Curt Leitz



Everybody's Autonomy: Connective Reading and Collective Identity

by Juliana Spahr

University of Alabama Press
$49.95 cloth, $24.95 paper / 224 pages / ISBN 0817310533


Gracefully walking a tightrope between communal interpretation and textual anarchy, Everybody's Autonomy locates empowering, socially responsible reading practices in the synthesis of two uneasy bedfellows: language poetry and identity politics. Spahr negotiates the space between with close readings of avant garde subjectivities, forging an important link between poetic practices too often defined—or self-defined—as antithetical to one another. From Gertrude Stein's polyglot ethnicity to Harryette Mullen's disjunctive signifyin(g), from Bruce Andrews' and Lyn Hejinian's language writing to Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's collage of resistance in DICTEE, Spahr connects experimental texts with identity and subjectivity. The node between: self-consciously disruptive language that forces moments of non-identification, places where readers must recognize the limits of their understandings.

Spahr's introduction cogently summarizes her thesis, and is useful regardless of a reader's interest in her detailed chapters on specific writings. In places, she speaks to some of the concerns of critical theory and pedagogy, discussing what kinds of texts encourage reading practices both connective ("engage[d] with large, public worlds that are in turn shared by readers") and anarchic ("self-governing"); in other places she speaks to some of the questions raised by cultural studies, "propos[ing] a theory of reading that is in dialogue with the concerns of race and ethnic studies." This theory of reading privileges provisionality, recognition of and respect for the limits of knowledge/ subjectivity, and cross-cultural and aesthetic coalitions rather than assimilation. In her brief conclusion, Spahr argues passionately for a turn away from normative reading and toward the active cultural dialogue her model entails.

Only in her chapters on particular writings, however, does Spahr detail the ways in which language writing can promote reading practices both anarchic and connective. She asserts that texts such as Bruce Andrews's "Confidence Trick" and Theresa Cha's DICTEE are accessible not only to practitioners of the avantgarde, but also to a more general audience. (The only example of such an audience, however, is undergraduate literature students.) Once readers abandon their propensity toward "normative reading and passivity of thought"—a tendency enforced by traditional educational practices—then these texts may inspire richly creative and highly provisional readings that highlight the permeable boundaries of identity and subjectivity. In developing this argument, Spahr extends an intellectual tradition that runs from Hans-Georg Gadamer through North American language writing communities, with important stops in Latin American conscientization movements (such as Paulo Freire and Ernesto Cardenal's work with peasant communities): arguing that the reader is, or should be, a co-creative producer of texts. Spahr's contribution to this dialogue comes through her close readings of Stein, Mullen, Andrews, Hejinian, and Cha, which demonstrate convincingly the ways in which this co-creative meaning-making process is inextricably bound up in issues of community: race, class, gender, ethnicity.

Readers should note that Everybody's Autonomy identifies some of the problems associated with passive, identificatory reading, and it gives a few examples of writings that promote more active reading processes, but the book does not pursue one of the key issues raised in the introduction and conclusion: how traditional texts and educational methods kill active, resistant reading practices, and how experimental texts can help redress this problem. The first half of this equation has been adequately documented elsewhere—the work of Jonathon Kozol, Stanley Aronowitz, and Henry Giroux comes to mind, in addition to the classic formulations of Neil Postman and Paulo Freire—but the second part, the place of avant-garde literature in this project, is a question that needs more development. The basic issue is how to encourage readers to engage these texts, rather than putting them back on bookstore shelves or faking their way through a fifty-minute discussion on the one experimental work in American Lit 101. Spahr does give one example of a classroom exercise she's used successfully, but little else in the text points toward ways of overcoming the resistance, inside or outside the academy, toward active reading of experimental writing. One cause of this lacuna, no doubt, is the discursive requirements placed on academic texts (especially dissertations and published monographs), which privilege theory over practice and reward literary criticism more than literary pedagogy. With four chronologically ordered chapters offering detailed close readings, Everybody's Autonomy closely follows the norms of its academic genre—ironic, considering that the book is devoted to writing communities and practices sustained outside the academy. In the spirit of provisional reading, though, Everybody's Autonomy should be considered not the last word on the topic but an important node that will prompt further connections between experimental writing and co-creative reading.

 

 

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