By and | 1 August 2014

‘What difference does it make who is speaking?’

From the beginning, ‘collaboration’ was raised as an interrogation, not an answer: What is poetic collaboration? And does collaboration (whatever it is) make a difference? The very word ‘collaboration’ is ambiguous—grounded in the Latin, collaborare, ‘working with’—but with what or with whom?

In this questioning spirit, when we wrote the call out (itself a collaboration), we allowed the idea of collaboration to remain open in order to encourage not just multi-authored works (between two poets, or a poet and a musician, and etc.), but poetry which actively collaborates with its own history, and so plays with ideas of authorship, attribution, hoaxing, as well as appropriation, intertextuality, genre and allusion. We wanted, in short, to call the notion of the ‘sole’ or ‘original’ author into question.

Of course, the most familiar understanding of collaboration is working with another person. Poetically, this path was paved (in the West) in the 20th Century by the Surrealists’ Cadavre Exquis (exquisite corpse) parlour game, where a piece of paper was folded over and handed around the room, with participants following either a grammatical rule (adjective, noun, verb, etc.), or some other constraint. What emerged as a game, soon became a weapon in the arsenal of successive avant-gardes, with poets collaborating with other poets or artists, out of ‘inspiration’, ‘experiment’, or a desire to mix genres, styles, and approach (as in the New York School poets); but above all, perhaps, to bring into question the very status of writing itself through a ‘critique’ of that of the writer and of a society that increasingly treats ‘literature’ as a tradable commodity.

Collaboration as a collective activity, as technique, or as politico-poetic method, makes the possibility of authorial attribution problematic—for who might we ask, is really the author of the text, the one who signs their name to the work (or rather, anti-work? In a culture industry increasingly preoccupied with the monopolism of copyright, collaborative poetics can be seen as precisely this, a kind of refusal of productive labour (as the reduction of generative language to standardised ‘use’ value). In any case, collaboration is always bound—from its very concept—to a general ‘economics.’ A general economics because, unlike its classical counterpart, it admits to the open potentiality of language to intersect at any point in what Pierre Joris calls ‘a quasi-alchemical fusion’1: both overturning or subverting the perceived limits of a cultural discourse and creating new ‘striations,’ in effect new ‘organisation, thus limitations’; what Joris also calls ‘the ability of double interference,’ for collaboration also bears within itself the potential to seamlessly (re)integrate itself into the system, to simulate precisely those limits with which it does combat.

Collaboration in this sense is thus an accession to the underlying condition of language itself. Consequently poetic collaboration may be regarded as something closer to what is usually called intertextuality, influence or allusion, in which a poet engages or ‘collaborates’ with the history (recent or not) of poetry, literature, art, music, and culture. One could argue that this form of collaboration is nothing new—for who would now say that any poet works in a vacuum, creating poetic works out of ‘nothing’? Indeed, whatever we might wish to believe, no poet (however solitary) can stand outside of history or language. As Barthes reminds us: in the moment of writing, we are no longer ourselves; the ‘I’ of the poem is no longer the ‘I’ of the author, but speaks for anyone, or everyone:

Linguistically, the author is never anything more than the instance writing, just as I is nothing more than the instance saying I: language knows a ‘subject’, not a ‘person’, and this subject, empty outside of the very enunciation which defines it, suffices to make language ‘hold together’, suffices, that is to say, to exhaust it.2

It could in this way be argued that any writing (even this piece) is always collaborative whether we want it to be or not—for ‘language speaks’ and we are spoken by it. And writing (insofar as it is collaboration) raises the vexed question of identity: who is writing? Does it matter? As Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari say in their introduction to A Thousand Plateaus: ‘The two of us wrote Anti-Oedipus together. Since each of us was several, there was already quite a crowd.’ Perhaps in some future version of the digital age the old anxiety about attribution will pass—for as Barthes reminds us, the notion of the author (as sole origin of the text) is a recent invention:

The author is a modern figure, a product of our society insofar as, emerging from the Middle Ages, with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual … The image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centered on the author, his person, his life, his tastes, his passions … as if, through the more or less transparent allegory of fiction, it was always, ultimately, the voice of a single person, the author, which was transmitting his ‘confidence’.3

In this way, collaboration not only undermines the singularity of the author but exposes a certain vacancy at the core of the authorial idea—an idea as the Situationsists constantly reminded anyone who would listen, especially beloved of a bourgeoisie determined to bring the ‘commonwealth’ (just as enclosure had brought the ‘commons’) under the yoke of commodity capitalism, the division of cultural labour, and the abstraction and alienation of production.

But if working-with is not simply a case of working with another writer, it is because it can also be understood as working-with language, with the history of poetry (allusion, intertextuality), with other genres (poetry and painting, music, photography, etc), or with other languages (poetry and translation). Technology, too, since language itself is a technicity (and not just artefactually bound—though we collaborate with technical artefacts, too, at every moment whether we choose to or not: ‘another double-helix,’ as Joris says, ‘another possible or even unavoidable collaboration, a ‘genetic babelisation’’).

  1. Pierre Joris, ‘Introduction’ to Louis Armand and John Kinsella, Synopticon, Prague: Litteraria Pragensia, 2012.
  2. Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’, trans. Stephen Heath, Image-Music-Text, New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1977 (1967), p. 145.
  3. Barthes, Ibid., p. 142-143, trans. mod.
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