Goat Literature: A Future PoL
Polity of Literature (50/51)

Goat Literature: A Future PoL

Trained to be producers and consumers in a marketplace of literature, most writers don’t know how to be citizens of a polity. In the concluding essay of the Polity of Literature series the editor, Matthew Stadler, proposes an experiment to help us: The GOAT PoL (The Geopolitical Open Atlas of The Polity of Literature).

The Polity of Literature series began with an unusual finding: a person stripped of rights and belonging within the nation-state discovered that in writing and reading with others he could find agency and be political—a kind of “profane citizenship.” In the void left by state expulsion, writing and reading returned him to a “space of appearance” (Hannah Arendt) in which we recognize others and are ourselves recognized as equal and fully human, so that he again became political. He found profane citizenship in what we call a “polity of literature.”

A smoking character sits looking at an eye chart. The letters spell out "Polity of Literature!!"

For almost two years we’ve explored this hypothesis—that literature is or can function as a polity—by asking the question of others, many of them stateless or otherwise disenfranchised, and we began to see in more detail how writing and reading together functions for those in need of profane citizenship. The Polity of Literature series is an experiment, not a manifesto; we tested an hypothesis by observing what the world of writing and reading together looks like if literature is a polity.

The years of our inquiry saw a significant worsening in the pattern of widespread disenfranchisement that makes these efforts urgent. Dissent and poverty are increasingly criminalized, feeding incarceration wherever nations face social crises that they cannot solve politically. State surveillance exacerbates both. At the same time, those living outside of nation-states have fared worse. Everywhere that war, poverty, and civil strife broke once-viable lives—in Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iran, Guatemala, Myanmar (the list is as long as the list of nation-states)—those cast out were thrown into a no-man’s-land of unwelcome migration. States called them “refugees,” and shut their borders against the floodtide. Suddenly tens or hundreds of millions of what should properly be called “normal lives” (the lives of farmers, bakers, doctors, computer techs, teachers, and children most of all) are put in grave peril. Human faces disappeared behind tendentious imagery of violent terrorism and murderous ideologues, propagated mostly by nation-states refusing their humanitarian duties.

Persons on both sides became faceless, the state donning balaclavas to dispense its sanctioned terror in secret, while people on the move were blurred into the image of a monstrous, unbelonging other. In the small margin of our series, some few faces came back into view, in reports from both sides of this disintegrating world: from those suffering statelessness, incarceration, and disenfranchisement; and, from the institutions they look to for relief and repair. Writing and reading together opened a “space of appearance” in which some of us found politics.

Within the project itself we felt the effect directly. By working together as if literature really is a polity, we at least saw each other’s faces, sparking a glow of recognition however small or provisional. The surrounding darkness has only grown deeper. Threats that once appeared temporary or regional, limited to remote places in crisis, are playing out everywhere, like a rain that becomes general until no place is left dry. The crises of some nation-states—conflicts we wishfully called “the Syrian war,” “the Mexican border crisis,” “Somalia’s civil war,” “war in Afghanistan”—turn out to be facets of a condition so global and integrated—of common root—that we could more accurately call this the crisis of the nation-state.

Why turn to “literature” in times like these? Of what use is conjuring new definitions or concepts about an aging, some would say obsolescent, art practice? Distraction or solace, capacities that are typically credited to literature, are obscenely beside the point now—a part of the problem, not part of any solution. What hope can we feel facing this scale of historical change holding just a pen and paper, or a smartphone, in our hands?

The circumstances of literature’s initial rise to prominence suggest that there are very good reasons why this concept and its capacities are coming back into view. Literature first emerged as a widely discussed category of writing only a little more than two-hundred years ago, in a time uncannily like our own, a period that saw the rapid disintegration of a stable, seemingly permanent, political order. Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm called this period “the long 19th century” (beginning in the 1780s with the collapse of the French monarchy, roughly until the European Great War of 1914 to 1918). The face we can put to literature’s purposeful development and propagation during that period is that of Germaine de Staël, a French writer and early feminist popularly known as Mme de Staël.

Mme de Staël

The child of aristocrats, Germaine de Staël was born in Paris and raised in strict accordance with the pedagogy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (in his book, Emile). She published her first book at age twenty-one (in 1788, a year before the popular revolt that led to the storming of the Bastille and eventually the downfall of King Louis XVI). In that book she speculates about Rousseau’s character and his ideas of “social contract” and “the public will” (with an “account of his final days”). Her second book was a defense of Marie Antoinette, threatened with execution by the new French republic. Staël’s work was unusual. In France, at that time, women often wrote and published, but typically in the form of memoirs, travel diaries, or letters. Women who wrote about politics, history, or philosophy were rarely published, and sometimes ridiculed. Notably, Staël was both published and ridiculed; but she was also widely respected and feared as a reformer and influential salonnière. She was, as scholar Susanne Hillman demonstrates in her 2018 essay, “Gilt by Association,” one of the first intentional, self-made celebrities.

An altered portrait of Mme de Staël, with her name typed repeatedly in pink, and her writing seeming to come out of the top of her head.

In the long tradition of the royal courts, French women (though disenfranchised and ineligible for public office) still played a prominent role in politics through their domestic position as hostesses, specifically as salonnières who gathered select groups of influential men and women for periodic (typically weekly) get-togethers. Conversation, gossip, and light refreshments were the centre-piece of several hours spent in the witty company of dozens or scores (or more) of other regulars. There were, on occasion, special guests—usually travelers and diplomats from other lands—or sometimes performances of music or light theatre. A talk or presentation might be given, very often informal but sometimes formulated as a piece to be published after its social debut, an enviable “launch.” As a child prodigy in her mother’s Paris salon, Staël conversed with Voltaire, Denis Diderot, and Jean le Rond d’Alembert, among others.

Staël married the Swedish ambassador to France, and her salon was held in that country’s embassy, at 97 Rue du Bac. Attendees included politicians, artists, ingenues, prodigies, minor royalty from many nations, and a rich mix of writers, among them Chateaubriand, Lord Talleyrand, Benjamin Constant, Thomas Paine, August Schlegel, Abbé Delille, and later (in Switzerland) Stendahl and Lord Byron. (Thomas Jefferson also attended.) Her personal influence was increased by the central role she played in other salons, especially that of her close friend, Juliette Recamier (after Staël’s early death in 1817, age fifty-one, Recamier hung a full portrait of her dear friend above the fireplace, where the group continued to gather).

The salon was just one stage on which this precocious and worldly early-feminist played. An informed and tactical woman, like Staël, could also take part in France’s public assemblies by attending as an observer and then participating in the considerable portion of the politics carried out in the galleries and lobbies. Staël was one of the few of either sex to attend most of the meetings of the Estates General assembly in Versailles, from 1789 to 1791, which planned and then became the fledgling republic’s first government. After the founding of the Republic, Staël redirected her efforts, focusing her energy on two causes: human rights (especially the rights of women and the abolition of slavery); and fighting Napoleon Bonaparte’s imperial ambitions. In addition to her private pursuits, Staël wrote and published, circulating her work around Europe through her skills as a multi-lingual writer and speaker, and as a diplomat. So formidable was the broad network of power that Germaine de Staël assembled and took part in, that her contemporary, Victorine Chastenay, wrote, “There are three great powers struggling against Napoleon for the soul of Europe… England, Russia, and Mme de Staël.”

Staël’s unique family situation put her in an advantageous position during the tumult of the revolution. She was respected both within the aristocratic class (which still held some reins of power), and by the Jacobin revolutionaries who took power after King Louis XVI fell. The reason for this was Staël’s father, Jacques Necker, who was a progressive-minded aristocrat that served as finance minister to King Louis and campaigned for greater transparency and equitability in taxation and in the King’s treasury. Sacked by King Louis in July, 1789, Necker’s dismissal was one of the primary causes for the storming of the Bastille (July 14, that year). In the uprising’s wake he was reinstated (and soon his ambitious daughter was attending sessions of the Estates General), but nothing came of Necker’s attempt to reform the monarchy from within. By September, 1792, the populace was calling for blood. Staël’s was categorically that blood for which the republicans were thirsty—except for the fact that she was the daughter of the widely-respected Necker.

An incident that Staël recalls in her book about the revolution gives a vivid picture of both the real perils she faced, and her great enjoyment of the novelistic dramas they provided. The passage is also a good example of what Staël called “la littérature.” The scene takes place on September 3, 1792, at the height of The Terror, as mobs of sans cullotes roamed Paris looking for rich people to slaughter. Here is Mme de Staël, and her mysterious saviour, “Manuel,” a writer of lesser renown, about whom more, below:

My passports were perfectly in order, and I imagined that the best way would be to set out in a coach and six [horses], with my servants in full livery. I thought that by seeing me in great style, people would conclude I had a right to depart, and would let me pass freely. This was very ill judged, for in such moments what of all things should be avoided is striking the imagination of the people, and the most shabby post-chaise would have conveyed me with more safety. Scarcely had my carriage advanced three steps when, at the noise of the whips of the postilions, a swarm of old women, who seemed to issue from the infernal regions, rushed on my horses, crying that I ought to be stopped; that I was running away with the gold of the nation, that I was going to join the enemy, and a thousand other invectives still more absurd.

These women gathered a crowd instantly, and some of the common people, with ferocious countenances, seized my postilions and ordered them to conduct me to the assembly of the section of the quarter where I lived (the Faubourg of St. Germain)… [There] the person who called himself the president…ordered me to be conducted to the Hotel de Ville by a gendarme…It took me three hours to get from the Faubourg St. Germain to the Hotel de Ville, advancing slowly through an immense crowd, who assailed me with cries of death… Not knowing yet how inhuman men become in revolutions, I addressed myself two or three times to the gendarmes who passed near my carriage to implore their assistance; and was answered by the most disdainful and threatening gestures. I was pregnant; but that did not disarm them; on the contrary their fury seemed to increase in proportion as they felt themselves culpable…

At the Place de Greve [across from the Hotel de Ville], I stepped out of my carriage in the midst of an armed multitude and proceeded under an arch of pikes. In ascending the staircase, which likewise bristled with spears, a man pointed toward me the one which he held in his hand. My gendarme pushed it away with his saber: if I had fallen at this moment my life would have ended, for it is in the nature of the common people to respect what still stands erect, but the victim once struck is dispatched. I arrived at length at the Commune, the president of which was Robespierre, and I breathed again because I had escaped from the populace: yet what a protector was Robespierre!…I rose then and stated the right I had to depart, as being the Ambassadress of Sweden, showing the passports I had obtained in consequence of this right. At this moment Manuel arrived; he was very much astonished to find me in so painful a situation, and immediately becoming responsible for me till the Commune had decided on my fate, he conducted me out of that terrible place and locked me up with my maidservant in his closet. We waited there for six hours, half dead with thirst, hunger, and fright: the window of Manuel’s apartment looked on the Place de Greve, and we saw the assassins returning from the prisons with their arms bare and bloody, and uttering horrible cries…

My coach with its baggage had remained in the middle of the square, and the people were proceeding to plunder it when I perceived a tall man, in the dress of a national guard, who, ascending the coach box, forbade the populace to take away anything. He passed two hours in guarding my baggage, and I could not conceive how so slight a consideration could occupy him amidst such awful circumstances. In the evening this man, with Manuel, entered the room where I was confined. He was Santerre, the brewer, afterward so notorious for his cruelty. He lived in the Faubourg St. Antoine and had several times been both witness and distributor of the supplies of corn which my father used to provide in seasons of scarcity, and for which he retained some gratitude… Manuel conducted me home at night in his carriage; he was afraid of losing his popularity by doing it in the day. The lamps were not lighted in the streets; but we met numbers of men with torches in their hands, the glare of which was more terrifying than darkness itself. Manuel was often stopped and asked who he was, but when he answered, “Le Procureur de la Commune,” this revolutionary dignity was respectfully recognized. Arrived at my house, Manuel informed me that a new passport would be given to me and that I should be allowed to depart, but with my maid servant only…”

Later in this account Staël—ever the competitive writer—makes a point of demeaning her kind saviour, Manuel, as merely “a dabbler in literature” whose preface to The Letters of Mirabeau was “very badly written….” The detail rings true. It has what in our time is called “authorial voice,” when the words on a page are like what we imagine, or remember, of the author speaking. It sounds just like her, a reader or an intimate might exclaim. This by now central feature of literary writing—the construction and recognition of authorial voice—emerged as a hallmark of literature specifically around the time of Mme de Staël’s writing, a relatively new element of an ascendant style later to be called “realism.”

The execution of Louis XVI in 1793 threw Staël’s world into several kinds of chaos. There was physical danger, the constant threat of arrest, material and financial uncertainty, and a political landscape suddenly flooded by angry, unreasonable voices published and amplified in the profligate pamphlet presses. (Their output now fills a restricted archive in the Bibliothèque Nationale that is referred to as “l’Enfer.” Using fragments found in this hellish collection of republican rage, the late American poet, Stacy Doris, composed a 21st-century re-mix in the form of her book-length poem, The Cake Part, turning Staël’s bête noire into la littérature.) In Staël’s time the pamphlets circulated swiftly and far, breaking out like a civic skin-rash that scandalized Staël, and was sometimes directed at her personally. As she put it, “Bad taste, such as we have seen it to prevail during some years of the revolution, is not only prejudicial to the relations of society and literature, but undermines morality: men indulge themselves in pleasantries upon their own baseness, their own vices, and shamelessly glory in them in order to ridicule those timid minds which still shrink from this degrading mirth.”

Staël’s experience, both in the royal courts and as first-hand witness to their breakdown, led her to place certain human capacities at the top of a hierarchy that, in her view, was essential to the steady progress of human affairs. At its pinnacle—the true source from which wisdom and progress could trickle down—Staël placed “reason” and “philosophy.” The practice of “literature” was the act of articulating these through inspiration and “eloquence,” in “thought and imagination,” as subjective written narratives. But she refrained from providing any clear definitions. Even in two exhaustive studies, De la littérature (1800) and De l’Allemagne (1810)—in between which she published two novels, Delphine (1802) and Corrine (or Italy) (1807)—Staël only ever alluded to the qualities that might distinguish “literature” from other kinds of writing or reading. The term’s imprecision is one of its lifelong features (see below). Nevertheless, Staël’s allusions painted a picture. She wrote, “Under the denomination of Literature, I have comprehended poetry, eloquence, history, and philosophy, or the study of man as a moral agent…” adding, “the progress of literature effectually promotes the diffusion of philosophical light…the support of liberty…[and the] refinement of manners.” Finally, in a revealing aside in De la littérature, Staël suggests that, “perhaps, it would be natural if literature, as such, became women’s domain, and men devote themselves to philosophy only.”

In practice (especially her own), either sex could write in any mode, and either sex could make the wise choice to rely on reason or philosophy to inspire thought and imagination and yield eloquent sentences to be arranged on the page. Staël’s underlying belief in the powers and rights of women did not rest in positioning any one thing or some other as uniquely male or uniquely female. While the strict binary was essential to her view of politics, she was in life given to what some now call “gender fucking.” In her spirited unpacking of Staël’s novels, “Voice As Fossil,” Marie-Claire Vallois recalls that Staël liked to refer to herself as an “auteur femelle,” making a self-deprecating pun on “female author” that negatively implied a masculine identity (to Staël’s pleasure and amusement). Her ex-lover Lord Talleyrand remarked after reading Staël’s novel, Delphine, that “I understand that Mme de Staël has disguised us both as real women,” a quip Staël enjoyed repeating. The binary gendering of male versus female was Staël’s playground. She praised it, naturalized it, and put it at the centre of her thinking and her actions—but expressly as a way to trouble it.

The stakes of this play for Staël were high. If so-called “male” and “female” were not combined in amatory play, the very survival of the nation was at risk. Staël plotted and enabled their alchemical mixing in every part of life, public and private, and in every room of the house, from salons to the bedroom. The collapse of the monarchy and its courtly ways cast female voices and female power out of their traditional strongholds into dangers that Staël felt personally. In the brutish harangue of the republican pamphleteers (especially those arrayed against the former queen, Marie Antoinette) Staël heard misogyny, a male animal howling for the collapse of humanity’s distinct achievements: reason and progress. Something had to be done to resurrect female voices and let them circulate in the world. Staël called that something “literature.”


Literature is a recent invention, a product of the European Enlightenment. It did not exist in older cultures, such as Ancient Greece, where writers spoke of poetry, epic, tragedy (which are forms of writing), but never of literature. According to the late cultural historian, Raymond Williams, “In its modern form the concept of ‘literature’ did not emerge earlier than the eighteenth century, and was not fully developed until the nineteenth.” When Staël published De la littérature, in 1800, degrees or professorships in that field were unheard of. Instead, ambitious writers might teach or be taught “belles lettres” (in England sometimes called “fine writing”), a category that, like “la littérature,” threw its cloak of virtue over an amorphous body of various styles of writing, dividing the “good” from the “bad,” and teaching people to “improve” their abilities. Both were reputational categories—not specific modes or forms of writing—used to organize and promote certain favoured writing, or writers, above others. The lack of any formal definition was its strength. From the outset, literature was a content-agnostic negotiation of power—a politics—and a very successful one. By the end of the nineteenth-century, this ill-defined concept, and the word “literature,” would be so widely used and venerated as to command a global economy that has grown steadily since and is now worth tens of billions of dollars.

At the time, belles lettres might have seemed like the concept more likely to prosper, the right horse to bet on. It was more swiftly institutionalized, finding a place in the academies of England, Italy, and France (and as a tool of settler culture in England’s colonies, especially Canada and the USA), at a time when literature was just gaining a foothold in salons and journals. Literature’s subsequent rise came in large part through the efforts of Staël and her allies (Friederich and August Schlegel in Prussia, and others like them—a group that was soon calling itself “the Romantics”) who linked the implied virtues of “literature” to the shaping of a clear national character and identity in the form of a “national literature.” It mattered very little what other virtues Staël or the Romantics claimed for it—the concept literature and its discourse prevailed by serving the needs of political elites during two centuries of aggressive nation-building.

While common sense tells us that literature is sub-divided into its categories of English, French, or Italian literature because of the language in which each is written, the field’s myriad mongrels, such as “Canadian Literature,” “American Literature,” or “Nigerian Literature” (not to mention the Frankenstein’s monster called “German literature,” see below), suggest that this is only nominally the case. No language is pure, nor entirely distinct from other languages, despite nationalist efforts, such as the work of the Academie Français to police the edges of le français, or the USA’s legislated favouring of English. U.S. Americans are often taught that writings in English (notably separate from English Literature) constitute “American Literature,” an attribution that paradoxically muddies the water by naming the country’s English-language output for a region (the Americas) that is dominated by its second language, Spanish.

The coherent histories of languages are recorded and discussed in the field of philology, more so than in the study of “literature.” French, Italian, English, or American literature are promulgated by their respective nations, as formative elements of a national identity. The effort is both retrospective (scripting the literary history that can shape a nation) and prescriptive (instructing the young in the details of their national identity). Almost every nation claims to have a literature; and, everywhere, its practitioners, teachers, and marketers, claim to purvey that nation’s most formative stories—one hand washes the other; books are sold; professorships held; writers reach readers; and, all the while, the nation-state remains at the centre of every discussion.

The case of Germany shows how deeply tied the use of a “national literature” is to nation-building. In the 1870s and 1880s, Prussians mustering the case for unification under their victorious military leader, Bismarck, faced a rich history of German literary expression from jealously-separate and long-competing cultures and regions. E.T.A. Hoffman was Prussian, Goethe too (born in Frankfurt, he later adopted Weimar as his home), while Hölderlin and Schiller were Swabian, Herder was Polish, Lessing and Novalis Saxon, and Jean Paul was Franconian. The German common to each region differed significantly enough that a necessary step, in the 19th-century invention of German Literature, was the standardization of the language itself. (See Peter Uwe Hohendahl’s The Making of a National Literature.) The dictionary of the Brothers Grimm, issued between 1852 and 1860, was the first comprehensive lexicon of Standard German. Spelling and grammatical rules appeared in the Duden Handbook in 1880. The motley German canon (roughly assembled earlier in the century by, among others, Georg Gottfried Gervinus, Hermann Hettner, and the Schlegels), could now be discussed, or even republished, in Standard German. Forget the contentious, polyglot past: here were the writers of the German fatherland in a lineage that traced back to its medieval roots, an enduring culture from which some later Germans would propose a Thousand-Year Reich. While today it’s common for a Bavarian or a Swabian or a Rhinelander to remind you that that is what they are, culturally and historically, both before and after the fact of being citizens of a unified German state, German Literature said otherwise.

It’s hard to exaggerate just how unlikely was literature’s rise to prominence. It has little meaning or value as a tool of critical thinking, or of writing; it has no formal history, and therefore no future forms; it means nothing in other disciplines, such as philosophy or philology; and its usefulness to writers and readers depends entirely on the regard powerful people have for its usefulness to them. Take away literature’s gauzy aura of art and high moral purpose, and the nation-based structures of the literary economy begin to look embarrassingly archaic, even feudal, in comparison to the lives currently lived by its writers and readers. Can any Canadian writer define “Can Lit,” without a deep blush, plus a heaping side-dish of exceptions and mollifications? The economy that supports their work requires them to develop a thoughtful relationship to that concept, even to kowtow to it if the granting agency says so. The demand is the same in every nation. Literature’s nationalistic purposes only diminish where governments have stopped investing in writers and readers, ceding the world of letters to the Darwinian vagaries of a “free market,” a sea-change now underway.

A strange and telling legacy of literature’s rise under nationalism is a literary economy that, even today (in its guise as a home to progressive thinking), bears all the hallmarks of its direct ancestor, colonial “settler” culture. Literature has long been a tool of colonial expansion (see Nyasha Bhobo’s report, “Here Comes the Future: Learning from Zimbabwe“), and in its most basic relationships it mimics the methods of early colonial settlers. Like Europe’s skillful dairymen and farmers arriving in the forests of North America, the smart literary publisher of today explores widely, cultivates what pleases him, and weeds out the rest, turning an enduring world of unknown riches into the food that he grew up on. Chasing prizes—whether for best novel or largest cow; poet laureate or richest wheat crop; the new Faulkner or butter as fine as Britanny’s—the exemplary literary editor works hard to “improve” what he finds, and only publishes the work when it can satisfy his educated tastes. Literary publishing, done by skilled professionals, is settler agriculture. (Use of the word “promising” is a red-flag warning; only a man bent on meddling sees the riches around him as “promising;” it’s notably in publishing, education, and agriculture that we hear the term most.)

…a literary economy…bears all the hallmarks of its direct ancestor, colonial “settler” culture.

Nyasha Bhobo’s report, and a companion piece, “Good News for African Writers,” by Audrey Simango, described the form this took in the British colonization of Rwanda (now Zimbabwe), but the same relations occur within countries, across regions, or even neighbourhoods: anywhere an economy stratifies itself spatially. The relations birthed by the separation of European colonizers from their colonies grow, too, from a nation with its frontiers, a city with its hinterland, a neighbourhood with its working class, or a woman doing chores in the kitchen. Spatial separation stages a transactional economy that makes a market in which some will prosper while others pay. (Raymond Williams described this repeating fractal pattern, its origins, and a few of its iterations, in his landmark study, The Country and the City.)

Whether abroad or at home, the mechanism of change is the constant growth of markets. This is the understructure of all colonization—reconstructing (and destroying) the myriad complex social and political arrangements indigenous to other places or people and reshaping them as labour and supply chains birthing new markets for the colonial economy. Literature is no different. Its rise was market-driven and transactional. William Charvat’s fascinating lectures, collected as Literary Publishing In America, 1790-1850, chart in detail the deliberate and simultaneous construction of a commodity supply chain and markets for literature in the newly-minted nation of the USA, a process triggered by the invention in 1790 of something called “copyright.” Henceforth the work of writers would be a transferable commodity. Its legacy is a world in which the foundational act of publishing is for the writer to legally bind herself to withhold her work from all but one party, the publisher. This brutal form of marriage positions the work as property (which she has ceded to her suitor) and its value as market-driven. We call it “the publishing contract,” and the fact that writers regularly boast and post on the day of their “signing,” celebrating their betrothal, says a lot about how deeply the market has disrupted our relationship to a polity of literature. In a market of literature we measure the quality of writing by the price it commands, and we punish the worthless stuff by paying it nothing, not even our attention. In all healthy markets only a small margin is valuable, and blessed are the critics who can identify it. This is a scarcity economy in which experts discern what qualities are desirable and describe them to us, dividing the winners from the losers, while instructing writers how to improve the quality of their work.

One cannot overstate how prejudicial and blinding this deeper root is, leading to a world (ours) in which writers experience our work as the private production of a thing, a possession that will gain its public value as a commodity via sales in a market. We internalize what the market tells us—that we make “our work” and sell it to readers, whose engagement with it is a transactional matter. They get it and exhaust it by buying and consuming it. All of this despite the lived experience, common to writers, that the texts we create come from somewhere other, or more than, simply ourselves; that they never really leave us; and that their movement in the world is driven by readers reading, not by a market which buys or sells or transfers “the rights” to what we do.

Setting aside this disastrous legacy of collective forgetting, the market has done well by literature. Any decline in the use nation-builders made of the work did not pull the bottom out from under it. Literature’s rise continued as a valourized narrative for other “imagined communities” (as Benedict Anderson termed nations), where the need for stories to shape an identity was keenly felt. Michael Bronski’s detailed examination of “The Rise and Future of a Queer Polity of Literature” showed us one example. The old line-up of French Literature, English Literature, German Literature, and American Literature has added to it now Black Literature, Feminist Literature, LGBTQ Literature, and more—a taxonomy that’s recapitulated in the schools as well as the well-stocked sections of Barnes & Noble. Same project, different names. So, what on Earth was Germaine de Staël thinking?

Literature is Female*

In the post-royalist chaos of the new republic, Staël’s purpose was to make a stable public form for circulating what she took to be a specifically female kind of intelligence and influence. In her time, the strict binary gendering of male versus female was an article of faith as widely shared as was the belief in God. Like God, the meanings of this mysterious attribute of the world—that there are men and there are women, naturally—took as many forms as there were persons to apprehend it. Staël’s version was obsessively thought-out, a central focus of her writing, and it is how she conceived of “literature.”

In the conversation of women (in the salons, public gatherings, or the ante-rooms of power) Staël heard a specifically female eloquence, “a more intimate knowledge of the human heart,” that she deemed essential to the wise, right governing of human affairs. It varied from nation to nation, but a female voice was its paragon: from De la littérature, “In France we have a number of women who have acquired reputation merely by the power of conversation or by writing letters which resembled conversation. Madame de Sévigné is the first in this department; but subsequently Madame de Tencin, Madame du Deffant, Mlle de l’Espinasse, and several others have acquired celebrity by the quality of their mind;” and, in her follow-up book, De l’Allemagne, “The talent for telling a story, one of the great charms of conversation, is very rare in Germany. The audience is too tolerant and not quickly enough bored; so the raconteurs, confident of their listeners’ patience, are too relaxed in telling their stories. In France every speaker is a usurper, conscious of being surrounded by jealous rivals and trying to keep his ground through success; in Germany he is a legitimate proprietor who can peacefully exercise his acknowledged rights.” The more eloquent voice, typically a woman’s, is what “literature” was meant to transcribe and bring into public circulation. Here is the origin of the commonplace that literature is a written record of someone, a specific someone, speaking to us intimately; as Staël puts it, “the impression given by this peculiar style, may be compared to the effect produced by the disclosure of an important secret…” (or, what the Polity of Literature series called literature’s “intimate investiture”).

Sketch of a female symbol reading a book, surrounded by male symbols. An arrow labelled "la littérature" points to the female symbol.

Paradoxically, the normative prohibition against women holding any public responsibilities gave them further advantages as writers of literature. Staël observed that, “the women, it may be said, not being strictly answerable for their conduct, did not scruple to relate what their different sentiments naturally suggested.” Unbeholden to agreed-upon niceties, a woman could write the truth. And, Staël added, in De la littérature, “a greater number of shades were perceptible in the characters of women, which their wish to obtain power, and their fear of subjection, presented to general view; but they were singularly useful in furnishing new secrets of emotion for the exercise of dramatic talents; their fear of death, their desire of life, the devotion of themselves, their resentment, and in short, every sentiment which they were suffered to deliver, embellished literature with new expressions.”

The powers inherent in the nominally passive female position were considerable, and in Staël’s early life-experience, reliable. The Ancien Régime put them in the midst of French political life by maintaining social traditions such as the royal court, the salon, tactical marriage and its companion, marital infidelity, in which female agency was protected—usually as a private or personal matter. Women remained, as in Aristotle’s time, an attribute of a man’s household, one of his possessions (implicitly a treasured one). In practice French women of Staël’s time had finances, property of their own, and a place in public life—but they didn’t have state-sanctioned powers, like voting or serving in office. Much of their security came from civic respect for another man’s property. When that tacit agreement dissolved into the bloody chaos of The Terror, Staël made the clever, if gruesome, remark that when a government proposes to chop off the heads of women it must first grant them their corollary emancipation as full public actors—the state can only execute its citizens, not mutilate a man’s private property.

It would be a mistake, and one with considerable costs, to reduce Staël’s gender politics to what we call, in our time, “heteronormativity.” Her repeated actions in life contradict the binary of female/passive and male/active. Indeed, “literature,” which she saw as a vessel for female intelligence and power, was itself an action. Staël wrote and published novels and travelled throughout Europe to promote not only her own work, but the literature she’d found by reading in seven major languages. More accurately, we should say that naturalizing the male/female binary established, for Staël, the rules that she gloried in breaking, the boundaries she wished to blur, and the expectations that she acted to surpass. As the shadow side of the civic male, Staël’s *female—the salonnière, the mistress, the wife, the mondaine, the ambassadress—remained an obscure, complex terrain, rife with all of the nuance and complexity that delighted her heart and mind. In la littérature Staël made the most of it.

…when a government proposes to chop off the heads of women it must first grant them their corollary emancipation as full public actors…

In our time, interest in Staël’s work has mostly hinged on the nuance and boldness of her feminism. That said, the interest has been scant. (The welcome exceptions include Biancamaria Fontana’s lively Germaine de Staël: A Political Portrait; J. Christopher Herold’s biography, Mistress to An Age; Maria Fairweather’s more recent Madame de Staël; Susanne Hillman’s scholarly work in many journals; and the online resource, www.stael.org.) If any male writers of Staël’s time equalled her in stature (and few did), their presence in current versions of literary history typically exceeds hers. Staël is dwarfed by her ally, Lord Byron, and restricted to discussions devoted to “women’s writing,” or what Helene Cixous termed écriture feminine. Even there it’s interesting to find that Staël is absent from, for example, Cixous’s landmark essay “The Laugh of the Medusa” (1975). (While Cixous leaves the term “literature” aside, her conception and defence of écriture feminine closely enough resembles Staël’s assertion of a specifically female writing that I include it.) Other writers brought Staël into the discussion of écriture feminine. In “Voice As Fossil,” Marie-Claire Vallois used French critical theory (in this case, applying Lacanian psychoanalytic theory to render feminist readings of texts) to excavate treasures that lay dormant in Staël’s neglected novels. More recently philosopher Jacques Ranciére and one of his explicators, Patrick M. Bray, focused on Staël’s De la littérature in their retrospective investigation of the historical meanings of “literature.” In his 1998 book, Mute Speech, Ranciére concluded that the lack of a definition might be the only through-line in the term’s short history.

The absence of any clear definition continues to be the hallmark of our discussions of “literature.” Cixous argued that the request for a definition was itself a preemptive attack on the sort of writing that she meant. Her explanation does a good job of naming the paradox that might have discouraged Staël, too: “It is impossible to define a feminine practice of writing, and this is an impossibility that will remain, for this practice can never be theorized, enclosed, coded—which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. But it will always surpass the discourse that regulates the phallocentric system; it does and will take place in areas other than those subordinated to philosophico-theoretical domination. It will be conceived of only by subjects who are breakers of automatisms, by peripheral figures that no authority can ever subjugate.”

Ranciére made the impossibility of a definition the sine qua non of “literature”—”Thus we will take ‘literature’ to mean neither the vague idea of the repertory of written works nor the idea of a particular essence that makes these works worthy of being called ‘literary.’ Henceforth, we will use the term to designate the historical mode of visibility of the works of the art of writing that produces this gap [italics added] and as a consequence, the discourses that theorize it: both those that consecrate the incomparable essence of literary creation and those that deconsecrate it in order to reduce it to either arbitrary judgments or positive criteria of classification”—and he endeavoured to figure out what manner of writing and reading beckons this space of undefinition, which appears to follow from every instance of “literature.” His work is fascinating, but it is so completely devoted to thinking about literature and not entering the fray, that it falls away from any realm of action. In this way Ranciére differs from Staël (who took actions to change literature’s meaning) and fits nicely with the habits of the humanities, with their borrowed notions of objective observation; this is the hands-off approach of the respectable scientist. However, because the subject, literature, is also the writing itself and the world in which he writes, his performed objectivity takes us nowhere; it flees from the scene, deep into the recesses of the thinking mind that proposed the strategy, to hide in its last safe-house: that ideal realm where a pure thought can be protected from the world that shaped it. In effect the academic discourse of literature, including Ranciére’s, says, let’s not fight about this—here’s what we can all agree upon. But for me, following Staël, I say let’s join the fight.

In effect the Polity of Literature is a second, maybe third, attempt to inhabit the politics called “literature” and either shape or discover its future through our actions. That Staël and the Romantics ran aground on the rocky shores of the nation-state, giving their craft over to the behemoth of national identity and patrie, suggests that there’s a reason why our renewed effort comes now. The political instability of our time—the epochal shift mirroring Staël’s witnessing of the disappearance of the royal court under the rising tide of republican nations—is the crisis of the nation-state. Nationalist narratives have run their course and arrived at their deepest contradictions. Formed to give citizenship and agency to disenfranchised masses, the nation-state is now the principal obstacle to citizenship and belonging for hundreds of millions in crisis. When better to test the existence and relevance of a Polity of Literature?

Critical Making

The Polity of Literature series returns us to Staël’s blend of thought and action by clearly defining “literature,” and framing a practice by which we can discover the concept’s future. It’s an act of critical making—a shared practice that refines the concept by subjecting it to the vagaries of daily work and human relationships. Defining the term is the foundation of our practice, step one. When none can say what literature is, only the already-powerful can speak about it persuasively, thus the long history in which “literary” was an imprecise but advantageous accolade always dispensed by elites. A clear definition—by which we agree to agree “this is literature” or “that is not literature”—interrupts their monopoly by putting the tool into the hands of everyone who thinks and writes or reads.

…following Staël, I say let’s join the fight.

The definition we propose was discovered by taking questions that had traditionally been posed to writers—is this (of what you write) literature, or is that (of it) literature?—and redirecting them to readers. Thus was revealed a consistent pattern and a shared, enduring meaning for the term. From our first essay, “Potatoes or Rice?“:

By “literature” I mean that writing for which every reader feels equal authority to make its meanings. The shared space of the text is a place of engagement among equals in conflict (that is, readers), with nary a policeman nor sovereign in sight. Even the author gives up her original position as an arbiter of meanings (one she enjoys so long as she is writing) by giving the work to its public in an act that we call “publication.” After publication every reader, including the author, is possessed of equal authority in the contested realm of the work. This is precisely—and only—what we claim whenever we claim that such-and-such “is literature.” By this definition, any writing can be literature; and a great deal that is not can, nevertheless, have “literary” qualities. For instance, not all histories are literature, but some are more literary than others. By that I mean that some possess qualities that cannot be assessed by any single authority—literary aspects such as style, pathos, humour, wisdom or relevance—which the writer attends to, alongside the facts and other applied systems of thought that experts in the field (other historians or philosophers or journalists, etc.) can best judge.

       Literature proves nothing. It asks us to judge for ourselves. More, it invites—even seduces—us into taking that risk by whispering in each reader’s ear, you know what I’m talking about…. This intimate investiture draws us out into the open, into the book’s plurality of readers, by granting us the authority to disclose our own meanings and have them heard. Literature opens a space of appearance in which we become equals, needing no defence. This contentious plurality, the vivid cacophony of contradictory readings in a polity of literature, is where I find my agency and belonging.

Literature consecrates no experts (their insecurity is proof) and it frustrates all policing. You see it clearly in the vigour with which disempowered people—prisoners, the stateless, children—hold tight to literature, as both writers and readers. Once defined, literature is rendered useless to those who would horde power or seek a tool of domination. Equipped with its definition, literature is de facto egalitarian, anarchic, and hostile to tyrants and profiteers. To write or read literature is to enter and remain in politics, always. Or, to formulate this as a question, the basis for our experiment: “what if literature is, or can function as, a polity?” Our project began by asking it broadly, commissioning a series of forty-or-so reports from a variety of writers and readers that we published over the last two years.

Most of us involved have long backgrounds in professional writing and publishing. At the outset we simply went about the familiar task of making a new publication—our subject was “the Polity of Literature,” and our method was to solicit the best writing, edit and develop it properly, and present it to an interested public. Things went well. Our writers were skillful, informed people and they had many important insights to share. A respectable body of work grew, explicating the subject from a number of perspectives. It seemed likely that we’d make a valuable collection in the end, so we went about the business of doing so. Alongside the soporific pleasure that the humming of a well-oiled machine can bring, a second, sort of subsonic, rumble kept jarring us awake, disrupting the hard-won satisfaction of doing a good professional job: our project might be illuminating a “Polity of Literature,” but were we ourselves functioning as one? We’d made a framework for speaking about something, but hadn’t yet found our way into being it.

Evidence of our shortfall was everywhere, from the relatively narrow demographics of our writers to the repeated performance of a certain kind of writing; nothing so refined or homogeneous as the house-style of legacy newspapers and magazines, such as the New Yorker or The New York Times, but a similar deliberate levelling of writing’s unruly, native diversity (to satisfy the editor’s tastes?—or, to provide evidence of his training?). The harder we worked, the narrower our scope became. And we worked hard! It soon became obvious that the shortfall wasn’t due to shirking, or any lack of intention or expertise. The root of the problem was precisely our expertise, and our training. The obstacles to actually living in a polity of literature are systemic.

A sea of people wave large flags made out of classic books.

The system within which literature’s “culture workers” now toil is the legacy of the 19th century’s nationalist applications of Staël’s concept of “literature.” That legacy is deep and undisturbed. As easily as the various national projects—German Literature; French Literature; American Literature; LGBTQ Literature—absorbed or redirected the power that its advocates built into the concept, so, with equal ease, did those of us living now accept and recapitulate whatever biases that brief history left us with. Among the most obvious is a gender bias that might have surprised Staël; and it goes well beyond that. Nearly every broader systemic bias—evident in governance, economies, and the neighbourhood where you live—manifests its patterns in the economy of literature. As a rule, literary publishing is racist, sexist, classist, and xenophobic; it’s colonial “settler” agriculture, all over again. The exceptions—and there are many—prove the rule; the myriad reformist efforts (using inherited systems in pursuit of changed results, including the PoL of the last two years) deserve support and attention. But the foundation sponsoring our project, Musagetes, asked us for more—they asked us to experiment.

At the heart of literary publishing is a foundational relationship: the collaboration of writer and first outside reader, nominally “the editor” (though, given the scarcity of editors now, it’s very often a close friend or colleague whom the writer has grown to trust). From this conversation the work, as a public resource, will be born. The meeting of writer and editor, done with care and respect, is “the polity of literature” in embryo, the starting place of a community of readers that ultimately creates the value and meanings of any writing. Or, it is not. At this crucial juncture the writer and editor can either catalyze a polity, through their own relationships of respect and autonomy, or enter a market by making their exchanges instrumental and transactional. The long future of the writer’s work will be shaped here. (Again, exceptions prove the rule; several writers come to mind who realize their work more perfectly by sidelining or ignoring their editors, and I applaud them for their exceptional skills; but for the most part we write in conversation with a reader, first ourselves—reading what we write in order to rewrite—and then “the editor.”) In professional publishing things can quickly go wrong from there. This starting point is too often short-changed, or else it’s made to serve the demands of the market or other rewards hostile to a polity (the pursuit of power and prestige, to name two). Here, in the relationship of writer to first-reader, is the core of our experiment: how can we structure this primary relationship so that the polity grows and the market falls away? We seek a structure that will, first of all, safely harbour the “embryo polity,” and, second, help it grow to its full vigour and vitality. The polity, not the market, is our aim and our beacon. This effort requires us to shed the centuries of training we’ve inherited as transactional producers/consumers and take up our responsibilities as citizens in a polity.

As first readers we will respect the autonomy of the writer and the text, while showing up fully as ourselves, inviting their respect. Our engagement isn’t transactional; respect is a given, not a reward for displaying desired behaviours. We seek pleasure—understanding maybe?—something that we want, anyway, and we open ourselves to finding it in the text. We’ll learn from the text rather than judging it. In a polity (a shared condition of agency and mutual respect) the text becomes the site where we are political; it is where we experience citizenship. The healthier the polity—as it is sited within the text itself, in the ways that the reader is positioned or treated by the text—the greater the writing can become. We often say, as readers, that we know when a book is great: I’m saying this is how we know; this is what happens to us when we feel writing’s greatness. In a polity a text triggers feelings of insight, wisdom, and true emotions by putting us in our power as citizens. Literature is what the “space of appearance” feels like. We who have been so thoroughly starved of our political capacity, especially in the state-controlled realms of governance—where we are administered, positioned as consumers, and dehumanized—find ourselves exclaiming the greatness of certain books because reading them puts us actually into politics, and we are revivified. The polity makes great writing great.

In a polity a text triggers feelings of insight, wisdom, and true emotions by putting us in our power as citizens.

If that’s so, then for the sake of literature itself we need a healthy polity. Not for moral reasons or on behalf of social justice, alone; but in pursuit of the best writing, literature’s future. Paolo Freire, the Brazilian educator who worked with poor people and the dispossessed, made the polity’s health his lifelong concern. As in a literary economy, Freire faced a landscape divided between oppressor and oppressed, with all parties suffering from the brutality of this inequality. Freire observed that a repeated misunderstanding kept even the best-intentioned actors from bringing relief: those with power, the oppressors assumed that specifically—and only—their insights and actions were needed, usually in the form of charity and philanthropy.  But charity, Freire says, is “false generosity,” doomed to replicate the conditions that make it necessary: “Any attempt to ‘soften’ the power of the oppressor in deference to the weakness of the oppressed almost always manifests itself in the form of false generosity…. In order to have the continued opportunity to express their ‘generosity,’ the oppressors must perpetuate injustice as well.” Freire concludes that, “Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both,” adding that “this lesson and apprenticeship must come, however, from the oppressed themselves.” Freire saw a possible way forward in a new relationship between students and teachers (or, in our polity, between a writer and her editor or first-reader). Putting Freire’s words to our task of structuring a healthy polity, “[Writers and their editors], co-intent on reality, are both Subjects, not only in the task of unveiling that reality, and thereby coming to know it critically [that is, working on the text], but in the task of re-creating that knowledge [publishing a finished text]. As they attain this knowledge of reality through common reflection and action [that is, as they work on the text through reading and rewriting], they discover themselves as its permanent re-creators. In this way, the presence of the oppressed in the struggle for their liberation will be what it should be: not pseudo-participation, but committed involvement.” The path to a healthy polity of literature begins when the editors stop asserting their power as expert judges of a text’s quality, and give themselves over to learning what the writing will become through a committed involvement with it. After decades of training in the literary marketplace it can be bewildering to deliberately act on this insight, but we’re ready to try.


Sketch of a goat

Having discovered that literature is a polity, we are confronted by the fact that few, if any, of us know how to be citizens in it. All of our lives we’ve worked in a marketplace. We’re trained to be producers and consumers. The norms of literary publishing undermine the essential features of a polity (equality, autonomy, our collective responsibility) at every turn, cannibalizing a body politic by commodifying our work, enforcing hierarchies of quality, and cashing-in on human relationship. We propose leaving those norms behind to structure an economy that’s a polity, not a market: The GOAT PoL (“The Geopolitical Open Atlas of The Polity of Literature”).

I call the Polity of Literature “the P-O-L,” usually with a Dutch pronunciation—the pay-oh-ell. (Before moving to the Netherlands I would have said pee-oh-ell.) I’m used to seeing “PoL” and immediately thinking “the Polity of Literature,” or the poll, with its apt implication of asking others. In The GOAT PoL we’ll stop asking literature’s trained gatekeepers and ask the goats (a category that notably includes us…The GOAT PoL begins with the 40-or-so pieces we’ve already published in the series, from our close circle of “Original Goats”). Of course, it’s only our felicitous acronym that lets me speak this way—invoking the pleasing figure of the goat to stand for the writers we’ve already worked with and the many other writers of the global not-English, not-French, not-Persian, not-Afghan, not-Canadian literature that we seek—call it “post-Staël” (or, apres Staël), we’ll call it “goat literature.”

A figure holds a flag that reads "GOAT POL, goat pol"

Goat literature is global literature. It comes from everywhere and tends to wander. We’re interested in the paths that it takes, so The GOAT PoL site will be a world map with stories pinned to it, put there by the writers who write them. The GOAT PoL will be intensively moderated, but not by “the Editor;” instead we’ll employ a collective of six (or more) Readers/Advisors/Editors; let’s call them RAEs. The RAEs are a mixed group, some old some young, from many countries and cultures. We write in global English. The RAEs are curious, eager to read, and committed to engage in whatever work writers send to us. Our approach to editing and reading very often evinces the comment, from writers, “thank you, you’re so nice to me…” to which RAEs validly reply, “You’re welcome, but I’m not ‘being nice;’ it’s that I respect you enough to learn from you rather than judging you.” Instead of publishing one piece every two weeks (the PoL norm, for the first two years), we’ll publish as many pieces as the writers and their first-responder RAEs agree should be published. Some will post right away, while others will become the ongoing collaborative work of a writer and her RAE; those will take more time. Whenever The GOAT PoL publishes a piece, we’ll pay the writer money—each one (and all of them) equitably. 

Sketch of a goat

In The GOAT PoL there are writers and bylines and ownership: the writers own their texts forever. When we publish we pay them for permitting us to print and circulate their work, but the rights we pay for are non-exclusive. The writer can choose to publish the very same work anywhere else, and be paid by other publishers too. This non-exclusive rights contract is an essential element of a polity of literature. (It has a history and some success among a few book publishers who developed it over the last twenty years.)

While The GOAT PoL will be less exclusive and much more various than the PoL series, the writing will be given greater editorial attention than is the case at most literary journals. But it won’t be top-down: we’ll have no house style, no presupposed rules, no expectations except what the writing and our subsequent collaboration with the writers raise. Each time will be different, every piece its own development. We won’t determine the range of writers we publish. Writers will. Our polity includes anyone who chooses to send us their work and publish or to read the work we publish.

Some things to know about The GOAT PoL:

  • The GOAT PoL is collective. Individuals give writing and reading to each other—a public—in a process called “publication.” If money circulates, everyone is paid an equitable share. This isn’t a market; writing is not a commodity.
  • “Rights” are naturalized and said to remain forever with the one originating the work in question. They cannot be taken from nor alienated from the maker.
  • By sharing our writing and reading we create a “space of appearance” where others recognize us as we recognize them: everyone equal in authority and autonomous in will.
  • Writing and reading together thus forms a polity in which we become political and have agency.
  • To recognize others we pledge to read with respect and subjectivity: we promise to show up as ourselves in support of writing by other selves (writer and editor/reader “are both Subjects…”).
  • As writers we agree to publish what we write and share it, first with a trusted RAE and then to everyone else, via publication.
  • The GOAT PoL locates and materializes a polity—we choose to put our writing and reading here to enrich the polity and help it grow, evolve, become—so we can be fully political.

How to Read in a Polity:

Sketch of a sitting goat
  • In the literary marketplace, writing gets treated like a possession—a thing the writer makes and owns that can be sold. Its value is measured in exchange (how much were you paid?) and market demand (how many people want what you write?). Schools teach this, too, by training writers to please markets.
  • In a polity of writing and reading, our writing is our commonwealth. All of us produce it and our mutual work—reading—creates its value. In a polity, reading, and only reading, creates the value of our writing.
  • To read in a polity we first-of-all show up as ourselves: we read as the person we are—not on behalf of an imaginary market. We speak of our experience reading—what it feels like or reminds us of or what keeps on coming back to us from the writing. We support the writing by giving our attention to it. We try to imagine the other in this writing—the writer—by imagining ourselves. We do for them what we’d want them to do for us.

When to Publish in a Polity:

  • Writing develops by being read and rewritten and reread. The writer herself is the first reader. The other first-readers with whom she shares the text help it evolve by reading subjectively, fully, and with respect. The writer decides when it’s ready to publish (that is, when she is ready to give up her control over the piece and its meanings to all strangers). The question is not, “is it ready to be published,” but “are you ready to publish it?”

About Our English:

  • We use post-national Global English: it’s not American or Canadian or British or Australian or even Dutch. It’s any English the writer uses to make herself clear to others. We welcome all borrowing and portmanteaux, anything that helps you be understood…even Emojis, maybe, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ? That said, we avoid the divisive certainty of “realistic” visual media such as photos, film, or video; they belong elsewhere (Instagram and Twitter for instance).

Will the writing be any good? The writing will be great—if the work of writing and reading makes it great. Literature is made by its readers. In The GOAT PoL our task is to read as well as we can by making equitable open relationships with writers whom we may or may not understand, and staying interested. The GOAT PoL is quality-agnostic—relationship-based, not results-driven. Our faith is that the vitality of the polity—the collective space of appearance—will bring the work we need into view. In what ways does anyone need new literature? In the same way we need fresh air to breathe, oxygenated respirations from the trees, and not the stale CO2 that we ourselves produce. As a simple matter of biological vitality—of living and not dying—we seek (in literature) enduring relationships with that which we are not.

Sketch of a sitting goat

The GOAT PoL is a simple structure for meeting all of these mysteries and staying in conversation with them. We seek the stranger to know ourselves. Difference runs in all directions, its gifts evenly distributed on every side of any gap. You are what you say you are: We’re pleased to meet you! The GOAT PoL neither judges nor presumes; it simply welcomes everyone, maintains a level playing field and enthusiasm for the game, and offers a sturdy platform for capering. You may already be a goat. Goats gather. We also wander and are omnivorous. It can be difficult to tell our sex. Our age might be more obvious, but sometimes it’s misleading. An old goat capers, as often as a young goat broods. We’re various and stubborn, like great writing, and we get by on very little. Which is a good thing, because that’s all that’s on offer. The GOAT PoL budget is small, but it’s equitable. No matter how much money flows through the project, distributing it equitably makes the difference between the problem and a possible solution, an experiment: The GOAT PoL. Expect to find us online in the middle of 2022. Welcome!

In the meantime, please write us at thegoatpol@tutanota.com or follow us on Instagram and Twitter.

Sketch of three goats
Filed Under: Articles & Essays

Written by

Matthew Stadler is a novelist (Landscape: Memory, Allan Stein, Chloe Jarren’s La Cucaracha, and others) and essayist. He was the literary editor of Nest magazine and a co-founder of Publication Studio, where he now edits the Fellow Travelers Series.

Illustrated by

Ken Krimstein is an illustrator, writer, and cartoonist for The New Yorker Magazine, and a graphic novelist. His new non-fiction graphic narrative is When I Grow Up – The Lost Autobiographies of Six Yiddish Teenagerskenkrimstein.com

Goat illustrations by

Micha Zweifel is an artist who makes sculptures, drawings, and books. Last year he published Ringgummimatte, a portrait of an artistic practice and its metabolic relation to place. He is currently working on a book of writing and drawings featuring a retired detective, a turtle boat, a ghost, and a scurry of squirrels. michazweifel.ch

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