
– Modern Language Quarterly, 65.1 (2004), pp. 102–104. Also in Blue
Studios: Poetry and its Cultural Work (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama
Press, 2006), pp. 102–104.
8 DuPlessis, Blue Studios, pp. 102–104.
9 Barthes, Image, Music, Text, translated by Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and
Wang, 1977), p. 146.
10 Ibid.
11 Tony Lopez, About Cambridge, http://jacketmagazine.com/20/lopez-about.
html [accessed 10 December 2005].
12 Rodrigo Toscano, Platform (Berkeley: Atelos, 2003).
13 Erı ´n Moure, O Cidada
´
n (Toronto: Anansi, 2002).
14 Caroline Bergvall, Goan Atom (Cambridge, UK: REM Press, 1999).
15 Rosmarie Waldrop, A Key into the Language of America (New York: New
Directions, 1994).
16 Anne Blonstein, Scroll, Dusie Issue2, www.dusie.org/blonstein.html [accessed
9 May 2007].
17 Cecilia Vicun˜a, Unravelling Words & the Weaving of Water (St. Paul: Graywolf
Press, 1992).
18 Carla Harryman, Mirror Play (presented 30 November 2005 in Tu¨bingen,
Germany).
19 Ibid., p. 103.
20 See Jean-Jacques Lecercle, The Violence of Language (London: Routledge,
1990).
21 http://ronsilliman.blogspot.com/ [accessed 21 November 2005].
22 Charles Bernstein, The Sophist (Los Angeles: Sun and Moon Press, 1987),
p. 44.
23 Harryette Mullen, Muse & Drudge (Philadelphia: Singing Horse Press, 1995),
p. 68.
24 Moure, O Cidada
´
n (Toronto: Anansi, 2002), p. 1.
25 See Jena Osman, Syllabus. Documentary Poetics, http://www.temple.edu/
creativewriting/faculty/osman/Teaching.htm.
26 Barrett Watten, Progress/Under Erasure (Copenhagen and Los Angeles: Green
Integer, 2005), p. 27.
27 Ibid., p. 6.
Rachel Blau DuPlessis Agency, social authorship and poetry
999
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
D
u
r
h
a
m

U
n
i
v
e
r
s
i
t
y

L
i
b
r
a
r
y
]

a
t

0
6
:
5
4

1
7

J
u
l
y

2
0
1
2