Thursday, November 5, 2009

Communities of destination: Independent small presses & Nicolas Bourriaud's _The Radicant_

At the risk of sounding precious, I'll post a quotation from Barbara Jane Reyes's blog, which she put out as a way to generate a valuable conversation. The quotation is by the editor of Tinfish Press, and goes as follows:

"My frustration at the moment comes of the fact that no publisher can demand her customers read the press as well as its authors. So the conversations we mean to get going are sometimes overlooked when people buy only work by Pacific writers, or Buddhist writers, or Asian American writers or Bay Area writers (for example). But the publisher may have died (Roland Barthes style) with her authors."

While respecting the needs of communities to organize along lines of gender, ethnicity, national origin, class, and so on, I'm also looking toward a third (fourth, fifth . . .) way, one that is not either nor or. Nicolas Bourriaud states the problem this way: "Between modern universalism and postmodern relativism, it is said, we have no choice" (The Radicant, 14). I'm fascinated by the way he addresses the way old paradigms tend to flip over, changing the actors involved, while maintaining a master narrative, where power and prestige remain centered, rather than diffused--accumulated, rather than shared.

Bourriaud gets closer yet to the problem I'm trying to articulate in response to Reyes's question when he writes about aesthetic theories born out of the "cultural postcolonialism" as "in their most dogmatic form, . . . [going] so far as to obliterate any possibility of dialogue among individuals who do not share the same history or cultural identity" (25). Bourriaud worries about what he calls "postmodern aesthetic courtesy," which silences critical conversations between western and non-western authors.

I'm less interested in critical readings these days, or in who is allowed to do them, than I am in positive interventions. Where there are missing voices, perspectives, my sense is that we (publishers, editors) do better to try filling them with new sounds than to shut down those who are already talking. Conversation works better than talking down. (I write this with an ironic smile, as I am also a critic.) Given that adding voices is not always a courteous act, perhaps this is one way to get away from over-deference. But again, that's not my kuleana. What I do want to avoid is the isolation of writers and audiences that I sometimes see when I go to readings in Honolulu. There's the crowd that attends Hawaiian poetry events, the crowd that goes to Bamboo Ridge readings, the Wayne Westlake readers, the Asian Settler Colonialism group, the slam poets, the Art Academy types. Rarely do these audiences cross over. I seem to remember that they once did, but perhaps that's an hallucination on my inner eye of memory. Thus, Bourriaud's citation from Claude Levi-Strauss, who died just yesterday, has resonance: "'The one real calamity, the one fatal flaw which can afflict a human group and prevent it from achieving fulfillment is to be alone'" (36).

Filling gaps in rather than accusing others of failing to do so is one way to acknowledge that the future is as important as the past, that origins are no more sacred than are the places we want to get to from here. Hence, the forging of connections between (overly) carefully delineated groups of writers strikes me as necessary. "It is a matter of replacing the question of origin with that of destination," Bourriaud writes. Later he writes of the importance of the "itinerary, the path" (55), and the need for movement. Now history, too, is a kind of movement. We need not let the past go in order to imagine a future.

Bourriaud is big on translation. "Translation thus appears as the cornerstone of diversity" (65). Translation is negotiation, is relation, is acknowledgment of difference. It is objectivism to the smothering forces of subjectivity. Small presses that devote themselves to translation, on and off the internet and the page, are doing readers a great service. What is lost in translation gains us another voice, one we cannot quite hear on its own terms, but which can bend us toward a new understanding ("new thresholds, new anatomies," as Hart Crane wrote). That bending process reminds me that we mustn't assume what is being translated is solely a text. It is also the reader that is translated, in conversation with the text. If we hold too closely to our existing "identities," we cannot be translated, cannot communicate effectively, cannot create alliances with others.

If texts are identities, then how much better it is to read more than one text at a time! That's where I return to the notion of reading presses instead of single texts, and of reading presses that are as devoted to differences as to samenesses (though we need both for the conversation to happen). Then we arrive at a more interesting mathematical equation. "Translation is a kind of pass: a deliberate, intentional act that begins with the designation of a singular object and continues with the desire to share this singular object with others" (68-69) If too many books and too many poetry audiences are singular (and in so many ways), then translation suggests a way to make community happen with new energies. Acknowledging that members of minority communities often do not want to share their intimate conversations with "dominant" ones, the writers from each community can still share more finished products and begin from there. It matters less where we start tracing our itinerary than it does starting on its noisy chaotic path.

How these conversations (as presses rather than as singular books) can begin is a question Barbara Jane Reyes is asking on her blog. Ideas float around as to how to "market" such conversations, as perhaps we must. Rusty Morrison suggested that Tinfish put slips of paper in its books that suggested other books to read to continue the conversation. Craig Santos Perez suggests a discount of 25% for following the suggested conversation. Maybe this is one way. But BJR also asks this question about responsibility:

"am wondering then if it’s the independent publishers, or if it’s the authors, or if it’s both together somehow, who are responsible for confronting and challenging these conventions. Certainly, this is something I am finding my indie publisher respondents saying: certain things in the literary establishment (and academic literature departments, and other departments which use literature in their studies of culture and history are included here) need to change."

So the answer may involve advertising copy, but is surely larger. Academic disciplines have been created to investigate only certain kinds of communities, whether ethnic or aesthetic or both. Teachers use xeroxed poems instead of books. There's an atomism at work, sometimes necessary to create a coherent syllabus, yes, but also a danger. We need to look at literature as a larger, incessantly moving, set of objects, subjects, not as any manner of stillness.

For more on indie publishing issues see BJR's guest blogs at Harriet:
here and here.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post, Susan. I'll be referring to it in my next Harriet post (am awaiting more small press editors' responses).

I really like what you are aying about communities of destination, being forward and future looking. I think you've articulated one thing that's really frustrated me with the current Filipino American literary establishment (if indeed such a thing exists): such a hard and uncompromising anchor to our history (which has gatekeepers), or an apparent disregard for community.'s importance.

collectedworks said...

Dear Susan, Hope to meet you at Collected Works Bookshop on wednesday, 18th November for the event Michael Farrell has arranged and which we're pleased to host. I think we were in touch many years ago! I was in Honolulu in 1990, guest of Kiki Davis at EWEB, did a reading at the Book Celler (have i the correct name?), met some interesting people.It will be good to reconnect! Incidentally, you may like to check out my blog and maybe link with it :
It's more of a mag/correspondence/archive than a blog, though maybe not! Best wishes, Kris hemensley