The agential text

For this week, I was particularly taken by Lyn Hejinian’s writing on the moves of a ‘closed’ versus ‘open’ text in The Rejection of Closure. Her essay reminisces of Roland Barthes’s Death of the Author, employing general, universalizing terms such as ‘the writer’ or the ‘the text’. Hejinian’s essay, much like Barthes’s, calls attention towards the plurality of the text, and specifically, in Hejinian’s essay, an ‘open text’. Like the ‘Author’ Barthes’s essay, the ‘writer’ of Hejinian’s text is ambiguous (but of course, they hold ‘universal’ identities), challenging equally abstract ‘principles’, Hejinian writes,

‘The writer relinquishes total control and challenges authority as a principle and control as a motive. The ‘open text’ often emphasizes or foregrounds process, either the process of the original composition or of subsequent compositions by readers, and thus resists the cultural tendencies that seek to identify and fix material and turn it into a product; that is, it resists reduction and commodification.’[1]

But who has total control and authority over their texts? The nuances of identity seem to be beyond the scope of Hejinian’s essay. Rejection of Closure approaches writing through a very idyllic framework that functions well in a theoretical vacuum. However, contextualized against the current systems of racial oppressions in the US, the essay’s argument is very universalizing. The lack of racial consideration is an ongoing project (within and without the world of literature) that oppresses those who deviates from the universal whiteness, as Wang writes in Thinking Its Presence,

‘Given the importance of race and racialization in the formation and history in these United States, one could argue that for American poets, white or minority, to ignore such fundamental sociopolitical issues consistently and broadly over time constitutes serious acts of omission.’ [2]

However, while Hejinian’s writing seems focused on the formal quality of the text and language, detached from a body and identity, I thought that her treatment of the text as an agential thing was a very though-provoking move. Hejinian writes that ‘form is not a fixture but an activity,’ which suggests that the form has a certain vitality. An open text actively opens up interpretations, destabilizes the power relations between persons and texts where the persons are traditionally assumed to be actively manipulating the passive texts. I am at once reminded of Bernstein’s writing on dance and thing—thing (the text) ‘hails’ the person (reader) and, in response, the person enters into a dance with the thing. The dance is a convergence of texts, the text-thing and the text-person, which begets new interpretations. As Bernstein posits, aptly, ‘when a thing makes a human body a ‘thing among things,’ it upsets the boundary between person and object’[3].


Work cited

[1] Hejinian, Lyn. ‘The Rejection of Closure.’ Poetry Foundation. Accessed February 12, 2018.

[2] Dorothy Wang, Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, And Subjectivity In Contemporary Asian American Poetry (Stanford University Press, 2015), 36.

[3] Bernstein, ‘Dances with Things: Material Culture and the Performance of Race,’ Social Text 27, no. 4 101 (2009): 70, doi:10.1215/01642472-2009-055.

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2 Responses to The agential text

  1. Erica Mena says:

    Great thoughts on Hejinian’s approach. “But who has total control and authority over their texts? The nuances of identity seem to be beyond the scope of Hejinian’s essay.” I absolutely agree that identity is far outside the scope of Hejinian’s considerations here. And I think your question points to an assumption of agency that has been historically reserved for cis- abled- het- white people, that they have it and can relinquish it as an experimental move erases the struggle for artistic as well as political agency of marginalized peoples.

    I’m glad you brought Robin Bernstein in, because I love that idea of a dance, and I’m not familiar with that article. I’m a little wary of making a person into a thing as the direction to move in, because of how violent objectification usually is, but I’m going to read the article to get more context.


  2. Pingback: Class Notes Feb 13 | Experimental Poets of Color

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