Introduction: The Copy as Global Master Trope

This chapter identifies the turn to repetition and copying in poetry as part of a widespread artistic and cultural response to the crisis in authority engendered by new media and globalization. It argues that just as the poetry of iteration questions the authority of the original and of cultural and political centers, so it also necessitates a rethinking of our current understandings of literary and cultural change on a global scale. The introduction thus recasts modern literary history not as a process of perpetual innovation but as a system of continuous copying. The introduction concludes by outlining the shifting meanings of repetition explored in the book’s subsequent chapters. It traces the copy’s contested evolution from a revolutionary poetic device to a figure for entrapping repetition.

1. Postcolonial Media: Kamau Brathwaite’s Reel Revolution

This chapter locates poetry’s turn to repetition in the confluence of the postcolonial moment with the rise of electronic media, including radio, tape recording, photocopying, and personal computing. It demonstrates how poetry’s iterative turn emerges out of this confluence through the example of Kamau Brathwaite, whose career spans the period from the late 1940s to the Internet age. Brathwaite’s remixing and versioning practices fused audio recording technologies, the photocopier, and the computer with the search for a way out of the prison of global English. These practices laid the groundwork for the later worldwide rise of repetition, remixing, and remediation in poetry as a response to digital technologies and the post–Cold War wave of globalization.

2. The Art of Samizdat: Dmitri Prigov, Moscow Conceptualism, and the Carbon-Copy Origins of New Media Poetics

Samizdat writers and readers deployed the typewriter and carbon-copy paper to circumvent state control of publishing outlets and print reproduction technologies. But their laborious acts of retyping also produced a new kind of iterative cultural logic—what this chapter identifies as the samizdat principle—that led to a qualitatively different approach to literature and art. The samizdat principle furnished Russian conceptual artists and poets like Dmitri Prigov, Lev Rubinstein, Alexander Yulikov, and Yuri Albert with the means to stress improvisation and individuality within systematic acts of copying. These artists and writers used samizdat to respond to the cultural authority of Western art and to the ideological systems of official and unofficial late Soviet culture. Their samizdat-derived copy practices also anticipated and later addressed the upheavals in media and political authority that accompanied the end of the Cold War and the dawn of the Internet age.

3. Making Waves in World Literature: Yang Lian and John Cayley’s Networked Collaboration

This chapter addresses the challenge to current models of global literary history posed by poetry’s turn to repetition. It focuses on the collaboration between John Cayley and Yang Lian 楊煉 on a digital version of Yang’s poem Dahai tingzhi zhi chu 大海停止之處 (Where the Sea Stands Still). The collaboration fused Yang’s turn to the poetry of repetition with a recursive approach to digital literature that Cayley derived from traditional Chinese texts and Ezra Pound’s Chinese-inflected modernism. A response to the dramatic rise of computing technologies and the World Wide Web in the 1990s and the equally dramatic changes in China’s relationship to the rest of the world, their collaboration highlights the shortcomings of both the wave and network metaphors as they have been used to conceptualize world literature. Drawing on Yang’s and Cayley’s own use of the wave as a figure for their recursive poetry and their critical view of the link-node architecture of the World Wide Web, the chapter proposes how the wave and network metaphors might be adapted to describe the complexities of recent literary history exemplified by poetry’s iterative turn.

4. Shibboleth: The Border Crossings of Caroline Bergvall, Performance Writing, and Iterative Poetics

This chapter explores a practice that helped bring the poetics of repetition to the center of Anglo-American poetry: performance writing. As director of Performance Writing at Dartington College of Arts from 1995 to 2001, Caroline Bergvall shaped a mode of writing that came to prominence in England and soon contributed to poetry’s embrace of appropriation, performance, and remediation there and elsewhere in and beyond the Anglophone world. To tell Bergvall’s story is to understand how the turn to repetition in English-language poetry grew out of a complex mix of problems, including Thatcherite reforms of higher education, the tension between individual creativity and the networked economy, the attempt to negotiate between the bodily and discursive essentialisms of avant-garde poetics, and the economic and cultural inequities of the contemporary world. It is also to recognize the mechanisms of linguistic and cultural exclusion—the shibboleths—that obscure the story of how the turn to iteration in British and North American poetry came partly from other places: from feminist theory, from the blend of new media and cross-cultural poetics reflected in Yang and Cayley’s collaboration, and from Brathwaite’s poetics of postcolonial media.

5. Copy Rights: Conceptual Writing, the Mongrel Coalition, and the Racial Politics of Digital Media

Emerging in the wake of performance writing, Anglophone conceptual writing made large-scale textual copying its defining gesture. This chapter explores the defining public moment in the careers of its most controversial exponents, Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place. It examines the 2015 controversies surrounding Goldsmith’s use of the autopsy of African-American teenager Michael Brown (shot dead by police in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014) as a poetic text and Place’s retweeting of Gone with the Wind under a caricature of an African-American woman reproduced from a blackface minstrelsy sheet music illustration. The attacks on Goldsmith and Place were led by the Mongrel Coalition against Gringpo, an anonymous online political art group that also deployed various forms of copy poetics. Rather than taking the part of either side in the ensuing debate, the chapter examines the controversy and the poetry of all three key protagonists for what they reveal about the pervasiveness and contested meanings of the copy in contemporary culture, including in the politics of race.

6. Chinese Rooms: The Work of Poetry in an Age of Global Languages, Machine Translation, and Automatic Estrangement

Beginning with poet Joan Retallack’s response to John Searle’s famous Chinese room thought experiment, this chapter demonstrates how a number of contemporary poets deploy the poetry of repetition to extend and invert Searle’s conflation of computer processing, foreignness, and translation. The chapter cites a range of poetic examples from Mainland Chinese, Taiwanese, and US poetry, including work by Brandon Som, Yi Sha 伊沙, Hsia Yü 夏宇, Jonathan Stalling, Tan Lin, and the Garbage School of Poetry (Laji pai 垃圾派). The work of these poets marks a change from earlier avant-garde practices––a shift from the mot juste and radical particulars of an earlier modernism to the iterative poetics of textual processing, networking, and translation. Just as languages like Chinese and English derive their global currency from their accessibility, these writers value not the singularity of the word but linkages and exchange. Their diverse poetic works––from autobiographical lyrics to machine translations––share a common rejection of modernist singularity and of Searle’s worry about mindless machinic repetition in favor of a poetry that celebrates reiteration and translation.

Recapitulations: Repetition and Revolution in World Poetry

This concluding chapter begins by considering two contrasting poetic texts, both of which reiterate and adapt Arthur Rimbaud’s “Voyelles.” Where Sean Bonney repeats Rimbaud in order to promote radical poetic and political change in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis, Christian Bök reiterates Rimbaud to emphasize and extend his foundational acts of modernist linguistic play. The chapter goes on to explore how each repetition is inflected by the context of its articulation: both by the contrasting political contexts of Bonney’s and Bök’s reiterations and by their shared historical context, in which copying and repetition have become pervasive modes of thinking and writing. The chapter argues that in our current historical moment the humanities must attend to the common form and context of such repetitions, rather than continuing only to champion the singular, unique utterance. Taking repetition seriously is not only a necessary response to a world increasingly dominated by new media technologies; it is also the only way we can understand and map profound changes that are taking place in poetry, literature, and culture on a global scale.

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