recombinant theory

A stacked collection of some of Erín Moure’s works.

The following piece appears as part of the month-long series “Conscientious Conceptualism and Poetic Practice” on the blog, curated by guest editor Andy Verboom.

I am writing from a body which is incapable, almost, of belief. I am writing from a body which is incapable, almost, of speech. In speech, there is nothing to protect me from exposing my inadequate conscious mind via these constructed strings of clunky phrases. Every sentence reveals my cultural and social poverty. Every word reveals my body. Now how do I translate my fluid and unknowable anguish into a paragraph?

When writing, I always feel conscious of the lack that seems to constitute my experience of life (lack of economic stability, social/cultural connections, employment, etc.), leaving this huge gap or void without definition. I’ve been writing for 20 years without publishing a book; my work is not understandable to a publishing industry; I have no interest in genre or authority. Without having fulfilled these basic conventions, how can I pretend to have an “understanding” of writing? Without understanding, how can I write?

To begin to deal with this problem, I think of what Erín Moure says in her introduction to Two Women Talking: “What’s tricky is that we’re only capable of listening out of our own world view”; elements of discourse that aggressively challenge our way of thinking remain nearly imperceptible, because “the mind ignores what does not make sense to it, literally creates gaps that are invisible and seamless.” One’s own perceptual context is constituted by one’s physical presence, history, and engagement with discourse. To eliminate what is senseless, the body eliminates its perception of its own senselessness.

The body’s lack of self-recognition necessitates a process (a search procedure) that compels the body to attend to what does not make sense to it, pushing a writer beyond the physical limitations of thought and language. This process requires the discovery and implementation of anti-expository techniques that may provide the body with a prosthetic supplement, a platform upon which we can generate new possibilities for perceiving language and, consequently, new possibilities for perceiving our own bodies.

At the University of New Brunswick, in 2004, Erín taught me how to use the collage technique: inducting textual fragments from diverse sources, placing them within one physical space, and rearranging them until a new poem starts to emerge. Although the textual fragments pre-exist the collage, the new contexts and arrangements of these fragments necessarily generate entirely new signifying potentials. This tactile method of composition synthesizes reading and writing, allowing the artist to arrange language without obvious teleology or intention, visually perceiving the poem as it emerges.

This tactile method of composition synthesizes reading and writing, allowing the artist to arrange language without obvious teleology or intention, visually perceiving the poem as it emerges.

A decade later, it seemed to me that the collage technique could also be used as a tactic for the production of theoretical writing. Since the start of 2015, I have been working on Inhabitations: A Recombinant Theory Project, the goal of which is to remix the textual materials of significant poets and theorists to produce new poetic formulations and critical observations. This methodology shifts the focus of writing from product-object to process-experience, replacing my anxiety about what my text ultimately will say with an investment in the manner in which my textual experience might speak.

In late 2015, I performed an extensive cut-up and collage of Erín’s poetry and theory. As I chose materials from her critical essays to use as part of the cut-up process, the linguistic content typically lined up with my own concepts and methodologies. For example, when Erín says in My Beloved Wager that “words do hear the words beside them, and around them,” does this not explain how the rearrangement of textual materials must generate entirely new signifying possibilities? But in lines from Erín’s poetic writing, the theoretical significance was not immediately apparent. For example, what are the implications of “this is a life in which a case of whisky is one drink,” from Wanted Alive? To pursue the answer to such a question requires a direct material engagement.

Whether it was the subject matter, or syntax, or both that initially appealed to me, I flagged such passages, transcribed them into an electronic document, and printed and performed cut-up with them, blending poetry and theory with one another. I found myself putting various pieces together and reading: To translate we have one drink. Again there is the pull of the alcohol. A paragraph is pulled out of the veins. Fiction allows us to inhabit the spilling. These recombined lines are made of materials that appear throughout Erín’s body of work, but here, in this particular sequence, I wonder: how is drinking a form of translation? how does it both lead us and extract life from us? and what type of fiction provides what kind of allowance to inhabit in what way what form of spilling?

To translate we have one drink. Again there is the pull of the alcohol. A paragraph is pulled out of the veins. Fiction allows us to inhabit the spilling.

Originally, I’d developed the concept of Recombinant Theory in order to explore textual environments that had been produced by my own influences, to adventure through these oeuvres in zigzag paths, producing my own idiosyncratic maps as I proceeded. I now feel each writer’s body of text equally wandering through me, inhabiting my own cognition. Some of my tactics, structures, and aesthetics may pre-exist the site of artistic engagement, but my range of possible words and phrases is equally determined by the body of work (or, more truthfully, my perception of the body of work) that I interact with.

The body, rather than seeming the locus of being and the impediment to one’s own idealized discourse, may be perceived as yet another text, another translation. In the afterword to Planetary Noise, Erín’s new volume of selected poetry, she compares the act of reading to the act of translation, saying that “a third space between the unseen (most of the time) ‘original’ and the seen ‘translation’ emerges in the act of reading … This ‘third space’ is, in fact, the work of art, the literary experience.” The site of textual experience, located in the body of the reader, is the limitless opening of perceptual possibility.

Recombinant Theory is directly opposed to any attempt to transcend the physical text, against any attitude of stability, against reduction, against paraphrase, against speaking authoritatively on a text’s behalf. In My Beloved Wager, Erín notes that “liberal arts departments mostly feed off the ‘already written’ and fear the generative edge. They need to ensure stability of social and cultural codes, and writing as a practice is always toppling the barriers of these codes.” Recombining her text, I realize how, preceding this project, I had been feeling the calcified deposits forming around academic discourses, choking on the voice in which we have trembled, choking on who knows what anyhow.

recombinant theory

Joel Katelnikoff’s workspace

The point of Recombinant Theory is not to say something, but to illustrate and metanarrativize a collaborative method of reading, writing, and thinking. The process is a depiction of the continuum of textuality, a simulation of what happens in reading always. In reading, what am I capable of perceiving in the text? What am I capable of perceiving in myself? This provisional method of writing allows me to liberate myself from the desire to get it right, which would otherwise prevent me from writing at all.

In My Beloved Wager, Erín says, “Mine is not a universal view, because the universal is just the suppression of anxiety, anxiety of difference.” It is my hope that Recombinant Theory will provide an alternative to universal claims in critical writing, not only by illustrating my own idiosyncratic textual engagements but also by producing theoretical-poetic formulations that will activate the perceptual intervention of my own reading audience. We are bombarded cities. Sometimes there is an emptiness huge as a poem—but why are you still wanting determinate structures? But why are you still wanting consciousness? But why are you still wanting the world? A bottle of whisky, hard & glass, breaks when you lay your hands upon it. Everything is a fragment and is not one’s own.

Joel Katelnikoff lives in Edmonton, where he works on Inhabitations: A Recombinant Theory Project. Further details on the project can be found at Work-in-progress is regularly posted on Twitter at @inhabitations.

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