Friday, December 19, 2003

Here is a response to the scurrilous attack on Kent Johnson in the latest issue of The Believer. Perhaps they'll print it in their Snarkwatch section, perhaps not:
Venue: Your esteemed magazine, December 2003/2004
Author: Michael Atkinson
Title: "Hyperauthor! Hyperauthor!"

You want to talk about snark? Look no further than your own pages, in which Mr. Atkinson deliriously takes on any number of academical straw men, hooting at the notion that Language might speak us rather than the other way around--as if such theories didn't always take into account as their main premise that we are socialized into a pre-existing language. It's easy to mock the "death of the author" premise--I am sure the author of the piece is alive and well and staying very far from New Mexico indeed. But Atkinson seems wilfully ignorant of the fact that authors and readers don't meet each other in some kind of democratic dandelion field: up until very recently you couldn't be an author without being anointed as such by someone with the means to print and distribute your work. Institutions and publications like the Academy of American Poets and American Poetry Review are constituted by their power to turn Joe Schmoe, or Araki Yasusada, into an Author to Be Recknowed With by Those That Care--a group Atkinson grumpily and marginally counts himself a member of. He writes that "the Yasusada verses are not literature anymore." But what made them "literature" except the authorization of an outfit like APR? And does the attachment of the name of a "literary author" which happens to correspond to the name on someone's cultural credit card, guarantee that their writing will not be "motivated by sardonic smugness or misanthropic disdain"? Out of the literary pool, Charles Baudelaire! Go back to your cliff house, Robinson Jeffers! No spleen, please--that could never be "true" (the scare quotes are Atkinson's) "to any genuine emotional experience."

I happen to believe that the Yasusada hoax was nothing less than a piece of performance art--a genuinely avant garde act because the object of its critque were those same authorizing institutions that made its own "authorization" possible. Yasusada's work makes us think as well as feel. (And yes, I do happen to think that the poems themselves have aesthetic merit.) Of course, this can only happen to its fullest extent if the hoax is revealed, and there's a great deal of evidence to suggest that Yasusada's eventual unmasking was all part of the plan. Atkinson writes that "Literature is our record of being, and to defraud it is an act of nihilistic mutiny." Stirring words: but to proclaim literature to be some immortal repository of "our" values is one of the oldest strategies of the cultural conservative, by which he attempts to persuade us that the record of his being is or should be ours. Elsewhere in the article, Atkinson writes of the high modernists (who, despite their thorniness and difficulty and, yes, "nihilistic mutiny" must be recuperated for "our record of being" or the whole house of cards will tumble) that, "in breathlessly witnessing a feat of brilliant daring, we long to glimpse the big brain at the controls, to see how different he or she is from us." This is the same author who writes "I know some women who only read women, and I can't think of a single reason why they should do otherwise." Because in spite of all his high talk about community and our being, Atkinson cannot imagine a mind or self truly different than his own and the idea of people crossing demographic lines, much less pretending to be dead Japanese Hiroshima survivors, appears to make him woozy. Joyce, et al, "were silly like us," to quote Auden, and the privilege bestowed upon their big brains to unsettle our notions of the "literary" (and, in so doing, to change or challenge the borders of community, which are always guarded by gatekeepers of one sort or another) is not withdrawn simply because it would make the narrow-minded more comfortable. Atkinson claims to write on the behalf of readers, but readers need no defense from Araki Yasusada or Kent Johnson. It is the self-appointed guardian of the narrow strait of "literature" who must bite at the flea, and glance around fearfully, and bark as the caravan passes him by.

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