Anarchists in the Academy: Machines and Free Readers in Experimental Poetry by Dani Spinosa (University of Alberta Press, 2018)

“‘Bring on the hyperlinks’”: To extend the strategies, sentiments, and goals of Dani Spinosa’s Anarchists in the Academy: Machines and Free Readers in Experimental Poetry, (I) will be “quoting” and bolding: print-based gestures to the “rhizomatic linking” that “directs to other texts…and… generate[s]” a conversation in and of the (digital) commons—the open source. In kind, (I) open my source and render her text accessible via my own. Like the authors in her well-organized and well-researched dissertation-cum-monograph, (I) aim to relinquish a measurable degree of authorial and authoritative control, effectively bracketing myself and enabling her text to run. Gedit?

In four chapters, each dealing with four distinct poetic projects, Spinosa executes a faceted program for a theory of the poetic experiment and for a theory of postanarchist criticism. The four facets include artifice, openness, chance, and politics. Moving chronologically from the 1970s to the contemporary moment, she discusses a range of writers including (but not limited to) John Cage and bpNichol, Erín Moure and Harryette Mullen, Vanessa Place and Darren Wershler, as well as Andy Campbell and Mez Breese. Spinosa considers how these authors utilize and complicate procedural, machinic, conceptual, and digital methods of composition, and she examines how these writers engage artifice, openness, chance, and politics to affect the power dynamic between author and reader. Spinosa validates those projects that recalibrate this dynamic in favour of a liberated and empowered readership and that do not necessarily efface the subjectivity of the author him- or her- or themself. “Experimental, illegible texts,” Spinosa writes, “produce in readers a commonality, a community based on the ethical, political dimensions of reading and engaging with the formally experimental text.” According to Spinosa, “illegible,” “noisy,” and “ex-static” texts operate as “momentary insurgencies,” providing a kind of model, analogue, or metaphor for activist practices. &there4 “postanarchism” serves as a “theory of activism that others the means to incorporate the processes of reading and writing experimental poetry into the realm of activist practice.” On the one hand, experimental texts themselves function as “performative analog[ies] of an anarchic, free community” in the ways that such texts defy the “organizing, ruling, and inhibiting effects” of discursive structures: “affiliation rather than filiation.” On the other hand, experimental texts produce “anarchic, free communit[ies]” in the ways that such texts entail a “communal attention to language” by virtue of their capacity for multiple and indefinitive readings: “Instead of quantitative meaning, qualitative intensity.”

Rather than recommend or refute, (I) will briefly consider questions raised by Spinosa’s discussion of experimental work in political, ethical, and epistemological terms. First, Spinosa describes experimental work as “not explicitly political.” So, how much farther does postanarchist literary theory, as Spinosa conceives it, or digital literature, in general, push us in the need to reflect and respect subjectivity and identity politics in experimental work, while also continuing to empower the agency of readers? Moreover, does digital literature expand the reading constituency or make experimental work that much more accessible to an already existing readership — a readership familiar with Language Writing, for example? Second, Spinosa gestures toward an ethics of postanarchism in her use of relationality and responsibility to account for how readers engage the experimental text. So, with Spinosa’s desire to transcend the vanguardist notions that typically accompany the experimental, and with her desire to defuse the passive-aggressive relationship that comes with reading all literature, let alone experimental literature, does Spinosa’s study point to the need for a fuller ethical account of the experimental, and the avant garde? Third, Spinosa identifies one of the benefits of digital literature as “distributed cognition” in which digital projects can exploit “‘new pathways of communication among different kinds of knowledge.’” Do “new cognitive engagements” suggest that poetry can (re-)enter the knowledge game, and become not only a model for research, but a locus of knowledge itself, at a time when the commons are both imperative and in peril?

Michael Roberson

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