Ultimately, the Polity of Literature is a proposition made to readers and writers—what if literature is this? What if to read or write literature is to enter a polity of equals, readers and writers alike possessed of the same authority to make meanings? What would follow from that? You might take to it heroically, like Robin Hood or a poacher in the royal woods (PoL #22, “Reading as Poaching“), or you might feel yourself subsumed into a powerful system of Brownian motions (PoL #23, “Fan Fiction is what a Polity of Literature Looks Like“). Whatever transformation comes, it will be personal: you dear reader, and you dear writer, constitute this polity, or not.
Anna Poletti, avid reader and writer, literary scholar, and author of Intimate Ephemera: Reading Young Lives in Australian Zine Culture and Stories of the Self: Life Writing After the Book, answers the PoL proposition with six searching theses unpacking the implications of these claims. Poletti looks for the polity in its material, embodied forms—asking what and where is the Polity of Literature, and how does my body figure in it, or feel about it? What trouble comes if literature is this, and reading and writing literature bring us into the contentious plurality of politics? This piece is illustrated by Ken Krimstein.
By “literature” I mean that writing for which every reader has 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, humor, 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 defense. This contentious plurality, the vivid cacophony of contradictory readings in a polity of literature, is where I find my agency and belonging.— from “Potatoes or Rice“
1. A Polity of Personas
These six theses are about personas. You will meet some of mine (the literary scholar, the teacher, the Australian from a working-class family, the feminist) because I use personas to say things to strangers. But this essay is really about the two founding personas of literature: The Writer and The Reader. As George Elliot, Andy Warhol, Grace Jones, and countless Marvel movies show us, personas can be interesting and useful things. Sometimes they work as subject positions (places we occupy in a larger constellation) that we can take up and put down willingly, like masquerade costumes. There can be as many personas as we wish: the more the merrier! Other times a persona can be a more refined version of who we think we might want to be, a costume or bearing that we refine and return to in the hope that it might enable for us a way of being in the world. Cover your bald head with a series of similar looking wigs often enough, and you will be able to act in the world like a man with hair. You won’t be treated like a bald man. (Andy proved it.) Sometimes personas feel less voluntary, roles we know we must adopt to make a particular encounter work.
You are acting as my reader now, decoding the physical marks on the screen, following the structure of this sentence. Perhaps you are voicing the words with the whispering or forceful voice that speaks in your head when you read. It is not your voice, it does not sound like you, it is the voice you developed when you were trained in silent reading. It is your voice (it exists in your consciousness), but it is not your voice, because you are using that element of your consciousness to read my words. You are adopting the role of My Reader.
As I write these words, I write to you My Reader. The persona exists only in my head, and it is not you, reading stranger. My Reader is a shadowy but stable figure—an amalgamation of a few friends, a lover, people who intimidate me, and some Unnamed Future Person who is curious and searching, and who will exist long after I am dead. What’s great about personas, George, Andy, Grace, and the Marvel world tell us, is that they are not the same thing as identity. Personas are less fixed and fixing, more malleable, less serious. They can also enable us to change in ways that the apparatus of identity might prevent. An identity is who you are and who people rely on you to be; a persona is who you are right now, or who you are experimenting with being.
As an art form and a cultural practice, literature is animated by the personas of The Writer (or The Author) and The Reader. The academic tradition of thinking about literature can be understood as a history of thinking about these personas and trying to work out how to understand the relationship between them: should scholars prioritize The Reader’s or The Writer’s experience when we try to understand what literature is and what it does? Literary studies, and before that, certain branches of philosophy, can be summarized as a slow and polite tag-team wrestling match between Team Writer and Team Reader. These teams make moves that attempt to stabilize a set of beautifully troubling problems: is language a stable system shared by The Writer and The Reader that largely determines what can and cannot be said or heard? Or, is it a shared resource that provides a stable context for communication while also remaining open to a range of possible meanings, interpretations, and uses by any persona? And what is specific about the way literature (as a form of communication that is also an art form) makes use of language?1 What, if anything, distinguishes the writers and readers of literature from all the other writers and readers?
From its opening anonymous essay (“Potatoes or Rice?” quoted in the epigraph above), the Polity of Literature donned the colours of Team Reader, and just recently, the project tapped into the ring a formidable team member (Michel de Certeau) to execute an Aided Brainbuster in the form of his influential theory of “Reading as Poaching.” Along with other thinkers of the twentieth century, such as Roland Barthes (who wrote about literature, love, photography, the Marquis de Sade, and wrestling), de Certeau was on Team Reader because he wanted to celebrate the creativity and ingenuity of everyday life and aesthetic forms that are consumed by everyday people. Interventions by people such as Barthes and de Certeau, and later, Stuart Hall, Dick Hebdige, Ien Ang, Henry Jenkins, Angela McRobbie, Janice Radway, and Meghan Morris, challenged the distinction of literature as a High Art form constituted in poetry, literary fiction, and drama by looking at other forms of narrative and other kinds of personas that people adopt. They employed the frameworks of cultural studies, semiotics, and post-structuralism to do this.
De Certeau’s antecedents, the scholars of literature whose work shaped the professional practice of literary studies, mostly believed that reading is a special practice we only undertake when we encounter literature. But de Certeau and friends said no: The Reader and The Writer of literature can also be the reader and the writer of shopping lists, journalism, magazines, or letters.
For this reason, their approaches differ from those adopted by the factions of Team Reader that we call Formalists (Russian and others), phenomenologists, Reader Response Theorists (who are Reader-Scholars who want to pay close attention to literary texts and the responses they generate) and, more recently (following Radway’s trail), Reader Studies scholars, who use techniques from the social sciences to ask actual readers how and why they read. These groups remain (largely) committed to the idea that literature is an art form distinct from other kinds of writing (from journalism to letters to history writing, and so on).2 Each faction has different ideas about what literature is and what it isn’t; so, they each have different moves for neutralizing Team Writer’s position—which begins from the assumption that to understand literature we must begin with the person who wrote it.
By publishing de Certeau, the Polity of Literature aligns itself with his expansive view of reading. However, the founding essay also tells the story of an anonymous person’s experience of prison where television was plentiful while written texts were in short supply, implying that the absence of text itself is a deprivation. The Polity of Literature (PoL) positions written text and the personas of The Reader and The Writer as the site of politics. The PoL uses the term “polity” to designate literature and these personas as a political site. The PoL is a civil organization that unites strangers in what Team Reader member, Michael Warner, calls “a public”—a self-organized collective available to strangers because it exists in texts.3 The PoL is a place where The Reader can exist outside of the institutional structures of civil society, and can thus float free of the usual personas that civil society offers—Citizen, Voter, Consumer, Wage-earner, Protector (or Violator) of what some call “family values.”
Polities are organized for the purpose of governance—collective action and the mobilization of resources—and the essays collected in the PoL so far demonstrate the political and social powers of writing. The founding essay also expresses concern, perhaps even ambivalence, about the very prospect of governance—it celebrates collective action, but seeks to describe literature as a kind of self-determining collective of readers and writers enacting the personas of The Reader and The Writer in whatever ways that they choose. The offering of the PoL, perhaps, is precisely this freedom and not some other end to which the freedom is a means. Importantly, I think, the PoL project has examined the centrality of material access to the polity as a necessary condition for its existence. My theses reflect on this to contribute to the practice of critical self-reflection within the Polity of Literature itself.
2. Adopting Personas to be Free
In my work as a researcher and teacher of literature I’m interested, indeed fascinated and confused, by the variety of locations where people take up the role of The Writer (that is, the originator of a textual world they wish to offer to The Reader), who wants to tell strangers about their lived experience. I’ve explored many sites where this happens: zines; online crowdsourced projects; viral YouTube videos; digital storytelling workshops; letters to members of Bikini Kill written from teenage bedrooms; drag performances; and, homemade documentary films. As a scholar, I’m attracted to these locations because that’s where I find people embracing the freedom of the personas of The Writer and The Reader. Such uses of personas can make a small contribution to our collective conversation about what it means to live now.
My work centres on observing contemporary scenes where stories about lived experience are told. I ask fundamental questions: What kind of story is this? What kinds of stories or ideas could be shared in this context, or about this kind of experience? And which stories are harder, or impossible, to tell? What innovations in language or aesthetics are required to tell this story? And what kind of work must the storyteller undertake to have their audience listen to them? These questions seem vital to me. As the Polity of Literature project demonstrates, we should not take too narrow a view of where the literary occurs. It isn’t only in books published with International Standard Book Numbers. Sometimes studying literature involves reading people who don’t think of themselves as Writers of literature. When I do this (and I do), I’m sometimes recruiting people into a polity of literature without their knowledge or consent. I hand them a membership to a community they have not asked for.
What arrogance authorizes me to do this?
It is the arrogance of The Reader who has been enchanted and changed by the thing they read.
There is some lovely writing in my discipline (literary studies) on what constitutes literary reading and that explains this arrogance. Rita Felski’s Uses of Literature explores the power of reading literature in terms of its ability to generate experiences of recognition, enchantment, knowledge, and shock. Derek Attridge, in The Singularity of Literature, unfurls a view of literature as a performance that allows us to have an encounter with something truly other. For both writers, eminent senior scholars, the literary exists in the interaction between reader and text—the literary takes place when a text is activated by a specific reader, who reads it the way only they can read it, at this particular moment. Attridge and Felski tap into the wrestling ring in order to insist that what we think of as literature (an object) is actually a process (perhaps best described as “reading the literary”) that can only be activated by The Reader.
In his memoir of childhood experiments with the personas of The Reader and The Writer, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about this too, but in an entirely different mode. I’ll quote him, rather than my senior colleagues, because this essay is written for the internet, a blog—a genre much more suited to the personal and affective than to the scholarly. (See how I care for you, My Reader?) Writing of his passionately reading child-self, Sartre depicts his sense of being overpowered and dazzled by an encounter with literature:
Sliding across this incorruptible piece of matter, the text, my gaze was just a tiny event on its surface; it altered nothing and left no impression. I, on the other hand, passive and ephemeral, was a dazzled mosquito caught in a lighthouse beam; I would leave the study and put out the light: invisible in the shadows, the book continued to sparkle: for itself alone.
While I spend a great deal of time in my professional life training students out of this kind of passive reading (it’s really just self-defense: passive readers write terrible essays), I cannot deny the reality of Sartre’s submission in the face of the text that confronts him with the literary. While not always identical to the loss of self that we can experience in sexual erotic encounters, our encounters with the literary can produce a similar, temporary loss of subjectivity, the blissful sense of being overrun by something more powerful than one’s own ego that Sartre documents. Chris Kraus states it more boldly, in her novel of reading and writing, I Love Dick, when she claims: “Reading delivers on the promise that sex raises but hardly ever can fulfil—getting larger cause you’re entering another person’s language, cadence, heart and mind.” (Rita Felski digs deeper into this in her newest book, which explores art and attachment.4) De Certeau wants to reject passivity, but Sartre, Kraus, Felski, and Attridge show us that reading can be a powerful experience of enchantment and feeling overrun that enhances, rather than annihilates, our agency.
3. The freedom to say anything?
“…the classroom is a situation that would make even any partially free person suspicious”—Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectics of Sex
If the Polity of Literature invites people to adopt the personas of The Writer and The Reader in order to be free, is it thereby an autonomous polity? Or, is it one that’s dependent on its members already having developed tools of agency inside other polities (such as the education system) where they acquire the skills and capacities of the personas that one needs to join the collective called “the PoL”?
As someone who pays the bills teaching literature in a university, I find a project like the Polity of Literature incredibly inspiring, and also a confirmation of my worst fears in regard to education. The university is an institution founded with the intent of perpetuating certain people’s (white European men’s) ideas about what counts as knowledge, and making pronouncements regarding what forms knowledge can take. The university is both a site of continual innovation in knowledge (through research) and a bastion of epistemological arrogance (mainly in the classroom, where students are inducted into disciplines by teachers). The academy thinks of itself as a kind of polity too, where personas such as Student, Teacher, Researcher, Administrator, provide guidelines for the scene of encounter, as well as norms for how we treat each other while pursuing the shared goal of certain kinds of knowledge.
Literature itself is not really a recognized form of knowledge in most universities—it is the job of literary scholars like me to extract knowledge from literature and put it into an acceptable form (academic articles and monographs, scholarly analysis, annotated bibliographies, histories, biographies and so on). In Europe in particular, the producers of literature (The Writers) have no place amongst The Scientists, except as a terrain to be mined. The Writer is recognized as being rich in the base metals (experience, insight, empathy, imagination, creativity, a profound understanding of language and form) that The Scientist (a kind of scholar-alchemist) can turn into the noble metal of knowledge.
As a counter-position, the Polity of Literature asserts that literature is “writing for which every reader has equal authority to make its meanings,” a suggestion in-keeping with the evolution of Team Reader that I outlined above. But the posing of this question in the PoL raises a second question: if all readers are equal, why do we need teachers? Anyone who has been in a classroom—in the persona of Teacher or of Student—will have asked this question, and should keep asking it. When I’m teaching I do everything in my power to hold this question at bay in the minds of my students, as long as they’re in the room (or virtual classroom) with me. If they could find a less arduous way to authorize themselves to read, to have ideas, to talk openly with others about why a text repulses, excites, frustrates, bores, or delights them, they wouldn’t need me. I agree wholeheartedly with the principle that we have equal authority as readers in a polity of literature. A lot of my time is spent using my cultural and social capital as “Dr. Poletti” to authorize young people (who are also students) to read, to be interested, to be moved and want to know why they were moved, to form opinions worth sharing with others, and to believe that this is a perfectly fine use of their time and energy.
While this is my (perhaps too pious) pedagogical aim, it remains unavoidable that we need to admit that some meanings are more shareable, interesting or relevant than others. If there are no policemen (or women) or sovereigns in sight in the polity of literature, one question remains open—how can we citizens develop an agreement about what is worth saying (and listening to) and what isn’t?
You’ll often hear writers (and some passionate readers, who become writers) say that literature and books5 were their classroom. As a child, Jeanette Winterson read her way (alphabetically) through her local library, moving from fiction to non-fiction, expanding her world beyond the narrow religious dogmatism of her adopted mother, Mrs. Winterson. In her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? Winterson crafts the child Jeanette as a character who survives by being an autodidact. She is both Teacher and Student, and books are a classroom, a portal. In this sense, Winterson is no different from Sartre, who narrates his childhood reading in Words. Working his way through his grandfather’s library, Jean-Paul tells us how he taught himself to feel and think and question by becoming a citizen of literature.
But these narratives of reading by writers also raise the question: must citizens in a polity of literature also write?
4. The space of appearance: there is no literature without a medium of inscription. Where is the body of the polity?
Both Winterson and Sartre paint loving descriptions of actual libraries—one public, the other familial. Similarly, the founding essay of the Polity of Literature series, “Potatoes or Rice?“, compellingly demonstrates that the physical technology holding the text—the material object of the book, the e-reader, the computer connected to the internet, the zine—is a territory that grounds the society that makes a polity of literature. Lacking what media scholars refer to as the “media of inscription”6, a polity would have nowhere to convene, nowhere to meet or flee to; we would be dispossessed. Incarcerated in a jail without a library, the anonymous writer of “Potatoes or Rice?” had no community. This loss leads him to write the essay; the wish for a polity of literature that functions as the founding constitution for this project. Getting physical or digital access to the body of this polity is a complex cultural, legal, and commercial question, and the rise of pirate libraries demonstrates that the politics of any polity of literature is not limited to literature itself as a sight of knowledge. It’s also the question of who has access to knowledge by having access to texts. Balázs Bodó’s research on Library Genesis offers useful insight into this issue; he explains the way literature as a polity and access to physical books are tied together in Russia, itself an important cultural site of global pirate libraries:
Russia cherishes a rich literary tradition, which suffered and endured extreme economic hardships and political censorship during the Soviet period (Ermolaev, 1997; Friedberg, Watanabe, & Nakamoto, 1984; Stelmakh, 2001). The political transformation in the early 1990’s liberated authors, publishers, librarians and readers from much of the political oppression, but it did not solve the economic issues that stood in the way of a healthy literary market. Disposable income was low, state subsidies were limited, the dire economic situation created uncertainty in the book market. The previous decades, however, have taught authors and readers how to overcome political and economic obstacles to access to books. During the Soviet times authors, editors and readers operated clandestine samizdat distribution networks, while informal book black markets, operating in semi-private spheres, made uncensored but hard to come by books accessible (Stelmakh, 2001). This survivalist attitude and the skills that came with it became handy in the post-Soviet turmoil, and were directly transferable to the then emerging digital technologies.7
Pirate libraries, then, are a vital site for any polity of literature, but they also show how the literary sits alongside other forms of knowledge because it shares the media of inscription and of remediation that the pirate libraries utilize.8 If the literary writer is not granted a place as a maker of knowledge in academia, they clearly have a place alongside philosophers, linguists, mathematicians, and scientists in the pirate libraries. Perhaps we should ask Bodó and his collaborators for more information on the download patterns for literary works.9
5. Not all literature is in a book: the limits of the space of appearance
But libraries, digital or analogue, are mostly home to books. While physical libraries often collect other forms of print material housing the literary, such as ephemera or pamphlets, these are usually held in Special Collections that require a degree of cultural, social and economic capital to access. Some zine libraries exist as lending libraries, but it can be argued that the literary forms that the Polity of Literature project has examined, such as zines and letters, must first be remediated into books or databases in order to be made available to anyone who wants them. Bodó’s work on pirate libraries begins from the assumption that libraries address the vital political and social issue of who has access to knowledge, and it maintains that access should be as broad as possible. I would not want to contest that, but it doesn’t give us the whole picture in the case of literature—a form of knowledge which is aesthetically mediated. What is the place of the small print run, the individual work that is also a work of literature in the polity? Street and slam poetry, limited edition artist books and zines, email and instant messaging exchanges, the work of small presses, and mail artists—each is a node, regardless of its accessibility or media form. Each can be a place to connect with the polity, even if I am the only one who has a surviving copy of the zine, or the only one who receives your beautifully written email during the pandemic. While digitized libraries can give us access to the language and images of these forms (as is the case with the wonderful QZAP library), I want to make the case for maintaining the ephemerality and materiality of non-book literatures. These more fragile spaces in the polity offer different kinds of reading experiences, different kinds of freedom. They are spaces of playfulness, provocation, lightness, secrecy, and anonymity, and they celebrate each of these dispositions as a way to make meanings or find freedom. They produce specific forms of intimacy and collaboration that offer different kinds of being (or feeling) public, or of being seen. These evanescent forms show us that The Writer and The Reader are not monolithic personas, but are situated by the materiality of the media inscription, as much as by the decoding of linguistic signs.
Thus, as well as books, a polity of literature needs monuments and shanties: zines photocopied secretly at work, protest chants refined and rehearsed while hand-painting witty signs, graffiti lovingly crafted or impulsively scrawled, Tumblr accounts that have not been updated for nine months, fake Twitter accounts that could be authored by Virginia Woolf, hip hop recorded on home computers, community radio shows broadcast at 2am on a Wednesday, Dadaist Facebook rants, flyers and leaflets left under car windshield wipers, community theatre projects staged in tiny multi-purpose venues, text-based artworks, cartoons published on the internet, letters to the editors, collective blogs with quirky titles that are an in-joke, edited collections of WhatsApp group chats, Wikipedia edit debates, podcasts, open mic nights, self-published cookbooks, online discussion boards dedicated to medical conditions that are not taken seriously, small print-run comics with risograph covers, fan fiction that is banned by an algorithm because it is indistinguishable from pornography, diaries written in exercise books and stored in shoe boxes.
6. Thank you for holding me; let me hold you
Perhaps I am getting too physical. Writing during a pandemic—when physical contact and the spaces of physical assembly are being wrenched from us by a highly contagious virus—has all kinds of unintended, and unknowable, effects on what we might want or need from the literary, and from our polities. Just as the anonymous author of “Potatoes or Rice?” came to formulate his understanding of the Polity of Literature through the experience of being incarcerated, we are all finding out what literature can and cannot do for us when we’ve lost access to the physical world, and to each other. For many, literature and its personas have become a great solace. For some, it’s offered only the guilt of being inaccessible (think of all those volumes of Proust people ordered at the beginning of the pandemic, believing Now I will finally have the time, that have gathered dust while their owners re-watch every episode of The Great British Bake Off). My version of the pandemic has included suffering from “long covid.” I read all kinds of things while I was sick: poetry, memoir, novels, philosophy, social theory, interviews and transcribed lectures. I retreated into a polity of literature while I lay in bed with burning lungs and chronic fatigue. I adopted a different reader persona, one more akin to the feminine consumptive of Victorian fiction than the punk rock weirdo-nerd I usually am when I read.
I was also writing in ways I had never written before: I kept a pandemic diary, which I shared with a friend in order to combat my isolation. (It is a true document of suffering; it says the same thing over and over again, for twenty thousand words.) I have been writing in a Google document with a writer in Melbourne; we’ve been experimenting with acting as each other’s muse. I’ve been instant-messaging and emailing and Facebook-updating, trying to help my friends, students, and colleagues hold on to the world with me. I failed to work on the revisions for this essay while I sat in a hotel room for fourteen days in mandatory quarantine in Australia. (I spent most of that time admiring the architecture of the high rise building opposite the hotel, which filled my window.) Because this is a polity—held in common by friends and strangers who are The Writers I read—the PoL tells me it must be literature. I have been freed from isolation by the resource of their words and the chance to be the kind of reader their writing beckons. I have tried to contribute small resources (like this essay) to the collective pool.
1 See, for example, Fish, S. (1980) ‘Is There A Text in this Class?’ in Is There A Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities, Harvard University Press.
2 See Raymond Williams (1983). “Literature” in Keywords, Revised Edition, Oxford University Press. 183-188.
3 Warner, M. (2002). “Publics and Counterpublics.” Public Culture 14(1), 49-90. https://fswg.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/warner-publics-and-counterpublics.pdf.
5 See Williams for a discussion of how these two terms became synonymous. See also Adrian Johns (1998), The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making University of Chicago Press, for an account of the relationship between print and the stabilization of knowledge.
6 “Like other media, inscriptive media represent, but the representations they entail and circulate are crucially material as well as semiotic. Unlike radio signals, for instance, inscriptions are stable and savable. Inscriptions don’t disappear into the air the way that broadcasts do.” (p. 6). Gitelman, L. Always Already New: Media, History and the Data of Culture. MIT Press, 2006.
7 Bodó, B. (2015). “Libraries in the post-scarcity era.” In H. Porsdam (Ed.), Copyrighting creativity: creative values, cultural heritage institutions and systems of intellectual property (pp. 75-92). Ashgate. https://dare.uva.nl/search?identifier=969f8e58-7e14-4d82-b55b-ead5b5ca6ccb
8 Bodó, B. (2018). “Library Genesis in Numbers: Mapping the Underground Flow of Knowledge.” In J. Karaganis (Ed.), Shadow Libraries: Access to Knowledge in Global Higher Education (pp. 53-77). MIT Press. https://www.ivir.nl/publicaties/download/library_genesis_numbers.pdf
9 Bodó B, Antal D, Puha Z (2020) “Can scholarly pirate libraries bridge the knowledge access gap? An empirical study on the structural conditions of book piracy in global and European academia.” PLOS ONE 15(12): e0242509. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0242509