"The Author Function": Kent Johnson criticizes Montevidayo on HTML Giant

by on Aug.02, 2011

I wrote this in response to Kent’s interview with the relentless Chris Higgs on HTML Giant:

It’s always nice to hear from you Kent, but I think you’re mischaracterizing Montevidayo, since we have proposed any number of different alternative models of not just authorship but personhood (wounds, kitsch, animals, leaky eyes, and maybe most explicitly Joyelle’s post about influence that was excerpted here a few days ago that deliberately questions ideas of influence and property; Lucas deLima’s queer takes on pop, dance and poetics are miles away from the kind of personhood and property you refer to). There is something about the status of the author that few or none of the writers for Montevidayo seem interested in preserving. There are a lot of ways of thinking about alternatives to monolithic or humanist authorship without using heteronyms. The status of the name as icon of authorship is itself always in flux– my name was actually changed the other day due to the immigration services’s archaic computer system, so my name is now in fact a fake, and the corporatist-technological nexus of the spellchecker is always generating heteronyms…


He does say we’re “humorless” but it’s a pretty fun interview, so check it out.

And feel free to weigh in here.

15 comments for this entry:
  1. adam strauss

    I think KJ is basically correct that a one to one author to text ratio is really not unstable–tho inately it already is: have I authored prosepoems I’ve written or has H Mullen seeing as she is the reason I like prosepoems at-all. Was KJ really born in Montevidayo?! LOL!

    I find it rather interesting how it is now no secret KJ is Yasusada and his explainers, and yet I still feel like AY is someone else.

    I’m both amazed and not amazed no Ossama projects have happened–but of course not: that’s totally a trip to prison, not just a ditch and a night in jail for a souvenier to badly paraphrase some lines of a hillarious Dickinson poem.

    Once KJ fades, heteronyms may become more in is my guess. Too, it cld be that fake bios are just rather difficult to pull off in the age of wikipedia etc, that they depend on lack of hypersaturation of info.

    Rossana Warren wrote some “fake author” poems a few years back.

    When a relative was going thru Duckinson’s papers she ended up publishing a stanza of a George Herbert poem as Dickinson’s: I love this story.

    I hope all’s well for all of ya’ll

  2. Johannes

    Good points, Adam, that basically undermine your initial argument. Texts are incredibly unstable, but we like to pretend they are not.

    Also, heteronyms are quite popular. Mark Strand’s even been doing them.


  3. Kent Johnson

    Here’s my response to Johannes, at HTML Giant:

    Hi Johannes, it’s always fun and swell to hear from you, too. Well, I wasn’t trying to put down Montevidayo. I think it’s a fascinating blog, and I admire the energy, even if some of it seems a little wacked out, at times. It’s good to see a real poetic current flowing, branching out, from the groundwork Clayton Eshleman began some decades back (as I’ve said on your blog, I think it would be nice if you folks did a little more acknowledging of predecessors). But as I say, you folks are doing interesting stuff. (Your own misunderstandings of Yasusada posted recently at Montevidayo are another matter entirely.)

    I’m aware there are “a lot of ways of thinking about alternatives to monolithic or humanist authorship without using heteronyms.” Poets have been doing this kind of thinking for a long time, especially poets in “avant-garde” orbit; that general attempt is almost always in the background, in some way. The Language poets, for example, thought they were doing this, too. But we know now how far that got them, don’t we. Or maybe better to say that we know now how their failure to move beyond standard frames of authorial staging kept them firmly planted in roles they set out, purportedly, to unsettle. Not just to pick on them: We know how far just “thinking about alternatives to monolithic or humanist authorship” without really going all the way to subvert its legal rituals and codifications got the Dadaists, or the Surrealists, or the Abstract Expressionists, or the Pop artists, or the Minimalists, too, and so on. Welcome to the Machine, as they used to say.

    The issue is that legal denomination and its deep implantation inside institutional dynamics has been a bigger weight for “experimental” practice than realized. You can say you are taking this or that “radical attitude” to authorship, but the Lit institutions really couldn’t care less, in the end (except for the notes in the catalogue, somewhere); same as Art Culture doesn’t care, at deeper sociological levels, that Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, or Cindy Sherman had different conceptions of the Artist and the Self, or whatever. Ultimately, these “avant-gardists” chose (and innocently, no doubt) to identify their art with the institutionally sanctioned modes of production and exchange, and their products all now sit properly in a tamed and orderly system of branding, classification, axiology, and control. I always keep saying people need to go back and read Peter Burger on this, though not that he gets everything right.

    I guess what I would ask is: WHAT is it that makes you suggest “using heteronyms” (there are more ways than we can count, it’s not just one ‘use’ that’s at hand!) is not as valid or promising a path to explore as these other ways you endorse? What is it that seems to bother you about leaving behind the “proper” ways of attribution and circulation our Cultural mommies and daddies told us were the right kinds of writerly behavior? And don’t tell me you “don’t have a problem” with that kind of leaving behind, because it’s written all over your comment, really, that you do.

  4. Johannes


    Thanks for the comments Kent.

    To begin with, I didn’t say that the use of heteronyms was not “valid.” It doesn’t interest me as much as other practices, but I didn’t say it’s not valid. “Valid” isn’t really a term I ever use when it comes to poetry. What makes you think I’m “bothered” by heteronyms? Joyelle and I have published heteronymical authors with Action,Yes. Like I said, it just doesn’t seem as interesting to me as other practices.

    I am a bit confused by your comments. At one point you criticize Montevidayo for not acknowledging our “predecessors” and then you criticize us for being too cozy with mommy and daddy. The most confusing part about this is that we’re write about our influences (though I would say that “acknowledging predecessors” seems a kind of lineage-based idea of art that we’ve written many posts against) and folks we like. We’ve written tons of stuff about Eshleman, Jack Smith, Andy Warhol, Aase Berg, Alice Notley, Kim Hyesoon, Bill Knott etc, and Eshleman frequently writes into the comments. This same line of critique (acknowledge that you have influences) came up the last time Mvdo was discussed on HTML. I’m not sure I understand this need to put us in a lineage.

    As far as your take on institutions: You note that your bio contradicts everything you say. Yes, it does. But acknowledging this doesn’t do away with the problem. You’ve had your books published by plenty reputable presses, you’ve had academic articles written about you, you teach in a college, been taught in college, Boston Review dedicated a whole section to discussion your Yasusada thing etc etc. With this I don’t mean to attack you. I think it’s great that your books are published. But I do think this suggest that you need to re-think some of your ideas about the role of the academy. Sure, we need to think about the problems and dynamics of the academy and poetry’s relationship to it. I’ve written tons of posts about this (but then so has Tony Hoagland). But at the same time, I think we have to move beyond the romantic myth of the poet as heroic outsider and the academy is pure appropriation. Schools do a lot of good things. Such as generate discussions about “Author Function”. And translate/publish/assign Peter Burger’s book on the avant-garde… Etc.

    Having said that, institutions *do* care about different aesthetics and approaches. Little of what I publish – mainly small small journals and e-journals, small small presses – “count” to the university system. And most of contemporary poetry with all of its journal and blogs and small preses – what Joyelle called “the plague ground,” or what is commonly referred to as “too much” – don’t count to universities. Experts on contemporary literature don’t write about most of it. It’s “too much.” And they most certainly don’t get paid for their plague nonsense. This to makes it a very interesting moment in American poetry.

    Anyway, I’m sorry for sidetracking the conversation about heteronyms to a discussion about your critiques of Montevidayo. So if you want to get back to talking about heteronyms I’m happy to oblige.


  5. Kent Johnson

    OK, that is the main thing for me, Johannes, then. Let’s agree there are different ways and that everything is open to be explored. We diverge in our estimation of certain things, the potential uses of particular avenues of writing, but that’s OK. In that older interview with Bill Freind that’s linked to, I try to suggest some of the first-horizon potentials (individual and collective) of authorial invention, so check that out if you can, as there is more commentary (speculative!) on the topic than in the HTML piece. I want to say again, to make clear, that I think what you and Joyelle and the active group here are doing is amongst the weirdest, most intriguing stuff going on right now. Got that? As I said, I don’t grasp a lot of it (some of this is just my old fogy head, I know), but what I like about it is the risk–the testing of the allowable and the courage that sometimes gets evinced in the process. So all power to you. And just to remind you: When I said “mommies and daddies,” I said OUR mommies and daddies, not YOUR mommies and daddies.

    Adam, this: “Once KJ fades, heteronyms may become more in is my guess.”

    I hope so. And that project by Rosanna Warren, by the way, I’m pretty sure, was part of this Author Anonymous collection (I think that’s the title), edited by the New Yorker Brief Reviews editor, can’t remember his name. Everyone in that book invents an author, and then all the pieces, poems and stories, are published under the inventing Author’s name! The ironic thing is that the Intro to the book makes clear that the main inspiration for the project is Yasusada. Well, I’m afraid they totally miss the point.

  6. Jared

    It seems to me that Montevidayo is anything but without humor. I think an essential humor underlies most every post, the hysterical that follows earth’s armies into battle, birds laughing at the carnage before and after the pick-through, a skeleton’s grin, arggghhh matey, where are the Brothers Grimm when you need them? The humor to look at things in their messiest state, to keep from averting the eyes…

    Another way to look at it might be the four humors, of which maybe M’s veins flow with all four, black bile of the earth, blue phlegm of the mother waters, red blood let from any wound, yellow involuntary bile of the offended underworld. A profusion of the humors? Of humor? Always gushing? Hysterical…

    (Should I post this under someone else’s name? Who am I anyway? ;-)>

    Useful conversation here, in any case, plowing up a lot of things to be looked at…

  7. Sarah Fox

    Maybe Lucas will write something about Pessoa; maybe someone will write something about Anonymous (“used as a mass noun”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anonymous_%28group%29); surely this will stir the imagination and/or gag reflex of many Montevidayoans; so yes very useful, potentially even radical, conversation. Thanks Johannes! And Kent!

  8. Monica Mody

    Anonymous is brilliant! And so is Lulzsec whom I found out about a short while ago. And now they are apparently working together. http://pastebin.com/RA15ix7S

    I was thinking when I read this interview that the hacker + free culture movements are where it’s at – which really destabilize/upend ideas about authorial ownership and the institutional cultures within the arts/creative industries. I want to be part of a hacker poetry collective. What sites (web or non-web) would we hack into & crash?

  9. Monica Mody

    Oh and here’s a comic strip (which bears upon the discussion above, vaguely. Also it’s funny.): http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=92

  10. dhadbawnik

    [reposting this from the original interview @ html giant…]

    Thanks for this illuminating interview, Christopher. As to some of the recent comments, I feel like there’s some sort of mischaracterization that has taken on a snowball effect, wherein Mr. Johnson is presented as someone who believes that there is no other way to critique the ‘author-function’ than the heteronym; or that he believes he invented the heteronym; or that he is somehow not aware of historical instances of breaks and fissures in the standard author-reader relationship. That’s clearly not the case, and it gets downright tedious when Mr. Johnson has to point out, say, that Dworkin’s quote is not his own (not to mention the height of irony).

    Taking stock of Mr. Johnson’s work as a whole (and that with which he is associated; which includes not only the Yasusada texts but also The Miseries of Poetry, A Question Mark Above the Sun, and now The Rejection Group, etc.), it’s clear that the primary thrust is to question, undo, and critique the notion of authorship as it’s been deployed in avant-garde poetry, and reveal the ways in which praxis has not matched up with theoretical claims. It’s been a many-sided and historically aware project — examining not only heteronymy but the way that texts (and authorship) are constructed by editors, literary executors, and self-conscious a-g movements.

    So, I would like to hearken back to Edmond Caldwell’s remark and invite people to take up some of these questions in a critically engaging way, rather than pretending that Mr. Johnson hasn’t considered a wide range of strategies for doing so already.

  11. Paul R

    The implication that the experimental or the “new” is somehow impeded by traditional ideas of authorship strikes me as bizarre. There’s a near infinity of conventions that can be broken or challenged by an artist who wishes to “experiment.” Why an imperative to break this particular one?

    Assumptions about authorship pervade nearly all the arts, so we should first acknowledge that this issue has nothing, specifically, to do with poetry.

    If we are going to broaden the view to look at the arts in general, then there are other, more obvious conventions to be challenged. The whole idea of “poetry,” for one. Why are we still making things out of words? That’s a tired old medium, isn’t it? Why not use material that’s of our time, like poems Bök encodes into bacterial DNA sequences?

    Just sayin’.

    —William Shakespeare

  12. Johannes

    That’s part of what interests me about poetry – it seems to be inherently anachronistic and “poetic kitsch” as Daniel Tiffany writes in his upcoming book (I wrote a post about this a while back), rather than modern “media.” It’s a tired media. Exactly. Cue the soundtrack to some Zombie movie.


  13. Kent Johnson


    You seem to have not read the interview very carefully. Nowhere do I say that departures from authorship are some kind of categorical “imperative.” Actually, I make a point of saying that such experiments are but one path– albeit a path whose branching directions have not been sufficiently explored–that in no way need be seen as “threatening” the institutionally sanctioned modes of presentation and claim.

    And as for the notion that “poetry” might extend beyond language (in the sense of writing), I totally agree, and I don’t see where you would sense that my opinion might be otherwise. My suggestion, in fact, is that aspects of heteronymity will expand the poetic beyond the usual page-bound conventions, moving into the areas of theater, installation, and so on. In terms of this, it’s pure serendipity, but see this bronze bust of Yasusada, part of an installation that was shown a few months back and which I think opens again at NOMA in San Francisco tomorrow (August 6th). The YouTube video below, a must see, absolutely stunning, accompanies it.


    And then the YouTube piece. (I’ve just found out about these things today).


  14. Paul R

    Kent, I read the interview quite carefully. I’m responding to the tone of remarks like,

    “I am not at all bemused that the so-called post-avant has so wholeheartedly endorsed conservative, ritualistic, reified norms of authorial title and ownership.”

    A group (an ambiguously defined one, made up of members who do not necessarily self-identify with the group) is framed as reactionary because they do not, in your appraisal, embrace this one particular category of experiment.

    I can see how your remark may have been intended more as comment on professionalism, and the ways in which this is necessarily fraught, but it reads as a broader dig. The use of “so called” certainly doesn’t help.

  15. Kent Johnson

    Hey Paul, fair enough, I appreciate your feedback. But I do mean that in an “objective” spirit: the mode is pretty hegemonic, wouldn’t you say? To say that something is conservative, or reified, is not to say that those who adopt it are “reactionary” or that they operate in bad faith! We all adopt all sorts of conservative and reified things in our daily lives every day, and never even think twice about doing so. It’s called ideology.