‘Invest Your Consciousness / in / My Idea-Market’1
Revolution: A Reader, compiled and annotated by Lisa Robertson and Matthew Stadler, Portland and Paris: Publication Studio and Paraguay Press, 2012
Revolution: A Reader, compiled and annotated by Lisa Robertson and Matthew Stadler, 2012, print version
Unlike many edited compendiums of themed texts, here the term ‘revolution: a reader’ isn’t just a description of the anthology, but of the people who will participate in the investigation into revolution, i.e. you. It’s an invitation to share the potential in being a reader. To engage with this collection is to be present as a revolution reader, in the presence of readers. The book was compiled just after 2011, cited as a year of global rebellion, riot, revolution, and protest, that saw rhetoric, governments, narratives and ideologies rupture. This revolution reader is therefore an attempt to explore the new ‘openings’ that such tectonic shifts either actively sought or consequently revealed. Every person reading will bring different connections of critique and experience to the texts on offer, something the editors suggest they are duty-bound to make possible, ‘We are committed to giving each other the space for such an opening, and we call this gift politics.’2
The texts were selected and arranged by poet Lisa Robertson and novelist Matthew Stadler, whose experimental literary practices are not oblique to this compilation. Through their annotations and indicative selections the editors’ voices, research objectives and personalities are loudly present, giving the work its authored or, if I may, curated feel. It was released as a substantial hardcopy through the print-to-order publishing house, Publication Studio, as an e-book and significantly as an online reader on A.nnotate.com, a free forum where Robertson and Stadler’s annotations can be added and responded to. Through this combination of formats a community of readers is forged.
The texts are a range of essays on poetics, politics, critical theory, and biography – many familiar, many unfamiliar. The expected and unexpected combinations of voices create electrifying reading. For instance Dodie Bellamy’s poem of feline perversion, ‘Blanche and Stanley’ (2006) fruitfully follows an excerpt from Donna Haraway’s The Companion Species Manifesto (2003). This is then followed by Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s sixteenth-century account of Spanish conquest in ‘Cortés Meets Montezuma’ (1568). If pushed for a link between them we could say; encounters with the Other, distinctions and trespasses of flesh and other boundaries. The sections are organised by titles and themes that allow for such connections; Beginning, Childhood, Education, Adulthood, Death. This tells us that revolution is a concept parallel to the duration of a life and a body. As it says in the introduction, ‘All the parts and stages of life, which we recognise don’t happen consecutively, or even at one time, are incipiently revolutionary.’3 Like the editors, we are invited to be affected – through body, emotion, and intellect – by the lived process of revolution. My first by no means exhaustive route through went: Raymond Williams, Hannah Arendt, Lucretius, Gertrude Stein, Vivienne Westwood, Harry Hay, Shulamith Firestone, Kathy Acker, Angela Davis, Eileen Myles, Dodie Bellamy, Langston Hughes, back to Stacy Doris to Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mina Loy, Donna Haraway back to The Invisible Committee, Asmaa Mahfouz, M.F.K. Fisher, back to Violette Leduc to David Brazil’s ‘Bibliography’. Part of the joy is to read new and familiar texts against another’s reading. Refreshingly un-academic, the book and its editors’ annotations don’t seek to instruct on the socio-historic facts of Revolution, but (like Rancière’s schoolmaster, Jacotot) invite readers to participate in a research quest into revolutionary gestures.4 In fact their interventions are a gift to the reader. Lucretius’s ode to Venus prompts a wonderful mini essay from Robertson where she suggests that the startling variations in his hexameter form are performative of the Epicurean term ‘clinamen’, the spontaneous swerve in a limited order of atoms that create ‘all the forms of life’.5
All versions of the book have the feel of digital networks, of documents found and shared online as much as by hand, and annotated (as they were) on Google docs. I wonder what the link is (swallowing the very unrevolutionary status of digital corporations) between the foregrounded act of collective annotation and revolution? Or how do annotations court the revolutionary? The answer comes early on in Arendt’s ‘Action’ from The Human Condition. She writes, ‘With word and deed we insert ourselves into the human world’, to which Robertson replies, ‘In the confluence of deeds and words, the actor is revealed to others and comes to be recognised. Here’s the opening I seek, the chance to recognise others and to recognise revolution in others.’6
Revolutions (it is mostly spoken as a singular noun by Stadler and Robertson) is felt and enacted through language, but only in the meeting of word, action, object, and circulation. The linguistic, literary quality of revolution – that revolution’s cause is language and language’s material effect – is the foundation of the book’s work. It begins and ends with the word itself. Texts by Christopher Hill, Raymond Williams and David Brazil discuss the etymology, heritage and paradox of the word revolution in that ‘it refers to both regular and orderly circular movement (of the heavenly spheres, for example), and also to a singular irruption.’7 I enjoyed being reminded by Williams that we still have the celestial sense of revolution in descriptions of motor engines, as in ‘revolutions-per-minute’, shortened to ‘revs’.8 It’s thrilling to think that the onomatopoeia I associate with the revving of energy and force is the preparatory sound of revolution. It’s the perfect meeting of body, linguistic sense, and action.
There are many annotated moments when Robertson equates a description of literary culture or technique with revolution’s gestural processes. Shulamith Firestone’s observation of storytelling as a lost community art is compared to revolution as a potential community art to be reclaimed, or ‘a story that takes an entire winter to tell’ with ‘no conclusion, no moral, no hero.’9 Revolution and metaphor are compellingly matched through Percy Bysshe Shelley on account of both actions bringing into play ‘a previously unperceived relation of things.’10 Eileen Myles’ astonishing line in ‘The Lesbian Poet’, ‘we all write poems with our metabolisms, our sexuality’ is responded to by Robertson with, ‘The poesis of revolution is specific to our cellular movements. Desire is the swerve that originates the possible.’11
Revolution: A Reader – Healing Crisis poster, 2012, free download, detail
This suggestion that the mechanisms of revolution are embodied is a key point, through which we get countless openings into many of the fellow texts, such as Donna Haraway’s concept of ‘Naturecultures’ (where body and technology, sign and object, machine and media, etcetera, are dissolved of their binarisms) and of course the Lucretian swerve. The mechanisms of revolution are created by bodies; desire is the unpredictable force that orientates them. Haraway’s understanding of ‘metaplasms’, featuring later in the book, is also a good connection here. Metaplasm, meaning words swerved by mutation into new meaning, is conceptualised by Haraway as; ‘remoulding the codes of life’ in order to make a ‘fleshy difference’.12
The process of living through mutations of body and language, something we might call experience, is dissected throughout the book. The study of experience via language in society and our potential tools for reorienting it is undertaken through a mix of theoretical criticism and personal testimony. Gertrude Stein’s ‘Composition as Explanation’ and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘A Defence of Poetry’ pursue ideas on composition, creativity, and the work of the poet in relation to society. Stein’s radical language was a ‘remoulding [of] the codes of life’ in the face of war. In comparison Shelley argues that the poet’s creative imagination, his or her ‘faculty of approximation’, is the perception of relations that are resistant to social order and grammar, with the potential, therefore, for society. It’s interesting to put these texts against a startling scene of rupture and revolution in action from Angela Davies’s autobiography where she explains to Theodor Adorno that she must leave Frankfurt and cease studying with him in order to join the Black Panther and SNCC (The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) movements in Los Angeles. As she puts it, ‘The struggle was a life nerve… The journey was on.’13
Putting texts face to face – into dialogue – is the strength of this book (and as Giorgio Agamben says, what is a face but legibility).14 Eileen Myles offers ‘affidamento’, the concept of an older and younger woman conversing. She says, ‘Women I know are turning to see if that woman is here. Women turning, that’s the revolution. The room is gigantic’.15 How telling it is to align this sentiment with Asmaa Mahfouz’s call to her allies to meet her in Tahrir Square. She did turn to see if her listeners were there.16 This is just one example of the book’s set of coincidences, contradictions and meetings. To read it is to repeatedly meet not only other readers and writers but also strange recurrences of words and things. Food, for example, surfaces multiple times and is unexpectedly productive for thinking through revolution. Also, family, as a given unit and marketable social order, is repeatedly interrogated from various angles and in various eras.
Reading in such rich company, along paths of time and routes of struggle, is to feel the rhythms of uprisings and protest bubble up and then dissipate into reflection. It felt right to read a provocative excerpt of The Invisible Committee’s The Coming Insurrection in the common space of an online forum, and feel its rally cry. But admittedly when reading about Ian Hamilton Finlay’s garden I wanted some peace and quiet so was grateful for the option to turn the yellow annotation boxes off. My next jouney through the anthology will concentrate on Jalal Toufic’s ‘Every Name in History is “I”’, Mahmoud Darwish’s ‘Memory for Forgetfulness’ and Edward Said on Jean Genet on Palestine, because there’s content and assistance here to understand, cope with and act on the latest war on Gaza. At times this is an oracular text, reproducing premonitions and tragic in/consistencies with history (see the pitiful reply, ‘We are very sorry, Mina Loy, that your prediction will have been proven to be have been so profoundly incorrect.’)17 At others it’s simply energising to experience the vital and collective beats of reading and writing and the ever-pressing urgency of revolution.
Holly Pester is a poet, practice-based researcher, and multidisciplinary writer. She has a PhD in English from Birkbeck, University of London on sound poetics and is writer in residence at the Women’s Art Library.
1. Mina Loy, ‘International Psycho-Democracy’ (1923), Revolution: A Reader, Lisa Robertson and Matthew Stadler (ed.), Portland and Paris: Publication Studio and Paraguay Press, 2012, p. 796. Also available at A.nnotate.com, 2012. See http://a.nnotate.com/php/pdfnotate.php?d=2012-01-21&c=AXmil081#page1
2. ‘Introduction’, L. Robertson and M. Stadler, Revolution: A Reader, ibid., p. iv.
3. Ibid., p. v.
4. Jacques Rancière, ‘An Intellectual Adventure’, (1977), Revolution: A Reader, ibid., p.441.
5. L. Robertson annotation, Lucretius, ‘De Rerum Natura’ (‘On the Nature of Things’), (54 BCE), Revolution: A Reader, ibid., p.69.
6. Hannah Arendt and L. Robertson annotation, ‘Action’, (1958), Revolution: A Reader, ibid., p.61.
7. David Brazil, ‘Bibliography’, (2012), Revolution: A Reader, ibid., p.1144.
8. Raymond Williams, ‘Revolution’, (1976), Revolution: A Reader, ibid., p.53.
9. L. Robertson annotation, Shulamith Firestone, ‘Down with Childhood’, (1970), Revolution: A Reader, ibid., p.244.
10. L. Robertson annotation, Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘A Defence of Poetry’, (1821), Revolution: A Reader, ibid., p.688.
11. Eileen Myles and L. Robertson annotation, ‘The Lesbian Poet’, (1997), Revolution: A Reader, ibid., p.432.
12. Donna Haraway, ‘Species’, (2003), Revolution: A Reader, ibid., p.892.
13. Angela Davies, ‘Waters’, (1974), Revolution: A Reader, ibid., p.400.
14. Giorgio Agamben, ‘The Face’, (1996),Revolution: A Reader, ibid., p.169
15. E. Myles, Revolution: A Reader, ibid., p.438.
16. Asmaa Mahfouz, ‘Call for Tahrir Square Protest’, (2011), Revolution: A Reader, ibid., p.979.
17. L. Robertson annotation, M. Loy, op.cit., p.799.