Thursday, June 26, 2008

Discourse as Muse (Note)

Last night I presented to Andrew Levy's class at NYU, "Writing that Matters," along with Julie Patton and Brenda Iijima. Among the materials I read aloud included a forthcoming editorial for ON, a publication I am coediting with Kyle Schlesinger & Michael Cross for emergent critical discourse about poetics, and a statement regarding "discourse as muse" which I include here.

A lengthier consideration of the notion of discourse as muse would make case studies from poets and artists who have made of their work allegories of social exchange and movement such as Robert Creeley, Jack Spicer and Hannah Weiner (tho, arguably, every writer or artist's work, if only in negative, presents such an allegory)...


Discourse As Muse

I have been thinking about the old idea of poetry and “the muse”. If the muse is no longer a figure of divine inspiration, nor one figured by Romantic love—the love of a man for an indealized woman, in particular—than what could it be? What is a contemporary muse, if not such things? In this presentation, I would like to think about the figure of muse through a different set of terms and assumptions concerning where poetry comes from, and how it operates and subsists in the world. I will do this by claiming “discourse” as the contemporary poet’s muse, and my muse in particular.

Discourse, literally, refers to a site of articulation or locution that is more or less continuous and shared. It is perhaps what is held in common without being completely shareable. In this way it does not represent a fantasy of pure communion, or transubstantiation (father, son, holy spirit stuff, etc.)

To discourse, in common speak, is to exchange words, or hold conversation. In the work of late 20th century French literary philosophers like Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault the term discourse usually accompanies what Barthes has referred to as “the death of the author” and Foucault the "author function". Where an old idea of the author has the author as a figure of isolated genius and radical individuality, Foucault, Barthes and a host of other writers in the 20th century show any author to in fact comprise a network of other individuals, technologies, institutions, and economic exchanges. Likewise, an author does not make but one text, but a text that is many in being singular, and in being attributed to one author in name.

Whereas detractors of this notion of discourse have lamented the loss of the author as the central character in the drama of literary exchange (making and reception), and others celebrated it, I and many of my contemporaries see it as a place for productive exchange, and for making work that matters for community building and towards the nourishment of a larger social sphere. To claim discourse as muse, I believe, is to cast the old figure of the muse with a renewed character. Whereas before an ethereal spirit and equally ethereal object of desire embodied muse, where discourse become muse the poem reveals itself as a site of social exchange within a network of other sites.

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